Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News. He's been part of the THN team since 2011, but he's been married to hockey since he got beat up for collecting NHL sticker books in the mid-1980s. If you like strong opinions on the game itself, fantasy hockey tips and a hefty dose of pop culture in your readings, he's your man. And yes, the eyebrows are real.
Hey you. Commenter who calls everything clickbait. Relax. I said RELAX. The Edmonton Oilers in the playoffs? It’s not the most harebrained question in the world.
The Oilers have a mountain to climb in the Western Conference, though it’s more bunny hill than K2. Edmonton sits eight points back of the Anaheim Ducks for the last Pacific Division playoff position, and the Ducks have three games in hand. The Oilers’ more realistic target is the Nashville Predators, who lead them by nine points in the final West wild-card spot but at least have no games in hand. Hockeyviz.com gives the Oil a five percent chance at qualifying for the big dance. TSN’s Frank Seravalli, who woke up this morning with the same thoughts on the brain as I had, estimates Edmonton has to go 21-5-4 for the rest of the season and points out the miraculous Ottawa Senators closed last season 23-4-4 to get in.
So maybe the Oilers have to scale more than a bunny hill after all. Still, seeing what they’ve accomplished since Mr. Connor McDavid returned from a broken clavicle, it’s suddenly worth asking if they’re primed to make a run. Edmonton dismantled the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets and Ottawa Senators by a combined score of 11-3 this week, with McDavid racking up five points in that span. Sure, it was just Columbus and Ottawa, but those two teams looked like they didn’t belong in the same building as Edmonton. The Oilers continue their road trip with, guess what, another team as sturdy as a wet paper bag right now: the discombobulated Montreal Canadiens. The Oilers play 16 of their final 30 games at home in 2015-16. They play 16 of their final 30 games against teams currently out of playoff spots, too, with most of the other games versus teams they’re chasing for the lower seeds.
See Sidney Crosby’s natural hat trick against the Ottawa Senators Tuesday night? The telling thing about it was how little time the puck spent on his stick. It might’ve been a second and a half across all three goals combined. That’s the sign of a confident, aggressive player showing very little hesitation.
We wouldn’t have described Sid the Kid’s game that way over the first few months of 2015-16, which went so poorly by his lofty standards that he didn’t get an All-Star Game sniff, not even when Alex Ovechkin’s suspension opened up a Metropolitan Division berth. Evgeny Kuznetsov simply deserved the nod more. When have we ever been able to say that about a healthy Crosby? Never. The rocky start doomed him this season. He had one goal and five points over 11 October games and, by the end of November, five goals and 15 points through 23 games.
But the ugly first act is history as quickly as it arrived. Crosby stabilized with a reasonable December effort of four goals and 12 points in 13 games, then proceeded to douse himself in kerosene and become a human torch. Crosby since Jan. 1: 12 games, 11 goals, 18 points and a hilarious shooting percentage of 25.6. That’s what you call regressing to the ol’ mean. Crosby, a 14.4 percent career shooter, sat at 8.5 on Dec. 31. He’s now all the way back to 13.4. Per war-on-ice.com, Crosby’s score adjusted Corsi was 48.9 in the first three months and is a superb 62.4 during his white-hot 2016 calendar year.
It’s the story you’ve read about and heard about and watched time and again over the past several days. It’s the one that simply won’t go away, because it keeps finding new, increasingly spectacular ways to top itself and further warm our hearts.
John Scott helped the NHL take a rotten batch of lemons and churn it into lemonade, saving the tastiest batch for Sunday’s 3-on-3 All-Star Game tournament. At 6-foot-8 and 275 pounds, he looks nothing like pint-sized Notre Dame football hero Rudy Ruettiger, but Scott essentially became Rudy for a day. Scott accomplished the things he never was supposed to. He turned himself from a laughing stock into a hero. And he literally got carried around on teammates’ shoulders, a la Ruettiger. The NHL could not have wished a better, more emotionally satisfying result into existence.
