The Ask Me Anything Mailbag is back! Training camps and the pre-season are upon us and should spawn a whole new set of questions but, for now, you readers are feeling pretty philosophical, and I dig it. We tackle a variety of big-picture topics this week. Apologies for the one-week delay in answering you all.
Offseason Marty (@martin_14) asks…
Imagine you’ve just been hired as GM for the Minnesota Wild. What direction do you take the franchise in: rebuild or retool?
What a question, Marty! It’s hard to find a franchise stuck deeper in the mud than the Wild are. You know that’s the case when a team makes the playoffs six straight seasons and still has to part ways with its GM. The Wild, of course, only escaped Round 1 of the playoffs twice in that span and haven’t been out of the second round during that period. Something has to give.
I worry about the Wild’s future. The Central Division now belongs to two stacked powerhouses, the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators, with the St. Louis Blues greatly improved, the Colorado Avalanche ascending and the Dallas Stars squarely in win-now mode. Minnesota, to me, seems in danger of being passed by and maybe even slipping out of the playoff picture. This team’s off-season improvements were minimal under new GM Paul Fenton, though I think the Greg Pateryn signing was sneaky good.
The problem has been the same for several years now: the Ryan Suter and Zach Parise contracts crippled the franchise, especially Parise’s, as Suter at least has returned fair value for his $7.54-million cap hit. The Wild missed their best shot to win the Cup in 2016-17 when they set a franchise record for points and, with all their veteran contracts, they’re maxed out in cap space, with less than $2 million available right now. They really can’t improve this team by spending money, as whatever was available had to go toward Mathew Dumba’s and Jason Zucker’s contract extensions.
Not that you have to rely on free agency to improve your team in today’s NHL. You can build from within and, as recently as two years ago, the Wild had one of the league’s most enviable stables of prospects. The problem: that group hasn’t developed as hoped so far. Joel Eriksson Ek was a big disappointment as a rookie last year, though he was pretty unlucky in his shooting percentage. Luke Kunin blew out his knee. Jordan Greenway looks like a promising power forward and should stick in the NHL this year, but it’s not like he has the upside to become Jamie Benn. It seems like Alex Tuch, their 2014 first-rounder, has flashed a greater ceiling than originally expected, but he’s of course a Vegas Golden Knight now. Kirill Kaprizov is probably the one Wild prospect with a truly impactful ceiling as a scorer, but he’s under contract in the KHL for two more seasons. Worse still, the Wild have picked once inside the top 63 at the draft the past two years because their 2017 Martin Hanzal deadline deal gutted them of picks.
Based on the current long-term forecast, then, I think the Wild would be better off getting worse to get better, going the rebuild route, and Fenton is in the perfect spot to do so as a brand-new GM with the maximum amount of leash. Captain Mikko Koivu is 35, Suter is 33 and coming off a very serious ankle injury that could’ve ended his career, and Eric Staal, even though he just tied the franchise record in goals, turns 34 next month. Parise’s body will never be the same, either. This team has missed its window.
That said, it’s not like a rebuild would be easy. How do you move Parise’s contract, for instance? It was front-loaded in terms of real dollars, but he’s got seven years left at a monster cap hit. He’s three seasons removed from his last 30-goal effort, so he wouldn’t appeal much to a contender, and eating too much salary would defeat the purpose of the Wild moving him. What about a buyout? It wouldn’t hurt too much in actual money but would take up real estate on Minnesota’s cap through 2030-31. Not worth it.
So if the Wild want to get worse to get better, they might unfortunately have to dangle some younger players who still have trade value – such as Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle or Jonas Brodin, none of whom has any clauses in his contract restricting his movement. I’d blow up the Wild, personally, but I don’t think Fenton will do that. Hockey is still a business, and this team is competitive year to year, selling out regularly, finishing second in the NHL in attendance capacity at 106 percent last season.
