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.

This is a playoff pairing we haven’t seen much of. Neither team has been all that impressive over the last half decade. In the first meeting between the two back in 2003, the Wild prevailed in the first round meeting. In the more recent meeting in 2008, the Avalanche prevailed. Not many players are left from either squad. The Avalanche were the surprise of the season. Wild were plagued by injury at all the worst possible times, to all the worst possible players. The Avs chased down the division title, and the Wild fended off the Stars and Coyotes, which brings us here.

Colorado Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche surprised everyone this year with new head coach Patrick Roy getting superb offense and adequate defense out of a rather lopsided roster. In the previous season the defense was woeful, and the offense only pretty good. Led in scoring by Matt Duchene and in goals by Ryan O’Reilly, two even younger players in Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon were key in their success contributing 50 goals good for second and fourth in team scoring.

Best Players:

Semyon Varlamov has spent the last three seasons reminding his former team simply by playing what they gave up. No more so than this year when his .927 sv% brought the Avs to the playoffs while the goalie brigade in Washington brought them to the golf course early. Landeskog and Duchene are two guys who are going to be household names for a good long time up front.

X-Factor

We’re now in the playoffs, and this is still a very, very young team Duchene, Landeskog, O’Reilly, Mackinnon were the top four scorer’s for this team and their average age is about 21 and enough time to recover from an epic hangover. If their offense can’t get going, their defense isn’t up to saving them in a best of seven series.

Minnesota Wild

The Wild are a very odd team to quantify, they only had two player hit twenty goals this season. But they were 7th in goals against despite a brigade passing through the goalie crease as Darcy Kuemper, Ilya Bryzgalov and John Curry all spent time in net in place of Josh Harding (multiple sclerosis) and Niklas Backstrom (he’s Niklas Backstrom) spent significant time sidelined. They do have Matt Moulson and a few others that might be dangerous if played well by Yeo, but not many teams are going to be intimidated by the offense the Wild have historically put on the ice.

Best Players:

Ryan Suter is probably leaving Las Vegas with the Norris trophy. If he doesn’t, there should be damn good story around it. Mikko Koivu, and Jason Pominville both need to watched carefully, and Marco Scandella’s days of flying under the radar are overdue to come to an end.

X-Factor

Mike Yeo doesn’t have much experience as an NHL head coach. This is his third season, and second playoff trip. He should know his players (most of them) better than his opposite number knows the Avalanche. If he can push the right buttons a the right time, the Wild do have a chance at the second round.

The Western Conference has run over the east so far this year. The odd thing is how concentrated the losses are, so many of the east’s teams are in complete disarray while most of the weakest of the western teams are either over performing or have finally started to turn the corner on rebuilds that their is an imbalance.

Anaheim Ducks: We know that despite injuries to Sheldon Souray, Matt Beleskey, Viktor Fasth, Jakob Silfverberg, Saku Koivu, and Sami Vatanen, no team has wracked up more points or an equal amount of wins in the six week old season.

Colorado Avalanche: We know the Avs may be led by Matt Duchene, but they are getting contributions deep into the forward pool. In 14 games (or less for some) seven forwards have at least 9 points. Matt Duchene’s 10 goals are complimented nicely by five each from Paul Stastny, Gabriel Landeskog, PA Parenteau, and Ryan O’Reilly. We know the goalies are beating the competition with silly ease in wins, neither Giguere nor Semyon Varlemov have allowed more than 2 goals in a win.

San Jose Sharks: We know that two regulation losses in sixteen games is pretty damn spiffy. We know that a certain player might be tempted to celebrate this with his rooster out. We know the Sharks defense is going to be overlooked when people point out why the team is succeeding this season. We know not to get our hopes to high about this team and the playoffs.

Chicago Blackhawks: We know that even with Toews and Kane at just under a point per game this team has another gear.  We know it is nice not to be talking about the team’s powerplay. We know they team would rather not talk about their rather dismal penalty kill.

Phoenix Coyotes: We know the media stopped paying attention to this team when the arena deal went through. We know they have as many regulation or over time wins as the San Jose Sharks. We know that their powerplay is just .4 behind their Pacific division rival Sharks. We know that this team won’t get any real attention until the second round of the playoffs, and then only reluctantly from certain media outlets.

