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.
Another week, another theme. It’s become a bit of a trend lately.
First, it was “next man up” when Andrew Bensch stepped down.
Then, it was “total team effort” because of the overwhelming interest to fill that void.
Now, we’re introducing “Third Man In” — the newest and coolest feature to hit Facing Off.
The stick tap goes to Matt Pryor for passing along this all-star suggestion, which essentially summons a third opinion on team-specific topics from a writer who covers that particular club. At times, we’ll tag in somebody as a tiebreaker, and in other instances, we’ll seek out reassurance that we have a clue what we’re talking about here — or, conversely, to tell us to get a clue. Whatever the case, we just want our “Third Man In” to tell it like it is — like they see it, through a more watchful eye.
Be it short and sweet or long and punchy, don’t sugarcoat it — lay it on us. If we’re out to lunch, feed us our lunch. You get the drift.
This will allow us to work in more voices, more personalities, but we’ll still be picking our spots and trying not to overdo it. We’ll test it out on a few topics this week — give ya’ll a taste of what’s to come — and then take it from there. Some weeks, the “Third Man In” may be necessary for several topics, and others weeks, it may not be needed at all.
Moving along, I’d like to welcome Félix Sicard back into the fold. He’s no stranger to Facing Off, previously filling in for a month-long stint during the off-season, but now Félix gets to join me for some actual hockey talk — instead of hypotheticals — this time around.
Games are being played, teams are winning and losing, and Connor McDavid has gone down to injury. That’s a huge loss not only to the Edmonton Oilers, but to Facing Off, with McDavid having been a hot topic here from Day 1.
This is our 15th edition and McDavid has earned at least a mention — if not a dedicated topic — in 10 of the first 14. Now he’s going to be out “months” with a broken clavicle (collarbone), so I just couldn’t resist . . .
Last McDavid topic for a while, but can he still win the Calder Trophy? Do the Oilers have any hope of the playoffs without him?
FISHER: Anything is possible, but McDavid’s chances at the Calder and Edmonton’s chances at the playoffs both took a serious hit here — pun intended. The Oilers aren’t going to rush him back, so I’m expecting his return date to be closer to Valentine’s Day than Boxing Day. McDavid really poured it on after recovering from a broken hand last season to challenge for the OHL scoring title, but this is the NHL and he’s going to have a ton of ground to make up. Math has never been my forte, but say McDavid misses 35 games and returns on Jan. 21 against Dallas — that’s my ballpark guess, albeit a best-case scenario — you can assume the rookie scoring leaders will be just north of 35 points. I can’t see Artemi Panarin, Max Domi or anybody else topping 45 points by that date. McDavid will still be stuck on 12 points, so that would give them a sizeable lead — perhaps insurmountable at 25 to 30 points. Edmonton would have played 48 games by then, with 34 remaining. McDavid was cruising along at a point-per-game clip before getting hurt midway through his 13th game. At that pace, giving him 34 more points, McDavid would finish the season with 46 points. That won’t win him the Calder, not with this season’s impressive crop of rookies. I expect the winner to be a forward and to post a mid-60s point total similar to Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Stone and Filip Forsberg last season. I do think McDavid would have been a slam dunk with 70-plus had he not went down to injury. Now for McDavid to reach 65 points, if he returned on Jan. 21, he’d have to produce nearly two points per game (1.9). He’s a special, generational talent, but that seems impossible for anybody. If the trophy goes to the leading point-getter — as is often the case — then McDavid’s chances are slim to none. But what if he produces 1.5 points per game upon returning, to finish with roughly 63 points? Or even 1.25 for 55 points — the latter seems more realistic once he gets up to speed again, considering he was getting better by the game. Then does the league, or the voters, engrave McDavid’s name into the Calder despite missing 43 per cent of the season and coming about 10 points short of the rookie scoring leader — say fourth overall in that race? I would hope so. If McDavid can continue to score at (or above) a point-per-game — especially if he can get to 50-plus — then I still think he deserves the Calder unless somebody else exceeds 70 points.
