Roundtable: How the Tortorella saga will play out; NHL's best Russian
Every Friday, a trio of SI.com staffers will sit down for a discussion of the hockey world's hot-button issues. This week, Sam Page, Michael Blinn and Al Muir talk about the Blue Jackets’ hiring of John Tortorella, the best Russian player in the league and several more topics. First up:
• The Columbus Blue Jackets turned to John Tortorella on Wednesday to salvage their season. How do you see this playing out?
Sam Page: The Jackets are shooting 4.55% as a team, while their goalies have a .857 save percentage. No team is that bad at shooting and Sergei Bobrovsky is obviously capable of much more. Columbus just isn’t getting any of the breaks right now. And while those stats don’t excuse what many have identified as flagging effort, I think you could appoint me, Tortorella or any Muppet other than Fozzie Bear as coach and expect a dramatic improvement in the short term. As far as the entire season goes, though, I doubt Tortorella is a savior. The team will probably retain him after this year, citing improvement after his hiring. He’ll get the Jackets into the playoffs next year as a low seed. They’ll lose in the first round. History marches on.
Michael Blinn: I think this is a pretty good move for the Jackets. After literally years of harping on how the team must learn, they finally get a teacher in Tortorella. There’s plenty of young minds for the gruff coach to mold into a defensively responsible crew, while former Torts disciple Brandon Dubinsky can make sure the veterans buy in as well. Mostly, though, I see this paying off for Bobrovsky, with his confidence and, more importantly, his Vezina-quality skills resurfacing.
Al Muir: My first inclination was that this will be yet another disaster. Here is a guy whose NHL career appeared to be over after his gross mismanagement of the Canucks and whose style seems at odds with the talent at hand in Columbus. But—and this is a big but—what if he learned from that debacle? What if he figured out he’d have to change his ways if he wanted another chance? I think he’s still the same no-nonsense taskmaster behind the bench, but what if he’s willing to let players play to their strengths instead of forcing them to fit his mold? There’s a chance, right? I’m not sure that’s how it plays out, but I’m pulling for him. He’s one of the best quotes in the game, and I’d like to see Columbus take that next step. Those fans have suffered long enough.
• A Russian hockey host this week proclaimed Vladimir Tarasenko to be his country's greatest player. Does he deserve the title?
Blinn: Obviously, this host hasn’t seen Vladimir Putin play recently. Eleven points in a 21–4 win? Team Russia might have a new captain come PyeongChang 2018.
Muir: And with that, Blinn wins the internet.
Blinn: Alright, Tarasenko might be a one-man human highlight reel, but even if the shine has worn off of Alex Ovechkin back in his homeland, the Gr8 One still lays claim to the best Russian player title. Few players have been asked to wear as many hats as Ovi has in the past few seasons—under as many different coaches, as well—and he’s come out the other side improved defensively while reloading his offensive cannon and finding the fun again. Tarasenko certainly is pretty damn talented, but this isn't much of a conversation until he unseats his countryman as the league's leading goalscorer and wins an MVP award or two.
Page: Last season Tarasenko trailed Ovechkin by eight points, with Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk missing time due to injuries. He’s in the conversation, but I still rank those three, plus probably Alexander Radulov...
Muir: It's like a car crash you see coming but are helpless to stop.
Page: ... ahead of him. Though if he continues on his current pace and breaks 350-plus shots and 50-plus goals, he probably takes the crown. And he can do it—more shots indicates real improvement.
Muir: Yeah, Tarasenko might be more exciting and seems to be able to score in different ways, but Ovi still has a slight edge in overall play. But you’re right, Sam. Radulov is averaging 4.5 shots per game, a full shot ahead of last year’s pace, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he ends Ovechkin’s Rocket Richard streak. We might all have a different answer at the end of the season.
• Scores of players changed uniforms over the summer. Who has been the best fit for his new team in the early going?
Blinn: With two goals and six points in seven games to start the season, Troy Brouwer has done a pretty good job in St. Louis. Not just in allaying fears of T.J. Oshie's traded-away offense, but also bringing in a much-needed go-to-the-dirty areas element. He may not have Oshie's flash and dash, but he's a physical presence (his 22 hits place him among the league leaders), and the Blues haven't skipped a beat so far this season.
Page: If last season was The Year of the Backup Goalie, this season is The Year of the Former Backup Goalie. The Oilers and the Sharks went the route of trading a premium for uncertainty. It made sense: A goalie with hardly any track record beats a goalie everyone knows to be bad. But that’s the logic that led the Lightning to trade two second-round picks and a third-rounder for Anders Lindback. So kudos to the brain trusts in Edmonton and San Jose for picking two good ones (so far) in Cam Talbot and Martin Jones, respectively. The Pacific looks wide open, and good goaltending should keep those teams in the mix.
Muir: I mentioned Lee Stempniak in a recent column, but he's worthy of another nod here. He's chipped in six points in seven games and has been in on the clincher as the Devils have won three straight in extra time. Remember, this is a team that lost 21 games in OT or the shootout last season, so you can't overstate the importance of socking away these early wins. Artem Anisimov is another. He looks like a viable long-term fit for that gaping hole at second line center, and he's shown some real chemistry with Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane. Those guys both want the puck and he's capable of getting it to the net.
• Fans have a tendency to underplay stats at this time of year, saying it's too early to read anything into them. Pick one, either team or individual, that you think will stand up to the 82-game test.
Blinn: To say Rick Nash has struggled to open the season would be a bit of an understatement. Here's a guy who's averaged just under 36 goals per season, and through eight games in 2015–16 he's on track for just over 10—and even that's inflated, seeing as how his only goal of the year was an awarded empty-netter. A 10-goal season is pretty low for such a talented guy, but 36 seems lofty on a team waiting for a serious No. 2 scoring threat to emerge.
Page: I think Reto Berra will sustain a .975 save percentage. Just kidding! While it’s true there have been few wins, goals and assists recorded, there’s necessarily been a great many more Corsi events. So, to that end, the Canadiens have genuinely improved, and should stay a top team in the East. Jeff Petry has emerged as a go-to defenseman for them.
Muir: Give me Winnipeg's surprising power play. I'm not saying it'll keep up its goal-a-game pace, but this group is as good as its 26.1% success rate suggests. Getting kids like Nikolaj Ehlers and Nic Petan involved has added speed and creativity to both units, but it's still the vets doing the heavy lifting. Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers are getting shots to the net and Blake Wheeler and Andrew Ladd have been immovable objects down low. They just look quicker and more confident than last season. Wouldn't surprise me if this was a top-five unit at the end of the season.
• Bonus question for Nashville homer Sam: The Preds are now 6–1 after their 5–1 thumping of the Ducks on Thursday. Can anything stop their inevitable march to Stanley Cup glory?