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.
Are you ready to ring in the New Year?
Here we are, counting down the days until 2016, wondering where the time has went yet again.
Looking back on the year that was, a few headlines or storylines from the hockey world really stood out to me. What will you remember most about 2015? Join in the conversation in the comments section below.
For me, this was the year of Patty Kane, from the bogus rape accusations to the record-setting 26-game point streak, not to mention returning for last season’s playoffs well ahead of schedule from a broken collarbone to help the Chicago Blackhawks hoist their third Stanley Cup in six years. Can we declare Kane the sport’s best player as the calendar flips to 2016? Yeah, I think that’s fair — he was certainly the best player in 2015 and he’s currently leading the league in scoring.
It was also the year of Connor McDavid, with the Edmonton Oilers winning the NHL draft lottery for the fourth time in six years to select the generational talent who was a point-per-game player before breaking his collarbone 13 games into his rookie season. McDavid previously returned from a broken hand to help Canada capture gold at the world junior championship in January for the first time since 2009. McDavid will be looking to make another triumphant return this January, hoping to help lead the Oilers to their first playoff berth in a decade — yes, a decade.
Lastly, it was a great year for the team I cover — the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets. They landed Leon Draisaitl in a blockbuster trade to start the year in January and he put that team over the top in becoming the playoff and Memorial Cup MVP despite the Rockets coming up a goal short, losing the championship game 2-1 in overtime to the OHL’s Oshawa Generals in Quebec City in May. This season, the Rockets are once again topping the WHL standings coming out of their holiday break, while Draisaitl is now starring for the Oilers, averaging more than a point-per-game.
Enough about the past, though, let’s look ahead to the future as I’m joined this week by Facing Off regular Sebastian Hedley-Noble.
Are Ryan Johansen’s days numbered in Columbus? Is he on the verge of getting traded, before the deadline or at the draft? If yes, who’s getting him and what are the Blue Jackets getting in return?
HEDLEY-NOBLE: I don’t know exactly what is happening behind those closed doors in Columbus. If he’s somehow causing issues of whatever sort, and it certainly seems that way, then they may not have a choice when it comes to trading him. He is the Blue Jackets’ most potent weapon up front, something which is not really a position of strength for them. Though, having said that, you most definitely don’t build a team with players who aren’t happy to play for you, that creates distractions and off-ice issues of all kinds.
You never want that around as a manager, coach, or fellow player. It’s not good for the atmosphere around the organization. So I’d say yes, he will get traded, I just don’t like guessing as to when he will get dealt, but since you are forcing me to Larry, I’ll say Johansen gets traded at the draft. Columbus is in NO rush at all to get rid of him, as they are ever so far behind the playoff picture. I would bet they are taking calls and weighing their options with patience.
On some potential Ryan Johansen trade partners. https://t.co/9EFfxIIZD2 #THW
— Dustin the Exhausted (@dlukenelson) December 26, 2015
@ryanwhitney6 would you trade him for Seth Jones?
— Bucci Mane (@Buccigross) December 23, 2015
FISHER: But where are those calls coming from? Nashville, for starters, has to be interested and should be, in my opinion, considered the frontrunner to land Johansen. A 1-for-1 swap of Johansen for Seth Jones makes a lot of sense. Both former fourth overall picks — Johansen in 2010, Jones in 2013 — and both filling a need for their new organization, with the Predators getting that top-line centre they have been longing for, while the Blue Jackets bolster their lacklustre blue-line. It seems so simple — to a simple-minded person, such as myself — but it’s obviously proving more complicated for David Poile and Jarmo Kekalainen, the men paid big money to make these deals. I’m fairly certain that conversation has happened but, for whatever reason, the trade call didn’t come to fruition.
