clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Ten Questions About the NHL As Hockey Gears Up for Its Stretch Run

Are windows washed? Can Alexander Ovechkin keep up his pursuit of Wayne Gretzky? And did Toronto really lose a game while shooting on its own minor league Zamboni driver?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It seemed clear what was in store for Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau when reporters began tweeting on Monday that the 26-year-old had left the ice before practice was finished. This wasn’t any old Monday, after all; it was the hectic NHL trade deadline Monday. And so presumably Gaudreau had been summoned off the rink and into some office to be thanked for his time with the Flames, wished well, and provided with some logistics about joining his new franchise, wherever it was.

Either that, or the guy just had to take a leak! “I had to pee,” Gaudreau later explained with a smile when it turned out that he hadn’t been traded after all, making him one of several high-profile players who wound up staying put on deadline day—though the only one whose bladder became part of the news. “Next time I will hold it in as long as I can, until practice is over.”

Gaudreau’s no-go set the right tone, in many ways, for the real silly season that is just getting started. With this year’s trade deadline now in the rearview, and with the playoffs beginning on April 8, the next six weeks will be a blur of scrutiny—over everything from team chemistries to league parity to Department of Player Safety decisions—but also, if the past is any indication, an ongoing celebration of the absurd, of all the little blips and bounces and personalities that make the NHL what it is. There will be lucky breaks and there will be long-focus lens footage of anxious, disheveled general managers tearing stat sheets into shreds. There will be dark horses and disappointments; bickering and beauty; glove saves that look way harder than they are and game-winners that seem unfairly simple. In other words, there will be a lot going on in the league, and I have some questions.

1. Are Windows … Washed?

Edmonton Oilers fans, close your eyes, because I’m about to approvingly quote your resented former GM, Peter Chiarelli, who was asked about championship windows in March 2017. “With the entry-level contracts for Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl due up in the next two to three years,” wrote the National Post at the time, “Chiarelli was asked if the window was starting to close just as it was opening.” Chiarelli’s confused, confusing answer has informed my opinion on window dressing ever since.

“I hope the window’s bigger than that,” Chiarelli said. “The window for me is there shouldn’t be talk of a window if you’re doing your job right … I think the window can be as big as you want it to be. You have to be proactive in managing your players. For me, that applies to Edmonton. I don’t even think we’re in the window yet. There’s an argument that we are at the start of it.”

Gibberish, right? Here’s the thing: Once you notice it, that’s how pretty much all window talk starts to sound. It’s that time of year when you can’t swing a Bauer without hitting a hockey analyst who is going on about championship windows. And look, I get it! The concept of the window should be simple: Is a team positioned to compete for a Cup? If so, the window is open. If not, it’s time to get out the WD-40 and figure out how to get it to budge.

But I think it’s because this all makes such straightforward sense that The Window has become a truly meaningless crutch over the years, right up there with Momentum and Clutch and They Just Tried Harder Out There. (Or, in broader society, the semantic creep of notions like “gaslight” or “hipster” or “troll.”) It’s not that these things don’t exist in some manner, it’s just that they are losing all precision: When everything has to do with the window, then eventually nothing does.

There are the windows that observers routinely warn will slam shut the moment a hotshot’s affordable entry-level contract is over, only to magically reopen the moment he signs his bridge deal. There are the windows of apparent perpetual motion: The San Jose Sharks have had a closing window since, like, 2010. (OK but this time it’s actually closed.) The Washington Capitals won the Cup after it was generally agreed they had missed the window a number of times. Sometimes the windows that are open the widest are the ones that are the most threatening: imagine how that would feel slamming down on your hand?

When the Toronto Maple Leafs signed winger Mitch Marner to a six-year, $65.3 million contract this past September, the Globe and Mail’s Cathal Kelly had a take that was a step ahead: “That window of contention people are always talking about didn’t just open,” he wrote after the contract was announced. “Instead, it’s starting to close. The club has this season, and this season only, to prove it has made the right choices.”

So I say: If we’re going to keep harping on windows like this, we need to get more descriptive. The Hockey News has tried to do this lately, to be fair—in its preseason assessment of each team’s window status, it included “fogged up” as a category—but let’s go further. Talk to me about cross breeze. Let’s contemplate defenestration. Is a team’s window more like a gorgeous set of flung-wide French doors, or is it one of those pop-out-a-quarter-inch deals in the sweltering backseat of a minivan? And don’t tell me that a team’s window is open; tell me that a team punched through the glass in a fit of rage while locked out of the house and must now jimmy the adjacent door open through a jagged hole with a bloodied hand. You could have just rung the doorbell, 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks!

New York Rangers v Chicago Blackhawks
Chris Kreider
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

2. What Was Monday’s Most Noteworthy Nothing?

Monday’s deadline was defined almost as much by what didn’t happen as by what did. The situation around speedy Rangers sharpshooter Chris Kreider, who was understood to be this year’s most eligible player, unfolded like a Love It or List It episode. Whether New York would re-sign its 28-year-old pending free agent or deal him for an attractive package of prospects and picks felt like a toss-up. Still, when the Rangers inked Kreider at the 11th hour for another seven years at an average of $6.5 million a season, I did feel a little surprised; I had expected he’d wind up on a striving team like the Colorado Avalanche.

The Avalanche boast a young roster led by Nathan MacKinnon, the NHL’s fifth-leading scorer, and 21-year-old rising star defenseman Cale Makar. They hope to build on the success of their past few seasons to advance past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Still, GM Joe Sakic sat mostly still at the deadline, watching as the Islanders made a big push to acquire former Senator J.G. Pageau and the Carolina Hurricanes scooped up the Florida Panthers’ Vincent Trocheck. “We love the chemistry in our dressing room,” Sakic told the media, “and didn’t want to tinker too much with that.” Fair enough, though if the Avalanche don’t move deep into the playoffs, his quiet deadline may draw some loud remarks.

In Minnesota, both an anticipated trade and a splashier surprise one failed to materialize. Wild defenseman Mathew Dumba, considered one of the top trade targets on the blue line, stayed put, for now. So did Zach Parise, who had reportedly requested that the team waive his no-trade clause so he could be dealt to a more promising team—in this case, the New York Islanders. On deadline day, a deal that would involve sending Parise to Long Island for Andrew Ladd sounded imminent, but never took place. (It’s possible the deal will be revisited in the offseason, but given the reporting that suggested a frustrated Parise had gently brought up the idea of being traded to a more promising team, things might be awkward for the 35-year-old forward in the coming weeks in Minnesota.)

And then there was Joe Thornton, the Ray Bourque that wasn’t. On Valentine’s Day, The Athletic caught up with former longtime Boston Bruin defenseman Bourque and asked him about one of the most important moments in his life: being traded as a grizzled 39-year-old to the Colorado Avalanche, where he would go on to finally win the Stanley Cup. (In the playoffs that immediately followed Bourque’s trade, Colorado lost in seven games to the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference final; a lag I sometimes forget about. Even such a Platonic and lasting ideal of a trade deadline move didn’t pan out right away!) “I’d like to see every single person who plays in the NHL win a Cup and experience that,” Bourque told The Athletic. This season, it looked as though Thornton might be the one to try.

Thornton’s name was linked to both Dallas, where he would have reunited with his former Sharks teammate Joe Pavelski, and Boston, where he began his career more than two decades ago. (Can you say “preordained” in a Boston accent?) But Thornton stayed put. Maybe his teammate Patrick Marleau, 40, who was shipped to the Penguins, will be the one to give The Bourque his best shot.

3. What Team Simply Went and Filled a Specific Need at the Deadline, As I Would’ve?

Two seasons removed from the Vegas Golden Knights’ NHL debut and subsequent run to the Stanley Cup final, the NHL’s newest team is also one of hockey’s most offensively dogged groups, leading the league in several underlying possession and shot generation metrics and sitting atop the shaky Pacific Division. But on the other end of the ice, the Knights have struggled in net, tied for the fifth-worst save percentage in the league. Monday’s trade for Chicago’s Robin Lehner will help solve that problem; Vegas now has a solid tandem in net—Lehner will share time with Marc-Andre Fleury—and good footing heading into the playoff race.

4. Did the Toronto Maple Leafs, in the Midst of a Tough Playoff Race, Really Lose to Their Own Minor League Zamboni Driver?

It was real, and it was spectacular. The Hurricanes were in Toronto to play the Leafs last weekend when injuries to both Carolina’s starter and their backup in net led to the appearance of every hockey fan’s favorite human: the EBUG, or emergency backup goalie.

Per league protocol, NHL home teams must have, on call, a rando who can throw on the pads in a pinch, and on Saturday night that person was David Ayres, an operations manager at a local athletic facility and Zamboni driver for the Marlies, a Toronto minor league affiliate.

