Feb 192014
 
Jean Levac/PostMedia News

Jean Levac/PostMedia News

I’m still shaking as I write this. Dear Hockey Gods we almost lost to Latvia. LATVIA?!

  • Major props goes to the Latvian goalie Kristers Gudlevskis. Insane play. Insane effort. Insane heart.
  • @MaltbyMVP tweeted “This isn’t Canada sucking. This is Latvia playing their heart out. You’re an idiot if you think otherwise.” And he’s 100% right. 57 shots on goal is Canada playing well. 54 blocked shots and saves is Latvia and their goalie doing everything possible to pull off a miracle. And 1 shot attempt not hitting the net was just Latvia cheating and the Refs missing it. No other way to look at one of their players, not the goalie, swiping the puck out of the crease as it starts to trickle past the line. But that just put Karma in a Team Canada jersey so in the end, it worked in our favor.
  • Hey Luongo Homers, are you finally going to give Carey Price some credit? I am not a Price fan. I am not a Luongo fan. To be honest, I thought that after game 2 Luongo should have been the one to keep getting the starts. But Babcock thought otherwise and Babcock knows what he’s doing. Today proved it. Price kept us in this. If you can’t give him that then you’re truly letting emotion (for Luongo) override hockey smarts and common sense. Now should Price start against America? I guess so if only because the US’s strongest weapon right now might be Phil Kessel and Price has faced him more. But that said, Lu beat the US team once… barely, but it was an important win.  To be honest I don’t have 100% confidence in either Lu or Price in against the USA. Do you? If so, which one and why?
  • Paging the Top Forwards in the World! Please proceed to the net – and put the puck in it!  We absolutely have to start finding a way to score more. Like I said, this almost-loss wasn’t that we weren’t trying. But I personally feel we haven’t scored enough in any of our wins except Austria. We need to see goals from Perry, Toews, St. Louis and Crosby. And more from Getzlaf and Carter. And have Weber and Doughty keep doing what they’re doing. Then and probably only then are we going to be able to beat the USA in regulation. It seems like a lot of “If Onlys” but hello, these are truly the best forwards in the world. If they can’t do it (all at once) who can? And it’s now or never Team Canada. Truly. No exaggeration. It is now or never.

So do you have a prediction for USA-Canada? What do you think the score will be? Tell us!

And where are you watching? This Canadian has taken Friday off work and will be screaming/cheering her lungs out from her West Hollywood apartment. How about you?

Feb 162014
 

Drew Doughty scored 3 goals in his last 28 games for the Los Angeles Kings. He’s had 3 goals in 3 games for Team Canada. Clearly he was conserving his abilities for the Olympics and as a Canadian, I’m okay with that. But I’m pretty sure the popping sound I’m hearing around LA today is Kings’ fans heads exploding.

Subban should be dropped in and Vlasic pulled out. Or Bouwmeester. I am not a PK Subban fan. I wasn’t even sure I wanted him on Team Canada because his attitude and his preference to play a bit dirty and arrogant isn’t an Olympic asset. But he was tight and controlled in his one game and played smart. He was noticeable in a good way unlike Bouwmeester and Vlasic today. Bouwmeester was unnoticeable and Vlasic was noticed for ridiculousness and sloppiness.

So now it’s the Swiss, who we had to beat in a shootout last time so no one better think this is an easy ride. The easier ride would have been if we won in regulation. However maybe we’ll face Latvia. I count no one out because it’s the Olympic and crazy things can happen.

Also, since we’re on the topic of the Swiss, you know who won that shootout in 2010? Sidney Crosby. For those who forgot, he did do more than that very last goal of the games. I feel the need to bring this up because the “Sid sucks’ tweets have already begun. There is no Country in the world that doesn’t know he’s the best in the world so, as Finland did so well, they are all going to make a point of shutting him down. And we should be ok with that because while they’re concentrating on Sid we have Toews, Doughty, Carter, Tavares and every other second and third and fourth best player in the world to score instead of Crosby. Remember that.

I heard on twitter (so it must be true and I’m too lazy to Google it) no undefeated team has ever won gold. Every men’s hockey gold medal has been won by a team that has lost a game along the way. Does that worry you? The way I see it is, That said, if a Country is going to buck a hockey trend, what better Country to do it than Canada?

Who sits the next one? I say it’s got be Vlasic and Kunitz.

Who is in net? I don’t care either way because Price and Luongo are both playing solid but I will say this. I think we need to start solidifying stuff and the goalie is where we should start.

Tell us your thoughts on who gets the net, who gets scratched and what we need to do to be the first team to go undefeated and win gold?

Jun 122012
 

1. The Los Angeles Kings have begun their royal coronation, and they got on that championship road by defeating the Canucks in the first round in five games. That means that for three straight years Vancouver has been defeated by the eventual Stanley Cup champions (Chicago, Boston, and now Los Angeles). I’m not one for superstition but how many teams would like to line up against the Canucks in the first round next spring?

2. When watching the rest of the NHL playoffs, I always find it a little unnerving when Canucks fans cheer for the team that ousted them, in this case the Kings. Canucks fans feel better about the fact they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions. Sure, it means the Canucks lost to the best team, but it doesn’t mean the Canucks were the second-best team in the postseason. To me, a loss is a loss; there is no second place when there’s 16 teams and just one champion.

3. Love him or hate him, Drew Doughty was fantastic and a huge reason why the Kings got to the promised land. He was delivering production close to a point per game and was +11 in the process. Most memorably, his Bobby Orr-like goal in Game 2 of the Finals turned out to be a real turning point in that series. Canucks fans have to ask themselves if they have anyone like Doughty in their system. Is Alex Edler the answer? I don’t think even Canucks management knows for certain.

