Things are, I think, starting to get back to normal. The standings are (mostly) beginning to look more like most reasonable people would have expected going into the year.
There are some outliers, of course, with Vegas and New Jersey still at or near the top of their divisions, the Ducks way down deep in the Pacific, and most of the Central being a slightly off mishmash of teams. But still, this is progress because Detroit isn’t a playoff team anymore. That seems right and rational, doesn’t it?
Sure, Connor McDavid still isn’t close to being near the top of the league in scoring, and neither is Sidney Crosby. But a top-three of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Johnny Gaudreau isn’t totally out of left field.
Just goes to show, doesn’t it, that as time goes on, the things that happen in this sport end up going how most people thought they were going to. Not so bad.
And yet! People still have plenty of questions about the world of hockey, and mostly goalies this week, it seems. Who can blame them? Let’s dig right in:
Samuel asks via email: “What’s a trade the Rangers could make to make them better, or if that trade doesn’t exist where’s the best place to trade Lundqvist to so he gets a last shot at a Cup?”
There’s no single trade the Rangers, a team with $2.5 million in cap space, can do to make themselves better without giving away something they will need elsewhere on the roster. That is, unless they’re just getting rid of draft picks, but that’s not going to happen. This is a self-stated rebuild on the fly, so the thing you gotta do is stay the course and let things happen how they happen.
That’s not a heartening answer for a team that seems to be flailing around in mediocrity and can’t really get things going, but that’s the answer.
And yeah, that means Henrik Lundqvist won’t win a Cup with the Rangers. Which means he probably won’t get one at all this season. There’s just no way any team with even an outside shot at the Cup can take on an $8.5 million AAV mid-season. Especially not one that has three more years on it after this one. Especially not one for a 35-year-old who’ll be 36 in March. Especially not one for a 35-year-old who has as many miles on him as Lundqvist. Especially not one for a 35-year-old with that many miles on him who’s been horrible not only this year, but last year as well.
I was gonna go through and look at teams that are otherwise good but need a goalie, and those teams simply don’t exist. If he gets hot again around the trade deadline, maybe someone like Nashville (which we’ll get to later) makes a one-for-one swap if they feel like they desperately need to upgrade from Pekka Rinne, but I can’t see where Lundqvist is that guy, especially at this incredibly high price point.
Martin asks: “Will Carey Price’s upcoming contract be worse than Rick DiPietro’s?”
And that’s a similar issue for Carey Price, right? The Rangers signed Lundqvist when he was over 30 to this huge-money deal that left everyone with a brain saying, “Well, they better get value out of those first few years.” And they did, right? He was .922 in 2014-15 and .920 (facing the most shots in the league) in 2015-16. But that’s the first two years of an eight-year deal, so this has the potential to get very ugly.
Price will be one year younger than Lundqvist was when Lundqvist started his now-bad contract. He’ll also be more injured (probably) and more expensive. Price’s numbers this year are, of course, horrible versus Lundqvist’s just being “bad.”
With that having been said, the thing I’ve been saying for some time now when it comes to situations like this is, “What were they gonna do? Not sign him?” Lundqvist, Price, and most of the other guys who sign long-term deals after their 28th birthdays are guys GMs aren’t just going to let walk. That’s as much about job preservation as it is keeping the team competitive. Seems like Marc Bergevin gambled big time and potentially already lost, depending upon what’s wrong with Price and how long-term-serious it is, but he’d have been fired if Price was allowed to hit UFA status anyway, so what the hell, right?
The thing I think people forget about the Rick DiPietro deal is the biggest difference here as well. DiPietro is only six months older than Lundqvist and signed his deal before his 25th birthday. Was it too long? Yes. Was it for too much money? Not really, because the cap hit is only $4.5 million (though that was the equivalent of $7.3 million in today’s cap dollars at the time). Did he have any sort of major injury history at that point? Nope, he played 60-plus games all three seasons immediately after the 2004-05 lockout. Was he an above-average goalie in the NHL? Probably; the year he signed that deal, he finished eighth in Vezina voting.
