Defenceman Nikita Zaitsev has one season to prove himself with Maple Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t really had a legitimate all-star defenceman since Borje Salming back in the 1970s and 80s, even though Tomas Kaberle came close to it just over a decade later. The future looks a bit brighter though with American Jake Gardiner and Canadian Morgan Rielly in the lineup, but the best prospect could be 24-year-old Nikita Zaitsev of Moscow, Russia. Zaitsev ended months of rumours and speculation earlier this year when he signed a one-year contract with the Maple Leafs after deciding to leave CSKA Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).

The 6-foot-2-inch, 195-lb. right-handed shooting defenceman has been playing top minutes for Russia in the current World Cup of Hockey and impressing those who matter. Zaitsev’s big-league career began in 2008/09 when he played for the second-division Soviet Wings men’s team when he was just 17 and also earned a spot on his homeland’s squad at the Under-18 World Junior Championship in 2009. He racked up 18 points on six goals and 12 assists for the Wings that season in 31 games and served 24 minutes in penalties while going minus-4. He also chipped in with a goal and four assists at the World Junior Championships and was a plus-7 in seven contests.

The youngster was so impressive he was selected fourth overall by Sibir Novosibirsk in the KHL Draft. He made his debut for the team in 2009/10 and skated with the Russian Under-20 team at the World Junior Championship.  Zaitsev took a while to learn the ropes and scored just seven points in his first three seasons with Sibir. However, he was named to the squad that won a gold medal World Junior Championship in 2011. Zaitsev ended up being ranked 43rd overall among international players by the Central Scouting Bureau in 2011, but was somehow overlooked in the NHL Draft.

His breakthrough season came in 2012/13 when debuting for the Russian national team and scoring seven goals and 11 assists for Sibir while playing an average of 24 minutes per game. He signed with CSKA Moscow the next season as a free agent and averaged 23 minutes of ice time per game. He then contributed 32 points in 57 games the next season and was a plus-27 and added eight points in 16 playoff outings. Zaitsev was named an alternative captain last next season and scored 26 points in 46 games and was a plus-21 while adding 13 points in 20 postseason encounters.

There’s no doubt that Zaitsev has improved each season and at the age of 24 has plenty of potential as well as seven years of top-level experience under his belt. He’s a fine positional player who has the talent to move the puck out of his own zone and contribute in both ends of the ice. He’s rarely caught out of position, but will need to adapt to the smaller ice surface in the NHL. If he lives up to his potential, Zaitsev may be one of the finds of the 2016/17 NHL season and could very well end up on the Leaf’s first defensive pairing with Rielly. Zaitsev is more or less fluent in the English language and should adapt to the North American game quite quickly. However, he needs to prove his worth right away since he’s got just one season to earn a contract extension. 

Phil Kessel’s iron man streak in jeopardy

Many Maple Leafs’ supporters believe Phil Kessel was more or less run out of Toronto by the media and a pocket of fellow fans as he was made the scapegoat for the club’s ineptness. After spending six seasons in Canada’s biggest city, the right-winger had the last laugh though as he helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup in his very first season with the team. Kessel hit the 30-goal mark four times in Toronto and scored at least 20 goals in his other two campaigns there and missed just 12 contests in his half dozen seasons.

Every hockey fans knows the speedy Kessel is a fine goalscorer, an underrated playmaker, and possesses a lightning-quick shot, but many of them don’t realize just how durable and dependable he is. The native of Madison, Wisconsin, who beat testicular cancer earlier in his career, missed a dozen games due to injury during his first season in Toronto back in 2009/10. In fact, they were the first 12 contests of the campaign and he hasn’t missed an NHL game since. Kessel has now played 528 consecutive regular-season games, which ranks as the 17th-best iron man streak in league history. Former Montreal Canadien Doug Jarvis is the all-time NHL iron man with 964 straight games under his belt.

