Weekend Takeaways: Oilers among many teams hard to peg

Connor McDavid had a goal and two assists in his return to the lineup as the Edmonton Oilers snapped a three-game losing skid with a 5-1 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday.

NHL teams just can’t get their narratives straight. At least not for long.

Going into the weekend, the Montreal Canadiens were in freefall, destined to miss the playoffs. The debate was whether they should tank, not trade for help.

The Edmonton Oilers, meanwhile, were energized by the return of Connor McDavid, ready to finally push upward, possible candidates to make a late, desperate charge for a playoff berth.

Then these two clubs intersected on Saturday afternoon. By Sunday night, everything had been turned upside down.
The Canadiens were resurgent and resilient, ready to get back into the race.

The Oilers, well, they were just the Oilers again. Heartbreakers, losers by a converted touchdown in Brooklyn.

Dead last again.

This is the NHL in 2016. A league of streaks. Don’t like the narrative? Don’t worry, in two or five games it will change.

Only the Washington Capitals, really, have avoided this. They’ve been pretty rock solid the whole way. Chicago, too, has been very consistent, but that came after a bumpy start.

And sure, Columbus has just been bloody awful the whole way, deviated from general dreadfulness to fire a coach, hire another and trade away their franchise centre.

As of Saturday, seven of the 16 teams who had made the playoffs last spring were set to miss this time around. As of Monday morning, Pittsburgh had managed to sneak back into a post-season spot.

Figuring out who’s really good and who’s really not isn’t easy in this league, and that’s from day-to-day, not month-to-month.

Red-hot Lightning in no rush to deal Drouin
It’s been 19 days since Jonathan Drouin walked out on the Tampa Bay Lightning, and there’s no sign of a trade in the near future.

Since then, the Lightning have won four of five, and are on a 9-1 run and poised to take a run at Florida at the top of the Northeast Division.

In other words, Steve Yzerman’s team has demonstrated pretty effectively it doesn’t need Drouin at the moment. He’d be better off getting back to work. As it stands, it’s starting to look like a deal that would be more sensible to make at the draft, although all it takes is one ambitious GM to see the reluctant winger as the answer to all his problems.

Tkachuk’s draft status trending upward
Matthew Tkachuk may be the No. 1 ranked North American prospect for this June’s NHL draft, but as Sunday’s hat trick for the London Knights in a comeback win over Sarnia demonstrated, he may still have room to rise.

The three players at the top of the European rankings – Auston Matthews, Jesse Puljujarvi, Patrik Laine – are expected as of right now to go ahead of Tkachuk.

We’ll see if that changes. But this much is true: Tkachuk plays a prototypical NHL game for a power forward, and could be more ready than the other three to play in the NHL next season because of his style. Moreover, he’s as good as a playmaker as he is as a scorer, which makes him a unique commodity.

Matthews is a centre, and that will likely keep him at the top of the board. But Tkachuk is right there with the two Finns, and could end up being the safer pick.

Struggling Wild facing tough questions
The Minnesota Wild showed on Saturday it’s one thing to set your collective jaw, another to alter your current circumstance.

In the morning, GM Chuck Fletcher proclaimed head coach Mike Yeo was “safe” despite the team’s 1-8-1 skid. After the morning skate, Yeo talked of “getting back our identity” and how “we have to build our game back” before announcing the team’s second and third-leading goalscorers, Thomas Vanek and Jason Zucker, were to be made healthy scratches for that night against St. Louis.

Ready, set, re-set.

Did it all work? Nope. Another loss, this time 4-1 to St. Louis, followed. Since signing Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, the Wild have looked like that team just about to take the next step, but never quite have, despite being very good at times.

The missing piece? You always come back to Mikko Koivu as the No. 1 centre. He’s paid like one – two more years at a $6.75 million cap hit – but has never really played like one. It’s not about one player, but it’s hard to win in this league without that element.

Meanwhile, the loss of defenceman Jonas Brodin for 3-6 weeks with a broken foot could really hurt the Wild season.

Wideman case is far from over

The Dennis Wideman appeal before Gary Bettman this week could get very, very interesting.

As a starting point, it’s worth pointing out that on the last two situations in which a suspension for official abuse was referred to Bettman – Mike Peca in October, 2008 and Dan Carcillo in May, 2014 – the commish reduced the suspension both times.

However, those were automatic 10-gamers that were knocked down. Wideman’s is supplementary discipline because there was no report off the game, and that puts it into a different category. Also, linesman Don Henderson is injured, and not likely to return to work soon. That also sets the Wideman case aside.

