Dany Mineau-Pleau, Longueuil, Que.
Dany Mineau-Pleau, Longueuil, Que.
The Stars and Kings seem poised for a second-half rebound. Image by: Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Some teams we thought were going to be good are currently sitting outside the playoff picture. These are our picks for teams that will rebound in the second half.
With the all-star break this weekend, we're officially at the mid-way point of the season. Every NHL team has played between 44 and 50 games, and it's certainly time to start scoreboard and standings watching. Thanks to the NHL's artificial parity there are a lot of teams right on the playoff bubble.
That means some teams we thought were going to be good are currently sitting outside the playoff picture. With that in mind, here are our picks for teams currently on the outside that will sneak in come April.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa simply has too much talent not to pick things up in the second half and sneak back in (its possession numbers put them in the top half of the league). Steven Stamkos has the league’s second-best points-per-game average, and he’ll be a huge boost when he returns from injury. They also have a nice trade chip in Ben Bishop that they can use to shore up the blueline (Kevin Shattenkirk, anyone?). This team very much reminds me of the Kings, one that knows there’s no need to blow it out in the regular season when playoff seeding is meaningless. Not only will the Lightning make the playoffs, they’ll make a strong push for the Cup. (Edward Fraser)
Los Angeles Kings
About this time five years ago, the Los Angeles Kings were mucking around the Western Conference, losing almost as many games as they were winning and flirting with both a playoff spot and disaster. And we all know how that turned out. After 46 games this season, the Kings are once again mucking around the west, winning a couple more games than they’ve lost, not able to score much and not looking like much of a contender. That will change. First of all, Jonathan Quick has to come back at some point and March seems to be the target date. So the Kings will win the trade deadline when a rested and motivated Quick gets back into the net. Second, the Kings are too good, too experienced and too pedigreed for this to continue. Look for the Kings to make a second-half surge, aided by a healthy Quick in the last quarter, and squeak into the playoffs. Just like they did five years ago. (Ken Campbell)
The Dallas Stars will have to pass four teams if they expect to make the post-season, but they have two of the best offensive horses in the league in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin to lead the charge. I expect the Stars to do something about their goaltending before the trade deadline and when they do squeak in, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them favored if they matched up against Minnesota in the first round. (Brian Costello)
One could have been predicted the Lighting would take a step back this season, but not even the most bold prognosticator would have picked the Bolts to be last in the Eastern Conference with the all-star break in the offing. The injury to Steven Stamkos has hurt in a big way, but Tampa Bay still has an incredibly talented roster that is simply underperforming right now. That hasn’t been helped by the lack of consistency from either of their goaltenders. The good news is that with 34 games remaining, the Lightning are only five points out of the final Atlantic Division playoff berth and five points back of the final wild-card spot. That is far from insurmountable for a team that boasts Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin and Victor Hedman. Stringing together a couple wins could have Tampa Bay right back in the mix. (Jared Clinton)
The Kings are hovering around a playoff spot right now and have been doing it without star goalie Jonathan Quick. Once he returns (a timeline would be nice, but what can you do?), Los Angeles gets a huge boost. Even though Peter Budaj has pretty good stats, I think the Kings will just play bigger with Quick back, because he can be that security blanket. Also, Anze Kopitar has four goals right now and there’s no way his pace stays that low. The big man is shooting at five percent right now, down from 14 percent the year prior. If he even moderately gets on track, the Kings will be back in the post-season, no problem. (Ryan Kennedy)
Sam Gagner struggled in consecutive years heading into 2016-17, but the adversity helped him get tougher and his belief he could still contribute has led to a bounce back season in Columbus.
There was a point during the 2015-16 season where it looked like Sam Gagner’s time in the NHL could be over. On a middling Philadelphia Flyers squad, Gagner was mired in the bottom-six, demoted to the AHL for a stint and finished the campaign having been in and out of the lineup while producing the worst point total of his big league career.
Worst of all, Gagner, 26, was supposed to be in his prime. The sixth-overall pick in the 2007 draft, Gagner had consistently been a 40-plus point player and everything looked as though it was coming together in the lockout-shortened year when he scored 14 goals and 38 points in 48 games for the Oilers. But having followed that up with a 37-point campaign in 2013-14, Gagner found himself out of Edmonton, the only NHL city he had known, and on his way to Arizona come 2014-15.
