Wednesday night the NHL playoffs will open. This year there will be five Canadian teams ready to dance when the puck drops, two California teams, and only one Original Six matchup.

The Montreal Canadiens vs The New York Rangers

Unlike last year the Canadiens have a playoff berth. Also unlike last year they now have Shea Weber, Carey PriceAlex Radulov, Andrew Shaw and a cup winning coach behind the bench in the person of Claude Julien, The edge in this series is going to belong to which ever team can force the other to play their game. The Canadiens allowed fewer goals, the Rangers scored more. The Rangers aren’t far removed from a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, but no one is talking about them. The Rangers head into the playoffs remarkably healthy with no major players on the injury report. The Canadiens have the best pairing of top end number one defenseman and top flight goalie, and no one is talking about them either.

For the Canadiens it is really simple: Can Gallagher, Galchenyuk, and Radulov play in the Rangers end and score?

For the Rangers it is equally simple: Can they shore up the aging and infirm Lundqvist?

Biggest Strength

  • Canadiens: Goaltending
  • Rangers: depth of scoring

Biggest Weakness

  • Canadiens: goal scoring
  • Rangers: coaching

 

Minnesota Wild vs Saint Louis Blues

This series will get written off by many as “low key” and “boring”, don’t believe it for a minute. Both teams are happy to have avoided the Blackhawks in the first round, and the two central division rivals have been going at it since the Twin Cities reentered the NHL.. Special teams could be where this series is decided. The Blues and Wild each finished the season at over 21% on the powerplay. Expect a good amount of physicality. Vlad Sobotka has returned to the NHL in time to play for the Blues, Charlie Coyle and Nino Neiderietter will be there to deliver hit for hit.

In pure stats, the Wild have a marked advantage on both sides of the puck. That may well be offset by the invigoration former Wild coach Yeo has brought to the Blues who had a strong run to the end of the season.

Biggest Strength

  • Wild: balance
  • Blues: momentum

Biggest Weakness

  • Wild: Iffy and arguably overplayed Dubnyk in the last six weeks of the season.
  • Blues: Scoring depth

 

Edmonton Oilers vs San Jose Sharks

This series can be subtitled A Tale of Two Cities, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times. The Oilers charged hard and climbed into a home ice advantage in the first round. The Sharks were grabbed by the undertow and yanked from a nine point lead in the division to making people doubt they’d see the second season with their skates on. The Sharks are built around an aging core, the Oilers are a team for whom the oldest members of the core are in their early twenties at the latest. The Oilers haven’t been in the playoffs in a very long time, and the Sharks were within reach of getting their names on the Cup last year.

For the Sharks to move on they have to find scoring. Their bottom six, their defense not named Burns will all need to pitch in.

For the Oilers, they will need to expand their core and learn how to play in the playoffs from the guys who have gone deep.

Biggest Strength

  • Oilers: Offense
  • Sharks: Experience

Biggest Weakness

  • Oilers: Penalty Kill
  • Sharks: Depth

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Columbus BlueJackets

This might just be the best, hardest fought series in the first round series this year. The Pittsburgh Penguins have to be considered the Columbus BlueJackets biggest rivals at this point, and I don’t think the Penguins like the Jackets very much either. It goes beyond Dubinsky versus Crosby. It’s going to be Bobrovski versus Murray, Seth Jones against Phil Kessel, Jack Johnson against Bryan Rust. This series will get personal, and will feature some of the best play in the NHL playoffs.

This is likely the the most evenly matched series in the east. The Penguins are better offensively, the Jackets defensively.

Biggest Strengths

  • Jackets: Defense and goaltending
  • Penguins: Offense

Biggest Weakness

  • Jackets: Inconsistency.
  • Penguins: Dinged up defense

 

Anaheim Ducks vs Calgary Flames

The Ducks and Flames both played strong at the end of the year. The Flames are highlighted by the dynamic Sean Monahan, Mark Giordano on the backend, and Johnny Gaudreau the Boston College alumni. The Flames are a pretty balanced team, they aren’t very good or very bad at anything. The Ducks team needs to find some offense from their best players. The Flames need to be consistent sixty minutes a game. This is likely to be the lowest scoring series in the first round.