Vancouver Canucks: With 18 games played and 11 ROW’s the team is currently in the first wild card spot in the west. We know they have either played well after their adjustment to a new coach or that they are getting good puck luck with four of their last ten games going more than sixty minutes and victories in three of those.

Saint Louis Blues: We know the off season moves, and maturity (and health) are playing a big part in this teams success. We know that this should be the season Alex Pietrangelo becomes a household name. We know Vladimir Sobotka is on pace for a career season. We know Alex Steen will remember every moment of this season.

Minnesota Wild: We know that if this team were allowed just a little more offensive freedom they might just move into one of the divisional playoff spots and avoid the wild card chase. We know that Nino Niederreiter must be enjoying his escape from New York given that he’s played all 17 of the Wild’s games this year. We know being 16th in goals for and 3rd in goals against is very traditional Wild hockey and makes for a lot over very tight games.

Los Angeles Kings: We know this is one of just three teams without an overtime loss. We know that Jonathan Quick and Tim Thomas present a pretty good case for a curse of the Conn-Smythe, at least for American goaltenders. We know that hovering low in the playoff picture has been just about perfected by this team. We know Anze Kopitar’s point per game pace is pretty surprising for this team and will be ignored, again.

Nashville Predators: We know 14 points in their last 10 games should tell us a lot about how bad the Preds first few games were. We know the team is a very uncharacteristic 19th in goals against. We know that having done nothing to improve their forward pool in the off season that no one is surprised they are 21st in goals for. We know that the forward group’s lack of offensive zest will likely cost Shea Weber another Norris and could cost Seth Jones the Calder.

Dallas Stars: We know that despite adding Rich Peverley and Tyler Seguin in the off season the team is still being outscored by their opponents. We know that Valeri Nichushkin is the only draft pick from the last four drafts on the roster. We know a Lindy Ruff coached team is never going to be more than mediocre offensively so the rest of the team has to be high end and that this roster doesn’t qualify.

Calgary Flames: We know that a 6-8-2 is about where most people expected this team to be. We know Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler are doing what heavy lifting is getting done in Calgary. We know those same two players are probably preventing the team from locking up the first overall pick that has to be the aim of the front office. We know that as bad as other teams are playing the return of Mark Giordano means management will have to come up with a better plan for tanking.

Winnipeg Jets: We know that this teams lack of a number on center and arguably of a number two center are making the shortcomings on the back end even more apparent. We know the time to burn this roster to the ground and spare no one over the age of 25 is coming real soon.

Edmonton Oilers: We know there’s just no excuse for this team to be this bad. We know they’ve had all sorts of high draft picks. We know Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Sam Gagner are legitimate NHL talents. We know goaltending is a big, big issue. We know that the defense as a whole can’t get out of its own way much less get the goaltender a clear view or move the puck out of their own end. We know that unless they overpay one or three of the pending UFA defensive defensemen in July, hopes should not be high for improvement any time soon. We know that less than twenty games into the season injuries have played a big part with only seven skaters playing all 17 games.

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 Washington Capitals welcomed the sixth coach of the George McPhee era. This one is hall of fame inductee Adam Oates. With no real training camp or exhibition period, the Capitals were trying to absorb their new system for at leas the first month of the season. Among his other innovations was moving Left and Right Wing All-Star Alex Ovechkin from the former to the latter. The first half of the season was not pretty.

With guile, wisdom and no doubt some threats Oates got the team to the playoffs. Since last season, the Capitals have waived good-bye to Roman Hamerlik, Tom Poti, Mike Ribeiro and a few other well known faces. Perhaps the best signing this off season was the Capitals picking up Mikhail Grabovski. As compelling in terms of addition is having Brooks Laich and Mike Green both entering the season healthy.

Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson and the crew will open the season with a roadtrip to the windy city where they’ll get to watch the Chicago Blackhawks raise their newest banner. After returning home for a game they will hows the Calgary Flames who start the season without Jarome Iginla for the first time in well over a decade. The Dallas Stars will be their next port of call and they’ll face Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and the revamped forward group in the Lonestar state. Back home they will have showdowns with Eric Staal and his Carolina Hurricanes and Gabriel Landeskog’s Colorado Avalanche.

