Every Monday, Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter.
Opening faceoff: Old Hab-its die hard
This feature runs just about every Monday during the season, maybe about 25 times in all, and one of the things we try to do is spread the attention around. Nobody wants to read about the same teams over and over, so we try to make sure that just about everybody gets some time in the spotlight. If we focus on a given team one week, we try not to come back to it again for another month or two at least. Fair’s fair, and all that.
But sometimes, as we’ll see today, that just doesn’t work. One week ago, we spent a section diving into the slumping Montreal Canadiens and their tenuous hold on the Atlantic Division, so in theory we wouldn’t circle back to them for a while. But after the week they just had, there’s really no way to avoid it, even if it breaks the “don’t focus on the same team” rule.
Then again, maybe that rule doesn’t apply here, because you could argue that the Canadiens are no longer the same team they were a week ago. Tuesday’s decision to fire coach Michel Therrien wasn’t exactly a shock – he was on indisputably shaky ground heading into the bye. But his replacement raised eyebrows. The Canadiens didn’t promote from within or go the interim route, like every other team to fire its coach this year has done. Nope, Marc Bergevin went big, bringing in Claude Julien on what’s rumoured to be a massive contract.
And just like that, there was hope again in Montreal. In a season that seemed to be spiraling into a demoralizing repeat off 2015-16 – unbeatable in October, mediocre beyond, outright free-fall down the stretch – the team had yanked hard on the wheel and skidded into a new direction. Bergevin had delivered a clear message that nothing, be it friendship, loyalty or the bottom line, was more important in Montreal than winning.
Not a bad week for a team that was supposed to be on vacation.
On Friday, it all led to the sight of a practice feeling like a bigger deal than most regular season games. Hundreds of fans showed up to watch the team run through drills. Julien mixed up the lines, answering the prayers of Habs fans by moving Alex Galchenyuk back to centering the top line. And afterwards, key players like Carey Price were talking about the coaching change being a wakeup call.
Add it all up, and you may have expected the Canadiens to come out for Saturday afternoon’s game against the Winnipeg Jets looking like the 1977 version. Instead, after a decent start, they fell flat on their way to a 3-1 loss. It was their third straight defeat and seventh in their last eight, and they’ve scored two or less in all seven of those losses. Combined with Ottawa splitting a pair of weekend games, it left Montreal’s lead on top of the Atlantic at just two points.
It wasn’t all bad, with Price in particular looking as sharp as he has in weeks. And the Canadiens certainly aren’t the first team to look sloppy coming out of the bye. But any hopes that a coaching change would provide the sort of instant turnaround that teams like the New York Islanders and St. Louis Blues have seen took at least a temporary blow on Saturday. And the Canadiens are looking more and more like a team that needs exactly that sort of reversal to regain their status as Cup contenders.
Montreal returns to action Tuesday night against the New York Rangers, kicking off a busy stretch that sees them play five times in eight nights. That takes the Canadiens right up to the trade deadline (which Bergevin is suggesting could be quiet) and then it’s on to P.K. Subban‘s homecoming with the Nashville Predators on March 2.
It won’t be boring. And when it’s all over, we’ll know a lot more about this team than we do right now.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup favorite status.
5. New York Rangers (38-19-1, +43 true goals differential*): They had their six-game winning streak snapped, then responded by knocking off the Caps. They’re gaining ground on third spot in the Metro. But based on the playoff format, is that really a good thing?
4. Columbus Blue Jackets (37-16-5, +43): They’re off this week, returning to action on Saturday against the Islanders.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins (36-14-8, +39): We’re up to four Metro teams in the top five, by the way. Enjoy the playoffs, Atlantic Division.
2. Minnesota Wild (39-13-6, +61): They haven’t lost consecutive games since early December. Next up, another showdown with the Blackhawks Tuesday night.
1. Washington Capitals (39-12-7, +73): Two games, two losses for the NHL’s best team. The bye week ruins everyone.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
So now it’s on to another team that we recently covered, and which seems to have transformed since then to the point where we need to take another look. A few weeks ago, we were watching the Blues implode after a strong first half. The goaltending was a mess, they’d been barely .500 for over a month, and we were left to wonder if “maybe the Blues aren’t a good team after all.”