Biggest Strength

  • Ducks: John Gibson
  • Flames: Balance

Biggest Weakness

  • Ducks: Scoring
  • Flames: Netminding

Don’t forget to listen to this weeks Two Man ForeCheck and look for part two around noon eastern on Wednesday for the rest of the previews and some predictions for the first round.

The Pittsburgh Penguins enter the playoffs this year after being ignobly dumped in last years Eastern Conference Finals. The Columbus Blue Jackets missed the playoffs last year by the slimmest of margins and the city will see NHL playoff hockey for just the second time. The Penguins almost have to win the Stanley Cup this year to protect the jobs of Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma. The Columbus Blue Jackets have had their bench and front office shuffled repeatedly since they were last in the playoffs, and advancing almost certainly means contract extensions not just in the suits but for ice level backbone Sergei Bobrovsky.

Pittsburgh Penguins:

If there is a NHL team or player that gets more attention on or off the ice than the Penguins and Crosby, I’m not sure I know who they might be. The Captain of the Penguins is Sidney Croby, Olympian, 1st overall pick, MVP winner and a regular part of the NHL scoring race, when healthy. Evgani Malkin is another highly talented forward who floats between wing and center for the Penguins, he’s expected to be back on the ice for game one. Which version of the team will we see when the puck drops? The composed heavyweight contender we see in the regular season or the strung-out jobber that has ended their season in chaos more years than not since they won the cup?

Best Players:

Crosby, Malkin and Neal will likely have to carry even more of the burden than normal. Kris Letang, will be in the lineup after recovering from his stroke, but at what percent? His timing will be off, and he’s never been known as a staunch defender.

X-Factor

While pointing at Fleury would be accurate and easy, it isn’t going to be the biggest factor. The Penguins are used to scoring just about at will. When they don’t they come unglued, in this series they are facing one of the best goaltenders in the world with a very mobile defense in front of him. If they can’t solve Bobrovsky early and often and lose their composure they will be watching the second round and not playing it.

 

Columbus Blue Jackets

It would be an overstatement to say they are just happy to be here, but; they are just happy to be here, at least until they hit the dressing room. For an organization without a lot of playoff experience, the roster has quite a bit. 155 games among their forwards alone led by the currently injured Nathan Horton who has a Stanley Cup run behind him, and RJ Umberger one of the teams best known veterans. More importantly there is some playoff experience on their backend with Fedor Tyutin a holdover from the Jacket’s only other playoff experience, Jack Johnson’s resume has been endorsed with some time from his Kings days, and Bobrovsky’s with his time as a Flyer.

Best Players:

Ryan Johansen, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Jack Johnson are the names that spring to mind, but this team could almost be called “starless” simply because of how little media attention the team gets.

X-Factor

Execution. The offensive and defensive stats of the the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t that far apart, just seven goals separated their goals for at even strength in the regular season. Defensively they were again very similar. Once you look at how much better the team did with Bobrovski in net over backup McElhinney, you realize the Blue Jackets aren’t as over matched as some might believe.

Just about four years ago the US and Canada put on two of the best hockey games of the last quarter century. But, like all teams that team USA is not the one we’ll see in a few years. If I’m playing general manager, there are some players I do bring back, and others I just say no to, at least as of now.

The No’s:

  • Ryan Malone would not be on the short list today. His production has trailed off, he’s not been especially healthy the last few seasons, and he’ll be thirty four before this year is over. Great guy, if he hangs up the skates before the Olympics, he might get tapped for an assistant coaches spot.
  • Chris Drury, nice guy, already retired.
  • Tim Thomas, while its nice to think he’d be back to world beating shape after a year off, it is unlikely.
  • Ryan Whitney, hasn’t played even when healthy for a woeful Oilers club this season.
  • Jamie Langenbrunner, has experienced a notable decline in the past few years, will turn 38 this summer, and has had injury issues,
  • Brian Rafalski, retired.

