Every Wednesday, a trio of SI.com staffers will sit down for a discussion of the hockey world's hot button issues. This week, Brian Cazeneuve, Sarah Kwak and Al Muir debate the next steps for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the contender status of the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, the pending shakeup in Boston, and which team's prospects shined brightest at the World Juniors.
• The Maple Leafs finally sent Randy Carlyle packing on Monday. Should Toronto fans hunker down for #BabcockWatch now? And what is the next shoe to drop there?
I remember Babcock once mentioning to me years ago that Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski was somebody he admired from afar. And in some way, this reminds me of talk that Coach K should jump to the NBA to prove himself at a higher level. That line of reasoning never really resonated with me. Look at it objectively: Taking on Toronto is a high-risk, meager-reward proposition for somebody like Babcock. I mean, it's not about money; Detroit's owner Mike Ilitch opens his wallet when he needs to. So what does Babcock stand to gain? More notoriety? Greater legend? He's already viewed as the best coach of this era, is he not? He should not (and I think, ultimately won't) make a decision based on how it would play publicly, how he'd be perceived or received now or in years to come.
The next move? I have to believe they'll shop Kessel. All the talent in the world when the puck is on his stick. When it's not, he's scarcely serviceable. That's a flaw that might be more easily hidden on another team where he's not the focal point. And Dion Phaneuf will go. Less is more with that guy. Put him on a second pair on a deeper club and he'd be dynamite. Moving those two wouldn't just bring in a bounty of assets, it would affect a culture change that's long overdue in Toronto. Joffrey Lupul, when he's healthy, is another guy they might look to move.
First of all, nearly every team in the East is a contender. We've seen how seven and eight seeds can emerge from their conference playoffs even when there are standout teams in those conferences. Nobody fits that "standout" bill this season. The Rangers need Henrik Lundqvist to be great rather than good. They need more effort from Carl Hagelin and more smarts from Chris Kreider. And they need the type of excellent performances from role players that they got from Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle and Benoit Pouliot last season. Only then could they think of a return trip to the Cup final.
The Caps need a committed Alex Ovechkin, who seems to have finally bought into what Barry Trotz wants him to do. And they need continued good health and steady play from their veteran defense. Still, this group hasn’t been able to win sixth and seventh games against squads that are more playoff-ready. I’m not buying in just yet.
Nor should you. This is a team, like the Penguins, that's frittered away the benefit of the doubt with collapse after epic collapse. They're going to have to earn it back not in December and January, but in April and May. That said, I really like the subtle changes I'm seeing there lately. Their play without the puck has more purpose. Their penalty kill looks markedly better (even if its success rate isn't where it needs to be). There are fewer moments of individual play. And I really, really like the refinements that Braden Holtby has made to his game. His save percentage is up and he's carved half a goal off his GAA. To me, those are signs that this team is ready to return to the playoffs and maybe win a round or two.
I don't want to rule out the Rangers. Lundqvist is back on track. They've got scoring depth. They've proved that they know how to win. But just as they feasted in December they could face famine in January with a schedule that sees them playing six of their next seven on the road, including the always tough swing through California. How they do on this trip will say a lot more about where they are as a team than what they did last month.
Rangers, contenders. Capitals, pretenders. Why? Simply, Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers' goalie had a rough start to the season, didn't really look like himself on the ice. His numbers sagged as New York teetered along. But during the last month, he's looked much better. And if he can sustain it through the spring, the Rangers have a much better chance. Also helping them is the fact that their offense is much richer and deeper than it has been in years past. Rick Nash is a beast, and Martin St. Louis is always a value add. Derick Brassard, who has blossomed in New York, is on pace for 60-plus points this season.
I have a harder time with Washington simply because all the core pieces that haven't had success there in the past are still there. What will help me believe that Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Co., can be contenders? Well, a year where they demonstrate that they actually are.
• New Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs got off on a rant on Tuesday, saying his team's first-half failings are unacceptable and promising that every facet of the organization is under review. First-day-on-the-job barking or is Boston looking at a significant shakeup?
Ah, the Bruins. Kind of like my rationale with the Capitals, I believe the Bruins are a very good team that simply has suffered a bunch of pretty bad luck this year. Injuries to their once-overloaded blueline set them back early, and nagging or recurring injuries to key players seem to have stalled the team all season. A few key players are just not having good years, and that can happen. They've played a lot of hockey in recent years. Only Los Angeles has played more games since 2010-11 (when Boston won the Stanley Cup), and many of the veteran Kings aren't exactly having career years, either. So, I think Boston should be concerned, but also careful not to overreact. What's helped Chicago, by the way, is that the Blackhawks' young players—Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw—have really been given the opportunity to grow and can help infuse some life into a lineup when it's going a little stale.
Well, they haven’t drafted very well the last few years, so who knows if the shakeup will go as high as coach Claude Julien or GM Peter Chiarelli–somebody will pick them both up up if it does–but I imagine they are casting about for offers for Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and other players who might attract some interest. Maybe they’ll resign themselves to the idea that Loui Eriksson wasn’t the fit they expected.
I still can't figure out Eriksson. Watching him play Selke Trophy-worthy hockey all those years in Dallas, he seemed like an ideal fit for Julien's system. For whatever reason, it just hasn't worked. Injuries have reduced his effectiveness to some degree, but he's still a smart player who can drive possession. Plenty of teams are looking for a player like that (and don't think that Chiarelli wouldn't love to bury his mistake). If I had to bet on one guy they'd be most likely to move in the short term, Eriksson is it. And you can't overstate their drafting woes, which I touched on in my piece this morning. That is what's killing this team, even more than the Tyler Seguin and Johnny Boychuk trades. The inability to juice the group with youngsters the way Chicago has is what caused this team to grow stale.
• The recently concluded World Junior Championship gave us a good look at some of the best talent outside of the NHL. Which club has reason to be most excited about its prospects?
I'll give this to Buffalo. Reinhart was remarkable; Team USA forward Hudson Fasching was promising; U.S. center J.T. Compher was pretty quiet, but there are other reasons to believe that he could be an exciting NHL player. And, if the season ended today, the Sabres would have a 11.5% chance of getting Connor McDavid. All that together sounds mighty exciting.
Can't argue with those choices, but what about the Jets? I've been as loud a critic of Kevin Cheveldayoff as anyone, so I have to step up here and give him and his staff credit for what I saw in Toronto and Montreal. Josh Morrissey's game has come a long way in the last year. The skill was always there but he's much more poised and he's making better puck decisions. He looks like a solid top-four who will excel on the power play. Nik Ehlers was brilliant, a scoring threat every time he touched the ice for Denmark. He has the tools to be a front-line scorer in the not-too-distant future. Nic Petan showed the grit and courage to match his creative skill. I still worry about his size, but there's no questioning his heart. Eric Comrie was solid between the pipes during the round robin, especially in that big win over the Americans, and winger Chase de Leo looks like a he could provide a nice mix of skill and sandpaper. Better days ahead for Winnipeg, no doubt.