The Stanley Cup Finals are over. The hockey season is over. And worse, the NHL Front Office and Pittsburgh Penguins have won.

A team that had numerous favorable calls made for them, and at least as many calls not made against them most notably the debacle of Sidney Crosby slamming P.K. Subban’s head into the ice. Not just for the non call, not just for the non suspension, not just for the racial overtones, not for completely ignoring the concussion protocol, but because it showed explicitly what everyone who has any ability to decipher an NHL game already knows: The front office care more about which market, and player, wins the Cup than it does about what is actually best for the game, the players, or the fans.

As if further proof were needed, the Conn-Smyth went to about the fourth or even fifth most influential player on the Penguins winning the Cup. Matt Murray was stellar behind a banged up defense. Geno Malkin was unarguably better, Jake Guentzal played in hall of fame territory. Brian Doumalin was quietly the best of the Penguins defense from their 83rd game of the season right until the end. Justin Schultz did a great deal to fill the Letang void. Then there was Crosby.

In a season when Crosby should rightly have been suspended for nearly removing the finger of Marc Methot, a playoff suspension, as a repeat offender after Crosby attempted to injure Subban would have taken him out at least two games. But using the marking plan that has been in place since 2005 is far, far more important than doing what is right.

 

The time is now. No one knows how this series will end. History and statistics are on the side of the Pittsburgh Penguins who are up two to nothing. If it gets to three nothing, the team with that lead wins almost all the time. But games aren’t decided by historical statistics, they are decided by the men on the ice.

If Pekka Rinne remembers not the last couple games, but the last couple months and plays the way he did against Chicago, and Anaheim, and Saint Louis, he’ll be a completely different player. If James Neal can recall that he’s capable of thirty and forty goal seasons, and focuses on the game he might, might just score a goal for the first time in seven games. Similarly Victor Arvidsson who ran the board in the regular season hasn’t scored since April, in the first series, against the Chicago Blackhawks. Whatever jitters he has need to die as thorough a death as the notion Nashville isn’t a hockey town.

Arvidsson, Neal, and Rinne aren’t alone on the ice and aren’t even the only problems. The number of penalties the team has taken needs to be addressed. While I’m all for physicality, and on ice leadership and will never complain about two willing combatants going after it, Subban is a huge part of the team’s success both offensively and defensively. He’s not the first guy to punch Malkin in the face, he won’t be the last, but even on a defense as stacked as Nashville’s Subban is not a player you can lose when your back is against the wall, you’re already down your best center and you’re in the fight of your life with no one stepping up.

This team is better than the part time effort they are putting in. They haven’t played a sixty minuted game since maybe game six in Anaheim, and they won’t be winning their last game of the season if they play 37 to 40 minutes a night until the series is over.

Every game teaches lessons. Sometimes the lesson is subtle, it might apply to just one player, just one matchup. Or it might show the balance between various units on the opposing teams.

What they should have learned:

Pittsburgh Penguins

  • Use your speed through center ice.
  • Five men pack in the defensive zone to support the puck.
  • Don’t underestimate the speed of the Predators, especially their defense.
  • Trying to play counter punch hockey with a team faster, and about as offensively gifted is perilous.

Nashville Predators

  • Don’t get distracted by officiating.
  • Never, ever take your foot off the snake.
  • Support Rinne, especially when there are long gaps between shots on net.
  • You can play with the defending champions.

It’s pretty simple at this time of year. You either reset and recover after a grueling loss or you are sure to suffer another one.

Three to Watch:

Predators:

  1. P.K. Subban, he’s hot right now, when he’s on a hot streak he can take over and dominate, and he’s got the perfect complements in the rest of the Nashville defense to do that.
  2. James Neal he said before the series started “they didn’t want me” in regards to his former team the Penguins. He’ll love making them pay in multiple ways.
  3. Pekka Rinne he has not allowed three or more goals in back to back games all post season, and after his last four goal game he only allowed one.

Penguins:

  1. Phil Kessel, zero shots on goal is not a common occurrence, and no one should expect a sequel.
  2. Justin Schultz he had a very quiet sixteen minutes of ice time, well below his normal twenty one range.
  3. Matt Murray, like his counterpart he needs to be better to give his team a shot at winning. An .885% isn’t good, it isn’t even average and on any night the opposition plays respectably it’s a loss.

Check out the most recent Two Man ForeCheck on iTunes & TuneIn.

This years playoffs have so many interesting matchups it is going to be hard to call a best series even if you see every minute of ever game.

