The Ask Me Anything Mailbag is back. Feels good. It’s been a while.
We’ve debated (well, “debated” would be generous) a controversial topic in the hockey world over the past week, so let’s set it aside for now and get down to pure on-ice stuff for a change. Sometimes it’s good to remember what we love most about the game: the hockey itself. Ready? Let’s do it.
DB (JTisaleaf) asks…
Do you see Mike Babcock lasting the season?
Hey, DB. I wondered if Babcock’s number was up at the end of last season after the Leafs had bombed out in the first round of the playoffs a third straight time, especially because Babcock had drawn a lot of heat for his player deployment. I’m sure you remember Patrick Marleau playing more minutes than Matthews in the third period of Game 7 last spring.
Reports surfaced after the summer that GM Kyle Dubas wanted to pink-slip Babcock but that team president Brendan Shanahan vetoed the decision. And Dubas’ off-season roster maneuvering had an air of “Well, if I can’t fire my coach, I can take his toys away.” Patrick Marleau? Gone. Ron Hainsey? Gone. The older vets on whom Babcock leaned to the point of being criticized were no longer on the chessboard for him to use, so maybe Babcock couldn’t make the same types of personnel decisions if his preferred personnel weren’t even on the team anymore. He also expressed a desire to up Matthews’ ice time when we spoke in the summer, envisioning Matthews rising to the 19-minute mark or so.
Babcock has delivered on that promise and then some, with Matthews logging a career-high 19:55 so far this season. Still, we’ve seen the same pattern of rigidly sticking to certain questionable roster deployments. Babcock continues to trot the ever-maligned Cody Ceci out on the top defensive pair with Morgan Rielly – they have spent 80.5 percent of their 5-on-5 ice time together – and remains steadfast in always playing goalie Frederik Andersen on the first game of a back to back regardless of which of the two opponents poses a tougher matchup. The Leafs are 0-4-1 on the second game of their back to backs this season. Their special teams have been shockingly poor with a 20th-ranked power play and 23rd-ranked penalty kill. The Leafs have lost three straight games and seven of their past 11. They’re two games into a stretch in which they play nine of 10 games on the road.
So it feels like momentum is building toward a mid-season Babcock firing in theory, right? We’ve seen underachieving, talent-rich teams do it mid-season and turn things around dramatically. The St. Louis Blues, of course, axed Mike Yeo last November and won the Stanley Cup. The Pittsburgh Penguins won the 2009 Cup after firing Michel Therrien mid-season and the 2016 Cup after firing Mike Johnston mid-season. So a Leafs team wasting years with a talented roster could benefit by panicking soon.
On the other hand, Babcock has the armor of injury luck encasing him. Travis Dermott (shoulder) and Zach Hyman (knee) missed more or less the first month. John Tavares’ broken finger cost him seven games. Mitch Marner will miss at least four weeks with an ankle injury. Now it’s dental-fracture surgery for Alexander Kerfoot.
The Leafs have underachieved mightily this season but haven’t played a single second with a fully healthy roster, so it’s difficult to assess how good they are. That might keep Babcock’s job safe until the summer…unless an upcoming six-game road trip, which commences Saturday, yields five or more losses and a players-only meeting. Then the axe could fall.
John Ramon (@Capitals DieHard) asks…
Where does Braden Holtby end up?
Howdy John. I’ve said since the summer that I felt Holtby’s time as a Capital would soon end. Specifically, I started saying that when Sergei Bobrovsky inked his seven-year, $70-million pact July 1. Holtby will be the same age this summer as ‘Bob’ was last summer, and we can call Holtby’s one Vezina Trophy and one Stanley Cup a fair equivalent to Bobrovsky’s two Vezinas, so Holtby would have a decent shot to earn a similar contract on the open market.
Meanwhile, the Washington Capitals (a) have center Nicklas Backstrom also going UFA and likely to command a similar salary to Holtby’s, meaning we could see them earn $18-20 million combined on their next cap hits; (b) have only $18.76 million in projected cap space if the cap doesn’t go up next summer; and (c) have a great young goalie in Ilya Samsonov arriving in the NHL.
Samsonov has outplayed Holtby so far, is 22 years old and costs $925,000. Samsonov wresting the job from Holtby is actually a dream scenario for Washington. Samsonov’s presence is the No. 1 reason I expect Holtby to end up on a new team next summer. What I didn’t expect was for him to struggle to the point of his price tag possibly dropping below the Bobrovsky threshold. That would open up more landing spots for Holtby. So who could use him?