Kessel’s feat is quite an achievement and his 528 games is currently the fourth-longest active streak. Andrew Cogliano of the Anaheim Ducks leads in that department at the moment by playing in 704 consecutive outings. Playing in 500 consecutive games isn’t easy to do as just 23 players in NHL history have managed to do it. Former New York Ranger Murray Murdoch was the first to reach the milestone back in the 1936/37 season and he retired without ever missing a game during his NHL career. Glenn Hall played in 502 straight games and could very well be the only goaltender ever to hit the magic 500 number.

Kessel is just one of four active players who currently have iron man streaks of 500 games or more. He joins Cogliano, Keith Yandle of the Florida Panthers (551 games) and Patrick Marleau of the San Jose Sharks (542 games) in the fantastic four. Unfortunately for Kessel, he may not be able to extend his streak in the upcoming 2016/17 campaign as there’s a chance he’ll miss the start of it due to recent hand surgery in the offseason. The 28-year-old has played six consecutive seasons without missing a game, but a hand injury bothered him last year.

Kessel still managed to score 26 goals and 33 assists last year and then led the Penguins in the playoffs with 10 goals and 22 assists in 24 encounters. His playoff performance arguably deserved to be rewarded by the Conn Smythe Trophy, but his captain Sidney Crosby took it home as the postseason  MVP. Kessel enjoyed a productive season, but for some reason he was overlooked by the USA when the country named its squad for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey tournament. Perhaps they knew about his hand injury.

Either way, Kessel likely wouldn’t have been able to represent his homeland anyway since his hand hasn’t fully healed yet. Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford is obviously hoping Kessel will be in the lineup on opening night, but said he’s still not sure. However, he added that if Kessel isn’t ready for the start of the new season he shouldn’t be out for too long. Kessel took a bit of time to gel with his Penguin teammates as he had just 21 points in his first 37 appearances, but then racked up 15 goals and 23 assists in the final 45 games. With Kessel’s 528-game iron man streak on the line, the majority of fans are hoping the right-winger will be able to suit up on October 13th when the Penguins host the Washington Capitals in their season opener.

Pavel Datsyuk quickly adapting to life in the KHL

Russian hockey star Pavel Datsyuk thrilled Detroit Red Wings’ fans for 15 years from 2001 to 2016 when he deeply disappointed them by announcing he’d be heading back to his homeland to finish out his pro career. The 38-year-old centre still had a year to run on his multi-million dollar, long-term contract in Motown, but felt the time was right to return to Russia because of family reasons. Most fans were upset that they’d miss Datsyuk’s hair-raising skills, but some felt he betrayed the Red Wings franchise because it still had to carry his $7.5 million 2016/17 paycheque against the league salary cap. Luckily for the Wings, they were able to unload Datsyuk’s salary on the Arizona Coyotes via a draft-day trade.

With the sour taste of the contract situation being rectified, Red Wings and NHL fans in general will now be saddened at Datsyuk’s departure based on his hockey talent alone. He’s now skating for SKA St. Petersburg in the European-based Kontinental Hockey League and adapting to the new on-ice surroundings very quickly. After six games for St. Petersburg, Datsyuk has been in fine form with four goals and three assists. He’s on pace for at least a point per game this season after struggling somewhat in the NHL last campaign with 16 goals and 33 assists for 49 points in 66 outings.

Datsyuk has had injury problems to deal with over the past few years though and played in just 164 regular-season games for Detroit over the past three seasons. He’s no stranger to the KHL though as he racked up 36 points in 31 games in 2012/13 when the NHL campaign was shortened due to labour problems. St. Petersburg will have to do without Datsyuk’s services for the next few weeks though as he will be playing for Russia at the upcoming World Cup of Hockey tournament in Toronto. Russian fans shouldn’t be surprised that Datsyuk has adapted so quickly to the KHL game as he’d be an effective player in any league in the world.

The 5-foot-11-inch centre fell just short of the 1,000 game milestone in the NHL due to his recent injuries as he suited up for 953 regular-season contests and contributed 918 points on 314 goals and 604 assists. He also chipped in with 113 points in 157 playoff encounters and helped the Red Wings win Stanley Cups in 2001/02 and 2007/08. Datsyuk kicked off his pro career by playing five seasons in the Russian Hockey Super League (RSL) from 1996 to 2001. The youngster scored 102 points in 168 games in the RSL and the Red Wings obviously felt he had something to offer. However, they didn’t select him until they took a chance with the 171st overall pick in the 1998 NHL Draft.

