Ken Campbell, The Hockey News' senior writer, is in his second tour with the brand after an eight-year stint as a beat reporter for the Maple Leafs for the Toronto Star. The Sudbury native once tried out for the Ontario League's Wolves as a 30-year-old. Needless to say, it didn't work out.
As far as repairing the relationship between Dave Keon and the Toronto Maple Leafs is concerned, it’s a good first step. But that’s all it is.
With the player some think is the greatest ever to wear a Maple Leaf uniform due to be honored by the organization tonight, which will be followed in the spring with a statue on Legends’ Row along with Turk Broda and Tim Horton, some have characterized the proceedings as an indication that the prodigal son has come home, that Keon is ready to embrace and re-engage with the organization to which he has been estranged for more than 40 years.
When the calendar turned to the month of December, the Montreal Canadiens were in first place in the NHL standings, a full 12 points clear of the last playoff spot. The Carolina Hurricanes, on the other hand, were tied for last place in the Eastern Conference and pretty much where everyone predicted they’d be, battling hammer and tong for the right to draft Auston Matthews first overall.
So here we are a mere 52 days later and the Hurricanes flew into the eye of the storm – they’re due for six inches of the white stuff in Raleigh tonight – Thursday night after a sluggish 1-0 overtime win over the Toronto Maple Leafs tied with the Canadiens with 50 points. That has more to do with the Canadiens ineptitude over the past month-and-a-half to be sure, but to chalk it up to that exclusively would be to ignore the fact that the Hurricanes are indeed a group that is coming together a little quicker and a little more dramatically than everyone thought they would.
Until now, it would have been fairly easy to sympathize with Jonathan Drouin in his spat with the Tampa Bay Lightning, even if you didn’t agree with his methods. He’s a very good young player who has been caught in an organization where he’s not able to play a regular role and he feels his development is being stunted. So he asked for a trade. No harm, no foul.
When Drouin has had the chance with the Lightning, he has proved to be a capable NHL player. His possession numbers are very good and you could certainly make the case that injuries and a lack of opportunity have not allowed Drouin to fully showcase himself for a sustained period of time. This is a player, after all, who had six points in the first five games of the season when he had an opportunity to play with top players and log 15 minutes a game in ice time. (Although it’s absurd to suggest that the Lightning has it in for him. If you ever encounter a coach who refuses to play players he thinks can help him win, I’d like to meet him. He does not exist.)
This is getting downright scary. Will anyone be able to stop Patrick Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks this season? As great as the Blackhawks have been over the past half decade, they never won 12 games in a row the way they have this season. As brilliant as Kane has been throughout his career, he has never had a stretch like this one.
The Blackhawks established their franchise high-water mark for straight wins when they dispatched the Nashville Predators Tuesday night. And they’ll have a chance to usurp the Florida Panthers season-high winning streak when they visit the surging Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night.
Their play of late makes the Blackhawks an easy choice as the top-ranked team in thn.com’s Power Rankings for the second straight week. (Last week’s ranking in parentheses.)
The one saving grace from the John Scott Fiasco of 2016™ is that the hockey world will almost certainly never have to experience the likes of it ever again. Nothing has been decided at the NHL level, but it would be ludicrous to think the league would not take steps to avoid this embarrassment ever again, either by allowing fans to vote for All-Star Game participation only on a pre-selected list of candidates or lessening the weight given to the fan vote.
So no more silly campaigns that leave the league looking like a village idiot. It strikes one, though, that hockey fans are the only ones who do these things. Other leagues have fan voting to select their participants and you don’t see utility infielders, bench warmers or third-stringers involved. Must have something to do with the product on the ice. When the game is a joke, people treat it as such. Perhaps the 3-on-3 format will do something to rectify that, so let’s give it a chance.
One of the first things that went through my mind when word surfaced that Anze Kopitar was going to sign an eight-year deal worth $80 million was, are the Los Angeles Kings paying him for what he has already done for them? It’s hard to believe the Kopitar they have for $10 million a year on this deal is going to be as good as the one they had for $3.2 million less on his current contract.
Analytics tells us that Kopitar will decline, probably badly, toward the end of this deal. He likely has had his best years already, although with four goals and 18 points in his past 11 games, Kopitar will have one of the best offensive seasons of his career if he keeps scoring the rest of the season. And his defensive game has never faltered.
If the NHL wants to touch off the mother of all conspiracy theories, it will do the wrong thing and prevent John Scott from playing in the All-Star Game. But the NHL, as usual, doesn’t seem terribly concerned with optics. Because if it had, it would have announced the moment that Scott was traded to the Montreal Canadiens and sent to the minors that his spot as captain of the Pacific Division team in the All-Star Game was secure.
Instead, it issued this wishy-washy statement: “The league is evaluating how this trade impacts the Pacific Division roster.” When reached by thn.com Friday afternoon and asked whether he’d be playing in the game, Scott said, “I have no idea.” But if the league believes it has an out now that Scott is no longer playing for a team in the Pacific Division, that stretches the bounds of credulity. And that’s saying something when you consider it’s the NHL we’re talking about here.
Driving to the game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets Wednesday night, your trusty correspondent had high hopes for an exciting, back-and-forth game. And I mean that in all sincerity.
Here’s why. It was a game that pitted the 27th-best team in the NHL against the 30th-best team in the NHL. For the cup-is-half-empty-crowd, that would be the fourth-worst team in the world’s best league against the absolute worst team. In my experience, those kinds of games are usually the most entertaining because I’ve always believed the worse the players, the better the game is to watch. More mistakes equal more chances. The problem with the NHL today is not that the players are not good enough, it’s that they’re too good.