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 292012
 

Everything that has a beginning has an end.

It seems fitting the New Jersey Devils are facing the Los Angeles Kings in this year’s Stanley Cup. There are several parallels to the Edmonton Oilers – Carolina Hurricanes final that ended the first post-lockout season (2005-06). Both series feature:

  • a team Wayne Gretzky played for (Kings now; Oilers then)
  • an over-the-hill goaltender taking his team on an improbable run (40-year old Martin Brodeur now; 36-year old Dwayne Roloson* then)
  • a team trying to buck the traditional formula and win the Cup without a legitimate number #1 defenseman (Devils now; Hurricanes then)
  • surprising contributions from 21-year old rookies (Adam Henrique now; Carolina goalie Cam Ward then)
  • one team reaching the final thanks to Collective Bargaining Agreement-related roster moves (thanks to the new salary cap and floor system, the Oilers went out and acquired Chris Pronger; thanks to a loophole in the CBA, the Devils offered and retained Ilya Kovalchuk’s services for the next 983248932498 years)

Perhaps the most striking difference between the two series is what they represent. The Oilers/Hurricanes final was the riveting first chapter on a post-lockout era of exciting hockey and parity, where any team could afford a contender and a winner. It was a Stanley Cup Final representing hope. Meanwhile, with another lockout staring the NHL in the face, this year’s Devils/Kings final serves as a referendum on the game since 2004-05. It’s a Stanley Cup Final representing reality.

The question is, are we in a better place with the game today then we were in 2005/06?

Financially yes – the NHL is more successful now as a business than ever before. It will be even more successful once it eliminates (unlikely), finds deep-pocketed owners for (unlikely), or moves franchises (Phoenix, Florida, potentially New Jersey, Columbus) to locations (Canada) where off-ice success is easier to achieve. (Remember, the most profitable franchises in the league are all located in Canada, and prop up to varying degrees the 23 teams south of the border. If the Canadian dollar ever falls below US$0.80 again, league financial health will become a very different story.)

As for the on-ice product, the answer is no. Advances in goal-scoring and flow to the game have largely been negated by smart coaches. As the salary cap has gone up, we’ve seen the big spending = big winning formula return, which was allegedly the reason for the salary cap to begin with. It’s a faster game than it was, but also more intense – just like the NFL, injuries are now a common determining factor in the success or failure of an NHL team’s season.

Unlike the last lockout, and despite on-ice evidence to the contrary, there isn’t a sense around league circles that the product is in trouble. So while the NHL is about to go through big CBA changes –  whether it’s no salary cap floor, a cap on the length of player contracts or eliminating the loophole that allows teams to bury contracts in the minors – real innovations to improve the game are years away.

This means the style of hockey that’s been showcased around the league in 2012 – fast but structured, nasty, defensively-disciplined, tactical and expected to be played mistake-free by its players – is here for awhile.

And its a style of hockey that seems miles away from the promise of the game showcased in the 2005-06 Stanley Cup Final.

Both the Devils and the Kings play the current style of hockey very, very well. Part 2 of this preview will break down both teams, and offer a Stanley Cup prediction.

Postscript:

* – On behalf of Oiler fans I’m obligated to note that if Dwayne Roloson doesn’t get injured the Oilers probably win the Stanley Cup. A healthy Roloson means a rusty Ty Conklin doesn’t come in cold during the third period and give the puck away behind the net to lose Game 1. It also means a rusty Jussi Markkanen (remember, Edmonton ridiculously rotated backups all playoff, with Conklin and Markkanen splitting practice time) doesn’t let the Oilers get blown out in Game 2. Edmonton won three of the remaining 5 games of the series anyways, so it’s no stretch to think a healthy Roloson gives them a split in the first two games, rather than an 0-2 deficit. Having been reminded of all this, Oiler fans have permission to throw up in their mouths a bit.

May 152012
 

New York Rangers (1) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)

Season Series:  Rangers (3-2-1)

What we learned about the Rangers in the Second Round: That Brad Richards, at least this year, is worth every penny New York is paying him. There is a lot of Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman in Richards game this post-season.  The Rangers need Richards (and for that matter, Marian Gaborik, who had a terrific Caps series) to continue playing like this, as without him the team clearly doesn’t have enough scoring to win a playoff series. For that matter, we also learned that Michael Del Zotto has come all the way back from a disasterous 2010-11 season. He helped the Rangers improve their powerplay in the second round. Finally, we learned that the Rangers had enough in the tank after a 7-game first round to go the distance again against Washington. The longer this Conference Final goes though, the worse it will be for the clearly battered-and-bruised Rangers.

