The first round of the playoffs may have been the best opening round as a whole in years. The Columbus Blue Jackets traded blows and goals with the Pittsburgh Penguins and had the Metropolitan division winners looking just a bit weak. The loss of David Backes due to a suspend-able hit by Brent Seabrook was clearly the tipping point of the series between the Saint Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks. The San Jose Sharks went from unmitigated domination of the Los Angeles Kings to going into the night with a whimper.

The Philadelphia Flyers played a pretty even series with the New York Rangers that came down to a memorable game seven decided by one goal; the series was also the coming out party for Steve Mason who put up a stellar 1.97 GAA and .939 sv%. The Alex Goligoski and Shawn Horcoff led Dallas Stars put a two game scare into the Anaheim Ducks before succumbing to a focused and superior team. In the battle between snowy Montreal and snowbird heaven Tampa Bay, the Lightning went down in the opening rounds only sweep, minus Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop. In the opening round the Boston Bruins lost the opening game to their Original Six rivals, and then laid them in the dust in four straight wins.

Biggest surprises of the first round:

  • 169 players having more goals than Sidney Crosby, including Luke Schenn, Bryan Allen, Raffi Torres, Jordan Caron and Devante Smith-Pelly
  • How much Jonathan Quick struggled in the first few games, and that Sutter didn’t go to Jones full time.
  • Paul Stastny ending a playoff run with well deserved accolades like “heroic performance” being thrown his way, even around all the love for the shiny new rookie.
  • Paul Martin weighing in at over a point per game. Yes, that Paul Martin.
  • Alex Goligoski gaining zero attention while playing 28:30 a night, putting up 4 points and being a +7 in a six game losing series.
  • How well the very young Colorado Avalanche held together through some very tough games.

Top 3 series of the opening round:

  1. Columbus Blue Jackets vs Pittsburgh Penguins, the pure drama in this matchup was amazing to watch.
  2. Minnesota Wild vs Colorado Avalanche; There is so much young potential in this series it is staggering, Coyle, Neiderrietter, Brodin and Spurgeon we’ll see more of this year, MacKinnon, Landeskog, Hishon, and Duchene we’ll have ot wait until fall for more from.
  3. Chicago Blackhawks vs Saint Louis Blues, as far as the best hockey played game in and game out this series wins, but the drama level wasn’t quiet as high as the other two series.

The Dallas Stars ended the second game of their first playoff series since the 2007-08 conference finals exactly where they didn’t want to be. They are down two games to zero, and the games were not as close as the score in the first game would indicate.  Through 120 minutes they have given up eight goals. Only two of those goals came while on the penalty kill. One more was an empty net goal.

Worse, a look at the number of shots in each game says that it isn’t just pure shot totals getting them in trouble. The first game was a high but not outrageous 35 shots against Kari Lehtonen, but the second was not high at all. Just 19 shots found their way through sprawling forwards and stalwart defenders. His save percentage in the two games this series is .886 and .842. Neither of those numbers can be called anything as glorious as average.

But there are alternatives to Lehtonen. Jack Campbell who played for the US National Development team allowed 1 goal in April playing int he AHL. The former 1st round pick also was named Man of the Year for the Texas Stars. Given how poorly the current netminded has done in his playoff exploits, it might be time to give Campbell a call before the opportunity passes the club by.  Closer to home is two time Vezina winner, and playoff warrior Tim Thomas. Yes, Thomas isn’t having his best year, and yes he did not play in the playoffs or at any other time last year, but his career numbers indicate that when the light shines brightest and people say he can’t, that’s the time Thomas glows.

No matter what option Lindy Ruff goes with, assuming he gets the choice, the Stars do need to figure out what to do with their goaltending. The current situation will make a waste of the hard work, dedication, and determination of players like Jamie Benn, Alex Goligoski, and others all season long.

The western conference will kick off the playoffs with the Anahiem Ducks and Dallas Stars facing off in 1st versus wild card matchup. The Jamie Benn led Stars crossover from the Central Division to face Corey Perry and his west winning Ducks. Of the 1 vs Wild Card matchups this is the one where the first place team should be safest. The Ducks are deeper and have more playoff experience, but showed last season they lacked killer instinct. The Stars are clearly underdogs but I doubt this series is over in four or five games.

Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks started the season strong and spent the opening months of the season sparring for first in the division without sliding below second. The new year opened with them on top of the division, as did every month after. Their padding waxed and waned as the Sharks got hot and cool, but here we are. The Ducks are a remarkably healthy bunch especially when you factor in the extra games and travel their Olympians played. If there is a weakness to the armor of the Ducks it is their special teams, something they’ll likely point to recent Cup winners of and dismiss calmly.

Best Players:

Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are the Superman & Batman tag team of the NHL. They play physically, pass, skate, cycle, score, and defend at least as well as any two players who normally take shifts together.

X-Factor

D-E-P-T-H. If Bruce Boudreau uses his second and third lines as well as his full defensive compliment the Ducks are a very tough matchup for any team. Nick Bonino, Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, and Kyle Palmeri are all capable NHL players. Teemu Selanne has already said he’s ending his NHL career, is well rested and knows how to win, he could play a much larger part in the playoffs.

Dallas Stars

Lindy Ruff’s team is a bit of a surprise entry in the NHL playoffs this year. With just 91 points they didn’t amass the most intimidating record in the NHL this year. Offense is where the team shines finishing the season regular 10th in scoring. The team boasts two 30 goal scorers in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, but will enter the second season without Rich Peverley lost to a cardiac event and subsequent heart surgery. Alex Goligoski might just have gotten some recognition for a stellar offensive season if Seguin and Benn hadn’t turned in so much offense of their own.

Best Players

Jamie Benn can play any forward position and be in the top tier of the league doing it, but his playoff experience is nil in the NHL. Tyler Seguin has a lot of playoff experience, but we shouldn’t forget the reasons he was traded from the Boston Bruins to the Dallas Stars. Alex Goligoski has seen the playoffs, with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and done respectably.

X-Factor

Goaltending. Kari Lehtonen is not a consistent goaltender, he’s put in one his best years to date, but given how often Lindy Ruff saw Tim Thomas when both worked for other teams, might he be tempted to go to the elder statesman  if Lehtonen falters. Comparing the playoff numbers of the two, no one could blame him for doing so.

 

The revamped central division is almost impossible to predict. The teams in the current configuration came from the defunct southeast division, the old central,  and even the former pacific division. There are new coaches, radically reconfigured teams, and a whole new attitude in some places.

St Louis Blues:

Good news: The offense has been bolstered for the the first time in recent memmory with an offensive minded center in Derek Roy.

Bad news: Even if they get the contributions they hope from Roy, Tarasenko, and others, they are going to need  a lighter hand at the reigns in the offensive zone to move into the top ten teams in scoring in the NHL.

Nashville Predators:

Good news: No one is paying any attention to them this season, even with Seth Jones part of the squad. No pressure from outside gives them underdog status all year.

Bad news: Management fell on its face in failing to upgrade the offense at all in the off season.

Minnesota Wild:

Good news: The team is well balanced on paper with both solid defense and offense. Mikko Koivu may even get noticed for the Selke he should own at least one of by now.

Bad news: How well they do on the ice will depend on how well coached they are, and how healthy they are. At least one of those is a major concern.

Dallas Stars:

Good news: They have better skill at center than they did last year. Jamie Benn, Alex Goligoski, and the crew are very, very hungry.

Bad news: Still not a lot of depth. Chemistry might take a while to develop.

Chicago Blackhawks:

Good news: Still the 700lb gorilla in the division. Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Jimmy Hayes and Brent Seabrook are all good reasons they’ll be hard to beat.

Bad news: They can’t count on the luck with health they had last year, and it is almost impossible they will be as hungry so soon after winning.

Winnipeg Jets:

Good news: Frolik and Scheifele bring talent to the center position. Jacob Trouba has looked solid on the blueline, and Dustin Byfuglien might just have his best year to date, and is on pace for 246 points.

Bad news: People in the Jets front office still think Olli Jokinen is a top center.

Colorado Avalanche:

Good news: No one ever, anywhere will ever misunderstand how important anything is to their Patrick Roy. Gabriel Landeskog is back to lead his young team upwards.

Bad news: The roster has several very talented players, but how good of a team they are is a complete unknown.

Top three teams:

Chicago Blackhawks, St Louis Blues, Minnesota Wild.

The Blackhawks lead b a wide margin, the Blues have such a strong system and talented blueline it is almost impossible for them not to make it back. Having gotten to the playoffs once, the Wild are practiced and hungry to erace last years drubbing at the hands of the BlackHawks from the memories of their fans.

The Winnipeg Jets lost three of their last five games to end the season. Two of them were to the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders who they were chasing for a playoff berth. They finished four points short of returning post season hockey NHL to Manitoba. In the process, some things became clear. Their depth at center was inadequate. Their goaltending was something short of iffy, and their resolve wasn’t quite enough to make them a playoff team.

Since last season the two most notable on ice changes are the loss of Ron Hainsey on their blueline, and the addition of Devin Setoguchi. There are youngsters like Mark Schiefele and Jacob Trouba vying for roster spots but the off season saw more in the way of extensions than big new contracts. Off the ice, their transition to the revamped western conference was completed in time to start this new year. With Hainsey gone, this could be the year Zach Bogosion jumps into the spotlight. Evander Kane only needed 74 games to notch his first 30 goal season, it would not be surprise to see him surpass that mark this year.

The Winnipeg Jet’s first season in the western conference opens when they travel just a bit further west to visit the Taylor Hall, Andrew Ference and Jordan Eberle led Edmonton Oiler on October first. They nights later they will be home to host the Los Angeles Kings and then the Anaheim Ducks. October 10th has them in Minnesota to trade chances with the Wild before returning home the next night to engage Alex Goligoski and the Dallas Stars.

Number of days 1-5: 10

Number of cites: 3

Best opponent: Los Angeles Kings

Weakest opponent: Edmonton Oilers

Home games: 3

Projected points: 5

The Anaheim Ducks who have Teemu Selanne in the fold for another year, and the Los Angeles Kings who have a very, very crowded blueline will present stiff challenges to the Dustin Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler and the rest of the squadron. The other three teams are playing at about or slightly below the Winnipeg Jets level. If one or two of the young players can not just make the roster but make a difference early, the Jets have a very solid chance at claiming one of the West’s eight playoff spots. For not just Zach Bogosian, but Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, and Eric Tangradi the future is now.

With the diverse origins of the teams former divisions, the central division might as well be the called “the melting pot”. Two former Northwest teams, a former pacific team, three of the former central division’s teams and an alumni of the southeast division just for good measure. While some teams know each other pretty darn well, the intensity of long time rivalries might just be lacking.

Chicago: We know the Blackhawks didn’t have a fire-sale this time. Who knows, they might escape a cup hangover too. Not likely, not as late as the season ran and as many people as they retained. On the plus side, there were no injuries to key players that will shorten the returning roster going into training camp. We know that with cross conference play, the BlackHawks will have to play more good teams next season than last season.

Colorado: We know Patrick Roy has a new job with the Avalanche. We know this is the longest predicted hiring in the history of the NHL. We know they still have nothing that resembles an NHL defense. We know the franchise has yet to put into evidence a viable plan for a return to relevance. We know Cory Sarich and Alex Tanguay are the biggest additions to this team. We know its gonna be another ugly season.

Dallas Stars: We know the team believes they’ve addressed their needs at center. We know the team dumped a first round pick defenseman, an All Star quality forward and some b prospects to get a guy who was playing third line wing, and a guy with epic scoring droughts. We know Jamie Benn is still the best player on the team, and that Alex Goligoski is still the most underrated player on the team. We know that Rich Peverley is likely to improve the penalty kill 2-3% all by himself. We know that Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley are a remarkable uptick in foot speed over Jaromir Jagr and Michael Ryder.

Minnesota: We know that after a run to the playoffs last year with a very, very young and inexperienced crew the team should be better this year. We know that with little in the way of real losses in players team chemistry should be good. We know the team needs to hit the playoffs and win a round to be financially viable. We know they really, really need to find a goalie who can be healthy for a whole season. We know the team is just about a shoe in for a playoff spot in a bottom heavy conference.

Nashville: We know the teams defensive top four is set well into the next collective bargaining agreement. We know Pekka Rinne will play close to seventy games. We know they still need a backup goalie. We know they haven’t done a thing to improve their forward core group in years. We know they will make the playoffs in Rinne, Weber, and Ellis are healthy and productive. We know that without upgrades to complete a viable top six they will eventually be beaten by a playoff team that can score consistently.  We know most people would be shocked to know the Predators were the prey on the penalty kill last year ending up 29th with a 75.5% effectiveness.

St Louis: We know the Blues traded out odd duck David Perron for Magnus Paajarvi who they still haven’t signed. We know they have 14 forwards signed. We know that despite it being as close to the end of their last season as it is to the beginning of the new one, their franchise corner stone Alex Pietrangelo is still not signed. We know they will return two goaltenders to the crease whose inconsistency is the one thing you can count on.

Winnipeg: We know that with their first season playing as a western conference team many of the teams players will have to get used to a different traveling and playing schedule. We know that with eight defenseman signed, UFA’s Mark Stuart and Paul Potsma may not want to renew their magazine subscriptions too soon. We know that Devin Setogouchi isn’t a big enough offensive upgrade, but that Michael Frolik might be the perfect solution to their penalty kill woes. We know Olli Jokinen will continue to baffle and befuddle people across the hockey world.

Yesterday we looked at the surprises the preliminary rosters had given us. Now, its time to look at who should be there over who is.

Forwards:

  • Jason Pominville, with a roster that will struggle for offense, at least compared to some, leaving out a the guy who finished seventh among American scorers last season, and second the season before is unabashedly embarrassing.
  • Brandon Dubinsky is one of the best two way forwards in the league. He’s capable of throttling the life out of opposing powerplays, winning faceoffs reliably, and will play physically against anyone. He’s well over a point a game internationally.
  • John Gaudreau makes the most sense of any non-NHL player for this Team USA squad to field. He’s money in the bank scoring goals, and is over a point per game at every level he’s played, USHL, NCAA, WJC and others.

Defense:

  • Alex Goligoski had his most productive season in points per game, despite having two of the top forwards traded mid season and no describable NHL quality centers on the team.
  • Torey Krug, unlike certain invitees, Krug played a significant number of his teams playoff games and managed to make the Bruins walking dead powerplay look like it had a pulse. Speedy, great passer, plays well against larger opponents (nearly everyone).
  • Matt Greene while offense is undoubtedly needed, a shut down defenseman who can hit like a freight train is never something to be without. Arguably the best American shutdown defenseman in the NHL, certainly top 3.

Goal:

  • Jack Campbell has international experience and even if he doesn’t make the final roster the organization should take a good look at him for next time around. It is unlikely Howard, Anderson or Miller will be at or near their top form as goalies in four years.

 

With the NHL draft this weekend we know three things a: There will be trades 2: there will be “off the board” picks and d: all bets are off on sane prices being paid to get starting goalies and top four defenseman. Some of the names being talked about are Scott Clemmenson of the Panthers, Cory Schnieder of the Canucks, and Rich Peverley of the Bruins as trade bait. Your guess is as good as any on which move where.

What We Know (by the new divisions)

Division A:

Anaheim: There are more rumors surrounding the Ducks and Bobby Ryan going to at least 41 other NHL teams than in at least a year. Capwise they can probably afford to keep him, in reality they need a 2nd line center, to resign Palmeri and of course the Ducks aren’t a cap ceiling team.

Calgary: While we’re all sympathetic to the flood devastation in the Flames home arena, it might just be considered a metaphor for what ownership and management have been doing to the team for a decade. Free agency will likely bring one or two more contracts like Wideman’s. They do have a good deal of cap space, and if the move Cammalleri, they’ll gain six million more. What they’d get in return is a mystery but based on recent trades…

Edmonton: They desperately need a viable defense, which is why they’ve been linked to every goaltender on the planet. With the 7th pick of the first round a player like Darnell Nurse would be a great find, if history holds true expect a forward to be drafted. Unfortunately the UFA market doesn’t hold much hope of pulling in a blueliner or two that would help, and the best name linked to Edmonton in rumors is Braydon Coburn.

Los Angeles: They need to get faster, and their cap hit needs to get slimmer. They have 10 forwards and 5 defenseman signed, and only six million in cap space. It’s likely several of he free agents like Dustin Penner, Rob Scuderi, Brad Richardson and one or two of the RFA’s have played out there string. With Martinez, Muzzin, and Lewis as yet unsigned and the Kings having no first round pick, a trade or two might be a solid solution for cap and talent reasons.

Phoenix: The more I watch this saga, the less convinced I am the Glendale city council wants a sports team in town. Four picks in the first three seventy five gives a solid chance for moving the roster forward, no matter what happens to the franchise.

San Jose: As the only one of the California teams not to have won a Stanley Cup the pressure on the franchise has to be mounting. With their aging core, leadership should be mighty nervous. They really need to find a way to move a big contract or two, and get back some younger, cheaper talent in return. Talent that doesn’t wilt in the playoffs would be a bonus. It is not unfair to say that if the Sharks don’t extend Couture in the immediate future that they are playing with fire and someone is likely to end up yajibuka.

Vancouver: Never a dead or a dull quiet moment in Canuckville. In addition to the ever present rumors of Luongo being traded or bought out, Cory Schneider’s coffle has been dragged to the auction block as well. With the Sedin’s aging poorly, Kesler unable to stay healthy, only 17 players signed for next year and $47,222* in cap space, this team is ready to be fleeced.

Division B

Chicago: While the celebration continues in the streets, the corner office has to make some tough choices. They have seven million in cap space and no backup goalie, no Bickell, no Kruger, no Stalberg and neither Leddy or Rozsival signed there’s likely to be turnover. It doesn’t project to be as deep at four summers ago when less than half the championship roster returned to the ice in October, but some big names and fan favorites might be pulling on another jersey this fall.

Colorado: Despite deep and pressing needs at defense, the team has said they would not take Seth Jones at number one. This could mean they intend to trade down and take him at 2-4, or it could just be another case of not having a clue. Cap wise the team is one of the few in an enviable state with 22 players signed and over $11 million in space.

Dallas: With three picks in the first forty, it is possible the Stars will find a center to go with high end wingers Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson, and maybe just maybe a solid young defenseman to play with Alex Goligoski. They too have a lot of cap space if they are able to spend higher and could end up doing quite well in trades against some of the teams feeling the cap crunch.

Minnesota: The Wild have been rumored up and down the Twittersphere to be moving iconic hit maker Cal Clutterbuck this weekend. Having finally reached the playoffs after a long layoff, the team is loaded with talent, and also high end contracts. They have less than 3.5millon in cap space. Clutterbuck’s qualifying offer would be less than two million, but he’s unlikely to sign for less than 2.5 in my book.

Smashville Nashville: To call last season a disappointment is a bit of an understatement. After making themselves a playoff fixture, the team took two steps back and ended up in the lottery. If the fates are kind, or the general managers ahead of them smart, they will get a much needed dynamic forward in the draft. Respectable centers are needed for the top two lines, and some goal scoring. A trade that saw them land a center for an immediate push back towards contention would be a savvy move for the general manager of team USA and the Nashville Predators, might such a trade involve a Team USA veteran and a cap strapped western rival?

St. Louis: The Blues are in need of more offensive minded and able forwards. They presently have arguable the best defense in the conference, certainly top 3, but just can’t score enough. Vladimir Tarasenko should help the offense, but priority one for this team this off season isn’t the draft or any forwards, it is locking up Alex Pietrangelo for as long as they can. Simply put he’s one of the two or three best defensemen under 25 with  complete game, and his best years ahead of him.

Winnipeg: The Jets need depth. Depth at center, depth at wing, depth at goal, depth in warm winter coats. The honeymoon phase of the midnight train from Georgia is pretty much over and the fans are going to expect production. With both roster spaces and almost thirty million in cap space, the Jets are in good position to exploit the trade and free agent markets for what they possess. The Dustin Byfugelien trade rumors continue which makes zero sense at this point even if he’s stated he will never sign another contract there.

This summer look for my series on increasing NHL scoring without sacrificing fundamentals of the game.

 *According to Capgeek

This is a feature that will run about every two weeks with improbable stats and situations in the National Hockey League.

 

Teams:

  • on April 17th the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets would have a better chance of making the playoffs than last years eastern conference champions the New Jersey Devils.
  • the Los Angeles Kings would have a better offense than the Boston Bruins, Vancouver Canucks, or Philadelphia Flyers.
  • only three of the top five powerplays would belong to playoff teams while five of five penalty kills would belong to playoff teams.
  • the Montreal Canadiens, and the Ottawa Senators would have more penalties per game than the Anaheim Ducks.
  • only two of the bottom five faceoff teams would be in playoff position, while all of the top five faceoff teams would be in.
  • zero of last years eastern conference division winners, The Panthers, The Rangers, and the Bruins would be in that position today.
  • zero of last years bottom five years teams would be there right now.

Players:

  • despite missing games with a concussion, Brad Marchand would still be tied for a top 20 position in goal scoring.
  • Alex Ovechkin would not only be the only player in double digits in powerplay goals, but also have a six goal cushion on those tied for second.
  • half of Adam Henrique’s ten goals would come on special teams, two short handed, and three on the powerplay.
  • the league leader in short handed assists would have three, and be Lee Stempniak.
  • the only defenseman in the NHL with more than one short handed assist would be, Jay Bouwmeester.
  • heading into the last handful of games of the season, Daniel Alfredsson would have almost twice the PIMS of Raffi Torres.
  • seven of the top ten defensemen in assists would be left handed shots, Mark Streit, Duncan Keith, Niklas Kronwall, Alex Goligoski, Sergei Gonchar, Kimmo Timonen, Ryan Suter, but two of the top three would be right handed, Kris Letang and P.K. Subban.
  • Sergei Bobrovsky would be the only goaltender in the top five for sv% and the top five for shootout wins.
  • the top ten goalies by save percentage would combine for a cap hit o $23,875,000 with over a quarter of it belonging to Henrik Lundqvist, who’s team has the lowest point total.