Weekend Takeaways: Has the future arrived in Edmonton?

Damien Cox and Elliotte Friedman discuss all the top stories around the NHL including if the slow starts for the Ducks and Blue Jackets have put their coaches on the hot seat.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

But has the future finally arrived in Edmonton?

It sure looked like it this weekend as road victories by the Oilers in Calgary on Saturday night and then Sunday night in Vancouver revealed a team not only constructed of young talent, but also one with goaltending, industriousness and balance, none of which have been seen in the Alberta capital together since the 2006 squad that went to the Stanley Cup final.

This was a weekend to be excited for Oilers fans, that’s for sure. After generally outplaying the struggling Flames, Edmonton engaged in a blazing fast, tight-checking contest with the Canucks on Sunday that went to 3-on-3 overtime. First, Edmonton sent out two former No. 1 overall picks, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, then followed up with two more of the same in Connor McDavid and Nail Yakupov.

But it was the next group that won the game. Andrej Sekera rudely shoved Henrik Sedin off the puck in the Edmonton zone and headed down the ice on a 2-on-1 with Lauri Korpikoski. Daniel Sedin was the only man back, creating the kind of unusual alignment that should make this format work, and Sekera flipped a pass across that Korpikoski managed to push just across the goal line for the win.

That made a loser of Ryan Miller, who had a never before lost to the Oilers, and a winner of Anders Nilsson, who made 33 stops for the win.

McDavid set up Yakupov for the other Edmonton goal, and so you had all the elements – young talent, hard work, goaltending and depth – come through for Peter Chiarelli’s newly organized Oilers. Even better, with high picks Darnell Nurse and Leon Draisatl doing a slow-bake in the minors, there’s more talent still coming, but talent that will only arrive when it’s actually ready as a more sensible developmental model is now in place.

McDavid now has five points in six games to lead Edmonton, and it seems pretty clear that in rather short order he will establish himself as the club’s best player, although Hall was excellent on the weekend as well.

This could still go sideways. But it doesn’t look like it will.

Some additional Weekend Takeaways…

The story is very different, at least so far, for 1-4 Calgary, a shadow of the never-say-die squad that surprised the entire league last year after being projected as a candidate to draft McDavid before the season.

The absence of T.J. Brodie has been a huge factor, Sam Bennett is nicked up (Calgary says it has nothing to do with his surgically repaired shoulder), Joe Colborne has been hurt, Lance Bouma broke his leg and the goaltending situation is unsettled, with three good ones but no clear No. 1 so far.

Or it could be that the numbers are finally catching up with the Flames in the same way they caught up with Colorado last season. Using one metric from NHL.com, shot attempts % close, you can see Calgary continues to be a weak possession team under Bob Hartley. This is a simple stat, shot attempts minus shot attempts against when the game is within one goal or tied in the third period.

Last year, it seemed the Flames won all the time in these kinds of situations despite a shot attempts % close rating of 45.06, which basically means they had the puck much less than half the time when it mattered. They had 10 third period comebacks, and only fell in the playoffs to Anaheim, a team that had more.

This year, the Flames are only slightly better at 45.12, but their record is lousy. It’s a very small sample, but the early results suggest the numbers are catching up with this team.

Maybe Brodie will make a huge difference when he gets back. So far, newly acquired Dougie Hamilton is a minus-3, while vets Mark Giordano and Kris Russell are both minus-5.

Home games against the Caps and Red Wings this week should provide some more information as to exactly where the Flames are at.

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A quick note on the Colorado Avalanche; they are dead last in shot attempts % close this season. They made the playoffs two years ago despite lousy possession numbers, then missed last year with similar stats. Now they’re even worse in that part of the game.

Patrick Roy, apparently, isn’t buying the new wave, and the Avs are 2-3 in the early going. Nathan MacKinnon, held to 14 goals a year ago, is off to a solid start, but Matt Duchene (one goal, minus-5) isn’t. Now smooth-skating backliner Tyson Barrie will miss the next three games for his head shot of Anaheim Simon Depres on Friday night.