They went out the next night and beat the Penguins, but then gave up 10 goals while dropping games to the Wild and Jets. That’s when Doug Armstrong made his move, firing Ken Hitchcock and replacing him with Mike Yeo. Since then, the Blues have been a different team.
They looked like a Cup contender again while racking up what may have been the best road trip in franchise history, winning five straight and posting three shutouts along the way, then came home to beat the Vancouver Canucks. A playoff spot that had looked tenuous just a few weeks earlier seemed like a lock once again, and it didn’t seem far-fetched to start looking ahead to a first round matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Then the Blues went out on Saturday and lost to the Buffalo Sabres, because of course they did. It wasn’t a bad game, with St. Louis peppering Robin Lehner with 39 shots. But it was a reminder that, apparently, nothing is ever going to be easy when it comes to figuring out this team. And with one more game before the dreaded bye week, that leaves Armstrong with some tough calls headed into the deadline.
Say what you will about their second-half slump, but at least it made the GM’s job a simple one: trade Kevin Shattenkirk for as much as possible. With so few defencemen on the market, that seemed like the sort of move a savvy veteran like Armstrong would be able to do well on. But now… well, how do you play this one now? If the Blues look like a playoff team, moving Shattenkirk no longer seems like a no-brainer. And if they look like a Cup contender, maybe they should be adding rentals instead of sending them away.
Remember, the Blues faced a similar situation last year, when they knew that David Backes and Troy Brouwer were headed for unrestricted free agency. They held onto both, and it paid off with a trip to the semifinals. But then they watched both guys walk away for nothing in the summer.
Does Armstrong go down that road again with Shattenkirk? Or does he pull the trigger on a deal, knowing he could be sending a terrible message to the guys left in the room?
There’s no easy answer. And that’s been pretty much par for the course for this Blues season so far.
Road to the lottery
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Nolan Patrick highlights and clicking refresh on draft lottery simulations.
5. Detroit Red Wings (24-25-10, -33): Jeff Blashill thinks the NHL should change the ROW and tie-breaker, and he’s right.
4. Vancouver Canucks (26-28-6, -32): They’re still just four points out of the playoffs, but with six points in their last 11 games they’re fading badly.
3. Carolina Hurricanes (24-23-8, -19): Two weekend losses combined with two Red Wings wins left the Hurricanes all alone in last in the East.
1. Colorado Avalanche (16-38-3, -76): Hey, did you hear about all those outrageous trade demands coming out of Colorado? Let’s talk about those.
Unlike the Canadiens and Blues, we haven’t spent much time recently looking at the Avalanche. The last time they were featured in this section in any depth was before Christmas. Since then, there hasn’t been much to talk about. They’re terrible, they’re getting worse as they go, and they’re going to finish last by a mile. Next.
But with the trade deadline now just 10 days away, the Avalanche are back in the spotlight, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons. As one of only two teams in the league who’ve been firmly locked into seller mode, the Avs are ground zero for most of the bigger rumours floating around the league.
None of those rumours have come true yet, and you wonder if that might come back to haunt the Avalanche. After all, the seller side of the aisle is going to inevitably get more crowded over the next few days, as teams like Dallas Stars, Red Wings, Hurricanes and maybe even the Tampa Bay Lightning seem ready to accept reality and throw in the towel. It’s possible that Colorado fans might look back and wonder if GM Joe Sakic missed an opportunity by not getting some deals done before the market got crowded.
But we’re going to defend Sakic here, at least a little bit. For one thing, let’s never forget that when it comes to trading, 80 per cent of NHL GMs are gigantic wimps who cower under their desks every time the phone rings, so Sakic has his work cut out for him just getting anyone to answer his calls.
But more importantly, there’s something interesting going on with Colorado’s biggest names. Players like Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog are rumoured to be in play, as Sakic looks to shake up his core. It’s exceedingly rare for good young players with term left on their deals to hit the market, especially during the season, so you’d expect there to be lots of interest. And there seems to be.
But there’ a problem, at least according to what seems to be becoming accepted wisdom: Sakic is asking for way too much.
