The season is actually here. There were games last night! It really sneaks up on you, but that’s how it goes.
So for the next, what, nine months, it’s gonna be nothing but teams asking and answering questions, both well-known and unexpected. Which, hey, this is a mailbag and that seems like a good tie-in, doesn’t it?
Let’s get right to it then. People had a lot of questions:
Nathan asks via email: “For teams that don’t have four full lines that are ready to roll out, is it better to go top-heavy like the Flames have done with their defense pairs? Or does by having the third member, would a team benefit by having two good players with an anchor to try and hide glaring holes in their roster?”
Early on last year, because the Flames had some problems with defensive depth to say the least, it was often the case that a good defender got paired with a lesser one to try to mitigate some of the problems of those lesser guys. The results were mixed to bad.
Then Glen Gulutzan got the bright idea to put Dougie Hamilton and Mark Giordano together, and all of a sudden that top pair took off. T.J. Brodie was still saddled with some real problems, and the third pair was still bad, but at least they got huge results from that top pair.
So the question is really, “Is it better to get elite results against top lines, so-so results against the middle of the lineup, and bad results against fourth lines, or be mediocre-or-worse against everyone?” I think when phrased that way, everyone would agree you want the former. The Flames clearly feel this way, which is why they burnt some picks to wisely acquire Travis Hamonic and tried to address the third pair via free agency.
Of course, not every team has the luxury of two guys who could probably be No. 1s on the vast majority of teams in the league (Giordano and Hamilton), a probable No. 2 (Brodie), and a guy who should be a decent No. 3 (Hamonic). But in general, you want to keep your best players with your other best players to make sure you get as much value out of their ice time as possible.
Kevin asks: “What are your thoughts on the Eichel extension?”
It’s an interesting situation. Eichel was great last season in a lot of ways, but did a good chunk of his point production on the power play. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s true of a lot of elite players, and Eichel being only 20 — and therefore not someone Buffalo is committing to into his early- or mid-30s on this contract — gives him plenty of room to grow.
But there are some points of concern. He played a lot of minutes last year when he was healthy, and he was only 140th in goals per 60 and 108th in assists per 60 at 5-on-5. Those obviously both need to come up, and we have plenty of reason to expect they will. Also, while his underlying numbers were fine relative to the rest of the team, he wasn’t any sort of meaningful possession driver.
His AAV is huge at $10 million, and it’s fair to say he hasn’t earned that money yet, based on 60-something games of not really being a point a game. But will he grow into that value level over the next eight years? Probably. And it’s like I always say: What were they gonna do, not sign him?
If they didn’t do it now, and Eichel went a point a game over the full 82, how much more does that cost you?
Matthew asks via email: “What if the NHL was structured more like the English Premier League in the sense that poor performing teams are relegated to AHL, while top performing AHL teams are promoted to NHL?”
You hear this a lot about MLS, but it’s just one of those things that can’t happen in hockey or most other North American sports with farm systems.
Let’s say Wilkes-Barre wins the Calder Cup. What are they gonna do? Get slotted into the Penguins’ division? With a bunch of players under contract to Pittsburgh? What if someone gets hurt? Do the Penguins get to call up the best player from what is now a division rival?
Moreover, you know how there’s that relegation zone of “the bottom three teams go down?” The bottom three teams in the NHL every year, without fail, would be the three AHL teams that just got promoted.
That is, unless we fundamentally change the entire structure of the NHL and AHL. Which I guess I wouldn’t mind.
Jerry asks via email: “How would you rate Jeff Gorton’s performance so far since taking over for Glenn Sather as Rangers GM?”
I think he’s done a pretty good job, considering the circumstances. The Rangers were a team that was quickly running out of runway, and Gorton had the good fortune to come into the job when a “rebuild on the fly” — if that’s what we want to call what he’s doing right now — was going to be palatable.
Being in New York, this is never a team that’s going to have a rip-it-to-the-studs rebuild, and that’s fine, but it makes Gorton’s job of restocking the shelves harder. I think he’s starting to do that here and there, what with the Stepan/Raanta trade, while still pursuing players like Kevin Shattenkirk to keep the team vaguely competitive, or at least playoff competitive.
His real test will be what he does when he needs to take Henrik Lundqvist behind the barn and put him down as the team’s starter. The Rangers are blessed to have a strong goaltending pipeline, so there’s no shortage of options for replacements two, three years from now. But you gotta have some balls to be the guy who doesn’t let one of the best goalies ever not be your goalie anymore.
HW asks: “What’s your pick for biggest scandal this year? Calgary’s stadium money hostage situation?”
If we’re accepting that the Olympics is no longer counting as a “scandal” since it’s all said and done, save for the games themselves, then sure.
That Calgary arena is a mess, from the league attempting to sway a local election — and the most recent polling suggests it might just work, though a big swath of the city remains undecided — at a time when it says it doesn’t want to be political is hilarious if totally expected.
If challenger Bill Smith gets elected, the Flames’ billionaire owners will get their money, no problem. If not, things are going to get very ugly.
James asks: “Who’s gonna be the first coach fired this year?
This is a tougher question than usual to answer for one reason: 11 coaches — more than a third of the league — got their jobs in the 2017 calendar year. It’s tough to wear out your welcome that quickly. I think maybe only Barry Melrose pulled it off in recent memory.
The longest-tenured coach in the league is Joel Quenneville but he has to have more slack than he knows what to do with, at least for another year or two. Lots of other coaches I would normally say are on the hot seat are now in charge of teams that are acknowledged as starting rebuilds, and that probably buys them some time.
Maybe you say Barry Trotz or Jon Cooper, two guys whose teams are somewhat unknown quantities but who will likely enter this season with high expectations. If their teams struggle, which I doubt, they could go.
But I think the guy I’m really putting my money on here is Jared Bednar in Colorado, just because Joe Sakic has to have someone face the axe before he does it himself. But even then, what kind of expectations could that team have this season? If Bednar can’t clear those, well, that’s another issue entirely.
THE Anderson asks: “Why do the Capitals overvalue Tom Wilson so much?”
Why does any team overvalue a bad player who actively hurts his team? They love that toughness.
It’s funny, I was watching a Caps preseason game and the delusion that surrounds this player, who by the way picked up TWO suspensions in the preseason, was amazing. They were saying he’d get power play time this year, and that they’d like to see him double his career high for goals, which would put him at 14. And also, they still want him to hit 100 penalty minutes.
I don’t know why on earth you think Tom Wilson being on your power play is a good idea, unless you’re trying to get fired. And I don’t know why getting penalty minutes would be seen as a “good thing.” But hey, they love the guy! He’s so tough!