Trades! Two of them in the week before American Thanksgiving, both intriguing in more than just an afterthought sort of way.
But let’s begin with the fact that officially the NHL’s first quarter will come to an end with the 12th game on Friday’s 14-game schedule. The NHL took Thursday off to celebrate Thanksgiving, an important early-season yardstick because, traditionally, NHL standings don’t move much once you get past turkey day.
Dating back to the first season coming out of the lockout, 2005-06, if you’re in the playoff picture at Thanksgiving, you have a roughly 75 percent chance of being there when the season ends. So, take a bow Devils, Bruins, Golden Knights and Kraken, the four teams with the best reasons to give thanks at this critical juncture – teams that generally didn’t attract a lot of offseason attention or hype.
The Devils’ 13-game win streak came to an end Wednesday at the hands of the Maple Leafs, but it couldn’t overshadow the strides made by New Jersey – a young, fast, confident team that was finding ways of winning games that were hanging in the balance. That’s usually the first sign that a team, committed to a rebuild, is working its way to the next level.
You can talk all you want about winning the summer and making shrewd moves that look good on paper. But then they drop the puck, and all that goes out the window. The league is close, the gap between the good and the bad so narrow that the successful teams eventually need to figure out how to win those close games when you get to the third period.
That’s really the signature of the 2022-23 Devils.
Comebacks have been the story of the season thus far. Every one of the 32 teams has managed at least one come-from-behind win, and 25 of them have two or more. Moreover, there have been 22 multi-goal, third-period comebacks, according to the league. That’s never happened before.
Boston had its seven-game win streak snapped against the Panthers earlier this week, but the Bruins are undefeated at home. Remarkable considering they started the year without two of their five best players. Not only did Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy return earlier than expected, but they’re also making an impact.
Health is a critical contributor to the Vegas turnaround as well. Jack Eichel showed signs of life when he finally received medical clearance to play last year, but he’s contributing at a different level this year and that’s galvanized an offense that needed jumpstarting. Seattle is 7-1-1 in its last nine, an .833 points percentage. In that stretch, only New Jersey (.909) is better.
Here’s a sentence I could not have imagined myself in September: The comeback player of the year just could be Martin Jones.
And if there’s an honorable mention amidst all the ‘didn’t-see-that-coming’ storylines to develop in the first quarter, it probably needs to involve the Coyotes because they are not falling off the face of the earth the way so many expected. Instead, they have 18 points in 16 games, despite a massive early concentration of road games, where they are a remarkably respectable 6-7-1. The news got even better this week because both Nick Schmaltz and Jakob Chychrun finally returned to the lineup Monday. Schmaltz had been absent since the opening game of the season. On a team with limited talent, getting back last year’s No. 2 scorer was critical.
Chychrun, meanwhile, is two games into his return and averaging 21:48 in time on ice already, just behind team leader J.J. Moser.
Arizona was involved in one of last week’s two deals, and it involved a defenseman, but that defenseman was neither Chychrun nor Shayne Gostisbehere.
It was Conor Timmins, swapped to Toronto for prospect Curtis Douglas. More on the actual deals in a minute. Let’s talk about Chychrun first because his return to play was the necessary opening step in him finding a new NHL home at some point later in the season. So far, Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong has held fast on his demands for Chychrun, on the grounds that in a capped-out world, a 24-year-old player with a $4.6 million cap hit for this season, plus two more has value beyond just what he can produce on the ice.
But it’s that second point that has the league tied in knots. Chychrun is such a polarizing talent. Some teams like him a lot. Some aren’t sure about everything he brings to the mix. Any of the teams that are lukewarm on Chychrun aren’t bidding on his services anyway. Of the teams that do see the upside, they first want assurances that he can a) stay healthy for a bit, and b) after all this time on the sidelines, get a genuine sense of where his game is at.
It’s a little bit of the reason that Timmins went for a relative bargain-basement price. When you consider his draft pedigree (32nd in 2017, the first player chosen on the second day of the draft) and the promise he showed as a young player, the fact that he was traded for a 6-foot-9 forward project suggests a lot of concern over whether he can actually stay healthy.
Toronto will find out soon enough, given their current needs on an injury-shortened blue line. Here’s the good news for the Leafs: If Timmins can ever stay healthy and find his game, he won’t just be a short-term solution. He could be part of their mix for a long time. Obviously, that’s a big if. On the other hand, if you’re not rolling the dice now in Toronto, trying to find those hidden gems, you’re missing the boat.
When it comes to Chychrun, teams can either be seduced by the 18 goals in 26 games during the COVID-19-shortened season two years ago or misled by the underwhelming numbers he put up last year (21 points in 47 games), before eventually shutting it down to recover from two separate injuries – surgeries to remove a bone spur in his ankle and repair a wrist injury.
So, he’s a bit of a mystery and no one wants to render judgment based on the first week back, though it probably wasn’t lost on the league that in Arizona’s impressive 4-0 win over the Hurricanes, Chychrun went plus-three, recorded eight shots on goal, earned an assist and played 20:32 in the game.
It’s hard to get a true read on the Hurricanes at the moment, and not just because they were using their No. 3 goalie Pyotr Kochetkov in the loss to Arizona. This week, Kochetkov signed a four-year contract extension, a signal that the Hurricanes believe he’ll be part of their long-term goaltending solution and he’ll eventually replace either Freddie Andersen or Antti Raanta, both of whom are on expiring contracts and injured all the time. With Carolina, it’s impossible to predict the direction they’ll head because they don’t mind unconventional risky moves, or walking away from any player they believe overprices himself.
