Down Goes Brown: Why the Erik Karlsson watch is far from over

NHL insider Elliotte Friedman joins Starting Lineup to address the rumours that Maple Leafs were hunting for a first rounder at the deadline, and wonders if they were even quietly pursuing Erik Karlsson?

Our first post-deadline Saturday brings an unusually light schedule, with just eight games and some weird start times. That’s because the NHL is shifting the spotlight to the third and final outdoor game of the season, which is where we’ll start.

HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Capitals

It’s OK to admit that you kind of forgot this outdoor game was happening until a few days ago. With all the focus on the Olympics and the trade deadline, it was easy enough to forget that two of the Eastern Conference’s better teams would be facing off under the stars. Call it outdoor fatigue — man there have been a lot of these things — but the days of these games feeling like a major event seem to be fading.

That said, this one should be better than most. The location, the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., is pretty cool. The matchup is great, featuring two good teams that are fun to watch and met in last year’s playoffs. And the uniforms are… well, look, we didn’t say it was perfect. But the location and the matchup are good.

The Capitals come into this one needing every point they can get. They’ve led the Metro for most of the season, but recent surges by both the Penguins and Flyers have put that status in doubt, with Philadelphia briefly taking over top spot earlier this week. Even the Devils are still in the mix, especially after a nicely productive deadline. The Capitals would love to secure first place and home ice through the first two rounds, if only to avoid drawing the Penguins in round one. Those two teams always seem to find each other in the post-season, and it rarely goes well for Washington. Winning the division would likely mean they’d get to avoid that fate for at least a round, which should be enough motivation to finish strong.

The Maple Leafs don’t have quite the same sense of urgency, at least in terms of the standings. They still have a shot at catching the Lightning or Bruins, but it’s a long one. Chances are, they’re going to finish third in the Atlantic and start the playoffs on the road with a tough matchup. That will no doubt reignite the debate over the playoff format, since Toronto would be leading the Metro by six points, but that’s life in the NHL.

The bigger priority for Toronto is to finish strong; they’ve dropped two straight after an extended hot streak, although they picked up points in both losses. They’ll be without Auston Matthews again tonight, so we can expect to see plenty of deadline pickup Tomas Plekanec. There were no similar additions on the Washington side of the ledger, as Brian MacLellan made the interesting choice to let the deadline pass with only minor tinkering. Still, the Caps are deep and skilled, and match up well with a Toronto squad missing its best player.

On paper, it should be a great matchup. That may or may not translate on the ice; these outdoor games tend to feel tentative and choppy at times. The Leafs’ track record in that regard is actually pretty good, with a pair of entertaining wins over the Red Wings on their outdoor resumé. The Capitals have been a little more hit-and-miss, with a decent 2015 appearance overshadowed by this whole mess from 2011. We’ll see what the two teams can cook up for us tonight.

Tonight’s matchup is scheduled for an 8:00 ET start instead of the usual 7:00. And if you’re shaking off that outdoor fatigue, there’s good news: With no more Stadium Series games this year and no Heritage Classic on the schedule for next, this looks like the last outdoor action until the league heads to Notre Dame for the 2019 Winter Classic.

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Player in the spotlight: Erik Karlsson

Oh, you thought we were done with this? You know better than that.

You can imagine why Senators fans would hope we could all move past the Karlsson drama that ate up so much of the last few weeks and months. Monday’s non-trade means that they can hold on to the hope of the player and team patching up whatever problems may exist and moving forward with an extension. That still seems unlikely, but it’s not out of the question, and for many Ottawa fans that’s all they wanted.

And maybe it still happens. But that possibility is part of the reason why Karlsson will remain under the microscope down the stretch, as we all try to figure out what the future might hold. Does he seem happy to still be a Senator? Is he checked out? Does he look angry, and if so, at whom? Does he seem like he gets along with Guy Boucher? Does he look like he’s back to being 100-percent healthy? If not, at some point do you just shut him down?

