The Hockey News holiday gift exchange is not unlike the NHL season itself: plenty of surprises, both good and bad.
The main difference is, we set our salary cap at $20 per gift, so even if you donate a considerate, useful present to the pile only to unwrap four cans of beans, an Archie comic and a roll of toilet paper for yourself, the sting is still quite bearable.
NHL teams spending in excess of $50 million on salaries are understandably a little more concerned with what they get in return. Some must feel they’re getting fair (in relative terms) value for their money; others, not so much.
Either way, everybody deserves something from Santa’s sack of goodies this season. Here’s what I think the Sleigh Man has in mind for each NHL club:
Anaheim Ducks – The quiet confidence to turn the page and move on from the loud, successful Brian Burke era.
Atlanta Thrashers – A reality check, so they can finally embrace the fact Ilya Kovalchuk won’t be a Thrasher beyond next season and act accordingly.
Boston Bruins – The address of every pundit who picked the Bruins to be an also-ran this year, just so Milan Lucic can go door to door, asking a few friendly questions.
Buffalo Sabres – A team stylist who begs them to wear those awesome, vintage blue and yellow jerseys every time out.
Calgary Flames – Even more Iggy pop.
Carolina Hurricanes – Some indication as to whether 2006 will ever send them the Eric Staal and Cam Ward they so desperately miss.
Chicago Blackhawks – The perspective to admire how far they’ve come and the determination to see the whole thing through.
Colorado Avalanche – Not Peter Forsberg. For the love of God, not Peter Forsberg.
Columbus Blue Jackets – Just one more year of grace while these kids keep developing.
Dallas Stars – Something to make ‘The Pain’ go away.
Detroit Red Wings – Just a little note reminding them they’re still the defending champs and that, deep down inside, every NHL team still fears them the most.
Edmonton Oilers – An early start on mimicking last year’s incredible late-season push.
Florida Panthers – A homerun when Jay Bouwmeester is dealt.
Los Angeles Kings – A couple more quiet pickups that turn out as well as Kyle Quincey has.
Minnesota Wild – A healthy Marian Gaborik, so they can trade him and move on with life.
Montreal Canadiens – Half the hype and twice the results of the season so far.
Nashville Predators – A fresh pack of re-enforced sticks so Shea Weber can keep firing bombs.
New Jersey Devils – One more playoff run with a rested Martin Brodeur in net.
New York Islanders – An Island unto themselves where they can sit down and sort out this whole mess.
New York Rangers – A break. They’ve played more games than everybody and been to Europe already.
Ottawa Senators – The courage to trade Jason Spezza.
Philadelphia Flyers – Santa is actually going to take a player away from Philly because they’re so freakin’ good shorthanded.
Phoenix Coyotes – That No. 8 seed to legitimize this team’s progression and give fans an actual reason to like hockey.
Pittsburgh Penguins – The Art Ross and Hart for Malkin, the Conn Smythe for Sid.
St. Louis Blues – Assurance that if they stay the course, relevance is right around the corner.
San Jose Sharks – Twenty-three factory-defect calendars, so when April rolls around, all the players think it’s October.
Tampa Bay Lightning – Somebody else’s blueprint for success.
Toronto Maple Leafs – A whole bunch of suitcases cause change is a-comin’.
Vancouver Canucks – The knowledge that with their style of game and Roberto Luongo in net, they’re Canada’s best playoff hope.
Washington Capitals – Santa’s just going to ask Ovie to hop on the sleigh and tour around the world, spreading joy to all.
Top Shelf will return Jan. 7.
Ryan Dixon 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 appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.
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Matt Walilko had a playoff game to remember, recording six goals and five assists. It wasn't exactly a once-in-a-lifetime game since he had a 10-point game earlier this year.
In the dying minutes of his Jr. C playoff game Tuesday night, Matt Walilko of the Midland Flyers had his stick broken in two by a slash. A dastardly deed to be sure, but you can kind of see his opponent’s reasoning. It was the probably same thought process Bobby Clarke had when he broke Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle during the 1972 Summit Series.
“The guy was telling me that my stick was way too hot and he had to break it,” Walilko said. “He just axed the stick right in half and said it had too many points in it. We were laughing about it after the game.”
