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: Subban wins again
The weekend featured 26 games, many with critical playoff implications. But the one that everyone seems to be talking about took place on Saturday night, and featured a first-place team earning a win over an also-ran.
Call it the P.K. Subban effect.
Subban and the Predators were visiting Montreal for the second time since last summer’s blockbuster trade. The day began with a visit to a children’s hospital, and ended with the Predators claiming a 3–2 shootout win. Subban wasn’t much of a factor in the game; he didn’t even play all that well. But that hardly mattered. Saturday’s meeting came just as the GM who traded him away prepares to pull the trigger on his next wave of wheeling and dealing, so this visit took on an extra sense of symbolism.
Subban remains, to put it mildly, a divisive figure in the hockey world these days, both in Montreal and beyond. Many fans love him; many don’t.
And apparently, some of his one-time teammates have mixed views of their own. After the game, Brendan Gallagher couldn’t seem to figure out why he was being asked about Subban.
Well, let’s see if we can crack this mystery. When you take a big run at an opponent and end up injuring yourself instead, you might be asked about that guy. When you score a goal and them make a point of seeking out an opponent on their bench for some extra trash talk, you might be asked about that guy. If both of those things happen in the same game, you’re definitely going to be asked about it, and feigning confusion about why anybody would bring it up isn’t an especially good look.
For his part, Subban got in a relatively mild chirp of his own at Gallagher’s expense. That was no surprise – the two clearly don’t like each other, with a history that dates back to when Subban was still in Montreal. But no doubt, somebody somewhere is already filing that soundbite away as further evidence in the ongoing case against Subban. Even when he’s playing at a Norris Trophy level, he’s always been guilty of the cardinal hockey sin of not minding the spotlight, and occasionally even seeking it out. Never mind that a league full of dull, mumbling players should be desperate for exactly that sort of star – for whatever reason, it rubs some people the wrong way.
If Subban cares, he didn’t show it on Saturday, just like he hasn’t shown it since the trade that sent him to Nashville. Hockey fans love to debate winners and losers in blockbuster trades, and maybe you can argue that it’s still too soon to know whether the Predators or Canadiens truly got the best of this one. But one thing seems clear: P.K. Subban won. He has a bigger spotlight than ever before. More importantly, he’s been to one Stanley Cup final and may be headed for another while the Canadiens crash and burn without him. All the boos, trash talk and moronic tweets that come his way won’t change that.
When you think of it that way, maybe you can understand why the Brendan Gallaghers of the world would rather talk about just about anything else. They don’t have to like Subban, and plenty of people still don’t. But that won’t change the fact that he’s winning and they’re not.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins (31-22-4, +5 true goals differential*): The record is still pedestrian, and they remain outside the top 10 in the overall standings. But they’ve been looking scary for the last month, and sure seem like a team that’s waking up just in time to make a deep run.
4. Vegas Golden Knights (36-15-4, +35): They’re no longer dominating, winning seven of their last 14. But 10 of those came on the road and the schedule served up some tough opponents; during the most challenging section of their season, the Knights bent but didn’t break.
3. Boston Bruins (34-12-8, +48): By following Saturday’s regulation loss to the Sabres with yesterday’s win over the Devils, the Bruins still haven’t gone two straight without at least a point since mid-November.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (38-14-3, +53): The team raised Vincent Lecavalier’s number to the rafters before Saturday night’s win over the Kings.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
So we’re two-thirds of the way through the season, and we’re well past the point where we can stop pretending that every team is still in the playoff race. Nobody’s been mathematically eliminated yet, but that’s a formality. When you’re done, you’re done, and there’s no reason for the rest of us to pretend otherwise.
Arizona and Buffalo have been there since late October. The Canucks and Senators eventually joined them. The Oilers are basically there, too — as stunning as that is — after a California road trip where they probably needed five or six points and came away with none. And we can go ahead and add the Red Wings and Habs to the list, too.
And then there’s… uh… well…
[Looks around nervously.]
We can all agree that the Blackhawks are done, right?
On the surface, that shouldn’t be a controversial statement. They came into the weekend with four straight losses and facing what seemed like an absolute must-win against the Wild, owners of the West’s final wild-card spot. They coughed that one up to the tune of a 3–0 loss, leaving them 10 points back of a playoff spot with four teams to pass.
Ten points back in November is basically insurmountable. In February? You’re done. It’s not even a question.
Except… well, it’s the Blackhawks. It’s one thing to write off the Canucks or Red Wings or even the Oilers, but it feels like Chicago should get some special consideration here. Three Stanley Cups should buy you some benefit of the doubt, no?
Stan Bowman seems to think so. He says he’s not ready to sell, and that he’s not giving up the team’s aging and expensive core. Maybe he means it. Or maybe he’s just saying the only thing that he can; waving a white flag never goes over all that well, especially when you’ve got a room full of champions and a fan base that’s used to being the bully on the block. Bowman has tried to thread the needle of rebuilding on the fly, getting younger while still contending. It hasn’t worked.
Maybe that’s because the plan was flawed from the start. Or maybe it’s simply because the team lost its starting goaltender midway through the season, and not many teams can recover from that. Corey Crawford‘s last full game came on Dec. 21, and when it ended Chicago was tied for the final Western playoff spot. Two nights later, Crawford was hurt in a loss to the Devils; he hasn’t played since, and the Hawks have plummeted ten points without him. Crawford seems ready to return, but now it’s too late.
