Panarin-Saad trade proves to be win-win right off the draw

Yeah, yeah, I know it’s one game…it’s an 82 game season, you can’t judge off one game, blah blah blah. Tell me something I don’t know.

I’m calling the Artemi Panarin-for-Brandon Saad deal from this past offseason a draw. It looked like a win-win for both teams when the deal was made, and the season openers for the Blackhawks and Blue Jackets only confirms that.

Saad recorded his second career hat trick on Thursday night in Chicago’s 10-1 win over Pittsburgh, skating alongside Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik while logging more than five minutes on the power play. Panarin countered with a trio of assists in Friday’s 5-0 thumping of the Islanders by Columbus. He was driving play and creating opportunities for linemates Alexander Wennberg and Cam Atkinson against New York’s top line centered by John Tavares that was shuffled up mid-game.

Both these guys addressed a big need for their respective teams when the trade was made in June. Columbus needed a shot in the arm from the left side on its top line alongside Wennberg and Atkinson. Panarin brought just that – and rookie left wing Sonny Milano was very promising in his debut as we’re on the subject on the issue of the left side. The Jackets didn’t have a player like Panarin last season on the wing and the 25-year-old adds a whole new dynamic to their offense.

The return of Saad to Chicago, meanwhile, is the answer to what seemed to be a small identity crisis in Chicago in the aftermath of last season’s First Round sweep by the Predators. I think there was something Saad brought to that team that was never replaced after he was traded to Columbus after the Blackhawks won their third Stanley Cup in six seasons back in 2015. It’s no coincidence that the team was in a similar identity crisis when he broke into the league in 2013 and went onto become an integral part of two Stanley Cup-winning teams. In addition to all that, Toews needed an upgrade on his left side and Saad made perfect sense given how well the two had played together during Saad’s first stint in Chicago.

So no need to overthink this. Both teams were perfect trade partners for each other given their needs. The results showed instantly in the season openers of both teams. And the results will continue to show as the year goes on.

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Connor McDavid isn’t too bad

The gap between Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby is closing.

Don’t get me wrong, Crosby is still the best player in the world (he scored a goal and assisted on another in the Penguins season-opening overtime loss to the Blues on Wednesday), but McDavid is gaining. It might even be 1-1A at this point.

McDavid opened the season with a hat trick in the Oilers 3-0 win over the Flames to begin the new season on Wednesday. I don’t know if the stat line even did justice for how good he was. The kid was that electric.

It’s amazing how quick and explosive he is. He goes from zero to 60 at the snap of a finger. I hate making comparisons like the one I’m going to make, but I don’t think we’ve seen anything on this level since Wayne Gretzky.

There had to have been at least 8-10 instances of McDavid sneaking behind the Calgary defense, taking a stretch pass and turning it into a scoring opportunity.

On his first goal – which may have been the nicest – McDavid snuck right into the left doorstep as Patrick Maroon and Leon Draisaitl were working the puck out behind the goalline. Draisaitl found McDavid for easy strike.

His second goal, he took it coast-to-coast, making everybody else look like they were standing still.

If you have the chance to stay up and watch McDavid play – do it. There’s a good chance you won’t regret it.

Pacific Division Preview

The two best teams in this division are two of the best in hockey. The Ducks, who have reached the Western Conference Final two of the last three years and has been a team that has been knocking on the door for years now, should be right back there once again. The Oilers exploded on the scene last season with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl leading the charge. They should be good for years to come.

The rest of the division ranges from bad to mediocre to good. There’s not much separation between the Flames, Sharks, Coyotes, and Kings. You’re talking one team that gets in as the third seed in the division while the other three are within five points come season’s end.

At the bottom of the division, you have Golden Knights team that is building as they begin their inaugural NHL season. The Canucks, meanwhile, are well into a rebuild.

How they’ll finish

1 – Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks have a few injuries that could create problems early, particularly with Ryan Kesler, Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm, but there’s enough there to hold things down while they make their way into the lineup. Anaheim is very young and very talented on the back end and goaltending should be a strength with John Gibson and Ryan Miller in the crease.

