Who will be the key piece in Vancouver’s rebuild? How will the retooled Sabres fare this season? And more.
The NHL regular season is less than two months away! Good stuff. If there’s a theme to the Ask Me Anything Mailbag questions I received this week, it’s looking ahead. Fans are ready to peer into the crystal ball for 2018-19. So am I.
RJetsD (@BB4animals) asks…
Who’s the next Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup, in your opinion?
Ever since we looked at their loaded farm system four years ago and pre-declared them 2019 Stanley Cup champions, we Hockey Newsers have been puffing our chests out about the Winnipeg Jets. The dream is for them to win exactly when our 2015 Future Watch cover predicted they would, just like the Houston Astros made Sports Illustrated’s prophecy come true last fall. So, admittedly, there’s an ego-related bias behind picking the Jets to be the next Canadian Stanley Cup champ and predicting it happens this season. But I really do believe it.
The way-north Jets have always had a certain stigma attached to them as a market for free-agent players. It was considered a coup when Paul Stastny waived his no-trade clause to go there, and even he decided to leave as a UFA this summer. But the Jets’ trouble attracting UFAs has worked in GM Kevin Cheveldayoff’s favor. It’s allowed him to develop top-end young talent and find room for it in the lineup and keep the core signed long-term, including Mark Scheifele, Connor Hellebuyck and Nikolaj Ehlers, with Dustin Byfuglien on board for three more seasons as well. The money will be there to figure out Patrik Laine’s, Kyle Connor’s and Josh Morrissey’s next contracts, too, though Jacob Trouba and the Jets appear headed for a divorce at some point.
So why bring up all these contracts? Because the Jets have the league’s best combination of (a) extremely high-end star power; (b) all those players locked up or on the verge of being locked up and entering their prime years; and (c) a couple extremely valuable veteran leaders in Byfuglien and Blake Wheeler. The only two teams that look like they can match the Jets in terms of prime-year talent are the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs, in my opinion. I do predict the Cup will almost come down to a coin flip between the Bolts and Jets, while the Leafs, still imperfect defensively, are in the next tier down with Nashville and Boston. That rounds out my top five teams.
The Jets have everything you want in a championship squad: the big-time goal scorers and playmakers, the shutdown defensemen, the bona fide No. 1 goaltender. They had a top-five power play and top-10 penalty kill last year. And, by making it to the Western Conference final last year, they’ve learned how to lose. Recent history tells us that’s important. The Sidney Crosby-era Penguins lost in the 2008 final before hoisting the Cup in 2009. The 2010 Blackhawks fell in the Western Conference final a year prior. The 2011 Boston Bruins blew a 3-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference final the previous season. The Jets, who looked amazing in Game 1 against the Golden Knights before dropping four straight, can carry the lessons of that series with them into 2018-19.
It’s never easy predicting a champion, but I feel more confident about the Jets winning it all than I have about any team in several seasons. They’re absolutely stacked at every position.
Pierre-Luc Girard (@plucgirard) asks…
Hey Matt, I used to win my pools with a “nobody saw it coming guy” in my lineup (Alex DeBrincat this year and Artemi Panarin three years ago). Who’s this year’s guy?
Hey Pierre-Luc. Fun question. It’s always deeply satisfying uncovering those surprise assets that turn monstrous profits, eh? One of my favorite sleepers shares your first name(s): Pierre-Luc Dubois. But we can’t call Dubois a “nobody saw it coming” guy. He was a top-three NHL draft pick. He’s supposed to be a stud.
So let’s look deeper. I have a close eye on Winnipeg’s Jack Roslovic. Stastny signing in Vegas was great news for Roslovic. It increases his odds of moving to center, and he has to supplant Bryan Little for the No. 2 job, which isn’t an insurmountable task given Little is 30 and experienced a big production dip last season. Roslovic has great wheels, which suits him nicely to play alongside Ehlers or, if coach Paul Maurice mixes up his lines a bit, Connor. Roslovic was a late first-round pick in 2015, plays a mature game and was one of the AHL’s best players last year. The pedigree says he’ll be yet another breakout youngster for Winnipeg.
But if Roslovic still isn’t deep enough: how about a guy who went 202nd overall in his draft year? Watch out for Andreas Johnsson in Toronto. He was a late-blooming prospect who always had potential but fell in his draft class largely because of a then-undiagnosed asthma issue. His star has risen steadily, and he was arguably the AHL’s best player last season, averaging a point per game in the regular season and going bananas in the playoffs with 10 goals and 24 points in 16 games en route to MVP honors and a Calder Cup title.
