Every Sunday, Sportsnet NHL contributors will answer three questions around developing news and storylines, or other generalities around the game.
This week we touch on the game’s best rivalry (good timing!), surprising trade candidates, and bounce back candidates as playoff races tighten up.
WHO IS A PLAYER NOT INSIDE OUR TOP 25 TRADE CANDIDATES THAT WILL BE TRADED BY THE DEADLINE?
Emily Sadler, Staff writer: Joe Thornton. This is totally wishful thinking — how great would it be to see the grizzled veteran hoist the Stanley Cup? Considering the Sharks’ spot in the standings and their growing list of injured stars, that’s not going to happen in San Jose this year. GM Doug Wilson has made it clear he’s still devoted to his core group of players and isn’t going to blow anything up, but does that include Thornton? He’s no doubt a valuable member of this club and a staple at SAP Centre, but his one-year contract makes this interesting. The 40-year-old centreman would have to be on board with any potential move, but there wouldn’t be anything stopping team and player from making a deadline rental trade only to re-sign for one more shot this July… right?
Sonny Sachdeva, Staff writer: How about Kyle Turris? Adding Matt Duchene in the off-season was supposed to set up the Predators to re-join the west’s contenders — instead they’re grasping to stay in the mix at all, sitting four points out of the second wild-card spot. Turris’ season has been as tumultuous as his team’s, with a string of healthy scratches and just 22 points through 44 games to his name (for frame of reference, he clocks in at $6 million per year, the same as teammate Filip Forsberg). His fit in Nashville has seemed off for a while, but it wasn’t too long ago that he was seemingly a solid depth pivot for any contender. John Hynes’ arrival has breathed a bit of life into Turris’ game, with the 30-year-old getting time on the penalty kill and even somehow leading all Preds forwards in ice-time a couple games ago. His contract will make him a tough sell, but if Hynes can salvage his value and there’s a club desperate for centre depth, do they gamble on Turris, who just a couple years ago seemed good for a 25-goal, 55-point line?
Rory Boylen, NHL Editor: Florida’s Mike Hoffman. After scoring 36 goals last season and with 18 in 50 games this year you may wonder why the Panthers would explore this move while they chase a playoff spot. Well, they need help on the blue line, as a major reason for Sergei Bobrovsky’s struggles is that Florida has the third-worst high danger chance percentage in the NHL, at just 46.17 per cent. They can score, but need help defending. Hoffman is a pending UFA, but while fans in the Toronto market wonder if Kasperi Kapanen can be used to bring blue line help, Hoffman is the more impactful scorer and would be an enticing pick up. Would Florida miss his offence? Perhaps, but Hoffman is a third-line, power play specialist and Owen Tippett is lighting up the AHL with 19 goals and 40 points in 46 games, so he’d be a fair replacement.
WHAT IS THE BEST RIVALRY IN THE NHL TODAY?
ES: San Jose Sharks versus Vegas Golden Knights, all day. I’m usually a sucker for historic rivalries — I’m so glad the Battle of Alberta is back, and the league is so much better for it — but the newest rivalry going is my favourite. Just two years into Vegas’ existence, we’ve already seen two heated playoff matchups featuring all the trash talk a hockey fan could ask for. Add in the coaching situation this year — who would’ve thought, at this time last year, that Peter DeBoer would be behind the Golden Knights’ bench? — and we’ve upped the intrigue, big time. The NHL’s bracket playoff system has been widely criticized, but it’s doing exactly what it was intended to do in the Pacific. Unfortunately, considering the state of the Sharks’ season, it looks like we’ll have to wait a year for our next dose of playoff action between these two clubs. Something tells me it’ll be worth it though.
SS: I’d say it’s still Penguins vs. Flyers, no doubt. The history between the two franchises is well-known but the history between the current groups is just as potent. Even with the Penguins surging back to contender status to claim a couple Cups while the Flyers have taken a step back, the ill will between the two clubs every time they meet hasn’t faded. Keep in mind, the central characters have remained the same for nearly a decade — Crosby, Malkin, Letang in Pittsburgh, Giroux, Voracek, Couturier in Philly. Years of wild playoff battles and a giant pile of petty incidents that have slowly amassed over the years — Jagr dubbing Giroux ‘Little Mario,’ Giroux calling out Crosby for hacking his wrists in the faceoff circle, and on and on. Until Crosby and Giroux hang em’ up, this one will still have life, regardless of where the two teams are in the standings.
RB: Writing this on Sunday morning, I can’t pick any other rivalry than the Battle of Alberta. Toronto-Boston certainly gets an honourable mention here and we’ve seen a few playoff series between those times in the recent past. But nothing approaches the vitriol we’ve seen in the past three Flames-Oilers games. I get it, this hasn’t been a great rivalry in years, but it’s very quickly become must-see hockey. You had the Kassian-Tkachuk controversy, and then the right. You had David Rittich’s stick flip. We had a goalie fight on Saturday night. And now both teams are challenging for a playoff spot — and could treat the hockey world to an incredible series if they manage to line up there in Round 1. They next play on the last day of the regular season and if you are a fan of hockey, you’re watching that game. Who knows what comes next?
WHO IS A PLAYER THAT’S HAD A DISAPPOINTING SEASON, BUT WILL REBOUND IN THE STRETCH RUN?
ES: Johnny Gaudreau. It’s been a difficult season for the Calgary Flames overall. Add to that the fact that their leading scorer is struggling to produce, and it just compounds what’s been an incredibly trying 2019-20 campaign in Calgary. Gaudreau’s 13 goals and 28 assists for 41 points through 53 games so far puts him on pace for one of his least-productive years yet and is particularly jarring considering the career-best 99-point campaign he just put up a year ago. The shifty playmaker simply hasn’t looked like himself, and might be looking at a sub-70-point season. The good news is that, despite Gaudreau’s struggles, the Flames are still looking very much like a playoff team which gives plenty of incentive (and time) for the forward to step up his game and contribute down the stretch.
SS: I’ll go with Sergei Bobrovsky. It’s been a tough transition to Florida for the veteran, who’s looked decidedly human after inking a monster $70-million deal. But the difference in the group in front of him has been a key part of that adjustment. That said, the Panthers have enough solid pieces on the back and, and up front, to clean things up in front of Bobrovsky as things tighten up heading down the home stretch, especially with the Panthers looking likely to return to the playoffs after three years out of the mix. For what it’s worth, his peers seem to believe he’s rounding back into form too, as Elliotte Friedman mentioned in his latest 31 Thoughts column that a few players out east said they’re seeing Bob getting his confidence back.
RB: Pekka Rinne’s save percentage is below .900 right now and it’s been a weird year for lots of big-name goalies. Rinne has been one of the league’s best by the numbers over the past three seasons, so he deserves some credit for that. But it’s worth noting his .862 high danger save percentage at 5-on-5 this season ranks fourth among all goalies with at least 20 games played, so his save rate as been hampered by allowing more goals than usual off lower quality shots. As oong as he’s getting the most difficult shots, it’s more likely than not he’ll improve on stopping perimeter chances. His bounce back is key to Nashville staying in the playoff hunt.