Look for the NHLPA to use a concussion expert to attack some of the assertions made by the league in the video it released explaining the Wideman suspension. The officials association, led by Dan O’Halloran, is expecting Bettman and the league to stand firm, especially with Henderson out of action.

Most assume that if Bettman does reduce the suspension, it will be only slightly, and not enough to stop the union from taking the matter to an independent arbitrator. If that happens, the arbitrator will be Georgetown University law professor James Oldham.

Two other issues likely to receive attention; why didn’t Wideman go through a concussion protocal after he came to the bench? And how did the concussion spotter program work in this case?

World Cup goalies could look very different

I know, I know. We’ve heard it all before.

But there’s a growing belief that after years of talking about reducing the size of goalie equipment, it actually may happen this off-season.

If it does, the fact the players’ association and several star goaltenders – Cory Schneider, Braden Holtby, Devan Dubnyk – are backing the movement to tapered gear, should be understood as key elements.

As it stands, league goalie supervisor Kay Whitmore will be going back to the manufacturers of goalie gear this week to tell them what the league wants. Some are enthusiastic, some are less so, and it’s up to the league to stand firm.

The areas under review are goalie pants and body armour, both of which would be used more to “wrap” around the body and be fitted to the size of the goalie, rather than the current system in which body armour is designed to protrude from the body and any goalie can use any size he wants.

The plan is for Whitmore to make a presentation to the GMs at their meeting next month, then get approval from the competition committee and board of governors in June. It’s an ambitious schedule, but Whitmore hopes if all goes well, the goalies you see in the World Cup next September will look noticeably different.

The PA has often resisted this in the past, but seem to be on board now, with the recently retired Rob Zepp playing a key role alongside executive Mathieu Schneider. Who would have thought former goalies and current netminders would be at the forefront of trying to increase scoring in the NHL?

Team Canada finalizing its initial World Cup list

At a meeting 12 days ago in Vancouver, Team Canada officials decided on 18 final candidates for the initial 16-player World Cup roster that must be submitted Mar. 2. That list of candidates could conceivably expand, but team officials already now the hardest choices will come when roster spots 17-23 are decided.

Regarding injured Montreal goalie Carey Price, it won’t matter if he’s healthy enough to play when the 16-man roster is announced.

“People know he’s the best goalie on the planet. Right now, he’s the injured best goalie on the planet, that’s all,” said one team official.

Any player can be replaced right up to his country’s first game.

Prospect’s ‘Cy Young’ season raising eyebrows
Draft prospect Julien Gauthier of the Val d’Or Foreurs is putting together a strange statistical story this season.
Gauthier is ranked as a Top 20 prospect for the draft, and has 36 goals in 38 games this season. But he has only 10 assists, giving him curious “Cy Young” numbers for the season.

At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, scouts are going to like the package. But the one-dimensional aspect of his statistics might give some teams pause about his overall game.

Panthers not done locking up core pieces
The Florida Panthers have been delivering a signing a week this season it seems. First Dale Tallon, then Gerard Gallant, then Alexander Barkov. It appears forward Vincent Trocheck may be next as he finishes his entry level deal.

Calder Trophy-winning defenceman Aaron Ekblad will be an interesting case. He’s just in the second year of his three-year entry level deal, and the question is whether the Panthers might choose to try and sign him to an extension after this season as has been done with several top players in the past.

The interesting thing about Ekblad is there’s not really any uncertainty about what he is as an NHL player. He won’t be Bobby Orr, but he will be productive, reliable, durable and able to play in all situations for the next decade or more.

The Panthers may ultimately decide, why wait?

Benning making his mark with subtle makeover
Slowly but surely, Jim Benning is changing the Vancouver Canucks.

It started with moving out Kevin Bieksa last summer, and this season Benning has, over a period of weeks, cleared out roster room by demoting veterans Chris Higgins, Brandon Prust and Yannick Weber.

With the Sedin twins still on the roster, to some degree this amounts to nibbling around the edges of a team that needs a makeover. Still, Benning has to deal with realities, and while the presence of the twins may stop the Canucks from getting so bad they’ll nab a top draft slot, creating playing opportunities for young players the team already owns is at least a start on the problem.

The biggest decision Benning has to make in the short-term is whether it’s prudent to move recently returned defenceman Dan Hamhuis before the trade deadline. Depending on how other teams assess Hamhuis’ play since returning from that awful facial injury, this could be the kind of deal that could help Vancouver accelerate its rebuild, the kind of deal that wasn’t possible last year because the Canucks were in the process of making the playoffs.

At his best, Hamhuis is a Top 4 defender. Given the strangled NHL trade market, it’s hard to say what he could translate into in terms of futures at the deadline.

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