I do agree with Sebastian that it’s more a matter of when, not if, Johansen is shipped out. Somebody would really have to step up to the plate with a blockbuster offer to pry him away ahead of the trade deadline, but a buyer like Montreal might be willing to go all-in on Johansen. What would that “all-in” entail? Nathan Beaulieu or Jarred Tinordi would be Columbus bound, along with a first-round pick and a couple forward prospects of which the Canadiens have plenty — take any two of Sven Andrighetto, Michael McCarron, Charles Hudon, Nikita Scherbak and Martin Reway. The Habs have been linked, through the rumour mill, to Steven Stamkos and Eric Staal — both centres and pending free agents — but it wouldn’t surprise me if they targeted Johansen instead, despite those perceived character issues. If those rumblings are true, or if Johansen has simply worn out his welcome in Columbus — remember, that last round of contract negotiations may have rubbed Kekalainen and ownership the wrong way — then the draft weekend could make for a perfect parting. If Kekalainen is shopping Johansen at that time, expect his hometown Vancouver Canucks to make a solid pitch. It’s still possible they will have a top-10 pick to offer, along with a replacement centre like Bo Horvat and a prospect like Hunter Shinkaruk or perhaps surprising defenceman Ben Hutton. Personally, I think Nashville and Montreal could put together better packages, but Vancouver will be in the running too.
Who are we kidding, this is the no-trade league. The rumour mill has thrown out a few big names this season — Patrick Marleau, Travis Hamonic and now Johansen, in addition to the many pending UFAs — but it’s been all talk so far. What gives? Does the NHL need to tweak the rules to create in-season cap flexibility and encourage more moves — you know, a system similar to baseball?
HEDLEY-NOBLE: What gives is how tight the NHL is these days — you go on one nice winning streak and your team is looking pretty, or go on a losing streak and it’s the other way around. More managers believe they still have a shot at the post-season, therefore making it extremely difficult to find a trade partner. On in-season cap flexibility, I think the solution is simple, raise the cap. Easier said than done obviously, but that would definitely be a start. And it possibly will go up by a decent amount starting in 2016, let’s see if that does occur, and if so, how that will impact trades during the years ahead.
It’s definitely the parity that exists in the league today which is the reason why we aren’t seeing any trades as of yet. As teams start to separate themselves the more the season moves on, managers will have a better understanding whether they are buyers, sellers, or somewhere in between come the trade deadline.
NHL roster freeze goes into effect tonite at midnight. 21 (and counting) of 30 teams have indicated they have nothing going on trade front.
— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) December 20, 2015
23 and counting.
— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) December 20, 2015
As one GM said: "I can't even make a bad trade right now."
— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) December 20, 2015
FISHER: It’s true, parity and the salary cap are the main reasons behind this prolonged staring contest, with nobody blinking or even budging. So many players have no-trade and no-move clauses in their contracts nowadays, so that is another hindrance. Managers might also be afraid to make a mistake, which would be magnified given how few deals go down. Add it all up and there is literally nothing doing right now, which is frustrating for fans, especially those of teams with obvious holes that need addressing. Everybody loves trades — heck, it’s why half the people buy NHL video games or join fantasy leagues — and, in real life, they generate interest in the league. Whenever a trade goes down, even if it’s a minor swap of struggling defencemen like Trevor Daley for Rob Scuderi, it’s trending all across North America and everybody is eager to weigh in with their thoughts. If we wake up to Zack Kassian being traded for Ben Scrivens, as rumoured, it might break the Internet. Of course, if trades weren’t such a rarity and were more commonplace like they used to be back before the salary cap, a little deal like that would barely move the needle.
More trades would make for better business, and that should be enough to get the attention of the powers that be. There has to be some way to modify the salary cap to at least make negotiations worthwhile again. As of today, picking up the phone to propose a trade seems pretty pointless. Perhaps an escalating cap could be incorporated, rising in reasonable increments with every passing month leading up to the trade deadline and then returning to the original, or adjusted, ceiling to start the next season. Maybe teams at the bottom of the standings could go below the cap floor in similar increments as well. I’m no math whizz — I’ve always been better with words than numbers — but would it be crazy to suggest a $5-million increase, or allowance, per month from November to February, meaning $20 million over four months? Or take a cautious approach at $3 million per for a total of $12 million in additional cap space come the deadline? That’s enough room to add two to four impact players. Problem is, you’d be limited to expiring contracts for the most part or you’d have to give those guys away for next to nothing in the off-season. By no means is this a brilliant, foolproof solution, but it’s some food for thought nevertheless.
