Every Sunday, Sportsnet NHL contributors will answer three questions around developing news and storylines, or other generalities around the game.
This week’s piece focuses on Taylor Hall and his future, Canadian teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the most impressive performances from the first two months.
WHICH TEAM DO YOU THINK TAYLOR HALL FINISHES THIS SEASON WITH, AND WHY?
Rory Boylen, NHL Editor: It’s got to be the Colorado Avalanche. They have the best combination of being a motivated buyer (should be, anyway) and having the prospects and picks that would be required to get a deal done. The Avs have a fantastic first line when healthy, but could still use more scoring punch on the second line to go with Nazem Kadri. Hall could put this team over the top and they may have the cap space to re-sign him even. Would it cost Bowen Byram? Or how about Connor Timmins and some combination of picks?
Sonny Sachdeva, Staff writer: Montreal. Marc Bergevin hasn’t been shy about his efforts to bring big-name talent to Montreal. The offer-sheet attempt for Hurricanes dynamo Sebastian Aho made that clear. But even the acquisitions of Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin did, too. Taylor Hall is arguably better than all of them — an MVP-calibre winger who can infuse pace and creativity into the team’s attack, and could do plenty of damage alongside Domi. Keep in mind, Bergevin has nearly $7 million in cap space to work with right now, according to CapFriendly, and an injured star left winger in Drouin. Plenty of pieces falling into place to nudge Bergevin in the direction of the former Oiler.
Emily Sadler, Staff writer: Dallas. The top two picks of 2010, Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, together at last – now that would be fun. On the ice, it makes sense: The Stars look like contenders again with an elite blue line and strong goaltending and some big names on offence but continue to struggle in the goal-scoring department. Putting together a package to outbid other buyers would be tough – and he’d have to clear some cap space – but Jim Nill hasn’t been shy to make a push for other big names like John Tavares and Erik Karlsson, and maybe he lands this one.
WITH TWO MONTHS OF THE REGULAR SEASON BEHIND US, HOW MANY CANADIAN TEAMS DO YOU THINK WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS, AND WHICH ONES WILL DO IT?
RB: Four. Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg. I’m not going to throw in the towel for the Maple Leafs yet. They are too skilled and now have a coach who is trying to get them to play to their natural strengths and that will take a little time to figure out. One way or another, the backup goaltending will get fixed somewhat and that will change everything. Barring a Frederik Andersen injury, Toronto should get at least a wild card spot. I think two of the Pacific Canadian teams get in and it’s really starting to feel like the Oilers have staying power. I’m not yet convinced the Canucks do and even though Calgary still isn’t playing great, the fact they followed up a six-game losing streak with a 5-0-1 record through the Bill Peters turmoil and fallout makes me believe they will turn a corner and get in. And I very much doubted Connor Hellebuyck and the Winnipeg Jets, but the goalie is putting up such a performance it’s hard to not pick them now.
SS: Four. Oilers, Jets, Canucks, Maple Leafs. With the American Thanksgiving benchmark behind us, only two Canadian teams seem to have the odds working in their favour when it comes to finishing Game 82 in a playoff spot. Winnipeg and Edmonton have built up strong enough early-season leads to put them in the mix heading into the new year, so let’s say they stick. Elsewhere in the west, Vancouver and Calgary both sit in the thick of the wild-card race. It’s tough to imagine both of them claiming spots, especially with clubs like Vegas and Dallas in their way, and a team like Nashville also looking to climb. I’ll say the Canucks get in, given they don’t need to dig themselves out of the hole Calgary’s fallen into. In the east, both Toronto and Montreal sit outside of the wild-card mix right now. Toronto has the personnel to climb back in, and Montreal could have a big move coming, but they’ve got a mountain to climb to make up for tough early records, and a pile-up of strong Metro teams vying for wild-card spots if they miss out on the divisional top three. Again, I’ll say one of the two Canadian clubs gets in, and the Maple Leafs’ depth gets them my vote.
ES: Four: Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary. I refuse to believe that the Flames will play the next 50 games like they did the first 32. A re-ignited Johnny Gaudreau and steady blue line can pull this group back up and into a wild card spot – maybe Calgary performs better as an underdog, anyway. Speaking of Western Canada, the NHL is a better place when Connor McDavid is in the playoffs, and it feels like we’re finally there now. Now, if we could re-ignite that Battle of Alberta and up the ante with some post-season stakes…
WHICH INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE HAS IMPRESSED YOU MOST SO FAR THIS SEASON, AND WHY?
RB: It’s Hellebuyck for me. I was really down on him in the pre-season. The fact is Hellebuyck’s high danger save rate had been terrible through his NHL career (comparable to Jake Allen’s) and, my thinking went, a depleted Winnipeg blue line would allow more of those and Hellebuyck would be exposed more than ever before. And it is true that Winnipeg allows a ton of high-danger chances — more than anyone except Chicago — but Hellebuyck’s .877 HD save percentage at 5-on-5 is behind only Pekka Rinne and Tuukka Rask among starters this season. He is keeping the Jets in the playoff picture and at this rate will be a Vezina finalist again.
SS: David Pastrnak. As incredible as Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl’s absurd start has been, I have to go with Pastrnak, who seems to raise his ceiling every year. Sure, he has the advantage of playing on arguably the game’s best line, but watch one shift from No. 88 and it’s clear he’s no passenger. In fact, he’s quietly inching closer to that best-in-the-game conversation, and making an even more compelling case this year with a ridiculous (and league-leading) 25 goals through 30 games. He’s already more than halfway to his career-best point total, and on pace to top 120. Besides all that, though, Pastrnak’s simply become must-see TV. He’s one of the most creative stickhandlers in the game, piling up a fair number of those points not by jamming pucks at the net-front but by slicing through teams with limitless confidence.
ES: Nathan MacKinnon. MacKinnon’s season started with a 13-game point streak and will surely end with a pile of MVP votes. His 18 goals and 27 assists has him sitting third in league scoring with 45 points, but what’s most impressive is that he’s accomplished much of this without star linemates Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. MacKinnon hasn’t just kept the club afloat in the NHL’s toughest division in their absence, he’s propelled them to a 19-8-2 record thanks to 13 multi-point games and some excellent chemistry with Calder, er, Cale Makar – another impressive reason the Avalanche are second best in the West right now.