Jason Brough

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Christmas Q&A: Would you like to change your Stanley Cup pick?

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Brough: Nope, I’ll stick with the Pittsburgh Penguins. So far, I’ve seen nothing to dissuade my opinion that they can become the first repeat champs of the salary-cap era. Even the 7-1 loss in Columbus didn’t hurt my faith in the Pens, since they didn’t have Kris Letang or Trevor Daley, two of their best defensemen. For me, the most encouraging player has been Matt Murray. No sophomore slump for that guy. I will, however, admit that it’s going to be a lot tougher than I expected to get out of the Metropolitan Division. The Penguins could easily face the Rangers or Flyers in the first round, then the Capitals or Blue Jackets in the second, or something along those lines. Survive that and they might have to beat Carey Price to get to the final. So it’ll be tough, but I think they’re up to the task.

Gretz: I originally went with Nashville over Tampa Bay, which is admittedly not looking great at the moment. But then I think back to last season and remember where Pittsburgh and San Jose were at Christmas. So I am going to be bold and stick with it, as crazy at that might seem at this point. There is still too much talent on the Predators for them to be this bad.

Alfieri: Definitely! I chose the Lightning to beat the Stars in the Cup final, which isn’t looking good right now. I expect both teams to turn things around in the New Year, but I’m having a hard time picturing either one playing into June. I know Steven Stamkos will be back in March, but I don’t know if the Lightning will be able to hold it together until then. If I get a fresh pick, I’ll go with the San Jose Sharks. Like Pittsburgh, they haven’t really suffered from a Stanley Cup hangover, which was a little surprising to me considering how many veterans they have on the team. I like the way their roster is put together, and if they can add a piece or two before the deadline, I think they have a legitimate chance to win it all.

Tucker: I chose the Capitals at the beginning of the season. I know advancing far in the playoffs has been a challenge, but I’m going to stick with that pick. Perhaps I’d like to change their opponent. I picked the Capitals over the Predators. Not so confident right now about those Predators making it to the Final. But, of course, plenty of time left in the season.

O’Brien: How about this: rather than changing course altogether, I’ll swap my winner and loser, having the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Dallas Stars. The Penguins have Sidney Crosby, a nice supporting cast and at least one goalie who can get the job done. The Stars are a mess, but as Gretz mentioned above, so were the Penguins around this time last year. The West isn’t the buzz saw it once was, so the Stars could conceivably figure things out and go on a run. Still, their punishment for stumbling out of the gate is being downgraded to Stanley Cup finalist rather than Stanley Cup winner. That’ll show them.

Halford: For the record, I’m totally against the notion of switching picks. This is a joke. You should be saddled with your awful preseason predictions ’til the end of time, like I was for my Columbus Blue Jackets love-in of ’15 (but look at me now! I’m a savant!) So yeah, I’m going to stick with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Not overly worried about their slow start — they pretty much did the same thing last year, and finished one game shy of the Cup final — and I actually think this Ben Bishop injury could be a blessing in disguise. Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s been the better of the two this year — quite significantly, in fact — and now’s the time to prove he’s the goalie of the present, not just the future.

Christmas Q&A: Who has been the NHL’s MVP?

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Brough: Lots of great options, but I’ll go with Devan Dubnyk. I can’t think of a single player who’s been more important to his team’s success. Dubnyk was decent last year, but he’s been spectacular this season. And I’ll admit it, I didn’t think the Wild would be all that good. I thought the Eric Staal signing was a desperation move that was unlikely to pan out, and I saw the hiring of Bruce Boudreau as a last-ditch attempt by GM Chuck Fletcher to squeeze the last bit of juice out of an aging roster. The Wild may fall back to earth in the second half, but thanks to Dubnyk, they’ve built a comfortable cushion in the standings. It would take a pretty big collapse to miss the playoffs now.

Gretz: I think at this point it has to be Connor McDavid. You can talk about Milan Lucic‘s presence in the locker room, or Adam Larsson improving the defense, or the “shake up” that came with trading a core player in Taylor Hall, but the single biggest reason the Oilers even have a chance to make the playoffs at this point is McDavid already being one of the two best players in hockey. The Oilers’ offense runs through him, and when he is not on the ice you still seem some glaring weaknesses with this team. There are not many individual non-goalies in the NHL that can have this big of an impact on their success or failure of their team. But McDavid has already proven to be one of them.

Alfieri: I’ve gotta go with Sergei Bobrovsky. Nobody expected the Columbus Blue Jackets to be competitive this year, but they’ve been fantastic for a few reasons, and the biggest is Bobrovsky. After going through a disappointing 2015-16 season, he’s bounced back in a big way. Sure, he’s had some help, but there’s no doubt that he’s the player the Jackets could least afford to lose if they’re going to make it back to the playoffs next spring. If they want to remain in the top three of the Metropolitan Division, they’ll need Bobrovsky to keep standing on his head. I think he can do it.

Tucker: McDavid. He has to be the front-runner right now, which is remarkable because he’s only 19 years old. He’s a second-year star leading the league in points. There are other candidates, as well. Without McDavid, though, I hate to think where the Oilers would be in the standings. Probably right around where they always were, before they got him. 