As for the Oilers and the playoffs, those odds are even more remote. Peter Chiarelli and Todd McLellan are putting on a brave face in the fallout of McDavid’s injury, but you won’t find too many believers even within the fan base — let alone outside the organization. Most are sticking a fork in the Oilers, writing this off as yet another lost season with the expectation that their playoff drought will reach a decade this coming spring. The optimists, who are few and far between, will point to Jordan Eberle’s return and Leon Draisaitl’s emergence, but neither of them are McDavid. He was already Edmonton’s best, or most dangerous player, so this blow hurts the Oilers to their core. McDavid’s replacement for the remainder of the Philadelphia game — which the Oilers rallied to win — was Anton Lander, a player who was still searching for his first point in his 13th game. Reality is, Edmonton doesn’t have the forward depth to overcome McDavid’s loss, not to mention the defence remains in shambles and the goaltending has been better but still shaky at times too. This team is finally trending in the right direction and McDavid is definitely the real deal, but I just can’t envision the Oilers getting into the playoff picture this season. I’ve tried all week, but I can’t. It’s not happening. Also not happening — a McDavid topic for the foreseeable future, or even an Oilers-related topic next week. I promise.
Messier: "Connor. Are you there?"
McDavid: "No, I'm at the @#$%^&* hospital."
— Terry Jones (@byterryjones) November 4, 2015
Edmonton's season is over thanks to the Connor McDavid injury: https://t.co/NzmFtOdL28
— Ryan Kennedy (@THNRyanKennedy) November 4, 2015
SICARD: Of course not! He’s going to be out for months while some fantastic rookies like Jack Eichel, Max Domi, etc., will get all of the limelight. Through no fault of his own, I think that it’s fair to say that we’ve seen the very last of Connor McDavid in the Calder Race. I was high on Edmonton before the season began, and I feel like I was partially justified with some of what I’ve seen from them. Their top two lines, with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and McDavid down the middle, were legitimately good. But, as has been the case in Edmonton for the last decade, their blue-line remains an abomination. Until that changes, the Oilers won’t even get a sniff of the playoffs. And at this point, it might be time to trade one of Eberle or Nail Yakupov to get a defenseman to start building up that defence. The seeds of progress are being sown in Edmonton, but sadly, you’re not worth a damn thing in the National Hockey League unless you have a blue-line of note. Next topic.
Third Man In
SHANE SANDER (covering the Oilers for THW since February 2014): Can McDavid still win the Calder Trophy? No. Stranger things have happened but one thing we know about the Calder Trophy winners over the past decade, none of them missed significant time like McDavid is going to. Best-case scenario, he’s out just two months that means he’d miss 26 games before returning in early January. It doesn’t seem as if the Oilers’ “Calder Trophy Curse” is going to end any time soon. Even if McDavid did average a point-per-game, you can’t discredit the seasons Panarin, Domi, Anthony Duclair, Jared McCann and Jack Eichel are having. This is a strong rookie class and even with McDavid’s superpowers, that’ll be a hard race to make up ground on. The best chance McDavid has of winning the Calder is if he contributes at over a point-per-game and the rest of the class starts to slow down. That said, aren’t we all waiting for Eichel to break out in a major way offensively? The second overall pick in the 2015 draft has four goals in 12 games with Buffalo. This is Eichel’s opportunity to reclaim some of that hype that’s been dwindling with his slow start to the season offensively.
Do the Oilers have any hope of the playoffs without McDavid? Their chances don’t change much. One player does not make a team. That said, the Oilers were a long-shot to clinch a playoff birth in many circles, so that shouldn’t change. Edmonton is right where it’s been predicted to be by most pundits — too good not to be bad, too bad not to be good. The Oilers are 11th in the Western Conference right now and six points back of the wild-card spot. Give these guys some credit — Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov are in the top 60 for NHL scoring, along with McDavid. Four Oilers in the top 60, when was the last time that happened? Seriously, when was the last time that happened? Someone look this up! The goaltending is a lot better and, yes, peaks and valleys. Anders Nilsson and Cam Talbot are going to have some shaky starts from time to time, but you know who else has shaky starts? Henrik Lundqvist, Carey Price and Jonathan Quick! Leon Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse came up and gave this team what it was missing and are probably here for the year, let’s be honest. With or without McDavid, this team is improved and going to be what it is this season — a middling team that won’t exactly make the playoffs but isn’t terrible enough to have basement-dweller odds to win the Auston Matthews’ draft lottery.
The Leafs are tied for last place in the overall standings, but Toronto’s mainstream media keeps telling us they are making strides under Mike Babcock. Are you buying it from the outside looking in? Can they eventually win with this core or do you expect radical roster changes between now and the trade deadline?
FISHER: First off, Mike Babcock could sell ice to an Eskimo. People pick up what he’s putting down based on his past accomplishments. All the guy has done is win throughout his career . . . until now, that is. Babcock is a messiah figure there in the Big Smoke — or is that Lou Lamoriello, who’s the messiah? — but so far he’s been unable to lead his troops to water nor wins. Yet, the headlines and tweets coming out of Toronto are reminiscent of when Craig MacTavish preached to the Edmonton media that the Oilers were “visually better” despite being in last place (again). Babcock’s words and the pens (or keyboards) in Toronto seem to carry more weight than MacTavish’s feeble claims, but the reality remains that the NHL is a business of winning and the Leafs haven’t done much of that this season. Granted, everybody knew it would be a work in progress and that Babcock wasn’t going to fix this mess overnight — nor will Lamoriello — but make no mistake, this is still a mess and arguably a worse mess than last season with Phil Kessel in the fold. The return for that franchise player was mediocre at best and certainly isn’t helping Toronto in any way, shape or form this season. Jonathan Bernier isn’t making a very strong case for himself as the future in net, so the Leafs might have to target a goalie in their next wave of trades. And you can bet your bottom dollar that tidal wave is coming. Lamoriello really hasn’t put his stamp on this roster yet and a tsunami is going to hit Toronto — for better or worse — when he does. Lamoriello won on the back of Martin Brodeur in New Jersey and acquired another franchise goalie in Cory Schneider before jumping ship, so that might be his first major move for Toronto. At this rate, with the current group appearing to be a lost cause, Lamoriello is likely working the phones and laying the groundwork as I type this. I’d say he’s mass-sending emails and spamming his peers with texts, but Lou’s as old school as it gets. Rumour has it, he’s got a rotary dial phone in his office at the Air Canada Centre. All kidding aside, don’t be surprised if Toronto upgrades its goaltending between now and July 1. The Leafs will be loading up on draft picks at the trade deadline from their one-and-done free-agent signings this past summer, but Lamoriello will want to land a big fish or two as well. Here’s a thought, with Calgary also struggling and Dougie Hamilton not exactly fitting in there so far, would the Flames — already deep on defence — consider trading Hamilton and a top goaltending prospect (Joni Ortio, Jon Gillies or Mason McDonald) to Toronto for James van Riemsdyk and Jonathan Bernier? The Leafs could then turn around and trade Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri for a new Philadelphia forward with size — one of Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier or Brayden Schenn. Imagine the other Schenn in Toronto, that would have to work out better than Luke . . . or not? Failing that, the Leafs could make an all-in pitch for Anaheim’s John Gibson or Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, heck maybe even Ben Bishop. Your thoughts?
Somehow the Leafs are on pace for 23 fewer points than last season's nightmare… which won't continue.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) November 4, 2015
SICARD: Please, please, PLEASE pump the brakes on Toronto. I get it — it’s one of the biggest media markets in the league. But come on, the Leafs don’t need to make any radical changes this season. That’s not their modus operandi, as you can see with Babcock’s eight-year contract. Yes, they are making strides. They’ve improved their overall structure, which has been reflected in their improved possession rating. There’s still miles and miles to go, but signs of progress are there, however small they may be. Speaking of the trade deadline, I’d imagine they’ll do something similar to last year, where they flipped some veterans and turned them into draft picks. It’s actually a really solid strategy, especially for a team that’s trying to stockpile future assets. Can they win with this core? First off, who the hell is their core? Kadri-Gardiner-Rielly-Marner-Nylander? It’s a nice start, but they’re still a few lottery picks (which they will surely get) away from even having a true core to build around. Stay tuned.
Third Man In
JAMES TANNER (covering the Leafs for THW since March 2014): The Leafs aren’t even trying to win with whatever their “core” currently is. They are looking for a high draft pick and for the team to adopt to Babcock’s aggressive system. The only current roster players who will survive the rebuild are Morgan Rielly, Gardiner and Kadri. Everyone else is trade-bait. Now, that doesn’t mean they’ll trade 85 per cent of their roster this season, just that over the next 2-3 years there will be near total turnover. The Leafs certainly don’t deserve to be in last place, although it’s good for them that they are. The team is definitely outperforming its record, there is no question about that. People talk constantly about how they’re “like an expansion team”, yet that has more to do with Toronto not appreciating/understanding what they have in players like Bernier, Gardiner and Kadri. As it stands right now, the Leafs will have to make moves to get intentionally worse if they want to secure a high draft pick because they are currently too good of a team to occupy the basement. But they will not be trading for a goalie. It makes no sense. They do not want to become better this year and goalies are difficult, if not impossible, to forecast. If a young goalie prospect arrives in a trade package I wouldn’t be shocked, but to trade for a supposed improvement on Bernier? A) Good luck with that and B) It’s a horrible idea. Finally, after reading your answers, I just want to say that none of the players Larry mentioned from Philly are on the same level as Kadri who is the league’s far and away champion of being underrated. Neither Kadri nor Gardiner are going anywhere.
