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.
There’s something about leaning into a slapshot that can result in a great release of pent up emotion — just ask Doug Caliendo.
This young man’s story stood out more than any big-league headline over the past week, with the 17-year-old defenceman firing in a game-winner for his high-school team but more so for his father, who had succumbed to colon cancer earlier in the day.
Yes, that same day.
The kid incredibly managed the strength to suit up and prove that life goes on in heroic fashion, with an assist from the heavens. Hockey is so much more than a game, and this touching tale was one you had to see to believe. Fortunately, for those of us not in West Haven, Conn., Doug’s special moment was caught on camera for the rest of the world to witness.
Once you’ve got the tissues put away, please welcome Kristi Loucks, our guest contributor this week who happens to be one of THW’s newer-but-better Blackhawks writers. Kristi is the second female to join the Facing Off team — following Marcy Di Michele’s appearance in late November — and, let it be known, these women can hold their own when it comes to talking hockey.
Kristi is a legit talent and it’ll only be a matter of time until she’s covering Chicago games from the Madhouse on Madison. Speaking of mad — and full disclosure here — but Kristi edged me out by a mere 51 pageviews last month (23,487 to 23,436), so I’m going to have to step up my game in February to keep pace with this promising prospect. You can check out some of Kristi’s stellar work here, including this uniquely cool post:
— The Hockey Writers (@TheHockeyWriter) February 3, 2016
As is becoming tradition for our guest editions of Facing Off every fifth week, we tend to highlight at least a few topics pertaining to the team they cover so, with Kristi, there will be plenty of Hawk Talk!
Let’s start with a former Hawk, John Scott, who was a smash hit at the All-Star Game. Based on his success, should the NHL embrace the “outcasts” and welcome a perceived lesser talent every year? Or is it time to turn the page on this Cinderella story and just stick to the real stars in the future by placing restrictions on fan voting?
FISHER: First off, what a great story Scott’s presence turned out to be — it truly was movie-worthy, and I’d watch it play out again on the big screen. But sequels never seem to live up to the original, so I’m not all that interested in seeing a real-life encore. The gig is up, as far as I’m concerned — it could never be duplicated, nor should it be attempted. There’s no need to turn the All-Star Game into more of a sideshow than it already is, even if it would bring a ratings boom (which Scott did).
Scott accomplished many things on All-Star Weekend, two of which stand out to me in the big picture. He humanized the big, bad enforcers, reminding us all not to judge a book by its cover and proving that professional face-punchers can be some of the most genuine, kind-hearted people away from their bill-paying role. Secondly, he unintentionally, through this entire ordeal, exposed flaws in the fan-voting process. It’s no secret that Gary Bettman is a square, well, straight-edged guy who doesn’t want his league to be cast in a playful light. He might not have a sense of humour, but he respects the history of the game and doesn’t want to make a mockery of it. It’s the NHL, not the XFL, and Bettman is calling the shots for another six years, not Vince McMahon. So don’t expect any more Scott-esque shenanigans to play out on Bettman’s watch — even if it was good for business in the end. Scott certainly added intrigue and entertainment value but, when the clock struck midnight, he was still the bearded woman at the circus and that’s not an image Bettman wants to portray. For that, I applaud him — Bettman, not Scott.
— Frank Seravalli (@frank_seravalli) February 1, 2016
LOUCKS: It really is a double-edged sword. Given the way that the whole story unfolded for Scott, it couldn’t have been scripted any better, and I think that the success he had probably revitalized the All-Star Game as much, or more than the format change. Having said that, I’m not sure they could replicate it if they tried.
However, I do think that should another situation like this arise, the league really needs to consider embracing it with more of a sense of humor. Even though this one had a storybook ending, had Scott bowed down to Bettman, it likely would have had very bad long-term ramifications for the league. The lengths they attempted to go to in order to keep him out made them look like the villains and put a new shoe on Scott’s foot as that is a role that he is more accustomed to.
The outcome was about as good as they ever could have hoped for, but I am not sure the fans will be so quick to forgive any more underhanded attempts to re-write scripts as Bettman/NHL pulled here. While I can certainly understand his desire to ‘purify’ the All-Star voting process and maintain the integrity of the league and the game, having a player like Scott is no more detrimental than a bunch of highly-skilled players dressing up in silly costumes to win the Breakaway Challenge. If they want it to be taken more seriously, that might be a better place to start.
