For this week’s Blake’s Takes, we look at the effect of our lottery-bound teams will have on next season. I also make my next award prediction and examine one more unloved team.
1. Colorado and the Lottery
One of the more-interesting storylines this offseason is the NHL lottery. The lottery is always important because it decides who will pick first overall for the upcoming draft. It’s fun to predict what player will be selected from each team ahead of time. This year’s lottery is noteworthy because of the player projected to be taken first overall. Forward, Jack Hughes of the US National Team Development Program (NTDP) is one of the most-hyped prospects since Connor McDavid. He will leave the NTDP as their all-time leading scorer, having broken Clayton Keller’s record earlier this year. Whichever team drafts Hughes will accelerate their rebuild significantly.
The Ottawa Senators finished as the worst team in the NHL and will have the best odds to win the first-overall pick. I’m sure that would be exciting news for Ottawa fans if they hadn’t traded that pick away. Last year, the Senators traded their 2019 first-round pick for Matt Duchene among other pieces. This trade made sense at the time. Duchene wanted a trade and wasn’t going to sign an extension with the Avalanche. Ottawa had ended the previous season one goal away from going to the Stanley Cup finals. Their roster boasted the likes of Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, and of course, Erik Karlsson. Ottawa was in a great position to go for it and adding a star like Duchene could have put them over the edge.
As we look back on this trade 17 months later, the Avs struck gold and the Senators struck out.
For Colorado, drafting Hughes could really push them into contention. They have a great, young core with Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. If Hughes lives up to his potential, the Avs could be a scary team out West for years to come.
This trade obviously didn’t work out for the Senators. They have since traded away Stone, Hoffman, Karlsson, and Duchene. They badly need a new arena and their entire franchise is in disarray. Jack Hughes literally could have saved the Ottawa franchise. Hughes would no doubt draw fans to the arena and the team would most likely improve. Then, maybe their owner would be convinced to empty his pockets for a new arena. If not, maybe he would sell the team to someone who would. It’s too bad for Ottawa because this Duchene trade could set their team back decades.
2. Award Watch: Vezina
For this week’s award prediction, I’ll take my best guess at who will win the Vezina. There is a great crop of goaltenders worthy of the award this year so feel free to fire away at me in the comments if I leave your favorite player off the list.
My three finalists are, in alphabetical order:
1. Ben Bishop
2. Robin Lehner
3. Andrei Vasilevskiy
Bishop had a monster year this season. He led the league in save percentage at .934% and posted a career-high in GAA at 1.98. Bishop played a huge role for the Stars and kept the ship afloat while superstars Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin struggled. He also had seven shutouts, which set a new career high.
Robin Lehner had a major bounceback season. He placed third in the league in GAA with a 2.13 mark and second in the league in SV%, finishing at .930. Not to mention, he was instrumental in the revival of the New York Islanders, and they surely wouldn’t be going to the playoffs without him. This was no doubt a breakthrough year for Lehner as he set new career highs in wins, sv%, GAA, and shutouts.
Andrei Vasilevskiy has officially cemented his place as one of the league’s top netminders. Vasilevskiy followed up last year’s breakthrough season with one just as noteworthy. If there is one word to describe the season he had, it’s winning. Vasilevskiy is the starting goalie on the league’s best team and led the league in wins with 39. He finished sixth in SV% at a .925 clip and ninth in GAA at 2.40. He also placed fifth in shutouts.
This decision is tough because none of the three were that much more dominant over the other. I think that Vasilevskiy will win the award because of the team he plays for and because of the season he had last year. The voters often reward players with a proven track record if the gap between resumes is too close. Vasilevskiy is the obvious choice between the three and playing for the league’s most dominant team surely helps. Lehner is a great story and I love that he resurrected his career, but I don’t think it’s enough to win the Vezina. Lehner will also fall victim because the Islanders new scheme prioritized less shots on net. Bishop falls in the same boat. He actually faced the exact same amount of shots, 1323, as Lehner did. The two ranked tied for 22nd in the league in shots against. Vasilevskiy ranked 10th. None of the three candidates will run away with the award, which is why I think Vasilevskiy will be rewarded because of the play of his team.
