Deep-dive answers to your most pressing hockey questions. This week: Matt Duchene's struggles, what Ron Hextall should do with his team, and much more.
The Ask Me Anything mailbag continues. Thanks to everyone for the strong response to this new THN feature. The consistently good traffic means the AMA blog is here to stay for a while. If you’re enjoying it, keep growing it by sharing with your friends on social media. Much appreciated.
Most hockey people credit Red Wings GM Ken Holland with the idea that any team wants to be in the playoffs by American Thanksgiving if it wants a chance to make noise in any given season. It’s thus justified for fans to ask tough questions about their teams, which is the case this week. Let’s get to it.
Just know that I respond to as many of these questions as I can, albeit I cap the answers at five or six because I want to give you longer, deeper explanations. If I don’t pick your question, it’s possible I answered a similar one in recent weeks regarding that team or player – or I just ran out of time, so feel free to ask it again next week. Also – if you’re not big on tweeting questions, you can email me questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sad Chiefs Fan (@ChiefsTBLTwins) asks…
Is the Matt Duchene trade already a disaster for the Sens, or is it too early?
Too early. A six-game sample size, no matter how ugly it looks, is miniscule and won’t tell us anything about what could be a franchise-defining trade for three teams. Of course it would be nice for the Sens to see Duchene flourishing and playing like a proper No. 1 center, as that’s what they acquired him to be, but there are other factors at play here.
First off: he made his debut with his new team by flying to Sweden, playing two games while adjusting to a massive change in his body clock, then flying home and readjusting again. Every player on the Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche did the same, of course, but Duchene would’ve had the added stress of co-ordinating new living arrangements and communicating with friends, family and media about the big trade. He got married this past off-season, so he and his wife Ashley probably have to discuss major moving arrangements. It’s been a whirlwind. I’m not asking you to pity him by any means, but my point is just that people sometimes forget players are still human beings, even if they are very lucky human beings. I often think about something Ryan Kesler told me after the Vancouver Canucks traded him to Anaheim in 2014.
“There is a bit of anxiety getting traded for the first time in my career, having to find kids schools, having to find a home, having to figure out the car situations,” Kesler said. “There are so many things off-ice that people really don’t understand when you get traded. It’s not just moving teams. I moved countries (laughs).”
So maybe Duchene is a bit distracted in these early days. It’s tougher to get traded mid-season than it is in the summer, and it’s tougher to get traded in the fall than it is at the trade deadline. If you’re a deadline acquisition, you can get by living in a hotel for the last couple months of a season. When you change teams in November, you’re digging roots into your new city.
Another problem Duchene has to overcome: a massive shift in coaching systems. If the Avs were defined by one thing throughout Duchene’s eight-season tenure there, it was consistently bad defense and possession numbers. He leaves a team with two playoff appearances in the past eight seasons and joins an Ottawa squad with five playoff appearances in the past eight seasons, a franchise operating under much higher expectations, having come within one overtime goal of beating the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins last season. It isn’t easy shaking off a losing culture. Just ask Taylor Hall about that. It took him an entire season to find his footing in New Jersey. And coach Guy Boucher, one of the best defensive minds in the game, expects a lot from his forwards. His smothering 1-3-1 system isn’t the easiest thing to learn on the fly. Let’s give Duchene more time before we write him off as a bust acquisition.
That said – even if Duchene plays great, that doesn’t mean the trade won’t go down as a disaster for Ottawa. Including Kyle Turris in the deal meant the Sens weren’t upgrading all that much, first of all, as Turris has 250 points since the start of 2012-13 compared to 278 for Duchene, with Duchene playing nine more games than Turris over that span. Secondly, the Sens also surrendered prospect center Shane Bowers, who was the 28th overall pick in 2017, plus a 2018 first-round pick and a 2019 third-rounder to get Duchene. No matter how well Duchene plays going forward, that package is a lot to live up to. If he doesn’t re-sign in Canada’s capital after his contract expires in 2019, that deal is a disaster for the franchise no matter what.
Doug Von Vader (@DougieDiggles) asks…
Large West over East head-to-head disparity starting to show again this season. What are your thoughts?
I actually did a study on this exact topic two seasons ago. In a sample of five seasons, from 2010-11 to 2014-15, I learned that the West was a stunning 916-585-205 against the East, good for a .597 points percentage, while the East was 790-690-226, good for a .529 points percentage. The year prior, though, in 2009-10, the points percentage margin was .626 to .494, indicating the gap between the West and East was actually shrinking.
This season, the West is 91-62-17 against the East. That’s a .585 points percentage. The East against the West: 79-71-20. That’s a .524 points percentage. The East isn’t gaining more points, but the West continues to gain fewer. So the trend is actually the opposite of what you think, Doug. Interesting, eh? I asked several GMs why a couple years back, and they were very scientific in their answers. What I learned hashing out the idea with Lou Lamoriello and David Poile is that travelling West to East is harder on the body and messes up the circadian rhythm more than going East to West, so maybe that’s why we’re seeing Western teams lose their vice grip on the East. When you travel West to East, it shortens the day, so your body “believes” it should still be awake, which can cause insomnia. It’s an era of peak nutrition and training league-wide now, of course, so every extra minute of sleep you have over your competition counts.
Poile felt uniquely equipped to analyze the situation because, as GM of a Central Division team, he’s between two time zones, so he can directly compare going west to east versus going east to west.
“Am I travelling after we played at home to the east, when we lose an hour? That would be a big disadvantage,” Poile told me in December 2015. “If I’m travelling west in my division, and I don’t lose any time on back-to-back games, that’s way better than travelling east.”
Lamoriello believed the West was kicking the tar out of the East for years because the West teams planned their travel so wisely.
“I don’t think they travel more,” Lamoriello said. “I think they play more games during the length of time they’re here. And if I were a Western team, I would do that. I’d come out here and I’d say, ‘Let’s stay there 10 days. We can go play Philadelphia, New Jersey, the Rangers, the Islanders, Boston, Montreal, Toronto. We’re all within an hour flight. And you’ve got the body clock at the same status.”
Now it’s common to see Eastern teams do the exact same thing, stacking multiple Western road games over the course of a week in hopes that their players’ bodies adjust. With Eastern teams smartening up now, maybe we’ll see the gap between conferences continue to narrow.
Vikingstad (@HockeyRockBeer) asks…
Did Peter Chiarelli drop the ball throwing the bank at Connor McDavid when he still had a season before becoming an RFA and thereby giving Leon Draisaitl more as a result? What kind of numbers might they be talking for 97 now had he waited?
No, Chiarelli didn’t drop the ball at all. There was simply no way McDavid’s floor was going to lower coming off a 100-point, Art Ross, MVP season. McDavid became the third-youngest scoring champion in NHL history. Doing it so young, he still clearly has a higher ceiling left to reach. Waiting another year to hand him his extension had nothing but downside for Chiarelli. If McDavid were to win the scoring title and MVP again, he’d be the first player to win both in the same year back to back since Wayne Gretzky in the mid-1980s. McDavid, remember, didn’t take the maximum possible contract, which would’ve paid him $15 million a year. Another powerhouse season might’ve made it difficult to turn down the max, as much of a team guy as McDavid might be. Even with the Oilers struggling and McDavid battling illness, he’s scoring at a 104-point clip, putting him on pace to surpass last year’s total, so the Oilers would be kicking themselves right now if they’d waited to extend him.
As for Draisaitl, it’s the same problem. He’s the real deal, the third overall pick of the 2014 draft, an all-world talent in his own right, so the odds of him improving on last year’s 77-point breakout and amazing playoff performance were high. His 0.94 points per game this season put him exactly on pace with last year’s 0.94. And when it comes to contract negotiations, comparable players mean everything to agents. For Draisaitl, that means it wasn’t necessarily McDavid popping up in talks. It’s more likely Draisaitl’s agent, Mike Liut, looked at another client of his, Vladimir Tarasenko, as a jumping off-point for Draisaitl. Tarasenko got eight years and a $7.5-million cap hit after a 73-point season at age 23. Draisaitl got eight years and an $8.5-million cap hit after a 77-point season at age 21. Seems about right.
Lance Cote-Tenasco ™ (@Lancecote) asks…
How many more consecutive losses before Ron Hextall pulls the trigger on something major with the Flyers?
Hey Lance. I wouldn’t hold my breath. First off, Hextall has established himself as arguably the NHL’s most patient GM. How ironic is that, given what a hot head he was as a player? Since taking over as GM in 2014, Hextall has primarily made “seller” trades. He sent Braydon Coburn to Tampa Bay and Vincent Lecavalier to L.A., for example, and Hextall ended up winning those deals anyway, landing Radko Gudas and Jordan Weal. The only truly major move we’ve seen out of Hextall was the ill-fated Brayden Schenn deal. Schenn, as many of us predicted, is blowing up in St. Louis. Getting burned after sticking his neck out like that might make Hextall hesitant to try something drastic again.
Well, maybe. Most GMs are too proud to beat themselves up. The real reason Hextall is so conservative is that his regime is draft-obsessed. They have loaded up on extra picks during his tenure and jam-packed their farm system. That’s why the Flyers had an NHL-high nine players competing at the World Junior Championship last season. Hextall has done a fantastic job building his young defense corps, with Ivan Provorov looking like a future perennial Norris contender and Travis Sanheim, Robert Hagg, Philippe Myers, Samuel Morin all showing promise, with Shayne Gostisbehere already established. Next up, Hextall is trying to fortify the goaltending pipeline, and he has some good prospects in Carter Hart and Felix Sandstrom. On the offensive side, winning the No. 2 overall pick in the draft lottery obviously accelerated things, as Hextall can now build around center Nolan Patrick.
Also note how conservative Hextall has been on the free agent market in recent seasons. He clearly wants to slow-play things with this franchise. It’s almost like he’s waiting for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals to age out of their decade-long dominant periods before making bold moves. So I don’t expect the Flyers to do anything crazy this season. For now, they’re seeking help from within, recently promoting Morin and shifty forward Danick Martel. That said, coach Dave Hakstol’s job might be in jeopardy if he can’t get this team back to the playoffs.
Joe Foegen (via email) asks…
Matt, I have a two-part question for you to tackle regarding the Sabres: Apart from the injuries to the D-corps, what's the more important issue for the Sabres to address: team "culture" or personnel? Players: What should the Sabres do with Rasmus Ristolainen, Evander Kane, and the ever-injured Zach Bogosian?
Hey Joe. That’s a great question. I think the culture and personnel actually go hand in hand, because a large chunk of the player personnel has become part of a losing culture in Buffalo, and so much of the player personnel is young that very few of them have big-game experience on winning teams. Most of the Sabres have never sniffed a playoff game in their lives. Jordan Nolan is the lone Sabre with a Stanley Cup ring, and he’s obviously just a marginal contributor on this team as a grinder. Nolan, Jacob Josefson and Benoit Pouliot are the only current Buffalo players to even appear in a Stanley Cup final. The Sabres have a brand-new coach in Phil Housley who lacks experience even by new-coach standards, as he was an assistant in Nashville rather than a guy who climbed the pro ranks as a head coach in the AHL like, say, Jon Cooper or Travis Green or Bruce Boudreau. Jason Botterill is a first-year GM, too. So this is a fresh-faced team seriously lacking experience and struggling to find its identity. It doesn’t help, either, that leaders Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly are so openly emotional at times that they can’t hide their disdain for their own play or that of their teammates.
Ristolainen is a big problem for the Sabres. As I’ve been saying in the THN office a lot lately, this team has been structured with him as the foundation, the long-term No. 1 blueliner, the minutes eater with a monster reach, the Alex Pietrangelo type…except what if Ristolainen isn’t that? What if all the bad analytics ring true, and Ristolainen isn’t a real No. 1 blueliner? Then you’ve built your franchise on a shaky foundation, and it could collapse. The Sabres might be best off losing all year, winning the draft lottery and snagging the most can’t-miss defense prospect since Aaron Ekblad. That’s Rasmus Dahlin, of course. It’s unfortunate that injuries have limited Ristolainen to just 13 games so far this season. I’m anxious to see what kind of impact Housley can have on him after being a driving force behind the Predators’ superstar D-corps in Nashville. Ristolainen’s possession numbers were career-best through 13 games this season, for what it’s worth.
Kane is an interesting case. I visited the Sabres on one of their off days in Buffalo last week, and I talked to Kane for a while. He’s in a tough spot, as he’s finally found teammates that really “get” his eccentric personality and care for him – just as he’s having a career year and is a pending UFA. With Kane, 26, poised for the biggest payday of his career and playing for a team that appears to be years away from contention, he’s only human for feeling temptation to test the open market. I asked him if he feels it, and he admitted it’s impossible not to think about it, even though he’s really enjoying being a Sabre. It’s also possible Kane doesn’t get to choose his own fate anyway, as he has no clauses or restrictions of any kind on his contract, meaning Botterill has complete freedom to trade Kane. Setting aside Kane’s spotty off-ice track record, he’s also very injury prone and is thus never going to be worth more than he is right now, smack in the middle of a healthy and productive season. I thus predict Botterill trades Kane before the deadline, even if that means the team then has to search for another Kane to replace what he brings as a power forward.
Bogosian looks like a prime buyout candidate to me. His $5.14-million cap hit is an albatross and makes him untradeable. Even if the Sabres were to eat half that in a deal, Bogosian has been so consistently banged up that he’s arguably not worth $2.57 million for two more seasons after this one. I think Buffalo should cut its losses on ‘Bogo’ this summer.