Gagner’s points per game dropped for the second-straight season during his year with the Coyotes, and when he was shipped to Philadelphia ahead of the 2015-16 season, it was seen as another chance at a fresh start. Instead, it was one of the most difficult seasons of his career.
“It’s always hard to go through those struggles,” Gagner said of the consecutive down years in Arizona and Philadelphia. “But I truly believe that if you handle them the right way, the adversity can help shape you and help make you stronger. I feel like coming into this year I’m a lot stronger mentally than I maybe have been in the past.”
And if mental strength has been the biggest change in Gagner’s game, the 27-year-old might want to think about entering his brain into a strongman competition because the changes in Gagner’s play — and, most notably, his production — have been remarkable.
Entering the off-season as an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, he landed a one-year, show-me deal with the Blue Jackets. It pays $650,000, which is more than $4 million less than Gagner had earned during the 2015-16 campaign. Gagner couldn’t care less about that, though, because he only wanted the shot at showing his game hadn’t gone anywhere.
“I still felt like I had a lot to give as a player and if I was able to get some opportunity, that I could help a team be successful,” Gagner said. “I think coming into Columbus, I got the chance to do that, I’m playing some really important power play minutes and in a lot of different situations. It’s definitely helped me add another level to my game, and it’s been a good fit.”
Good fit? There’s an understatement. The Blue Jackets, looking for someone to produce in the bottom-six and possibly push some of the youngsters to earn their place in the top-six, called on Gagner and he’s been dynamite. Through 45 games, his 14 goals and 33 points have him on pace for the best offensive season of his career. It’s been eye-opening for those thinking Gagner’s time as a productive player int he NHL was over. Least surprised of anyone, though, is Gagner, who said he expected this of himself and knew he put the work in to make it a reality.
“I feel confident in my game,” Gagner continued. “Obviously there are ebbs and flows during a season in terms of offense and whether the puck goes in the net or not, but it’s just a matter of staying consistent with it and having a proper mindset. A lot of the struggles in the past help you with that mindset.”
Gagner’s focus is shifting as the season progresses, however. While maintaining consistency in his game, he wants to help the Blue Jackets take the next step forward. For the organization, that's going to mean not just a playoff appearance, but actually winning a round. And a Blue Jackets team that went on an unthinkable 16-game win streak has designs on a deep run.
Going on a month-long winning streak has no bearing on playoff success, to be sure, and there has been bumps in the road since Columbus’ win streak ended. Though if there’s anyone familiar with turning a tough time into a period of success, it’s Gagner.
“You learn a lot about your team in a streak like that, and I think all that pressure that comes on you when you start to build up those wins, that only helps you come playoff time,” Gagner said. “I think it was a good thing for us, and now you go through a little adversity and fight your way through it. It’s all part of an 82-game schedule, and you learn from everything.”
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The numbers released by the CHL would have you believe minimum wage for players would cripple some teams. But we need a lot more information.
In an effort to get out in front of the story and win the case in the court of public opinion, the Canadian Hockey League last night released some of the financial information it had previously been trying to keep from the prying eyes of everyone outside its inner circle. It’s a curious move to say the least. And when you look at the numbers, you get the sense that the CHL is cherry picking on the same level as an out-of-shape beer leaguer who constantly hangs out at the opponent’s blueline.
The CHL has crafted its message, complete with an expert opinion saying teams would have to consider ceasing operations if they had to pay players minimum wage, giving people just enough information to portray themselves as downtrodden philanthropists interested only in providing entertainment and helping young men realize their NHL dreams, without really telling us where the money trail actually leads. Well played.
For example, if we are to take the numbers of the CHL’s unaudited financial statements provided to an Alberta court for an upcoming lawsuit at face value, then we’re to believe that the Ontario and Western Leagues combined to generate revenues of $136.7 million in 2015, but cannot afford to pay roughly 850 of its employees minimum wage. The WHL claimed revenues of just over $80 million in 2015. The cost to pay the players minimum wage in that league would be about $300,000 per year per team for a total cost of about $6.6 million, which would amount to about 8.25 percent of total revenues.