Considering that stick – along with the 17-year-old using it - was responsible for six goals and five assists in a 12-3 rout over the Huntsville Otters, you can understand why the opponent would rather see that one propping up tomato plants than demolishing his team’s playoff hopes. So when his team hits the ice for Game 6 of their playoff series Friday night, Walilko will be using new lumber, but riding the confidence of a once-in-a-lifetime game.
Or was it? Earlier this season, the Grade 12 high school student registered a 10-point game with five goals and five assists en route to scoring 80 points in 39 games and being named rookie of the year in Ontario's Provincial Junior Hockey League. Walilko is just 17, playing in a league where there are players as old as 22. He was easily the youngest player among the league’s top 10 scorers this season and one of only two teenagers. In what should come as no surprise, Walilko’s night vaulted him into the league’s playoff scoring lead with 10 goals and 20 points in five games. “It makes it look like I’ve been lighting it up every night,” Walilko said, “but I only had nine points in four games before that one.”
Back to the game, Walilko attributed his good fortune to being in the right place at the right time. He said a couple of key players were out with injuries and school commitments, so he knew he would have to step up. One of his linemates had seven points in the game and the other linemate had six. Walilko said that, as was the case in his 10-point night earlier this season, he went into the game knowing he was facing the opponent’s backup goalie.
“You kind of do your research, right?” Walilko said. “You see the backup is starting and you try to put a lot of pucks on net.”
What makes the feat even more impressive is that it gave Walilko’s team a 3-2 series lead with a chance to win it in Game 6. The Flyers had dug themselves into a 2-0 hole in the series, but have stormed back and clearly have some momentum on their side, not to mention a confident young man leading the attack.
Which begs the question: What is a young man this good doing playing this far down the junior hockey ladder? Well, Walilko played AAA midget last season in Barrie and rather than play on the third or fourth line for a Jr. B or Jr. A team this season, he thought it would be better for his development if he were a prime time player at a lower level. He has his sights set on earning a scholarship, something he hopes to do in a year or so. Walilko plans to take next season off school and hopes to play next season for the Pembroke Lumber Kings. He plans to write his SATs in the hope of attracting interest from U.S. schools.
Flyers president and GM Gerry Asselin said Walilko is so focused on getting a scholarship that he turned down a chance to practice, and perhaps even play, with the struggling Barrie Colts this season. The Flyers are affiliated with the Colts, who are struggling and in last place this season. Asselin said he recently had a conversation with Colts GM Jason Ford, in which Ford asked him to suggest a couple of players the Colts might have a look at down the stretch. Asselin said when he approached Walilko, he was flatly turned down.
“He’s a smart kid,” Asselin said. “He has his head screwed on right.”
A student at a Catholic high school in Barrie, Walilko said he can’t take all the credit for his success. His personal motto comes from the Bible passage Philippians 4:13, which says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
“I’ve put it on every stick I’ve bought since I was a young kid,” Walilko said. “I grew up in a religious family and every time I’m on the ice and having a tough time, I’ll just look down at that and kind of re-motivate myself. It kind of applies to me in everything I do, not just hockey.”
Walilko will be looking to continue making a big contribution in the playoffs, but is another double-digit performance in the future?
“I don’t know if any of my backup sticks have that many points in them, but I’ll try.”
Penguins goaltender Matt Murray has a serious shot at finishing the season as a Vezina Trophy finalist, but there’s a chance he won’t even be named one of the three best rookies this season.
Patrik Laine did it again Tuesday night. For the third time this season, and third time before his 19th birthday, Laine scored a hat trick. He’s got 26 goals now, one off the rookie scoring lead and four back of league leader Sidney Crosby. And on the same night, Auston Matthews continued his dream rookie season, firing home two goals of his own to bring his total to 27 on the year, while Mitch Marner stayed ahead of all rookies with an assist that brought his point total to 48.
It’s not just those three rookies turning heads, though. There’s also been the superb play of William Nylander, a teammate of Matthews’ and Marner’s in Toronto, the continued emergence of Zach Werenski as a legitimate top-four defender in Columbus and a litany of others who have laid their claims to the title of league’s best rookie. Everyone from Matthew Tkachuk to Sebastian Aho has had their share of Calder talk.