2 – Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers have suddenly become a trendy Stanley Cup favorite. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl will do that. I still say the Oilers are a year or two away but I wouldn’t count anything out.

3 – Calgary Flames

The Flames could have one the league’s best defenses with the addition of Travis Hamonic to a core that already had Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, and Dougie Hamilton but the goaltending remains a concern. If they can’t stop pucks at a decent rate, Calgary  will fall behind the Sharks, Coyotes, and Kings – three teams I don’t see having much separation from the Flames.

4 – San Jose Sharks

Is the Sharks window closed? It could be. But we were asking the same question two years ago – in fact, many thought the Sharks would be a lottery team in 2015-16 – and they ended up in the Stanley Cup Final. If Martin Jones gives San Jose what he did during that season, all of a sudden this is a really good team that is built well from the net-out.

5 – Arizona Coyotes

Don’t be surprised if this team leapfrogs the two teams ahead of them and finish in third. The Coyotes made big upgrades at center and defense by going out and acquiring Derek Stepan and Niklas Hjalmarsson during the summer. If Antti Raanta fits the bill as a No. 1 goaltender – which I’m skeptical of – the Coyotes could make some noise.

6 – Los Angeles Kings

The Stanley Cup window has passed but it doesn’t mean the Kings aren’t still a competitive team. Los Angeles will still carry the play most nights, the problem is they have to work so hard to score goals. A healthy Jonathan Quick won’t hurt things.

7 – Vegas Golden Knights

This certainly isn’t the worst expansion team ever but the Golden Knights are still far from being a good hockey team. You could do much worse than Marc-Andre Fleury in net but there’s nothing down the middle and their best defensemen are nothing more than top-fours on good teams at best.

8 – Vancouver Canucks

This upcoming season has Canucks win the draft lottery’ written all over it. It’s all the Canucks could hope for, as a Rasmus Dahlin or Andrei Svechnikov look like the only things that will streamline what could be a long rebuild in Vancouver. I’m excited to see what rookie head coach Travis Green does in his first crack at the NHL.

Best player – Connor McDavid

Second-best player in the world aside from Sidney Crosby. He won the Art Ross Trophy last year, his second in the NHL. McDavid is only going to get better as he grows into his 20s.

Rookie to look out for – Jacob Larsson

The Ducks back end being decimated to begin the season means a big opportunity for the 20-year-old to step in and make an impact. He’s the latest in what’s been a line of really good defensemen to emerge in Anaheim in recent years.

Player that makes that jump forward – Sam Bennett

Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund doing the heavier lifting for Calgary opens up a lot for Bennett, the fourth overall pick in 2014 who has been so-so through two full NHL seasons (let the record show he just turned 21). Bennett should feast playing against weaker competition.

All-Pacific Team

C – Connor McDavid

LW – Johnny Gaudreau

RW – Joe Pavelski

D – Brent Burns

D – Drew Doughty

G – John Gibson

 

Central Division Preview

Best division in hockey? Again, it’s a toss-up with the Metropolitan. As I also said when looking at the Metro, there’s more teams from the Central I envision winning the Stanley Cup.

Of the seven teams in this division, six are really strong while the Avalanche will likely be a bottom-feeder again, especially with what seems to be the imminent trade of Matt Duchene.

What this division will be is the most competitive. Not much separates teams one through six while Colorado at seven has talent to win games here and there.

How they’ll finish

1 – Dallas Stars

Part of it is the Ken Hitchcock factor – you know what you’re going to get out of a Hitchcock-coached team. But comparing this team to two seasons, when the Stars won 50 games and came within one win of the Western Conference Final, this is a better team. The addition of Martin Hanzal to go behind Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza makes Dallas very good down the middle, while the signing of Alex Radulov should stabilize the right side of the Stars top line. They should be better on the back end, which will be helped by the addition of Ben Bishop in net.

2 – Chicago Blackhawks

A trendy team to fall off among some forecasters after trading away Artemi Panarin and Niklas Hjalmarsson in the offseason while Marian Hossa was lost for the season with a mysterious skin condition. I don’t see it happening. There’s still plenty there for the Blackhawks to certainly make the playoffs and come out of the West. The core of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, and Corey Crawford may have a few grey hairs, but they’re far from being over the hill.

