In the first NHL roundtable of the 2015-16 season, SI staffers discuss the rookie crop, teams in trouble, Ovechkin oversleeping and thoughts on the coach's challenge.
Every Friday, a trio of SI.com 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 Alex Ovechkin's blunder, impressions of a new rule and a surprisingly deep rookie class. First up:
Early defensive woes have the Blue Jackets and Kings spinning their tires. Which of these teams is most likely to find some traction...and which is in real trouble?
Michael Blinn: Defenses are really only as good as the goalies behind them, and right now Sergei Bobrovsky and Jonathan Quick stink. Despite his admitted lack of confidence, Bob seems to me to be the better bounce-back candidate and the Blue Jackets have a lot more upside, whereas Quick has looked as human as he ever has, and the Kings team around him has been trending downward for the past few seasons. We’re seeing the wear and tear finally catching up to Los Angeles, physically and mentally.
Sam Page: When a team sputters defensively, I look at who’s the No. 1 d-man it can lean on. Giving your top guy more minutes can make everyone look better. The Kings have Drew Doughty, an undisputed elite defenseman and a guy you don’t worry about saving for later in the season. The Jackets have Jack Johnson, a guy who previously couldn’t be that go-to guy in L.A. That’s all not to say the Kings are better off than the Jackets, though—two goals in three games!
Al Muir: I think we all knew going in that defense would be a soft spot for the Jackets, and it has been. The bigger issue in Columbus is the all-around lack of compete. This is a team that needs more intensity. Maybe mix in a bit of hustle. Something. Right now, they're playing like a team that spent the off-season reading all those glowing stories about how they were going to be the breakthrough team this season. They still will be, at least that's the way I see it, but they have to rediscover the work ethic that powered them down the stretch last year.
Not so sure the answers are so easy for the Kings. They've been smoked three times in a row and in the process have looked worse than the team that missed the playoffs last season. This was a team that thrived on shutting the opposition down in the defensive zone, but it hasn't recovered from losing Slava Voynov or the steadiness that Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr provided during those Stanley Cup runs. The Kings simply aren't as deep. Up front, they have too many guys who aren't quite quick enough to bottle a team up in its own zone they way they used to. They can still bang, but without that quickness they're getting beat to loose pucks and allowing too many transitional opportunities. The roster is flawed and I'm not sure that can be adequately addressed.
Blinn: There’s so many to choose from here: Dylan Larkin, Artemi Panarin, Colton Parayko, Oscar Lindberg. This rookie class is straight-up redonkulous, and one of them is heating up hockey in the desert. Max Domi now has three goals and six points in his first four NHL games, the majority of them have been highlight reel-worthy. On Thursday, he notched his third assist of the season on a backhand saucer pass threaded through three Wild defenders and right onto Anthony Duclair’s stick blade. A little over seven minutes later, he caught a lob pass out of mid-air, embarrassed Jared Spurgeon and went five-hole on Devan Dubnyk. Not only is he racking up some aesthetically beautiful points, but he’s making it look a little too easy for the offspring of a guy who was famous for his hands made of stone.
Page: Since it’s way too early in the season (and the Mets are good), I can’t pretend I’ve closely watched any rookies besides whoever’s playing the Preds. McDavid impressed, obviously, even when he wasn’t scoring points. But since I’m supposed to pick a different rookie, you’ve forced me to be a loathsome homer and pick Nashville's Viktor Arvidsson. The 22-year-old had 55 points in the AHL last season and beat out the KHL’s leading scorer last year (Steve Moses) and the Preds’ top prospect (Kevin Fiala) for his job. He’s not the most talented player, but he’s fearless and a shooter.
Muir: Come on, Sam. Loathsome homer is the role you were born to play! I haven't seen Arvidsson so I can't rip your choice, but you did leave a few on the table for me. Mattias Janmark has been great in Dallas. He's got all the fun stuff that fans love: speed, creativity, finishing touch and he pays attention to the details that win over a coach's flinty heart. It's not just points in four straight. He makes himself noticeable on every shift. The kids in Winnipeg, Nikolaj Ehlers, Nic Petan and Andrew Copp, they all look like they're going to make some noise before long. I love how Ehlers is willing to unload from anywhere on the ice. His finger's always on the trigger. Gotta love that confidence. But yeah, Blinn's right. Domi and Duclair have been the most impactful and the most fun to watch. I'm happy for those Coyotes fans. They've suffered through a lot of bad hockey over the years. They deserved a show and they're finally getting one.
The new coach's challenge has seen plenty of action already. Your thoughts on the rule and how it is being utilized?
Page: Challenging goaltender interference seems so odd to me, since, for all the things that can be challenged in the NFL, pass interference can’t be. I know it’s not exactly comparable, but the logic for not allowing pass interference reviews would seemingly hold in hockey too: There’s a little interference on every play and coaches will challenge not out of a sense of being wronged, but out of a hope that refs will catch a little incidental contact.
Blinn: I don’t have a lot of issues with the new rule, and the amount we’ve seen it already suggests that maybe, just maybe, there’s some merit behind it. I’ve yet to see a coach use an ill-advised challenge, and while they haven’t all come back with the 100% correct call (just ask Claude Julien and Barry Trotz), the system is still run by those pesky error-prone humans. The system is new and there will be kinks, we just have to hope they get ironed out and the process more streamlined as time goes on.
Muir: I'm for anything that leads to more plays being called correctly, so I'm a fan of the rule. I think there's going to be some controversy over what exactly constitutes goaltender interference. I think upon review that almost any contact, no matter how incidental, will be viewed as a foul, and that's not necessarily a good thing, but we'll see how it plays out. Generally speaking, I think it's been a success so far.
Alexander Ovechkin's mid-week slumber party: funniest storyline of the new season?
Page: Ovechkin should adopt Henrik Sedin’s system (or is it Daniel’s?) of setting his alarm to go off several times, starting hours before he has to actually get up. Ovi doesn’t even have a twin brother to annoy with the practice!
Blinn: This season has had plenty of off-beat off-ice storylines already: Ovechkin’s Ho-Sang moment, Taylor Hall’s first banana, the return of Jaromir Jagr’s mullet and the failed blackmail plot. For my money, though, the most fun is Phil Kessel hot-dogging it while running the elevator for a special fan event in Pittsburgh. Now, maybe it’s that I just love a stupid joke, but it’s clear to me that Kessel is happy to be out of the Toronto media frenzy and hopefully, there’s a few more light-hearted jokes to be heard from the All-Star winger.
Muir: I honestly didn't think it was funny. In fact, it's a pretty significant offense when a captain misses a practice because of his own negligence. That said, I think everyone involved handled it perfectly. Barry Trotz proved that he wouldn't give a free pass to his franchise player and made him accountable for his mistake. At the same time, he kept it a team matter and didn't embarrass his captain unnecessarily. Both of those decisions send a strong message to the room. Then Ovi came clean and accepted responsibility for his mistake, even though he was under no obligation. That says something his leadership.
Now, everyone can move past it now and, oddly, the Caps might actually be a bit better for the experience.