December is a significant time in the NHL season — just far enough in that front offices have seen enough from their squads to understand what they’re really about.
That’s not to say that there are normally many trades in December, especially since there’s a trade freeze for part of it (the holiday roster freeze goes into effect at 11:59 pm local time Dec. 19 and runs through 12:01 am local time December 28). But what you do normally see is that trade discussions ramp up and seeds are planted that result in deals consummated in January/February.
It’s also a month during which we often see coaching changes. A year ago, Alain Vigneault (Flyers) and Travis Green (Canucks) were fired in December, and Paul Maurice (Jets) stepped down the same month. Chicago fired Jeremy Colliton in November.
The point being: We are far enough along in the season that if a team isn’t performing, management will be getting a little antsy.
Let’s take a look at four teams looking for answers right now.
I would imagine the Blueshirts’ inconsistent ways are beginning to test the patience of general manager Chris Drury — and in more ways than one.
Consider, for example, that the Rangers are accurately seen as one of the top potential landing spots for Blackhawks star Patrick Kane, a pending unrestricted free agent who could move ahead of the March 3 trade deadline. But remember that Kane and his agent, Pat Brisson, hold the keys to any in-season trade via a full no-movement clause. Kane and Brisson can choose their destination, just like Brisson did with Claude Giroux a year ago under similar circumstances.
The Rangers have to do their part if Kane is going to head to New York, and that’s to resemble the Stanley Cup contender they were projected to be before the season. Drury cleared up some cap space in the Ryan Reaves trade already. So the Rangers are well positioned to pounce ahead of March 3. But they have to start winning games more consistently. I can’t imagine Kane waving his no-move clause to join a bubble team.
I could be wrong, but I see the course correction coming organically here. I don’t think Drury has to do anything drastic at this time. This team will turn around. I know that’s a boring take, but this is an example of a team where patience will ultimately be the best course of action. Of course, I could be wrong. But there are times when GMs feel the pressure to do something drastic and end up doing something they absolutely regret.
Could Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin reunite on the New York Rangers?
via @TheAthletic https://t.co/MDqkiFG3kr
— Arthur Staple (@StapeAthletic) December 3, 2022
There was a clear sense of urgency in the comments GM Brian MacLellan made to local media over the weekend.
“We have to be concerned,” MacLellan said of his team digging a hole in the standings.
The Caps have been hammered by key injuries from the get-go, so this season was always going to be a challenge. When I sat down with MacLellan in mid-October, he acknowledged that the first half in particular would be a test, considering the long-term injuries to Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson, plus other injuries.
“I mean, that’s going to be hard to overcome,” MacLellan said. “We’ve got to hang in here at the beginning of the year. We’ve got to be competitive. We’ve got to stick with the pack (in the Eastern Conference) and then get Tom back at some point and then we’ll get a clarification of where Nick is at some point.
“That’ll affect everything with our team.”
Wilson hopefully will be back later this month. Backstrom? Still not clear where that’s headed.
But the bottom line is, the Caps have not hung in there standings-wise as MacLellan had hoped. They’re far from out of it, but a .462 points percentage through 26 games is indeed a hole dug.
MacLellan has 11 pending UFAs on his roster, including the likes of Dmitry Orlov, Lars Eller and Nick Jensen. Without a turnaround, the Caps GM will be in listening mode soon, followed by selling mode. We’re not there yet, but MacLellan will know what comes next by the new year.
#Caps GM Brian MacLellan spoke before Saturday’s 5-2 loss in CGY. He discussed:
🏒Backstrom, Wilson + the cap
🏒Whether he’s mulling a trade
🏒Free agents on D
🏒McMichael, Lapierre and Miroshnichenko
And more ⬇️: https://t.co/RPxVw2U6xx
— Tarik El-Bashir (@Tarik_ElBashir) December 4, 2022
It may not have been a realistic goal for the Senators to make the playoffs this season — only the most optimistic Sens fans and observers could picture that — but 2022-23 was supposed to be about playing meaningful games in March, about taking an impactful step in the rebuild. That in itself is in jeopardy now, although two wins in a row does certainly help calm some nerves.
Back on Nov. 15, after the GMs meeting in Toronto, GM Pierre Dorion came out and doubled down on his belief in head coach DJ Smith.
“Coaching is not the issue. Simple as that. Not at all,” Dorion said. “For me, it’s the first time we’ve given a team to DJ that can compete for a possible playoff spot. So I think we’ve got to be patient there.”
And true to his word, Dorion has been patient.
I don’t think coaching is the issue either. It’s not Smith’s fault the blue line hasn’t been upgraded. It hasn’t been from a lack of trying, to be sure, but Dorion not landing a D in the offseason or so far this season has been disappointing. It’s hard to land an impact player at that position, but it’s doable, and it needs to be done.
Here’s the thing about this team, though — and maybe I’m totally wrong here, but I honestly believe it: There’s still a chance the Senators get on a heater and salvage some semblance of a season. Not a playoff spot, of course, but the kind of hockey for the rest of the season that at least reassures they’re on the right track.
We’ve kept the hottest-burning fire for last.
One of the things that I ask myself about the latest bit of drama enveloping the Canucks is what exactly most people expected from this team this season?
I thought they were very much a bubble team, and that’s where they sit as of Monday morning: four points out of a playoff spot.
But I suspect the angst in one of the NHL’s most passionate hockey markets has less to do with the team’s record and more to do with the uncertainty of the overall game plan, as far as re-tooling the roster. A lot of Canucks fans would have embraced a full scorched-earth rebuild years ago, and perhaps even still do now, but it’s never been something that ownership has embraced.
What the Brock Boeser reports and drama tells us about the state of the #Canucks: https://t.co/ukKt8LHP89
What @DhaliwalSports and I am hearing about Boeser, Horvat, Kuzmenko and more: https://t.co/rA4FfFqYdg
— Thomas Drance (@ThomasDrance) December 5, 2022
All of which brings us to what my colleague Elliotte Friedman reported on “Hockey Night In Canada” on Saturday, that Brock Boeser’s camp had permission from the Canucks to speak directly to teams about a potential trade.
My understanding of the situation is that as of Monday morning, Boeser’s agent Ben Hankinson had spoken to a half-dozen teams since receiving permission last week and has more on tap to check in with this week. I don’t think a trade is imminent. This is going to take some work. But the ending seems inevitable, that Boeser will be playing elsewhere before the end of the season.
I would suggest that’s also likely for pending UFA captain Bo Horvat.
As for JT Miller — whose no-trade clause doesn’t kick in until July 1, along with his extension — his camp, led by agent Brian Bartlett, has not spoken to Canucks management about a potential change of scenery. In Miller’s case, it would appear he signed an extension very much wanting to be part of the solution, and as it stands now, he wants to stay on board.
Finally, there’s head coach Bruce Boudreau. He replaced Green behind the bench a year ago and his contract expires after this season, but given the pressure on management to enact change, I don’t think it’s a question of “if” but rather “when,” in terms of a Canucks coaching changes. That’s the crappy part of the business, for sure.
Where this team sits after the March 3 trade deadline and what its salary-cap situation looks like heading into the offseason will be interesting to watch.
There’s plenty more drama coming out of Vancouver.
(Top photo of Brock Boeser, JT Miller and Bo Horvat: Harry How / Getty Images)