Ralph wiggumn (@ralph_wiggumn) asks…
I recently heard an argument that NHL games are over-coached and a way to increase scoring would be to limit the number of coaches on the bench to two with no more eye in the sky either. What do you think? Do you think this would increase mistakes and therefore scoring?
What a great question, Ralph! I doubt we’ll see the NHL limit bench coaches or eyes in the sky, as teams are desperate to get any advantage they can over each other and constantly employ specialists to manage different elements of the sport in-game. New Capitals coach Todd Reirden, for instance, was in charge of that Capitals’ defense corps under Barry Trotz, almost like a defensive co-ordinator.
That said, I absolutely think the game is over-coached now and that it impacts offense. Some decision-makers around the league believe that, too. Stars GM Jim Nill told me this last year when I asked him about teams' shifting strategies for 3-on-3 scoring:
“Teams and players and coaches have figured out the 3-on-3 more. You’re seeing more puck possession. At first it was, ‘Let’s see how quick we can score right away.’ But you’re seeing now players understand, ‘OK look, we’ve got the puck, let’s wait for that right opportunity.’ There will be shifts where you’ll see a team make two or three line changes as they control the puck in 3-on-3 overtime. They’ll hold on, hold on, because they’re waiting for that one real chance to get the right shot, because they know if it’s not the right shot, a save or a missed net, it’s coming back to their end. So there’s more patience with the players 3-on-3. And once someone does attack, then it all breaks loose. Now you get the 2-on-1, the 3-on-1, and now the track meet starts. But by then, there’s already been two or three minutes run off the 3-on-3 overtime.”
And we’re not just seeing the over-coaching affect overtime. It affects line deployments. Added Nill in that same discussion:
“With the skill level, the speed of the game, the competition level, the parity of the league, how important wins are, teams know now it’s a four-line game and all four of your lines have to play hockey. I think (fighting) is just transitioning out. You look at every team, and every team’s got four lines. Your fourth line can match. Three, four, five years ago, you worried about your matchups on the road, because if you had the wrong matchup, your fourth playing against the other team’s first or second line was an advantage to the other team. I don’t see that any more. Teams are comfortable putting their fourth line out, saying ‘We can skate. We can check your first line any time. We’re not scared of it.’ ”
As a result, we’ve seen the decline of a star system in terms of scoring. Coaches don't just trot out their top guys and "let 'em play" anymore. Last season, Anze Kopitar and Aleksander Barkov led forwards with 22:05 and 22:04 of ice time per game, respectively. Those were the two highest averages by any forwards in the past five seasons. Compare that to 2007-08, and 22:05 would’ve ranked eighth in the NHL. In 1997-98, 16 forwards played at least 22 minutes per night, with Theo Fleury leading the way at a whopping 24:57. That would be a heavy workload even by D-man standards today. Speaking of which: Suter and Drew Doughty have nothing on the ice-time horses of a couple decades ago, when Chris Chelios and Ray Bourque averaged more than 30 minutes a night.
So coaching is indeed sucking some scoring out of the game – because it’s taking the star players off the ice and, because fourth lines no longer have goons on them, it’s removing the pylon-caliber matchups when a top line at home could come on and roast the other team’s weakest players.
T-Bar (@T_Bar12) asks…
If you were starting a keeper fantasy pool and could keep up to five players for the next season, who would you target in your draft?
Hi T-Bar. On the surface, this question might look too obvious – It’s pretty easy to name five really good, young players – but I’ll tweak the question to provide more perspective. Instead of “Which five keepers should I draft,” think of this question as “Which five players should I target in trades if I’m looking to blow up my keeper-league franchise and rebuild?”
