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. Facing Off also has its own Twitter handle now (@FacingOff_THW), so follow us there and get in on the debate.
Fittingly, with the Stanley Cup Final starting tonight, this might be our hardest-hitting edition to date.
It’s been 44 weeks and counting since Facing Off debuted back in early August, but I can’t recall a Monday with more to debate.
So, rather than rambling about this or that, let’s get right down to business . . .
What’s your prediction for the Stanley Cup Final? Who wins it and in how many games? Who’s getting your Conn Smythe vote as of today?
FISHER: I’m going Penguins in seven. I just think, at the end of the day, skill wins out and Pittsburgh has more of it. San Jose is a deeper team and is built for the playoffs with some bigger bodies, but the Sharks’ defence hasn’t had to deal with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in these playoffs. I think those two can still take their games to another level in the Stanley Cup Final and be difference-makers for Pittsburgh.
In saying that, San Jose’s veterans, specifically Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, might want it more and may be able to will the Sharks to victory. I expect a long, entertaining series and would be shocked if it was over in four or five games. I don’t expect either of the young goaltenders — Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray nor San Jose’s Martin Jones — to wilt under the increased pressure, but I do anticipate some higher-scoring games this round.
The Western Conference has won four straight Stanley Cups — thanks to Chicago and Los Angeles, with two each — but I see Crosby getting the Eastern Conference back on top this time around. But what do I know? I’m only 5-for-14 through three rounds of playoff predictions, which is equally embarrassing and humbling — the 2-for-8 start in the first round really made a fool of me, but I’ve been batting .500 since then. I did get the Penguins right and the Sharks wrong in the conference finals, so I’ll stick with Pittsburgh.
If Crosby steps up the way I assume he will, then he could emerge as the Conn Smythe winner. He did score three of Pittsburgh’s four game-winning goals against Tampa Bay. However, as of today, San Jose captain Joe Pavelski has to be the frontrunner. He’s been scoring clutch goals for the Sharks throughout the playoffs despite Logan Couture putting up more points. From Pittsburgh, Murray and Phil Kessel are probably ahead of Crosby for Conn Smythe consideration right now, but I expect that to change over the next seven games. I’m going with Crosby and the Penguins for the win.
— Facing Off (@FacingOff_THW) May 27, 2016
MOUNT: Sorry, Larry, but I’m going with San Jose in six games. I love their defensive depth more than Pittsburgh’s. Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Paul Martin and the rest of the crew form one formidable stable of blue-liners. I think the Pens will feel the loss of Trevor Daley in this series. Granted, Pittsburgh’s defense has been fairly solid and giving Kris Letang a lot of help.
However, this is the best defensive group that the Penguins will have to go against. I think the Sharks will try to initiate with defense a little more with blue-line rushes to pressure the Pens’ D-men.
Both teams are super deep, so I’ll say they are close to even. However, I’ll give Jones the edge in net because he’s learned at the feet of Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles. Jones did play in a few postseason games when Quick struggled and I think his defense will make life a little easier.
If San Jose wins, I’ll take Pavelski to win the Conn Smythe. Couture deserves some consideration, as does Thornton and Burns. However, “Pavs” has been the man for San Jose. I’ll take Kessel if the Penguins win because he’s been a stud anchoring that HBK Line with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino. Crosby, Murray and Letang deserve some love from the voters, but Kessel would be my first choice.
Which players have been impressing you most in these playoffs — be it stars or unsung heroes? Which players have exceeded your expectations? Try to pick just three (or fewer) for each.
FISHER: In terms of stars, the Joes — both Pavelski and Thornton — have been extremely impressive in carrying San Jose to this point. Nikita Kucherov can now be considered a bona fide star after his playoff performance and Tampa teammate Jonathan Drouin a budding one too. I guess that’s four, not three, but Drouin could fall under the exceeding expectations category for me. The way Drouin responded on the ice says a lot about his actual character and it’s looking like he’ll be part of the Lightning’s long-term core and no longer be trade bait.
Mattias Ekholm really opened my eyes to his talent level in this postseason. Nashville has another defensive stud in him, and it wasn’t at all surprising to see Ekholm earn the final spot on Sweden’s blue-line for the World Cup. Well deserved from what I saw.