Still, while he’s a talked-about commodity in Toronto, he’s nowhere near a household name anywhere else. He merely was the star of their farm team, after all, and got brief yet effective NHL looks late in the season and in the playoffs. But he’s established himself as a speedy, smart, feisty talent with far greater potential than anyone thought a year ago. Right now, it looks like he’ll open the season at worst as Nazem Kadri’s left winger. The other two left wing spots, opposite Auston Matthews and John Tavares, will belong to some combination of Patrick Marleau and Zach Hyman. It’s hardly inconceivable Johnsson surpasses Marleau, who turns 39 next month, or Hyman, a hard worker with a low ceiling, on the depth chart. If that happens, who knows what kind of numbers Johnsson puts up?
It’s entirely possible Johnsson ends up doing what Kasperi Kapanen did last year and becomes a better real life player than fantasy player, helping out in a depth role with speed. But the upside is very real for Johnsson. He’s an ideal late-round pick for fantasy players, especially in leagues not based anywhere near Toronto.
Rasmus Dill (@jdill1587) asks…
The Sabres end the regular season with how many points?
Hey Rasmus. It seems my answer to that question changes every week as Sabres GM Jason Botterill continues to make exciting upgrades.
Even with Ryan O’Reilly gone, this forward corps looks much more dangerous to me now. Jeff Skinner and Conor Sheary bring a lot of speed to the left side. Tage Thompson, part of the return from St. Louis for O’Reilly, is a towering prospect who has some legit scoring upside. Theoretically, we should finally see that monster breakout season for Jack Eichel, similar to the leap we got from Nathan MacKinnon last year, assuming Eichel can avoid another freak ankle injury. To me, the floor is 75 or 80 points for a healthy Eichel. And while losing O’Reilly hurts the Sabres defensively, Botterill did well to get Vladimir Sobotka and Patrik Berglund in the deal, as both guys can play center or wing and have good two-way sensibilities, taking pressure off Buffalo’s younger forwards.
The Sabres also have easily two of the top five Calder Trophy candidates in their lineup this year. Casey Mittelstadt, a dynamic, speedy, creative player who reminds me of Mathew Barzal, takes over the No. 2 center role and gets nice insulation with Eichel above him on the depth chart. And No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin projects to make an immediate impact. What’s interesting is – even though his offensive upside is immense, I don’t see Dahlin putting up gargantuan point totals as an 18-year-old. Only two blueliners in NHL history have even crested 40 points at that age: Phil Housley, who is now Dahlin’s coach, and Bobby Orr. What excites me much more about Dahlin in Year 1 is his ability to make the Sabres better defensively. Some people make Erik Karlsson comparisons, but his former coaches see more Victor Hedman, and when I spoke to Dahlin himself this spring, he said his closest comparison is a defenseman version of Peter Forsberg. Dahlin plays with real ferocity.
I spoke to his two main coaches of the past few years – Tomas Monten of the Swedish world junior squad and Roger Ronnberg of the Swedish League’s Frolunda Indians. I grilled them on whether they believe Dahlin will jump directly to the NHL seamlessly. Here are some highlights from their scouting reports.
“It’s a young player, he needs to get stronger and a little quicker, but he has the size, he has the skating, he has the vision of the ice. He can make plays. He’s a smart player. His work ethic, he competes, he likes to put himself in difficult situations. He’s a little like a Peter Forsberg character. He gets really mean. He has a high temper. I think that gives him a competitive edge both at practices and especially in games. He doesn’t lose his head, but he competes. He’s going to have more dirty tricks than people think. He’s not going to take anything for granted. He’s going to battle for everything.”
“The greatest ability on the ice is the way he reads the game. He always has time. He looks like he’s playing in slo-mo. He always has time to make reads and smart plays, and he is getting better in every area. He is one of the best kids I’ve ever coached. He’s coachable and a fast learner.”
Perhaps most fascinating is what Ronnberg said when I asked about Dahlin adjusting to quicker decision making on the North American ice surface:
“I think that what he’s best at, when we are playing small-area games in practice with a really small ice surface. He really shows his abilities to read the game and make those smart small plays all the time.”
Theoretically, Dahlin’s emergence should also take pressure off the constantly overburdened Rasmus Ristolainen. In goal, while most advance metrics suggest Carter Hutton’s amazing 2017-18 was an anomaly, he’ll still likely be an upgrade over Robin Lehner, and the investment wasn’t particularly risky in term or money.
So, to answer the question, I believe the Sabres finally make actual progress this season after two straight years of declining point totals. Making the post-season will be tough since they share a division with, in my opinion, three of the NHL’s top five teams in Tampa, Toronto and Boston. But the Sabres can also beat up on what I expect to be three of the NHL’s worst teams: Ottawa, Detroit and Montreal. I thus slot the Sabres in the middle of the Atlantic with the Florida Panthers. I have Florida finishing fourth and winning the last Eastern Conference wildcard spot, but I like Buffalo to finish fifth with around 85 points, which would be a 23 point boost over last year and their highest point total since 2011-12. Then the playoffs would be in reach by 2019-20.
Fat Tony (sixofourstacks) asks…
Which of these five players will have the most positive and least positive influence on the Canucks’ future: Bo Horvat, Eilas Pettersson, Thatcher Demko, Quinn Hughes or Brock Boeser?
Tom (@Tom29478239) asks…
Matt, do you see Thatcher Demko finally getting to the NHL this year after two years of full play in the AHL?
Sidney Crosby. Evgeni Malkin. Jonathan Toews. Patrice Bergeron. Anze Kopitar. Jeff Carter. Evgeny Kuznetsov. Nicklas Backstrom. Over the past decade, to me, the most common denominator among Stanley Cup champions is the presence of dominant centers capable of making everyone around them better.
The name among that Canucks prospect quintet that leaps out to me most is thus Pettersson. His production as a teenager in the SHL, arguably the world’s fourth-best pro league, was legendary. He won the league scoring crown and MVP awards, setting a league record for the most points by a junior-aged player.
Pettersson has the talent to become an Art Ross threat at the NHL level. So while Brock Boeser, to me, looks like he’ll be a 40-goal scorer for years to come, it’s Pettersson that will probably be the one finding Boeser with passes. Pettersson will become the engine driving Vancouver’s offense. As my colleague Ryan Kennedy liked to say leading up to the 2016 draft, “Patrik Laine is a bullet and Auston Matthews is a gun.” I see a similar link between Boeser and Pettersson. To me, they’re the top two pillars.
Horvat is growing into a true leader and should be one of the game’s better two-way centers for years to come, so he’s an important piece too, but Pettersson projects to control games more than Horvat can. Quinn Hughes possesses exciting speed and raw offensive ability and could become a Ryan Ellis-type player. But, given Quinn’s small stature, I see him skewing more toward being a great offensive blueliner than an all-around shutdown force in the mold of, say, Hedman or Drew Doughty.
I’d rank Demko fifth on the list, but that’s not a knock on him. I only place him there because goaltender is the league’s most fickle position. Look at Demko’s own Canucks teammate, Jacob Markstrom. A decade ago he was considered a can’t-miss future star coming up in the Florida Panthers system. Now he’s just a decent seat-warmer while the Canucks await Demko’s arrival.
Speaking of which, when should we expect that to happen? The dilemma teams always face with prospect goaltenders is whether to play them a lot in the AHL, with a starter’s workload, or a little in the NHL in more of an apprenticeship. With Markstrom and Anders Nilsson still with the big club, it make take an injury or trade to justify bringing Demko up this season. He has great size and swagger, reminding me a lot of Hellebuyck. I would bet on Demko becoming an NHL star, and the .922 save percentage in his second year in the AHL suggest he’s ready. But the playing time is very important.
I actually wrote a story a couple years back on how best to develop prospect goaltenders and ended up talking to several people with deep ties to the Canucks, oddly enough. The actual prospect goalies I spoke to at the time, such as Malcolm Subban, all expressed desire for an immediate jump to the NHL, but the overwhelming consensus among those old enough to have hindsight was that playing a lot in the AHL is better for development.
Here’s Corey Hirsch, who played four seasons with the Canucks:
“When I was younger, I always thought, ‘Oh, it’s better to play in the NHL,’ and I used to always push for the NHL, when actually I should have just been worried about playing where I was. Everybody wants to be in the NHL. The hard part is you have to check your ego. What I learned is that, as a goalie, your physical skills get better in practice, but goaltending is such a head game that you have to play to know how to deal with certain situations mentally. Sitting on the bench, you’re not developing that skill. You’re getting better physically in practice, but you’re not developing those things to do in game situations.”
Now, Rollie Melanson, currently the New Jersey Devils goaltending coach, who was formerly with the Canucks in that role and helped mentor Markstrom:
“If you rush it, you can put the goaltender in a situation where you stop his development for a couple years, because confidence is still a vital part of goaltending. You can’t play the position without confidence, and if you put him in a situation to fail before he has a chance to succeed, that can be a really tough road to walk. You’ve got to be careful. I’m very protective about my goalies that way, because I want to make sure they understand they’re able to go through the growing pains in the minors.”
Lastly, ex-Canuck Cory Schneider, who is pretty much the poster child for slow-cooking goalies:
“I was brought along the right way. Spent three years in the minors, played over 100 minor-league games, was 24 when I got to the league. Just where I was at in my life and my career, I was set up for success better than some other guys might be, and that was a big part of it.”
I’d thus bet on Demko opening this season in Utica even if he deserves to start at the NHL level. Nilsson’s contract comes off the books next summer, so the path for Demko seems clear. He should be Vancouver’s starter by 2019-20 at the latest.