In that case, I’m looking for elite talent, elite ceiling, youth and, with one exception, a great team with high-end support players. I’ll make a keeper-league line, adding a goalie to make the list six deep:
G – Andrei Vasilevskiy
D – Victor Hedman
D – Seth Jones
F – Patrik Laine
F – Connor McDavid
F – Nikita Kucherov
It’s an no-brainer, straightforward list. It doesn’t take an expert to draft these guys. But if you’re rebuilding and selling off your pieces to contending teams, make sure you target top-tier building blocks like these. Don’t aim too low. Of course, the question could be spun in different way. If you’re looking for the later-round fantasy picks who can become foundational pieces and haven’t yet broken out, the targets should still be high-end talent in good situations. Think Jack Roslovic in Winnipeg, Pierre-Luc Dubois in Columbus and Casey Mittelstadt in Buffalo.
Elijah Adrian (ElijahAdrian3) asks…
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Hi, Elijah. One thing I always tell anyone who asks if I enjoy being a hockey reporter: even on the worst, most stressful day, “It’s never not hockey.” So there’s never a truly bad day if we think of it this way. Any player I ask that question always says “Getting paid to do the thing I’ve always dreamed of doing is amazing,” and I can say the same about covering hockey for a living.
To me, it’s important to never let go of your fandom fully. Yes, you want to be objective when it comes to cheering for particular teams or players, but you don’t want to stop loving the game. Even if running into contemporary NHLers doesn’t make me fanboy out – it’s switch you need to simply turn off – I try to savor any encounters with my childhood heroes. That means Jaromir Jagr, Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman, Dominik Hasek and so on. It’s fun to picture yourself as a kid, even playing as these guys in NHL ’94, and soak in how cool it is to be encountering these people in adulthood. Being an icon can be a source of pride for them, too. Jeremy Roenick once told me he gets approached on the street more about NHL ’94 than about his playing career, and he couldn’t be happier about it.
At the same time, as a journalist, it’s important not to grovel at the feet of NHLers today. In my experience, the more you understand that the players need the media as much as you need them, the more you realize you deserve to be in the room, the more time they give you. The first dressing room interview I ever did was with peak-years Tim Thomas, and I was apologetic, meek, even. The result was a pretty short discussion, as I acted like he was doing me a favor. Putting the excitement and fanhood in your pocket instead of wearing it on your face keeps you on a level playing field, which makes the job go smoother, as you get more respect on the players’ end. At the same time, you never want to completely let go of loving the game, as this job will always be a privilege. Hopefully I’ve done your thoughtful question justice.
Brian (@bwiz77) asks…
Do the Predators need to add a power forward? It seemed to be a missing element in the Jets playoff series.
Hey Brian. You can make a strong case the Predators don’t have a proper power forward in their top-six forward group. The Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, meanwhile, deploy two on their top line in Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, and it’s a copycat league, so I can understand anyone suggesting their team needs to add some brawn up front.
But when it comes to Nashville conquering the Jets – I would argue they don’t have a power forward on an elite scoring line, either. Patrik Laine is a big guy, but he is known for his amazing shot, not for repeatedly stapling guys on the forecheck the way Ovie does. Captain Blake Wheeler has a power forward body but plays a thinking man’s game. I do think the Preds could use a big forward better equipped to go up against hammers like Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba on the forecheck. Maybe one becomes available during the season. Max Pacioretty comes to mind, for instance. But, to me, what Nashville needed more than a power forward against the Jets was an A+ scorer. The Preds have the NHL’s best defense corps and an extremely deep forward group, but while Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson have established themselves as perennial 30-goal threats, compare that to what some of the NHL’s other contending teams offer at forward. The Lightning have a 100-point man in Kucherov. The Maple Leafs have two 80-point threats at center in Auston Matthews and John Tavares. The Bruins have the NHL’s best line in Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. The Jets have a Rocket Richard frontrunner in Laine and two forwards likely to crack the NHL’s top 10 in points in Wheeler and Mark Scheifele.
Nashville has to hope prospect Eeli Tolvanen’s sublime work in the KHL translates to NHL dominance. It happened with Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Tolvanen was even better than Kuznetsov at the same age in the KHL. Otherwise, Nashville must hunt for that difference-making forward in free agency or via the trade market. Artemi Panarin, anyone?