Rich asks via email: “How well would last year’s KHL champ SKA St. Petersburg do within the NHL?”
Well first of all, Rich, this is barely an NHL question but it’s technically one so I have to answer it, legally.
There are a lot of guys on that team who could absolutely play in the NHL and make a big impact. Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk stand out, obviously, but so do a couple guys who are now heading to the NHL — Evgeny Dadonov with Florida and Vadim Shipachyov with Vegas, for example — plus a few guys who already have NHL experience like Slava Voynov, Sergei Plotnikov, and Anton Belov, as well as guys who could absolutely play in the NHL if they wanted, like Nikita Gusev.
But this team, like any other KHL team, would suffer because they have no real depth. Sometimes, even guys who do well in the KHL can’t keep up in the NHL, and when you’re getting outside, say, the top six or seven scorers or any given KHL club, it’s a rough group. Moreover, they seem to have good goaltending, but lots of good goalies in the KHL are in the early 20s and eventually move over to North America for a reason.
Think of SKA, I guess, like the Boston Bruins: Great top-end players but serious depth issues that would eventually sink them. I think even elite KHL teams would probably end up pretty close to the NHL’s bottom-five.
Sasha asks: “Which team do you see winning the West?”
If we’re talking about the regular season, I think there’s a wide-open discussion to have. If we’re talking about the playoffs, I think it might be Nashville again. Sorry for the lack of imagination on that one.
The reason I think the West is a little wide open in the regular season is that Edmonton is in a much weaker division than what any real contenders in the Central would face. Look at all the games the Oilers will get against Vegas, Vancouver, Los Angeles, and Arizona. Lots of Ws to pick up there. Anaheim and Calgary are probably going to be good to one extent or another, but they might not pose that big of a threat to Connor McDavid and Co.
Meanwhile, let’s say you like Nashville, Minnesota, or Dallas to win the Central: They have to all edge out each other — and I for-sure see the argument that there’s not much separating them — plus Chicago and St. Louis. Winnipeg is a step back, but not a pushover like the bottom of the Pacific. Only Colorado seems like a bottom-five-to-seven team in the league out of the Central.
But does Edmonton have the depth, on defense or up front, to really get too deep in the playoffs? McDavid alone is gonna get you a good amount of goals in any given postseason game, but he’s gonna play 22 minutes a night. Tough to see what happens in the other 38 minutes against actual elite teams.
I could honestly see a decent number of teams in the Central making a bit of a deep run but the most reliable group in the division is absolutely Nashville. That ‘D’ corps, that forward group, and potentially also the goaltending? Tough to argue with that.
That is, assuming everyone stays healthy. Which, y’know.
Sam asks: “Is Shea Weber really that difficult to play against?”
Well it depends what you mean by “Play against.”
The very nice boy PJ Kearns, who writes for all sorts of hockey publications, once explained it in a way that I think can’t be topped (paraphrasing): “If Shea Weber comes to take $3 from you every day, and punches you in the stomach to get it, you’re really not going to like it. But if Erik Karlsson comes to take $5 from you every day and just picks your pocket, you lost more money but it didn’t hurt as much.”
The question is, which do you prefer? The extra shots and goals that come with playing against Weber, but also some bumps and bruises, or getting outshot and outscored against Karlsson, but also not checked by a big mean guy?
Those are your options, and I think most NHL players would trade the extra ice packs for the extra goals and points in the standings.
Bobby asks: “Who is the next big NHL star to come out of a U.S. college?”
This also depends: If I can include NHL rookies who are coming out of college now, I’m inclined to go with former Boston University Terrier Clayton Keller, who’s about to start his first full pro season with Arizona. He’s a small, super-skilled player who picked apart the toughest top-to-bottom conference in college hockey last season, and who is routinely ranked among the best handful of prospects, regardless of league, in the entire hockey world.
But if I can’t include Keller, which would be fair enough, I’m inclined to say Colorado draft pick Cale Makar, a defenseman who’s headed to UMass for his freshman year, starting in just a couple weeks. He was the No. 4 overall pick in this June’s draft and from what everyone says he projects as an elite No. 1 puck-mover. The comparisons to Erik Karlsson (which I’ve seen in a few places) seem a bit overblown, since Karlsson is an all-time great, but if he’s even landing somewhere in that neighborhood, damn, that’s a player.
Some other guys worth mentioning who will be draft-eligible next June: BU’s Brady Tkachuk (you may have heard of his dad or brother) and Michigan’s Quinton Hughes are both projected to go pretty high.
Spencer asks: “Some people think Spencer Foo will be good. Others say he’s bad. What’s the real story?”
Related to college hockey free agent signings, and I’ve said this many times before, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Foo played three seasons of college hockey in a middling conference, posting two so-so seasons (50 points with a pretty even division of goals and assists in 75 total games) and one electrifying season (26-36-62 in 38).
He did that as a 23-year-old, which is on the higher end for third-season college players but not outrageous or anything.
So what should Calgary Flames fans expect from him? Tough to say. He’s not a top-six winger. He’s probably not even a top-nine guy. Could he contribute on a skilled fourth line? Maybe. But probably not right now. And again, given that he turns 24 in January, you have to legitimately ask how many more years of development he really has.
In Foo’s case, sorry, I’m not that high on him even if he was a perfectly good college player across his three-season career, especially considering he played with a guy who had previously posted 50 points in an NCAA season absent Foo.
This kind of thinking applies to all NCAA free agents, by the way. Lots of them come out at 22, 23, 24 years old, and sometimes even 25. What’s their ceiling? How long does it take to reach it? How much of a track record do this player have of putting up points? Foo doesn’t check too many boxes here and he’s running out of track pretty quick.
Take the Jimmy Vesey example: He dominated the same league Foo did, but for three years instead of one, and had way more of a pedigree as a scouted and well-regarded prospect. He’s an okay bottom-six NHLer at age 24. Foo doesn’t seem like he’s even that, but that doesn’t mean he’s bad. It just means he’s probably not a reliable NHLer.
Erik asks: “Is it possible the Caps will do better with ‘less’ talent?”
Lots of things are possible. But the idea that the Caps are particularly likely to repeat a season’s performance in which they already had a high PDO, their best players are all a year older, and a bunch of talent shed is not well-founded.
Is this still a good team? Absolutely it is. Is this still a team that’s in real contention to win the Presidents’ Trophy, or even the division title? Ehhhhh, not really.
What would be very funny, to me, is if this is the year they somehow got to the Eastern Conference Final. I’d love it!
Zach asks: “Given Seattle’s new arena announcement would it surprise you if Calgary uses that as leverage for a new arena for themselves?”
Zach, I gotta tell ya: It surprises me they haven’t done it already.
Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter