Down Goes Brown Saturday Storylines: Leafs’ tough trip continues

The Hockey Central @ Noon panel discuss the Toronto Maple Leafs' team defensive issues and the different solutions of trading for someone or fixing it by committee.

One month down. We’re into November, which means we can stop saying “it’s still early” and start forming some conclusions about players and teams around the league.

Saturday brings a busy schedule, with 13 games around the league, including a half-dozen with identical 7:00 ET starts. Let’s take a look at what to expect, starting with a classic Norris Division matchup.

HNIC Game of the Night: Toronto Maple Leafs at St. Louis Blues

The Maple Leafs arrive in St. Louis after a tough California trip that saw them win one of three. They’ve now lost four of their last five and five of their last seven, and the excitement of 6-1-0 start has faded significantly. All that talk of being Stanley Cup favourites feels like it was a long time ago.

The strange thing here is that it’s not like the recent stretch has necessarily taught us anything new about the Maple Leafs, or exposed some previously unknown flaw; they still look a lot like who we thought they were. They can score in bunches. They can also give up goals in bunches. The forward group is deep and talented, but the goaltending is a question mark and the defence is inconsistent. On a good night, the pluses outweigh the minuses and they end up winning by scores of 8-5 or 6-3. On a bad night, well, you get what we’ve seen over the last few weeks.

Mike Babcock would probably rather have a team that played more 2-1 games. Most NHL coaches would. But that’s not the group he has right now, and it will be interesting to see whether he can change them before they force him to embrace a new approach. That battle might end up being 20 guys against one, but when that one is a stubborn NHL coach with a Cup ring and two gold medals, let’s call it an even fight.

Either way, things don’t get any easier for the slumping Leafs Saturday night, as they’ll face a team headed in the opposite direction. Thursday’s loss to the Flyers ended a seven-game point streak for the Blues, who still sit comfortably on top of the Central and are just one point back of the Lightning for top spot overall. The Blues have done it while playing something a lot closer to that 2-1 style the Maple Leafs can’t find. They’ve seen 75 goals scored in their 14 games so far, 27 fewer than in Toronto games, and have only given up four or more goals twice on the season. You’d have to go back to Oct. 21, five games ago, to even find the last time they gave up three.

So if the Blues have their way, expect a low-scoring affair. Babcock might prefer that too, but the more important thing is that his struggling Leafs get a win. The Bruins are lurking just three points back with three games in hand, and a playoff spot is no longer a lock in Toronto if they can’t get things straightened out. Let’s see if they show up Saturday night looking like the team they want to be someday, or just the team they need to be right now.

Player in the spotlight: Patrik Laine

The Jets winger made news this week with an unusually frank assessment of his play so far this season. “I feel like I can’t do many positive things on the ice,” Laine told reporters, adding that “just overall I can’t produce many good things on the ice, it doesn’t matter if it’s offensively or defensively.”

That sounds harsh, especially since Laine isn’t exactly firing blanks this year. The four goals and six points through 11 games he’d managed at the time left him well below last year’s pace, but the numbers weren’t terrible. He’s still getting pucks on net at virtually the same rate as last year, and there are certainly some big-name players around the league who are off to worse starts.

That made you wonder if Thursday’s comments weren’t more about a young player who’s used to scoring at will who’s struggling through a slump for one of the first times in his pro career and trying to make sense of it. Maybe it’s just a kid saying what he figures people want to hear. Or maybe we were really seeing a genuine crisis in confidence for a player who hasn’t lacked in that department over the years.

Whatever it was, Laine didn’t take long to get back to his old ways, scoring in the first period on Thursday against Dallas. While one goal doesn’t necessarily spell the end of a slump, Laine seems to have a sense of what he needs to do. Keep working, keep improving, and hope the puck starts going in. The odds are that they will, and probably soon.

Saturday night’s matchup with the Canadiens represents a good opportunity for Laine to keep rolling. Come to think of it, Carey Price continues to struggle through an uncharacteristic slump of his own. Maybe he just needs a quick locker room confessional with the media. I hear those are working wonders these days.

Key subplot: No respect, I tell you

Are you tired of hearing about the Golden Knights yet? Probably not, since it’s hard to get sick of something that’s only been around for a month or so. But stories about the Knights’ hot start – and whether it does or doesn’t mean that George McPhee and friends built a contender in Year 1 – have been a staple of the season’s first few weeks.

You know the drill by now. Yes, they’re having some success. Yes, their record is better than we thought it would be. But let’s not get excited yet. There’s still plenty of season left for them to come back to earth, at which point all the experts will be able to say they were right all along.

Welcome to our world, the Ottawa Senators might tell them.

After all, the Senators have pretty much been the poster child of the no-respect club over the last year or so. They weren’t supposed to be good last year, and even when they put up 98 points and earned home-ice to open the playoffs, nobody took them seriously as a Cup contender. That was true through the first round, and then into the second, and the third, right up until they were one goal away from knocking off the Penguins and heading to the Stanley Cup Final. Chris Kunitz’s overtime goal ended that run, and everyone went back to writing them off pretty much immediately.

So far this season, it’s been a similar story. Sure, they’re right back in second spot in the Atlantic. But they’ve lost more games than they’ve won, and we all know it can’t last, and hey let’s talk about the Maple Leafs instead, am I right?