What we learned about the Devils in the Second Round: That Peter DeBoer was a terrific hire as coach for the Devils, has he’s taken their traditional defensive excellence and added an up-tempo forecheck that drove Philadelphia’s blueliners crazy in the second round. This is as deep a Devils team upfront as they’ve had since the turn of the century. That Ilya Kovalchuk has overtaken Alex Ovechkin in the rankings of best Russian players, and has become a better leader than anyone expected. That their powerplay had some bite against the Flyers, with two solid offensive lines and Kurtis Foster bombing from the point.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Rangers. DeBoer has done a great job with the Devils but no one has gotten more from his players this year than John Tortorella.

Goaltending: Rangers. Massive edge here. Brodeur has had moments in this post-season but was just “good enough” against the Flyers. Lundqvist is all world.

Defense: Rangers. No team remaining in the playoffs is as disciplined defensively as the Rangers. Their blueline is heads-and-tails better than New Jersey’s, especially with the emergence of Del Zotto in the second round.

Offense: Devils. New Jersey’s tied with Los Angeles for highest scoring team remaining in the playoffs, and they can roll three lines that can contribute offensively. The key to the series for the Devils will be containing Richards and Gaborik. If they can, the Rangers offense is lifeless.

Special Teams: Even. Devils have had a stronger powerplay in the post-season, but their penalty kill has been a sore point through two rounds. Rangers have been mediocre in both areas, although their pp improved against Washington.

Prediction: Rangers in 6.

*****

A word now for the dearly departed:

Philadelphia Flyers

Cause of Death: Poor defensive play.

Prescription: First the Flyers have to figure out what’s going on with Chris Pronger. If Pronger is really headed for retirement, it would make a lot of sense for the team to try and find some cap room to go after Ryan Suter. The Flyers can certainly score, but adding some other veteran, character guys who can improve the penalty kill and help clean up the defensive zone (and not leave Ilya Bryzgalov out to dry like he was left at times in these playoffs) would be a huge boost. This is probably “as bad” as the Flyers are going to be for some time – they’re a powerhouse on the rise.

*****

Washington Capitals

Cause of Death: Self-inflicted Offensive Asphyxiation.

Prescription: Let’s get this out of the way first – this team got no more done under Dale Hunter’s “defensive” system than they did playing Bruce Boudreau’s original “run and gun” hockey. As evidenced as recently as this spring by the Kings and Devils, teams that can score (averaging 3 goals per game) AND defend well are enjoying success. Doing just one, or the other, is not good enough. The Caps have an emerging blueline, some solid character and defensive depth throughout the lineup and hopes are high for goaltender Holtby – what Washington needs to invest in (and have needed to invest in for a long-time now) is secondary scoring. A good, second-line centre who could take the heat off of Alex Ovechkin and Nik Backstrom (who face every team’s top defensive players) would be a huge step in the right direction for the Caps. It would never happen, but man this is a team that could use Jordan Staal (reportedly on the market) or a player of that calibre to anchor the second line.

Apr 112012
 
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers

Photo credit: canada.com

New York Rangers (1) vs. Ottawa Senators (8)

Season Series: Ottawa (3-1)

It’s been a rather Cinderella season for the New York Rangers, who rode their improving young core, particularly on defense, to their most successful season since they won the Stanley Cup in 1993-94. Marion Gaborik eclipsed 40-goals for the third time and is the most dangerous Rangers forward. Ryan Callahan (29 goals) is the most complete player on the team and is a Selke Candidate this year. Brad Richards scored some key goals during the season, but his 66 points and -1 were somewhat disappointing. For all the hype over Henrik Lundquist’s performance this year, since March he’s been rather pedestrian (2.60 goals against; .895 save percentage). Nonetheless, this is the strongest blueline (highlighted by career years from Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonough and Michael Del Zotto) Lundquist’s ever played behind.

