Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Skating in Circles

From the time that Bill Peters resigned as head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, some figured that it wouldn't be long before he got a job elsewhere. That time became just a week, as the Calgary Flames, late of firing Glen Gulutzan, tabbed Peters to be their bench boss. Despite having near identical numbers in going from Carolina to Calgary, Peters managed to get the most out of a fairly talent-thin Hurricanes squad. However, his downfall, like most Hurricanes squads this decade, has been the inability to figure out the starting goaltending problem. In Calgary, the situation is only slightly better...when Mike Smith was healthy. That is a problem, as Calgary was exactly like Carolina when Smith was out, and now, it looks like Calgary is simply skating around in circles. This should be a team that is better offensively and on the surface, defensively. However, finishing in the bottom half of the league in both categories is unacceptable, especially with a team that features Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mark Giordano, and Dougie Hamilton. Could the Flames have done better than Peters as head coach? Possibly. However, given the arena issues and constant underachieving, Calgary isn't the most desirable place to play in the country. Nothing will change until the front office gets shaken up, which should put both Brian Burke and Brad Treliving in the hot seat next season.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Cooked Ducks

Of all the results to happen thus far, the Anaheim Ducks were not supposed to be playing golf this early. They had all the momentum heading into the playoffs, concluding with a 3-0 shutout win against Arizona to close out the regular season. Then, the playoff series against San Jose began, and well, there's no other way to describe the Ducks' playoff run this year than legendarily bad. How did it get to this?

  • When your goals per game equals one or less, you're not going to win any series. Anaheim averaged that, scoring 0-2-1-1 in each of the games. That's an indictment on the team's alarming lack of scoring depth, and given that Corey Perry did nothing...again, this figures to be a problem moving forward.
  • Does one player really make a difference? Without Cam Fowler, the blue line seemed to be in disarray, and it especially showed in game three, where the Ducks just waved the white flag in giving up 8 goals.
  • The Ducks are notorious for playing a goon style of hockey, and it caught up with them, when the Sharks could make them pay for their mistakes. The Ducks were undisciplined, and without when no one can step up to provide scoring, that equals disaster.
  • For all the flak John Gibson gets for not showing up in the playoffs, he was surprisingly not bad, excluding the game 3 debacle, where nothing went right.
Another year of failure for the Ducks, headlined by the fact that their scoring depth is thin, plus their style of play can be thwarted by a more disciplined team, means that they are headed to the table, roasted and prepared with a nice orange sauce.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Here Lie the Los Angeles Kings: They Never Scored

One of the trendy picks for a potential upset prior to the start of the NHL playoffs was the Los Angeles Kings over the Vegas Golden Knights. After all, the last regular season game for the Golden Knights was a 7-1 blowout loss to Calgary. So, what happened? The Golden Knights were able to pull out a sweep of the Kings, thanks to four straight one goal victories. However, that only tells part of the story. For the Kings, it is all about wasted opportunity and wasting the efforts of Jonathan Quick.

Having 1-0 results as bookends of the series should tell you all that you need to know as to why the Kings will be heading to the golf links right now. They were only able to score three goals total, and games one and four were shutouts that showed the Kings had trouble not only finding the net, but also keeping up with the Golden Knights. Say what you will about the Golden Knights being afforded the opportunity to field a competitive team, but the players picked by them not only had something to prove, but also bought into the system that coach Gerard Gallant installed. The right hockey people were picked for the front office, and the ability to capitalize on moves such as claiming Malcolm Subban off waivers from Boston and getting a first round pick in last year's draft from the Islanders for basically nothing show the acumen of the group. As for the Kings, less than a goal a game is not going to cut it in any sport, and certainly, even with Quick keeping the team in the games, it looked for all the world that the Kings just simply gave up on offense, rarely challenging the Golden Knights on any level offensively. It should say plenty that the team speed was virtually non-existent, and the players that can score, did very little of that. It didn't matter that Drew Doughty was suspended for game two of the series, as the Kings would have been dispatched quickly anyway.

Making the playoffs was nice for the Kings after missing out last year, but there are massive holes that need to be patched up before they can resemble a Stanley Cup contender again. Let's hope prospects like Kale Clague and Jarret Anderson-Dolan develop as hoped and Gabe Vilardi can be an answer down the middle for a team that may soon need to infuse some younger, quicker talent.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Coaching Carousel Goes On...

In the midst of the NHL playoffs that is currently going on, there are a few teams that are either looking for new head coaches or may very well be looking for one soon. Let's look at the teams that are looking and teams that could be or should be looking for new bench bosses.

  • The New York Rangers were the first team to swing the ax on their head coach, as Alain Vigneault was shown the door the day after the Rangers' season ended. With what may very well be a youthful core combined with Henrik Lundqvist and rumors of the Rangers being front-runners for Ilya Kovalchuk, it's imperative that the Rangers get their coach right. Of course, they are also playing in New York City, so thick skin is a must.
  • The Dallas Stars are looking, too, after Ken Hitchcock decided to hang it up and move on in a different role with the team. Word is that the Stars may be looking at Barry Trotz, as the Stars still need to improve their defense.
  • Speaking of Trotz, he's on the hot seat and needs to get the Washington Capitals on a deep playoff run. Currently, it's not looking good, as the Capitals are down 2-0 in the series. If I were the Capitals, a new General Manager may also be one to look at, as Brian McClellan put the Capitals on the brink of Salary Cap Hell. TJ Oshie on an 8-year deal beginning with his age 30 season? And why wasn't Brooks Orpik cut before the season? It could have saved them the trouble of trading Marcus Johanssen.
  • The Carolina Hurricanes are already looking for a new General Manager, as Ron Francis had been fired via promotion. That means Bill Peters is likely looking over his shoulder, as he could be canned if the new guy decides to go a different direction. A risk-taker is likely in the cards for both spots.
Among the teams that were thought to be looking for new head coaches, but declared themselves safe for the time being include Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa, and St. Louis. Chicago at least, deserves another year, as their championship run was fairly recent, but another season of anything less than the second round may be spelling the end of their regime. Their biggest fatal flaw has been unable to develop a quality goaltender since Corey Crawford came forward in 2010. Detroit is headed for years of mediocrity, as Ken Holland will still be General Manager for at least two more years while Jeff Blashill will remain coach. I would have canned Blashill, at the very least, as he's been shown to be in over his head on the NHL level. Guy Boucher is still coaching Ottawa for reasons unknown, as he lost the team midway through the season. He, along with Pierre Dorion, should have been given their walking papers. Doug Armstrong and Mike Yeo are still in St. Louis, and both deserve another year, provided that they identify a future starting goaltender and having a permanent AHL affiliation will help development, something that caused problems this season, as they were the odd team out this season. Montreal's never ending saga will continue, as Marc Bergevin and Claude Julien will remain in their roles. Be prepared for more misery, Montreal.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

2018 NHL Western Conference Playoffs Preview

Now, it's the Western Conference's turn to get the preview treatment.

(1) Nashville Predators vs. (4) Colorado Avalanche

For not having one player that can kill you, the Nashville Predators did incredibly well this season. In fact, they claimed a few regular season trophies out of it. Their offense is a pick-your-poison type, with no player scoring above 64 points (Filip Forsberg) and no player cracking 30 goals (Viktor Arvidsson had 29), but half the roster cracked double digits in goals and six players scored above 50 points. Factor in the fact that the forwards can go five to six lines deep, and you have to figure out which players to prepare for. Defensively, this team isn't just good in their own end, as they were the second best defense in the league, but they can also kill you on offense. PK Subban and Roman Josi scored above 50 points, they along with Mattias Ekholm scored double digits in goals, and had Ryan Ellis not missed the first half of the season to injury, he would have joined them in possibly both categories. In goal, Pekka Rinne had his best regular season yet, and now, if he goes down, the Predators can feel comfortable with Juuse Saros in net.

Colorado was the true comeback story of the year, going from under 50 points in a season to a playoff berth on the last day of their regular season. Much of that is Nathan MacKinnon posting MVP-type numbers, as well as coach Jared Bednar having a whole off-season to implement his system. Mikko Rantanen took a major step forward in his second season, and Gabriel Landeskog had a bounce back season, providing much needed leadership on the team. Forward depth remains an issue, especially if MacKinnon's line gets shut down. The blue line played better this season, and Tyson Barrie, like most of the Avs, had a better season. The key here is Erik Johnson, who always seems to be injured every year, and heading into this series, this is no exception. If he misses any amount of time, they're done here. In goal, when healthy, the duo of Semyon Varlamov and Jonathan Bernier can be very good. The problem, as with Johnson, is that it hasn't always been the case. Varlamov is likely missing this series, and Bernier also missed time in the regular season. Bernier also has a bad habit of letting in soft goals, so this series bears watching in that regard.

Prediction: Predators in 5

(2) Winnipeg Jets vs. (3) Minnesota Wild

The Jets are in the playoffs for the second time since moving to Winnipeg in 2011. Their offense and depth can rival the Predators, but where the Jets have the ability to excel is their ability to be more physical. This year, they may have figured out the fine line between being physical and going over the line, as being in the box had been their downfall. Despite not having Mark Scheifele for stretches of time to injuries, the Jets got major contributions from Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine, the latter of whom scored over 40 goals despite spending some time on the third line. Defensively, this unit is still very good, though Dustin Byfuglien is getting a little older. Having the likes of Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba step up has been beneficial and portends promise for the unit's future. In goal, it was supposed to be Steve Mason, but constant injuries opened the door once again to Connor Hellebuyck, and he took full advantage, winning 44 games and answering the ever-going question in goal.

The Wild's offense goes through Eric Staal, who has has a renaissance since signing with them prior to last season. He has been their best forward, with Jason Zucker and a healthy Nino Niederreiter all providing secondary offense. That's going to be important because Zach Parise has suddenly developed the Joe Mauer syndrome, as in he can't stay healthy and his contract is becoming an albatross. The blue line was one of the better units in the league. However, that was before Ryan Suter went down to injury. Now, they have to hope that a returning Jared Spurgeon can fill some of the offensive void left by him and that the rest of the unit can come together. In goal, as Devan Dubnyk goes, so often go the Wild. He had a fairly good season, but he will need to elevate his game if the Wild hope to be more than just a one and done team.

Prediction: Jets in 6

(1) Vegas Golden Knights vs. (4) Los Angeles Kings

The Golden Knights surprised everyone out of the gate by taking the division lead. Despite injuries in goal and a late-season swoon, they were able to hold on to the Division title. Injuries are still a problem in goal, as Marc-Andre Fleury may still be dealing with the aftereffects of two concussions. Backup Malcolm Subban has also missed time to injuries. When healthy, though, this is an effective duo in goal. Defensively, their no-name group has played incredibly well, and Deryk Engelland has provided leadership from that group that has spread through the entire team. Up front, Jonathan Marchessault has been an offensive force, but the real surprise has been William Karlsson, who came out of nowhere to score over 40 goals. There is balance on the team, but did they use all of their mana too early?

The Kings are back, and health and resurgent seasons from key players is a big reason why. Jonathan Quick showed last season how important he was when he missed time to injury. A healthy Quick got them over the hump this season. On the blue line, Drew Doughty was his usual self, and depth here got better with the trade deadline acquisition of Dion Phaneuf. Up front, minus Jeff Carter missing time to injury, they got a major revival from Anze Kopitar and Dusting Brown played way better than in the past few seasons. Youth is served, with Adrian Kempe, Tanner Pearson, and Tyler Toffoli all playing pivotal roles.

Prediction: I have to be honest, I struggled with this pick, as it can truly go either way. There is always the threat of the Kings pulling a deep playoff run out of their hat, and the Golden Knights's most recent game at Calgary is cause for alarm. However, I feel that Gerard Gallant will rally the Golden Knights as he has all season and say Golden Knights in 7.

(2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (3) San Jose Sharks

The Ducks have the most momentum of any team heading into the playoffs, and John Gibson was a major part of that. He played his best hockey down the stretch, and Ryan Miller filled in the gaps when Gibson needed some rest. However, as has been the case the last few playoff seasons, does the clock strike midnight for Gibson, who struggled and acquiesced to Frederik Andersen and Jonathan Bernier? The blue line is still very strong despite not having Sami Vatanen (traded for Adam Henrique) and Cam Fowler, who may be out for the series. Up front, injuries made life tough for the team early on, but now, they have good depth down the middle, and the team is closer to healthy than they've ever been this season.

The Sharks have done well up front despite losing Joe Thornton for a stretch of time. The big question here is whether Evander Kane can truly be a difference maker in his first playoff appearance. Defensively, this is Brent Burns' unit, as he leads here. Martin Jones and Aaron Dell are a solid unit in goal, but overall, nothing about this team truly sticks out. That could make them dangerous in the playoffs.

Prediction: Ducks in 6

Monday, April 9, 2018

2018 NHL Eastern Conference Playoffs Preview

We've narrowed it down to 16 teams, and there's as always, going to be some exciting times in the hockey world. The playoffs begin Wednesday, and for the first time in a few years, I will not have to tie in my picks with a playoff pool. Saying that, let's begin:

(1) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (4) New Jersey Devils

The Lightning got exactly what they thought they were going to get from Andrei Vasilievsky, as he made the fans forget about Ben Bishop. Despite wearing down a little late in the season, mostly due to injuries to a rotating group of backup goalies, he is still a vital cog to the team's success. The blue line features Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev, but depth worries me a little, as Dan Girardi does not inspire confidence if he's in the lineup. It showed, as the Lightning had a habit of letting teams back in some games. Offensively is where the Lightning can kill you, especially if Steven Stamkos is healthy. The good news is that he isn't even the best offensive player this year on his own team. No, that honor goes to Nikita Kucherov, who had a bigger coming out party this season, becoming the third Lightning player to score over 100 points. The X-factor here is JT Miller, who could be in line to have his own coming out party this postseason.

The New Jersey Devils were a major surprise this season, and much of that is due to Taylor Hall finally staying healthy for a full season and showing the offensive skills that made him the first overall pick in 2010. Beyond Hall however, there isn't much besides Nico Hischier and when healthy, Cory Schneider, although Keith Kinkaid did well when pressed into starting duty. Brian Boyle is the team's inspirational leader this year, and their no-name blue line did fairly well.

Prediction: Lightning in 6

(2) Boston Bruins vs. (3) Toronto Maple Leafs

The good news is that the Boston Bruins have depth up and down the lineup, with four scoring lines and a defensive unit that can go deep. It also helps that their youth is taking major roles on the team, with Jake DeBrusk, Brandon Carlo, Charlie MacAvoy, and Danton Heinen all having a hand in the team's success this year. Tuukka Rask has also returned to form. However, the Bruins did struggle down the stretch, missing out on a potential Atlantic Division crown in the final days, and their depth is being tested in a big way, with MacAvoy, Carlo, and Patrice Bergeron all missing time at varying points in the season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs went over the 100 point barrier despite not having Auston Matthews for a few weeks. Frederik Andersen played his best hockey this season, the offense rallied together to make up for any time Matthews missed, and the blue line held together well. The Leafs will be another year wiser in the playoffs, but will it be enough to mean a deep playoff run?

Prediction: Maple Leafs in 7

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (4) Columbus Blue Jackets

Washington is once again in the playoffs, and once again, it is Cup or Bust. Alex Ovechkin is still the engine that drives the unit, but this is the year where more than any other that depth, or the lack thereof, is going to hurt them. The more alarming thing here is that Braden Holtby had his worst season in a Capitals uniform, and this time around, it was Phillipp Grubauer that bailed them out. There are many questions that will have to be answered here, such as can the Capitals get past the second round, can they even reach the second round, and who starts in net.

The Blue Jackets have made the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history. Like last year, they had to ride a lengthy winning streak to get here, which may make their hopes more of a fool's gold. Sergei Bobrovsky's playoff yips do bear watching, as does a rather alarming lack of scoring depth behind Artemi Panarin. Giving up goals is not a problem here, as any John Tortorella team is usually good at stopping the opposition from scoring.

Prediction: Blue Jackets in 7

(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (3) Philadelphia Flyers

The Penguins may look ripe for an upset here, but if the last two seasons taught us anything, it is never to count them out. Between problems in goal, namely injuries and inconsistent play, and a blue line that largely spent more time on a milk carton, it's amazing that the Penguins were able to be the second seed in the Metropolitan Division. If you have to find someone to credit for keeping them afloat, it's Evgeni Malkin. He was thought to be a Hart Trophy candidate at some point in the season, and Sidney Crosby still doesn't get the credit he deserves.

If there is ever a team that no one can really pinpoint, it's the Philadelphia Flyers. They can either be really hot or really cold, and worse, all this happened despite another swinging door in goal, as players got hurt. The blue line should be better than what is assembled, but they are also still young at the position. Not having Wayne Simmonds hurts the offense, but having Claude Giroux step up in a big way was a big boon, as he not only topped the 100 point marker for the first time in his career, but did so while amassing his first career NHL hat trick in the process.

Prediction: Penguins in 6

Sunday, April 8, 2018

St. Louis Puppy Chow

I know what you're asking. Why post this picture above? Some backstory is needed if you're unfamiliar, the St. Louis Blues were under ownership of Ralston Purina in the early 1980's. That ownership group attempted to move the Blues to Saskatoon, SK, in that time period except that the NHL blocked that move. Ownership threw a fit and it created more issues for the Blues to the point where they don't even participate in the 1983 NHL draft, where they could have had any of Pat Lafontaine or Steve Yzerman.

What's the point here? The 2017-18 season is just another in the long line of the Blues taking their lumps, as they began the season with great expectations, at one point, leading the league. They say it's not how you start, but how you finish. Unfortunately, the Blues finished just outside the playoff window, as they laid another egg in a must-win game last night at Colorado. A 5-2 loss in regulation means the Blues will be watching from the golf links. So, how did it come to this?

  • The Blues at times, resembled a MASH unit, as key players were out for stretches of time, with the blue line taking the most damage. The lack of consistency as far as who was in the lineup, especially late in the season, meant there wasn't any chance of players getting chemistry built up.
  • In turn, the injuries exposed a lack of depth that the Blues couldn't address adequately during the season. Even Vladimir Tarasenko missed time to injuries, and that meant others had to step up. Unfortunately, only Brayden Schenn could answer the bell here.
  • Special teams were rather ordinary, at best. The less said about the power play, the better. On the penalty kill, for a defensively sound team, this was not quite as good. Of course, this part does go back to the lack of chemistry on the back end.
  • Do the Blues have a number one goalie? Jake Allen may not be the answer, as he's been inconsistent the entire time he's been in the league, and he's been unable to beat out Brian Elliott then, and maybe now, Carter Hutton. Don't forget that Ville Husso is lurking in the minors.
  • The lack of depth is especially true up front. Despite underachieving in his time in St. Louis, Paul Stastny was as close to being a true second line center. When he was traded, that meant the Blues were suddenly without any true second line options anywhere. Even the grinders took a bit of a downgrade, as Ryan Reaves was shipped out and Chris Thorburn wasn't even close to being the same player. Where St. Louis needs to find out soon is just how well they develop players. Jordan Schmaltz hasn't developed as the Blues have hoped, as he's yet to crack the NHL roster, Robby Fabbri may be made of glass, and there isn't a future superstar in the wings anywhere in the pipeline. There's a lot of middle six forwards, but no real top line players.
It's going to be another long off-season for the St. Louis faithful. They have problems to fix that may add another few years of Cup-free hockey if they don't address them soon. At least they have baseball, oh wait, the Cubs and Royals have won World Series more recently than the Cardinals.