If you’re a hockey fan from the tri-state area, odds are you’ve read Stu Hackel.
Hackel has been SI.com’s national NHL blogger and columnist since 2011. Before that, he was a lead-NHL blogger for the New York Times’s Slap Shot blog from 2008 through 2010. He still contributes to the Times as well.
Hackel was gracious enough to give Devils Insiders a few minutes of his time earlier this week.
DI: Through the season’s first three or so weeks, what in your estimation has been the biggest storyline?
Stu Hackel: Biggest story line to me has been the inconsistency of many teams, which is a product of the lockout shortened schedule, no training camp, and little practice time. There are exceptions, of course, but many clubs who you’d expect to be stronger have had trouble finding their rhythm from one game to the next and even within games. This isn’t entirely a surprise, by the way. Those who watched the 1995 season will remember the same thing.
DI: David Clarkson was a player who was a 30-goal scorer a year ago, and he’s on pace for 42 goals through eight games. Are we watching an elite player in the making?
SH: I don’t know where Clarkson’s top end is with respect to his offensive output. He’s not a natural scorer but he’s able with the way he plays to put himself in excellent scoring positions. He makes the most of his attributes. Whether that makes him an elite player, I don’t know. I wouldn’t put him in the class of Crosby, Malkin, Stamkos, Datsyuk, guys like that in terms of talent. Those are elite players. But it looks like he’s on his way to becoming a consistent offensive producer. I’m not sure the label is as important as the production, especially from a Devils’ perspective. They are the ultimate team-oriented organization and all they ask is their players give the best of what they have. He’s doing that
DI: The Penguins are 8-5-0, the Devils appear to be as good as ever, the Flyers and Rangers are talented, and even the Islanders are scrappy. Is the Atlantic Divison the NHL’s best?
SH: I don’t think the Atlantic Division is the best. The Islanders and Flyers haven’t impressed me this season and the Rangers are one of those inconsistent teams, although they may be gaining some traction; we’ll see. Even the Penguins seem to go up and down. I think right now the Central may be a better division top to bottom, although Columbus still has a way to go and the Blues have really stumbled; I think they’re better than they’ve shown lately. But it’s still too early to know for sure which is the strongest division.
DI: As the winter becomes spring, and the trade deadline nears, what are the big names we should expect to see moved, and what are some hot spots for those big names?
SH: I’m not a big trade rumor guy because almost all of the rumors are bogus. Teams make their own internal evaluations of players — their own and those on other teams — and they don’t make them public. There’s always lots of guessing in the media about who may get moved, people who claim to have inside information, or people in the media who look at contracts and depth charts and try to put themselves in the role of GM — but really, it’s very hard to know and I tend to distrust rumors. Trade gossip is fun and entertaining, but at the end of the day, it’s inaccurate and not fair to the readers, not to mention the teams and players.
Everyone thought the Blue Jackets would trade Rick Nash at the deadline last year, but it never happened. No one expected the Flyers would trade Mike Richards and Jeff Carter when they did a couple of years ago, but they did. So I stay away from that stuff.
Now, here’s what I think with regard to trades: As teams fall out of the race, they’re going to look to start shedding salary, picking up different assets and/or rebuilding with different players. It’s still too early to identify those teams — we’re only a quarter of the way through. Now, some teams are clearly in trouble, but if they can make a move before the halfway point and pull pack closer to the pack, they’d hold off on making moves.
And on the other end, teams that feel they have a good roster but may have one hole to fill someplace on their depth chart may want to make a deal. But again, those evaluations are being made now and we won’t know what they are until at least the halfway point, and maybe not until the trade deadline, which is usually how it works. It might be different this year with the shorter schedule. We’ll see.
DI: Are you surprised by how quickly fans embraced the league after its lockout?
SH: Yes, I am surprised at how quickly the fans embraced the league, and perhaps that’s more my own fault for making a different evaluation based on the emails I got and the comments I saw on my blog and elsewhere, plus listening to many in the media who had the same impression. It looks as if all those voices who expressed extreme displeasure with the league and the PA — and that was the overwhelming sentiment in what I saw — were not reflective of the fan base as a whole. Either that or lots of those people immediately forgave and forgot once the league stared up again. Perhaps it’s a little of both. But I’m glad I was wrong. Right now, the damage looks minimal, if that.
DI: What are some storylines we should look forward to in the coming weeks?
SH: I think the biggest storyline going forward picks up from the storyline so far — which teams will be able to find consistency quickest and, conversely, will the teams that have played more consistently well — Chicago, Boston, New Jersey, Vancouver, for example, be able to sustain it? I think there are some other interesting, more specific stories, such as what is going to happen in Washington; will the Wild, after all their spending, make the playoffs; how good are the Blackhawks; and will the seemingly never-ending Coyotes ownership situation be resolved?
I also hope we get some indication on how NHL-NHLPA relations are proceeding, and that involves decisions on Olympic participation and realignment. And, of course, I have ongoing concerns about dangerous play and injuries, especially concussions. It doesn’t seem to be front-burner at the moment, but that could change with one or two incidents. I’m still not convinced the NHL is tough enough in this area.