Welcome to the weekend rankings. This time, on an actual weekend.
Why are we a day early this week? After checking all the action on Sunday’s schedule – (tumbleweed blows by) – we’re pretty sure this week’s rankings are locked in. Spoiler alert: They won’t be all that different from last week, because with apologies to that Blue Jackets/Blues barnburner, the six games we’ve seen since the last edition didn’t change much.
Instead, let’s use this week’s column to wrap up All-Star weekend. If you missed my reports from Toronto, here are my takeaways from the return of the fantasy draft and my reaction to the revamped skills competition. The summary: I thought both nights were reasonably fun.
So what about Saturday? The actual games are typically the worst part of the weekend, and have been for a while. You know the drill by now — the players don’t care, and also seem to feel that it’s deeply important that nobody accidentally gets the impression that they might care. So they skate at half speed, don’t play anything even vaguely close to defense, and insist on making a half-dozen extra passes before anyone bothers to shoot the puck. (A weird addendum to this rule is that when somebody does finally shoot, it’s completely fine to use the between-the-legs move to do it.) It all plays out with all the enthusiasm of a fan lining up to pay $60 for an All-Star toque their kid will lose by Wednesday.
But on Saturday, we got a little bit of… well, intensity would be too strong a word, but there was definite entertainment value. The three-on-three format pretty much forces the offense, and every now and then, the flow would click in just right and things would get good. The first game saw a last-minute comeback win by Team McDavid, the second saw Team Matthews win a back-and-forth affair, and I’m trying to stay positive so I won’t even mention that both went to shootouts. The final stayed close most of the way before Team Matthews pulled away, sending the Toronto fans home happy.
Overall, it was a good time. But it was better for some players than others, so let’s run down who came out of all of this looking like bigger stars than when they went in.
Bonus Five: Star-power boosts from All-Star weekend
5. Alex DeBrincat: Sure, we should have seen it coming, but DeBrincat may have been the best player on the ice through Saturday’s games. He might even have had a case for MVP if there wasn’t a rule that it can only go to a hometown player.
4. Alexandar Georgiev: He won the goalie prize on skills night by making nine save on Connor McDavid, and yeah, he’s definitely going to pay for that down the line, probably in the Western Conference final. But for now, he’s $100,000 richer and he was probably the only goalie who’s glad he went.
5. Auston Matthews: He didn’t take over the whole weekend the way the NHL probably wanted him to, but he saved his best for last with a pair of goals to lead his team to a win in the final. More importantly, he was pretty much everywhere all week, and he handled it well. He’s not exactly the most charismatic star we’ve ever seen, but he doesn’t shy away from being the face of one of the league’s biggest franchises.
2. Nikita Kucherov: Hear me out. Yes, his too-cool-to-care act on Friday was annoying at best, and maybe even insulting. It also gave the weekend a clear villain, and sports are better when somebody’s playing the heel. I was on a panel at a fan event on Saturday afternoon, and there was more buzz about Kucherov than about any of the Leafs. Then he scored early in the Hughes vs. Matthews game, because of course he did. And then we got the perfect ending, with Kucherov playing to a hostile crowd before his shootout attempt and then getting denied. He was even the first pick in the draft. Forget about winning the Hart Trophy, Evil Kucherov was All-Star weekend MVP.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) February 3, 2024
1. Connor McDavid: Sorry, even a practiced contrarian can’t come up with anyone else for top spot. McDavid designed the skills competition, then won it easily., then scored a late tying goal in his team’s first game. It was as if he was hearing about how Nathan MacKinnon or Kucherov or somebody else would be MVP and thought, “That’s cute, let’s remind these guys who the alpha really is.” It’s his league, everyone else is just playing in it, and the weekend turned into a fitting testament to that.
On to this week’s rankings, which are pretty much last week’s rankings.
Road to the Cup
The five teams with the best chances of winning the Stanley Cup.
There are two games on Monday night, by the way, as the NHL apparently felt like we needed to be eased back into the schedule. They’re reasonably good ones, though, with the Maple Leafs hosting the Islanders and the Avalanche visiting the Rangers.
5. Dallas Stars (30-13-6, +31 true goals differential*) – It can’t be all that fun to watch an All-Star weekend in which your team’s only rep is a goalie, right? You’re just waiting for something bad to happen, and hoping that bad thing is a dozen goals against instead of a torn ACL. Jake Oettinger did fine, so Stars fans can exhale.
4. Boston Bruins (31-9-9, +44) – Did Saturday’s opening game coming down to a David Pastrnak vs. Jeremy Swayman shootout showdown fracture the Bruins’ fragile team chemistry? It would be ridiculous to suggest that, but if they lose any of their next 10 games, we’ll know the answer is yes.
oh man he hit his own goalie with the move lmao pic.twitter.com/jK4Ld2uvWi
— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) February 3, 2024
3. Vancouver Canucks (33-11-5, +61) – I think the gave up too much for Elias Lindholm, although the final verdict there will depend on whether they can extend him (and avoid a shiny new toy debacle if they do). But for our purposes here, giving up a little bit too much for a short-term gain is still a positive as long as it moves them in the right direction for this year’s Cup run.
This trade clearly does; Lindholm was very likely to be the best player available on this year’s market, and the Canucks got him early.
Is it enough to move them up a spot, past the Bruins? Eh, probably not, but I didn’t want to give you the exact same rankings as last week, so here we are.
2. Edmonton Oilers (29-15-1, +34) – It’s record-breaking week for the Oilers, who have a chance to pass the 1992-93 Penguins for the longest win streak the NHL has ever seen. It won’t be easy; they’ve got to get past the Golden Knights on Tuesday to tie the record and set up a chance at history against Anaheim on Friday.
Can they do it? They sure can, and probably will, although you wonder how much the bye week break will hurt. Momentum is overrated, but it’s not nonexistent, and the Oilers certainly had some over the last month. If the streak ends on Tuesday, they’ve got a built-in excuse. (Also, the Knights will be well-rested, since they were somehow one of only three teams with no reps at this weekend’s festivities.)
Still, it would be undeniably cool to see the record fall. Sure, it’s a bit easier to run together a win streak in the shootout era. (The Penguins’ streak was snapped by a tie.) It should also be tougher given all the parity, not to mention the lack of weakling expansion teams to beat up. I think it all comes close to evening out, so no asterisks here if the Oilers pull it off.
1. Colorado Avalanche (32-14-3, +36) – Seriously, McDavid’s going to break Darryl Sittler’s record the next time he faces Georgiev.
*Goals differential without counting shootout decisions like the NHL does for some reason.
Not ranked: Winnipeg Jets – Wait, I just wrote about how the Canucks got to move up after pulling off a big trade. So why aren’t the Jets back in the top five after landing Sean Monahan?
Well… because it’s Sean Monahan.
He’s good! He’s fine. But I don’t think he moves the needle much, even on a team that’s already as good as the Jets. I’ll admit that I’m stunned that the Canadiens really did manage to get that first-round pick that had been rumored. I’m not the only one, based on the string of A+ grades the Habs landed for the deal. As Arpon Basu explains, Kent Hughes did a masterful job of working the market. Did he manipulate various channels to do it? Sure, to an extent, but that’s part of the job. Setting a market for your assets is a skill, and some GMs are really good at it. Apparently, Hughes is on that list.
Rick Bowness is clearly happy with the #NHLJets acquisition of Sean Monahan. Notes that he’s a “200-foot player” who will benefit from an extra month of adjustment time compared with a deadline day addition.
“It’s great that we got him in and great that we got him in now.”
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) February 3, 2024
Does that mean the Jets paid too much? Well, yeah. But like with the Canucks, you can overpay in future assets and still come out fine in the short term. Monahan drops into an already talented forward group, and as long as they can find him the power-play time he was getting in Montreal, he’ll be productive. He also might be easier to sign than Lindholm, which will be a positive if it comes to pass.
I don’t hate the trade. I just think it’s an overpay for a decent player who won’t mean all that much in the long run. Jets fans, set a reminder for yourselves to tweet “this aged well” at me after Monahan’s overtime winner in May.
The bottom five
The five teams that are headed toward dead last, and the best lottery odds for Macklin Celebrini.
The low point of the weekend was probably Gary Bettman’s press conference, which saw the league try to boost a good-news story about the Olympics amid questions about the 2018 Team Canada arrests. Pierre LeBrun captured the vibe nicely in a piece worth reading.
5. Ottawa Senators (20-25-2, -11) – The booked a pair of overtime wins while everyone else was on a beach, keeping their playoff hopes slim but somewhere north of “absolutely impossible.” Now they’re off until the weekend, which will give their fans some time to mull over just how concerned they should be about this.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets (16-24-10, -35) – The Adam Fantilli injury was a scary one, and his absence for the next two months removes one of the very few good-news stories that Blue Jackets fans have had this year.
3. Anaheim Ducks (18-30-2, -40) – They have consecutive wins and points in four straight games and a ton of momentum heading into their next game against the Oilers and you know what, I forget where I was going with this.
2. Chicago Blackhawks (14-34-2, -72) – Chicago fans, are you OK? I know it’s been a rough season, but some of the replies to this tweet have me genuinely concerned about you
Do you need a hug? Because Laz promised me he’d be happy to give you a hug when he gets back there. Just run up to him and grab him next time you see him.
1. San Jose Sharks (14-32-5, -89) – They didn’t just win a game last week, they got their first shutout of the season, with Mackenzie Blackwood stopping all 32 in a 2-0 thriller over the Kraken. That means that the battle between times giving up zero goals and times giving up 10 goals is back in play, with double-digits holding a 2-1 lead heading down the stretch.
Not ranked: Arizona Coyotes – First things first, it was legitimately cool to see Matthews make a point of taking Clayton Keller with an early pick in the draft. It was a subtle way to acknowledge his roots, and remind some fans up here that Arizona hockey matters.
But that’s not what we’ll remember this weekend for when it comes to the Coyotes. Instead, it will be NHLPA head Marty Walsh going scorched earth on the team’s arena struggles.
Boy, I was pretty preoccupied yesterday so I missed this. Walsh pulls no punches here. This is art. https://t.co/HtRyjWPSJu
— Arpon Basu (@ArponBasu) February 3, 2024
He’s not wrong. That doesn’t mean you have to like it if you’re a Coyotes fan. You just want to get this whole thing sorted out once and for all, and the last thing you need, after nearly three decades of doubters, is to find out that Salt Lake City of all places is lurking around with an eye on your team. Coyotes fans exist, and they’re sick of this, and you would be, too. But that doesn’t change the reality of the situation, and the NHLPA finally waking up to it might force some hands here.
Maybe Walsh’s mini-tirade is the nudge everyone needs to shoot or get off the point, which would be the best possible outcome, whichever way this goes. But when it comes to the league’s longest-running soap opera, the players have (finally) entered the chat. That’s a game-changer, and now we will see in which direction.
(Photo of Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews: Cole Burston / Getty Images)