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Pressing NHL questions from expansion to playoff threats

Why Quebec is out in cold if NHL expands; Predators look like major darkhorse; more topics.

Some questions and answers inspired by readers in recent days.

Q: Why does it seem like every article assumes the NHL will only expand to Las Vegas? Why couldn't Quebec City get a team as well? We would support the Nordiques to the death!

Everyone agrees that Quebec City has the foundation in place to be a solid, if not spectacular, market. There's well-heeled ownership, a new, state-of-the-art building, ready-made rivalries and a deep fan base anxious to embrace a team. But there's more to ithe matter than that.

The NHL is keeping the process under wraps, but it's safe to assume that concerns about the impact of the Canadian dollar on the long-term stability of the market are killing the bid. The loonie is up eight cents since bottoming out in mid-January—it topped 77 cents on Thursday—but that volatility highlights fears that QC would inevitably, if not consistently, become a drain on revenue sharing. There is also opposition from some who don't want to see a 30-way split of league revenues become a 32-way split, even if meant they would pocket a nice lump sum from the $500 million expansion fees.

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And then there's the issue of geography. The league has plenty of recent experience with poorly situated teams (Detroit and Columbus in the Western Conference, for example) and understands the impact that can have on the success of a franchise. There's no rule that says QC couldn't play in a 17-team Eastern Conference, but if the league is going to add two teams, it has a clear preference for them both to be Western-based.

That's why the assumption is that Vegas will be the sole team added. And why Quebec City's best hope may be as a relocation option some time down the road. It's not fair, but at the moment it's good business.

Q: Why isn't Brent Burns of the Sharks getting more consideration for the Norris Trophy?

Not sure how much “more” there is for him to get. This is a basically a two-horse race between Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson at this point and because they play such different styles it'll come down to each voter's personal definition of what makes a great defenseman. That said, Burns is having the kind of year that should earn him a spot on most ballots. Only 13 defensemen in NHL history have scored more goals in a single season than the 26 Burns has tallied through 69 games. If he gets to 30, combined with the more responsible defense he's provided in the second half of the season, he could easily emerge as a finalist alongside the two favorites.

Q: You were pretty hard on the Bruins at the deadline and now they're in first place. Ready to eat your words?

Not quite ready to take a bite just yet, but I'll agree they've impressed during the past few weeks. Banking seven of a possible points against the Blackhawks, Capitals, Panthers and Lightning in that post-trade deadline stretch hints at a gear they weren't showing much of earlier in the season.

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I like the way Lee Stempniak has fit on the top line. There's a veteran poise to his game that was missing when Brett Connolly skated there. David Pastrnak has been a spark plug on the second unit with his speed and finishing touch. And if Frankie Vatrano (31 goals in 31 AHL games) can bring something to the party in his latest recall, he could be a difference maker down the stretch.

Despite all that, I still don't buy Boston as a legitimate playoff threat. The power play is in the tank. They're not getting production out of their bottom six.

And then there's the defense.

The system is solid but the guys executing it have struggled all season long with consistency ... which is why just two teams that are currently in playoff position (Dallas and Colorado) are allowing more goals per game than Boston's 2.68. That's the kind of flaw that tends to get exposed in a seven-game series.

Q: Who should the Flyers go with down the stretch: Michal Neuvirth or Steve Mason?

One of the keys to coach Dave Hakstol's successful first year as an NHL coach has been his ability to get the most out of his two-man goaltending platoon. Both Mason and Neuvirth have had their runs over the course of the season. Neuvirth made 24 saves in a 3–2 win against the Blackhawks on Wednesday, arguably Philly's biggest victory of the campaign, but before that, Mason had started five straight games, going 4-0-1. And before that, Neuvirth started seven of eight. Maybe that's a sign that Neuvirth is in for another run here. Or not. Hakstol works in mysterious ways.

My gut says the coach will continue to rotate his keepers for the rest of the season, although Neuvirth's superior numbers (2.28 GAA, .925 save percentage compared to Mason's 2.61 and .915) will earn him an edge in playing time.

Q: I was sad to see Brenden Morrow announce his retirement [Thursday]. Such an underrated player. I think if he had played in Toronto or Montreal he'd be a national hero like Wendel Clark or Doug Gilmour. You saw him a lot in Dallas. Wouldn't you agree?

You know, it is pretty easy to imagine him being revered like Clark if he'd played on a larger stage. Morrow was a warrior who got a lot more mileage out of his heart and his will than his skill. That's a style that earned him a lot of respect around the league, but playing in Dallas probably hurt his profile the same way it did someone like Sergei Zubov. They were guys you had to watch consistently to truly appreciate what they brought to the table.

When I think back on years of watching Morrow, the one play that comes to mind is his series-clinching goal in the fourth OT of Game 6 against the Sharks back in the 2008 Western semi-finals. He'd been knocked—fairly, I'd say—for being ineffective during previous postseasons, but he was on a mission that entire series. He pretty much put the Stars on his back and carried them into the conference final. But that's what you expect from a captain, right?

Q: Settle a bet: If there was a do-over of the 2012 NHL draft, where would Shayne Gostisbehere go? Top-10? Top-5?

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Better question: Where would he go in the 2011 draft? As a 1993 birthdate, he first was eligible to be taken then but was passed over 211 times in favor of luminaries such as Patrick Daly and Petr Placek, both of whom appear to be out of hockey already. You can debate who might go where in a hypothetical redraft, but nine defensemen were selected among the top 20 picks that year. It's safe to say that Gostisbehere would be preferred now over Duncan Siemens (11), Ryan Murphy (12), Jamie Oleksiak (14), Nathan Beaulieu (17), Oscar Klefbom (19) and Connor Murphy (20).

The NHL draft in 2012 was a D-heavy as well, with eight of the first 10 picks being blueliners. A redraft would see a significant shakeup of the first round, but there's so much talent in that class that Gostisbehere would be in tough to make the top 10. Among the defensemen taken that year, he'd still go after Morgan Rielly, Hampus Lindholm, Jacob Trouba and Ryan Murray.

Either way, his late emergence is a good reminder that scouting is far from an exact science and it provides one more reason why both teams and players might benefit from an older draft age.

Q: I've had my heart broken so many times by my Predators that I'm afraid to believe [their current hot streak] is for real. Is it safe to believe again or am I setting myself up for another disappointment?

I can't promise you a parade down Broadway, but this team looks like it'll be a tough out come playoff time.

There are plenty of reasons to believe in Nashville, from improved center depth since the arrival of Ryan Johansen to Filip Forsberg's sensational second half to a defense that's seamlessly handled the loss of Seth Jones. From the blueline out, this group is as good as any that has ever worn these colors.

But this team will only go as far as Pekka Rinne can take it. Fortunately, he's been terrific during the past month, going 8-1-1 with a 1.92 GAA, .931 save percentage, and a pair of shutouts over Boston and St. Louis. When he's going like this, the Preds can go toe-to-toe with any team in the West. So go ahead .... climb back on board the bandwagon and enjoy the ride.

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