Since making his NHL debut in 2001, Datsyuk has proven to be one of the most consistent, sportsmanlike, and exciting hockey players on the planet. He played in four Olympic Games and captained his teammates in 2014 when they were held in Sochi, Russia. He took home the Frank J. Selke Trophy three times as the top defensive forward in the NHL and won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy four straight years for sportsmanship and performance and sportsmanship. Datsyuk’s dazzling offensive game never suffered while he took care of duties in his own end of the ice and was seen as a complete 200-foot player.

Datsyuk also played in several International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championships and won numerous individual NHL awards and honours during his career in North America. While Datsyuk has just left Detroit and the NHL, fans should take the opportunity to appreciate his skills during the World Cup of Hockey event while they can. This could be the very last time he plays in competitive games on North American soil before retiring.   

NHL 2016 offseason recap

Some interesting NHL activity has taken place since the Pittsburgh Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup back in June and in case you’ve been away on summer holidays here’s a recap of some of the more notable events and developments.

Out in Colorado, head coach and vice president of hockey operations Patrick Roy resigned from the club as he didn’t see eye to eye with his boss and former Hall of Fame teammate Joe Sakic. The Avalanche then hired 44-year-old Jared Bednar to replace Roy as head coach even though he has no prior NHL experience. Bednar played junior hockey with the Prince Albert Raiders and was the head coach of the American Hockey League’s Lake Erie Monsters last season, who just happened to win the Calder Cup. Also out west, the Winnipeg Jets named Blake Wheeler as their new captain and the Los Angeles Kings took the C off of Dustin Brown’s sweater and handed it to Anze Kopitar.

In New York, the Rangers received some good news when coveted free agent Jimmy Vesey chose to sign with the club after being courted by several teams throughout the summer. The 23-year-old Vesey, who played college hockey at Harvard in the U.S., was sought by his hometown Boston Bruins as well as the Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks. Vesey won the 2016 Hobey Baker Award as the top American college player last year. 

Many fans believed he would end up in Toronto as the Leafs already have his brother Nolan in the organization and his father Jim also works for the club as a scout. Vesey was originally drafted 66th overall by the Nashville Predators in 2012, but couldn’t agree on a contract with the club. The Buffalo Sabres then traded for his negotiating rights earlier this year, but also failed to sign him.
In other free agent news, the most sought-after player this offseason was definitely Tampa Bay forward and captain Steven Stamkos. He was also linked to several teams, but ended up disappointing them all by re-signing a long-term deal with the Florida franchise. The next big-name player to hit the unrestricted free-agent market will be New York Islanders’ centre and captain John Tavares. 

However, the 25-year-old has already told the press that he wants to stay with the Islanders and hopes to sign a contract extension before his current deal runs out in two year’s time. Tavares said there’s no reason to leave and he believes his team has the talent to win a Stanley Cup in the near future.
There were a couple of high profile trades during the offseason with the Edmonton Oilers dealing 24-year-old forward Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils for 23-year-old defenceman Adam Larsson. Hall, a former first-overall draft pick by Edmonton in 2010, said he will be changing his sweater number with the Devils to nine from four since number four has been retired by the franchise. In case you’re wondering, Hall of Fame defenceman Scott Stevens used to wear number four with New Jersey. Hall racked up 328 points in 381 games with the Oilers before being shipped out of town. Larsson was the fourth-overall pick by the Devils in the 2011 draft and had 69 points in 274 contests with the team.

The biggest deal though took place between the Montreal Canadiens and Nashville when the Habs sent possible future Hall of Fame defenceman P.K. Subban to the Predators for another possible Hall of Fame blueliner in Shea Weber. The 27-year-old Subban is a former James Norris Trophy winner and had 278 points in 434 games in Montreal while the 31-year-old Weber had 443 points in 763 outings in Nashville. Weber has also reached the 20-goal barrier three times in his career, including a pair of 23-goal campaigns.

