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.
So the general managers gathered in Boca Raton, Florida, this past week for some golf, some fishing, and a little hockey talk too.
Thirty well compensated and accomplished men putting their minds together, contemplating the future of the NHL as they see it.
Most of their discussions and decisions made total sense — like the blue-line cameras to assist in offside challenges, that’s a no-brainer — but others were nonsensical. Like that “Oilers Rule” . . . are you kidding me? I honestly thought that was a joke, being circulated by a jilted fan base.
Turns out, it was a legitimate topic of conversation — whether to create a rule preventing Edmonton (and future bottom feeders) from winning consecutive or multiple draft lotteries within a certain timeframe.
— SONiC 102.9 (@sonic1029) March 16, 2016
It’s a ridiculous concept, if you ask me. Unnecessary and unwarranted. A waste of their time and energy. There is no reason for such a rule.
Yes, the Oilers have picked first overall in four of the last six years.
Yes, they have won the lottery twice within four years.
Yes, they will have decent odds of winning again a month from now.
So what? Why should they, or anybody else, be penalized for their good fortune?
Sure, there is an element of ineptitude that increases their “luck” factor, but the Oilers and their owner, Daryl Katz, would gladly trade the rights to Auston Matthews for a decade worth of playoff revenue.
Edmonton hasn’t qualified for the post-season in 10 years and its consolation prize has been top-10 picks, with a chance at the first overall selection. That seems fair enough.
— SB Nation NHL (@SBNationNHL) March 14, 2016
There is nothing wrong with the current system. However, I get it, the hockey world may implode if Bill Daly reveals another golden ticket with Edmonton’s logo on it. But, in acknowledging that, it is luck of the draw at the end of the day. If anything, make Bill Scott change his socks or show up sockless.
There is no real reason or logic for altering the process, and now is certainly not the time for that. Even if the majority of GMs are concerned about Edmonton’s luck (and/or suck) continuing, those preventable measures had to implemented prior to the season. It’s too late to impact the 2016 lottery, so let’s just wait and see how it plays out on April 30th.
Reality is, it should be a moot point going forward because the Oilers can’t possibly be this bad AGAIN — especially not with a full season of Connor McDavid . . . and possibly Matthews! Could you imagine?
We have better stuff to talk about this week but, first things first, can we agree that this Oilers Rule is absolutely absurd?
MOUNT: How is it absurd? Why does the NHL continue to reward the abject failure of this team? The Oilers have gotten numerous bites at the apple only to continue to be awful. I’ve seen this trend infect other sports as the Philadelphia 76ers are basically pulling the same thing in the NBA by being horrendous and stocking up on top-five picks. The Cleveland Cavaliers won three draft lotteries in four years, but eventually turned it into a championship-calibre team that has made the playoffs unlike the Oilers.
If I continued to fail at my job, would I be given the best tools and tricks to turn it around? Of course not, because I’d be out on the unemployment line looking for a new line of work. I understand Peter Chiarelli is doing his best to turn it around, but you can’t keep drafting forwards when you have glaring holes on defense. There’s nothing wrong with dealing your top pick to get something in return. That’s what the Cavaliers did when they turned Canadian star Andrew Wiggins into Kevin Love. The league has to give teams an actual incentive to get better. Take a look at the Buffalo Sabres, they’re not world-beaters, but there’s a sense of hope there unlike in Edmonton. You can totally see Buffalo making the post-season in the next three years, while the Oilers are on Year 27 of their rebuild.
This is a rule I will totally support.
FISHER: Or not . . . we’ll have to agree to disagree on that front. I just feel if you’re last, you’re last. If you’re lucky, you’re lucky. I mean, if you win the Powerball lottery, they don’t prevent you from buying tickets for the next three to five years. To me, this is a rule brought on by jealousy and Edmonton’s embarrassment of riches. Eventually, the Oilers are going to put it together and that could be next season — with or without a top-three pick this June.
As for Dan’s basketball references, I don’t think anybody would be surprised if the Oilers did make a Cavaliers-Wiggins type move at this year’s draft. Chiarelli will be open to all options and if a young stud defenceman came into play, that pick — regardless of whether it’s No. 1 or No. 5 — will be available. The keyword there is stud, though. You don’t trade a top-five pick for Travis Hamonic or Jonas Brodin. It would take a Victor Hedman or Oliver Ekman-Larsson level player, not that I see either of those guys getting moved. That said, Matthews is from Arizona, so maybe just maybe.
With essentially 10 games remaining in the regular season, it’s time to start talking playoff spots and seeding. Let’s begin with the Western Conference’s final wild-card berth — who you got, the Wild or Avalanche (or other)?
MOUNT: I’ll have to go with the Wild because I trust the play of Devan Dubnyk. Minnesota is a different team under John Torchetti. They aren’t careless with the puck and they are finally getting some timely goals. The only concern for the Wild is, can Dubnyk hold up? They rode him pretty hard the last season-and-a-half and you have to wonder. They’ll need to give some games to Darcy Kuemper to save Dubnyk for the really important games.
FISHER: Well, it’s clear that Dan and I are on different pages this week. I’m going with the Avs here, because I don’t trust the play of Dubnyk. He definitely seems to be wearing down and has been looking more like the Oilers’ version than the Vezina finalist lately. I’d give the goaltending edge to Semyon Varlamov down the stretch.
Besides that, I much prefer Colorado’s forward group top to bottom. The addition of Mikkel Boedker at the trade deadline is paying dividends, and Minnesota might be regretting its decision to basically stand pat. The Wild did acquire David Jones as a depth winger, but that’s a team that probably should have been bigger buyers. The Avs put their best foot forward, and I think they’ll get rewarded for it.
These teams play each other on Saturday, so that’s going to be one of those “four-point” games. The two (or possibly three) points that count in the standings could end up being the difference when all is said and done. Again, I’ll take the Avs.
Moving over to the Eastern Conference, any chance the Red Wings miss the playoffs for the first time in a quarter century? Could the Flyers — or another team currently on the outside — find a way in?
MOUNT: I’m putting my money on the Red Wings because they’ve been there before. It’s a two-horse race for the last spot as I don’t anticipate Carolina or Ottawa making a move to the catch those teams. The Wings have been relying on Petr Mrazek a lot, and it seems that he might be wearing down because he’s never really played that much in an NHL season. However, this is where a veteran guy like Jimmy Howard can still help. The Upstate New York native has been in the net for Detroit’s many playoff pushes and he knows what it takes to win late in the season. Let’s also not forget that Jeff Blashill knows many of these players from his time with them with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins. I think he can push the right buttons and have them cross the finish line in the last wild-card spot.
I do think the future is bright with Philadelphia. Shayne Gostisbehere is only the first of many good defensemen that are coming down the way for the Broad Street Bullies. The “Ghost Bear” and players like Ivan Provorov, among others, will turn Philly into a menace on the blue-line for years to come. The Flyers will be a playoff team, but not yet.
FISHER: The Flyers are going strong right now. Rookie head coach Dave Hakstol is pushing all the right buttons and they have games in hand. They really do control their own fate. That’s bad news for Detroit. Heck, Philadelphia could still reel in the Islanders, Rangers or Penguins too. I actually like the Flyers’ chances as of today, providing Steve Mason can hold up in goal now that Michal Neuvirth is hurt. And, yes, their future is extremely bright on the back end. A top-four of Gostisbehere, Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Samuel Morin is going to be the envy of the league in a few years.
It’s funny, last summer I had a gut feeling the Red Wings would see their 24-year playoff streak end this spring. My initial standings predictions had them missing the post-season — mainly because of Mike Babcock’s departure — but that fan base came after me with pitchforks and convinced me to change my mind. Dylan Larkin’s emergence as a rookie All-Star and Mrazek’s solid stretches as a first-time starter erased any doubt for me. Until now, that is. That doubt is creeping back in, with Larkin and Mrazek slumping a bit and with Detroit’s veterans not yet stepping up. There is a lot of pride in that group, though — captain Henrik Zetterberg has said in years past that the Red Wings won’t be missing the playoffs on his watch. Time will tell, and it’ll be a big story however it plays out.
The Capitals have the Metropolitan locked up, but how about those other divisional races — who you got coming out on top in the Central, Pacific and Atlantic?
MOUNT: I’ll default to teams that have experience in winning in big moments. I’ll go with Chicago in the Central, Los Angeles in the Pacific and Tampa Bay in the Atlantic. The Blackhawks have made the necessary adjustments at the trade deadline and have been through the rigors of tough battles.
The Kings also have won a couple of Cups in the last few years and I really don’t trust the Ducks in a big spot because they’ve never been there before. I’ll give Anaheim full marks for fighting back from a terrible start to make it a race. However, Los Angeles knocked off both Chicago and Dallas within the week.
The Atlantic Division is probably the toughest one to tell. Florida has been great most of the season, but it has company with Tampa and Boston. The Bruins have won divisions before, but they are different from the teams that have done so. I love the Lightning in this spot because they did it last year. Ben Bishop has stood tall in net and I like him down the stretch.
FISHER: We can agree for the first time this week, on at least one of these three division winners. I really like Tampa’s chances of topping the Atlantic at season’s end. Steven Stamkos and the Triplets are rising to the occasion, and the Lightning were my pick to win the East from the outset. That won’t be happening with Washington well on its way to winning the Presidents’ Trophy, but I wouldn’t bet against Tampa Bay come playoffs. Florida and Boston both improved their depth at the deadline, but those rosters still seem inferior to the Lightning.
I like Anaheim in the Pacific. The Ducks are the hottest team since Christmas thanks to Ryan Getzlaf’s resurgence. The Kings seem to be hitting their stride again too, so it could come down to their final tilt on April 7 in Los Angeles. That’ll be a doozy, but the Ducks are looking like the team to beat again in that division. They were my Presidents’ Trophy and Stanley Cup pick, the latter of which remains a very real possibility. Does that mean I’m still standing by my Cup final prediction of Ducks versus Lightning? Not necessarily, but both teams are trending in the right direction at the right time.
Not necessarily, because I think Chicago is the team to beat and could be the favourite to repeat. The Blackhawks have been sputtering a bit, but they’ll get it together in time for the playoffs. Will they get it together in time to win the division title? Maybe, maybe not. You can really tell St. Louis and Dallas are battling for that top seed to avoid Chicago in the first round. The Hawks are a bad matchup for anybody, including both the Blues and Stars. Not that Dan’s Predators would be a pushover either — or even the Avs/Wild — but I get the sense that St. Louis and Dallas are more desperate to win the division. The Blackhawks seem content just to make the playoffs, knowing they can take it from there. For Chicago, it’s about staying healthy, fine-tuning certain aspects and finding chemistry among the new forwards. I was leaning toward the Stars here, but Tyler Seguin’s injury swayed me to take the Blues. St. Louis has most of its horses healthy (finally), so I’m anticipating a strong finishing kick.
Talking players now, which recent injury is going to be the toughest to overcome once playoffs roll around — Evgeni Malkin for the Penguins or Jaroslav Halak for the Islanders?
MOUNT: The Malkin one hurts more. The Penguins still aren’t out of the woods when it comes to making the playoffs. The Russian star is one of the main men that has been part of the Pens’ resurgence.
The Halak injury may not be so bad since the Islanders could match-up with the Rangers, and the Brooklyn-based team has owned the Broadway Blueshirts. Thomas Greiss has been fairly good with a 19-9-4 mark. The Austrian goalie could help the Isles if Halak doesn’t make it back for the opening round.
FISHER: Malkin is likely going to be out longer, but a top forward is still easier to replace from within than a starting goaltender. Greiss is having a solid season, but he’s a very unproven option. J-F Berube is even greener. The Islanders better hope like heck that Halak has a speedy recovery or their season could go down the drain in a hurry. I wouldn’t pick the Islanders over the Rangers if the goaltending matchup is Greiss versus Henrik Lundqvist. I wouldn’t take Halak over Lundqvist either, but he’d make it a series. Halak is proven playoff performer dating back to his heroics with Montreal. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think Greiss has ever started a playoff game? Halak is going to be sorely missed — yes, even more so than Malkin.
Seguin is expected back for the start of playoffs, so his loss should only impact how the West will be won in the regular season. The other injury we’re awaiting word on is Anaheim’s David Perron, who left Sunday’s game with what’s believed to be a banged-up shoulder or collarbone. Perron might not be the biggest name, but he’s been instrumental in the Ducks’ second-half success and would be sorely missed if he’s sidelined long-term.
Fortunately nobody got hurt here, but who was the bigger rookie goon last week — Darnell Nurse for pounding Roman Polak or Jake Virtanen for tuning in Filip Forsberg?
Exhibit A: Nurse
Exhibit B: Virtanen
MOUNT: Virtanen for fighting Forsberg. I could understand Nurse trying to fight Polak because he was sticking up for someone and Polak has fought before. The Edmonton defenseman was at least thinking he was doing the right thing after Polak boarded Matt Hendricks. I may not have liked him fighting, but I understand the justification.
No one will ever confuse the Predators’ winger for being a fighter, but I give him props for standing up for Mike Ribeiro after he got boarded by Virtanen. Forsberg was doing what any good teammate would do, but there’s no way that he should be fighting. Virtanen should have let it pass, but at least Forsberg is willing to stand up for his linemates.
FISHER: Sure, let’s gang up on the Canuck! Virtanen’s actions weren’t suspension worthy like Nurse’s, but they were arguably worse, according to the “code”. Vancouver fans will say Virtanen is a rookie and an “offensive player” like Forsberg, but that’s not entirely true. He was a top-10 pick, but Virtanen is going to be a gritty, physical presence and scrapping will be part of his persona. He needs to pick his battles or he’s going to get a bad reputation in a hurry amongst his peers. The Predators host the Canucks on Thursday and Virtanen better answer the bell there. Somebody is going to challenge him and he may have to take some lumps in that one to gain back a bit of respect. Here’s hoping he doesn’t back down.
Nurse will square off with Polak if he wants a rematch. No question there. Nurse overreacted and the punishment more or less fit the crime, but it was good to see an Edmonton player sending that message for a change. And that was for a hit on Hendricks — imagine if it had been McDavid, Nurse might still be teeing off on a turtled Polak. Edmonton’s staff couldn’t condone Nurse’s beatdown in public, but I bet he got plenty of praise and pats on the back behind closed doors. I bet Katz took him out for a nice steak dinner too, and rightfully so.
This one is just for Dan, out of my curiosity. What’s the latest on Jimmy Vesey? When will his season be over with Harvard? Are the Predators planning to plug him into the lineup for the playoffs if he signs? Has he given any indication on that front lately?
MOUNT: We’ll know more very soon. Harvard is expected to be in the NCAA men’s tournament and could win a game or two. I’m sure David Poile wouldn’t mind Harvard getting eliminated early, so he could make a run at the Hobey Baker nominee. I think they’ll see where he stacks up before assigning him anywhere. The Milwaukee Admirals are in the midst of their own playoff chase and he could be a big boon to their hopes if management feels he needs a little more seasoning.
However, I think we’ll see him suit up for the Predators in at least one playoff game. It would continue the trend of rookies making big contributions at the bottom of the Nashville lineup. The Preds have had as many as six first-year players in the squad at the same time and Vesey would be lucky number seven.
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.