Wednesday, May 4, 2016

WHL Finals Preview

The WHL Finals are set to kick off Friday with a spot in the Memorial Cup tournament on the line. It's a classic battle of the most physical team versus a strong offense. Yes, it is the Seattle Thunderbirds and the Brandon Wheat Kings, two teams that couldn't be any more different, from style of play to team locations. And the bus ride between the cities will be a long one that crosses the border.

Seattle Thunderbirds vs. Brandon Wheat Kings

The Thunderbirds had little trouble blazing their way through the Western Conference, needing just one game above the minimum to get here. They're physical, have an offense led by the likes of Matt Barzal and Ryan Gropp, and a goalie in Landon Bow that has proven to be a game changer. The Wheat Kings are a dynamic offensive unit led by Nolan Patrick and John Quennville, and have bounced back from their fair share of adversity throughout the playoffs. Jordan Paiprny has been up and down, but his ups are a lot higher than you think. It looks rather even, but how the Wheat Kings deal with the Thunderbirds' physical play will determine a winner in what should be an evenly contested series.

Prediction: Wheat Kings in 7

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Moving East

The building you see in the picture above is going to be the future home of a WHL team starting next season. In a move that actually makes sense from an attendance perspective, the Vancouver Giants are moving east to Langley, BC and will begin playing in the Langley Events Centre next season.

In recent years, the Giants have been defined by a dysfunctional front office and rather dismal attendance numbers in the Pacific Coliseum, 3,000 fans attending, according to some sources. Langley Events Centre holds around 5,000 people, which will at least cover the Giants' issues with attracting people. The obvious problem is that the Giants are moving about 27 miles east, which takes them past Surrey and before they hit Abbotsford. Given that Langley is one of the more pristine areas of the Vancouver area, it is possible that pricing could be an issue...more so. However, playing in a smaller, yet newer arena should provide a breath of fresh air compared to the much more cavernous and older Pacific Coliseum located around the notorious neighborhood of East Hastings. Time will tell if the move to Langley will either be a franchise saving move or if it's a precursor to the team becoming extinct.

Memorial Cup Hosting in 2017

The last time the Windsor Spitfires were competing for the Memorial Cup was also the last time a team has won back-to-back Memorial Cups, as they did in 2009 and 2010. Now, the Spitfires will be back in the Memorial Cup tournament next year, as they were tabbed as the host team for the annual tournament that spans the three Canadian leagues. As Memorial Cup hosts, the Spitfires know that they will want to put on the best show they can while trying to not mortgage their future.

As to who the Spitfires will be trotting out for next year, their lineup could potentially include Christian Fischer, Mikhail Sergachev, and Logan Brown, pending what the Arizona Coyotes plan to do with Fischer, as he was not drafted by the team while in major junior. Both Sergachev and Brown are draft eligible this year, and though both are expected to be in the top half of the first round, it is likely both will be in Windsor for the Memorial Cup run. Michael Dipietro is the presumptive starter in goal while Kyle Auger is a name to watch for, as he is draft eligible next season.

Given their moves of recent seasons, it stands to reason that the Spitfires have some assets to move to pick up key players during next season. However, they will have to make wise decisions, as unless you're the London Knights, bad moves could set the Spitfires back years.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Pleading the Fifth

Picture by Gerry Kahrmann
With the 2016 NHL Draft Lottery taking place last weekend, the Vancouver Canucks now find themselves picking fifth. Obviously, that means they won't be taking Auston Matthews or either of the highly touted Finns (Patrik Laine or Jesse Puljujarvi). However, that doesn't mean the Canucks can't get a player that can help them in the long run. With that in mind, let's see where the Canucks can go with the pick they have.

Jakob Chychrun, D, Sarnia (OHL): The Canucks' need for a defenseman has been obvious since they were eliminated by Calgary in last year's playoffs. The failure to adequately address this need in the off-season plus the team's struggles only amplify that need. Adding Chychrun would give them a top prospect on the blue line that they currently don't have on the roster or in the pipeline. At best, Chychrun would be a dominant two-way force that can step in right away.

Pierre-Luc Dubois, LW, Cape Breton (QMJHL): The top-ranked skater in North America according to the rankings, he is capable of playing all three forward positions and would not only give the Canucks offense, but also be a tough customer to play against. Think Jarome Iginla in his prime.

Matthew Tkachuk, LW, London (OHL): The son of ex-NHLer Keith Tkachuk, Matthew plays almost like his dad. He's comparable to Dubois, but with the bloodlines, there is a chance the Canucks won't want to pass up on Tkachuk if given the choice between him and Dubois.

Olli Juolevi, D, London (OHL): Playing big minutes for the J. Ross Robertson bound London, Juolevi is quite possibly the best defender on the offensive side of the puck. Though less physical than Chychrun, he does possess smarts and could very well be coveted by the Canucks, as they have him as the highest rated defender according to sources such as Pass it to Bulis.

Mikhail Sergachev, D, Windsor (OHL): Of the three defensemen listed, he possess the biggest risk due to the Russian factor. However, he is just as physical as Chychrun and has the offensive game of Juolevi. Named the best defenseman of the OHL this past season, it is conceivable that the Canucks may let him develop in Windsor one more year since the Spitfires are hosting the Memorial Cup next season.

Alexander Nylander, LW, Mississauga (OHL): If it's pure skill up front that the Canucks are looking for, they need not look further than Nylander. The son of Mikael and the brother of current Maple Leaf William, Nylander has similar skill sets to his father and brother, and while size can be an issue, the skill may very well be too good to ignore.

The Canucks have many directions that they can go to, and while their fate may very well rest upon what the Edmonton Oilers do, as they pick fourth, the Canucks can start filling the holes that became very apparent last season.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

NHL Western Conference Semi-finals Preview

The exciting conclusion of the Anaheim-Nashville series means that the playoff field is now narrowed down to eight teams. Because the NHL scheduling got weird, the Eastern Conference already got started while the Western Conference begins tonight. There isn't much time, so let's go:

Dallas Stars vs. St. Louis Blues

The Stars faced a fairly stiff challenge from the Minnesota Wild, nearly giving the game away in their series clincher. Their offense is running just fine; however, their two-headed goalie system is causing a few problems, as neither Kari Lehtonen nor Antti Niemi have truly seized the starting role. Meanwhile, the Blues fought off a 3-1 series lead loss to finally put away the Chicago Blackhawks. Brian Elliott may finally be the goalie that the Blues desperately needed in the playoffs, as he came up big in the series clincher. There will still be questions on the coaching end, as Ken Hitchcock still has something to prove.

Prediction: Stars in 6

San Jose Sharks vs. Nashville Predators

The Sharks are well-rested after disposing of their rival Los Angeles in five games. Martin Jones proved that he learned a few things in turning the tables on his former teacher in Jonathan Quick while the rest of the team just outplayed the Kings throughout the series, only losing one game in overtime. The Predators lost a 2-0 series lead, then came back from a 3-2 series deficit to put an end to the Anaheim Ducks' hopes for a deep playoff run. Pekka Rinne remains inconsistent, but he came up big when it mattered the most. Collin Wilson was a big part of the team's success up front, but it remains a team driven by Shea Weber and Roman Josi from the back end.

Prediction: Sharks in 6

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

NHL Eastern Conference Semi-finals Preview

With the semi-finals in the Eastern Conference set to kick off tomorrow and the Western Conference waiting for one more team to punch their ticket, the preview is being pushed up to accommodate for the Eastern Conference while the West will wait until Anaheim and Nashville settle their series. Now, on to the Eastern Conference match-ups:

Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

For as much as the Sid vs. Ovi comparison has been hyped, this will be just the second time both have met in the playoffs, and much like the last time, it will be in the Conference semi-final.  The Capitals had it easy for the first three games, but then things started getting shaky for the next three games before they finally put away the Flyers. Braden Holtby was solid for five of the six games, but he will need to be even better if the Caps' offense can't get it going. The Penguins looked like their 2009 selves, albeit with Matt Murray and Jeff Zatkoff in net for the series while Marc-Andre Fleury has been out with concussion issues. Murray is starting until further notice, and any nerves that may have been there prior to his first start in the playoffs is gone, as he's played almost as well as he has in his short time in the NHL. With goaltending being a strength on both ends, it will be up to the offense to find a way, and recent playoff history suggests the Penguins are the hotter of the two. However, should the series go long, the Caps have a slight edge.

Prediction: Capitals in 7

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New York Islanders

The Lightning haven't had too many problems finding offense in the absence of Steven Stamkos, and certainly, the emergence of Nikita Kucherov is key. However, Ben Bishop remains key, as he is now their best player, with Victor Hedman not far behind. The Islanders needed overtime in three of their four games, with the last one being a double OT game in which John Tavares stepped up to deliver the winner.  An unexpected hero for the Islanders has been Thomas Greiss, who seemingly has taken the number one goalie spot for the playoff run. What the series may come down to is whether the supporting players on either side can step up the way they did in their respective first round series.

Prediction: Lightning in 6

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

WHL Conference Finals Preview

It took seven games for two of the four remaining survivors, in thrilling fashion, no less, but now the field is whittled down. There were few surprises, with the one surprise being a big one, as you will find out in this preview. Enough talk, let's meet the remaining teams:

(1) Brandon Wheat Kings vs. (2) Red Deer Rebels

The Wheat Kings had little trouble getting past Moose Jaw in five games. Outside of a game 3 hiccup, the Wheaties were firing on all cylinders offensively while the goaltending held up its end in the four victories. Getting a healthy Tim McGauley performing to last year's numbers was a bonus for a team that has all the firepower a team can handle.

The Rebels needed seven games and a little home cooking to finally put away the Regina Pats. It did not come easy, as they needed a late third period goal. However, Trevor Martin struggled in the series, giving way to Rylan Toth to finish the series. Can Adam Helewka and company compensate enough for the defensive issues that surfaced in the Regina series?

Prediction: Wheat Kings in 6

(1) Seattle Thunderbirds vs. (2) Kelowna Rockets

The Thunderbirds shut down the Everett Silvertips in five games with physical play that wore down the Silvertips long enough to solve Carter Hart. They're a team on a mission, and if they are to win their first championship, there's no better opportunity for Matt Barzal and company to do so.

The Rockets were 0.2 seconds away from failing to defend their championship until Justin Kirkland came along. An overtime goal later, and the Rockets survive another seven game series while sending the Scotty Munro champion Victoria Royals home. Despite all the injuries and an arguably tougher road to the Finals, the Rockets have persevered. However, the Thunderbirds will present their own problems and the Rockets' luck could finally run out.

Prediction: Thunderbirds in 5