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. Follow us on Twitter (@FacingOff_THW) and get in on the debate there too.
It’s a young man’s game.
There are more players 20 years old and under in the NHL this season than there are 35 and over.
That’s partially due to salary-cap implications and the fact that entry-level contracts are typically cheaper than veterans past their prime, but it’s also indicative of a higher skill level amongst the next generation of players. These kids — or, rather, young men — are developing faster and becoming ready for big league sooner than in years past.
That has been on full display early on, with three of the top-four picks from this year’s draft scoring in their NHL debuts. The top two have netted hat tricks already and are ranking amongst the league’s leading scorers.
The first head-to-head showdown between No. 1 Auston Matthews and No. 2 Patrik Laine was must-see TV, with Laine rallying the Winnipeg Jets from a 4-0 deficit to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-4 in overtime. Laine fired the winner over Frederik Andersen’s shoulder to complete his hat trick, immediately after Michael Hutchinson closed the five-hole on a Matthews breakaway.
That epic ending was reminiscent of another clash between the top-two selections from last season, when No. 1 Connor McDavid got the better of No. 2 Jack Eichel in an end-to-end overtime exchange to lift the Edmonton Oilers over the Buffalo Sabres.
The future is bright — and the future is now.
As for the present and this week’s Facing Off, I’m joined by Dan Mount, one of our regulars who covers the Nashville Predators. We’ll be revisiting our preseason predictions, discussing some of the surprises and impressive performances thus far, while also debating the Los Angeles Kings’ goaltending dilemma.
We put our Facing Off predictions out there a couple weeks ago. It’s obviously early, but are there any you’d want to take back or change? Or any that you’d like to double down on at this point? Are you sticking with any that don’t look great so far?
MOUNT: The big one is Chicago’s lackluster start. I’m not ready to take back the Blackhawks hoisting the Stanley Cup, but it’s a little shakier than I thought. I do like my choice of the Washington Capitals in the East. The Rangers do lead the division, but I like the way the Caps have been going. Heck, guys are losing their ears trying to block shots like Daniel Winnik did.
The Senators have me worried because I thought they would take to Guy Boucher’s new system and play better in it. Sure, Ottawa is 3-2, but I thought the Sens would get out to a better start. I’m also sweating the Flames making the postseason, and Glen Gulutzan winning the Jack Adams Trophy for coach of the year. I feel the other Alberta team is a strong candidate to make the playoffs in their stead.
FISHER: I, too, had Chicago winning the Central Division, and calling the Blackhawks’ start ‘shaky’ might be an understatement. I thought Corey Crawford would be stealing them games — I had him as my Vezina Trophy winner — but that hasn’t been the case so far. The season is young and so are the Hawks, so I’m sure Joel Quenneville will get the most out of this team before it’s all said and done.
I also predicted Sidney Crosby would lead the league in scoring and win the Hart Trophy, but this concussion is already keeping him out far longer than I anticipated. He’ll be playing catch-up, with Connor McDavid nearing double-digits already, but I wouldn’t count Crosby out either — assuming he returns at some point this week.
I did have Matthews winning the Calder and he’s the early frontrunner for rookie of the year — not that it was a “bold” predictions by any means. I also suggested he would have the biggest impact of any player new to their team this season and I’ll stand by that statement despite being mocked by Félix Sicard for going with Matthews over P.K. Subban.
My prediction of John Tortorella becoming the first coach to get fired was looking promising when Columbus stumbled out of the gate. Not so much now that the Blue Jackets bounced back to beat Chicago and Dallas on consecutive nights this weekend to get back to .500. Those wins should keep Torts safe for the time being, but that’s not to say he couldn’t still be the first to go, considering no other coaches appear to be on the chopping block based on the early results. I wouldn’t bet on Torts getting axed, but something tells me the leash is shorter for him than most of his peers. Time will tell.
Which teams have been impressing and surprising you most in the early stages of the season?
MOUNT: I have to give credit to the Vancouver Canucks so far. I thought Willie Desjardins would be the first coach fired and the team would be in the mix for the top pick in the 2017 draft. However, they and the Habs were the only teams without a regulation defeat this season before the Canucks’ loss to Anaheim on Sunday night. The Sedins have turned back the clock and Jacob Markstrom is fulfilling the promise that he’s been given for the last few years.
The Oilers have also been a nice story so far. I thought they would need one more year to really challenge for a playoff spot, but McDavid has taken the bull by the horns and embraced being the captain of the team. I couldn’t believe that he cancelled the team’s scheduled off day and really cracked the whip. The future is bright in Edmonton.
A one-game performance that I will say was surprising was the Nashville Predators’ young squad routing the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The Preds were dealing with a bout of food poisoning, but managed to put together a great game thanks to call-ups like Juuse Saros and others. This could be an early indication that the young Finn is the heir-apparent to Pekka Rinne.
