Down Goes Brown's Weekend Review: Wideman, Flyers' Push, and the Race for Matthews
Auston Matthews has so far lived up to the hype, the Flyers are coming, and the Wideman saga won't end.
Photo via Canadian Press
Faceoff: The Dennis Wideman debacle comes to an end... maybe
Every great farce needs a fitting ending. The NHL may have finally found theirs when it comes to the Dennis Wideman case.
On Friday, neutral arbitrator James C. Oldham finally delivered his ruling on Wideman's appeal, cutting the 20-game ban that Gary Bettman had slapped on the Flames' defenceman in half. The decision marked the apparent (we'll get to that) end of an ongoing saga that started when Wideman launched himself at linesman Don Henderson, and had already included an initial suspension and an appeal to Bettman, both of which were considered overkill by many.
Of course, this being the NHL, nothing can ever be that simple. There was the small matter of timing—Oldham took two weeks to deliver his ruling, by which point Wideman had already missed 19 games. The reduced suspension will return a good chunk of money to Wideman's pocket, but he can't get those games back.
There's also the ongoing issue of the concussion that Wideman and the Flames say he suffered in the moments before the incident, one that Oldham agreed had rendered him unable to fully form intent. We've yet to learn what consequences, if any, the Flames will face for ignoring the league-mandated spotter's call for Wideman to leave the game. And we don't yet know whether the Wideman case will establish a precedent for players who lash out after taking a big hit. That sort of play happens more often than you think—Bobby Farnham's four-game suspension was a recent example, as was the $5,000 fine levied at Brad Marchand—and you can bet that we'll start hearing more of the "I had my bell rung" defence in the future.
It gets worse. Over the weekend, we also learned that Henderson will miss the remainder of the season after reportedly suffering a concussion of his own on the play. The Flames were widely ripped for allowing Wideman to finish the game, as they should have been. But shouldn't we be directing the same criticism to the NHL? Officials aren't players; they don't go the bench between shifts, and they don't have trainers on hand to monitor their health during games. But surely there needs to be some sort of protocol in place to prevent a referee or linesman from finishing a game despite being concussed badly enough to cause them to miss the rest of the season.
We haven't even mentioned the confusion around Wideman's text messages, which now somehow involves Gregory Campbell. That would be the same Campbell whose father, Colin, is the league official who delivered the initial 20-game ruling. The two aren't teammates and never have been, so it certainly seems odd that Wideman was reaching out to Campbell in the incident's aftermath.
But at least the whole thing is mercifully over. Unless, of course, it isn't. While Oldham's decision marks the end of the appeals process, the NHL could potentially try to continue the case in court, and has already announced that it will review its options to "determine what next steps may be appropriate."
It's hard to imagine what the league could hope to gain by dragging this whole mess on even further. Then again, anything approaching logic or common sense seems to have gone out the window the moment Wideman started his fateful skate toward Henderson. With a story this ridiculous, a bonus chapter or two of silliness would hardly feel out of place.
Race to the Cup
The five teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup.
5. Los Angeles Kings (40-22-5, +26 true goals differential)—With the Ducks losing three straight, the Kings narrowly regain first place in the Pacific and a spot in our top five.
4. Chicago Blackhawks (41-22-6, +27)—The top of the Central is a car crash. Nobody's counting out the Hawks, of course, especially after their deadline haul. But on Friday they lost to the...
3. Dallas Stars (41-20-9, +24)—Who topped Chicago 5-2 at home to move past them into first place in the division. But then came Saturday, when the Stars dropped an overtime decision to the...
2. St. Louis Blues (41-20-9, +10)—Who've now won six straight and should keep rolling this week with a road trip through Western Canada. Will they pull away with the division lead? No, because the Central is a car crash.
1. Washington Capitals (49-14-5, +56)—The Caps became the first team to get the "clinching scenario" treatment over the weekend, although they ultimately didn't lock down their spot. Spoiler alert: I still think they're probably going to make it.
As the remainder of the regular season continues to plod forward with a mostly non-existent playoff bubble, it's getting harder and harder to ignore the biggest story emerging in the Eastern Conference: the Philadelphia Flyers might actually do this.
After a week that saw them take five of six points, including a pair of wins over a Lightning team that had won nine straight, the Flyers find themselves three points back of the Red Wings and four back of the Penguins in the wild-card race. They hold a game in hand on Pittsburgh and two on Detroit, and Sports Club Stats now gives them a 49.2 percent chance of making the playoffs.
A playoff spot in 2016 would feel like a bonus for a Flyers team that's been going through a quasi-rebuild under the guidance of general manager Ron Hextall. The team hasn't executed the sort of full-fledged reset that teams like the Sabres and Coyotes have tried, but after years of the Flyers always being in on the biggest names available, Hextall has taken a notably patient approach. At last year's deadline, he was a seller even though the Flyers were on the fringe of the playoff race. This year, he stayed on the sidelines, with the team's only trade of the season being the one that sent Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn to the Kings in a salary dump.
That conservative approach could come back to bite Hextall if, say, the Flyers miss a wild-card spot by a point or two and fans start to wonder whether some deadline reinforcements would have made the difference. But it's clear that there's finally some long-term thinking going on in Philadelphia, and it will serve the franchise well as they regroup. The fact that they're this close to being back in the postseason while sticking to the plan can't be anything but a good sign.
So can the Flyers close the gap? It's worth pointing out that the Penguins narrowly missing the playoffs would be disastrous for Maple Leafs fans, and so by definition has a 90 percent chance of happening. More importantly, the Flyers very much control their own destiny. With 15 games left on the schedule, they still face the Wings and Penguins a combined five times. That includes Tuesday night, when the Wings head to Philadelphia for what suddenly looks like the biggest game of the week.
Race to No. 1
The five teams with the best chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick.
5. Buffalo Sabres (28-33-9, -19)—Has it been a rough few years? Yes. Does seeing stuff like this make it all feel like it's worth it? I think it might.
4. Winnipeg Jets (28-35-5, -26)—They beat the Avs on Saturday. Can they make it two straight wins tonight for the first time since early February? They're playing the Canucks, so yeah, probably.
3. Calgary Flames (28-35-5, -31)—They have 61 points and just lost at home to the Coyotes. Tough times in Alberta.
2. Edmonton Oilers (27-37-7, -38)—They have 61 points and just lost at home to the Coyotes. Tough times in Alberta.
1. Toronto Maple Leafs (23-34-11, -41)—The Leafs played two games this weekend and managed one goal, which was scored by Michael Grabner's bum. They finished .500, because parity.
Things are slowly but surely starting to settle in the league basement. The Maple Leafs, icing what's essentially an AHL lineup at this point, have settled into last place and are threatening to do whatever the opposite of pulling away is. The Jets are making a late push to join them, plummeting down the standings with just three wins in their last 13, and the Flames and Oilers have flatlined. The Blue Jackets have shown just enough of a pulse to offer some hope of joining the next tier with the Sabres, Coyotes and Canucks, and that pack of teams will shuffle around over the season's final dozen games or so, playing for nothing more than a percentage point here or there in the draft lottery odds.
So as we wait for the ping pong balls to finally sort this out, it's a good time to revisit the player at the center of it all. Auston Matthews has been the presumptive first overall pick of the 2016 draft for most of the last two years. And as of Thursday, we can close the book on his pre-NHL career.
Matthews made the unusual move of playing his draft year in Switzerland, signing a deal with Zurich and spending the season competing against men instead of in the junior ranks. He played well, recording 46 points in 36 games and cementing his status as the top draft eligible prospect in the world. The season ended in disappointment when top-seeded Zurich was swept in the opening round by SC Bern, but that won't drop Matthews' stock at all; he was "the best player on the ice" for much of the series.
Matthews path to the first overall pick is a fascinating story. He grew up in Arizona, representing the first major success story from the state's burgeoning hockey scene (not to mention a tantalizing hometown marketing possibility for the Coyotes, should they win the lottery). He had to overcome a serious leg injury suffered when he was 16. He's also a Sept. 17 birthday, meaning he missed eligibility for last year's draft by just two days and is well ahead of some of his fellow prospects in development and maturity.
Some perspective is in order here. Despite the hype that comes with consensus No. 1 status, Matthews isn't seen as a generational prospect in the Connor McDavid/Sidney Crosby tier. He's closer to a Jack Eichel or perhaps a John Tavares, coming in with high expectations but falling just short of "sure thing" territory. Still, scouts rave about his offensive skill set, and words like "freakish" tend to show up in his reports. He's the sort of player that a team will draft and then pencil in as their first-line center for the next decade or so.
We still don't know which team will get to do that. The NHL's new lottery system means that whichever team finishes last could pick as late as fourth, missing out not only on Matthews but also Finnish wingers Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi, who round out what's become a consensus top three. But until the drawing takes place, fans of teams playing out the string can continue dreaming of Matthews pulling on their jerseys. So far, at least, it's fair to say that he's lived up to the hype.
Around the league
- The last Western Conference wild-card spot flipped on Saturday, as the Wild's 4-1 win over the Canadiens combined with the Avalanche's 3-2 loss to the Jets nudged Minnesota into the final spot. The two teams are tied with 74 points, but the Wild own a game in hand.
- Penguins center Evgeni Malkin will miss six-to-eight weeks with an upper body injury sustained in Friday's 3-2 win over the Blue Jackets. That timetable would have him missing the rest of the season and at least the beginning of the opening round (if the Penguins make it that far).
- In other injury news: Not a bad return for Mike Smith, who posted a 44-save shutout against the Oilers on Saturday after missing 40 games after abdominal surgery.
- The Lightning snapped a three-game losing streak and moved within a point of the Bruins for the Atlantic Division lead with Sunday's 4-0 win in Columbus, but lost Valtteri Filppula and Nikita Kucherov to injury. Early reports are that neither is expected to be serious.
- Commissioner Gary Bettman made his long-awaited appearance at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and it was... not a disaster. Huh. Maybe next year.
- Congratulations to the Boston Pride, who took home the inaugural Isobel Cup as NWHL champions on Saturday, completing a sweep of the Buffalo Beauts.
- On Sunday, the Calgary Inferno took home the CWHL's Clarkson Cup with an 8-3 upset win over Montreal.
- An interesting concept (and a fun debate) here: Which team has the youngest core?