Speaking of Cinderella seasons, the Senators were destined for a lottery pick according to most pre-season prognostications. Coach Paul Maurice brought the offense from his stint in Detroit, but more importantly the emergence of Erik Karlsson transformed Ottawa into one of the most dangerous teams in the league. Leading the attack upfront was Jason Spezza, who played 80 games for the first time in three years and was among the league-leaders in scoring. Craig Anderson actually improved as the season went along, helping the team almost shave half-a-goal against per game off their record post All-Star Game. This is a very young team though, and Anderson will have to come up huge if the Sens are to have a chance in the series.

Key Player, Rangers: Marian Gaborik

The Rangers will need their best offensive player to have a terrific post-season if the team has any chance of a Cup run. Gaborik’s compete-level will be tested by anOttawateam that will punish him physically every time he touches the puck.

Key Player, Senators: Erik Karlsson

Similar to Gaborik, Karlsson is the straw the stirs the Senators offensive drink.  The Rangers are going to go after Ottawa’s young quarterback defenseman and make him pay the price every time he goes back for the puck in his own zone. If Rangers such as Brandon Dubinsky are successful limiting Karlsson, they’ll neutralize Ottawa’s attack.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Rangers. John Tortorella’s won a Stanley Cup and should get the match-ups he wants with home-ice advantage.

Goaltending: Rangers. As strong as Anderson played this season few goalies are in Lundquist’s league.

Defense: Rangers. Despite improved play from Filip Kuba and Karlsson’s excellence, New York’s blueline has greater depth and is augmented by a strong two-way forward group.

Scoring: Senators. Top-4 in the league scoring-wise, and only one of three teams to average more than three goals-per-game after the All-Star break.

Special Teams: Even. Ottawa’s stronger on the powerplay, while the Rangers were among the league’s best on the penalty kill.

Prediction: Rangers in 6

*****

Boston Bruins (2) vs. Washington Capitals (7)

Season Series: Washington (3-1)

The defending champion Boston Bruins were tied with Ottawa for the second-fewest points among playoff teams in their last 41 games (45 points). Poor goaltending was a major factor, as while the Bruins reduced their shots against after the All-Star Game, their goalies could only muster a .899 save percentage. Nonetheless, this is a team that’s arguably as deep as the Cup winners last year, with Tyler Seguin (team-leading 67-points) having replaced Mark Recchi; Brian Rolston playing the Rich Peverley role (15 points in 21 Bruins games) and Joe Corvo filling the Tomas Kaberle position as “offensive defenseman who needs his ice-time well-managed.” Nathan Horton’s injury has been somewhat off-set by improved play by Benoit Pouliot. A repeat is not out of the question.

If there is a playoff team that would like to forget its regular season it’s the Washington Capitals, who went from pre-season favourites to run away with the Southeast Division to coming this close to finishing outside the playoffs.  The firing of Bruce Boudreau brought Dale Hunter back to the Washington franchise, but the team really didn’t improve their play. The Caps were 30-23-7 under the new coach and, for the first time in years, struggled to find any offense. Hunter’s system (or lack thereof) was criticized by his own players, and a war-of-words between Roman Hamrlik and his coach added to speculation Hunter was in-over-his-head at the NHL level. Tomas Vokoun (currently suffering from a groin injury) was roughly league-average in goal, which didn’t help matters. In reality though, part of Washington’s problem was directly tied to their lack of offensive depth, particularly in the wake of Niklas Backstrom’s absence due to concussion. With Backstrom back, this is a Caps team that enters the playoffs with a few gamebreakers (Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Backstrom), a strong commitment to defense and an improved blueline (Mike Green’s play has fallen off a cliff, but John Carlson and Dmitri Orlov have stepped up). The pieces are there for this team to surprise… or leave the post-season after four-straight losses.

Key Player, Boston: Tim Thomas

Boston’s veteran goalie has been rather average in 2012. If he can’t find his game now, the Capitals will stick around longer than many people think.  

Key Player, Washington: Alex Ovechkin

He is the most talented player in this series and a match-up against Zdeno Chara should be incredibly challenging. But Ovechkin, rather quietly, has been terrific down the stretch (12 goals in 19 games) and has Backstrom back as his centre. A special effort by Ovechkin could re-write this Capitals season and give the Bruins fits.

Quick Decisions

Coaching: Bruins. This is Hunter’s first trip to the NHL post-season; Boston’s Claude Julien is among the league’s best.

Goaltending: Bruins. Closer than you might think given Tim Thomas’s struggles. Who knows how Vokoun will play – and if he’ll play – meaning it’ll be up to Michael Neuvrith or Braden Holtby to shock the world.

