NHL roundtable: How to fix the Penguins; league’s best pest; more

Friday December 11th, 2015

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 the NHL's most baffling division, turmoil in Pittsburgh, agitating players and after-death cocktails. First up:

• Penguins GM Jim Rutherford went off in the papers this week, saying that his team is underachieving. Is change coming? What’ll it be?

UPDATE: Penguins fire head coach Mike Johnston, assistant

Al Muir: That call-out was pretty shocking, right? I don’t think of Rutherford as a guy who uses the media to put coaches or players on blast, so to see him go public with his frustrations about the team’s performance was pretty telling. Clearly the Pens aren’t playing up to their paper, and their problems run deeper than not giving Daniel Sprong enough ice time. There are clear problems with the way this team is built, especially on the back end. Mike Johnston’s system is devised to mask those shortcomings, but in doing so he’s diminishing the effectiveness of forwards like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. The easy answer here is to fire the coach and put someone in place who will unleash the hounds, but that doesn’t address those defensive issues. Rutherford may have to make a change behind the bench just to keep his franchise players happy, but he can’t make that move alone. The pressure’s on him to fix the mess he saddled Johnston with in the first place.

How an NHL team’s system affects a player’s performance

Mike Blinn: I think Rutherford has mastered the understatement. I don’t think it’s a question of talent because this team has an almost unfathomable array it, at least up front, though as Dimitri Filipovic noted, the loss of talent from the blue line over the years is catching up to them. But with Malkin’s sentiment that everyone is mad at one another and not playing the system correctly paints a very different picture. Johnston is pretty obviously on a hot seat, and a new direction behind the bench might be a step in the right direction.

Sam Page: They’ve got a fantasy hockey lineup for a first power play unit and yet rank 26th in the NHL in man-advantage efficiency. That’s a coaching problem to me. Maybe the freshly retired Pascal Dupuis could step behind the bench for them.

• What do you make of the Pacific Division? Who’s for real and who’s a darkhorse that might surprise us down the stretch?

MB: I think three of the teams from the division will make it to the playoffs ... because three of them have to. For the most part, what we’re seeing is what we’re going to get: Vancouver and Arizona are .500 teams. If I have to pick one that looks real, it’s looking like Los Angeles, which is built on ‘streaky’ players (Jeff CarterMarian GaborikJonathan Quick) that will have a good time feasting on intra-division teams. As for a dark horse team, I’ll throw Edmonton out there: As Al pointed out this week, they’re getting some solid goaltending from Anders Nilsson and they’re getting healthy. They’re one or two moves away from being able to sneak into the top three of a really sub-par division.

Still afloat in the weak Pacific, the woeful Oilers must make a move

SP: The Kings are for real. They’re basically the same team that won two Stanley Cups, playing that same Darryl Sutter style. Carter accounting for so much of their offense scares me a little. While Anze Kopitar has picked up his point total lately, he has just 47 shots through 27 games. To build off Mike’s point, there’s two kinds of streaky: guys who generate a lot of scoring chances but infrequently get goals, and guys who infrequently generate scoring chances. The Kings’ top line guys look like the latter at this point, and that’s worrisome. For a dark horse ... hmmm ... well, the San Jose Sharks are similar to L.A. in that the’ve held onto a lot of the talent that once made them dominant. Plus, Joel Ward is the new Jonathan Cheechoo. I’d love to see them hold onto Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton for one more playoff push.

AM: Yeah, the Kings are the class of the division. They look like they’re just getting comfortable now. Even when they lose, they’re usually the best team on the ice. I have full faith in the Ducks, even at this stage. I like the confidence John Gibson has given them in net, and I think their GM, Bob Murray, has something up his sleeve to get them over the hump. My darkhorse? I’m going to stick with the Oilers. The return of Connor McDavid next month will give them a huge boost and I think they’ll find a way to shore up that defense. They’ll have just enough to squeak into that third Pacific slot ... and they’ll still somehow be awarded the first pick in the draft.

• What makes more sense for the Hurricanes: move Eric Staal for younger assets or allow him to finish his career in Carolina?

MB: There’s a lot to take in here: his contract, his production and his worth to the team. Unfortunately, his contract (now in final year with cap hit of $8.25 million) isn’t great, nor is his production, and overpaying someone for bottom-six minutes isn’t ideal. It might be time to give him a shot at another Stanley Cup elsewhere. It’s always a nice story to see a guy play out his career with one franchise, but the salary cap era has pretty much put a damper on that happening.

SP: This is a lay-up, right? The ’Canes aren’t good; Staal’s a little over the hill. Ultimately, he has a no-trade clause, so if he wants to finish his career in Carolina playing with his brother, that’s his call. But the Hurricanes should be desperately trying to shop him. You can’t pass up opportunities to improve your team for the sake of nostalgia—this isn’t exactly the Canadiens trading Jean Béliveau.

What to do with Eric Staal is a key question for the Hurricanes

AM: No, it's not the Canadiens and Béliveau, but that’s kind of the point. The Habs have ingrained themselves over the decades as the dominant cultural force in Quebec. I mean, it’s them or the Catholic church, right? The ’Canes are still trying to establish themselves as part of the sporting culture in Carolina, though, so there might be more value in allowing Staal to finish his career there than there might be in an older, more secure market. Of course, another way to sink those roots is to win, which is something this team isn’t going to do much of during the next couple years with or without Staal. So if the Canes could move him for a significant asset or two, something that could get this franchise moving in the right direction, they’d be crazy not to do it. But it can’t be a Marco Sturm/Wayne Primeau package in return. It’s gotta be a home run.

• Who is the NHL’s best agitator?

MB: Brad Marchand, hands down. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the vitriol spew so hard at a guy who just got speared in the junk. He plays his game on the edge (veering into ‘dirty’ territory often enough), but he’s also effective in every zone. It’s hard not to be annoyed by a guy who’s game is best when he’s getting you off yours—and he’s doing it for 18 minutes per contest.

NHL agitators replacing goons on line between reckless and dirty

SP: How about Tampa Bay’s Cedric Paquette? We saw flashes of his pestering power last year in the playoffs and this season he was drawing a super 2.2 minor penalties per 60 minutes played before he got hurt. Or if we’re being huge homers like Mike here, I’ll say Jordin Tootoo, who has the admirable but rare quality of being a pest who can win his own fights.

AM: My first thought was either Marchand or maybe Brendan Gallagher. But Antoine Roussel’s up there, too. I think I’ll go with Nazem Kadri. I know he’s not the first guy you think of, but there’s a reason he leads the league in penalties drawn. He’s someone you have to watch in person to appreciate what he does away from the play. He’s sneaky dirty. There might not be anyone better at getting in that quick jab when the refs aren’t looking. He’s a yapper and an embellisher and a guy who almost every other guy would love to punch in the mouth. The Maple Leafs are lucky to have him.

• This week’s bonus question: You can meet one deceased player from hockey history. Who would you most like to grab a drink with?

MB: Gimme Hobey Baker. The first true great American player who might even be more well known for his college football and armed forces exploits. I think he’d have some pretty great stories to share. Also, being an unabashed college hockey fan, I feel like I’d be doing a disservice to myself by choosing a guy without an NCAA trophy named after him.

Legendary coach Al Arbour was master motivator with special touch

AM: No question, Eddie Shore. Four-time Hart Trophy winner. Played with and against some of the all-time greats. Amazing career as a player. But honestly, I just want to hear his side of all those legendary tales that came out of his time running the old Springfield Indians. The dancing lessons, the bondage, the miracle cures, the abstinence demands ... he might have been the most colorful guy in the history of the game. Or the most crazy. Either way, I’m buying as long as he’s talking.

SP: Al Arbour. My grandfather had some stories involving him I need to fact-check.

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