4. The pace of games in the playoffs were at a snail’s pace on occasion, depending on the team you watched. Vancouver has built its team around an up-tempo style, but considering the success of guys like Dustin Penner this spring, you have to wonder if that philosophy needs to change. The Canucks picked up David Booth in November for the purpose of making their team faster, but I’m not sure anymore if that’s a winning recipe.

5. Craig MacTavish resigned as head coach of the Canucks’ AHL affiliate yesterday in order to become the senior VP of hockey ops with Edmonton. You get the sense that once he learned Alain Vigneault would be back behind the Canucks bench next season, MacT had little reason to stay. It’s obvious he wants to be a head coach at the NHL level again and he knew that wouldn’t happen with Vancouver any time soon.

6. That leaves a head coaching hole with the Chicago Wolves that the Canucks need to fill. There are a few good candidates to take the spot; a week after hiring Bob Hartley as their next head coach, the Flames decided to let Craig Hartsburg go. Hartsburg has coached Canada to world juniors gold in 2008 and prior to taking the associate coach position with Calgary was the Everett Silvertips bench boss.

7. Another option to take over is Scott Arniel, who was canned from the Columbus Blue Jackets this past season. Sure, Arniel had a rough go in his time in Ohio, but any coach would with Steve Mason between the pipes. Arniel was treasured during his time with the Manitoba Moose and while he currently works for the Canucks as a scout, you know he’ll be eager to get behind a bench once again. Both Hartsburg and Arniel would be excellent choices.

8. Sticking with coaching talk, no one knows what was said in the meetings leading up to Alain Vigneault’s renewal, but it’s clear there needs to be a change in how Vigneault approaches his players. Vigneault is a coach known to loosen the reins on his players a bit, but that will have to be different this upcoming season. Fans weren’t happy with the dives and yapping coming from players, and the leadership to remedy those problems starts with the head coach. Vigneault would be best served by implementing a tighter ship; dive and yap and you can find yourself stapled to the bench.

9. Call it a hunch, but I suspect trade activity will pick up considerably as the NHL Draft gets closer. There’s a ton of uncertainty with regards to a possible work stoppage and the temporary increase in the salary cap, but that shouldn’t deter general managers from bolstering their teams. The increase in cap space should give teams incentive to make moves they wouldn’t normally make, and perhaps the Luongo trade saga fits that equation.

10. Only Mike Gillis holds the cards, but the Luongo saga continues to unfurl. Some fans want assets coming back that can help the Canucks win now, but isn’t freeing up $5.3-million in cap space the biggest asset? This summer isn’t exactly a ground breaker in terms of free agents available, but freeing up that much space and adding an extra million in a cap increase could give Vancouver the chance to land a really, really big fish.

11. Continuing on with the Luongo rumours, a lot of people have thrown out Jake Gardiner and Luke Schenn’s name when mentioning the Toronto Maple Leafs, but how about Cody Franson? The Memorial Cup winner with the Vancouver Giants is a product of the Nashville system where defencemen are bred like prized racehorses, and at 24 is still a blueliner with potential.

12. Some have asked about what the real chance the Canucks have at signing soon-to-be free agent Justin Schultz. Schultz is a product of the U of Wisconsin and while there teamed up with current Leaf Jake Gardiner. Now both players were once draft picks of the Anaheim Ducks, but Gardiner was traded to Toronto in a package for Francois Beauchemin. Hard to say for certain, but perhaps Schultz’ feelings towards Anaheim soured when they traded his partner. This isn’t to say Schultz will follow Gardiner to Toronto, but if the Canucks could land Gardiner in a deal for Luongo…

13. If the Canucks are hoping to sign Cory Schneider to a new contract, they better get it done soon. Not just because Schneider could be eligible to receive offer sheets, but because of the Tim Thomas effect. Now that Thomas is taking a year off from hockey, Tuukka Rask’s bargaining power as a restricted free agent just got bigger. Rask and Schneider are goalies with similar career trajectories, and if the Canucks want to avoid paying Schneider upwards of $4-million a year, they’d best get a contract hammered out before Rask does.

14. For those in the trade Schneider camp, word is that Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec is being lured by a KHL team. A restricted free agent in July, the potential offer from the KHL team is said to be substantial. If Pavelec pulls a Radulov and bolts, a certain redheaded Canucks goalie is known to be a fan favourite in the ‘Peg. Hmm…

15. The NHL Draft is on June 22 and fans are wondering who the Canucks will target at 26th overall. I’ll have more in my draft preview, but given Jordan Schroeder and Anton Rodin’s strong strides in development this past season, the team should be looking at a defenseman with this year’s pick. And considering the abundance of blueliners in this year’s crop, that’s a pretty safe deduction to make.

May 302012
 
New Jersey Devils vs Los Angeles Kings

Having lamented the current state of the NHL in part 1 of my Stanley Cup Finals preview, let’s at least acknowledge the fact that both the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles kings aren’t exactly passive, defensive teams.

In fact, it could be argued that both teams have made it this far because they have, more than any other teams in the postseason, been able to combine their strong defensive systems with excellent forechecks. These are two teams that like to apply pressure in the offensive zone (thank god).

Now, onto breaking down the actual match-up between the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings.

