As of today, it’s been exactly three months since the NHL opened. On that night back in October, we all settled in to get our first glimpse of regular-season action, as the league took its initial steps towards the inevitable Lightning versus Stars matchup in the Stanley Cup final.
OK, so not everything has turned out like we thought it would. (Fine — like I thought it would. Never listen to my predictions on anything.) But that uncertainty is a good thing; the league wouldn’t be any fun if we always knew what was coming. And it makes it worthwhile to occasionally take stock of where we stand as the season goes by.
This is something we like to do around here about once a month. Sometimes, the trends end up sticking – back in November, we bought in on the leaguewide youth movement and the rise of the Metro Division, while in December it was time to go all-in on John Tortorella. Then again, back in the season’s first month it also looked like we could be in for a busy season of trading, and, well, we’ll get to how that turned out.
So yes, markets can be volatile and you invest at your own risk. But you knew that already, so let’s get to this month’s stock watch.
Stock rising: Last year’s bottom five
Now that we’re past the halfway mark, it’s becoming clear who the league’s truly bad teams are. The Coyotes and Avalanche surely fit in that category, and the Islanders, Devils and Red Wings aren’t far from joining them.
But there’s some good news for those teams: If this year is any indication, a stay in the league’s basement doesn’t have to be long-term.
Here were last year’s five worst teams, based on the standings: Calgary, Columbus, Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto. Of those, three teams are holding down playoff spots right now – Columbus, Calgary and Edmonton. A fourth, the Maple Leafs, are on the outside based on total points but have played fewer games than most of the teams they’re chasing, and would be in based on points percentage. And even the Canucks, written off early as the favourite to finish dead last, have been hanging around the playoff race thanks to a recent win streak.
Granted, four of those five teams could still fall out of the race with a bad week or two. But the fact that they’re even in the mix offers some hope to the Coyotes, Avalanche and friends. In a league where we still talk about five-year plans and slow and steady rebuilds, it’s encouraging to see some evidence that a quick leap up the standings is possible.
Of course, just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed. Which takes us to our next stock…
Stock falling: Buffalo Sabres
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
The Sabres went through years of misery, but it was the good kind: self-inflicted, and with a purpose. That purpose at least partially involved winning draft lotteries, and that part didn’t work out so well, but there was still plenty of room for optimism. Last year brought progress, and set the stage for the year when it would all come together and the Sabres would finally contend for a playoff spot.
It hasn’t happened. Three months into the season, the Sabres are once again nestled towards the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Right now, they’re on pace to finish with 84 points, which would barely be a step up from last year’s 81.
Sure, some of that is injuries, with key names like Jack Eichel, Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly missing time. But even with all those players back in the lineup, the Sabres have been largely spinning their wheels. And patience, which Sabres fans have supplied in abundance, may finally be running out.
Nobody said this rebuild would be easy, and there’s still time to right the ship this year. But watching the Sabres flounder yet again while fellow also-rans like the Blue Jackets, Oilers and Maple Leafs soar past them can’t be anything but frustrating. These days, even the franchise-savior owner is losing some of his shine.
Something has to give eventually. For the sake of some of the longest-suffering fans in the league, here’s hoping it’s a few wins.
Trading halted: Columbus Blue Jackets
Sorry folks, this one’s been taken off the board. If you bought in back in October, you’re laughing all the way to the bank. If you got on board in November, you’re still doing well. But if you only decided to buy in recently, it’s too late. The bandwagon is full, and standby list is already wrapped around the block.
(But if you’re a short-seller looking to invest in the “Win the Presidents’ Trophy and then go out in the first round” combo, please hold for the next available operator.)
Stock falling: Fighting
The NHL’s slow and steady decline in fighting is hardly news; it’s been well-covered in recent years. That trend shows no signs of slowing down, with fighting hovering around the same level it’s been at over the last few seasons. Given the tendency for fighting to drop as the playoffs near, we’ll probably set another record low for the modern era.
But recently, we’ve seen a new twist on the old story. It seems as if NHL linesmen have been more aggressive in breaking up the relatively few fights that do threaten to break out.
Sometimes it works, and the quick work keeps a situation from escalating. But other times it seems to do more harm than good. It led to the recent war of words between Kevan Miller and Evander Kane after linesmen prevented them from squaring off. In the same game, an over-eager linesman turned a fight between Adam McQuaid and William Carrier into a one-sided speed-bagging.
Maybe preventing fights is ultimately a good thing (although not everyone agrees). But at some point, the NHL needs to pick a lane; they can either take the next logical step and ban fighting altogether, or leave it in the game and accept that it will happen sometimes. Having linesmen jumping in between two guys who want to go seems like a dangerous middle ground that doesn’t serve anyone.
Stock rising: All-star game sanity
Let’s face it: Last year’s John Scott thing was fun. Sure, it started off as a vaguely mean-spirited prank, and the league mismanaged it into a full-blown fiasco. But somehow it all wrapped up into the perfect ending, and it made last year’s all-star game one of the most memorable in a generation. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
But here’s the thing about once-in-a-lifetime moments: They don’t work when you try to recreate them a year later. So you had to cringe a little when the NHL decided to essentially keep the same voting format (with some minor tweaks), opening the door for a rerun in which mischievous fans would try to recapture the Scott magic by sending another questionable candidate to the game.
Voting opened, various names were thrown around, and a handful of get-out-the-vote campaigns were launched. And then… nothing. The fans played it straight, electing four real all-stars as division captains.
Maybe the NHL’s tweaks were enough. Maybe fans realized that jokes aren’t funny when you tell them a second time. Or maybe it’s harder than it looks to catch lightning in a bottle and spark an uprising. (Or maybe the league just rigged the whole thing behind the scenes, and Shawn Thornton was robbed.)
In any case, the league and its fans got it right. This year’s game may not get a Hollywood ending, but it won’t be a sideshow either.
Stock falling: The usual Selke suspects
Every team dreams of having an elite two-way centre, the kind of player you can throw out on the ice in all situations and trust to win any head-to-head matchup. And over the years, three players have emerged as the prototypes for that sort of game: Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar and Patrice Bergeron. You can list them in any order you want, but they’re the three who’ve set the bar. They’ve been regulars in the Selke race; they’ve put up solid point totals every year; and they’ve led their teams to six of the last seven Stanley Cups.
But this year, all three are slumping. Toews has been hurt, but even when he’s in the lineup he’s scoring at a rate that’s by far the lowest of his career. Kopitar is, too. And Bergeron’s drop is the biggest of all; he’s on pace to see his point total fall by well over half from last year.
So what’s going on? It’s tempting to try to find some hidden trend here, and maybe even declare that the era of the dominant two-way centre is nearing an end. But it’s more likely that we’re seeing a combination of age and injury mixed in with some weird timing and bad luck. These three will be fine.
But in the meantime, the door to the Selke Trophy might be opening up for somebody new to step in and stake a claim. Maybe it’s Ryan Kesler, or Mikko Koivu, or maybe even Sidney Crosby. (Don’t laugh, he’s been mentioned before.)
Or maybe some or all of the Big Three rebounds in the second half and we end up back where we usually do. But for the first time in a long time, they’re not lapping the field.
Stock rising: Nostalgia
The NHL kicked its centennial marketing into high gear as soon as the calendar flipped over to January. That’s included everything from a time capsule to a float at the Rose Bowl parade. But the big initiative has been the league’s unveiling of the top 100 players in its history. They’ve announced 33 names already, with the rest to come at the all-star break.
The league’s list isn’t as interesting as it could be, since they chickened out on actually ranking the players and just lumping everyone together into one big group. Still, it’s fun to see those old names brought together like this, and the league is doing a good job of educating newer fans on the game’s history.
We also opened the month with two more outdoor games, which meant a pair of alumni contests. Those old-timer games almost always deliver, and these two were no exceptions. From Keith Tkachuk dabbing to Lanny McDonald’s photobomb, the two games were undeniably entertaining. At this point, I think everyone enjoys alumni games. Well, except for Gary Roberts, but he’s never enjoyed anything.
Some people have argued that nostalgia is just a crutch for old people who can’t enjoy the present anymore. Those people are killjoys and we should ignore them. The NHL’s long and storied history is one its best qualities, and taking the occasional moment to look back is well worth it.
Stock falling: Trading
After that brief burst of optimism early on, this stock has been plummeting all year. At some point, trading may need to be halted because in the NHL, well, trading has been halted.
The holiday trade freeze was lifted on Dec. 28. But you’d hardly have known it from looking at the transactions pages; Tuesday’s late-night trade sending Jhonas Enroth from Toronto to Anaheim was the first since the freeze, and came over a month since the last deal of any kind (which was the big Peter Holland blockbuster).
That’s unusual. In past seasons, we’ve seen the trade market rumble to life with some significant deals around this time of year. Last season, we had both the Seth Jones/Ryan Johansen trade and the deal that sent Vincent Lecavalier to Los Angeles go down on Jan. 6. In 2014, David Perron went to Edmonton on Jan. 2. The year before that, we had the Tim Gleason/John-Michael Liles swap on New Year’s Day.
Those weren’t all game-changers, but they were something. In fact, not counting the 2012-13 season (which didn’t have one due to the lockout), this was the first time we made it two weeks past the holiday freeze without any trades at all. And with the rumour mill relatively quiet, there’s no telling how much longer GMs are willing to wait.
So what’s going on? It’s possible that the expansion draft is complicating everything, as teams have to watch their rosters carefully to make sure they can meet the exposure requirements. Or maybe this is just another sign of the league’s continuing trend away from trading.
Either way, you’d figure the dam has to break at some point. The Stars still need a goalie, the Rangers still need blue line help, and teams like the Coyotes and Avalanche must be firmly into sell mode by now. And you’d have to think that one of the league’s many underachieving teams, like the Jets, Lightning or Sabres, will have to do something eventually.
Or maybe not. Maybe this is just the new reality of how business gets done in the NHL.