O’Brien: When in doubt, go with the player you’d choose in a pick-up game, and for me, that would be Sidney Crosby. His 37 points in 28 games would prorate to a blistering 108 points over 82 games; by comparison, McDavid is on pace for about 94. The time Crosby missed due to his injury can actually help his Hart argument, too, as there’s a night-and-day difference between how the Penguins play with No. 87 versus without him.

Halford: Vladimir Tarasenko, who’s right in the thick of the scoring race. I really don’t think people understand how much he’s carried the Blues this year. Tarasenko leads the team in scoring and is 15 clear of St. Louis’ No. 2 point-getter (Kevin Shattenkirk). And it’s not like the Blues are getting great goaltending or otherworldly performances from other guys, either. Has McDavid been great? Yes, but so has Leon Draisaitl. Has Crosby been great? Yes, but so have Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. Dubnyk and Bobrovsky have been terrific too, but they’ve got really good teams in front of them. Tank, meanwhile, has been a one-man army at times.

Christmas Q&A: Who deserves a lump of coal?

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Brough: The NHL, if they bail on the Olympics. Look, I understand the owners’ reluctance — really, I do — but the fans want it and the players want it, and that goodwill should mean something beyond the bottom line. NHLers have been going to the Olympics since 1998. It’s part of the international schedule now, and to take it away is going to upset a lot of people, including one of the league’s marquee players, Alex Ovechkin. So go to South Korea in 2018, then go to Beijing in 2022 and try to make inroads into a huge Chinese market. In the process, make your customers and employees happy.

Gretz: Radko Gudas. After a suspension last season and a couple of other incidents that probably should have been suspensions he opened this season with a six-game ban for yet another bad hit. The problem with Gudas isn’t necessarily that he sometimes crosses the line with his physical play. It’s that he doesn’t need to cross the line. He has become a good enough player (and he is a pretty good player) that he can still play physical without resorting to the stuff that makes you scream, “What are you doing?!” He is the otherwise good kid that every once in a while ends up with a detention for something completely stupid. Sometimes that gets you coal.

Alfieri: I still can’t believe Cody Eakin only got four games for charging Henrik Lundqvist. I felt like the NHL had the perfect opportunity to send a message with a stiff punishment and they failed to do so. Thankfully, the Rangers goalie was able to return to the game, and he even shut out the Stars in the process. I realize that had Lundqvist been seriously injured, the NHL would have handed out a longer suspension, but I just don’t get that. Sorry Cody, you’re getting coal.

Tucker: Islanders general manager Garth Snow. Let’s just say some of the decisions that organization has made over the past several months — letting Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen go as free agents, for starters, and then the recent Cal Clutterbuck contract extension — shouldn’t exactly inspire a festive spirit for Islanders fans. 

O’Brien: The big bullies on either side of the “traditional” vs. “fancy stats” debate, particularly as it pertains to the Florida Panthers. Even if you disagree with how to build a team/how to play the game, why does it almost always devolve into personal insults? Sometimes it feels like especially grumpy people are expecting the “nerds” to force them to crack open a calculus textbook or something. Sports are supposed to be fun, gang.

Halford: Ignoring what the dork above me wrote, nobody deserves coal more than Patrick Roy. Are the Avs a bad team? Yes. Did he have the right to walk away? Also, yes. But there’s a way to do things, and the time to do them — and Roy picked the worst way, and the worst time. Bailing on the team six weeks before training camp was bad enough, but the fact he did it after Bruce Boudreau, Guy Boucher, Randy Carlyle, Mike Yeo, Glen Gulutzan and Todd Richards all had new jobs was especially brutal. Galling, really. Colorado is a troubled franchise, no doubt, but a coach should never quit on his team. That’s Bobby Petrino stuff.

Christmas Q&A: Who needs a hug from Santa?

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Brough: I’ll say Joe Sakic. The Avalanche are a total disaster, the worst team in hockey. And as general manager, he’s got some big decisions to make about the team’s future. Should he trade Matt Duchene? What about Gabriel Landeskog? While it might be tempting to do major surgery on an underachieving roster, there’s always the potential to make things worse. I think Sakic would love a hug from Santa. And if Santa could score a goal or make a few saves, even better.

Gretz: I think John Tavares could use a hug from Santa. Here you have a player that has been one of the best in the NHL for several years, playing on a below-market contract, for a team that is at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. There have been a lot of head-scratching decisions made by the Isles over the past year, from letting Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen go, to signing a 30-year-old Cal Clutterbuck to a long-term contract (I know, Tavares and Clutterbuck go back a long way, but you still have to be sensible about this stuff), to having that Andrew Ladd contract hanging out there. Tavares deserves better.

Alfieri: I think Santa should take some time out of his busy schedule to give Steven Stamkos a hug. Stamkos was fortunate enough to have signed a huge contract this summer, but he’s also faced plenty of adversity. The Lightning captain has been sidelined by injuries multiple times over the last couple of years and 2016-17 has proven to be no different. Thanks to a knee injury he suffered in November, he’ll be out of commission until March. This comes less than a year after he missed time with a blood clot and just three seasons after he suffered a broken tibia.