FISHER: Umm, yeah, count me among the majority who expected Vancouver to be at the opposing end of the standings. I predicted the Canucks to finish dead last so, yes, I’m as shocked as anyone that they were the last team to lose a game in starting the season a perfect 4-0 at home. Desjardins and new assistant Doug Jarvis were pressing the right buttons and a healthy Brandon Sutter has been a difference-maker, but the Canucks were fortunate in winning their first three games without ever leading in regulation — twice prevailing in overtime and once in a shootout after playing from behind. That’s not normally a recipe for success and it caught up to Vancouver with consecutive setbacks on the road this weekend. This reminds me of the Coyotes’ exceeding expectations in the early stages of last season but, like with Arizona, this success won’t be sustainable over 82 games. It would still be a huge surprise to see Vancouver in the playoffs.
As for the Oilers, I was bullish in my preseason standings predictions to not only put them in a playoff position but to have Edmonton with home-ice advantage in the first round as the Pacific Division’s second seed behind only San Jose. I had the Oilers finishing with the fifth-best record in the entire Western Conference. For a team that hasn’t made the postseason in a decade — and, really, hasn’t even been close — I took a lot of criticism for that ranking, with many accusing me of being a “homer.” Sure, it’s early, but Edmonton is topping the overall standings as of today — yes, the Oilers are in first place in the entire league — and outperforming everybody’s predictions, including my own. Now that’s both surprising and impressive, and I do feel the Oilers are much more likely than the Canucks to continue their winning ways.
#Oilers are 4-0 against Western Conference teams. It took them until December 4th (27th game) to win four games vs. West last year.
— Jason Gregor (@JasonGregor) October 24, 2016
I was pretty high on the Canadiens too — ranking them second in the Atlantic behind Tampa Bay, and fourth overall in the East — but Montreal’s early success was made more surprising by the fact the Habs got off to a winning start without Carey Price, who missed the first three games with a nasty flu bug. Al Montoya filled in admirably and now that Price is back, Montreal is that much more formidable without a regulation loss through five games. The Canadiens can make it six by beating Philadelphia at the Bell Centre tonight.
Which players have been impressing and surprising you most?
MOUNT: Shea Weber has really taken a shine to being in Montreal. He’s been a calming influence on a blue line group that had lots of questions surrounding them at the beginning of the season. Weber has been hidden from the casual hockey fan in Nashville, but seems to be thriving with the added spotlight. I’ll also give a stick tap to Al Montoya, who held the fort while Price was out.
I’ll give credit to the first two picks in the draft — Matthews and Laine. I did think these two would be duking it out for rookie of the year, but I didn’t think they would burst onto the scene the way they have. Matthews is going to be the No. 1 center that Toronto fans have been wanting for years, while Laine is going to heat up an otherwise chilly Manitoba capital.
The amount of young talent is awesome to see, and I think the future is bright for this league. I can’t wait for the increased exposure the NHL will get with these dynamic young playmakers.
FISHER: I’ll throw out a handful of names here, starting with Brad Marchand, who has picked up where he left off at the World Cup and was driving Boston’s offence without Patrice Bergeron for the first few games. Accused of riding coattails in the past, Marchand has been making quite a name for himself over the last month.
Richard Panik might actually be benefitting from his linemates in Chicago, but he’s leading the league in goals, with six, and seems to have found a home in the Windy City after bouncing around a bit to start his career. The 25-year-old winger was a waiver claim by Toronto, from Tampa, then a minor-league acquisition by the Blackhawks. Score one for Stan Bowman there.
Jonathan Marchessault has been making the most of his opportunity in Florida too, slotting into Jonathan Huberdeau’s spot on the Panthers’ top line with Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr. Marchessault has produced at every level, but he had a tough time staying in Tampa’s lineup last season. I don’t think he’ll be seeing the press box any time soon, now that he’s averaging more than a point per game (3-4-7 in 5 games, tied for eighth in the scoring race).
What a start for Jonathan Marchessault.
— Florida Panthers (@FlaPanthers) October 23, 2016
On defence, Kris Russell has been a pleasant surprise for the Oilers. There was a big-time buyer beware cast from the analytics community, but Russell has been worth every penny thus far. His shot-blocking prowess was to be expected, but his puck-moving ability, sound positioning and overall compete level is endearing Russell to Edmonton fans — regardless of his Corsi.
"Oilers D-man Kris Russell proof that analytics don’t tell whole story"https://t.co/a7QNvGPq3f
— Tye Kalyn (@akaRCN) October 19, 2016
Last but not least, Jakob Chychrun is making a lot of teams look foolish for passing on him at this year’s draft. He fell all the way to 16th overall — Arizona traded up to take him there — and wound up being the fifth defenceman selected, but Chychrun hasn’t looked out of place as a rookie in producing three points through his first four NHL games. Good for him, and good for Coyotes rookie GM John Chayka for making that move to get Chychrun.
If the season ended today, three Canadian teams would make the playoffs — Edmonton, Montreal and Vancouver. How many do you foresee actually making the cut? And which ones?
MOUNT: I think we’ll get two teams at this rate — Montreal and Edmonton. If there is a third team that makes it, I’ll say Ottawa. I still think the wheels eventually fall off in Vancouver and the Canucks become a lottery team. However, it won’t be as painful as some think, and they won’t be the worst team in the league. (That dubious honor will fall to Carolina.)
I did have the Canadiens making the conference final because I think Price gives them a boatload of confidence they didn’t have last season. He can cover up a lot of mistakes made by the defense, and that gives the ability to join the rush if they so desire.
Edmonton looks like a playoff team thanks to McDavid’s leadership. I do like the grit and attitude that Milan Lucic gives the Oilers. The team has an edge to it and someone that is willing to get his hands dirty if needed. The Oilers will be in the mix to finally end their long drought.
— Facing Off (@FacingOff_THW) October 24, 2016
FISHER: I’m sticking with my prediction of four Canadian teams in the playoffs — Montreal and Ottawa in the East, Edmonton and Winnipeg in the West.
I’m with Dan on the likelihood of Vancouver crashing at some point but, crazy as it might seem, I could see Toronto coming close if the young Maple Leafs learn how to protect a lead and Frederik Andersen remembers how to stop a puck. If not for lacklustre goaltending, the Leafs could be right up there with the Oilers right now.
Edmonton has been getting the saves it needs from Cam Talbot, and that’s been the biggest difference between those two teams. The Oilers’ overhauled defence has been doing a better job in front of Talbot too, and nobody is pushing Edmonton around this season with Lucic just one of several big bodies up front. Peter Chiarelli put his stamp on the roster, making the Oilers harder to play against, and Todd McLellan has been teaching them how to win. So far, so good, although I don’t see Edmonton winning the Presidents’ Trophy.
I was even higher on Winnipeg than Edmonton — I had the Jets finishing fourth in the West, third in the Central — but I knew that might have been a bit ambitious. I really like the Jets’ roster and Laine has been living up to the hype. Once the Jacob Trouba situation is sorted out, Winnipeg will get another boost one way or the other. Connor Hellebuyck is only going to get better in goal as the season goes on, so I’m still expecting the Jets to eventually soar up the standings.
Ottawa will have its work cut out, especially if Florida keeps it up, but the Senators should be in that wild-card mix. I had Ottawa fifth in the East and third in the Atlantic, but Craig Anderson will need to step it up for the Senators to reach those heights. Should Anderson falter and the other Andersen regain his form from Anaheim, Toronto would be my sleeper pick to make it in the East. Either way, I’m predicting four Canadian teams in the playoffs — two per conference.
What should the Los Angeles Kings do about their goaltending situation? Do they need a replacement for Jonathan Quick? If so, who makes the most sense?
MOUNT: I think they need to bring in some sort of veteran netminder at this point. Ondrej Pavelec is the first name that comes to mind, but he struggled mightily when he was with the Jets.
There’s another name the Kings could pursue and that’s Jonathan Bernier. I know it’s odd for the Kings to make a deal with the archrival Ducks, but it could serve a need. Los Angeles could get the goalie it needs, and Anaheim could refill its prospect pool with some of L.A.’s better prospects.
If the Kings have any designs on getting into the postseason, they need to make a move sooner rather than later.
— Facing Off (@FacingOff_THW) October 24, 2016
FISHER: I’ll be honest, I hadn’t thought of Bernier. That’s a good call, considering he’s a former King. The Ducks still need to create cap space to get Hampus Lindholm signed, so there would be incentive from Anaheim’s perspective as well. I’m not sure Bernier would cost L.A. any top prospects, but it would likely be a futures deal to accommodate that cap relief. Anaheim has Dustin Tokarski in the minors as a capable backup to John Gibson. The more I think about it, the more I like this idea.
Quick is expected to miss at least three months, so the Kings are unlikely to stick it out with Peter Budaj and Jeff Zatkoff, who also suffered a groin injury on the weekend. Pavelec would come even cheaper than Bernier, with Winnipeg presumably willing to retain salary and probably open to taking back a throw-in contract if need be.
Jean-Francois Berube is another former King who would seemingly be available as the Islanders’ third-stringer, but Berube is largely unproven. The Kings could make a pitch for Thomas Greiss from the Islanders or another more established backup like Minnesota’s Darcy Kuemper.
Florida has Reto Berra in the minors, while Anders Lindback is still without a contract for this season. There hasn’t been much information about Karri Ramo’s recovery from knee surgery, but he could warrant consideration once healthy.
Arizona is likely in the market for another goalie too, with Mike Smith sidelined week-to-week, and San Jose might be looking for an upgrade on Aaron Dell as Martin Jones’ backup. So Los Angeles could have some competition, but I wouldn’t anticipate any bidding wars over the aforementioned names. None of them are near Quick’s calibre, so the Kings will be feeling that pain for the foreseeable future.
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.