Down Goes Brown's Weekend Review: Trade Talk, Ducks' Surge, and a Wild Rebound
Both the Ducks and Wild are on fire, while trade activity should finally pick up with the deadline a week away.
Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Faceoff: It's quiet. Too quiet.
With the trade deadline now just one week away, we finally got some movement Sunday, with the Maple Leafs sending forward Shawn Matthias to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for minor leaguer Colin Smith and a fourth-round pick. It wasn't much of a deal, but it was newsworthy if only for being a rarity—it was just the second trade consummated in the last month.
That's unusual. Sure, the days leading up to the deadline are where most of the action is. But in recent years, the month before the week before the deadline has been a busy period, as GMs work to beat the crowds by getting some of their shopping out of the way ahead of the rush. Last year, there were seven trades between Jan. 23–Feb. 23, including the Evander Kane blockbuster. Before the 2014 deadline, we got eight deals between Jan. 26–Feb. 26. In 2013, which had an unusually late deadline due to the lockout, we had a dozen trades between Feb. 27–March 27.
You get the picture. So what's going on this year? The trade market got off to its slowest start in history, with only one trade (involving zero NHL players) over the season's first six weeks. But a mid-December deal between the Hawks and Stars seemed to get the dominos falling, with ten trades in the month after the holiday trade freeze lifted, including some big ones. But since then, with the exception of the surprising Dion Phaneuf deal and Sunday's minor move, there has been nothing.
The simplest explanation is that this year's market isn't a very good one. Parity means that there just aren't enough sellers, and the teams that are selling don't have many good players to offer. If that theory holds true, we may be in for a slow week, one where we'd still see a fair amount of minor deals but none of the fireworks fans are hoping for.
Of course, there's always the optimistic option: That the lack of action over the last month just points toward an even busier than usual deadline week. There's not a single team in the league that should be done yet, so maybe we're in for a wild few days leading up to a deadline day that will (for once) actually live up to the hype.
In either case, we're in for a busy week, even if that ends up consisting of more rumours than reality. The Maple Leafs were back at it Monday morning, sending Roman Polak to the Sharks for a pair of second rounders. If this keeps up, maybe someday soon we'll even get our first non-Leaf trade since January.
This is the time of year where NHL GMs are expected to do some of their best work. And this year, if nothing else, they're well-rested.
Race to the Cup
The five teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup.
5. Anaheim Ducks (31-19-8, +6 true goals differential)—Oh hey, look who finally decided to show up. More on the Ducks' resurgence down below.
4. St. Louis Blues (35-17-9, +10)—With five straight wins, they've moved within two points of the Central lead. Losing Alex Steen for up to a month will hurt, though.
3. Dallas Stars (37-17-6, +25)—Saturday's ugly 7-3 loss to the Bruins won't do much to calm those goaltending concerns.
2. Chicago Blackhawks (38-19-5, +27)—A good point raised here: Patrick Kane's monster season has masked a somewhat disappointing offensive year for Jonathan Toews.
1. Washington Capitals (43-10-4, +58)—Alexander Ovechkin has been putting up the ol' Cy Young stat line since the Christmas break: 21 goals, 2 assists.
So about those Ducks...
On Dec. 22, the Ducks' last game before the Christmas break, an overtime goal by Mats Zuccarello gave the Rangers a 3-2 overtime win. It was Anaheim's second loss in as many nights and fourth in five games, and dropped its record to 12-15-6. It was holding down last place in the Western Conference, just one point ahead of the lowly Blue Jackets for dead last overall, and the Ducks trailed the Pacific division-leading Kings by 12 points. For a preseason Cup favourite that had been built around an aging and expensive core, it was a disaster.
In a typical story, this is the part where I'd conclude that last paragraph by mentioning that the team had been all but written off. But when it came to the Ducks, that was never quite true. Oh, things were dire, without question, and head coach Bruce Boudreau had been rumoured to be on the verge of a pink slip for weeks. But even as a slow start dragged on into something far worse, there was a feeling around the league that the Ducks could still rebound. There was just too much talent there, and the fact that most of their Pacific rivals were crawling along at an only marginally better pace helped keep a glimmer of hope alive. It was bad, everyone agreed. But man, if they ever put it together...
Less than two months later, the Ducks have gone 19-4-2 since that Rangers loss and now sit in second place in the Pacific, just two points back of the Kings. Last night's 5-2 win over the Flames was their fifth straight, and with the Sabres and Oilers up next, they should be able to keep rolling into the weekend.
Hockey fans love a good redemption story. And we especially love one that comes with an obvious turning point, some midseason move that changed everything. Give us a Devan Dubnyk trade or Andrew Hammond call-up. We'll even settle for an especially big hit or game-changing save. At least give us an inspirational speech. Something.
This Ducks season doesn't really want to play along. You could probably find a turning point if you really looked—maybe the Carl Hagelin trade, maybe the emergence of John Gibson as a bonafide starter—but it would feel like you were forcing it. Instead, the Ducks have chipped away at their poor start one win at a time, steadily gaining ground on a Pacific full of weak teams spinning their wheels, before eventually showing up in the Kings' rearview mirror.
Call it regression, call it getting some bounces, but the Ducks have been a good team playing reasonably well all year long. It's just that now they're getting the results you'd expect. Before the Christmas break, Anaheim was shooting just 5.2 percent (even-strength, score-adjusted), ranking last in the league by over half a point. Since then, the Ducks are shooting 7.9 percent, good for tenth overall. And in an even better sign for the stretch run, they've gone from being a very good possession team to a downright great one, with a 55.5 percent Corsi that's good for second in the NHL.
