We’re not quite at a moment worthy of Bob Cole’s surely-eternal “Everything is happening!” line, but compared to the weeks we’ve spent wandering the entertainment desert here as hockey fans, it sure feels like a lot is happening right now. The moment the page was turned on Christmas, GMs and players everywhere dropped their focus into hockey gear, and off we’ve sped.
The World Juniors are under way, NHL trades have been made, contracts are being signed, and seven teams have training camps start in oh, less than 48 hours. So, let’s take stock of where we’re at here, and I’ll give my thoughts on what’s happened along the way.
The World Juniors
Hockey analysts with a statistical bent tend to caution against reading too much into small sample sizes, like say, a single hockey tournament. And fine, that’s a worthwhile point – over a handful of hockey games a single player can get wildly lucky or unlucky with the bounces, and so their performance should always be taken with a grain of salt.
Still, though, certain players thrive like plants in a greenhouse under the bright spotlight while others wilt. Stats aside, their teammates can usually tell you which players are which. If you watch a tournament like this closely, then, you should be able to see for yourself – without checking the numbers – which players excelled.
This year, though, man, outside of noting which players are clearly head and shoulders above the rest (names like Dylan Cozens and Tim Stuetzle come to mind), how much can viewers really take away from the event? That’s not saying it shouldn’t exist, it’d just be insane to draw meaningful conclusions from this hockey. Canada beat Germany by two touchdowns, and then Germany proceeded to add players back from quarantine and … won their next game in overtime? The Russians were just behind Canada as tournament favourites, and had a few players favoured to lead the whole event in scoring. So Russia came out in game one against the Czech Republic … and got blanked?
It’s always a weird (though enjoyable) event that leaves many prone to overreaction, and I’d say this year we’re more susceptible to that than ever. We’ve been dying for hockey action, meanwhile some of these teams have had to quarantine, many have lost players and some lost coaches. The bulk of participants are coming into the event without a regular season to build on, while other players have been playing full tilt.
It’s just a bunch of uber-talented young players trying to find their competitive footing in their career’s weirdest season under the brightest of spotlights, and so that context should be important in giving analysis.
Montreal signs Corey Perry, reinforcing my belief that coaching is going to be of utmost importance in the Canadian division
When I look at the North Division, I can squint and see six playoff teams (I like Winnipeg more than most), and a team that could be better than most expect (Ottawa). Unfortunately, only four of these teams will get playoff spots, meaning points are going to be tough to come by, and none will be handed out for free. There is no lifting the plastic mouth of the 2018-19 Detroit Red Wings Pez dispenser to easily grab your two-point candy.
This is all going to be made worse by the NHL’s insane point system that awards varying amounts of points per game (two for some, but three if it’s a super-duper close one!) that consciously scorns merit in favour of league-wide hope, meaning just about everyone is going to still be in the fight until the end, particularly over just 56 games.
I mentioned Corey Perry off the top because he’s just what Montreal needed, and suddenly that team looks awfully competitive to me. (I wasn’t as sold on them as others, but Coolbet’s odds currently have them as the second most-likely team to win the division.) Anyway, the Perry signing reinforced my thoughts about the tough division, which led me to coaching.
With a compressed schedule, which coach can get his team motivated for that fifth game in seven nights, when it’s the third time playing the same team in the same location in front of no fans? Which coach can get his team motivated to dig in for more after a win when the puck drops against the same opponent 22 hours later? Which coach, over this tight timeline, can find enough rest for their stars so they can maximize their roster’s ability?
It’s going to be a grind, which puts a lot of the onus here on the staff to keep the players primed.
Sure, go take Ottawa’s two points, you just gotta let ‘em punch you in the nose first
I mentioned Ottawa as the clear odd-man out in their seven-team division, but it looks to me like coach DJ Smith spoke with GM Pierre Dorion after last season and came up with a clear mandate heading into this season: maybe we won’t be the best team in the division, and maybe we’ll hand out two points most nights, but darn it, it won’t be fun to take them.
Since last season ended the Senators have added Erik Gudbranson, Josh Brown, Cedric Paquette, Austin Watson and Braydon Coburn. None of those guys are pure enforcers, but all are competitive and physical and a bit mean.
My guess here is that Ottawa is working on developing a number of bright young prospects, and they want those players to feel confident they can push the boundaries of their opponents without having to worry about receiving excessive liberties. I’m guessing they want to field pros who set an example by bringing it every night. I’m guessing that if these prospects are going to lose along their learning curve, they don’t want it to be in a meek, embarrassing way.
I don’t exactly know what the Ottawa Senators will be this season, though my hunch is still not very good. But I certainly don’t think they’re going to roll over for anyone.
Julien BriseBois deserves some sort of award, like say, the GM one
I know the Lightning, and specifically head coach Jon Cooper, enjoyed having Cedric Paquette in their lineup, and they consider him a contributing part of the Stanley Cup they just won. But losing him is not franchise crippling, and that the Lightning only lost him and Coburn given what many expected to happen just months ago…this has been some superb maneuvering by Tampa Bay’s GM.
Now, here’s the part where you say “Well sure, but they were aided (salary-wise) by Nikita Kucherov going to long-term IR,” and of course that’s true. But I’m not ready to say this timing is all blind “luck” yet. It seems to me Kucherov could’ve gone under the knife a while ago and been back in-season, so perhaps the plan is to wait to be back in time for the playoffs, when the salary cap disappears. If that’s the case, Tampa could effectively be bringing back last year’s dominant Cup-winning team plus Steven Stamkos for another go, thanks to some clever managing work.
In any case, what looked to be a crisis for the Lightning now looks more like a multi-month inconvenience, provided Kucherov recovers well and right when they expect him.
Mike Hoffman ran up against some rough luck, but made a smart choice
If this was the year you became an NHL free agent and you were looking at your options, the only smart thing to do was put yourself in a good situation, because this wasn’t the year you were going to get paid. It had to be about positioning yourself to make the most money after it. I think Hoffman did the best job of that of anyone this off-season, as much as he’s likely getting clipped on the short-term money end (likely a one-year deal for $4.5 million or thereabouts).
He’s on a good team with the Blues, which goes a lot farther to helping stats than we appreciate. Further to that, having a good D-corps helps forwards pile up numbers more than is often recognized. Also having soft opponents in your division doesn’t hurt, and the Blues will have that.
St. Louis needs help putting the puck in the net, meaning Hoffman is going to get the linemates, the ice time, and the special teams opportunities to score. If he stays healthy, it’s not hard to see him putting away 20-25 goals in a short year and getting a multi-year deal this off-season. And given what’s out there right now, that’s about the best a talented UFA could hope to do.