Friday, April 21, 2017

Buffalo'd

The Buffalo Sabres pulled off one somewhat expected move and one completely unexpected move yesterday when they fired head coach Dan Bylsma and General Manager Tim Murray.

First, the somewhat expected move. Bylsma was hired in the same year that the Sabres drafted Jack Eichel. However, the bloom came off for Bylsma this season, as he showed little idea on matching lines, and in the process, rubbed Eichel the wrong way on some nights. Rumblings that Eichel would not sign an extension if Bylsma were head coach were abound, but the fact here is that Bylsma never had a good grasp of who should be where.

Now, the unexpected move, as in Tim Murray was also fired. Murray was General Manager when the Evander Kane trade went down, and while the Sabres are still waiting for that trade plus the trade for Robin Lehner to reap its rewards, it can be argued that the trade rumors surrounding Kane last season indicated that he made a mistake. In case you're asking, the Kane trade also netted Zach Bogosian and a minor league goalie, and to date, despite his off-ice problems, Kane may be the only one that could produce any kind of return, as he scored 28 goals this season, thus showing his potential. Bogosian, on the other hand, failed to stay healthy once again and did little to show why he was a former first round pick. As for the Robin Lehner trade, while he's shown flashes of being a number one goalie, it's been exactly that: flashes. Letting Chad Johnson walk prior to this season may have been an undoing, as Anders Nilsson proved to be too unreliable to give Lehner time off. Murray also didn't do too well when it came to developing a pipeline, as Brendan Guhle is the only one that can claim to be a top prospect at this time, with Alexander Nylander still a year or two away.

The Sabres, much like their NFL counterpart Bills, are a mess, and it may take a while for it to clean up, particularly if the Pegulas show the same impatience that has plagued the Buffalo franchises since the turn of the century.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Perpetual Bridesmaid?

In the wake of another successful regular season followed up by a rather disappointing playoff run, the Everett Silvertips have decided to part ways with coach Kevin Constantine. Constantine had led the Silvertips to the playoffs in each of his two stints with the team, from 2003-2007 and from 2013-2017. His first stint was arguably the team's best time, as they went to the WHL Final in his first season with the team, which also happened to be the team's first season in the league. They also went to the Conference Finals in 2006, where they were unceremoniously dumped by eventual league champion Vancouver Giants. Since then, the Silvertips have failed to reach the Conference finals.

The run of playoff failures in the last ten years prompts a question of whether the Silvertips are going the way of the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals, in that they have great regular seasons, yet fall short of expectations in the playoffs. Like Washington and St. Louis this season, the Silvertips rode their top ranked defense to the top of the conference. However, like the NHL teams mentioned of the past (I say past because both the Blues and Capitals are still in it), the Silvertips often find ways to lose games. Whether it's lack of offense, as has been the characteristic of Constantine-coached teams, or the inability to develop an identity, which would be Mark Ferner, Craig Hartsburg, and John Becanic (coincidentally, those non-Constantine squads all exited in the first round of the playoffs). What could be done for the Silvertips to finally get back to the Conference Finals, at the very least? That will be a question for the next coach to answer, as they have the goaltending in Carter Hart, as he will be back next year. However, they will need to find replacements for Noah Juulsen and Dominic Zwerger, both of whom will be moving on.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Western Conference preview

With the playoffs beginning soon, it's time to look at the Western Conference.

(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (4) Calgary Flames

The Ducks rode a hot streak to win the Pacific Division crown. However, recent playoff history hasn't been particularly kind, and certainly, the pressure will be on for a deep run. Goal remains as big of a question as it ever was, as John Gibson is still a question mark thanks to injuries while Jonathan Bernier is still prone to giving up the occasional soft goal, though he did play well this season. Cam Fowler has been the leader on defense, a good thing since Hamphus Lindholm has played catch-up since ending his early season holdout. Up front, the usual suspects need to show up, as Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Ryan Kesler will need to carry the day again. One player to watch is Nick Ritchie, who needs to provide a physical presence to offset Calgary's group.

