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ALLCITY beat writers roundtable: Tackling the NHL's burning questions

Craig Morgan Avatar
December 23, 2023
The resurgent Flyers have been on of the NHL's biggest surprises.

In case you hadn’t noticed, ALLCITY Sports has grown. When we opened PHLY in September, we became a four-city outlet. We also added national shows for the NHL, NBA and NFL.

As CEO Brandon Spano humorously noted in an interview with awfulannouncing.com, “I kind of joke, but, we can pop these up like Chick-fil-As.”

We’ll see what 2024 has in store for ALLCITY, but one of the best products of our growth for me is the ability to rely on writers/reporters in other cities for insight on the league and the specific teams they cover. It’s hard to live in a silo (which is often what covering the Coyotes feels like). The presence of DNVR, and the additions of CHGO and PHLY allows for an exchange of ideas and opinions.

With that in mind, we are happy to unveil the first edition of the ALLCITY NHL writers roundtable. We intend to repeat this format from time to time when there are worthy national topics to discuss. Thanks to DNVR’s Meghan Angley, CHGO’s Mario Tirabassi, and PHLY’s Charlie O’Connor for participating.

The NBA’s in-Season Tournament trophy may be uglier than the Larry O’Brien Trophy. (Getty Images)

The NBA copied soccer’s model this season and launched an in-season tournament. Would you support an NHL in-season tournament and if so, how would you structure it?

Meghan Angley, DNVR: The lack of enthusiasm around the All-Star Game is palpable and the Avs’ Finland trip was quite disruptive (in part due to the massive time difference and long travel days), so I think players would struggle to rally around the idea of an in-season tournament based on their reactions to those two things. As media, I’d love it for the content, but I think the players have tunnel vision. There’s one thing that gets them up in the morning, and it’s their pursuit of the Stanley Cup.

Mario Tirabassi, CHGO: No, 82 games of hockey is enough in a normal season. The only things for which I’d care to pause or interrupt the flow of the 82-game regular season is some form of international best-on-best tournament such as a real World Cup of Hockey or the Olympics. 

Charlie O’Connor, PHLY: No. I don’t follow the NBA especially closely — covering a sport with a regular season that runs parallel to basketball’s year plays a big part in that — but from afar, it seemed like the NBA was trying to make their in-season tournament “a thing” more than fans getting fully onboard. It felt like the league was forcing it down everyone’s throat, rather than riding a wave of genuine excitement. I suspect it would be the same in hockey. I imagine a tournament would also further cut down on divisional games, which I believe the NHL needs more of, not less. Let’s point the NHL’s logistics on fitting in best-on-best international tournaments, not a pointless tournament between all of the teams that already play each other.

One idea I would support — but would truly never happen — would be something like a Champions League of world hockey. Put the best finishing clubs from the NHL, KHL, SHL, Liiga, even the AHL in a tournament, the way that European soccer does it. Obviously, it would be a logistical nightmare, and given the current geopolitical situation, Russia wouldn’t be able to participate anyway, which ruins a key part of the idea in the short-term. But that idea I could support. Not a pointless in-season tournament that pales in importance to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Craig Morgan, PHNX: Yes in my dream world. No in my practical world. I’m with Charlie on the ideal set-up. I’d love to see the champions of every major pro league in the world — the NHL, the KHL (Russia), the SHL (Sweden), the Liiga (Finland), the AHL, the NL (Switzerland) and the Extraliga (Czech) compete for world bragging rights, but the practical side of it is far too complicated between the respective schedules and the travel constraints. 

Other than the creative courts, the NBA’s in-season tournament is dull and meaningless. If the NHL ever considered adopting its own in-season event, I’d hope for a better format and a better prize. There’s no practical way around using regular-season games for the event because the NHL regular season is too long, so make it a round-robin with standings and the appropriate tiebreakers. That could add some spice to that Columbus-Anaheim matchup in mid-January.

The prize could be more meaningful, too. The NBA’s decision to award $500,000 to each player on the winning team is a good start, and that could be more impactful in the NHL, but in the NBA’s in-season (read: participation) trophy is silly. How about awarding the winning NHL team another first-round draft pick? Make it the No. 17 pick, right in between the lottery teams and the playoff teams. That could intrigue GMs.

