NHL roundtable: best first round matchup; Bolts' fate, more

Friday April 8th, 2016

Every Friday, a trio of SI.com staffers sits down for a discussion of the hockey world’s hot-button issues. This week, Michael Blinn, Sam Page and Al Muir dig into thrilling playoff matchups, Tampa Bay's revised status without Steven Stamkos, Russia's national team drug scandal, contentious Calder Trophy voting and the season's unlikeliest storyline.

First up:

The playoffs get underway next week. What's the one matchup you'd most like to see in the first round?
Michael Blinn: Put me down for seven games of St. Louis-Chicago. The Blackhawks’ offense is rolling right now, and Brian Elliott is a wall in the Blues’ net. Not to mention, some of the NHL’s marquee players at every position, and a few just waiting to bust out: Robby Fabbri, Jaden Schwartz, Teuvo Teravainen … not to mention, wouldn’t a return to form for recently recalled Bryan Bickell be kinda poetic?

Blues, Blackhawks get playoffs started early

Al Muir: Blues-Hawks looks like the marquee matchup for sure. The defending champs against a desperate team facing a massive overhaul if it fails to advance out of the first round for the fourth consecutive season? That's some drama there. Honestly though, I'll be just as happy if it ends up being Dallas-Chicago. The Stars have given the Hawks fits all year, beating 'em four times and taking a 4–0 lead in each of the past three. And there's the Patrick Sharp/Johnny Oduya/Stephen Johns angle. You know they'd love to send their old buddies to the golf course. In the East, I'd like to see Philly grab the second wild-card berth and line up against the Capitals. The Flyers and their scrappy desperation seem to match up well against Washington's skill and depth, and Steve Mason has it in him to steal a series. Or Washington could just put its foot on the gas, hit top speed in a matter of seconds and blow their doors off. Either way, it'd be fun to watch.

Sam Page: I’d like to see a Penguins-Islanders series without Marc-André Fleury or Jaroslav Halak between the pipes. Their first-rounder in 2013 looked like something out of the 1980s, and I can’t imagine how open the games would get with both teams eager to test their opponent’s backup (no disrespect to Matt Murray and Tom Greiss, who have both played well down the stretch). Let’s have a John Tavares-Sidney Crosby game worthy of the dueling hat trick Pens-Caps game from 2009
Looking back at our season preview, each of us had the Lightning advancing at least to the Eastern Conference Final. With what we know now, will they turn out to be the easiest out in the first round?
MB: The East is a top-to-bottom crapshoot. It’s not hard to see them flaming out in a four-game blaze of glory, nor is it hard to see Sam’s prophecies about Andrei Vasilevskiy coming true when he steps up to backstop the Bolts on a miracle run. They currently match up with either Detroit or Boston, and neither of those team is a sure thing, either.
SP: They’re not the easiest out. Though I’m less sanguine about the Conference final prediction without Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman, the Bolts could draw the only playoff team with a negative regular season goal differential (Detroit, -12). This organization has fantastic depth. It’s a lot easier to make the Triplets your top line when you can call up Jonathan Drouin from the minors off a nine-game goal streak to bolster a new-look second line.
AM: Is it crazy to think there's still a path for them to get to the ECF? The Bolts will get the benefit of a favorable draw against Boston or Detroit, so even banged up they're probably better than even money to advance beyond the first round. Then they could get the Panthers in the second round. Great regular season for Florida, and they totally owned Tampa, winning four of five. But they haven't proven anything yet in the playoffs and the Lightning are used to swimming in the deep end. Like you said, Mike, the East is up for grabs, and that means I just can't rule the Bolts out.

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What do you think will be the ultimate impact of the Russian U-18 drug scandal?
MB: We may see a few players drop a bit in their draft rankings thanks to a lack of viewings, but other than a reform of how the Russian national teams prepare themselves, I’m guessing the worst of it is going to be how badly their U-17 replacements get shellacked at the U-18 Worlds next week. 

Drug scandal hits Russian U-18 team before world tournament

SP: I feel bad for the kids, since apparently trainers hand Meldonium out in Russia like salt pills. Since this drug isn’t a steroid or anything, I suspect the ultimate impact is a unified generation of Russian hockey players with a huge chip on its shoulder. 

AM: I'm hoping for something more than that. The NHL/NHLPA drug testing program is widely viewed as ineffective, the two suspensions this season notwithstanding. Maybe a significant and embarrassing moment like this might finally trigger both parties to get in line with, or at least come closer to, the standards set by the World Anti-Doping Agency. I doubt they'd ever let a third party like WADA oversee their process, but just taking steps toward a more serious and stringent policy would be a positive step for the game.
Time for some Calder Trophy talk: Who wins it and why?
MB: Artemi Panarin. He’s put together one of the top-five greatest offensive seasons by a rookie in the past 20 years, and in doing so has helped the Blackhawks keep pace despite their trading Patrick Sharp to the Stars in the off-season, Marian Hossa battling injuries and Bryan Bickell losing his mojo. Sure, what Connor McDavid and Shayne Gostisbehere have done in shortened seasons are impressive, but they’re not as impressive as Panarin being the most consistent rookie in a very deep class.
SP: Panarin wins because he has 20 more points than the next guy. The push for McDavid based on his rate stats is a Canadian exchange rate conspiracy. 

Notes: Prime trade bait; McDavid still has Calder shot

AM: I would love to give it to McDavid, because he's clearly been "the most proficient in his first year of competition in the NHL." I mean, the kid has been named Rookie of the Month for each month in which he's appeared in more than one game. I think it's obvious that he's been the very best of a very good bunch, and it's not even close. But even I have to admit that missing three months is going to cost him, which is why I'm leaning towards Gostisbehere. No knock on Panarin, who's been a very nice piece for the Hawks, but Ghost pretty much turned around Philadelphia's season on his own by excelling at the toughest position for any rookie to make an impact. He's revolutionized their attack and he has a knack for the big moment in that 15 of his 16 goals have either tied the game or put the Flyers in the lead. #Clutch, right? Yes, he started late, but missing a month doesn't kill his candidacy in my books.

I'll agree Panarin probably wins it after all the votes are counted, but Gostisbehere is more deserving.
With the season winding to a close, what would you say was the year's most unexpected storyline?
MB: Did anyone pick the Panthers to win the Atlantic? And what’s even better is that they’ve done it with some of hockey’s best personalities in Jaromir Jagr, Roberto Luongo and Aaron Ekblad rallying around Frank Underwood himself.

John Scott not thinking about end of his NHL career

SP:  I didn’t expect the Panthers to be so good, either. Nothing on their team is independently surprising: Jagr leading the team in points, Sasha Barkov breaking out, Luongo having a great year—all that stuff I could have pictured going into the season. But to have it all break right at once has been amazing. And now they’ve got a real shot in the weak Eastern Conference. 

AM: Really? Neither of you said John Scott? Man, that whole All-Star thing was both the most discussed storyline of the season and the one that came from farthest out in left field. Everything about it, from the fan vote, to the way he went from vilified fourth-liner to one of the most sympathetic and well-liked players in the game, to the trade and the All-Star MVP nod ... I mean, no wonder this thing's going to be a movie. You couldn't have written a crazier story and convinced anyone to believe it if it hadn't happened in real life.

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