Welcome to another NHL Saturday, you’ll want to get comfy, because we’re going to be here a while. With the bye weeks over with, we’re back to a nearly full schedule for the first time in a few weeks. We’ve got 13 games on tap including three all-Canadian matchups as part of the Hockey Day in Canada festivities, and we’ll start with the best one.
HNIC Game of the Night: Jets at Flames
Man, this is going to be a great conference final.
OK, sure, we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here, but the Jets are already a point out of first place in the league’s toughest division, and the Flames are one of the hottest teams in the NHL with seven straight wins — and neither team’s path to the third round looks all that foreboding.
Based on the standings, the Flames will have the conference’s best team to get past in the Pacific, but that team is an expansion squad. Granted, it’s the best expansion team in the history of sports, but do we really think they’re going to roll through their first ever post-season? (Thinking.) Yeah, they might.
However, with the Kings fading, the Sharks looking ordinary, the Ducks struggling to even make the playoffs, and the Oilers and Coyotes all but done, the Flames’ road out of the Pacific goes through an expansion team. You’ll take that every time.
The Jets are facing a tougher path, but the Predators had been inconsistent before their recent win streak and are fighting through various injuries. And after last year’s run to the final there’s a risk of fatigue setting in at some point.
The Blues haven’t looked like the same dominant team they were in the first half, and while the traffic jam for a wild card means that whichever teams grab those spots will probably have closed off the season hot, if the Blackhawks lose Corey Crawford for the season then we can probably write off the division’s most experienced playoff team.
And remember, the Jets are already arguably the division’s best team even with Mark Scheifele injured and Dustin Byfuglien only now waking up. Give them a healthy Scheifele, a hot Byfuglien, and a trade deadline rental or two, and who’s beating them?
Well, maybe the Flames.
One way or another, it would be a hell of a matchup, one that would bring back memories of Smythe Division battles long past, only without Wayne Gretzky and friends waiting to crush the winner in Round 2.
It might be the second-most fun you can have in a plausible Western Conference Final (trailing only the obvious Vegas-Nashville dream matchup). Plus, it would carry the added bonus of guaranteeing Canada a spot in the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 2011.
On Saturday, the two teams face off for the first time since the second game of the season (a 6-3 Flames win). With both teams coming off their bye, we can probably expect a sloppy game as they work the rust off. We’ll have to wait until April to see them again, as they meet in their second-last game of the season.
And after that, we’ll just have to wait for the main event May.
Player in the spotlight: Dion Phaneuf
With the Senators hosting the Maple Leafs, we get another chance to rehash the Phaneuf trade.
It’s been almost two years since the two rivals stunned the hockey world with news of a nine-player trade. The volume of names on both sides made the deal sound more complicated than it was; in essence, the Senators got Phaneuf, while the Leafs added a pick and a prospect and took on some bad short-term deals to unload the rest of his lengthy contract.
Most Leafs fans were overjoyed with the move. They’d soured on Phaneuf over the years, fairly or not, and getting out from under his cap hit without retaining any salary seemed like a borderline miracle — the fact that trading away their captain helped them tank their way to Auston Matthews didn’t hurt, either.
But just because moving Phaneuf was a home run for Toronto doesn’t mean the deal couldn’t make sense for Ottawa, too. That’s where things get a little trickier.
Phaneuf has always been a useful player. The problem in Toronto was that once Brian Burke pulled off a seven-player deal to bring him to town, the stakes went up.
As a Maple Leaf, Phaneuf was expected to be the top defenceman, the captain and the savior, quarterback the power play and lead the penalty kill, look like a hybrid of Scott Stevens and Al MacInnis in the process, and heal a few orphans along the way.
In Ottawa, he doesn’t need to do any of those things.
The Senators already have a defenceman who can perform miracles, and his name is Erik Karlsson. In theory, all Phaneuf needs to do is hold down a second-line role.
For the most part, that’s exactly what he’s done. His offensive totals have been roughly the same as they were in Toronto, and he can still eat big minutes and land the occasional highlight hit. He was a big part of the Sens’ surprise playoff run last season, including an overtime goal that may have been the turning point in the Bruins series.
From an Ottawa perspective, you could argue that Phaneuf has been just about exactly what they should have expected, but then you remember that he’s also carrying a $7-million cap hit on a perpetually cash-strapped team, and “solid second-pairing guy” doesn’t seem good enough anymore.
His no movement-clause already cost the team Marc Methot so it’s fair to ask if his cap hit might not help to indirectly lead to Karlsson’s exit too.
That’s getting close to the same dangerous territory Phaneuf found himself in as a Maple Leaf, when a combination of contract and circumstances led to him being expected to do more than he realistically could.
It’s not fair, but it’s life in the salary cap world of the NHL, and some Ottawa fans have already turned on Phaneuf for not quite being enough.
If you’re on one of them, at least look on the bright side. According to Elliotte Friedman, the Senators are reaching out to the teams who don’t appear on his no-trade list. Unlikely as it may be, it could be possible to find a taker for that contract.
It’s been done before.
Marquee matchup: Getting two points vs. the lottery odds
The Oilers host the Canucks tonight in a matchup between two of the Western Conference’s worst teams.
Both are well back of a wild card spot and their miniscule playoff hopes are fading fast. In theory, that should mean that the teams and their fans are desperate for a win, but that’s not always how it works at this time of year.
With half the season already over, optimistic takes about how it’s still early and there’s always a chance for a comeback are all but done. Instead, we know these two teams almost certainly aren’t going to make it, and that means that fans may not be sure if they really want their team to win anymore.
That’s the curse of the draft lottery. While the league has refined the process over the years to add more randomness (as we all saw last year), you still get significantly better odds by finishing lower in the standings. So if your playoff hopes have flat-lined, those lottery odds are just about all you have and it starts making sense for fans to root against their own team.
The Oilers and Canucks are almost there.
For the record, nobody thinks the players themselves are ever going to go in the tank — that’s not how hockey players are wired, and some of these guys are playing for their jobs, but fans have the advantage of taking a long-term view, and the NHL system is clear: If you’re not going to make the playoffs, your best bet is to be as bad as possible the rest of the way. Being stuck in the middle is the worst-case scenario.
That’s the dilemma facing fans in Vancouver and Edmonton Saturday — and maybe Montreal, too, as it faces Boston. No Habs fan will ever be able to bring themselves to root for the Bruins, least of all against their own team, but the cheers may get a little quieter as the season wears on and reality sets in.
If you want a demonstration of just what an ill-timed win or two can mean, all you have to do is look back on another game between the Oilers and Canucks. This one came at the end of the 2015-16 season, and was notable for being the last game ever played at the old Rexall Place rink. It was an emotional night, and the Oilers dominated on their way to a 6-2 win. Edmonton fans went home happy.
But those two points ultimately nudged the Oilers just ahead of the Maple Leafs and into 29th spot, overall, and a few weeks later, that 30th spot turned out to hold the winning ticket in the draft lottery.
Take away that late win over the Canucks, and the Oilers would have earned yet another lottery win. How does a 1-2 punch of Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews down the middle for the next decade or two sound? The Oilers were that close.
You never know which games we’ll look back on as the ones that could have shifted the lottery results, so maybe it’s best to cheer your team on and worry about the ping pong balls down the line. However, until the NHL embraces a better way, you could be forgiven for being a little nervous as the season wears on.
In a lottery world, sometimes a win can be a lot more costly than you’d think.
Key subplot: Stanley Cup final rematches
One weird quirk in Saturday’s schedule: It offers up three Stanley Cup final rematches from the last 20 years.
We’ll get to revisit the 1999 final between the Sabres and Stars, the 2002 final featuring the Red Wings and Hurricanes, and the 2016 battle between the Sharks and Penguins. Technically, Habs/Bruins is another, although you have to go back to 1970s to find the most recent of those.
The significance of having that many final rematches in one night is … well, there isn’t any. I’m pretty sure the Red Wings won’t be breaking down game film of Bret Hedican and Bates Battaglia to get ready for tonight’s game. It’s just sort of neat.
If you’re into that kind of nostalgia, you’re in luck – there are more modern-era rematches to come in the next few days. We get Rangers/Kings Sunday, Wings/Devils and Blackhawks/Lightning on Monday, and Wings/Flyers on Tuesday. There’s even a Minnesota/Pittsburgh meeting on Thursday that kind of counts, after which we head into the all-star break.
And if you’re not into that kind of nostalgia, well, can I interest you in a Harrison Ford movie? Cool, meet me in the next section.
From the archives
Man, this is the second time this year that the schedule has served up a Dallas-Buffalo matchup on Saturday. It’s like they’re tempting us. So no, for the second time: Sabres fans have suffered enough. We will not add to their misery. (Also, uh, we already did heart-breaking Buffalo playoff losses a few times in the last few weeks.)
So instead, let’s use today’s meeting between Joe Sakic’s two former teams: The Avalanche and the Rangers.
Yes, Sakic is known as one of those rare players who spent an entire hall-of-fame career with one franchise, but he was briefly a Ranger, kind of.
It happened back in the summer of 1997, when a 28-year-old Sakic had reached restricted free agency. He was coming off an injury-shortened season, but was just one year removed from a 51-goal, 120-point season that he’d capped off with a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe. The Avalanche wanted him back, but cash was tight.
This was back when they were playing out of the old McNichols Arena, and they’d already had to spend big bucks on a new deal for Peter Forsberg. While they controlled Sakic’s rights, they were vulnerable to an offer sheet.
(I’ll pause here for any younger readers who are confused: An “offer sheet” is a type of contract that NHL GMs are allowed to use to try to sign star players away from other teams, and many years ago — you’re not going to believe this part — they actually did that because they were more worried about winning games than staying friends with their golf buddies.)
Meanwhile, the big-budget Rangers had just seen Mark Messier bolt for Vancouver in a move that worked out great for everyone. Needing a new marquee player to take their captain’s place, the Rangers targeted Sakic with a three-year, $21-million offer that carried a massive $15-million signing bonus due on Day 1.
That gave the Avalanche a week to match the deal, and there was legitimate suspense over whether they could. It wasn’t until the seventh and final day that word leaked out that the Avalanche would indeed match the offer. It was a close call, and it took the success of Harrison Ford’s Air Force One movie to make it happen. (The movie had been bankrolled by Avalanche ownership.) Trust me, offer sheets were fun back then.
Sakic headed back to Colorado where he won a Hart and another Cup, and everyone agreed to never speak of this again. Meanwhile, the Rangers turned their sights on trading for Pat LaFontaine, but he lasted just one year before a career-ending concussion. Eventually, the replacement for Mark Messier turned out to be Mark Messier, as he returned in 2000. And the rest of us were left to ponder a fascinating what-if: Joe Sakic as a New York Ranger.
Oddly specific prediction
Nolan Patrick scores against the Devils. Yes, I’m sticking with the same call for the second straight week. Life doesn’t offer many second chances, Nolan, don’t let this one go to waste.
Oddly specific prediction record: 1-for-15