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. Florida Panthers
When: Sunday, 1/12, 4:00pm PST
Where: NHL Network
It’s clear now that the coaching change that took place in Toronto earlier this season has turned that woeful team around. Sheldon Keefe is 15-5-2 as head coach following the ouster of Coach Cranky Pants, and even implacable Maple Leafs skeptics are starting to lower their guard. Don’t look now, but the team you love to hate, its roster wallpapered up and down with high-priced talent, is no longer under-performing.
Keefe is the kind of coach that veers from established patterns and even well-entrenched orthodoxy to get the best out of his players. He totally revised Toronto’s line-change strategy from dump-and-change to hover-and-regroup, retaining possession in the defensive zone while all 5 skaters rotate through the bench before moving up-ice. He started his backup goaltender on the front end of back-to-back games, something not done in Toronto for at least 5 years. At practice earlier this week he divided his skaters into forwards and defensemen on two separate sheets of ice and had the skills coaches work with them individually and in groups. He’s tinkering with line combinations, moving forwards from center to wing and vice-versa, and monkeying with team schedules and off-days; all in an effort to change the fortunes of a squad that, on paper, should be a lock for the playoffs but was teetering on the brink of early tee-times not more than a month ago.
This newly-energized Maple Leafs team brings their winning ways to Miami to face a Florida team starting to lose their… something. Sitting as high as 2nd in the Atlantic Division earlier this season, they have slowly slid down to 4th behind surging Leafs and Lightning squads. Inconsistency seems to be the primary problem at the moment. To wit: they racked up 13 goals in 2 games during wins over Ottawa and Dallas in mid-December; then got routed by Tampa Bay 6-1 not 3 days later. The Panthers are trying to use offense as their defense, as when they score 4 or more they most often come out on top — last night’s 5-2 win over Vancouver, for example. But when teams stop Florida from scoring, their defense can’t sustain a victory — as was the case in the 5-2 loss to Arizona on Tuesday. For defense-first coach Joel Quenneville this is altogether backwards, and the status quo is untenable for a team watching a wild card spot fade away in front of them.
Possible Future Seattle Players: From the Leafs, we previously mentioned forward Trevor Moore and defenseman Justin Holl, so here’s an update. Moore is out with a concussion, not a good sign, but is expected to return sometime soon. He has 2 goals and 5 points in 22 games, and sits currently at -1 for the year. Holl signed a 3-year, $2 million AAV contract extension on New Year’s Eve, so it now looks like he’ll be one of the blueliners that Toronto protects in the expansion draft. There are no goaltenders beyond Frederik Andersen that warrant consideration, but since Freddy is UFA a week after the draft, it’s possible that Seattle will get to negotiate a deal with him during the draft process.
The Panthers roster offers some genuine possibilities. They have bungled their contract management situation, and now have 11 roster players under contract for the 2021-22 season — including 4 defensemen. So that means, barring a trade in the intervening months, Seattle will be able to snatch somebody with some experience and appealing stats. Previously we mentioned Anton Stralman would be a solid choice and the most likely odd-man out if the Panthers choose the standard 7-3-1 protection scheme. But if they go the other direction, protecting 8 skaters and a goalie, then Seattle might do well to consider winger Frank Vatrano. Signed out of the US National Team Development Program by the Boston Bruins as an undrafted free agent, Vatrano is comfortable playing either wing and appears to be developing into a consistent 20-goal scorer. He has been a point-per-game player in the NCAA and AHL, but my guess is that he’s unlikely to reach that level in the NHL. He’s best described as “stout” — 5’10” (and I’d say that’s generous) and 197 lbs; but that heft doesn’t slow him down, and he uses it effectively when finishing his checks. He goes to where the puck will be, sets up for deflections, grabs rebounds, and works the dirty areas. He’d be a capable middle-six forward at a manageable $2.5 million AAV, and would be a decent pick-up with consistent play and the possibility for some up-side.
