Roundtable: Picking a team to root for down the stretch, into the playoffs
Each week, a trio of SI.com staffers sits down for a discussion of the hockey world's hot button issues. This time around, Sam Page, Sarah Kwak and Al Muir talk about the latest garbage fire in Toronto, MVP dark horses, Cam Talbot’s future and a team worth rooting for down the stretch.
• A friend tells you they want to start watching hockey and asks who they should cheer for down the stretch run and into the playoffs. Which team do you offer up and why?
SARAH KWAK: Because I live in New York City and I would assume said friend also lives here, I suppose I’d tell them to jump on the Rangers bandwagon. For one, unlike most New York teams in other sports of late, the Rangers will actually make the playoffs. But moreover, the Rangers have come to embody the New York spirit. They play fast, if almost impatient (just like New Yorkers!), have been scoring loads of goals (a requisite to capture a new hockey fan), and they can appeal to both the hard-working everyman (captain Ryan McDonagh) and the stylish cover boy (goalie Henrik Lundqvist). If geography had nothing to do with it, I’d say Tampa Bay because the Lightning are even more fun to watch for a newcomer to the game. They are fast, score a lot and have a marketable superstar in Steven Stamkos on that roster.
SAM PAGE: Rangers? I think if you explained the Rangers/Islanders situation to a neutral party they’d realize it’s basically Yankees vs. Mets … if the Mets were about to move out of Queens. No one likes the Yankees except their fans. Rooting for the Islanders is the only moral choice. Also, assuming that this friend has any appreciation of hockey history, how could he or she not be sentimental about one last hurrah at Nassau Coliseum? But yeah, otherwise, Tampa.
AL MUIR: The Lightning are a great call. Exciting, young, fast-paced. That’s an easy team to sell ... but let me suggest a purer, more enlightened alternative: the Flames. While some in this group claim to have no time for underdogs (ahem, looking at you, Kwak), I love ’em. The under-er, the better. So here’s a team that everyone figured would challenge for a top-five pick in the draft that instead is in the mix for a playoff spot. The Flames have spent the season defying all expectations thanks to a tireless work ethic, some thrilling forwards in Johnny Gaudreau and the rarely boring Sean Monahan, and a never-say-die spirit that has them leading the league in comeback wins. These guys are Jason Voorhees. You can’t kill ’em off. That’s what makes them so fun.
KWAK: Let’s throw away my East Coast bias here and go with Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf. As Anaheim has run away with its division, the Ducks’ captain has been the engine of their success and identity. The Ducks are big and intimidating, and I expect them to take some prisoners this spring, and that begins with Getzlaf, who at 6' 4" and 218 pounds, is as imposing a skilled player as there is in the NHL. With 63 points, he isn’t the highest scoring candidate, but he is invaluable to the Ducks. After all, he is pretty much why they play the way that they do.PAGE: What a world, one in which I can pick Sidney Crosby as a darkhorse MVP. The voters may have Crosby fatigue and Penguins fatigue—Evgeni Malkin will split some of his votes. But Sid the Kid is two points behind John Tavares with six fewer games played. That’s not to mention the fact that he’s nursing one of the lowest on-ice shooting percentages of his career. Crosby, more than any other player, tends to raise the shooting percentage of his teammates, and a little late-season regression in that number would mean an uptick in points. I’ll bet he ends the season with the most points in the NHL, making it hard for the voters to choose anyone but the best player on the planet.
MUIR: Some pretty light shades of dark in those choices, kids. I’m going pitch black with mine: Devan Dubnyk. If your Hart vote goes to the best player in the league, he’s nowhere near the conversation. Most valuable, though? He’s the only choice. Look at where the Wild were before he was brought in from the Coyotes on Jan. 14: six straight losses and heading for a high lottery pick. Since then, Minnesota owns the NHL’s best record at 19-4-2. The only thing that’s changed? That’s right, Dubnyk. The guy with a filthy 1.67 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage since coming north. If he keeps it up—there’s no reason to think he can’t at this point—and he ends up with 30 wins for the Wild, Dubnyk deserves recognition for turning this team around. And he’s gonna get it.
• Cam Talbot has emerged as one of the best stories of the past couple weeks with his stellar work in relief of Henrik Lundqvist. There’s only one net in New York though, and already there’s speculation that he might not be wearing Ranger blue after the season. If you’re GM Glen Sather, what do you do with him?
KWAK: Glen Sather should be pretty proud of himself for signing Talbot to that one-year extension back in December because now the price tag on Talbot is certainly higher. With him at $1.45 million for next season, though, the Rangers have plenty of flexibility. So if I’m Sather, I look for buyers in the off-season and see if there are any teams that are so desperate for goaltending that they may overspend. But if there’s nothing, then you sit pretty with Talbot continuing to back up Lundqvist for another year.PAGE: By no means should they have Talbot on their roster next season. He’s now played a half season of NHL games with a .930 save percentage and eight shutouts. That performance makes him extremely valuable, but there’s no reason to think it’ll continue. It’s not a knock on Talbot. Just think of how many goalies have looked all-world early on and then tailed off. Remember when Dan Ellis lead the league in save percentage and had six shutouts after his first 45 games?
• The fun never stops in Toronto, does it? This week’s drama: Nazem Kadri and his internal suspension for unspecified infractions. This is a talented young player, but also one who is expecting a sizable commitment as a restricted free agent this summer. So, will he be with the Maple Leafs next season?
MUIR: I’m not so sure. On the surface, diminishing an asset doesn’t make much sense. But what if there’s a bigger asset in play here than Kadri? What if this is about establishing a level of expectations, about demanding accountability, all in the name of a new culture? I think Shanahan has been so quiet this season because he’s strictly focused on the big picture. This is big picture stuff. If he has to sacrifice talent with a long-range goal in mind, I have no doubt he’s willing to do it. I think there’s a good chance that Kadri learns from this and gets on with his career, but I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if this marked the end of his tenure in Toronto.