Maybe Crawford’s return changes everything, and the Blackhawks can catch fire. Maybe Brandon Saad remembers how to score, Jonathan Toews looks like a $10.5-million player again, and Brent Seabrook gets back to at least something like he once was. Maybe Bowman pulls off a few deals for reinforcements. Maybe the Blackhawks rip off seven or eight straight wins to claw back within range.
That’s a lot of maybes. Too many, if we’re being honest. If it were any other team, we wouldn’t bother with the charade of there being any suspense left in a failed season. Because it’s the Blackhawks, it feels hard to admit what the standings are plainly telling us: This team is done. Now the question is what comes next.
Road to the lottery
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Rasmus Dahlin highlights and playing with draft-lottery simulations.
5. Edmonton Oilers (23-27-4, -26): Sometimes a single image really does tell the story…
3. Ottawa Senators (19-26-9, -41): It was yet another weekend of turmoil in Ottawa, with team president and CEO Tom Anselmi making an abrupt exit. Meanwhile, GM Pierre Dorion gets a three-year extension.
Speaking of the trade deadline, we’re now two weeks away and so far it’s been quiet. Too quiet. With apologies to the Viktor Loovs and Zach Leslies of the world, we haven’t had a meaningful trade since the Blackhawks and Coyotes hooked up on Anthony Duclair on Jan. 10. That’s an unusually silent market, so you can bet that there will be plenty of deals to come over the next 14 days.
So let’s do that. Bet, I mean. Let’s put on our bookie hats and see what kind of deadline odds we can come up with.
We tried this last year and people seemed to like it, so we’ll break it out again. Unless otherwise noted, all odds below refer to total trades made between now and the deadline.
Most trades by a Canadian team
Maple Leafs: 12–1
The Habs seem like the easy call here, since they’ve all but conceded that they need to start over and Marc Bergevin may be dealing to save his job. The Senators and Oilers also have work to do; the Canucks do, too, but when you hear Jim Benning saying stuff like “If teams call us on our players, we’ll listen to what they have to offer”, you wonder if they realize that. The Flames are a decent dark horse, while the Leafs don’t sound like they’ll be all that busy, and making a bunch of deals just hasn’t been Kevin Chevaldayoff’s style.
Most trades by an American team
Red Wings: 7–1
Golden Knights: 15–1
The field: 9–1
Apparently the Eastern Conference might be where the action is. The Penguins were busy last year, while the Knights are a total wild card. You’d figure contenders like the Predators and Lightning would be the best bet to make big trades, and the rebuilding teams will be active as always. But in terms of sheer volume, the Rangers sure look like a team that’s ready to burn it all down.
Over/under on total trades
Between now and the day before the deadline: 22.5
Deadline day itself: 21.5
Last year, the dam broke on Feb. 15 with the Tom Gilbert trade; from there, we got 21 trades in the days before the deadline and then 20 more on deadline day itself. We’ll bump that number up slightly because the market’s been unusually quiet for the last month or so; we’re guessing that means GMs have extra work left to do, although if it’s actually a sign of a weaker-than-expected market then the unders would be the play here.
Over/under on trades involving…
A first-round pick: 2.5
A goaltender who has played in the NHL this year: 1.5
Six or more players/picks: 2.5
A former all-star: 5.5
Either 28 or 29 teams still own their 2018 first-round choice (with the Senators’ pick still up in the air), and the draft isn’t considered all that strong, so we could see a few firsts moved. The goalie market seems quiet this year compared to last, when guys like Ben Bishop were in play, although the Mike Smith injury could change that. And those complex deals are more common than you might think, especially when teams start tossing in late-round picks to balance out the ledger.
As for that all-star number, it probably feels high. But remember that it applies to guys like Rick Nash, Mike Green, Max Pacioretty, Evander Kane and even Thomas Vanek, plus a few more. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but we could see more than a few big names on the move.
Quick shifts: Ten more notable moments from around the league
• Mike Smith had to be helped off the ice at the end of last night’s win over the Islanders. At this point we don’t know how serious it might be, although he was reportedly seen walking without assistance after the game.
• The Stars’ saw their five-game win streak snapped at the hands of the Canucks. But they’re making a push to break up that three-way party on top of the Central, sitting just one point back of the Blues heading into this week’s action.
• Save of the weekend, and quite possible of the year: Andrei Vasilevskiy goes behind the back.
• It wasn’t the weekend’s best game, but Friday’s Islanders/Red Wings matchup sure was fun. It featured a frantic Isles comeback, a late (and disputed) Detroit goal to tie it up, and a Brock Nelson OT winner to give New York a 7-6 win. It also featured another five-point night from Mathew Barzal, making him the first rookie in 100 years to have three.
• We had yet another five-point night on Saturday, this one from Toronto’s Mitch Marner. That helped the Maple Leafs cruise to a 6-3 win over the Senators in the last Battle of Ontario matchup of the season.
• The Leafs also unveiled the uniforms that they’ll wear for next month’s outdoor game that you’d already forgotten was happening. And they’re, uh, white. Very, very white.
• Make it four straight for the Flyers, who aren’t just back in the Metro playoff picture but have actually built up a bit of a cushion. Not bad for a team that lost 10 straight earlier in the year.
• Two teams that are on the outside of the Metro race: the Islanders and Blue Jackets, who are both one point back of the wild card. They face each other tomorrow in a game that suddenly feels huge.
• Finally, this feature on three of the voices who’ve called the Canucks over the years is a great watch for Vancouver fans and history buffs: