Facing Off is a weekly column debating five of hockey’s hottest topics each and every Monday. From current events like trades and hat tricks, to bigger-picture stuff like scandals and expansion — you name it, we’re debating it. Albeit, not always with a serious tone. We’re keeping this column light, so keep that in mind when reading, and feel free to join in on the fun by leaving a comment.
John Scott is going to the All-Star Game, and Canada is not playing for a medal at the world juniors. This really is a new year for hockey headlines.
Then again, another Kane — this time Evander, not Patrick — is currently under investigation for a sex offence in Buffalo, and Sidney Crosby is back above a point-per-game pace since the Christmas break. So, in that sense, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Well, kinda.
We’ve already debated the Scott topic when he took over as the leading vote-getter and my opinion hasn’t changed. Sure, he’s being a good sport about this “honour”, but he’s also making a mockery of the game and the fans that voted him in should be ashamed of themselves. Watch those same “fans” whine and complain when the NHL eliminates the fan-voting aspect for next year’s showcase. It’s funny, though, Scott has cleared waivers not once, not twice, but three times this season and was a healthy scratch, as per usual, for the Arizona Coyotes on the day he was named captain of the Pacific Division team for this inaugural 3-on-3 tournament. It’s no laughing matter that Scott’s taking away a spot from somebody deserving of All-Star recognition, but that game is a joke anyway. People will tune in for the entertainment value and I guess Scott’s presence there should add to that, much like the bearded lady at the circus. It’s so wrong, yet you can’t help but watch.
Looking back on the world-junior tournament that wraps up tomorrow, Canada certainly underachieved through undisciplined play and mediocre goaltending. For the first time in 18 years — since 1998, ironically also in Helsinki — the Canadians aren’t competing in a medal game and will finish sixth in the standings.
The excuses were flying after their quarter-final exit to Finland, but they need only to look in the mirror — especially Jake Virtanen, who hurt Canada more than he helped despite being on loan from the Vancouver Canucks.
One tournament does not make a career, but Virtanen and several others, including netminder Mackenzie Blackwood, have a long way to go to becoming productive NHLers. Canada had more than enough skill to repeat as champion, in my opinion — I’m fairly certain Canada had the most first-rounders and most top-10 picks of any team, including the third and fourth overall selections in 2015 — but it was a young roster and this will serve as a learning experience for all involved. With nine potential returnees for the 2017 tournament, Canada will be out for redemption on home ice in Montreal and Toronto. The expectation will once again be gold when the puck drops there.
That Kane topic is a touchy subject and one we best leave alone, but could you imagine if it comes out that Evander somehow got tangled up with the same girl as Patrick? Chances are, nothing comes of this either, but it’s quite the coincidence nevertheless. Evander is trolling the media by essentially echoing Patrick’s comments word-for-word thus far in proclaiming his innocence, but time will tell whether this story has any legs. Let’s not jump to conclusions or crucify the player this time around.
It was only a matter of time until Crosby started playing like himself again, and it sure seems like the first half of 2016 will be better than the second half of 2015 for this particular superstar. It’ll be interesting to see whether Crosby can get enough momentum going to get back into the scoring race or, more importantly, to get the Pittsburgh Penguins back into the playoff picture.
Moving on to this week’s topics, I’d like to welcome a new guest contributor to the fold in Matt Brauckmann — our Flyers beat writer for THW and the man responsible for that fancy Facing Off logo that tops this column. Matt is a man of many talents and if you haven’t checked out his work before, now is a good time to start following him here, including one of his latest pieces depicting New Year’s resolutions for all 30 teams.
There is no point beating the Scott horse to death again, or giving the guy any more unearned ink for that matter, so here’s a softball to get Matt started off. To get him in the spirit of things. To get his blood boiling.
Your thoughts on the instigator rule? Should the NHL scrap it or does it serve a purpose?
BRAUCKMANN: There was a time in the NHL where if you went after a star player or threw some type of cheap-shot, you were going to have to stand up for yourself and fight a tough guy. Now, the enforcer is essentially obsolete, but on any given team, there are guys who can fight. So what happens today when a player lands a dirty hit? The guy who goes to stick up for his own player gets more penalties than the guy who originally threw the hit. I talked about it in my recent article, but the instigator penalty essentially allows these guys to throw these hits without facing consequences from the opposing team. There is no fear of having to stand up for yourself anymore, and that’s a very bad thing.
The instigator does serve a purpose, but it should be applied only in situations where it’s really warranted. For instance, when Ray Emery skated down the ice and beat down Braden Holtby, that’s what I see as an instigator. I don’t see the instigator as being applicable when a guy goes to defend his teammate and both players willingly drop the gloves. It needs to be loosened up or players will have no problem continuing to throw these dirty hits.
FISHER: I never liked the instigator rule from Day 1, but I’m used to it now and it’s evident that enforcers are going the way of the dinosaur and nearing extinction at all levels of hockey (except for that all-goon league in Quebec). I do enjoy a good spirited scrap as much as the next guy, and I can see the point Matt is trying to make here. Fighting did serve as a deterrent back in the Broad Street Bullies days, although those Flyers teams used intimidation as a means of changing momentum too and probably took it too far. But there were lines drawn that you didn’t cross and there was a “code” of respect that players abided by or suffered the consequences in the form of knuckle-sandwiches. Those lines have been blurred by the instigator rule and there are no longer the same repercussions for your actions. Players are well aware that they can get away with more nowadays and they do exploit that. The problem, as Matt pointed out, is the real instigators go unpenalized a lot of the time. Those being the guys running around throwing suspect hits, slew-footing, sticking guys behind the play at every opportunity, or just running their mouths from start to finish. You couldn’t chirp like that back in the day or you’d end up with a broken beak or be picking up your chicklets. There was more honour, more accountability.
I would also like to see the instigator penalty called more loosely, at the official’s discretion if a guy “had it coming” or “was looking for trouble”, you know “cruisin’ for a bruisin’.” Maybe the additional 10-minute misconduct should be nullified in those cases because the punishment seems too severe for the crime as it is. Some refs still let the ‘boys be boys’ and police themselves to some degree, such was the case in a Dec. 27 game between Dallas and St. Louis when the Stars wanted to get after Robert Bortuzzo for butt-ending their captain Jamie Benn. Travis Moen eventually dropped the gloves with Bortuzzo and it was a pleasant surprise to see no instigator called there despite Moen bee-lining towards Bortuzzo directly from the face-off with the clear intention of starting that fight. Bortuzzo had no choice in the matter, but it was a good non-call by the zebras in my opinion.
I do think fighting still has a place in the game and probably always should. But I don’t like how guys are forced to fight after throwing clean hits. Basically, any big hit prompts a scrum and an immediate response, often times resulting in a fight. But why? Body contact is part of the sport, it’s completely legal, and if you get knocked down, you get up and the game goes on, life goes on. Suck it up and get them back on the scoreboard, or with a clean hit of your own. All that said, I’d much rather watch Brendan Gallagher play than Jim Kyte, so I don’t mind the direction the game is going. ICYMI, they squared off back on Nov. 28 in a not-so-subtle Twitter exchange over the pros and cons of the instigator, with Gallagher getting the last laugh there — at least from me.
We’re all watching the world juniors and that hit on William Nylander still has everybody talking. Was it dirty? Did it warrant a three-game suspension?
BRAUCKMANN: No. In fact, I don’t think it warranted any suspension whatsoever. Hockey is a physical game and there comes a point when the puck carrier has to protect himself from an oncoming hit, Nylander failed to do so. Yes, I think Chris Egli made contact with some of Nylander’s head, but I don’t think it was the least bit intentional. His shoulder was tucked.
This is what has led to a huge discrepancy not only in the NHL but in hockey everywhere. Egli did everything he could to make sure he was in a good position to hit Nylander. As I said, it didn’t look like he intentionally went for the head. Not to mention Nylander had the puck, Egli was doing his job. It goes right back to the ol’ saying, “keep your head up, kid.”
