Ottawa Senators 2016 Offseason Plans

In a year in which hockey teams across Canada disappointed, it seems appropriate that one of the bigger disappointments was the nation’s capital’s Ottawa Senators. While not thought of as a true Stanley Cup contender, the team was looking to build on its playoff appearance in the 2014-2015 season. Instead, they dropped from 99 to 85 points and missed the playoffs. After the season, Ottawa hired former Tampa Bay Lightning Head Coach Guy Boucher to fill the same role in their organization.

The Senators’ star player is defenseman Captain Erik Karlsson, the first defenseman in over 40 years to lead the league in assists (66). He also finished tied for fourth among all skaters with 82 points. Another bright spot for the club was second year forward Mark Stone who put up 61 points in 75 games. Assistant Captain Kyle Turris was looking to build on two strong campaigns, but was limited to only 57 games because of injuries. Two veterans occupying a ton of cap space are winger Bobby Ryan and defenseman Dion Phaneuf. While both played fairly well, their combined cap hit of over $14 million per season for the next five years will limit what the team can do in the future.

Pending Free Agents: The top two players up for free agency are both restricted, and will almost assuredly be signed to long term deals. Mike Hoffman led the squad with 29 goals and finished third with 59 points. 22 year old blue liner Cody Ceci had a solid season as well. These two are part of Ottawa’s core moving forward. Fellow restricted free agent defenseman Patrick Wiercioch will not be retained.

Draft Picks: Even though Ottawa could use another top four defenseman, most of the top players at that position will likely be gone when they have the 12th pick in the draft. Several strong forward prospects should be available, and adding some scoring punch is also needed. Centers Michael McLeod and Tyson Jost along with winger Julien Gauthier could all be potential options.

Free Agent Additions: The Senators’ should have sufficient cap room to make a play for a big name free agent. While top free agent Steven Stamkos could potentially be wooed by his former coach, it is unlikely he would sign with Ottawa. New York Islanders winger Kyle Okposo is a young and talented unrestricted free agent that could immediately fill a role on the top line. Defenseman Jordie Benn could be an interesting addition if they could get him for the right price.

Following The NHL Playoffs From Abroad

Living abroad for over two years now, I have learned one definite, undeniable, concrete fact: most of the world likes soccer.

I like soccer too, however, in the midst of the Stanley Cup Playoffs I need to watch the Game 6’s and especially the Game 7’s (not to mention Games 1,2,3,4, and 5.) For the most part, the only way for the world outside of North America to watch the Playoffs is on the internet.

This is a problem because the Stanley Cup Playoffs should be enjoyed in bars and restaurants with as many people as possible, just like any sport. Hockey is the fastest game on the planet and is growing in popularity every day, even gaining on soccer.

One great thing is that restaurants and bars around the world are starting to play more playoff hockey games on their televisions than ever before (provided the Champions League soccer games aren’t on.)
Finally these businesses are starting to realize the fan base that hockey can draw and the commercial successes that comes with it.

Chile, where I live, is the farthest point on the globe from the hockey meccas of Canada, the United States, or even Russia or the Czech Republic. Still, in some of the bars here there are people cheering on their favourite team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, despite probably never having visited the city where that team is based. In the world of satellite television, such a thing is not necessary.

The feeling is what matters. The adrenaline that comes when that all-important goal is scored.

Many central and South American countries that don’t even have snow, let alone ice, is a great example of how sports (hockey in particular) can bring people from all different cultures together to enjoy themselves. My sister, for example, lives in the jungles of Panama and still pesters me to get the end results of games to discuss them with her friends because they can’t watch live playoff hockey games! Hockey is coming to these parts of the world but it is not quite there yet.

The teams still standing in the playoffs are playing a phenomenally high level of hockey. They are physical yet skilled, tough defensively yet high scoring, and precise yet entertaining. Entertaining in any country and any language.

These three teams: the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the San Jose Sharks, are playing the best hockey of the year, as well they should be. In knocking off all the favourites, (the Chicago Blackhawks, the Los Angeles Kings,the Washington Capitals, and the New York Islanders) these teams are now deservedly the best of the best.

Many hockey fans around the world have a favorite team. Usually, loyalty to a team springs from where a person resides, where they were born, or a family loyalty. This is a time honored tradition. Even the ones who break the mold and leave their hometowns to see the world still want to cheer on their team at hockey’s most important time of the year.

At a young age, a lot of people choose their teams for life. Whether you live in Montreal and cheer for Boston because your dad did, or if you had to move from Calgary to Minnesota for a job, people still cheer for the team they grew up with. Even when getting scorned for wearing the other team’s jersey at the local bar, people will cheer for the team they want to cheer for.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are different from the regular season, and especially year to year. This year is more downtrodden than others for hockey fans if you are a Canadian.

There are no Canadian teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 46 years, but there is still plenty for Canadians to cheer for.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have arguably the best player on the planet in Sidney Crosby, from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. The San Jose Sharks have long-time leaders Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Tampa Bay has Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Drouin. All Canadians.

This article is meant to articulate that even if your hometown team (or even home country) is no longer playing playoff hockey, there are plenty of reasons to continue to watch the rest of these amazing Stanley Cup playoff games.

And the Hart Trophy Goes To….

The Hart Trophy is awarded each year to the player who is “deemed to be the most valuable to his team”. Technically the current trophy is called the Hart Memorial Trophy as the original cup was retired to the Hall of Fame in 1960 but regardless of what it’s called the Hart Memorial Trophy is more widely known as the MVP award.

Voting for the MVP takes place at the end of the regular season by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. Each member of the association designates his or her top 5 candidates using a point system. The top three finalists are announced ahead of time but the winner is not named until the NHL Awards ceremony, which takes place after the playoffs.

Which leads us to this moment in time when the three finalists have been named and the speculation on who will be named this year’s MVP can begin in earnest. Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, and Jamie Benn are this year’s finalists. Let the debating begin!

 Actually, truth be told, there may not be so much discussion and argument this year. In fact, there seems to be very little as almost everyone agrees that Patrick Kane is as close to a shoe-in for the award as there has ever been.

A 27-year old right-winger for the Chicago Blackhawks, Kane led the NHL with 106 points this season. He either scored or assisted on 45% of the Blackhawk’s goals this season. It’s hard to imagine someone being “deemed more valuable to his team” than that. He is also the first American-born player to lead the league in scoring and is trying to be the first Blackhawk to win the award since Stan Mikita in 1968.

Amazing puck handling, incredible passing, and thunderous shooting have always been part of Kane’s game but this year he has particularly excelled giving him the scoring championship with a 17 and 21 point lead on Benn and Crosby respectively.

It’s hard to imagine giving the award to one of the other finalists, not that they haven’t had their own incredible seasons. Benn finished the season with career bests in power play goals (17) and goals (41). He is the first player in the Dallas Stars’ history to be named a finalist for the Hart Trophy. Sidney Crosby is no stranger to MVP voting having won it twice in the past. With 85 points on the season he not only led the Pittsburgh Penguins in scoring but also led among centers throughout the NHL.

But when you look at the player “deemed to be the most valuable to his team” you have to consider impact and there seems to be general consensus that Kane’s stellar performance this year helped Chicago excel at a time when many of his teammates were having difficulty producing offense on their own. Kane’s play made the people around him better.

But for now we wait. The ballots are in. Predictions will be made. Bets placed. Either way, we’ll all find out at the NHL Awards show in Vegas this June.

Phil Kessel proving he wasn’t the problem in Toronto

The much-maligned Phil Kessel of Madison, Wisconsin, is proving his many critics wrong by showing that he’s truly an elite NHL player during the current postseason. Kessel, who was more or less run out of Toronto by “Leafs Nation,” could potentially be a Conn Smythe candidate this season if he and the Pittsburgh Penguins can keep it up. After 16 playoff games this season he had eight goals and nine assists for 17 points, was a plus-5, and sat at number three in the scoring race just two points behind the leader. That’s nothing new for the speedy right-winger though as he now has 21 goals and 17 assists in 38 career postseason outings.

Kessel had a good, but not great season in 2015/16 with his 26 goals and 33 assists, but that could have been expected as he spent the first half of the campaign getting used to a new set of teammates and coaches. However, he did his part by helping the Penguins to a solid record of 48-28-8 and was a plus-9.  Once all parties became used to each other, both Kessel and the Penguins finished the year on a high note as being one of the hottest players and teams in the league. The only Penguins who produced more than Kessel’s 59 points this year were Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

The 29-year-old, who started his career with the Boston Bruins in 2006/07 after being drafted fifth overall, was eventually acquired by Toronto in 2009 because of his goal scoring talent. He didn’t let anybody down as he was the club’s best player and leading scorer for the next six seasons. He also shone in his one playoff performance by leading the squad with six points in four postseason games. But in typical Leafs fashion they blew a 4-1 lead over Boston in game seven of their first-round series with just 10 minutes to go and lost 5-4 in overtime.

As Toronto fans often do, they looked for a scapegoat and somehow Kessel fit the bill. He was brought in to score goals and score goals he did. But as an added bonus, he also showed what a fine playmaker he is. For some reason, Kessel was labeled as being lazy and blamed for five decades of Maple Leafs’ ineptness. The man isn’t a leader, has never proclaimed himself to be, and probably never will be, but the fans’ anger for Toronto’s half-century Stanley Cup drought fell directly into his lap. All he did in Toronto was his job, and he did it well while shying away from the spotlight whenever possible. He was also the team’s iron man as he didn’t miss a game for in his final five years in Toronto.

Most Leafs’ fans didn’t appreciate Kessel, but they’re now looking to replace him with a goal scorer to solve their problems and are hoping Steve Stamkos will be the answer. They already had one of the league’s best scorers and playmakers in Kessel though and didn’t have a clue how to treat him. There’s no doubt the shy testicular-cancer survivor Kessel prefers to let his on-ice play do his talking while others bask in the spotlight since he’s generally not comfortable with the media. That has worked out well for him in Pittsburgh as he can go about his job while others such as Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang handle the press and post-game interviews.

Kessel also seems to play his best when there isn’t a lot of expectations heaped on him. While he didn’t set the league on fire by skating alongside Crosby or Malkin he fits like a glove with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino and the trio has become one of the league’s best lines. The Leafs had no elite players to play with Kessel and arguably that was for the best. But he’s proven to be a driving force on a good Pittsburgh team when used properly. Leafs’ fans may now wonder who will play on Auston Matthews’ wing next season if they take the young American first overall in the NHL Draft and may regret that it won’t be Kessel. These fans need to realize Kessel didn’t suddenly become a top player overnight. He was a legitimate star in Toronto and only 11 NHL players have scored more goals than him since he broke into the league a decade ago.

Also, from 2011 to 2014, Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers was the one and only player to rack up more points than Kessel. While with the Leafs, Kessel was the fifth-top goal scorer in the league. The winger also has 38 points in 38 career playoff games for a pace of a point point-per game. Granted, he’s played just 38 postseason contests up to now, but his point-producing average in the playoffs is better than players such as Patrick Kane, Paul Coffey, Alexander Ovechkin, Stan Mikita, Rocket Richard, Jaromir Jagr and dozens of other stars.  

Kessel wasn’t good enough for the Leafs and the majority of their fans though and it shows just how incompetent this franchise is. If they couldn’t build a team around a true NHL star such as Kessel what makes them think things will be different if they’re lucky enough to land Stamkos? Of course, the Leafs’ newest savior will now have somebody to play with since the club has a few legitimate prospects after tanking for the last two years. To rub salt into the wounds, the Leafs arguably didn’t get near enough back in value for Kessel and they’re also paying part of his salary.

Trading Kessel may help Toronto in the long run, but he was unfairly blamed for the team’s problems while tearing up the league with the Leafs. Another ex-Leaf, Hall of Fame defenceman Larry Murphy, knows exactly what Kessel is going through. Murphy was also the whipping boy of Leafs’ fans while in Toronto from 1995 to 1997. Even though he scored 100 points in 151 games for the Leafs and had already won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh, the experts in the stands deemed he wasn’t good enough for the hapless Leafs. Murphy was also run out of town and then went on to win two more Stanley Cups with Detroit. There’s still a long way to go in these playoffs, but it’s possible Kessel could follow Murphy’s example. 

Colorado Avalanche 2016 Offseason Plans

 After winning the Central division with 112 points in the 2013-2014 season, the Colorado Avalanche looked to be a team on the rise. A young core of talented future stars seemed destined to only improve. The team has gone in the opposite direction however, notching 90 and 82 points in each of the last two years respectively. After missing the playoffs for a second straight time, Colorado General Manager Joe Sakic will have his work cut out for him this offseason.

The team spent a lot of time in their own zone this season, ranking near the bottom of the league in shots allowed, goals allowed and penalty kill percentage. As a result they were also in the bottom five of shots taken and possession. Those statistics are somewhat surprising considering the talent on the roster. Center Matt Duchene scored 30 goals for the first time in his career and let the team with 59 points. 23 year old Gabriel Landeskog scored at least 20 goals for the 3rd straight season and Nathan Mackinnon (20) added 52 points in 72 games. These personal accomplishments however were not enough to overcome the issues with defense and goaltending. 

Pending Free Agents: It would probably be easier to name the players not up for free agency as opposed to those that are. The organization has more than half of its players (in Colorado and minor league San Antonio) without a contract this offseason. The two most notable are Mackinnon and 24 year old defenseman Tyson Barrie. The two restricted free agents will both be looking for significant raises, which is a problem for a cap strapped team like Colorado. Veterans Jarome Iginla and Brad Stuart are set to make $9 million dollars next season, which truly limits what the team can do.

Another restricted free agent the team will try to keep is goalie Calvin Pickard. The 24 year old outplayed starter Semyon Varlamov, which could make the high priced Varlamov available on the trade market.

Draft Picks: Considering the team’s struggles on defense, and the fact that one of their top blue liners is 35 years old, there is a good chance Colorado will take a defenseman when they pick at number ten. Some options may be Jake Bean, Dante Fabbro and Olli Juolevi.

Free Agent Additions: As previously mentioned, the Avalanche do not have a lot of cap room and still need to sign many of their own players. That being the case, there are rumors swirling the team could trade anyone, including Duchene, Mackinnon and Barrie. If they are able to free up some cap space, the team has been linked to Russian forward Alexander Radulov. After failing in his initial NHL stint in 2012 because of character concerns, it appears Radulov is ready to return the U.S. and Colorado may try to snap him up.

Should Playoffs Be Included in Front Office Awards?

The nominees for all the awards to be handed out in Las Vegas on June 22 have all been announced, with the final one for General Manager of the Year coming out at the conclusion of the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

There are plenty of awards for players: the Hart, the Messier Leadership Award, the Lady Byng, the Foundation Award, the Calder, the Masterson, the Norris, the Selke, and the Vezina. Not to mention the Art Ross and the William Jennings trophies for top goal scorer and top goaltenders, respectively. Eleven trophies in all.

Then there are two awards for the front office personnel who, arguably, have just as much to do with their team’s success as the players. The Jack Adams trophy is awarded to the coach who “contributed the most to his team’s success.” The other is simply the GM of the Year award which is voted on by all 30 General Managers, a panel of NHL Executives, and media members.

Neither of those definitions say that the award is specifically for the regular season like the other awards. However, these were both voted on before the Conference Finals even start. Ask any of the finalists for these two awards if they would rather finish first in the regular season and get a banner, or finish eighth in the season and have their name on the Stanley Cup.

That choice is pretty clear and that is why the Playoffs should be included in the voting process.

The finalists for the GM of the year are Jim Rutherford of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Brian MacLellan of the Washington Capitals, and JIm Nill of the Dallas Stars. Granted, during the regular season all these men did a fantastic job of putting together teams to win their conferences and many, many games. But there is only one man left in the playoffs now.

What about Steve Yzerman of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have made it to the Eastern Conference Final without his two top players in Ben Bishop and Steven Stamkos? He built a depth team that could survive the playoff storm.

The award for coach of the year, the Jack Adams, will be either Barry Trotz of the Washington Capitals, Gerard Gallant of the Florida Panthers, or Lindy Ruff of the Dallas Stars. Again, all amazing accomplishments in the regular season but they are all playing golf now while the other coaches are still rolling their lines, and watching game video.

Also, there is another award given to players just for the playoffs, the Conn Smythe trophy. This is given to the player “judged most valuable to his team during the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs.”

Perhaps there should be an award for, at least Coach of the Playoffs, and maybe General Manager of Playoffs too. Certainly a case could be made for the coach who most contributes to their team’s success in the playoffs. As well, a General Manager who puts together the best team to make it all the way to hockey’s Holy Grail should deserve more recognition to include the playoffs.

At the very least they could push the voting process back another round to see which coaches and GM’s make it to the Stanley Cup Finals.

What Crosby Drought?

Eight games without a goal. It doesn’t seem so bad right? Lots of NHL players go much longer than that without putting the puck into the net. If you add five assists during those eight games you might even call it a hot streak. Except it’s Sydney Crosby we’re talking about and eight games without a goal is not only unusual but almost panic inducing. The truth is that almost any game without a Crosby goal could be called a drought. If we really think about it we’d probably admit to ourselves that every time number 87 touches the puck anywhere past the blue line we’re surprised if it doesn’t go in.

Needless to say then that going into Game 2 of the Penguins Lightning series Pittsburgh fans were beyond thrilled to have their star Captain put one over the shoulder of Andrei Vasilevskiy’s shoulder in overtime. Not only did it break Crosby’s goal-less streak and tie the series at 1-1, it also gave Crosby his first career playoff OT goal, which seems unbelievable for a man many consider to be the most clutch player in the NHL.

The shot came 40 seconds into the first overtime period when teammate Bryan Rust dropped the puck back to Crosby who one-timed it into the top left corner of the net. It was a huge goal for Crosby and a timely one for Pittsburgh, giving them a 3-2 win over Tampa Bay and a ticket to Game 3 tied up rather than down two.

No one was more relieved than Crosby. “It definitely tests your patience sometimes. You've just got to focus on going back out there and trying to create,” he said after the game. “It feels good to get rewarded.”

The eight game goalless streak tied the longest playoff drought of Crosby’s career but any frustrations he might have had didn’t show in his overall efforts. If anything it seemed to drive him harder as he peppered Vasilevskiy with six solid shots over the course of the game. The Tampa Bay goalie wasn’t giving an inch of space however, notching 38 saves including a spectacular glove save on a Crosby backhand in the second period. Lightning coach Jon Cooper recognized the young tender’s performance saying, “Vasi was probably the reason the game went into overtime in the first place.”

With the streak behind him and the series tied, Crosby and the Penguins hope to take the lead in Game 3, which takes place at Amelie Arena in Tampa. Many Pittsburgh fans wonder whether Crosby’s Game 2 winner was the beginning of a hot streak or another cold spell but Lightning coach Cooper doesn’t know that it matters, pointing out that a cold streak for Crosby is a hot streak for most everyone else.

Is there a playoff curse on the NHL's Presidents’ Trophy winners?

It didn’t come as a surprise to many NHL fans when the Washington Capitals were knocked out of the current playoffs in the second round by the Pittsburgh Penguins. According to some, the Capitals were unfortunate enough to have been crowned the Presidents’ Trophy winners this year for having the best regular-season record in the league. There are fans out there who believe this trophy comes with a curse attached to it and the Capitals early exit was just par for the course. Looking back through the annual statistics and postseason results, these curse believers may have a bit of a point.

The Presidents’ Trophy was first handed out to the NHL’s top club in the 1985/86 campaign. It’s nice to win it, but the ultimate goal for everybody in the league is the Stanley Cup. The Presidents’ Trophy winners are always one of the favourites to win the Stanley Cup once the postseason begins since they have home-ice advantage throughout, but so far they haven’t really been that successful. Of the 30 Presidents’ Trophy winners, just eight of them have gone on to hoist Lord Stanley’s mug at the end of the playoffs.

This means 22 of the Presidents’ Trophy winners haven’t been able to achieve their postseason goals. In fact, six of them have been eliminated from the playoffs in the very first round and another six were sent packing after the second round, including the Capitals this year. On three occasions, the Presidents’ Trophy winners failed to even make the playoffs the year after winning the award. But on the other side of the coin, the top point-getting team in the NHL reached the Stanley Cup Finals 45 per cent of the time between 1982 and 2009.

The eight teams that managed to top the league in the regular season and capture the Stanley Cup were the Edmonton Oilers (1986/87), the Calgary Flames (1988/89), the New York Rangers (1993/94), the Dallas Stars (1998/99), the Colorado Avalanche (2000/01), the Detroit Red Wings (2001/02 and 2007/08), and the Chicago Blackhawks (2012/13). These eight represent 26 percent of Presidents’ Trophy winners. Three of the winners went on to lose the Stanley Cup Finals, and these were the Boston Bruins (1989/90), the Detroit Red Wings (1994/95) and the Vancouver Canucks (2010/11).

Therefore, 11 of the 30 Presidents’ Trophy winners made it as far as the Stanley Cup Finals, which represents 37 per cent of them. Things have even been worse lately though as just four of the league’s top teams have won the Stanley Cup since 2000 and Chicago has been the only one to do it in the past eight seasons. For interest sake, let’s compare the top regular-season NHL clubs to the top teams in the MLB, the NBA, and the NFL.

The last National League baseball team to win the World Series after topping the MLB standings in the regular season was the New York Mets back in 1986. The past six top National League clubs haven’t even made it to the World Series. The last National League squad to finish with the best overall record in baseball and reach the World Series was the St. Louis Cardinals with a record of 105-57 and they lost the final in four straight games to the Boston Red Sox. Over in the American League, three of the past eight clubs that boasted MLB’s best record have won the World Series. The top two baseball teams in the American and National League have met each other just once in the Fall Classic since 2000. The Boston Red Sox beat the St. Louis Cardinals in six games when this occurred in 2013.

Things are a bit better for the top NBA teams though as the Golden State Warriors could be the fourth consecutive top team to win the championship if they can pull it off this year. Golden State won the title last season after finishing with the best overall regular-season record as did the San Antonio Spurs in 2013/14 and the Miami Heat in 2012/2013. However overall, just six NBA teams have won the championship and the topped the league standings since the 1999/2000 campaign. When it comes to the NFL, the top NFC and NFL teams have met only three times in the Super bowl since 2000.

Being the top NHL club over a grueling 82-game season is something to be proud of, but being knocked out of the playoffs could be due to reasons other than a curse. Some teams simply run out of gas, suffer from injuries or run into a hot goaltender. In addition, the NHL schedule is unbalanced and the Presidents’ Trophy winner could have had the fortune of playing in a weaker division and/or conference. However, the possibility of a curse isn’t necessarily out of the question either.       

Montreal Canadiens 2016 Offseason Plans

After winning the Atlantic division in the 2014-2015 season, the Montreal Canadiens appeared to be on the verge of something special. Optimism continued to grow when the team won the first nine games of the 2015-2016 season. Soon after, everything fell apart. Reigning Vezina trophy winning goalie Carey Price was injured after 12 games and did not return. His replacements, Mike Condon and Ben Scrivens, were far from acceptable and posted a combined .904 save percentage.

The Canadiens didn’t have enough offense to overcome their poor goaltending. Only two players scored at least 20 goals this season, Captain Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk, who both lit the lamp 30 times. Even with All Star defenseman P.K. Subban scoring 51 points (45 assists), the team just couldn’t generate enough offense, especially on the power play. The Canadiens ranked just 25th in the NHL with the man advantage.

Pending Free Agents: Montreal does not have a lot of pending free agents, which is actually a problem for a disappointing team with little cap space. Two players that could be cap casualties are Center David Desharnais and Defenseman Alexei Emelin. The two make over seven million dollars combined, but produced a total -13 rating.

There have been rumors that the team could look to trade Subban as he would likely draw a significant bounty in return. He is signed through the 2022-23 season at nine million dollars a year. He was a top five defenseman in points per game this year, so while he is paid a lot, it would be very hard for the team to replace him.

Draft Picks: Many of the top players will be off the board by the time Montreal makes its pick at number nine overall, so they may be in the position to take the “best player available”. Two forwards that may be available are Michael McLeod and Alex Nylander (younger brother of Toronto Maple Leaf William Nylander). If they decide to take a defenseman, Olli Juolevi or Jake Bean should be available.

Free Agent Additions: Considering their lack of salary cap space, the Canadiens will have a hard time being active in free agency. Kris Versteeg and Kyle Okposo are two forward options the team may consider, but the main sticking point will be finding enough cash. A backup goaltender would likely be wise to add, but this free agent market is extremely thin at the position. Former starters Cam Ward and James Reimer, while no longer able to carry the full load, may be too expensive for the Canadiens to add as Price’s backup.

The Complete Team

The NHL Playoffs are down to four teams and the San Jose Sharks will have a tough challenge facing the St. Louis Blues, who just bested the ‘mighty’ Anaheim Ducks in seven games.

This is because each of these teams uses their entire roster to win these arduous games.

The Pittsburgh Penguins outlasted the President’s Trophy winning Washington Capitals and now face the Tampa Bay Lightning, who won their series against the New York Islanders despite being without their top defenceman in Victor Hedman for most of the series, as well as scoring machine Steven Stamkos.

Most teams would have floundered without their top two players (goaltender Ben Bishop notwithstanding), but supporting players in the Eastern Conference have made a huge impact on their teams successes in these playoffs.

Sidney Crosby was held to two assists in the round against the Washington Capitals and his team advanced. On the other side was Alex Ovechkin who was largely held in check for the series as well, despite being a 50 goal scorer for the seventh time.
Ovechkin tried his best to score as many goals as possible but it was not enough. The only way to get to the Stanley Cup Finals is to have each and every player doing their job every night, no matter how small a role they play. For example, the Penguins second line of Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, and Nick Bonino led the way for their team in the deciding sixth game, scoring all four goals.

On the other side of the Eastern Conference, the Tampa Bay Lightning had an easier time with the New York Islanders with a convincing 4-1 series victory. Ben Bishop had a shut-out and was the driving force behind the Lightning but again, secondary scoring was a key to their success.

The Penguins will advance if they can solve Bishop and the Lightning will advance if they can solve Matt Murray (and keep Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in check) but the same, hard checking, supporting players will be the difference in the series once again.

Currently, in the Western Conference, the superstars that are paid for the job the they are supposed to do, have done so. Players such as Jamie Benn, Vladimir Tarasenko, Logan Couture, and Brent Burns are all at the top of the playoff scoring race. However, they will be the first to say that their scoring accomplishments come on the backs of their teammates. Going to a seventh game (or any deciding game) in any round of the NHL Playoffs means that the entire team has played their hearts out for their hockey brethren.

The superstars of all the respective teams will eventually do what they do best, which is playing the game they were born to play at the highest level. There is a reason they are at the top of the hockey universe.

The rest of the team is what makes a team great. The second and third lines can do more damage to an opposing team in the playoffs than the first line ever will. They can have a devastating psychological, physical, and emotional impact on the opposition that the will require the coaches to have to re-evaluate their defensive game plan. To a coach, this is a very difficult task, maybe the hardest.

Whether the Sharks or the Predators or the Blues come out on top of the Western Conference, they will have a tough test against the winner of the Penguins and LIghtning series.

It will take an entire team effort and anyone can become the hero.

Playoff hockey. Gotta love it.

Sharks vs. Predators: It Comes To This

What began to look like an easy series for the Sharks quickly turned into a slog through the mud between two teams who may be at the end of their ropes physically and mentally. Six games and two overtime decisions later these players are spent, especially the Predators who came off a grueling series against the Mighty Ducks. One of the wins in this series was even a triple overtime to add insult to injury. No matter what happens on Thursday, San Jose and Nashville are leaving it all on the ice.

When the Predators finally knocked off Anaheim in Game 7 of their first round series they only had one day to rest before starting Game 1 against San Jose. The lack of down time might help explain why Nashville seemed completely out of gas by the third period, allowing a total of 5 goals in less than 17 minutes. While Predator goalie Peka Rinne managed to shut the Sharks out for two periods the wheels fell off the cart in the third and San Jose took the early lead in the series.

With just one day off between Games 1 and 2 the Predators hoped to rejuvenate and tie the series at 1 apiece. It didn’t turn out as planned with San Jose eking out a 3-2 win. Of the 5 goals scored during that matchup, 4 came in the third period making Nashville fans worry that if their team didn’t get a break they might find themselves out in the second round.

Game 3 came two days later with travel from California to Tennessee in between. With San Jose undefeated on the road in the post-season and a weary Nashville team heading to the ice things were not looking good. Maybe it was the hometown advantage. Maybe their backs were against the wall. Whatever the reason, the Nashville Predators dominated the Sharks to a 4-1 win, putting the series at 2-1. Pekka Rinne was the standout again with 26 saves against a Sharks team who hadn’t lost an away game since March 17th.

Game 4 stayed in Tennessee giving the Predators two full night’s sleep in their own beds. They needed it because Game 4 went into triple overtime before Nashville center, Mike Fisher, finally put one past Sharks goalie Martin Jones. The series was tied at 2.

Game 5 came after another travel day back to California where the long string of hockey games without a break may have finally done the Predators in. San Jose dominated the game with a 5-1 win that put them back in the lead 3-2.

A haggard Predators team came back to Nashville for Game 6. Tapping into whatever reserves of energy they had they managed to force overtime on a Colin Wilson goal in the third period.  Two minutes into overtime 23-year old Viktor Arvidsson scored his first career playoff goal to keep Nashville’s hopes alive. ''The second most exciting part of him scoring was that it was in the first three minutes,'' Predators left-winger Colin Wilson said. ''We get to get to bed at a regular time.”

Game 7 will feature something the Predators haven’t seen since mid-April; an extra day off thanks to a Selena Gomez concert at the SAP Center in San Jose. Perhaps that extra day’s rest will make a difference. Either way the winner of this game will face the winner of the Blues/Stars series, which has also reached Game 7, proving once again that the NHL Playoffs are a marathon not a sprint.

How to get consistent refereeing in the NHL playoffs

Once the puck drops for the NHL playoffs, the league’s officiating teams are highly scrutinized. It’s quite common for players, coaches and fans to complain about inconsistent refereeing during the postseason as an infraction that’s called for a penalty one night is completely ignored the next game. The simplest way to solve the problem of inconsistency during the drive to the Stanley Cup is to use the same set of on-ice officials for an entire playoff series. This means the teams will get the same referees and linesmen for each and every contest of a seven-game series.

The way the league currently operates, a different group of officials works each game and the clubs may be lucky to see the same faces twice during a seven-game showdown. Since officials are human it’s just natural that each of them has his own unique style even though the NHL preaches for consistency. Some referees are more lenient than others and this can lead to frustration and confusion from game to game. If the same set of officials worked each game of a series the players, coaches and spectators would know exactly what to expect and what constitutes a penalty.

If the same officials were assigned an entire series they would know what has taken place in each previous game. They would know who has caused trouble, who has been diving in an attempt to have a penalty called, who has been delivering cheap-shots and who has been involved in instigating post-whistle scrums etc. It would be so much easier for the players and coaches since they know where the line will be drawn. The fans would also benefit with less pushing and shoving after each and every whistle.

Since different officials are now employed from game to game we see marginal infractions interpreted differently by them from night to night. Game seven is never called in the same manner as game one and this often leads to a team taking a late-game or overtime penalty which can in turn lead to elimination from the playoffs. If a specific team of officials is more lenient, players will naturally try to take advantage of the situation. And even though they may not be called for a penalty during the game, fans have already seen several players suspended during this year’s postseason for dangerous and dirty plays after the fact due to the league reviewing video replays.

Some playoff games suffer from “under-officiating” one night and “over-officiating” the next. The NHL could do everybody a favour by assigning the same officials to an entire series. They would get a feel for the games and the series and it would lead to more consistency and less frustration. Major League baseball typically uses the same team of umpires for a series so players and managers can basically adapt to the way they interpret the strike zone and the rules in general. NHL players and coaches can be seen to be visibly upset during the playoffs when one pair of referees calls a game completely different than another pair during the same series. The solution is right before their eyes, but so far the NHL hasn’t explored the benefits of it.    

Too Good, Too Early

It is unfortunate that the Pittsburgh Penguins have to play the Washington Capitals in only the second round.

These two teams have had, by far, been the most entertaining and evenly matched series in the NHL Playoffs and deserved to play each other in the Eastern Conference finals and the winner playing for the Cup.

The Penguins are up 3 games to 1 in the series but those numbers have little to do with the absolutely amazing hockey being played between these teams. Also, if it was not for a 47 save performance from Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray, this series would be tied. These two powerhouses have played remarkably evenly matched hockey as the scores can attest:

Game 1: Washington 4, Pittsburgh 3 (Overtime)
Game 2: Pittsburgh 2, Washington 1
Game 3: Pittsburgh 3, Washington 2
Game 4: Pittsburgh 3, Washington 2 (Overtime)

Both Games 2 and 3 each had two goals scored in the third period, just to add to the already high level of excitement.

These two teams have been fierce rivals for the past ten years when the great turnaround for both teams happened by obtaining the number one pick in the draft. After the Capitals drafted Alex Ovechkin in 2004 and Pittsburgh grabbed Sidney Crosby in 2005, the race was on. Everyone knows how this story plays out but another similarity in this playoff series is how both these franchise cornerstones are being held off the scoresheet. Sure, they play tough and smart and generate all kinds of tough defensive match ups, but that is not what these two are really on the ice for. Ovechkin has 3 points in 4 games, but with 2 coming in Game 3 when the Capitals down 3-0 and Alex firing anything he touched at the net. Not exactly the timing you want from your best player. Crosby had one point in Game 4. His first of the series. Ouch..

So if your two best players on their respective teams are not contributing, guess what else these two teams have in common? The level of play from supporting players have carried both these teams. The two teams are averaging 5 goals per game so it is not like the goaltenders are standing on their heads every game (more later), so the scoring is coming from the guys who have favorable defensive match ups, aka not the top defensive pairings. The fact that these ‘secondary’ players are coming through for their teams when their top players get shut down is what having a great team is all about.

The shots are another example of Pittsburgh and Washington being evenly matched. Games 1 and 2 were dominated by Pittsburgh in the shots department but Washington roared back in the third game with 49 shots before evening out in game 4 with the shots 36-33 in favor of Washington. While the shots per game for each team has gone up and down, the overall total is 144-136 for the series in favor of Washington. An eight shot difference over 4 games is exactly what you would expect for a great series.

The goaltending in this series has been great as usual, just not all the time. Both goaltenders, Braden Holtby for Washington and Matt Murray for Pittsburgh have high save percentages and low goals against averages. This series has not really been about goaltending overall except for game 3 with Murray’s 47 save performance and Holtby’s 0.870 save percentage. However, there are still games ahead and these goaltenders will have to be at their very best to get to the next round.

From the head office on down, both franchises have done an admirable job building in keeping competitive teams over the years. Whichever of these two great teams comes out on top of this series, they deserve to go as far as possible.

Buffalo Sabres 2016 Offseason Plans

After finishing with the lowest point total in the NHL for two years in a row, Buffalo Sabres’ fans finally had something to cheer about during the 2015-16 season. The team increased its point total by 27 over the previous year, and drastically improved its goal differential. A combination of players acquired through the draft, trades and free agency combined to make the Sabres a team on the rise.

Leading the way was rookie phenom Jack Eichel, the second overall pick in last year’s draft. He was the team’s top goal scorer, and finished second in points behind Ryan O’Reilly. Fellow rookie Sam Reinhart, the second overall selection in the previous draft, finished just behind Eichel in both goals and points. O’Reilly, acquired in a trade last offseason with Colorado, proved to be more than capable as Buffalo’s top center. Veterans like Brian Gionta and David Legwand combined with Evander Kane, Rasmus Ristolainen and other youngsters to greatly improve the quality of play in Buffalo.

Pending Free Agents: Ristolainen, just 21 years old, is turning into one of the best young defenseman in the game and is a restricted free agent. The Sabres will not let him get away, and will likely sign him to a long term deal. Backup goaltender Chad Johnson is an unrestricted free agent and will probably test the free agent market looking to become a starter after playing well this season. 35 year old Legwand is also an UFA, and the team may decide to move on with a younger option.

One player not up for free agency but likely on his way out is Matt Moulson. He is due five million dollars a year for the next 3 years, a sum way too high for his meager production of just 21 points in 81 games.

Draft Picks: General Manager Tim Murray has made it clear he is looking for a left handed, top four defenseman. There are three of these players expected to go in the top ten of this year’s draft, in which Buffalo will pick 8th. Murray could trade up using his vast draft capital (12 picks this year) to ensure he gets one, or he may wait and take the best player available.

Free Agent Additions: If the Sabres look for defensive help in free agency, the team could add Keith Yandle (New York Rangers) or Alex Goligoski (Dallas Stars). Former Sabre Brian Campbell may be available, but at age 36, it is unclear if the team would want to sign him. Since the free agent market is relatively thin, and Buffalo has so many draft picks and prospects, they can try to acquire a defenseman via trade. Targets include Cam Fowler (Anaheim Ducks), Kevin Shattenkirk (St. Louis Blues) and Patrick Wiercioch (Ottawa Senators).

Kris Letang and the Interference Penalty

Late in the first period of Monday night’s game between the Penguins and the Capitals, Washington center Marcus Johansson took a brutal hit from Pittsburgh defenseman, Kris Letang that resulted in a one-game suspension. With 21-year old defensive phenom Olli Maatta out with an upper body injury, the Penguins have to face the likes of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Oshie without their top two defensemen.

The hit on Johansson wasn’t a direct head shot which would have resulted in an illegal check to the head penalty. The officials didn’t seem to think the head was the main target of the hit and the footage seemed to back that up. It also wasn’t deemed a charging penalty though many claim Letang’s skates were off the ice before contact. A close examination, however, seems to indicate that his skates didn’t leave the ice until contact was already made. In the end the NHL Department of Player Safety is focused on one simple fact; Johansson wasn’t eligible to be hit in any manner on that play, the puck was long gone, and that makes Letang’s hit illegal no matter what.

The one-game suspension comes at an important time for the Penguins who lead the series 2-1. With both Maatta and Letang out for Game 4, they will have to rely on rookie Derrick Pouliot and former Edmonton Oiler Justin Schultz to pick up the slack. Schultz hasn’t seen the ice since Game 1 of the first round and Monday was Pouliot’s first playoff game ever.

When asked how he plans to deal with the lack of experienced defensemen Penguin’s coach Mike Sullivan was matter-of-fact. “We’ll prepare the same way,” Sullivan said. “We’re not going to change our style of play. We’ve had guys go down with injuries for long stretches of time, important players. So, I think our team understands how we have to play in order to be successful.”

The series between these two teams has had its fair share of cheap shots and controversy. Game 1 saw Capitals’ forward Tom Wilson go out of his way to make knee-to-knee contact with Penguins’ forward Conor Sheary. While no penalty was called on the ice, Wilson later received a fine. In Game 2, it was Brooks Orpik’s illegal hit that knocked Maatta out for at least 2 games. Orpik received a 3-game suspension for the check. Letang’s penalty and suspension in Game 3 are only the next in a series. Clearly this has been a bruising and emotional series.

With the favored Capitals a game down it’s a sure bet that things are not going to get any softer on the ice either. Whether the sentences being handed down by Player Safety will help to keep the series under control remains to be seen.

The NHL Draft Lottery means the Toronto Maple Leafs finally win something

At last, Toronto Maple Leafs fans have something to celebrate as the NHL club has finally won something of note since it last hoisted the Stanley Cup way back in 1967. The Leafs lucked out on April 30th by winning the NHL Draft Lottery in Toronto and will now select first overall at this June’s ceremony in Buffalo. This isn’t the first time the franchise has been awarded the top pick, but they received it by default in 1985 when they selected Wendel Clark number one overall. The Leafs finished dead last in the 1983/84 campaign just like they did this season, but there was no complicated lottery system in place three decades ago. This means the team actually had to win something this year to receive their reward, even if it was just a lottery.

Maple Leafs’ fans shouldn’t get carried away though. If there’s any NHL team out there that could end up blowing the top draft pick it’s surely Toronto. This is a very creative club when it comes to finding new ways of disappointing their fans. It wouldn’t surprise diehard Leafs’ supporters if the youngster they choose first overall doesn’t end up being the best player of the draft a few years down the road. As it stands, it appears Toronto will likely select 18-year-old centre Auston Matthews of the U.S.  with their pick. Matthews played just a 36-game season this year and racked up 24 goals and 22 assists for 46 points while skating in the Swiss League with Zurich. He posted just three assists in four playoff games though.

The Leafs still have a lot of work to do before heading up to the podium though since there are at least two other players who could be worthy of the number one pick. These are wingers Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljuj√§rvi, both of Finland. In fact, Laine was just recently named the MVP of the Finnish Elite League’s playoffs after leading his team Tappara to the championship. The Leafs will be able to do some more homework and scouting on Matthews and the left-winger Laine as they’ll both be playing for their respective countries at the upcoming IIHF World Hockey Championships in Russia. If Laine is a standout at the tournament and Matthews is simply average then the Leafs will really have their work cut out for them when deciding who to choose.

There are several other excellent prospects in this year’s draft following the Arizona-born Matthews and the two Finnish stars. These defenceman Olli Juolevi (London Knights), also of Finland, as well as forwards Alexander Nylander (Mississauga Steelheads), Tyson Jost (Penticton Vees), Matthew Tkachuk, (London Knights) and Pierre-Luc Dubois (Cape Breton Screaming Eagles). This means the eventual best player in the draft could actually be drafted anywhere from first to eighth. The Leafs have been looking for a big first-line centre since Mats Sundin left the team though and that’s why they’ll likely take Matthews.

There were a couple of other big winners in the lottery as the Winnipeg Jets had a 7.5 per cent to draft first overall and the Columbus Blue Jackets had a 9.5 percent chance. The Jets jumped from sixth place to second overall while Columbus moved from fourth to third. But with the talent available even the Edmonton Oilers who dropped from second to fourth, the Vancouver Canucks who dropped from third to fifth and Calgary Flames who slipped from fifth to sixth, could still end up with the eventual best player.

Regardless of who they take in the draft, the Leafs are bound to get an elite prospect and it could have a big impact on their roster decisions during the offseason. However, the team’s fans have another thing coming if they think that an 18-year-old youngster playing about 17 minutes per game is going to turn the franchise around. Still, they have reason to feel optimistic at least until June 24th and hopefully for a few years beyond that.