The ghastly losing streak in Edmonton has finally been snapped, but first an apology.
In last week’s column I incorrectly stated Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano could be sent down to the minors without clearing waivers, but according to the collective bargaining agreement, they have played too many NHL games for that to happen.
So if anything, the Oilers should have given the two prospects some breathing room in the minors before they passed that threshold, but hey – what’s done is done.
With that out of the way, let’s look at the silver lining to one of the blackest clouds in the NHL right now, that of course being the state of the Oilers.
One game after losing crucial defenseman and potential trade bait Sheldon Souray to a busted hand broken during a fight (how does Jarome Iginla find so many ways to hurt Edmonton?), the Oilers snapped a 13-game losing streak by defeating one of the other bottom-feeders this year, the Carolina Hurricanes.
But the Canes are better than their record indicates, so this was no cheap victory. Edmonton got scoring from unlikely sources and contributions from newcomers, a trend that must continue for the rest of the season in order to rebuild for the next.
Alex Plante, playing in his first NHL game, had an assist on the night and based on his pedigree, is one to watch in the future. A big body at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, the blueliner is a graduate of the Western League’s Calgary Hitmen squad, a franchise that has produced talents such as Ryan Getzlaf, Karl Alzner and Andrew Ladd.
Plante can fight, play defense and also produce points from the back end. Interestingly enough, he had two great offensive spurts for the Hitmen at the best of times – the 2007 and 2009 playoffs, where he was nearly a point-per-game player.
With Souray on the shelf and the pressure off, Plante can find his way in the NHL this season and not worry about costing the team with any youthful mistakes. As a first round pick of the Oilers in 2007 (15th overall), there is an expectation for Plante to perform at a high level. A try-out with the big squad is a perfect opportunity.
This article also appeared in the Edmonton Metro newspaper.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
Frederik Andersen netted a first- and second-round pick for the Ducks and Brian Elliott was worth a second and third to pry away from the Blues. So why was the Lightning’s return for Ben Bishop so much less?
The Ben Bishop trade was months in the making. From the time the Stanley Cup was handed to the Pittsburgh Penguins, speculation was running rampant about what the Tampa Bay Lightning were going to do with a logjam in the crease and a cap situation that needed to be alleviated in one way or another. The easy answer was trading Bishop, and it seemed Tampa Bay would be in line to land quite the package in return for a goaltender who is a two-time Vezina finalist and had led the Lightning to consecutive Eastern Conference finals.
So, as shocking as it was that Bishop landed with the Kings of all teams, it’s as puzzling that the package that came back the other way was nowhere near what one would have expected the Lightning would haul in for the netminder. In all, Tampa Bay landed a backup goaltender, Peter Budaj, 19-year-old defenseman Erik Cernak, who was selected 43rd overall at the 2015 draft, and a seventh-round pick. There’s no top pick, no top prospect and, truthfully, the package is somewhat underwhelming. That’s especially true when you consider the recent price teams have paid for help in goal.
Frederik Andersen, for instance, cost the Toronto Maple Leafs first- and second-round picks and Brian Elliott cost the Calgary Flames second- and third-round selections. Heck, even the Jonathan Bernier acquisition cost the Anaheim Ducks a conditional pick. All three make the return the Lightning received for Bishop look worse. But maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that Bishop didn’t fetch a similar package.
If Bishop was traded before the start of the campaign, it’s likely Tampa Bay would have received something that mirrored the price the Maple Leafs paid for Andersen. That’s all the more likely given Bishop was coming off of a season in which he finished second in Vezina voting and posted career-bests in goals-against average and save percentage. But as this season has worn on, Bishop has shown some holes. In fact, with how he’s playing right now, he’s on pace to have one of the worst statistical seasons of his career as a full-time NHLer.
