Every Wednesday, a trio of SI.com staffers sits down for a discussion of the hockey world's hot button issues. This week, Brian Cazeneuve, Sarah Kwak and Al Muir talk about the the value of Rick Nash—the subject of a feature story in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated magazine—and his regular-season success, the impact of Kevin Shattenkirk's injury on the Blues, and the suddenly crowded field of contenders for the Calder Trophy.
• The stellar play of Rick Nash has been one of the best stories of the year, but is a strong regular season enough to restore his reputation? Or does he, like Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, need to follow it up with an exceptional playoff performance?
BRIAN CAZENEUVE: Nash is answering some of his critics this season, specifically those who felt his scoring funk signaled an inability to handle the bright lights of playing in New York City and in the playoffs. As for Fleury, at least he has won the Stanley Cup. His legacy may end up being mixed, but that silverware is on his resumé. I look at someone such as Roberto Luongo, who came close the Cup and whiffed, and I wonder how history will view him, assuming he stays near his home in Florida and doesn’t win a championship there. Hey, some great players, such as Marcel Dionne and Mike Gartner played forever and never appeared in the Stanley Cup finals. Gartner reached the semis for the first time as a Maple Leaf near the end of his career. Dionne’s teams never even got to the final four. Nash has some time, but, yes, I’d rather be, say, Chris Drury, a good player with a reputation as a great clutch performer than a very good player who never hit his stride when it really mattered.
SARAH KWAK: It's not like Nash has an incredibly long history of stinking in the postseason. He had just three playoff series under his belt before last spring's run to the Cup finals. And to be fair, I didn't think he was terribly bad last year either. Sure, it seemed like he couldn't score against an empty chair in the playoffs, and that's a pretty big problem for a bona fide scorer, but he at least had quality chances. It wasn't as if he disappeared completely. But that said, I do think Rangers fans will want to see the fruits of Nash's labor on the score sheet when it matters most. That he is leading the league in goals doesn't seem to engender the same excitement that comes when New York tops the league standings. So, does Nash NEED an exceptional postseason? If the Rangers win without it, I don't think that people will care. But so much of New York's success is tied to Nash's stick, so inasmuch as he is the team's offensive engine, they'll need him to come up big in the spring.
ALLAN MUIR: Long history or not, Sarah, the numbers are pretty damning: 41 playoff games, five playoff goals. Nash isn't a one-dimensional player—he's been huge for New York's penalty kill this season—but he gets the big bucks to light the lamp. He's done that with some consistency this season but whatever he does from October to April will be forgotten if he comes up small again in the playoffs. It's a similar story for Dallas's Tyler Seguin (although he might not have to worry about that pressure this spring). There's a kid who has emerged as one of the premier offensive talents in the league but he's been silenced the last three times his teams have been invited to the dance, scoring just four goals in 35 games. I love what Nash and Seguin have accomplished this season, but reputations are forged in the crucible of the playoffs. Let's see what they've got to show us then.
As good as the Blues’ defense has been almost across the board this season, the team took a big hit when Shattenkirk went down against Washington. He’s second to Mark Giordano in scoring by defensemen and he has been the quarterback of the Blues’ power play, which ranks second in the league. That will put an extra burden on Alex Pietrangelo, who is also having an excellent season. But frankly, Shattenkirk’s two-way game has had him in the Norris discussion for a while now and nobody else can fill those shoes, especially for 23 minutes a night. The Blues will slide Chris Butler into the lineup for a while and this may finally force them to give Petteri Lindbohm a closer look, too. St. Louis has grabbed at least a point in a franchise record 12 straight games and been getting great goaltending lately from Brian Elliott, which I think makes it less likely that Doug Armstrong would push the panic button with a trade unless Shattenkirk’s condition worsens or the GM feels the trade would help the club anyway. Somebody is going to make a move for Toronto's Cody Franson, but with a backline that also includes Jay Bouwmeester, Carl Gunnarsson, Barret Jackman and underrated Ian Cole, the Blues can afford to wait it out.
Shattenkirk's absence will be felt most on the power play. More than half of his points have come with the man advantage, and since he went down the Blues have gone 0-for-4. Now, that's admittedly a small sample size, but it's definitely something to consider going forward. He is that hard-to-find combo of defensive responsibility and offensive catalyst, and St. Louis shouldn't expect one person to be able to fill all of his roles. His workload will have to be spread out, so while that means Butler will see time, it will likely also mean more minutes for the stalwarts Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester. That said, I think the Blues are built and coached well enough to get through a fairly lengthy period without him.
I'd say the blood pressure readings are a little more elevated in St. Louis than you guys think. Look what happened to Boston when Zdeno Chara went down. Granted, they were thinner on the blueline and had other injury issues as well, but their extended struggles show how tough it is to replace the cornerstone of a team's defense. Shattenkirk has taken his game to a new level this season, especially on that power play where his puck handling and playmaking skills rank him among the best quarterbacks in the league. Those plays now will be run through Pietrangelo (who has been less than excellent in my opinion), with a new point man (Alex Steen?). That's nowhere near as imposing and it could be a heavy hit on a team that relies on the power play for nearly 27% of its offense. And I think it'll be Cole who gets the heavier duty instead of Butler. Despite countless chances Butler has never really shown himself to be anything but a tweener, so that's hardly encouraging.
I'm not saying the Blues fall off the map, but this is going to hit them harder than you guys think.
• With several intriguing candidates emerging from the pack, the Calder Trophy race might be a lot closer than it appeared a month ago. How do you handicap it going down the stretch?
I still like Filip Forsberg for the award, with all due respect to Aaron Ekblad and Johnny Gaudreau. I like what I’ve seen from Michael Hutchinson and Petr Mrazek this season. Both goalies have made the most of their chances to step into voids and perform especially well. But the Predators have made a huge leap this season, thanks to many factors (new coach and philosophy; great play, as expected, from Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber), but the team wouldn’t be where it is without Forsberg.
Yeah, if I'm handicapping this race, I'm still going with Forsberg, but man, Aaron Ekblad is impressive. As an 18-year-old defenseman, he's got 29 points and is +4, the team's ONLY blue liner whos is in the black. And he averages the second-most even strength minutes on the team. I mean, he's 18. So if we're going with who has been more impressive, in my eyes, I think I give the slight edge to Ekblad here.
I'll give a tip of the cap here to Dallas's John Klingberg. He got off to a late start, but the award voters have always been influenced by "what have you done for me lately?" If he finishes strong, anything is possible. He's coming off a 13-point January that earned him Rookie of the Month honors and, like Ekblad, he's been the most reliable defender on his team on most nights. His poise under pressure and ability to consistently get the puck to the net is remarkable for a 22-year-old. All that said, I see him fourth right now behind Forsberg, Ekblad and Gaudreau, but that order will be fluid down the stretch.