Which slow-starting superstar will enjoy the biggest resurgence in the second half of the season — Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos or Ryan Getzlaf? Do you see any or all of them in the top 20 in league scoring at season’s end? Top 10? Top 5?
HEDLEY-NOBLE: I love predicting the future. Out of that group, I would select John Tavares without too much hesitation. Simply because he’s on the best team out of the four players this season, and just missed out on winning the Art Ross last season by one measly point. Tavares has a much-improved Kyle Okposo on his line, which makes for a very dangerous duo to deal with. Crosby has started too slow and is now nursing an injury as well as handling yet another coaching change. Stamkos seems distracted by his contract, as well as Tampa Bay not playing up to last season’s standards, so it could go either way with him really. While Getzlaf should absolutely have a good second half, he still only has two goals in 31 games, and that’s pretty crazy for a player of his class. JT will have to be my pick for sure.
Standings-wise, I can see Tavares, Crosby, and Stamkos in the top 20 as they are world-class players, playing on solid teams. They’d have to really catch fire to finish in the top 5. Though a great player, Getzlaf will not be in the top-20 scorers by season’s end, his play has been way more inconsistent than the other stars thus far — just like his Anaheim team, so it’s not all his fault, but he’s not getting any younger either, which definitely factors into my decision.
FISHER: I tend to agree with Sebastian here, although I would never bet against Crosby’s chances of topping this group by season’s end. The Penguins made that coaching change — from Mike Johnston to Mike Sullivan — to spark the offence and it seemed to be working until they got blanked by Winnipeg on Sunday. If Kris Letang can stay healthy now, that makes Pittsburgh’s power play so much more potent and Crosby tends to rack up points with the man advantage. He seems to get a hand in all those goals when things are going good. I predicted, not too long ago, that Crosby could catch fire and match his jersey number by totaling 87 points. He’s currently on pace for only 57 points, so Crosby would need to average 1.53 points-per-game the rest of the way. His career average is 1.33 points-per-game and his career-best season was 1.52 (120 points in 79 games), so 87 now seems a bit unrealistic. I still wouldn’t rule out 80 — which equates to 1.40 points-per-game — and that would probably get Crosby into the top 15, possibly the top 10.
Tavares will be right there too, somewhere between 75 and 80 points. He’s on pace for 60 points but has averaged just over a point-per-game the last two seasons and still has 46 games to go. It’s not unreasonable to think Tavares could tack on 50 points to his current total of 25 points. Stamkos is on pace for 64 points — the highest of this group — but I expect him to be in that 70-to-75 range regardless of whether he finishes the season with Tampa Bay or shockingly gets traded. Getzlaf really is the dud here, on pace for 57 points and only five goals. I’m willing to give him 10 goals, but I don’t see Getzlaf getting to 70 points — and if he finishes in the 60s, that probably relegates him from superstar to star going forward, similar to Eric Staal these days.
The Canadiens had a miserable December, falling back to the pack in the Atlantic Division. Should we blame it all on their goalies — and Carey Price’s absence — or was this team overachieving in the first quarter of the season? Any chance the Habs fall out of the playoff picture, or are they still a lock? Does Montreal win that division title?
HEDLEY-NOBLE: The Atlantic division is extremely tight, I would never consider the Canadiens a lock to top it — even with a healthy Price. They have lost five games in a row, which has created a legitimate race for the division title. As of last night, the Florida Panthers jumped over the Canadiens for first in the division, with 44 points. Detroit and Montreal both have 43, with Boston (42) and Ottawa (42) currently in the wild-card positions. Then you have Tampa Bay with 39, so that’s six teams separated by only five points.
