Players and teams that fooled us, Kings comeback, playoff anticipation
Every Wednesday, a trio of SI.com 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 being April Fooled, the Kings’ playoff chances, Jack Adams Award favorites and Stanley Cup wishes.
• Happy April Fool's Day, panelists! Since I'm not allowed to prank you, let me instead pose this timely question: Who fooled you this season?
AL MUIR: Nathan MacKinnon. I followed his epic off-season workout regimen closely and from speaking to people involved along the way I was convinced that he was setting himself up for a sensational sophomore season. I remember doing a bunch of preseason fantasy hockey radio hits and every single time I said that he was a lock for 80 points. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. The kid struggled to score, his defensive game suffered, he was rotated throughout the lineup. And just when he finally started to show signs of life with his first career hat trick on Feb. 22 ... he breaks his foot and is finished for the season. This just wasn’t his year.
SAM PAGE: The Stars fooled me big time. Besides my predicted breakout for Valeri Nichuskin (no points in four games … ouch), I thought Dallas would at least win a wild card spot with its relentless and deep offensive game. The assumption behind that pick was that the Stars would get enough goaltending and defense to win games by baseball scores. They didn’t get near enough of either, obviously.
SARAH KWAK: I feel like there was a lot of fooling this season, but I’ll go with the Sharks. Though, heck, they fool me every season because I always expect that team to be better than it is. I didn’t think San Jose would be a Cup contender, but I certainly thought the Sharks would be a playoff team. That run in December, when they won nine of 10 against a bunch of good teams, still makes me think they should be better than 11th in the West. Alas …
MUIR: At this point, it’s not whether they have it in them so much as it is whether the teams in front of them will open the door. The Flames went 9-3-3 in March without their captain and top defenseman, Mark Giordano. They’ll be tough to catch. The wild card Jets though were just 8–6 and have dropped a pair of heartbreakers in a row. Dustin Byfuglien courting a possible five-game suspension for cross-checking sets them up to fail. Their home stretch looks rough, too, with dates against the Canucks, Wild, Blues, Avalanche and Flames. There’s a good chance they’ll stumble, but it’s not like the Kings are just waiting to pounce. Mike Richards has been an empty sweater since returning to the lineup from the AHL. Andrej Sekera is hurt. And Darryl Sutter summed up his team’s offensive struggles thusly: “We still have a lot of guys who haven’t scored a goal since Jesus was a baby.” And that was before they got thrashed by the Hawks on Monday. They have the benefit of the softest schedule, but do they have the will?
KWAK: I think they do, though will it be enough? I’m not sure. The Kings have two games against the Oilers, who now find themselves in a precarious draft position outside the McDavid-Eichel Safe Zone, behind Buffalo and Arizona. But I think that L.A.’s fate will largely sit outside of its control. It’ll depend largely on Winnipeg and Calgary, which sit just ahead of them in the standings, like you said. And, well, I kind of hope the Jets make it.
• There’s a crowded field of worthy nominees for the Jack Adams Award. Make the case for your favorite.
PAGE: This award almost always goes to the coach of a team that bucks expectations, which makes picking a reigning Conference Champion hopeless. But the most impressive coaching performance for me has been Alain Vigneault’s. The Rangers didn’t lose a single superstar during the off-season, but several key contributors to their Cup finals run did leave—Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle, BenoitPouliot. Those departures, combined with a slow start and Henrik Lundqvist’s lengthy recovery from injury made for a lot of adversity to coach around in a possible Presidents’ Trophy-winning season.
MUIR: AV definitely deserves some consideration, but give me Bob Hartley. He has the Flames—a team that everyone wrote off as too young and too shallow prior to the season—in the playoff mix on April 1. Whether they wind up making the cut or not, that’s an amazing achievement. The guy hasn’t hit a wrong note all year. He’s nurtured a young player like Sean Monahan into a 30-goal scorer and Johnny Gaudreau into a Calder Trophy candidate. He’s rejuvenated veterans like Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman with his trust and opportunity. He’s managed his goaltending expertly in the absence of a true No. 1. And he’s invested this group with the poise to pull off a league-leading 24 come-from-behind victories. No, this isn’t a perfect team, but that’s kind of the point. Hartley has taken a group that’s still early in its rebuild mode and squeezed every last bit of potential out of it. No one’s done more than that.
KWAK: A coach often has a better chance of winning the Jack Adams in his first year on a job—Patrick Roy (Avalanche), Ken Hitchcock (Blues), Dave Tippett (Coyotes)—but Jon Cooper, in his second year at the helm of Tampa Bay, has kept the Lightning playing exciting hockey. He was a finalist last year, but he deserves it even more this time around. Despite playing without Martin St. Louis at all this season and relying on a defense corps that is just good (not great), Cooper managed to improve the team’s record.
• The Stanley Cup playoffs start two weeks from today. To what are you most looking forward?
MUIR: The seemingly inevitable Chicago-St. Louis rematch should be a beauty, especially if Patrick Kane is miraculously cleared for an early return. That’ll be a nasty, physical, drawn-out affair that kicks a very good team to the curb and almost certainly leads to significant changes for the loser. I’d also really like to see Winnipeg make the cut, too. That town? It will probably stage a parade every night, win or lose. Those fans deserve it.
KWAK I’ll be excited to see playoff hockey come to Winnipeg, too. It would be just wild to see that fan base enjoy the postseason for the first time in 19 years. I guess we’ll just have to see if the Jets can close it out.
PAGE: The first-timers. It’s not a fashionable opinion in these days of small sample size disclaimers, but I genuinely believe that certain players are better in the big spots. I want to see what young guys with flair—Seth Jones, Jonathan Drouin, and Johnny Gaudreau—do when everyone’s playing a little faster.