The Chicago Blackhawks vs the Nashville Predators

This is the western conference’s David versus Goliath matchup. While the Blackhawks aren’t quite as formidable as they were when Kane, Toews, Seabrook, and Keith first hoisted the Cup, they are still one of the strongest, best balanced teams in the NHL. If the Predators do win this matchup it will be because the team refused to be intimidated, and everyone grabbed the rope and leaned. The Preds do have the players to be dangerous, Subban, Ellis, Arvidsson, and Forsberg are more than a handful themselves.

Biggest Strength

  • Blackhawks: Explosiveness
  • Predators: Special teams

Biggest Weakness

  • Blackhawks: Special teams
  • Predators: Discipline

Ottawa Senators vs Boston Bruins

This is a first. The Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins have never met in the playoffs. The Sens have been in the NHL 26 years, and they and the Bruins have never gone eye to eye. The Senators ran the tables on the Bruins in the regular season. Both teams will enter the second season with banged up bluelines. Both coaches are relatively new to their posts. Each team has some very gifted players. Marchand, Bergeron, and Chara will need to shoulder the load for the Bruins to have a hope. Karlsson, O’Reilly, and Anderson can just be themselves so long as the rest of the squad shows up. This could be the best series to watch from an “x’s” and “o’s” point of view. This matchup probably has the highest regular season PIM total.

Biggest Strengths:

  • Senators: The ability to triple the gravity in the neutral zone
  • Bruin: Team defense and penalty kill

Biggest Weakness

  • Senators: Special teams
  • Bruins: Wildly inconsistent goaltending

 

Washington Capitals vs Toronto Maple Leafs

Everything versus nothing. That is this series in three words. The Toronto Maple Leafs are at least two years ahead of projections. The Washington Capitals should have had at least one Cup in the last five years. Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Kasperi Kapanen are all years from being able to drink (legally) in the US. Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson, and Nicklas Backstrom are all well into their second half of a decade or more chasing the last win of the season and not even coming close.

Biggest Strengths

  • Caps:  Total package
  • Leafs: Special teams

Biggest Weakness

  • Caps: Mental composure
  • Leafs: Defense

 

Predictions:

Boom or bust players are the players who’s performance have the ability to tilt the series.

Hawks vs Preds

For the Predators to win they need to stay out of the box they were penalized almost 50% more than the Blackhawks, for Chicago its pretty much a case of stay calm and be the Blackhawks. – Chicago in 6

Boom or Bust player of the series: Ryan Johansen

Caps vs Leafs

The Caps have more playoff experience, at least as good a coach, better performance at almost every measure. – Caps in 5

Boom or Bust player of the series: Alex Ovechkin

Ducks vs Flames

Goaltending wins championships, and the difference between Gibson’s season and either Johnson or Elliot is noticeable, but the Flames are not going to go down easy. – Ducks in 7

Boom or Bust player of the series. – Johnny Gaudreau

Penguins vs Jackets

Repeating is tough, if I were ever going to pick a team to do it, this might just be it. Jackets in 6

Boom or Bus player of the series. – Cam Atkinson

Oilers vs Sharks

This Oilers team is pretty compelling. How the defense of the Sharks is matched with McDavid and company will decide the series. – Oilers in 7

Boom or Bust player of the series. Milan Lucic

Wild vs Blues

This series is not as even as some people would have you believe. Wild in 5

Boom or Bust player of the series. Alex Peitrangelo

Habs vs Rangers

These teams have recent history, but one team is on the rise, and one of them has crested. Canadiens in 6

Boom or Bust player of the series. Derek Stepan

Sens vs Bs

This series will come down to how consistently the coaches can impose their will on their team and get them to execute the system. Sens in 6

 

When the Montreal Canadiens punted Brian Gionta and Josh Georges the team not only dumped their most recent captain but two thirds of their most visible leaders. On and off the ice in good seasons, bad stretches of team play, and when coaching came complete with three rings, a master of ceremonies and a big top, these two were a constant part of the equation on the positive side.

When Gionta inked his deal with the Buffalo Sabres, one of the most scrutinized captaincies in the NHL in one of the most intense media markets in the world. The question of who can replace him is a separate one than who should replace him. This isn’t a franchise at the bottom of the well that needs all the publicity it can get. There’s no freshly drafted future of the franchise who has oodles of talent and no bad history to trot out before the media.

Many will point to the flashiest player on the roster in situations like this and say yep that’s the guy!. In which case you’re looking at two or three players, P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher, and Alex Galchenyuk lead that race. Probably in that order. An argument can be made for David Desharnais, who likely lands the francophone vote as well.

Taking a look at each of those candidates many list Subban as the front runner, he’s dynamic, he’s fast, strong, he can score almost at will, he’s young, he seemingly adores the media. On the negative side he’s still got holes in his defensive game, is prone to blowing his top on the ice, and is about the living definition of lightening rod.

