Are the Montreal Canadiens the Stanley Cup Favourites?

The Montreal Canadiens have been the hottest team so far in the NHL with 25 points in their first 15 games and currently lead the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers by 7 points in the Eastern Conference (although both of those teams have 3 games in hand).

This might not be a big surprise for most because the Canadiens did finish amongst the top 4 teams in the Eastern Conference for the past three seasons and were once again expected to be a top team this season. If we look a little deeper into the statistics, this start to the season is very promising though.

Over the past three seasons, the Canadiens have average 2.76 goals per game and allowed 2.45 goals per game, this year they’re averaging 3.67 and have allowed 1.80.

Despite being the 6th best regular season team over the past 3 seasons, they averaged only 28.9 shots per game while allowing 29.7 per game but so far this year they’re outshooting their opponent by 1.4 shots per game.

It’s no secret that the leader of this team is Carey Price and that if this team goes deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it will likely be because of Carey Price. However, the 2015-16 edition of the Montreal Canadiens has been able to score more goals than they have in quite awhile. They currently have 10 players with more than 9 points and 4 players on pace to score over 30 goals: Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, Brendan Gallagher and Dale Weise. Of those, Pacioretty is probably the only one who will end up with 30 goals but if he gets some help and 5 or 6 other players can score over 20 goals, it will be a much more dangerous team.

It’s a nice start but it’s hard to judge a team based on its first 15 games. If we look at the past 5 Stanley Cup Champions after 15 games, they weren’t all particularly good:

Goal Differential
Chicago Blackhawks
Los Angeles Kings
Chicago Blackhawks
Los Angeles Kings
Boston Bruins

The Montreal Canadiens have looked like the best team in the NHL so far and there are very promising signs but its 15 games. The Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators have all looked great as well and there are a handful of teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings that you can never count out.

Chicago Blackhawks Deserve ‘Dynasty’ Tag

Their achievement of three Stanley Cup titles may not match up to the achievements of the Edmonton Oilers or New York Islanders in the 1980s, or the Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s, or even the 1960s Toronto Maple Leafs (sorry to remind you Leafs fans). However, the Chicago Blackhawks deserve to be considered among all of the NHL’s greatest historic dynasties as the first true dynasty of the salary cap era.

It’ll always be difficult to compare teams from different eras; it’s difficult enough to compare the 2010, 2013 and 2015 champion Blackhawks. However, winning three championships in six years (they might not be done yet) in an era where parity has broadly been successfully enforced.

It has been a period, where superstar players Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin have claimed just one Stanley Cup between them. The New York Rangers, San Jose Sharks and Philadelphia Flyers have just not quite been able to get over the edge in spite of spending big money and making big trades. Meanwhile, teams like the Boston Bruins and Anaheim Ducks have come close to doubling their Cup titles since the 2004-05 lockout. Even teams that were perennially consistent in the 90s and early 2000s like the Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils just haven’t been able to maintain that success, they appeared in a combined three Cup finals in the salary cap era, but have just one title to show for it between them.

It’s harder to enjoy consistent success. Teams like Chicago cannot exploit their market advantage and sign up their core for the long-term like they might have done once.

Indeed, the turnover in Chicago’s roster between their first championship and their third is extraordinary. There are just eight players who played on both the 2010 winning team and the 2015 winning team. Of those, Kris Versteeg wasn’t on the roster in 2013.

The identities of the other seven players provide a pretty good first indication for the source of Chicago’s success. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjmarlsson, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp. That’s a terrific foundation for any forward group and blue-line.

The second key has been the ability of first Dave Tallon and then Stan Bowman to consistently re-tool this roster around those core players. Most Stanley Cup winning teams are built at least in part around a group of young players on entry-level contracts that provide ‘value for money’ on the cap restricted roster.

Somehow, Chicago has managed to keep changing the roster. The 2014-15 version of the Blackhawks epitomizes the combination of effective drafting and savvy free agent moves that have helped this team enjoy such consistent success.

Veterans Brad Richards and Kimmo Timonen played critical roles, while Antoine Vermette was an expensive, but vital trade deadline acquisition. However, second round pick Brandon Saad and late first round selection Teuvo Teravainen played critical roles in the long postseason run. Both were selected in drafts after Chicago’s initial 2010 championship success.

The art of quality drafting is difficult to quantify. There’s clearly an element of fortune involved and an effective professional set-up is also critical to developing young talent. Chicago’s greatest success has been in identifying their ‘type’ of players. Very few teams have been as good at picking up young, skilled players as Chicago. Even fourth liners Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger are pretty good players with the puck on their sticks.

Even after the 2011 and 2012 playoffs when Chicago lost in the first round on each occasion, there was still an organisational commitment to a philosophy of having a line-up built around speed and skill.

A big part of that consistency is rooted in Toews. The captain gets more credit than any other player for Chicago’s success and it’s deserved. His will, determination and leadership make him the vital driving force for this franchise.

Another part of the equation who perhaps doesn’t get the credit that he deserves is head coach Joel Quenneville. It is somehow assumed that anyone could lead Toews, Kane, Keith and Seabrook to three championships. The reality is very different. Quenneville has consistently adapted Chicago’s special teams and their set up at both ends of the ice to keep the Blackhawks relevant. You do not make three long postseason runs without elite coaching.

Chicago’s dynastic era could still be extended. Toews is just 27 and Keith is the oldest of the team’s core at just 31. One more championship during their prime years would surely elevate this team’s success to being in contention with some of the true great teams, like the 80s Islanders and Oilers.

Ahead of Bowman, Quenneville and this Blackhawks is another roster re-shape that will probably see Sharp depart among some other significant pieces. Still, it would be a dangerous game to sleep on the Blackhawks even in the 2015-16 season.

What Direction Will Babcock’s Maple Leafs Take?

The Toronto Maple Leafs have not won a Stanley Cup since 1967. They’ve made the playoffs just once in the last 10 years and over the last few seasons they’ve been through several coaches and a couple of General Managers. It’s hard to imagine a team that has hit more of a rock bottom after another 30-44-8 season.

They did manage to get their man plucking Mike Babcock as head coach from the Detroit Red Wings for a reported $50 million over the next eight seasons. They do have a respected hockey man in Brendan Shanahan as the franchise’s President.

However, they are also without a GM and trade rumors are swirling around several of Toronto’s key players including Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul. There’s a general concern that some of the roster’s talented young player have stagnated in their development, notably forward Nazeem Kadri and defenseman Jake Gardiner.

In reality, the Maple Leafs suffered from roster mismanagement, partially encouraged by making the playoffs and taking the Boston Bruins to a Game 7 in 2012-13. They’ve suffered from all too often having coaches and GMs working from different scripts and they’ve struggled to establish clear on-ice leadership.

Shanahan’s number one priority must be to get the right man in place as GM and there’s every possibility that that could mean serving as interim GM himself for a period of time. Babcock’s hiring gives the veteran head coach a lot of power and he’ll clearly have plenty of say in the roster’s direction.

Perhaps that is deserved considering his history of success with the Detroit Red Wings and Anaheim Ducks. However, there’s also no question that returning this roster to competitiveness will be a greater challenge than either of those stops. Neither Ron Wilson nor Randy Carlyle could turn Toronto’s post 2004-05 lockout fortunes around, both well-established NHL head coaches with impressive records.

Every time a team misses the playoffs, they need to “re-“ something – either re-build or re-tool. The course that Toronto chooses may very well depend upon Babcock’s opinion Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf.

After signing a large, eight-year contract extension, Kessel experienced his poorest goal-scoring output since 2007-08, which was just his second NHL campaign. Widely regarded as a little media unfriendly and known for having some so-so relationships with coaches, Kessel had an especially combative spell in 2014-15. He was almost constantly in local media coverage sparring with one reporter or another and there have been multiple reports suggesting that his relationship with the team isn’t much better.

However, Kessel is a superb skater and pure goal-scorer who has nearly 250 regular season tallies to his name and five 30+ goal campaigns in the last seven seasons. His success is even more impressive considering that for the most part Tyler Bozak, a solid, but unspectacular offensive player, has been the man centering him.

Meanwhile, Phaneuf is the explosive, physical and offensive-minded defenseman that many teams dream of having to light up games. The problem is, that he is now 30, it has been a while since he was at his explosive best or most offensively productive, but he still makes the same defensive gaffes that have always plagued his game.

Babcock dealt with adversity during his time with the Red Wings. His last two seasons coaching a young roster are evidence of that. However, he was always able to build around a group of well-rounded players, who also possessed terrific intangibles, see Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall.

Kessel and Phaneuf are ultimately one-dimensional and they've struggled to establish themselves as leaders on this team. On the flip side, their skill sets are not that easy to replace.

Indeed, Babcock might look at this roster and think that he is spoilt for young talent including Kessel, Phanuef, James van Riemsdyk, Lupul, Kadri, Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Tim Erixon, James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier. You can throw in the 2015 fourth overall pick from the NHL draft as well.

It’s not that bad of a starting point and perhaps a re-tool and change of approach is more necessary than the complete overhaul – again dependent on the veteran head coach’s perception of Kessel and Phaneuf.

