Friday January 15th, 2016

Every Friday, a trio of 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 bargain performers, second-half comebacks and the race for Auston Matthews. But first up:

• With 500 goals under his belt and the Capitals in first place in the Eastern Conference, is it time to recognize Alexander Ovechkin as the best player in the game?

Michael Blinn: I’ve been struggling with this answer for longer than I’d like to admit. On one hand, he’s the game’s most exciting and fun player to watch. On the other, the title of “best player” implies a more well-rounded game than he has to offer. Don’t get me wrong. He’s come a long way, having had to reinvent his game more times under more coaches than he can probably remember. He’s in the conversation, but the more apt title is probably best offensive player, and one of the best I’ll see in my lifetime.

Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin makes ‘history moment’ in scoring 500th goal

Sam Page: No, and I’m not at all conflicted like Mike is. No disrespect to Ovechkin, but there are two ways to ask this question and Ovechkin is not the answer to either one. Is he the best player of his generation? Crosby has been better. A playmaking, goal-scoring center who creates easy goals for his teammates and can shut down opposing forwards makes Crosby basically the ideal skater. Even granting that goals are greater than assists, the fact that Crosby has just 48 fewer points in 133 fewer games is staggering. He’s even within six points this season of Ovechkin after what is undoubtedly the worst start of his career. Saying Ovechkin is the best is like saying Brett Hull was better than Wayne Gretzky. 

He’s not the best player at the moment either. You’d be crazy to take him over Patrick Kane, Tyler Seguin, or Erik Karlsson right now.
Al Muir: Might want to have one of the interns open any mail from Washington that is addressed to you over the next few days, buddy. Caps fans don’t take it too well when you don’t kiss the ring, especially a pipsqueak from Nashville. Just ask someone who has used barrels of ink to criticize Ovi in the past ... if you happen to know anyone like that, of course.
Look, I’m more than happy to admit that Ovi has been terrific this season. This is pretty much the guy I’ve been waiting for, but never thought I’d get to see. We already knew he was the finest goal scorer of his generation. Now, though, he’s finally earning that C on his sweater. You can see his commitment in the defensive and neutral zones night-to-night and shift-to-shift. The hunger is there to be a great player, and you can see how it has had an impact on the success of his teammates and this team. And honestly, I’ve never had more fun watching him.
But you guys are right. Most entertaining? Sure, right up there with Karlsson and P.K. Subban. But he’s not even the best player on the Caps right now—that would be Braden Holtby—so let’s just say that Ovi is right up there in the top five and enjoy watching him play the best hockey of his career.
• Excluding players who are on entry-level contracts, who has been the best bargain of the first half of the season?

SP: Seguin and Jamie Benn are, individually, worth more to the Stars than their collective cap hit ($11 million). But I know I’ll win Al over by pointing out that Roman Josi of the Predators makes just $4 million dollars this season on a contract that runs through 2020.

AM: I don't know how their GM David Poile sleeps at night, taking advantage of poor Josi like that. They need to start passing the boot around Bridgestone after every home game to try to make it up to that kid.

Much movement in Central Scouting’s new 2016 NHL draft rankings

MB: Does Mike Hoffman’s $2 million show-me deal count? He led the Senators with 27 goals in 2014-15 and he’s certainly showing the Ottawa brass this season. He’s 24th in the scoring race (20-16-36), ranks among the top 10 in points per 60 minutes and has racked up most of his goals in five-on-five play. Despite the fact the Senators are one of the worst possession teams in the league, Hoffman is one of the players on the roster who makes his teammates better.

AM: Hey, the Coyotes bought themselves an All-Star Game captain for just $575,000. That’s a bargain that now belongs to Montreal, though. But if John Scott doesn’t do it for you, you don’t have to look much further: Louis Domingue, is 7-2-3 since taking over as the starter in Arizona, with a .928 save percentage and 2.21 GAA. The Yotes are in playoff position in large part because of his steady play. And here the guy is, taking home just $605,000 on a one-year deal. That’s outlet mall pricing right there. Leo Komarov is another guy: 15 goals, third in the league in hits, Toronto’s All-Star representative ... all for less than $3 million. 
• More than a few players underperformed during the first half. Who’s your pick to bounce back in the big way down the home stretch?
MB: There were lots of questions and criticisms of Sidney Crosby during the first 30 games of the season, many were warranted with his 6-13-19 totals on a star-studded struggling team. In the 11 games since, he’s provided answers, adding six goals and 14 points. For the rest of the season, that translates to a final total of 34 goals and 85 points–nowhere near his career-bests, but possibly enough to sneak into the top 10 by season’s end.

Playing for your hometown NHL team has its special headaches

SP: (Scrolls through Penguins roster) Hmm…too obvious. Ryan Getzlaf won’t shoot 3% for the rest of the season, so he seems like a pretty sure bet. Also, look out for Ryan Johansen … six points in four games with Nashville so far. (And yes, I say this while wearing my custom Johansen Preds feety pajamas.) 

AM: Gimme Tyler Johnson. Injuries to him and linemate Ondrej Palat. A drop in shooting efficiency (down about 40% from last season). Just general bad luck. Everything that could have gone wrong in the wake of his breakthrough season has gone wrong. That won’t last. I think the Bolts themselves will rebound in the second half, and it will be TJ who is leading the way.
• With parity carrying the day in both conferences, it’s starting to look like a four-team race to the bottom. Who “wins” the most balls in the lottery?
MB: I got a chance to watch the Blue Jackets in Brooklyn earlier this week, and I couldn’t get over just how much work is needed to get their roster to a competitive place. There’s bits of flash and dash (though Scott Hartnell and Cam Atkinson are reportedly on the trading block) and some good young players in Boone Jenner and Alexander Wennberg, but it’s not enough to make up for an underwhelming defense and goaltending situation. Seth Jones may one day be setting the tone for this team on the back line, but he might have to do it with Auston Matthews in tow.

Seth Jones adjusting to new team, coach, expectations with Blue Jackets

AM: Yeah, it’ll be the Jackets. And even with Jones, their defense will jam their spokes. Columbus has the league’s worst team GAA (3.20), the worst goal differential (–32). The Jackets allow too many shots and spend too much time chasing the puck (47.4% Corsi). And with the inevitable sell-off of veterans coming, they’ll be even harder pressed to dress a legitimate team. Tough break for their fans, who were expecting more after showing after so much promise late last year, but if they’re going to bottom out, this isn’t a bad year to do it.

SP: I’ll take the opportunity to brag that I resisted the Jack Eichel hype and picked Buffalo to finish dead last in the East in SI magazine (subscribe now!) before the season. So I guess I have to stick with the Sabres.

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