But with everyone swept up in the top scorers and the brilliance of some of the fresh faces, it’s hard not to feel as if Matt Murray’s being overlooked in Pittsburgh. Tuesday, while Laine was torching the Dallas Stars and Matthews and Marner were helping their Maple Leafs blowout the New York Islanders, Murray was hard at work in Pittsburgh, stopping all 29 shots he faced en route to his third shutout of the season. Murray, we need remind you, is still a rookie.
Sure, Murray has a Stanley Cup to his name and he was at the very least in the conversation for the Conn Smythe, but by the league’s standards, Murray still counts as a rookie. He played only 13 regular season games prior to the start of 2016-17, and the 21 games Murray played in the post-season during the 2015-16 season don’t count toward his total. Take umbrage with that if you will, but the fact is that no matter how many games Murray saw in the playoffs, he was going to be a rookie this season.
We can debate the eligibility rules all we want, and that debate was surely had last year when it came to Artemi Panarin’s candidacy, and subsequent victory, given his time in the KHL, but Murray’s situation is not unique to him. John Gibson finished seventh in Calder voting last season despite having 30 combined regular season and post-season games under his belt prior to the start of the campaign, Jake Allen was eligible and finished 17th and 10th in Calder voting in back-to-back years, Torey Krug played 15 playoffs games before finishing fourth in 2013-14 and Logan Couture played 40 games — 25 regular season, 15 post-season — before his second-place Calder finish in 2009-10.
So, given that Murray is eligible, it might be time we start giving some consideration to his candidacy. And when he’s compared to rookie goaltenders, there’s no one even close.
There are 18 freshman goaltenders who’ve suited up this season, none of whom have seen more action than Murray and not a single one who has had near Murray’s level of success. In 31 games, Murray has a sparkling 21-6-2 record, and the next closest rookie netminder to Murray is Juuse Saros. The Nashville Predators rookie has won five of his 11 starts. Yes, that means there’s a 16-win gap between Murray and the next winningest rookie goaltender. It’s incredibly difficult to be named rookie of the year as a goaltender, however. Only eight netminders have managed the feat in the post-expansion era.
That means for a rookie goaltender to win the Calder, he almost certainly has to be one of the very best at his position in the league, which in turn puts him in the upper echelon of all players in the league for a given season. What better measure of that is there for a goaltender than finishing as one of the Vezina Trophy finalists?
Murray’s going to have a tough climb to put himself into the Vezina conversation, though, especially with the seasons Devan Dubnyk, Sergei Bobrovsky and Braden Holtby have put forth. But if there’s anyone who could sneak into contention, it might be Murray. As of Wednesday, he ranks fourth out of all qualified goaltenders with a .926 save percentage, sixth in the league with a 2.27 goals-against average, is tied for eighth with three shutouts and is one of only 16 goaltenders to have won 20 or more games this season. Murray’s case as a Vezina finalist is more impressive when you consider a couple of other numbers, too.
For instance, there are 38 goaltenders who have played 1,000 minutes or more at 5-on-5 this season, and of those only Dubnyk and Holtby have posted a better save percentage than Murray’s .937 mark. In addition, if Murray played more, he’d almost certainly be among the league leaders in wins. Consider that of all goaltenders to play at least 30 games, Murray boasts the second-best win percentage in the league, behind only Dubnyk.
This is to say that where it matters most, Murray has been one of the three-best goaltenders in the league for the duration of the season. He’s deserving of a Vezina nomination. Will he win? Almost certainly not. The Vezina is Dubnyk’s to lose at this point, but that Murray has a shot at becoming a finalist for the award is significant when it comes to the Calder.
Since 1981, when the Vezina turned into an award for the most outstanding goaltender, six of eight netminders who have been finalists for the award have also finished top-three in Calder voting. That list includes Grant Fuhr, Tom Barrasso, Ron Hextall, Ed Belfour, Jim Carey and Steve Mason. Coincidentally, the two odd-men out both played for the New York Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist and Mike Richter had identical third-place Vezina, fourth-place Calder finishes in 2003-04 and 1990-91, respectively. However, it seems as though Murray’s more likely to join the latter category rather than the former.
