January 15, 2018 | 5:30pm ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
GOING FOR THE SILVER
LOS ANGELES, CA -- It’s was a sleepy bye week in Southern California until the Kings and Ducks renewed their hostilities on Saturday night at the corner of 11th and Figueroa and there wasn’t a better way to categorize the Ducks 4-2 win.
With a reduced game schedule and the NHL hitting the true halfway point, a number of “half season” awards columns are surfacing, but in the interest of putting a little swerve on the take and with clear leaders in most of the categories, I’ll give out some freshly minted TFP Silver (trademark pending) Awards.
It’s time we recognize those who have fashioned a great first half, but come up a few lengths behind the winner.
HART SILVER: Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg
Nikita Kucherov is the most valuable and most dangerous player in the NHL today. Does he have massive talent around him? Sure does – I wrote last week the Tampa Bay Lightning are the NHL’s version of the Golden State Warriors – but it does not diminish the dominance of Kucherov’s season. His wrist shot is unsolvable by average defenses and goaltenders. Even with the presence of one of the best in the game, Steven Stamkos on his line, Kucherov is the master conductor of this virtuoso group.
Nathan MacKinnon was in consideration for the silver, his body of work after the Duchene storm front lifted over the Rockies has elevated the Colorado Avalanche to post-season contention. Some nights, his trio that includes Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Raatanen bring back memories of when Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg ran the show in Denver. MacKinnon’s speed has motivated and activated his European line mates and elevated MacK to just behind Kucherov on the scoring leaders list. If Colorado resided in the top eight in the Western Conference only one day this season it would have been proof enough that MacKinnon is MVP caliber.
But my guy comes from the team I had a sleeper in September, the Winnipeg (it’s dark and cold there, don’t you know) Jets. They rival the Lightning with the level of offensive talent, but I have Wheeler in second not because of his point production. The proof of his value was apparent through subtraction, not addition – when Mark Schiefle was lost for six to eight weeks with an upper body injury, Wheeler stepped into the first line center role seamlessly and flawlessly. He kept producing in a role that asks far more than patrolling the wing and Wheeler kept producing and the Jets kept winning.
NORRIS SILVER: Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay
Hedman’s knee injury that will sideline three-to-six weeks may be the deciding factor in what looks like a two-horse race between him and the Kings Drew Doughty. If the absence at the larger end of the spectrum, it is a double-digits and with statistics of both players virtually the same, an 82 game campaign could tip the voting in Doughty’s favor. If the return is closer to the shorter end, we stand to have one of the closest Norris races in recent history. Hedman will likely get the “first timer” votes, while Doughty’s weaker supporting cast may convince voters that he is doing more with less.
CALDER SILVER: Brock Boeser, Vancouver
Until last week, I had Boeser as my Calder winner with him tracking a 40-goal season on a below-average Canucks team. As the game continues to evolve, the League is blessed with an exciting freshman class each season and Boeser’s lightning fast release put him among the group of forwards who stand to terrorize goaltenders for years to come.
But with the Islanders bruised and banged up and in danger of drifting south in the standing, Mat Barzal has been the best player on this team over the past few weeks (yes, that includes John Tavares) and is presently a point-a-game player on a contending team.
The Boston Bruins are probably kicking themselves for passing over Barzal not once, not twice, but three times with him sitting there in the middle of the first round of the 2015 Entry Draft. Barzal’s speed and skill in close quarters are on display nightly but what separates him is his tenacity and fearlessness in the slot that was on display in his dominant five-point game at Madison Square Garden moved him solidly ahead of Boeser.
VEZINA SILVER: Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg
It’s stands to be a Tampa West party a the NHL Awards in Las Vegas in June and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy looks to win the Vezina by a comfortable margin with sterling numbers. There are a number of contenders for the other two finalists – Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick and Pekka Rinne come to mind, but Hellebuyck’s emergence is as important to the Jets improved play as Wheeler’s.
In October, the Manitoba take was that Steve Mason was going to tutor Hellebuyck in a mentor/apprentice relationship, but when the season’s first two games were disastrous the script got flipped. Hellebuyck’s personal stats are not superior to the ones listed above but the team’s record in game he starts (Winnipeg earned at least a point in 29 of his 35 starts) is a testimony of a season where he is making the key save in a big spot.
IN A DEFENSIVE MODE
Want to make some money on a safe bet? Find a sucker who thinks a week will pass without me getting asked a question about the departed Slava Voynov.
With the Kings need for a second pair defenseman their most acute one, and with the organization unable to fill the void going on three seasons (it’s been almost 300 games since his departure), some still hold out hope that Voynov will be a once-and-future King and query me about the mechanics and possibilities around such a return.
Caveat: I think orchestrating a Voynov return is wrong. I respect the opinion of those who say he deserves a second chance if he clears all the hurdles necessary (they are numerous and substantial) to be in position to be an NHL player for a second time. Voynov is a free agent in the KHL after this season, his KHL contract expires at season’s end in April.
If he did have an interest in returning to North America at that point, he would have to regain a work visa to return to the United States. Given the circumstances of his fleeing back to Russia via self-departing, there is no guarantee he gets past that step.
But if he won his immigration battle to return and Gary Bettman crafted a path back to the NHL (assuming an additional suspension of a definitive term), then what?
To inject a player with a tainted character not only risks disruption to an organization with a new forward-looking front office and his presence would to offend a significant portion of its own fan base. Adding to the mix is the shielding he would need on the road from opposing fans and media, not to mention the unkind words sure to flow his way.
The interesting part of the discussion is the on-ice impact Voynov would give Los Angeles. As time passes, the perception of the level of talent Voynov possesses seems to have heightened. During one spirited social media discussion, opinions were offered that the missing defenseman would be a No.1 defenseman on many teams along with the designation of an “elite second pair defenseman.”
If you’re on the second pair, you’re not really an elite defenseman, but that’s just me, I’m funny that way.
Voynov played the NHL for two and a half seasons and there is no contesting his strong play in the post-season, but if you align his regular season production and advanced stats with Jake Muzzin in a comparable window, there’s virtually no difference between the two and the case can be made that Muzzin is the better defender. The Kings’ organization has accomplished many things the past decade, but the frustration which accompanies the pursuit of the elusive fourth quality defenseman feeds a never-ending dialogue about a banished defenseman with no clear path of return.
If the dominoes align to the point where Voynov’s return becomes possible, I’d put him up for a sale the highest bidder, bring back multiple assets that can be turned into a younger less controversial defender. Give the headache and, yes, talent to another organization and conclude an unfortunate chapter in LA hockey history.
There are two sides to every story and the business case for a Voynov return can be supported. Since the Kings never voided his contract, let’s assume they are owed four seasons at $4.16 million cap hit – an under-market deal and moreover, they would not have to surrender any assets to fill the void he created. If we are talking pure economics and asset protection, it’s a highly controversial but smart decision to allow him to rejoin the team, akin to drafting a top-4 NHL ready defenseman without the use of a pick.
Team management and ownership have been silent since the last chapter of this saga was written so the question remains... was it the final chapter?
I’m not sure it was.
WHICH WAY, JJ?
The phone blew up on Friday night when Aaron Portzline broke the news in Columbus of Jack Johnson’s trade request. At the start of his NHL career, when Johnson was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes, he was going to be Drew Doughty before there was a Drew Doughty in Los Angeles.
Failing to galvanize the franchise into a winner, Johnson became the conduit that turned frustration into championships when Dean Lombardi turned him into Jeff Carter. Johnson has had a rough ride in Columbus, his unfortunate personal financial challenges have been well-documented and leave him with an unknown financial future despite earning over $40 million by the time he turns 32 years of age.
This season his high-risk, high-reward play has resulted in diminishing returns with coach John Tortorella to the extent that he’s turned into a 15-minute a night defenseman, a precipitous drop from the 20+ minutes a night you could pencil in throughout his career. With trade talks going nowhere and the need to improve his numbers ahead of UFA status on July 1, he made the business decision to ask for a move.
