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: The great free-agent defenceman apocalypse of 2019
We’ve reached the point in the season where our attention tends to turn toward the future. Things have settled in, and our view of who’s good and who’s not isn’t swinging wildly day to day anymore. But there’s still plenty of season left, so it’s tempting to start thinking ahead to the trade deadline, the final stretch run, or the playoffs.
Or, as was the case this weekend, to the summer of 2019.
If that seems a little too far ahead, we can thank Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson. The Kings’ defenceman got the ball rolling with a revealing interview late last week in which he admitted he was already looking ahead to free agency, and that he would be touching base with fellow 2019 UFA Karlsson to make sure they’re on the same page in terms of money. The Senators’ star then stoked that fire by telling a reporter that “When I go to market, I’m going to get what I’m worth.”
Well then. In a league where franchise players almost never make it to free agency, hearing Doughty and Karlsson muse about it openly was a surprise. Most players would mumble something about not thinking ahead, just being focused on winning tonight’s game, and hey let’s get pucks in deep. Not these two, apparently.
So naturally, fans around the league immediately started in on figuring how to react, parsing the specific words — does it mean anything that Karlsson said “when” he goes to market, not if? — and trying to figure out what number Doughty would wear for the Maple Leafs. (That last one may have just been in Toronto.) Meanwhile, fans in L.A. and Ottawa were really wishing everyone would leave them alone and go back to speculating about John Tavares.
Well, no such luck today. Instead, let’s try to handicap where the two stars will end up.
Possibility #1: Both guys re-sign before actually hitting UFA status
After all the speculation, both players do what virtually everyone else does and sign extensions well before they get to the market — maybe as early at July 1 of next year.
Odds of it happening: 80%
Entertainment value for Kings and/or Sens fans: It would be more like relief than entertainment, but they’d take it.
Entertainment value for the rest of us: Minimal.
Possibility #2: Both guys re-sign, but at least one makes it to UFA status first
A.K.A. “The Stamkos”
Odds of it happening: 5%
Entertainment value for Kings and/or Sens fans: Right up there with skydiving with a faulty parachute that doesn’t open the first few times you pull the chord, but eventually does.
Entertainment value for the rest of us: Strong for a day or two, then minimal.
Possibility #3: At least one guy gets traded
Hey, you can’t let him walk for nothing, right?
Odds of it happening: 7%
Entertainment value for Kings and/or Sens fans: Solid. They wouldn’t like it, but you’d get a ton in return for either guy. And if it did come to this, plenty of fans in Ottawa or L.A. would have already turned against the guy and talked themselves into moving on for the good of the franchise.
Entertainment value for the rest of us: Sky-high, especially if it comes after months of speculation. Trades are the best.
Possibility #4: At least one guy actually switches teams in free agency
I mean, it has happened before with star defencemen in their prime. There was Scott Niedermayer in 2006 and Zdeno Chara in 2007 and… uh… basically those two.
Odds of it happening: 7%
Entertainment value for Kings and/or Sens fans: Less than zero. Unless the departure came on the heels of a Cup win, this would be devastating.
Entertainment value for the rest of us: High, right up until the player ended up signing with your team’s biggest rival.
Possibility #5: Both guys end up on the same team
They’re represented by the same agency. They’ve already admitted they’re going to work together on this. They seem like friends. Is anyone else getting a Selanne/Kariya vibe here?
Odds of it happening: 1%
Entertainment value for Kings and/or Sens fans: We’ll be at the bar.
Entertainment value for the rest of us: Save us a seat; we can all drown our sorrows while we watch the same team get handed the Stanley Cup for the next few years.
Luckily, we still have two more Cups to hand out before the Doughty/Karlsson armageddon befalls us. Let’s head to the power rankings to figure out who’s leading the way for this year’s…
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. Los Angeles Kings (17-8-3, +22 true goals differential*): They’ve retaken the Pacific thanks to five straight wins and a Golden Knights slump.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets (17-9-1, +11): They’ve got a big Metro showdown with the Devils this week, as the two will face off in back-to-back games (with two days off in between, for some reason).
3. Winnipeg Jets (17-6-3, +22): They continue their climb up the rankings, thanks to last night’s dismantling of the Senators.
Hey, is it too early to start getting excited about the Jets/Blues home-and-home in two weeks?
2. St. Louis Blues (17-8-2, +14): Because I don’t think it’s too early.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
We are not doing this again. Not this week. Seriously, I know you’re waiting for it. Don’t bother. Asked and answered. No.
We are not doing yet another round of “Gosh, maybe we were all wrong about the Montreal Canadiens.”
I mean, this would be what, chapter four of that story? Five? I’ve already lost count, and we’re not even two full months into the season yet.
We went into the year thinking the Habs were contenders — not favourites, but one of those second-tier teams that at least had a realistic shot. They were the defending division champions and despite a series of weird off-season moves, they deserved some respect.
Then the season started, and they were terrible. They couldn’t score, shooting a comical 3.0 per cent as a team. And when Carey Price went from slumping to out with an injury, most of us wrote them off.
So Charlie Lindgren shows up to hold down the fort, the puck starts going in at the other end, and the Canadiens win seven of 10. They were back in the race, the season was saved, and we all had a good laugh about overreacting to the first few weeks.
Then came five straight losses, with the nadir being a Saturday night blowout that saw the Leafs embarrass them 6–0 on national television.
By the time that one was over, we were hearing about how the core just wasn’t good enough and the rebuild was on the way. We just didn’t know who would execute it, since Marc Bergevin was halfway out the door.
Then Price came back looking like the vintage 2015 version, and ever since the Canadiens have been unbeatable. They’ve won five straight, outscoring opponents 24–5 in the process. That includes Saturday night’s 10–1 humiliation of the Red Wings, the weekend’s biggest blowout by far. Right now, the Canadiens are a woodchipper. They’re back in the playoffs, holding down third spot in the Atlantic, and they’ll be playing on home ice for the next two weeks.
So this is the part where we’re supposed to write about how the Habs are fixed, that a healthy Carey Price changes everything for this team, and that Bergevin and Claude Julien were smart not to make any panic moves when the vultures were circling.
Well, forget it. We know how this plays out. We write that column, and the Canadiens will go out and lose 7–0 to the Blues tomorrow to launch a stretch where they drop seven of nine. Then just as we’re backing the moving trucks up to the Bell Centre for the inevitable fire sale, they’ll beat the Lightning 9–2 to launch a win streak. By February, they’ll somehow manage to be in first place in the Atlantic and last place overall in the same month. Who knows, maybe even the same day.
And we’ll be with them the whole way, writing the same “Whoops, spoke too soon” pieces. Just not this week. We all need a break right now.
So let’s leave it at this: Right now, the Canadiens look very good. The Red Wings may not be anyone’s idea of a powerhouse, but they’re Montreal’s top competition for a playoff spot, at least until the schedule-maker lets the Bruins catch up in the games-played column. Spanking Detroit back-to-back was an impressive statement. And it’s possible that this Montreal team really is better than we thought.
But maybe not. Tune in next week, and the week after, and every week after that. Maybe by the end of the season we’ll have at least started to figure these guys out.
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. Florida Panthers (10-13-3, -14): The Atlantic Division may be sputtering, but at least they own most of the real estate in the bottom five.
3. Philadelphia Flyers (8-11-7, -9): Make it 10 straight losses for a franchise that’s outright flatlining.
2. Arizona Coyotes (7-18-5, -31): Hey, look who’s not on the bottom anymore. Let’s hear it, Coyotes fans: We’re No. 2, we’re No. 2! Wait, why are all the eight-year-olds giggling right now?
1. Buffalo Sabres (6-17-4, -37): Yikes.
Last week, we went back and forth on whether the Sabres should pass the Coyotes for top spot in the bottom five. This week, there wasn’t much of a debate.
Let’s start with the good news: The Sabres scored a goal this weekend. It was only one, and it came in the third period of a game that was already decided. But they did score, and it was the first time they’d put a puck in the net in four games.
Now the bad news: Literally everything else.
The Sabres have lost four straight, and 11 of 12. They’ve dropped behind the Coyotes into dead last in the league. And despite playing in an Atlantic Division with only two good teams, they’re 13 points out of the playoff race — which is to say they’re not in the playoff race at all. They’re done.
It gets worse. At their current pace, they’d finish the season with 49 points, which would be worse than the team’s rock-bottom years of 2013–14 and 2014–15. Those seasons, as you may remember, the Sabres weren’t exactly trying to make the playoffs, or do much of anything other than pad their lottery odds for Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid. Last season, an 81-point finish was enough to cost Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma their jobs. That sent a clear signal that expectations were rising, and all the pain of a long rebuild was supposed to pay off with a run at the post-season, at the very least.
So now what? It’s not like Sabres fans can even settle into the “fire everyone” stage of frustration, since the team already did that in the off-season. With the draft and free agency a year away, that leaves trades as pretty much the only option for improving.
And indeed, according to reports, the Sabres are ready to start making moves. Elliotte Friedman has them willing to listen to offers on anyone other than Jack Eichel, including Evander Kane and maybe even Rasmus Ristolainen or Sam Reinhart.
That’s the smart move – clearly the status quo isn’t working in Buffalo. But it’s also an admission of failure. This is the team that the Sabres spent the last half-decade patiently reshaping themselves into. And now it’s starting to look like all those years landed them Eichel and not much else. There’s some help on the way, with Alexander Nylander still making his way through the system and Casey Mittelstadt in the college ranks. But for the most part, the spoils of the rebuild are already in Buffalo. And the results speak for themselves.
Maybe this ends with the Sabres landing the franchise defenceman they need so desperately by drafting Rasmus Dahlin. Lord knows, they’ve earned some lottery karma over the years. That’s a long way away, and it’s tough to sell long-suffering Buffalo fans on a 20–per cent chance at the ping-pong balls. But right now, that may be all the Sabres have to offer.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• On Saturday, we asked whether Cam Talbot‘s injury meant the Oilers’ goaltending might sink them. The answer: Nope, as long as they score seven goals a night. Which they did in the weekend’s wildest game, earning a 7–5 win over the Flames after nearly blowing a 6–1 lead. The full highlights are worth a watch:
• In other Oiler news, they reacquired Brandon Davidson on Sunday, snagging him off waivers from the Canadiens. Um, the Sabres know they need defencemen, right?
• With apologies to the Flames and Oilers, the most exciting hockey of the weekend came in a wild overtime between the Panthers and Hurricanes.
• The Rangers got the outdoor season underway with a weekend practice at Central Park. Thousands of fans attended, many of whom were no doubt confused that the league didn’t find a way to make the Blackhawks show up.
• Hey, if you’re going to have too many men on the ice, you may as well get your money’s worth:
• It took a little longer than we might have expected, but Arizona’s Dylan Strome picked up his first NHL goal on Saturday against the Devils:
Senators’ blue-chipper Thomas Chabot got his first the night before:
• It didn’t take long for Adam Henrique to make an impact in Anaheim. After being acquired in last week’s big trade, he scored his first as a Duck on Saturday:
• Viktor Arvidsson helped with a marriage proposal at Saturday’s game: