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.
Don’t look now, but the Edmonton Oilers are only three points out of a playoff spot — and on a three-game winning streak.
They must have read last week’s Facing Off with Marcy Di Michele and took it to heart as added motivation to avoid drafting Auston Matthews. Winners of four of their last five, the Oilers are no longer in last place — in fact, they have climbed all the way up to 26th out of 30 teams heading into tonight’s action.
Oilers three points out of a playoff spot. WHAT A TIME TO BE ALIVE!
— Dustin Nielson (@nielsonTSN1260) December 7, 2015
That probably speaks more to how weak the Pacific Division has been this season, but Oilers fans are pumped just to be able to say the word “playoffs” again.
Now, apparently last week was Oilers’ overkill — albeit intentionally — and one of my loyal readers called me out for too much Edmonton content in a league-wide column. So we’ll try to leave them alone this week despite their recent run of success — keyword, try.
Welcome back Dan Mount, making his third appearance in Facing Off as part of our regular four-man rotation that also includes Félix Sicard, Andrew Forbes and Sebastian Hedley-Noble. It’s a real good crew, with everybody offering their own sense of humour and style. So take it away, Dan . . .
Patrick Kane’s points streak is off the charts — reaching 22 games, the longest ever for an American-born player and a Blackhawks franchise record — especially considering what he was dealing with off the ice. Through 25 games, Kane was on pace for 125 points. Is that realistic in this low-scoring age? Do you see him leading the league at season’s end? And with what point total? Can we already declare Kane the best American of all-time?
MOUNT: Kane is pretty much on his way to being the greatest American player ever. I remember there weren’t that many good American players. Joe Mullen held the record for most points for an American for a number of years before Brett Hull, Mike Modano, Jeremy Roenick and Phil Housley surpassed him. Those players helped usher in an era where American players can be star players in the NHL. That period in the ’90s helped Americans like Kane pick up a stick and try his hand at the game. Kane still has a lot of time and has plenty of skill that he can easily top Hull and Modano. Kane is also motivated and wants to take out his frustrations on opposing defenses. He seems to be focusing on hockey after his brush with the law. He could easily top the 100-plus point mark this season.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) December 7, 2015
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) December 1, 2015
FISHER: What Dan said, basically. I can’t say I disagree with much of anything, and I’ll admit I’m becoming more and more of a Kane fan these days. His perseverance is almost more impressive than his statistics this season, having to endure and overcome those seemingly bogus rape accusations. I know Kane might not be little Mr. Innocent either, but he’s been cleared of any wrongdoing by law enforcement and many of our media peers owe the man an apology for practically convicting him in public perception. The only thing Kane’s been guilty of this season is leaving jocks in the rafters and tormenting goaltenders. Right now, Patty Kane is the best player in the league. And, realistically, he has been since returning from his broken collarbone — well ahead of schedule — to start last season’s playoffs. That is a revelation from me, because not that long ago in Facing Off, I was still proclaiming Sidney Crosby as the league’s best player. Not anymore. That title belongs to Kane, and — providing his focus stays on hockey and he keeps it classy away from the rink — he’s well on his way to earning the title of best American of all-time too. Best mullet? No, that will always belong to Jaromir Jagr.
Shockingly, with all the noise about needing to increase scoring, as of the 1st of December, three players were on pace for 100-plus points and seven players — including defenceman Erik Karlsson — were on pace to top Jamie Benn’s league-leading total of 87 points last season. That was the lowest for an Art Ross winner since Gordie Howe (86 in 1962-63), but Benn’s encore has been even better — on pace for 115 points (as of Dec. 1). Will Benn get into triple digits? And if three or more do, would that quiet the calls for bigger nets and smaller goalies?
MOUNT: I think Benn and Kane most certainly have a shot to make 100 points. Karlsson can too, but I always think it’s harder for a defenseman to do it. I think a lot of the scoring problems are a bunch of hogwash. Are we ever going to get back to the days of the run-and-gun 1980s Smythe Division games that were 8-7 or 7-6? No, but I think there is plenty of scoring. The Nashville Predators put up seven goals in less than week against the Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets. I think it’s feast or famine sometimes, but I think it will all even out.
Will Tyler Seguin or Jamie Benn get 100 points
— Hockey Polls (@hockeynhlpolls) November 26, 2015
#Stars Jamie Benn needs 6 points to reach 400 for his career. He would be the second player from the 2007 NHL Draft with 400 points.