FISHER: OK, this is the part where I’m supposed to call Matt an imbecile and tell him to get his head out of his you-know-what. That’s how Facing Off works, it’s my duty to argue the counterpoint and take him to task over this devastatingly dangerous, downright dirty hit. Except that’s not how I saw it, either. I knew the suspension was coming based on international rules and how the IIHF always brings the hammer down, not to mention the media pressure and that Nylander was going to be this tournament’s golden boy, a marquee prospect that could easily be in the NHL and doing better than a guy like Jake Virtanen. Nobody had ever heard of Elgi until that hit, so the heavy-handed suspension was inevitable. But that doesn’t make it right. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a “clean” hit, but I felt five-and-a-game for charging or checking to the head was more than enough punishment. Heck, I would have been fine with a two-minute minor.
At the end of the day, I totally agree with Matt that Nylander needs to shoulder some of the responsibility or blame for the hit, his vulnerability on the play, and his subsequent injury, which everybody assumes is a concussion. Reality is, whether Leafs fans like it or not, Nylander was cutting through the middle of the ice while gazing off in another direction and didn’t see Elgi coming. That’s not Elgi’s fault, Nylander should have been watching where he was going. You can’t be checking out a cute jogger on the sidewalk and coast through a stop sign or red light, get T-boned at full speed and sue the other driver for your medical bills when he or she had the right of way. That’s basically what happened here, and Elgi unjustly paid the price for Nylander not paying attention. At least that’s how I saw it when it happened, and continue to see it every time I watch the replay.
We’ve essentially reached the midpoint of the NHL season, which begs the question: Who’s your frontrunner for the Stanley Cup? And who’s your dark-horse?
BRAUCKMANN: I think, when you’re talking about favorites, you obviously have to look at some of the best teams, but there’s one that sticks out to me and that’s the Washington Capitals. They are just a well-rounded and complete team. They have a lethal first line and get plenty of secondary scoring, they have a mix of defensive defensemen and offensive defensemen, a deadly power play, and a goalie who is on another level. I would obviously consider Dallas as well, but they ask for too much out of their top line and don’t have the same fortune in goal.
As for the dark-horse, at this point it 100 per cent has to be the Florida Panthers. They are a team that no one expected to be that good this season. They don’t have one standout star, but they have six guys with 20 points or more. Not to mention, both Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya are playing well.
FISHER: Finally, a topic we can disagree on and that almost nobody agrees on. I don’t mind the Capitals and Stars, they would probably be in my top-five frontrunners, but I’m sensing strong potential for the Chicago Blackhawks to become the first repeat champions in almost 20 years, since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98. It would be Chicago’s fourth Cup in seven years and solidify the Hawks as a modern-day dynasty. Even without Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad and Kris Versteeg, I feel the Blackhawks are a better team this season than last season when they won it all. Patrick Kane is the best player in the league today, the frontrunner for the Hart Trophy and his new wingman, Artemi Panarin, has to be the favourite for rookie of the year. Artem Anisimov has been a great fit there too — a significant upgrade over Brad Richards — and Teuvo Teravainen just keeps getting better by the game. Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa once again seem to be pacing themselves for the playoffs, while Corey Crawford remains in fine form. They are thin on defence beyond the top three of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson, but I fully expect them to address that need between now and the trade deadline. They have the experience and coach John Quenneville seems to push all the right buttons with this group, so I really like Chicago’s chances again.
If not the Hawks, and if you look at the last four years, Chicago has alternated Cup wins with Los Angeles, so perhaps it’s the Kings turn to take the crown again. I could see that happening too — before I could see the Capitals or Stars planning a parade — but I definitely see a Western Conference team capturing the Cup for a fifth straight year.