The Maybe’s:

  • Erik Johnson, is admittedly playing on a poor team, but not especially productive offensively which isn’t how offensive defenseman earn their pay.
  • Phil Kessel enormously hot and cold, not a great two way player and has struggled to score goals this season which is what he’s paid to do.
  • Ryan Kesler, good faceoff man, good passer, physical, good skater, can’t stay healthy to save his soul.
  • Ryan Callahan, well above average for two way play, but prone to long slumps offensively, and injuries as well.
  • Joe Pavelski, seems to have declining returns in the playoffs. That could be the team, that could be his doing, but I lean towards team.
  • Paul Stastny, did not impress me during the last Olympic’s, has had declining production since them, but did have solid World Championship numbers in 2011-12.

The Shortlist:

  • Ryan Miller, while his heroics a the last Olympics seem ot be the last time he played at an elite level, you have to take into consideration the quality of the team in front of him. A quality that has gotten the longest tenured coach in the NHL booted this season.
  • Jonathan Quick, anyone who needs to know why should simply look at last seasons record, both his individual stats, Cup win and the number of games he only gave up one goal in.
  • Tim Gleason, anyone who can be a plus player with all the years he’s spent on the defensively woeful Carolina Hurricanes.
  • Jack Johnson has a boatload of international experience, will probably have been named Captain of the Blue Jackets by then, offensively talented.
  • Brooks Orpik solid two way defenseman with a double handful of physicality, some international experience and would be among the teams elder statesmen.
  • Ryan Suter a top ten defenseman in the NHL, no-brainer.
  • David Backes, certainly one of the best American forwards in the league.
  • Dustin Brown, great mix of skill and physicality.
  • Patrick Kane almost certainly the best pure goal score from the USA, and has a maturing game away from the puck. Knows how to win.
  • Zach Parise versatile, talented and lots and lots of international experience.
  • Bobby Ryan perennial thirty goal scores do not grow on trees, willing to play physical, willing to shoot.

That would be my starting point based on the 2010 Olympic roster. The next post will focus on filling the roster out. I’ve counted out as many as twelve players I expect to put together a pool of about twenty players including at least two or three goalies.

If you think Matt Cooke intentionally injured Erik Karlsson or not, is entirely immaterial. there are a couple possibilities as to where things go from here. Before this latest injury to an already depleted squad they were treading water. In sixth place, but with two more games played than seventh and eight place. also on the shelf are Latendresse, Regin, Spezza a lot of talent and money are out of reach of the head coach.

In such a short season, calling it in the rest of the way wouldn’t be hard, and with prizes Seth Jones this year, and McDavid in 2015, moving out some players in exchange for probably high picks, and in theory pushing the team closer to the lottery could be very, very favorable long term. If for example Milan Michalek and Daniel Alfredsson are found new homes that’d clear up nine million in salary space this year, and four and a third next year. I can’t see trading them out for any package that doesn’t include at least one first round pick. Both players are the type that can push a middling team from bubble to firm playoff position.

If they decide to stock up, there are certainly teams that are in need of turning over their roster. They can look due south to the other capital city in the NHL. Mike Green has a six million dollar a year contract, and is very similar to Karlsson in playing style. The Capitals aren’t doing anything even with his returned health and 26 minutes a night. The Columbus Blue Jackets have a new sheriff in town and both Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski might find themselves redundant in the Jarmo world order, as might former Philadelphia Flyer R.J. Umberger, the highest paid forward on the Columbus roster.

Even without blowing up their roster, the Colorado Avalanche could happily unload Ryan O’Reilly for the right price to fill the Spezza roster spot for the nonce. There race for the playoffs is going to be rough and brutal between the compressed schedule and the arms war for complimentary parts as teams like the San Jose Sharks make what could be the last play for the current core at a Cup, the Dallas Stars vie for a return to the playoffs, and the Nashville Predators hope to woo fans turned off by the loss of Suter. And lest we forget, their plight, career right wing Jarome Iginla is probably the teams best faceoff man, meaning Zack Smith could return some nice assets if fired off before his next birthday, indeed a strong faceoff man for the top two lines for the Flames has more value now than later because more puck possession will give them time to climb back into the playoff picture.

What an off season in the Central Division. Lidstrom retires, Suter defects, Weber signed to an offer sheet that was then matched, Kane coming to camp with “something to prove”, and more. This is now a much weaker division than it was last year, it is essentially a two horse race.

Detroit: Let the rebuild begin. While they have a good goaltender, Jimmy Howard is now the biggest star on the team, and that is an issue. Datsyuk has scored less goals each of the last four seasons, Lidstrom is gone, and while I like Colaiacovo more than some, I think he’s not going to restore this blueline to what it was even two seasons ago by himself. They may squeeze into seventh or eighth, but don’t expect them to stick around.

Chicago: The two biggest questions about this team after the health of Jonathan Toews aka the best center in the West, are: 1: Can they play on the road 2: Can their goaltending not suck. If they fixed these in the off season (unlikely given who they still have in goal), they are a monster, if not, the playoffs will not be kind.

Nashville: While they lost Suter, they still have Weber and Rinne. Yes their forward group still needs a smart upgrade, they may actually be the strongest team in the division. Rinne hasn’t done it in the playoffs yet, but he’s perfectly capable of playing 40 games in this shortened regular season and dragging the team into the post season with minimal support.

St Louis: With everybody healthy for the first time in a short eternity, the Blues might just be the strongest team in the West, they absolutely have to improve on their 21st overall in scoring last regular season. A healthy Andy McDonald, David Backes, and David Perron could go a long way in a short time. This year, maybe just maybe Alex Peitrangelo will get some recognition and respect outside of this site and Blues beat writers.

Columbus: While I don’t expect this team to be in the playoffs, their defense is now much better. With the addition of a hopefully resurgent Dubinsky to go with likely future Captain Jack Johnson, this team is on the right path.

Top Dogs: Nashville edges St Louis on the back of an angry Weber.

Scott Howson takes a lot of heat. Some of it deserved, some of it just plain silly. Could things with Nash have smoothed over? Possibly. But even for a hockey player who’s the face of a franchise Rick Nash played an unbelievably passive aggressive game with the media, the fans, the Columbus team and well anyone not his agent. No one can blame him for wanting to go to a place that will improve his chances to win.  The way he did it probably half a step below Dany Heatley’s methodology and without having ever faced the pressure of a long established hockey market.

So what do we know about Scott Howson’s plan going forward. Well, he’s nailed down three of the planks any good team is built on. Depth is number one. As the Sedin twins, Stamkos and company, and others have well illustrated over the years you can’t win with just one or two elite talents and a roster full of four-A players. With Dubinsky who might prove to be a top center if given room to grow but is already comparable to Kesler or Plekanec they have one undeniable top two center. Anisimov gives more offensive talent at a younger age than second and third lines have seen in Columbus.

Defense is the tricky one to build. Defensemen as rule take longer to mature than forwards, but they tend to stay at their top level longer. With Wisniewski and Johnson as two veteran mentors to younger players Tim Erixon and Ryan Murray are less likely to get thrown into the deep and and left to flounder like Buffalo Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers. Taking that two hundred games to learn defense at the NHL level will give the Blue Jackets a more dynamic defensive unit in the near future than much of the central division can claim. Don’t overlook Nikita Nikitin as part of this defense. He’s an all situations defenseman who’ll end up playing top four minutes.

The model that has worked best in the last decade for building teams has been draft your core and fill in the rest later. The Penguins, BlackHawks, Bruins and Kings all boasted a lot of home grown talent when they hoisted the cup. This year the team will have three first round picks. While they could flip one or all of those for NHL players or NHL ready prospects, I would in no way be surprised if Howson uses all three selections. Hockey’s Future gives them a very low rating for total prospect pool talent and three first round draft picks of the right kind will go a long ways toward reversing that.  With the talent that is expected to be available in the first round next year, they could be a contending team in not too long if their goaltending can settle in and produce at an average level.

Some may not like Howson. Some make not like the Howson plan even if it didn’t have his name on it. That said, it does appear there is a plan, and he’s certainly demonstrated he won’t be deviating from it for anything less than direct godly intervention.

Jeff Carter to Los Angeles:

Not a bad move. Who knows if the Kings had done this in June or July they might not be in a position where they start talking about trading their captain. Carter and Richards have a great deal of chemistry, some of it even on the ice and not the bar room variety. Carter is undeniably talented, will surely be able to find something he likes to do in his off time more easily in LA than Columbus. For the Blue Jackets, if Jack Johnson can get out of the spotlight and refocus on getting his game to a level where he justifies being picked right after Sidney Crosby and Bobby Ryan. With the swap the Blue Jackets also gain some cap space, time off the end of the contract and a 1st round pick. If Johnson does elevate his game the Columbus faithful would arguably have two top twenty quality defensemen with Johnson and Wisniewski patrolling the blueline.

