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Ask Me Anything: Pacioretty for Nugent-Hopkins?

Deep-dive answers to your most pressing hockey questions – even your wildest trade proposals.

The Ask Me Anything mailbag returns after a one-week hiatus. That break must’ve been good for your brains, as you’ve fired me some juicy, ambitious questions this week. Nice work. Let’s get to ’em.

Andrew Kujavsky (@andrewkujavsky) asks…

Would you do a Max Pacioretty for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins swap? It would seem to be a good hockey trade that would fill needs for both teams.

Hey Andrew. Interesting proposal. To me, it’s not as logical or fair as it my seem on the surface. Both players have popped up often in trade rumor mills of late, but that doesn’t mean they’re natural fits for the teams in question here.

Let’s start with Pacioretty. First off, to the best of my knowledge, the rumors about him weren’t borne out of any real negotiations happening between Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin and other teams. They were tied to the doom and gloom accompanying the Habs’ terrible start while goalie Carey Price was injured. I believe the first person to suggest a Pacioretty trade was Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos. We live in an era where speculation sometimes gets mistaken for actual information – and that’s no knock on Nick at all. I’ve caused the same stir in this very blog. A few weeks back after suggesting an Alex Galchenyuk-for-Sami Vatanen swap, I saw headines sprouting up with stuff like “Ducks a destination for Galchenyuk?” when the idea was purely from my brain. So just because someone suggests a trade doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

Since Price returned from injury Nov. 25, the Habs are 5-1-1. Considering they play in the weak Atlantic Division, there’s no reason for them to throw in the towel, especially since doing so would mean Bergevin admitting his roster blueprint was a failure, which he won’t do, as that would put him in the firing crosshairs. The Habs have already climbed back into a playoff spot in the Atlantic. They rank 26th in the NHL in goals per game and thus need their captain Pacioretty, who is their best pure goal scorer. He’s criminally underrated. Over the past five seasons, only Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Joe Pavelski and Vladimir Tarasenko have more goals than ‘Patches.’

So if Bergevin decides to deal someone that important, the return better be significant, and Nugent-Hopkins wouldn’t be nearly enough. ‘The Nuge’ is a solid player, a shifty secondary center with good two-way skills, but he has not realized the potential he showed when the Edmonton Oilers drafted him first overall in 2011. Montreal should only deal a player of Pacioretty’s ilk if he returns the thing they need most: a true, dominant No. 1 center. Nugent-Hopkins isn’t an upgrade over Jonathan Drouin, so why trade for Nugent-Hopkins? Bergevin is better off holding ‘Patches’ and perhaps taking a run at John Tavares this summer if he goes to market.

And if Montreal’s early-season struggles manifest as a second-half slump, then Bergevin can reconsider putting Pacioretty on the block. He’d attract a ton of interest.

The idea makes much more sense on the Edmonton side. The natural thinking is “goal scorer to play with Connor McDavid,” I presume, or at least a way to add scoring depth to a team that really misses Jordan Eberle in its top six. The biggest problem for the Oilers forwards this season has been a lack of speed – more specifically, a lack of someone who can keep pace with McDavid’s peerless wheels. Pacioretty has good albeit not elite speed and would be an interesting pairing with No. 97. But if Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli wants that deal, it’ll cost much more than just ‘The Nuge.’

Astern51 (@Astern51) asks…

Do you think Rick Nash will be a Ranger after the trade deadline?

I go back and forth on this one. If the Rangers slide out of contention, then sure, Nash is an obvious trade candidate. Given he’s nowhere near the sniper he was even a couple years ago and has a $7.8-million cap hit, the Rangers will likely have to eat some of his salary in any trade that puts Nash on a contender.

At first, I thought to myself, “If the Rangers are a playoff team by mid-winter, they ride it out with Nash, as they’ll need the depth.” But I’ve wavered on that. If the Rangers are in contention, they’re going to need to pursue upgrades. They only have so many good years of Henrik Lundqvist left. And for GM Jeff Gorton to be aggressive in trades, he’ll need to clear some salary. That’s where I could see a team like the Arizona Coyotes swooping to help. Maybe they eat the last few months of Nash’s deal in exchange for some draft pick compensation. Wait! Hold that thought: Nash’s modified no-trade clause includes a list of just 12 teams to which he can be dealt. So the Rangers would have to get lucky with one of those teams being a non-contender who also has cap space to offer.