With the flashiness of this season’s freshmen and the number of players pushing for top rookie honors, Murray probably will be overlooked. The fact of the matter is Matthews is having a rookie season the likes of which we haven’t seen since Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin came into the league. The same goes for Laine, too, who has shown every bit the goal scoring flair that was promised. Throw in Marner, Nylander, Werenski and others and you’ve got a crowded field.
It’s a shame, too. Even if Murray wouldn’t have won either award, he’d be joining some elite company such as Fuhr, Barrasso and Hextall as a finalist for both awards in the same season. In any other year, against any other rookie crop or in a season he started more games, that very well could have been a reality. Instead, he might have to settle for a spectacular season that’s just a hair short of being given the credit it deserves.
Any late season surge in Boston won’t be because of a new coach, it’ll be because a good team finally started getting some bounces.
When a team fires a coach mid-season and the guy barely lasts a week on the unemployment block, they’ve probably just made a huge mistake.
Back in 2011, the Capitals made that mistake. They fired Bruce Boudreau after the team hit a rough patch, and he was subsequently hired just two days later by Anaheim. It took two other coaches and three seasons for the team to find themselves another coach of his calibre, a waste of the their best players’s prime years.
Last week, the Boston Bruins made that same mistake firing Claude Julien. He lasted exactly one week on the market before another team scooped him up. The fact it was the division leading Montreal Canadiens makes matters even worse as it points to how clear of an upgrade they thought Julien was over the guy who led them to the top.
Boston’s decision came down to results and expectations. From that standpoint, it’s clear why they did what they did. After making the Cup final in 2012-13 and winning the President’s Trophy in 2013-14, the Bruins missed the playoffs twice and were sure looking like they would make it three with a 26-23-6 record under Julien. Someone had to take the fall and with this being Julien’s 10th season as bench boss, maybe his voice was getting a bit stale.
I’m not sure I buy that though and it all comes down to what the Bruins are doing under the hood this year. The year after the President’s Trophy win, the team took a step back dropping from third in score-and-venue adjusted Corsi to 12th and then dropped to 17th the year after. This year, they’ve shot all the way back up to first, ahead of the perennial kings of this stat, the Kings. Their mark of 56 percent is the ninth best mark of any team since 2007-08. Ahead of them are two Detroit teams, three Chicago teams, and three Los Angeles teams – and also three Stanley Cups. No fired coaches either.
The team made a remarkable year-to-year jump, the results just weren’t there. The team has the lowest shooting and save percentage among those top teams, and that’s led to a dastardly low 46.3 percent goals ratio, a full 10 percent lower than their shot share and six percent lower than the worst of the eight juggernaut teams above them.
While goaltending is a concern, some of that is a result of how terrible their back-up goalies have been. You’d also figure that a world class goalie like Tuukka Rask will get his groove back. The real big issue is on offense where the team ranks 21st in goals per 60 at 5-on-5. While they may have the ninth best shot attempt rate since 2007-08, they’re also posting the sixth worst shooting percentage since 2007-08.
The obvious answer from most pundits is that the Bruins aren’t actually a good team due to their massive shot advantage because a majority of those shots are coming from the outside. It turns out they have a point. Take a look at this heat map from HockeyViz.com of all the shots the Bruins are taking this year to see for yourself. It might be a lot to take in, but basically, red means “hot spots” where the team shoots more than league average, while blue represents “cold spots” where the team is getting fewer chances.
Just as expected, a lot of red on the outside and a huge blue zone right in front of the –– wait, wrong picture. That’s actually the Bruins 2010-11 season where they won the Cup and had the second highest goal scoring rate at 5-on-5. My bad. Here’s this year.
Yep, there we go. A little better than 2010-11, but still, they’re not really getting to the front of the –– wait, that’s not it. That’s actually the Bruins 2012-13 season where they made it to the Cup final and had the ninth highest goal scoring rate at 5-on-5. My bad. Here’s this year.
Hmm, a lot fewer shots overall, but again, their biggest cold spot is right in front of the –– wait, I did it again. That’s actually the 2013-14 season where the Bruins won the President’s Trophy and had the third highest goal scoring rate at 5-on-5. My bad. Okay, here’s 2016-17, for real this time.
