Puck Daddy Bag of Mail: Oilers, Keller buzz, unpacking the Metro

Clayton Keller isn’t getting the praise he deserves. (Norm Hall/Getty Images)

If there’s one outstanding theme so far this season, it’s that things have been deeply weird. Who would have thought the top six teams in the league a week into November would be St. Louis, L.A., Tampa, Pittsburgh, Toronto and a four-way tie between New Jersey, Columbus, Winnipeg and Vegas?

Doesn’t make any sense. Likewise, who would have predicted Minnesota, Edmonton, and Carolina would be the teams joining Buffalo, Florida and Arizona in the bottom five?

Maybe if you were being optimistic you’d have put Steven Stamkos as a league leader in scoring, but he’s scoring 1.67 points a game right now and not really showing any signs of slowing down, thanks in large part to Nikita Kucherov (how about this: Stamkos is currently shooting below his career average).

And of course we all had Corey Crawford, Jonathan Quick, Connor Hellebuyck, Pekka Rinne and Martin Jones as the best goalies in the league, right? Of course!

All these unexpected happenings beg plenty of questions, and here’s a nice little sampling of those:

Michael asks: “Now that the Rangers and Habs are winning again, what is their real identity?”

I’m going to assume “identity” here means “talent level” or “quality.”

The good news is that, despite the struggles, the holes they have to climb out of aren’t that big. Montreal entered Wednesday’s games two points out of third in the Atlantic and three behind the second-place Maple Leafs. However, they have two more games played than Ottawa (currently tied with Detroit). Also, Ottawa and Detroit are likely to take a step back because they aren’t that good.

The Rangers are in a similar situation: Before last night’s game with the Bruins, they were three points back of the Devils and Blue Jackets, though they too have a games-in-hand problem when it comes to catching up with the rest of the Metro.

Both teams probably need to be at least .600 hockey clubs the rest of the way. I think Montreal can do that given the quality of their players, Carey Price’s track record (presuming he rounds back into that kind of goalie), etc. Can the Rangers? I’m not so sure. That blue line still has problems, Henrik Lundqvist is now working on his second straight bad season, and I don’t know where all the goals come from to make up that difference.

Gimme Montreal as a wild card team at worst, but I think the Rangers miss the playoffs.

Tony Spoons asks: “Should the Bruins try to unload Torey Krug?”

Well the Bruins were technically tied with the Canadiens headed into last night, despite a lot of injuries and three fewer games played.

But like the Rangers, I don’t think it’s a function of a slow start, really. It’s more, “They’re just kinda not that good.”

That sort of leaves the Bruins at another crossroads; if we want to call what they’re doing “rebuilding on the fly” you should probably keep the 26-year-old defenseman who seems to be very good as part of that rebuild. Worst-case scenario, you come out of the training-wheels period with a 29-, maybe 30-year-old defenseman who’s still pretty good. However, that’s also about when his current contract expires (after the 2019-20 season).

If the Bruins trade Krug now, they might as well trade everyone with any value, because their blue line after this season is Brandon Carlo, Charlie McAvoy, Adam McQuaid, and Kevan Miller. That’s not great as a going concern, and your rebuild on the fly quickly becomes a regular old rebuild. How many more years of effective play can the Bergerons, Marchands and Krejcis of the world have left anyway, right?

At no point in the present or past should the Bruins have considered moving Krug. He’s still in his prime and before that he was ramping up to it. He’s affordably under contract for two more years after this one. Now, if you get to the end of this deal, or even summer 2019, and the rebuild on the fly hasn’t gone as planned, that’s when you think to yourself, “Well shoot we can probably get something nice for this 29-year-old good defenseman.” But again, that’s when Bergeron is 34 or 35, Krejci’s in the same age range, Marchand’s 32 or so. These are different questions with no good answers.

Marc asks: “Clayton Keller is having a better season than Matthews/Laine last year without the supporting cast. Where’s the buzz?”

Let me tell you a little story about why the things we pay attention to in hockey, collectively. The anyone-but-Erik Karlsson campaigns for the Norris over the past few years have been shamelessly tilted in favor of worse defensemen who happened to have an edge on Karlsson in one statistical category: Candianness.