The NHL Draft could be going boring like all other major pro sports.
The NHL’s current draft model is the most unique in North American professional sports. (Getty Images)

The NHL Draft goes common: Your thoughts on the league abandoning its unique format?

Mario: The NHL is great at ruining the fun; unique things that make them special. So when the league made the decision to decentralize the draft and have it be like the NFL and NBA, I was sad but not shocked.

The tension of watching draft tables operate during the event is nearly half of the excitement of the event itself. Hockey players and analysts aren’t entertaining enough (compared to the NFL and NBA) to carry the programming for fans watching at home or in attendance. The NHL is going to have to do something to add to the entertainment value and I don’t trust the league to come up with stuff that will actually be good, until proven wrong. 

Charlie: It’s a legitimate bummer. I’m sure it’ll save the individual teams in terms of money, but in the process, they’re losing what made the NHL Draft unique – the idea that it is a gigantic hockey conference, where basically everyone involved in the game will all be in one place.

Attending fans get to feel like they’re truly part of the hockey world. Go to a bar in the draft city during one of the nights and you might see a recently drafted prospect, an NHL GM, or a national journalist. It’s an event, and a distinctly hockey one at that. And now, it’s likely going to be like the NBA Draft, a far more subdued and underwhelming affair. Meh.

Meghan: I don’t like it. Those young men have reached a pinnacle in their hockey career and it should be celebrated not only in front of all their peers, but all the league staff. It’s also a great opportunity to bring national media together and maximize the spotlight shone on the sport.

Craig: I’ll just echo the thoughts above because I hate this decision with every fiber of my being. As I wrote in a recent column, the NHL Draft is about connecting. Everybody from GMs, to scouts, to coaches, to players, to former players, to league executives, to broadcast and print media is there. It’s a goldmine for networking and building relationships. It’s face-to-face interaction; the best kind for getting to know other people.

More importantly, it’s a huge day in these drafted kids’ lives. They get their moment in the sun with a chance to meet the entire management, coaching and scouting staffs, while also meeting the local media members who are going to be covering them on a daily basis. For media, it’s a chance to capture that big moment in all of its colorful and anecdotal glory. Without widespread media attendance, there will be far less color in that storytelling, far less vibe, and no connection to these guys on one of the biggest days of their lives.

There will be no chance to get those instant anecdotes or support quotes from family members, friends, old coaches, scouts or other NHL people that bring these picks’ stories to life. Instead, the draft would turn into the corporate feeling production that is the NFL Draft. The rights holder media would get all the exclusives without enough air time to truly dive deeply into more than a handful of players. Boring.

The NHL All-Star Game offers an opportunity to showcase the game’s biggest starts. (Getty Images)

Is the NHL All-Star Game worth keeping?

Charlie: Sure! The break in the schedule is welcomed by players, and getting named an all-star is still a cherished honor. Could the weekend be made more fun by the league? Of course, although bringing back the player draft is certainly a start in that regard. But the skills competition is usually good for a few great moments each year, and even if the game itself is rarely very enthralling, the spectacle of the weekend as a whole still has value for the league and the fans. Keep it.

Mario: Yes, so long as the players care to be there. It will be interesting to see how incentivized they are with $1 million on the line in the skills competition this year. I loved the draft process and I hope it can rekindle the fun it was the first time around. The league also has to condense the time it takes to complete the skills events. It’s really hard to watch for three hours, whether on TV or in-person. Two hours, max. The 3v3 format is fine. 

Meghan: The NHL All-Star Game has so much potential. The league struggles to market its stars, and it’s an important platform to highlight them. Do away with the superfluous in-event entertainment between contests so that it flows better. I’m excited to see the return of the player draft this year. Alex Ovechkin’s, “I want to be last. I need car,” lives forever.

Craig: Honestly, the NHL All-Star Game bores me. I rarely watch it. I want to blow the whole thing up. Well, almost the whole thing. I like 3-on-3 but I’d love to have each team represented in that event. With 32 teams competing in a 3-on-3 round-robin tournament of games that each only lasts five minutes, it could be done and it could engage every fan base. Six skaters, one goalie from every team.

