NHL International Games Are Good – To A Point

Once again Gary Bettman does the right thing to a limited point. The success of this year’s return of the NHL playing regular season games in Europe – two games by Ottawa and Colorado – to a sold out crowd in Stockholm, Sweden, prompted the NHL to double its European investment next year. At this year’s All Star Game, Bettman took the opportunity to announce that Edmonton and New Jersey will play games in Stockholm next year, while the Winnipeg Jets will play the Florida Panthers in Helsinki, Finland.

It’s a good move by the NHL, not only recognizing the contributions from its European stars, but also with an eye to the future if one day a European branch of the NHL becomes feasible. Unlike the NFL which has staged too many games between the bottom of the barrel teams in London for the liking of British fans, the NHL is at least making an effort to send decent matches to Europe.

But Bettman’s choice of teams seem to be based on nationality, rather than current record. For Finnish fans, they get to see Patrik Laine of Winnipeg and Aleksander Barkov of Florida again. For Swedish fans, New Jersey and Edmonton have Marcus Johansson, Jesper Bratt, Adam Larsson, and Oscar Klefborn. Actually, if these games were based on what was really relevant, the story would be about Canada’s best young player, Connor McDavid, coming to Stockholm to play against his old Edmonton star teammate, Taylor Hall. Bettman is throwing that match-up in as almost icing on the cake.

Edmonton will also play a preseason game in Germany, and New Jersey will play one in Switzerland. All these games will increase the NHL’s popularity in Europe and enhance the game of hockey – except it still doesn’t deal with the heart of the problem that has been stunting the growth of hockey outside of the traditional “Big 7″ countries since before the Canada-USSR match of 1972. The main reason why hockey has not grown in popularity internationally is that no action has been taken to raise the standard of play in any country outside of the “big 7″. Over the past four decades, the NHL has hosted clinics, sent out-of-work NHL coaches, and now plays preseason and regular season games in Europe, but the quality of play in countries other than the “Big 7″ remains inferior.

Bettman himself recognized this problem when he revived the World Cup in 2016 and created two hybrid teams, Europe and North America to fill out his roster instead of inviting more national teams from other countries. Even Slovakia was not allowed to ice a team. Bettman did not want any boring mismatches between “Big 7″ countries and “B Level” teams as was seen at the recent World Junior Championships. But that decision means that quality hockey is confined to a meager seven countries. International hockey will never increase in stature until the quality of hockey is improved outside of the “Big 7″. In particular, there are more than a dozen “B Level” countries, immediately below the “Big 7″ who could really spread and enhance international hockey if their quality of play was raised to the level where they had a real chance to win medals in important international tournaments.

Which brings this article to the third part of Bettman’s important international announcements. The NHL will play exhibition games in China again. This is money talking. China is nowhere near the level of even the “B Level” countries, but it is the biggest market in the world and Bettman wants the NHL to tap into it. Playing preseason games there may help international hockey a tiny bit in the long term but nothing like raising up the quality of play in the “B Level” countries right now. But China’s market is more important to the NHL than the “B Levels”. The NHL won’t dare snub China the way they snubbed South Korea by pulling out of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

The result is that we have the NHL Commissioner with the best of intentions doing many things right to help the growth of international hockey except the one thing that could help it the most, improving the standard of play below the “Big 7″, particularly in the large number of “B Level” countries, including South Korea. All the random, inconsistent, hodge podge efforts of the past four decades simply don’t work. In over 45 years, the “Big 7″ can’t even grow to a “Big 8″. There has to a concerted plan in place to improve the quality of international hockey. Until the NHL and the international powers that be recognize that the quality of play is a serious problem and needs to be dealt with, the growth of hockey will remain stunted. The NHL deserves a few pat on the backs for playing regular season games in Finland and Sweden, but they would deserve a few more accolades if they faced up to the main problem of international hockey and dealt effectively with it.

 

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McDavid Years Are Not Imitating The Gretzky Years For The Edmonton Oilers

Danish hockey fans awaiting the World Championships in May, in Denmark are going to get an unexpected major, bonus, windfall for their tournament. They are going to get to see Canada’s best young player, Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, arguably one of the two best players in the world today, along with Sydney Crosby, captain the Canadian team. That ought to boost ticket sales. The World Championship tournament will be the only significant, pressure games that McDavid will play this year.

Unless a miracle of a long winning streak(s) occur, the 2017-18 season is over for the Edmonton Oilers. Currently they are behind the top eight teams in the NHL Western Conference by more than 10 points – and four other teams are poised to pull away to be just as far if not farther. It is probably too late for Edmonton to catch them. For the remainder of the year, the Oilers will occupy a space with the rebuilding Vancouver Canucks, who are supposed to be where they are, far away from the top twelve teams in the conference and comfortably above the horrible Arizona Coyotes. That was expected of Vancouver, not Edmonton. Their unexpected drop has been the reverse equivalent of the success of the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights. If one didn’t know any better, one would assume that the Knights were the established, rising power, while the Oilers were the new expansion team.