Now, sure, you say, “Ahh, but isn’t Matthews American, and isn’t Laine Finnish?” Yeah, but where do they play their NHL hockey? Canada, yes. That’s right. And remember, the Canadian media was falling all over itself to say, “Well Matthews is a product of Mitch Marner (who I guess totally coincidentally is Canadian),” and, “Laine’s actually better anyway.” But then Matthews forced their hand by being one of the best players in the league last year and they grumbled their way through his Calder candidacy.

Now then, Clayton Keller. He entered last night’s game tied for 19th in the league in points, with 11 goals and 17 points in 17 games. He’s not going to keep shooting 19 percent forever, but if you can get yourself more than halfway to 20 goals as a 19-year-old rookie in the first 20 percent of the season, you’re a good little player, aren’t you?

So why no discussion? Keller committed the double sin of Being American and Playing In Arizona. Horrible mistake! The Canadian media is ready to move the whole franchise to Quebec tomorrow (not that I blame them) and if that happens, oh all of a sudden isn’t this Keller kid so good? But it’s probably because he plays with Max Domi. Ever heard of his dad? He played for the Leafs!”

Brendan asks: “Are the Oilers toast or is there hope?”

Yeah I’m starting to think they’re toast unless Connor McDavid starts playing at a 150-point pace. And frankly, that’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility.

Ned asks: “Which teams will emerge from a crowded Metro Division?”

Since I’ve already ruled out the Rangers, and I think we can safely say the Devils are gonna drop out of the top three at some point, that leaves you with two sure things: Pittsburgh (leading the division despite a weird negative-15 goal differential and a brutal schedule) and Columbus (much improved over last year despite not getting the PDO to go quite so strongly in their favor).

So that leaves probably two playoff spots for the Metro (assuming the Atlantic looks something like Tampa, Toronto, Montreal, with Ottawa as a wild card). I don’t think Washington is particularly good but they’re certainly better than the Rangers, Devils and Islanders. Oh man, do I really think the Islanders are a playoff team? I might. What is this world coming to?

Mike asks: “Which college could build the best team of current NHL players from their alumni?”

Well only one NCAA team has enough players in the NHL right now to put together a full NHL game-night roster, and that’s Michigan, with exactly 20 alums in the league right now. Bostons College and University, North Dakota and Wisconsin come closest but are all in the mid-teens.

So let’s be a little more generous and say, “Which college could build the best starting lineup of current NHL players?” That’s actually pretty interesting, especially because you need guys who can play at every position, and a lot of colleges (including notables like Minnesota and BU) just don’t have that.

Here’s what I came up with real quick:

I think it’s a pretty tight race between Wisconsin and BC. Obviously the outfield players for Wisconsin are a bit better than BC’s but I prefer Schneider over Elliott in net for obvious reasons.

If not for Aaron Dell in net, I think there’s a very clear case to be made for North Dakota, but a mediocre backup doesn’t cut it for me over two starting goalies. Michigan State is kinda cheating because Duncan Keith barely went there and you’d have to swap him out for Jeff Petry. And while I really like that Michigan lineup, and particularly the blue line, Al Montoya doesn’t do it for me.

So here ya go: 1) Wisconsin, 2) BC, 3) Michigan, 4) North Dakota, 5) Michigan State. Thanks.

Dr. Choo asks: “Why does the NHL despise its fans?”

Common misconception. It doesn’t despise its fans, it just knows it can take them for granted. Like, you’re locked in. You’re not going anywhere. Most “NHL” fans are really just fans of the teams they like. That’s why the ratings are always bad for the Cup Final. Very few hockey fans — in the U.S. at least — are fans of the sport independent of their favorite teams.

So instead of appealing to you, the captive audience, the league does what any niche entertainment product should and try to appeal to people more broadly. It’s the same reason the WWE does stuff that constantly pisses off the hardcore fans: Hardcore fans are invested forever.

The marketing and how things are run isn’t for you. It’s for the people who don’t like hockey yet. Maybe you think that’s a bit of a lost cause, but that’s how it is. Remember that whole “Tony X” thing. One guy who was kind of funny on Twitter and had never cared about hockey before, and made such a name for himself (mainly as a bit of a novelty) that the league tried to fly him to Vegas for the NHL Awards. That’s how much it cares about people who don’t like hockey yet.

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

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