Goaltending:

Kings

What I said pre-season: B (“There is an embarrassment of riches at this position in Los Angeles […]. The Kings move up this list as (Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier) continue to develop”)

Now: A. Jonathan Quick has been the best goaltender in the playoffs so far and was neck-and-neck with Henrik Lundqvist for best goalie in the league this year. He plays the position aggressively, and it will be interesting to see if a strong Devils attack can exploit this and get Quick caught out of position.

Devils

What I said pre-season: B- (“This is probably Martin Brodeur’s final season.”)

Now: B. I wonder, if the Devils win the Cup, does Brodeur retire? Or does he come back to defend? While his play has dropped off the last few seasons, he was a steady performer this year, helped by a Devils approach that protected him from having to face many Grade A scoring chances. Brodeur’s numbers  (2.04 goals against, .923 save percentage) have been good in the post-season, but he’s had soft moments in each series. He’ll need to raise his game against the Kings.

Bottom Line: Some would have you believe that Brodeur’s experience is a positive factor over Quick. However, since the lockout only the Red Wings in 2007-08 have won the Cup using a goalie who’d won one before (Chris Osgood). It’s hard to believe, at this point in the playoffs, previous experience is much of a factor. Which means the Kings get a big nod at this position.

*****

Forwards:

Kings

What I said pre-season: B+ (“If Dustin Penner can demonstrate any kind of scoring consistency, this could be the Conference’s best group of forwards”)

Now: B+. It took 82-games for Kings forwards to live up to their potential, as they struggled immensely during the regular season. The first line – Dustin Brown – Anze Kopitar – Justin Williams – has dominated the post-season, with Brown in particular playing the best hockey of his career. But these playoffs have been a “return to glory” for Dustin Penner (10 points), Mike Richards (11 points) and Jeff Carter (9 points). Together, they represent one of the tougher, better second lines in the entire NHL, and have helped the Kings go from second last in league scoring (2.29 goals per game) in the regular season to third in the playoffs (2.93). Dwight King (5 goals) has provided the third line with much needed offense. This is a physical group that, while not exactly fast, anticipate the play very well.

Devils

What I said pre-season: B (“This might be a sneaky-good offensive group, although the bottom-six could use work”)

Now: B+. Despite the bounce-back season from Patrick Elias and the terrific rookie season of Adam Henrique, the Devils were middle-of-the-pack (15th) in league scoring during the regular season. However, over the course of the year they added Alexei Ponikarovsky and Steve Bernier to the roster, and promoted Steven Gionta. Each of those moves has improved the team’s third and fourth lines, turning the Devils into a four-line squad capable of pinning opponents in the defensive zone. This depth compliments the offensive talents of Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, who enter this Final as the most talented offensive players on either roster. This is a very good group, although Patrick Elias hasn’t produced much this spring (18 games, 4 goals, 6 points).

Bottom Line: The Devils have the better talent and the stronger fourth line, but no line is playing better than the Kopitar line right now. Consider this match-up even.

*****

Defense:

Kings

What I Said pre-season: A (Drew Doughty […] remains a Norris Trophy candidate. Jack Johnson […] looks like a legitimate first pairing guy. The rest of the group is an average mix of youth and experience”)

Now: A. Despite trading Jack Johnson to Columbus for Jeff Carter during the season, the Kings retain their A-grade thanks to the emergence of Viatcheslav Voynov and the stellar season from Willie Mitchell. Mitchell and Matt Greene give the Kings two terrific, physical shut-down defenseman. Meanwhile, Voynov and youngster Alec Martinez can skate and provide excellent first passes out of the zone. In fact, the Kings compensate for a lack of speed from their forwards by transitioning the puck from defense to forwards  quicker than most other teams in the league. Finally, after roughly 12-20 months of mediocre play, Drew Doughty has rediscovered his elite game this post-season, and is the best defenseman in the series by a country mile. Finally, this is a blueline that has the green light to join the attack, helping the Kings generate more odd-man rushes than most.

Devils

What I said pre-season: C (“[…] Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov are two of the best defensive defencemen in the league. Otherwise it’s an average group with below average skill”)

Now: C+. As expected, the lack of skill hampered the Devils blueline for much of the season, as New Jersey’s group struggled to move the puck up to its forwards effectively. However, the late season addition of Marek Zidlicky and the promotion of Peter Harrold from Albany brought much-needed speed and passing skill to the Devils defense. This has paid off in the post-season, with both players getting the majority of powerplay time and leading New Jersey to the fourth-best powerplay in the post-season (18.2%). Meanwhile, Bryce Salvador is playing his best hockey in years, leading the defense with 11 points (9 at even-strength) and tied with Anton Volchenkov for most hits by a Devils defenseman (37). This is a lunch pail, no-name group that is very reminiscent of the Cup-winning Hurricanes blueline of 2005-06.

Bottom Line: The offensive gap between the two teams has closed a bit, but the Kings remain the more dynamic blueline. When you add that Los Angeles gets to play Drew Doughty 25+ minutes a night, this category is a mismatch for the Kings.

*****

Coaching

Kings

What I said pre-season: C+ (“Let’s make it two years in a row for Murray to find his name on the “Fired Watch.”)

Now: B. The best thing that could have happened to the Kings was firing Terry Murray, who hadn’t been past the first round of the playoffs in some 15 years. Full disclosure though – I thought the hiring of Darryl Sutter was going to be a disaster, and I was wrong. Sutter was example B to Ken Hitchcock’s example A in the whole “mid-season coaching replacements do better” hypothesis. Sutter’s pushed the right buttons and demonstrated that, for all his failings as a general manager, he remains a quality head coach.

Devils

What I said pre-season: C+ (“[Peter] DeBoer’s preferred puck possession style never really fit with the Panter’s mix of inexperience and grinders.”)

Now: B. Finally graced with a solid nucleus, DeBoer has finally delivered on the promise he showed while having great success in the junior ranks. He’s taken the Devils disciplined defensive approach and grafted his own philosophies onto the team, delivering the most dynamic New Jersey squad since the early 2000s. DeBoer plays hunches and isn’t afraid to mix up his lines or lineup to get the matchups he needs. He’s the real deal.

Bottom Line: A very even matchup. Sutter has a slight edge given his Stanley Cup experience but DeBoer is the more flexible coach. Let’s call this a wash.

*****

Special Teams:

Kings: The Kings have dominated this post-season despite a pretty terrible powerplay. There is a distinct lack of creativity to their approach. Having said that, L.A.’s penalty kill has been superlative, with Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar dangerous shorthanded (2 goals each).

Devils: The Devils over-aggressive penalty kill, which was the league’s best in the regular season, has been exploited in the playoffs. The powerplay, on the other hand, has been surprisingly strong.

Bottom Line: It’s this simple: Kings wretched powerplay versus Devils’ awful post-season penalty kill. The team that wins this matchup wins the special teams category. Given the likely poor ice conditions in both arenas, the penalty kill will have a slight edge. Which means this category goes to the Devils by a whisker.

*****

Intangibles and Random Thoughts:

  • It’s the rare a team without a dominant top-line defenseman wins the Stanley Cup. Advantage: Kings
  • Despite having a lot of offensive talent on the Kings roster, it’s rare a team wins the Stanley Cup having scored so few goals in the regular season. Advantage: Devils
  • The Kings haven’t had to do a lot of travel this post-season, but it’s still been more than the Devils. It will be interesting to see how New Jersey travels West (given the Kings, with all their off-days, were able to get to the New York area and acclimatize well in advance of Game 1). Advantage: Kings
  • Anton Volchenkov will probably get the match-up against Anze Kopitar, but Kopitar is so strong it’s hard to see the “A-Train” earning much more than a draw in this battle. Advantage: Kings
  • Both teams will probably match their top-lines against one-another, with the Kings wanting the Kopitar line up against the Zajac line, and the Richards line against the Henrique line. Even if Kopitar/Zajac is a wash, it wouldn’t surprise to see the Richards line more productive than the Henrique line. Advantage: Kings
  • Since 1980, there have been six “coastal” Stanley Cup Finals, featuring a West Coast team versus an East Coast team. Only the Anaheim Ducks have won it on behalf of the Western Conference. Advantage: Devils
  • The Kings have gotten to the Stanley Cup Final so quickly and easily that they’ve had a lot of time off. It means they’re healthy, but also means they haven’t had to face much adversity. The Devils have had a tougher road, which could mean they’re more battle-hardened. Advantage: Devils
  • Even though the Kings’ fourth line had a pretty good series against the Coyotes, they in no way have had the impact of New Jersey’s Bernier-Gionta-Carter line. The Devils have had terrific fourth lines in their Cup-winning seasons, and through three rounds they’ve had one again. Advantage: Devils

*****

Stanley Cup Prediction: Kings in 6

Bottom Line: This could be a surprisingly entertaining series featuring two teams that play physical, aggressive styles. The Devils might have the most talented forwards, but the Kings have the stronger goalie and blueline. Pre-season I said I had “Chicago, LA and Vancouver rated roughly the same” as the Western Conference’s best teams. The firing of Terry Murray took the Kings’ greatest impediment to success out of the equation. With Wayne Gretzky watching, expect Dustin Brown to raise the Stanley Cup over his head, completing one of the most unexpected championship runs in NHL history.

May 142012
 

Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8)

Season Series: L.A (3-1-2)

What we learned about the Coyotes in the Second Round: That they’re Cinderella at the ball. Hard to give too much credit to a team that has been routinely outshot (-9.5 shots for/shots against differential in the playoffs) and only had one powerplay goal in the second round. Mike Smith has been terrific yes, but the Desert Dogs were fortunate Nashville found the Phoenix nightlife to their liking. Then again, there are a couple of notorious partiers on the Kings team…

What we learned about the Kings in the Second Round: After a rather miserable 82-game season, this Kings team has become the fearsome squad many pundits predicted could be a darkhorse Cup contender way back at the beginning of the season. It’s not a very fast team, but the Kings move the puck well, are big, and might have the best forecheck left in the playoffs. Los Angeles is averaging 3.00 goals per game right now (tied for 3rd in the post-season and best remaining with the Devils), which is the type of production that should be expected from this group of forwards. Jonathan Quick has been the best goalie in the league this spring (.949 save percentage). Darryl Sutter got some good minutes out of the fourth line against St. Louis (which he didn’t do against Vancouver) and even Dustin Penner (5 pts in 5 games against the Blues) is rolling.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching:  Even (Sutter’s been to a Cup Final as a head coach before, but Dave Tippet has had a great playoff behind the bench leading his less-talented team to two series wins)

Goaltending: Even. Quick has been the playoffs’ best, but the Coyotes don’t get this far without Mike Smith performing like a superhero. Smith gets the benefit of the doubt, although the Kings made Brian Elliott look human last series.

Defense: Kings. Both teams are exceptional defensively. The difference is the Coyotes still give up a ton of shots (even if they’re from outside scoring areas). The Kings are able to clamp down a bit more and they have Drew Doughty, who showed flashes of dominance early in the Blues series.

Offense: Kings (Los Angeles’ top two lines are more talented than what Phoenix can put on the ice, and they’re hot right now. Having said that, Phoenix has gotten timely scoring from every line. Consider this a slight edge that could grow larger if Jeff Carter could ever get going).

