Down Goes Brown: 10 NHL players in the spotlight down the stretch

The Boston Bruins cooled down the red-hot Flames, the Flyers blanked the Penguins, while the Ducks edged the Blues and the Avalanche buried Detroit

• Marchand taking a star turn for B’s
• Will Karlsson steal Norris from Burns?
• Matthews’s cold streak could sink Leafs

With less than four weeks left in the regular season, which players are under the spotlight as we head down the home stretch?

Well, all of them. That’s kind of how the last few weeks of the season works, after all. If you’re an NHL player and nobody is paying any attention to what you’re doing these days, something has gone horribly wrong somewhere along the way.

But it’s also true that some players get more attention than others. So today, let’s take a look at 10 players from around the league who’ll be under an even brighter spotlight than usual over the season’s final weeks.

Brad Marchand

Marchand has always been a favourite in Boston. But his recent leap from “guy everyone else kind of just wants to see get punched” to legitimate NHL star has been an interesting development. And this year, he seems set on taking another step, joining the discussion as one of the league’s best forwards, period.

I’m sure there are some Boston fans who’ll claim to have seen this coming. But for the rest of us, Marchand’s transformation from talented pest to dominant force has been a surprise. Last year’s breakthrough 37-goal season felt like he’d reached his best-case. Then came the World Cup, when he looked every bit like an elite player and scored the winner. But hey, he had Sidney Crosby on his line, right? Let’s see him do it for a full season.

Well, here we are. And with Marchand scoring at better than a point-per-game, he’s somehow right in the mix for what would have to go down as one of history’s most unexpected Art Ross wins. Heck, he might get the Rocket Richard, too. And that even has some especially feisty Bruins fans wanting to know if he’s now in the Hart picture.

For now, let’s worry about him getting the Bruins to the playoffs. But if he can lead them to home ice or maybe even the division title, who knows what comes next. We might be one strong finish away from seeing a very punchable face show up all over the annual NHL awards show.

Devan Dubnyk

We could fill this entire list to starting goaltenders, since no position comes under more scrutiny down the stretch. But we’ll resist that urge, and limit ourselves to just Dubnyk, because he’s shaping up to be an especially interesting case.

Call this one the tragedy of high expectations. Through the first half of the season, the Wild goaltender was running away with the Vezina, posting a .941 save percentage through the end of December. That put him on pace to challenge Tim Thomas’s all-time record for goalies with at least 40 starts, which was set in 2010–11 and stands at .938.

But since then, Dubnyk has looked human. The Wild have lost each of his last four starts, and when we last saw him, he was getting pulled after allowing two goals on two shots in a key showdown against the Blackhawks.

To be clear, it’s not like Dubnyk’s numbers have plummeted. He’s posted a .914 save percentage so far in March, which is only slightly down from the .917 he had in both January and February. Numbers like that, over the course of a full season, would be good enough to rank in the league’s top dozen or so goaltenders. It would be above-average work.

But “above average” feels like a slump when you’ve set the bar as high as Dubnyk did in the season’s first three months. And it changes the look of a team like the Wild, who’d emerged as the favourite in the Western Conference based largely on having some of the league’s very best goaltending.

Maybe they still do. But if Dubnyk continues to look like he’s merely very good instead of historically excellent, that changes the mix in the West, where the Blackhawks have already pulled ahead of the Wild for the top seed and the Sharks are right behind. That’s a lot to put on one guy; probably too much, if we’re being realistic. But since when have hockey fans ever been that?

Milan Lucic

It’s been a good season in Edmonton. Connor McDavid is a freak, Cam Talbot has been very good, and the blueline finally looks like a real blueline. The Oilers are going to the playoffs, and it’s not hard to imagine them doing some damage once they get there.

All of which has been good news for Lucic, who hasn’t been all that good in the first year of a massive seven-year deal signed in free agency. His overall numbers are down, and he’s been especially unproductive at even strength, in one stretch going over two months without a 5-on-5 goal.

That’s bad news for the Oilers, who are still on the hook for six more years on one of those veteran contracts where you just hope you’re going to get a few years of solid value before things inevitably head south.