I believe the Canadiens were overachieving just a bit, but they are a very good team, from front to back, and still the favorites to top the division in my opinion. It’s way too tight and way too early to call them a lock, however, and no you don’t blame the goalies. Mike Condon came in and did an excellent job keeping the Canadiens in games, picking up a bunch of points for the team in the process. However, they haven’t preformed too well as of late. A healthy Price in net is their backbone, and they’ll be salivating at the thought of having him back in action.
This division is going to be quite chaotic, we’ll see a lot of swapping positions standing-wise. Something to watch with excitement moving forward.
FISHER: C’mon Sebastian, you’ve got to blame the goalies! I’m a former goalie and I’m even blaming them. Condon and Dustin Tokarski have been getting pulled more often than not in December and they are the single-biggest reason for Montreal’s collapse. There still isn’t any official word on Price’s return date, so that is worrisome to say the least. We also can’t underestimate how much the Habs have missed Brendan Gallagher. Montreal was 16-4-2 and averaging 3.54 goals-per-game when Gallagher was hurt (broken fingers) on Nov. 22. Since then, the Canadiens are 4-10-1 and averaging just 1.87 goals-per-game, including only five goals in their last five games. Gallagher is a little guy who plays much bigger than he is, going to the net and generating goals even if he isn’t the one scoring. Gallagher will be back in the fold any day now and assuming Price is good to go before the All-Star break, I think the Canadiens will hold on to a playoff spot.
The division title? That’s really up for grabs right now, as Sebastian pointed out. I’m glad he included Tampa in the mix because I could see the Lightning coming from behind to top the division once Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin are healthy and contributing again. That’ll be a big boost in firepower, but the Canadiens are still the team to catch in my opinion — even if the standings no longer reflect that.
The Pacific Division is even more “cray, cray” as the kids say. Assuming the Kings keep cruising, which other teams will make the playoffs there? Is it a given that the Central will send five teams to the post-season or could a fourth from the Pacific push for a wild-card spot in the second half?
HEDLEY-NOBLE: First of all, “cray, cray” . . . I thought I knew you Larry. Yeah, I would go with Kings first, followed by San Jose, then it gets real tough though. You have Vancouver sitting in that third spot, but they have Arizona, Calgary, Edmonton, and even Anaheim breathing down their necks (only five points behind the Canucks with three games in hand). I am sticking with my prediction of the Canucks falling out, with Edmonton sliding in to complete the eight spots in the West. I think the Oilers are playing solid hockey right now for the most part and McDavid, along with Nail Yakupov, could give them that extra push into the post-season. Furthermore, yes, I think it is very likely the Central Division will be sending five teams to the playoffs. The Central is too strong, I can’t see any more than three teams from the Pacific making the post-season.
Playoffs? Are you kidding me? Playoffs? #Oilers
— Coldplay_Oilers ➐ (@coldplay_oilers) December 16, 2015
FISHER: The Oilers are making the playoffs — you heard it here first, and it didn’t even come from me. It came from Sebastian, but I’ll second that bold prediction. For the first time all season, I do sense the potential for Edmonton to make the post-season despite losing to both Vancouver and Calgary on the weekend. The Kings will be kings of this division, that seems like a foregone conclusion. From there, the Pacific is nearly as tight as the Atlantic, and the Oilers were proof of Sebastian’s aforementioned statement about wining and losing streaks. Edmonton was in the basement — sitting last in the entire league — before winning six in a row and suddenly occupying a playoff spot, albeit only briefly. The Oilers then lost three straight and were just one point out of the cellar again. If Edmonton can get consistent, above-average goaltending in the second half and be above .500 against their division rivals, the Oilers can definitely get in at the expense of the Canucks or even the Sharks, who I wouldn’t consider a lock just yet. Nobody is a lock here, except the Kings. The Coyotes have lost Mike Smith and I think it’s only a matter of time until they start losing on a regular basis, so I don’t see Arizona being in the race for much longer. The Ducks are going to make a charge at some point, with or without Bruce Boudreau behind the bench. It’s surprising, to me, that he still has a job, but Anaheim is underachieving from top to bottom and I still see the Ducks as a playoff team on paper. The Flames aren’t going to go away without a fight — as evidenced by Sunday’s come-from-behind win over the Oilers — so expect Calgary to be a factor until the bitter end. San Jose is in good shape for the time being too. Vancouver as well, although I see the Canucks tailing off and perhaps selling off some of their expiring assets if there are any takers at the trade deadline.
There is a ton of hockey left to be played — we’re not even at the midpoint yet — but if forced to predict the Pacific Division playoff seeds, I would go with the Kings, Oilers and Ducks in that order. With that said, I do think the Sharks and Flames could close the gap and contend for a wild-card spot with Nashville or more likely Minnesota. I kind of like San Jose’s chances of overtaking the Wild and also getting into the playoffs as a fourth team from the Pacific. Now that, my friends, would be “cray, cray”. Sorry, Sebastian, I couldn’t resist another “cray, cray” reference — that one was just for you buddy.
Tis the season, so I have to ask: what was on the Christmas wish-list for your Avs and Panthers? Do you think Santa will deliver a belated gift sooner than later?
HEDLEY-NOBLE: On top of the Avalanche’s wish-list has to be a healthy, consistent Semyon Varlamov. When he’s playing like he can, Colorado is a much better team, everything changes, and the playoffs are a very real possibility. Santa seems to have delivered that gift just recently, we’ll see if he lets us keep it for the whole season.
For the Panthers’ wish-list, it’d have to be a healthy top line. Both Jaromir Jagr and Aleksander Barkov, who are integral to the team’s success, have already dealt with injuries and that hurts the team in many ways. Thankfully, Jonathan Huberdeau has stayed fit. With that line healthy, the Cats are a very solid two-way team, and very difficult to match-up against.
So, I hate to bring it up, but in your Facing Off debut, you doubted the Panthers’ playoff chances. It almost sounded like you had higher hopes for the Avalanche, suggesting Nathan MacKinnon could lead Colorado back into the playoffs and finish top 10 in league scoring. That was back on Nov. 23rd, but MacKinnon hasn’t scored a goal since Nov. 25th, which is 14 games and counting now. Did you jinx him? Do you want a mulligan on those predictions?
HEDLEY-NOBLE: I absolutely, in no way, want a mulligan on my predictions. Because as it stands now, I am pretty bang on. I didn’t doubt the Panthers’ playoff chances, I said they’d be battling for a wild-card spot, which if you look at the standings a week or so ago, you’d find out that I am right on the money. Florida has recently gone on a terrific run, vaulting into first in the division, riding a six-game winning streak, but as I mentioned earlier, it’s a very tight race — they could end up winning the Atlantic, or not even make the playoffs. It’s going to be quite the ride, one I am looking forward to with much anticipation.
Moving on to MacKinnon and the Avalanche. I don’t jinx any of my favorite players, that would be “cray, cray” as you say, Larry. Sure, he hasn’t scored a goal in 14 games, but he does have six assists, along with helping the Avs become one of the hottest teams in the league now (Panthers as well, going 7-and-3 in their last 10 games, while the Avs have gone 6-3-and-1). You missed or ignored both the apples column and standings apparently Larry! MacKinnon hasn’t led Colorado back into playoff contention all by himself no, that’s true. However, it has been the whole team playing a much more sound overall game, starting with MacKinnon’s dangerous line. Nasty Nate still has plenty of time to score his share of goals, so don’t count him out of the top 10 yet, especially with the team’s newfound success.
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.
Sebastian Hedley-Noble is one of THW’s credentialed writers, covering the Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers since May 2014. Follow him on Twitter: @ SebastianHNoble.
Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, and has been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.