Wearing a Leafs T-shirt under his pads and his Hurricanes jersey, Ayres let in the first two shots he faced and then stopped the next six, earning an official 6-3 win and becoming the oldest goalie, at age 42 and a half, to win his NHL regular-season debut. He was named the first star of the game, interviewed on the national Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, paid $500, and sent on a whirlwind press tour, even as some people grumped that the very existence of the wholesome EBUG ecosystem is bush league.

Don’t be fooled: This was a lovely story, one made even lovelier by the fact that Ayres received a kidney transplant from his mother 15 years ago. But it wouldn’t have been half as great if it hadn’t happened against the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that expected to make waves in the NHL this season in a very different way than they actually have. The Leafs were a trendy contender going into the season. With a young, data-driven GM in Kyle Dubas, a proven coach in Mike Babcock, and a roster featuring NHL 20 cover boy Auston Matthews, Marner, veteran All-Star John Tavares, and steady defenseman Morgan Rielly, the Leafs drew aspirational praise.

Instead, as early losses mounted, these assets curdled into perceived liabilities. That same young core that thrilled fans was also expensive, after all, with $40 million tied up in just four players. Not only was Babcock, the longtime Red Wings and Team Canada coach who had been one of Toronto’s highest-profile and most expensive acquisitions in 2015, fired, his removal set off accusations and stories from players around the league about his harsh mind games. (One story went that he had asked Marner, then a rookie, to rank all his teammates by their effort levels, and then shared that assessment with the low-ranking players.)

The Maple Leafs may well make the playoffs; their one stroke of luck this season has been their spot in the Atlantic Division, which currently features two great teams—the Bruins and the Lightning—and then a whole lot of franchises in shambles. If the Leafs can hold on to that third playoff slot, they can re-write the narrative. But even if they do, you know that every article will mention, in the paragraph addressing all the lows of the season, the very best one: that time the Toronto Maple Leafs, in the midst of a tough playoff race, really lost a game to their own minor league Zamboni driver.

Minnesota Wild v Chicago Blackhawks
Stan Bowman
Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

5. Whose Hot Seat Is the Weirdest?

In Chicago, the star players aren’t hiding their annoyance at their GM, Stan Bowman. And can you blame them? Hawks fans are currently busy splitting the vote between #FireBowman and #FireStan hashtags on Twitter, a helpful distraction from reading about how Artemi Panarin once thought he’d spend his whole life as a Hawk. (Thanks to Bowman he is, instead, a Ranger; he’s also the league’s fourth-leading scorer.) The team looks like it will miss the playoffs for the third straight year, and just got rid of Lehner, its popular goalie. Now, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are making pointed comments about how it might be nice to get to weigh in on personnel matters from time to time and Bowman is doubling down to say, essentially, nah. This is good, right?

In Tampa, head coach Jon Cooper risks becoming the victim of his own success. Following a first-round sweep that abruptly ended what was supposed to be an anointed season (oops!), he is now in the odd purgatory of being perceived as being at greater risk because of his team’s consistent, insistent play. Given what happened last year and the expectations placed on the franchise, the Lightning could have the season of so many teams’ dreams and still wind up living a nightmare in the end. I don’t think Cooper’s job is in jeopardy or anything right now, but his seat could go up in flames with a quickness, even if the Lightning were to win a few rounds.

But his quasi-hot seat isn’t even the strangest one in its own division. The Buffalo Sabres’ Jason Botterill, who arrived with respect and fanfare from titletown Pittsburgh, has had, like his various predecessors in this truly hockey-mad city, a reign defined by disappointment, injury, and other various dead ends. The Sabres haven’t made the playoffs in nearly a decade, but this year’s likely miss, fueled by injuries after a promising 7-2 start, feels grimmer than usual. It keeps happening, for one thing. And worse, it keeps happening while one of the league’s most compelling players, Jack Eichel, twists in the wind.

Eichel, who was drafted in 2015, has yet to appear in the playoffs. He is a young gun whose organization keeps outfitting him with blanks. That’s sad and also, strangely, perhaps Botterill’s biggest potential saving grace: Eichel already has played under three coaches and two general managers; maybe now isn’t the time to fire someone again. Eichel’s toolbox includes, in addition to a great scoring touch, a once-in-a-generation chaotic energy. Whenever he engages in his hobby of antagonizing the Maple Leafs—saying he loves to play in Toronto; taunting the crowd, having fun out there—the joy is bittersweet. That kind of talent deserves a chance to shine in the postseason, and Botterill has one job (until he no longer has it, that is): to get the kid there soon, or get burned.

