We are 1 week away from the NHL Trade Deadline, which means it's time for the first installment of a new dish on the Sports Chowder Menu. Now I know a stew is not a chowder, but I am the "Hockey Outsider" so I figured I might as well be outside the realms of a chowder as well. Besides, you all know what I did here. Without further adieu, get your first taste of Puck Drop Stew right now!!
We are just inside 7 weeks until the end of the NHL Regular Season, 47 days to be exact, which also means that at 3pm on February 25th, we will know which teams consider themselves contenders and which are playing for the future. Every week I will highlight a specific ingredient of the Puck Drop Stew and this week I am beginning with the basics. The featured element in this week's stew is.... the broth.
Broth is the most important part of a stew. It's the heart of any good bowl that tantalizes your taste-buds and leaves you satisfied. It's very much the roster of any sports team. The coaching can add the spices and the GM can incorporate new ingredients but the players make up the delicious product that the fans enjoy. As we approach the trade deadline, the question that looms in the minds of all GM's and coaches is simple. Is our broth good enough to allow us to sip out of the most legendary bowl of them all... The Stanley Cup. The answer for some teams is an easy NO. Some teams suffer from what I call the "Seinfeld Effect" or in other words.."No soup for you!"
Others, however, have a difficult decision to make. Do you push for this year and hope your stew can make a splash or do you decide to review your recipe and see if there is a better way to make it. In other words, do you buy or sell? The team that comes to mind that has the most questions to answer is the Columbus Blue Jackets. I don't think anyone wants to be in their position. They have some of the best ingredients you can find but the problem is they have no guarantee they will be able to keep them. Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky will become UFA's (Unrestricted Free Agent) at the end of the season. Panarin, 27, has never had a chance to negotiate a fresh contract. He signed his Entry Level contract when he came into the league with Chicago and signed a two-year extension with the Blackhawks before they dished him to Columbus. A career point-per-game player, Artemi is in the midst of another excellent season posting 67 points in 56 games thus far. Panarin is a superior goal scorer in the league. In the 4 years he has been in the NHL (this year being his 4th), he has scored 30+ goals twice, 27 goals last year, and is on pace for 33 this year.
Sergei Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, is an elite goaltender in the NHL. At age 30, Bobrovsky is still in his prime and has plenty of good hockey left in him. It is possible that Columbus feels that they can resign both of these players but if they swing and miss in the off-season, they will end up losing two elite players for nothing. That's a HUGE risk to take. They have to look themselves in the mirror and objectively try to determine if they are attractive enough for these top-talents to stick around. If I'm looking at that mirror, I'm not liking what I'm seeing. Columbus is not a premiere market to play in and I don't know if I'm banking the future of my team on the hope that those guys will return to a franchise that has never won a playoff series. My advice to Chef Columbus is to either BUY a big ingredient and hope you can put your stew on the brink of greatness, which might keep some of the current pieces in place at the end of the year, or SELL the best parts of your current recipe and create a new broth for the fans to sip.
Columbus isn't the only chef in the kitchen; the Philadelphia Flyers need to decide what they are cooking with and if they are selling; the Winnipeg Jets may be looking to bolster their broth for the playoff stretch; the New York Islanders need to determine if they should cash in on a lucky mix by selling off their winning ingredients or keep their current recipe and perfect it over the next few years.
My answers to those Chefs is fairly straight forward. Philadelphia has an amazing base so they shouldn't sell. They might be one or two spices away from an award winning stew but their broth is very tasty and they shouldn't mess with it. The Jets can use another big ingredient to get them over the hump and Ottawa might be the perfect vendor. The Senators are having a "going-out-of-business" sale because their stew is dreadful. However, they do have a few prized ingredients that look appetizing to any chef that needs that x-factor. Matt Duchene, 28, is having a great year posting 58 points in 50 games playing for the worst team in the NHL. Mark Stone is another attractive element; he should hit the 30+ goal-mark for the first time in his career.
The Islanders feel like an anomaly to me but as long as they can continue to get great play in the crease, they should absolutely be buyers because the core ingredients to their broth are strong and it may just need a pinch of this or that to turn it into the perfect stew.
Then there are the franchises that need to come up with a new recipe before it starts affecting business. The New York Rangers need to sell. They are essentially a .500 team and their #1 goalie is only getting older. Their best components have found success this year but the Rangers are missing a good broth to bring it all together. They have the wow factors in each bite but the aftertaste is bland and unsatisfying. It's time to turn up the heat in the kitchen and create a new recipe. I'm not sure they will make a move but the broth that the Kings of LA have been slurping has not had great reviews. LA spent a lot of money this past off-season outsourcing a well-aged ingredient called Ilya Kovalchuk that has not blended with the rest of the broth quite like the chef had anticipated. They either need to go all in while Kovalchuk can still produce or call it quits with their current recipe. Anaheim just fired their Head Chef (Head Coach) Randy Carlyle, so I wouldn't be shocked at all to see them try to redesign their broth and move a few older pieces to make way for some new flavor. The New Jersey Devils have an interesting predicament: their broth is very good but they have too many sous chefs in the kitchen. They have to decide who to get rid of and who to keep for the future. The question for the Devils is with Cory Schneider, Keith Kinkaid, and MacKenzie Blackwood (a rookie who went 6-4 with two shutouts and a 2.37 GAA in 13 NHL games) in the system, do they move one of them to open up more space for another?
So many questions but the common theme for each franchise in the NHL is going to be self-reflection and objectively tasting their own broths to determine if they have the start of what can become an award winning Puck Drop Stew.
As I will every week, I want to highlight the best of the NHL with my choice for the Soupe De La Semaine!
Take a trip down to St. Louis and have yourself a cup of the Blues' bisque. There is nothing more satisfying and filling in the NHL at the moment. There is nothing special to this soup. It's thick, creamy, and consistent. Nothing is more consistent than 10-0 in your last 10 games. Strong defense, solid offense, and stellar goaltending make this bisque a must-have. Jordan Binnington is a sensational story. A rookie goalie who took over the #1 job to spark a struggling St. Louis team into a playoff spot by going 12-1-1 with 4 shutouts. He's played so well that former #1 netminder, Jake Allen, has picked up his game to try and get his job back. And maybe most importantly, Vladimir Tarasenko has finally found his groove shaking off an extremely sluggish start with a 12-game point streak. Sometimes there's nothing better than a hot cup of well-made bisque during playoff time. Watch out for St. Louis!