This list could go on and on — for example, I really liked Thomas Hickey’s efforts for the Islanders — but I’ll round it out with St. Louis rookie Robby Fabbri. He rose to the occasion for the Blues as an offensive catalyst and was a big reason they made it to the conference final. Fabbri probably should have made Team North America for his contributions, but that was a tough squad to crack beyond the initial 16.
MOUNT: Of the teams left, I love Hagelin and Bonino. Both showed flashes of greatness in previous locations, but they’ve really broken out in Pittsburgh. Living in Upstate New York, I dreaded seeing Hagelin getting dealt because he would come back to bite the Rangers. I bet Anaheim fans are stewing a little, seeing two former Ducks thrive in their new location.
For San Jose, I’m really loving the growth of Joonas Donskoi. He’s got great puck vision and can score if he gets an opportunity in front of the net. Tomas Hertl was the one people talked about last season, but I think Donskoi’s ceiling can be just as high.
I did like how Colin Wilson broke out of his injury-riddled season for the Predators this postseason. He really made a difference in Nashville’s first-round upset of Anaheim. The goals may not have gone in during the regular season, but he’ll always work hard for whatever line he’s placed on. Let’s hope it’s the start of some sustained success for him.
Don Cherry ranted about how Steven Stamkos shouldn’t have been playing in Game 7. What’s your take on that situation? And do you think this is the end of the Stamkos era in Tampa Bay? Or are you expecting him to sign an extension with the Lightning now?
FISHER: I grew up on Grapes being gospel, but the older I get, the more I tune him out. I get the point he was trying to make here — that if Stamkos was good to go for Game 7, why wasn’t he fit to play Game 6? — and a player’s health should be of the utmost concern, but I applaud Stamkos for suiting up. He’s the leader of that Tampa team and it meant a lot to him to be in the lineup. Sure, Stamkos only played 11 minutes and perhaps showed signs of rust from his two-month layoff, but he nearly scored on a breakaway and if that goal goes in, this is probably a different story. Good on him for coming back and giving it a go — Stamkos left it all on the ice.
In saying that, I do believe Stamkos is leaving Tampa Bay. Not because he wants to, but because Steve Yzerman is faced with a difficult decision and Stamkos’ contract demands will likely price him out of town. Stamkos can’t afford to take a hometown discount to stay, not as this summer’s marquee free agent with the rest of the NHLPA counting on him cashing in. Stamkos is worth more than Anze Kopitar — $80 million over eight years — and it’s possible that he gets into triple digits over a decade-long deal. Yes, more than $100 million over 10-plus years. That’ll be too rich for Tampa and Yzerman will focus his energy on locking up Victor Hedman to avoid a similar situation next year. The Lightning made it that far without Stamkos, so Yzerman can be confident in their ability to do it again providing he retains the rest of the roster. Kucherov could be in line for a Vladimir Tarasenko-type extension — $60 million over eight years — so that should be another priority for Yzerman, along with Tyler Johnson.
As for Stamkos, I do see a homecoming in his future. Toronto will be able to afford him even at that exorbitant price, and bringing Stamkos into the fold would take a ton of pressure off Auston Matthews. They would be quite the 1-2 punch down the middle for the Leafs, or perhaps the addition of Stamkos makes it more likely that Toronto takes Patrik Laine first overall instead of Matthews?
This may be too early to ask, but has Stamkos played his last game for #TBLightning?
— The 4th Line Hockey Podcast (@4thLinePodcast) May 27, 2016
MOUNT: I thought you watched Grapes for the fashion tips, Larry? I’m like you in that I’ve started to think Mr. Cherry is a little bit antiquated in his views. Stammer was coming off a blood clot and you don’t fool around with that. I’m sure there were a team of doctors begging him not to risk it, but the game might have been a great chance for him and the team to get back to the final. Jon Cooper had to roll the dice on his best player because an 80 per cent Stamkos is better than most.
I hate to disagree with you, but Stamkos is staying in Tampa Bay. The man wants to win a Stanley Cup and won’t be doing it any time soon if he comes back home to Toronto. He’s got a good thing going with the Bolts and he can do it without the bloodthirsty Toronto media doing storm team coverage of what he had for breakfast. Yzerman is a smart GM and he’ll find the money to keep his top asset. The lure to return to Toronto will be great, but the Lightning are on the cusp of bringing the Cup back to Florida.
The World Cup rosters have been finalized — which snubs or surprises stand out to you? Which decision do you think would have been the most difficult? Do those additions change your medal predictions at all?
FISHER: Oh boy, where to start . . . well, Kessel has to be the most obvious just because the Americans took several inferior forwards. Ryan Callahan, really? REALLY? I’d be livid if I were Kessel, but he’ll probably laugh it off and enjoy the extra rest. Team USA is going to struggle to score and part of that is going to be a lack of offence from the back end, which makes it mindboggling that Kevin Shattenkirk and Justin Faulk were left off the roster for Jack Johnson of all people. Dean Lombardi is smarter than his roster suggests, so I’m thinking John Tortorella had too much say in the final makeup — six players named to the team have played for Torts in the NHL, which says a lot in my opinion. The Americans won’t make the semifinals of that eight-team tournament.
Canada had a couple shockers too, starting with Jake Muzzin making it over P.K. Subban and Kris Letang, among others, because of Mike Babcock’s obsession with left-right defence pairings. That goes back to the 2014 Olympic team when Marc-Edouard Vlasic made the cut instead of Brent Seabrook for the same reason, though Vlasic proved his worth and nobody objected to his inclusion this time around. Reality is, Canada has too many elite righties and not enough good lefties, but it comes back to that same argument of taking inferior talent. Subban makes the cut on my Canadian roster regardless of which way he shoots.
Taylor Hall also makes my Team Canada (ahead of Claude Giroux), John Klingberg should have been on Sweden’s roster (rather than Niklas Kronwall), and I’d take Fabbri and Alex Galchenyuk over J.T. Miller and Sean Couturier on Team North America, but that became a numbers’ game based on decisions made months ago. Oh, and what in the world is Slava Voynov doing on Russia’s roster? Lots of headscratchers there as well, with the omissions of Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov signifying a changing of the guard behind the Iron Curtain.
I still have Canada winning gold, Sweden silver and Finland bronze. It’s a shame that North America got placed in the tougher pool because I think that team would have finished second in Canada’s pool regardless of which team it replaced. I’ll be cheering for North America to pull off some upsets and make the semis, maybe even medal.
— Facing Off (@FacingOff_THW) May 27, 2016
MOUNT: I have to ask what Tortorella and USA Hockey are thinking in leaving Kessel and Tyler Johnson off the roster. I love Justin Abdelkader’s toughness, but this is going to be a skill-based tournament. Johnson is a creative player that can thrive in open space, and Kessel has really turned the corner since leaving Toronto. I know there’s a reputation around Kessel, but he was a monster for Team USA in the Olympics the last time he suited up for the Stars and Stripes.
The Hall and Klingberg snubs puzzle me too. Hall has grown a ton this season in Edmonton and taken the leadership mantle. I know there’s a movement to make Connor McDavid captain, but I’d like Hall to have the “C”. Klingberg seems to be the king of snubs this season because he was left off the All-Star team as well. He’s one of the most exciting players in the league, but also seems to be one of the most overlooked.
However you slice it, John Scott would have a pretty good All-Snub team if he wanted to put one together.
We even have a trade to debate this week. Who won the deal that sent Erik Gudbranson from Florida to Vancouver for Jared McCann and draft picks? Were you surprised by that move from either side?
FISHER: The timing of it was surprising, with trades rarely occurring during the playoffs, let alone the conference finals, but I really like this move for Vancouver. I know the advanced stats suggest otherwise and paint Gudbranson in a negative light, but I’ve always been a fan of him dating back to his junior days. I feel Gudbranson was perhaps miscast in Florida as strictly a shutdown defender and I still think there could be some untapped offensive upside to his game. It’ll be interesting to see how the Canucks utilize Gudbranson — does he perhaps get a look on Vancouver’s power play? — but 6-foot-5 defencemen don’t grow on trees and I’d be thrilled with this addition as a Vancouver fan. As a follower of the Oilers, Gudbranson could have been a good fit for Edmonton — much like Dougie Hamilton coulda, woulda, shoulda been last year — but you can scratch one name off my recent list of 32 candidates to upgrade Edmonton’s defence.
I don’t think the Canucks overpaid for Gudbranson either, considering I’m only lukewarm on McCann and he can easily be replaced by picking a centre at fifth overall in next month’s draft. A rare good move by Jim Benning in my opinion. The only way this turns into a loss for Vancouver is if Benning fails to get Gudbranson signed to a long-term extension and loses him to free agency in two years’ time, but I don’t see that happening. Apparently Gudbranson became available after turning down a four-year, $18-million offer from Florida, so Vancouver will need to open the negotiations at $5 million per season and it could be closer to $6 million if Gudbranson hits the ground running with the Canucks between now and January when he’s eligible to be extended again.