Special Teams: Even. Neither team is lighting up the powerplay right now and yet both teams have extremely strong penalty kills. This, coupled with the strength of both goalies, points to a low-scoring series.

Prediction:  Kings in 5.

*****

Notes on the Dearly Departed:

St. Louis Blues

Cause of Death: Injuries to Alex Pieterangelo and Jaroslav Halak.

Prescription: Stay the course. Brian Elliott was inconsistent at times in the second round, meaning interest in dealing Jaroslav Halak in the off-season should be limited. Otherwise this is a team in the headed in the right direction (especially if Patrick Berglund can carry his playoff performance into next year).

Nashville Predators

Cause of Death: Off-ice distractions that tore the dressing room apart.

Prescription: Let Ryan Suter go – the Predators have some good young defenseman primed for NHL exposure, and they could use the money to help keep Shea Weber long-term. Move back-up goalie Anders Lindback in a package that can return a top-six scoring forward. Let Alex Radulov go – sure he’s talented, but it’s clear now he doesn’t have the intangibles that lead to NHL playoff success. This could be a classic case of a team stumbling before taking the next step. There’s still a lot to like in Smashville.

Apr 112012
 
Todd Bertuzzi of the Detroit Red Wings and Shea Weber of Nashville Predators do battle

Vancouver Canucks (1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8)

Season Series: Vancouver (2-1-1)

It was an anti-climactic season for the Canucks, who despite injuries to Ryan Kesler and Daniel Sedin and an up-and-down season from the blueline still found a way to win the President’s Trophy as the league’s best team. A big reason for the success was in net, as Vancouver’s tandem of Roberto Luongo (2.41 goals against) and Cory Schneider (.937 save percentage) put the Canucks near the top of the NHL’s goaltending ranks. In fact, after the All-Star Game only Phoenix and St. Louis had a better save percentage than Vancouver’s .930. Ironically, this Canucks team enters this post-season with many of the same questions it had last post-season. Is there enough secondary scoring on the team? (Not if David Booth and Mason Raymond remain MIA.) Is the defense deep enough? (Probably if Dan Hamhuis can continue his terrific campaign.) Can Luongo “win the big one”? (Probably, but if not Vancouver has the best back-up in the league.) It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out this time around.

This is not how the Los Angeles Kings season was supposed to go. Armed with Mike Richards, the Kings looked like a team that would vie for home-ice advantage and not scrape into the playoffs. Low scoring teams are usually cannon fodder once the post-season begins, and the Kings look primed to fulfill that destiny. Offense has been the sore point all season – only Minnesota scored fewer in the regular season, and a coaching change (from Terry Murray to Darryl Sutter) didn’t really help much. Drew Doughty, Richards, Dustin “Pancake” Penner, Simon Gagne and Jarrett Stoll all struggled to score. Jeff Carter, added at the deadline, offered hope scoring at a 30-goal pace before hurting his foot. Now he’s a question mark as the post-season starts. Nonetheless, there were some bright spots for the Kings. Goalie Jonathan Quick’s 1.95 goals against average, .929 save percentage and 10 shutouts effectively saved L.A.’s season. Anze Kopitar took another step towards becoming the best player in the Western Conference, scoring 76 points and playing a strong two-way game. No team gave up fewer shots-per-game after the All-Star Game than the Kings (24.8).

Key Player, Vancouver: Daniel Sedin

Daniel Sedin is one of the best snipers in the game, and together with brother Henrik gives the Canucks an elite first line. The longer he sits in the first round waiting to recover from his concussion, the better it is for the Kings, who desperately need to win a few 1-0, 2-1 games to pull off a series upset.

Key Player, Los Angeles: Drew Doughty

Doughty’s performance this season has been arguably worse than his disappointing 2010-11 season. Talent-wise though he remains one of the few defencemen in the league capable of dominating play at both ends of the ice. With Daniel Sedin out, it’s one less offensive Canuck player the Kings have to keep in check. If Doughty can keep Henrik Sedin at bay and jump-start L.A.’s powerplay, he could turn a short series on paper into a long one.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Even. Both coaches have their critics but they tend to get maximum effort out of their roster.

Goaltending: Even. Jonathan Quick has had a Vezina-esque season playing behind a stifling defense, but the 1-2 punch of Roberto Luongo and Corey Schneider has been elite as well.

Defense: Kings. Both of these teams are loaded with two-way talent and feature strong bluelines, but the Kings under Darryl Sutter have become a suffocating group to play against.

Offense: Kings. The biggest edge in any category as long as Daniel Sedin is healthy. Otherwise it’s much closer, especially if some of the underperforming Kings find life.

Special Teams: Canucks. Los Angeles’ 17th ranked powerplay hurts them against a Canucks team that’s likely to take penalties.

Prediction: Canucks in 5

*****

St. Louis Blues (2) vs San Jose Sharks (7)

Season Series: St. Louis (4-0)

How successful was the Blues regular season? With 109 points, St. Louis had their best record in 12 years (1999-2000). This maturing team was 43-15-11 under coach Ken Hitchcock, who implemented a physical defensive system upon his arrival that pressures puck-carriers and forces turnovers. Goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott split the workload like an old-school tandem, resulting in a league best 1.78 goals against average and .932 save percentage. The 2011-12 season was also a coming out party for a couple of young Blues. Alex Pieterangelo was the team’s best offensive and defensive defenseman, earning Norris Trophy buzz and leading the blueline with 51 points. T.J. Oshie had a career-high 54-points, while David Backes led the team with 24 goals and vaulted himself into Selke Trophy consideration. Quietly, Andy McDonald returned from injury and played at almost a point-a-game pace, giving the Blues three potential scoring lines. Potential scoring lines is the key word there, as defensive responsibility remains the priority on a Hitchcock hockey team. The Blues will go as far as their offense can take them.

