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    ALLCITY beat writers roundtable: Evaluating the NHL at the all-star break

    Charlie O'Connor Avatar
    February 2, 2024

    Back in late December, we ran our first ALLCITY NHL writers roundtable.

    And now, with the NHL in the midst of its all-star break, it’s time to do it all over again.

    Our company now has coverage in four cities — in Philadelphia with PHLY, Denver with DNVR, Phoenix with PHNX, and Chicago with CHGO. With that coverage comes the ability for all of our NHL writers to collaborate, and thus, the NHL writers roundtable was born.

    As in December, all of our hockey beat writers were kind enough to participate: DNVR’s Meghan Angley, CHGO’s Mario Tirabassi, and PHNX’s Craig Morgan.

    Jan 27, 2024; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; The Edmonton Oilers celebrate a goal scored by forward Connor McDavid (97) during the third period against the Nashville Predators at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

    15 players are currently on pace to crack the 100 point mark this season, after 11 did it last year. What do you think is the biggest reason that scoring is up so much these days in the NHL?

    Meghan Angley, DNVR: There are probably far simpler explanations for the scoring uptick, but hearing Nathan MacKinnon (on the heels of an 111-point season himself) attribute his success to things he’s added to his off-ice routine, I’m inclined to attribute it to the rise in accessibility of health and wellness knowledge. More players incorporate dieticians and nutritionists, sports rehabilitation coaches, and their conditioning is better than ever.

    Similarly, players who’ve broken through their scoring have shared the importance of taking care of the mental side of the game away from the ice: focusing on themselves, taking time for family, and even consulting a sports therapist to improve mental clarity.

    Craig Morgan, PHNX: I’m not sure you can point to one overriding factor. I think the evolution of the game on various fronts is driving this. 

    New rules have opened up the game for smaller, skilled players to find a home in the NHL. Defensemen are being encouraged to join the rush and contribute offensively more than ever. Goalie equipment is smaller. The game is getting faster and faster. Shooters have improved and are more adept at hitting the upper third of the net that is more exposed with all goalies dropping down into the butterfly or the reverse VH. Analytics have helped coaches and players better understand where the highest percentage scoring chances are generated. It’s a combination of things.

    Mario Tirabassi, CHGO: I believe that the scoring in hockey is opening up more because players have evolved how they train in the offseason and how players are developed at younger ages around the world. Players are better than ever in hockey. Each team has at least one player who you could say is some level of “superstar” in the league, which wasn’t the case 20, 15, or even 10 years ago. Rules also have evolved, and the flow of games and the way it is defended has changed by what you can and cannot get away with to slow players down nowadays.

    Charlie O’Connor, PHLY: I view it as a combination of changes in the way teams are constructed, and the resulting adjustments by coaches — leading to a faster-paced, mistake-filled game.

    No longer are fourth lines and bottom-sixes filled with fighters and plodders – now, everyone in the league can skate, and basically everyone has skill. As a result of that skill infusion, coaches have realized that playing slow-it-down, super-structured hockey isn’t going to work like it did 20 years. So, they’ve opened things up. Even Flyers head coach John Tortorella – about as traditionalist as coaches come these days – has noted on multiple occasions this year that the NHL is now a league of mistakes, and as a coach, he simply has to let his players take risks in order to thrive in this league.

    If even John Tortorella is telling his team to open it up, you know it’s a different kind of NHL.

    Jan 27, 2024; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Boston Bruins right wing David Pastrnak (88) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first period at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

    Who has been the most impressive team you’ve watched your team play this season? Not the best team in the league by the numbers, necessarily, but the team that has most impressed you in person.

    Meghan: The Boston Bruins have impressed. I was skeptical after their impressive, historic regular season last year was met with first round disappointment. I was skeptical when they poured big money into their goaltending at the expense of forward depth. But even with Patrice Bergeron, the Bruins are a structured, well-coached team and deserved more credit than I gave them. They challenge the Avs toe-to-toe and play with a lot of pride.

    David Pastrnak is still elite even though he had a tough game in Colorado, Charlie Coyle surprised me in the 2C role, and that goalie tandem is well-paid for a reason.

    Craig: After the Coyotes played the Los Angeles Kings three times in the first seven weeks of the season, I was certain I had misjudged LA. They were fast, skilled, structured and hard on the puck. They were miles better than the Coyotes, but something has happened to LA since then.

    If I had to choose now, I’d choose between Vancouver, Winnipeg and Florida. Vancouver and Florida both play with incredible pace. The Canucks are a high-skill team that can create offense, can play physical, and defend well as a team. They’re also getting great goaltending from Thatcher Demko. The Panthers look more built for the playoffs than previous seasons and the Jets, whom I thought would be in decline, look like a complete, hard, heavy team that defends as well as any team in the NHL and has elite goaltending with Connor Hellebuyck.

    Mario: Edmonton against Chicago was the biggest and clearest discrepancy in talent that I have watched this season. There are levels to the NHL and it was evident that there are multiple levels between what Edmonton is capable of and what Chicago is not capable of. Speed, heaviness, and the accuracy and pace of passing plays was something to behold.

