Every week, a group of SI.com staffers will sit down for a discussion of the hockey world’s hot-button issues. This week, Michael Blinn, Sam Page, Sarah Kwak and Allan Muir talk about Conn Smythe candidates, pesky delay of game calls, the best and worst deadline acquisitions, and the future of Mike Babcock. First up:
We’re not quite halfway through the playoffs, but already some compelling candidates are building their cases for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Which player would you anoint as the early favorite?
MIKE BLINN:Braden Holtby. The guy has benefited from an overhauled defense and really come into his own in the past few weeks. He’s played the third-most minutes among goalies in the postseason while seeing more shots than anyone else, and he’s stopped 95% of them. On nights when the Capitals’ offense hasn’t been flowing, he’s been able to keep them in close games–he’s yet to allow more than three goals in a game. Oh, and that glove save on the penalty shot in Game 4? I know of at least one Rangers forward who will be seeing a lot of Holtby’s bearded face in his nightmares over the summer.
SAM PAGE: With all the good goaltenders getting knocked out of the playoffs, I’ll default to Patrick Kane, who seems poised to pick up his second Conn Smythe. He’s behind Corey Perry in points, but ahead of him in goals. The Blackhawks’ run has also been more impressive than the Ducks, considering the competition. Any voter fatigue that would otherwise hurt Kane will be nullified by the knowledge that he basically used Games 1 and 2 of the Nashville series as a rehab assignment for an injury that, by all rights, should have ended his season.
AL MUIR: Perry has been great, but I’m tipping my cap to Tyler Johnson. He’s leading the league in goals with eight. He has three game winners, including the series changing OT clincher against Detroit in Game 4 and the last second dagger that stunned the Canadiens in Game 3. And he’s been consistent, tallying in every other game. With Steven Stamkos struggling to find the back of the net, Johnson stepped up and put Tampa Bay’s offense on his back. Without him, they’re golfing after the first round.
The puck in the crowd/delay of game penalty has been prominent this postseason, including the Sami Vatanen swat that led to Calgary’s tying goal in Game 3. Are you a fan of the rule as-is or would you prefer to see a loosening of the zero tolerance policy?
PAGE: It’s tricky. No one throws the puck over the glass now, but that would seem to be at least in part because there’s a rule against it. And leaving it to the referee’s discretion seems like a hopeless case of trying to divine a player’s intentions. That said, I’m for the swallowing of all whistles come playoff time. Did you see The Purge(2013), that awful horror movie in which all crime becomes legal for 12 hours? My solution is something similar.
MUIR: I think they’ve already imposed Purge law ... and I hate it. It’s one thing to let the boys play but all the interference that’s going uncalled is sucking the skill out of the game. If a rule’s no good, get it out of the book. Otherwise, call it.
MUIR: I hear all the time how delay is a cheap call and a lousy way to influence a result, but it’s in place for a reason. I remember before this rule was instated how often you’d see guys send the puck sailing over the boards just to get a whistle and relieve pressure before. It was the exact opposite of a skill move. Again, I want flow in the game.
KWAK: This topic actually came up in a discussion with Gary Bettman a few weeks back. He explained the rule is in place because handling the puck under pressure is a skill and penalizing a team for a hurried, panicked move—as puck-over-glass is—measured that skill. I absolutely agree. The rule wasn’t just made on a whim; it was something that the competition committee—full of thoughtful, experienced players—came up with. Even if it’s accidental, it is still a mistake; lots of high-sticks are accidental, but all (that are seen) are called. I like the rule just fine. I have bigger problems with other rules (trapezoid). Also, more power plays often lead to more goals, and goals are fun.
Surprising to see so many of the players who were acquired ahead of the trade deadline planted in press boxes around the league instead of making an impact with their new teams. Who are your choices for most and least valuable adds?
BLINN: Ian Cole stepped into a pretty tenuous situation in Pittsburgh and helped to solidify a blue line corps that was literally held together with bandages and stick tape. He wasn’t jumping-off-the-scoresheet outstanding, but he was steady down the stretch and able to eat minutes on an ailing team. Mike Santorelli, on the other hand, spent the entirety of the season ramping up his value with the Maple Leafs only to do the exact opposite when he was sent to the Predators. His effect was minimal during the final few weeks of the regular season—one goal and four points in 22 games—and he found himself a healthy scratch in the first round against Chicago.
PAGE: I agree with Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper that Braydon Coburn has done nothing but make Steve Yzerman look good. He’s a stabilizing presence who perfectly balances that roster. And—oh yeah—he scored a pretty big goal in Game 7. As for least valuable, I give the award jointly to Santorelli and Cody Franson who are good players, but not too surprisingly bad fits on a team that already cast them off once.
KWAK: Yes, least valuable leads to Nashville—Franson and Santorelli. I know that Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford added defenseman Ben Lovejoy, but that is rather misguided. Lovejoy isn’t a 25-minute-a-night player; he’d probably freely admit that. What was to blame was the Penguins’ mismanagement of their salary cap and their injury-depleted defense corps. Anyway, for best add, Coburn is a good choice. I’d say defenseman Keith Yandle, but the Rangers power play has been middling, 1-for-9 in this series, and he’s –2 against Washington.
So the Wings are giving Mike Babcock permission to play the field, a decision that has Detroit fans on the ledge and fans of teams with coaching vacancies a case of the vapors. You think he stays in Detroit or moves on (and if the latter, where)?
BLINN: I can’t see him going anywhere else. All the success he’s had with the Red Wings has endeared him to the Illitch family, GM Ken Holland, the players and the fans. I’m guessing ownership will make sure that money isn’t a part of the equation, leaving Babcock with the question of what makes him happy. Why leave the place where you’ve found happiness?
PAGE: On the basis of no inside knowledge or rumors, I predict he goes to Edmonton. Their new GM Peter Chiarelli gives the organization credibility and the team on the ice is basically a build-your-own-dynasty starter kit.
KWAK: I haven’t the slightest clue where Babcock will land, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be Detroit. That he’s asked for permission to speak to other teams means he has already entertained the idea of another challenge or greener pastures. (And the pastures will certainly be green for Babcock, who will very likely command a record salary for a head coach.) Edmonton sounds nice, what with almost all the top draft picks of the last five years. But I think he is best positioned when he has a ready-made leadership group in place. When he came to Detroit, Nicklas Lidstrom and Brendan Shanahan were there leading the way. And the team has never lacked for leadership during his tenure. So putting him, the utter perfectionist, with a lot of youngsters who little experience—none in the postseason—may be an odd fit. Could he go to Pittsburgh? OK, they already have a coach and are still paying their last one. But, say, Dan Bylsma gets a job and the Pens don’t have to carry three contracts at once. Could Babcock be lured to coach Sidney Crosby?
MUIR: Oh, now look what you’ve done ...