Wednesday, April 22, 2015

WHL Conference Finals Preview

It is now down to four teams in the WHL Playoffs, and all the Division winners except for one made it here.  The two matchups feature teams that are familiar with one another due to recent encounters in the playoffs.

(1) Brandon Wheat Kings vs. (1) Calgary Hitmen

The Wheat Kings needed overtime in their last two games to finish off the Regina Pats in five games.  The Wheaties are still a young team, but they're already showing that they can finish off games when it matters.  The Hitmen put their near debacle against Kootenay behind them and beat Medicine Hat in five hard fought games.  Defense is their calling card, and it will have to be up to that unit to shut down a well-balanced Wheat Kings squad.

Prediction: Wheat Kings in 6

(1) Kelowna Rockets vs. (2) Portland Winterhawks

A rematch of last year's Western Conference Finals and the fourth meeting between the teams in the last five years, the Rockets are once again heavily favored to represent the Western Conference.  The difference now is that they've added Josh Morrisey and Leon Draisaitl and are better equipped to handle a powerful Portland offense.  The Winterhawks are looking to make it five WHL Finals in a row, and are counting on Oliver Bjorkstrand and Nic Petan to carry the offense because the defense is a work in progress.  The good news here is that Adin Hill has stepped up to be a formidable option in goal.

Prediction: Rockets in 7

Monday, April 20, 2015

69 Years Later...

Since their formation in 1946, SKA Saint Petersburg (under their original name SKA Leningrad) has never won a major championship domestically.  That has officially changed thanks to their Gagarin Cup Finals series win over a very good Ak Bars Kazan team in five games.  Getting to this point wasn't easy, as they had beat Torpedo in the first round, and from there, to overcome their arch nemesis Dynamo Moscow in the Conference semi-finals, as well as a 3-0 series deficit to CSKA in the Conference Finals to make it here.  Evgeny Dadonov set a KHL record for most goals in the playoffs and Ilya Kovalchuk was named playoff MVP, something that he handed off to Dadonov in a show of team unity.  It was a long season and an even longer wait, but the city of Saint Petersburg finally has a championship and the second largest city in Russia is out of Moscow's shadow for this moment.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Holding All the Cards

Photo by Terry Wilson/OHL Images
The NHL Draft Lottery was held yesterday, and it ended in slight disappointment for the Buffalo Sabres, as the Edmonton Oilers won the lottery and are now in the driver's seat for picking Connor McDavid.  Now, the question is what moves will the Oilers make before the Draft to either draft McDavid or trade down to pick up a much needed defenseman.  Well, let's look at all the possible moves the Oilers can and probably should make in the days leading up to the Draft.

Trade down.

  • The Oilers need a top defenseman and in this draft, that is Noah Hanifin of Boston College.  However, I cannot see the Oilers passing up on McDavid at number one to get a defenseman, even one of Hanifin's caliber.  Therefore, the Oilers should look at trading down in the Draft.
  • Buffalo has two first round picks, and though they won't miss out too much if they stay put at number two, the temptation is for them to swap picks plus the extra first round pick and ensure they get McDavid.
  • Toronto needs a lot of help everywhere, and though they are in good position to get Dylan Strome (McDavid's teammate in Erie), they could also go for Hanifin (if he's still available by the time the Leafs pick at number four).
  • The Winnipeg Jets also have an extra first round pick thanks to a trade with Buffalo, and given their success this season, the Jets may think about striking while the iron is hot.  However, the Jets rarely make big splashes and prefer to build from within.
Trade some of their players
  • Because the Oilers have the first overall pick and need a defenseman, it is possible they could trade one or two of their forwards to pick up either a veteran defenseman or a higher end prospect.
  • Their center depth could potentially consist of McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Leon Draisaitl, meaning that one of those three will be centering a third line, and it's hard to imagine the Oilers putting McDavid on the third line.
  • Of the forwards the Oilers could trade, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Nugent-Hopkins could fetch the best returns.  However, none of the three are without question marks, as Eberle has questions about size, Hall has issues with durability, and Nugent-Hopkins has questions of whether he is a true number one center.  Of the three, McDavid is most similar to Nugent-Hopkins in terms of size, meaning average by NHL standards.
  • While someone like Drew Doughty is out of their price range, it is possible the Oilers could be like the Islanders last off-season and look for teams that need to get under the salary cap and look to unload someone like a Nick Leddy or Johnny Boychuk.  Philadelphia is one team they could look at, given they are perpetually at or around the cap.
  • Teams deep in defensemen are another possibility, and teams like Pittsburgh and Anaheim could be given looks.
Keep the pick.
  • It's almost impossible for the Oilers to keep the pick and not go with McDavid, particularly given the hype around him.  If the Oilers do this, they must find a way to build around him and somehow get it to work, the latter being far easier said than done.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Boston Failures

