The NHL’s Playoff Problem, Goaltending in Belleville, and More

The NHL needs a playoff refresh. I mentioned this in passing a year ago, but a struggling league needs an injection of excitement that goes beyond the recent increase in scoring (cf). In the halcyon days of the Original Six (1942-43 to 1966-67), 66% of the teams made the playoffs and while when I was growing up (the 1980s), 16 of 21 teams (76%) made it to the post-season. We can debate what the ‘appropriate’ percentage of contenders is abstractly, but the fact is that a team making the playoffs is better for the fanbase and the franchises–it maintains hope and excitement throughout the long regular season. If the NHL wants to remain at its current 50% tally (I have no idea why, as it was a slow process that took 30 years), at least add a play-in format to give more of the league the opportunity. As it stands, each season there are close to ten teams that have nothing to play for–that’s not healthy. The Premier League gets around this problem by having other things for mid and low-tier teams to play for, but the NHL can’t function that way. The AHL has solved the problem by having 23 of its 32 teams (72%, so very close to the NHL of the 1980s) make the playoffs. Too many fanbases have nothing to look forward to other than the draft all season. Maintaining the static 16 playoff teams of 1979 is probably due to a fear of the playoffs running even later into the summer, but that’s easy to solve and you could do it without cutting the regular season down. Americans don’t watch the latter stages of the playoffs anyway (ratings are unchanged since 2008), so worrying about that is pointless–accept that hockey is a regional sport and give those supporters something to get excited about.

What a debut for Leevi Merilainen, who made 41-saves for a shutout in the BSens 4-0 win over Toronto. I wonder if that performance has slammed the door on bringing back Kevin Mandolese, who hasn’t been able to perform consistency over his three years as a pro. It’s been a bizarre season in Belleville who are a nightmare defensively (despite loading up on big blueliners this summer). Let’s take a look at the goaltending (in order of games played and we’ll exclude the Finnish rookie for now):
Antonie Bibeau (6-172/13 Tor), 28, QMJHL-AHL, 22GP, 1119min, 9-9-2, 3.43, .896
Hasn’t been a starter in the AHL since 2018-19 and after this season I think he will struggle to find a spot in the league; his numbers are similar to Sogaard’s, but you expect more from a veteran
Mads Sogaard (2-37/19 Ott), 22, WHL-AHL-NHL, 21GP, 1055min, 6-9-2, 3.30, .898
Fans are very familiar with him given that he’s played in 16 NHL games this season; his AHL numbers have seen a steady decline in save percentage (0.917-0.908-0.898), which is a mix of inconsistency and the quality of defensive play in front of him
Kevin Mandolese (6-157/18 Ott), 22, QMJHL-ECHL-AHL, 17GP, 1008min, 6-8-3, 3.33, 0.890
The unfortunate thing for him is his year-by-year save percentage has remained middling (0.888-0.901-0.890); I don’t think occasional flashes of brilliance (like his first NHL-game) are enough to illustrate he’s got NHL potential in him, but keep in mind goaltending progression is weird and slow (‘tenders often hitting their stride in their mid-20s)
Dylan Ferguson (7-194/17 Dal), 26, WHL-ECHL-AHL, 7GP, 332min, 5-1-0, 2.35, .924
Hasn’t been a starting goaltender since his days in junior; flopped out of the Toronto org and then caught fire here–is this a sustainable performance? I doubt it, but he’s probably done enough to get an AHL-deal for next season (here or elsewhere)
Logan Flodell, 26, WHL-Cdn U-ECHL, 5GP, 174min, 1-0-0, 5.88, 0.813
The BSens called him up from the ECHL last season as well and while he wasn’t great then (0.881) he wasn’t as nightmarish as this season (he’s been equally bad in his only ECHL start this year, 0.813)
Luke Richardson, 23, OHL-Cdn U, 3 GP, 150min, 0-1-1, 3.99, 0.873
Acceptable numbers for someone still playing university hockey at Queens, but this is not someone you want starting games
Ryan Bednard (7-206/15 Flo), 26, NCAA-ECHL, 1GP, 64min, 0-0-1, 3.74, .875
Drafted and signed by Florida, he’s become a good ECHL goaltender; his one appearance wasn’t horrible, but the save percentage just isn’t up to what’s needed

One trend that Dorion and Mann have really sunk their teeth into is drafting, signing, and trading for players whose fathers were in the NHL. I’m sure others have covered this, but it’s quite remarkable just how many there are within the org:
Brady Tkachuk – son of Keith (1201-538-527-1065)
Jake Sanderson – son of Geoff (1104-355-345-700)
Jakob Chychrun – son of Jeff (262-3-22-25)
Ridley Greig – son of Mark (125-13-27-40)
Patrick Brown – son of Doug (854-160-214-374)
Cole Cassels (AHL) – son of Andrew (1015-204-528-732)
Matthew Boucher (AHL) – son of Philippe (748-94-206-300)
Graham McPhee (AHL) – son of George (115-24-25-49)
Tyler Boucher (OHL) – son of Brian (328gp)
Jorian Donovan (OHL) – son of Shean (951-112-129-241)
Signing players like this is something Dorion has done for a long time and while there are some obvious successes, for the most part this does not work out–it’s quite rare for the son of an NHLer to also be a good NHL player.

From watching the team play (the cherished eyeball test that keeps most TV and radio folks employed), the Sens fourth line gets destroyed by good teams–the depth at forward needs serious work for the team to become a true playoff threat. I also remain (cf) mystified at the org’s enthusiasm for Bernard-Docker–I’m not opposed to defensive-minded players, but I at least need them to distribute the puck and I’m not convinced JBD can do that at the NHL-level (his ppg in the AHL isn’t quite 0.15 despite time on the powerplay–that doesn’t inspire confidence, as it’s barely more than half Fredrik Claesson‘s (a player much like JBD) initial production and that’s a prospect who fell out of the NHL after 57 games outside the org. Ottawa has a long history of falling in love with marginal defense-first prospects who then disappear from the league once Ottawa trades them (let’s not forget that the Sens offered Jared Cowen an eight-year deal).

This article was written by Peter Levi


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