As far as voting goes, in the age of the internet and social media, good luck keeping the voting under control. It will never happen. So, they have a couple of choices. They can either fully embrace the dark-horse votes and hope that the interest loses its appeal, or they can try to limit it by having a set ballot where teams elect a certain number of players to be eligible and there is no deviation from the ballot. It is also probably a good idea not to leave the vote 100 per cent in the hands of the fans.
This year, they only let them vote on one spot per division (the captains), and that didn’t work, so perhaps it’s time to let them vote for everyone with a set ballot and only let their votes count as a percentage and have GMs or media have a vote that will finalize the tally.
Whatever they do, every team should have at least one representative.
What was Dennis Wideman thinking? Or what was the league thinking in suspending him 20 games? Did the punishment fit the crime?
FISHER: In case you missed it, Wideman, a Calgary Flames defenceman, decked an unsuspecting linesman in a game against Nashville just prior to the All-Star break. That’s obviously a big no-no — the rule book clearly states that any contact with an official, be it incidental or intentional, results in a minimum 10-game suspension. It’s never open season on the zebras, nor should it be. They are not fair game in their role as the on-ice policemen. Everybody knows that, Wideman included.
Now, that we’ve established those guidelines, this suspension is hogwash! Rules are made to be broken and I expected a maximum of five games, which is half of the so-called minimum but more in line with past suspensions for similar incidents. Instead, Wideman got double, which could force him to miss a quarter of the season and thus forfeit more than $1 million in earnings. That is a harsh, heavy-handed overreaction to what seemed, to me, like an accidental collision. I’ve listened to Wideman’s recollection and I believe it, but obviously the league officials at his hearing didn’t buy it and decided to make an example of him. They must have determined this “hit” to be both intentional contact and excessive force to come to that kind of conclusion. To which I vehemently disagree — and I’m the furthest thing from a Flames homer.
From my perspective, as a guy who played the game — which Mr. Bettman did not — Wideman was shaken up from being on the receiving end of a hard hit moments earlier and was just trying to get off the ice when the linesman got in his path. Still woozy, Wideman saw a body — not necessarily an official — in front of the benches and pushed his way past as players often do during crowded line changes. That is, believe it or not, “a hockey play”. It happens multiple times a game, it just happened that this time the body Wideman shoved was wearing stripes. I believe it was an honest mistake, a case of mistaken identity — the Predators were notably wearing white jerseys, not their golds — or even more harmlessly, a sudden encounter that Wideman, still shaking his cobwebs, tried to sidestep at the last second but couldn’t avoid. Either way, I think it looks worse than it was, but if you watch it closely — and if you played the game, to understand the situation there — it doesn’t appear malicious by any means.
A few more things to take into account. Wideman is not a rookie, nor a goon — he has played 810 career NHL games with 493 combined penalty minutes. He doesn’t have a lengthy rap sheet, nor is he known for retaliatory fits of rage. And he hasn’t, to my knowledge, had any past run-ins with that specific lineman, Don Henderson. So, there is really no reason to suspect Wideman did this on purpose.
Given those facts, it comes as no surprise that Wideman has appealed with the full support of the Players’ Association. It wouldn’t hurt for Henderson to speak up too — sadly, officials are not allowed to talk to the media — because I think his say could go a long way in rationalizing what went down. Henderson is a big boy and, chances are, he played the game before becoming an official, so he would be able to relate to where Wideman is coming from. When all is said and done, I’d be shocked if the suspension wasn’t reduced to 10 games, if not fewer. I still think five was an appropriate number, to hold Wideman accountable for his actions.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) February 4, 2016
Key here is NHL acknowledges that Wideman was diagnosed with a concussion, but still deems him responsible. https://t.co/Pqp837AwKc
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) February 4, 2016
LOUCKS: If the league calls it a mandatory 10 games, they need to stick to that. If they are wishy-washy (which they generally are), they will get push-back from both the NHLPA and the Zebras. If they have hard and fast rules in place and stick to them, these issues would not be debated. However, they rarely stick to a set script on suspensions. This goes back to Raffi Torres even. If you know you are going to get 40 games, maybe you think twice about it (though he is a sociopath and it is highly unlikely anything will deter him).
The same thing applies here. If you know hitting a ref (whether intentional, or not) will get you 10 games — or 20 games — that might be more of a deterrent. Though, I think in the case of hitting the refs the player’s history should have little bearing. If they hit them, you sit them.
I do agree, 20 games does seems a bit excessive. The bigger concern here, and I suspect this is going to be a whole new can of worms, is that they are now saying he was concussed. That should put the spotlight on Calgary for allowing him to continue playing as well. It should also create a bit of a grey area that should help the NHLPA get the number of games reduced as they appeal the ruling.
I didn’t think it looked malicious, but it was a little bothersome that he just skated around him and went to the bench. Even if he did think it was a Predator on the ground, when you see someone flailing around in pain, it seems like a good idea to at least acknowledge it, and I think that might have been a small part of the logic behind the heavy suspension.
The league has an obligation to make the refs feel safe on the ice, so they have taken a hard stance. If they had not, it seems like it might have caused more backlash with the boys in the stripes than having to deal with the NHLPA, so that was likely another factor. The NHL had to know that an appeal would come regardless.
Here’s a hybrid of our first two topics — part All-Star, part suspension. Alex Ovechkin and Jonathan Toews were forced to miss a regular-season game for skipping All-Star Weekend to rest, or rather to “heal nagging injuries.” Should the All-Star Game be mandatory or optional? Are these suspensions reasonable or ridiculous?
FISHER: I’ll say reasonable, and mandatory is fine by me in terms of promoting the sport with its biggest stars. If it wasn’t mandatory, the majority of those stars would be booking tropical vacations instead of lacing them up for a fun-yet-boring showcase full of media commitments and fan interactions. Fun-yet-boring, how’s that for an oxymoron? It’s true, though, if you talk to players — especially the perennial All-Stars — this event is both a bore and a chore. Sure, they get to hang out with their buddies from years past and party it up a bit — therein lies the “fun” part — but most would find better things to do, with or without those buddies, if the All-Star Game was optional.
With that said, you shouldn’t have to show up hobbling around on crutches or with an arm in a cast or your jaw wired shut. If a player is legitimately injured and ruled out by a league doctor — not a team doctor — then that is an excusable absence. However, if players are participating in their teams’ final games before the All-Star break and taking regular shifts — as both Ovechkin and Toews were — then they can suck up whatever little aches and pains they’re experiencing for the league’s greater good and make an appearance (like everybody else). Nobody is without bumps and bruises at this point in the season.
Their attendance was a fair expectation, even if they ended up coasting around (like everybody else), or opting out of certain aspects of the skills competition. As long as they were present in body — like Jaromir Jagr — that was the main thing. By no-showing, it cost them some pocket cash and, more importantly, cost their teams a game without one of their best players (in these cases, their captains). I have no problem with that deterrent to ditching the All-Star Game . . . but I do think Sidney Crosby should have been given first dibs at replacing Ovechkin on the Metro team! An argument for another day, of course.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) February 5, 2016
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) February 5, 2016
LOUCKS: I absolutely have no problem with the league enforcing suspensions for players abusing the system, but when they are legitimately ill or injured, I think that it is a bit ridiculous. As to your mention of both players being on the ice in games prior, Toews actually did miss part of the game before the break. Ovechkin, I believe played. I also agree that Crosby would have been a better replacement for Ovie, but I’m betting Crosby wasn’t jumping up and down to give up his break.
I also think that their attendance is a fair expectation, however if there are extenuating circumstances, there should be exceptions. After all, the NHL isn’t exactly known for sticking to their own guidelines when it comes to slew-footing, or illegal hits. The punishments are tailored to the player in question, so under the circumstances, I think they should offer the same benefit for the All-Star Game. Toews and Ovechkin have always participated in years past, and it is likely they will play for years to come as well.
I highly doubt either of them enjoyed the idea of watching their teams play without them. With that in mind, I think if they felt they could have participated without further risk to their health — resulting in a longer absence than a one-game suspension — they would have played. For Toews to choose to sit out and leave the team without his services for even one game at this stage of the season just doesn’t seem like something he would do just to sit on a beach. Probably not Ovechkin either, but I don’t know as much about him from that standpoint.
Do the Blackhawks have the top line in hockey with Patrick Kane, Artem Anisimov and Artemi Panarin? The stats say yes, but what say you?
FISHER: I’m going to say no, partly because I want to let Kristi go to bat for her boys, but partly because I believe other lines are still more potent despite inferior point totals. Kane might be the best player in the league right now — granted, Crosby has been the best since the calendar flipped to 2016 — but some still see Kane’s line as the second unit for Chicago. That Toews, Marian Hossa and whoever their wingman is — lately, Andrew Shaw — comprise the top line or, rather, the more clutch line.
Perhaps we should start by defining “top” line. Are we talking the most dangerous line at any time, or the most likely to deliver when the game is on the line? I tend to lean towards the latter, and Kane’s line wouldn’t be my first choice under those circumstances. They are fun to watch and have uncanny chemistry — it looks like they have been playing together for four years, not four months — but I’d look to Dallas, Washington or perhaps even Pittsburgh for my go-to guys.
The Stars have loaded up their top line with Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and former Hawk Patrick Sharp (or sometimes Jason Spezza), so that’s as formidable as it gets. The Capitals have been rolling right along with Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and off-season acquisition T.J. Oshie, which has me tempted to tap them over Kane’s trio as well. With the Penguins, it’s pick your poison — with Crosby centering Chris Kunitz and Patric Hornqvist, or Evgeni Malkin centering Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin.
After watching Kane & Co., thoroughly dominate Dallas on the weekend, it’s difficult to go against them. Literally, all the numbers are in their favour — they have combined for 160 points on the season, five more than the next-best Stars’ trio — but in terms of talent-for-talent line-matching, I’d take Benn-Seguin-Sharp over anybody else.
LOUCKS: I’m really on the fence with this one. I watch them every day and they never disappoint. I am also quite familiar with Sharp and have watched that line pretty closely all year as well. As far as who the top line is, I think it has been a two-horse race between the Stars’ and Blackhawks’ top producers all year. A month ago, I would have said the Dallas trio, but they have not been nearly as consistent of late. So, between the two, I would lean more towards the Kane-Anisimov-Panarin line.
As to Larry’s suggestion of Crosby’s line. I am going to have to disagree there. For me, the top criteria would be consistency. While Crosby has been the most consistent in 2016, he was by far the least consistent in the first three months of the season. Even to the point that people were starting to wonder if he should be trade bait (which, if we are being honest was a dumb idea, because we all knew he’d bounce back eventually). However, because of that inconsistency, I would say Crosby is pretty low on my list.
I agree that the Ovechkin line is also pretty potent, and they are most definitely the top line for the Capitals. Though, I don’t think they fall into the top-line conversation in terms of production. Together, Oshie, Ovechkin and Backstrom have produced 45 points at even strength, which accounts for 10 per cent of Washington’s total offence. The Stars’ trio has a slight edge there at 12 per cent (55 points), but the Blackhawks’ line blows them both out of the water at a whopping 23 per cent (97 points).
Those numbers don’t lie, so I’m going to give this one to the Blackhawks. Yes, they have the top-scoring threat in the league in Kane, and they are riding his coattails to some extent, but in terms of production and the fact that they are just damn fun to watch, that title is theirs to lose. The three of them have played together nearly every game without much deviation, they have consistently produced just about every night, and ultimately Kane doesn’t have a 26-game point streak without his two linemates. He’s having a great year, but that is due in large part to the chemistry he has with Panarin and Anisimov.
How do you bet against two guys that can make the puck disappear and reappear in the back of the net like Harry Potter on either side of a guy who can play clean up better than Molly Maids? The three of them complement each other about as well as any trio in recent memory.
What I will give you is that Seguin has been one of my favorite players since he came into the league no matter where he played (and I am far from a Bruins fan). He is so much fun to watch, and I am absolutely thrilled to see that Sharp is doing well beside him.
I talked to so many fans last year who said Sharp was washed up, and I always believed that his drop in production was a direct result of his place in the lineup. He had been a top-line winger for a long time, and last season he lost that spot to Brandon Saad. He was even dropped off the second line in favor of Kris Versteeg, so I always felt he would bounce back and I am happy to see him doing just that.
I don’t think they are the league’s top line, based on the inconsistent production of late, but I am really looking forward to seeing what they do as the season winds down. Especially because the Blackhawks will face them several more times.
Some say Panarin is “too old” to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Do you think he deserves to be in the running, and do you have him as the frontrunner as of today?
FISHER: The real question here is, can Panarin hear Connor McDavid’s footsteps yet? All kidding aside, it’s shaping up to be quite the race to the finish for one of the best rookie classes in recent memory. Panarin’s age isn’t a huge concern for me, he’s been a pleasant surprise as an undrafted Russian signing who has taken the NHL by storm (thanks in large part to Kane). Panarin deserves to be on the ballot — as one of the three finalists — if the season ended today. That said, he wouldn’t get my vote.
Jack Eichel is coming on strong and he’s my current favourite to win the Calder, not so much because of the age discrepancy, but more because of Eichel’s single-handed impact on the Sabres. He’s become a difference-maker, a game-breaker on his own for Buffalo. I’m not accusing Panarin of riding Kane’s coattails, but he has that working against him in terms of the league-wide perception.