3 – Minnesota Wild

The Wild are very good in just about every area. They’re built well from the net-out, they’re strong down the middie and up front Minnesota is loaded with solid 200-foot forwards. This was a team that had been knocking on the door for some time, and a combination of Bruce Boudreau and guys hitting they’re stride as NHL players led to the Wild breaking through last season. They’ll be right back there this season.

4 – Winnipeg Jets (Wild Card)

The million-dollar question is do they get the goaltending? If they do, the Jets are a playoff team.

5 – Nashville Predators (Wild Card)

What seems to be lost amidst the Nashville craze is the defending Western Conference champs barely made the playoffs last season. Now granted, they made a big late-season push to punch their ticket and took off from there, but this team still has many question marks. Lots of guys either coming back from injuries or still on the mend, there’s not a whole lot up front behind the Arvidsson-Johansen-Forsberg line, and Pekka Rinne – while spectacular during this past spring – has been inconsistent over the past couple seasons. This is still a bubble team.

6 – St. Louis Blues

There’s always a team or two that was expected to contend and get buried by injuries early and just can’t recover. It looks like the Blues could be that team this season. If Jake Allen plays at the level he did in the second half of last season, St. Louis will at the very least manage to compete for a playoff spot.

7 – Colorado Avalanche

The focus for the Avs is getting the best possible return for Matt Duchene. Oh, and Rasmus Dahlin.

Best Player – Patrick Kane

Best winger in the league, top-five player in the world. Kane’s numbers might sag a slight bit without Artemi Panarin opposite him on the left side, but his impact will stay the same.

Rookie to watch out for – Joel Eriksson Ek

Eriksson Ek had a strong 15-game showing last season for the Wild before returning to his native Sweden for more seasoning. The 20-year-old is now NHL ready and should step into a very strong forward group in Minnesota.

Player that makes the next jump forward – Jake Allen

Allen really broke out in the second half of last season and carried the Blues to a playoff round win in the playoffs. I think this year Allen pushes himself into the Vezina Trophy conversation, and St. Louis is going to need him to.

All-Atlantic Team

C- Jonathan Toews

LW- Jamie Benn

RW- Patrick Kane

D- Alex Pietrangelo

D- Roman Josi

G- Devan Dubnyk

Metropolitan Division Preview

It’s a two-horse race between this division and the Central for the class of the NHL. There’s probably fewer teams that are true Stanley Cup contenders in the Metro than the Central, but all eight of these teams have a shot at making the playoffs (I think the Devils are a much better team than they’re getting credit for).

The Capitals and Penguins seem to be just a tier above everyone else, and the two teams that will probably be 1-2 in either order. Of the other six, you’re probably looking at one team that gets a good win or three early and snowballs into a big run, a la last year’s Blue Jackets. Meanwhile, you probably get another team that gets eaten up early and it snowballs the other way.

How they’ll finish

1 – Washington Capitals

There’s a couple more question marks than we’ve seen the past couple of years, but this is still a contending team. The Caps managed to lock up Evgeny Kuznetsov to create the 1-2 tandem with Nicklas Backstrom and re-signed T.J. Oshie as a compliment to Alex Ovechkin. Of course, Washington will have to make up for the losses of Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams up front while the shoes of Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt, and Kevin Shattenkirk will have to be filled on the back end. None of those will be small tasks. But there’s plenty there, maybe just enough to win that vaunted second playoff round.

2 – Pittsburgh Penguins

The losses suffered by the Penguins following their second straight Stanley Cup title certainly don’t help their odds of three-peating, but there’s little reason to panic. What led to Pittsburgh ripping off a pair of championships was the job Jim Rutherford and the Penguins front office did of identifying role players to build around Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. As long as that continues, so does the winning.

3 – Carolina Hurricanes

The Canes fell flat on their faces right before the finish line, ending the season on a 1-4-1 slide, but that was preceded by a 9-0-4 run that stretched through March. Then they went out and added Marcus Kruger, Justin Williams, Trevor van Riemsdyk, and Scott Darling – Darling being the biggest, given the black hole that has been Carolina goaltending for years now – and it looks like the Hurricanes are ready to compete. The blue line is one of the most talented, young units in the game.