Advanced statistics pointed to Calgary becoming this season’s Colorado (plummeting in the standings), but are you surprised by the Flames’ struggles? Do you think they can get back into the playoff race or are they going to stay in the running for Auston Matthews?
FISHER: Yes, I’m surprised, but I do think they are underachieving to some extent, so I see the Flames getting back into the middle of the pack — likely missing the playoffs but also missing out on a top-five pick in 2016. Calgary looked like a playoff team again in Saturday’s blowout win over a (tired) Penguins team — and Karri Ramo has even looked like a competent goaltender again since returning from his banishment to the minors. But let’s not get too carried away with that glass half-full mentality. The Flames overachieved last season, nobody can argue that. The facts are the facts, and the advanced stats make it out to be even alarming. The Flames got lucky, for lack of a better term — just like the Avs did the previous season. But, to me, the Flames came into this season with a much improved roster on paper after acquiring Dougie Hamilton for a bag of peanuts (I mean three draft picks) and also signing Michael Frolik. It was addition without subtraction, so that had to bode well. Calgary had got consistent above-average goaltending last season with that tandem returning, and Bob Hartley could do no wrong en route to winning coach of the year honours. I was convinced this was a team on the rise — especially with Hamilton in the fold, and to a lesser extent Frolik — and I was quite confident in ranking the Flames sixth in my pre-season predictions for the Western Conference standings. Now, it seems, they’ll be fortunate to finish sixth in the Pacific Division, let alone the conference. Most the finger-pointing is being directed at the goaltenders, who were below-average out of the gate, but perhaps the horseshoe just fell out of the Saddledome — right out of Brian Burke’s backside. It’s been humbling for Flames fans too, no longer high on their horse and hushed as if a cat got their tongue the way MacTavish got that of their mascot Harvey the Hound way back when. I’m sure Hamilton will hit his stride and Calgary will string together some wins, getting closer to .500 by Christmas, but — unlike the Anaheim Ducks — I don’t think the Flames have enough firepower to rally for a playoff berth. Nor do I think Matthews will be Alberta bound in June, to the Flames or the Oilers.
SICARD: Sure their roster was definitely improved over the summer, as Larry pointed out. But look, I hate to break it to everyone, but this team is horribly coached — no two ways about it. Bob Hartley is a fiery guy and a “good hockey man”, but his system leads to the Flames being consistently outshot every game. I have faith that their roster can do well under the right coach, but there’s no way that they can have any sort of long-term success under Hartley’s watch, unless he radically changes his systems.
Third Man In
RYAN PIKE (covering the Flames for THW since 2010): The challenge for the Flames progressing is that they likely need to transition from a punch-counterpunch system — one that they excelled at last season — towards more of a puck possession game now that their young players are becoming more of a focal point on their club. When Bob Hartley arrived in 2012-13, it made complete sense for an older, relatively slow, relatively unskilled Flames club to let the game come to them. Now that players like Johnny Gaudreau, T.J. Brodie, Dougie Hamilton, Sam Bennett and Sean Monahan are becoming prominent parts of the team, it doesn’t make sense to have them playing in a system where they sit back and let the other team dictate the pace of their games. Given how reliant the Flames were on having an ultra-high shooting percentage and getting the bounces, it’s not overly surprising that the Flames have struggled early on — perhaps that they’ve struggled this much. It’s possible that they can adjust and get back into the playoff race, but only because the Pacific Division is really weak this season.
David Krejci is off to a hot start, do you expect him to be a top-10 scorer this season? Top 20?
FISHER: I can’t see it, but he’s been hanging around the very top through 10 to 15 games — granted, we’re not even a fifth of the way through the season yet. Krejci was the league’s third star for October, behind only the reigning Art Ross and Hart Trophy winners in Jamie Benn and Carey Price, who picked up where they left off. Krejci has always been a skilled, productive offensive player, but in that 60-point range rather than the 80-plus he was on pace for. The scoring race has a few strange names near the top to start this season, but I assume the likes of Krejci and Blake Wheeler will drop out of the top 10 over the next 10 to 15 games. I see those guys finishing in the top 40, possibly the top 30, but top 20 is pushing it. Give Krejci his due for an impressive opening act, but I don’t think it’s sustainable over 82 games — especially not with Boston’s mediocre supporting cast. Now watch him prove me wrong.
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) November 2, 2015
SICARD: Look, I’m a Habs fan, and I’m not afraid to admit it, especially as they sit atop the Eastern Conference. So quite, frankly, I don’t care how many points David Krejci ends up with. I’m sure he’ll get a decent amount, but it’s not like that team is going anywhere. Boston has made some head-scratching moves in the past few months, and it looks like their Cup window is effectively shut. Next question.