But the flip side is that, again, the team’s season is going well, even without all that much from Lucic. And that means that if he can turn things around, the Oilers may be getting a nice boost just in time for the playoffs.

That’s obviously a big “if,” but there’s at least some hope it could happen. Lucic is one of those guys who, in theory at least, can elevate his play when the games start mattering most – he’s been slightly more productive in the playoffs than the regular season over the course of his career. And he’s been a bit better lately, scoring twice at even strength over his last five games.

That’s not much, but Oiler fans will take it. At the very least, they’re hoping to see some evidence down the stretch that Lucic’s contract won’t turn into an albatross even sooner than expected. And if he happens to find his game and start looking like the Lucic of old, a team with a decent shot at a playoff run will start looking even more dangerous.

Erik Karlsson

Fans should be keeping a close eye on Karlsson down the stretch for two reasons. First, because you should always be keeping a close eye on him — he’s ridiculous. And second, he may be about to screw up everyone’s awards ballots.

As recently as a few weeks ago, it seemed like we had one of the post-season awards locked up. That was the Norris, which was going to head to California for the second straight year, this time to Brent Burns. And rightly so, since Burns was having one of the best offensive seasons by a defenceman in recent history.

Well, don’t look now, but Karlsson might make it interesting. He won’t come close to Burns’s goal totals, and maybe that’s where the conversation ends. But he’s pulled within eight points of Burns, so this one won’t be quite the runaway it looked like it might. And Karlsson’s doing it while the Senators surge to what could be an unexpected division title, and also leading the league in blocked shots by a wide margin.

Sure, you could just go ahead and give it to the guy with the most points and ignore everything else. But then again, Senator fans will point out, if we approach the Norris that way then Drew Doughty wouldn’t have won last year. So fair’s fair. We may have a race on our hands.

(And as for the Hart Trophy… well… nah. But check back in a few weeks.)

Josh Ho-Sang

You remember the Islanders. Bad team, in the running for last place in the East and going nowhere, other than maybe to a new arena after their current one seemed to want to kick them out.

Yeah, we may have been a little bit hasty on that whole narrative. The Islanders’ second-half surge under new coach Doug Weight has put them right back in the middle of the playoff race. And you’d think it might have reminded us about the dangers of focusing on controversy over actual results.

Which, of course, brings us to Ho-Sang, who’s been a controversial figure for just about his entire hockey career. That continued when he was called up, and we had to figure out if he was allowed to wear #66.

All of which can overshadow something important: He’s been pretty good. With six points in eight games, including an assist on Tuesday’s overtime winner, Ho-Sang’s having the kind of impact that can decide a tight race. That makes him worth watching down the stretch; preferably, for what he can do on the ice instead of whatever controversy follows him off of it.

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The Jeff Blair Show
Maple Leafs fish for redemption tonight after poorest outing of the season
Originally aired March 16 2017

Auston Matthews

Let’s face it, Matthews is the best and most important player on the Toronto Maple Leafs, so you’re going to hear all about him whether you like it or not.

So we’ll keep this brief: Over the last six games, with the Leafs fighting for their playoff lives, Matthews has been held pointless. It’s the first time in his brief NHL career that that’s happened. And it’s not like he’s just gone cold in terms of the percentages; he’s been held to two shots or less in four straight, the first time all year that’s happened more than twice in a row.

It’s easy to overreact to short streaks, and we’ve been here before with Matthews – remember that 13-game goalless drought earlier in the season, after which he didn’t go consecutive games without a goal for six weeks? But it’s not completely unfair to wonder if fatigue could be setting in. Matthews spent last season in the Swiss league and the two years before that with the US National program, and never played anywhere close to an 82-game NHL schedule. Is he worn out? Exhausted? Hiding an injury?

Maybe. Or maybe it’s just your garden-variety cold streak, one that comes with poor timing but is otherwise unremarkable. The Leafs have 14 games left in the season to find out. If it’s something more, they aren’t likely to have any more after that.

Patrik Laine

As per hockey bylaws, we’re not allowed to mention Matthews without immediately turning to Laine, and vice versa. Sorry, we don’t make the rules.

