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.

There are a lot of people who should be happy in the wake of the latest “best on best” tourney. The players, coaches, and fans of  Canada shouldn’t lead any well drawn list, especially as they were outplayed for both final games.

The Columbus Blue Jackets should be very happy to see Bobrovsky healthy and looking to be near his peak.

The New York Islanders should be thrilled to get Seidenberg at a good rate, who even if he never plays a shift will be a steadying impact in a locker room that saw a lot of turnover.

The Boston Bruins, most obviously for the performances of Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, but also for their captain Zdeno Chara who while he didn’t look ten years younger, was still skating, passing, and shooting better than the first three months of last season. If that translates to just three additional wins over that same time they can make the post season.

Fans, coaches, players, and management of the Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche, and Edmonton Oilers who saw their players; Nino Niederreiter, Tobias Rieder, and Leon Draisaitl go through a complete playoff like run with multiple Stanley Cup champion team mates like Anze Kopitar, Marian Hossa, Zdeno Chara and more and see how they prepare before a game and compose themselves through the good and the bad in game.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, because Milan Michalek had himself a great tournament turning in a point per game over the three games. If the young players are going to make the leap into the playoffs and winning once they get there they need veterans who know how its done.

It’s going to be very, very interesting to see how the various players respond to their World Cup performance. The American players will hopefully return to the ice upset, focused, and maybe a little bit ticked off. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a vexed Patrick Kane. Last season saw him rack up 46 goals if he comes in a bit hot under the collar can number 88 hit sixty goals? Can Dustin Byfugelin and hit 30 goals or turn himself into the juggernaut defensively he is offensively? Can newly minted captain Blake Wheeler pilot the Jets back to the post season?

What about those Finns? Teuvo Teravainen has had a double header of dejection, first he was exiled from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Carolina Blackhawks, and then they washout of the Cup. The Canes finished ten points out of the playoffs last year, and it can be argued the Red Wings and Flyers aren’t as good as they were last year, is Teravainen enough to raise the Carolina Hurricanes back to a real threat?

With the number of Minnesota Wild players at the World Cup, why aren’t they better?

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.

I was not among those surprised the Wild made their return to the playoffs last season. Mikko Koivu has long been one of the most underrated players in the NHL, and adding Suter, Parise as well as several young and talented players to the team was only going to do good things for the team. Jonas Brodin was lauded right and left, but no less of a success was Jared Spurgeon. The late season addition of Jason Pominville wasn’t quite enough to get them a division title, or keep them from being bounced in the first round, but the playoff experience will do them good this year, and for years to come.

In the off season they added Keith Ballard. At best he can contribute as a top four defenseman, at worst he’ll be a voice of experience on an inexperienced blueline. The most controversial signing of the off-season was former Pittsburgh Penguin and Washington Capitals forward Matt Cooke. Cooke is well know for the numerous injuries he’s caused, and the disdain which his claims of reform draw in many quarters. Also looking for a new start is former New York Islanders first round pick Nino Niederreiter. Unfortunately for Wild faithful, none of these players will be the biggest question mark of the year. That distinction will as it has for years reside in the crease as Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding and others fight for good health and crease time.

As soon as they cross the starting line this season their ability to score on good goaltenders will be put to the test. The Kings and Ducks both pay visits to the Twin Cities before the Wild play their one road game in the opening set in Nashville against Shea Weber, Seth Jones and the Nashville Predators. The Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars will complete the Wild’s first set of the season. No back to back games, and playing four of five at home is a good sign for the opening stretch.

Number of days 1-5:

Number of cities: 2

Best opponent: Los Angeles Kings

Weakest opponent: Dallas Stars

Home games: 4

Projected points: 6

The Minnesota Wild enter the season as one of the top three teams in their division. Staying healthy and avoiding running into a buzzsaw in the first round of the playoffs have to be their priorities. With a little confidence and a dash of machismo the Wild have the tools and talent to play in the second round. Fans looking for a more exciting brand of hockey than this franchise was once known for should keep their eyes on Pominville, Coyle, and Niederreiter.