Through 32 games this season, Bishop has turned in a .911 SP and 2.55 GAA. No full season has seen him post a worse SP and he’s only had a worse GAA in one campaign, all the way back in 2012-13 when he was dealt from the Ottawa Senators to the Lightning. Bishop had played his way out of the starting job with the Lightning, giving way to youngster Andrei Vasilveskiy more frequently as the campaign has worn on. Bishop's numbers and struggles alone were destined to lessen the return Tampa Bay was going to get. When they were talking trade before the start of the year, teams would have been paying for the promise of a first-rate starting netminder. That was no longer the case.
There also happens to be the matter of the market for goaltenders. A number of teams looking for upgrades in goal were looking to do so before the season began, but as the year has gone on, some of those clubs have fallen out of contention to the point where dealing away assets for a solution in goal doesn’t make all that much sense. Take the Dallas Stars, who are in a position to be a seller at the deadline. Spending to improve their goaltending wouldn’t be all that smart. They need the young assets to build for the future. Likewise, teams who have had stumbles in goal have seen their issues right themselves, which has lessened their need for a fix. The Flames have gotten better goaltending out of Elliott of late, and the St. Louis Blues, once in dire need of anyone who could make a stop, are finally starting to get favorable results from Jake Allen and Carter Hutton. As that happened, the market for Bishop almost certainly weakened.
The Lightning’s position also took a hit because those same teams who could be interested in an upgrade in goal — the Stars, Flames and Carolina Hurricanes could all potentially benefit from having Bishop — are now in a position where waiting for the off-season makes the most sense. Right now, acquiring Bishop would have cost a team a few assets, as we saw with what will end up being a three player package from the Kings. And while the ask obviously wasn’t as high as it was previously given the return the Lightning got, teams who are interested in Bishop’s services were able to hold onto a prospect, pick and roster player now with an eye on the summer signing season. At that time, Bishop can be had for the cost of his contract and nothing more.
Sure, trading for him now would have opened up an avenue for an earlier negotiation, but Bishop is going to go where he’s going to go. There’s nothing saying Bishop has to re-up with whichever team went after him at the deadline. It’s just an example, but say Dallas made a move to land Bishop, he could have gone and signed with Calgary come July 1. Then the Stars would be out the assets and the player they acquired. In that sense, there’s more value in taking a shot at Bishop come July 1 rather than spending at the deadline for a player who isn’t guaranteed to stick around.
And, even still, if there is interest in landing Bishop before the signing season kicks off, that’s not out of the question. The price for him could go down come the days leading up to July 1, a time when he might be able to be had from the Kings for as little as a late-round pick. With teams already willing to shop first-round picks due to the lack of top prospects in the upcoming draft, it’s hard to fathom some team wouldn’t be willing to ship out a mid-round selection just for the rights to Bishop if they really want the inside track.
All those factors combined resulted in a return for the Lightning that was much weaker than one would have expected. We’ll never know what Bishop would have been worth if he would have been traded before the season began. That was nearly a reality, too. Bishop himself said he was a contract extension away from ending up a Flame. The one thing that’s almost for certain, though, is Calgary was going to pay a higher price than the one the Kings did on Sunday. But that’s the risk the Lightning took by holding on to Bishop. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, it didn’t pay big.
In the middle of a close playoff race, the Maple Leafs managed to secure a playoff-proven center with size without wavering from their mandate of building for the future.
The day Mike Babcock was hired to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs, team president Brendan Shanahan was asked whether he’d abandon the franchise rebuild if Babcock came to him saying they needed a veteran to help them make the playoffs, but it would cost a prospect and a second-round pick.
“I can tell you that was one of Mike’s questions for us and it was the opposite,” Shanahan said at the time. “It was, ‘If we’re four points out, are we still willing to stick to the plan?’ That was an important answer for him to get, especially from our board.”
Things were a little different Tuesday when the Leafs made a deal that netted them veteran center Brian Boyle. First of all, the Leafs aren’t four points out of the playoffs. They’re clinging to the last spot, one point behind the Boston Bruins with a game in hand for third place in the Atlantic Division. It’s a race that will likely go to the dying days of the season. And even though they did give up a second-rounder, it’s pretty safe to say Byron Froese isn’t really considered a prospect. (Although Babcock did seem to have a strange fascination with him last season when the Leafs were tanking the season.)