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One last note on the Flames and Canucks. Both teams pleased their fans by making the post-season last year, but you have to wonder if that was actually a bit counter-productive in terms of building a championship quality team.

Let me explain. Calgary got to the second round, and then felt it had to try to improve immediately when the chance came to trade for Hamilton, moving a first round pick in the process. The Flames have Bennett and Sean Monahan, but you have to wonder if this isn’t a team that could have used one more high pick as much or more than a playoff spot if winning a Cup is the goal.

Same for the Canucks. GM Jim Benning is trying to retool on the fly, bringing in kids at the same time as this team continues to revolve around the Sedins, who aren’t showing signs of going anywhere in the near future. As long as they are there, Vancouver could continue to be just good enough not to get one of the very best picks – they took winger Brock Boeser 23rd overall in June – which means they will continue to build a list of good, but not outstanding, young prospects. Unless they get very lucky.

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This is a strange kind of “return” game since Mike Babcock never actually worked for the Buffalo Sabres.

The Sabres wanted him, of course, and when he chose the Maple Leafs and $50 million, there was much howling in protest in Western New York amid suggestions from some media that he’d either played Buffalo owner Terry Pegula to get a better deal out of Toronto or gone back on a verbal agreement.

We’ll see how Sabre-land responds this Wednesday when the Leafs visit in the regular season for the first time. Needless to say, it’s hard to boo a visiting coach, so if Buffalo fans are ticked, they’ll have to show their displeasure in some more imaginative fashion.

Right now, these are two teams that have each won a single game. It remains an interesting conversation as to why Babcock chose Toronto over Buffalo, or whether he chose wisely. Buffalo has Jack Eichel, and we won’t know for at least another year whether Toronto’s first round pick, Mitch Marner, will be as effective of an offensive player in the NHL as the Boston University product looks like he’ll be.

Ditto for Sam Reinhart vs. William Nylander.

Otherwise, both teams have unsettled goaltending and multiple good young prospects or players currently in the league who have yet to establish how good they’ll be. Beyond that, both could be candidates to land Auston Matthews, Jakob Chychrun, Matthew Tkachuk or one of the big Finns – Patrik Laine or Jesse Puljujarvi – next June, and that could decide a great deal of their future.

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Speaking of Matthews, he has nine goals already in just 11 games with Zurich of the Swiss league. Head coach Marc Crawford says 10-15 NHL scouts are watching his every move, every game.

“He’s already the best player in the league,” says Crawford.

Crawford, by the way, can’t be a candidate this season if any NHL jobs open up. He is locked in as the Zurich coach for this season.

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Anaheim and Los Angeles both won on Sunday night, relieving some of the pressure within those two organizations, leaving Columbus as the NHL’s only winless club at 0-6.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of heat on Todd Richards, the head coach.

“A lot of people picked us to be there at the end, to make the playoffs, and we’re doing a pretty good job of ruining that right away,” winger Scott Hartnell told reporters after Saturday’s loss to Chicago.

Richards has been head coach of the team since taking over from Scott Arniel on Jan. 9, 2012, and this was supposed to be the season the Jackets took a big leap forward after injuries all but destroyed them last season. A bad start is nothing new for Columbus under Richards, but the club has always bounced back, particularly two seasons ago when the Blue Jackets made the playoffs and gave Pittsburgh a good tussle.

What’s wrong in Ohio? The goaltending has been lousy, the stars aren’t playing like stars, and that blueline, while filled with potential in Jack Johnson and Ryan Murray, just isn’t good enough at the moment. Columbus has been looking for defence help and depth for a while, which is one reason losing college defenceman Mike Rielly as an unrestricted free agent to Minnesota was so painful. When they made the Nathan Horton-for-David Clarkson swap last winter, there was talk the Jackets were willing to move Kerby Rychel to Toronto in a bigger deal that would have included a defenceman, but that fizzled.

So far, GM Jarmo Kekalainen is holding his fire. The Jackets are at home to the Islanders Tuesday, then head out on a four-game road trip to Minnesota, Colorado, New Jersey and Washington. Candidates to replace Richards if he can’t turn this around? John Tortorella, recently named head coach of the U.S. entry in next year’s World Cup of Hockey, has been mentioned.