The Ottawa Senators announced they will be honouring former captain Daniel Alfredsson in a pre-game ceremony on December 29th. Over in Calgary, the club signed their top restricted free agents Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan and also hired former Arizona Coyotes general manager Don Maloney as a pro scout. Also in case you missed it, American centre Auston Matthews went first overall in the 2016 NHL Draft to Toronto while Finnish winger Patrik Laine went second to the Winnipeg Jets and Canadian winger Pierre-Luc Dubois was taken third by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Most experts had forward Jesse Puljujärvi of Finland ranked ahead of Dubois and he was snapped up by Edmonton with the fourth pick.

The NHL is celebrating its 100th season in 2016/17 and it faces off about a week later than usual this year as the first puck will be dropped on October 12th. However, fans will be able to enjoy the eight-team World Cup of Hockey tournament from September 17th to October 1st.  

Tampa Bay Lightning 2016 Offseason Plans

Coming off a Stanley Cup Finals appearance against the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015, the Tampa Bay Lightning had high hopes for a return in the 2015-2016 season. The team came very close to reaching that goal, losing in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. There were many ups and downs over the course of the year, including some bad luck with injuries that may have prevented the Lightning from raising the Cup this year.

Tampa Bay has a deep and talented roster, and that depth was tested this season. Injuries ravaged the lineup so much that the AHL affiliate Syracuse Crunch had to play defensemen as forwards just to fill the lineup. One of the main reasons the team was able to sustain its winning ways was goalie Ben Bishop. Bishop led the NHL with a 2.06 Goals Against Average and was second with a .926 save percentage (among goalies with at least 15 appearances). His injury in Game 1 of the Conference Finals may have been the difference between moving on and going home.

Pending Free Agents: Everyone in the hockey world knows of the impending unrestricted free agency of Steven Stamkos. The 26 year old team Captain is one of the best players in the world, and will be highly coveted by every team in the league. He was forced to miss almost 2 months of the regular season and playoffs because of a blood clot, but that won’t hold back any potential suitors. General Manager Steve Yzerman likely will not offer Stamkos as much as some other teams, so it will be up to him to determine if he prefers the familiarity of the Lightning or the money of a new destination.

Another important free agent (restricted) is 22 year old Nikita Kucherov. The Russian winger led the team in scoring in both the regular and postseason, tallying 19 points in 17 playoff games. He is in line for a significant payday, possibly around $6.5 million per year.

Draft Picks: Tampa doesn’t pick until late in the first round, so it is hard to imagine they will find a prospect ready to play in the pros. A potential option to move up in the draft is to trade disgruntled winger Jonathan Drouin. The 3rd overall pick of the 2013 draft, Drouin’s time with the Lightning has been tense to say the least.

After being demoted to Syracuse during the season, he left the team and requested a trade. After no trade was made, he returned on fire. He scored 9 goals in his first 10 games in the AHL, and put up 14 points in 17 playoff games. A team looking to make a splash and win soon like the Montreal Canadiens might be interested to deal their top 10 pick for him.

Free Agent Additions: The top free agent targets for the Lightning are their own Stamkos and Kucherov. Other than that, they will likely not be too active in free agency, looking to add some depth and maybe a backup goaltender.

The Rookie Goalie

Matt Murray is 22 years old. Most 22 year olds are maybe just finding their careers, perhaps thinking about starting a family, probably on their fourth or fifth job in their lifetime. He now has hockey’s greatest prize staring him in the face.

He worked his way into the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup due to a concussion to top goalkeeper Marc-Andre Fleury and an injury to backup Jeff Zatkoff. Matt Murray would never look back.

With numbers like a 2.09 Goals Against Average, a .925 save percentage, one shutout, and 14 wins, it will be hard not to hand over the Conn Smythe Trophy to this extremely talented young man. He will probably have to beat out Sidney Crosby for the award but there are worse things than coming in second to the world’s best player.

There have been numerous instances when Murray has come up huge for the Penguins, but the most striking quality is his consistency. He has not had to “stand on his head” for any games, which is also a testament to the solid team in front of him, and he has not had to make “spectacular” saves.

Ten of the Penguins last eleven wins have come by one goal. This means that their opponents are throwing everything they have at Murray in the last 3 or four minutes. In every one of those games Matt Murray has stood his ground by simply doing what he does best: playing consistent.

Murray has received tons of praise from some of the best of the best in goaltenders. Martin Gerber, the goaltender who got the Carolina Hurricanes to the playoffs before ceding to rookie goalie Cam Ward, had this to say: “He didn’t worry about what was going on around him, he’d just go play and stay calm, like it was something he had done his whole life.”

More praise from Devan Dubnyk of the Minnesota Wild: “The thing that has been most impressive to me has been the way he has handled some very tough situations.” Dubnyk was referring two situations: the tying goal and eventual overtime goal for the loss in Game 3 which Murray followed by winning Game 4, and losing his starting job to Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final only to win Games 6 and 7.

Matt Murray is at the forefront of joining some very elite company. There have only been four rookie goaltenders who have led their teams to the Stanley Cup. Murray is on the verge of joining the names Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Cam Ward, and Antti Niemi as rookie goaltenders to lead their team to a Stanley Cup. That’s four names out of 123 years of the Stanley Cup being awarded.

Even though Matt Murray is headed toward the most important game of his young life, he is doing the same things he is doing every other time he straps on his pads. That is the essence of a great goaltender. No changes. Same repetitions. Same meals. Nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter if it is Game 7 against the Toronto Marlies or Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Consistency matters.

Conn Smythe and the Kessel Run

At the conclusion of this year’s Stanley Cup series the Professional Hockey Writers Association will huddle up to debate and vote on the recipient of the 2016 Conn Smythe Trophy. A tradition that goes back to the 1964-1965 season, the award is presented to the player who is determined to be the most valuable to his team during the playoffs. The trophy is presented immediately after the game before the official presentation of the Stanley Cup to the winning team.

At this point we don’t know which team will hold aloft the famed Stanley Cup but with a 3-1 lead going into tonight’s game it seems likely that the Pittsburgh Penguins will garner their franchise’s 4th championship. As for the Conn Smythe award? Things are a little more complicated there.
It seems to be generally agreed that there are 3 main candidates for the award. Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, and Matt Murray. Kris Letang’s name has been thrown around as well but most eyes are focusing on the former three to be the most likely to add some metal to their trophy shelf.

For Crosby the Playoff MVP award would one of the few he hasn’t won over his 11-year career. You will recall that Evgeni Malkin took the honor when the Penguins won the Cup in 2009. A vote for Crosby wouldn’t exactly be an honorary one though. With 17 points in 22 games Crosby has definitely contributed mightily, especially given that 3 of those goals were game winners in the Eastern Conference Finals against Tampa Bay. Those numbers also indicate Crosby willingness to adopt the Penguins defensive style of play rather than going for the big offense. Nobody will bat an eye if the trophy lands in Crosby’s hands.

As for Matt Murray, it’s hard to find a better story than a rookie goaltender who posted 14 wins in 19 games while maintaining a 2.09 goal against average. His performance has led many to ask if the Penguins would have even made it this far with starter Marc-Andre Fleury in the net. If he manages one more victory he will have tied the record for most playoff wins by a rookie. Sounds like MVP material doesn’t it?

Then there’s Phil Kessel, the much-maligned right-winger who carried Toronto’s woes like a yoke around his neck. Now here is a story. As a Maple Leaf it seemed like Kessel was to blame for every loss, accused of every kind of infraction, and forced to explain the team’s shortcomings every single day. Fast-forward to the present and Kessel has scored 21 points in 22 games as a Penguin. His 10-playoff goals are the most on the team and he skates with the fabled HBK line that has acted like the rocket fuel to power the Pittsburgh jet engines. Nothing feels better than to prove someone else terribly wrong and wouldn’t we all feel just a little glee if Kessel were able to hoist that trophy over his shoulders thus shaking off all the bad mojo that’s been sitting there for years? Yes. Yes we would.