Number of days 1-5: 11

Number of cities: 3

Best opponent: Chicago Blackhawks

Weakest opponent: Colorado Avalanche

Home games: 3

Projected points: 7

The Metropolitan division will be brutally tough.  I have no doubt Adam Oates will do everything he can to motivate the team and let them jump on the division lead early. They don’t have any really stiff competition other than the Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and the Chicago Blackhawks. While the Dallas Stars are no longer pushovers, and even the Avalanche aren’t a gimmie, this is a better team than four of their first five opponents on paper. They need to prove it on the ice.

Last season was one of those years for the Colorado Avalanche where fans just covered their eyes and waited for it to be over. Matt Hunwick logged the most ice time, Stastny was not quite mediocre and missed 8 games. Tyson Barrie led the Avs defense in scoring, and Parentau and Duchene tied for the team lead in scoring. That was just about all. And then the inexplicable happened. Patrick Roy was signed to take over Coaching duties and seemingly anything else that amused him.  They cut, and then kept Hunwick, they traded for past glory in Alex Tanguay. After that they did the absurd, they passed on the projected number one pick a projected franchise defenseman in Seth Jones for a high quality forward to add to the depth they already have in high end picks at forward.

This season doesn’t project as much better than last. The biggest plus side is not any moves they made, but the fact that the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets who are both better teams are no longer in the conference. On the plus side there will be more of Gabriel Landeskog, more Tyson Barrie, and possibly even the debut of Duncan Siemens and Nathan MacKinnon. Patrick Roy is going into his first year an NHL coach, and perhaps his ability, force of personality, and legacy can push some of the more complacent members of the team into better performance. Don’t be surprised if the team has a very different roster after the trade deadline than it does opening night.

Number of days 1-5: 10

Number of cities: 4

Best Opponent: Boston Bruins

Weakest Opponent: Nashville Predators

Home Games: 2

Projected Points: 2

This will be a tough season for a team with so little quality on defense, and they open it up in an ugly manner. The suddenly deeper Anaheim Ducks and Nashville Predators at home before three straight road games. The Maple Leafs are easily a better team, the Capitals are better at forward, better at defense and about equal in the crease. If they can open the season and get five points in their first five games they should count that as progress. If they do it will give the team something to build on. It is unlikely they will be as bad as last season, but they are still going to struggle in the competition for a playoff spot. Much of the Avalanche’s mystique this season will center around seeing if the rebuild plan is short term or long term.

The Buffalo Sabre’s declared themselves sellers. Not trading for change, sellers. Today Darcy Regier might have moved a couple pens across his desk, but players? Not so much. Moving Jason Pominville is a start, and they got solidly rated prospects back, but this is a sellers market.  This is a team that should be blown up, they have talent to get pieces that fit together, they have an owner committed to winning, and they have a fan base who is getting really, really sick of losing.

The Calgary Flames certainly shipped out a lot of talent, but there wasn’t so much an earth shattering kaboom as a muddy plop, or at least a sound involving fluid and darkly hued stuff. The return on Bouwmeester and Iginla doesn’t appear to be worth the cost of the trade call to NHL HQ.

The Florida Panthers are excused, nearly everyone who was or should have been on their NHL roster opening night, is injured. They could still have shipped out a few people.

The Washington Capitals, did nothing. The team is certainly playing better now than at the beginning of the season, but that said they are still an incredibly mediocre team on the ice. Sure on paper with Ovechkin, Carlson, Backstrom, Alzner, as part of the long term core, the rest of the team is of a lot less value, and not built to win. For some reason, today they chose to add an aging Erat with two years left on his contract, and a guy who racks up penalties, for top prospect Forsberg.

The Colorado Avalanche are just pathetic. The team isn’t good at much.  They’re 26th in goals for, 28th in goals against, 23rd on the powerplay, 22nd on the penalty kill. There is no reason to hold on to anyone, for any reason if the price is solid. If someone offers a big enough return, even Gabriel Landeskog could and should be moved. Only eight players are in double digits in points, and the drop off between the second highest scorer Matt Duchene, and the third Paul Stastny is 14 points.  When you have Matt Hunwick lead your team in time on ice per game, you’re doing not a little wrong.