I’ve banged the drum for the Calgary Flames before. David Rittich has been a competent starter but is only signed one more year, and his $2.75-million cap hit doesn’t prohibit a more expensive goalie forming a 1A/1B tandem with him. Holtby’s play has declined in recent seasons, so he may be best off playing 50 games alongside a high-volume backup. Holtby’s league rank in goals saved above average per 60 (min. 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5) from his 2015-16 Vezina season to now: 16th, 4th, 38th, 22nd, and he’s 37th among goalies with 100 or more minutes at 5-on-5 this season. So maybe a fresher Holtby would be a better Holtby?
The Flames are the second-closest NHL team to Holtby’s hometown of Lloydminster, Sask., geographically. The closest, the Edmonton Oilers, have Mike Smith as a pending UFA next summer, just as the Flames’ No. 2, Cam Talbot, goes UFA. So that’s another team that could deploy Holtby on the strong side of a 1A/1B setup. That said, Mikko Koskinen has rebounded nicely so far this season, so we can’t say for certain the Oilers will be seeking a major goalie upgrade.
If we’re pondering suitors who are the most desperate for clean slates in net, the New Jersey Devils could make sense as a landing spot for Holtby. They would have the cap space whether they re-sign Taylor Hall or not, though keeping Cory Schneider’s $6 million on the books a couple more years would be tough to stomach. Maybe he’d be a buyout candidate? It wouldn’t be terribly painful to do so.
Al Seever (@AlSeever) asks…
What’s going on with NHL hockey in Quebec? Are we any closer to a team there?
Hi, Al. I wish I had a more exciting answer to offer you, but it doesn’t appear we’re any closer to a Quebec NHL franchise than we were, say, a couple years ago. The reasons are numerous.
We’ll start with the simplest. Seattle will be the NHL’s 32nd team, bringing the league’s structure into a state of symmetry from 2021-22 and onward: four divisions, eight teams, sorted geographically. The NHL hasn’t expressed any notion that the league has to stop at 32 teams, but it needs a compelling reason to expand further. And in the eyes of commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL’s board of governors, Quebec could not be less compelling. The market size is way too small. English isn’t the dominant language there, which could limit its appeal to players. The Montreal Canadiens wouldn’t love having to share a province and, essentially, Eastern Canada with another team again. With a small corporate sector, the opportunities for a Quebec franchise in terms of advertising and luxury boxes would be significantly rarer than they would for larger markets. So if we’re looking at Quebec as an expansion possibility, the glossy Videotron Centre isn’t enough to sway the NHL.
The best way back to the NHL remains the relocation route. That’s how Winnipeg got a franchise back in 2011. But the question is which market would offer the most realistic relocation opportunity. We can forget Arizona, which has a new majority owner in Alex Meruelo and is slated to move to the Central Division once Seattle joins the league. If the Coyotes were to relocate, it would likely have to be within the Central for geographical reasons, and the hungriest NHL market happens to be Houston. It’s the sixth-largest city in North America and happens to sit in the Central time zone. It would be the logical landing spot should the Coyotes move, but that’s not a given anymore. The Desert Dogs had a landmark business year in 2018-19, setting franchise records for ticket sales and year-over-year revenue growth, and that trend might continue with the team improving in the standings.
So if Quebec were to rejoin the NHL via the relocation route, we’re probably looking at an Atlantic Division-based team whose owner has fairly recently threatened to relocate it: the Ottawa Senators. Ticket sales continue to tank, and the LeBreton Flats downtown arena proposal fell apart last year, creating the sense that the franchise is vulnerable to a relocation. But it’s not that simple. The LeBreton idea is shelved but not dead. After the NCC reviews proposals for a major event space in January, the idea will be presented to the city of Ottawa by summer 2020. So maybe the franchise gets some good news. Melnyk has also walked back any threats of relocation, and if he does end up bringing in a partner or selling the team, it’s probable he does so to a party interested in keeping the franchise in Ottawa.
This is all a long way of saying that it doesn’t appear Quebec has an easy entry point right now, whether it’s via expansion or relocation. The NHL’s disinterest in returning to that market has been clear every time the subject has been raised over the past several years.
Johnnie (@DisneyDadSD) asks…
Who is most accountable for Vegas’ struggles so far this season?