To be clear, an awful lot of this will be seeing what we want to see and building the narratives we’ve already decided on. But at some level, the next six weeks can have a major impact on how the summer plays out. Remember, a year ago Joe Sakic passed on trading Matt Duchene at the deadline, and we all figured he’d get better offers in the off-season. Then Duchene closed out the year with an extended slump, managing just two goals and five points in his last 21 games. When the off-season arrived, the expected bidding war never materialized.

Of course, the Duchene situation ended up working out OK for Sakic and the Avs, as Senators fans know well. So it’s not like anything that happens with Karlsson the rest of the way (short of a significant injury) is going to make or break the team’s off-season plans. But for a team that hasn’t given its fans much to look forward to, the Karlsson watch will be a defining subplot the rest of the way. And then we find out whether or not it’s the last chapter in the story.

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Key subplot: Deadline hangovers

This is always a weird time of year. The deadline comes and goes, and we’re left with another six weeks or so before the playoffs. For some teams, those six weeks will be thrilling, with a tight playoff race making every game feel crucial. But for other teams, it’s kind of a slog. You’re either locked into a playoff spot already or, more likely, locked out of one. And while seeding or lottery odds matter in the big picture, it can be tough to get up for each and every game along the way.

We’ll see that scenario play out for Edmonton and Montreal. Neither team did all that much at the deadline, with the Canadiens deciding not to move Max Pacioretty or any other big names and the Oilers sticking to the relatively minor deals they were expected to make. That’s probably fine – there wasn’t all that much more Peter Chiarelli could have realistically done, and doing a major teardown in the off-season probably makes more sense for Montreal’s GM, whoever that happens to be by then.

But tonight, both teams get to face teams at the opposite ends of the spectrum. The Canadiens are in Boston to face one of the year’s most aggressive deadline buyers. Don Sweeney had been absurdly quiet on the trade front for two full years, but made up for it by landing Rick Nash and other reinforcements. Patrice Bergeron‘s injury puts a damper on the week, but they still stomped the Penguins on Thursday, so Montreal will be facing a team that knows it’s all in for the Cup.

The Oilers will see the other side of the coin when they host the Rangers. Jeff Gorton made the gutsy call to pull the chute weeks ago, despite still being in the playoff race at the time, and he moved several key pieces before the deadline. That message can’t sit well with the players who are left, but sometimes a GM’s job is to make the hard call that his team just isn’t good enough. We saw it in St. Louis, too, where Doug Armstrong not only moved Paul Stastny, but sent him to a division rival in Winnipeg.

Sweeney, Gorton and Armstrong all stuck their necks out, and hindsight will tell us who made the right call. It won’t take long on Sweeney – we’ll be able to make our minds up on Nash after the playoffs. Armstrong and Gorton will get a little more time before the verdicts come in. But not much. NHL GMs never get much.

Meanwhile, Chiarelli and Marc Bergevin may both be out of time. Or maybe they get another year to turn things around. Neither did much at the deadline to move the needle on their fortunes all that much.

For now, fans in Boston get to brace for a Cup run, fans in New York get to watch some shiny new toys, and fans in St. Louis try to figure out what just happened. In Montreal and Edmonton, it’s mostly about running out the string on disappointing seasons, probably with one eye on the lottery odds. That’s not all that much fun. Hangovers rarely are.

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Marquee matchup: Mini-dynasties vs. the relentless march of time

The 2014 Western Conference final between the Blackhawks and Kings was one of the best series of the cap era. You know a series is good when it ends in sudden death of a Game 7, and that’s not even the game fans look back on as the good overtime. The Game 5 OT session between the two teams, in which they spent the first extra period going end to end with barely a whistle, was the kind of hockey you’d show to a non-fan if you had only 20 minutes to convert them. It was that good.

The Kings won that series and went on to win the Cup. The Blackhawks won it the following year. But since then, the two teams have combined for zero playoff rounds won. They’ve won only four playoff games. And it’s possible that they could both miss the post-season this year, which would be the first time since 2008 that happened.

In that context, this afternoon’s meeting between the two teams doesn’t have the same sort of big-matchup feel that it would have years ago, or even earlier this season. The Kings have been up and down all season, and are currently riding a three-game win streak that has them back in the Pacific mix. The Blackhawks have seen the wheels come off, are already out of the race, and were embarrassed 7-2 by the Sharks on Thursday

After being sellers at the deadline for the first time in a decade, you could maybe forgive them if they rolled over and played dead the rest of the way. You just might not be able to tell the difference.