Goal is also a question in Calgary, as both Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson have been streaky. The good news is that when one fails, the other is ready to pick up. Defensively, Dougie Hamilton will need to take his game to another level while up front, the emergence of Mikael Backlund as an offensive threat is welcome. Backlund's defensive prowess is also unquestioned, though it does help that the Flames can take it to a team physically with Micheal Ferland, Troy Brouwer, and Matthew Tkachuk.

Prediction: Calgary in 7

(2) Edmonton Oilers vs. (3) San Jose Sharks

Edmonton is back after an 11 year absence from the playoffs, and while everything begins with Connor McDavid, a big reason for their success is in goal. Cam Talbot set a team record for most wins in a season, and he doesn't mind being in net often. The Oilers will need him, as Laurent Brossoit is unproven if Talbot goes down. Defensively is still a work in progress, but for the first time since 2006, there is a certifiable number one pairing, as Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson came on late to provide a top pairing. Offensively, it all begins with McDavid, who took home the Art Ross Trophy, and some of the beneficiaries include Leon Draisaitl, Patrick Maroon, and Jordan Eberle. The Oilers were built to be physical, too, and that is where Maroon, Milan Lucic, and Zack Kassian will need to show up.

San Jose had a bit of a tailspin to end the season, but they are still the reigning Western Conference champions. Martin Jones has proven to be a top option in goal, and the pieces are still in place defensively. Brent Burns leads the group, and they may need to compensate for an offense that could use a pick-me-up besides Joe Pavelski.

Prediction: Edmonton in 6

(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (4) Nashville Predators

For the lack of respect that Corey Crawford has gotten, there is a reason why he has two Stanley Cup rings: he comes through when it counts the most. It helps that other proven playoff veterans such as Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Brent Seabrook are in front of him. Up front, the offense is more balanced now that Artemi Panarin has firmly established himself as an option along with Patrick Kane. If there is pressure on one player, it's Jonathan Toews, who had a slightly disappointing season,, but it is the playoffs now, and you know what he can do when the lights are on brightest.

Nashville has been a streaky team. Goaltending is more of a certainty than in recent playoff runs, thanks to Pekka Rinne and Jusse Saros holding down the fort there. Defensively, they've had a few injuries, but now it's time to find out just how much the trade for PK Subban will pay off, as chances need to be taken, and Subban is one of the best at taking chances. Up front, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson were the best options, with Ryan Johansen being a frequent collaborator. They will need James Neal to show up, as he had a below average season. A player to watch is Miika Salomaki, who missed most of the season, but provides a physical element to the Predators squad that needs it.

Prediction: Nashville in 7

(2) Minnesota Wild vs. (3) St. Louis Blues

Minnesota had a hot start to the season, but were tailing off by season's end. Devan Dubnyk held down the fort once again, and defensively, things were together for the most part, though there isn't a big name player in the bunch. Offensively, the Wild were balanced, though Martin Hanzal has been a disappointment since coming over at the trade deadline.

St. Louis looked like they were going to miss the playoffs as the calendar turned to February. Goal is still a question mark, as neither Jake Allen nor Carter Hutton are proven commodities in the playoffs. Defensively, they have actually gotten better despite trading away Kevin Shattenkirk at the deadline. Up front, it's always going to be Vladimir Tarasenko that gets things started, but they Blues could be getting a boost from returning Vladimir Sobotka, who provides a solid defensive presence up front.

Prediction: St. Louis in 5

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Black Monday in the NHL

The day after the NHL regular season ended, a few coaches and General Managers found themselves out of a job, making the term "Black Monday" an appropriate one. Let's look at where the axe fell, where some coaches and front office people managed a short reprieve, and which teams may be in trouble down the line.

