Puck Daddy Bag of Mail: Blues, Leafs and sneaky terrible candidates

Will Brayden Schenn help prevent the Blues from slipping the ultra-competitive Central Division? (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Folks, I have really great news for you, the reader: After taking a summer off, the mailbag is back.

That’s not to say you didn’t have any pressing questions that needed answering over the summer. I’m sure you did and I’m sure you’ve been crying yourself to sleep every night wondering whether Nolan Patrick’s injury history hinders any short-term chances for his success at the NHL level. I could have told you, but I didn’t want to.

But it’s back now. You can feel free to hit me with questions on Twitter or via email or you can text me if you have my number (do NOT call), but the odds are you do not have my number, so stick to the first two.

Okay, question time:

David asks: “I keep seeing the Blues projected as a wild card team or possibly missing the playoffs. But to me we only look better on paper. Why the hate?”

As always, if people think a team isn’t in the playoffs, it’s definitely because they hate that team and you should absolutely harass them about it. Always, for sure, view people’s objective thoughts on things in hockey as a referendum on their personal feelings and be sure to get yourself all worked up about it and then abuse them all season about it if the team defies those expectations. I’m saying this for no particular reason and definitely not from negative personal experience even though I ended up being right about these things.

Anyway, I think the reason the Blues are generally viewed as a fringe playoff team is the strength of their division and little more. Are they good? Yeah, absolutely this is a good team. But I’m not sure where someone could get the impression that they’re significantly better on paper than they were last year.

Last year, they had Kevin Shattenkirk for the bulk of the season, and also Ken Hitchcock, an elite-level coach, for most of it as well. Mike Yeo, I think, is probably fine but over 82 games he’s a downgrade. Shattenkirk wasn’t replaced at all. Brayden Schenn is good, sure. And they didn’t actually lose anyone of note, but their best free agent acquisition is Beau Bennett, so really, that’s not moving the needle as much.

I’d say probably the Blues are roughly as good as they were last year, maybe a little worse. Meanwhile, look at that division. Nashville and Minnesota are both likely to rack up a lot of points this year. Dallas markedly improved (even if they’re not super-great yet). Chicago took a step back but they had 100-plus points again last year, so a step back might not be that impactful in terms of whether they make the postseason. Winnipeg isn’t a playoff team but they’re okay. Colorado’s in the tank again.

So the question to ask here is, “Are the Blues the third-best team in the division?” If you’re answering, “Yes,” that seems optimistic.

And that’s not really a knock on them. If they’re in the Pacific they’re guaranteed to be a top-three team. The Central is just tough.

As for why people think they’ll miss the playoffs, I dunno. People say dumb stuff about this sport all the time.

Matt asks: “Who are some rookies that you think will make the NHL and thrive this year?”

The Boston Bruins finally have some promising young talent on defense.

For the purposes of this exercise I’m going to count guys who got a cup of coffee with their clubs last season, either at the beginning or end of the season. That way we can include guys like Kyle Connor (who played college hockey), Clayton Keller (who played college hockey), Brock Boeser (who played college hockey), and Charlie McAvoy (hey what do you know he played college hockey too).

Those four guys seem like the most obvious candidates because they’re going to teams that have clear needs at their specific positions and will therefore get plenty of opportunity to succeed. Although, when it comes to McAvoy I’d caution that anyone who thinks his performances in the playoffs last season are some sort of indicator of long-term quality might want to temper their expectations a little bit.

Beyond that, a couple Islanders like Josh Ho-Sang and Matt Barzal might be in a position to succeed because that team is gonna need goals to come from somewhere. Same goes for Thomas Chabot in Ottawa if they decide to, I don’t know, put him with Erik Karlsson.

But I think the rookie who theoretically could have the biggest impact on his team’s success is Juuse Saros in Nashville. If Pekka Rinne, who will be 35 in November, doesn’t have a good start, I’d bet Peter Laviolette goes to the young Finn, who has great numbers at the AHL level and from before he came to North America. Is he ready to take the next step and become a 1b starter? If he is, he’s going to be in a good position to pick up a lot of Ws.

Tyler asks: “What do you think is reasonable to expect from the Leafs this year in taking the next step forward towards being an actual contender?”

The Leafs’ immediate future really hinges on their ability to acquire another top-four defenseman. Who knows where they get that guy (trade, obviously, but from whom is very much up in the air)?

With the right top-four defender to bump one or two guys down the depth chart and really shore up that bottom pair, this is a team that can absolutely go to the Eastern Conference Final this year alone as long as the goaltending holds out. The coaching is there. The center depth is there. The wing depth is there, for the most part. Even the top end of the D corps is there.

But a little boost — maybe, like, Jason Demers or Chris Tanev, if they can get the money to work after this season — will go a long way for this group.

I’m really high on this team overall. They’re closer to winning the Stanley Cup than any other team that’s not already at that level yet, and the needs they have are clear. They also have the war chest to make that sort of trade at Thanksgiving, the trade deadline, whenever.

Jarrod asks: “Who are your worst three teams going into this NHL season? And your ‘sneaky terrible’ team that might slide back into the bottom 5?”

Pretty clear bottom-three in the league this season, for me anyway: Colorado, Vegas, Detroit. Not necessarily in that order, but y’know. All the reasons for that are pretty clear, I think.

A sneaky-terrible I don’t particularly think is going to drop that low but, hey, it could happen: Philly. If Brian Elliott can’t succeed here like he didn’t-succeed in Calgary, it could be a long season for a team that actively made itself worse in the offseason.

The Flyers still have a lot of talent, obviously, but also maybe Claude Giroux really is done being an elite scorer. They have some exciting young players coming in who are guaranteed NHL roles, but you never want to bet on rookies, especially rookie defensemen, to carry you to better results. Go down the lineup and there’s not a lot of depth, really.

Like I said, I don’t really see them cratering, but if everything goes exactly wrong for them, I think they could be pretty bad.

Casey asks: “What’s the realistic ceiling for the Penguins with the losses from the summer and the back to back hangover?”

The Penguins have a legitimate chance for the three-peat.

I don’t think it’s especially likely but in theory they could win the Cup again. They’re still clearly one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, if not the absolute best one. At least, I don’t see who else puts up a serious challenge for that crown. Tampa? I guess.

I’m not sure I buy that a long playoff run have a tangible negative effect on teams. It’s a long season regardless. But their most realistic ceiling is probably “deep playoff run.” We have to operate under that assumption until proven otherwise.

Tom asks: “Do you think Sakic’s tactics have hurt what he will get in return for Duchene? And do you think he gets dealt before the season starts?”

Yes and yes.

Colorado’s whole MO of late has been waiting too long to trade guys everyone in the universe knows they’re going to trade, and to what end, exactly? The return for Ryan O’Reilly was, umm, underwhelming, and he’s been openly dangling Duchene for almost as long as he did O’Reilly.

Now there are rumors that Duchene could opt to sit out camp unless he’s traded, effectively demanding an out from a team that, by all appearances, wants to give him one anyway. Other teams know all this better than you and I do.

In the NHL you almost never get equal value back for a star, and given the way he generally manages these things, Joe Sakic definitely doesn’t.

Jason asks: “How would you assemble a team from this?”


This is an easy one:

Marchand – Stamkos – Tarasenko

Karlsson – Doughty

Murray

Doughty being that cheap is a criminal oversight.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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