Randy Carlyle, the former Leaf coach, could be in the mix. Brad Larsen is a Columbus assistant with head coaching experience in the minors.

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Like the Flames, the Wild are carrying three goalies, with 37-year-old veteran Niklas Backstrom the odd man out for the moment.

His agent, Jay Grossman, confirmed that Backstrom is healthy and wants to play, and will consider options if the Wild want to move him.

At a reasonable $3.4 million this season in the final year of his contract, Backstrom may be a viable option for some team.

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Centre Olli Jokinen, who finished off last year with St. Louis after being dealt at the trade deadline by the Leafs, didn’t sign with a new team this summer as he tried to rehabilitate his injured shoulder. Instead, his agent Ian Pulver says Jokinen has decided to have shoulder surgery in the near future, and it’s not clear whether the 36-year-old plans to continue pursuing his NHL career afterwards.

Another Finnish veteran, 32-year-old defenceman Joni Pitkanen, may be considering a comeback, as reported by Finnish journalist Juha Hiitela. Pitkanen broke his heel in an ugly icing incident in April, 2013, one of the incidents that motivated the NHL to go to the current hybrid icing format. Pitkanen hasn’t played since, but he will appear in a game later this month to honour Sami Kapanen’s jersey retirement, and could play in the Finnish league this season before trying to come back to the NHL next year.

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The Red Wings were leery, but hopeful, about Johan Franzen’s comeback attempt from concussion problems this season, and now there’s great concern the The Mule’s career may be over.

GM Ken Holland will only say Franzen is out “indefinitely” after feeling concussion symptoms after practice last week, and that he is primarily concerned with Franzen’s long-term health and his family moving forward.

The Wings, with a growing group of young forward prospects in the system, weren’t exactly counting on Franzen, but he would have provided a nice bridge as those young players mature.

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Tyler Benson of the WHL’s Vancouver Giants is expected to finally see game action this week. Benson, expected to be a first round selection in the NHL draft next summer, played for Canada in the Ivan Hlinka tourney this summer but had to shut it down soon after because of a small cyst in his back.

The Giants named him captain anyway, and GM Scott Bonner said he’s expecting Benson to return either Friday at home against Seattle or Sunday, also at home, against Prince George.

Benson, like Mississauga’s Sean Day, is a player who arrived in major junior amidst a lot of attention, and to some hasn’t quite lived up to the hype. Benson was the first player taken in his bantam draft in 2013, a strong year for the WHL that included Sam Steel, Nolan Patrick, Tyson Jost, Dante Fabbro and Kale Clague.

Most of those players are likely to be NHL first rounders in June, while Patrick, not eligible until 2017 because of his birth date, could be the first overall selection of that year’s NHL draft.

The Giants liked Benson’s competitiveness, seeing him in the same way as former Giant players Milan Lucic and Brendan Gallagher, and decided to pick him instead of Patrick or Clague. Benson had a modest 14 goals last season, and with the CHL Top Prospects Game in his home rink this season, more than a few eyes will be upon him once he returns.

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The future of exiled NHLer Slava Voynov is still unclear. We know he wants to play for the KHL’s St. Petersburg team, but his rights are still owned by Traktor Chelyabinsk. Moreover, St. Petersburg’s coach, Andrei Nazarov, was just dismissed and replaced by Sergei Zubov.

Before the 25-year-old defenceman can play at all, meanwhile, the KHL has to approve Voynov’s eligibility, as he is technically still under contract with the Los Angeles Kings, and teams in the KHL and NHL are supposed to honour each other’s contract.

To return to the NHL, meanwhile, Voynov would have to get his immigration situation resolved, and then deal with a possible suspension by the league relating to his conviction on domestic abuse charges that landed him in jail last summer.

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Tampa has returned defenceman Slater Koekkoek to the minors, which suggests Victor Hedman may not be as badly banged up as feared and could return this week.

In Pittsburgh, Eric Fehr and Pascal Dupuis both practiced Sunday and could be back soon, which might hasten GM Jim Rutherford’s decision on 18-year-old rookie Daniel Sprong.