Defense: Bruins. Washington potentially has more blueline talent but the Bruins are a more complete and effective group, both forwards and defense.

Scoring:  Bruins. Dale Hunter hasn’t been able to get Washington’s offense firing, while the Bruins can roll four scoring lines.

Special Teams: Bruins. Slight edge due to stronger penalty killing.

Prediction: Bruins in 7

*****

Florida Panthers (3) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)

Season Series: Florida (2-1-1)

The Florida Panthers enter these playoffs as the lowest scoring team in the Eastern Conference. Historically, teams with the fewest goals to reach the playoffs usually make quick first-round exits. Furthermore, the Panthers enter the post-season with the worst goal differential remaining – another ominous omen. Having said that, there are a few reasons why Florida won the Southeast Division. For starters, the Panthers have received solid goaltending from both Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen. More importantly, Brian Campbell (52 points) had a renaissance and Jason Garrison (16 goals) had a career year, helping to turn a below-average blueline into a decent group. Florida also got great mileage from its top line of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg, although they tailed off as the season wore on (Versteeg had just 4 goals after the All-Star Game).

Coached by former Panthers bench boss Peter DeBoer, the Devils implemented a more aggressive system this season to strong results. Nowhere was this more impressive than on the penalty kill, where New Jersey led the league with 15 shorthanded goals. Ilya Kovalchuk had his best season from a complete player perspective, leading the team in goals, points, ice-time and playing a penalty killing role. David Clarkson (30 goals), a healthy Zack Parise (31 goals), Patrick Elias (78 points) Petr Sykora (21 goals) and rookie Adam Henrique (51 points) have given New Jersey more scoring depth than they’ve had in years. This depth upfront hasn’t translated to the defense however, as the Devils blueline is much like Easter Island (aka a bunch of statues). Rookie Adam Larsson led defenseman in scoring with 18 points but has found himself a healthy scratch down the stretch. There’s a lot of pressure on Marek Zidlicky to be a powerplay quarterback in the post-season.

Key Player, Panthers: Brian Campbell

Not only is Campbell likely to play more minutes than anyone else in the series (outside of the goalies), but he’ll be asked to contribute at both ends of the ice. If Florida wins the series the powerplay – on which Campbell is the quarterback – will have to be a factor. Similarly, it would not be a surprise to see the smooth-skating Campbell matched-up against Ilya Kovalchuk, in the hopes that speed can counteract speed.

Key Player, Devils: Martin Brodeur

Brodeur isn’t the goalie we all remember, but his numbers and play did improve as the season went along (.921 save percentage after the break). And yet, he hasn’t won a playoff series in five years. Poor play from Brodeur is probably the only way the Panthers can win this series.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Even. Both teams are led by coaches in the playoffs for the first time. Both did good jobs in the regular season.

Goaltending: Even. Brodeur and the Devils goaltending were much improved in the second-half, but Florida’s Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmenson were just as strong all year for the Panthers.

Defense: Even. The Panthers blueline is stronger than that of the Devils, but New Jersey’s system and team approach to defending the goal remains elite.

Scoring: Devils. Florida scored only 2.29 goals-per-game after the All-Star break, worst among playoff teams.

Special Teams: Devils. Florida was 7th on the powerplay but 25th on the penalty kill. New Jersey was 1st overall on the penalty kill and 14th on the powerplay.

Prediction: Devils in 5

*****

Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (5)

Season Series: Philadelphia (4-2)

There’s a lot of hype about the Penguins as they enter the playoffs, and the buzz is legitimate. Pittsburgh played at a 60-win, 315-goal pace in the second half of the season, and enter the playoffs relatively healthy. There may not be another team in the league more equipped to transition from an attack-focused approach to a defensive one than the Penguins. Evgeni Malkin (109 points) is this year’s likely Hart Trophy winner, and there were times he simply dominated opponents in the offensive zone. His chemistry with James Neal (40 goals) might be the best in the league. Given reduced ice-time upon his return from a concussion, Sidney Crosby also dazzled, putting up 37 points in 22 games this season. When you add Jordan Staal (25 goals) to the mix, this is the deepest team at centre in the league. It’s also the most fragile, as each of Staal, Crosby and Malkin have battled injuries in the past. An injury to Malkin or Crosby especially could change the fate of any playoff series. On defense, Kris Letang battled injuries all season but when healthy looked like a Norris candidate. Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek are a strong shutdown pairing. 

