Interesting (Possible) Matchups in the Upcoming Playoffs

With the regular season winding down and the available playoff spots mostly taken up, it is time to look at some of the possible matchups that will be the most fun to watch. There is still some shuffling to be done, some at the top, but more interestingly, the ninth place team in each conference that can still grab one of the last spots. In the west Colorado is on the outside looking in, sitting five points behind Minnesota for the last spot. However, the race is much tighter in the East with Detroit and Philadelphia tied with 87 points and Boston one point ahead of them. The team that gets in on the West side will have to play a very good team in either Dallas or St. Louis and it looks like whoever lands eighth in the East will have a tough time playing the Presidents Trophy winning Washington Capitals. So here is a look at two of the more exciting and more even matchups that can meet in the playoffs.
The first is probably going to be the most interesting in the West and maybe the whole playoffs. Chicago vs St. Louis or Dallas. These are three teams that all play in the Central Division and therefore have a great division rivalry. Currently, the matchup is Chicago playing St.Louis and they have tied their season series, but St.Louis and Dallas both have identical records for 101 points and 42 wins with five games remaining. Chicago is six points back with only two less wins with five games remaining but as history has shown, they can match up with any team in the league. Whichever, of these two (three) teams play each other it will be a great matchup with physical hockey and great goaltending.
In the East, the best matchup so far is the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Rangers. One of these teams have made the Eastern Conference finals in six of the last eight years. Both of these teams obviously have the experience, skill and toughness to make it all the way. It will be unfortunate that only one of these teams can make it past the first round (they play each other as of now) but there are still six games remaining and anything can happen. Both teams are playing great hockey right now with the Rangers going 5-3-2 in their last ten and Pittsburgh with an amazing 9-1-0 record. These two teams both have great defence and amazing scoring talent. It will be a battle of which team can score more goals against two great goaltenders in Pittsburgh’s Marc-AndréFleury and New York’s Henrik Lundqvist.

The rest of the matchups obviously have the potential of being great hockey (and they probably will because it’s playoff hockey) but this article focused on the two that should be really fun to watch. It should be noted that these are just potential matchups and that the standings can and probably will change. However, it is the playoffs and any matchup on any given day can be the greatest game you have ever seen.

4 Hours and 18 Seconds

Four hours doesn’t seem like that long a length of time. It’s four episodes of Game of Thrones. It’s the time it takes to drive from Toronto to Ottawa, give or take. Four hours is a double feature, unless one of the films is a Tarantino production in which case it would be a one and a half feature. Four hours and 18 seconds is also how long the Saint Louis Blues have gone without allowing a goal and in the NHL, that’s a lifetime.

Three of the four shutouts were with Brian Elliot in net but the fourth featured fellow goalie Jake Allen who held off 32 shots from the NHL-leading Washington Capitals. After blanking the Vancouver Canucks two times and the San Jose Sharks once, Elliot was given a breather, which gave Allen a shot to get off the bench and keep the streak alive. “It can be tough a little bit because (Allen has) been watching lately, and obviously (Elliott) has been playing unbelievable,” Blues forward Paul Stastny said. “These guys have found a way to make it competitive on a good standpoint that benefits the team.”

While the Blues are only the 11th team to compile such a streak, nobody is overly focused on it. ”It’s a cherry on top,” Elliott said. ”It’s just a bonus. It’s all about the wins right now.” And those wins are coming at a great time as the team picks up some serious momentum going into the playoffs. With a spot already clinched, the Blues are focused like laser beams on the Central Division and the top spot in the Western Conference. After three straight first-round exits the Blue Note would love to chalk up some wins in the post-season.

Part of the team’s latest winning trend might be due to a bevy of key players returning from long absences resulting from injuries. Alternate Captain Alexander Steen is set to return after being sidelined for 15 games with an upper-body injury. In addition to Steen, the Blues have seen the return of players like Patrik Berglund, Jaden Schwartz, and Paul Stastny, all of whom have seen lengthy absences. The team has clicked since their collective return, winning 10 of their last 12 games. With defensemen Carl Gunnarsson and Jay Bouwmeester set to return this week things look to improve even further.

