Top questions of the 2015–16 NHL season

Photo by Jeff Vinnick via http://thescore.com

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in the Other Press. October 6, 2015

Here’s to another year of hockey, and, like the start of every school year, we have to wonder who will excel, what surprises will occur, and how all the changes will affect the grand scheme of things. Overtime storylines will play out on the ice, and we’ll learn the answers. Until then, these are the top question entering the 2015–16 NHL season:

Will Connor McDavid lead the Oilers to a playoff berth (and beyond)?

McDavid is marketed as the next Sidney Crosby, but will Edmonton—with its poor development system and defensive support—drain the talents of another first overall draft pick? Will McDavid be able to do what Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Taylor Hall couldn’t? It took Crosby three full seasons before captaining the Penguins to a championship. How long will it take McDavid? No rush. The bar is low. For now, synergistically, Edmonton as a whole can aim for the next level and make it into the playoffs. Easy.

How will three-on-three overtime affect the overall standings?

The shootout has not been eliminated, but with three-on-three overtime, it might as well have been. I love this new tie-breaking format, however, I’m disappointed to see the end of four-on-four—if only there was some way to integrate that. Needless to say, with opening the ice for key players and reducing the flip-of-the-coin factor of shootouts we can see more skilled teams earning points. For example last season the Los Angeles Kings won 2 of 10 overtime shootouts. Those lost points could have ultimately gotten the former Stanley Cup champions into the playoffs, where they would have surely dominated.

Can coaching changes turn the tides for underachieving teams?

Mike Babcock to Toronto, Peter DeBoer to San Jose, Dan Bylsma to Buffalo, and Todd McLellan to Edmonton—these are a few of the high profile coaches standing behind new benches this season. The only reason coaches are moved is because their old teams are failing to achieve certain goals and their new teams have limited options. I don’t believe any coach can singlehandedly turn a franchise around, and as great as their track records are—especially for Babcock and Bylsma—I believe it’ll be a few years before they can make their mark. The thing is, will their new teams be so patient?

Will the Western Conference dominate the East again in the finals?

For five of the past six years, the winner of the Stanley Cup playoffs has been from the Western Conference. On top of that, those five victories were from two teams, the Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks. These two “dynasty” teams will be hard-pressed to continue this pattern as many of the Eastern contenders have seen improvements. This might be the year the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, or Tampa Bay Lightning learn from their tribulations and win four series in a row. There are also a few dark horse contenders with generational players—Alexander Ovechkin and Jonathan Tavares both have optimistic teams ready to face-off—ready to take their legacy to supremacy. This year, I believe the two teams matched in the finals will be turning the page on the Kings’ and Blackhawks’ dominance.

Why NHL in Vegas is a low-stakes gamble—but is it most deserving?

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The ‘best’ cities for NHL expansion

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in the Other Press. Oct. 1, 2015

The National Hockey League has kept their cards close to their chest in terms of when and where the next expansion franchise—if there is one—will be. As far as competition goes, Las Vegas and Quebec City are the two frontrunners, being the only two cities to submit their $10 million application fee. While eyes are on the prize, both of those cities have things working against them when it comes to adopting a NHL franchise.

Las Vegas, known for its sultry heat and abundant amount of entertainment, may seem like a bizarre place to watch hockey. In addition, having never been home to a major sports team, Las Vegas doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Bets are on for whether such a venture would be successful or not. We would hate to see it become another inescapable desert disappointment, (cough cough) Phoenix, I mean, Arizona.

All I can say is that the heat will not be what harms their chances; it will be the fan base. At the moment, Hockey Vision Las Vegas, an organization seeking committed hockey fans to buy tickets, is aiming to convince the league that there is a strong desire for hockey. I believe there is a fan base in Vegas, but not necessarily from the locals.

Las Vegas is a vacation hotspot with 40 million people visiting in 2014—many of whom came during the winter season, i.e., hockey season. This is a perfect opportunity to lure in spectators who would not have an opportunity to see hockey otherwise.