This is a deal that looks as though it has Babcock’s fingerprints all over it, but the best part of it is that they managed to secure a playoff-proven center with size without wavering from their mandate. And they can thank their work at last year’s trade deadline for that, when they dealt Roman Polak and Nick Spaling to the San Jose Sharks for a second-round pick in 2017 and picked up another from the Ottawa Senators in the Dion Phaneuf trade. One of those picks is now going to Tampa Bay and another is going to the Anaheim Ducks as part of the Fredrik Andersen trade, which still leaves the Leafs with one second-rounder.
And in return, the Leafs get a player who can play down the middle for them, complementing a center ice corps that now looks formidable with Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak and Boyle. The 6-foot-6 center has played exactly 100 playoff games, 95 of them over the past five seasons. In fact, no NHL player has seen more post-season action than Boyle has since 2012.
The Leafs are flush with prospects and young players and had a plethora of second-rounders, which seems to be the going rate for big-name rentals these days. In addition to the three they had in 2017, they also have two in 2018. With the success rate for second-round picks varying wildly, it was a small price to pay for a team that needed an upgrade on the Frederik Gauthier/Ben Smith tandem on the fourth line.
More importantly, it gives the Leafs an experienced player who knows what it’s like to play in meaningful games. Whether the Leafs ultimately make the playoffs or not, their young players will be exposed to crucial, tension-filled and important games down the stretch. And when was the last time anyone could say that? And if they make the post-season and expose their young stars to that level of competition, all the better. And not only will Boyle be instrumental in leading the way, he’ll also be able to offer some sage counsel to those players if the Leafs do find themselves in the chaos known as the playoffs.
The Atlantic Division is really weak. Spectacularly weak, actually. And if the Leafs can somehow find themselves in the No. 3 spot, they might be able to position themselves for a bit of a run. If not, they’ll find themselves playing the Washington Capitals in the first round and will almost certainly get trounced, but be all the better for having experienced the post-season.
And in case you haven’t noticed, the Leafs have been known to be woeful in two areas of the game – defensive zone coverage and holding onto leads late in games. Boyle will help immeasurably in both of those areas. To be sure, you just know Babcock will feel a lot better being able to put Boyle out for a defensive zone faceoff in the final minute of the game in which his team is clinging to a one-goal lead.
And don’t be surprised if the Leafs and Boyle make this a more long-term affair. Boyle is 32, but he actually doesn’t have a ton of NHL miles on him because he didn’t become a full-time NHLer until he was almost 25 years old. And it’s not as though the Leafs are going to be asking him to do more than an over-30 player is capable of doing. If he can provide them with two or three more years of quality defensive play and leadership, they’ll be happy to take that.
Largely because of Auston Matthews and Babcock, the Leafs have become a destination. Don’t be surprised if Boyle sees it that way, too.
It’s not the trade most would have expected, but the Kings acquired Ben Bishop on Sunday evening. Now they’ve protected themselves from any potential disaster in goal.
Jonathan Quick made his return to the Los Angeles Kings’ crease on Saturday in grand fashion. Facing off against the rival Anaheim Ducks, Quick turned in a sound performance, stopping 32 shots in his first full game of the campaign and slamming the door shut for the final 40 minutes as the Kings’ offense came to life to lift Los Angeles to a 4-1 victory. It was Quick’s first action since the Oct. 12 groin injury that has cost him almost his entire season, and his return couldn’t have come at a better time with Los Angeles fighting to earn a playoff berth.
No matter how well Quick may have played, though, the Kings aren’t about to let their playoff hopes rest solely on the veteran netminder’s shoulders. Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi made that abundantly clear Sunday evening when he went out and pulled the trigger on a deal few saw coming, acquiring goaltender Ben Bishop, one of the hottest free agents to be, from the Tampa Bay Lightning. The deal also saw the Kings receive a fifth-round pick, while the Lightning landed Peter Budaj, prospect Erik Cernak and a seventh-round pick in return.