It seems like the San Jose Sharks have been destined to win a Stanley Cup forever. Instead, this year’s 7th place finish likely serves notice that the championship window for this group of players is closing fast. San Jose earned 41 points in its last 41 games, worst among all playoff teams. Goaltending was a big factor in the team’s poor play, as the Sharks goals against rose more than a half-goal-per-game (0.52) after the All-Star Game. San Jose’s attack was 10th in the league, but it too has suffered from some inconsistency, with key scorers Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau scoring just 4 goals each since March. Ironically, it’s the much-maligned Joe Thornton (39 points in 35 games since the All-Star break) who’s been the team’s best offensive player down the stretch. On the blueline, Dan Boyle remains the team’s biggest offensive threat, while Brent Burns has been a bit of a disappointment as the team’s #2 defenseman. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is the team’s best shutdown d-man and the only one who can skate (apologies to Douglas Murray and Colin White). This is probably it for the Sharks – their last run at a Cup before the core is altered.

Key player, St. Louis: David Backes

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Backes matched up against San Jose’s top line. His success against Joe Thornton will dictate the length of this series.

Key player, San Jose: Antti Niemi

San Jose only wins this series if Niemi can equal or surpass the goaltending performance of the Blues. The Sharks need him to get hot, fast.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Blues. Big advantage here for the Blues. Not only does he have a Stanley Cup ring, but Ken Hitchcock has modified his approach to communicate better with today’s modern player.

Goaltending: Blues. Not only did the Blues lead the league in all goaltending statistics, their goals against actually dropped as the season went along. Let’s not forget the last time Jaroslav Halak was in the playoffs he looked like Patrick Roy.

Defense: Blues. Both teams have solid bluelines, but St. Louis top players are committed defensively in a way San Jose’s aren’t.

Offense: Sharks. The Sharks offense was dormant most of the year but they ramped it up after Martin Havlat returned (3.1 goals per game over their last 10 games). San Jose’s top-end talent has a higher ceiling than that of the Blues.

Special Teams: Even. San Jose’s powerplay was second overall for the year and they were the only team to score at a rate higher than 10% after the All-Star Game. However, their penalty kill is a major weakness (29th in the league; 30th after the break). The Blues have a strong penalty kill (7th overall); average powerplay (17th).

Prediction: Blues in 7

*****

Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (6)

Season Series: Phoenix (3-1)

There’s some cruel irony in the Phoenix Coyotes winning their first division title as a franchise in what is likely their last season in the desert. Much of the credit belongs to two people: coach Dave Tippett and goalie Mike Smith. Tippett’s defensive system allows the Coyotes to give up shots (only Ottawa and Carolina gave up more per game) but keep scoring chances in the middle of the ice to a minimum. It’s an approach that helped make a name for Ilya Bryzgalov and, this season, helped Mike Smith become a Vezina Trophy candidate. Not only did Smith resurrect his career, but he was practically unbeatable after the All-Star Game (.941 save percentage). It should be noted though that Tippett’s system (and, in turn, Coyotes goaltending) has failed in recent post-seasons as gifted offensive teams (namely the Detroit Red Wings) have found ways to get the puck into key scoring areas. And while this is a Phoenix team that can skate, hit and defend, scoring doesn’t come naturally (18th overall). Terrific seasons by Ray Whitney (77 points) and Radim Vrbata (35 goals) were offset by an absence of offensive flair at the centre ice position. Phoenix enters the playoffs without a single pivot having scored more than Martin Hanzel’s 34 points.

The Chicago Blackhawks overcame much on their way to a 101-point season. For starters, team goaltending has been mired in the bottom-third of the league all year. Chicago’s .899 save percentage since the All-Star Game tied with Boston for worst among playoff-bound teams. That the Blackhawks were solid defensively (9th in shots against) all year only amplifies their challenge between the pipes. The absence of Jonathan Toews also threw the team’s attack into a flux. The captain had 57 points in 59 games prior to a concussion, but taking Toews out of the lineup contributed to a 0.57 goals-per-game decrease in Chicago’s offense after the break. Viktor Stalberg has emerged (22 goals) in a supporting role, but Brendan Morrison (0 points in 11 games), Michael Frolik (5 goals in 63 games) and Andrew Brunette (12 goals) have disappointed. As a result, Chicago features a talented but extremely top-heavy attack that doesn’t go beyond its first two lines.

Key Player, Phoenix: Mike Smith

Without a dominant Mike Smith performance it’s hard to see how the Coyotes can muster enough counter-attack against Chicago’s deep blueline to win the series. The “Desert Dogs” need Smith to steal a couple of games.

Key Player, Chicago: Jonathan Toews

The captain is questionable for Game 1, and without him, Chicago is missing their leader, best two-way player and best faceoff man. Patrick Kane is a creative player but out-of-position and a defensive liability at centre (winning just 42% of his draws). With Toews in the lineup, the Blackhawks also become a much harder team to defensively match-up against. If he’s healthy, this is probably a short series.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Even. Quenneville has won a Cup but there’s been whispers of a lethargic season behind the bench. Meanwhile, Dave Tippett might just be the best NHL coach to not have a Stanley Cup ring.

Goaltending: Coyotes. Mike Smith had a regular season for the ages, but Corey Crawford has had playoff success before. He could surprise here.

Defense: Blackhawks. Phoenix’s forwards play a better defensive system and Oliver Ekman-Larsson has emerged as a legitimate top-line defenseman. But Chicago gets the edge given its deep blueline. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Nick Leddy, Johnny Oduya and Nik Hjalmarsson are among the best top-5s in the league.

Scoring: Blackhawks. This is a mismatch if Toews is healthy; if Toews isn’t healthy this is closer than you may expect. Phoenix’s goals per game in the second-half: 2.56. Chicago’s in the second-half without Toews? 2.59.

Special Teams: Coyotes. Chicago’s special teams are arguably the worst in the playoffs. While the Coyotes powerplay is anything but powerful, they’re a top-10 penalty-killing team.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 6

*****

Nashville Predators (4) vs. Detroit Red Wings (5)

Season Series: Tied (3-3)

It’s an exciting time to be a “Smashville” hockey fan, as the Nashville Predators had their best regular season in five years. This year’s edition retained the qualities the franchise has been known for – stellar goaltending (Pekka Renne had 43 wins and 5 shutouts) and a strong blueline led by Shea Weber (19 goals) and Ryan Suter (46 points). Where this team differed from there history was on offense. This aggressive, bulldog Predators team was the highest scoring Western Conference squad after the All-Star Game, and finished 8th overall in league scoring. It was a balanced attack featuring seven players with 40-or-more points and the league’s best powerplay. The acquisition of Alex Radulov (7 points in 9 games) also gave Nashville its first legitimate top-line centre since Peter Forsberg donned the mustard orange in 2006-07. The team went 6-3 with the Russian sniper in the lineup, including an impressive 4-1 win over Detroit on March 30th. Tough, fast, and now capable at both ends of the ice, this could very well be the most talented Nashville Predators team of all-time. Their time is now.

While it may have been another 100+ point season in Detroit, the Red Wings actually had their worst regular season points-wise since 1998-99. And while the team was its usual strong self in a variety of categories (7th in goals for and goals against; 5th in shots for, 3rd in shots against), there were some cracks in the team’s foundation. Their road record was 25th in the league and is the worst among Western Conference playoff teams. Their special teams finished in the bottom-half of the league. Niklas Lidstrom had his worst point-totals since 1994-95, while Pavel Datsyuk failed to score 20-goals for the first time since his sophomore season. Dan Cleary, Tomas Holmstrom and Todd Bertuzzi failed to combine for 10 goals after the All-Star break. Still, there is a lot of talent on the roster, as demonstrated by the team’s 23-game home-winning streak. Niklas Kronwall and Ian White had strong seasons on the blueline, while Valtteri Filppula (66 points), Jiri Hudler (25 goals) and Johan Franzen (team-best 29 goals) kept the Red Wings attack potent. When healthy, Jimmy Howard proved he could carry the Red Wings if needed. 

Key Player, Nashville: Alex Radulov

The Predators would have beaten the Canucks last year if they had a single gamebreaker in their lineup. Now they have that gamebreaker and are going up against a Red Wings team that is similar to the Canucks in style of play. A successful series on the scoreboard from Radulov probably means the Predators win the series.

Key Player, Detroit: Jimmy Howard

This is a greying Red Wings team that may find themselves at times physically dominated by the younger, potentially hungrier, Predators. For a long time Detroit has iced teams that haven’t had to rely on goaltending to succeed. This could be the year, and the series, where that dependence is reversed.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Red Wings. A slight edge as both Mike Babcock and Barry Trotz are terrific coaches.

Goaltending: Predators. Pekka Renne is an elite netminder; Jimmy Howard is improving.

Defense: Predators. Both teams play well defensively, with Detroit arguably underrated in this area. It’s on the blueline where Nashville has a slight edge. Weber and Suter are the best one-two punch in the league.

Offense: Red Wings. Slight edge here as the Red Wings have greater depth among their forwards. But this is the best attack the Predators have had in quite some time.

Special Teams: Predators. The Predators have the best powerplay in the league and a top-10 penalty kill. The Red Wings have struggled in both areas.

Prediction: Predators in 5

Dec 042010
 

[Every weekend, Canucks Hockey Blog goes out of town as Tom Wakefield (@tomwakefield88) posts his thoughts on what's happening around the NHL.]

Daryl Katz, Edmonton Oilers and Gary Bettman

Photo credit: rds.ca

The more things change, the more they stay the same for the Edmonton Oilers.

After almost two decades of uncertain ownership, Daryl Katz’s purchase of the team in 2008 was supposed to solidify their roots for a generation, if not longer.

In Katz, Oiler fans saw the embodiment of their dream owner – a life-long fan with the deep pockets to keep the team in Edmonton, and with the desire to ice a perennial winner. Katz, to his credit, said all the things Oiler fans wanted to hear. So invested in Edmonton was Katz that he was willing to put up $100 million of his own money into a new $450 million downtown area.

Yet, two years later, rumours of the Oilers moving have already sprung up twice – once in the summer (to Hamilton), and then this week (to Quebec City).

In each case, the threat seems to have originated from the inner circle around Katz himself.

Granted, negotiations with the City of Edmonton to build a new arena are not going as planned. The team’s 2014 deadline for a new arena is unlikely to be met. And granted, the relocation talk in each instance was quickly quashed by Oilers brass. But Katz’s cavalier willingness to drop the “relocation” word is an insult to Oiler fans who have already been through so much.

One also has to wonder, if this bully negotiating tactic does not work, what Oilers ownership has in mind for a Plan B.

Just a guess, but given that Quebec City officials met with Oilers ownership this week, perhaps coordinated East-West lobbying at the federal level is that intended next step.

*****

Forbes magazine came out this week with their list of NHL franchise values.

While the research methods and findings are certainly being questioned by NHL owners, it remains a fascinating read.

According to Forbes, 14 of 30 NHL teams have decreased in value over last year. Furthermore, the magazine claims seven NHL franchises (Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks) are propping up the rest of the league financially.

All this does is raise questions once again about the league’s direction.

Hand in hand with that should be questions about Gary Bettman, and specifically his future.

Gary Bettman was hired with to sell the game in the U.S., end labour unrest, expand and modernize the league. Whether he has succeeded or failed at each of these objectives is a topic for another day. What is certain though is that the NHL is poised to sign a new, lucrative US television deal at the end of this season.

The league’s collective bargaining agreement ends after the 2011-12 season. Owners, having instituted a salary cap last time around, are eager to gain even further concessions from the players this time. No-trade clauses, a cap on contract lengths and even the notion of guaranteed contracts are rumoured owner targets.

Finally, with Canadian franchises fuelling NHL profits like never-before, there is at least one legitimate opportunity to strengthen the league’s bottom line by returning a team to Canada.

Bettman isn’t quite a greybeard, but he’ll turn 50 in 2012. The following season, 2013, would be Bettman’s 20th year in the thankless role of Commissioner. Only Clarence Campbell (1946-77) and Frank Calder (1917-43) would have led the league longer. If Bettman can secure a good TV deal, “win” the next CBA for the owners and return a team to Canada – all of which seem possible, if not likely, in the near future – it’s easy to see him hanging up his skates before 2015.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

Oct 222010
 

[Every weekend, Canucks Hockey Blog goes out of town as Tom Wakefield (@tomwakefield88) posts his thoughts on what's happening around the NHL.]

In honour of Katy Perry’s recent “cleavage-gate” on Sesame Street, let’s play a game of “One of These Things Just Doesn’t Belong Here.”

The Chicago Blackhawks. The New York Islanders. The Dallas Stars. The Pittsburgh Penguins.

Behold the top four teams in NHL standings.

Which one doesn’t belong?

If you guessed the New York Islanders, you’d be wrong.

Sure they’re probably not a playoff team, but their youngsters have taken a step forward and coach Scott Gordon has them executing a fast, aggressive, puck-pursuit style.

Also, let’s not forget that the Eastern Conference is kinda like the Solange Knowles to the Western Conference’s Beyonce.

No, the team that doesn’t belong is the Dallas Stars.

Sure, the Stars have started the season at 5-1.

Yet they’re 23rd on the powerplay, and 30th on the penalty kill.

They’re also 30th in the league in shots-on-goal per game (averaging roughly 23), and 28th in the league in shots-on-goal against (averaging roughly 36).

So how are they winning games?

Two reasons.

First, Kari Lehtonen has been nothing short of incredible, starting all six games and sporting a .927 save percentage. He’s single-handedly keeping the team in games.

Second, the Stars are having ridiculous success playing 5-on-5.

Historically, the ratio of goals-for to goals-against when playing 5-on-5 is usually around 1:1. The best teams score at a rate of 1.5:1, the worst at a rate of 0.5:1.

The Dallas Stars are outscoring their opposition at close to a 3-to-1 rate.

This just isn’t sustainable.

Unless Kari Lehtonen is this year’s Ilya Bryzgalov, the Dallas Stars are probably enjoying the only success they’ll know this year.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Speaking of the Stars, The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell wrote this week that their ownership situation is starting to look a lot like that of the Coyotes.
  • They say Tampa coach Guy Boucher is an innovator. One thing he’s brought to the NHL: hard game day skates for his players. It’ll be interesting to see if this continues over the course of an entire season. The team looked gassed against Florida earlier this week.
  • They’re sitting at 4-3 but there are concerns in Denver. Kyle Quincey has seemingly regressed, they’re having trouble finding wingers for Matt Duchene and Milan Hejduk looks like he’s skating with a piano on his back.
  • Three pieces of free advice to the NHL to prevent another Rick Rypien situation. First, mandate that home teams have to provide tunneling over access to the visiting team’s bench. Second, implement the “eye-in-the-sky”, 3rd referee system they tested at the Molson Hockey Summit, and have that ref call violent act-related penalties (i.e. no tripping, icing or offside calls). Third, current NHL suspensions and fines hardly act as a deterrent. It’s time to work with the NHLPA to increase their severity.
  • Ken Holland’s “3-on-3” overtime idea is an intriguing one, but it reinforces the notion that games are decided by a team’s best players. Does a fourth line really matter anymore? Which fan pays to watch a 4th line play anyways? If you got rid of fourth liners all together, how much of the game’s worst violence would be eliminated?
  • Tyler Myers has been Buffalo’s worst defenseman so far. Coach Lindy Ruff thinks teams have scouted Myers offensively, and it’s up to him to mix his game up a bit.
  • They’re raving about Willie Mitchell in Los Angeles, especially the communication between him and Drew Doughty. Doughty’s also been more physical this year than in previous years.
  • Coach John Maclean is still trying to find the right fit with Ilya Kovalchuk. Zack Parise isn’t working out, as both he and Kovalchuk like to carry the puck. The latest player to get a chance to centre Kovalchuk is youngster Jacob Josefson.
  • If a lack of toughness on the Sens’ blueline is their biggest issue (it isn’t, but that’s a topic for another day), how long before the Sheldon Souray rumours start picking up steam?
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