When you’re trying to rebuild an NHL team, winning isn’t the only thing. Sometimes it’s the thing you want to occasionally avoid.
Such a thought comes to mind with the surprisingly scrappy Senators, who’ve rattled off wins in four of five games (and eight of 12) to build a respectable 10-11-1 record. Their 10 regulation/OT wins rank ahead of the Maple Leafs and Lightning, both stuck at nine.
Ottawa can really hang its hat on just how challenging this red-hot stretch should be on paper, with eight of their last 11 games coming on the road.
It all brings up a fascinating-if-awkward question: how much success would be too much success? What are the best ways to find the right balance between not (at least overtly) sabotaging immediate results in the interest of taking bigger swings in the future?
It brings to mind a key point: there’s an art to “tanking” while not torching the confidence and habits of the players you want to keep around for the better days. When you look at teams that have been stuck in agonizingly long rebuild cycles such as the Buffalo Sabres, you’ll note players like Ryan O'Reilly burning out at the constant losing, and sometimes getting shipped out of town right when Buffalo might have been more situated to restore his love of the game.
Ideally, the Senators will start to build a structure for the future, while also losing enough to bank some big lottery odds. Judging by head coach D.J. Smith’s comments to Salvian, it seems like the organization is taking a sober approach.
“This is a process,” Smith said. “For us, whether its three years, four years, however long it takes for these kids to develop … But that’s been the best part, we are finding ways to win with the young guys and they are getting minutes and they are getting better.
“My job is to make them better by the end of the year, and if we can win some games along the way, it’s great.”
Building up assets to sell at a high price
Along with developing young players, Ottawa should focus on pumping up the value of non-essential pieces for lucrative trade returns.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau: It’s easy to see why the Senators would want to keep JGP around for the long haul, but if I were Senators GM Pierre Dorion, I’d try to maximize the return for a 27-year-old player who’s on a career-best hot streak, with an unsustainable 24.5 shooting percentage acting as a red flag for his impressive 13-goal, 17-point start through 22 games.
While Pageau’s $3.1M AAV will shrink even more for a cap-challenged contender around deadline time, Dorion should consider selling him at his peak value (right now) if a desperate team would be interested.
If there’s angst about letting Pageau go … well, Ottawa could bring him back in free agency next summer.
Craig Anderson: The cynical rebuilding thing to do would be to keep Anderson (not playing well) and Nilsson (playing very well) in a platoon situation to lose more games. There’s a different bonus that could happen here, though: if Anderson plays at least competently, a team might look at him as a decent insurance policy, even at 38. Especially if Ottawa retained some of his $4.75M AAV … which isn’t a guarantee with Eugene Melnyk writing the checks, but still.
Anthony Duclair, Mikkel Boedker, Vladislav Namestnikov, Ron Hainsey, etc.: The Senators have a wide variety of expiring contracts for different tastes, in some cases with unclear injury situations (Namestnikov is on IR). If Ottawa can get value from trading any of them — even Duclair — they probably should.
For those grimacing at the notion of the Senators not putting their full weight behind a playoff push, consider a point Salivan made in passing: Ottawa had 21 points in 22 games last season, too.
The Senators’ greatest focus should be on the future, but they don’t need to totally look beyond the present to do so. Finding the right balance could really help in the construction of this rebuild.
You’d imagine that there’s no animosity on either side, as that trade allowed the Sharks to get out of Mikkel Boedker‘s problem contract.
For many, it was a mere transactional curiosity, something that would inspire a few “Oh yeah, that happened,” type responses.
Yet, for a group of Sharks fans, Hoffman’s “return” to San Jose provided an opportunity for trolling at such a level that even Hoffman approved. Teal City Crew, a “fan-driven supporter club of the Sharks” located in section 218, decided to create a banner honoring Hoffman’s mere hours with the Sharks.
It was very good, so good that Hoffman had to have it for himself.
With any random scroll on social media, you face uncomfortably high odds of seeing something terrible. If you follow a lot of sports fans and figures, sometimes things go too far when a player has a tough game.
So, while these gestures seem minor, it’s pretty refreshing to see such friendly interactions between players and fans of rival teams.
Hot take: being nice is even more underrated than Mike Hoffman.
1. Mikkel Boedker, Ottawa Senators. It was a big day in Ottawa as Erik Karlsson, one of the best players (arguably the best) to ever wear a Senators uniform returned for the first time as a visitor. In the end, it was Mikkel Boedker that ended up stealing the spotlight on Saturday with a four-point effort in the Senators’ 6-2 win over Karlsson and the Sharks. The Senators acquired Boedker over the summer in their other big trade with the Sharks when they sent Mike Hoffman to San Jose as part of their ongoing rebuild. His performance on Saturday snapped what had been a four-game point-less streak and was just his third multi-point game of the season.
2. Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens. He has only played two games this season but Shea Weber has already made a huge impact on the ice for the Montreal Canadiens. After recording 25 minutes, 13 total shot attempts, and an assist in his 2018-19 debut, he had an even better game on Saturday night by scoring a pair of goals in a 5-2 win over the New York Rangers. That win snapped a five-game losing streak for the Canadiens.
3. Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes. The Arizona Coyotes won their third consecutive game on Saturday night by crushing the St. Louis Blues, 6-1. Clayton Keller was the big star in this one with a goal and two assists, one of which was an absolute beauty to set up Alex Goligoski. One of the NHL’s top rookies a year ago, Keller is now up to eight goals and 10 assists in his first 25 games this season. With a 12-11-2 record the Coyotes are significantly ahead of where they were at this time a season ago. They did not win their 12th game of the 2017-18 season until Jan. 22, so there are definitely big steps being taken in Arizona.
Other big performances on Saturday
— The New York Islanders made quite a return to the Nassau Coliseum on Saturday by rallying from a two-goal deficit to defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets, 3-2. After allowing the Blue Jackets to jump out to a 2-0 lead, the Islanders scored two goals during a five-minute stretch in the second period to tie the game, setting the stage for a Casey Cizikas game-winner in the third period.
— Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald is not really known for his offense but he recorded three assists in their 4-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
— Starting goalie Ben Bishop returned to the lineup and stopped 24 out of 25 shots in the Dallas Stars’ 2-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks.
— With Wililam Nylander finally signed to a six-year contract and Auston Matthews back in the lineup we are about to see the firepower of a fully armed and operational Toronto Maple Leafs team. They were 5-3 winners against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night with Matthews scoring his 13th goal of the season. He is averaging a goal per game this season and is now up to 20 total points. He has four points (including three goals) in two games since returning to the lineup.
— Gustav Nyquist had a goal and two assists for the Detroit Red Wings in their 4-2 win over the Boston Bruins.
— Mikko Koskinen improved to 8-2-1 for the Edmonton Oilers with a 31-save effort against the Vegas Golden Knights.
Highlights of the Night
The Winnipeg Jets and New Jersey Devils played one of the best overtime periods of the season on Saturday night. Keith Kinkaid made some incredible saves for the Devils, but Mark Scheifele made the play of the game when he stole the puck from Nico Hischier, collected his own rebound, and scored the game-winning goal.
Brayden Point scored his 19th goal of the season to complete a huge comeback for the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was also his 15th game-winning goal since the start of the 2017-18 season. No one in the NHL has more since then.
The Nashville Predators had quite the start on Saturday night against the Chicago Blackhawks. It was another tough game for the Blackhawks, and especially defenseman Duncan Keith as he was ejected and assessed 27 penalty minutes in only four minutes of ice-time.
If you know an Ottawa Senators fan, give them a hug.
They probably need it.
Everyone knew this was going to be a tough season for them. They are a ridiculously young team that has been gutted of most of its star power over the past two years as a bumbling ownership attempts to rebuild the organization into something relevant. The immediate future is not particularly bright. The long-term future may not be all that bright, either.
On Saturday, they were absolutely run out of the building in Buffalo during a 9-2 loss.
Then they had to come back 24 hours later and face the Tampa Bay Lightning, one of the best teams in the NHL. Not exactly a great matchup.
Surprisingly, the Senators found themselves in a position where they were less than a minute away from coming away with what would have been an extremely impressive win. The kind of win that might have been a big confidence boost for a young team still finding its way. At the very least, it would have been a sensational way to rebound after an embarrassing loss on Saturday and something the home fans could have been happy about.