NHL Center Ice/NHL.tv
Montreal Canadiens vs. Ottawa Senators
Saturday, 1/11, 4:00pm PST
We’re staying in the Atlantic Division and looking at a rivalry game between two teams trying to stay out of the basement. The 18-20-7 Canadiens arrive in Ottawa to confront the 16-22-5 Senators. Safe to say this one will go in favor of whichever team sucks the least. Each of the next-door neighbor clubs has one win apiece in the season series to date.
Identifying the problem with the Canadiens’ performance can be difficult. They have a half-dozen forwards boasting at least 25 points for the year, with veteran Tomas Tatar approaching a point-per-game pace. The defenders are defending, with their top-4 all in positive plus-minus territory; even “He’s still playing?” Shea Weber second on the team in both points and plus-minus. Then you look at goaltending, and you find the answer. Montreal has started 4 netminders this season, none of them above .500 win percentage. Workhorse Carey Price’s 3.01 GAA and .901 SV% isn’t going to get the job done; but without a reliable backup behind him, Price is going to continue to be the go-to whenever coach Claude Julien can responsibly play him. Offensive production is going to have to increase for Montreal to get anywhere near playoff contention, and somebody in the front office apparently thinks that erstwhile NHL veteran Ilya Kovalchuk is the answer to their recent spate of injuries. Whether they’re right or not remains to be seen, and with players reaching the breaking point, time is running out.
Time ran out for division rival Ottawa sometime around Thanksgiving. They are on pace to lose 42 games this season, which pretty much disqualifies them from any chances of postseason glory. Ottawa’s problems start in goal, with the tandem of Swedish netminder Anders Nilsson and not Swedish netminder Craig Anders(s)on* performing equally badly, with Nilsson adding injury to insult by recently landing on IR. Defense is performing at an unremarkable pace, the only noteworthy exception being $8 million dollar man Thomas Chabot and his 25 points — coupled with a team-worst minus-14. The only real bright spot so far this year is forward Anthony Duclair, who seems to have finally found his groove and leads the team with 21 goals and 32 points. The tear in this silver lining is that Duclair is on a one-year contract, appears to be in no hurry to sign an extension, and is eligible for arbitration. Good news for Duclair; bad news for Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion. The Sens got a 6-1 drubbing at the hands of the Capitals on Tuesday; they will use the warm-up tilt against the lowly Red Wings tonight (although Montreal couldn’t get by them earlier this week…) to try to boost their confidence before taking on Les Habitants on Saturday.
Possible Future Seattle Players: From the Canadiens, we previously mentioned defenseman Brett Kulak, so today we’ll consider forward Nick Cousins. He’s currently in a shut-down role on the 3rd line for the Habs, and his quick hands and good defensive instincts serve him well there. But his point stats from Juniors and even the AHL will make your eyes pop out of your head. If he ever achieves anywhere near that level of production in the NHL he’s got top-6 potential. He’s cheap at $1 million AAV right now, perfectly reasonable for a bottom-6 forward, and even if it turns out there’s no upside, somebody has to do the dirty work.
From Ottawa, we previously talked about Anthony Duclair, but given his current point production and contract status that ship has likely sailed. So, repeating the caveat that the Senators currently have 3 (that’s, “three”) players signed past July 1, 2021, we’ll pivot and take a look at defenseman Dylan DeMelo. The scouting report on DeMelo is that he is a puck-moving defenseman. I’d accept that at face value looking at his numbers coming out of Juniors, but his NHL stats don’t reflect it. The more believable observation is that he will rarely do anything on the ice that will hurt the team. DeMelo can be counted on for hits, blocked shots, penalty killing, and a solid plus-minus. Those contributions and that kind of consistency is something Ron Francis will be looking for in his defensive corps, and DeMelo could slot into the middle pairing on the Seattle blue line.
* As a young goalie Craig Anderson thought he would get more attention from scouts if it appeared that he was European. So he told any teams he played for to list his last name was ‘Andersson’, adding an extra ‘s’ to give it a more Scandinavian flavor. This continued even after he was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks, and he played the first year with the team as Craig Andersson. Finally the league lawyers told him that the name on his jersey had to match the one on his contract. So he finally came clean — revealing that his name was actually ‘Anderson’, and explaining the whole story to the press.