So no, today’s matchup won’t be have the rush of playoff overtime. But it will have playoff implications for one of the teams, and that’s about the best we can do. Four years is a long time in the parity-stricken NHL, and time and the salary cap eventually come for us all.

They’ll come for the Penguins, too, eventually. In the meantime, anyone who’s had enough of Pittsburgh winning all the time can reach back into the past for some inspiration….

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From the archives

We’ve got an Islanders/Penguins game on the schedule today, which opens up a few possibilities for the archive section. We could do that penalty-filled mess from 2011, but we already filled our ridiculous-brawl quota last week. We could do the 2013 series, won by Pittsburgh. We could find some clips of Darius Kasparaitis tormenting Mario Lemieux. Or we could do the 1982 first-round matchup that went to overtime of a deciding fifth game, the only time in four years that the Al Arbour dynasty ever faced playoff elimination.

But instead, let’s stick with the classics. Let’s do the David Volek game.

Yes, I hear you, Penguins fans – you’re sick of hearing about this one. You’re also chasing a Stanley Cup three-peat and have a GM who can somehow Jedi mind trick other Cup contenders into paying for his deadline moves, so you’re not getting any sympathy. You will get David Volek and you will like it.

The 1993 Penguins were also chasing a three-peat, and they seemed like a good bet to get it. Despite winning Cups in 1991 and 1992, they’d only been a marginal regular-season team those years, never topping 90 points. But by 1992–93, they’d reached their fully evolved form, rolling over the league to the tune of 119 points. Mario Lemieux had beaten cancer to win the scoring title in just 60 games and the team boasted three other 100-point players — and that wasn’t even counting 30-goal seasons from Jaromir Jagr and Joe Mullen. They were unstoppable, and when the league’s next four best regular-season teams all went out in the first round, it looked like the Penguins would waltz to a third straight title.

And then, the Islanders showed up. They weren’t a bad team, with 87 points and some decent talent. But they were missing their best player, 132-point star Pierre Turgeon, after he’d been eliminated by Dale Hunter in the previous round. This one was an easy call, right up until it wasn’t.

The Islanders hung tough, splitting the first four games. They dropped Game 5 by a 6–3 final, but rebounded with a 7–5 win on home ice to force a seventh game. Even with Turgeon making his return to the lineup, the Isles were heavy underdogs. At best, it seemed like they were doing the rest of the league a favour by wearing down the champs before making their inevitable exit. They weren’t.

There are two things about Game 7 that many fans forget. The first is that it featured the horrific Kevin Stevens injury that started the three-time all-star down a terrible personal path. The second is that the Islanders led the game 3–1 with four minutes left, and the game ended up in overtime only because of late goals by Ron Francis and Rick Tocchet.

In hindsight, they might wish they hadn’t bothered, because overtime brought this:

The Islanders get a 3-on-2 that turns into a 2-on-1 when Vladimir Malakhov pulls off the sort of blatant interference that was never called back then, Ray Ferraro feeds Volek, and the rest is history. The goal results in that wonderfully hockey-specific thing where the building suddenly goes so dead quiet that you can hear the winning team celebrating. Unless you were an Islanders fan, it was probably that quiet wherever you were watching, too. We couldn’t believe what we’d just seen.

In hindsight, it was all downhill for the Islanders after this. Not the 1992–93 Islanders — the whole franchise. They’d lose in five to the Canadiens in the conference final, and didn’t win another playoff game for 23 years. In between, they had the fish sticks, Mike Milbury, Rick DiPietro and Garth Snow. Still have that last one, actually. Meanwhile, the Penguins have three more Cups and counting.

That hardly seems fair, but at least Islanders fans will always have David Freaking Volek. For one night, at least, that was enough.

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Oddly specific prediction

While he isn’t scoring much this year with just six goals on the season, Alec Martinez recalls some of his 2014 magic by getting one against the Blackhawks.

Oddly specific prediction record: 1-for-19

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