Saturday afternoon, the two teams that nobody seems to want to give much credit to will meet in Ottawa, and one of them will probably have to win. The Knights come in having hit their first speed bump, with three straight losses so far this week. That’s understandable, given all their injury problems in goal, and with home ice you’d expect the Senators to win this one.

Then again, who knows. These two teams love to take our expectations and prove everyone wrong.

Marquee matchup: Stamkos + Kucherov vs. Bobrovsky

The Blue Jackets remain a tricky team to figure out. They’re sitting at 9-4-0, good enough to have them right in the mix of a tough Metro Division. But they haven’t exactly beaten anyone yet, with none of those wins coming against teams you’d consider all that good. The best teams they’ve faced so far have been the Blues, Blackhawks, Kings and Lightning, and they lost all four of those games by a combined score of 17-6.

Still, they’re coming off a 108-point season, the fourth-best record in all of hockey last year. And if that was just some sort of one-off fluke, one based on a miracle mid-season win streak and not much more, then we’re not seeing much evidence for it so far this season. These guys are good.

The question is how good. And maybe more specifically, the question is why they’re good. Is this a good team top-to-bottom, one that features balanced scoring and a solid young defence, all led by a coach who doesn’t get the respect he deserves because he’s sometimes cranky with the media? Or is it merely an average collection of talent in front of an all-world goaltender, and the rest of it is just us finding narratives so that we don’t have to call them a one-player team?

The truth, as always, probably lies somewhere in the middle. But in the meantime, we’ll get a chance to see Sergei Bobrovsky in action against the league’s top offensive team, as the Blue Jackets visit the Lightning. Tampa’s already at 10 wins on the year and lead the NHL with 54 goals.

They’ve been led by their top line of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, who’ve been close to unstoppable. Stamkos and Kucherov rank one-two in the league in scoring, and have only been held off the scoresheet twice all season. They often look downright unstoppable. (Side note: Don’t we need a nickname for the duo? It feels like we should be calling them Stamkuch or something by now. I’m open to ideas.)

Maybe more impressively, each player has already posted eight multi-point games on the year, and the Lightning have earned at least a point in all but one of those games. That includes the first meeting between these two teams back on Oct. 19; the Blue Jackets outshot the Lightning 43-21 that night but lost 2-0 thanks to a pair of goals by Mikhail Sergachev, with Stamkos assisting on both.

So while you never want to over-simplify a complex game like hockey, sometimes it’s not all that hard to set some expectations. Saturday night we’ll see one of the best goalies in the league go up against the hottest duo on the planet, and whichever side wins the battle will probably also earn a win for their team. Not many goalies have been able to stop the Lightning this year, but Bobrovsky probably needs to if the Blue Jackets are finally going to earn a win against a top team.

From the archives

You’re expecting me to use Buffalo-Dallas here, aren’t you? Come on. As if Sabres fans haven’t suffered enough this year. I’m not a monster.

So instead, let’s use Saturday night’s Penguins-Canucks matchup to look back at one of the stranger trades in NHL history. That would be the infamous 1996 deadline deal that saw the Canucks send big winger Alek Stojanov to the Penguins for Markus Naslund. Spoiler alert: it didn’t turn out well for the Penguins.

You know that by now, of course. The trade is often cited as one of the most lopsided ever. Naslund went on record 756 points in Vancouver, where his number was (awkwardly) retired in 2010. Stojanov fell just short of those numbers, ending his stint in Pittsburgh with, uh, six points.

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In fairness, Stojanov wasn’t acquired for his scoring. He was a tough guy, and the 1996 deadline was all about toughness. The day came and went without any true blockbusters; instead, it saw plenty of deals for enforcers, including Ken Baumgartner, Joey Kocur and Enrico Ciccone. The Penguins wanted in on some of that toughness, and it’s fair to say their roster already featured some decent skill. So trading Naslund for some muscle made some sense, right?

Well, maybe. But the interesting thing about the trade is that even at the time it was made, nobody really seemed to like it for Pittsburgh. The Penguins had been expected to add toughness along the blue line, not up front. Adding Stojanov felt like a Plan B or C. And reporters in Pittsburgh seemed confused by the deal as they searched for something positive to say. “Stojanov’s game doesn’t vary much…” wrote Dave Molinari in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the next day, “but that’s not necessarily a plus.” He went on to cite Stojanov’s one point in 57 games that year as “a pretty accurate reflection of his talent and role.”

But there’s an interesting what-if to play with here. Penguins GM Craig Patrick make it fairly clear that his focus had been on the defence, where the recent loss of Ulf Samuelsson had left a gaping hole. It was suggested that he’d targeted Edmonton defenceman Bryan Marchment, and while Patrick wouldn’t confirm or deny (citing tampering rules), he did tell reporters that “we certainly exhausted every avenue we could to improve our hockey club.”

That leads to the question: did the Penguins ever offer Markus Naslund to the Oilers? And if so, how does the next decade or so play out in the Pacific Division if Naslund is lining up with Doug Weight and Bill Guerin instead of Brendan Morrison and Todd Bertuzzi?

We’ll never know, and Canucks fans are happy for that.

Oddly specific prediction

As a tribute to Stojanov, Pens’ tough guy Ryan Reaves scores a goal Saturday night.

Oddly specific prediction record: 0-for-4, although the Coyotes made it interesting last week.