Remember that this offense is the 21st rated offence at 5-on-5. If anyone could point out how it differs from any time the Bruins had a top five or 10 offense the past few years, I’m all ears. There is a bit of a deeper contour in front of the net than other seasons, but not by much, and the red zone in front of the slot is a deeper red and much closer to the front of the net. That should all cancel out, and it does. By expected goals for, here’s how every season under Julien ranks.
This year, the Bruins should be having one of the most prolific offenses they’ve had in years, instead, they’re struggling. The idea they’re “not getting to the front of the net” is a bad excuse because it’s clear they either never really have, it’s never really mattered, or there’s a systemic bias in Boston to record fewer shots there. Whatever the case, it doesn’t hold water.
The Bruins offense hasn’t changed much, but the results have and Julien lost his job because of it. Some might say the Bruins Corsi doesn’t tell the whole story here, but even by expected goals they’re the league’s top team, and those teams rarely struggle to convert like this team has. I normally hesitate to use “luck” as a crutch to describe a team with poor results, but it’s hard to point the finger anywhere else.
If you’re still not convinced, here’s another way to look at it. I plotted every player’s personal shooting percentage (at 5-on-5) this season compared to the the three seasons prior. Unsurprisingly, nearly everyone is having a down year.
There’s a fair number of players here who were reliable scorers in the past that suddenly can’t put it in. These 19 players have 86 goals this year, but if they were as efficient as they were before this season, they’d be at 111 collectively. If you look at expected shooting percentage that number drops a little to 104, but their expected shooting percentage is actually higher than it was in the previous three seasons. It’s hard to imagine all these guys suddenly forgot how to score, but that’s the reality if you think these results have nothing to do with luck.
Eventually, things should revert back to normal and they’ll start scoring at their normal rates again. With the way the Bruins control play, that’ll likely mean more wins down the stretch and it may be enough for a playoff spot (we think they’ve got a 70 percent shot at the moment). If they make it, they’re a dark horse team in the East, especially in a weak Atlantic. That is, if they keep playing as well as they did under Julien.
Whatever happens though, any team success will come back to the coaching change as a turning point. Make no mistake though, they likely would’ve turned it around anyways. Any late season surge won’t be because of a new coach, it’ll be because a good team finally started getting some bounces. The Bruins won’t be a good team now because they fired Julien -- they already were one.
It's not often stars like Matt Duchene are on the trade block. It will take a king's ransom to pry him from the Avalanche but these teams have a shot at him.
Oh, the possibilities. Matt Duchene is the most fun trade-bait name to pop up in a while.
First off, his skill set tantalizes. He’s got blazing speed, elite hands and can play center or wing. Teams chasing his services have many different ways to slot him into their lineups. Secondly, Duchene isn’t a rental. He’s under contract for two more seasons after this one at a $6-million cap hit. While that means the lowly Colorado Avalanche and GM Joe Sakic have no reason to rush and force a deal by March 1, it does mean Sakic should receive some 10-bell offers. Sakic also might receive pitches from bubble teams or even non-playoff squads, as anyone acquiring Duchene, 26, can make him part of their long-term plans.
Still, chances are the rebuilding teams wouldn’t target Duchene until draft day. This month’s offers should skew heavily toward contenders. Which teams are the best fits for Duchene? Keep in mind the return must be significant.
6. BONUS TEAM: OTTAWA SENATORS
It wouldn’t do the Senators justice to bury them in the honorable mentions category. They deserve a few extra words, as they’ve been linked to Duchene often of late. The problem is Colorado needs good young defensemen more than anything else – and a Duchene trade likely can’t happen unless Ottawa includes prized prospect Thomas Chabot. That’s a borderline non-starter for Ottawa. With no Chabot involved, Colorado would want Cody Ceci, but trading him would be counterproductive for the Sens, as he logs more than 23 minutes a game. They need him too much for the playoff hunt. The Avs could also ask for promising two-way center prospect Colin White, but they’d want much more than just White, and the smarter return for Duchene should start with a defenseman. Duchene is also somewhat of a luxury for Ottawa, who is already solid up the middle and might put Duchene on a wing if it acquired him.