Then things completely went off the rails in what would eventually turn into a stunning and brutal 4-3 overtime loss.
With less than two minutes to play in regulation and the Senators clinging to a 3-2 lead, veteran forward Mikkel Boedker took a slashing penalty that sent the Lightning to the power play.
With just under 30 seconds to play the Senators’ penalty kill had an opportunity to get the puck out of the zone and perhaps end the game when this happened…
Oh. Oh no. Oh my gosh no. What are you doing?!
First, let’s give some credit to Ryan McDonagh there for forcing that turnover because that was an incredible play. But Ottawa … what are you doing? Specifically the two forwards, and especially Magnus Paajarvi, for completely blowing the zone there. What. Are. You. Doing?!
I get that it is tempting to go for the empty net goal, but you do not need it. You are on the penalty kill. There is no icing. All you need is a clear and the game is over. All you need to do is not go flying out of the zone before your team has possession of the puck and not leave the lone defender back and your goalie by themselves against that power play unit.
Overtime was only 14 seconds with Yanni Gourde, fresh off signing a brand new long-term contract this week, scoring the game-winning goal for the Lightning.
It took less than a minute of clock time for an impressive 3-2 win to turn into a 4-3 loss.
The NHL’s situation room reviewed the play for potential goaltender interference but determined that Point’s contact with Senators goalie Craig Anderson was incidental contact outside of the crease, allowing the goal to stand.
Great two points for the Lightning.
Absolutely miserable way for the Senators to lose to wrap up a completely forgettable weekend.
In 2017-18, the Atlantic Division was the only one of the four divisions that had three teams pick up at least 105 points during the regular season. The Lightning (113), Bruins (112) and Maple Leafs (105) each managed to have pretty strong seasons. Unfortunately for the rest of the teams in the Atlantic, those three organizations were the only three that made the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Panthers, who finished fourth in the division, missed out on the postseason by just one point. But in the end, five of the eight playoff teams in the East came from the Metropolitan Division.
What will the division look like this year? Let’s take a look:
Strengths: There’s no denying that the Bruins have one of the best first lines in the NHL. Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak were unstoppable at different times last season, and there’s no reason to believe anyone will be able to slow them down this year. Yes, Bergeron is banged up right now, but the Bruins managed to overcome a stretch of games where he was injured last year, too. He managed to finish the year with 63 points in 64 games, while Marchand had 85 points in 65 games and Pastrnak accumulated 80 points over 82 contests.
Weaknesses: The Bruins have a great first line, but do they have enough scoring to match teams like Tampa Bay or Toronto? David Krejci has a hard time staying healthy and David Backes isn’t the same player he once was. They have some good youngsters on the roster, but it’ll be interesting to see if they can pick up the offensive slack enough to carry the Bruins to a division crown.
2017-18 Highlight: The team scored plenty of nice goals, but there’s no highlight that stands out more from 2017-18 than the one of Marchand licking opposing players. It’s gross, but it’s all anybody talked about when it happened.
MVP Candidate: It has to be Marchand. He led the team in scoring last year, and even though he’s the guy other team’s love to hate, there’s no denying that he’s an effective hockey player. Sure, he crosses the line a lot, but when he focuses on playing hockey, there aren’t too many in the league that are better. He’ll have to continue taking his game to another level if the Bruins are going to hoist the Stanley Cup.
Playoffs or Lottery: Definitely playoffs. Assuming they stay healthy, this team will compete for the division and conference crowns. They should stack up pretty well with the Maple Leafs and Lightning.
Better or Worse: The Sabres may have been one of the worst teams in the league last year, but they should be better. The simple fact that they were able to add Rasmus Dahlin because they won the NHL Draft Lottery last year makes them an improved squad. Even though they traded away Ryan O'Reilly to St. Louis, they still managed to add a veteran scorer like Jeff Skinner at a very reasonable price. The Sabres may not make the leap into the playoff picture this year, but they’re definitely better.
Strengths: Buffalo has one of the best young centers in the game in Jack Eichel. Even though they’ve yet to make the playoffs since he came into the league, every team in the league would kill to have a player like Eichel to build around. GM Jason Botterill still needs to work on getting his star forward some more help, but finding franchise centers is a lot harder than getting a good supporting cast. So the toughest part of the job is done.
Weaknesses: They’ll have their share of issues on defense, but the addition of Dahlin improves the unit right away. Rasmus Ristolainen is another important piece on the back end and Marco Scandella is a useful player, but the rest of the group needs some work. Also, they still don’t have a proven number one goalie on their roster. Carter Hutton is a veteran, but he’s never been asked to shoulder a starter’s workload. Linus Ullmark is an unproven commodity at the NHL level. Keeping the puck out of the net will be an issue this season.
2017-18 Highlight: A “Jack-Trick” isn’t really a creative name, but it’s still something that happened last season. The fact that he managed to score two goals in under 10 seconds is also pretty impressive.
MVP Candidate: As you’ve probably been able to figure out at this point, Eichel will be the one to carry this team if they’re going to make it to the postseason for the first time in years. His point total has increased from 56 to 57 (61 games) to 64 (in 67 games), so it’s only normal to expect his offensive numbers to increase assuming he can stay healthy.
Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. The Sabres are on the way up with players like Eichel and Dahlin at their disposal, but making the playoffs is a bit too big of an ask from this group right now. Expect them to be improved through.
DETROIT RED WINGS:
Better or Worse: The Wings brought back Thomas Vanek and they re-signed Mike Green, but the fact that they lost Henrik Zetterberg to a back injury definitely makes them worse. After years of being a model franchise, Detroit is going through a rebuild right now. They have some solid youth to build around, but they’ll suffer through a few more lean years before becoming competitive again.
Weaknesses: The Red Wings have one of the worst bluelines in the NHL. Four of their top six defensemen are over 32 years old (Mike Green, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathon Ericsson and Trevor Daley). That group just isn’t good enough to make the Wings competitive. This roster needs a ton of work, especially on the back end.
2017-18 Highlight: There weren’t many memorable moments for the Red Wings during the 2017-18 season, but the opening of Little Caesars Arena was special.
MVP Candidate: Larkin will have to be great if the Red Wings are going to compete for a playoff spot. The 22-year-old posted a career-high 63 points in 82 contests last season. Those are impressive numbers, but he’ll have to be even better if Detroit has any chance of playing deeper into April.
Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery, again. The Red Wings just aren’t deep enough at any position to be pencilled into a playoff spot at this point. They don’t have enough scoring, they probably won’t be good enough on defense and there’s only so much Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier can do between the pipes.
Better or Worse: GM Dale Tallon did a good job of making his team better after they missed the playoffs by one point last year. They went out and acquired Mike Hoffman from San Jose (via Ottawa), which gives them another proven top-six forward. Some of their young players have gained experience and that should also make them a better team, overall.
Weaknesses: Their goaltending isn’t a weakness, but it can become one if Roberto Luongo fails to stay healthy, again, this season. The 39-year-old was solid when he played last year, but he only managed to suit up in 35 games. If he can play the majority of the games, he’ll be fine. If he can’t, the Panthers will have to turn to James Reimer, which is less than ideal.
2017-18 Highlight: Luongo delivered this incredibly emotional speech after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
MVP Candidate: Barkov has emerged as one of the premiere two-way forwards in the game. The 23-year-old posted a career-high 78 points in 79 games last season. There’s no reason to think that he can’t get even better this season. The Panthers’ new captain will have more pressure on his shoulders, but he can handle it.
Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. They missed the postseason by a point last year, so they’ll use that to fuel their season this year. They have a solid blue line and some skilled forwards. If the goaltending cooperates, they’ll be just fine.
Better or Worse: Things seem to be a little more positive around Canadiens camp right now compared to last year. But it’s hard to suggest this team is better though, especially because they won’t have Shea Weber until Christmas and because they traded away their top two goal scorers in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk.
Strengths:Carey Price is still considered to be one of the best goaltenders in the league. Even though he struggled mightily last year, he still has the ability to bounce back in a big way. If Price plays up to his potential, the Canadiens might surprise the hockey world this season.
Weaknesses: GM Marc Bergervin still hasn’t addressed the defense. Losing Weber for months hurts, but they’re still lacking good puck-movers. Jeff Petry will serve as their number one defenseman until Weber comes back, but his defense partners this preseason have included Karl Alzner and Jordie Benn. Yikes.
2017-18 Highlight: This Price save against Tampa is just too pretty not to watch over and over again. Ridiculous.
MVP Candidate: There’s no doubt who the MVP is in Montreal. It’s Price. If he dominates between the pipes the Canadiens will have a chance. If he doesn’t, they’re toast. It’s as simple as that.
Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. They’re too thin on the defense, too thin down the middle and there’s too much pressure on the goalie. It feels like the Canadiens are heading in the right direction, but they aren’t ready to make the playoffs this year.
Better or Worse: You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to argue that the Senators are a better team this year than they were last year. Trading away Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman will do that. Chris Tierney and Mikkel Boedker won’t be able to fill the voids left by the players that they were traded for.
Strengths: Even though they traded some of their best players away, they still have Mark Stone and Matt Duchene on the roster for now (they’re both free agents at the end of the season). Those two will have to drive the offense for the Senators this season. Will they finish 2018-19 in Ottawa? That’s a different question.
Weaknesses:Thomas Chabot has a bright future ahead of him, but there’s no number one defenseman on this roster now that Karlsson’s gone. They aren’t very deep up front. And if Craig Anderson struggles like he did last year, it’s going to be a very long year in Ottawa.
2017-18 Highlight: As bad as things were last season, at least the Senators took care of the Canadiens in that outdoor game in December.
MVP Candidate: Stone put up an impressive 62 points in 58 games last year, but he’s going to have to be a whole lot better in 2018-19 if the Senators are going to surprise. Of course, the better he plays, the more Eugene Melnyk will have to pay him next summer. So, is this a lose-lose for the Sens?
Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. There’s so much drama around the Senators right now that it’s hard to imagine them going on any kind of run this year. Management has already come out publicly and said this is a rebuild (even though they have no first-rounder).
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING:
Better or Worse: The Lightning didn’t make a major splash over the summer, but they’ll benefit from having J.T. Miller and Ryan McDonagh for a whole season (they acquired both players at the trade deadline). The Bolts didn’t have to make a major move to be considered one of the elite teams in the division. They’re better.
Weaknesses: Ummmmm this team doesn’t appear to have any weaknesses on paper. They’ve got scoring, they’ve got quality defenders and they have one of the best goalies in the league in Andrei Vasilevskiy.
2017-18 Highlight: There’s no way Anze Kopitar didn’t have nightmares about this Vasilevskiy save.
MVP Candidate: There’s so many options, but Kucherov has to be the guy here. In the first half of last season, he was probably the favorite to win the Hart Trophy but players like Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon eventually emerged as options. The Russian winger cracked the 100-point mark for the first time in his career. Don’t be surprised if he does it again.
Playoffs or Lottery: Too easy. This is a playoff team. They’re good enough to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Final, but there’s going to be a ton of competition in this division.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS:
Better or Worse: Any team that’s able to add John Tavares in free agency is automatically better (no kidding).
Strengths: There aren’t many teams that could go head-to-head with the Leafs down the middle. Auston Matthews and Tavares are one of the top two center duos in the league along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh.
Weaknesses: Their defense is still a question mark. Sure, they have Morgan Reilly, who is a quality defender, but they’re still lacking another top pairing guy. Maybe this is the year they’ll sacrifice some of their forward depth to make sure they go out and address that need.
2017-18 Highlight: This one was pretty funny. Matthews had a goal called back after video review, so the next time he put the puck in the net, he made sure to signal that it was a good goal.
MVP Candidate: There’s options here, but Matthews still has to be the go-to guy in this category. The 21-year-old scored 40 goals in his rookie year and 34 goals in 62 games last year, so it’s scary to think what he’ll be able to do if he stays healthy in 2018-19. He’ll need to be great if he wants to claim the division and conference crowns.
Playoffs or Lottery: Whether or not they make the playoffs isn’t the question. What everyone wants to know is: Will they make it out of the first round of the playoffs? No matter how good they are during the regular season, another first-round exit would be a huge disappointment in Leaf Land.