Faceoff: The backup plan
Easily the weirdest story to emerge from this year's conference final is the rise of the backup goaltender. All four teams have turned to their backup at some point during the round, including three that have switched starters. It's the first time since 1980 that we've seen all eight goalies pressed into action in the conference finals.
Of course, not all backup promotions are created equal. Martin Jones and the Sharks just had a rough night on Saturday, and he was pulled in favor of James Reimer largely to give him a chance to rest up for Game 5; after posting back-to-back shutouts earlier in the series, he's in no immediate danger of losing his grip on the starter's job. And the Lightning haven't had much choice in the matter, with Ben Bishop's injury in Game 1 forcing Andrei Vasilevskiy into action. Bishop will resume the starter's duties once he's ready to play, although at this point we're still not sure when that will be.
But things haven't been quite so clear cut in St. Louis or Pittsburgh, where we've seen controversial mid-series switches that were coach's decisions. The first of those calls was made by Ken Hitchcock, who benched Brian Elliott in favor of Jake Allen because... well, nobody's quite sure. Elliott didn't do anything to lose his job; he's been fantastic all season long. But the Blues needed some sort of jolt after failing to score in Games 2 or 3, and Hitchcock apparently felt that a goaltending switch was one way of achieving it. The Blues won Game 4 on Saturday, breaking out of their offensive slump en route to a 6-3 win, so we're all obligated to say that Hitchcock's move worked brilliantly. As for where that leaves Elliott, well, we'll get to that down below.
A similar situation is playing out in Pittsburgh, although there's a twist. Instead of a veteran being sat down for his younger backup, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan's goalie switch saw the veteran regain his net. Marc-Andre Fleury was the Penguins' starter all year and never really lost the job on merit. He got hurt late in the season, and Matt Murray's strong play left Fleury on the bench even after he was healthy enough to play. One rough game by Murray on Friday was enough to open the door for Fleury's return on Sunday, and the results were decidedly mixed. Midway through the game, the Penguins were up 2-0 and Sullivan looked like a genius. But a Lightning comeback ended with a 4-3 OT win, and now it looks like the coach has overplayed his hand.
Between the Blues and the Penguins, we've seen both sides of the goalie switch coin. And with a pair of Games 6s to come, and maybe a Game 7 or two after that, there's still time to see a few more switches.
Celebrating those who've had the best week.
5. Eric Fehr—Is it? Could it be? An actual hockey hit that's hard but clean and absolutely nobody is complaining about? Do they still make those?
I think it just might be. But just to be on the safe side, let's all agree to complain twice as much about the next one, OK?
4. Peter DeBoer—Yeah, I'm getting the sense that he doesn't really want to help pump Ken Hitchcock's tires right now.
3. Team Canada—Oh gee, another international tournament, another gold for Canada. Look, rest of the world, we tried. We sent over a team built around a teenager, two pests, and most of our C-squad. We even made them use an Edmonton Oilers goaltender, which is pretty much as far to one side as the difficulty slider will go. If the rest of you want to just not show up for the World Cup when we send the actual good players, we'd totally understand.
2. Joe Thornton—Thornton has been among the game's best players for over a decade, and is still producing even as he's about to turn 37. In a league that loves consistency, Thornton provides the same story every year: unrivalled playmaking, a better-than-you-think two-way game, and unfair scrutiny at playoff time. This year, nothing's changed—except that Thornton is apparently done playing along. And that's made the whole thing even more fun.
It's also helped to make Thornton one of the postseason's best stories, one that just about everyone seems to be getting behind. Between the crazy beard and the dance-offs with fans, it's easy to forget that Thornton is also racking up his usual solid numbers.
And yes, they really are his usual numbers—despite what you'd probably assume based on the narrative that follows him around, Thornton has always been a reasonably productive playoff performer. And if he can keep it up, he may be headed toward a Stanley Cup final matchup with a guy who knows a thing or two about narratives himself...
1. The redemption of Phil Kessel—For years, Kessel has been one of the most divisive players in the league. His talent is unmistakable, and his production has generally been excellent. And his success in this year's postseason isn't some aberration—he's always been a very good playoff performer. But he's been criticized for all sorts of other things—his attitude, his body language, his conditioning and practice habits. He's been called a coach killer. He's awful with the media. It was only last summer that Kessel was shoved out the door in Toronto, traded for a marginal return (with the Leafs retaining salary to make it happen); now, he might be the best story in sports, not to mention in line to win the Conn Smythe if the Penguins can get past the Lightning.
So how can a guy who wasn't good enough to be part of one of the worst teams in the league look so good on one of the best? That's the question, and it's one that's turned Kessel's current success into a Rorschach test for fans and media.
There's a strong contingent out there who argue that Kessel is just proving that all of his critics were wrong all along. Especially in Toronto, it often seemed like Kessel couldn't do anything right, especially in the eyes of a media beast that he wouldn't (or couldn't) feed. He was ripped from the moment he arrived until the day he left, and now many of those same scolds are being served a big helping of crow. You didn't know what you had until you drove it out of town, that sort of thing.
That's a nice theory, but it doesn't quite work. Whatever the media may have thought about Kessel, it was the Leafs front office that was determined to move him. That's the same braintrust that's received nearly unanimous praise for their recent work in rebuilding the Maple Leafs from the ground up. They seem like pretty smart guys. So were they wrong, too? Or is there another answer?
The other argument is that it's Kessel who's changed, and that the move to Pittsburgh has made him a better player. Pick your favorite cliché: He needed a change of scenery; he's learning how to be a winner; he's thriving now that he's not under a microscope. Those are satisfying answers, ones that can even justify all that criticism as some much-needed tough love, but they ignore some inconvenient facts. Whatever Kessel's flaws may have been in Toronto, productivity wasn't one of them. He finished in the top ten in league scoring three times as a Leaf, and was actually significantly more productive in Toronto than he was this year in Pittsburgh, even though the Leafs surrounded him with far inferior talent. If he really is a changed man, the numbers don't seem to back it up.
It's tempting to just pick a side and start yelling. But the reality here is probably somewhere in the middle. Maybe Kessel really is what we've all thought he was for years—a talented player who also happens to bring some off-ice negatives to the table, overblown as they may be. Maybe those negatives were the sort of thing that don't outweigh the positives on a rebuilding team full of impressionable kids. And maybe they're also exactly the sort of things you can overlook on a better team, one that already has the best player in the world leading the way.
If that's the case, then everyone was right. The critics, the supporters, the front office that traded him at a discount, and the team that happily scooped him out. Kessel was always Kessel, and still is, and probably always will be. He was just put in a position where the good can outweigh the bad.
And maybe that makes it all sound too simple. But sometimes, the simplest answers are the right ones. Even if they don't let you scream "I told you so" at anyone.
A look at the week's underachievers.
5. Shawn Michaels—The pro wrestling legend has somehow become a Penguins fan, after learning about the team's "HBK" line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Kessel. He's been cutting promos, and even attended last night's game as a guest of the team.
I'm putting him in the bottom five because I'm Canadian and I'm still holding a grudge, but I have to admit that the whole thing is pretty cool. And it's fascinating that it was Kessel's success that brought Michaels into the Penguins fold, since on the surface the two seem to be polar opposites. Or are they? I've put together a quick comparison:
4. Trevor Daley—There's really no nice way to frame the news of Daley's broken ankle that will keep him out for the rest of the playoffs. It's a disaster for the Penguins, a team that was already thin on defense and being forced to rely on Kris Letang to eat major minutes. Daley had been their No. 2, playing 22 minutes a night and providing the sort of steady veteran play that can paper over some of the inevitable mistakes that younger guys will make.
Injuries are part of the playoffs, and having the depth to survive them is part of what makes a champion. But some hurt more than others, and this is one of them.
3. Shirtless Sharks—Yeah, apparently this is a thing now. I like a good oddball playoff tradition as much as the next guy, but this is just unsettling. Doing your intermission without a shirt on is the hockey equivalent of answering the door in your bathrobe. You are creeping everybody out, San Jose.
It's cool when Thornton does it, since his beard goes down to his knees. Everyone else knock it off.
2. Matthews vs. Laine—Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine will be the top two picks of this year's draft, almost certainly in that order. They also both played key roles at the just-concluded world championships, which is rare for a draft-eligible player. Laine was named tournament MVP and Matthews was nearly as productive with far less talent around him.
You'd think that would be fun for hockey fans—two talented rookies coming into the league at the same time, kicking off a fledgling rivalry before they've even heard their names called at the draft. But instead, the whole thing is being turned into some forced either-or scenario, where fans are expected to pick one guy and loudly declare that he's clearly better and anyone who disagrees is an idiot.
Granted, hockey fans already do that for just about everything these days. But this is worse than usual, and we all know why: Because Canada has the top two picks in the draft and no playoff teams to distract us. So you've got the Leafs (who'll take Matthews) and the Jets (who'll take Laine), and through some weird coincidence, your opinion of those two players just happens to line up exactly with your opinion of those two teams.
Call me crazy, but maybe we don't have to do this. Maybe we could just enjoy these two future stars without turning it into a thinly disguised referendum on your feelings on Brendan Shanahan or Kevin Cheveldayoff or whoever else. Maybe we could wait for them to set foot on NHL ice at least one time before we all develop the need to have Very Strong Feelings about which one is a first ballot Hall of Famer and which one is an obvious bust in the making.
Or maybe we just really need to get Canada back in the playoffs next year.
1. Brian Elliott—So now that he's been benched in the playoffs, again, it's time for Elliott and the Blues to part ways, right?
I floated that basic question—when should Elliott ask for a trade?—on Twitter a few nights back, and the most common reply was some variation of "three years ago." That sounds about right. Since he arrived in St. Louis in 2011, Elliott has been one of the very best goaltenders in the league, and has led the NHL in save percentage twice. He's also seen the Blues give up a fortune to trade for Ryan Miller in 2014, go through that whole weird Martin Brodeur salvation project last season, and then hand the reigns over to Jake Allen for last year's playoffs. And now, he's been yanked out of the starting lineup even though he's been playing great, all in the name of shaking things up.
For whatever reason, it's become clear that the Blues just don't trust Elliott. And sure, maybe that changes if Hitchcock isn't back next year. But if I'm Elliott, and I'm one year away from hitting UFA status, I don't exactly feel like waiting around to find out. If the Blues don't want the guy, surely some other team would. It's in everyone's best interest for Doug Armstrong to find that team, strike a fair deal, and let everyone move on with their lives.