‘Choosing to lose’ vs. accepting life in hockey’s lower middle class

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The Battle of Alberta hasn’t actually been much of hockey arms race for the last few years, as the Calgary Flames stare mediocrity in the face while the Edmonton Oilers have been downright abysmal. That being said, the two teams might be intriguing counterpoints for the way franchises build their clubs.

On one hand, you have the big-spending Flames – they’re currently eighth overall in payroll – who missed the playoffs two years in a row and haven’t won a playoff round since the lockout. Meanwhile, the Oilers have been atrocious since the messy Chris Pronger trade. They’ve missed the playoffs for five straight seasons – mostly by a wide margin – and appear headed in that direction once again in most peoples’ eyes.

It’s surprising that either side would have boastful proponents, but an entertaining debate cropped up over the weekend. It started when Flames GM Jay Feaster blasted the Oilers’ model of stockpiling lousy seasons and top-end picks.

Feaster (chuckling): “I’m sorry — Edmonton finished where last year, caller? Want to wager on where we finish relative to Edmonton this year? I’m tired of this question, I’ll tell you very honestly. I’m getting a little sour. How many teams . . . every year, for the last 10 years, five years, eight years, have finished in the bottom five, bottom seven, bottom 10? They’ve had a pick anywhere from No. 1 to No. 10 year after year after year after year, and they still wander in the desert. And they’re no closer to getting out than they were 10 years ago.

On Edmonton’s side, David Staples thinks that the Oilers will have the last laugh, claiming that “Calgary is nowhere and going nowhere.” Staples threw down the gauntlet a bit when he claimed that Edmonton should overtake Calgary no later than next season, though.

This drew the ire of excellent blogger Tom Benjamin, who railed against “choosing to lose.”

And I think Feaster is right. Were the Oilers right to blow it all up? No regrets with the Smyth trade and the subsequent moves that brought the Oilers to this point? It has been a four year rebuilding project – five out of the playoffs – with no end yet in sight. Even if Staples is right and the Oilers pass the Flames in 2012-13, that does not necessarily make them a playoff team after six years of wandering in the desert. The St. Louis Blues were the first post lockout team to “blow it all up” and six years later they still look like a team that is going nowhere. Years of pain and lost seasons can only possibly be worth it if the result is a genuine contender and the Oilers are miles away. They may never get there with this crew.

Brian Burke has endured a lot of criticism in the Leaf media for not adopting the Oiler model when he came to Toronto, but as his remake of the Leafs enters its third year, he looks like having an outside chance at a playoff spot. Did the Bruins suck for years to get to where they are? Did the Canucks? The Wings? The Sharks?

source: Getty ImagesHere’s my problem with that argument: most elite NHL teams are founded on getting the right high-end draft picks at the right time (with the Red Wings late draft wizardry being the obvious exception). The Canucks can thank a four-year run of incompetence for their chance to snag the Sedin twins in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft. The Sharks straddle the line between those two camps, but it’s telling that their foundation is built upon the first two picks of the 1997 draft (they picked Patrick Marleau second overall and then traded for top pick Joe Thornton).

Those examples also ignore two recent Stanley Cup winners (Chicago and Pittsburgh) and at least one consistently dominant regular season team (Washington) who’ve taken full advantage of the “choose to lose” model.

The Blues are a faulty team for someone arguing against tanking, too. While they’ve taken quite a few first round picks recently, most of those picks are in the dreaded middle of the pack. That makes them more of an example of the uncomfortable spot the Flames might find themselves in under Feaster’s plan: too good to get a lottery pick, too bad to make the playoffs.

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There isn’t a fool-proof solution to building a team. Both sides of this argument have their points, but ultimately it comes down to having the right management to either a) take advantage of top-end picks when they get them or b) make the proper adjustments to build a solid team into a contender.

It’s hard to tell if the Flames or Oilers will end up being a good example of either approach, if their recent histories have told us anything. Still, if I had to choose, I’d rather follow a team with a brighter future like the Oilers than be stuck in quicksand like the Flames.

Goalie nods: Henrik Lundqvist returns for Rangers

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After missing nearly three weeks due to a lower body injury, Henrik Lundqvist will be back in net for the New York Rangers on Sunday night when the team visits the Anaheim Ducks.

Coach Alain Vigneault already said that Lundqvist is expected to start two of the three games on this west coast trip, and after Antti Raanta started and recorded the shutout in Los Angeles on Saturday night it seems that Lundqvist will finish the trip with starts against the Ducks and then again on Tuesday against the San Jose Sharks.

Lundqvist has not played since March 7 when he stopped 43 out of 45 shots in a win over the Florida Panthers.

It was that game that Lundqvist suffered the injury that kept him out of the lineup.