As for the skills competition, can we stop pretending that it proves anything? Skating in a loop does not determine the fastest skater (a straight line would be better) and just because somebody wins the hardest shot competition at All-Star weekend, that doesn’t mean they have the NHL’s hardest shot. There are too many candidates missing, so instead I’d go all gimmicky like they did in Vegas. More fountain shoots, please. More iconic city settings. More cash prizes. Less clichés.

Connor Bedard is running away with the Calder Trophy race. (Getty Images)

Can anyone challenge Connor Bedard’s Calder Trophy candidacy?

Meghan: If there were someone, it’s Logan Cooley, but there’s a big gap to close in on with Connor Bedard. It’s pretty solidly his. On a thin Chicago lineup in the throes of a rebuild, Bedard shines atop the league.

Mario: Not unless someone surpasses him in point-production. He has a sizable lead in production and he’s doing it on the worst team any rookie is playing on. 

Charlie: Look, there are some fun possible answers here — namely Brock Faber, who is on pace to score around 40 points with sterling even strength results in a big-minutes role on Minnesota’s backend. But the reality is that no one is topping Bedard, who leads all rookies in points easily and has been scoring at a point-per-game pace since November. He’s going to cruise to this trophy — and rightfully so.

Craig: No. Bedard is not producing anything close to what Teemu Selanne, Peter Stastny or Alex Ovechkin produced in their rookie seasons, but he is still running away with the Calder race; boasting an eight-point lead as of this writing. At the start of the season, I wondered if Logan Cooley could challenge him but Cooley has underwhelmed in his rookie season. Marco Rossi or Adam Fantilli would need to lap Bedard in goal scoring to have a chance.

If the Coyotes’ current ownership group is able to secure an arena deal, the team will play at Mullett Arena for at least two more seasons. (Getty Images)

If the Coyotes current ownership group can’t find an arena solution by the end of the season, would you support another ownership group buying the team locally or should they relocate?

Mario: If the ownership group cannot secure some sort of arena deal by the end of season, or even by the end of the time the Mullet Arena deal ends, I don’t know what more the organization can do to stay in Arizona. There is a diehard fan base in Arizona, but at some point you have to operate like a professional hockey team. 

Charlie: At this point, I’m rooting for the Coyotes to find some way to stay in the Phoenix area. But a new ownership group better have a clear plan to resolve the arena problem. Otherwise, there’s not going to be much the NHL can do — and they’ve already given the Coyotes far more time than I ever expected they would to figure all of this out. They can’t play in a college arena indefinitely.

Meghan: NHL hockey belongs in Arizona. If it means a new ownership group and an innovative solution, then so be it. The base is passionate — the fallout of the rejected May 2023 proposal revealed as much.

Craig: This next opportunity will likely be the last for the Meruelo ownership group. Either they secure an arena by the end of the NHL season or the league could force a sale. I still think the league would pursue a local buyer over relocation (I don’t think owners will pass on that mega expansion price), but that new group would have to have an ironclad arena deal in place so that the open-ended Mullett contract is not extended beyond reason.

Shohei Ohtani’s mega-deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers may prove once and for all just how out of touch Major League Baseball is with its most important segment: its fans. (Getty Images)

Which of the four major North American sports has the best salary cap structure or non-cap structure?

Charlie: None of them are perfect, but I personally prefer the MLB’s absence of a salary cap over the rest. Sports teams should not be viewed solely as money-making ventures — they should be the toys of rich people, and if those rich people want to spend an obscene amount of money to keep their best players and bring in more of them? They should be allowed to do so.

The NHL, of course, is never going to go back to a pre-salary cap world. And the MLB’s system has its flaws too — namely, small-market teams spending ridiculously low sums on putting a competitive roster on the field. But I personally hate a system that forces fans to root against players making the money that they deserve to make, and that’s an inevitability of a cap world. I’d rather contracts like the Shohei Ohtani deal to be cheered, not reviled because it’ll hamstring the team’s chances of building around him.

