No bonus top five this week because I’m cranky. Instead, I’m going to ask you to let me vent for a bit.
I’m a bit of an NHL history buff. You may have picked up on that based on roughly half the columns I post here. I also wrote a book on the subject. I’m not an expert, but I feel like I know my stuff.
I’ve never seen anything like this Bruce Boudreau story.
Never. And I lived through the era of Harold Ballard, an owner so mean and awful that he once asked Roger Neilson to wear a paper bag over his head. Neilson told him to get stuffed, and Ballard backed down because even the worst of the worst are still capable of realizing when they’ve gone too far.
The Canucks went too far. Way too far. Their treatment of Boudreau over the last few months went from comical to bizarre to outright cruel, which is where it’s been for weeks now. Yesterday’s announcement of the inevitable was just one last act in a bad farce. The way this was handled makes Gerard Gallant’s infamous taxi look like a stretch limo.
Look, coaches get fired. It’s never pleasant, but it happens, to almost everyone, and it’s part of the game. You could absolutely make the case that Boudreau deserved a pink slip based on how this season went, or at least that the coach taking the fall for a flawed roster would be the standard operating procedure in plenty of places around the league. That’s fine. Maybe Rick Tocchet will be the better fit.
But there’s no reason to do it like this. None. We’ve known the coaching change was coming. We knew who’d be replacing him. The exact date it would happen leaked out a while ago. And yet the team still sent Boudreau out there, night after night, as dead coach walking. Just fire him! If Tocchet can’t take the job right away because of TV commitments or whatever, then let Mike Yeo run the bench for a few games on an interim basis. There’s no reason to let a respected coach with over 600 career wins who almost saved your season last year twist in the wind like this. No reason to have Jim Rutherford periodically show up to kick him when he’s down. No reason to send him out there for what everyone knew would be his final games, then watch him have to clarify to the media that he hadn’t actually been fired yet.
If there’s a positive in any of this, it’s that the last part at least allowed Vancouver fans to step up to the plate. Their final Bruce chant, and Boudreau’s reaction to it, was a genuinely touching moment, even if it should have never happened.
Vancouver sends Bruce Boudreau off the ice with “Bruce there it is” chants.
Boudreau broke down in tears 🥲👏
— The Athletic NHL (@TheAthleticNHL) January 22, 2023
Seriously, what does the Canucks organization gain from this? Possibly a coaching upgrade, although that remains to be seen. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine the purpose behind all of this. Maybe there’s some behind-the-scenes grudge. Maybe Rutherford, or ownership, or (tries to remember the name of that GM who hasn’t been seen in months) Patrik Allvin genuinely hates the guy. Maybe they thought their weird excuses and quasi-apologies would actually land. Maybe they’re in the increasingly large group these days that mistakes cruelty and pettiness for bold leadership. I have no idea.
What I do know is that the Canucks look awful in all of this. Drance gets into some of the bigger picture stuff here, and he nails it in one key sentence: “the way an organization treats people matters.” The fans are ticked off. The Province reported that the players are too, and this could impact the Canucks’ ability to re-sign key pieces or attract free agents. And around the hockey world, all anyone can do is shake their heads and wonder how it came to this.
I thought the #Canucks hit rock bottom about 13 months ago when they cleared the front office and coaching staff out. Hard to believe they’ve already found a way to sink even lower
— Harman Dayal (@harmandayal2) January 22, 2023
I understand the NHL is a business and they don’t owe us anything but at the same time I think Bruce has earned the respect.
— Nate Thompson (@NateThompson44) January 21, 2023
I can honestly say that, in my 15 yrs covering the NHL, I have never seen anything like this Bruce Boudreau fiasco. I have no clue how any organization—even one as apparently as dysfunctional as the Canucks—could operate this way. The cruelty of it aside, it’s just so ridiculous.
— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) January 22, 2023
And if that’s not enough, this guy is ready to put someone through a table.
I’ve never met Boudreau, and I’m not going to pretend I know he’s some great guy based on his public persona. But the mere fact that he has a public persona is worth something, especially in a league where all we see most coaches do is stare at iPads after goals, grunt out dismissive non-answers at press conferences, and bag skate their teams after 5-4 wins. Boudreau always seemed like he enjoyed his job, and understood that he was in the entertainment business. He even seemed to be, dare we say it, having fun.
Maybe that’s why he had to be publicly humiliated and cast aside. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s no reason at all, other than Rutherford or whoever realized that they could.
Good luck to Rick Tocchet. Hell of an organization you’re stepping into there, coach.
Road to the Cup
The five teams with the best chances of winning the Stanley Cup.
By the way, hope everyone enjoyed weekend number three of at some point going “Wait, is the All-Star Game happening today?” The original rosters were announced four months ago, and the voting went on for seven weeks, I think they announced the winners recently but I saw Stuart Skinner on the list so it may have just been a meme, and it turns out it wasn’t this weekend after all. Will it be next weekend? Nobody knows, tune in to find out.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs (28-11-8, +34 true goals differential*) — After last week’s dramatic handwringing over dropping the Avalanche out of the top five, I’ll admit it was tempting to quietly slip them right back in as if nothing had happened. Instead, we’ll reluctantly go back to the Leafs, who collected five of six points this week despite rarely looking especially impressive.
4. New Jersey Devils (30-12-4, +40) — Well, look who’s back. After a three-week absence, the Devils return to the top five. Yesterday’s win over the Penguins left them with the third-best points percentage in the league, which helps dispel any lingering notions that they’d settled into mediocrity after that long stretch of early season dominance. And I have to say, this Timo Meier talk is making some sense to me.
3. Dallas Stars (28-13-7, +44) — It was the week of the 4-0 win, as they racked up three of them. That’s more than enough to move them back into the Central’s top spot after the Jets slipped past them last week. They’ve started an eight-game homestand that will include visits by Carolina, New Jersey, Tampa and Boston, so we’ll get a good sense of how they can handle the league’s big kids.
2. Carolina Hurricanes (29-8-8, +26) — Absolutely devastating news on the Max Pacioretty injury. Awful for the player, who’d worked so hard to get back and now faces an uncertain future. Awful for a team that had paired creativity with patience in the hopes of adding a legitimate scoring threat. Just a genuinely miserable moment.
1. Boston Bruins (37-5-4, +82) — They won all four games this week, but gave up two goals in the process. Unacceptable, really. Here’s hoping they can get themselves out of this tailspin.
*Goals differential without counting shootout decisions like the NHL does for some reason.
Not ranked: Pittsburgh Penguins — It’s time to check in with our quasi-monthly feature called “Do the Penguins make any damn sense yet?”
This week’s answer: Nope.
The good news is that they’ve steadied things a bit since snapping a six-game losing streak, winning four of their last eight and earning loser points in two more. But those four wins have come against the Coyotes, Canucks, Ducks (barely) and Senators, so it’s hard to declare the team is fixed. They looked completely off in Ottawa on Wednesday. The blue line badly misses Kris Letang, now on the LTIR, and the goaltending wasn’t great during three weeks without Tristan Jarry. They really haven’t looked especially dangerous since before the holiday break. That’s bad.
But Jarry is back now, starting Friday’s win over the Senators and looking fantastic, making 44 saves in a 4-1 win. Jeff Petry is back too, which should help the blue line. And despite all the negatives, the Penguins are still holding down a wild-card spot, ahead of the struggling Islanders, the intriguing Sabres and the suddenly feisty Panthers. That’s … well, I’m not sure holding down a wild-card spot is good, but it’s not terrible as far as worst-case scenarios go.
It’s not all that hard to look at this team as a talented group that hit a patch of tough injury news, weathered it, and is now well-positioned to lock down a playoff spot in the second half. The Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin duo is still dangerous, and Letang should be back at some point. If you believe in Mike Sullivan, you have to figure that he’ll get the penalties under control and maybe get the power play working again. (Jesse Marshall has some interesting thoughts on that here.) And while it feels unlikely, maybe Ron Hextall does … something? Stranger things have happened.
Of course, you could also go down Josh’s recent checklist and note that many of those problems can’t be fixed in the short term. They’re not going to get younger, faster or bigger. Maybe Sullivan can get them to improve the defensive coverage issues, but they’ve had half a season to do that. Yes, they can probably make the playoffs despite all that, but is anyone going to pick them to beat Boston or Carolina? They didn’t bring the core back so they could serve as a first-round warmup for a real contender. And right now, that sure seems like where they’re headed.
They’ve got those Panthers tomorrow, which should be a fun one. Will it provide any clarity on where this team is headed? No, because we’ll never get that until the season is over. Right now, it sure feels like we can pencil that in for roughly five games into the postseason.
The bottom five
The five teams that are headed toward dead last, and the best lottery odds for Connor Bedard.
Hockey parents are the absolute best.
5. Montreal Canadiens (20-24-3, -50) — The standings don’t think they’re this bad, but we’re predicting the future here, and the Habs have become the first team to hit the “everyone that’s hurt gets shut down for the year” mark.
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) January 21, 2023
That’s a crucial milestone for a tanking team — I say this from personal experience — and it works. As an added bonus, the players who get shut down have a chance to fully recover in time for next year. You need Cole Caufield’s shoulder to be ready for opening night because all those Connor Bedard-assisted goals aren’t going to celebrate themselves.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets (14-30-2, -61) — Pulling off the impossible by losing to the Ducks in regulation was big, but they couldn’t keep the momentum going with a disappointing win over the Sharks. The good news is that the next 10 games are rough, so even in a crowded field of four absolutely terrible teams, they can still take this.
2. Arizona Coyotes (15-27-5, -47) — Last night’s upset win over the Golden Knights was their first non-shootout victory since the final days of 2022 when they beat (checks notes) the Leafs and Avalanche. Sure, why not, hockey makes sense.
1. Chicago Blackhawks (14-27-4, -53) — They’d won six of seven before last night’s loss to the Kings, the sort of stretch that threatens to tank a tank just a few weeks after they looked like they had last place in the bag.
— dom 🕰️ (@domluszczyszyn) January 22, 2023
I’m keeping them in the No. 1 spot for now because they still have the Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews trades to navigate. In terms of being bad, I still think they have another level. But the last few weeks have hurt, and this is a race again.
Not ranked: San Jose Sharks — They slip out of the bottom five this week, but need a mention because it’s starting to feel like an Erik Karlsson trade could actually happen. He talked to Pierre about the situation this week, and his comments are worth a read. He certainly doesn’t sound like a guy who wants out of San Jose. But he also doesn’t sound like a guy who’s completely shut the door on the idea.
That’s crucial here, obviously, because Karlsson has a full no-move clause and controls his future. Remember, he has four years left on his deal and wouldn’t be a rental, so this isn’t a situation where somebody is only committing to go chase a Cup for a few months at most. If he moves, it’s for the foreseeable future, so he has every right to be picky.
Still, he says he wants to win, and right now the Sharks can’t offer that. And while his massive contract would have made any trade scenario feel unworkable heading into this season, Karlsson’s monster season might be changing that. I’ll emphasize that “might” because we’ve never seen a contract like this get traded in the cap era, let alone at midseason. Still, we’re told that teams are calling. And if they are, Mike Grier should absolutely be answering. (Mike, you got my note, right?)
Fans of deadline blockbusters shouldn’t be getting our hopes up quite yet; we’re already seeing caveats about how a deal might be easier in the offseason. I don’t see how that makes sense since you’d think you only even consider adding this contract if you know you’re getting a playoff run from its best season. The most likely outcome here is still that everyone hems and haws and eventually talks themselves out of doing anything bold.
But that doesn’t feel like a sure thing anymore, and that’s intriguing, to say the least. Karlsson is one of the best defensemen of his era, and he’s in the middle of what could be a career year. If he actually switched teams, it could change the entire dynamic heading into the playoffs. I don’t think it happens, but let’s see if anyone out there proves me wrong.
(Top photo: Rich Lam / Getty Images)