6. Does Evander Kane Have a Point? Will It Matter?

Evander Kane’s Twitter account looked like that of some normie hockey fan earlier this month when the San Jose Sharks forward started complaining about the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. True, Kane wasn’t an unbiased observer, having just been given a three-game suspension for elbowing Winnipeg’s Neal Pionk in the face, but his rant, complete with the tried-and-true formula of embedded videos and sarcastic captions, wasn’t really about that punishment specifically. As Kane argued, it was more about the context, and about how NHL players are currently operating without any. “No one person can tell you what is or isn’t a suspension in today’s game,” Kane wrote. “It’s become a complete guess. There is a major lack of consistency with the NHL Department of Player Safety. A completely flawed system in so many ways.”

That the tweets came not from a fan but from a high-profile player seemed like a big deal—particularly at a time when similar-if-distinct conversations are loudly taking place in other leagues, from Mark Cuban’s umpteenth Whistle Crisis to the pan-MLB conversation surrounding the Astros. “There is a revolt against the Department of Player Safety,” read a Hockey News headline, “and it might be the best thing for hockey.” But is there a revolt, really?

Complaints about the NHL’s conflicted and inconsistent oversight of the sport’s inherent violence are nothing new in hockey—the good ol’ Wheel of Justice meme dates back to 2011. And as the Puck Soup podcast recently argued, there’s no easy solution, because the league and its owners (and its players’ union!) all have variously vested interests in avoiding long suspensions for their guys, regardless of who is at the decision-making helm. (Still, it doesn’t help optics that the current head of the group is George Parros, the mustachioed former NHL enforcer who has a side-hustle clothing brand called Violent Gentlemen.)

But it’s still meaningful that a current player not only brought it up, but also highlighted certain procedural aspects like the appeals process that can be changed, even if human nature won’t be. “From the suspensions to the appeal rights,” Kane wrote, “it’s baffling to me how we as players agreed to this.” Maybe if more guys start echoing that confusion, it would make for a fundamental first step, and it’s worth keeping an eye on as the heightened physicality of the playoffs looms.

7. What Aspect of the NHL From 2012 Now Feels Most Like a Fever Dream?

Maybe you just always remember your first, and I know this is random, but for whatever reason this trade deadline really has me reflecting back to the spring of 2012, the year I covered my first full NHL season, in one of those “wanna feel old? This AARP cover features the baby from the cover of Nevermind” kind of ways.

Some of this nostalgia is for simple circle-of-life reasons, like how the two teams that met in the 2012 Cup final, the Los Angeles Kings and the New Jersey Devils, spent this year’s trade deadline distinctly as sellers, dead-last in their respective conferences. Or how the captain of that Devils team, Parise, who left New Jersey a few weeks after losing the Cup in 2012 in order to sign a 13-year, $98 million contract with the Minnesota Wild, reportedly waived his no-trade clause and came close to a Long Island reunion with his former Devils GM, Lou Lamoriello.

But a few other trades that never happened had links to 2012 too: It was back in that year that Kreider, fresh off winning an NCAA tournament with Boston College, first burst into the NHL to join the Rangers in the middle of the playoffs, where he scored five goals and made it to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final with the team. Now, he is just one of four players from that roster remaining on the Rangers, and he might soon be the only one. The untrained Minnesota defensemen Dumba was taken seventh overall in the 2012 draft, a class that looks weirder and weirder as the years go on: Of the top four picks from that year, two are no longer in the league and another, Alex Galchenyuk, was traded last week to his fourth team in four seasons. There’s no hiding from eight years of hindsight.

But what stands out most, looking back, might be what hasn’t changed: like the Penguins and the Capitals battling atop their division, same as it ever was. Sidney Crosby—who missed nearly all of that 2011-12 season with concussion and neck injuries that had some suggesting an early retirement at the time—is still out there keeping the Penguins relevant and immediately boosting the production of his new linemate, Jason Zucker; and Geno Malkin is still out there being unstoppable personified. As for the Capitals, well …

Winnipeg Jets v Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

8. Can Alex Ovechkin Out-Gretzky the Great One?

The 34-year-old Ovechkin’s steady creep up the NHL’s all-time goal-scoring list is a story that could delight fans for years to come. This weekend, the Great Eight became the eighth NHL player to join the 700-goal club, an elite squad that also includes the likes of Phil Esposito (717 goals), Jaromir Jagr (766), and, of course, Wayne Gretzky (894). Ovechkin received a touching video tribute from his mom and dad back in Russia to mark the occasion; he also announced that he and his wife are expecting their second kid soon. But while he may be settling down, he has not slowed his pace. Instead, Ovechkin has inspired the daydreamy thought exercise: Might he someday reach 895 goals, besting Gretzky? And would he be a better goal scorer if he did?