Despite major changes in the off-season, it was really business as usual for the Flyers, who reached 100 points for the second-straight year. Team success was predicated on offense, as Philadelphia was one of just three teams to average more than three goals-per-game. Claude Giroux was a major reason for the team’s offense, establishing himself among the league’s elite scorers with 93 points. Having said that, a strong rookie campaign from Matt Read (24 goals) and a breakout season for Scott Hartnell (37 goals) helped give the Flyers three solid scoring lines. Rookie Sean Couturier played the shutdown centre role all season, and it will be interesting to see how he fares in that role during the playoffs. On defense, the addition of Nicklas Grossman gave the Flyers the capable defensive-defenseman they didn’t have once Chris Pronger was lost for the year (career?) due to injury. Kimmo Timonen (43 points) also took on a greater role after Pronger’s injury, and played some of the best hockey of his career. In goal, Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky were the subject of criticism all season, but their play improved substantially after the All-Star Game.

Key Player, Pittsburgh: Matt Cooke

There’s every reason to expect this Penguins and Flyers series will get ugly. Cooke (19 goals) has had a terrific year, introducing self-control into his game and becoming an effective checking line player. If Cooke can play like Esa Tikkanen, acting as a defensive pest but staying above the expected Flyers shenanigans, he could drive Philadelhpia crazy and into a march to the penalty box. 

Key Player, Philadelphia: Jaromir Jagr

As much pressure as there will be on Ilya Bryzgalov’s shoulders, Jaromir Jagr is the key veteran presence in this young Flyers dressing room. Jagr battled groin injuries during the second-half of the season but demonstrated at times he can still dominate play, particularly down low in the offensive zone. The Flyers can’t win this series if Jagr is a passenger – they need him to be a catalyst.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Even. Both are Stanley Cup winners; both are among the best in the game.

Goaltending: Even. Statistically, Philadelphia received better goaltending from its netminders than Pittsburgh did this year. The Penguins’ Marc-Andre Fleury has become somewhat of a modern day Grant Fuhr – a big game goalie whose statistics otherwise seem unremarkable.

Defense: Penguins. The Penguins have proven without Crosby or Malkin they can be an elite defensive team in the NHL. The Flyers would rather trade chances with their opponent, and their blueline isn’t nearly as deep.

Offense: Penguins. Despite some impressive scoring depth on the Flyers roster the Penguins, with Crosby and Malkin, offer a Lemieux-Francis, Gretzky-Messier, Forsberg-Sakic –like twosome. Containing both of them will be impossible.

Special Teams: Penguins. The Penguins are top ten on both the powerplay and penalty kill, while Philadelphia’s penalty kill has been bottom-third of the league.

Prediction: Penguins in 7

Feb 062011
 

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

Martin Brodeur and Jarome Iginla

If Canada was really serious about hockey – if Prime Minister Stephen Harper was the hockey fan he says he is – then NHL Trade Deadline Day would be a national holiday.

Other than the opening night of the season, no other day on the hockey calendar offers hockey fans as much hope.

What about July 1st, the first day of free agency? Only if your team is a buyer.

Draft day? Only if your team has a first-round pick.

The beauty of NHL Trade Deadline Day is that it serves fans of all teams. Every move can be painted as a step toward a better tomorrow.

The only question is if that better tomorrow is this year, next year, or a few years from now.

Between today and what will be the busiest day in Canadian sports broadcasting (February 28th), thousands upon thousands of words will be said, tweeted and written about who will be dealt, and for what, on Trade Deadline Day.

Except for this column.

Here is a list of players with “tradeability” (aka trade value, brought to you by the same naming folks who brought you “drinkability,” “dunkability,” and “Sham-wow”), who won’t move at the deadline.

Martin Brodeur

Brodeur is 38-years old on a team that’s not only facing a long rebuilding process, but suddenly is losing ownership investors. What is there left for him to do in the Garden State? He’s got one year left on his contract at a cap-hit of $5.2 million. Colorado and Tampa Bay are two teams in particular who are looking to make a playoff push and have the cap space this year and next. Nonetheless, there is every indication that Brodeur is happy playing out the string in New Jersey.

What’s that saying: better to flame out than fade away? Patrick Roy wouldn’t fade away like it seems Martin Brodeur will.

Jarome Iginla

Without a membership to the Great Water Buffalo Society of General Managers, there’s no way of knowing for sure. However, it seems the goal of trading in the NHL is to move an asset when it is as close to its peak value as possible, hopefully before it stops returning on your investment entirely.

Jarome Iginla has done everything and more for the Flames. He won’t be more valuable two-years from now (power forwards rarely age well). The Los Angeles Kings are desperate for an impact forward. They have some interesting young talent, including Braydon Schenn and 57 goalie prospects (ok, a slight exaggeration). It seems logical to make a deal.

Nevertheless, Jay Feaster has told everyone who’ll listen that his veteran stars (Iginla and Mikka Kiprusoff in particular) are safe, because his blueprint is to find a few core players and build a winning franchise around that core.

How this is a different approach from 29 other teams in the league is a head-scratcher. Perhaps someone should check that Feaster is talking about the same core group that has failed Calgary every year since a Stanley Cup run six years ago.

Tomas Kaberle

Pausing a moment while Leaf fans finish screaming in frustration… Looking back at the history books, practically every Stanley Cup winner has had a quality puck-moving defenceman anchoring its powerplay. The market for Kaberle should be big, with any of Tampa Bay, Colorado, St. Louis, Dallas, Nashville, Phoenix, Carolina and the New York Rangers having cap space and playoff aspirations.

The problem is the Maple Leafs can’t afford to be a lottery pick again, and no other defenceman on the roster (including “Neon” Dion Phaneuf) has shown any aptitude with the puck. Seriously, it’s like watching the film 2001 before the obelisk showed the prehistoric apes how to use tools, some nights.

Adding to the situation is that Kaberle (depending on which source you trust) has never used his no-trade clause previously wielded his no-trade clause like Thor wields his hammer.

The last remaining member of the infamous Muskoka 5, there’s no reason for Kaberle to agree to be traded somewhere for a few extra months of hockey (inconveniencing him and his family).

Watch for him to simply wait out the year, go play in the World Championships, and choose his destination (probably featuring lots of sunshine) on July 1st.

Hey, it’s kinda the same choice former captain Mats Sundin made, isn’t it?

Ales Hemsky

Since most of the NHL Trade Deadline Day media originate from Toronto, you can expect future stories about how the Edmonton Oilers, in the midst of a scorched-earth rebuild, are looking for prospects and draft picks for their best players.

Make no mistake, despite the day-to-day improvements of Taylor Hall, Ales Hemsky is Edmonton’s best player. Granted he’s injury prone, but he is also a magician with the puck – Glenn Anderson-like skills with a playmaker’s heart and vision. There is greatness in him, and for the Oilers to be great once again, they need to hold onto all the elite talent they can.

The great Terry Jones seems to agree.

Brad Richards

Another impending UFA. However, the Dallas Stars need a playoff run not only to help sell the team, but to add some much needed money to the team’s bottom line.

As the Jamie Langenbrunner trade demonstrated, this is a team adding, not subtracting, talent from the roster. Richards isn’t going anywhere (yet).

Alex Kovalev

Detroit General Manager Ken Holland has a theory that teams that score more than three goals a game usually coast into playoff spots. Somewhere lurking inside Alex Kovalev is Hall-of-Fame talent. With the right motivation, in the right situation, Kovalev could easily help a team get to that three goals-a-game level.

Sadly though it seems the mystery-wrapped-in-an-enigma that is Alex Kovalev will finish his career without one last, great flourish. His latest knee injury, when added to his reputation, probably scares off any team that might be interested.

The Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings make some trade-sense, as they might be the last two teams that would be able to motivate Kovalev. However, it appears neither team can afford his contract.

Sergei Gonchar

Some will argue that getting Gonchar out of Ottawa would be a coup, since few defencemen in the past decade have seen the offensive side of the game better. As previously discussed, the best teams in the league always have a good puck-moving defenceman at their disposal.

The problem for the Senators is that the best teams in the league don’t want to pay a 36-year old with beer-league defensive skills $11 million over the next two years.

It’s shocking that, despite the Kovalev and Gonchar contracts, Eugene Melnyk is still looking to keep Bryan Murray inside the organization in some capacity after this season is over.