No matter who wins this year’s Conn Smythe they will find themselves stepping into a long line of talent and leadership. 42 different players have held the award over its 48 year history and whether it be Crosby, Murray, or Kessel they will all fit in nicely.

NHL’s expansion plans should be made clear later in June

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently spoke with the media concerning re-alignment and expansion within the league. The league currently sits at 30 franchises with 16 of them being the Eastern Conference with eight teams per division and 14 teams in the Western Conference with seven clubs per division. Bettman said if the league does expand, which would be the first time since 2000, he wouldn’t really want to move any of the existing clubs from the East to the West or vice versa. Both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings relocated to the Eastern Conference from the West before the 2013/14 campaign and he believes they should now stay there.

Bettman stated there isn’t anything new concerning expansion right now, but that could change later in June when the league’s board of governors meet in Las Vegas, Nevada for the annual NHL Awards show. The board is set to discuss expansion bids from both Quebec City and Las Vegas. The commissioner said the executive committee may recommend no expansion; one team, two teams, or deferred expansion and they’ll make this recommendation before the board of governors gets together. He mentioned that Kansas City isn’t in the running for an expansion franchise and nobody from Seattle, Washington has ever filed an application as the city is still trying to work out details on a new arena.

This basically leaves Quebec City and Las Vegas as serious locations for new franchises and both cities have brand new arenas to ice an NHL team. Of course, Quebec City had a franchise in the past when the Quebec Nordiques played in the league started out in the old World Hockey Association (WHA) from 1972 to 1979. The franchise then joined the NHL when several WHA clubs merged into the league and the Nordiques played in the NHL from 1979 to 1995. The franchise still exists technically though as it moved to Denver due to financial difficulties and became the Colorado Avalanche. Along with Winnipeg, Quebec would be one of the smallest markets in the NHL and the city itself believes it will be awarded a franchise sooner or later.

Placing a team in Las Vegas may be a bit of a risk since the city has never had a professional franchise in any of the major North American sports. However, the new arena has already opened and is hoping to use it for an expansion team. The city is typically filled with visitors from all over North America each week and there seems to be enough interest to host a franchise. Las Vegas advertises itself as the world’s entertainment capital and it held a season-ticket campaign back in 2014 to gauge interest in a franchise. It seemed to be successful enough as 13,000 season tickets were snapped up.
Many Canadian fans would likely head to the Las Vegas heat on weekend getaways during the cold northern winters and it’s believed they’d be interested in buying hockey packages. A franchise in Sin City may also do brisk walk-up sales on game days as well. Other possible expansion cities in the future could include Seattle as well as Houston, Texas; Portland, Oregon; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and Hamilton Ontario. However, it’s not likely that Toronto would be given one as the simple fact is the city might not have the fan support.

The Maple Leafs currently rely on corporate ticket sales to survive and have had problems selling out the Air Canada during the club’s last two woeful seasons. The owners, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) have taken to emailing members of Leaf Nation on game days to try and sell off unsold tickets. If Leafs can’t sell out their home games then things wouldn’t bode too well for a new franchise. In addition, many fans in the Greater Toronto Area now decide to make a 90-minute trip to Buffalo, New York to see the Sabres and pay more reasonable prices for tickets. At the moment though, it seems Quebec City and Las Vegas are the only serious bidders for expansion. If the NHL does decide to add two more teams to make it 32 franchises then it would be common sense to have 16 teams in the East and 16 in the West. This means two clubs would need to be added to the Western Conference.

That wouldn’t be a problem for Las Vegas, but Quebec City doesn’t make sense in the West. This means a current Eastern Conference team may need to be persuaded to join the West. As Bettman said, he isn’t a fan of asking clubs to move and he definitely wouldn’t ask Columbus or Detroit to head back to the Western Conference. The commissioner may need to offer some sort of financial compensation or other types of perks to find a volunteer form the Eastern Conference to switch divisions. 