Today, the Boston Bruins have relieved Peter Chiarelli of the General Manager duties effective immediately, and it should be of little surprise despite the Bruins winning a Stanley Cup under his watch.  If you're looking for any positives since that time, there aren't many, as bad trades and poor cap management combined with the team underachieving this year have led the Bruins to this point.  From the trade of Tyler Seguin to Dallas and not getting enough production from the players they got from him (there's still hope for Joe Morrow) to trading away Johnny Boychuk due to cap problems, the Bruins found it tough to stay on top.  Don't cry for Chiarelli, though, as it is likely he won't be without a job for long, especially if he's willing to go to another mess in Toronto.

Monday, April 13, 2015

NHL Western Conference Playoffs Preview

Next up is the Western Conference Playoffs preview, there are fewer certainties in this Conference as far as clear cut winners go.

(1) St. Louis Blues vs. (4) Minnesota Wild

The Blues found themselves at the top of the Central Division and as a result, expectations are high.  Much of that is due to the usual strong goaltending of Brian Elliott and Jake Allen, plus the emergence of players such as Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz as offensive options.  However, the bugaboo that hangs over the Blues is the same one that's been over them since the Brett Hull days, and that is whether the Blues can take that next step and win when it counts the most.  Someone will have to emerge as the top option in goal, and the blue line will need to find that killer instinct that's been lacking in the playoffs of recent times.  The Wild rode the strong goaltending of Devan Dubnyk to the playoffs, but he's also started as many games as he has been in a Wild uniform, meaning he's played every game since coming over in a mid-season trade.  The Wild are still learning how to win, and given that they are still young, it's possible that Zach Parise and Ryan Suter will need to take the lead in getting the Wild to the next level.

Prediction: Wild in 7

(2) Nashville Predators vs. (3) Chicago Blackhawks

Nashville was the hottest team for the first half of the season, but they tailed off a little late in the season, losing the Cental Division title in the process.  Everything begins from the back, with Pekka Rinne manning the pipes and Shea Weber leading the blue line charge.  Offensively, guys like Filip Forsberg and James Neal will need to be step up.  The Blackhawks had a tailspin of their own to end the season, but a healthy Corey Crawford and a possible return of Patrick Kane would benefit the team greatly, as the Blackhawks have been a largely up and down team throughout the season.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 7

(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (4) Winnipeg Jets

The Ducks nearly led the Conference from the word go, but as with the Blues, the Ducks need to shake some of the playoff demons that have derailed their chances in recent years.  Either Fredrik Andersen or John Gibson need to seize the starting role in goal, and the blue line will need to jump start the offensive push to win.  The Jets are in the playoffs for the first time since they were the Atlanta Thrashers in 2007.  The Jets are a hard working team that will need the very best efforts of Ondrej Pavelec in goal, as well as the continued solid play of Tyler Myers.  Up front, the Jets can play an offensive style with their top two lines or they can wear down the opposition with the bottom two lines.  However, the Jets may not have the depth necessary to pull off a potential upset, even with the hometown crowd solidly behind them.

Prediction: Ducks in 6

(2) Vancouver Canucks vs. (3) Calgary Flames

The most even match-up in the first round, neither were expected to do much this season, yet here we are with two teams that have exceeded expectations.  The Canucks got better than expected goaltending from Ryan Miller before a late-season injury, and Eddie Lack was able to fill in capably in his absence.  Defensively, the unit wasn't special, but their game has largely been about offense, and signing Radim Vrbata prior to the season will go down as one of the best signings of the season, as he led the team in goals and was considered by some to be the team MVP.  The Sedins rediscovered their game, as well, and they got production across the board, as the Station Wagon Line (Bo Horvat, Ronalds Kennins, and Jannik Hansen) proved to be a great third line.  The Flames were expected to have more growing pains as their rebuild hit another year.  Well, the Flames are ahead of schedule, thanks to a solid second act from Sean Monahan, as well as the emergence of Johnny Guadreau and Jiri Hudler.  Despite losing Mark Giordano to injury late in the season, the defense is still as solid as ever, and players such as T.J. Brodie and Kris Russell are leading the way, providing help for whoever is in goal, whether it is Jonas Hiller or Karri Ramo.

Prediction: Canucks in 7

NHL Eastern Conference Playoffs Preview

The dust has settled on the 2014-15 NHL regular season, and now, the quest for the Stanley Cup will begin on Wednesday with four games.  Since the Eastern Conference will get things started, their preview begins now.

(1) New York Rangers vs. (4) Pittsburgh Penguins

The Rangers won the Presidents' Trophy for the first time since 1994 and did so despite not having Henrik Lundqvist for a few weeks.  Rick Nash finally started to show the scoring touch that has been absent since his Columbus days, but now, he must continue that in the playoffs.  Lundqvist will still likely be kicking off some rust, but the Rangers will be fine in goal.  The Penguins needed a win at Buffalo on the last day to make the playoffs, and with some injuries to players like Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist, plus periods of an offensive power outage, it's hard to believe this was the Penguins team that could waltz into the playoffs in previous years.

Prediction: Rangers in 5

(2) Washington Capitals vs. (3) New York Islanders

The Capitals didn't miss a beat when it came to where the offense would come from, as Alex Ovechkin once again claimed the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals in a season.  However, it finally seems that the Caps have found some semblance of secondary scoring and their defense has gotten better, as Braden Holtby has taken a firm hold of the starting goaltender job in Washington.  The Islanders started off hot, but tailed off badly towards the end, barely getting in on the last week of the season.  John Tavares is the engine that makes everything go, but Jaroslav Halak needs to rediscover his first half magic or else the Islanders will be going home early.

Prediction: Capitals in 6

(1) Montreal Canadiens vs. (4) Ottawa Senators

The Canadiens rode the stellar goaltending of Carey Price to this spot, and there is no reason to believe that the Canadiens' chances of winning it all won't be on his shoulders once again.  While the team in front of him is solid, there isn't an outstanding offensive force that can take over games and take some of the pressure off of Price.  The Senators were out of the playoff picture as recently as six weeks ago, yet thanks to the heroics of then-unknown Andrew Hammond, the Senators find themselves here.  The run they needed to make is not sustainable, but then again, there just might be some magic left in the Sens, and players such as Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, and Bobby Ryan will be leading the way.

Prediction: Canadiens in 7

(2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (3) Detroit Red Wings

The Lightning are led by the usual suspects (i.e. Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop), but it has been the likes of Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov that have stepped up and given the Lightning a greater offensive punch.  Defensively, they've held it together despite injuries to top defenseman Victor Hedman.  The Red Wings are in the playoffs for the 24th time in a row, but their stay may not be a long one, as goaltending is not as strong as it has been, as Petr Mrazek looks like he may be starting the first game of the series.  This may be more of an indictment of Jimmy Howard's troubles in recent games.  For the Wings to win, they need their reliable players such as Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, and Gustav Nyquist to be the leaders on offense and compensate for a merely average defensive unit.

Prediction: Lightning in 4

Thursday, April 9, 2015

WHL Conference Semi-finals Preview

The WHL Playoffs are advancing to the Conference Semi-finals, and things are going according to plan (as far as rankings go).  The games resume tomorrow, so, let's dive into it.

(1) Brandon Wheat Kings vs. (2) Regina Pats

The Wheat Kings had some game one jitters, but they rebounded to finish off Edmonton in five games.  Though the top seed, their inexperience in the big games showed in the series.  Regina swept Swift Current on the way to this rematch from last season.  They're practically a score by committee team without Sam Steel, and it will be up to Daniel Wapple to be their rock in goal once again.

Prediction: Wheat Kings in five

(1) Calgary Hitmen vs. (2) Medicine Hat Tigers

The Hitmen were almost headed to an early tee time again at the hands of Kootenay, but they found a way to advance.  Of the top seeds left, they're looking the worst.  Medicine Hat had a great series against Red Deer, with the bounces going their way in some closely contested matches.

Prediction: Medicine Hat in six

(1) Kelowna Rockets vs. (2) Victoria Royals

The Rockets had little trouble with Tri-City for most of the series, but the clinching game showed that they have some holes to patch up.  Victoria put away a game Prince George team in five, and they may be Kelowna's biggest challenge yet.

Prediction: Kelowna in six

(1) Everett Silvertips vs. (2) Portland Winterhawks

The season series was fairly even, and both teams will be coming in with tired legs after each needed at least one overtime (Everett needed three OTs) to put away their respective opponents.  Everett had some trouble with Spokane, and they have less firepower than Portland.  Portland had a tough match-up with Seattle, and they will need to shore up their defensive holes if they want to advance.

Prediction: Portland in seven