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 Al Muir debate the Mike Richards situation, plans for the World Cup and future outdoor games, and players who are due to bounce back (or drop off) in the second half of the season.
• Second half, second chances. Which player can put a frustrating start behind him and light it up down the stretch?
SARAH KWAK: I'll throw out Bruins center David Krejci (above, left). He's had a frustrating first half physically, missing 20 games while dealing with a groin injury, but since coming back into the lineup in mid-December, he's been playing better with every week. That, in turn, has also helped the Bruins, who began to show some flashes of their old dominant selves before the All-Star break. But I think if Krejci regains some chemistry with Milan Lucic, who has really struggled this season too, the duo could help give Boston a much-needed boost going into the spring. Rookie David Pastrnak, who's skated with them, has been impressive at times, and with more looks, he should gain more confidence. His learning curve during the next two months will be steep, and there will likely be a few more teachable moments for the 18-year-old forward, but if I had to pinpoint a player that will set things in motion in Boston for the better, my money's on Krejci.
BRIAN CAZENEUVE: Krejci is a good call. The Bruins are already playing better than they did early in the season; I certainly expect to see them in the playoffs and wouldn’t put it past them to make a run with a healthy Zdeno Chara and Krejci in the lineup. I’d also mention Leo Komarov, who has played well for the Maple Leafs when he been healthy. He had 18 points in 29 games and Toronto missed him during his two periods of absence this season. Who knows if the Leafs actually have another run in them or whether they are a sinking ship that can’t be saved. If the club does try to shake things up as the March 3 trade deadline draws closer, Komarov could see a little more ice time. (Joffey Lupul should be back soon, too). Still, there aren’t many players on that team with significant upside. He is one of them.
ALLAN MUIR: I'm not so sure about Krejci. He still doesn't seem right to me and I have a feeling that his groin's going to be a persistent source of concern this season. I'll put my money on a couple of underperforming stars from playoff-adjacent teams in the West: Matt Duchene and Jamie Benn (with Krejci in the photo above). Duchene has had his moments, but 30 points in 49 games doesn't cut it for a first-line center who scored at a point-per-game pace in 2013-14. He clearly felt the pressure as the Avalanche stumbled early on, but he looks better lately. If Colorado's defense can do a better job of getting him the biscuit, I think he can turn it around. Benn is a guy with deceptive numbers (42 points in 49 games) that don't reflect how much his play slipped in the first half. His physical game has fizzled and he's been saddled by a slump gorilla that got bigger every time he blew a prime chance. He's looked good the last couple of games though—how about that pill that left Carey Price waving like an idiot Tuesday night?—and might be on the verge of returning to his dominant form.
• Conversely, which early-season star is destined to come back down to earth?
This one is a little tougher. But I'll say say Tampa Bay winger Nikita Kucherov. That said, he's had such a consistently strong season and seems to click so well with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, but my one question mark would be his durability during a long season. As a pro, he hasn't played more than 69 games in a season, and through the crunch of the February doldrums, the schedule can wear on a player who may not really be prepared for it. It's not unusual to see youngsters fade as the season progresses, and as opponents begin to recognize their strengths and shut them down.
I was thinking of Kucherov, too. And I’m wondering about Vladimir Tarasenko, should the Blues progress through the playoffs. He’s 23 and has never stayed completely healthy through a grueling full NHL season followed by a long playoff campaign. He did play in 64 games last season and one playoff round. But I’ll look out West again at another King. He's already slowing down, but Tyler Toffoli was bound to come back to Earth after getting off to a scorching start. He had three multi-point games in his first eight contests, but has only had one since Nov. 8. He's missed the last two weeks with mononucleosis, but when he comes back, which should happen this week, he’ll be without his linemate Tanner Pearson, who is out with a fractured fibula he suffered earlier this month. Toffoli was the team’s third-leading scorer, playing with Jeff Carter and Pearson. Now that Mike Richards, Carter’s best friend on the team, has cleared waivers, Carter’s play could go in either direction, which could also affect Toffoli.
Hate to predict doom for anyone, especially the day after he scores a pair of goals, but I'll take Johnny Gaudreau. There's so much to love about the way this kid plays, but the rookie wall is a real thing, especially for guys coming out of college. He's already played 47 games this season, the most action he's seen since skating in 60 back in 2010-11 for the USHL Dubuque Fighting Saints. And I have to think that playing with a 150-pound body in a 200-pound league is going to catch up with him eventually. Then there's his team's situation. The Flames over-delivered during their surprising first half, but now they'll have to get past all the unflattering metrics and relative inexperience and prove that they're up to the challenge of the playoff sprint. That's a lot to ask.
• Kings GM Dean Lombardi exercised the nuclear option on Monday, waiving veteran forward Mike Richards. What does this say about the team's current situation and how might it impact their playoff chances?
Waiving Richards was without a doubt something that Lombardi did not want to do. He shares a long history with Richards and speaks highly of the two-way center at every opportunity. It had to be a last resort, otherwise he would have bought out Richards's saddlebag contract last summer. Lombardi kept the faith, but now he's out of rope. What it says about Los Angeles, though, is that in Lombardi's eyes something needed to change. The Kings have been middling through the season. They've won only one of their last eight games, and almost look like they're waiting for the turnaround but doing nothing to spark it. Their 35 first-period goals rank in the bottom half of the league, and they have given up the first goal in more than half of their games this season. It's a jolt to the dressing room, and it also gives Lombardi a little wiggle room under the salary cap in case he's keen on making a move.
A lot of people at the top of L.A.’s food chain liked Richards. He's the kind of player who fits with the philosophy of both Lombardi and coach Darryl Sutter. But when you aren’t producing, your club is slipping and your contract is simply out of line with your production, change is in the air. The Kings are fighting for their playoff lives. They need to pass either San Jose, Vancouver or Calgary in the standings, which they will have to do while playing a heavy road schedule during the second half of the season. (They are eight points behind Winnipeg, so a crossover playoff berth isn’t likely.) Had the Kings not won two Stanley Cups after mediocre regular seasons, this is probably a move Lombardi would have made sooner or he simply might have used a compliance buyout for Richards during the summer. But the recent past has infused this organization with the idea that things will work out in the end the way they always do. Still, as much as the Kings picked up Marion Gaborik last season, they could still use some help this year. The club is 1-7 in shootouts and hasn’t scored in 22 straight tries. The Kings also haven’t scored more than three goals in a winning effort—they did drop a 7-6 zinger to Nashville on Jan. 3—since Dec. 20. If they make the playoffs, they are still the Kings and still dangerous, but they have to get there first.
Lombardi doesn't make a lot of mistakes, but he flat out blew it when he passed on the chance to buy Richards out during the summer. It's a costly lesson for him as an executive and as a friend of Richards, but one that should benefit him in the long run. Sure will be interesting to see how it impacts his handling of other depreciating assets (ahem, Dustin Brown) in the future, eh?
As for the team, well this is the first shoe dropping. It serves as a wake-up call to the guys who are still in the room, a reminder that there's a price to be paid when performance falls short of expectations. Short term, I think it's a slap in the face that they need. But for this team to make some noise down the stretch Lombardi needs to make changes to his blueline. Demoting Richards creates some space (around $1 million) to help him do that. If he can find the right piece (Carolina's Andrei Sekera, perhaps?), then this team is a more serious contender than it was on Monday morning.
• A couple of big announcements this past weekend from the NHL, including news about next season's slate of outdoor games and confirmation of plans for a World Cup in 2016. No surprise that both generated plenty of controversy. Your thoughts?
For the outdoor games, I don't like the Foxborough choice because Gillette Stadium, even to the most ardent Patriots fan, is more like a necessary evil. And again, we see the NHL revisiting the same old, same old. It's obvious that the motivating factor is the almighty dollar. It's a better matchup than this year's odd, forced East-West battle between Chicago and Washington—the Canadiens are a great (and natural) choice for the Bruins—but the novelty of this game is dying. As for the other two venues, I do love that they're going to Minnesota and Denver, two wintry places that deserve to host an outdoor game. But I am still firmly in the camp that believes the more they play them, the more they dilute them.
I agree with Sarah about the possibility of diluting the outdoor games. Do you remember a few years ago when Who Wants To Be a Millionaire was such a hot TV show that the network tried putting it on five nights a week for a while? Guaranteed high ratings with low production costs? Hey, what a gold mine. Then the novelty wore off, the ratings tumbled and the show left primetime. Don’t let this happen to the outdoor games. I like them, but I also like chocolate and try not to eat seven bars in one sitting.
I've vacillated on this topic but I'm ready to admit that Gary Bettman's right. It would be nice if us media wags got behind them and if Joe Two-Four in Moncton made time to watch all three games next season on TV, but that's not the point with these outdoor events. They're made for the cities that host them, and seen through that prism there's no shortage of demand or excitement. The Stadium Series in particular has done a great job of giving franchises a marquee event they can build around. You don't think they're going to be jacked in Denver and St. Paul next winter when they get their turn to host? The league can serve them up at a rate of three a year in perpetuity and they will continue to be a marketing and promotional gold mine.
As for the return of the World Cup, it should be an entertaining tournament. It's not the Olympics—and it's important that everybody remember that—but it's an excellent showcase for hockey worldwide. That said, the twist in the format, with the North American Youngstars team and Team Europe, feels a little forced. I don't mind the Team Europe concept so much, though I'd be interested in who'll coach it and who'll choose the personnel. But the Youngstars team sort of defeats the purpose of a best-on-best tournament, if players under 23 aren't eligible for the regular team. They also wouldn't be competing for their country so much as for the pride of their age bracket, which again, feels weird for a World Cup. The decision to go this route makes some sense on paper, but I'll be interested in how it works out in practice.
It was interesting to hear the way Bettman handled questions about the two All-Star teams during that All-Star media availability. I got the sense that the league knows it hitched its horses to the wrong wagon here, but is committed to go through with it once. I think the NHL would have been better off giving us Canada 2 and USA 2—hey, it works for bobsledding, right?—and that idea may get consideration down the road. But for now, we're stuck with one concept that the players don't like (Team Europe) and another that undermines the ability of the league to market it as a best-on-best event. It ends up feeling more like a focus group-approved product than a tournament.
I’m not sure if the league knows what it wants the tournament to be. A real world tournament must be filled with X number of individual countries in order to maintain credibility and a sense of national pride that gives it meaning. Otherwise, you have another All-Star game that changes its format every few years while trying to find the right angle to attract the most fans. With countries and groups of players wedged into teams, this feels like a hybrid event. NHL players have grown to love playing in the Olympics against the best in the world. I don’t expect to see the league offering up players for tournaments in Pyongchang in 2018 and either Beijing or Almaty in 2022, but to suggest that the World Cup will carry as much clout is being very optimistic.
Don't rule out the Olympics, Brian. As long as the players have a say, they'll play.