Every Sunday, Sportsnet NHL contributors will answer three questions around developing news and storylines, or other generalities around the game.
With all-star weekend up next, this week we explore one change to make to the weekend, either in the game or at the skills competition. Plus, looking ahead to the next decade, which team is set up for sustained success, and could we see a new record for coach dismissals in a single season?
WHAT ONE THING WOULD YOU CHANGE ABOUT THE NHL SKILLS COMPETITION OR ALL-STAR GAME?
Emily Sadler, Staff writer: Bring back The Breakaway Challenge! I know it’s silly (and, uh, not very fun for goaltenders) but it’s a fun way to get a little glimpse of players’ personalities — something the NHL could always use a little more of. We’ve seen an increase in flashy goals scored in games (we see you, Andrei Svechnikov), which shows the creativity of so many young players is at an all-time high. More of that, please.
Sonny Sachdeva, Staff writer: The biggest issue that’s plagued the All-Star Game for years is the feeling that it just didn’t matter all that much. There are two ways to fix that — either make it impact the actual regular-season standings, or use the festivities for something bigger, for growing the game.
A quirky three-on-three tournament shouldn’t impact an NHL club’s chances of winning the Stanley Cup, and the All-Star Game is infinitely better in three-on-three mode, so the first of the above options is out the window. The second option, using the All-Star break for something greater, is the way to go, and the league took a small step towards that with the addition of the women’s national team three-on-three game.
But if the goal is to aim higher and to grow the game by showcasing the best of women’s hockey, then go all-in — integrate the women’s hockey elite into the skills competition and into the larger three-on-three tournament, and truly showcase the best of the women’s game on the NHL stage.
Rory Boylen, NHL editor: The skills competition is the best part of the whole weekend to me, and it’s because this is the one part where the players really do compete. So how can we maximize that competition? Simple: make sure the best fits for every drill are part of it.
So that means doing away with the requirement that you have to be part of the All-Star Game to be in the skills competition. In the hardest shot competition, we should always have a Zdeno Chara-Shea Weber showdown. Dylan Larkin should compete against Connor McDavid in the fastest skater again and the Detroit Red Wings should also have Andreas Athanasiou there to do it. Going about it this way would provide the best theatre and truly measure who the best are in each drill.
The players would need to buy in, of course, but this is how you get eyes on the game.
WHICH TEAM DO YOU THINK IS SET UP BEST FOR THIS DECADE?
ES: Colorado. The Avalanche are one of the best in the West right now and I don’t see them sinking down the standings any time soon. With the young trio of Nathan McKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar at the core and a complementary crew of depth players surrounding them, Colorado feels like a club that’s going to be contending for a long time.
And have you seen how much cap space they have? That won’t last, of course, but GM Joe Sakic has some flexibility to play with this year and set himself up for future success — maybe even by preying on clubs barreling towards a cap crunch with a first-round pick to spare? Speaking of picks, there’s plenty more talent on the way soon — top prospects like Bowen Byram, Conor Timmins and Martin Kaut highlight a deep prospect pool built by Sakic.
SS: I’ll go with Tampa Bay. Though they might not have the cap space and elite super-young core of a team like Colorado, I’d say the Lightning get the edge because of how their talent is spread throughout the lineup. Just take a look at the names they have inked long-term:
Up front, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are both signed for half of the next decade (with Kucherov locked in for the majority of it). Then there’s some solid depth signed up for a while in Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde. The next couple years have Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat in the mix too, though they’ll need to be re-upped fairly early in the decade, and Point will likely be in for a decent raise.
On the back end, they have two talented top-four defenders signed for half the decade in Ryan McDonagh and Victor Hedman, the latter of those two remaining a Norris Trophy-calibre talent.
And, perhaps most importantly, Tampa Bay has young Andrei Vasilevskiy signed on for almost all of the coming decade, too.
That doesn’t leave them with an exceptional amount of cap space to work with over that span but it does give Tampa a pretty lethal core to bring to the rink for most of these next 10 years. Other clubs with strong financial situations and talented young cores seem to have at least one position lacking in star power. But the Lightning have locked in the high end of their forward talent — and don’t forget, Kucherov’s 128 points just last year were the most any NHLer (!) has scored in more than two decades — a pair of top-end blue-liners, and a dominant starting goaltender.
While Stamkos and Hedman, both 29, will begin to tail off over the latter half of the next decade, they’ll remain elite for its first half. But Kucherov, Point and Vasilevskiy appear to just be getting started. Add in the fact that the club also brings a favourable tax situation and some quality weather to the table, making it a fairly desirable free-agent destination, and there’s plenty to suggest the Lightning are set up to succeed in the 2020s.
RB: It’s not crystal clear how everything will come together yet, and the start of the decade will be slow, but don’t sleep on the New York Rangers here. Yes, Henrik Lundqvist is nearing the end of his career with one year left on his contract, but Igor Shestyorkin has arrived at age 24 after being one of the top KHL goalies for the past few years and comes with an expectation that he’ll allow the team to make a smooth transition in net.
The Rangers have made six first-round picks in the past three drafts and though the highest of those picks, Kaapo Kakko, is having a miserable rookie season, better days are assuredly ahead. They’ve spent the past couple years rebuilding the prospect cupboard, but the reason to believe in the Rangers has more to do than just that.
New York, and the Rangers, are a destination for free agents. They already landed a huge one in Artemi Panarin last summer, inking him to a seven-year contract and getting MVP-type numbers from him out of the gate. Defencemen Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox were able to work their way to the Rangers, a preferred destination, and will both be solid top-four blueliners for years to come. New York doesn’t come with the same ready-made build of Tampa Bay or Colorado, two Stanley Cup contenders this year, but it’s easy to see how it could quickly come together.
WILL THE RECORD OF 11 COACH DISMISSALS IN A SINGLE SEASON BE EQUALED OR SURPASSED IN 2019-20?
ES: What is happening in the league this year? The flurry of firings and hirings feels like it’s getting out of control, with Gerard Gallant’s dismissal the biggest head-scratcher of them all. But considering all the new coaches that stepped in last off-season and all the changes we’ve seen already, I don’t see how we could have four more still to come. That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see at least one more… which is my way of saying I don’t think Gallant will be out of work for long.
SS: We’re already up to seven coaching changes so far this season, so it wouldn’t take too big a dose of chaos to get there. That said, it’s tough to pin down four more teams who would be looking to make a change over the latter half of the season.
It’s been a unique campaign in terms of dismissals, with both a number of performance-based changes and a few of an entirely other sort in the cases of a couple teams. Moving forward, who else is left that is performing poorly enough to make a change and hasn’t already, either over the summer or during the season? There’s a chance Jeff Blashill’s time in Detroit is running out, given the team’s now under a new regime with Steve Yzerman at the helm and Gallant — who has deep ties to Detroit from his playing days — is now available. There’s also Bruce Boudreau in Minnesota, who’s been on the hot seat for what seems like eons.
But all in all, it doesn’t seem like there are too many moves left on the coaching front, given the majority of the rest of the clubs are either thriving or are in the hunt. So I say, barring any other unique situations, the record stands and the coaching carousel calms down for the remained of 2019-20.
RB: The key is identifying which teams could still make a change. As Sonny notes, Detroit and Minnesota pribably have the best odds. May as well add Montreal to that list, because if they fade from the playoff picture over the next month everyone will be talking about Claude Julien being on the hot seat. So that’s three teams, but where does the fourth come from?
Keep in mind there are a number of coaches with the interim tag out there (Dallas, Calgary, New Jersey) so as long as there’s no long-term commitment those franchises are all possibly in line to make a permanent hire from outside the organization. And what about Winnipeg? They’re struggling to stay in it and Paul Maurice is in the final year of his contract so, who knows, if the right coach is made available they may make an in-season move. And Chicago? That’s a franchise hungry to get back to its winning ways, so would it shock anyone if they stepped in to bring in a more veteran voice behind the bench?
There are more than four teams out there that could still make a move. It would take a fair amount of chaos for four more coach dismissals to be made, but that’s sort of what’s defined this NHL season, isn’t it? We should expect the unexpected at this point. I say the record gets tied, as unfortunate as that may be to the coaching fraternity.