While a hot streak like this one is clearly a team effort, there’s no denying that the performances in goal have set the tone. “When your goalie’s hot, the confidence breathes through the rest of the team,” Center Kyle Brodziak said. “We’re feeling that right now.” With Elliot back in net tonight against the playoff hungry Colorado Avalanche, the St. Louis Blues hope to keep that confidence going and turn it into playoff success.

It’s time to change the NHL’s draft lottery rules

The 2016 NHL Entry Draft will have a slightly different look to it this June as the league will be introducing a lottery system for the top three picks rather than just the number-one selection. The idea is to stop teams from tanking and finishing as low as possible to receive better odds at the top pick. But while the chances of gaining that first pick have been reduced from last year, the fact remains that the last-place team in the league still has the best odds in the lottery. Therefore, several clubs are still hoping to end the season in 30thplace in the 30-team league rather than 29th or 28th etc.

It appears the only way to stop the tanking will be to ensure that all non-playoff teams are given the same odds at winning the lottery. This year’s system means the last-place team may draft as low as fourth whereas they were guaranteed a top-two pick last year. In fact, the last-place team this season may have better odds at getting the fourth pick instead of first, but the club still has the best shot at number one. This still gives NHL franchises an incentive to finish as low as possible in the standings once they realize they’re not going to the postseason. This puts general managers in a conflicting position since their job is to improve the team through the draft and the best way to achieve that goal is to lose games.

Once the season heads into the final stretch teams could see their lottery chances take a hit if they win a few games and climb the standings. Some fans feel they’re actually being punished by racking up points. Perhaps the NHL should freeze the draft lottery standings earlier in the season when most teams are still trying their best to reach the playoffs instead of purposely trying to finish as low as possible. One suggestion has been for the league to rank the teams and announce the lottery winner at the trade deadline. This year’s lottery winner for the top pick won’t be announced until April 30th, a few weeks after the 2015/16 campaign has ended.

Once the lottery winners have been announced there will be no reason for clubs to ice weakened teams and attempt to slide down the standings. There will be no incentive or reward for this and fans may see weaker teams suddenly give it their all in a late push for a playoff spot. The NHL could also even the playing field somewhat by altering the rules of the draft lottery. For example, the current system allows the same team to win the lottery year after year. This makes it hard for fans to believe the lottery is purely random when the same club has been fortunate enough to win it several times.

The Edmonton Oilers have selected first overall four times in the last six years and could make it five for seven this summer. Many fans would like to see rules introduced which would exclude a lottery winner from taking part in the process for a period of three to five years. For instance, if the Maple Leafs should happen to choose first overall in 2016 they wouldn’t get another shot at it again until 2020. The current system enables the same club to continue to stock up on star prospects while the rest of the league sits idly by.

If this continues, fans in the majority of cities may never see their team land a bright young franchise player. This is especially disappointing for clubs that could use a high-profile draft pick such as Conor McGregor or Auston Matthews to help their sagging attendance base. The draft should still help teams which finish near the bottom of the league, but these clubs should be given only so many chances to improve their rosters. It’s obvious the Oilers haven’t gotten any better with so many top draft choices so perhaps it’s time the league gives somebody else the opportunity to improve their squad with the top pick.

Edmonton Oilers 2016 Offseason Plans

            Once again, the Edmonton Oilers are in the running for the top overall draft pick. As of March 24th, 2016, the team has the second fewest points in the league, but four games in hand on the team in front of them (Toronto Maple Leafs). It is truly remarkable that the Oilers have continued their losing ways, considering all of the talent they have been able to acquire in the draft over the last six years.
            Edmonton has been lucky enough to select first overall in the draft in four out of the last six years, and picking third once as well. All five of those top 3 picks have been forwards, giving the team a strong, young offensive base, but leaving other positions bare. Last year’s top overall pick, Connor McDavid, looks like a true star in the league but the rest of the team needs to work to climb out of the cellar.

