We are days from free agency when the NHL feeding frenzy will erupt and every GM with a roster spot and a dollar will turn into a shark in well chummed water. That means the time to solve their roster and cap problems.

As things stand they are almost one and a half million over the salary cap. That includes just six defenseman. It also includes thirteen forwards including the thirty-eight year old Marian Hossa who is signed for this and three additional seasons at nearly six million a year. Think about that. Even if he comes back next year having recovered from his skin ailment. He’ll be 39 years old, having suffered a season erasing illness, and still pretty expensive.

If they put Hossa on LTIR they’ll have $3,829,372 in cap room. They’ll need to replace him on the roster, and add a defenseman. With two guys on their entry level contracts you’re looking at about two million, minimum. And that leaves very, very little room for the inevitable injuries. Given the way the mumps have spread among Canadian players in the last half decade, it likely means you’ll need space on the roster and under the cap for a few days for two to three players at a time.

They are almost certainly going to need to trade someone. Hossa has a full no movement, and won’t be attractive without including some kind of overpayment going the other way. The Buffalo Sabres could certainly use someone who is part of the fairly expensive core of the Blackhawks, unfortunately there are six, count them six players including Hossa who have full no movement clauses. Marcus Kruger adds to the mess with a seven team no trade list.

To complicate things further, they have RFA’s Tomas Jurco, Anton Forsberg, and Dennis Rasmussen they need to do something with. Stan Bowman likely can’t keep Johnny Oduya, Andrew Desjardins, and Brian Campbell. There’s a lot to do. I’ve said before there are no cap problems, only management problems. There may be a path forward from here, but unless Vegas, Carolina, and Florida start earning enough to push the cap up about fifteen million in the next two years, they have long term problems of the sort that lead to complete turnover in front offices.

Rumors are flying about Brian Campbell and his days being numbered in Sunrise Florida. While the Red Wings are the most discussed landing spot, as they are for every defenseman, the biggest questions is not where should he go (if anywhere) but what for.

Brian Campbell first has the mystique of being a Stanley Cup champion. Second, he’s an offensive minded (although more complete than many give credit for) defenseman. Second, he’s been impressively healthy. His last missed game was back in the 2010-11 season. He’s got almost 100 games of NHL playoff experience, and while he’s not going to challenge the best of the league for speed anymore, no one thinks he’s slow. His average nights work minute wise is also impressive clocking in each year at 25-26+ minutes per game.

On the other hand he’ll be 36 before the next Stanley Cup is handed out, has played possibly a dozen meaningful games since arriving in Sunrise, and then there’s his contract. He’s making over $7.1m a year. His points totals are erratic swinging wildly and widely from year to year. It isn’t news, and arguably isn’t relevant that he’s undersized and not a physical presence.

‘So what should the Florida Panthers be asking for in exchange for their best known skater?

  1. Young defensive talent.
  2. Healthy mid career forwards who can help Jonathan Huberdeau, Barkov, and Bjugstad drag the team into the playoffs at least two or three years in a row.
  3. Several draft picks, at least equal to what the New York Islanders paid to acquire Johnny Boychuk which was two seconds and a conditional third.

Why is he worth more than Boychuk despite age and a larger contract?

  1. He’s much better offensively, even in the down years.
  2. Speed.
  3. An additional season beyond this one in which a team would have price certainty and the option to turn him over for additional or at least different assets.
  4. He’s played in big, small and “non traditional” markets and should be able to adjust on ice and of to whatever conditions he’s presented with pretty quickly.

Joe Thornton is the name of the day. For those who someone missed it, he’s still one of the best centers in the game. He’s got a 200 foot game, plays physically, and nearly as dirty as Sidney Crosby or Danny Briere at times. He skates well, is one of the three best passers of the last 30 years, and he’s never won a cup.

Some teams and how he’d fit in:

  • Boston: a full circle story with him going back almost certainly means a trade package like Krejci,  Spooner or Khoklachev, O’Gara, a 1st and likely another prospect or pick goes back. If the roster isn’t ripped up too much he’s likely the cure for what ails the teams powerplay. He’s done the major hockey market media before so the adjustment would be slight, and he likely still knows his way around the North end.
  • Nashville: This is almost the perfect landing spot for him. Even if half the fanbase hated him yesterday, him landing their tomorrow in the wake of the defection of Suter and the Weber scare means they have not just a high end player to fill out the roster but a face for the forwards and a tutor for the young prospects in the system.
  • Chicago: while their search has been for a  second line center, this might just fill the whole. Kane, Hossa, Sharp and the other wingers probably wouldn’t complain too much about second line minutes next to him. 
  • Calgary: Jarome Iginla has never had a legit top line center to play with. Joe Thornton would be that. The Flames may not have what is needed to ship back in return, but career years for both as a duo aren’t out of the realm of possibility. 
  • Phoenix: The desert dogs are so far under the cap floor they’ve probably got mushrooms growing on their heads. Even if they added Thornton without sending back a single roster player they would still be almost two and a half million under the floor. Throwing Thornton down as an inducement to keeping Doan would probably help a tiny bit. 
  • Florida: If there’s one thing we know about Dale Tallon it is that he is not afraid to pull the trigger on a big trade. The Panthers need a good center, they also have one of Thornton’s buddies, Bryan Campell who stayed at Thornton’s place after being traded out of Buffalo. 
Obviously the pending CBA negotiations are going to be a big factor, especially for teams paying closer to the cap floor than the ceiling, but it should not be forgotten that Joe Thornton does have a NTC/NMC. If Jumbo Joe does get moved, it will likely be the biggest trade of the offseason. Yes, bigger than the possible Bobby Ryan or the just elapsed shuffling of Nash to the Rangers. Both are younger than Thornton, and talented, but neither has the potential to impact the game at the same level. 
Whoever is going fishing in the shark tank should be dangling, forwards, draft picks, forwards and more forwards. The Sharks one strength in terms of prospects is on the backend. Their forward pool is nothing to brag about, and years of trading for established talent and playoff finishes have left them drafting in the bottom half of each round each year for about a decade.

It’s that time of year, when anyone who hasn’t managed to completely abandon social responsibility goes into hibernation for several hours a couple times a week. The NHL playoffs are here.

1: New York Rangers vs 8: Ottawa Senators

The Rangers have the advantages in goaltending, in playoff experience, penalty kill and in team toughness. That’s not to say the Senators are pushovers, but the Rangers had 10 more fighting majors than the Senators. The Senators own a noticeably better powerplay, a more powerful offense overall, and better leadership. Age is roughly the same with the Senators have a larger spread between their players ages.

On paper the Rangers should win this series handily. Unfortunately we don’t know how healthy Lundquist is (again) and the Senators won the regular season series against the “superior team”.

2: Boston Bruins vs 7: Washington Capitals

Can you say goalie issues? I knew that you could! The Boston Bruins still have a healthy Tim Thomas and that’s a damned spiffy thing to have. Unfortunately between the two teams there are two goalies who have never played an NHL playoff game (Khudobin, Holtby), one goalie ineligible to play at all (Turco), and count ’em three goalies currently injured (Rask, Vokoun, Neuvirth) which makes for exciting times for the coaches. For the Capitals who were likely to find themselves out matched in goal anyways, it makes it worse that their likely starter Brayden Holtby has just 21 NHL games (14-4-3) to his name, and none of them playoff games and only seven of them this season.

The Capitals won the season series against the Bruins, on the other hand three of those games came during that ice defiling slump they were in. The bad news for the Bruins who have since resurrected their team identity is that the Capitals have Backstrom back. On paper I thin almost anyone has to give this series to the Bruins, but the Capitals won’t make it easy.

3: Florida Panthers vs 6: New Jersey Devils

These two teams are both making their return to the second season. The Sons of Sunrise as an organization haven’t been in the playoffs in forever, but Brian Campbell and Kris Versteeg lifted the Stanley Cup together, Samuelsson, Sturm, Bergenheim, Kopecky, Madden, and Jovonovski bring in another 500 or so games of NHL playoff experience as well. The Devils have an odd mix of experience and new blood, Broduer has been there and done that. but almost no one else has seen even the conference finals. Most haven’t made it out of the first round. Ilya Kovalchuk who should be on the Hart Trophy short list has only played in one playoff game in which his team won. Zach Parise hasn’t seen the second round of the playoffs since his second year in the league, and he wasn’t expected to be a cornerstone of the team then. Adam Henrique is of course a rookie, and even though he probably deserves the Calder Trophy, he hasn’t played even one professional playoff game and none since the Memorial Cup run a few years back.