The fall of the Oilers is an unpredictable shock, and it has its Eastern Conference match in the Buffalo Sabres. Both teams were supposed to be building around two rising young stars, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel but instead of moving forward from the progress they have made, both teams have dramatically regressed and are now top contenders to land the supposed number one draft choice, Rasmus Dalhin of Sweden. But in McDavid’s case, he also carries two burdens; first being the projected successor to Sydney Crosby on Canada’s Golden Hockey Chain (the line of Canada’s top players, head and shoulders above everybody else, starting with Maurice Richard) which includes Wayne Gretzky; and second, being Gretzky’s heir in Edmonton. Gretzky himself is back with the Oilers and is acting as McDavid’s mentor.

mcdavid

Much of the blame for the current unexpected result will fall on coach Todd McLellan who has an undistinguished record as a head coach at the NHL level. Unless that miraculous winning streak occurs, he is probably a goner at the end of this season. Dan Bylsma, ironically the fired coach of the Buffalo Sabres, whom impatient owner Terry Pegula abruptly dismissed, who once won the Stanley Cup with Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins, ought to be a leading candidate to replace him. But the real problem that General Manager Peter Chiarelli has to determine is if changing coaches is the only problem.

This situation is in direct contrast with the Gretzky years in Edmonton, which proceeded on schedule like an upward Bell Curve. Except for one hiccup, a shocking playoff loss to the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the 1982 playoffs (which included the legendary “Miracle on Manchester” game of Los Angeles Kings’ lore), it was onward and upward for Gretzky and the Oilers until he was shockingly traded in 1988. There were no regressions like McDavid is currently suffering.

Gretzky

Gretzky had entered the NHL with the merger of the WHA league in 1980 and under the merger terms, the four new franchises, Edmonton, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford were severely stripped of most of their players. The Oilers were allowed to retain Gretzky and because of him, they never missed the Stanley Cup playoffs. In the very early years, the Oilers status was that of a very bad playoff team that always lost in the first round, but during their third year, the Oilers, heavy underdogs, upended the declining Montreal Canadiens of the legendary Guy Lafleur in the first playoff round and then seldom looked back.

The fall of the current Oilers could only be temporary. If the coach is the problem, an established winning coach like Bylsma could right the ship within one season and have the Oilers back to where they were projected to be as the coming powerhouse of the NHL. Every member of Canada’s Golden Hockey Chain won at least one Stanley Cup and the current disappointing season won’t dim those expectations in Edmonton. The real dilemma is finding out if there is more to the problem than the coach and that again sharply contrasts with the Gretzky years.

Perhaps the main contrast with the current McDavid years and the Gretzky years is that everything the Oilers touched with Gretzky turned to gold. Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, both goaltenders, Andy Moog and Grant Fuhr are only the up-front players. There was also Kevin Lowe, Esa Tikkanen, Charlie Huddy… the list goes on and on.

In contrast, since the departure of Chris Pronger, the Oilers have a horrible record of developing players and nobody can say why. The latest problem child is Anton Slepyshev whom Chiarelli says is available for the right price. Four times, the Oilers had the overall number one pick in the NHL draft; McDavid, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov. Only Nugent-Hopkins and McDavid remain. Hall was the best of the bunch after McDavid, and is now recovering his status in New Jersey. Yakupov plays a minor role in Colorado and Nugent-Hopkins has never lived up to his status as the over-all number one pick.

Then it gets worse. The departed Ales Hemsky, San Gagner, and Jordan Eberle were the best of a bunch of forgettables. Also during this period, the Oilers have changed coaches, general managers, uniform colors, and even arenas. There is no magic like there was during the Gretzky years. And that is Chiarelli’s main problem. Is getting rid of McLellan enough? Or is there some kind of developmental or even spiritual problem, hard to identify, that has been poisoning the Oilers for over a decade? If the problem is more than the coach, it is going to be very difficult to identify it and root it out. The Oilers have been trying to find it without success for over a decade. Last year, it seemed they had finally got over the hump and were on their way, but this year…

There is a writer for this blog, Sam Happi that specializes in articles about draft picks and the development of young prospects. He has got some potential surreal articles coming up. Imagine, Danish fans getting to see one of Canada’s all time greatest players, Connor McDavid playing in their World Championship tournament in May. Imagine, Rasmus Dalhin, the projected number one pick in this year’s draft in Dallas lining up next year as McDavid’s teammate. None of this would have been predicted at the start of this season. It would have been treated like a joke or a prophet who had lost his marbles.

It’s no laughing matter for Edmonton fans. Is this just one bad year that can be blamed on a coach or is it the continuation of a nightmare that has been going on for over ten years, that nobody has ever found out why it keeps occurring?

 

The Oilers Playoff Hopes Are All But Gone, But The 2018 Draft Offers A Chance To Fill Holes For The Future

Nothing has gone right for the Edmonton Oilers. They’ve had plenty of injuries, slumps from key players, and absolutely dismal special teams. Through 43 games this season, the Oilers have put up just 39 points, good for 3rd last in the Pacific. Although they aren’t mathematically eliminated yet, the chances of them surging back to make the playoffs are slim, especially with how they have been playing lately.

The Oilers have lost their last two games 1-5 and 1-4, to the Stars and Blackhawks. Before that, they beat the Ducks in a shootout, and prior to that, they lost twin 5-0 games to Kings and Ducks. They’ve rarely looked liked the team they were last year, when they were playing their best hockey of the last decade. Last year was a nice break from the darkness for Oilers fans, but it looks like true light won’t come to Oil Country until next year at the earliest, and that’s optimistic.

As it stands now, the Edmonton Oilers are not a playoff team. They were last year, but due to declining players and significant downgrades in the offseason, that is no longer true. Currently they are a top 6 winger and a solid defenceman short of being playoff-calibre. The Oilers had both last year, but thanks to Peter Chiarelli, they now lack both. When Chiarelli moved Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome in the offseason, he lost the top 6 winger that Eberle was, getting a 3rd line forward in return, and by declining to replace declining borderline third pairing defenceman with a better option, he weakened the defence corps of this team. Last year, Russell was a #4 defenceman, but only when Andrej Sekera was there to help hin out. This season, he has struggled on defence, the only aspect of his game he isn’t terrible at. He consistently makes poor reads, and has seemingly forgotten how to defend a two on one, choosing to play the shooter on more occasions than I can count on one hand. Just in case you aren’t aware, you are supposed to play the pass on those. Don’t worry if you got that wrong though, I can’t really blame you. If an NHL player making $4 million a year doesn’t know, why should you?

Peter Chiarelli has created holes in this team, and it is too late for a quick fix. However, it can be patched up after just one year out of the playoffs, and that is what most Oilers fans will want. Few people will want to go back into a short rebuild after a decade of absence from the playoffs, and lucky for them, this is the plan that Chiarelli will likely follow, based on his track record of panic and lack of patience.

If I were Peter Chiarelli, I would be looking to add a young top 6 scoring winger, at the cost of a defenceman like Klefbom or Nurse. Then, I would begin to shop both Milan Lucic and Kris Russell, in an effort to lose those terrible contracts so the cap space to keep Nuge would be there, as well as some additional room to surround McDavid with more speedy talent, or to retain Maroon.

By filling the forward need, we weakened our defense, so now we need to add a defenceman or two. That’s where the draft comes in. Without one of Klefbom or Nurse, the already poor defence is even worse, and the offence, even with the addition of Hoffman, would still be unable to make up for it. This is an issue that won’t be able to be resolved this season, because this is where the draft comes in.

The 2018 NHL Draft lacks the top centre prospects that usually occupy the top positions in the draft. Instead, those spots are filled with wingers and defencemen, the two very needs that the Oilers have. In the grand scheme of things, it may actually be a good thing that the Oilers have played so poorly this season, as the draft is perfectly suited for their needs. Rasmus Dahlin, the prize of the draft, would be a great fit, especially if they move a left handed defenseman like Klefbom or Nurse. He’s a guy that could jump right into a top 4 role as the clear Calder favourite. By 2021, whoever has him could very well have the best defenseman in the league. If the Oilers lottery luck continues, they could have both the leagues best forward in McDavid, and the best defensemen with Dahlin.

If they don’t get the first pick in the draft, they can still get their hands on a solid consolation prize. Svechnikov, Zadina and Tkachuk, ranked #2, 3 and 5, are all game changing wingers (Tkachuk can also play centre, but I, as well as many other scouts, see him as a winger long term), while Adam Boqvist and Quinn Hughes (#4 and 6), are future top pairing defensemen. Ty Smith, Noah Dobson and Evan Bouchard have top 4 potential. All of those players will be impact players for the team that drafts them, and for one of those players, that team will likely be the Edmonton Oilers.

Best case scenario, the Oilers get the first pick and take Dahlin. That would be fantastic for the future of the team and their blueline. However, more likely than not, they end up with a pick somewhere in the 2-10 range, and that means that they’ll draft either a winger or a defenceman. The later in the draft that their pick ends up being, the more likely it gets that they tale a defenseman. If they do get an earlier pick, probably somewhere in the 2-5 range, chances are that they’ll end up with one of the 3 wingers I have ranked there. If that happens, their blueline still needs some help. In that scenario, they would need to make a trade to add another defenseman, and in that scenario, I would be looking at trading Kailer Yamamoto for a young top 4 defensive prospect.

If I were Peter Chiarelli, thinking like Peter Chiarelli, that would be the course of action that I would take if I wanted to try to fix this in a short amount of time, and this may be what he tries to do. Chiarelli has a history of making bets and taking chances, and there is a lot of that in this plan.

Now, if I were GM, and I was thinking like myself, not Chiarelli, I would do things differently. Today’s NHL is built around speed, and I would try to build this team around that. Chiarelli built this team for the 2012 NHL, back when heavy hockey was the way to go. Nowaday’s, the game is too fast for that style, and the Oilers need to adjust to fit that fast style of game, and that means a moderate overhaul of this team.

Under my direction, the team would essentially go into a 2-3 year rebuild. I’d try to move Maroon and any other UFAs with any value at the deadline, and I would shop Russell and Lucic. I could see the Canadiens taking Lucic, they have some cap space, and adding another middle six winger would allow them to use Gallagher or Galchenyuk to add a centre. Montreal was also interested in him when he was available as a free agent, and was even reportingly willing to give him 7 million dollars a year. Russell will be harder to move, he makes a very small impact offensively, and his defense appears to have declined since last year, as he now makes at least one terrible defensive play each game, something I didn’t notice last year. The only thing he is good at is shot blocking, which really isn’t as great as a lot of people make it out to be, as for every quality shot he blocks, he makes two poor defensive plays, essentially canceling out his shot blocking. Both Russell and Lucic do have no-move clauses in their contracts, so hopefully they’ll waive those. If they resist, maybe spending the rest of the season in the press box will convince them. Getting Russell and his overall negative impact out of the lineup will be a positive anyways.

Moving those two players will only add to the holes in this lineup, which is why they’ll need to undergo a short rebuild first. Yamamoto will be the top 6 winger replacing Lucic, likely as soon as next year. I’d still like to see them add another, preferably a left winger. We’ve already got Puljujarvi and Yamamoto on the right side long term. That winger will come through the draft, as will the top 4 defenseman that they also need to add. The 2018 draft is deep defensively, so it is likely best for them to add the blueliner there, but if a winger like Andrei Svechnikov, Filip Zadina, Brady Tkachuk or Oliver Wahlstrom is the best player available and they take him, you won’t see me complaining. They can try to get a defenseman like Bowen Byram, Tobias Bjornfot, Ilia Mironov or Matthew Robertson in the 2019 class. The one thing that needs to happen though, is them adding a top 4 defence prospect and a future top 6 winger. If they do that, they’ll have pretty solid top 6 and top 4 groups.

In this post, I’ve gone over two possible courses of action that could be taken to try to make this team a true contender. The first was what I believe that Chiarelli will try; a plan including panic and weakening one area of the team to improve another. It could work and get the Oilers to the playoffs next year, but it seems more likely that the defence will just be too weak for them to extend their season. The second plan is the map that I would follow as GM; essentially a short rebuild, where they trade away vets and count on the draft to fill holes.

The two plans differ dramatically. One has panic, the other patience. One is short, but risky, the other is longer and safe. One might temporarily fix the team now, while the other will guarantee a future of success in Edmonton.

Which way will Chiarelli go?

NHL 2017-18 Season Second Quarter Report

It is now approximately halfway through the current season and the second quarter of this year was much different from the second quarter of last year which was characterized by long double digit winning streaks by a few teams. Nobody has had a double digit winning streak this year though the amazing Las Vegas Golden Knights have come the closest so far. Here is a summary of those who won and lost during the second part of the season.

Biggest Winner

New York Islanders

Actually it should be the Knights but the Islanders ended over 30 years of frustration when New York State agreed that a proper, new arena which will seat over 18,000 will finally be built for them. The Islanders are currently in a slump and out of the playoffs but thanks to this news, they could lose every remaining game and still be the biggest winner of the year except for Las Vegas and whoever wins the Stanley Cup. Getting a new arena means that the Islanders ownership and management can at last concentrate on building a true, contending team, starting with the resigning of John Tavares. It also means that the would-be returned Hartford Whalers will have to find either a new potential expansion franchise owner or get another NHL team to consider relocating.

Runners Up

Las Vegas Golden Knights

That the expansion Knights can actually win a playoff spot is a true miracle. That they can actually win the whole Western Conference and be a true Stanley Cup contender might be described as a miracle of miracles. This team had one of the longest winning streaks in the whole NHL during the second part of the season and have yet to have a slump. Do the new Las Vegas fans think this is normal? Their current season and fast development will be the model for every new future NHL expansion team.

Winnipeg Jets

Nobody expected the Jets to be this good. Unless they go into a horrendous slump, it’s likely they will make the playoffs and be regarded as a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup. They have been winning, lost one of their best players, Mark Scheifele and are still winning. But if they make the playoffs, all the improvements that most of the other top contenders have made will make it tough to take the next step.

Boston Bruins

The Bruins had not done anything noteworthy during the first part of the season largely because the hadn’t played many games. But during the second part of the season they have blossomed and now have a comfortable playoff position. Like the Jets, unless a horrendous slump occurs, expect to see Boston, now regarded as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender back in the playoffs.

New Jersey Devils

Unlike last year, the Devils have not gone into decline after a good first quarter. They are still holding on to a playoff position and top pick Nico Hischier has been everything they had wanted. Their playoff position is precarious but at least they are showing some staying power which they did not have last season.

St. Louis Blues

The Blues are still responding to Mike Yeo’s coaching and have a real shot at winning not only their division but the entire Western Conference. If they make the playoffs, have they improved enough to not only win a playoff round but get over two humps and make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, something they have not done since being coached by Scotty Bowman in the 1960s?

Tampa Bay Lightning

They have been the best team in the NHL for the entire year. One big question mark, their goaltending looks solid. But the other big question is can this team stay healthy for once? As was shown last year, this true playoff contender can be undone if certain players get injured.

Nashville Predators

The Stanley Cup runners up of last year actually got better when they got Kyle Turris from Ottawa through Colorado and he has been making a significant contribution since he arrived. Is Turris enough to finally take them all the way? They will have tougher competition in the playoffs this year so their new asset is certainly needed.

Los Angeles Kings

Are they finally back? Have they finally found the chemistry again that won two Stanley Cups during the past decade? They are in position to win not only their division but their conference. If they are indeed back to what they once were, they could be the team to beat in the Western Conference this year.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman

Boy did he ever get a good second quarter. In fact it is possible to say that he got a better second quarter than the Islanders and the Knights. He was in trouble when he set a $500 million expansion fee and only fanatical Las Vegas and Quebec agreed to pay it. To make matters worse, Quebec’s bidder was unacceptable and only Las Vegas was considered good enough to join the NHL, leaving the league with 31 teams, one short of being able to realign into a more comfortable NFL structure (still unannounced). It seemed that if the NHL were to expand again in the immediate future, Bettman would have to refund some of the expansion money back to Las Vegas owner, Bill Foley and set a lower, more realist expansion fee that the investment world would accept.

Then Jerry Bruckheimer and David Bonderman of Seattle appeared and actually set a new $650 million expansion fee record. The Seattle “approval process” is now a mere formality. And then there was Tilman Fertitta of Houston who said he would like see an NHL team in his arena which will mean another NHL expansion fee of at least $650 million if not higher. That’s probably an unannounced “done deal”. And finally the New York Islander 30 year arena problem got solved. That’s not like getting icing on the cake, that’s like getting three large iced cakes for your birthday. The two main problems left are Quebec and Phoenix.

Biggest Loser

Matt Duchene

Question: When did the Ottawa Senators go into the tank?

Answer: When they got Matt Duchene from Colorado.

How would you like to be the answer to that question? Not even P. K. Subban of Nashville, who at this time of year, last year was playing with a bag over his head because his old team, the Montreal Canadiens, were leading the Eastern Conference while the Predators were struggling to get the last playoff position, was in this kind of trouble. Ottawa traded for him because he was supposed to have the talent of number ones like Crosby, McDavid, Toews, Laine, Matthews, etc. He was supposed to be a step up from Kyle Turris who was let go to Nashville. Now after being in the shadow of Nathan McKinnon of Colorado, he was being given his own NHL team to lead. Instead of moving upward, the Senators are now out of playoff contention with almost no chance of turning things around and Duchene has contributed almost nothing. The vital team chemistry is gone and somehow Duchene is a big part of it. No one can explain why. This subject probably merits a full article.

Dishonorable Runners Up

Buffalo Sabres

At the start of the second quarter, they still had a chance of making the playoffs, but instead of going upwards in the second quarter, they plunged down toward the depths of the Arizona Coyotes. Last year, owner Terry Pegula got impatient with the Sabres when he saw the progress that teams like Toronto, Winnipeg, and Edmonton were making and fired his coach and general manager. But “cleaning house” only made things worse and the Sabres are left vying with the Coyotes for the number one draft pick.

Arizona Coyotes

They played better than they did in the first quarter but remain the most horrible team in the NHL. Actually the only interesting thing about the Arizona Coyotes is if there is going to be an Arizona Coyotes at the end of next season. The horrendous play of this season will ensure that there will be no public money coming to build a new downtown Phoenix arena for a franchise that has iced only one contending team in its entire history. Even the NBA Phoenix Suns publicly insulted the Coyotes by refusing to be partners to build a new arena. I’ve advanced the idea that the best solution will be to add two more Western Conference expansion teams besides Seattle and then shift the Coyotes with its current ownership to Quebec to get rid of the unsuitable Pierre Karl Peladeau. A new Houston expansion team would be part of the process. Whether the Coyotes get the number one pick is irrelevant. The existence of the team is now the main factor.

Ottawa Senators

This is just a continuation of the Duchene problem that seems to be at the heart of the issue as to why the Senators are so bad. Is it coach Guy Boucher’s fault? But he had the Senators in playoff contention before Duchene came and Ottawa was Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh’s toughest playoff opponent last year. Is it General Manager Pierre Dorion’s fault? But he was not the only general manager to believe that Duchene was a number one talent. It also hurts him to know that the Nashville Predators are getting significant contributions from the traded Kyle Turris while he gets almost nothing from Duchene. He is probably in shock just like everybody else. Everything points to Duchene. It is not a happy place to be in.

Florida Panthers

They actually played respectable hockey during the second quarter but nothing, short of making the playoffs can cover up the bonehead decision of getting rid of coach Gerard Gallant even though he had a winning record with the Panthers last season when he became the first NHL coach to be fired. Every time the Las Vegas Knights win, it is a blow to the Deathwish Panthers who like the Coyotes have a horrible history, seldom making the playoffs. And if Las Vegas is the model of how a desert team should be run for the Arizona Coyotes, the Tampa Bay Lightning are the model of how a Florida team should be run for the Florida Panthers. The success of both Tampa Bay and Las Vegas only emphasizes how badly these two losing franchises have operated.

Montreal Canadiens

Both the Canadiens and the New York Rangers started out with horrible records, but while the Rangers recovered and have a chance to make the playoffs, the Canadiens are virtually out of the picture. They needed to start moving upward during the second quarter but have at best been just wheel spinning. They lost two veteran defencemen during the off season, goaltender Carey Price is a good international goaltender when he plays for team Canada, but is a suspect NHL playoff goaltender, and General Manager Marc Bergevin guessed wrong about P. K. Subban.

The Bubble Burst

Detroit Red Wings And Vancouver Canucks

At the start of the second quarter, both these teams which had been playing well had a chance to make the playoffs. But during the second quarter, reality caught up with them. Neither of these teams which had been Stanley Champions or contenders for so long have the talent any more to contend and now need top draft choices to rebuild. Most of Detroit’s old stars have retired and the Sedins of Vancouver are in their declining years. At least they have a legitimate excuse for why they out of contention, not like the teams listed above.

When Are You Going To Wake Up?

Pittsburgh Penguins

Mysteriously, the two time defending champion Penguins have been playing stumblebum hockey. The playoffs are certainly attainable but Pittsburgh needs to start putting together some of the long winning streaks that have characterized the past two seasons. It is too early to panic but some of the teams above them are starting to pull away and some teams from below are starting to challenge them. Maybe it is time to get a little uneasy.

Edmonton Oilers

If it is not time to panic for Pittsburgh, it almost is for Edmonton. They played well during the second quarter but not well enough to make up for their bad first quarter. And what I warned about in my first quarter report is starting to happen. At least seven Western Conference teams pulled away and cannot be caught up to and two others are poised to become that way. Only the last playoff spot is now available to them and that is now fast flickering away. They need long winning streaks during the next quarter to have any chance to make playoffs.

We’ve Seen It Before

Washington Capitals

Yes, the Capitals had their usual long regular season winning streak and now have a chance to win their usual President’s Trophy. And yes, Alexander Ovechkin has his usual pretty individual statistics. But nobody should pay attention to what the Capitals do during the regular season. In the Marcel Dionne (whoops!) Ovechkin era, the Capitals have never even made the Eastern Conference Final. So now (yawn) that they have had another great second quarter, it means almost nothing. In fact the best thing that they may have going for them is that Pittsburgh is currently out of a playoff spot leaving the door open for the Capitals to finally get to at least the Eastern Conference Final.

Minnesota Wild

The western playoff wheel spinner Minnesota Wild played well too during this quarter and now precariously have the last playoff spot. But as long as ex-coach Mike Yeo is coaching the Blues who humiliated the Wild and General Manager Chuck Fletcher with an easy playoff victory last year, it is not enough to just make the playoffs, but to go deep into the playoff picture, especially surpassing Yeo’s Blues. Every year the Washington Wild and the Minnesota Capitals play for the wheel spinning Stanley Cup. Will that ever change?

 

Young Stars Are In The Right Cities

The NHL’s four newest young stars who have entered the league during the last two years, Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews, and Patrik Laine have all landed in the right cities. They all managed to be drafted by teams in cities where hockey is loved and they will be the focus of attention. Last year Edmonton made McDavid the number one pick while Buffalo followed up with Eichel. This year, Toronto chose Matthews first and Winnipeg selected Laine. All teams are happy with the result.

Indeed in Buffalo and Winnipeg, where the Sabres have to compete with the mediocre Bills of the NFL and the Jets are sports rivals with the also-ran Blue Bombers of the CFL, it can be said that Eichel and Laine are their cities current best professional sports athletes. McDavid shares the Edmonton market with the Eskimos of the CFL who won the Grey Cup one year ago and were contenders again last year. Matthews is coming into an environment where the Maple Leafs share the market with the contending Blue Jays of MLB and the equally contending Raptors of the NBA.

For Eichel, who hails from Massachusetts, Laine from Finland, and McDavid from Richmond Hill, just north of Toronto, there is no adjustment in these hockey loving centers. But there must be some adjustment for Matthews who was born in California and lived most of his life in Arizona where hockey is an also-ran sport to come into Toronto where attention on the star players of the Maple Leafs is a constant factor. All four will be involved in their new communities during the off season, whether they like it or not.

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All four have different pressures on them. Eichel may well become the best Buffalo Sabre ever, challenging Gilbert Perreault. It is his job to lead the Sabres back to respectability to become a regular playoff team again.

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Ultimate victory has eluded Buffalo since 1965 when Jack Kemp led the Bills to the AFL Championship. There was no Super Bowl in those days. Since then Buffalo has endured two losses by the Sabres in the Stanley Cup Final and four consecutive frustrating defeats in the Super Bowl by the Bills. Whoever gives Buffalo a championship in the modern sports era will be head and shoulders above the rest.

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Laine is already being compared to Winnipeg Jet Finnish legend Temmu Selanne. In its two incarnations in NHL, the Winnipeg Jets have never even made the Western Conference Final.

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If Laine can take them even that far he will be acclaimed the greatest NHL Jet ever ahead of Selanne and Dale Hawerchuk. (I’m not counting the WHA days of Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg, and Ulf Nilsson.)

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Matthews can be almost be said to be a Maple Leaf Messiah. The Maple Leafs have not had a player of his stature since Matts Sundin. He comes to a team that is currently tied with the St. Louis Blues for the longest streak without winning the Stanley Cup, 50 years. The team has not even been to the Stanley Cup Final during this period.

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The Leafs have had to endure two long periods of bad management and ownership under Harold Ballard and the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund. Their fans are famished with waiting to have a contending team again, let alone a championship. Matthews is being asked to do what the best four Maple Leafs during these famine years, Sundin, Doug Gilmour, Darryl Sittler, and Bjore Salming could not do, take the Leafs all the way to the Stanley Cup. There are a lot of ghosts hanging over him.

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For Connor McDavid, there is a different kind of pressure. He is supposed to be Sidney Crosby’s heir, the best player in Canada who is head and shoulders above everybody else, Canadian and foreign, during his peak playing days. This list of players is almost continuous back to the days of Maurice Richard and everyone who is on it (Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Crosby) has won at least one Stanley Cup. And there is the additional ghost of Gretzky being the best Oiler ever.

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If McDavid wanted a challenge, he probably got the ultimate one. Right now he has to be not only the best current Oiler, but better than Eichel, Matthews, and Laine, and everyone else in the league except Crosby. Good luck kid, you’re going to need it.

While it is great for these young stars to be in true hockey environments, it is probably not what the NHL wanted. They can always sell hockey tickets in Toronto, Buffalo, Winnipeg, and Edmonton. Secretly the NHL would probably be happier if these young stars turned around attendance in Carolina, Arizona, Columbus, and Florida.

But they are where they are and as noted above, they all have sufficient pressure on them without having to sell tickets and save the existence of franchises. Hopefully they will thrive in real hockey environments. And it will be fascinating to watch how this four-way rivalry plays out in the future.

Will The Oilers Be As Good As Their New Arena?

A milestone will occur in Edmonton when the new NHL season starts and the Oilers say goodbye to Northlands Coliseum, built during their WHA days and the home of the Gretzky glory era, and move into the new Rogers Place, hopefully to start a successful McDavid period.

There is no problem with the new arena. With 2,000 more seats than its predecessor and state-of-the=art technology, the Oilers future in Edmonton is secure for a long time. In my lifetime, Northlands Coliseum has gone from Canada’s newest, most modern NHL arena when the Oilers joined the league in 1980, to its oldest home rink. Along with the soon hopefully-to-be-restored Quebec Nordiques, Edmonton will enjoy the most modern sports facility in Canada. This leaves Calgary’s Saddledome, itself not that old, as Canada’s oldest NHL arena.

But will the team match its new facility? Along with Tampa Bay and Montreal, Edmonton made the most significant off season moves trading star forward Taylor Hall to New Jersey in return for defenseman Adam Larsson. They have also signed free agent forward Milan Lucic from the Los Angeles Kings.

With all its bottom finishes and high draft choices, Edmonton should have been in the playoffs, if not a Stanley Cup contender long ago. But even with the limited service of the injured McDavid, said to be Sidney Crosby’s successor on Canada’s Golden Hockey Chain, the Oilers still finished near the bottom last year. For the past half decade and more, this has been the NHL’s worst team for underachievement.

It is true that the Oilers’ worst problem is defensive help, and hopefully Larsson will be enough to finally make the team a contender, but the price was steep. Taylor Hall was by far the best of the high underachieving draft picks and along with McDavid, might have been the nucleus of a 1-2 punch the way the champion Penguins were built around Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. It might have been better if General Manager Peter Chiarelli had packaged together a bunch of the worst underachievers, Nugent-Hopkins, Yakupov, and Eberle instead. But the Devils were shrewd enough to ask for Hall as the price and Chiarelli complied.

So what is the final verdict to be? In my opinion, unless McDavid stays healthy for a full season, the Oilers are actually worse than before. I don’t think Larsson by himself is enough to turn the Oilers around defensively. The Oilers needed defensive players, not a defensive player. The Oilers had better hope that the star underachievers rediscover who they once were supposed to be and that somewhere on the rest of the team, some unexpected sleepers show the talent and determination to turn this team finally around.

As for the acquisition of Lucic, ex-Boston Bruin General Manager Chiarelli retrieving an old employee… Well the Los Angeles Kings signed Lucic to return them to the Stanley Cup Final and instead they were eliminated in the first round by the San Jose Sharks. So they are not shedding tears that Lucic is gone.

So my final prediction is that if I am in Edmonton, I’ll go to an NHL game to admire the new arena, for apart from McDavid (if he is fortunate to stay healthy for once) there will be little else to enjoy during the NHL season again.

When Edmonton?

Okay, Connor McDavid, the alleged next link on Canada’s Golden Hockey Chain that stretches back to the days of Maurice Richard was injured for much of the season. He showed his promise by getting more than a point per game. That is the only positive.

But come on. Another Edmonton year. Another last place finish. Another chance at the number one pick. But what good are they if you still finish last all the time? Next year Edmonton gets a new arena. It would have been better if the team had got a new look. Even with the part season of Connor McDavid there has been no improvement. The once feared Edmonton team that all others hated to play has been the laughingstock of the NHL for several years now and there is no end in sight.

Change coaches, change general managers, change arenas and Edmonton still finishes last. This was the year that Canada could not get a single NHL franchise into the playoffs. Edmonton should have been a contender… not this year but long ago. Usually things go in cycles; start, climb, peak, decline, rebuild. But when you stay at the bottom for as long as Edmonton has (and certain other teams have in the NHL and also in the NFL, MLB, and the NBA) and you do not improve there is something seriously wrong with the very soul of the franchise.

Look at the names: Hall, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, Yakupov, all top picks and Hall (the best of the bunch, 17 points better than the next in the group, Eberle) is currently a prominent 23rd in the NHL scoring race. All this group was supposed to be in the top ten by now. Still worse, everyone in this list has a negative plus-minus statistic. Hey guys, remember, even your predecessors, Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, and Mark Messier could play defensively when they were required to. If they can get off their backsides and take the trouble to play it, so can you. Or if you cannot, it is time to be shipped out. McDavid, the new kid on the block is at least a clean 0. The rest of you have been around for a while. What are your excuses?

Either this group is incapable of learning to play defense or whoever is coaching and training this team is doing a poor job. But Edmonton has changed coaches and even the general manager more than once. The change-coach act is wearing thin. It is the players who are not responding to whoever coaches them. Or there is a bad source somewhere in the organization that is spiritually poisoning this team and stops them from giving out a top performance game in and game out.

Just as alarming is the health of McDavid, the proposed successor to Sidney Crosby. He was seriously injured early in the season and missed a significant number of games. He was also seriously injured last year during his last year of junior hockey. Is he Mr. Brittle? Is he going to be the limited superstar like Bobby Orr? If that is the case then Edmonton cannot rely on him and if the one player they are counting on to turn this franchise finally around is going to miss large chunks of the season each year, Edmonton might remain at the bottom of the heap for many more years to come. This was supposed to be the year when Edmonton would finally show the promise predicted for it and contend. Instead it will be another top pick… again. When Edmonton when?