The Philadelphia Flyers had so many injuries it is tough to say what the could have done, but they deserve a public shaming for trading for Steve Mason.

It’s not really shocking to say that a team that finished in the lottery needs pretty much everything. They have some pieces. But there is no irreplaceable player on the team. More than talent though is the need for the right workethic and an attitude that goes beyond truculent.

Goaltending is a major concern. None of the men who wandered through the crease for the Maple Leafs put up anything like a respectable set of stats. This isn’t just their problem. But it speaks to a lack of quality scouting historically at this position. I don’t however see Burke picking a goaltender in the first round.

At forward a center is never a bad choice, but I don’t think the team has given up on Kadri quite yet. There are a couple wingers playing for the Marlies who might make the jump this year, assuming the season is played. But none of them possess the attitude needed. This team needs never-stops-going leader like the Avalanche picked in Landeskog who contributes in all areas. The quiet vocal leader won’t cut it with a team that has talentbut lacks drive.  Ideally they’d get two or three of the on ice leader types in this draft. For pure ability and attitude if they are on the board  I pick either Forsberg or Dumba. Forsberg will probably crack the lineup sooner, he’s a forward, larger, and has had some success internationally.

 

1: St Louis Blues

Good News: If the playoffs started today you’d go home with a Division Title and a Presidents Trophy.

Bad News: No underdog status for you!

2: Vancouver Canucks

Good News: It doesn’t look like you’re going to have to worry about the ‘curse’ of the Presidents Trophy.

Bad News: That probably has something to do with being a .500 team over your last ten.

3: Dallas Stars

Good News: It certainly appears the new owners faith in the team was rewarded by solid play.

Bad News: Uh, no one start a pillow fight with Lethonen, you might actually need him healthy in May for a change.

4: Detroit Red Wings

Good News: Despite a 3-6-1 spiral you’re currently clutching the last spot with home ice in the first round.

Bad News: Nashville has two games in hand, can win on the road and at home, and could be your opening round opponent.

5: Nashville Predators

Good News: Still something to play for; namely home ice advantage in the first round.

Bad News: The division title is almost certainly out of reach.

6: Chicago Blackhawks

Good News: Toews is on the mend.

Bad News: Six of your final ten games are on the road where the team has been routinely scalped this season.

7: Phoenix Coyotes

Good News: Playing well on both home ice and the road means all else being equal you’ve got a good shot in the playoffs.

Bad News: The division title is probably out of grasp.

8: Colorado Avalanche

Good News: Landeskog, McGinn, O’Rielly have given the team a late push into a playoff spot.

Bad News:  Don’t get used to the view, you’ve played more games with less ROW wins than anyone in range to take the 8 spot.

9: San Jose Sharks

Good News: All the key players are healthy.

Bad News: You’d never know the good news was true by looking at the 2-5-3 record in the last ten.

10: Calgary Flames

Good News: More ROW than anyone else from 8 down means the playoffs are still possible, especially with games in hand.

Bad News: Gotta win the games in hand.

11: Los Angeles Kings

Good News: Jeff Carter has finally warmed up.

Bad News: It will take more than just Carter and Quick to climb into the playoffs.

12: Anahiem Ducks

Good News: The playoff push since the new year were a valiant effort.

Bad News: Next year trying a smart effort from October might work better, and it might keep your prospects from jerking you by the short and curlies over where they sign after their college career is over.

13: Minnesota Wild

Good News: The teams weaknesses are easy to identify for off season attention.

Bad News: I’m not sure anyone trusts the current leadership to address the teams weaknesses.

14: Edmonton Oilers

Good News: Hooray! A better finish than last year!

Bad News: The free agent market probably isn’t going to provide enough to boost this club into the playoffs next year either.

15: Columbus Blue Jackets

Good News: Great draft potential at the top.

Bad News: Holding fan attention would probably be easier of that 1st pick overall and maybe the Kings first could be flipped for immediate help, but leadership probably will ask for six roster players, a prospect and three second round picks for them.