For a long time, most of their decisions have worked out. One that remains a work in progress however is Jesperi Kotkaniemi who, in his second year after signing the offer sheet with the Hurricanes and gifted an early chance to play five-on-five with Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas, has three points in 20 games, playing an average of 15:20 per night. Carolina was a preseason darling and when you consider scoring production, the fact that they’re still a very respectable 10-6-4 is astonishing. Teuvo Teravainen is hurt and out long term, Seth Jarvis hasn’t taken a step forward in Year 2 yet, and all the offense is concentrated on three players: Sebastian Aho, Necas and Svechnikov, who have 22, 23 and 20 points respectively. From there it falls to Brent Burns (13) and after that, it’s Jordan Martinook fifth, with nine points, all at even strength.
Carolina’s DNA is team defense but they’ll need to either find offensive solutions internally (still possible) or search for reinforcements before the deadline if that doesn’t happen. Still, it’s easy to forget that a big part of their offseason planning was adding Max Pacioretty from Vegas. Pacioretty is out long term after tearing his Achilles tendon back in July in training, but he was expected back at some point near the January All-Star break, which theoretically gives him enough time to get into game shape and up to speed with coach Rod Brind’Amour’s system.
Carolina had to hurriedly sign replacements after Pacioretty’s surgery. Sometimes, when you shop at the bargain rack, you get lucky. But so far, no. Paul Stastny (four assists, no goals), Derek Stepan (one assist, no goals) and the oft-injured Ondrej Kase limited to only a single game played, haven’t appreciably accomplished much. The only saving grace is together, the three are only earning $3.75 million.
The best value play in Carolina has been Stefan Noesen. The Noesen signing was different – he got two years, just over the NHL minimum ($762,500), and is tied for second on the team in power-play goals (with two). Carolina’s power-play percentage – of 13.5 – is 30th in the NHL. Only Columbus and Anaheim trail. It was 22.0 – 13th overall – last year when Tony DeAngelo was quarterbacking the unit.
The Hurricanes had a good look at Gostisbehere this past week. You wonder if they would try to add him or John Klingberg nearer to the trade deadline, if at some point, the power play still needs a boost. Tyson Barrie was a long-ago rumored option there as well, but it’s hard to imagine the Oilers moving on from him in the middle of the season.
Once you strip away all the noise about Timmins, who was drafted out of Sault Ste. Marie, where Leaf GM Kyle Dubas once worked, and simply focus on the player, what do we know? Circle back to 2017, Colorado was coming off a last-place finish but lost the draft lottery. It dropped Colorado back to fourth, where – sigh! – they had to settle for a teenager coming out of Brooks in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
Cale Makar turned out to be a nice consolation prize. But the draft lottery only applies to the first round, so Colorado had the first pick of the second round and the overall takeaway after the draft was over, was that the Avalanche managed to secure two young defensemen who would be part of the rebuild. Makar became who he is today. Since his 2017-18 season in Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins has played exactly 41 NHL games and 52 AHL games. That’s just a ridiculous run of bad luck. GMs are funny though. All the positive first impressions that they saw from Timmins as a teenager, deep down, they secretly hope he can get his career back on track.
In the meantime, the Leafs are getting enormously good value out of Mark Giordano, the 39-year-old who signed a bargain-basement contract extension with the Leafs last summer. Giordano isn’t the same all-around threat he was when winning a Norris Trophy with Calgary not so long ago. Some players just have a presence, though it can be manifested in different ways. With Giordano, it’s simply the overall professionalism with which he carries himself. He is the ultimate low-maintenance player. Nowadays, managing personalities is so much a part of developing team chemistry. Nothing contributes to that more than consistent, lead-by-example sorts of players.
Ryan Reaves Appreciation Club
Essentially, the Wild landed Ryan Reaves from the Rangers for the cost of his contract, plus a fifth-round pick. Practically, free in the grand scheme of things. Normally, a trade for a player who was a healthy scratch for most of the season would be limited to a quick mention in transactions. But Reaves is such a big personality that it was a hard deal to ignore – and reminded me of some of the trades in Calgary back in the 20th century when I was still covering the team.
In that disastrous 10-player trade that sent Doug Gilmour and Jamie Macoun to Toronto, arguably the only contributing piece that came Calgary’s way was Craig Berube. General manager Doug Risebrough genuinely believed they needed to add Berube’s toughness to the mix. Similarly, a few years before, when Cliff Fletcher was in charge, he picked up Nick Fotiu at the 1986 trade deadline. The Fotiu trade was overshadowed by a bigger deal – adding John Tonelli, only a few years removed from the Islanders’ dynasty run – but the thinking was, they needed Fotiu’s physical presence in the event that they ran into Edmonton in the playoffs, which of course they did. Fotiu played nine regular-season games for the Flames, plus 11 more in the playoffs, and he quickly became a fan favorite, the same way he was in New York.
A lot of the adjectives used to describe Reaves – energy, toughness, presence – applied to Fotiu as well. It’s a hard quality to measure analytically, but it’s real. You could sense a different vibration in the Flames after Fotiu arrived than there was before. It’s presence. Right or wrong, in a physical team sport like professional hockey, it can matter. At this late stage, it’s important that Reaves isn’t a liability on the ice, as he’s bringing comfort to the team’s skilled players and brightening up the mood of a team that was in the doldrums until a 6-1 thumping of the Jets. Fit too is important but the one good thing about the Fotius, the Berubes and the Reaveses of the hockey world. They are not shrinking violets. They can make their dressing-room presence felt right away.
(Top photo of Pyotr Kochetkov: Andy Marlin / NHLI via Getty Images)