First, the casualties:


  • The Dallas Stars announced that Lindy Ruff would not return next season as head coach. In four seasons, Ruff led the team to the playoffs, but it was clear that in the just completed season, he could never solve their defensive woes and his message wasn't getting through. Gerard Gallant is rumored to be a name on the Stars' list for the next head coach.
  • Tom Rowe was relieved of both head coaching and General Manager duties, and Dale Tallon was reinstated as General Manager, effectively meaning that owner Vincent Viola admitted the error of his ways after the previous season. Bad trades, an ill-timed firing of coach Gerard Gallant mid-season, and Rowe being in over his head in both roles now have the Panthers back at square one.
  • Vancouver ended the Willie Desjardins experiment after three seasons, and in the process, canned assistants Doug Lidster and Perry Pearn. Desjardins led the team to the playoffs in his first season, but manipulating lines with little success and the second-worst record this season led to his ouster.
  • The big bomb of the day belongs to the Los Angeles Kings, who fired head coach Daryl Sutter and General Manager Dean Lombardi. Luc Robitaiile and Rob Blake were moved up in the front office, with Blake assuming the General Manager role. Three years after the Kings won their last Stanley Cup, poor trades, salary cap mismanagement, and the inability to adapt to play in the NHL the last three seasons mean that the Kings' opportunity to win is now closed.
Now, let's look at who avoided the axe for now:
  • Colorado was dead last in many categories, yet as of this writing, they have not announced whether coach Jared Bednar or VP of Hockey Operations Joe Sakic will be let go. Given that the Avs were in a bind about two months before the season, thanks to Patrick Roy leaving the head coaching job prior to this season, it would not be surprising if both were given one more year.
  • Arizona still employs Dave Tippett as head coach despite a fifth straight season of playoff-free hockey. The Coyotes took a major step back this season, and one would think that it's time to look into a new head coach.
  • The Buffalo Sabres were another team that took a step back. However, one could point to injuries as a reason for their decline, though one does have to wonder if Dan Bylsma should look over his shoulder soon. 
  • The Winnipeg Jets were a streaky team this season, often on the wrong kind, though a strong finish to the season should render Paul Maurice safe for now.
Teams that will possibly look for permanent replacements:
  • The Boston Bruins made the playoffs, and depending on how far they go could determine if Bruce Cassidy gets the interim label taken off.
  • The New York Islanders missed out, but under Doug Weight's watch, they played markedly better than under Jack Capuano. Whether or not Garth Snow remains as General Manager is most likely going to determine the coaching job's fate.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Eastern Conference Playoffs Preview

Another NHL season is in the books, and now, the real fun begins with the playoffs beginning Wednesday. First up is the Eastern Conference preview, and there have been a few surprises to go along with some expected results thus far.

(1) Montreal Canadiens vs. (4) New York Rangers

The Canadiens survived a coaching change, which mirrored an earlier change in 2003, to claim the top spot in the Atlantic Division. Carey Price was healthy once again, and as it always seems to be, everything will go through Price. It's not just Price that makes the Canadiens go, as Shea Weber has provided a solid presence on the blue line and while they're still looking for answers up front past Max Pacioretty (think Alex Galchenyuk and his health), the Canadiens are looking to make a deep run.

The Rangers are in this spot thanks to a rather tough Metropolitan Division that sees them get the short straw despite finishing with over 100 points on the season. Sure, Henrik Lundqvist is still in goal, but this is about as offensively driven of a team as you will find, as Mats Zuccarello leads the way. Of course, their defense could be better, as could the consistency of some players such as Michael Grabner, who fell off after a hot start to the season.

Prediction: Canadiens in 5

(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (3) Columbus Blue Jackets

It was another wild season for Pittsburgh, as Sidney Crosby continues to lead the way, winning the Rocket Richard for most goals in a season, yet missing out on the Art Ross Trophy (more on the winner in the next piece). For the success though, injuries have played a role in their sometime struggles, as they will be without Kris Letang for the playoffs and both Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray have had bouts of either inconsistency, injury, or both.

Columbus rode a hot streak in the middle of the season to the playoffs, and certainly, a healthy Sergei Bobrovsky was a big reason why the Blue Jackets are back in the playoffs. The Blue Jackets have also bought into coach John Tortorella's system, which explains their second best defense ranking. They will need that if they hope to fend off Crosby and company.

Prediction: Blue Jackets in 7

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (4) Toronto Maple Leafs

The Capitals are going all in this year. Stop if you've heard that one before. Goaltending is a major strength, as Braden Holtby and Phillipp Grubauer hold down the fort there, and in spite of Alex Ovechkin having a down year, the rest of the team has picked up the slack.

The surprise entrant of the playoff picture, the Maple Leafs have been as inconsistent as you would envision them to be, particularly since they're led by a bunch of kids who are not quite of drinking age in the U.S. Auston Matthews has been everything as advertised, but he's had help, too, as Mitch Marner led the team in assists. Defensively, the health of Frederik Andersen is one to watch, as he's been what the Leafs have hoped for. Still, this is a young group, so this may be nothing more than an opportunity to experience hockey at its best.

Prediction: Capitals in 5

(2) Ottawa Senators vs. (3) Boston Bruins

The Senators had a fair amount of adversity, from Craig Anderson taking time away to attend to his ailing wife to late-season nagging injuries to captain Erik Karlsson. While the offense struggled, as they ended up a -1 in goal scoring differential, goaltending and defense were strong, as Mike Condon helped keep the Senators afloat until Anderson came back. Now, with two good goaltenders, it will be up to them to help compensate for an offense that still needs work.

The Bruins were left for dead when they changed head coaches mid-season. However, a late-season surge puts them back into the playoffs. They aren't the same Bruins of earlier this decade, but goaltending has been a strong suit once again. When it comes to scoring, it's now David Pastrnak's team now. This Bruins team is more balanced to the point where they don't need to rely on one aspect to carry them.

Prediction: Senators in 7

Friday, April 7, 2017

Onward to the Playoffs

The Nashville Predators' season has been full of ups and downs, and many of those have been on the extreme side. It took a little luck for them to finally claim the last playoff spot on Sunday, as they needed a Kings loss to back in. Currently, they can still control where they play, as any of Chicago, Minnesota, or whoever wins the Pacific Division are potential opponents in the first round.

This piece is about the ups of the Predators season, as there have been a fair number of them. In spite of injuries, PK Subban has been everything that the Predators have hoped for, as he has brought an element to the team that has not been seen before. In goal, Pekka Rinne has played some of his best hockey, and a fair amount has to do with the team finally having a backup that can take some of the load off of him, as Juuse Saros has emerged as a solid backup that has the ability to one day become a starter in the league. While James Neal had a slightly off-year, he did still manage 20-plus goals for the season. The slack was picked up by both Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, both of whom are now 30-goal scorers for the season, with Arvidsson joining in last night. Arvidsson's emergence wasn't much of a surprise, given that he was arguably their best player for much of the season, and along with Forsberg and Ryan Johansen, has given the Predators a formidable top line.

While the Predators face a tough task with whoever they face in the first round, this may be the time where they begin another hot streak.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

ELC Madness

As the college hockey season comes to its conclusion with the Frozen Four, there are more players who will likely be signed to entry level contracts (or ELCs) in the coming days and weeks. Four players who were taken in the first round the last two years have already done so, and either have or will make their NHL debuts soon.

Brock Boeser was the 23rd overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft by the Vancouver Canucks, and was widely regarded as a pure goal scorer. He played in North Dakota for two seasons before signing with the Canucks at the conclusion of North Dakota's season last week. He made his debut in his home state of Minnesota, where he scored on a tap-in that proved to be the game winner against the Wild on Sautrday.

Boeser's teammate at North Dakota Tyson Jost was taken 10th overall by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2016 NHL Draft. He won silver with the Canadian Junior National team and was one of the bright spots on a North Dakota team that didn't quite fare as well as the previous season, when they won it all. Jost was signed yesterday to an ELC by Colorado and will likely make his debut soon.

Clayton Keller was a former US-NTDP taken 7th overall by the Arizona Coyotes in 2016. He went on to college at Boston University and shined during the WJC tournament, where he helped lead the United States to gold. The Coyotes need more skill up front, which was why they were willing to sign Keller to an ELC earlier this week. Keller made his debut on Monday in St. Louis, an area where he played his youth hockey.

Charlie McAvoy was the 14th overall pick of the Boston Bruins in the 2016 NHL Draft. He had already played a season with Boston University when he was drafted, and was also on the U.S. squad that won gold at the WJC tournament. He actually signed an ATO with Boston and will begin play with their AHL affiliate in Providence. It is likely that he will sign an ELC before next season.