Which forward tandem would you rather build around: Benn-Seguin, Toews-Kane, Crosby-Malkin, Sedin twins, McDavid-Hall, other?
FISHER: This is a tough one, and you really can’t go wrong with any of them, but I’d still take Crosby-Malkin despite their slow starts. McDavid-Hall would be second for me based on pure potential, followed by Toews-Kane for their Cup rings and experience, Benn-Seguin for tearing it up last season and carrying over to this season and, lastly, the Sedins, who are no slouches and obviously have the best chemistry of any pairing in the league because of their twin instincts. Of course, there are notable ommissions such as Félix’s boys — Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry — but it’s even harder to go to bat for them than Crosby and Malkin so far this season. Ovechkin-Backstrom used to be in the conversation, but now it’s Ovechkin-Kuznetsov, a dangerous Russian combination, but still no Crosby-Malkin as far as I’m concerned. This is the week Sid breaks out for 10-plus points (in three games), you just wait and see — well, let’s play it safe and say eight. Remember, you heard it here first. By the time he’s done torching the Devils on Saturday, you’ll be back on the Crosby-Malkin bandwagon too!
SICARD: Now this, THIS, is a fun question. I’d say if I’m building a franchise to be competitive for the next decade, I’d go McDavid-Hall. McDavid is the latest “golden boy” to enter the NHL, and he’ll be a player to watch for the next 15 or so years. Taylor Hall is no slouch though. He’s got some blazing speed down the wing, along with a sweet set of hands. That being said, if my goal is to win a Cup within the next three years, the only acceptable answer is Crosby-Malkin. I don’t care what anyone says, Sidney Crosby remains the best player in the league — early season struggles be damned. No player has his combination of strength, skill, speed and Ph.D-level hockey sense. Then you have Evgeni Malkin who, at varying points in his career, has been considered the second best player in the NHL. His size and uncanny ability to make something out of nothing easily vault him into the top five players today. People will criticize that tandem for not getting it done in years past, but those critics should just shut up already. Pittsburgh’s management hasn’t been able to surround the two stars with a decent supporting cast until just this season, while the Pens have had some of the worst injury luck ever. Give me Crosby-Malkin any day.
This one is for Félix only . . . we talked a lot about Anaheim in last week’s Facing Off — you would have been the perfect Third Man In — but better late than never. What’s wrong with your Ducks? Why the awful start and why keep Bruce Boudreau as bench boss? Are they dead in the water, even more so than the Oilers?
SICARD: Well they’ve just rattled off a few wins in a row here, and they’ve actually played some extremely solid hockey in the process. Boudreau’s job is safe, for now — general manager Bob Murray came out and said he wasn’t looking to make any rash changes because of a poor stretch. And he was absolutely right — Boudreau has been nothing but successful since arriving in Anaheim, and to fire him for a bad start would be foolish. However, there were some real issues in the Ducks’ game to start the season, enough to lead me to believe that there was legitimate cause for concern. They adopted a passive defensive style, allowing the opposition to enter their zone at will. It failed miserably, and to compound that, Anaheim couldn’t score to save their lives. Some adjustments have been made, you see a more aggressive scheme in the neutral and defensive zones, which is leading to cleaner breakouts and, consequently, more offense. After having his appendix removed, Ryan Getzlaf seems to have woken up, playing with a rage that we haven’t seen from him in a while. So to answer your question, no, the Ducks are far from being dead in the water. They have a tough road ahead of them, but it looks like they’ll be able to pull it off.
About Those Oilers . . .
EDITOR’S NOTE: Our resident THW rulebreaker caught wind of the McDavid topic and we couldn’t hold him back. Since there’s no such thing as a Fourth Man In, I decided to give him this week’s closing comments.
JAMES TANNER: McDavid’s injury is a huge blow, but I believe that had the Oilers not won this year’s lottery, they would have been a playoff team this season regardless. Even with McDavid gone, how many teams can match the talent of Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, Yakupov, Pouliot? Two? Three? The Oilers sucked for the last several years because they had below average goaltending and defense. Sekera-Nurse-Klefbom-Schultz-Reinhart gives them a well-above average group. Talbot is also a very good goalie and miles ahead of anything they had. Oh, and the Pacific Division is the worst in the NHL. They will make the playoffs without worry. Sorry, but I could not possibly care less about the Calder Trophy.
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.
Félix Sicard has been covering the Anaheim Ducks for THW since September 2014.