In Ottawa, GM Pierre Dorion has made it clear that Sakic’s asking price is too high. He didn’t mention any players by name, but it’s been widely reported that the Avs may have asked for a package that included defenceman Cody Ceci, a top prospect in Thomas Chabot or Colin White, and a first-round pick in this year’s draft. Ottawa fans have scoffed at the idea, and Dorion seems to be right there with them.
But here’s the thing: that’s a perfectly fair ask by Sakic.
Matt Duchene is a centre who’s put up first-line numbers over his entire career, he’s 26, and he’s signed through next year on a decent deal. He should be expensive. Asking for a top prospect, a solid young middle-pair defenceman and a first-round pick in one of the weakest drafts in recent memory isn’t outrageous. It actually sounds pretty reasonable.
That doesn’t mean that the Senators should take the deal. Chabot especially is the type of blue chip prospect that teams are extremely reluctant to move, and rightly so. Dorion might be absolutely right to decide that the deal isn’t in his best interest. But there’s a big difference between turning down a deal because the price doesn’t make sense for your team’s given situation and walking away because the asking price is out of bounds. If the reports are correct, Sakic isn’t being ridiculous here.
The same sort of story is coming out of Boston, where we’re told that a deal for Landeskog would involve young defenceman Brandon Carlo. Again, maybe that’s the sort of deal that the Bruins should pass on. But it’s not an unrealistic asking price. Landeskog is the Avalanche captain, he’s 24, he’s already a four-time 20-goal scorer, and he’s signed through 2021. He also plays the sort of style that the Bruins love. He should cost them something.
There’s plenty to criticize about Sakic’s record as GM, and we’ve done some of that here and elsewhere. But setting a high price for two of his best young players doesn’t fall into that category. This isn’t the Coyotes asking for the moon for two months of Martin Hanzal. This is Joe Sakic doing his job.
Let’s be clear: some of this is just basic negotiations. You’re interested in a player, the asking price is more than you’d prefer to pay, so you get the word out and hope the other side blinks. Maybe Sakic does. If the Sens or Bruins or anybody else can get him to cave under the pressure and lower his price, then they’ll have played the game and won. With plenty of time before the deadline, there’s no harm in at least trying.
But for Avs fans enduring a miserable season and an uncertain future, the fact Sakic is setting his target high is reason for at least a little bit of optimism. When it comes to rentals like Jarome Iginla or John Mitchell, the GM is going to have to bite the bullet and take what it can get. But if he really is being told that his reported asking price for Landeskog and Duchene is unreasonable, he should hold onto both and try again in the summer.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• Friday night’s showdown between the Penguins and Blue Jackets was all sorts of fun. Brandon Dubinsky‘s first career OT winner gave Columbus a 2-1 win in what sure seems like it could be a first-round preview.
• Jaromir Jagr: Still pretty good.
• Shift of the week honours go to Jonathan Drouin for his ridiculous work on last night’s OT winner.
• In case you were wondering, Alex Edler’s centre ice bomb against Brian Elliott didn’t look any better in 3D.
• The Canucks honoured longtime coach/GM Pat Quinn on Saturday, unveiling a statue outside of Rogers Arena.
• Also getting statues are Frank Mahovlich, Charlie Conacher, Red Kelly and Wendel Clark, who’ll round out the Maple Leafs’ Legends Row.
• One more well-deserved honour: The Rangers will finally retire Jean Ratelle’s number.
• Despite that win, it was a tough weekend for the Sens. They lost Bobby Ryan to a blocked shot in that game; the winger could be out three-to-six weeks. They also saw Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone and Tommy Wingels leave Sunday night’s loss to the Jets. Stone’s injury looked especially bad, coming on a high hit from Jacob Trouba, which earned the Jets’ defenceman a hearing with Player Safety on Monday.
• This was cool: the Bruins turn a set faceoff play in their own zone into a Hail Mary breakaway in overtime.
• Finally, the undisputed best moment of the weekend came on Saturday in Dallas, as play-by-play man Dave Strader returned to the booth. Strader is battling cancer, and will call five games this year during a break in treatments. He was saluted by the players after a 4-3 Stars win.