Ramblings: Hockey Hall of Fame inductions; previewing Pittsburgh vs. Montreal – June 25
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The 2020 Hockey Hall of Fame class was announced on Wednesday. The inductees are as follows:
I think most people expected Iginla, and Hossa to some degree. Holland was going to get in as a builder eventually, so why not this year. St. Pierre has three Olympic gold medals. Wilson has a Norris Trophy, several top-5 finishes, and is generally considered one of the best defencemen of the 1980s. Lowe is more contentious. His proponents will point to his locker room contributions and leadership, as well as defensive play. Fine. When I think HHOF, my first question is always, "was he considered among the best at his position for his era?" I’ll let the people who actually watched him argue about it.
In my recent Ramblings, I've been going through the play-in series we're going to hopefully be watching in six weeks or whatever. It's an attempt to recap the season of each team that has made it to the play-in round, the performances of their top players, how they measure up at each position, and any injuries that may be lingering. Hockey fans can be forgiven if they don't remember which team had a strong October and November, so we're here to help remind them. We've already finished the West, and moved to the East yesterday:
- Winnipeg vs Calgary
- Minnesota vs. Vancouver
- Nashville vs. Arizona
- Chicago vs. Edmonton
- Carolina vs. NY Rangers
I say this team is lucky because they get to the playoffs (well, play-ins) with 71 points, the fewest of any team in the 24-team format. In fact, the day the NHL was cancelled, they were set to play the Buffalo Sabres. If Buffalo wins that game and the season is cancelled the day after, the Sabres are in and the Habs are out. Yes, the Canadiens are fortunate to be where they are.
As explained by our own Brennan Des in a recent Eastern Edge column, the Montreal top line of Tatar-Danault-Gallagher wasn't just underrated, they were flat-out one of the best lines in the league at 5-on-5 (Danault had as many 5v5 points as Jonathan Huberdeau). They scored, they controlled the play, and they could be relied in all three zones. That's a true top line, at least at even strength.
The depth is a question mark. Jonathan Drouin was injured most of the year, Max Domi took a big step back with his production, while Joel Armia also missed a good chunk of time. They traded Ilya Kovalchuk, Jesperi Kotkaniemi was sent to the AHL, and Artturi Lehkonen looks like a good third liner. There is a lot of work to do in that middle-six. There is talent there, it's a matter of staying healthy and performing to their capabilities.
One pleasant surprise beyond the top line was the performance of Nick Suzuki. He won't get the Calder Trophy talk others will because he had fewer points as a forward than all of Makar, Fox, and Hughes did as defencemen, but he was very good for them this year.
What's curious about Suzuki is that he wasn't very good offensively at 5-on-5, but he was great on the power play (tied for the team lead in PPP despite being a rookie) and he was great defensively. Considering they have guys like Domi and Drouin who are much better offensively at 5-on-5 than they are defensively, Suzuki helps bring a nice balance.
It's the power play where Suzuki can make a real difference. This year, he was on the ice for 22 goals in 153:31 of PP time, a rate of 8.6 goals for per 60 minutes. Now, that's not anywhere near the elite power plays, but when we consider they only scored 10 goals in the other 167 minutes of PP time the team had (3.6 goals/60 minutes), they should probably let Suzuki have as much PP time as he can handle in a best-of-5 series where they're facing a team with as much scoring as Pittsburgh. The Habs won't be able to afford going 0-for-3 on the PP every game if they want to win.
The blue line is a question mark, as it has been for Montreal for quite some time. Jeff Petry is still very good, and Shea Weber is still good when he's healthy. Chiarot and Kulak are… fine. After that, it's a lot of uncertainty. The Habs weren't exactly loading up at the deadline for a postseason run.
With all that said, this series comes down to Carey Price. If the Carey Price of five years ago shows up, the Penguins are in a world of hurt. If the Carey Price of the last couple years shows up, this could be a quick 3-0 for Pittsburgh. It's really that simple. I don't think he's as good as he was, nor do I think he's flat-out bad. However, being somewhere in the middle is not nearly good enough.
Victor Mete's availability for these playoffs is still up in the air. It may depend when the season restarts (mid-July vs. early August, let's say), but he could be back. That would be a big help to a blue line that needs all the help it can get.
These Ramblings have been helpful for me, because they answer questions like, "why is Patrick Marleau on Pittsburgh's Cap Friendly page?" That's right, Patrick Marleau is a Pittsburgh Penguin. Who knew?!
The acquisitions of Marleau and Jason Zucker were refreshed, as were the reason: Jake Guentzel was not supposed to be back. Guentzel hasn't played since December with shoulder surgery, but he'll be back for the play-ins. Now, Zucker is a luxury rather than a necessity. That's nice to have.
The funny thing about Pittsburgh is after Guentzel went down, I remember thinking they'd be cooked because of a lack of winger scoring. At the time of his injury, they were 23-11-4. They won the game he was injured, and they went 17-12-2 after he went down, a 95-point pace.
Injuries were the prevailing theme for this team this year. Guentzel didn't even play 40 games, Evgeni Malkin played just 55 of 69 games, Crosby played 41, Rust played 55, and Hornqvist with 52. Presumably, all these players will be healthy for the play-ins, which would give the Penguins the first opportunity to ice their current complete roster – Zucker and Marleau included – all season.
The top defence pair of Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin remained solid, but it's the emergence of John Marino that could be the difference-maker. There were a lot of good rookie defencemen this year, which means Marino may be underappreciated. He was outstanding at both ends of the ice – he finished just 0.04 points/60 behind Letang at 5-on-5 – and gives them a second pair they've been lacking in recent seasons. That kind of depth helps a lot.
Pittsburgh's issue, basically the entire year, was goaltending. Matt Murray was had a bad season, but that was a year after he was pretty good. If he's 2018-19 Murray, the team should be fine for the play-in round. If he's 2019-20 Murray, he might not last the first game. I do believe Murray is expected as the Game 1 starter, but I can't imagine he'll have a long leash.
The Penguins have at least two great scoring lines – of which Montreal might have one – they have a potentially great power play – the Habs do not – and comparable defensive depth, if not better. The difference will be in net, but with Price's play the last couple years, it's hard to say who has the decisive edge.
Nick Bjugstad and Dominik Simon are both injured and not expected to return.
Pittsburgh should roll over Montreal, but the Habs have enough scoring to give them trouble if Price can keep them in games.
No data at this moment.