But you don’t need a fun Calder race to want to watch Laine every chance you get. With 33 goals on the season, he’s on pace to finish with rookie numbers we haven’t seen in a decade. By now, you’ve seen the various lists of players that Laine’s season can be grouped in with, with names like Alex Ovechkin, Eric Lindros and various other Hall of Famers.

But here’s one more. Let’s look at where Laine is in the context of seasons where league-wide scoring averaged six goals a game or less. That’s an era that includes the majority of the league’s history, 56 seasons in total, including all of the last two decades with the exception of 2005–06, as well as everything from the mid-’20s through to 1970, with the exception of the World War II years.

Here’s the list of NHL rookies who’ve played at least 50 games in one of those low-scoring seasons, and averaged at least 0.5 goals-per-game:

Patrik Laine.

That’s it. That’s the whole list. Laine is doing something we’ve literally never seen before during a Dead Puck season. There’s not much worth watching in what’s left of another lost Jets season, but Laine’s assault on the rookie record book sure is.

Ben Bishop

Yes, we said that Dubnyk would be the only starting goalie we’d mention. But Bishop isn’t a starting goalie. And that’s the problem.

Bishop didn’t cost the Kings much when they traded for him at the deadline, at least in terms of players or picks. But he did come with an opportunity cost. He and Jarome Iginla ate up most of the Kings’ remaining cap space, and represented Den Lombardi’s entire deadline-week haul. And given the fact the Kings already had a pretty good goalie in Jonathan Quick (and had a decent backup in Peter Budaj), trading for Bishop seemed like an odd choice.

It’s only been two weeks, but the move is already starting to look like a miscalculation. The Kings were three points back of the playoffs when they made the Bishop deal. But since then they’ve lost a bit of ground, losing five of eight and falling to four points back. And Bishop hasn’t helped, losing all three of his starts, including one this week to lowly Arizona.

It’s not his fault that he was traded to a team that didn’t necessarily need him. But at this point, he’d better steal a game or two down the stretch. If not, the second-guessing will get an awful lot louder.

Matt Duchene

Speaking of second-guessing trade deadline decisions…. No, this one doesn’t matter as far as the playoffs go — the Avalanche have been officially out since the weekend, and unofficially out since November. But for a franchise that desperately needs some good news to come out of one of the worst seasons ever, a strong finish by Duchene would provide at least a little.

Joe Sakic decided not to pull the trigger on a Duchene trade during the season, and that may have been the right move. Maybe the market for the talented centre heats up in June, and prices go up. But maybe not, for any number of reasons. Teams that were bidding on him last month might have big playoff runs and decide they like their rosters. Some other player in Duchene’s ballpark could unexpectedly become available. He could get hurt. Or he could finish the season ice cold.

That latter option sure seems like it’s in play right now. Until last night, Duchene didn’t have a point since the trade deadline; his pointless streak actually extended all the way back to mid-February, for a total of 10 games. He was also -11 over that stretch, if plus/minus is your thing. (It shouldn’t be.)

Look, at this point, I’m not sure you could blame anyone on the Avalanche for just wanting this to all be over. But a Duchene trade this summer, assuming it happens, might be the franchise’s most important moment of the cap era, and anything that helps or hurts their return is huge. An especially strong finish by Duchene won’t mean anything for this year, but could have an impact for a long time to come. The same goes for an especially weak one.

Steven Stamkos

Is he back yet?

No?

How about now?

Now?

What about now?

You get the picture. With the Lightning rolling and making a late playoff push (despite their GM going into sell mode at the deadline), a team that had nearly been written off is suddenly right back in the spotlight. So it’s only natural that all eyes are on the franchise player who might – or might not – be on the verge of a return.

At this point, all we know for sure is that Stamkos is skating and travelling with the team, and sure seems to be nearing a return before the end of the season. Whether that means days or weeks, we don’t know.

But when the comeback does come, it may be the final boost the Lightning need to take over the wild-card race. Or maybe not, and we all get to play the chemistry card and wonder if getting a 50-goal scorer back in the lineup is somehow a bad thing. Either way, there isn’t a player in the league who’ll be watched more closely every time he so much as steps on the ice for a quick morning skate.