Wednesday November 26th, 2014

NHL
Power Rankings: Surprising Islanders seize top spot

Every Wednesday, a trio of SI.com staffers will sit down for a discussion of the hockey world's hot button issues. This week, Brian Cazeneuve, Sarah Kwak and I talk about the turkeys and treats of the first quarter, the next step for the Edmonton Oilers and the shocking start of the New York Islanders.

First up:

• We're already 20-plus games into the season, and since Thanksgiving is on the table this week let's get your three turkeys for the first quarter.

SARAH KWAK: Holiday-themed questions! My favorite. Well, for my three turkeys, let's start with Arizona goalie Mike Smith. Everyone knows that for the Coyotes to experience any sort of success, they need to have solid—if not outstanding—goaltending. And right now, Smith isn't holding up his end. He doesn't get much help from the team in front of him, which hasn't been defensively sound for a Dave Tippett-coached squad. Still, Smith should be better than the .893 save percentage and 3.22 GAA he is averaging. Next up, I'll go with the Bruins' Milan Lucic, who has had some backlash lately. And you know, it'd be easier to justify some of his behavior if he was producing offensively, but so far he has just 11 points and 47 penalty minutes. That's not enough value added for him. And thirdly, I'm going to say throw in the whole Oilers organization. That they remain so woefully inept on the ice, despite having so many top draft picks on their roster, is hard to understand, considering that other down-and-out franchises like Pittsburgh and Chicago have laid out blueprints that Edmonton still can't seem to use. 

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BRIAN CAZENEUVE: I’ll give a turkey to Slava Voynov for what he is alleged to have done on a personal level and less important, but relevant for this discussion, the way it fouled up some people who were counting on him to be a lot smarter, such as his teammates. I’ll give another to the Sharks, because it doesn’t matter how many letters you have on your sweaters if you can’t perform. When will something give over there? Finally, I’ll give one to Jack Johnson, not for his financial troubles, per se, but for his game. Maybe there is a connection there. He has one suspension and a -16 rating this season on a team that is badly underperforming.

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ALLAN MUIR: I'm giving my first turkey to the NHL for its decision to banish the spin-o-rama from shootouts and penalty shots. I get that there was ambiguity as it applies to the forward motion requirement, but that could have been addressed with a few words instead of the outright removal of a highlight-reel staple. If a rule stifles skill, it's a bad rule ... and this rule's really bad. Next one goes to Rogers Sportsnet for its early missteps with Hockey Night In Canada. This goes way beyond the marginalization of the brilliant Ron MacLean or the reduced on-air presence of Don Cherry. It's the CNN effect, an over-reliance on technology for technology's sake. It might look shiny on first viewing but it gets stale really, really fast. Oh, and that new theme song just flat out sucks. They deserve more time to work out the kinks in the presentation—just try not to take the whole 12 years, all right fellas? Finally, how about Thomas Vanek? Sure, he's always been streaky, but the Wild can't be thrilled that their big free-agent prize has scored once and, maybe more distressing, has taken just 36 shots. Then there's the whole gambling/money laundering thing. Whatever the whole truth turns out to be, there's no denying that he made himself a distraction by signing over one of his Islanders paychecks to a man who was involved in an illegal sports gambling ring. Such a dumb thing to do.

GALLERY: Leafs, Oilers among Sports Turkeys of the Year

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OK, let's get Sarah back in the holiday spirit. How about something you're grateful for this season?

I'm most grateful for having had at least the chance to meet and speak with Pat Quinn—even if just a few times. I went back yesterday and looked at a couple of transcripts from old interviews with him. They still make me laugh. 

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Well said about Pat Quinn, Sarah. I’m grateful that, with a few exceptions that aren’t worth mentioning, hockey people are generally very good to work with. They respect their game and the people around it in a way that athletes from other sports could emulate. I’m also grateful for any year that Milt Schmidt is still with us. I had a chance to meet him years ago and it was a treat. He’s 96 now. Stay well, Milt.

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You're right, Brian. Having worked in baseball many years ago it's an absolute treat to deal with hockey people on a regular basis. I'm grateful for how approachable and generous and genuine they are as a group. And I'm grateful that Gordie's still with us. Still amazes me how much time he would give me when I was just breaking into the business. Hopefully he's feeling well enough to enjoy Thanksgiving with his family this week.

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• Sarah, you brought up the Oilers and their miserable start. On the off chance that the firing of goaltending coach Frederic Chabot doesn't immediately reverse their fortunes and set them on the path to glory, what do you see as Craig MacTavish's next major move?

All this time, they just needed a new goalie coach, right? Of course ... not. Anyway, I honestly believe that the organization needs to trade one of its high-profile players for someone who can help them build a really solid foundation. And I think that foundation begins on the back end. The Oilers need more support and more confidence with the puck in their own end.

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Right on about the back end. This team has had a world of both bad play and good lottery fortune in drafting very high for several years now. Yet for all the talented forwards they've chosen, they really are a mess in their own zone. I’m not sure what MacT sees in Dallas Eakins as a head coach, either. The team tried a sort of freelance puck pursuit at the beginning of last season that really didn't work at all. At times it looked like an NBA defense. Justin Schultz has lots of upside and Andrew Ference is a player I always liked in Boston, but the club could really use an anchor back there on the blue line and maybe a coach who can knock some defensive sensibilities into this team.

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Yeah, it has to be something bolder than David Perron for Artem Anisimov, doesn't it? They can't possibly give up Taylor Hall or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but if Jordan Eberle or Nail Yakupov could be flipped for someone who can be consistent in his own zone and make a good first pass, they'd have to do it, right? I just don't see anyone willing to trade them that type of player, though, so I'm guessing we get the same ol' song and dance: Eakins gets cashiered at some point and they wait it out until Darnell Nurse or Oscar Klefbom is ready to make a difference.

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Alright, finally ... is it time to start believing in the New York Islanders, or are they going to be like Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown at the last second and leaving him on his back?

Ah, the Islanders. I'm having a tough time believing whole-heartedly. The five shootout wins, for one, seem to inflate their record slightly, and I think they've leaned a bit heavily on goalie Jaroslav Halak, who has pitched three shutouts this month. So I'm not quite ready to say that this team is the real deal. Maybe I'm being too hard on them. You guys?

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I believe in the Islanders for the long haul. There are a lot of players on the front ends of their careers, and the move to a new building next season could help draw some free agents into the mix during the next couple of years, especially if cap restraints continue to put the screws on some GMs. I agree, Sarah, that it’s too soon to be convinced about their goaltending. And assuming they will be a playoff team in April, their draw might be pretty significant. We know they have played well against Pittsburgh, for instance, over the past couple of years. Could they actually beat the Penguins in a seven-game series this season?

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After watching them take a pair from the Pens last weekend I wouldn't rule it out. I have my concerns about Halak, too, but man I love the way that defense has been playing. Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy are getting all the attention as the new toys, but as a group they've been remarkably efficient. They've really improved at five-on-five (a bottom of the barrel 0.83 last season to a top 10 mark of 1.15 now) and the kids are making great strides up front. And remember, they haven't had Michael Grabner all season. He'll be a nice add when he returns next week. So, yeah ... they look like the real deal to me.

 

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