Much of Wayne Gretzky’s offense came during the high-octane, gangly-goalied 1980s, and his total has long felt like an untouchable record. (Second place in goals all time is Gordie Howe, who played hockey in five different decades but lit the lamp 93 fewer times than Gretzky.) To think that Ovechkin will get there requires thinking that, for him, a lot of things will go smoothly, for a long time, in a game with a lot of rough edges. It means believing that the Russian machine will continue not to break. It requires doing the math, envisioning Ovechkin still out there netting 20 goals in his age-40 season, and thinking that seems about right.

But hey, why not think that? Gretzky prospered in part because of his longevity, and Ovechkin may well do the same: His one-timer from his office at the top of the circle is the Cadillac of offensive weapons, capable of humming along in long-distance luxury for years. His longtime teammate Nicklas Backstrom is signed through 2025. (And his longtime friend Ilya Kovalchuk is now signed through this season, joining four other Russians on the team following a trade last week with Montreal.) If Ovechkin were ever to be within striking distance of Gretzky a few seasons from now, I have to imagine that following the chase night after night would become one of the most inclusive and appealing hockey events in recent history. And the Great One gets it: “I’m a big believer that records are made to be broken,” he told, adding that he thinks Ovechkin has “a real legitimate chance.” May we be so lucky!

9. Speaking of Scoring, Who Will Finish the Season With the Most Goals?

Right now it’s a three-way race between the Bruins’ David Pastrnak, the Leafs’ Matthews, and Ovechkin, all of whom have netted upwards of 40 thus far this season. My money is on Pasta to keep up the wild ride he’s been having:

That said, I challenge any of them to reproduce these moves from Connor McDavid, who has “only” 31 goals, and whose ability to make grown men look like peewee players still hasn’t ceased to startle me, every time.

10. Will the NHL Return to the Olympics, Pretty Please?

It was 40 years ago last week that a team of beloved amateurs rose to hockey glory in the Miracle on Ice. These days, though, what would feel like a hockey miracle would be Gary Bettman supporting the idea of NHL professionals returning to the Olympics. A conversation that will last beyond this spring is whether NHL players will be allowed to compete in the next Winter Olympics, scheduled for 2022 in Beijing, after having skipped the 2018 Games in South Korea. Bettman warned in January against “false hope,” and yet I still believe! (Full disclosure, I believed in 2018, also.)

But the league has been making connections in China specifically for years now. The Bruins visited in 2016; last summer, Ovechkin traveled to China as the NHL’s official ambassador, riding a toboggan down from the Great Wall and everything. There are roadblocks, to be sure, ranging from global travel logistics to Daryl Morey–induced skittishness. The league’s current collective bargaining agreement is set to be renegotiated in 2022, so the issue of the Olympics will turn into a bargaining chip, as it has in the past. Bettman has steadfastly railed against the cost and rigmarole of pausing the season. But the IOC and hockey’s international federation have already signaled that they’ll dangle some sweeteners this time around, from covering insurance costs to allowing the league more on-site marketing opportunities during the Games, a signal that the ongoing cold war over this issue may be thawing.

To me, it would be a clear win for everyone involved, and would help boost a fascinating and thrilling generation of players in a way in which the league has only scratched the surface. If the league isn’t going to actually plan and run the World Cup tournaments they once distracted fans with, why not outsource the international dramatics? If these wacky NHL teams are going to consistently miss the playoffs, why not let their stars shine elsewhere?

We need Eichel and Matthews on the same side, smirking in their red white and blue. We need the Davids Pastrnak and Krejci taking their everyday Bruins fireworks show to the high-stakes international stage. We need young McDavid and old Sid on a patriotic buddy journey together. The NHL has a chance to invest in the whole hockey selves of its athletes, and in doing so, to elevate their profiles and enrich their stories. Forget everything I said earlier: This is a window that can’t be missed.