At first blush, the deal itself is somewhat puzzling. Goaltending hasn’t exactly been the missing piece in Los Angeles this season, and one would assume that finding some offensive punch would have been the first thing on Lombardi’s to-do list with the deadline approaching. And it’s bizarre that Bishop landed in Los Angeles, of all places, when there are a number of clubs that could have used a goaltender of his calibre now and in the future. But despite how odd the trade may seem, it’s clear that there’s a method to the madness here.
Groin injuries for goaltenders can be a tricky thing, and the Kings learned that first hand this season with Quick. But it’s also something the club was familiar with when a similar injury sidelined Quick during the 2013-14 campaign. That he has suffered two groin injuries in the past four seasons, both of which put him on the shelf for a significant period of time, has to be concerning for Los Angeles down the stretch, especially with the fight the Kings are in to sneak into one of the Western Conference wild-card spots or earn a divisional playoff berth.
At this juncture, the last thing the Kings can afford is losing Quick again, because for as well as Budaj had played, there was no telling when he might come crashing back down to earth. And a pedestrian Budaj and injured Quick would almost assure the Kings weren’t heading to the playoffs. After missing the post-season in 2014-15 and exiting in the first round in 2015-16, the Kings clearly weren’t about to let goaltending fail them when they need it most. This is to say that the acquisition of Bishop is, in effect, an insurance policy, and a 6-foot-7, 216-pound insurance policy at that.
As far as getting goaltending help goes, the Kings could have done much worse than netting themselves Bishop, too. This season hasn’t been nearly as kind to him as the past few and Bishop’s 2.55 goals-against average and .911 save percentage are some of the worst numbers he’s put up since landing in Tampa Bay, but he has proven time and time again that he can get the job done in the post-season. During the 2014-15 playoffs, he was one of the backbones of the Lightning on their run to the Stanley Cup final, and his 1.85 GAA and .939 SP had the Bolts within a win of the Stanley Cup final in 2015-16.
There’s no doubt then that if disaster strikes and Quick goes down, Bishop is more than qualified to take over. And having both goaltenders allows Los Angeles to ride the hot hand, a situation they haven’t really had in any season prior. Quick’s return to the crease was excellent, to be sure, but one game won’t tell the story. There are still 21 contests left on the Kings’ schedule, and if Quick shows any signs of rust, Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter doesn’t even have to hesitate when thinking about a change between the pipes. It’s not a knock against the likes of Budaj, Martin Jones or any of the backups who’ve played behind Quick in recent years, but Bishop’s resume, with an Eastern Conference title and two finishes in the top three of Vezina Trophy voting, speaks for itself.
Sitting three points out of the wild-card and 10 points back of the third spot in the Pacific Division, Los Angeles is doing everything they can to ensure they’re not just in the post-season, but competing with the West’s best. Getting Bishop gives the Kings a safety net down the stretch and the ability to ride a proven playoff performer if Quick happens to stumble at any point. So while it’s not the first major deal we thought we’d see coming from the Kings at the deadline, there’s plenty of reason the trade makes sense. Whether or not it works out, though, is still to be seen.
One of the Wild’s greatest strengths heading into the final stretch of the season is their depth, and going out and landing Martin Hanzal at the deadline made an already deep Wild team that much deeper.
Wild GM Chuck Fletcher said the acquisition of Martin Hanzal was one that put his teams’ “chips in the middle of the table,” per NHL.com. There really isn’t any other way to look at it after Minnesota anted up and shipped three draft picks — a first in 2017, second in 2018 and conditional selection in 2019 — and Grayson Downing to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for the 30-year-old unrestricted free agent to be. It’s a steep price to pay for what will very likely be a rental player, but the Wild aren’t messing around when it comes to their shot at hoisting the Stanley Cup this season. The willingness to do what was necessary to land Hanzal is proof of that.