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) December 5, 2015
FISHER: Wait a minute, the Preds are scoring again? For a while there, they couldn’t light the lamp for the life of them. But I look at these stat-lines — even among some of the hot-shot rookies — and I really don’t see a dire need for “more scoring.” That whole notion seems overblown to me, and I still can’t believe Mike Babcock is leading that charge — campaigning for bigger nets. Give it a rest, Babs, it was a down season last year, but the league’s top players (aside from Crosby) are scoring at a real good clip right now. I see Karlsson and fellow high-scoring Swedish defenceman John Klingberg topping out in the mid-80s, which is still more than point-per-game pace. But Benn and his running mate, Tyler Seguin, should be capable of 100 points, along with Kane obviously. Benn’s dominance continues to blow me away. I knew he’d be an NHL player coming out of junior here in Kelowna, but I never thought he’d lead his team in scoring, let alone the league. Benn’s developed into the best power forward in the game right now and he’s proving last season was no fluke. And perhaps most importantly, Benn’s been a positive influence on Seguin and seems to be steering him clear of any Kane-esque shenanigans. Good on you, Jamie.
Speaking of goalies, Carey Price is hurt. Henrik Lundqvist and Pekka Rinne have been struggling. Tuukka Rask and Sergei Bobrovsky were slow starters. Who in the heck is going to step up and win the Vezina Trophy this season?
MOUNT: Braden Holtby has been excellent this season. As of Dec. 2 he was the leader in wins (15) and goals against average (1.95), and he’s been the goalie for the Washington Capitals that has been the cause of some of their early playoff exits. Holtby may have lost the goalie duel to Lundqvist in the playoffs, but it was not on him. I’d also argue Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning deserves a mention because he’s kept them going despite the lackluster start of the Triplets Line and Steven Stamkos. It’s still wide open, and Lundqvist and Rinne could right the ship and put up some nice numbers to get back in the mix.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) December 1, 2015
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) November 30, 2015
FISHER: I’m loving the love for Holtby here — well played Dan, that’s exactly where I was going too. Fun little story, I got to know Braden quite well when I was a sports reporter for the Meridian Booster in his hometown of Lloydminster, Alta. — I even got to play some 4-on-4 summer hockey on his team. Back then, Holtby was a WHL all-star with the Saskatoon Blades, already drafted by the Capitals but not yet considered a sure-fire NHLer. Crazy to think that was almost a decade ago now and here we are talking about him as a favourite for the Vezina. If you’ve been a regular reader of Facing Off, you know by now that I’m a former goalie as well. Braden, being the nice guy that he is, gave me the crease and played as a skater. By the end of that summer, I was convinced he could have went back to the Blades and been their best defenceman — he definitely could have played major junior as a skater. He had great poise and his puckhandling and passing abilities were impressive — they still are, with all the pads on. We were the young guns, comprised of mostly junior players at the time, including the Dziurzynski brothers — David, who got called up to the Senators on the weekend, and Darian, a draft pick of the Coyotes now playing for the Baby Sens in Binghamton — and Jamie Crooks, who was a front-line player in the WHL and is currently a top-six forward for the University of Alberta Golden Bears. To name just a few. Clarke MacArthur had a team in that league too, backstopped by Tyler Weiman, who got into some games with Colorado before heading to Europe. Fun times, but enough reminiscing. Back in the present, Holtby has picked up where he left off in the playoffs, as Washington’s best player in that seven-game loss to the Rangers. There is lots of season left — essentially two-thirds — but if Holtby can keep it up, he’ll be a finalist for sure. If Cory Schneider can get the Devils into the playoffs, he has to be in that mix too. And Marc-Andre Fleury deserves recognition for being so solid and consistent thus far with the Penguins’ offence not firing on all cylinders. They would be the top three names on my ballot as of today, in that order — Holtby, Schneider, Fleury. All from the Eastern Conference and Bishop might even be fourth for me, slightly ahead of the West’s best candidate, Devan Dubnyk, in fifth.
One more on the masked men, Garret Sparks became the first Leafs netminder to ever get a shutout in his NHL debut. The only person not thrilled to witness that feat had to be Jonathan Bernier, who was subsequently sent to the minors for a “conditioning” stint. Are his days numbered in Toronto or the NHL in general? Or does Bernier just need a change of scenery, you know like we’ve been saying about James Reimer for years . . . until now?
MOUNT: I think the writing is on the wall for Bernier. Reimer has played very well this season and the Sparks’ shutout might have sealed Bernier’s fate. The Leafs need more bodies and I think Bernier could fetch a nice haul to a team that might need a netminder. I’d like to see Sparks be a little more consistent before Brendan Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello sign off on a trade. Having Sparks on the main roster could be a nice little savings and could end the controversy (well . . . it’s Toronto, so there’ll be another one in a few weeks if Sparks excels and Reimer struggles.) of who should be the No. 1 goalie in Toronto. Reimer could benefit from not having to deal with the nagging question of who should be the starter. If anything, the Bernier “conditioning assignment” will make the next few episodes of Hockey Wives interesting.
Jonathan Bernier might be the first player in hockey history sent on a conditioning stint to get his mind in shape.
— steve simmons (@simmonssteve) December 2, 2015
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) December 5, 2015
FISHER: I definitely don’t think we’ve seen the last of Bernier. By posting consecutive shutouts in his first two AHL starts, he’s serving notice that he’ll be back soon enough. And he’s still young enough, at 27 years old, to carve out a long and successful career. Look no further than Devan Dubnyk in Minnesota for a prime example of a goaltender who was down in the dumps a couple years ago — at the same age, ironically — before getting rejuvenated by a stint in the minors and, ultimately, a change of scenery. Bernier certainly isn’t hurting his trade value with these clean sheets if the Leafs decide to go in a different direction in goal — unlike Reimer’s old platoon partner turned Edmonton castoff Ben Scrivens, who still can’t stop a beach ball in the AHL. Sparks has been hit-and-miss so far, and we might even get to see Antoine Bibeau make his NHL debut this week with Reimer still sidelined by a lower-body injury. I’m not convinced any of those guys are the future in goal for Toronto, so that job will be there for the taking again if Bernier wants it once he’s called back up at week’s end. He’s got another year left on his contract at $4.15 million, so next season will be the real make-or-break for Bernier. I still think he makes it, and earns another deal — in Toronto or elsewhere.
Lastly, what do you think of the John Scott all-star movement?
MOUNT: It’s a fan vote, and I’ll allow it if the fans want it to happen. We’ve seen it happen last year when everyone from Latvia voted at least 20 times for Zemgus Girgensons of the Buffalo Sabres. However, he is a player that has some upside and a decent future in the league. I really don’t know why fans start these weird movements for these all-star games. At least Scott is laughing it off and doesn’t want to be involved if he gets voted in because he doesn’t want to take away a spot from a player that’s more deserving. (Although he joked that “there’s still some time left. I could turn it on.”) I’ve seen worse choices in an all-star game. We’ll undoubtedly see an ailing Kobe Bryant get elected to the NBA showcase this season. We’ve also see Derek Jeter and Cal Ripken Jr. get one last hurrah in the Midsummer Classic. I say let the fans vote for whoever they want. It’s just an exhibition and it’s not like home-ice advantage in the Cup final is on the line à la MLB does with the World Series.
Do you want to see John Scott go to the NHL all-star game?
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) December 2, 2015
FISHER: C’mon, this is merely fans making a joke of an event that has, well, become a joke in recent years — it’s a mockery. In all seriousness, Scott has no place in the NHL nowadays, let alone in this showcase. He’s one of the last remaining Neanderthals, but it would be highly entertaining, or at least humorous, to prove how out of place he really is in today’s game by throwing him out there in this new 3-on-3 format. I’m sure the actual all-stars would do their best not to embarrass the big guy but, alas, this “movement” is a joke and I guarantee it won’t gain enough momentum to become a reality, thankfully. It’s been tried countless times before — to vote in a plug — and if cult hero Paul (BizNasty) Bissonnette couldn’t get in, Scott doesn’t stand a chance. Nor should he. I know it, Dan knows it and Scott knows it too — he’s actually being a good sport about this, hinting that he’d do the “honourable” thing and politely decline the “honour” anyways. So, please people, stop wasting your votes.
OK, I tried, but I couldn’t resist — this is a bit of an Oilers topic, but here goes . . . in last week’s Facing Off, I suggested that if the Oilers were to somehow win the draft lottery AGAIN, they should trade the first overall pick (Auston Matthews) to the Predators straight up for Shea Weber. Do you make that deal? Does David Poile? Generally speaking, do you agree that Edmonton and Nashville are perfect partners for a blockbuster trade — the Oilers needing defence and the Preds needing offence?
MOUNT: I’m thinking this trade could be done before the deadline, rendering your proposal moot. There was already talk of the Predators making a move to shore up their thin center ranks. The Mike Fisher injury now exacerbates the situation. Pittsburgh Penguins beat writer Michael Pityk feels the Predators are already trying to make few moves. Some of the names include Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes or Ryan Johansen of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
However, the Oilers would be a logical partner for the Predators. Nashville has plenty of depth on defense and Edmonton has a load of centers it’s trying to offload. I could see Nugent-Hopkins or Eberle being sent to the Music City.
Third Man In
COLIN FITTS (also covers the Predators for THW): Auston Matthews is a terrific hockey player, and any team fortunate enough to select him at this year’s draft struck gold. I had the pleasure of seeing Matthews play Alabama-Huntsville last season while with the NTDP program. He’s a special player, but the Predators would never — nor will ever — give up Shea Weber, especially for an unproven prospect. There has been lots of talk over the course of the past several months about the rise of Roman Josi and Seth Jones decreasing the need for Weber, and that type of thinking is ludicrous. Weber is an excellent leader on and off the ice and, without his presence, the Predators are a worse team, as evident in the first-round playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks last year.
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.