For my dark-horse, as much as I like Matt’s pick of the Panthers (that’s bold, buddy), I’m going to go with my original Stanley Cup prediction of the Anaheim Ducks or Tampa Bay Lightning. I had them clashing in the final, but the Ducks are finally occupying a playoff spot in the Pacific Division this morning for the first time in a long time, while the Lightning remain on the outside looking in as of today, albeit just two points out of a wild-card spot in the East. Their struggles have been shocking, considering both teams made it all the way to the semis last season, but I see them turning it on in the second half, getting into the playoffs and going on long runs, respectively. My pick was the Ducks and I wouldn’t rule them out just yet — they are heating up with points in six straight games, including four regulation wins. Anaheim just started an eight-game homestand with Sunday’s victory over Winnipeg, so look out for those Ducks. I still wouldn’t want to face-off against that roster in the post-season. (Shameless plug, I’m planning to revisit my standings predictions again with a mid-season edition in the next week or two once all the teams have played 41 games, so watch for that.)
Rumour has it the San Jose Sharks could bite on Mike Richards, offering him a contract or at least a tryout. Would you take a chance on the former Flyer? Does Richards deserve a second, or this a third chance?
BRAUCKMANN: By all means, he deserves another shot. Just as long as it’s not with the Flyers. Richards has proven that he is nowhere near the captain he once was in 2010. He was a largely ineffective fourth-line player for the Kings who carried a huge cap hit. Then the drama at the border unfolded and made matters even worse. I think Richards could at least make himself an effective fourth-line player again, but he will never return to what he once was.
FISHER: Matt’s probably right about that, that Richards is still an NHL player but no longer an elite one. I would take a chance on him with an Alexander Semin-type contract — one year, $1 million — if I was running a team in need of centre depth or playoff experience. I don’t know if the Sharks are the right fit, despite Richards’ history with coaches Peter DeBoer and Steve Spott from his junior days with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers. Richards was a different player and, by the sounds of it, a different person back then. Fame and fortune seem to have gone to his head, or at least his nose — I just can’t imagine him and Raffi Torres in the same room, let alone on the same line — which is too bad because Richards is only turning 31 years old next month. Maybe he’s cleaned up his act in the last six months or so, but I would be worried about those character issues and what “baggage” he might be bringing with him.
If some team is going to sign Richards, the sooner, the better. That way they can get a test run before the Feb. 29 trade deadline and adjust accordingly if he doesn’t pan out. I’m sure at least a handful of teams are talking to Richards and his agent, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Anaheim, Montreal and Florida were among those kicking tires. Their GMs — Bob Murray, Marc Bergevin and Dale Tallon — believe in second chances and could see more reward than risk in signing Richards. Or they might not want to touch him with a 10-foot pole and that’s entirely reasonable too.
When it comes to the NHL’s most underrated players, who are the first couple names that come to mind?
BRAUCKMANN: This may come as a surprise but, over the past few seasons, the first name that comes to mind is Cory Schneider. Since the 2013-14 season (when he joined the Devils), he is third in the NHL in save percentage (.924) and second in the NHL in GAA (2.15). The only problem is that wins are hard to come by because the Devils are one of the lowest-scoring teams over that timeframe. He’s one of the main reasons for the Devils’ (somewhat) unexpected success this season.
Another name that comes to mind is Nicklas Backstrom. The story of Backstrom’s career has been flying under the radar because of the attention Alex Ovechkin gets. Backstrom has been a huge key to Ovechkin’s success over the course of his career, and Ovie has been largely complimented by Backstrom’s ability to find him wherever he is on the ice. Backstrom is eighth in the NHL in points (447) and third in assists (328) since the 2009-10 season. He’s a very talented and consistent player who is constantly overshadowed.
FISHER: Two guys still criminally underrated, in my opinion, are Justin Faulk of the Carolina Hurricanes and Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers. The thing they have in common is that they don’t play in hockey hotbeds and therefore fly under the radar a bit in these smaller, non-traditional markets. More people know who Morgan Rielly is because he plays in the Center of the Universe, but Faulk is the far superior defenceman — at least at this stage of their careers. Faulk is enjoying a career year and has blossomed into a fantasy stud, certainly among the top-10 blue-liners and currently in the top five based solely on stats. Not to pick on Rielly, because I’m a big fan of him too, but he’s on pace for nine goals and 40 points. Faulk already has 14 goals and 30 points, on pace for 29 goals and 63 points. I realize there is more to evaluating and ranking defencemen than just points, but if you watch Faulk closely — actually tune in to a couple Carolina games, difficult as that may be — you’ll see that he’s the real deal.
Barkov is becoming a beast too. People are slowly taking notice thanks to Florida’s success this season, but if you asked random fans of other teams to name three Panthers players, I’m not sure Barkov would be among them. Most would say Roberto Luongo, Jaromir Jagr and Aaron Ekblad. Jonathan Huberdeau would get some mentions too. But if you did an anonymous poll within the Panthers’ dressing room, asking players and personnel to name their best player, the results might come back unanimously in favour of Barkov. He would definitely rank among the top three. For those still not overly familiar with the second overall pick from 2013, Barkov is a legitimate first-line centre in just his third season in the league. He’s a big guy at 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds, quite similar — at least in stature — to former Panthers star and fellow Finn, Olli Jokinen, in his prime. Jokinen declined in his later years, but he topped out at 39 goals and 91 points in 2006-07, and Barkov has that kind of potential going forward. He can play a power game but also has a creative side as evidenced by his array of shootout moves, some of those tricks perhaps taught by Finnish teammate Jussi Jokinen. The Panthers have seen enough elite skill in Barkov that they are preparing to sign him to a long-term extension, likely exceeding five years and $30 million. Once that contract is announced, he’ll be a household name, but for now Barkov remains one of the league’s best-kept secrets. The fact he missed 10 games earlier this season with a broken bone in his hand makes Barkov tough to find on the list of scoring leaders, but he’s on the rise there too — tied for 105th, with 11 goals and 23 points in 29 games. More impressively, Barkov is tied for 39th in points-per-game (0.79) ahead of the likes of John Tavares and Sidney Crosby. Barkov is on pace for 27 goals and 57 points, but those totals would prorate to 31 goals and 65 points over a full 82-game season. Like I said, a legit first-line centre.
Remember that time the Flyers signed Ryan Kesler to an offer sheet? Some are starting to wonder whether Kesler will become the first player to get bought out before his new contract even kicks in with the Ducks. How bad is that deal looking right about now? Jakub Voracek’s extension wasn’t looking much better at the end of October, but can Kesler get it going again or is he washed up already?
BRAUCKMANN: First of all, the Ducks made their own bed with this one. Signing a player who’s over 30 to that hefty of a contract will usually bite you. Not to mention, Kesler hasn’t cracked 50 points since the 2010-11 season. His production is extremely disappointing to an offensively challenged Ducks team. They already have a boatload of money tied up in Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, one of whom just scored his first non-empty-net goal of the season.
Unless Kesler starts producing like he did when the Canucks went to the final in 2011, there is absolutely no reason why Anaheim should keep him around. He’s under contract until he’s 36 years old, and he isn’t getting any younger. If they can swing it, they should buy him out.
FISHER: Of course, Kesler turns it up a notch as we’re torching him here. He scored in back-to-back games over the weekend and now has goals against all 30 teams in the league after netting one against his former club, Vancouver, on New Year’s Day. But Kesler still only has six goals and 14 points through 38 games this season, which prorates to 13 goals and 30 points if he plays all 82 games. That’s not worth the $5-million salary he’s currently earning, let alone the $6.875-million cap hit Kesler will command next season and through 2022. The Ducks are definitely going to regret that deal sooner than later — I’m sure they already are — and it would be downright shocking if Kesler outlasted that contract in Anaheim. He’s declining in a hurry, so the odds are against him and in favour of a buyout within the next few seasons unless he gets a second wind. Even if there was an over/under set at 2020, I’d take the under as I don’t think Kesler will last that long at that price-tag. He’ll probably still be in the league into his mid-to-late 30s, if he wants to be, but it’ll be as a role player earning half that if he’s lucky. The Ducks are one of the league’s better teams in terms of cap management, but they wasted money here regardless of Kesler’s intangibles.