Acquiring Hanzal has some clear cut positives for the Wild, of course. At 6-foot-6, 226 pounds, he’s a massive pivot who can play up and down the lineup and provide some offensive punch. He has 16 goals and 26 points across 51 games this season, putting him on pace for the best goal scoring campaign of his career. Minnesota’s scoring depth throughout their lineup was already one of the team’s strong suits, and adding Hanzal only serves to improve that. Being able to match lines and roll all four units can make or break a playoff series, and you’d be hard-pressed to find another team who can match the Wild line for line with the post-season coming.
It’s also a move that’s somewhat reminiscent of a deal made in recent years by arguably the Wild’s top adversary for the Western Conference crown, the Chicago Blackhawks. During the 2014-15 campaign, with Patrick Kane on the shelf, the Blackhawks went out and made waves with a deal that sent a first-round pick to the Coyotes, along with prospect Klas Dahlbeck, for center Antoine Vermette.
The two trades, the Wild’s Hanzal acquisition and Blackhawks’ trade for Vermette, have their differences, to be sure. The biggest is that acquiring Vermette was only possible because Kane was on the shelf with a broken clavicle whereas the Wild are at full strength at the time of their acquisition of Hanzal. That said, the two deals are nearly identical in that acquiring the piece from the Coyotes serves only to add to the depth, and the only real way for either deal to pay off is for the season to end with a Stanley Cup victory. Chicago made that a reality, and now the Wild will seek to do the same.
What the Wild need out of Hanzal is also similar to what the Blackhawks needed out of Vermette. While Hanzal’s aforementioned scoring ability makes him a valuable piece, the fact of the matter is Minnesota needs him primarily for his two-way ability. When Chicago acquired Vermette back in February 2015, they were ninth in the league in goals for and among the best defensive teams, allowing the fourth-fewest goals against. Getting one of the coveted pieces wasn’t something that was supposed to help the offense, but rather one that provided additional depth at a time when it’s at a premium. That’s almost exactly the situation the Wild find themselves in, except Minnesota happens to be slightly better at both ends of the ice.
As of Monday, Minnesota ranks fifth in goals for, potting 195 this season, and the only team that has allowed fewer goals is the league-leading Washington Capitals. A massive part of that has been the play of goaltender Devan Dubnyk, who has to be the frontrunner to win the Vezina Trophy this season. But going hand-in-hand with Dubnyk’s play is that there’s never a time when a unit on the Wild is all that overpowered. Now imagine that same lineup with Hanzal, a veteran two-way pivot who can take heavy defensive zone starts and kill penalties.
This is a team that has gotten so much firepower out of its lineup and one that has seen its offense spread almost equally across all four lines. The Wild boast 10 players with 10 or more goals, and Hanzal is the 11th 10-plus goal guy in the lineup. So while he might add a few goals here or there, he won’t be required to come in and be something he isn’t. He can play tough defensive minutes, skate against top opponents and chip in here or there. If he happens to score, that’s a bonus, but the fact he can also make plays with his body and his stick in the defensive zone will be just as important.
The other underrated element of the deal, one that Fletcher copped to, is that acquiring Hanzal ensures that no other team who could have used him to bolster their middle-six is going to be able to get him now. Per NHL.com, Fletcher said that the Wild’s goal was “to have him play for us and also to keep him away from other teams in the West.”
It’s not easy to work your way to the Stanley Cup final, and in a wide-open Western Conference, this might have been the best year in recent memory where going all-in could carve a team a path through the playoffs. Blocking other Western teams from potentially landing a piece that could have strengthened their roster in time for the post-season is a clever move. Some will call it an overpay, some will call it foolish, but with the position the Wild are in right now, leading the Central Division and tops in the Western Conference, not making a move on Hanzal now may have looked equally foolish down the line if one of the other Western contenders scooped up the pivot and he paid off in the post-season.
According to the Star-Tribune’s Michael Russo, Fletcher said this is a deal that sends a message to both the players and the fans. This is the Wild “taking a swing” and seeing if this can be their year. And with an already stellar roster and a team that’s performing as well as they ever have, adding Hanzal to bolster the depth gives Minnesota a better shot as of Monday than they had on Sunday before the trade. And even if Hanzal isn’t an offensive stud for the Wild, what he does up and down the ice could make all the difference.