The mutual interest makes sense, as Duchene would bolster Ottawa’s top six no matter where he plays and the Sens have pieces Sakic would covet. But I just don’t see Ottawa coughing up what Colorado wants.
5. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
The Chicago Blackhawks need a left winger to play with Jonathan Toews yet again. A quick and dirty way to plug the hole this year might be to grab pending unrestricted free agent Patrick Sharp back from the Dallas Stars. If GM Stan Bowman wants to aim high, though, he could target Duchene. And we can’t underestimate Bowman’s ability to pull off massive deals. He surrendered a first-round pick and Marko Dano as part of the Andrew Ladd acquisition last winter. Bowman gave up a 2018 second rounder plus Philip Danault, who currently centers Montreal’s top line, to snag Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann. The year before, Bowman used first- and second-round picks as part of swaps for Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timonen.
It’s established that Bowman has no problem giving up future assets for playoff pushes. He knows his team remains in a Cup-contending window. Better yet, Duchene could become part of Chicago’s star core for years to come. Bowman would then have to sort out some serious salary-cap problems in the summer, but c’mon…we all know that never stops him from dreaming big.
What Chicago can offer: The Hawks lack elite prospects, though Alex DeBrincat has almost played his way into that status with OHL Erie this year. He could be part of a Duchene trade. Some goes for blueliner Chad Krys or NHL rookie Nick Schmaltz.
Red flag: Chicago has three Stanley Cups in since 2010. It hasn’t selected in the top 15 of an NHL draft since 2008. The Hawks have also traded away multiple high picks before using them at the draft. It’s no wonder, then, Chicago’s farm system isn’t studded with A+ prospects. The Hawks would be squarely behind the other suitors in terms of what they could offer for Duchene. Bowman has also publicly stated he doesn’t expect to be active approaching the deadline. Choose for yourself whether you believe that, though Chicago’s lack of in-season cap space alone would make a Duchene deal difficult to execute. Some veteran body would have to go Colorado’s way, and Bowman doesn’t want to upset his team chemistry.
4. ANAHEIM DUCKS
The Ducks average the fewest goals of any team in either conference currently holding down a playoff position. Right winger Corey Perry has just nine. The Ducks need an injection of scoring, and GM Bob Murray has made six deadline-day trades over the past two seasons. He knows Perry and Getzlaf are inching deeper into their 30s, slowly closing the franchise’s championship window, and Murray thus doesn’t mind making moves. It helps that Duchene isn’t a short-term asset, too. And Duchene wouldn’t have to play center to help the Ducks. Coach Randy Carlyle could try him on the top line with Getzlaf and Perry, using Rickard Rakell to create nightmare matchups from the third unit.
What Anaheim can offer: Defensemen. So many defensemen. Maybe even two. The Ducks are spoiled at the position, with Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Josh Manson, Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour leading the way, not to mention 2015 first-rounder Jacob Larsson marinating in the Swedish League. Murray could find himself in an expansion draft bind, too. Veteran Kevin Bieksa’s no-movement clause makes him a must-protect asset, and Murray would never expose Lindholm, Vatanen or Fowler as long as he has them. That could put Josh Manson in a precarious position, forcing Murray to lose him or, most likely, expose a decent forward like Jakob Silfverberg.
Long story short: dealing from their ‘D’ surplus helps the Ducks not just in that it could yield Duchene, but also because it would solve a roster logjam.
Red flag: We know Sakic seeks multiple useful pieces in a Duchene deal, so the return wouldn’t just be a Theodore or Montour. The Avs could easily demand, say, Vatanen along with one of the younger prospects, with a first-round pick to boot. Murray does have many D-men to spare, but surrendering one of his top-four guys for the stretch run would up the pressure on his youngest D-men. Are they ready?
My colleague Ken Campbell said it best in our podcast this week: the Canadiens owe it to their fan base to make a push. They lead the Atlantic, hockey’s weakest division, but have wilted in recent weeks. They don't want to waste goaltender Carey Price’s prime years. And any team forced to shoehorn Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen into top-six duty scares no one. The Habs need more high-end talent for their scoring lines.