    Charlie: The Edmonton team that absolutely took apart the Flyers at the start of January looked like a juggernaut. Connor McDavid of course was fantastic (five points) but his supporting cast – particularly up front – was everywhere as well.

    When the Flyers have delivered clunkers this season, it’s usually because they simply didn’t have their legs on that particular night. Against the Oilers, the Flyers were skating well and had energy. They just couldn’t keep up with Edmonton. It was a far cry from the passive, ineffective Oilers club that the Flyers throttled back in October. That Edmonton team was a paper tiger. This one? It could go all the way.

    Jan 27, 2024; Tampa, Florida, USA; New Jersey Devils left wing Jesper Bratt (63) is congratulated after he scored a goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the third period at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

    Which team in the bottom half of the league standings (17th or below by points percentage) do you think is best equipped to deliver a second-half surge?

    Meghan: There’s a couple that I think are good for it, but I’ll give it to the New York Islanders. I’ve seen what the year one coaching boost looked like in Colorado – it made Patrick Roy a Jack Adams winner and Semyon Varlamov played like a Vezina-caliber goaltender. Isles’ Mat Barzal seemed inspired by the change and Roy’s animated and passionate approach will galvanize the team.

    Craig: I have to go with the Devils. There is so much skill and speed there. Injuries to Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier have played a major role in the Devils’ mediocre first half, but I still wonder about their ability to defend and their goaltending, which has been below average this season.

    Sidney Crosby is crafting a fantastic two-way season, but the Penguins have way too many holes in the lineup. They are stuck in limbo; having to pretend they are contenders because of Sid, without the ability to actually be contenders.

    Mario: New Jersey. If/when Jack Hughes returns to health, he should be able to inject some life into that club and get them back into a postseason position.

    Charlie: I’d have to agree that the Devils are the most likely pick for a second-half surge, even with Dougie Hamilton no guarantee to return at all this season. They have the high-end talent necessary to rattle off a double-digit win streak, as long as Jack Hughes returns soon from his upper-body injury.

    When I project out the Metropolitan Division playoff picture, I still operate under the assumption that the Devils will find a way in, leaving one fewer spot available for the plucky Flyers. It’s a testament to how highly I view their roster, and their plausible upside.

    Jan 27, 2024; Dallas, Texas, USA; Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) waits for the face-off against the Dallas Stars during the third period at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Alex Ovechkin has just eight goals in 43 games so far this season, and he’s still 64 behind Wayne Gretzky for most all-time. Does he get the record? Or does he not have enough left in the tank?

    Meghan: Washington has had a weird year. Their leading points producer is 117th in the league (Dylan Strome with 31 points). I’m not counting Ovechkin out because I’ll acknowledge that the Caps just haven’t had the horses to generate more this season. They’ve had bottom-of-the-league possession metrics, so they’re not spending any meaningful time with the puck. He’ll need to step it up, but he’ll also need more support to get there.

    Craig: If you had asked me at the end of last season, I would have bet the house on Ovechkin breaking Gretzky’s record. Now? For the time in Ovi’s career, health is becoming an issue and it looks like his longtime set-up man, Nicklas Bäckström, will never play again.

    Dylan Strome has carved out a decent career for himself (nothing worthy of the No. 2 overall pick in 2015, mind you) but he is no Bäckström. It’s crazy to think how close Ovechkin might be when his contract expires in 2026, but unless he gets better linemates and one more burst of youth, it feels like he is going to come up short in this quest that once felt like a fait accompli.

    Mario: He will get the record eventually. This season just feels like an anomaly for Ovechkin even at this stage of his career. I refuse to believe he just stopped knowing how to score goals. Players at all stages in their careers go through ups and downs and I believe he’ll be able to score at a pace that will eventually get him the record. It’s kind of all the Capitals have to hang on right now anyway.

    Charlie: I think he still finds a way. I would be surprised if he leaves the NHL before his contract expires, and that won’t happen until 2026, giving him another two and a half seasons to score 64 more goals. I have to think he goes on a heater at some point in the second half and finishes at least with 20 this season, which would leave him with a little over 50 goals to go.

    I think Ovechkin can put together two 25ish goal seasons, even in the twilight of his career. But perhaps I’m blinded by watching his heroics up close for the better part of two decades.

    Jan 27, 2024; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins left wing Jake Guentzel (middle) celebrates with right wing Bryan Rust (17) and center Sidney Crosby (87) after Guentzel scored a goal against the Montreal Canadiens during the third period at PPG Paints Arena. The Penguins won 3-2 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    Name a deadline trade that you want to see happen, in terms of pure entertainment and hockey watchability value the rest of the way.

    Meghan: Marc-Andre Fleury to the Avs. He broke Colorado hearts in the most respectful way possible with his performance in the 2021 playoffs, but he’s held in league-wide respect for being such a likable player and an asset in the playoffs. He’s a three-time Stanley Cup champion and can help the Avs on the right side of things now. I don’t want to entertain giving up a roster player to make it happen, but Minnesota probably doesn’t want to help a Central division foe. In this hypothetical, Colorado can return former coveted college free-agent Ben Meyers to his home state and provide the Wild a valued centerman with upside.

    Charlie: I’d love to see Carolina finally take a big swing at the trade deadline, and get Sebastian Aho a pure goal scoring winger like Jake Guentzel. No, it doesn’t fit with the Hurricanes’ overarching philosophy of not depleting future assets for short-term solutions. And perhaps the Penguins wouldn’t even consider moving Guentzel to a Metropolitan Division team, especially one competing with them for a playoff spot. But I really want to see a Carolina team hit the playoffs infused with impact reinforcements, just to know if that could be what puts them over the top.

    Craig: I want to see the Penguins admit that their Cup contender days are over and trade Sidney Crosby, who has one more year left on his contract. I’d ask for a king’s ransom in return to help jump start the rebuild, but Sid deserves a better fate than to spend the latter days of his career wallowing away on a mediocre team.

    Pittsburgh would likely have to eat some of his contract in this cap=strapped worlds, but that could help justify the asking price. Can you imagine adding Crosby at the deadline. It’s a game changer.

    Mario: It won’t happen, but the “rumors” of Sidney Crosby wanting out of Pittsburgh (which, again, not going to happen) would be fascinating to see. One of the best players in the world, still, asking to leave when the organization went all-in on a playoff roster made of players in the late-stages of their careers would be incredible cinema.

    Jan 24, 2024; Denver, Colorado, USA; Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) following his hat trick goal in the second period against the Washington Capitals at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    Who would be your league MVP at the all-star break?

    Meghan: It’s Nathan MacKinnon. Next question. He’s producing at a 141-point pace.

    I’ve heard arguments for Nikita Kucherov and they’re valid arguments.

    MacKinnon’s contributions at even strength add a layer to the argument that elevated him over Kucherov. Both are prolific scorers, but only seven of MacKinnon’s 31 goals have come on the man-advantage. Kucherov has collected 11 there (and 37 powerplay points) in as many games.

    MacKinnon’s improved two-way, physical game also earned him an edge.

    The Avs’ top unit had special personnel, but MacKinnon lives in a world where he gets to play with one of the best wingers in the league and a player many believed couldn’t hang at the NHL level anymore in Drouin.

    Craig: Nathan MacKinnon. With all of the Avs’ issues — poor goaltending chief among them — MacKinnon is willing this team to the Central Division title with his unique combination of skill, size, physical play and non-stop motor. He’s second in the NHL to Nikita Kucherov as of this writing, but he impacts the game in far more ways than Kucherov.

    If Colorado can add a couple pieces at the deadline — especially a goalie to replace the somehow All-Star Alexandar Georgiev — the Avs are very much a Cup contender with MacKinnon leading a cast that still features Mikko Rantanan and Cale Makar.

    Mario: Nathan MacKinnon. He’s playing on another level and I don’t think anyone is going to have a bigger impact for their club this season. MacKinnon playing pissed off is quite the thing to see in the hockey world.

    Charlie: I’m open to a Quinn Hughes case, especially given the fact that I remain unimpressed with the rest of Vancouver’s blueline corps, at least on paper. But come on – it’s MacKinnon. He leads all skaters in Evolving-Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement metric, he’s second in the league in scoring, and basically only McDavid can take over a game like MacKinnon can. Over the past few weeks, it seems like he’s reached an entirely new level, and that’s a scary proposition for the rest of the NHL.

    Jan 27, 2024; Elmont, New York, USA; Florida Panthers left wing Matthew Tkachuk (19) celebrates his goal against the New York Islanders during the third period at UBS Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

    Your Stanley Cup Final teams, as things stand right now.

    Meghan: Colorado vs Boston.

    Craig: The obvious answers are Boston and Colorado, but I have questions about Boston’s center depth and, as mentioned above, major questions about Colorado’s goaltending. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop with the Canucks, who are not playoff-tested, but I am going to pick a refreshing Cup Final between Vancouver and Florida.

    If the Canucks falter, look to the Jets and possibly the worst ratings the Stanley Cup Final has ever drawn.

    Mario: I don’t believe that Vancouver or Edmonton are going to get it done in the West this season. Give me Colorado. In the East, the New York Rangers looked promising early but I’m losing trust in them as their slump continues. Boston, again, looks like the team to beat and I’m picking them to win the Conference.

    Charlie: In the West, I’m going with Dallas, who I still view as a stealth elite team that is basically one Jake Oettinger resurgence from being hyped as a Cup favorite.

    My preseason pick out of the East was Carolina, but I’m going to switch to Florida now. They’re loaded, their defense is healthy again, and their 5-on-5 numbers are exceptional. Statistically, they’re basically Carolina if Carolina had a true superstar like Matthew Tkachuk — and his presence was enough to swing the last series between these two teams. I’m picking Florida to make it back to the Cup Final this year – except it won’t be a surprise this time.

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