Maxime Talbot

Yet another UFA, Talbot might just be the most recognizable “other guy” amongst Penguin forwards not named Crosby, Malkin or Staal. He’s earned this recognition with his speed, grit and determination – all the characteristics a Cup team needs in abundance. Some team will overpay for his services in the off-season (probably Toronto).

Earning just over $1 million, Talbot would be a classic Trade Deadline Day acquisition for a young team on the rise, or a team on the cusp of something special. The thing is, this Penguins team is one of the latter.

They have no real reason to move Talbot.

Kevin Bieksa

Vancouver’s favourite whipping boy, salary cap issues looked like they would finally force the Canucks to move Bieksa at the start of the year. Instead, injuries have allowed the maligned blueliner to not only stay in the lineup, but reward the team with maybe the best play of his career.

His poor decision-making will forever keep him from being a true top-pairing defender, but every team in the league wants depth on defence for the post-season.

Bieksa, as a second-pairing, second-powerplay defenceman, would be an attractive option to a few teams, including the New York Rangers.

In keeping Bieksa, the Canucks already have what other teams will be looking for on NHL Trade Deadline Day.

Nov 212010
 

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

Pat Burns

Photo credit: Toronto Star

My father’s only experience playing hockey was on outdoor rinks around Toronto, with Sears catalogues for shin pads. Yet, his lack of experience never stopped him from loving the game.

Or specifically, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

By the time I came around, it had been a long time since the Leafs had reciprocated his love. In fact, the first decade of my life (the 1980s) was spent suffering through one of the worst eras of team futility in NHL history.

My childhood is filled with memories of Saturday nights that began in hope but ended with my dad, a curse on his breath and a drink in his hand, shutting the TV off in frustration.

I thought of my father today as I learned of Pat Burns’ passing from a long-term battle with cancer.

While Cliff Fletcher gets a lot of credit for resurrecting the Leafs franchise in the 1990s (rightly deserved), it was Pat Burns who turned those personnel moves into wins on the ice.

Those 1992-93 and 93-94 Maple Leafs were a gritty, lunch-pail crew that worked their way to two Conference Finals.

For my dad, the success of these teams was a reminder of what it used to mean to be a Maple Leaf fan. To watch a team of hard-working, overachievers find their way to victory over more talented opposition.

And to have the team led by a hard-nosed, no-nonsense coach of the old-school variety.

Eventually, the window closed for Pat Burns and the Maple Leafs. He went onto success elsewhere, winning a Stanley Cup with New Jersey. If not for Hockey Hall of Fame voting shenanigans, Burns would have been enshrined a few weeks ago.

My dad never really did move on though. Despite success during the Pat Quinn era, those Pat Burns teams were the ones that held a special place in his heart, right up until he passed away in the summer of 2008.

I’d like to think there’s a chance the fan and the coach cross paths hanging out at the great big rink in the sky.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Kudos to Dave Shoalts, who calls for the creation of guidelines for supplemental discipline. He’s absolutely right.
  • Not to be cheeky, but do we really think Nikolai Khabibulin and Martin Brodeur are significantly hurt, or are these two veteran goalies just tired of what their teams aren’t accomplishing in front of them? In Khabby’s case, he’s definitely been overworked by Coach Tom Renney.
  • Speaking of Edmonton, the Oilers’ defense may just be the worst NHL defense in a long time. They aren’t physical, can’t make a first pass, and aren’t especially quick.
  • There are some nice young pieces playing for the Islanders, but that front office is such a mess, it’s hard to imagine this team ever putting it together. They need a real coach, a real GM, and a real owner first. All this to say? John Tavares could pull a Phil Kessel and leave at the end of his first contract.
  • He’s still as brittle as chinaware, but as goes Marian Gaborik so goes the New York Rangers. If he can stay healthy he should be in the MVP mix, because the Rangers really are a different team with him in the lineup.
  • Don’t forget, HBO previews their Penguins/Capitals documentary this weekend.
  • It’s nice that the Flyers want to play Sergei Bobrovsky as much as possible, but he’s clearly tired.
  • Marc Savard has just started non-contact practicing again, and might be in the Bruins’ lineup before Christmas. It will be interesting to see, once he returns, what effect that has on Tyler Seguin.
  • Hard to believe Todd Bertuzzi is in the best shape of his career, and playing a leadership role in the Red Wings offense. He looked completely washed up when he joined Detroit.
%d bloggers like this: