Desperate Canadiens; Toronto trade bait, more notes
Some news and notes ahead of a busy hockey weekend:
• This is how desperate the situation has become for the Canadiens after dropping their first two games out of the break: In order to have just a 60% chance of grabbing a wild-card berth, Montreal needs to go 18-9-4 in its final 31 games. Not impossible, but with each game that Carey Price remains on the sidelines the ship is veering hard towards the rocks. If the Habs are going to right their course, it has to be this month. They have 11 games remaining on their February schedule. Six of their opponents currently sit outside the playoffs, including each of the next four teams they face. They also host Carolina and Philadelphia, two of the teams that are standing between them and the wild card. There’s traction to be had. We’ll see what they do with it.
• Lots of pre-deadline buzz surrounding Toronto defenseman Roman Polak. Despite a lack of name recognition, the pending UFA is the perfect rental, a steady, right-shooting defenseman who takes care of business in his own end and can handle a heavy workload. Plus he carries a low cap hit ($2.75 million) that will fit under almost any contender’s ceiling. He’s likely to attract several suitors—Washington, Dallas, San Jose and Los Angeles could use the help—which means Polak could generate a sizable return for the Leafs. Definitely one to watch.
• Digging through some old notes the other day I came across a scout’s take on a then-undrafted Finnish goalie named Joonas Korpisalo. “The athleticism is there ... calm, poised ... Good-natured kid ... I wonder about his mental toughness. Might be his [downfall].” So far that hasn’t been an issue for the 21-year-old, who continues to establish himself as one of the bright spots in an otherwise frustrating season for the Blue Jackets. He rebounded strongly from a sub-par performance in Edmonton on Tuesday night by making 37 saves in Thursday’s 2–1 shootout win in Vancouver. The victory moved him to 5-1-1 in his past seven starts. He’s allowed two goals or fewer in six of them.
That’s the kind of stability the inconsistent Jackets desperately need. The Columbus Dispatch is reporting that starter Sergei Bobrovsky is likely out until March, and given the recurring nature of his groin injury, his long-term viability as the team’s No. 1 is up in the air. Korpisalo has a chance here to prove he can be the answer if that question has to be asked.
• One scout unaffiliated with Team Canada suggested that Brad Marchand has a better chance of earning a spot on that country’s World Cup roster than many suspect. “When he's on his game he’s a hard guy to play against. He’s hard on the puck, he has tremendous skill ... he’s not just someone you’d take along to fill a role. He’s a skill guy who could fit in anywhere in the lineup.” Marchand has eight goals in his past eight games and now has 23, just five shy of his career best. The question with Marchand, though: Can he be trusted to play the kind of disciplined hockey that coach Mike Babcock will demand? Marchand has taken just five minor penalties in his past 19 games, but with 64 minutes in 46 outings, he’s on pace to top 110 minutes, a less positive career high. And he’s already been suspended once this season, getting three games for a low-bridge hit on Ottawa’s Mark Borowiecki.
That’s a reputation that’ll be tough to shake, but Marchand is showing during this stretch that he can be effective while playing within the rules. If he wants to get Team Canada’s attention, that’s the way to do it.
• For all the admiration that Babcock garnered as a progressive thinker in the coaching ranks, his position on head trauma is dangerously out-of-date. Asked to comment on the league’s concussion protocols, the Maple Leafs coach offered this bit of old-school wisdom: “Well, I think when a player says he’s okay to play and keeps playing, he’s OK to play.”
Dave Feschuk of The Toronto Star offers a brilliant takedown of Babcock here that’s well worth your time, but what it boils down to is simple. Given everything that we now know, this is a dangerous approach to take to player safety. We know how players will respond in these situations. Just last week, we saw Dennis Wideman return to action moments after suffering a concussion that may have led to his assault of linesman Don Henderson. Thursday night, we saw Pierre-Edouard Bellemare stumble off the ice after taking a shot to the head, but promptly return to action.
Whether through ignorance or negligence, as an ongoing lawsuit argues, the league has a history of mishandling situations like those. We know better now. It’s time to act like it.
• One of the off-season’s riskiest rolls of the dice is starting to pay off in Edmonton. Cam Talbot got off to a shaky start with the Oilers, and after losing the net to Anders Nilsson in November he looked like the latest in a long line of failed attempts to convert a backup into a starter. But the former Ranger has rediscovered his form and established himself as one of the league’s most consistent stoppers. Since Dec. 1, Talbot ranks third in save percentage (.937), trailing only Chicago’s Corey Crawford (.941) and Brian Elliott (.938) of St. Louis. That’s an impressive stat given the state of Edmonton’s defense and the number of high-quality chances that Talbot faces on a nightly basis.
His performance might not have been the highlight of Thursday’s 7-2 romp over the Senators, but it was indicative of what he means to the team. He allowed a softie to Mark Stone in the second period that cut Edmonton’s lead to 3–2, but ended Ottawa’s comeback hopes right there by slowing down the play and coming up with a couple of big stops when the Sens threatened. Talbot ended up with 36 saves on 38 shots and was one of the best players on the ice, as he has been pretty much every night the Oilers wind up on top.
• This ought to be something: To celebrate their final game at Rexall Place on April 6, the Oilers are inviting every player who has ever donned their sweater to participate in the closing ceremony that will occur at the conclusion of the game against the Canucks. “Whether you played one game or a thousand for the Oilers, the franchise is in your blood and you will be ‘Once an Oiler, Always an Oiler,’” said Kevin Lowe, the Vice Chair of Oilers Entertainment Group. “There are so many memories, stories, and hallmark moments in life that have occurred in the building for our fans and players alike, so it is important to recognize our time there with a celebration of this magnitude.”
Nearly 700 players have skated for the Oilers since their World Hockey Association debut back in 1972. Although no one has confirmed yet, it's fair to expect that Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and others from the dynasty years will be front and center. Beyond them, though, it’ll be fun to see which short-timers and fan favorites show up to send the ol' barn off.
The numbers game
• Alex Ovechkin continues to torment the Islanders. His 86 game-winning goals since his NHL debut in 2005-16 lead Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin (68) by a wide margin during that time frame and nine of Ovi’s decisive tallies have come against the Isles, the most he has scored against opponent.
• Historic cats: Jaromir Jagr of the Panthers now ranks fourth on the NHL’s all time goals list (738), sixth in assists (1,101), a fourth in points (1,839). His teammate Roberto Luongo has passed Hall of Famer Tony Esposito and taken seventh on the league’s career wins list for goaltenders, with 424.
• Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews’s fifth overtime goal of the season tied Steven Stamkos’s league mark set in 2011-12. Toews is also now only the third Blackhawk to reach the 20-goal mark in each of his first nine seasons. The others are Denis Savard (10) and Patrick Kane (9 and counting).
• Actor Kevin Spacey is doubling down on his newfound fame as the good luck tiki for the Florida Panthers.
• The process to arrive at Toronto’s re-designed logo defied modern practices, but was a perfect example of how Brendan Shanahan runs the Maple Leafs.
• Forget the odds. Now the time for Canada’s NHL teams to tank the rest of the season in an effort to land Auston Matthews in the draft.
• Kevin Allen says this year’s crop of American-born prospects might be better than the 2007 cohort led by Patrick Kane and James Van Riemsdyk.
• A former Devils teammate thinks this is a lousy time to build a statue of Martin Brodeur. Is he right?
• The Stars’ recent slide has fans wondering if coach Lindy Ruff's system can work in the playoffs.
• Has embattled GM Jim Rutherford finally found the right formula for his Penguins?
• Who knew you could build an entire NHL team out of players who look like actress Tilda Swinton?
• Finally, stick tap (and an extra ration of orange slices) to Taylor DeForrest, the Minnesota high-school keeper who made 111 stops in a losing effort Wednesday night.