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, Jeremy Fuchs and Al Muir dig into the release of a treasure trove of concussion emails, the race for the Norris Trophy, the Jimmy Vesey rule, and playoff pressures facing the Washington Capitals and St. Louis Blues.
Your thoughts on the latest batch of concussion emails that were unsealed this week?
Michael Blinn: It seems to validate the picture many of us have of what goes on behind closed doors over at NHL HQ. The front office is built largely of members of the ‘Old Boys Club,’ and Colin Campbell and Co. seem to have the loudest voices and a lot of influence, despite being tone-deaf to how the game has changed over the years. It’s troubling to read how some of the highest-ranking individuals at the league seemingly pine for the dark ages. It’s even more troubling that the league let one of its most forward-thinking employees walk away in Brendan Shanahan.
Jeremy Fuchs: Not good, to say the least. For all the talk of how the NFL has bungled the concussion issue, the NHL is right up there. Framing fighting as an economic issue that the union will fight is a clever way of putting the onus on the NHLPA. But fighting has been trending downwards for years, and not necessarily because of concussions. Teams want their fourth liners to play significant minutes, kill penalties, be responsible defensively. Yes, it's an economic issue, but it's a health issue that requires significant investment from the league. Denying, or downplaying, a link between the sport and the effects of concussions doesn't eliminate the link. It's there, and most people are aware enough to know that. Might as well admit it and work on fixing it. My hope is that these emails force the NHL to look inwards. Are we doing enough? Are we supporting former players? Frankly, they haven't done enough and there are too many former players who are struggling. That doesn't even take into account guys who played juniors and in the minors and never touched the show. There's a long ways to go.
Al Muir: Boy, the league had its pants dropped in front of the whole school, eh? I'm not seeing any smoking guns here that will damage their defense in the concussion lawsuit, but these things are laying waste to reputations. Reading through this batch—and remember, this is less than 1% of what's been turned over to the court—it's hard to believe they were written by adults engaged in the conduct of a multi-billion dollar business. And even harder to believe they haven't been working diligently to settle this out of court before they're embarrassed any further.
The Norris race has opened up with Brent Burns and Kris Letang making strong cases for themselves as the season winds down. Who are your top three for what may be the most contentious award this season?
MB: My top three: Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, Brent Burns. There’s a reason we’ve seen a lack of defensive stalwarts in the running for the title of Best Defenseman over the past few seasons: If your team has the puck, the other team doesn’t, and the game’s top blueliners drive that possession and the offense. At this point, everyone is playing for bronze while Karlsson and Doughty duke it out for the trophy honors, but Burns and Kris Letang deserve their fair share of attention.
JF: Drew Doughty, Kris Letang, Brent Burns. Blinn is right. This is really not a "defensive defenseman's award." It's about points (something I disagree with, but that's the reality). Doughty has been the best all-around defender in the league since the Kings won their first Stanley Cup. This year is no different. Letang has experienced a resurgence of sorts—16 goals, 45 assists—on a Pittsburgh team that suddenly looks like a real contender. Burns is a pretty unique player who deserves a ton of recognition. Top-five defender, could be a first-line winger. Yes, Iknow, no Erik Karlsson. No oversight here. Karlsson is wonderful, the best offensive defenseman in a generation, if not more. And he'll probably end up winning it. But let's think of out of the box, no?
AM: Glad you left Karlsson out of your top three, Jeremy, because now we can split the hate mail. I'm not opposed to the driving possession/point production argument. I grew up watching Bobby Orr. He invented that argument. But for all his wizardry with the puck, Karlsson can leave me cold without it. Like you said, still a transcendent talent, but there were guys I liked better this year.
Doughty is my clear choice at No. 1. The guy is a living textbook. I can't tell you how much of his video I've had my kids watch this year. He thinks and executes the game in a way no other blueliner can. I like Letang at two as well. He got off to a slow start under former coach Mike Johnston, but he's been ridiculous since December—and hey, if Sid can mount a Hart Trophy campaign on half a season, there's no reason Letang can't do the same with the Norris. And it's not just about his numbers, although they're pretty spectacular. His all-around game doesn't get near the respect it deserves. He's been every bit as important as Crosby in terms of turning Pittsburgh's season around. I think it's time to change the narrative on him. And third, I've got Roman Josi. Just a wonderfully complete player and a fully modern example of how to play the position.
Sure, they've allowed just one goal in their past five games and are just two points out of the top spot in the Western Conference, but are the Blues really for real?
MB: I think they're as real as they've ever been. St. Louis has played through several stretches this season without key players—forwards Alex Steen and Jaden Schwartz, defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk and goalies Jake Allen and Brian Elliott have all missed extended periods, and now blueliner Jay Bouwmeester and winger Robby Fabbri caught the injury bug. Now imagine a roster with all of them all in and at full strength. If I'm a Central Division team that has to go through them in Round 1, you're damn right I'm nervous.
JF: I'm skeptical. Haven't we said this before, only to see them get demolished by the Blackhawks? And again, it's largely the same team. I don't think it's ridiculous to say that I need to see them beat Chicago before I believe. I agree they're good, maybe even great, but there's such a cloud over this team from all the previous failures that it makes me wonder.
AM: I'm right there with you. I feel like Charlie Brown running up to kick the football every time I decide to put a little faith in this team. I can't imagine what it's been like for their fans. But they've been so great lately. They're 11-2 in their past 13, 18-6-2 since Feb. 1. The goaltending has been brilliant, and that can be the great equalizer in any series. They've proven they can handle adversity time and again this season, overcoming not just injuries, but injuries to important players. And I think they sense the finality of this opportunity. Anything short of the Western Conference Final and this team is going to undergo a drastic overhaul in the off-season. They're deep, they're talented and they're motivated. I think they'll make some noise.
Would you like to see the CBA clause that allowed Jimmy Vesey to pursue free agency eliminated, left alone or extended in some way to include CHL players?
AM: Leave it as-is. It's in place to put a cap on the amount of time a team has to decide whether or not to sign a player. It worked out well for Vesey in this case, but four years is still a pretty generous amount of time for an organization to make a call on someone's future. Seems like it works out generally well for both sides.
MB: I have no problem with Vesey calling his shot, as plenty of other players have done before him. It’s not a loophole, it’s a safeguard. This is one of the few times a young player has any leverage early in his career, before being controlled by a team until his UFA rights kick in.
JF: It's a pretty silly rule. If you're going to keep it, it needs to be extended to the CHL. Otherwise it's an unfair competitive advantage that will help, more often than not, American players. Which is not a problem, per se—it's just not fair. If I am a USHL player deciding between college and juniors and I don't like my draft team, the decision is college. Why wouldn't Iwant a bidding war for my services? Vesey is a great player who took advantage of the rule. He had leverage, he used it. No problem with it. But let's make it fair and give junior guys the chance.
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With the Presidents' Trophy now in hand, it's time for Washington to focus on the playoffs. How far do the Capitals have to go to make this a successful season?
MB: I see it as Cup-or-bust at this point. This is a team that has had most of the tools and fallen short in each of the past few seasons. The Capitals addressed their shortcomings and ran the table in the East. Expectations are deservedly high, and after season upon season of coming up short, this is Washington’s best chance yet.
JF: Cup-or-bust. This is the best team they've had in the Ovechkin-era. A collapse in the playoffs will do serious damage to his legacy (not to mention that of coach Barry Trotz). The additions of Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie will really pay off. Braden Holtby's probably the best goalie in the East in the playoffs (although Henrik Lundqvist might disagree). Evgeny Kuznetsov is the best player you need to watch right now. This is the best team in the league, with a great coach and a very bitter taste in their mouths. On a separate note, what does a Cup do for Ovechkin's legacy?
AM: I hate to say Cup-or-bust because that can't be the only measure of a successful season—I mean, there's a lot to be said for what they've accomplished already. And it's not like this team is going to be dismantled over the summer by free agency or has to worry about key players aging out. This won't be the last chance this group gets. All that said, with everything they have in place I think anything short of a berth in the Final is going to be a tough pill to swallow. And if they wind up playing the Flyers in the first round ... well, they might want to have a glass of water ready, just in case.