            Pending Free Agents: The highest paid unrestricted free agent is Defenseman Nikita Nikitin, currently making $4.5 Million in 2015-2016. He has struggled to stay with the pro club, playing only 11 games this season, and will almost assuredly not be re-signed. Eric Gryba, a defensive defenseman, played relatively well this season before injury and may be re-signed, depending on the cost.
            One interesting restricted free agent is forward Zack Kassian. Since being acquired from the Montreal Canadiens, he has managed just 8 points in 29 games. While that may seem like nothing, he is just 25 years old and has shown some ability to score and play tough in previous seasons. The likelihood of him staying with the club will likely depend on his qualifying offer.

            Draft Picks: There is a good chance the Oilers will fall into a top 2 pick once again this year. The top prospect in the draft is Auston Matthews, a forward. The main question will be if the team has room for another top level forward or would look to possibly trade back and grab a defenseman. The top defenseman prospect this year is Jacob Chychrun, an offensively talented blue liner that could likely make the squad very soon.

            Free Agent Additions: While Cam Talbot has played admirably in goal, the team may look to make a change. The problem will be finding a suitable replacement as the top available goalies in a very thin market are Cam Ward and Jonas Hiller that are both over 30.

            Should the team decide to add a veteran defender, Keith Yandle and Kris Russell should both be available if the team is willing to pay.

The Unflappable Detroit Red Wings

The Detroit Red Wings are quite an amazing and unique organization, not just in the National Hockey League, but in terms of all professional sports teams. As of right now there are only three NHL teams that have a longer streak of consecutively making the playoffs than the Red Wings, and they all started in the late 60’s when there were far less teams to compete with. Detroit has made the playoffs for an incredible 24 straight seasons and are poised to make it 25 (knock wood). In this day and age that is a remarkable feat.
However, the Red Wings are in a dogfight for the last wild-card playoff position right now but that is mainly due to the Philadelphia Flyers going 7-2-1 in their last 10, while Detroit remained even at 5-5-0. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the Detroit Red Wings have the ability, experience, and drive to take them into the playoffs for a 25th straight time.
The Team Management
The greatest difference between the Detroit Red Wings and every other team in the NHL is they now have the ability and patience to see the future of their team. They have now been doing this for so long that they have complete control of their future rosters, as well as having a strong contending team in the present.
General manager Ken Holland has been an integral part of creating this 24 year old dynasty. He consistently gives his team the right tools to get to the playoffs year after year and yet still drafts quality players that are needed to keep his team vying for the Stanley Cup the future.
The way the entry draft worked in the past is: the lower the ranking in the previous season, the higher your position was to pick players. These rules have changed in the past few years but the sentiment is the same. However, with the management’s foresight, they have made some great picks late in the draft. For example:
     Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Fedorov – taken 53rd and 74th, respectively in the 1989 draft
     Bob Probert and Petr Klima – selected 46th and 86th, respectively, in the 1983 draft
     Petr Mrazek – selected in the 2010 draft, 141st overall
The Detroit Way
The Detroit Red Wings started a tradition 24 years ago that more teams should follow. They are keeping their younger players from their draft in the minor leagues for at least a year, usually more. This is exactly what all teams should be doing with their younger players, whether they are considered a ‘superstar’ or not.
By allowing these young players the time they need to gain experience and confidence in the minor leagues, the Detroit Red Wings have found a way to consistently win without the benefit of a ‘generational’ player.

If you take a moment to think about the draft lottery system and how it favours the lowest ranked teams at the end of the NHL season, Detroit’s organizational plan is quite mind-boggling! How do you make the playoffs every year for 24 years and still put together a Stanley Cup calibre team in each of those years without drafting a Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, or however many more number one picks the Edmonton Oilers need. The Detroit Red Wings have an amazing long-term game plan and the rest of the NHL should follow.

Noah Hanifin and the Teenage Years

Many 18 year-olds spend their time worrying about mid-term exams, relationships with their dormmates, and generally finding a way through their first year of college. Noah Hanifin is no exception, only this 18 year-old’s worries are about lining up across from Alex Ovechkin, rooming with center Nathan Gerbe, and generally trying to keep from letting his team or the thousands of Carolina fans down.

Born in 1997 in Norwood, Massachusetts, Hanifin developed his hockey skills at Saint Sebastian’s School, known for having one of the top hockey programs in the US. Hanifin played for the US Under 17 team but was quickly bumped up to the Under 18 national team as an underage player. Hanifin then fast-tracked his high school graduation in order to play at Boston College as a 17 year-old. After only one season the defensive phenom entered the 2015 Entry Draft and wound up with the Hurricanes as the 5thoverall selection. Signed to a three-year deal Hanifin made his debut on October 8th of last year and has so far been able to do what very few defensemen have done, crack an NHL roster while still a teenager, and he seems to be doing it quite well.

Noah’s unique combination of physical size, defensive skill, and mental maturity has helped him hold his own in a world he has very little experience for. “In the NHL, everything’s so fast and you need to do everything the right way,” Hanifin said. “That’s the biggest thing. Your job is always on the line in the NHL.” While 3 goals and 14 assists might not be all-star numbers it’s worth remembering that just three seasons ago this future star was still playing high school hockey in Massachusetts. The Hurricane’s maintain that some grooming in the AHL might be in order but everyone seems to agree that simply might not be necessary. Hanifin, however, is the first to admit that he still has a lot to learn. “I’m not where I want to be yet,” he says. “It’s my first year, and I’m 18. It’s more of a learning experience. I still have a long ways to go.”

With 69 games under his belt Noah Hanifin has a solid taste of life at the NHL level. There is no question about his talent. All that remains to be seen is what kind of point producer he will turn into as he gains confidence and experience both on and off the ice. The future is bright for what most consider the best defensive prospect in the game today but he still has a long road ahead. On the bright side, he doesn’t have to worry about any final exams.

NHL in danger of overdoing outdoor hockey games

The NHL held its first official outdoor regular-season hockey game back in 2003 when the Montreal Canadiens faced off against the Edmonton Oilers. The event was held at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium and dubbed the Heritage Classic. Most fans believed it was a one-off, unique affair, but the league is still holding outdoor games 13 years later and has four more scheduled for 2016/17. Not everybody is enamored with these games though as some critics feel the NHL is simply overdoing it by now holding several of them each year.

The 2003 event was a huge success as it attracted 57,167 fans and led to the annual outdoor game known as the Winter Classic, which is typically held in a U.S. city on New Year’s Day. However, many fans may not realize that the roots of these outdoor fixtures can be traced as far back as 1954 when the Detroit Red Wings took on a team of prisoners at Marquette Branch Prison in Michigan. There were no fans at this match though as an open-air rink was created and then fenced in for the game.

Two years later, the Boston Bruins headed to Bay Roberts, Newfoundland and played a series of short outdoor games against four local squads on the same day just for the fun of it. It wasn’t until 35 years later that the NHL ventured outdoors once again. This occurred when the New York Rangers took on the Los Angeles Kings in a September, 1991 pre-season outing at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas with 14,000 fans on hand. It was the first NHL-sanctioned game to take place outside and once the league realized if it could hold a game in Las Vegas with the temperature reaching 27 °C then it could basically hold one anywhere.

It took the league 22 years to introduce the Heritage Classic though. Since then, outdoor games have become a common thread with the league and they’ve helped it set new attendance records on a regular basis. The 2008 Winter Classic in Buffalo drew 71,217 spectators to shatter the 2003 mark and that record was smashed in 2014 when the Toronto Maple Leafs visited Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor and faced the Red Wings in front of 105,491 spectators.  

The NHL was actually given credit where it wasn’t due though as it was Jon Miller of NBC Sports who suggested in 2005 that the league hold an annual game which would be televised by his network. Three years later the annual Winter Classic was born and in 2013 the NHL Stadium Series was introduced. The busiest season for outdoor games was 2013/14 when six contests were held. These consisted of four Stadium Series matches along with a Heritage Classic and Winter Classic event.

Up to now, 19 of league’s 30 clubs have been involved in a total of 15 regular-season outdoor games in 13 different North American cities. New York and Chicago have hosted two events each and seven teams have played in more than one contest with Chicago, Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers each appearing in three. The NHL has announced games in Toronto, Winnipeg, St. Louis and Pittsburgh for next season, which happens to be the league’s 100th anniversary. It will also be the Maple Leafs’ 100th birthday while St. Louis, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia will be celebrating their 50th year in the league.

Some fans are getting a little bored with the games though as they often feature the same teams. They’re disappointed that the newly-created Centennial Classic in Toronto next year will once again feature the Red Wings taking on the Leafs. In addition, the NHL has scheduled this game for January 1st with the Chicago vs St. Louis tilt taking place the very next day. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman points out that outdoor games still draw huge crowds. And that may be so, but the novelty has worn off on the casual TV viewer. This year’s Winter Classic saw Boston host Montreal at Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts with the television ratings being the lowest ever for the annual event at just 1.6 with the highest number of  viewers being 2.78 million.

Typical ratings for the game range from 2.2 to 2.5, but they’ve dipped under 2.0 for the past two seasons. It appears many hockey fans across the continent are losing interest in the concept since there are now several outdoor games to choose from each year. If the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day was the one and only outdoor event held each season it may once again become something special with casual fans.

Toronto Maple Leafs 2016 Offseason Plans

            One of Hockey’s most storied franchises, the Toronto Maple Leafs, are in the midst of a low point in their history. The team is currently in rebuilding mode and looking towards the future. As of March 18, 2016, they have the lowest point total in the league, but there are reasons for optimism. After trading away Dion Phaneuf, James Reimer and others at the trade deadline, the team has a plethora of draft capital and cap space to work with.

The team has been getting an extended look at some of its young talent this season. Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov and William Nylander, the 8th overall pick in the 2014 draft, have all performed very well in their first NHL action. Here is a snapshot of what fans can look forward to this summer as the team continues to rebuild.

            Pending Free Agents: The two most notable free agents for the Leafs are Center Nazeem Kadri and Right Wing Michael Grabner. Kadri, the team’s leader in points, is a solid player but may be the victim of a numbers game. If the team can acquire two other highly coveted centers (discussed later), there will be no need for Kadri. However, if one or both of those two are unavailable, he will likely be back with the team. Grabner, acquired in a trade in September 2015, has been a major disappointment. He has the highest salary on the team and will likely not be re-signed.

            Draft Picks: Every team this year is “battling” for the right to have the top pick as there is a clear top player available. Auston Matthews, the Arizona born Forward currently playing in Zurich, would likely be slotted in as a center for Toronto if they win the rights to draft him. While he is not projected to be a generational talent like Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid, he is best player available in this draft and would be a coup for Toronto. If Matthews is not available, the team will have to consider taking Alex Nylander, the brother of their future star who is also a top prospect.

            Free Agent Additions: Toronto is definitely in the running to score the crown jewel of Free Agency. Steven Stamkos, the 26 year old Captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning, will be the target of every team in the league. The Center is a perennial All-Star and one of the most dynamic players in the NHL. He grew as a Maple Leafs fan and lives in the area in the offseason, so the rumor mill has been working projecting Stamkos joining the team.

            Additionally, the team could use some veteran defensive help. Keith Yandle of the New York Rangers and Kris Russell of the Dallas Stars are the top two defensemen available to add an experienced blue liner to help the younger players develop.