What Montreal can offer: The negotiation starts and finishes with Mikhail Sergachev and/or Nathan Beaulieu. No way GM Marc Bergevin gets a foothold without dangling his best young blueliners. A steep price? Yes. But the Habs, unlike the Sens with Chabot, are at more of a win-now juncture. That’s what last summer’s Shea Weber acquisition told us. The question is whether the Avs would also ask for hulking winger Michael McCarron in a Duchene package. My guess is yes. And Montreal should meet the price. It’s time to go for glory.
Red flag: Is Montreal even a top-four team in the Eastern Conference? Would you pick the Habs over the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets or New York Rangers in a series? I’m obviously playing devil’s advocate here, but the point is acquiring Duchene carries risk, as Montreal has stiff competition and would have to empty its farm system in a Duchene deal. The good news, of course, is that the Habs would naturally become a much stronger contender in the East with Duchene.
2. CAROLINA HURRICANES
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman raised an excellent point: it helps the Hurricanes to acquire players with term because they aren’t big players in the free agent game. The Canes are trending in the right direction, with strong analytics numbers. Sebastian Aho would be a Calder Trophy contender in most years but happens to be up against a fantastic rookie crop. The Canes have Julien Gauthier on the way, too. But as they mature into a pretty competitive club, they could use a boost in veteran scoring, and Duchene would provide just that. He could immediately take over as Carolina’s No. 1 center.
What Carolina can offer: The ’Canes are up there with Anaheim as the best pure hockey fit for a trade from Colorado’s perspective. Carolina boasts an impressive stable of young defensemen. Justin Faulk is untouchable in a Duchene negotiation, as is Noah Hanifin, but Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin should be in play. Neither of them would constitute nearly enough to land Duchene, which is where picks and high-end prospect defensemen Jake Bean and Haydn Fleury come in. Carolina has enough defensive depth to spare a couple in a Duchene package, and GM Ron Francis is swimming in cap space, too.
Red flag: The Hurricanes are in the midst of true rebuild. It’s trending in the right direction, with Carolina four points back of the Philadelphia Flyers for the second Eastern Conference wild-card position with two games in hand. The ’Canes are hardly guaranteed a ticket to the big dance this spring, though, and they aren’t in a rush. That doesn’t mean Duchene is a poor fit. It does mean a Duchene trade could go down at the draft in June instead of in the next few weeks.
1. NASHVILLE PREDATORS
You should’ve seen Duchene during all-star weekend in Nashville last year. He couldn’t stop smiling. As a country music fan and musician, he’s made for that city. Not that such an emotional connection makes him more likely to become a Predator, of course, but it’s nice to think about.
What makes Duchene most likely to become a Predator is that Nashville has the best blend of need and willingness. Mike Fisher shouldn’t be a top-two center on any team calling itself a Stanley Cup contender. That’s not meant to disrespect Fisher. It’s just that he’s 36. He’s still an effective two-way player and would be a wonderful No. 3 center on a powerhouse. Landing Duchene would put Fisher in that spot and give the Preds another dangerous scorer up front, which they desperately need. No Nashville player has more than 17 goals, albeit Filip Forsberg has heated up a lot lately.
GM David Poile is the king of blockbuster trades in the salary-cap era. He pulled Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen and Shea Weber for P.K. Subban in 2016. He’s made winter deals involving first-round picks over the years to land Peter Forsberg, Cody Franson, Paul Gaustad and Fisher. Poile treats every trade deadline like it’s his team’s last chance at a Stanley Cup push, and we thank him for it. The man is entertaining.
What Nashville can offer: Mattias Ekholm’s name has been tossed around in trade rumors this year. After dealing Jones away last season, though, Poile has to be careful not to weaken his depth too much. The more likely scenario: offering a first-rounder and a prospect such as Dante Fabbro. Maybe Kevin Fiala or Vladislav Kamenev, too. We know Poile is fearless.
Red flag: It’s taken the Predators all season just to climb back into a playoff position, and they’re a short losing streak away from slipping into ninth place. The smart money says they hold off their competition, but they’re no lock. At least Duchene isn’t a one-and-done commodity, though. So the threat of a playoff miss shouldn’t spook Poile.
OTHER TEAMS TO WATCH:
Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks