Wednesday March 18th, 2015

Every Wednesday, a trio of staffers sits down for a discussion of the hockey world’s hot-button issues. This week, Sam Page, Sarah Kwak and Al Muir talk about pending changes to NHL overtime and video review, a possible blockbuster trade to land Connor McDavid, and the nitpicking of Sidney Crosby. First up:

• The NHL’s general managers were busy this week, making several recommendations that could change the way the game is played and officiated, possibly as soon as next season. So let’s get your thoughts on some of these key suggestions, starting with a move to an overtime that includes an element of three-on-three play.

SARAH KWAK: Red Wings GM Ken Holland has been banging this three-on-three drum for years, so it’s a nice victory for him. I think because they saw how it worked in the AHL this season, GMs were more likely to back it this time. But I’ll be curious to see what format it takes. I doubt they’ll add time to OT. But I think we talked about this earlier in the season, and I stand by what I said then. I won’t be sold that three-on-three is going to be any better in the long run at deciding games than five minutes of four-on-four. The NHL has a history of seeing a big difference right after it makes a big change, but then things regress back to the mean (i.e. goal scoring). So, my guess right now is that in five years, once players and coaches adjust to a three-on-three formate, we’ll return to the same rate at which we’re seeing the shootout deciding games now.

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SAM PAGE: I’m psyched for three-on-three play. Regardless of whether it helps curtail shootouts (I think it will), it adds a strategic wrinkle to the game. Will the Stars just send out their top forward line? Will the Penguins’ big three of Malkin-Crosby-Letang ever lose in overtime? Will the Predators just roll three defenseman? I also hope that the open ice leads to more designed, criss-crossing neutral zone passing plays. Bring back the 80s!

AL MUIR: I am on the record as being a fan of the shootout, so I’m not as thrilled with this recommendation as some people are. But honestly, I’m not worried about it at this point because I’m not convinced that there’s a smooth path to adoption. There’s a good chance that this will get held up by the Competition Committee when the players will have their say. I don’t think there’s any appetite for an AHL-style seven-minute format that will just grind down the best players. And I think they’ll want something in return rather than just going along for “the best interests of the game.” Can’t blame them for that.

And I think you’re right, Sarah. While we might see some thrilling action early on, it won’t take long before we’re reminded of the boundless determination of NHL coaches to put goal prevention ahead of goal scoring. The OT format change won’t mitigate the impact of the shootout nearly as much as they hope.

• How about a coach’s challenge that would bring in the element of video review on plays involving goaltender interference and possibly pucks sent over the boards in the defensive zone?

KWAK: I’m O.K. with checking out pucks that went over the boards in the defensive zone or things that are really pretty cut and dry. I am against reviewing anything on the ice that requires judgment, mostly because I would hate to see hockey become a series of video reviews, with the flow of the action becoming as stuttered as an NFL playoff game.

MUIR: I think I’ve flop-flopped on this as I’ve talked to more people about how this might play out. Here’s what I’m saying: It’s one thing to use video replay to verify a black-and-white decision. Did the puck fully cross the goal line? Did the puck enter the net before time expired? Those make sense. But once you add in reviews for cases of a grey area like goaltender interference, you’re treading on the ground of judgment calls. And while the judgment of the other on-ice officials or the guys in the war room in Toronto may be different, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll get it right. Split-second officiating decisions are part of the game. More often than not they’re made correctly. I’m willing to accept the occasional mistake to keep the game moving.

PAGE: I say yes to reviews, but only in the playoffs. If a referee blows a delay of game during the regular season, no one really cares. But if one of these calls determines a Stanley Cup finals game, the whole incident with get some goofy capitalized name—The Over-The-Glass Game—with its own Wikipedia page and a throng of fans that will never shut up about it.

• There are reports that Sabres GM Tim Murray is so desperate for the first pick that, in the event that Buffalo doesn’t win the lottery, he will make a strong pitch to the team that does. Is this a smart move? And what assets do you think it would take to land the No. 1?

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KWAK: The Sabres have two first-round picks. So, yes, I think he has the assets to make it happen. Is it smart to give up both (a second overall and a late-rounder) for Connor McDavid? It very well might be, but only if Buffalo remembers that McDavid isn’t the singular answer. All indications are that he’ll likely remake a team and be a franchise-changing player, but he needs support and/or a bit of time. Sidney Crosby had Evgeni Malkin and Marc-André Fleury. Patrick Kane had Jonathan Toews. Steven Stamkos needed time and not Barry Melrose. And look at John Tavares, who has grown into the player that everybody said he would be. He’s been in the league six years now, and when he didn’t have a good core of support the first few seasons of his NHL career, was anybody calling him a phenom and a savior? Not really.

PAGE: My hunch is that the package Sarah’s floating here won’t get it done. Just three years ago, the Islanders reportedly offered picks 4, 34, 65, 103, 125, 155, and 185 for the No. 2—either Ryan Murray or Nail Yakupov, who were far from the consensus best players in that draft. Even if the lottery-winning team thinks the difference between McDavid and Jack Eichel is small enough to justify trading out of the top spot, they will necessarily know that Tim Murray doesn’t share their appraisal. Still, I think any package the Sabres can negotiate without giving up next year’s first-round pick is worth it. And I’d consider trading that pick too. You don’t get another shot at generational talent. 

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MUIR: No, you can’t blame a guy for taking his best shot, and heaven knows Murray has a ton of assets. But it’s hard for me to believe there’s a GM out there who wants to be known as The Guy Who Traded Connor McDavid (Wikipedia page pending). Not that Murray couldn’t dangle a tempting package, especially if he has the second pick and can build it around Eichel, next year’s first, another pick or two, and a couple of considerable prospects like Rasmus Ristolainen and maybe J.T. Compher. Even that might not get a deal done, but that’s what it would take to prevent the other guy from laughing and hanging up the phone. But like you said, Sarah, hockey’s not a one-man game. Support is key and the Sabres have a promising group of young players in place who might one day provide that support. No reason to dismantle that, even for McDavid. Better to “settle” for Eichel and count the blessings of having depth.

• Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford came to the defense of Sidney Crosby this week, saying there’s been too much nitpicking of the superstar and that Sid is playing as well as ever. Did Rutherford need to step up like this? And is Crosby really playing up to snuff?

KWAK: I don’t think Rutherford needed to say that, but you can understand why he did. Crosby, for the relatively down season he’s had, is still just one point off of the league scoring lead, and still has a healthy 1.11 points per game average (best in the NHL). Still, the recent headlines around Pittsburgh that feature the Penguins captain read: “Shrinking Numbers for Malkin, Crosby in Rugged NHL” and “Crosby, Malkin no help in loss” or “What's wrong with Crosby? Penguins star says stats get overanalyzed.” When you‘re the best, you’ll be scrutinized like it, so it comes with the territory, and Crosby knows that. So while I don’t think the GM needed to stand up for him,  but I am sure that Crosby appreciated somebody else reminding people he’s still really, really good.

All that said, I don’t think this has been his best season. And I don’t think he’d tell you this has been his best season. There are a bunch of factors—including a new coach and different linemates—that probably contribute to what seems to be a down year. But I think the valuation of this season for him will come in April and possibly beyond. If he goes on a tear in the playoffs, will anybody talk about his regular season? That said, if the Penguins go out early and easy …  well, maybe we’ll revisit this question then.

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MUIR: He’s the face of the game, the best player of his generation. So yeah, even the slightest slip in performance is going to draw some heat. I’m sure Sid can handle it though, just as I’m sure he appreciated his boss stepping up for him. That’s what a good boss does. 

Does Crosby deserve the microscopic attention this year? Yep. He’s been really, really good, but not quite up to the level we’ve seen him reach before. And at his age (27) he should be discovering his peak, not settling back into the crowd. It’s fair to say he’s been a disappointment, but here’s a guy who spent the whole 2014 Olympic tournament getting ripped for his lack of production and then silenced everyone with a stunning clincher in the gold medal game. He knows when to take it up a notch. Let’s wait and see what he does when it matters most.

PAGE: I don’t know if Rutherford needed to step up for Crosby, but it’s always nice to see an executive go to bat for his player, especially one of the most unfairly criticized players in the NHL. As far as Crosby’s supposed down year goes, it seems like TOI is a big factor here. This year will likely be his first with full season averaging less than 20 minutes per game. And like Sarah said, easing off on him during the regular season will look smart or stupid in the context of how they play in the playoffs. Like the Heat managing LeBron James’s regular season minutes in advance of their second championship, all will be forgiven if Crosby wins Cup No. 2. 

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