Friday March 25th, 2016

Every Friday, a trio of staffers sits down for a discussion of the hockey world’s hot-button issues. This week, Michael Blinn, Sam Page and Al Muir dig into Chicago's worrisome stumble, the most dangerous sleeper team in the West, under-the-radar rookies, draft problems and pending coach firings.

First up:

Let's assess the current state of the Chicago Blackhawks. Is this a case of their annual pre-playoff blues or a reason for concern?

Sam Page: Unlike their past pre-playoff skids, the underlying metrics for the Blackhawks this year should concern their fans. The problem seems obvious: Their defense is thin. Spreading Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith over two pairings has not fixed things. Last year in the playoffs they hid Michael Roszival and Kimmo Timonen by barely playing their third pairing at all. Can they pull the same trick this year with young Erik Gustafsson in the top four? 

How worrisome is the Blackhawks’ losing skid?

Michael Blinn: I’ll go ahead and say that, while Sam is right about the defense being thinner than ever, Corey Crawford is also having his best season so far. Not to harp on Scott Darling’s struggles in net, but Crawford’s play has been more than enough to mask a poor bottom three on the blue line and his return from injury will go a long way toward righting the ship in Chicago. 

Al Muir: The penalty kill worries me, and so does that thin defense. And there are no free passes in that first round—it'll be a heavy Blues team, a Dallas squad that's owned them this season or (yes, please!) the Kings, if Chicago's slide drops them into the wild card. And if the Hawks are bounced early, no one should be surprised. But this group knows how to flip the switch when it matters. It has that confidence that only comes from having fought through stuff like this together. And at some point they'll have a healthy (and rested) Crawford. So take a deep breath, Chicago. It's going to be alright.

Which is the more dangerous sleeper team in the West: St. Louis, San Jose or Nashville?

SP: First, a video interlude:

What makes the Preds both dangerous and a sleeper is that their three most talented players have been MIA until very recently. Pekka Rinne and Ryan Johansen have shown signs of turning it on down the stretch, and Nashville will go as far as those two take them. As for the third guy … we’ll likely see this weekend what life after Harvard holds for Jimmy Vesey. 

With new heavier game, Stars are dangerous

MB: Well that’s certainly a reference there, Sam. I'll raise you a Wookiee, specifically the one on San Jose’s underrated defense. Brent Burns deserves a lot more conversation about his season than he’s getting, and there has to be a reason why Hockey Canada is so in love with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, right? They anchor a capable two-way set of blueliners in front of emerging goalie Martin Jones, who’ll get a big push and plenty of insurance from deadline pickup James Reimer. While it helps that they don’t have to deal with the cannibalistic Central Division, the Sharks also have a deceptively deep, responsible set of forwards.

AM: I feel like kind of a jerk here for not defending the honor of the Blues and the way Brian Elliott is playing. Maybe this, finally, is their year. But I've been burned too many times in the past by believing in this team so I have to throw in with Sam the Sham and the Predators. While everyone's been marveling at Anaheim's late run, the Preds have gone 18-6-5 since Jan. 21, which ties the Ducks (20-5-1) for most points acquired over that span. They have the two key ingredients for playoff success—a goaltender who can steal a game, and a deep, experienced defense that is allowing a league-low 27.3 shots per game. And they have balance up front, including a pair of 30-goal men in Filip Forsberg and James Neal (all right, 29 now, but he'll get there). Vesey, if he signs, is gravy. I can easily see this team winning a couple of rounds.

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Speaking of sleepers, once you get past the big names, this season's rookie crop is loaded with intriguing under-the-radar talent. Who's the one player on the fringes who could emerge as a star?

SP: I’m going to take the easy way out and pick a defenseman, since they develop slower anyway. Carolina's Noah Hanifin isn’t exactly an under-the-radar talent given his draft position (fifth), but he’s not talked about much anymore. Still, given his skills and the fact that he’s already ably playing 17 minutes per night, he’ll figure it out sooner than later and be a good one. 

MB: While he’s older than the average rookie at 23, Joonas Donskoi is putting together a pretty nice season over in San Jose. He’s established himself among the Sharks’ top nine by providing sound two-way play while chipping in some secondary offense. He’s a key reason the team hasn’t fallen off as much as predicted, and he’ll be a bigger piece as he continues to progress.

Bruins rookie Frank Vatrano’s unlikely rise to the NHL is stuff of local legend

AM: Both good choices, boys, but give me Boston's Frankie Vatrano. Wherever he goes, this kid scores goals: 18 in 36 games as a freshman with U-Mass Amherst in 2014-15; 33 in 33 games as a rookie with AHL Providence this season. Don't know if you saw the one he potted against Henrik Lundqvist on Wednesday night, but that's him in a nutshell—he finds the dead spot and he gets the puck off his stick in a hurry. The key to his success moving forward is slotting him properly in the roster. He's not a secondary-scoring guy. Put him on the third or fourth line, he's going to get lost in the shuffle. Give him top-six linemates though, he'll make something happen. If Loui Eriksson moves on as a free agent, that could be the opening Vatrano needs to break through in a big way next season.

Does the NHL need an "Oilers rule" to prevent a team from securing the first spot in the draft too often? 

SP: No. I’d sooner relegate the Oilers to the ECHL. Don’t punish some other unlucky franchise down the line because Edmonton can’t manage its roster.

MB: I can’t see any owners pushing for a rule that could punish their own ineptitude down the road, but maybe, just maybe, the league is missing out on being able to market some of its premier young talent in other cities.

Team USA adds Auston Matthews for World Championship

AM: Would anyone complain if the team that is stockpiling all this premier young talent was based in a major American city like Boston or New York? Not a chance. They'd be licking their chops at the marketing potential. I say just leave it alone ... even if it means Auston Matthews and Nolan Patrick and David Levin all end up calling Rogers Place their home.

Who's the first coach to be fired after the regular season concludes?

SP: Mike Babcock: Toronto can’t tolerate another abysmal finish. Just kidding. The real answer is Montreal's Michel Therrien. 

MB: If it’s not Therrien, then Montreal’s problems run deeper than we think they do.

No one is safe on the Senators

​​AM: I dunno, boys. I think GM Marc Bergevin views the absence of Carey Price as a bigger issue than Therrien's coaching. I don't think that excuses his performance this season, but it wouldn't surprise me if he stuck around. And Trevor Linden has given the dreaded vote of confidence to Willie Desjardins in Vancouver. So I'll say Dave Cameron in Ottawa. When the owner is ranting in March about a goaltender decision the coach made back on opening night, it looks like he's being prepped as the patsy for a failed season.

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