Wednesday March 25th, 2015

Every Wednesday, a trio of staffers will sit down for a discussion of the hockey world’s hot-button issues. This week, Sam Page, Sarah Kwak and Allan Muir talk about Alex Ovechkin's MVP chances, Ilya Kovalchuk’s rumored return, the big changes coming to San Jose, Anaheim’s goaltending woes, and a surprise player that caught their eye. First up:

• We’ll lead off this week’s roundtable with a question that was posed to us by one of our readers: Alex Ovechkin is having a monster season. He’s running away with the goal-scoring race, leading the league in game-winning goals, power-play goals and primary points and he’s a solid +14. Shouldn’t he be the favorite for the Hart Trophy over Carey Price? Should any other non-goalie even be in the discussion? And if it was Sidney Crosby putting up those totals, would there even be a contest for the Hart?

Eye Test: Making sense of Alex Ovechkin, "The Great -35"

SAM PAGE: If Sidney Crosby ever had a season in which he had only 26 assists in 72 games, he’d be sent immediately to the hospital to figure out what was wrong. I’ll flip it around: If Ovechkin had Crosby’s stat line—leading the league in points on the strength of his helpers—what would be the reaction? Probably that Ovechkin had finally learned to share the puck.

MUIR: Yikes. Think I’ll duck out now before an unruly mob of thin-skinned Capitals fans arrives at the door with torches and pitchforks in hand.

PAGE: Don't get me wrong. I’m not criticizing Ovechkin. I think he’s a stronger Hart candidate than Crosby (albeit a distant second to Price). But both of the league’s famous faces receive their share of unfair criticism.

As far as my rationale for the Price pick goes: Simply imagine both teams without their star player. Price has almost single-handedly propelled a team that has poor possession stats and an unimpressive offense into the Presidents’ Trophy race. The Capitals without Ovechkin would be much worse, but would it be so catastrophic? They have a good goalie, and someone else would end up on the receiving end of those sweet Nicklas Backstrom passes.

KWAK: Sam’s right. The Hart goes to the player who was the most valuable to his team, not the best player this season. The NHLPA honors the best player with the Ted Lindsay Award. Often it’s the same, but that distinction won Corey Perry his Hart in 2011 when Daniel Sedin won the Lindsay. And frankly, nobody fits the MVP billing better than Price. There were long stretches this season where, with any other goalie, the Canadiens would’ve gone into a deep slump. Their goals per game average still is 2.56, which ranks 21st. Ovechkin has had a great season, yes, but he’s also been the beneficiary of Backstrom’s playmaking. Let’s keep in mind that 21 of his 47 goals came on the power play.

MUIR: I think the turnaround in Ovechkin’s game, or more accurately, his effort, is one of the top stories of the season. Watching him the past couple years was an exercise in frustration. This year, he’s ditched his air of entitlement. There’s a lot of the old joy in his game now, and a lot more focus on team play. The results speak for themselves.

He’s earned his place in the MVP conversation, but I don’t see any way he wins it. I have Price as the clear favorite—hey, Montreal has scored two more goals than Toronto and has 40 more points in the standings. That’s all Carey. The only guy who challenges him is Devan Dubnyk. If you compare where that Minnesota team was prior to the trade and where it is now, it’s easy to make the case that he’s really the most valuable player to his team.

And yes, if Sid topped 50 goals like Ovi he probably would be the favorite. There. I said it.

• A report out of Finland suggests that prodigal son Ilya Kovalchuk is interested in returning to the NHL for the 2016-17 season. Putting aside the logistics for a moment, can you see the Devils welcoming him back to the fold? Or would he even be willing to return to the Devils?

PAGE: Predators fans never cheered for anyone as hard as they cheered for the returning Alexander Radulov in 2012. The situations are exactly analogous—Radulov was a homesick kid who walked out of a much smaller contractual commitment to his NHL team in 2008—but when a team starves for offense, it becomes hard to turn someone who is that good away.

My dream, though, is that the Devils leave Kovalchuk off their expansion draft protected list, and both he and Radulov end up in Las Vegas. I’d wear that jersey.

Ilya Kovalchuk may use loophole to return to NHL

MUIR: You hear that, Bill Foley? Send Sam Page a jersey.

KWAK: This is nothing like the Radulov situation, in my mind. I think Kovalchuk, for the lumps he takes, is actually a decent guy. I mean, disregarding logistics, why wouldn’t the Devils take back a six-time 40-goal scorer? It’s not like he screwed them royally ... just a whole lot. And would Kovalchuk return to New Jersey? In my conversations with him while he was a Devil, he genuinely seemed to like it there, but it would come down to his belief that the team is a winner. I don’t think he would return to an also-ran like this year’s Devils team.

MUIR: You were a lot closer to Kovalchuk than I was, but that was the sense I had as well. I think he liked the area and he liked the team ... but that team is long gone. And looking at where New Jersey is now, and the quality of the young talent in the organization, the Devils will not be putting up much of a challenge for the Stanley Cup during the few years he has left to play. Well, unless they luck out and win the Connor McDavid lottery, of course.

So if he comes back, and that’s obviously still TBD—his mom has denied that he’s thinking about it—I’d be shocked if it was to play for the Devils.

• Losing three of their past four games has pretty much put the kibosh on the Sharks’ playoff hopes. Following on the heels of several years of postseason frustration, you have to think change is coming to San Jose. Which shoe drops first?

KWAK: Change must come in San Jose, but the Sharks have been parroting that line for the last two years and so far, nothing. So I don’t know if change is coming. If it does, it’ll be GM Doug Wilson because he’s the one who has promised change and then not delivered.

Listless Bruins failing to respond in playoff race heat

PAGE: Wilson has to go first, right? It’s the order in which these things usually go, and he’s the instigator of the team’s recent dysfunction. It will then fall to the new GM to decide what to do with Todd McLellan and Joe Thornton, though it’s hard to imagine that either will be back with the Sharks next year.

MUIR: Thornton’s not going anywhere. They’ve stripped the C off his sweater, they embarrassed him in public and he doesn’t care (which really speaks to the bigger issue with Jumbo Joe, but that’s not the point of debate here). He’s happy in San Jose and he wants to stay. And with two years left on his contract and full no-movement protection, you can bet that’s exactly what he’s going to do. McLellan and Wilson, though? I think this is it for both of them. Not to wish ill on either man, but this organization needs fresh thinking before it considers a roster overhaul.

• After watching the Ducks get lit up by the Rangers over the weekend, it’s clear that Anaheim’s goaltending will be a hot topic down the stretch. Will it just be a media-created dumpster fire or does Bruce Boudreau have a real problem on his hands?

PAGE: I think he has a real problem, not because either Fredrik Andersen or John Gibson is particularly bad, but because of the quality of the goalies the Ducks will be facing. If the playoffs started today, they could have a handful with the Jets if Michael Hutchinson gets hot. But even if they make it to the second round, what goalie match-up do they really want then? Dubnyk? Rinne? Crawford?

The Ducks aren’t good enough to hide a suspect goalie in the playoffs. They’re rank 14th in FenClose, behind the Jets (third), Preds (fourth), Blackhawks (sixth), Blues (seventh) and Wild (ninth). By that one very important metric, they’re behind every Central Division contender—goalies excepted. And they don’t have a goaltending advantage against any of those five teams.

NHL Power Rankings: Ottawa Senators make meteoric rise

MUIR: I think we’ve seen enough from both Andersen and Gibson to know they have the ability to really turn it on. Andersen had a stretch earlier this season where he allowed two goals or fewer in eight of nine games. Gibson was brilliant as a rookie last season. But you can’t ignore recent history. The Ducks have played 12 games this month and allowed four or more goals in five of them. That’s ugly. More troubling is that neither goalie has been immune to struggles. Who does Boudreau trust? And can either Andersen or Gibson succeed while knowing how short a leash he’ll be on? This has the potential to be another frustrating postseason for the Ducks ... and maybe the last one in Anaheim for Boudreau.

KWAK: I don’t know if the goaltending thing is as big a deal as we make it out to be. Chicago won the Cup with Antti Niemi in 2010. Philadelphia made it to the Cup finals that year with Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton. The Devils made it in 2013 with 40-year-old Martin Brodeur. Chris Osgood, who had a career 2.49 goals-against average and .905 save percentage, won the Cup twice as a starter with the Red Wings. Corey Crawford (and his leaky glove hand) won the Cup, too. Goaltending is important, of course, but I think if the team in front of him is strong enough, the netminder doesn’t have to be the most important man on the ice. That said, if Anaheim’s netminders go into the tournament with a fragile mindset, then yes, shaky goaltending can dismantle hopes in a dash (see: 2014 Lightning).

• One of the best parts of covering this game is that moment when a player unexpectedly wins you over. Who surprised you this season?

KWAK: Roman Josi is the best player nobody knows. Of course Page knows him, but you know what I mean.

PAGE: I had never really closely watched Tyler Myers until his trade to Winnipeg this season. I knew he was tall and—presumably—really bad. But I watched some of his Buffalo games more closely after the deal (if you’ll excuse the plug) and was impressed by his combination of speed and range. And he’s looked even better since he got out of hockey hell, posting three goals, eight assists, and a +8 rating in 16 games with the Jets. You can’t help but like a guy who’s built like Zdeno Chara but really just wants to be a speedy puck mover and join the rush.

MUIR: Have you guys seen much of Canucks rookie Ronalds Kenins? Not exactly the same skill level or impact of your choices, but I love watching this kid play the game. Motor’s always revving high, decent skill set, and he treats every shift like it could be his last. He’s producing too, despite limited minutes in a generally defensive-minded role. Looks like he could turn into a solid bottom-six winger who’ll be despised in every building but his own. Every team could use a guy like him.

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