Dustin Brown on the market?

This is just a Gauthier like level of insanity. Unless he’s specifically requested out of the city, moving a physical, 30 goal potential, leader is absurd. The only potential justification is a huge return both in terms of immediate assets and character. If they are getting back Jonathan Toews or that type player it could make sense but even assuming that level of return, you’re almost certainly adding 2-3 million in salary.

Subban the Slugger

P.K. Subban (@PKSubban1) got into his fourth altercation in practice of the season. I don’t know if this is an NHL record, but its still impressive. Among the “complaints” is that Subban practices at game level intensity. One wonders how much better the Canadiens would be if Subban weren’t the only guy trying that hard all the time? Given that this horrible accusation was leveled at Ray Bourque as well I suspect its unlikely any sane coach or GM will ask him to tone it down. That said he is playing in Habsland.

Soderberg for…wait I need a new punchline

Rumors of Carl Soderberg ending up in the Bruins system in more than just a paper form have swirled for years. I honestly doubt anyone in the Boston front office has held out any serious hope of hit happening in the past two or three years. If he does land in Boston or Providence next summer this could be one of the best things to happen to the organization in a while. If he goes to Providence to acclimate to the way the game is played this side of the Atlantic, it makes that team better instantly. Having a more mature, and hungry player leading could be just the defibrillator needed for more than one prospects development.  But what in the world will Bruins bloggers and fans find to joke about if he does come over and stay awhile?

Hart Trophy update

Dear New Jersey Devils fans,

If you aren’t screaming MVP every time Kovalchuk touches the puck you’re doing it wrong. 3 points behind the highest scoring left wing with six less games, leads all forwards in time on ice by a lot, tons of PK time on a very effective unit, short handed points, averaging over a point per game, on pace for yet another 30+ goal season.

Asterisk Over

The Vancouver Canucks ended the Red Wings record* home winning streak at 24. Maybe now the national media will remember to take a look at Detroit’s sub-.500 road record when talking about the playoffs. By comparison, the Montreal Canadiens who will likely be drafting in the lottery this year are even on the road this season.

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

 

If I told you in September…

  • that Milan Lucic and Matt Moulson would both have more goals on March 5th than Phil Kessel
  • that after a 15 month break Alexander Ovechkin would return to Twitter to post the picture of Phil Kessel sitting alone as the last player to be picked at the All-Star draft?
  • that only two players in the top 100 goal scorers, Radim Vrbata and David Booth , would have a lower shooting percentage than Alex Ovechkin
  • That of center Stamkos and winger Ovechkin, the latter would have more assists
  • Dany Heatley would be just one point ahead of Patrice Bergeron
  • the Washington Capitals would fall out of last years top spot for goal scoring all the way to the 2o’s, and go from 16th in goals against up to 7th
  • the NHL’s best penalty kill would belong to the Pittsburgh Penguins
  • the #7 offense would belong to a team, Tampa Bay, with only one short handed goal
  • the Colorado Avalanche who have allowed the most goals per game would have the second best Sv% in the shootout in the NHL
  • the Edmonton Oilers would own a better winning percentage when trailing after two periods than; the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins,  Montreal Canadiens, Carolina Hurricanes, and Calgary Flames all of which are in the top 8 in their conference as of today
  • that with Malkin out since 02/04 and Crosby out since 01/05 that the Penguins would not only still be in the playoffs, but still have home ice advantage for the first round
  • that for the first time since 2003-04 Joe Thornton would be less than a point per game player
  • of Los Angeles Kings defensemen; Rob Scuderi, Jack Johnson, Alec Martinex and Matt Greene that Scuderi would have the most game winning goals.
  • that despite having the third worst +/- in the NHL, the Florida Panthers would still be able to unload Denis Wideman on deadline day
  • former Bruins Phil Kessel and Denis Wideman would be a combined -45
  • Patrick Sharp would lead all players in goals against division opponents

would you have believed a single word?