Hey Johnnie. Feels weird to see Vegas stumble. It’s such a foreign feeling. The Golden Knights have dropped four consecutive games. They didn’t lose four straight games during their inaugural regular season. They lost five straight at one point last year, so they’re one loss away from equalling their franchise-worst skid
Before we tackle who is most accountable for the sluggish start, let’s address the what. Good news for Golden Knights fans: luck is largely to blame. In 5-on-5 play this season, the Golden Knights have the league’s third-lowest shooting percentage at 6.63. For perspective, since Vegas debuted in October 2017, the lowest total team shooting percentage across two-plus seasons is 6.85. So Vegas’ number will regress to the mean regardless of the roster’s talent level. The Knights are No. 8 in the league at generating and preventing shot attempts at 5-on-5. They create the third-most scoring chances in the league per 60 minutes and allow the 10th-fewest. Virtually all the under-the-hood team stats suggest they’re better than their results in the standings so far. Even their special teams are above average at 11th on the power play and third on the penalty kill. So what gives?
Marc-Andre Fleury’s overall numbers are down this year, but I don’t think he’s been the problem. He certainly hasn’t been bad, and he’s been hung out to dry with some blown leads and costly turnovers during this losing streak. To me, the biggest difference in the Golden Knights year over year is the defense corps’ ability to create chances. Colin Miller did a great job crushing his sheltered matchups the past couple years, but he’s toiling in Buffalo now following an off-season trade. Shea Theodore’s offense has been non-existent after he busted out for 12 goals and 37 points last season. He was cleared to start the season on time after undergoing off-season treatment for testicular cancer, but is it possible he’s understandably still finding his touch after such a trying off-season. Another key puck-mover, Nate Schmidt, missed 12 games with a lower-body injury. So each of Vegas’ top puck-moving defensemen has been compromised in some way, be it trade, disease or injury.
I also wonder if salary-cap reality is setting in for Vegas. In today’s NHL, you’re a victim of your own success, because winning breeds raises, raises make your rosters more top-heavy, and eventually you have to start trimming depth. This past off-seasons’ cap casualties included Miller, Erik Haula and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Vegas’ lack of scoring depth has been arguably its No. 1 problem so far this season.
At least Alex Tuch is back healthy now, and at least Vegas’ puck luck should improve. I’m thus not worried about the team’s playoff chances.
TD (@omfsmtim) asks…
What’s a realistic return for Taylor Hall at the trade deadline?
When was the last time a Hart Trophy winner was available as a trade-deadline rental? We could technically say Jaromir Jagr in 2015, but he was 43, and Martin St-Louis was 38 when he got dealt. Even Peter Forsberg was 33 and no longer at the peak of his powers when traded in 2007. There’s almost no precedent for what Hall could be at the 2020 deadline: a 28-year-old star in the cap era, still close to his peak years, less than two years removed from winning the MVP, available as a rental piece for a contending team. Despite his early-season struggles with the Devils this season, he’d still be an extremely impactful first-line addition on almost any roster.
We can thus expect Devils GM Ray Shero to demand an astronomical price for Hall. The 2019 trade deadline had some top-end forwards available to rent, so we can use them as a reasonable and recent baseline to generate a Hall scenario.
Mark Stone netted Ottawa a truly A-plus prospect in defenseman Erik Brannstrom, a warm body in Oscar Lindberg and a 2020 second-round pick. Matt Duchene brought in prospects Vitaly Abramov, Jonathan Davidsson, a 2019 first-round pick and a 2020 first-rounder conditional on Duchene re-signing with Columbus, which he didn’t.
I love Stone as much as the next person does but, with all due respect to him and Duchene, neither of them has a Hart Trophy. So I think Stone would be the floor for a Hall trade. Think first-round pick and elite-level prospect at minimum, plus maybe another decent depth prospect.
As an example: I was asked this week about the Carolina Hurricanes’ chances of getting Hall. If we follow the Stone/Duchene trade model, Hall would cost something like Dominik Bokk, Jake Bean and Carolina’s 2020 first-round selection.
If the Hall negotiations appear to be heading south, the Devils will be virtually guaranteed a delectable pile of foundational players and/or picks in any trade for him. That’s why, as a Devils fan, you want the team to be great or terrible but nowhere in between this season. The worst-case scenario would be the team hanging around the playoff bubble, retaining Hall as an “in-house” rental, missing the playoffs or losing quickly in the playoffs, then losing Hall as a UFA. That’s what happened to Columbus with its top UFAs last spring.
So the Devils having the fewest points in the NHL as of today isn’t the worst news. It’s nice and definitive. It could make future decisions easier for Hall and Shero.