Here is the Jan. 5 edition of the mailbag, where we answer your questions asked on Twitter using #OvertheBoards. Tweet your questions to @drosennhl.
What changes to the New York Rangers lineup do you think need to be made? Trades, extensions, etc.? — @N36Alex
The Rangers need to be careful because team chemistry is playing a big role in their run the top of the Metropolitan Division, where they’re tied with the Washington Capitals. But they need to do what they can to capitalize when opportunities present themselves, and surprising success or not, they have an opportunity this season to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. They should be in the market for a versatile right wing who could seamlessly fit on either of their top two lines. Kaapo Kakko is currently the right wing on a line with center Mika Zibanejad and left wing Chris Kreider, but he has also played well this season on a line with left wing Artemi Panarin and center Ryan Strome. The difference is the right wing with Zibanejad and Kreider needs to be more of a playmaker because Zibanejad is the shooter and Kreider plays in front of the net. The right wing needs to be more of a shooter than a playmaker with Panarin and Strome. That’s why versatility is key, because whoever the Rangers get could flip-flop between those two lines.
Alexis Lafreniere has played well his past two games with Strome and Barclay Goodrow in place of Panarin (NHL COVID-19 protocol). That line combined for seven points (three goals, four assists) in a 4-1 win against the Edmonton Oilers on Monday, when Lafreniere had a goal and an assist. He might deserve more run on that line when Panarin returns, but he’d have to move to right wing and there has been a hesitancy all season to put the 20-year-old on his off wing. He’s a natural left wing and has played on the third line primarily with Filip Chytil and Julien Gauthier.
The two players who intrigue me for a top-six role at right wing are Reilly Smith of the Vegas Golden Knights and Joe Pavelski of the Dallas Stars. They’re versatile and each is in the last season of his contract. Smith could be available because Vegas must clear NHL salary cap space when it’s time to activate center Jack Eichel, and he thrived playing for New York coach Gerard Gallant in Vegas. Pavelski’s availability depends on where the Stars are in the standings. If they’re in, or close to a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, I’d be surprised if the traded him. If they fall out of contention, he could available. The Rangers have cap space to add and could dip into their organizational depth at defenseman to make a trade. They could also look to trade forward Vitali Kravtsov, the No. 9 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft who is playing for Traktor in the Kontinental Hockey League. Kravtsov, who could return to the NHL after the KHL season, could have a bright future with the Rangers, but they need an experienced player this season.
Is it still too early for the Washington Capitals to have a clear No. 1 between Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek? If so, when do they need to just make a decision? — @gdohlke79
Samsonov is slowly taking over as the No. 1 goalie. It’s been a gradual process since mid-November with the 24-year-old getting the bulk of the playing time. He is 9-2-2 with a 2.52 goals-against average, .913 save percentage and two shutouts in 13 starts since Nov. 17. In that same time, Vanecek made five starts and was 2-2-1 with a 2.75 GAA and .910 save percentage. The 25-year-old missed three games while in COVID-19 protocol.
I still wonder if Samsonov is the right guy to be the No. 1 this season, or if Vanecek is should Samsonov falter. The Capitals are an aging team with young goaltending. They should be going all in for the Stanley Cup while they still can with forwards Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. If they have any doubts about Samsonov and/or Vanecek, they should be looking into the trade market for a goalie.
The Capitals don’t have to make any declarative statement about their goaltending. The statement is in the playing time, and it’s no surprise Samsonov is getting the bulk of it. He’s always been considered the future No. 1 ahead of Vanecek. There might have been some wavering on that last season, when Vanecek was proving to be the more capable and mature goalie, but the Capitals had to choose between the two in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft and they protected Samsonov. Vanecek was taken by the Seattle Kraken and subsequently traded back to Washington after Seattle signed former Capitals goalie Philipp Grubauer to a six-year contract as a free agent.
What do the Montreal Canadiens do with Carey Price and Dominque Ducharme this season? Who else stays/goes? — @kevi_coaster
The Canadiens need to get Price into some games. He has not played this season after having knee surgery July 23 and then entering the NHL/NHL Players’ Association’s player assistance program for substance use Oct. 7. There is no timetable for his return, but getting Price into a place where he can play in the NHL again is the first order of business before the Canadiens can determine his future. We don’t know when or if that will happen, so it’s hard for the Canadiens to make any immediate plans regarding Price.
In my opinion, Price’s long-term future is not in Montreal. I don’t think it makes sense for him or the Canadiens. Price has a few good years left. He’s 34 and has played 707 MHL games, making him one of 29 goalies to play at least 700. The Canadiens have to be playing the long game, looking into options to begin a rebuilding process that really should have started last season but was pushed back by their unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final. They need more speed and talent. They need more depth. They need to replace defenseman Shea Weber, who likely will never play again because of numerous injuries. That’s not lost on Jeff Gorton, Montreal’s new executive vice president of hockey operations. It won’t be lost on whoever the Canadiens hire as general manager either. They will be in lockstep. There are some quality young players in place, notably forwards Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Jake Evans, and defenseman Alexander Romanov. The Canadiens need more to join that core. Price needs a fresh start elsewhere on a team that might be an experienced No. 1 goalie away from being a Stanley Cup contender.
The problem is Price’s contract, which reportedly carries a $10.5 million NHL salary cap charge through the 2025-26 season. It’s going to take some creativity from the Canadiens to move that contract, but I don’t see why it makes sense to keep him.
Gorton has already said Ducharme will be Montreal’s coach for at least the rest of this season. The Canadiens should try to trade forwards Cedric Paquette and Mathieu Perreault, and defenseman Brett Kulak, each a pending unrestricted free agent. I think they should try to re-sign potential free agent defenseman Ben Chiarot but if they can’t, he should be moved before the NHL Trade Deadline on March 21 too.
Are the Calgary Flames a Stanley Cup contender this year? — @SamRitter8
Yes, if you go simply by the theory that any team that makes the playoffs has a shot. But I’m not sold on the Flames because as much their hard, grinding, intense style can wear out teams across an 82-game season, especially one as wonky and weird and condensed as this one, I wonder if they will have enough depth, especially at defenseman, to carry them through four rounds of postseason hockey. Maybe I’m being tough on the Flames, finding potential flaws that we haven’t really seen from them this season. That’s possible, and it certainly wouldn’t shock me if they made a long playoff run, but the way I look at them now, I have reservations.
The Flames do not have a No. 1 defenseman and it’s very rare to win the Stanley Cup without one. They’d likely have to go through the Golden Knights at some point to reach the Western Conference Final and would be at a disadvantage in that series. The Golden Knights are big and physical like the Flames. They can play a pounding, aggressive game to essentially shove the Flames’ game back in their face. Vegas is deeper and more experienced at defenseman than Calgary. Jacob Markstrom might give the Flames a goaltending edge in any series, but that’s not always enough. I’m close to being on the fence about Calgary, but right now my answer is no.