The score didn’t matter one iota. What was it…29-12 for the Eastern Conference? It’s been mere hours since the 2016 NHL All-Star Skills Competition ended, and the actual team result already feels irrelevant. And yet, the players won something intangible and far more memorable Saturday night.
The event could’ve gone two ways in Nashville. We could’ve seen a bunch of tired players with vacant expressions labor their way through a dull affair, mailing in half-hearted attempts at creativity. We could’ve seen every member of the ‘All-Star Game is a joke’ brigade vindicated when sideshow John Scott fell flat on his face attempting a slapshot or breakaway goal.
Instead, good defeated bad. The one word not uttered enough in our sport these days – F.U.N. – triumphed. The players embraced the continuously joyous, friendly culture of Music City and delivered one hefty dose of pizzazz after another. And, best of all, Scott proved he could hang with his fellow elite professional athletes.
It was a relatively uneventful press conference for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman Saturday in the hours leading up to the NHL All-Star Skills Competition in Nashville. The league unveiled a new website, the 2017 All-Star Game host and a particularly special charity donation. Other than that, Bettman more or less played tennis with reporters on site, batting down questions about expansion and John Scott, among others.
There’s something surreal about the NHL’s all-star festivities this time around. And that’s saying a lot. This event, after all, birthed the glowing puck, North America versus the World and Alex Ovechkin on a breakaway with two sticks and a pair of sunglasses. But Nashville might be hosting the strangest, most memorable edition yet.
Live, gritty country music plays from every window, door and crevice on Music City’s famous Broadway Street. Friendly citizens ask about “the hawkey game” in charming southern accents. Velveeta cheese cascades from a fountain at the Fan Fest. Every All-Star Game has a culture of fun enveloping it, but Nashville feels unique. It doesn’t blend with the sport as seamlessly as wintery cities like Chicago or New York or Ottawa might – and that’s a good thing. The contrast is fun. Aaron Ekblad talks about singing karaoke later (Call Me Maybe). P.K. Subban says he already has (Folsom Prison Blues). Matt Duchene and Johnny Gaudreau, massive country music fans, soak in the atmosphere. Duchene hopes he gets a chance to jam on his guitar.
The strange thing about the tough decisions facing Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff all year: they’ve gradually become easier. Entering 2015-16, his team was fresh off a playoff appearance, with an elite farm system. The arrow pointed decidedly upward. Dealing with his two prominent unrestricted free agents, left winger Andrew Ladd and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, was a daunting proposition. Winnipeg needed both players if it wanted to remain a playoff contender, so Cheveldayoff would have to ponder retaining them through the trade deadline, even if he hadn’t re-signed them by then, which would risk losing them for nothing in July.
Flash forward to late January, and Winnipeg’s season looks grim. The Jets are closer to last overall in the NHL than they are to a playoff berth. They have games in hand on Western Conference wild-card occupiers Minnesota and Colorado, but a 10-point deficit will be difficult to overcome. Byfuglien and Ladd suddenly look like much more realistic trade options, especially when each would fetch a first-round pick and then some.
Ladd expressed interest in re-signing with the Jets earlier in the year, and negotiations with Big Buff were infrequent, but the tide recently reversed. Talks have broken off or at least stalled with Ladd and resumed with Byfuglien. Ladd, even as team captain, appears more likely to move by the Feb. 29 deadline. What teams are the best fits for his extremely valuable services? Consider these five.
With each passing day, the Florida Panthers and GM Dale Tallon look smarter for grabbing Aleksander ‘Sasha’ Barkov second overall at the 2013 draft. Nathan MacKinnon went first, but many draft rankings had Seth Jones and Jonathan Drouin ahead of Barkov. Today, the big Panthers center is a driving force behind their breakout 2015-16, and he’s been rewarded handsomely.
Per Panthers beat writer and THN correspondent George Richards, the Cats have re-signed Barkov, a pending restricted free agent, to a six-year, $35.4-million contract. The deal carries a $5.9-million cap hit. And it sure looks like a coup for Barkov and the Florida organization.