Thinking mid/long-term, are there legitimate reasons to be concerned regarding the wage/age structure of the Chicago Blackhawks’ roster? Should they move another core player soon? — @cduran88
The only concerning contract I see belongs to defenseman Brent Seabrook, who will be 33 on April 20 and has six years remaining on the eight-year extension he signed Sept. 26, 2015. Seabrook is a solid player, a reliable defenseman, durable and always there to play the hard, heavy minutes for coach Joel Quenneville. But his production is down (11 points in 38 games) and his minutes are declining. He’s averaging 20:26 of ice time per game this season. That’s no small thing, but considering he averaged 22:17 in the previous four seasons, it shows a decline. Seabrook is still good for 20 solid minutes per game, but for how much longer? He has played in 961 games. He has missed 27 games in his 12 and a half seasons. That shows remarkable durability and consistency, but eventually the wear and tear will take a toll.
All that said, I don’t think Seabrook and his contract are movable. The Blackhawks aren’t trading right wing Patrick Kane or center Jonathan Toews either, so stop even thinking about it. Defenseman Duncan Keith isn’t going anywhere. He’s been among the best bargains in the League for a long time. They traded forward Artemi Panarin to the Columbus Blue Jackets to get forward Brandon Saad back, which tells me they’re not trading Saad unless they can get a player like Panarin or better. Artem Anisimov is a valuable No. 2 center. Corey Crawford is one of the best No. 1 goalies in the League. It’s too bad for Chicago that both are currently on injured reserve. They’re irreplaceable.
All of this gets me to my bigger point — the Blackhawks don’t have to trade a core player; they need their core players, especially Toews and Saad, to play better and produce, and they need their role players to improve and push the core players even more. That’s not a sexy answer, probably not what you’re looking for either, but I’m trying to be realistic. I’d argue every team north of Tampa Bay and Nashville wants to upgrade its defense. Chicago is no different. But, really, you can’t look at the roster and tell me the Blackhawks aren’t good enough to be a playoff team. They are. They should be. They need better performances from a lot of players, but they can’t just strip away another piece and hope that works. That’s not how it works.
The Predators, St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars have all improved, the first three with mostly players from within. Chicago must show improvement from within, too.
American Hockey League affiliate aside, what’s a realistic move GM Garth Snow will make to improve the New York Islanders defense? And how soon do you think he’d do it? With Calvin de Haan and Johnny Boychuk both out, do you think this is their primary issue? — @jonnywax
It’s hard to predict these things, especially on Jan. 3, when the 2018 NHL Trade Deadline isn’t until Feb. 26. We don’t know what Snow is thinking, but defense and goaltending are the areas of concern for the Islanders. Defense is the one that is most easily, or most likely to be addressed. It’s hard to find a major upgrade in goal in the middle of the season.
All indications are that de Haan isn’t likely to return. Newsday reported he could be heading for shoulder surgery. Boychuk is out week to week with a lower-body injury. The Islanders need help on the back end. Could they be in the market to get Mike Green from the Detroit Red Wings in a rental-type role? Perhaps, although he doesn’t suit their biggest need, which is a strong defensive presence, especially on the penalty kill, which has been a big problem all season. Maybe Alexei Emelin from the Nashville Predators becomes expendable with Ryan Ellis returning. Emelin is someone who could fill a need on the Islanders’ back end and on their PK. Vancouver Canucks defenseman Erik Gudbranson is another player who comes to mind as a potential target for the Islanders.
Come the trade deadline, do you see the New York Rangers as buyers or sellers and whom may they get/trade? — @Mike_Santan
It’s a great question and something I have thought about. My conclusion: I literally have no idea. I know that sounds like a cop out, but this one is hard to figure out. They’re right there. They have been one of the best teams in the League since Oct. 31 with an 18-6-3 record. They are going to be in the thick of the playoff race until the end. I think they’re going to be in the top five in the Metropolitan Division, which should be good enough to get them in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They are strong in goal, obviously. They have depth up front. They appear to have found combinations on defense that work. They don’t have any glaring weaknesses, but they don’t have any great strengths either, other than Henrik Lundqvist. Rick Nash, who is in the last year of his contract, would be a hot commodity for contending teams, but he’s a valuable piece to the Rangers. He’s been so close to scoring in so many games. His impact is felt in other areas too. He’s still a strong two-way power forward. If they try to be buyers, they have to be careful about who they trade because they don’t want to give up any more first-round draft picks. They finally had two last year (Lias Andersson, No. 7; Filip Chytil, No. 21) after having none since they picked Brady Skjei at No. 28 in 2012. Depleting their prospect pool won’t be good for their future and the return may not be necessary enough to warrant such a bold move. Let’s see where they are in a month. Maybe things change. For now, I find it hard to analyze or predict what the Rangers could, should or will do before the deadline.
Video: What is next for the Rangers and Sabres?
What changes do you see coming to the Buffalo Sabres? — @Smitty0717
Success. What a change that’ll be. The Sabres are in games, playing well, coming back, getting games to overtime. They are 4-3-5 in their past 12 games. That’s something. They had points in 10 of their first 27 games, so to have points in nine of their past 12 is an obvious sign of improvement. They are starting to come together, but they need more talent on the roster and they need players like forwards Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo and Sam Reinhart to step up.
Mostly, though, the Sabres need help on defense. Their group on the back end isn’t deep enough and doesn’t present any major scoring threats either. Rasmus Ristolainen has goals in each of the past two games. They are his first goals of the season. The Sabres have five goals from defensemen this season. That’s the fewest in the NHL.
The good news is Buffalo general manager Jason Botterill has a quality trade chip at his disposal. Evander Kane, who has 34 points (15 goals and 19 assists) in 39 games, will be a wanted player as we get closer to the trade deadline. He’s having a strong season and would be an upgrade to the top six forward group of probably every team in the League. Botterill should be able to get a top prospect or a mid-round first-round draft pick in a trade that involves Kane, who is in the last year of his contract.
Which unexpected World Junior Championship or Olympic players will finish the season in the NHL? — @njtiob
The three most intriguing players named to the U.S. Olympic team Monday are forwards Brian Gionta, Jordan Greenway and Troy Terry. I chatted with Gionta, who turns 39 on Jan. 18, on Sunday, before he was officially named captain of the team. He said he’s been working out with Rochester of the AHL and feels great. He said some NHL teams have started to show interest in him and perhaps a strong showing at the Olympics could be enough to get him a contract to finish out the season with a team that needs help up front. Signing Gionta would cost a team only a contract and a pro-rated salary. If he shows in the Olympics that he still can skate and score, he might be a better option than trading a draft pick or a prospect for a rental-type player.
Greenway, the 20-year-old, 6-foot-6 Minnesota Wild prospect, is playing at Boston University. He could sign with the Wild when his collegiate season is over. A strong Olympics might push him in that direction. He has 17 points (seven goals, 10 assists) in 19 games with BU. The same is true for Terry, an Anaheim Ducks prospect playing at the University of Denver. He has 25 points (eight goals, 17 assists) in 20 games for Denver.
Casey Mittelstadt, the Sabres’ forward prospect who is playing for Team USA in the World Juniors, could potentially sign at the end of his season at the University of Minnesota. It would give him a head start on his NHL career, which wouldn’t be a bad idea.
It’s possible too that Cale Makar, a defenseman for Canada in the World Juniors, signs with the Colorado Avalanche after his season at the University of Massachusetts. The Avalanche picked him fourth in the 2017 NHL Draft.
Video: Starman and Severino recap USA vs. Finland
Who is your favorite to win the Calder Trophy? Is it safe to say it’s a two-horse race between Mathew Barzal and Brock Boeser? — @D_99Karn
It is not safe to say it’s a two-horse race. Are you forgetting about Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy? Don’t. He isn’t as flashy as Barzal, a center from the Islanders, or Boeser, a forward from the Vancouver Canucks, but he’s playing more than 23 minutes per game and he has 21 points (five goals, 16 assists) in 38 games. He’s playing top-pair minutes with Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. You could make an argument for McAvoy as the front-runner just as easily as you can for Barzal and Boeser.
My favorite now is Boeser, the back-to-back NHL Rookie of the Month winner who has 38 points (21 goals, 17 assists) in 37 games. He seems to score every game and he’s doing it without much insulation. He’s going against top defense pairs and top lines every game. For as impressive as Barzal has been, and he’s been great, he at least has John Tavares, Josh Bailey and Anders Lee playing ahead of him. Barzal gets more favorable matchups as a result. Boeser doesn’t have that luxury. But, again, McAvoy better be in this conversation.