4 – New York Rangers (Wild Card)

Another team in the running for Most Likely Not to Make it Back to Playoffs. Are they a lock? By no means. But the Rangers don’t look much different than years past.

5 – Columbus Blue Jackets

The next three teams are right on the bubble – teams that will be within 2-3 points of the playoffs either way. Without last year’s torrent run that stretched from late November to early January (which included a 16-game winning streak), the Jackets are right in this position in 2016-17 rather than jogging to the finish line with 108 points.

6 – New York Islanders

The top line of Anders Lee, John Tavares, and Jordan Eberle could be one of the better lines in hockey while rookie pivot Mathew Barzal can be a good compliment to Brock Nelson at center in the middle six. This is a team that does most things pretty good but nothing particularly great. This is the type of team that punches its ticket to the postseason by being unattainably good in one particular area.

7 – Philadelphia Flyers

This is a team to watch out for. This is a conservative pick, don’t be surprised if the Flyers end up with 110 points and flirting with the Penguins and Capitals atop the division. Youngsters Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov should build off impressive rookie seasons while rookie Nolan Patrick will hop right into the Philly lineup. Meanwhile, you’ve got veterans Claude Giroux, Jacob Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds leading the way up to, with Giroux and Voracek looking to bounce back from disappointing seasons. Brian Elliott is as good a goalie as the Flyers have had in years.

8 – New Jersey Devils

Is this a playoff team? Probably not. Could they get, say, 85 points? I believe so. New Jersey probably falls victim to the division they’re in, but the Devils are better than people are giving them credit for.

Best Player – Sidney Crosby

Do we really need an explanation?

Rookie to watch out for – Mathew Barzal

Barzal has been the best pure playmaker in the CHL over the past couple seasons, and led Seattle to the WHL title last year. He’s been one of the best players for the Islanders during the preseason

Player that makes the next jump forward – Jake Guentzel

His performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs was no fluke. He has speed, he goes right to the net, and has a great shot. You know Sidney Crosby will get him the puck. Guentzel – much like Conor Sheary last season – will pick up right where he left off.

All-Metro Team

C – Sidney Crosby

LW – Alex Ovechkin

RW – Cam Atkinson

D – Kris Letang

D – Seth Jones

G – Matt Murray

Atlantic Division Preview

This is an intriguing division. The Maple Leafs are young, talented, and coming off a breakout year in 2016-17. The Panthers are young, talented, and coming off a disappointing year in 2016-17. The Buffalo Sabres might not be as young and talented as the two aforementioned teams yet have the young talent to elevate them into the NHL’s middle class, at the very least. The Bruins have great young talent and some great veteran players, same with the Senators, Lightning, and the Canadiens.

These are all teams with quite a few strengths and quite a few flaws. You can literally make a case for each for these teams – OK, maybe not the Red Wings – making the playoffs and just as good a case can be made for each of these teams not making it.

I give the Atlantic the Most Likely to Only Field Three Playoff Teams Award, simply because all these teams are going to beat each other up while getting beat up by some of the heavyweights in the Metro.

How they’ll finish

1 – Toronto Maple Leafs

Everybody knows how good the Maple Leafs are up front, everybody knows how well Mike Babcock can coach a team up. What people are underselling is how well this team is built from the net-out. Frederik Andersen is one of the better goalies in the league – he can certainly carry a team – while the Leafs are deceptively good on the back end. They’re much like the Capitals where there’s no go-to Norris contender leading the way, but Morgan Rielly could easily fill the role John Carlson plays out of in Washington.

2 – Tampa Bay Lightning

A healthy Steven Stamkos is the key. The only time Stamkos has been healthy over the last four seasons, Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Final. With that said, they reached the Eastern Conference Final without him the season after when he went down late in the 2015-16 season. Point being it wasn’t all Stamkos’ absence that befell Tampa last season, but it didn’t help. The Lightning should be more in line this season and that will only help them.