NHL Goaltenders: The Key to a Stanley Cup

Like winning any trophy in professional sports, a lot of work has to go into building a championship team and that begins with management. The general manager of a hockey team is the one in charge of putting together a hockey team that can win the Stanley Cup. This process takes years. Everyone knows the first and second overall picks who are most likely a high profile forward (I think we all can name a few of those) or an exceptional defenceman and then start to build your team around them.
What you won’t hear about is the goaltenders who are picked with the 207th overall selection, like Dominik Hasek who ended up with six Vezina trophies, two Hart trophies and two Stanley Cups. Being a goaltender in the NHL is one of the hardest jobs in sports. With not having the fame and fortune early on in your career like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Connor McDavid, most goaltenders have to wait years to perfect their skills to be at the top of the NHL ranks. Here is a look at some of the goaltenders that are claiming their stake to take their teams all the way to the Stanley Cup.
Statistically, the best goaltender on the best team in the league is Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals. He has seven more wins than the second place goalies on this list of whom you will soon read about. Holtby was selected 93rd overall by the Capitals in the 2008 NHL draft. After eight years it looks like Holtby is ready to try to lead his team all the way. I think the Capitals are a great team and it took a lot to get to where they are but I also think Holtby will have to win some playoff games by himself and that comes with experience, which he is lacking. Look for him next year after he has some tough games.
Pekka Rinne is on this list because he is a world class goaltender and has the ability to ‘steal’ any game that he starts. The Nashville Predators locked up their prize goaltender to a huge deal and for good reason. He is an absolute workhorse for the Predators and is the NHL leader in time on ice and tied for games played. If Nashville can score at least two or three goals they have the ability to win every game with Rinne in net. He was taken with the 258th overall pick.
The New York Rangers were able to steal Henrik Lundqvist with the 205th overall pick in the 2000 draft. He has since been nominated for the Vezina trophy three times and is the first goalie to win at least thirty games in his first six seasons. The Rangers are playing good hockey now and are jockeying for home ice advantage in the playoffs. If Lundqvist is on his game then there is no better goalie in the NHL today and gives the Rangers a chance every night.

The first three goaltenders are being written about because they have been stable throughout the years or have just started on the big stage in the NHL. The two that I have left off are Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks and Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings. These two goalies are not just world class goalies like the previous three, but they have the intangible benefit of having the ultimate experience of both winning and losing on the biggest stage imaginable. Whichever one of these goalies comes out on top, you can be sure that we will have a fun time watching them.

Coach’s Challenge Here To Stay

There’s at least one definitive thing coming out of this year’s General Managers Meeting in Boca Raton, Florida, the coach’s challenge is here to stay. With a moderate amount of grumbling and controversy surrounding the new rule everyone around the NHL was looking to the GMs to take a stand and they have clearly done just that. The 30 GMs in attendance stood by the new rule unanimously, though some small changes might be in order.

The coach’s challenge was adopted during the off-season as a way to use video reviews for goals that may have come about from goaltender interference or offside plays. A coach may challenge a ruling on the ice at which point the officials will review video footage of the goal and make a decision to overrule or not.

In general the move has been seen as a positive step in correcting the most flagrant, game-changing errors but it hasn’t been free from controversy. Many coaches and players have argued that the tiny 6” tablet the officials are using to review the video is too small to be effective. There are also complaints that challenges are being used as a “strategic time out”, allowing a team to regroup and rest while the officials are engaged in a review. Some simply state that the game stoppage at such crucial junctures interrupts the game flow.

Despite the controversy, the GMs felt strongly that the system was working. Of the more than 200 challenges this season nearly 80% of the on-ice decisions were upheld. There were very few challenges where the group disagreed with the officials. “You’ve gotta to look back at the reason we did these coach’s challenges originally was to try to take care of the egregious mistakes. We’ve certainly done that,” said Chicago GM Stan Bowman. “There’s been no (incidents) where everyone afterwards is thinking ‘Boy we got that wrong.’” Edmonton Oilers GM Pete Chiarelli agreed, “For all of us the coach’s challenge has been a very useful tool.”

No system is perfect, however, and the GMs agreed on a few areas where changes might be made to strengthen the review process. One seemingly simple idea is to get a larger screen for the officials to watch the video on. There has also been discussion of sending the review decision back to the NHL war room in Toronto but most GMs seem to think that’s overkill. Said Chiarelli, “We talked about that a little bit but I don’t see that happening. I think we’re getting it right for the most part.” One change that everyone agreed should be immediately implemented is the placement of two cameras at the blue line to help clear up any off side ruling challenges. “That’s the one in-season tweak we can make. It’s not a rule change, it’s just helping make the process better,” said Colin Campbell league director of hockey operations.

In the end the consensus was clear, video reviews of controversial goals are a good thing and despite a few minor issues the rule is accomplishing what it set out to do. The Coach’s Challenge looks to have a long and prosperous life in the NHL.