Roundtable: NHL quarter-season's best story, changes to come, more

Friday November 20th, 2015

Every Friday, a trio of staffers sits down for a discussion of the hockey world’s hot-button issues. This week, Sam Page, Michael Blinn and Al Muir look back at the first 20 games of the season and talk about the best stories, biggest disappointments, changes that need to be made and more. First up:
• We’ve already reached the quarter pole of the season, gentlemen (and yes, we all know that means something different in horse racing). Let’s hear your thoughts on the best story of the first 20 games.
Michael Blinn: It’s gotta be the Dallas Stars. Off to a franchise-best start on the strength of a league-best offense and getting surprisingly decent defense and goaltending, they’re starting to look like real, live contenders. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn have become as unstoppable a duo as the NHL has, and John Klingberg is a burgeoning top-flight defenseman. Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya give the Stars depth that the team hasn’t had in recent years. One season after everyone picked Dallas to make the leap, the Stars are finally making it, big time.

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

Sam Page: After all the Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel hype coming into the season—the endless debates about who would win the Calder Trophy—of course it’s the team that finished third in the draft lottery that has the most impressive pair of rookies. The CoyotesAnthony Duclair and Max Domi, both just 20, have a combined 27 points through 18 games and have made the ‘Yotes competitive again. And that’s gone right for Arizona while its McEichel consolation prize—Dylan Strome—is quietly stashed in the OHL for another season. The future of the next edition of the Quebec Nordiques is very bright. 

Al Muir: My first instinct is Colton Parayko, who wasn’t expected to land a job on the St. Louis blue line let alone emerge as a favorite for the Calder, but I’ll go off-ice and say P.K. Subban and his $10 million commitment to the Montreal Children’s Hospital. At a time when the league was drowning in depressing headlines, Subban comes along and reminds us that there are still players worth idolizing. What a great human.
• If you could give someone a do-over, who would it be?
MB: Remember before the season started and we all picked the Blue Jackets to make the postseason? One of us in this trio even had Columbus as the “breakthrough team”—and it wasn’t a stretch to believe that. How terribly things have gone instead. An 0-8 start, Sergei Bobrovsky struggling to find any bit of confidence in net, Todd Richards (whom you both picked to win the Jack Adams Award, as I recall) given the heave-ho. The Jackets are 7-5-0 since John Tortorella took over behind the bench and began calling out the team’s stars, so things are looking up, but it’s still not where they’re supposed to be this season.

NHL's 2015-16 NHL season crystal ball predictions

SP: I’ll let someone else tackle the Penguins, and instead say Ryan Callahan. I have no idea if his current lower-body injury has anything to do with his struggles, but the combination of him not producing and his team’s depth issues do not bode well for this season. He had a good thing going on Steven Stamkos’s line last season, but he could easily be stuck in the bottom six when Tyler Johnson gets back. It’s not like he’s been snakebit either—Callahan is actually shooting 11.4%, slightly better than his career rate.

AM: Is it too late to say I’d give the Bruins a do-over on the Tyler Seguin trade? Guess I’ll take his ol’ buddy Tuukka Rask, then. That poor guy. He hasn’t gotten much help this season with the B’s changing their systems and going through some injuries and roster changes on the back end, but he hasn’t done himself any favors, either. Last season he allowed as many as five goals only twice in 70 appearances. Now he’s coughed up a five-spot five times in his first 13 starts. There’s more guesswork in his game, less technique. That’s something that has to be addressed if the Bruins are going to salvage their season.
• Who’s going to surprise us during the next 20 games?

SP: Calgary’s Dougie Hamilton was the biggest trade acquisition of the off-season, and somehow he’s scored just five points with a –7 rating. He’s getting no help from his goalies (.901 save percentage with Hamilton on the ice at five-on-five) or his teammates (5.26% shooting percentage). His luck will turn. 

AM: Wait a minute ... did Page just use five-on-five save percentage and plus/minus in the same argument? There goes his stat nerd street cred ...

Youthful Jets come together, learn resiliency in early season struggles

MB: It feels almost silly to say this, but Sidney Crosby is due for ... something. His next 20 games will either be a deluge of points that assuage a terrified fan base or his struggles will continue and the whispers will grow into some pretty serious yelling. The frustration is apparent for Sid, the Penguins and anybody who’s watching them, but his goal against the Avalanche on Thursday had that distinct Crosby panache that the rest of the league should probably start worrying about. 

AM: Give me the Triplets. I think they, like the rest of the Lightning, have really struggled with the post-Cup Final hangover. Jon Cooper’s tried everything to get them going, from splitting them up to managing their match-ups, but it’s been a battle with inconsistency from the get-go. But hey, we know how dominant these kids can be. They were arguably the best line in the league last season, the perfect blend of skill, speed and two-way smarts. Those traits didn’t disappear over the summer. Once Ondrej Palat, the line’s defensive conscience, returns from his month-long stint on IR, I’m betting we'll see a return to form.
• Who’s under the most pressure to make a change, and what should it be?
SP: The Penguins have to be under the most pressure, right? Everything’s in place and nothing is happening. The power play is a mess, and that’s a coaching problem. Mike Johnston always seemed like a compromise hiring, and maybe it’s now time to get a “name” coach. 
AM: Please may it be Mike Keenan ... please be Mike Keenan ...

Taking the high road by trading Travis Hamonic likely to cost Islanders

MB: Put me down for Colorado. Patrick Roy has introduced some neat tricks behind the Avs’ bench, but he’s also largely ignored the vast array of statistics that are pointing to problems with the team and it's all coming back to bite him. Colorado clearly struggles with possession from end to end and Roy’s Hall of Fame playing career might not save him or his players from some drastic measures.

AM: How about Dave Hakstol’s system in Philadelphia? Playing an aggressive style that tries to generate opportunities off the forecheck and limit clean zone exits sounds great, but it also relies heavily on the defense to read, react and win puck battles in the neutral zone. The group they’re employing now—even with Shayne Gostisbehere in the mix—isn't quite up to the challenge, and that’s led to more odd-man rushes and high-quality scoring chances-against than any other team. Maybe they’ll work the kinks out over time, but it just feels like Flyers are trying to make their players fit a plan rather than the other way around.
• What do you think of the changes to the All-Star Game format?
MB: If it’s good enough for Gretzky, it’s good enough for me. I think the new look is hokey, and that’s OK–All-Star Games are supposed to be hokey. Clearly players were no longer enamored with the fantasy draft (there might have been a bit too much fun caught on camera), let alone the actual game. Keep changing it. Tweak away. Give me something new every season.

Also, maybe we should talk about how a league that equates offense to excitement felt the need to make changes to a game that featured 29 goals in 2015, but was also somehow a total snoozefest.

This is what Wayne Gretzky thinks of the new All-Star 3-on-3

AM: It’s not the scoring that made it a snoozefest, bud. It’s that the contest had all the passion and intensity of a midnight over-50 beer league game ... and I don’t see this new format addressing that problem one bit. Don’t get me wrong: I like that they’re trying something new and I admit there’s a chance that I may be pleasantly surprised by the results. But honestly I don’t think the chance to split a million bucks is going to light a fire under anyone’s behind the way competing for a point in the standings does. I think we’ll mostly get a bunch of cherry-picking and lay-up drills until the last three or four minutes when they start getting serious.

SP: I love the changes, mainly because the Central Division will now certify its dominance over the rest of the league. Search on Twitter to see how much fun people are having debating rosters. It’s like real-life fantasy hockey.

• And with Thanksgiving just around the corner, what’s the best Turkey Day dessert?
MB: Apple pie (a la mode, of course) and a good glass of scotch. Afternoon nap encouraged, not required.
SP: Fudge pie.
AM: I’m not much of a pie guy but save a seat at your table for me, Page. Otherwise I’m probably going to be picking through my kids’ leftover Halloween candy.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.