The NHL Draft isn’t a day where easy grades for all 30 teams can be made. Some moves do standout though and the teams that make them deserve to be singled out.

Losers:

Colorado Avalanche: Not only did they deliberately pass on a franchise quality defenseman in Seth Jones, the defense they took later in the draft lacks upside. Most look to be fringe NHL players who will likely never play above bottom pairing quality. Nathan MacKinnon is undoubtedly a quality player, but those outside the Avalanche war room are largely scratching their heads today.

Boston Bruins: After Nathan Horton’s announcement that he would go to free agency, and then rumors surfacing of Tyler Seguin’s availability, the Bruins not only failed to replace their departing top line right wing, or trade his rights for a draft pick or another players rights they didn’t do much to appear competitive this offseason. After receiving due criticism that the front office was failing to compete the summer they won the Stanley Cup, it appear the same is true this year. While Chicago, New Jersey, Toronto, The Islanders and the Canucks all made moves that address current or near future talent and salary cap needs, the Bruins sat on their hands. Arguably by publicly attacking Tyler Seguin’s professionalism they even poisoned their own well if they do decide to trade him.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Clearly the Lightning leadership have great faith in the defense they drafted last year. That draft class is highlighted by their tenth overall pickSlater Keokkoek who in the last three OHL season has played a total of 68 games, only two of which were in the most recent season. Or perhaps it is Radko Gudas that inspires their faith in their defensive talent pool. I can’t think of another reason for a team that has finished 26th and 30th in goals against the last two seasons, to fail to draft a single defenseman they also failed to trade for an NHL ready or veteran defenseman.

Winners:

New Jersey Devils: The Devils opened the day with Lou Lamoriello swindling Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis out of Cory Schneider. That one move to solidify the post Martin Brodeur era means any NHL regulars who turn up out of this years draft are icing on the cake. They also got the NHL’s best father son moment when Martin Brodeur got to call his sons name at the NHL draft picking up Anthony Brodeur in the seventh round of Shattuck Saint Mary’s.

Chicago BlackHawks: On and off the draft floor the BlackHawks took care of business this weekend. They traded away David Bolland for two picks in this years draft and one in next years to the Toronto Maple Leafs, they then moved Michael Frolik to the Winnipeg Jets and picked up an additional two picks. They resigned Bryan Bickell who was second on the team in scoring over their run to the Cup. At the end of the first round they picked up Ryan Hartman a veteran of the USNDT in the USHL, and well known pest.

New York Islanders: The Islanders did some of their addition by subtraction this weekend. Swiss left wing Nino Niederreiter was clearly unhappy with the Islanders brass, and they with him. In moving him for Minnesota Wild they get a potential problem out of the system and pick of a physical, aggressive forward who will force opposing defenses to double check before grabbing the puck. Perhaps their two best pickups at the draft were Eamon McAdam, and Stephon Williams. The two goalies project as starters. McAdam’s athleticism is cheered, and Williams led Minnesota State at Mankato to the Frozen Four tournament as part of roster that had just three NHL draft picks on it. On top of the crease they drafted Ryan Pulock, a hard shooting, right handed thick set defenseman with a rep for skating well and hitting hard.

Two trades:

Cal Clutterbuck & the 70th pick went from the Minnesota Wild to the New York Islanders for Nino Niederretter.

Cory Schneider went from the Vancouver Canucks to the New Jersey Devils straight up for the 9th overall pick, which Gillis used on Bo Horvat of the London Knights.

1st:

Nathan MacKinnon of the Mooseheads, goes to the Avalanche. It isn’t a surprise that they went with someone other than Jones, but it should be a disappointment. The Teams defense has been awful for years, and some years not even that good.

2nd:

Aleksander Barkov, a center that might be the perfect solution to upping their offensive ante. The Panthers need depth at every position, and this is a solid start.

3rd:

The Tampa Bay Lightning completely ignore their need to build a defense, and draft a Center and Left Winger Jonathan Drouin. Very highly regarded player, but is this the pick that eventually dooms Yzerman’s tenure as general manager?

4th:

Seth Jones is taken by the Nashville Predators, they could have taken a center here and not done themselves a disservice, but a guy with the potential to replace (and surpass?) Ryan Suter.

5th:

Carolina selected Elias Lindholm and gave themselves a very solid option at center in a year or two, and will give them a lot of flexibility going forward.

6th:

Calgary finally got a top notch center in Sean Monahan. They will need to add more on the wings. With the centers taken in the last two or three years, this is a pretty smart pick as they just about have to hit on Monahan and one or two more

7th:

It was not a surprise that Darnell Nurse was the second defenseman taken, just a surprise that Edmonton took him. The Oilers are a year or two from now a notch or two above

8th:

With all the questions surrounding Tyler Myers, the Sabres went back to the well and picked defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.

9th

After trading Cory Schnieder for this pick they select Bo Horvat a strong two way center who may start in the NHL on their third line. We all know London Knights players are going to be solid in all three zones, so this might be a positive turning point for the Canucks after trending downward for a couple years.

10th:

The Stars tool big bodied RW Valeri Nichushkin as their pick. With not many larger forwards on the team this is a solid pick.

There are a lot of teams that need a lot of help. Some of them have more than enough depth at one position. Some teams just can’t draft a position to save their lives, and others have been taking the same commuter rail as Ozzy Ozbourne for decades. For the most part these players have more value elsewhere than on the team who currently holds their rights.

Marc Staal

If only this guy could stay healthy. He’s almost certainly a Norris quality defenseman equally capable in all three zones, a great skater, and the focal point of all bad luck for the New York Rangers. He’s been concussed by his own brother, taken shots to the face, and likely had his roster spot taken by one of the New York Rangers younger, cheaper nearly as good defenders. The team really needs to get by draft, trade or free agency a couple forwards with grit. Staal is a hell of trade piece. A team like the Oilers, Avalanche, or Red Wings would be able to offer up a substantial reward.

Matt Greene

The Kings mostly learned how to play, and play well without him last season. He’s got one year left on a modest deal. He hits like a freight train, and the Kings worked Muzzin, Martinec, Voynov and the rest hard. A team that needs physicality and dependability would be well served to snatch up this rugged blueliner. The Kings need to add speed up front if they want to win another Cup while there core is young and healthy.

Paul Stastny

Moving Stastny might require taking on a bad contract, or possibly retaining some of his salary. At his pay grade it is unlikely the Avalanche resign him as he hasn’t led the team in scoring since the 2009-10 season, and has likely been edged out of a top two line center position by Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly. There are a lot of teams with different (read effective) systems that could reinvigorate the 44th pick int he 2005 draft and inspire performances closer to his World Championship level of play.

Zach Bogosian

Yes, another defenseman who might be better off elsewhere. The Jets need to get better depth up front, and Bogosian is apparently looking for a little bit more money than the Jets 2.0 ownership is willing to pay him. He’s big, he’s mobile he’s got good offense, he shoots right, he’s got almost 300 NHL games experience and he’s only 22. A deal involving him should be counted as a major deal. He might or might not ever reach the level of Doughty or Pietrangelo, but even if he doesn’t I can’t think of an NHL blueline that couldn’t fit him in.

Nino Niederreiter

The speedy, skilled forward for the Islanders clearly isn’t part of the teams long term plans. With a year left on his entry level deal, and him not turning 21 until September the right wing is still a true prospect who might intruige another team enough to part with something the now playoff conteder Islanders need, like perhaps a goalie prospect or as part of trade deal for a quality NHL starting goaltender.

Jordan Caron

This guy has had several chances to make it in the Bruins system, and he plays well might even say really well away from the puck. However he’s got absolutely zero confidence playing in the NHL right now. If he can get into a system and be told at the start of the season “the third/second line right wing slot is yours” and count on getting 12-14 minutes a night on a regular line plus a little penalty kill time he can almost certainly still be a twenty goal man, penalty killer and regular NHL player. The Bruins are just a bit too deep at forward for him to get that luxury right now.