3. Unloved Team: Minnesota Wild
As I sit and write this in a shitty motel room east of St. Paul, Minnesota, I thought it would be fitting to feature the Minnesota Wild as my Unloved Team of the Week. The Wild are consistently average. They define the parity that exists in the NHL. With the little changeover to their roster, they fluctuate between an above-average playoff team to a below-average team that misses the playoffs. What’s crazy is that this is the first year since the 2011-12 season the Wild have missed the playoffs. It feels as if this year’s team is every bit as good, or bad, as the last six teams before them.
Most of the Wild’s success can be tied to two players, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. The Wild made a big splash in free agency in the summer of 2012 when they signed friends Parise and Suter to matching 13-year $98 million contracts. Parise had just come off a Stanley Cup run with the Devils before he signed in Minnesota. Unfortunately for the Wild, he hasn’t looked like the same player since he joined his hometown squad. He has cracked the 60-point plateau three times with the Wild and has scored 30 goals in a season once. He did have a nice bounceback year after missing 40 games due to injury last season. Parise just isn’t good enough to lead the Wild to the promised land without a lot of help, even if he’s being paid like he is. Suter, on the other hand, has been rock-solid since signing with the Wild. He has hit the 40 point plateau in five of seven years in Minnesota and has cracked 50 points twice. He also led the league in +/- in 2016-17 and is a plus 59 during his career with the Wild.
Other than those two, the Wild have a few other players worth writing about. Eric Staal has had a career resurgence since joining the Wild before the 2016-17 season. Staal set a new career high in goals last year with 42. His goal total dipped a bit this year with 22. Even at 34 years old, Staal remains a legit scoring threat in Minnesota. Jared Spurgeon is one of the Wild’s better players. He is without a doubt one of the more underrated players in the NHL. Spurgeon set a new career high in goals, assists, and points this year finishing with 14-29-43 in 82 games.
What the Wild lack, like many teams, is a dynamic forward that can put pressure on the defense. Zach Parise and Eric Staal are very good players with a defined ceiling. The Wild are stuck in what we call the first-round coffin. They’re too good for a franchise-altering draft pick and not good enough to contend for a championship. The sad part is there is almost nothing the Wild can do about it. They’re far too invested to begin to tank. The Wild need to hire the best scouts in the world so they can uncover the next diamond in the rough at the draft. That’s the only way I see them leaving the first-round coffin in the Parise/Suter era.
4. Ryan Poehling’s Breakthrough
For non-playoff bound teams, the last ten or so games in the season can be brutal to watch. Often rosters are filled with AHL call-ups getting their much-deserved cup of coffee in the show. For some, it’s a showcase to the league that they belong on an NHL roster. On Saturday night, Canadians’ 2017 first-round pick, Ryan Poehling, played his first NHL game. For most players making their debuts, avoiding a catastrophic mistake is a good day. Poehling decided to do a bit better, scoring a hat trick in his first game. Poehling was playing for St. Cloud State until they were eliminated from the NCAA tournament. He was immediately given a shot with the big club and did not disappoint. Poehling is one of the few players to score a hat trick in his debut, joining Auston Matthews and Derek Stepan. Congrats to Poehling for the major accomplishment and for giving the Habs something to smile about.
5. Housley Ousted as Sabres’ Bench Boss
As the 2018-19 season comes to a close, it was one of optimism for Sabres fans. The team showed signs of progression and many fans can now see the light at the end of the tunnel of this long rebuild. They have two franchise cornerstones, Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin, and hit the jackpot with their trade for Jeff Skinner. Buffalo finished 14 points higher in the standings than they did last year. They also have quite a bit of cap space opening up this summer and the following summer.
The team decided on Sunday that they would shoot for this light at the end of the tunnel without Head Coach Phil Housley. Housley led the Sabres for two seasons before his dismissal. Usually, it’s not surprising when the team’s fire coaches on bad teams. Usually, those coaches get more than two full seasons to show what they’re made of, especially when their roster has minimal talent. Unless the Sabres think they can get a top-tier free agent coach like Joel Quenneville, I don’t see a reason for firing Housley. Continuity is important in pro hockey and bringing in a new coach will diminish that next year. That being said, the next coach of the Sabres will have some mighty expectations. The franchise has set the bar that winning is expected, even if the roster isn’t up to par. That will happen when your team is oozing with young talent in a playoff-starved market. I wish the best of luck for whichever poor soul decides to take the job in Buffalo. ■
Blake Isaacs is a die-hard Red Wings fan that doesn’t go to as many games as he should. He is also a big fan of 7-Eleven Slurpeees, Chipotle, and all things Michigan State. Follow him on Twitter @bisaacs1995.