3 – Montreal Canadiens

The Habs are pretty weak up the middle and aren’t very deep on defense. But they’re really good on the wings and obviously Carey Price adds at least a few wins. I also have them at No. 1 in the John Tavares sweepstakes should the Islanders look to trade him at mid-season, which certainly would help their case.

4 – Boston Bruins (Wild Card)

If they can get the backup goalie situation straightened out – whether that means Anton Khudobin picking up where left off at the end of last season or Zane McIntyre figuring it out – then the B’s are a lock for the playoffs. There’s still a few concerns on the back end and depth up front but there’s a lot of youth on this team about to emerge, beginning with young stud defenseman Charlie McAvoy.

5 – Florida Panthers

Don’t sleep on the Panthers. Florida got killed by injuries last season and by the time the whole team got healthy it was too little, too late. But there’s a lot of good top-end talent on this team. Only problem is there isn’t much depth, as we saw last season.

6 – Ottawa Senators

The Senators are stapled by many to be the team that takes a step back, but don’t mistake this as one such pick. I just see Ottawa to be such a team of mystery, no different from last year or the year before that or the year before that. Plus Erik Karlsson will miss time to begin the season, which doesn’t help.

7 – Buffalo Sabres

There’s a good central core in place but not a whole lot around it. That could quickly change, however, especially if Jack Eichel continues to emerge as one of the game’s true superstars.

8 – Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings open a new building but it could be a while until we see any playoff hockey inside Little Caesars Arena. Detroit is muddled with aging players on bad contracts. The rebuild is in full force and it’s going to take some time.

 

Best Player – Erik Karlsson

Just makes everything look so easy. There hasn’t been a defenseman who has been able to control all areas of the game the way he has in the last 15 years.

Rookie to watch out for – Charlie McAvoy

Came into the league seamlessly during the Stanley Cup Playoffs and made it look easy. He’ll probably have to be depended upon similarly early in the season with Torey Krug hurt, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to handle it.

Player that makes the next jump forward – Morgan Rielly

The fifth overall pick in 2012 had a rough 2016-17 but will bounce back and lead a Toronto defense that’s being overlooked. He’s the best defenseman on that roster.

All-Atlantic Team

C – Patrice Bergeron

LW – Brad Marchand

RW – Nikita Kucherov

D – Erik Karlsson

D – Victor Hedman

G – Carey Price

Goalies: 6-10

6 – Craig Anderson

Anderson was one of the real feel-good stories of last season, leading the Senators to overtime of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final after missing much of the regular season to be be his wife’s side as she battled cancer. But Anderson was no flash in the pan – he’s quietly been very good for a while now. Since arriving in Ottawa in February 2011 from Colorado for Brian Elliott in a goalie-for-goalie trade, the 36-year-old has won 151 games, posting a .920 save percentage and 2.59 GAA.

7 – Tuukka Rask

Rask had a phenomenal first half last season before falling off in the second half as he battled some injuries while having a leaky defense in front of him. The key for the Bruins is to get some relief for the goalie, who has averaged 66 games over the past three seasons. If he can get under 60 – he started 58 games when he won the Vezina Trophy in 2013-14 – that could be the difference between the Bruins missing the playoffs outright or making the playoffs and winning a round or two.

8 – Henrik Lundqvist

I’m not sure if Lundqvist’s place among goalies all-time is as high as some feel it is, but he’s high. Lundqvist needs two wins to catch Glenn Hall for ninth all-time in victories. He had one of his worst seasons last year – Lundqvist’s .910 save percentage was a career-low and snapped a seven-year streak of plus-.920 campaigns. That may have been a 34-year-old goalie, or a bad Rangers defense, or a combination of both. We’ll see how Lundqvist performs this season behind an improved back end.

9 – John Gibson

Gibson has improved steadily over the past two seasons, winning the Jennings Trophy in 2015-16 before posting a .924 save percentage and 2.22 GAA last season. The addition of Ryan Miller will only help the 24-year-old.

10 – Jake Allen

We’ll see how this one ages. All I’ve heard on Allen is how talented he is and I think he really turned a corner with his second half performance last season. I think the Blues have a legit No. 1 here going forward.