What business in any part of the real world would be able to claim revenues of more than $136 million, then try to convince people that it couldn’t afford to pay 850 of its employees minimum wage? Welcome to the world of junior hockey where it seems no matter how much money a team makes, its expenses seem to rise at the same rate. How the heck are these people ever expected to make a go of it?
Let’s take the WHL as an example. According to the report done by the accounting firm KPMG, the league’s overall revenues in 2015 were higher in the five years between 2012 and 2016 than they were any other year, but somehow the league managed to lose more money that year than any other year. The numbers say overall league revenues were $80.2 million, with a pre-tax overall loss of just over $2 million. As far as expenses are concerned, $7.5 million went to advertising and promotion, $6.6 million to administration and a whopping $67.5 million to the ubiquitous “other operating expenses.” In fact, in 2015, other operating expenses increased almost $5 million from the previous year, then were cut by more than $6 million in 2016. Even though the WHL managed to trim $6 million in fat from other operating expenses in 2016, it posted a pre-tax profit of only $691,000.
So in order to get the entire picture, we’re really going to need to know what those “other operating expenses” are. And until we know them, we don’t know even close to the entire picture of whether the losses are real or a case of creative accounting. For example, has anyone stopped to ask how exactly the Erie Otters managed to lose $150,000 and be forced into bankruptcy while going to the OHL final and having one of the greatest players in junior hockey history in their lineup? Or how the people who purchased the team didn’t seem to mind forking over $10 million for a supposedly bankrupt, money losing team? It sure makes you wonder about the line in the CHL’s news release that said, “Goals around asset appreciation are lower/limited in the CHL versus other major sporting leagues.” It sure makes you wonder if that’s the case when the Sudbury Wolves can be purchased for $250,000 in the 1980s and sell for $11 million 30 years later, all the while appreciating by 4,400 percent. (And that’s for a team that generally underachieved, missing the playoffs nine of those seasons and one that plays in an antiquated building that needs to be replaced.) Franchise values and the fact that these teams are sold for many millions of dollars has to be part of the equation here.
The CHL earlier this year scoffed at a report the defense had done by a sports economist who had no access to its numbers because the league refused to provide them. That economist used economic modelling instead of creative accounting. Then the league releases a report from their sports economics expert that is based on financial records only it was allowed to see. Which one is more accurate? Well, it’s hoped we’ll find that out after the sides meet next week to determine whether the full financial picture can be made public, not just snippets of it.
Until then, a lot of this is white noise that should be taken with a mountain’s worth of salt.
Tom Pyatt scored the shootout winner for Ottawa in a 3-2 win over the Leafs.
Ottawa Senators coach Guy Boucher is not a fan of the shootouts despite his team’s come from behind victory in the skills competition on Saturday night.
Mike Hoffman tied the game 2-2 with 1:11 remaining in regulation. After a scoreless overtime, Tom Pyatt scored the shootout winner in the fourth round.
“I never watch shootouts. I never have," Boucher said per Sportsnet's Luke Fox. "Two reasons. One: I hate it. I think it's a team game and it should be decided with team play, but I understand the game has to end.
"The other thing: I got in the habit of not looking. Makes no difference if I look or not, so I let the guys do their thing. I used to get involved and talk to the guys, 'You could do this and that'. Now I stay out of the way."
The loss drops the Leafs to 1-6 in shootouts this season. Mitch Marner was the only Leaf to beat Mike Condon in the shootout. The Sens starter stopped Auston Matthews and James van Riemsdyk for the win.
“I don't know. Maybe the other goalies are good,” Mike Babcock said of his team’s struggles in the shootout. “Maybe we're not any good at it. We work on it every single pregame skate.
“It's just something we'll have to get better at obviously because we've left points – I think we're 1-6 or something aren't we? So we'll just keep working on it like we do as a special team.”
The game-winner came on the first career shootout attempt for Pyatt.
“He did a deke and I don't know how it went through there but he snuck it back in,” said Frederik Andersen of the goal. “He made a great move.”