Again, the term was insane, but the injury problems that basically ended his career before his 27th birthday were unforeseeable. And look, if you’re 25 and someone offers you $4.5 million a year until you’re 40, you gotta take that money. I think DiPietro is unfairly maligned — staying healthy is valuable for a professional athlete, but it’s not really your fault if you can’t — and that contract is mostly (insanely) bad in hindsight.
With Price, well, the injury history is there. The problem with hockey players being older than 30 is much better-understood now than it was even a decade ago. And the money is out of control at a time when the cap number without an artificial inflation is effectively flat every summer.
This could end up being a very bad contract mainly because unlike Lundqvist, it might not even have those first two really good years.
Hoy asks: “Tell me why Nashville is such a good team and convince me that they can win the Cup even with an average Pekka Rinne.”
Well look that’s not a question, but I’ll tell you what you want to know anyway. In the future, please actually ask me questions only.
The thing is, you know why Nashville is such a good team. Probably the best blue line in the league, lots of homegrown offensive talent, a better second-line center imported from Ottawa than they had this time last year, and they’re doing fairly well despite the fact that Ryan Johansen is off to a slow start and Ryan Ellis is out until January. And they theoretically have a bit of room against the cap to add even more at the deadline.
Right now, the good news is Rinne is playing out of his mind (.926) and this was a team that got to the Cup Final last year without Johansen (injured) and Rinne (not great). They upgraded a few key positions, both internally and externally, and at a time when they were supposed to be treading water before making a push once Ellis comes back, they’re playing quite well.
Could the possession numbers be better? Sure, but they’re a little above 50 percent without a good No. 3 defenseman and Nick Bonino as their No. 2 center for the bulk of their games so far.
Your point about Rinne is well-taken, but they almost won the Cup last year with him, so…
James asks: “Can Sean Couturier actually finish top 30 in scoring this year?”
Well, 18 games into the season, Couturier has almost half the points needed to match his career high (though to be fair he had 39 in 63 a few years ago, so that’s closer to a 51-point pace). But he’s also shooting 17.5 percent right now and you know that’s not going to last.
Let’s be nice and say he gets to 60ish points this year. That puts him right on the borderline of top-30, so it’s possible that if he keeps this up, he’ll get there. But he’s probably not going to keep this up. So you know the answer to that question.
Dave asks: “How can the Big Ten schools which do not have hockey, get it, and is more NCAA hockey a way to grow the game in the US?”
As with all “How does [insert college here] start a Division 1 program?” questions, the answer is, “Get a rich guy or two to cut a check.” You’re not gonna crowd-fund $60 million or whatever number you feel like you need to get together, and schools aren’t gonna go into pocket to start not just a men’s team, but probably a women’s team as well, because of Title IX.
It ain’t cheap, but that’s the price you gotta pay. Well, not you. Unless you’re a rich guy who has $100 million to throw around. At which point, give me some of that money.
As for whether it grows the game to have more college hockey teams, it most certainly does, as does having an NHL team in a lot of non-traditional hockey markets. When people get exposed to the sport in real life, they like it a lot more than when they only see it on TV.
Nick asks: “What’s up with the Capitals? Everyone knew they’d be worse this season but not ‘near the bottom of the league in most possession stats’ bad.”
I’m just spitballing with this, but when they don’t have Matt Niskanen, they don’t have a good blue line. I think that’s really what it boils down to. Niskanen only has six games played this season and only just came back. Say what you want about Karl Alzner, but he was a hell of a lot better than the guys they tried to replace him with. Christian Djoos, Taylor Chorney, Aaron Ness and Madison Bowey all have at least eight games played this season, and they’re of varying quality, but c’mon.
I think they get better now that Niskanen is back, but how much better, I’m not really sure. I didn’t rate them that highly in the division going into the season, y’know?
Jake asks: “What goalie should the Golden Knights be targeting?”