Jet City Ice helps you make the most of your limited TV hockey time with our picks for the upcoming weekend.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. St. Louis Blues
When: Saturday, 12/7, 4:00pm PST
Where: NHL Network
What’s a better way to spend a Saturday night than with a good, old-fashioned Norris Division knock-down-drag-out?
The Leafs and the Blues occupied the Norris Division from 1981 to 1993, before some lawyer slime-ball who has never skated in his life re-organized everything, pissed on the grave of long-time Red Wings owner James E. Norris, and re-named it the ultra-boring Central Division.
History and tradition be damned, Little Napoleon wants it his way.
So the bad blood between these two teams rarely takes the form of pugilistic confrontation these days, but there’s no question that the Leafs are hurting for some payback against St. Louis. Toronto has won just 6 games against St. Louis in the last 20 years, the most recent ones coming in January of 2016. You have to believe the Leafs are going to be pulling out all the stops to get one in the win column this weekend.
St. Louis maintains their tight grip on the lead in both the Central Division and the Western Conference, despite their roster being a minefield of injuries since the start of the season. They have won 4 out of their last 5, wrapping that up by splitting a home-and-home with a loss to Pittsburgh on Wednesday. The Blues are definitely winning by committee: 10 players have at least 4 goals; 12 players have at least 10 points; both goaltenders have identical .925% SVG. None of St. Louis’ wins (or losses, for that matter) is a lopsided affair; 11 of the 16 games they played in November were decided by 2 goals or less. They’re not scoring at a record-setting pace, nor are they shutting the door on their opponents game in and game out. They are simply finding a way to win — not flashy, not highlight-reel, just get the job done and move on.
The Leafs, however, have been a parade of unwanted headlines since the season began. Star player injuries, goalie controversies, coaching changes, about the only thing that hasn’t happened is the arena catching fire. In amidst the bedlam has been a team teetering on the fulcrum of a .500 record, and unfortunately maintaining roughly the same pace at 4-3-0 since the ouster of Coach Cranky Pants and the promotion of Sheldon Keefe to the helm behind the bench. A recent chapter in that story is a humiliating one, however. The Leafs gave up 5 unanswered goals in the final 10 minutes of Tuesday’s outing against Philadelphia, losing 6-1 in a game that was within their grasp through two and a half periods. They are going to have to bring 60 minutes of effort against St. Louis if they hope to get anywhere near a win.
Possible Future Seattle Players: The Blues are in some deep doo-doo when it comes to their protected lists for the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. They have 8 forwards and 2 defensemen signed through the end of the 2021 season at $2 million and up — then Jay Bouwmeester and Alexander Pietrangelo are both signed through 2020, but you know they will extend both of those guys before the season is up — meaning they have a total of 4, one more than they can protect. 3 of those forwards will be unrestricted free agents at the end of 2021 — Tyler Bozak, Alexander Steen, and the juicy one is Jaden Schwartz. Then there’s the goaltender situation. Both Jordan Binnington and Jake Allen are UFA when 2021 comes to a close. So unlike teams where we have trouble finding any players that will be exposed, the question with the Blues is, which one of their key roster players will Seattle be able to steal! The only saving grace for the Blues is, none of the players under contract has an NMC, so you can bet St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong is going to be busy cleaning up this mess in the off-season. If I had to guess based on the situation right now, I’d say that the Blues expose Steen and possibly renew Bouwmeester for just one year making them both UFA at the time of the draft. Given those expensive choices, I would think Seattle goes for somebody younger like forward Ivan Barbashev or blueliner Derek Pouliot.
From the Leafs, previously we mentioned forward Trevor Moore, but we’ll turn to the defensive corps today and bring up probably the most boring player on the Toronto roster: Justin Holl. Earning just north of league minimum, Holl nonetheless has played in all but 2 of the Leafs’ games this year, and sits atop the stats sheet in plus-minus. He delivers a check (and at 6’4” and 210 lbs. you definitely know when he does), he blocks shots, he kills penalties, and he’s even chipped in with a goal and 7 helpers so far this season. He’ll be a UFA at the end of this season, so if the Leafs renew his contract and he continues his steady play, he’ll be a budget-friendly option for Ron Francis to consider at the draft.
NHL Center Ice/NHL.tv
San Jose Sharks vs. Florida Panthers
Sunday, 12/8, 2:00pm PST
This, folks, is one of your last chances to see Jumbo Joe and the GOAT playing side-by-side as the Sharks’ 40-year-old Retirement Party arrives in South Florida to take on the Panthers. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are only good for about 12-15 minutes a night, but they’ve still got enough gas left in the tank to put up 20 points between them.
Thornton, additionally, can still do this…
Arguably, rather than spending the money on those sunset-years contracts, the Sharks would have been wiser to upgrade their goaltending, as that appears to be the weakness in an otherwise absurdly talented lineup. Neither starter Martin Jones nor backup Aaron Dell have cleared the .900% save percentage mark, even though the Sharks are 7th best in shots against league-wide. It’s difficult not to point fingers under those circumstances, but San Jose’s 6-3-1 streak over their last 10 games is somewhat encouraging. Also of note is their 91.4% penalty kill percentage, tops in the league by a substantial margin.
GOAT stands for Greatest of All Time. That’s Marleau’s nickname. Not kidding.
The Sharks arrive in Miami to face a Panthers team clearly relying on the maxim that the best defense is a good offense. They sit 6th in the league in goals scored at 93; they sit 6th worst in the league in goals allowed at 94. Not surprisingly, they sit smack dab in the middle of the league-wide standings with 31 points a 13-9-5 record. Despite this, they are tied for 2nd in the Atlantic, since Boston has opened a huge gap in the standings by essentially wiping their arse with everyone else in the division. Like with San Jose, goaltending appears to be an issue: Sergei Bobrovsky and Sam Montembeault both sit below .900% SVG. Bobrovsky embarrassed himself by allowing 4 goals on 20 shots against Washington last Wednesday. The only bright spot in goal is call-up Chris Driedger, who notched a shutout in his first start with the Panthers and in 2 games is sitting at a 1.53 GAA. Florida takes on Columbus at home on Saturday, so it’s possible that coach Joel Quenneville gives Bob-o the start against his old team and puts Driedger in for the second of those back-to-back games.
Possible Future Seattle Players: From the Sharks, this might be a familiar name to some of you: Alex True. The 6’5” Dane played 3 seasons with the Seattle Thunderbirds — not that it means anything in terms of his draft-worthiness. True showed his scoring potential last season with the AHL San Jose Barracuda, racking up 24 goals and 55 points at right wing while keeping his plus-minus at a noteworthy +16. He’s off to a solid start again this year. He’ll be a restricted free agent at the close of the 2021 season, so it will be interesting to see if he is qualified, and/or exposed.
From the Panthers, it’s a no-brainer: defenseman Anton Stralman. Florida (foolishly) has 4 d-men signed to big-money contracts through at least the end of the 2021-22 season, and it’s likely they will only choose to protect 3 of them (there are two schemes for which players can be protected at which position, but protecting 3 defensemen is the most likely scenario). Stralman, being the oldest and having the shortest contract duration, is likely to be the odd-man out. He has 13 seasons in the league, contributes between 15 and 35 points per year, consistently delivers a positive plus-minus, and he’s a right-handed shot. This will cost Seattle a cool $5.5 million for the 2021-22 season, but he’s an anchor around which the defensive corps can be built. Providing he doesn’t get traded in the interim, we could be seeing Stralman in a Seattle uniform on opening night.