Facing Off is a weekly column, featuring Larry Fisher and Andrew Bensch debating five of hockey’s hottest topics each and every Monday. Except this Monday, as Félix Sicard wraps up his month-long stint in place of Andrew, who was enjoying a pre-season vacation. 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 below.
Man, that month flew by. It seems like only yesterday Félix was debuting with Facing Off, but here we are bidding farewell already. As much as we’ll miss him, that means the season is getting closer — we’re exactly a month away now, 30 days and counting down until the puck drops for real on Oct. 7.
Félix did a bang-up job filling in for Andrew and this likely won’t be the last you’ll see (or read) of him. We’ll keep him on deck as our pinch-hitter in case Andrew or I need a breather at some point in the season.
Speaking of goodbyes, Rich Peverley called it a career this week after a year-long comeback bid from that scary collapse in March 2014. Doctors diagnosed him with an irregular heartbeat and, despite only being 33 years old, retirement was probably the right decision for Peverley. He’s sticking with the Dallas Stars in a player development role.
That was one of the bigger hockey stories of the past week, a bit anticlimactic as general managers appear to be soaking up the last bit of summer through the Labour Day long weekend. I had assumed business would pick up as soon as the calendar flipped to September, but Cody Franson and company are still missing in action. Rookie camps and prospect tournaments get underway this week, so that should produce some highlights and give us more positive stuff to talk about.
For now, only the usual suspects remain in the news — from Patrick Kane’s subpoenaed witnesses to Slava Voynov’s potential deportation — but I do expect a flurry of activity in the next few weeks. Signings of more magnitude than Dan Cleary re-upping with the Red Wings, professional tryouts aplenty — Scottie Upshall to St. Louis, Jonas Gustavsson to Boston are the latest with a chance of landing contracts — and perhaps even a blockbuster trade or two. The Chicago Blackhawks still need to clear some cap space, though a Kane suspension may alleviate that issue temporarily. The Tampa Bay Lightning might be in the market for a temporary backup goaltender, with Andrei Vasilevskiy sidelined for a couple months following a blood-clot surgery. Those are situations to keep tabs on, and I’m still anticipating pre-season extensions for Steven Stamkos and some of the other marquee names from that 2016 free-agent class.
One of the stranger stories from last week came out of the WHL, where defence prospect Ryan Pilon — drafted by the New York Islanders in June — decided to “step away from the game” on the eve of training camp with the Brandon Wheat Kings. This isn’t another case of a high-profile player demanding a trade — like OHL third overall pick Ryan McLeod, who refused to report to the Flint Firebirds and has since been dealt to the Mississauga Steelheads for a boatload of future draft choices (eight of them). Pilon seemingly had everything going for him in Brandon as a top-pairing partner of Philadelphia first-rounder Ivan Provorov, and with the Wheat Kings considered title contenders, if not favourites for the upcoming season. Yet, Pilon has reportedly “lost his passion to play hockey”, which is a shame because the kid has all the talent in the world. His skill-set actually reminds me a bit of Brent Seabrook in his junior days, but perhaps this explains why Pilon fell to the fifth round. Here’s hoping he rediscovers his passion before it’s too late, or finds success in his non-hockey endeavours going forward.
Enough with the depressing headlines. Doom and gloom is no way to spend Félix’s last week with Facing Off. I wanted to give him a fun send-off, so we’re tackling All-Canadian topics ranging from playoff teams to Stanley Cup champions to the Battle of Alberta.
How many (and which) Canadian teams make the playoffs this season?
SICARD: Canada’s NHL teams did surprisingly well last year, with Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Montreal and Ottawa all making the playoffs. This season won’t be as kind to the “Great White North”. The Flames are due for a tough regression, the Oilers aren’t quite there yet, and the Canucks are doing everything they can to be mediocre. That leaves us with the Canadiens, Senators and Jets as the three Canadian standard-bearers next spring. All three have pieces to like (which I’ll get into later), which would make it a real shock for any of them to miss the playoffs.
FISHER: I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I’m going to say only two — Montreal in the East and Calgary in the West. That would be down from five last season — Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Ottawa — but that seemed overly high. The stars really aligned for some of those teams. Vancouver bounced back from a brutal year under John Tortorella to overachieve under rookie coach Willie Desjardins, but the Canucks are trending down in a hurry, at least on paper, and Jim Benning’s head-scratching off-season hasn’t instilled any confidence for me. Ottawa rode Andrew Hammond’s hot hand — a very improbable hot hand — to a stunning second-half surge that allowed the Senators to sneak into the post-season, but a repeat of those heroics, by Hammond or the team in general, seems unlikely. Winnipeg will be a bubble team in the West again, but my predictions have the Jets on the outside looking in. I’ll tweak those predictions as training camps get going, but as of today, my outlook on Winnipeg’s playoff chances hasn’t changed much. If there were a third Canadian team in the 2016 playoffs, it might actually be Edmonton. If the Oilers get off to a good start under Todd McLellan, they could certainly be in the mix. Toronto is a lost cause for the next couple years, with the Maple Leafs finally embracing a long overdue rebuild. Quebec City might make the playoffs before Toronto . . . kidding, that’s just mean. Besides, I’m still not convinced the Nordiques will be returning to the league at the end of this expansion process.
Flames or Oilers, who wins the Battle of Alberta this season?
SICARD: Conventional logic would say that the Flames will win the fabled Battle of Alberta, but no face-off was ever won the easy way. People are in love with Calgary right now, and perhaps justifiably so with the off-season moves that they’ve made. Unfortunately, they play a brand of hockey that isn’t sustainable, giving up a truck-load of shot attempts and scoring chances per game. They’re due to fall off a cliff, while the Oilers seem primed to at least challenge for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Advantage Edmonton.
FISHER: It pains me to say this, but the Flames will prevail again. It’ll be close, an actual battle instead of a cakewalk for Calgary like in recent years. The Flames have owned the Oilers over the last decade and now hold the upper-hand in the all-time series at 106-91-19-8 over 224 regular-season games. The Oilers haven’t outright won a Battle of Alberta since before the lockout. In fact, you have to go all the way back to the turn of the century and the 2000-01 season for an Edmonton victory. Since then, Calgary has won the season series nine times and tied the other four — winning 51 games and only losing 24. That’s got to be depressing if you’re an Oilers fan, and even more depressing if you’ve been betting cases of beers with your Calgary buddies all these years — double or nothing, yikes. It was a bit shocking to see the Oilers even lost the BOA in 2005-06, the year Chris Pronger took Edmonton all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. But, sure enough, the Flames won five of eight regular-season meetings. Given the Flames were a playoff team last season and the Oilers were bad enough to win the draft lottery (again), I just don’t see Calgary relinquishing the BOA title this season. Connor McDavid will undoubtedly give Edmonton fans renewed hope in this one-sided rivalry, but Dougie Hamilton will keep the Flames one step ahead, at least for this season. With both teams improving on paper, the Battle of Alberta should be more entertaining and could soon be reminiscent of the good ol’ days when the Oilers and Flames were slugging it out in the ’80s. A return to the wild west, yeehaw!
How long will it take for the Edmonton Oilers to win the Stanley Cup?
SICARD: That’s an intriguing question, but history does provide us with a road-map to the correct answer. The Pittsburgh Penguins drafted the first pillar of their rebuild in 2004 with Evgeni Malkin, but they accelerated that prospect by lucking out into Sidney Crosby the following year. Assuming Connor McDavid’s career arc is anywhere close to Crosby’s and one of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Taylor Hall provide that Malkin-esque second pillar, the Oilers could very feasibly win the Cup five seasons from now. They’re still a few important pieces away, but Cam Talbot could be the Marc-Andre Fleury in this equation. It took the Penguins roughly five to six years of rebuilding to get a Cup, so why couldn’t the Oilers do the same? Their cupboard is better stocked with talent than Pittsburgh’s was, so it’s not outlandish to think it’ll take only five years.
FISHER: I’ll undercut Félix again and predict four years. I envision the Oilers hoisting hockey’s Holy Grail in 2019. It won’t happen overnight, but it could happen sooner than later. I see Edmonton making substantial strides this season, playing meaningful hockey games well past Christmas and potentially into April for a change, but ultimately falling short by a handful of points. Next season, upon moving into their new rink, I see the Oilers getting into the playoffs and making a little noise, maybe winning a round or two. In three years time, anything is possible, especially if Edmonton can achieve that all-important playoff experience this season and/or next. By the fourth year, which will be the 2018-19 season, I see absolutely no reason why Edmonton can’t be the team to beat come then. The Oilers have already been rebuilding for five or six years — or more, missing the post-season for nine straight years — so they might be ahead of the curve from that Pittsburgh model that Félix presented. Ron MacLean predicted two to four years, depending on his wine intake. I can relate to that outlook, even if I’m more of a beer drinker. Give me a few bottles of Kronenbourg 1664 Blanc — make it a half-dozen — and I may end up ranting and raving about the Oilers’ chances of sipping from Lord Stanley’s mug in 2016. Lose the beer goggles, and I’ll stick with my 2019 prediction.
