Here is the Feb. 17 edition of the mailbag. Each week, an NHL.com writer will answer your questions asked using #OvertheBoards.
With San Jose’s goaltending in flux, do you see an opportunity that Alexei Melnichuk be given a chance for some starts? Devan Dubnyk won’t be back after this season and Martin Jones hasn’t been good. — @GLaSnoST9
The San Jose Sharks need Jones to continue to play the way he did in a 3-2 win against the Anaheim Ducks on Monday, when he made 26 saves, including 14 in the first period. No excuses on schedule or travel or time on the road (12 games played before their first home game Feb. 13). Just play better. That’s it. I’m skeptical, though, so I think Melnichuk’s chances are of getting a longer look are strong. He is San Jose’s best goalie prospect. He’s on the taxi squad, which means he’s training with the NHL team, and he was the backup to Jones in a 3-1 loss to the Golden Knights on Saturday after making his NHL debut in relief of Jones two nights earlier. He made five saves on as many shots in 9:11 of ice time in a 6-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings. Dubnyk missed those games with an upper-body injury but returned as Jones’ backup Monday. Sharks goaltending coach Evgeni Nabokov knows Melnichuk’s game and likes him. That he’s still with the NHL team instead of being sent to San Jose of the American Hockey League suggests the Sharks want to keep him nearby and to make sure he’s working with NHL shooters. It’s a sign they believe he’s going to play in more games this season, or else he’d be playing in the AHL.
How good are the chances of a Chicago Blackhawks’ hat trick: Patrick Kane MVP, Kevin Lankinen for Calder, playoffs? — @_–_tmontgomery
The chances for that hat trick are decent at this point. Kane has been the driving force behind the Blackhawks’ surprising success. Chicago is fourth in the Discover Central Division. Kane is fourth in the NHL with 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists) in 17 games, averaging 2.49 points per 60 minutes. It’s hard to argue a player has been more valuable to his team’s success, especially because of the low expectations the Blackhawks took into the season and how they have so far exceeded them largely on the back of the veteran right wing. The Blackhawks needed an unproven goalie to step up to be in this position nearly a third of the way through their season. Lankinen has done that. The 25-year-old rookie is 6-2-3 with a 2.49 goals-against average and .925 save percentage in 11 starts. Minnesota Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov has been an early frontrunner for the Calder Trophy, given to the player voted NHL rookie of the year, but the longer Lankinen plays and the further he goes in establishing himself as the Blackhawks’ No. 1 goalie, the better his chances will be to win the Calder. If it’s not him, don’t sleep on Chicago forward Pius Suter, who leads rookies with 10 points (six goals, four assists). If Kane continues his pace, Lankinen doesn’t regress, Suter continues to produce, and the Blackhawks continue to be feisty and hard to play against, they will stay in the playoff race. There’s certainly a chance they hit on none of the three, but at this point the thought of a hat trick is not far-fetched.
What is Ron Hextall’s plan in Pittsburgh? Could he move some pieces, like Sidney Crosby or Kris Letang, and officially begin a rebuild? Is there a possibility of Marc-Andre Fleury returning? What does Brian Burke bring to this club? — @theashcity
Hextall’s plan as new general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins is to keep the win-now tradition alive for this season and reevaluate when it’s over. The pieces are in place, he just has to build around them to make the Penguins a deeper, more sustainable team this season. That’s basically the mandate. Easier said than done in the pandemic and flat NHL salary cap world we live in, but evaluate and act is the challenge.
I can’t see the Penguins trading Crosby at any point in his career. He’s the type of player who will play in Pittsburgh until he retires, if that’s what he wants, and co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle do not want to see No. 87 elsewhere. I think there’s a reasonable chance of trading Letang after this season if Hextall with Burke as president of hockey operations and ownership decide it’s time to rebuild or retool. The defenseman will have one season remaining on his contract and certainly there would be a market for him. The Penguins at some point are going to need to restock their NHL Draft capital, and trading Letang could be a gateway toward helping them do that. But I can’t see that happening this season.
“NHL on NBC” analyst Keith Jones joined the “NHL @TheRink” podcast last week and his suggestion was that Hextall first must look at the goaltending. Jones said the Penguins need a No. 1 goalie. Tristan Jarry is supposed to be that, but his first quarter of this season hasn’t lived up to expectations. That, of course, leads into the part of your question about bringing Fleury back to Pittsburgh. For it to be realistic, we need to see Robin Lehner (upper body) back for the Vegas Golden Knights. Fleury has been excellent in his absence, but if Lehner returns and reclaims the No. 1 job in Vegas, that should, in theory, make Fleury a viable option for the Penguins if the Golden Knights want to use their enviable goalie depth to address other areas.
Burke will be involved in all hockey operations personnel decisions and be a sounding board for Hextall. He’ll have the power to veto or overrule a decision Hextall wants to make because of the chain of command, but the idea is for them to be on the same page and reach conclusions they agree on. Burke has 31 years of experience as an executive in the NHL and now it’s all at Hextall’s disposal. Just like a defense pair, Hextall and Burke must work together to push the puck forward and give the Penguins the best chance to win.
When you look at the East Division and the number of good teams in it, where do you think the Islanders will end up after an up-and-down start? — @FreeWheelinRob
The New York Islanders will finish behind the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers in the MassMutual East Division, but I can see them taking third place ahead of the Washington Capitals or Penguins. The Islanders keep the high-danger chances to a minimum, which obviously goes a long way toward success. Look at what they did against the Buffalo Sabres on Monday. They built a 3-1 lead halfway through the second period and didn’t allow Buffalo a shot on goal in the final 23:06 of the game. The Sabres hadn’t played since Jan. 31, so they should have had a push in the third, but the Islanders didn’t let it happen. If the Islanders continue to build leads and suffocate their opponents, something they do as well or better than any team in the NHL, they’ll win games and earn enough points to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They’re consistent in their approach and very rarely deviate from the game plan. I can’t say the same about the Capitals and Penguins.