Mario: NBA Soft cap with luxury tax and a tax apron. 

Meghan: The NHL’s salary cap fits the culture of the sport best. It strikes competitive balance across the league. This is crucial in a sport like hockey where team cohesion and depth are paramount. For the sake of where some of the star contracts are heading, I’d like to see the ceiling continue to increase beyond this upcoming summer to allow some more flexibility to keep pivotal role players alongside star contracts.

Craig: I’m fine with either the NBA’s approach or the NHL’s approach. If you want to exceed the cap, you have to pay extra in the NBA. That’s OK to a point and it works in the NBA which also offers an advantage to keeping and retaining your own players and the ability to offer them different types of contracts to keep them. That said, if a really rich club wants to pay gobs more, I still have a philosophical problem with the competitive imbalance it could create. I like the NHL’s gap between the floor and ceiling. It allows for some additional spending without creating too much of that potential imbalance.

The NFL’s salary cap model (and lack of guaranteed contracts) really hurts the players on the lower end, but MLB’s lack of a cap is a joke. Sorry, Charlie, but to suggest that Ohtani deserves this kind of money smacks of being out of touch with the common man. More to the point, the MLB playing field is not level. While bigger-payroll teams don’t always win the World Series, they generally do. And while small market teams occasionally rise up, they can’t sustain that success because their players become too expensive.

The Dodgers don’t have to worry about being a contender every year. They can spend whatever they need to ensure it happens. The Pirates cannot. That’s not fair to the teams, the fans or the game.

Philadelphia Flyers coach John Tortorella has had a lot to smile about this season. (Getty Images)

As we enter the holiday break, which team has surprised you the most and which is the biggest disappointment?

Meghan: The Flyers have surprised me. For a team currently in a rebuild, they’re second in the Metro Division and have crushed it on the road. Joel Farabee and Travis Konecny have led the way and young talent has stepped up in Tyson Foerster and Bobby Brink. Goaltending has been solid, and Travis Sanheim has been a nice contributor from the back end.

The Buffalo Sabres have let me down a little. After they finished fourth in the Atlantic and six points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning last season, I had higher hopes for what they could accomplish. Their young D-corps has a high ceiling in Owen Power and Rasmus Dahlin. Their forward group is stacked with talent, too: Tage Thompson after a career year, J.J. Peterka, and Zach Benson has been a revelation for such a young player. Devon Levi holds promise as a budding netminder, but their goaltending tandem has struggled to find its footing.

Mario: Vancouver has surprised me the most, but leading the league in PDO will do that for you. The Oilers have started to turn things around recently, but they haven’t looked like a Stanley Cup favorite like many, many people had them coming into this season. 

Charlie: I would argue it’s the team I cover — the Philadelphia Flyers. It’s not just that they’re winning more games than expected; underwhelming rosters go on weird runs all of the time. But usually, those runs are driven by good shooting percentage fortune or incredible goaltending (or both).

The Flyers, on the other hand, with no true star-level forwards and an underwhelming-on-paper defense, are controlling play at 5-on-5, have one of the best PKs in hockey, and are very much earning all of their wins.

As for the most disappointing, it’s Edmonton. I do believe that they’ll ultimately make the playoffs in the West, but this was a team touted as a Stanley Cup favorite, and they’re already 20 standings points behind Vegas (last year’s champs).

Craig: I have to go with the Canucks, who held the top spot in the NHL standings as of this writing. Some of Vancouver’s meteoric rise has to be attributed to the maturation of core players Quinn Hughes, Elias Pettersson, Thatcher Demko, Brock Boeser and the resurgence of JT Miller, who is in the Hart Trophy conversation. But plenty of credit also goes to coach Rick Tocchet and his staff.

Despite the criticism Tocchet endured in his coaching tenures in Tampa and Arizona, it’s important to remember that he didn’t have anything close to the talent that Vancouver currently boasts. There’s also the truth that you get better at your job with more experience. I’m not in the Canucks locker room so I don’t know if Tocchet has moved away from what players in Arizona would describe as negative reinforcement, but he clearly has the Canucks’ collective ear.

As for the most disappointing, it has to be the Sabres. I never thought Ottawa was that good and while I still think the .500 Oilers are going to make the playoffs, I never believed that Edmonton’s flawed roster was Cup material. With the slow decline of the Caps and Penguins, I had high expectations for the Sabres to make a move into the playoff field. They were seven points off the wild card pace as of Saturday morning and they had played more games than all but one of the seven teams ahead of them.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights have picked up right where they left off last season. (Getty Images)

If you had to pick the top two teams and the worst two teams in each conference right now, which teams would they be?

Charlie: In the West, I’ll say Vegas and Los Angeles. In the end, I expect I’ll put Dallas over LA, as I believe the former’s roster is better, with superior top-end talent. But Jake Oettinger has to get going before I do so. 

As for the worst teams? Easily San Jose and Chicago.

As for the East? The chalk picks right now are probably the Rangers and Bruins, but I have major concerns about both – NYR doesn’t drive play at even strength, and Boston is exceptionally weak down the middle. To that end, I’ll drop the Bruins out, and replace them with Florida, who now has their whole blueline corps back healthy and should see Matthew Tkachuk bounce back in a big way offensively in the second half. They’re still the defending Eastern Conference champs, and on paper at least, they’re better this year than last.

Worst in the East is a little tougher. Columbus is an obvious choice — they’re an absolute mess, and it’s wild to think that this summer, they were making moves implying that they thought they were ready to contend. The Mike Babcock debacle really destroyed their season before it even began.

I know Ottawa currently has the worst record in the East, but I’m expecting them to bounce back in the second half, even if the playoffs are now basically an impossibility. I’ll say that the actual second-worst team is Montreal, despite their decent record. They have the third-lowest all-situations xG percentage in the conference, and top-to-bottom, I just don’t see a ton of talent on that roster. I think they’re due to drop off significantly.

Mario: Top West: Golden Knights, Avalanche. Top East: Bruins, Ranger. Bottom West: Sharks, Blackhawks. Bottom East: Senators, Blue Jackets.

Meghan: The two top teams out West are Vegas and Colorado. Colorado is up there in man-games lost, and there’s optimism around players like Arrturi Lehkonen returning to bolster their star-studded lineup with Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, and Mikko Rantanen. Vegas started the year unsustainably good and dipped below where such a solid team should be. Their results will level out and reveal they’re the defending champs for a reason. 

Two troubled teams out West? The Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks. They’re in the stage known as “really going through it.”

The top two top teams in the East are Boston and New York (Rangers). Jim Montgomery’s players love to win in front of him and New York is well-constructed. Both teams have great goaltending.

Two bottom teams in the East are Columbus and Montreal. Unsurprisingly both teams rank in the top 10 for man-games lost, so their troubles are largely injury-based. Montreal was among the worst in the league last season with injuries, so their troubles seem residual.

Craig: In the West, Vegas is the obvious choice. The Golden Knights are the defending champs and all of their metrics are still promising, whether it’s scoring, defending or special teams. I’m not ready to anoint the Canucks because I don’t know how they’ll respond to this success in the second half of the season or the playoffs. I’m also concerned about the Avs’ forward depth, and I don’t think their goaltending is elite, or even particularly good.

My second team right now is LA. I underestimated the Kings at the start of the season, but they are a deep possession team that looks ready for a big move. That said, and as Charlie noted, I think the Stars are well constructed for playoff success if Jake Oettinger is at the top of his game.

At the bottom of the West, the Sharks had a nice surge but they are back to looking like cellar dwellers with only the talent-poor Blackhawks to rival them. Keep an eye on the maturity-challenged Ducks, however.

I am surprised by how underwhelming the supposed elite teams in the East have been so far this season. By default, the flawed Bruins and Rangers hold the top spots, but I am still waiting to see if the Hurricanes, Panthers and Devils can get their acts together.

At the bottom of the East, it’s pretty clear that the Blue Jackets are the conference’s worst team. It’s also clear that not even the new-coach bump can help the overhyped Senators.

Top photo of a recent, Gritty holiday performance via Getty Images

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