Advanced statistics like Corsi generally suggest that Gardiner and Rielly in particular have a bright future in the NHL and you can bet that Babcock will like their puck movement. He’ll also surely be able to implement systems that have an immediate impact on the special teams units, which both ranked in the bottom eight in the league percentage wise last season.

He’ll want to carry over some of the puck control and puck possession element from Detroit and whoever takes the GM position will surely need to address the team’s challenges at the center position, which have been a reality for several seasons now.

Kadri may one day be that top option, Bozak and Holland are both useful utility options, but this team is thin down the middle of the ice and that’s a challenge for any coaching system.

There’s a fine line between success and failure in the NHL, especially in the salary cap era. One piece added or one piece missing can seriously change the look and feel of a roster. For the Maple Leafs, it might be a center, it might be a more secure defensive set-up in front of Bernier and Reimer. It might be Babcock.

For Babcock, he has chosen a tough situation. Enjoy success in Toronto, and his legacy will be sealed. Fail, and he joins Carlyle and Wilson in the line of coaches that just couldn’t make it work with this group for some reason.

Whichever of those it ends up being, one thing is for certain – the Maple Leafs will be an interesting team to follow and watch this offseason heading into 2015-16. Those that love and hate the Leafs, and there are plenty that hate them, will want to see at least something a little more interesting happening In Toronto this coming season. It's an Original Six franchise and huge fan base after all.

Stanley Cup 2016 Contenders

The Chicago Blackhawks have been crowned as the 2015 Stanley Cup champions, it’s their third championship in six years and the Jonathan Toews led dynasty was confirmed. It’s way too early to start speculating about the next Stanley Cup, but that won’t stop us. Here’s our way too early list of the 2016 Stanley Cup contenders.

1. Chicago Blackhawks

They are Vegas’ early favorites and who can blame anyone for picking them? They’ll still be led by a core that has now won three championships in Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, debates will probably continue about Corey Crawford’s quality in net, but he’s been a crucial part of two championship runs now.

Of course, keeping the other parts of this Stanley Cup winning together won’t be easy. Start with Brandon Saad, who will surely be looking for a significant pay rise playing an important role in the regular season and playoff run.

2. Los Angeles Kings

Darryl Sutter is still there, the core of that dominant defensive team with all that postseason experience is also still there. They are probably never going to be the sort of team that charges in the playoffs, but once they qualify, they are an extremely tough out.

They’ve not got a huge amount of cap space, but GM Dean Lombardi has had more time to play with his team this season. The question for LA will always be whether they have enough goals in their line-up to win the games that they need to win.

3. Minnesota Wild

They’re definitely a dark horse selection, but the Wild have recent postseason experience, a couple of quality players in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, and a cluster of young players that are building up the sort of big game experience that will benefit them down the line.

The Wild have been thrashed in the playoffs by Chicago in three straight seasons and there may be some thinking to do for the organization if they hope to take the next step.

4. Montreal Canadiens

Carey Price has gradually established himself as one of the NHL’s premier netminders and he looks set to just keep getting better. Meanwhile, PK Subban is one of the most electrifying defensemen and all-round players in the league. The Canadiens have speed, balance and depth, and Marc Bergevin still has some room to make some more moves.

The Canadiens were surprised by their playoff eliminations in each of the last two seasons. This team might just be running out of time to get ‘over the hump’ before the salary cap catches up to them.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning

Speaking about salary cap catching up, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s young roster will be threatened by that same phenomena as entry level contracts expire. The Lightning have improved in each of the last two seasons, but they still need to improve their performance by one series victory.

General Manager Steve Yzerman has one more season of relative cap security, but he will know that the margins between success and failure are slim.

It’s arguably more difficult to pull together a bounce back season after losing in the Stanley Cup final than it is to repeat as champions. Very few teams do it.

Still, the Lightning are stacked with talent including Steve Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, Nikita Kucherov and Cedric Paquette. They got the skill, depth and the playing style to enjoy another strong NHL season and to be one of those rare teams that bounces back immediately.

6. New York Islanders

Our Eastern conference dark horse team is the New York Islanders. It’s a long shot, but they are the team with serious potential. They took a step forward this season, but ultimately lost in the first round.

John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Ryan Strome, Travis Hamonic, Calvin De Haan and a host of other players lead a core with the potential to be one of the most explosive in franchise history.

Of course, it’s a big step to expect this young Islanders team to take that step, but Stanley Cup winning teams can just as easily come out of nowhere. 

Can Connor McDavid Be The Difference Maker For The Edmonton Oilers?

It felt like an injustice when the Edmonton Oilers lucked out in the NHL’s Draft Lottery winning the first overall pick despite having a better record than both the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes. That means that this June, the Oilers will get their fourth 1st overall pick in the last six years. They haven’t got a huge amount to show for it coming off a season where they won just 24 games and failed to score 200 goals while conceding nearly 300.

It appears that Connor McDavid will be the latest player to be given the task of trying to ‘save’ an Oilers’ team that has been mired in a spell of mediocrity unfitting for a franchise with such a tremendous history and championship pedigree.  

Almost every season there is a forward in the draft who is predicted to be the league’s next superstar. These same Oilers grabbed three of the most recent examples all first overall – meet Taylor Hall (2010), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and Nail Yakupov (2012). You can throw in Jordan Eberle as another top 10 potential superstar forward as well.

None of those four players have been able to establish themselves in the way that they were expected. Hall’s talent and ability is unquestionable, but injuries have been a factor throughout his NHL career and he managed just 38 points in 53 games in 2014-15 after a career best 80 points last year.

After a promising rookie campaign, Nugent-Hopkins has struggled to ‘break out’ scoring only 56 points in each of his last two seasons. Eberle has arguably been the most successful with consecutive 60+ point seasons, but there’s still the feeling that he has a little more to give. Yakupov has been the most disappointing of all struggling to play well enough to even secure a regular shift on the team’s top two lines.

McDavid is being highlighted as something quite different. Wayne Gretzky has made comparisons to himself and Mario Lemieux, many have suggested that McDavid is one step ahead of Sidney Crosby at a comparable stage of development.

There’s no questioning the fact that McDavid has elite offensive skills, but then again, the same could be said for Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle and Yakupov. Of course, few players are highlighted as strongly as unanimously as McDavid was at the age of 15.

McDavid’s hype is even greater and living up to those expectations will not be easy. There are a couple of problems with the comparisons between McDavid and the likes of Crosby.

The first is one of the state of play in the NHL. It took Steven Stamkos and John Tavares a couple of seasons to truly establish themselves as elite players and that’s in part because the nature of the NHL has changed since Crosby and Alex Ovechkin entered the league in 2005-06. It has tightened up again, teams play better defense and there’s a respect and attention paid to young skillful players that perhaps wasn’t applied in 2005-06 (or was officiated against). It has even arguably impacted Crosby and Ovechkin’s numbers. The method is simple, be physical, put a body on players and use an effective system and positioning to slow teams down. The defensive adaptations have reduced scoring since the first two or three post-lockout seasons.

The second problem is the failure for analysts and writers to appreciate the development step that Crosby took once he entered the NHL. His personality, style of play and leadership abilities all developed at a remarkable pace in those first couple of NHL seasons. The raw offensive talent was always there, but the Stanley Cup winning captain was made in the NHL. There are undoubtedly plenty of players and coaching staff members who deserve credit for that transformation.

It’s difficult to predict how McDavid’s development will play out. There’s no shame in not being the next Crosby. If it takes two or three seasons to reach ‘superstar’ status as it did for Tavares, then there’s no shame in that either.

The Tavares example is also relevant from the perspective of the importance of being put in a position to succeed. The New York Islanders have built their roster around their young forward and the benefits of that have begun to pay off, most notably in 2014-15 when the team from Long Island returned to the postseason and took the Washington Capitals to a Game 7 in the first round.

The future looks bright for the Islanders and Tavares is at the core of that. However, the work of GM Garth Snow and head coach Jack Capuano to build an effective group around him has been just as crucial.

Creating balance and depth has been a problem for Edmonton during their period of mediocrity. They’ve not drafted well outside of the first round, they haven’t built an effective bottom six, the team’s blue line has been weak and they haven’t found a good solution in net. A lot of those issues are interlinked creating a self-fulfilling cycle.

It’ll be the first task for new GM and head coach tandem Peter Chiarelli and Todd McLellan. It’s an experienced NHL tandem, each having established franchises that enjoyed success for sustained period.

Chiarelli will know that McDavid isn’t a quick fix. McLellan’s experience with San Jose also serves as an example of where having a leading cast of superstar players doesn’t guarantee Stanley Cup success – though Edmonton would happily swap their recent history with that of the Sharks.

Reversing the recent period of Oilers’ failure is probably just as much about re-configuring a roster built around the current crop of star forwards, as it is about hoping that McDavid will step in and be an immediate impact player.

Chiarelli’s challenge isn’t an easy one. He will almost certainly need to trade one of Yakupov, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle or Hall. All four have the potential to turn into elite offensive players and trading any one of them could have the potential to look like a poor deal in the future. Chiarelli already has some recent history with that when he traded Tyler Seguin to Dallas two years ago.

McDavid could have ended up in far worse situations. He is in a true hockey town, he is on a roster that has plenty of talent and he is joining a franchise that has the opportunity to turn a corner.

For the Oilers, selecting McDavid will be the easy part of the difficult offseason that lies ahead for Chiarelli, McLellan and their new team.

Crosby vs Ovechkin: What Happened To The Rivalry?

The fates of Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin have been intertwined ever since they were selected first overall in back-to-back drafts either side of the 2004-05 lost NHL season.

When the league returned for 2005-06 with a new set of rules aimed at opening the game up, Crosby and Ovechkin quickly became the faces of the ‘new NHL’. They were both electric offensive players and the more tightly called version of the NHL created the opportunity for an 18-year old and 19-year old to steal the show.

The two players quickly rose to stardom playing for a pair of franchises in the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals that had drifted into mediocrity. It didn’t take either of Crosby or Ovechkin to establish themselves as premier players in the league – they both scored 100+ points in four of their first five seasons.

It helped that in many ways the two men were the antithesis of one another. Crosby is a playmaker, soft-handed, a determined physical competitor and a man who plays by the “Canadian code”.  In opposition, Ovechkin is an often brash, self-confident Russian with an unmatched desire to score.

It seemed inevitable that each would eventually lead their teams to a new era of success, including multiple Stanley Cups.

Those expectations seemed even more reasonable when Crosby led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 2008 and the following year, the two teams were once again among the leagues most electric.

They would meet in one of the most exhilarating and exciting playoff series in recent memory. That series was decided in a Game 7 and was supposed to be just the first chapter in a rivalry between two exciting teams and two dynastic players – who didn’t like each other too much.

In the end, the rivalry has ended up mirroring Game 7 of that series rather than the fantastic drama that had preceded it. Pittsburgh and Crosby crushed Washington and Ovechkin 6-2 in what was an anti-climatic and disappointing finish that match-up.

The Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup only a few weeks later and it seemed that the two franchises might be set to swap championships in a similar vein to the way that Crosby and Ovechkin have dominated the individual awards over the last 10 years winning more than a dozen between them.

Instead, the Conference Finals are once again starting without either teams’ participation. The Capitals are yet to reach the Conference Finals in the Ovechkin era, while Pittsburgh have made on appearance since winning the Cup, they were promptly swept by the Boston Bruins in 2013. Both teams made coaching changes last summer, but neither Mike Johnston (Pittsburgh) nor Barry Trotz (Washington) were able to generate a better performance out of their respective rosters and another offseason of inquiries looks to be the storyline for both franchises.

It’s difficult to understand or assess why the rivalry has struggled to live up to its potential. Neither play has really failed to live up to his potential. Crosby has 302 goals and 853 points in 627 regular season games, he has a further 43 goals and 118 points in 100 playoff games. It’s true that 2014-15 was one of Crosby’s least productive season offensively as he “only” had 28 goals 84 points in 77 games. He then managed four points from five postseason contests. It was still good for third in the league in scoring though and he would have won the scoring title had he played even just a couple of more games.

Ovechkin finished fourth in scoring in the season just passed with 81 points and he won’t yet another Richard Maurice Rocket Trophy leading the league with 53 goals. Ovechkin has 475 goals and 895 points in 760 regular season games. His teams have never made it past the second round, but he has still managed to score 36 goals and 70 points in 72 playoff contests. Ovechkin has 50+ goals in six of his 10 NHL seasons, one of those other seasons was the lockout shortened campaigjn where had 32 tallies in 48 games.

Perhaps the simplest reality is that the NHL has changed. Greats like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux would have been all-time greats regardless of the era that they played in, but in reality their remarkable numbers were at least not hindered by playing against poorly padded goaltenders and against teams that had little defensive structure.

Head coaches and video analysts have caught up. They won’t allow players like Crosby and Ovechkin to completely dominate proceedings with their individual talent and that becomes even more of a reality in the postseason.

Instead, the champions over the last five teams have been great teams. Chicago’s individual talent is unquestionable, but GM Stan Bowman’s efforts to bring depth at both ends of the ice have been crucial. Meanwhile, both the 2011 champion Boston Bruins and 2012 and 2014 champion LA Kings were built on defense-first systems and while each had talented offensive players, scoring by committee was as much the order of the day.

There’s something mind-numbingly uninspiring about an NBA where only a few teams have a realistic shot to win the championship in a league dominated almost entirely by its superstars. However, there’s also no arguing that the NHL has lost something with the spark of a potential great rivalry between two elite players slowly slipping away.

Pehraps the rivalry will never quite be the same, Ovechkin will have turned 30 before the start of the 2015-16 regular season, Crosby will be 28. There’s a resigned feeling around both franchises as they look for a way to compete. However, things can change quickly. The Penguins and Capitals in 2009 were boosted by the quantity of talented, young and cheap players that they were able to have on their rosters.

Still, Washington was only one win away from a Conference Finals appearance this spring, and the Penguins will undoubtedly start next season among the favourites once again. Perhaps there’s still a chance for the Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry to have closing chapters fitting of its explosive beginning.

Bruce Boudreau’s Toughest Challenge

There’s no denying that Bruce Boudreau is an excellent NHL head coach. It doesn’t matter how good his players have been, Boudreau’s record speaks for itself. Nevertheless, true greatness is judged by what you do when it counts. It is judged by how you perform in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Perhaps 2015 is the year that Boudreau scratches the “black mark” of playoff failure from his name.

The upcoming Western Conference Finals series against the Chicago Blackhawks might just be the toughest and most pivotal challenge of Boudreau’s eight-year head coaching career.

Boudreau entered the NHL in 2007-08 as the head coach of a young, raw Washington Capitals squad led by the superstar Alexander Ovechkin. He was an instantaneous success leading the Capitals to the postseason for the first time since 2002-03.

A loaded, run and gun and exciting to watch Capitals led by Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green stormed to a Game 7 in the second round of the postseason one season later against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins. They were edged out in one of the most exciting postseason series in recent memory.

When Washington was finally swept aside 6-2 by a team that would go on to win the Stanley Cup that June, it felt like the Capitals were on the precipice of breaking out as a potential dynasty.

Boudreau and his passionate coaching style were at the core of the identity of that team - he was most of all considered to be a great player’s coach.

That wasn’t to be the story though. Washington would win the President’s Trophy with the best regular season record in 2009-10 and the Eastern conference in 2010-11, but each time they performed poorly in the playoffs. They were shocked in the first round in 2010, before getting swept by division rivals Tampa Bay in 2011.

During that time Boudreau’s strategic qualities and flexibility was questioned. There were calls for him to adopt a less “gun-ho” attacking approach and to insist on his superstars committing at both ends of the ice. Above all, it was often insinuated and sometimes outright stated that Boudreau’s approach didn’t work in the postseason.

Just 22 games into the 2011-12 season Boudreau was fired and replaced by Dale Hunter.

It appears that Washington’s problems ran deeper than Boudreau. The Capitals have won just two playoff series in four seasons since his departure. They couldn’t get it done this season despite taking a 3-1 second round series lead against the New York Rangers.
Some of Washington’s players have even regressed in their postseason performances without Boudreau, the most notable of which is Alex Ovechkin. “The Great 8” has 25 goals and 50 points in 37 playoff games under Boudreau (and scored at more than one point per game in all four runs), but has managed just 11 goals and 20 points in 35 postseason contests since.

Boudreau didn’t have to wait long for his next job; the Anaheim Ducks almost immediately hired him as Randy Carlyle’s replacement. The situation with the Ducks wasn’t so dissimilar to the one Boudreau inherited in Anaheim. A team with lots of talent led by superstars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, but one that was set to miss the playoffs and was struggling to hit its potential.

He wasn’t able to prevent the Ducks from missing the 2012 playoffs, but since then Anaheim have won three straight Pacific division titles posting impressive offensive numbers and developing into one of the league’s star-studded line-ups.

After losing in the first round in 2012-13, the Ducks were engaged in a Penguins-Capitals 2009 like series with California rivals LA, eventually losing 4-3 in what was arguably the Kings’ toughest series en route to a second Stanley Cup triumph in three years.

It was always the case that 2014-15 would be a defining season for these Ducks and Boudreau. They once again stormed to a Pacific division title taking the top seed in the Western conference.

In the first two rounds of the 2015 playoffs they've taken their opportunities losing just one game while beating Winnipeg and Calgary, both teams with little postseason experience.

The challenge in front of them in the Conference Finals is a different matter. The Chicago Blackhawks already have two Stanley Cups in the last five years and it feels like a core led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook might just be primed for a title number three.

Boudreau has probably done enough for Ducks fans and management to forgive him a series defeat to Chicago – at least in terms of staying employed. However, this is a real opportunity for the Ducks and their head coach to break through. There are some playoff-tested players leading this group and they are benefitting from some bargains salary cap wise. Windows of opportunity don’t stay open for too long in the salary cap era.

For Boudreau, his 363-167-69 regular season record speaks for itself. He’s won seven division titles in eight seasons and has never failed to make the playoffs outside of the year split between Washington and Anaheim.

His one blemish is a 5-6 record in postseason series (3-6 before 2015). Boudreau’s window of opportunity to erase that blemish from his record comes against the NHL’s modern dynasty.

If Boudreau’s team loses this series, they risk becoming a footnote to a period dominated by Chicago and LA. Win it and they could be building their own legacy.

For all of his success and for everything he has accomplished. Bruce Boudreau is about to take on his toughest challenge yet as he aims to engrave his name in the history of the sport. 