The only team they trail in that category? That would be the Kings, with a ridiculous 57 percent. And that's where we splash at least a little bit of cold water on this Anaheim redemption story, because the Kings are still there. They're still playing like the team that's already collected two Cups in the last four years, at least most nights. The two teams still have three games left against each other, including one on Sunday. And the Ducks still need to get past them for this season to look like any kind of success—maybe not in the regular season, but in what's starting to feel like an inevitable playoff showdown.
Any postseason talk at all seemed like a long shot back in December, and it's worth admiring how much ground the Ducks have gained. But it didn't take a miracle to get here. Just a very good team that finally started to look that way on the scoreboard.
Race to No. 1
The five teams with the best chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick.
5. Winnipeg Jets (25-29-4, -21)—With just one non-shootout win this month, they're done. They're also one of the few clear sellers to have some talent that teams may actually want to buy.
4. Buffalo Sabres (24-29-7, -18)—They may still make another run at last overall, given that they'll be stripping down at the deadline and will now be without Ryan O'Reilly for up to a month.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets (23-29-7, -36)—They spent a rough Friday night against the Sabres giving up a comical long-distance goal and getting chased around by Robin Lehner. (Although, for what it's worth, Lehner's a severely underrated entry into the pantheon of crazy goaltenders. I wouldn't want any part of him, either.)
2. Edmonton Oilers (22-32-6, -36)—If the Oilers finish dead last and then someone else wins the lottery, everyone in Edmonton should make a big deal out of how unfair it is just to absolutely infuriate every other fan base.
1. Toronto Maple Leafs (20-27-10, -32)—With Matthias traded, that drops the number of Maple Leafs on the market down to... everyone. Everyone is still available.
There's no hope to be found for the five teams above, at least not for this year. The same could be said for a handful of others (cough, Canada, cough). This is the time of year where you're either in or out, and if you're out then it's all about unloading at the deadline and then waiting out the season.
But move a little higher up the standings, and you can still find teams with a realistic shot at a turnaround. Those turnarounds are rare, but they do happen. We've already talked about the one in Anaheim. And there's another going on right now in Minnesota.
One week ago today, the Wild looked like they were done. They were four points out of a playoff spot and plummeting, having lost eight straight and 13 of 14. They were old and expensive, a team that had been built to win now but that had lost to the Blackhawks in the playoffs three seasons in a row. And this year, Minnesota was finally going to break that streak, because it wasn't going to make the playoffs at all.
One week later, the Wild may be the league's hottest team. They've won four straight, by a combined score of 21-8, and have clawed back to within one point of the final wild-card spot. And they just stomped those Blackhawks rivals in front of a national audience, earning a 6-1 win at TCF Bank Stadium in the franchise's first outdoor game.
Unlike the Ducks, it's not hard to find a turning point in the Wild's comeback story. They fired head coach Mike Yeo last weekend, replacing him with John Torchetti, and they've looked like a different team ever since. And sure, that four-game win streak started with a three-game trip through Western Canada, which barely counts. But Sunday's blowout was impressive any way you spin it. A Wild team that turned its season around with last year's Dubnyk deal looks like it just may have found a way to do it again.
The Wild aren't there yet. And it's worth pointing out that sneaking into a wild-card spot might just set the stage for yet another showdown with the Blackhawks, and if they lose that then nobody will be looking back on the season as any sort of success. But maybe that's just all the more reason for Minnesota to look to be among the league's biggest players between now and next Monday's trade deadline. After all, as the Wild have already shown, a team's outlook can change a lot in a week.
Around the league
- As is usually the case, the outdoor alumni game was great fun, with the Blackhawks dropping a 6-4 decision to a sharp-looking Wild/North Stars tag team effort that was highlighted by a Denis Savard/Dino Ciccarelli play fight.
- Next up on the outdoor schedule: the Avalanche and Red Wings at Coors Field in Colorado next weekend. If past history holds up, that's one alumni game that may not feature much play-fighting. And the Wings keep signing on reinforcements.
- We had an extremely weird scenario play out in Edmonton on Saturday, as an apparent Oilers goal was waved off on a goaltender interference call. The Oilers challenged the play, but the ruling was upheld after a review. Taylor Hall criticized the decision, but the more interesting take came from Edmonton coach Todd McLellan, who suggested that he shouldn't have been allowed to challenge the play at all. It sounds like the league isn't actually sure, which isn't exactly the sort of thing you want to hear about a new rule midway through a season.
- The Shayne Gostisbehere express keeps rolling, with the rookie extending his points streak to 15 games with the OT winner on Saturday.
- The Canucks got seven points from the Sedin twins Sunday en route to a 5-1 win over the Avalanche. The victory snapped a weirdly consistent four-game losing streak.
- Reports out of New York say that the Islanders are already eying an exit from their Barclays Center lease. It's early, but this could get ugly.
- Tough week for the Devils, who went pointless in three games and have now dropped three points back in the Eastern Conference wild-card race. That included Saturday's 4-3 loss to the Caps in a game New Jersey led with seven minutes remaining in regulation.
- With apologies to the Devils, the league's roughest week may belong to the Red Wings, who dropped all four games, including last night's 1-0 overtime decision to the Rangers. The Wings had been chasing a division title, but have now dropped down into a wild-card spot.
- Normally at this time of year, one non-playoff team beating another non-playoff team isn't much of a story. But Friday's 3-2 Canadiens win over the Flyers felt like it mattered, if only to prevent a total implosion in Montreal. Michel Therrien's bizarre scapegoating of P.K. Subban last week threatened to detonate whatever was left of the Habs' season. With the win, that's on hold now... for one more game.
- Finally, congratulations to Jaromir Jagr, who scored his 742nd career goal on Saturday to pass Brett Hull for the third spot on the all-time list. To see anyone catch Hull is incredible; it's downright amazing to see it happen to a guy who played most of his career in the dead puck era, spent three years in the KHL and lost two more to lockouts.