Let’s talk some more Flyers and these next few can be rapid-fire answers. Who’s your starting goalie? Or who should it be? From the outside looking in, Michal Neuvirth has been great and Steve Mason has been mediocre. Can we call it a controversy yet?
BRAUCKMANN: I’m a firm believer in riding the hot hand, and that’s really what the Flyers need to do here. I do believe that long-term Mason is still the guy the Flyers are going to want in net. But as of now, Neuvirth has more than earned his opportunity, and with the Flyers teetering on the brink of playoff contention, they need the hot goalie.
FISHER: Way to take the high road, Matt. Granted, your reasoning is solid, but I personally don’t trust Steve Mason dating back to his collapse in Columbus, so looking at Neuvirth’s numbers, I’d be handing him the reins for the next bit to see if he can handle the starter’s workload and maintain that consistency. I realize the Flyers are seven points out of a playoff spot and still have post-season aspirations, so now may not be the time for experimentation, but I’d really like to see rookie head coach Dave Hakstol give Neuvirth that chance. Look what Andrew Hammond did for the Ottawa Senators in the second half of last season. Perhaps Neuvirth could be that guy for Philly.
Once upon a time, in 1986-87, Mike Keenan rolled the dice on an unproven goaltender and that worked out awfully well for the Flyers, with current GM Ron Hextall backstopping them all the way to the Stanley Cup final — losing to the Edmonton Oilers, but winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top netminder over the course of that season. I’m not necessarily suggesting Neuvirth could replicate that Cinderella story, but I do think he gives Philadelphia its best chance to win right now and that should be enough to keep him between the pipes — thus supplanting the incumbent, Mason.
Should Shayne Gostisbehere be getting consideration for the Calder Trophy? Could he come out of nowhere to win rookie of the year or is that award absolutely going to a forward this season?
BRAUCKMANN: Well, it’s very hard to tell. Gostisbehere has only played 21 games this season and he’s already tied for the lead in goals and he’s second in points among rookie defensemen. The fact that he’s played 21 games is not only a strong-suit but also a problem. It’s a small sample size and he still has a long way to go. As I’ve talked about before, he’s been changing the dynamic for the Flyers since he came into the league.
It’s a bit early to be talking about Ghost winning the Calder. Guys like Dylan Larkin, Max Domi, and Panarin are going to make it a chore, but if he keeps going at this pace, you certainly will have to consider it.
FISHER: Totally — with six goals, including three overtime winners, and 14 points, Gostisbehere is on pace for 19 goals and 44 points, which would be more than last season’s top scoring rookie defencemen John Klingberg (11g, 40pts) and Calder winner Aaron Ekblad (12g, 39pts). In fewer games than the latter, no less. If Gostisbehere can keep it going over the remaining 45 games and put up those kind of numbers, he’s got to be a finalist. Had he played all 37 games thus far, at this pace, Gostisbehere would already have 13 goals and 31 points, which would rank him fourth overall in defence scoring behind only Erik Karlsson, Klingberg and Brent Burns. Those totals prorate to 29 goals and 69 points over 82 games, which actually would have led the league last season ahead of Karlsson’s 66 points and Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s 23 goals. But, alas, it is only 21 games as Matt mentioned and we must not get too carried away here. Still, it shows that Gostisbehere has the potential to become one of the league’s elite offensive defencemen in the years to come. It’s also a good sign that the Flyers plan to continue using him on the top power-play unit even with Mark Streit’s return from injury. That speaks volumes about how good Gostisbehere really is, or at least how good he could be.
Speaking of good rookies, Jack Eichel has pulled into a tie with Larkin for the goal-scoring lead among first-year players, with 13, and Connor McDavid is ahead of schedule in his recovery from a broken collarbone, so that Calder competition is sure going to be fun to follow the rest of the way.
Who won this round of Facing Off? Feel free to weigh-in with your opinions in the comments below. We will be checking in periodically to both defend and expand on our initial answers. If you want to see us face-off over a topic, we’re open to suggestions as well.