SIMMONS SAYS: Parity may push too many stars out of the NHL playoffs

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If the National Hockey League season ended today, it would end with Connor McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, Leon Draisaitl, Sidney Crosby, Jack Hughes, Brayden Point and Victor Hedman all out of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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That’s seven of the top 15 players in hockey.

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Kucherov has been the best scorer and best playmaker in the league with Tampa this season. McDavid is bouncing back to form in Edmonton and that puts him all by himself in the hockey world. In his 19th season, Crosby is playing as well as he ever has in Pittsburgh, and is once again an MVP candidate. Young Hughes is fourth in the league in points per game in New Jersey and impossible to stop watching.

Making the playoffs, once an assumed position by most decent hockey clubs, is now a deeper challenge, partly because of the effect of salary-cap issues which leads to too much parity in the NHL.

In the Eastern Conference, there were eight teams within six points of each other heading into Saturday. Five of them won’t make the playoffs.

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In the top-heavy Western Conference, there are seven teams within seven points of each other. Five of them won’t make the playoffs.

What do you want to see come playoff time if your favourite team isn’t playing? You want to see McDavid. You want to see Kucherov. You want to see Crosby. You want to see Jack Hughes.

And all of this is happening as the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators — almost everybody’s sweetheart pick for playoff contention this year — melt their seasons away. If those teams happen to get hot in the second half, all the math and all of the races get that much more complicated.

THIS AND THAT

Ilya Samsonov is a pleasant, funny man, who has sadly lost his way and his position as the Maple Leafs’ starting goaltender. He is as fragile right now as any goalie I’ve ever seen. What happens next with him is open to supposition. NHL rosters are frozen until Wednesday. The Leafs apparently have no intention of waiving Samsonov, which is what Edmonton did with Jack Campbell and Carolina did with Antti Raanta … The Samsonov situation reminds me of an old Harry Neale-ism. “He can’t play more if he doesn’t play better and he can’t play better if he doesn’t play more.” … Maybe the best move GM Brad Treliving made before the season was signing veteran goaltender Martin Jones. The Leafs are fortunate they didn’t lose Jones on waivers at the end of training camp. Now he can fill in while they wait for Joseph Woll to return from injury, likely after the all-star game in early February. The Leafs have 14 games before the break. If they don’t pick up another goalie — and they don’t want to call up young Dennis Hildeby unless they absolutely have to — they’re going to need Jones to start 10 of them … When you lose your confidence in goal the way Samsonov has, finding your way back can be next to impossible … This is how thin the goaltender market is: Carolina signed Aaron Dell to a tryout contract … By my count, there are at least eight teams looking for help in goal — the Leafs, Hurricanes, Oilers, Devils, Senators, Red Wings, Penguins and Blackhawks all need upgrades. And the trade market is thin as well for any goalie of calibre. Just because someone is available doesn’t mean your team is going to get him when there are this many clubs looking … This is how misinterpreted and misunderstood goalies are in the NHL. Adin Hill, the Stanley Cup winner, who was thrown away by San Jose, leads the league in goals against average. Cam Talbot, who was signed for $1 million a year plus bonuses, in Los Angeles, is right behind Hill. Are they the best in hockey? They’re playing behind the best defensive teams, the most responsible teams in the game. This is where Sheldon Keefe enters the picture with the Leafs. If their goaltending is this fragile, the team needs to tighten up defensively — the way Vegas plays in front of Hill or Los Angeles in front of Talbot.

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HEAR AND THERE

In the eight years Mitch Marner and William Nylander have played together on the Leafs, Marner has never been out-pointed by Nylander. Last year, Marner was 12 points ahead, the year before that 17 points, and 25 the season before that one. Nylander is now outplaying Marner and outscoring him by eight points. Is all this happening now because Nylander has elevated his game to a new level, or is this happening because this is Nylander’s contract year? … If you can’t shoot in the three-point world of the NBA, you can’t win. The Raptors rank 22nd in shooting from more than 20 feet out and 29th in more than 25 feet. They are particularly weak from three-point land in the right corner, where they rank 27th and from the top of the key where they rank 29th … While Darko Rajakovic is struggling to establish who he is as an NBA head coach, being given a roster of below-average shooters by Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster is hardly his fault … The Raptors are closer to last place in the Eastern Conference than they are to first place … Nathan MacKinnon has been second twice in MVP voting in the NHL and third twice. This could be the year he finally wins the Hart … City Council in Toronto has voted to name Etobicoke Centennial Stadium after the late and troubled mayor, Rob Ford. Which is nice, if not controversial, and if you know how much Ford was involved in minor football, you can understand the choice. But I wonder: What other names were considered? Did they consider Donovan Bailey Stadium? Or Pinball Clemons Stadium? Or Joey Votto Park? All would have been non-controversial selections … And I do wonder: What is it about Bailey, the greatest modern-day Olympian for Canada, that gets him passed over time and time again for awards and honours? Is there a stadium named for him? Is there a park? Is there a school? And if not, why not?

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SCENE AND HEARD

The Blue Jays enter the holidays without a starting third baseman, a starting left fielder, a DH of any consequence and with second base still to be determined. They couldn’t hit when it mattered last year. Not sure bringing Matt Chapman back at big dollars settles anything other than their defensive play. And the problem with adding free agent Cody Bellinger is: Which Bellinger are you getting? The guy with large numbers last year or small numbers the previous three seasons? … Are the Los Angeles Dodgers the biggest players in all of professional sports? They’ve signed Shohei Ohtani at huge money. They’ve signed first-time major-leaguer Yoshinobu Yamamoto at close to huge money. And now they are essentially bankrolling the Women’s Professional Hockey League that begins play on New Year’s Day in Toronto … I see where the Toronto soon to be named Storm franchise has sold out its tickets for its first season. Which is weird, considering they never did put the tickets up for sale publicly. So whoever bought the seats — corporations I figure — did so before anyone in the public had any chance at buying anything … Ohtani has won the Associated Press athlete of the year award for the second time. Other two-time or more winners include Tiger Woods, Joe Montana, LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps. Ohtani beat out Lionel Messi, Novak Djokovic and NBA MVP Nikola Jokic for the award, which usually goes to an American. Kawhi Leonard won the award in 2019. Only two Canadians have ever won the AP honour: Wayne Gretzky in 1982 and Ben Johnson in 1987 … A lot of noise has been made about the Leafs’ inability to win games in regulation time. What hasn’t been discussed much? The Leafs have lost only eight games in regulation this season. That’s the same number as Vegas, Rangers and Dallas, all of them Stanley Cup contenders.

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AND ANOTHER THING

Was there ever a better Canadian roster for a world junior team than the 2005 squad, the year of the NHL lockout? Among those on the team: Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Getzlaf, Shea Weber, Corey Perry, Mike Richards, Dion Phaneuf, Brent Seabrook and this 17-year-old whiz named Crosby … Then and now, what a terrible pick the Montreal Canadiens made in 2018, choosing Jesperi Kotkaniemi third overall, ahead of Brady Tkachuk and Quinn Hughes among others. The 12th pick in that draft, Noah Dobson, is having a Norris Trophy-type season with the New York Islanders. Kotkaniemi has never had more than 43 points in a season. Defenceman Hughes, the early favourite to win the Norris, has 42 points already in 34 games for Vancouver heading into Saturday night … If I’m voting today, Hughes would be top of my Norris ballot and included somewhere on the Hart as most valuable player … Amazing number: The Islanders have given up more goals than they have scored and yet Dobson is +19 on defence … I thought that a player as fundamentally sound as Connor Brown would a perfect fit for the not always fundamentally sound Edmonton Oilers. GM Ken Holland thought the same. Turns out, through 24 games, we were both wrong. Brown has no goals and one assist with the Oilers and hasn’t recovered well post-surgery … This is coming up to tournament time in minor hockey. The time of year when I wish I was a player or a coach again … The Academy Award nominations will be announced on Jan. 23. Here’s hoping the Yogi Berra documentary gets a nod for its category … The team nobody wants to play in the playoffs: The Buffalo Bills. Should they make the playoffs … My NFL MVP: Christian McCaffrey. He’s the most indispensable player on the league’s best team, the San Francisco 49ers … When Scott Milanovich, now head coach of the Ticats, was the QBs coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, he would tell anyone who would listen how impressed he was with quarterback Gardner Minshew. Watching Indianapolis play with Minshew filling in tells you Milanovich was on to something … Happy birthday to Catriona LeMay Doan (53), Davante Adams (31), Jim Harbaugh (60), Jack Ham (75), Karel Pilar (46), Jerry Koosman (81), Jay Wright (62), Otis Grant (56), Scott Gomez (44) and T.J. Oshie (37) … And hey, whatever became of Cam Barker?

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