A Nash trade thus looks complicated, but it’s not impossible, and the Rangers would be wise to pursue it. If I have to bet on it, I’ll say yes, I think he’s on a new team by the time the deadline passes, but it’s a coin flip.

Devils Insiders (@DevilsInsiders) asks…

Steve Santini. His advanced/possession numbers are the worst in the league, but his defensive zone starts are sky high, and he’s getting the tough matchups. What do you make of his sophomore season thus far?

Ah, Mr. Santini. I had high hopes for him ever since he was trucking guys at Boston College. I wondered if he could become the Devils’ best blunt instrument on defense since late-career Scott Stevens. Alas, it’s been a rocky road just to make the NHL for Santini. In one of our special annual magazines, Future Watch, we consult with a panel of at least a dozen NHL scouts and team executives (GMs, assistant GMs etc.), who rank every team’s farm system and the top overall prospects. In 2015, Santini was on our “biggest risers” list, climbing 28 spots to rank 39th overall. Two years later, though, Santini made our “biggest fallers” prospect list, bottoming out at No. 100 overall. Our scouting panel wasn’t crazy about his stickhandling and skating. That wouldn’t matter nearly as much in, say, 2003, but in 2017 almost every blueliner is expected to have some puck-moving acumen. Guys like Erik Karlsson have changed the game, so Santini isn’t as exciting a prospect as he used to be since he’s pretty one-dimensional.

And yes, his possession numbers are ugly so far. You’ve likely read the great article by The Athletic’s Dom ‘Loose Chicken’ Luszczysyn. Here it is. I’m happy to give Dom a shoutout, as he’s a former THNer and we miss him.

And in that piece, Dom points out Santini indeed allows almost two shot attempts on his own net for every one the Devils generate at the other net while he’s on the ice. He bleeds chances for the other team. But without repeating too much of what Dom’s said – Santini’s usage is historically extreme on the defensive side. He’s playing against opponents’ top lines, in a division stacked with superstars (Crosby, Tavares, Ovechkin etc.), and starting an unbelievable amount of shifts in the defensive zone.

So here’s the thing. I wouldn’t worry too much about the exact numbers Santini is posting. I wouldn’t call him the worst defenseman of all-time even if his possession numbers suggest as much. The extreme awfulness of the numbers are a product of his usage. That said – even if we factor out the usage, Santini is below average, and he has even struggled when insulated in easier matchups. I’m more of a numbers guy than an eye test guy – I’m part of the new movement, not the old one, trust me – but this is a rare case where we can use the eye test to supplement the stats. The eyes tell us Santini isn’t very fast – or at least that his mobility, once thought to be a plus, hasn’t kept up as he’s ascended from college to the AHL to the NHL – and that he doesn’t handle the puck very well. He’s an old-school defensive defenseman in the mold of, say, Adam Foote, when the modern ideal of a defensive defenseman is a mobile guy like Marc-Edouard Vlasic or Jaccob Slavin who can shadow high-skill forwards. It’s like the best blueliners today are cornerbacks when they used to be safeties or linebackers.

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So while I wouldn’t worry too much about the eye-popping possession numbers, I would worry Santini is overmatched right now given his old-school skill set.

AdamEMC (@aemLahave) asks…

Do we have another Jaromir Jagr in the NHL right now, or is he the last of his kind? Work ethic, skill and sportsmanship that incredible?

Fascinating question, Adam. On one hand, there will only ever be one Jaromir Jagr, blessed with such a unique combination of size, fitness, hands, vision, durability, humor and hockey hair. One guy who matched his freakish dedication to fitness is Rod Brind’Amour. I spoke to Martin Gelinas about his hold teammate once, and Brind’Amour had Gelinas work out with him by wearing weight belts and running up and down the stairs of an arena. It almost killed Gelinas. Brind’Amour was on Jagr’s level in terms of fitness devotion but didn’t have the incredible high-end skill on top of that.

To me, the closest comparison to Jagr today is Sidney Crosby. We know Crosby has the elite ability to match Jagr’s, of course, and Crosby is also a maniacally devoted worker, the guy who has changed his game so much over his career that he’s now an emerging Selke Trophy threat on top of being a perennial scoring-title candidate.

I remember being at the 2016 Stanley Cup final, and my colleague Ken Campbell went to the Penguins practice on an off day. There were only a few players on the ice, as it was an optional skate (which is much more common during the playoffs, as guys have to heal their ravaged bodies), and Crosby was out there working tirelessly on faceoffs with Eric Fehr. I don’t remember the exact quote, but Fehr told Ken that day that Crosby is a first liner who thinks like a fourth-line grinder.

Crosby didn’t just win the Conn Smythe that year and the year after because he scores a lot. He works on every little aspect of his game. Players we’ve talked to over the years tell us his off-season hobby is “hockey.” It’s all he does and cares about from what we’ve been told. Even at the All-Star skills competition last year in L.A., Ken and I were the last reporters left in Staples Center after filing stories late, wandering the empty halls, and this soft-spoken voice calls out, “night fellas” – and it’s Crosby of course. Even at the All-Star weekend he’s the last guy to leave the building. He is hockey.

And that’s similar to how Jagr operates. He was here in Toronto this week, and while he didn’t come talk to us because he was hurt, I did speak to both Jagr’s linemates, Sam Bennett and Mark Jankowski. Bennett said Jagr has drilled him on not trying to win every battle 1-on-1 and instead using his body to protect the puck and wait for help. That’s a fundamentals-first, grinder mentality Jagr is preaching, not unlike the way Crosby approaches the game. Both marry unbelievable talent with unbelievable work ethic, and that’s why I see Crosby as the best Jagr analog.

Gordon Gallant (@gordiegallant) asks…

If you had a choice, which ‘D’ guy would you see as a good fit for the Leafs: Drew Doughty or Erik Karlsson?

I like the way you worded that, Gordon, forcing me to give you an answer! As a disclaimer, I still want to stress that it’s highly unlikely either player ends up a Toronto Maple Leaf. In Doughty’s case, (a) the Kings are a first-place team right now and have no reason to shop their franchise defenseman and (b) even if he reaches 2019 unrestricted free agency without a new deal, the Leaf rumors don’t make as much sense as people think. When I spoke to Doughty in the summer about the Leafs, he reminded me he grew up a Kings fan, not a Leaf fan, so the “coming home to his dream team” idea is completely fabricated. He already plays for his dream team. As for Karlsson, the Senators will do anything and pay anything to keep their captain. His roots are also deep in Ottawa. His wife, Melinda Curry, is an Ottawa native and they have a baby on the way.

But I’ll still play along since your question is a fun one. Karlsson is the better player in my opinion, but since they are both stars, I see Doughty’s game as a better fit for the Leafs’ team needs. They already have plenty of puck-moving acumen from Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev, with Timothy Liljegren, a pure offensive dynamo, in the system. Doughty and Karlsson are both elite offensive blueliners, but Doughty has one thing in his game that Karlsson doesn’t: physicality. The Leafs’ No. 1 need right now is an intimidator on ‘D.’ And I don’t mean the old-fashioned version of an intimidator – see my thoughts above on Santini – but I mean the new-school version, a mobile guy who can also throw his weight around in his own zone. As he Doughty me in the summer, “I enjoy playing on a team that likes to crush guys into the boards.” So Doughty would help make the Toronto blueline more well rounded.

Garrett Funk (@bringthafunk) aks…

Do you see the Coyotes ending up in Seattle or Houston?

Garrett submitted this question before the announcement dropped that the NHL would accept a Seattle expansion application, but I still want to address it anyway because I’ve gotten lots of Twitter questions about expansion and relocation in the past 24 hours.

So we know the Coyotes won’t go to Seattle since Seattle is being tabled as team No. 32, not a relocated existing team. With Arizona’s arena lease up after this season, I still think a quick relocation can’t be ruled out. People will dream about Quebec, but that isn’t happening any time soon. The NHL seems to be tripping over itself to avoid putting a team back there, largely because it cares more about big-picture revenue generators like corporate support than just filling a building and generating great local TV ratings, which Quebec obviously would. The Nordiques are just a safety net plan if a team like Florida of Ottawa dies – just like Winnipeg was the fallback to rescue Atlanta. And Gary Bettman made it clear Thursday the Hurricanes sale will not lead to their relocation at this time.

Back to the Coyotes. And boy, does Houston ever make sense. Seattle is all but booked to join the NHL now that its arena situation is sorted out, and geography doesn’t get much more Pacific than Seattle, so we’re looking at a nine-team Pacific Division. The Central is the league’s lone seven-team division right now, and while the Coyotes are the most logical pick to move there even if they don’t relocate – how perfect would Houston be? Central time zone plus an opportunity to build a cross-state rivalry with Dallas. Sounds fun to me, and we know Houston has the arena, market size and owner interest to make a team work there. It wouldn’t take much to become a more profitable operation than the Coyotes.