— Facing Off (@FacingOff_THW) May 26, 2016
MOUNT: I have to agree with you on this deal. Gudbranson does have some upside if you ask me. His height and size are worth Benning taking a risk on him. He did feel out of place in Florida and I think a change will do some good.
However, don’t instantly think that new Panthers GM Tom Rowe and Dale Tallon got fleeced in the deal. Tallon’s made some moves that some would scratch their head over only to come out smelling like roses. I thought the Panthers would still be in their rebuild, but deals like this have them “Ahead By a Century.”
Are you over the Predators’ playoff exit yet? How impressive were you by Nashville’s run? How sorry did you feel for Shea Weber and Roman Josi, on the ice for all five San Jose goals in Game 7? What does Nashville’s window-to-win look like with Weber and the current core? Do you consider the Preds a playoff lock for next season now?
FISHER: I was half-heartedly on the Predators’ bandwagon, hoping to see Weber and Colton Sissons bring the Stanley Cup back to Kelowna, but it wasn’t meant to be. And, yes, it was painful to watch Weber struggle in that fashion — the poor guy just couldn’t do anything right on that night.
Nashville certainly exceeded my expectations by upsetting the Ducks in the first round, and I didn’t give the Preds much chance against the Sharks in the second round either. But lo and behold, Nashville pushed the eventual finalists to Game 7, putting up a better fight against San Jose than both St. Louis and Los Angeles.
I wouldn’t have predicted that, but I also wouldn’t predict the Predators as a lock for next year’s postseason. That Central Division isn’t going to get any easier with Winnipeg sure to get significantly better, and those wild-card berths will be more difficult to obtain with the Alberta teams also expected to improve substantially. It’ll be a battle to the end, but Nashville will probably squeak in again and who knows how far it will go from there, but the Preds still seem a ways away from winning the Cup on paper.
MOUNT: I was pleasantly surprised at the run to the conference semis. I thought Anaheim would grind out the result in seven, but Pekka Rinne showed he’s still one of the better goalies in the league. The Predators changed gears effectively in that series.
I’m sure there will be a lot of people questioning Weber after that egg he laid in Game 7, but he’s still a good defender. Him and Josi still form one of the best defensive pairs in the league. Guys like Ekholm and Ryan Ellis will help take the pressure off of that duo going forward.
I’ve got Nashville penciled into the postseason for 2017 because this team was hitting its stride when it got Ryan Johansen. I think the Preds will be solid once they have him for a full season. They’ve got some good young talent and they can challenge for one of the three automatic playoff spots.
What should Filip Forsberg’s next contract look like? Are you expecting a two- or three-year bridge or a long-term extension? Will the annual salary start with a 3, 4, 5 or more?
FISHER: This will be an interesting contract. Forsberg is arguably Nashville’s most talented offensive player — he and his agent will be well aware of that — and David Poile will probably want to make a longer-term commitment to him as a core piece.
Would Forsberg accept that Gudbranson offer of $18 million over four years? Or would he want Jordan Eberle’s deal of $36 million over six years? I’m not sure Forsberg is at the point in his career to be asking for $6 million annually, but $4.5 million might not be enough if the Preds want a term beyond three years. Five years and $25 million could be a win-win meet in the middle. I’d put pen to paper from both sides if that contract was on the table.
— The Hockey Writers (@TheHockeyWriter) May 28, 2016
MOUNT: I wrote about this late last week and I think Forsberg will get something like the Brandon Saad deal, which was also mentioned in Colin Fitts’ article. I do think a Gudbranson deal would be way too low for a man that was the leading scorer for the Predators. Larry’s suggestion of five years and $25 million would be the perfect scenario for both sides.
— The Hockey Writers (@TheHockeyWriter) May 24, 2016
However, Poile has a penchant for getting guys to buy in and get a hometown discount. He did this with the Ekholm deal and got a very good number for Josi too. I wouldn’t be surprised if Poile worked his magic again and got a favorable deal for the budget-conscious Predators.
I don’t know if Forsberg rocks out to The Tragically Hip, but we do, so let’s close out Facing Off with a tribute to Gord Downie — keep on rockin’!
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.