Boston Bruins 2016 Offseason Plans

In March 2016, the Boston Bruins looked destined to return to the playoffs after a one year hiatus. However, the team limped to the end of the season, losing 9 of 12 games and missing out on the postseason because of a tie breaker with the Detroit Red Wings. Once a perennial championship contender, the Bruins have been only average the last two years and may be on the verge of some major changes.

Boston was led by a trio of 30 year old forwards: Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Loui Eriksson. The three scored the most points on the squad, while 28 year old Brad Marchand was tops with 37 goals (4th in points). They finished as the 5th highest scoring team in the league, but their defensive and goaltending shortcomings kept them from the postseason. Tuukka Rask, the former Vezina Trophy winner, was simply average this season, in part because of a weak defensive group in front of him.

Pending Free Agents: 30 goal scorer Eriksson is an unrestricted free agent and will almost assuredly take a big money deal somewhere else. With the money the team has invested in Krejci, Bergeron, Marchand, Rask and 39 year old defenseman Zdeno Chara (total of almost $33M), Eriksson will likely find a new home.

Defenseman Torey Krug is a restricted free agent, but as one of the few young, bright spots on defense, the team will have to give him an extension. Backup goaltender Jonas Gustavsson played well, but the team may move on and give the spot to 2012 first round pick Malcolm Subban.

Draft Picks: The Bruins have two first round picks in this year’s draft after acquiring San Jose’s. While neither of the picks are very high (14th and 30th), the team could use them to either move up in the draft or trade for a quality pro. The team desperately needs youth on defense, but at 14, they may be stuck taking a forward instead of reaching for a less talented blue liner.

Free Agent Additions: There are not many top pairing defensemen available as free agents, but the team could make a play for Keith Yandle or Alex Goligoski. Both would be a major improvement over what they have now, but they won’t come cheap. Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie would be an expensive trade target, but he would fill a huge need. Sami Vatanen and Jonas Brodin are also potential trade targets.

Sidney Crosby: Not Scoring But Leading

The Pittsburgh Penguins have won the first two games in the Stanley Cup Final. Some people look to the goaltender as the reason for winning and while Matt Murray is playing well, their captain, Sidney Crosby, is playing better.

Although he hasn’t scored a goal yet, he has been instrumental in his team’s success so far against the San Jose Sharks.

Crosby is generating all kinds of scoring chances, especially with a devastating backhand, for himself and his teammates. Whether it is a perfectly placed backhanded, cross ice pass in Game 1 or winning the draw for the overtime winner in Game 2, Crosby is making the Sharks work hard to keep him off the scoresheet.

With the defence of San Jose occupied with Crosby making great plays all the time, the other players are able to generate a ridiculous number of shots on goal every game. The HBK line of Hagelin, Bonino, and Kessel are the most obvious benefactors of not having to face to opposing teams top defences, including the Sharks. This line has generated 50 points so far and show no signs of slowing down.

Speaking of the overtime winning goal scored by rookie Conor Sheary and assisted by Kris Letang, it has become known that Crosby orchestrated the play from the beginning. This does not simply mean “i’m gonna win the faceoff and then you pass and you shoot.” Crosby switched the defencemen to get the puck to Letang, switched the forwards for Sheary to be on the boards, then told him to find a sweet spot in the middle of the ice. Crosby was also right in front of the net when the puck went in, meaning he knew the play and was there in case of a rebound.

Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals was game number 100 for the Penguins this year. That is a lot of hockey and on off-days most players take the day to rest. Guess who was in the rink practising one-timers and faceoffs after game 99? Crosby was one of six players on the ice for the optional practise with only fourth liner Eric Fehr to have also played the night before.

Almost everyone who knows Sidney Crosby has said that his work ethic is second to none. Recently, his sister and assistant coach Rick Tocchet have commented that he is always doing something to stay sharp. Whether it is working out in the gym, practising on the ice after game number 99, or something as simple as eating right and going to bed early, Crosby is always looking to better his game. To get that little extra edge.

This little things translate into big game plays like the play in the Game 2 overtime. It take lots of practise, patience, and dedication to make yourself one of the best players on the planet. Sidney Crosby does these little things all the time and that is why he has lifted the Pittsburgh Penguins to two wins away from the Stanley Cup.