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, and the next few, as Félix Sicard fills in for Bensch while he’s on a brief 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.
So I’m stuck with another California kid — well, kind of. Felix is a buddy of Andrew’s who covers the Anaheim Ducks for THW, but he’s actually a Canadian transplant, born and raised in Montreal. That made him a life-long Canadiens fan, but he’s attending university in southern California and the Ducks are conveniently right in his backyard. I’ve always felt it’s better to cover a team that you’re not emotionally attached to, as it takes away some of the bias and allows you to be more impartial in your writing. Definitely check out some of Felix’s other work, he’s a rising star within the THW ranks. He’s also bilingual, something I wish I was — I can’t speak or even read a lick of French, but that’s a story for another day.
Summer hockey news is grinding to a near halt as we approach the end of August, but rest assured this is just the calm before the storm. Sergei Gonchar agreed to a PTO — professional tryout — with the Pittsburgh Penguins this past week. There would seem to be an opportunity there for him if the Pens can’t squeeze another free-agent defender like Cody Franson into their budget. Get used to that term PTO, though, as we’ll be seeing dozens of UFAs taking that route in the coming weeks as the countdown continues toward mid-September training camps.
I’ve been having some off-season fun with free agents — drafting expansion rosters, then playing GM for all 30 teams — so I’m quite familiar with those still available on the open market. There is both quality and quantity, with upwards of 60 NHL-calibre players without contracts as of today. You’d think the best of that bunch — guys like Franson, Christian Ehrhoff and Jiri Tlusty — will end up inking deals, but the vast majority might have to accept PTOs and earn roster spots by outperforming prospects at training camp. Those inevitable battles will be fun to watch.
Unfortunately, many of hockey’s biggest stories right now are court battles rather than corner battles. We’ve discussed Ryan O’Reilly in a previous edition of Facing Off, but he’s still in the news for an impaired driving charge, while Patrick Kane is being investigated on a rape accusation, and Mike Richards is in limbo after his contract was terminated for an alleged border stoppage involving prescription drugs. Those stories aren’t going away any time soon — especially not with how slow the judicial systems tend to be — so it gives us something to debate during these down times. This week, we’re weighing in on the Kane and Richards cases, but also on new jerseys, free-agent goalies and overtime scoring — so let’s get down to business.
— TMZ (@TMZ) August 13, 2015
Did EA Sports do the right thing by removing Patrick Kane from the cover of their NHL 16 video game?
FISHER: Maybe . . . I’m a big believer in ‘innocent until proven guilty’, but it’s not looking good for Patty Kane at the moment. And that means it wouldn’t have looked good for EA Sports had they left him on the cover and he ended up getting charged, or worse, convicted. I don’t think Kane will lose any sleep over that slight even if he’s cleared of all wrongdoing, but I’m trying not to jump to any conclusions over this investigation. I know Kane has made his share of mistakes away from the rink in years past — especially when alcohol was involved — but there has also been a share of women “cry rape” against professional athletes with hopes of cashing in as well. Every story has two sides, so sit back and let the facts play out here.
— EA SPORTS NHL (@EASPORTSNHL) August 12, 2015
SICARD: Absolutely. From a branding perspective, the outcome of Kane’s trial is essentially immaterial. To have an individual in that kind of trouble on the cover of a product that is largely marketed to younger kids is marketing suicide. So from their perspective, covering themselves is right. On a broader scale, it sends the right message to the community, so bravo EA.
Which new (or old) jerseys are you most looking forward to this season?
— icethetics (@icethetics) August 11, 2015
FISHER: Hmm, all of them, is that a fair answer? I’m a pretty big jersey buff and I enjoy new and old looks. I can probably count on one hand the number of jerseys I’ve disliked over the years, so this is a tough question for me. It appears orange really is the new black when it comes to uniforms, with the Oilers and Ducks unveiling solid orange third jerseys. Connor McDavid looked pretty good donning Edmonton’s new duds at the draft, and growing up half-rooting for the “Mighty” Ducks because of their cool logo, I was stoked to see Anaheim bringing it back. I’m really digging Colorado’s new look too, from the colour scheme to the overall design. The Avs might actually be my favourite, but the Canucks throwing it back to 1994 — at least for one night — will be neat too. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always appreciate the classic Original Six jerseys of the Blackhawks or Red Wings, but I’m a big fan of teams getting creative. Remember that Oilers’ drill-bit entering orbit logo on the navy blue? It was short-lived but still hangs in my closet. Follow @Icethetics on Twitter for jersey updates or visit their website.
SICARD: Well since Larry essentially covered every single base here (classic sportswriter!), I’ll hone in on one matchup I’m sure everyone will be excited about: the Winter Classic. With the best rivalry in the NHL featuring the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins (sans Milan Lucic, alas), we should see some excellent jerseys on New Year’s Day. The glimpse of the logos we got a few weeks back suggests that both teams are throwing it all the way back to the 1920s with their designs. So far, they get my stamp of approval.
Will the NHLPA win its grievance vs. the L.A. Kings on behalf of Mike Richards?
FISHER: Yes, it’s certainly looking like they have a leg to stand on. Make that two legs. Richards has yet to be charged in relation to a border-crossing incident just prior to the Kings terminating his contract for a “material breach.” What we know is Richards was allegedly taken into custody at the Canadian/U.S. border in connection with the unlawful possession of OxyContin pills. That was more than a month ago now, and the NHLPA has requested an expedited hearing despite no resolution, from a legal standpoint, on that matter. Until Richards is prosecuted, he deserves to be paid or properly bought out by the Kings. So, yes, the NHLPA has a solid case as of today. The bigger question might be whether Richards will play in the NHL this season? He’s technically a free agent and his skills have evidently deteriorated in Los Angeles, but he’s only 30 years old and a former first-round pick with two Stanley Cup rings, so yes, I do see a team taking a chance on him. It’ll be a one-year, make-or-break, low-paying contract, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being with his home-province Toronto Maple Leafs.
SICARD: A pro sports organization punishing a player using shaky legal grounds? What is this, the National Football League? The Kings took a page right out of Roger Goodell’s playbook, giving the Players’ Association every reason to stand up for one of its members. I’ll go out and say that the PA should win its grievance, as the Kings are clearly violating the collectively bargained Substance Abuse and Behavioral Program Policy, which states that any player arrested for substance abuse must be evaluated by doctors to assess whether the substance in question is needed or not by that player. In fact, a player can only lose pay if he’s convicted (which has yet to happen in Richards’ case). That process never seemed to have taken place, which doesn’t reflect all that well on the Kings.
Which free-agent goaltender is most likely to get an NHL contract for the upcoming season: Ray Emery, Jonas Gustavsson or Peter Budaj?
FISHER: None of them would be the easy answer, with most teams looking set between the pipes, but I’ll go Gustavsson. His injury history aside, The Monster looks like the best bet among these last-resort options. A few teams could still use an experienced backup like Gustavsson — namely the Bruins, Penguins and Sharks. I’d strongly consider signing him over their current candidates. Boston is banking on another rookie — be it Jeremy Smith, Zane McIntyre or Malcolm Subban — behind Tuukka Rask, while Pittsburgh has minor-leaguer Jeff Zatkoff penciled in to ride pine for Marc-Andre Fleury, and San Jose seems set to go with the tandem of Martin Jones and Alex Stalock. All those teams are playing with fire in my opinion and would be wise to ink Gustavsson as an insurance policy. Maybe he takes a two-way contract at this point. Budaj is likely KHL bound, but would Emery even be welcome back in Russia after assaulting a team trainer during his last stint there in 2009?
SICARD: It’s no question the NHL is a “what have you done for me lately?” league, especially when it comes to goaltenders. Both Budaj and Emery were horrid in their last NHL seasons, which leaves me to think that they won’t be getting contract offers anytime soon. Remember when Gustavsson was considered “The Monster” though? No? The best goaltender outside of the NHL? Doesn’t ring a bell either? That’s OK, because it seems he doesn’t either. A mediocre goaltender at hockey’s highest level, I’ll pick him as the likeliest of the three to get a contract due to his younger age and relatively superior statistics. That’s not saying much though.
Who will lead the league in overtime wins and goals?
FISHER: Finally a bit of a softball for poor Felix, who’s making his Facing Off debut during a hard-hitting week. For wins, it was a toss-up between Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, but I’m going with the Penguins. It’s hard to bet against a team that can throw Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel over the boards. For goals, I’m going with the sure-to-be rookie sensation Connor McDavid. His speed is off the charts, so he’ll definitely thrive in that wide-open, run-and-gun 3-on-3 environment. The Oilers will probably be top-five in overtime wins too, thanks in large part to McDavid. I’ll say Pittsburgh wins 22 games in overtime, with McDavid scoring 12 overtime goals while winning the heart of every Edmonton woman under the age of 30. Those numbers probably seem high, but I think a lot of games are going to end in overtime this season, with substantially fewer shootouts than years past.
SICARD: Softball questions are the best, thanks for taking it easy on me Larry! Isn’t hitting a softball supposed to be easy though? I guess not, since you’ve got it all wrong in your answer. Sure, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Edmonton are the sexy picks here. But I’m going off the board with the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators. P.K Subban will orchestrate a masterful performance with all that ice available to him, while Erik Karlsson in Ottawa will make mince-meat of the competition. Both teams have goaltenders that can make huge saves, along with speed and skill up front. I appreciate your charity pal, but I’m taking home the victory belt this week.
We’ll leave that up to the readers, tell us who you think won Round 4 of Facing Off and feel free to share 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.
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.