Tucker: You mean besides Gerard Gallant? How ’bout Willie Desjardins. He’s been on the hot seat in Vancouver for about a year now, and the criticisms about his coaching — player deployment being one — are fair. But he’s not responsible for what’s happened in Vancouver. The way their roster has been built, the Canucks are not playoff contenders and never should’ve been considered as such by management. 

O’Brien: This season hasn’t been especially kind to goalies who are in pivotal contract years, but my goodness, it’s hard not to feel bad for Brian Elliott. After years of being bypassed for options like Ryan Miller, Jaroslav Halak and ultimately Jake Allen in St. Louis, he gets a chance with the Flames … and flops. Worse yet, Chad Johnson puts up blazing numbers, limiting Elliott’s opportunities to make things right. Elliott could lose millions from this bumpy season, and even if you think Hitch’s system inflated his numbers in St. Louis, that’s a rough break for a guy who put up a fantastic .925 save percentage in his 181 games with the Blues. Along with a hug, Santa should save one of his cookies for Elliott. It’s been a tough haul for the poor guy.

Halford: While I remain somewhat skeptical about Santa’s proclivity for hugs — aren’t his handouts strictly candy canes and bad mall photos? — I’ll play along and say Riley Sheahan could use one. No forward in the NHL has played more games (34) and had more shots on goal (51) without scoring a goal. And that deserves a hug, and maybe a shoulder to cry on. 

Editor’s note: In all seriousness, we’d like to pass along our best wishes to Bryan Bickell, Nicholle Anderson, Dave Strader, and any others in the hockey community who are courageously battling life’s challenges. 

Christmas Q&A: What has been the NHL’s biggest surprise?

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Brough: This is an easy answer for me, because I thought the Columbus Blue Jackets would be terrible again. Oh, sure, I knew they had a talented, young defense, and I knew Sergei Bobrovsky had the potential to play like an elite netminder. I even thought John Tortorella might be a good fit with them. But I certainly didn’t foresee the rise of Alexander Wennberg, or the resurgence of Sam Gagner. I thought they’d have to hope and pray that Pierre-Luc Dubois would one day become a legitimate No. 1 center. How wrong I was. The young Jackets, with their “new culture,” have shocked the hockey world.

Gretz: I find the Ottawa Senators’ first half success to be a pretty big surprise. Maybe not quite on the same level as Columbus, but I didn’t really expect them to be in playoff contention. Erik Karlsson is probably one of the five best players in hockey, and they have a couple of decent pieces around him, but this just didn’t seem like a roster that had improved enough to make up the necessary ground in the Eastern Conference to get back into a playoff position, especially in a division that had Tampa Bay, Florida and a Montreal team that was going to get Carey Price back. But here they are now heading into Christmas with a pretty big cushion in the Atlantic Division playoff race. Yep, I’m surprised.

Alfieri: I’d like to say the Edmonton Oilers are the biggest surprise, but if you remember correctly, I predicted they’d make the playoffs this year. So, I’ll be a grinch and go with a negative surprise and say Filip Forsberg. Last year, the Predators forward netted 33 goals in 82 games, but he’s nowhere close to being that productive this season. Through 32 contests, he’s managed to find the back of the net just five times. It’s no coincidence that Nashville isn’t as high in the standings as many expected them to be at this point. If the Predators plan on turning things around in the New Year, they’ll need their star forward to find his game — and the back of the net — in a hurry.

Tucker: It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for Florida’s two NHL teams, that’s for sure. At the start of the season, it would’ve seemed foolish not to pencil in the Tampa Bay Lightning as a Stanley Cup contender in the East. Moreover, it would not have seemed likely that the upstart Panthers would be the first team to fire its coach. There’s still time for both squads to correct their respective courses, and, as the 2016 champion Penguins showed us, it’s not necessarily about what you do from October through December. But given the progress of both franchises in recent years, the fact they’re both trying to catch up to a playoff spot is a surprise.

O’Brien: As the optimistic soul/dummy who chose the Dallas Stars to win the 2017 Stanley Cup, I’d have to say that their struggles are right up there. While their defensive and goaltending issues are even more problematic than expected, it’s their modest offense that’s truly eye-popping, even with all of the injuries. It’s startling that such an explosive team could slip into the lower half of the league in scoring. That’s borderline criminal for a team that employs Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and John Klingberg (and seriously, what’s going on with Klingberg this season?).

Halford: The answers is the Rangers but, more specifically, how well GM Jeff Gorton’s moves paid off. Gorton was kinda painted into a corner this summer — New York needed to get younger, and faster, yet needed to do it on the cheap. No easy task. So he took low-risk fliers on the likes of Nick Holden, Michael Grabner and Brandon Pirri, made what looked like a “lose now, win later” trade (Derick Brassard for Mika Zibanejad) and landed Jimmy Vesey. It’s safe to say expectations were tempered, but the result? A team that’s currently on pace for 110 points, which would be nine more than last season. Given many saw the Blueshirts as a team on the decline, it’s a huge surprise.