The goals for department favors New Jersey slightly, the goals against is a dead heat. The penalty kill is a walkoff for the Devils, but the Panthers hold the edge in the powerplay. The Panthers both generate and give up more shots than the Devils. This series will probably go the distance, with more playoff experience on the Panthers side, unless MB30 looks like the guy of 10 or even 5 years ago, you should not be shocked if the Panthers advance after their first ever division title.

4: Pittsburgh Penguins vs 5: Philadelphia Flyers

There will be no love in these games. Not unless its a love of winning and rubbing ones opponents face in it. The teams hate each other, the fans would cheerfully massacre the other cities, and the coaches aren’t over fond of each other either. This will be as compelling to watch as last year Boston vs Montreal series, and should be the best opening round matchup in either division.

With the relative tightness of the race, this series will come down to guts and discipline. The Penguins are better at home, the Flyers better on the road. The powerplays have identical proficiency, the penalty killing edge is in the Penguins favor, the teams delivered an identical number of hits, and the Flyers blocked more shots. While neither Bryzgalov nor Fleury did anything they wanna brag about in the last few days of the regular season, neither one had a bad March with the edge going to the Flyers keeper. Fleury has been to the promised land and Bryzgalov has not. That said, Bryzgalov has the better post season save percentage, and Bryzgalovs career save percentage against the Penguins is much, better than Fleury’s against the Flyers (.930 vs .901).

As Jim Ross would say, this one fixes to be a good old fashioned slobber-knocker.

 

The Eastern Conference is clearly the stronger of the two this season, and with five teams that have a legitimate shot at the Conference Finals if they stay healthy, one hellacious dog fight is brewing.

1: New York Rangers vs  #8 Washington Capitals

Two weeks ago if you had to project this matchup you’d have called it a stomping by the Rangers and moved on. Today, with the Rangers on a two game losing streak, you have one cause for concern. The Washington Capitals under one of the winningest coaches in OHL history are starting to play both resiliently and happily. Just as a rule of thumb, when Alex Ovechkin has a grin on his face half the night, the opponents are in trouble. It’s unlikely this would be a four game series, and it likely takes six, defense being the biggest difference. The Rangers have a more talented blueline with Girardi leading the way, backed by Del Zotto, McDonagh, and the still recovering Staal they have a level of defensive talent few teams will match. Rangers in 6.

2: Boston Bruins vs #7 Ottawa Senators

This has always been the most respectful rivalry in the Northeast  Division. Most fans of both teams will at least admit the others are human, and the other team isn’t composed entirely of goons and divers. That’s so boring. Fortunately with accidental kneeing my Adam McQuaid early in the year, the Senator climb up the standings, and Chris Neil being Chris Neil, the teams are getting a little tetchy at each other. Ben Bishop being brought in becomes the X factor having won his first two games as a member of the Senators, and playing a very different game from the injured Anderson or journeyman Auld. He could prove an equalizer, or not. On the year the Senators one win was a 1-0 affair, the other four game Boston won and outscored them 19-11.  Boston in 5

3: Florida Panthers vs #6 New Jersey Devils

The Panthers may get home ice, but the Devils are the better team. As long as Broduer plays well and Kovalchuk is healthy they have a good shot at beating anyone. The Panthers are hoping to get and stay healthy soon, their list of injuries has been as long as their summer free agent shopping spree. Broduer’s GAA has dropped each of the last three months, his Sv% has risen, right now he far more resembles the game changer of five years ago than anytime in the past three seasons. Also among the rejuvenated is Brian Campbell of the Panthers, the slick skating, smooth passing defenseman has eclipsed his points total for his last two seasons with the BlackHawks rather easily. The season series was split two to two with each winning and losing a one and a two goal game. Devils in 7

#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs #5 Philadelphia Flyers

The Keystone State would get to see one of the best first round matchups of the year. Of all the potential parings this is the most likely to happen. Even with home ice advantage the Penguins would enjoy only a slim advantage as the Flyers have had an exceptional road year. Injuries and who is not on the ice are the story of this series. With nearly a full roster in the shop between the teams, it could make for some very ugly hockey. The defense of the Flyers was suspect with Meszaros and Timonen, without them it could be ugly. Both goalies have warmed up of late. While Malkin is more than a handful, he’s been off the ridiculous pace he set for so many weeks. Penguins in 6

Breaking into the NHL is tough enough. Some players have false starts, some never make it at all. But once you’re in the big show getting to center stage can be even harder. Media outlets have a tendency to run to the same well over and over, sometimes even after it has gone dry. Securing the limelight for yourself may require a guy to break the mold, land on a new team or in some cases just stay healthy. Here are some of the guys who have earned center stage through the first half of the season.

At left wing you can’t find a bigger swing from the end of last season through the beginning of this season than James Neal of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Last season he was brought in as the hired gun to push Pittsburgh over the top riding shotgun on Crosby’s wing. In the score of games after the trade deadline, scoring is something that was quite the rarity.

While there’s  a certain guy (currently injured) on the Edmonton Oilers who has certainly gotten lots of attention this season, and deservedly so, another young center gets the nod. Having been called up from the minors after the season started, the season in the AHL, his call up has proved to be the best thing to happen to the New Jersey Devils this season bar none. Adam Henrique is Mr Everything for the Devils. It’s tough to argue that the Devils would be within striking distance of home ice in the opening round without Henrique who plays in all situations. A fair comparison of the two is to put Henrique in the same category of player as Toews, and Nugent-Hopkins in a similar mold to Henrik Sedin.

The elephant in the room of emerging stars at right wing does reside in Edmonton. His name is Jordan Eberle. He’s the only member of the Oilers on a point per game pace. He’s done it while lines have been shuffled and other players have gone in and out of the lineup he’s already tied last years 69 game point total, and is just one goal short of his goal total for last year as well. He’s on pace for over thirty goals.

The first defenseman is a no-brainer. If you haven’t heard his name, haven’t read anything on him, let me welcome you to the 2011-2012 season and wish you a speedy recovery from the coma you’ve clearly been in. Erik Karlsson is leading all defensemen in scoring, has a relative Corsi number that places him next to the only defensemen I’ve ever heard of Ray Bourque saying is better than he was (Chara), and he leads all defensemen in takeaways.

The other defenseman worth naming is a little better known but has had a couple down years having been injured and over shadowed in his last stop. Now on his fourth team it looks like the son of Strathroy Ontario has found his spiritual home. Having been part of a Cup win in Chicago, Brian Campbell has taken that experience and helped mold a fiercely competitive Florida Panthers team into a powerful force this season. His career average points per game is .516 PPG, this season he’s screaming along at .767 PPG.

In goal there’s just once choice. Brian Elliot. He’s had solid stretches of games along the way in his career, but this season he’s treading upon hallowed ground and no one is complaining. his .940 sv% is staggering, and his 1.62 GAA is nothing to sneeze at either. While it’s just a hunch at this point, the suspicion that the UFA to be will get a more generous contract next year is pretty tough to ignore.

Coaching them all is Florida Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen. He came into the season with a mishmash of rookies, discards, veterans in their prime, guys with injury histories, veterans edging into the twilight of their careers and not one but two question marks in goal. His team has led the Southeast division for most of the season. Not bad for a first year head coach.

Tonight the Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers face off for what may be the last time where both of them are leading their division. Next year they slide into the same conference and the rest of the seasons progress is anyone’s guess. If the Bruins win, and the Flyers beat the Penguins (in regulation or over time) the Bruins would lead the conference.

Panthers:

  • 11th in both goals for and goals against
  • Jason Garrison leads all NHL defensemen in goals and is +12
  • Brian Campbell is 2nd in overall scoring for defensemen and is +7
  • They have three forwards in double digits for goals, Stephen Weiss 11-18-29 +15, Tomas Fleischmann  12-16-28 +15. Kris Versteeg 12-16-28 +14
  • Marco Sturm is playing for the Panthers, Craig Ramsay is an assistant coach.
  • Florida has the 4th best powerplay in the NHL.
  • Former Dallas Stars tough guy Krys Barch was picked up by the Panthers this week.

Bruins:

  • Tyler Seguin will return to the lineup after missing last game.
  • Tim Thomas is expected to start
  • Shawn Thornton, Greg Campbell and Daniel Paille are the Bruins on a points scoring streaks, all for two games.
  • Tyler Seguin will play his 100th career NHL game tonight,
  • Bruins have the 4th best penalty kill in the NHL
  • Are 24th in blocked shots
  • Tonight is Shawn Thornton’s 396th NHL game
  • Zdeno Chara is 5 assists short of the 300 assist mark

This series will cover all thirty teams and go over the most important player, and player who’s performance most needs to improve to help the team succeed.

 

With such a vast gulf between their existing team and even the salary floor, it is hardly surprising the Florida Panthers are one of the most changed teams of the off season. Gone is Tomas Vokoun, in are handful of former champions, vagabonds and one presumes training camp will see one or more prospects make the team. The new comers are going to not only have to help win, but teach their new team how to win. Mike Santorelli and Dmitry Kulikov who were key to what success the Sunrise gang had last season will be looking forward to the next level play.

High card:

For Brian Campbell, it’s time to put up or shutup. He got one of the richest contracts in the NHL a couple years back and has continually been over shadowed. While no one who’s seen him healthy and engaged can doubt he’s got the goods to be a high end defenseman, it has been a bit since that was a reality. Last year in sixty five games he scored just eight more points than he did during his twenty game stint with the Sharks before signing with the Blackhawks.

Wild card:

Kris Versteeg. While undeniably talented and a solid top six forward on twenty teams in the league recent history doesn’t provide much clue as to what we should expect from him. In Toronto he was a top 3 forward, by the time the Flyers crapped out in the second round against the Boston Bruins, the NHL’s most famous white rapper was producing like a thirteenth forward. He turned in the worst playoff performance of his career. Then too is his traveling routine. The Panthers became his fifth team since being drafted.

Day one was anything but boring. Trades of players. Trades of picks. Off the board picks. Players sliding. Oh what a night.

Of the trades the one that got the least attention but might prove the most impacting was announced early. Troy Brouwer, a big aggressive winger went from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Washington Capitals. With the improvements on defense the Capitals showed last season, adding a Cup winning forward to the mix who will play physically and knows how to win. He’s comfortable on both wings, and having him opposite Ovechkin should simplify the problems for whoever is playing center for them.

The once unmovable contract of Brian Campbell has been moved. It may not really count because the general manager who signed the deal originally, is the man who acquired him. The Florida Panthers sent Rostislav Olesz, and moved up four million dollars in the salary cap space.

Probably the most shocking trade to take place was the swapping of two players that looked to be cornerstones of their teams. The NHL Entry Draft host Minnesota Wild sent former first round pick of the fabled 2003 draft Brent Burns, and a second round pick to San Jose. They in turn sent the recently resigned Devon Setogouchi stud prospect Charlie Coyle and a first round pick to the state of hockey. While both teams got something they need, I’m not sure you can call this anything but a win for the Minnesota Wild.

My two favorite picks, of the first round were for Landeskog and Larrson. The Avalance get a type of attitude that is simply lacking. There’s while not quite a belligerence, certainly the type of drive and swagger that is seen in Shane Doan and Jarome Iginla that the denizens of Denver just plain lack. For Larrson, he’s just the right fit at the right time for a team rebuilding on the fly. Ideally both players would play in the NHL next year. The Devils can bring Larrson along slowly in a limited role. I did think it was odd to hear Larrson damned with the faint praise of having better hockey sense and more physicality than Victor Hedman.

Mark Scheifele is probably the single happiest man in hockey right now;. Taken seventh by the reborn Jets, as their first pick in their return to the market he could be this years Jeff Skinner. Appallingly happy to be taken, personable and photogenic. the Jets new GM was gushing in his interview. This was clearly a hockey pick, unlike a certain franchise than drafts locals for language, but long term if Scheifele pans out it could be the best PR pick made by an NHL team in years. I also like that the team went a bit off the radar without making a huge reach to take him.