The Future Is Bright For The Flames

           After overcoming a blown call by the zebras in Game 3 to win the contest and bring their series to 2-1 against the Anaheim Ducks, it appeared the Calgary Flames may indeed be a team of destiny. Johnny Gaudreau snapped a wrist shot over the glove of Frederick Andersen late in the third period to tie that contest, despite the fact the Flames had technically tied it just a few minutes earlier if not for the aforementioned blown call. Mikael Backlund then scored on a seeing-eye shot a few minutes into the first overtime period. Unfortunately for Calgary, the victory would be the only one the team would claim in the series as the Ducks’ Corey Perry scored in overtime last night to give the Ducks 4-1 series win.

           The loss was definitely disappointing for the Flames and their fans, especially considering the team filled with young guns had a chance to do something no Flames team had done since 2008… win a game in Anaheim. Still though, the future does look bright in Calgary. The team made the playoffs when nobody expected to and coach Bob Hartley instilled a sense of belief in the team’s young core group of players that seemed to carry the squad all the way through to the second round.

           And perhaps the most exciting aspect of the team’s run is that Norris Trophy caliber defenseman Mark Giordano missed the latter part of the regular season and all of the playoffs with an injury. The fact that he was out of the lineup allowed teammates Dennis Wideman, T.J. Brodie and others to step up their game and fill the gaps. The commitment to doing whatever it takes to win was evident throughout the end of the regular season and it spoke volumes as to the potential the Flames’ organization has moving forward.

          Gaudreau and Sean Monahan in particular produced way more than perhaps anybody would’ve thought coming into the season and the team also found a way to make it work between the pipes with former Duck Jonas Hiller playing extremely well early in the season giving his teammates added confidence in front of him. Even when Hiller struggled against his former team in Round 2, backup Karri Ramo Relieved him and showed up in top form giving the Flames every opportunity possible to claim victory against an Anaheim team who although will face its toughest test against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals, appears to be a juggernaut in its own right.

           So all in all there’s a lot to be grateful for and hopeful about now that the Flames are headed back to Calgary to clean out their lockers for the summer. It was a fun ride while it lasted and the team demonstrated that the future is indeed bright in Alberta, and not just because the rival Edmonton Oilers have their sights set on Connor McDavid.

Can Lightning Strike 4 Straight Times?

          Not for a knee injury to goaltender Carey Price during last year’s playoff run, the Montreal Canadiens may have found themselves in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Los Angeles Kings. Despite the fact that’s not how things played out, the Habs came into this season with high hopes of surpassing last year’s results in competing for hockey’s ultimate prize this time around. While the team may have been dying a rematch with the New York Rangers in the Conference Finals, the present order of business is to take care of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.

           If Montreal was taking Tampa Bay lightly, they now have cause for concern as the Lightning are now taking the series back to the state of Florida with a 2-0 lead, handily winning both games at the Bell Centre. To make matters worse, the team’s superstar Steven Stamkos appears to have finally awoken from his slumber. The sniper finally scored his first goal of the playoffs on Sunday night, forcing the Habs’ Hart Trophy candidate to do the splits in the crease to no avail as Stamkos deked around him and slid the puck in the net.

           And yet as much as experts around the NHL would gladly contend that Stamkos should be Montreal’s number one concern defensively throughout the series given the fact that a player of his caliber is bound to breakout sooner or later, it’s not Stamkos leading the charge early in the series for Tampa Bay.

          Thus far it’s actually been Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov who have caused the most damage. Kucherov scored twice in the team’s Game 2 win on Sunday, and Johnson leads the team in scoring in these playoffs with 7 goals and 3 assists. That’s 10 points in 8 games, and a lot of those points have come in key situations that led the team to victory, as is usually the case when it comes to offensive production in the postseason.

          Add to Tampa’s scoring a solid and healthy Ben Bishop in goal, and Montreal’s Brandon Prust publicly calling out the refereeing after Game 2, which will surely give the team trouble as the series moves forward and it appears there’s no stopping the Tampa Bay Lightning. That’s especially true considering the Lightning won every single game of the regular season series between the two clubs as well.

           The question now is not only whether Montreal can make a comeback in the series and keep it respectable, but whether the Tampa Bay Lightning actually have a realistic shot at sweeping the Habs. Conventional wisdom might say no just because Montreal is one of the top contenders for the Stanley Cup this year, but it appears that the Lightning are the hottest team in hockey outside of the Anaheim Ducks and no matter who has home ice advantage in the series, at the end of the day, it’s about who is playing better in the moment. And the Tampa Bay Lightning are definitely playing better right now.

          Without question, the end result of Game 3, scheduled for Wednesday in Tampa Bay will go a long way towards determining whether or not the Lightning can indeed achieve the improbable and sweep Montreal, not only from a practical standpoint given that they would obviously need a 3-0 lead to put themselves in position to sweep, but also from a morale of standpoint. A win on Wednesday gives the Lightning an opportunity to strike fear in all of the remaining teams in the playoffs and continue to build their confidence as they pursue bringing the Stanley Cup back to Tampa Bay for the first time since the franchise won its first ever title back in 2004 over the Calgary Flames.

           Whether or not Tampa Bay wins four games in a row however, it’s obvious the franchise is a force to be reckoned with and that’s a scary thought given that the team’ leading scorer just now decided to show up to the party, a party that could have the state of Florida preparing for a Stanley Cup parade by the middle of next month.

Saying Goodbye To Nassau Coliseum

It’s time to say “goodbye” to Nassau Coliseum. From afar, it might be difficult to feel anything for a rickety old stadium that was no longer fit for purpose in the National Hockey League. However, it’s worth remembering the history, tradition and loss of one of the league’s truly unique rinks.

While the movement of the New York Islanders from Long Island to Brooklyn is not being highlighted or discussed as a major movement of a franchise, for the residents and hockey fans living in Nassau County and Long Island, it is a big deal.

There’s nothing quite like attending a hockey game. It is more enclosed than football or baseball and has a higher intensity level than basketball. The cool crispness of the ice and the sharp scraping of skate on ice is contrasted with the heated intensity of the game action and the deepness of the crashing physicality.

Since 1972, fans have streamed into the Nassau Coliseum and they have seen some wonderful teams and some wonderful games. In 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1983 the Stanley Cup came to Long Island. That Islanders team to this day is one of the NHL’s least heralded dynasties – a dominance where you win four consecutive championships in any major sport is virtually unheard of. Perhaps it’s because they were followed by the Wayne Gretzky led Edmonton Oilers who won five Stanley Cups in seven seasons.

Al Arbour’s team had one of the finest lines in NHL history with Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Clark Gillies, not to mention Bob Nystrom, Billy Smith and Denis Potvin. The Islanders had a deep, complete and simply unbeatable hockey team for four seasons.

Maybe moving to the better facilities of the Barclays Center is for the best for this franchise in the long-term, but the memories of those Stanley Cup runs will remain in Nassau. The 1980 team was also the very first NHL team to win a Stanley Cup with European players on their roster with Stefan Persson and Anders Kallur in the line-up of that team. Considering how much the league has changed over the last few decades, it’s hard to imagine a league where European players didn’t play a significant role.

It was fitting that after a period of mediocrity, the New York Islanders produced one of their finest seasons to date. They were a genuine contender in the Eastern conference. They dominated the Washington Capitals in what would be the final NHL playoff game at the Coliseum winning the game 3-1. Though they eventually fell in a tight Game 7, there’s a feeling that this franchise, led by one of the game’s elite players in John Tavares, is headed firmly in the right direction.

In many ways, Jack Capuano has coached this team to play the “Islanders way” over the last few seasons. They skate well, score goals and play with an edge and a little bit of nastiness.

It hasn’t all been rosy for this franchise. In fact, many of the final days of Nassau Coliseum have been a struggle with owner Charles Wang battling to keep the team where it was and speculation over its future.

The Islanders will proudly march into their relatively new and sparkling arena next September, but they were dragged there after commissioner Gary Bettman seemingly finally put his foot down and demanded something better than Nassau.

Neither should it be forgotten that Nassau Coliseum, for all its charm and for all the history that exists there, is a relic. Famously poorly maintained, leaking from the ceiling and in danger of falling down altogether. It is no longer fit to hold 15,000 screaming hockey fans two or three times per week. It was arguably becoming increasingly unsafe.

Wang’s attempts to develop the area around Nassau and to make the hockey arena the hub of a thriving district ultimately never came to fruition. Instead, the arena is one of the most difficult to get to in terms of transportation and feels “out of the way”. That won’t be a problem for the Islanders new home, which is located in downtown Brooklyn.

Still, hockey will not be the same in the Barclays Center. The arena is less intimate and the giant electronic scoreboard will reportedly make hockey viewing less than ideal. It wasn’t designed for hockey viewing.

Times will change and little lasts forever. The history made at Nassau Coliseum will be taken with the Islanders to Brooklyn, and new history will be made. The franchise’s time playing on Long Island and at the quirky arena has shaped its identity, and that will never change.

Nassau Coliseum will be missed. It’s easy to understand why there is so much rejoicing and celebrating that the franchise will be moving to a new home, and importantly for the fan base now has a secure future in New York. However, one of the NHL’s most characterful and special arenas in its long history.