His trade request is a unique one due to his off-ice issues – reduced ice time during a contract year for a defenseman in his early 30s is a significant impairment for an individual who needs a final big contract more than most veterans. If you’re ever going to feel compassion for a professional athlete, you should have it for Jack given the way he was betrayed and victimized by those closest to him.
Empathetically, I have no problem with the motivation behind the request, but empathy doesn’t help NHL GMs win Stanley Cup. The ask to be moved off a contending team during a playoff drive can be construed as a “me first” request and in a game where in some dynamics teamwork is as important as skill, it could make a rival GM hit the pause button on a move for Johnson. An alternative move would have been to say, “I need to be better to get my playing time back to the level I’m accustomed,” which without question would have put Johnson is a better light (self-redemption vs. disgruntled).
Additionally, since Johnson lacks a no-trade clause, he could just as easily be traded to a non-contender and wind up playing for a bad team in games of little consequence. If he wound up in Buffalo or Arizona, the numbers he needs to attain to support his next deal seem so unlikely a trade might wind up further damaging, not helping his cause.
Let’s assume contending teams are willing to take a flyer and Columbus wants to deal him out of the conference. Given his history of five-plus seasons in Los Angeles and with a Kings blueline upgrade growing more apparent with each passing game, is it plausible for a JJ to LA return?
It’s not the best option, but while poking around over the weekend, I got the sense that it’s not a hard pass. Of more interest was that I haven’t heard any concern about a Johnson return being a negative in the locker room, a characterization that surfaced once he left Los Angeles. If other rental options like Mike Green and Erik Gudbranson are not available, the question of the cost would either extend or end the discussion.
The best scenario would be for Kevin Gravel or Paul LaDue to emerge as the Fourth Muskateer over the next month, the organization’s first choice. While Johnson’s on-ice decision making needs to improve (think blind pass, late third period in a 3-2 Opening Round Game 5), he could deliver 20 minutes a night with the motivation of playing for a contract playing for a structured defensive team. If you want to argue to move Derek Forbort into the four hole, he could very well assume the role, but if that was truly the case, there would be no whispers about needed to add a defender.
The hurdle to clear would not be what the Kings need, but what Columbus wants in return (insert your choice of the Kings/Columbus trade deadline joke here) – like Los Angeles, they have a solid, structured defensive game and have a quality goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky, their needs lie on offense. The Jackets are in it to win it so it’s unlike GM Jarmo Kekalainen would want futures for Johnson; my guess is that a winger with some touch on a likewise expiring deal would be the bounty.
The Kings don’t have that guy.
Jussi Jokinen and Torrey Mitchell are the only pending UFA forwards and neither of them would help a Columbus Cup Campaign. The only Los Angeles asset that could make sense from the Columbus side is Jonny Brodzinski, a proven goal scorer at every level, but has had challenges to break through with the varsity. I envision Brodzinski is a third line right wing role, a skill player that ultimately could chip in double digits goals consistently and for that reason, I would not move him in a prospective Johnson deal.
I can’t end this week’s column without a few words about Kings Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Miller.
The Kings pulled out all the stops to honor him this past Saturday night to insure his presence and impact will last in perpetuity. If you know anything about the man, you’d know that honoring him with both a statue outside the arena (the only NHL broadcaster to have one) and a banner inside the arena isn’t overdoing what he has meant not only to this franchise but to sport in Los Angeles.
It’s impossible to define a living legend in just a few words and when I attempt to, the words “genuine” and “gracious” float to the top of the list. Whenever I needed a few minutes, he was never too busy and has never made me feel like the conversation was inconsequential.
Of all his powers, his storytelling ability is on par with his Los Angeles contemporaries Vin Scully and Chick Hearn. The scenario I create to describe him is singular – if you walked into Staples Center press room blindfolded before a game and wanted to find Bob it would be easy, just walk towards the table with the loudest laughter I guarantee he will be there waxing poetic.
Thank you, Bob.