I know that Vancouver fans will happily drop $500 for flights and an all-inclusive trip to Vegas to see a Canucks away game against the Las Vegas team. But would those living in the Sin City bother seeing their own team? The fact is that any Canadian hockey fans would be excited to see their team in Vegas, but if that’s the case, why not have the expansion take place closer to home?

Seeing Winnipeg get a team back in 2011 must have given Quebec City a lot of hope. The reason they lost the Nordiques in 1995 to Colorado was because their facilities could not match the new NHL standards. That’s all changed now; the Videotron Centre gives the city some legs to stand on when trying to earn the NHL’s attention. It’s designed with hockey as its sole purpose. With that being the case, it’s just a matter of time before hockey returns to French Canada.

However, Quebec could get a franchise again via a different route: the Carolina Hurricanes have been rumoured to be on the move. This means the former Hartford Whalers franchise could possibly move north of the border… wouldn’t that be nice?

Las Vegas and Quebec City are as different as cities come, but for hockey, I believe these two places are apt choices. Nevertheless, I hate seeing so many NHL franchises concentrated on the East Coast. We are due for a couple of purely western teams. For selfish reasons, I would rather see an expansion team in Seattle or Portland before a team in Quebec City. One thing lacking for Vancouver fans is an opportunity to go on road trips to see our regional rivals. If Seattle can make a push when the next expansion round comes around, that would be exciting news. But for now we’ll take what we can get, and be happy we don’t live in Atlanta.

Rotating goalies make 2015 playoff interesting

Andrew Hammond photo by Harry How

Young and veteran goalies trade off chances in net

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. May 4, 2015

Twenty-four goalies entered play in the first round of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. With 75 per cent of the teams using more than one goalie, it makes competition ever more unpredictable. Goaltending has always been hailed as the defining factor when it comes to the playoffs. A goalie can steal a game and win a series all on his own. And this year quality goaltending remains an important ingredient for any team’s success.

While rotating goaltenders can get you to the finals—remember when the Philadelphia Flyers with Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher lost to the Chicago Blackhawks—it rarely wins you the championship. The script this year is a bit different though for a number of teams. The Ottawa Senators and the Vancouver Canucks earned playoff berths this year all because of the valiant play of their backup goalies. Sadly when it came down to crunch time, (i.e., a seven-game series) Andrew Hammond and Eddie Lack were unable to pull off any miracles.

However, it was interesting seeing the veterans step in to salvage the series. Number one goalies Craig Anderson of the Senators and Ryan Miller of the Canucks, ended up starting their respective game six elimination games. One might believe that if the coaches were to start their number ones initially the result might have been different, however, with such stellar performances from the rookies and sophomore goaltenders the fans might have been outraged to see that. Hindsight is only so useful in hockey.

The result was perhaps inevitable. You need your number one goalie to perform like a number one goalie if you want to win the Stanley Cup. If you bet on your number two, it’s a huge gamble. There are exceptions of course. In 2006 Cam Ward of the Carolina Hurricanes came in to replace Martin Gerber early in the playoffs to lead the Hurricanes to the championship.

Teams with sound goaltending like New York Rangers, Anaheim Ducks, and Montreal Canadiens are the undeniable favourites this year. Having consistency on the backend does more for a team than build confidence. With solid goaltending, a team can intimidate the opposition. In a sense, with a goalie as consistent as Carey Price or Henrik Lundqvist, opponents are down a point before the game even begins.

Of the teams that have advanced to the second round, the Calgary Flames and the Chicago Blackhawks are the two most notable teams that have succeeded with a rotating goalie strategy. While it has worked so far, if one goalie does not step forward and take the sole responsibility—have reliable performance day after day—then they will surely be eliminated. The Blackhawks are facing the Minnesota Wild with Devan Dubnyk, who has really come into form since escaping Edmonton. It’s hard to bet against the experience of the Blackhawks, but going with the theme, inconsistent goaltending may end up being their downfall.

Stars without a purpose

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Give the NHL All-Stars something to play for

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. January 20, 2015

The format for selecting the top players to be involved in the annual NHL All-Star Game and Super Skills has been an experiment for many years. Fan voting, player drafts, and the executive choices from the NHL have all been tried. Not that the games themselves have any merit except a little bit of bragging rights for the players and some excitement for the fans. The selection process is often more surprising than the actual event itself. With all that being said, how can we give a little more life to a game that doesn’t matter?

From the old-fashioned World versus North America to the current Eastern versus Western Conference battles, we always see some key players left off the roster. With the fans in charge of selecting the top six players in each respective position this year, we can see a huge flaw within the voting system. Five out of the six players voted are from the Chicago Blackhawks and one player from the Buffalo Sabres. The NHL then went on to select the remaining 36 participants.

This fan voting system, however, leads itself to some less-than-serious picks. Nothing against Zemgus Girgensons of the Sabres (who?), but with over 1,500,000 votes, beating out players with double his point total, I must say he is occupying a spot that doesn’t belong to him. Thanks, fans! This reminds me of the year where the Canucks’ Rory Fitzpatrick nearly earned himself a spot on the All-Star roster with the help of fan voting and a Twitter campaign. Fitzpatrick was well-liked, but far from All-Star material. The conspiracy is that the NHL stepped in and voted Fitzpatrick out near the tail-end of the voting process.

Another problem just happens to be a publicity ploy. A fantasy draft format will take place on January 23 to decide the two teams. Nick Foligno of the host city, Columbus, will be the captain of one team and Jonathan Toews of Chicago, the captain of the other, will vie for the best suited players, or their own teammates and friends. As proven from the past years, this is a popularity contest and less of a serious team construction.

All-star games, currently jokes masqueraded as sporting events, could have some value. The MLB puts pressure on the game by giving playoff home-field advantage to the team that wins. The NHL could use this. Here’s a hypothetical example: if the Eastern Conference wins in the All-Star Game last year (if there was one), then in the Stanley Cup Finals, the New York Rangers would have the home-ice advantage instead of the LA Kings because of the All-Star Game victory, even though they were both seeded forth in their conference.

The All-Star Game is often a lacklustre event, full of showboating and antics. It’s barely a hockey game. Sure, the MVP gets a new car or something and the winning team gets a celebratory pat on the back, but what’s the point? Make them play for something.

The games should be about building an elite team to compete for an advantage that will come into play when it really matters. I agree that it would be a shame if a player were injured, but hell, I want to watch hockey, not figure skating!

The 2014-15 fantasy hockey picks

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Top 16 players in the NHL

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. October 7, 2014

The NHL season has officially arrived, and fantasy pools are filling up fast. If you haven’t joined one yet, I highly recommend it: it’s a fun way to get distracted from homework, work, or anything else that is totally bumming you out—there, I’ve convinced you. Now with that being said, there’s no time to be wasted, so here are the top 16 players (four from each forward position and four defencemen, goalies omitted) you should do anything you can to acquire:

1) Sidney Crosby, Centre: Since his concussion, I’ve been hesitant to select him first. Needless to say, every year that I don’t pick him, I ended up regretting it. He is the best player in the league, there is no point arguing.

2) John Tavares, Centre: The last few years showed Tavares coming into full form. I’m convinced he’ll have another 90-point season.

3) Steven Stamkos, Centre: There is just something about Canadian centres. Many will argue that Stamkos should in fact be the second pick behind Crosby, but I say, it really doesn’t matter. You can’t go wrong with either of the top three.

4) Anze Kopitar, Centre: And the fourth is not too shabby either. Coming off of a Stanley Cup victory, Kopitar is finally stepping into the spotlight as one of the league’s most dominant players.

5) Patrick Kane, Right Wing: With the memories of the Western Conference Finals loss to LA still fresh in Kane’s mind, I foresee a more determined Chicago squad.

6) Corey Perry, Right Wing: Always a sound player alongside his line-mate, Ryan Getzlaf, Perry can realistically reach the 40-goal mark again.

7) Alex Ovechkin, Right Wing: Once the titan contending for number one spot, now a potential candidate to fly under the radar. Ovechkin is still a prized choice regardless.

8) Martin St. Louis, Right Wing: An inspiration to his team and a 30-goal scorer last season. St. Louis was a slow starter when he was traded to the Rangers, but with eight goals in the playoffs, things look promising.

9) Gabriel Landeskog, Left Wing: The captain of a young Avalanche team has done nothing but impress. This season will surely prove that Landeskog and Colorado’s success was not a fluke.

10) Zach Parise, Left Wing: Always consistent and clutch. That’s how every sniper wants to be described.

11) Jamie Benn, Left Wing: Benn would not likely be your first pick, but if he is still an option in your second or third, don’t hesitate—he was one point away from the 80-point mark last season.

12) Taylor Hall, Left Wing: There is so much potential and hype. Could this be the year that Hall takes it to the next level? He’s a gamble that might pay in dividends.

13) Erik Karlsson, Defenceman: No argument. Karlsson is the best offensive defenceman in the league.

14) PK Subban, Defenceman: He has finally found his style and a new contract. This season will determine what type of player he’ll be going forward, and I predict he’ll be excellent.

15) Shea Weber, Defenceman: Weber’s big shot from the blue-line is just one asset you’ll gain if you select him. I won’t bother mentioning the others.

16) Zdeno Chara, Defenceman: The veteran with still much to prove.

So there are my top 16 picks. If you can get at least one player in each position onto your fantasy lineup, I can almost guarantee success—but I won’t, because I know this season is going to be full of surprises.

All eyes on new realignment

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By Elliot Chan, Staff Writer.

Formerly published in the Other Press. Aug. 6, 2013

The Vancouver Canucks and the rest of the Western Conference are saying goodbye to Detroit and Columbus, and hello to the Winnipeg Jets.

This time last year, we were all anticipating a NHL lockout; the scenario this season is much more hopeful. As summer ends and the hockey season commences, all eyes are on the year-long experiment—the realignment. The NHL board of governors approved the new divisions and playoff format in July when the 2013/2014 schedule was released.

The Western Conference will now have 14 teams split geographically into the Pacific and Central divisions. The Eastern Conference will have 16 teams split into Atlantic and Metropolitan. The most significant change is Detroit joining the Atlantic division facing-off with three other original six teams, Montreal, Toronto, and Boston. Columbus and Winnipeg swapped conferences, with the Blue Jackets now playing in the Metropolitan division against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins and Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. The West Coast will get a few more chances to see the young Jets team and BC born players Evander Kane and Andrew Ladd.

The two main objectives for the realignment is to shorten travel times and build rivalries. It’s hard to see a downside to this change, since it was inevitable.

“It’s much better for us,” said Dallas Stars defenseman, Stephane Robidas. “It’s less travel, fewer trips out west—the time zones, the amount of time you spend on the plane after games. You don’t have to wait in [Los Angeles], you can come back after games. It’s all little things in the long run I think will help our team.”

The only two teams separated from their division in terms of geography are the two Florida teams. The Lightning and the Panthers are in the Atlantic division, but they have the whole Metropolitan division separating them from the rest of their division rivals.

“From a business standpoint, I think this is probably really good for both Florida teams,” said Commissioner Gary Bettman. “Competitively they may have their own issues, travel-wise they may have issues, but based on where Florida is from a geographic standpoint, whatever we did wasn’t going to be perfect.”

For the Canucks, it’ll be interesting seeing them battle for a post-season spot against consistent playoff contending teams such as the LA Kings, San Jose Sharks, and the Anaheim Ducks.

The Stanley Cup Playoff’s intensity may stay the same, but the route getting there is going to be slightly different. Eight teams in each division will make it to the post-season. The top three teams in each one will take the first 12 spots and the other four will try to land the wildcard position regardless of their divisions.

Though the stage for this season is set, many still see problems in the geographical layout of the league. The main problem lies in the Western Conference, where all the teams are scattered. I foresee (and hope) for a two-team expansion. Perhaps we will see another change next year with, dare I say it, a team in Seattle and Portland?