All eyes will be on McDavid the rest of the way, to see what he can do to get back into this conversation. His heroic return from injury — highlighted by a goal-of-the-year candidate — sparked debate over what kind of a stat-line it would take for McDavid to win the Calder despite missing three months, but he’s chasing an impressive pack that also includes fellow forwards Dylan Larkin in Detroit and Max Domi in Arizona, goaltenders Connor Hellebuyck in Winnipeg and John Gibson in Anaheim, plus defenceman Shayne Gostisbehere in Philadelphia. That’s eight legitimate contenders with roughly a third of the season remaining — hang onto your hats, but I have Eichel emerging victorious, unless McDavid blows the doors off. It was supposed to be a two-horse race from the start, and I still envision one of them getting called to the stage in the end.
LOUCKS: I’m not sure that McDavid can catch the frontrunners in the Calder race with so few games remaining, but it would sure be fun to see him try. I won’t say that it is impossible, but it is improbable.
With that said, I love Panarin, but I don’t even think he wants to win the Calder. In his mind, he is too old and has too much experience to be considered a rookie. For me, age is not a factor if a goalie can win the Calder (they are generally older by the time they are making an impact in the NHL), then anyone who is considered a rookie should be eligible. Panarin fits that criteria, so if he won it, I would have no problem with it.
However, my frontrunner for the Calder is Larkin. I know, Blackhawks fans are going to want to burn me at the stake for that one, but I think he has been just spectacular for the Red Wings. I enjoy Eichel, but Larkin has been the most consistent of the two throughout the entire season and you could also argue that he is having more of an immediate impact on his team. Of course, Eichel has a lot less to work with as the Sabres remain at the bottom of the league.
The other thing I have noticed with Eichel is that he has seemed to lack confidence at times, and when that happens, he almost looks like he starts to second-guess himself. That is obviously going to improve with experience, but you don’t see that with McDavid, Panarin or Larkin.
As for possible goalies, I think it is a long-shot. For me, the only goalies in the conversation are Gibson or Hellebuyck. However, when I say long-shot, I really mean their names will come up, not that they’ll win. For me, it is a three-horse race with Larkin edging out Panarin by the tiniest of margins. I’d be thrilled to see Panarin win, and I think he is worthy of it, but I really believe that it will be Larkin barring some major slides or heroics from any of the candidates. Though Panarin is going to make it tough — he had four game-winning goals in January alone — and I’m not sure that Larkin will catch him as far as scoring goes.
Here’s your chance, Kristi, put yourself in Stan Bowman’s shoes for a minute. With the trade deadline looming at the end of the month, what moves would you make to help put the Blackhawks over the top again (staying within the salary cap)? Or can the current roster repeat as Cup champs without any additions?
LOUCKS: That’s an easy one, and I’m sure that a lot of people will be thinking WHAT?!?
Kris Versteeg. They are in dire need of a left wing with some offensive talent. He would fit under the cap, knows the system, has an expiring contract, and has the offensive talent to play anywhere in the lineup.
He is not Saad, but with several new additions in place already, he doesn’t need to be. That top line needs a left wing, and Versteeg can fit the bill there. He has high-end skill, good speed, plays responsibly, and right now he is playing like the Versteeg of old. He certainly wouldn’t hurt the team, and Chicago does love Steeger.
I’m not sure who they would move, possibly Ville Pokka, as he has seemingly dropped down the depth chart behind Erik Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg. I don’t see them parting with any of the players currently playing at the NHL level, so a low pick could likely factor in as well. I don’t see a big blockbuster move on the horizon, but this one could make sense. I think had they been able to trade Bryan Bickell in the off-season, Versteeg would still be in Chicago.
If they do anything, it will be a left wing. I think they are happy with the young guys coming up on the blue-line at this point and Michal Roszival is having a very good year. He is currently playing every other game but, come playoff time, he will be the No. 6 defenseman. Rob Scuderi will likely be the odd man out at that point.
Before Andrew Shaw found a rhythm on the top line, I thought there was a chance his name might come up in trade conversations (I know Blackhawks fans, I can hear your collective gasps from here, and I’m with you!), but with Phillip Danault’s play and Shaw’s ability to fit anywhere this season, I think the guy most in danger of losing his spot out of all the RFAs could be fan-favorite Marcus Kruger in the off-season. Unless he proves indispensable in the playoffs.
The Blackhawks would have a hard time replacing Shaw’s grit and net-front presence, and Danault has proven that he can handle the grind and has been quite good in Kruger’s stead both 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill. Everyone held their breath thinking an injury to Kruger would be catastrophic, and yet Danault slipped in and made everyone forget. The rookie’s numbers aren’t flashy, but that is still a feat no matter how you look at things.
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.