Raanta played every game for the Rangers during his absence and continued what has been a strong season as Lundqvist’s primary backup, but if the Rangers are going to have a chance in the postseason they are not only going to need a healthy Lundqvist, but to also have him playing at the level he has been playing at over the past couple of months. Since the beginning of February Lundqvist has recorded a .931 save percentage in his 14 appearances for the Rangers.

Speaking of the postseason, the Rangers can clinch a spot in the playoffs on Sunday night with a win over the Ducks.

No official word from the Ducks on their starter on Sunday, but look for Jonathan Bernier to get an opportunity to continue his recent hot streak.

Elsewhere on Sunday…

— It was Devan Dubnyk going against Jimmy Howard in the early NBC game between the Minnesota Wild and Detroit Red Wings.

Keith Kinkaid gets the start at home for the New Jersey Devils when they go against the Dallas Stars, who will be countering with Kari Lehtonen.

Matt Murray goes for the Pittsburgh Penguins when they host their cross-state rivals the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers went with Michal Neuvirth on Saturday so look for Steve Mason on Sunday.

Michael Hutchinson will be in net for the Winnipeg Jets when they host the Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks have not announced their starter, but after Richard Bachman got the start on Saturday it should be Ryan Miller in net for this one.

Wild’s struggles continue with OT loss to Red Wings

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Well, the good news for the Minnesota Wild is Sunday’s game in Detroit wasn’t anywhere near as embarrassing as their game on Saturday. They were at least competitive in this and took the game to overtime to earn a point in the standings.

The bad news is the result was pretty much the same — another loss in the standings.

Thanks to Andreas Athanasiou‘s 17th goal of the season 1:52 into the overtime period, the Red Wings were 3-2 winners on Sunday afternoon, sending the Wild to their 11th loss in 14 games this month.

The game continues Minnesota’s late-season collapse that has seen the team lose its stranglehold on the Central Division and play some of its worst hockey of the season with the playoffs just around the corner. They have collected just seven out of a possible 28 points in the standings this month and still sit seven points back of the Chicago Blackhawks for the top spot in the division after Sunday. The Wild led the division by five points at the start of the month.

As bad as another loss is, this was far from the Wild’s worst game during this recent stretch. They limited Detroit to just 19 shots on goal, they had their chances to win it. But at the end of the day nobody in Minnesota wants to hear that right now because it’s still a loss, and it still looks like a team that is struggling to find answers on the ice. Not really the type of thing you want to see at this time of year.

Minnesota actually entered the third period with a 2-1 lead but let it slip away early in the period on a Tomas Tatar power play goal 55 seconds in. The Wild had their share of chances late in the game only to have Jimmy Howard make a couple of huge stops on Eric Staal and Jason Zucker in the final minute.

Staal did score his 26th goal of the season earlier in the game to give the Wild a 1-0 lead.

As for the Red Wings, the win is their fourth in their past six games (and the fifth with at least a point during that stretch) while Henrik Zetterberg continued his recent strong play recording another assist.

Defenseman Mike Green also scored in the win.

Coyotes agree to terms with first-round pick Keller on entry level deal

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The Arizona Coyotes have agreed to terms with Clayton Keller, the No. 7 overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft, the team announced on Sunday.

Keller is one of two first-round picks the Coyotes had in 2016, along with defenseman Jakob Chychrun who has been with the team all season.

The plan for Keller at this point is to join the Coyotes and spend the remainder of the season with the club. Since the team only has seven games remaining on the schedule his presence with the team the rest of the way will not burn one of the years off of his entry level deal (since he is under the age of 19, he would need to play in nine games to lose one year of his entry level contract).

“We are extremely pleased to sign Clayton to an entry level contract,” general manager John Chayka said in a statement released by the team. “Clayton is a highly skilled, dynamic forward. He is a strong skater who has a powerful shot and great hockey sense. We are excited to have him join our team and finish the regular season with the Coyotes.”

After spending the previous two years playing for the U.S. National Development Team, Keller joined Boston University for the 2016-17 season and put together a huge season for the Terriers, leading the team in goals (21) and total points (45) even though he only played in 31 games.

The Coyotes’ next game is in St. Louis on Monday night.

Keller was born in Swansea, Illinois which is less than 20 miles from St. Louis, so the timing for his debut would be pretty perfect.

Along with Chychrun, Dylan Strome and Max Domi, Keller is going to be one of the talented young players that is going to be key to the Coyotes’ rebuild.

WATCH LIVE: Minnesota Wild at Detroit Red Wings

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The Minnesota Wild are looking to snap out of their recent slump that has seen them stumble down the stretch run of the regular season.

After getting embarrassed on home ice on Saturday afternoon against the Vancouver Canucks they are back in action on Sunday afternoon in Detroit against the Red Wings. It is their last ever visit to Joe Louis Arena before the building closes at the end of this season.

All of the action begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

Follow all of the action there, or via our Live Stream.

Click here for the Live Stream

Preview: Wild look to bounce back from embarrassing loss