How long will it take for the Toronto Maple Leafs to win the Stanley Cup?
SICARD: The Oilers haven’t been anywhere near the word “watchable” in almost a decade, and they’re just now starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel. The Leafs have the chance to be even worse than some of those bad Oilers squads this season with a roster that’s clearly devoid of any high-end talent. They made some nice moves on the fringes, such as getting a guy like P.A Parenteau on a team-friendly deal. Those kinds of moves are great to supplement already-existing talent, something the Leafs just don’t have. However, Leafs fans should have a lot of hope, as unlike in Edmonton, Brendan Shanahan and Mike Babcock seem to have a clear vision of how to get this team back to relevancy the right way. They’ve committed to a long-term rebuild, as evidenced by Babcock’s gargantuan eight-year contract. To boot, they’ve shown that they’re on board with the analytics movement by hiring numbers-maven Kyle Dubas last summer, effectively dragging themselves out of the stone age. That’s all well and good, but the biggest key to Cup contention is a true franchise player (or three, if you’re the Blackhawks). The Leafs will have to be really bad to get that kind of player on their team, which makes me believe that they won’t win a Cup until Babcock’s eighth year at the earliest.
FISHER: At least a decade. Seriously. I’ll be a silver fox by the time that parade happens. Granted, I’ve already got a bit of salt-and-pepper going on at age 30, so maybe the Maple Leafs’ window to win will sneak up on me with Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock calling the shots. They’ve got the right people in place for those off-ice roles — that is indisputable based on their respective track records — but the on-ice talent and prospect pool leave plenty to be desired. Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen is a promising start up front, and Morgan Rielly is already a stud on the back end, but there are a lot of missing pieces to that future puzzle. Pieces that will need to be drafted and developed — and not rushed — over the next few years. Even then, those youngsters will have to go through the growing pains of learning how to win and that’ll take more time. Patience is a virtue not really known to Toronto, so it’ll be interesting to see how long this “full rebuild” actually lasts. If they stay the course and do it right, maybe Félix proves prophetic eight years from now. But nobody will remember this edition of Facing Off by then. I’m fairly confident I’ll be in my forties before the Cup comes to Toronto and, if I’m not completely grey, I can assure you that Babcock’s hairline will be resembling Scotty Bowman’s. Yes, he’ll be balding, but probably still manning the Buds’ bench.
Which Canadian team will be next to win the Stanley Cup?
SICARD: The Winnipeg Jets are an extremely well built team. They have one of the most complete rosters in the league, and their goaltending nightmares will soon be over once the highly-touted Connor Hellebuyck makes the leap to the NHL. Unfortunately for Winnipeg, they play in the cut-throat Central Division, which hurts their chances quite a bit. The Canadian team that can most realistically win a Cup next is the Montreal Canadiens. They’re deep on defense with P.K Subban leading a group that includes Andrei Markov, Jeff Petry and Nathan Beaulieu. They have the best goalie in the world in net with Carey Price, and their forward group is dotted with talents like Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher and Lars Eller. They’ll be a favorite to win the Cup once they figure out how to score on the power play and play a better possession game, something that might not happen until head coach Michel Therrien is out of the picture. Regardless, they are unquestionably in the best position to win a Cup out of all the Canadian teams.
FISHER: Maybe I’m drinking too much of that McDavid Kool-Aid, but I’m going with Edmonton here too and reiterating that it’ll happen before 2020. I know Félix is from Montreal and has a soft spot for his hometown Habs, but I just don’t see Montreal getting over that hump. Not unless Carey Price starts scoring more goals. He just hasn’t been getting it done offensively. In all seriousness, a team with David Desharnais and Tomas Plekanec down the middle isn’t winning any time soon — and Alex Galchenyuk isn’t going to put the Canadiens over the top in his prime either. Félix led with the Jets before talking himself out of that silly notion. Sure the division is daunting, but as deep as Winnipeg should be in a few seasons — thanks to another stellar haul at this year’s draft — I just don’t think the Jets have enough star power to be considered Cup contenders, now or in the immediate future. Nikolaj Ehlers could have a Johnny Gaudreau-type rookie season this year, but neither of those guys are going to be driving forces behind a championship. Calgary is closer than Winnipeg as far as I’m concerned, but I think the Flames are going to run into the same problem they did back when I was in diapers. The Oilers are going to be just a wee-bit better (again) and Edmonton will emerge as the City of Champions.
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.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.