Max Pacioretty has been the goal scorer in Montreal for the past few seasons, he’s a bigger body, has a blistering shot and elevates his game against rivals, and at 25 he has years and years ahead of him on the ice. On the negative side not only is he not a local franophone he’s yet another American, has failed in every season of his career to play a full slate of games, and a lot of the penalties he takes can be construed as the “selfish” variety.

Brendan Gallagher is young, smooth skating, possesses a quick shot, willingness to go anywhere for the puck and plays much bigger than his size. From the other perspective, he’s developing a reputation much akin to that of Alex Burrows and Steve Ott, and putting the C on that type of player says things about your franchise. There’s also the notable divisions that have been evident on this team in the last three or four years including the one along age lines.

Alex Galchenyuk has oodles of skill, is a solid powerplay contributor, and may turn into an elite forward. On the negative side you’ve got everything that can be said against Pacioretty and much of what can be said against Gallagher in addition to having the ill grace to have a Russian father.

Skill wise, no one could really fault a choice to honor any of these men. But in a market like Montreal, or any of the other original six markets, it isn’t just about skill. That’s why if I were passing the C along to its next guardian, I’d also consider what their on ice temperament is like, how well respected they are by players around the NHL, and of course looking carefully at where I think the teams window is.

For that reason the obvious choice is none of the above. While giving the captaincy to at least two of those named above would not be a mistake, that doesn’t mean a better choice can’t and shouldn’t be made. That better choice is Tom Plekanec.

It’s not a secret that I despise diving. I’ve written the odd piece on the subject, once or twice (ok so its actually an enormous bugaboo that I prattle on about pretty often ) and I’m pretty happy with the NHL finally taking steps to control the dippy soccer like behavior of some players and franchises.

Here’s the rule chance directly from NHL.com

DivingThe fact that coaches will now be fined is now more than ok with me.

So which players are most likely to deserve a fine this season?

  • Jeff Skinner, on the rare occasions the former figure skating star is on the ice he’s clearly auditioning for a post-hockey career in soap operas.
  • Alexandre Burrows, with Tortorella still at the helm Burrows might be kept in check, Willie Desjardins is an unknown, unlike the duly esteemed Alexandre Burrow.
  • Dustin Brown, he does many, many things right and is most regards a model player, on the other hand it certainly appears to the impartial observer that his skates come complete with a great deal of helium.
  • Sidney Crosby, while he tends to be more subtle about it than some players on this list, there’s no doubt “The Next One” has embellished more than his share of slashes, trips, and the rest.
  • Brad Marchand, while he’s pound for pound one of the stronger players in the game, you can tell when the other team gets in his head because he starts falling down a lot.
  • Martin Brodeur, legend he may be but if he were as weak as he appears every time an opposing player makes contact or near contact with him he’d never be able to scramble like he does.
  • Mike Ribiero, (this space left intentionally blank.)
  • Henrik & Daniel Sedin, the Swedish Swan-divers are almost as good at falling down and finding each other on the ice.
  • Carl Hagelin, has the speed to avoid pretty much any player in the NHL, but can’t seem to avoid sticks and other impediments that aren’t even there.
  • P.K. Subban, a guy with all the talent in the world who has been known to take the express elevator to the ice on a pretty regular basis.

I’m sure there’s one or two I missed, who would you add?

NHL.com released a list of the top 14 defensemen in the NHL. While I’m not surprised by any names on the final list, I am a bit dismayed by one or two or at least where they placed. And I’m pleased as can be about one semi-notable exclusion. One name I’d put in, instead of one of the person who did make it without any real merit is quite often overlooked and I’m hoping that this season that comes to an end.

Debating the exact position of each player on the list is futile. Four people voted, and I think that if you had fourteen people vote, you’d get very nearly the same results. There are however three things I can’t wrap my head around.

Too High:

For all that he’s been on two cup winning teams, and for all his admitted prowess, Duncan Keith is not, and has not in the last two or three years been a top five defenseman in the NHL. You can’t be considered among the elite of the elite if you don’t play against the top of the food chain. Keith does not. He shouldn’t be any higher than seven or eight. Still an impressive player, still someone everyone wants on their roster, but not in the conversation for best defenseman in the NHL.

Too Low:

Alex Pietrangelo is far too low. When you consider how much worse the goaltending talent he’s played his career in front of is than the guys Doughty, Weber, and Chara have spent the same years in front of, things take on a different tint. No, he hasn’t won a Norris (neither have Doughty, which he probably deserves, and Weber which is an outright crime) but a measurable chunk of that is the city he plays in. He does all things well, and plays hard minutes. Part of his lack of public affection may just be how few games he’s played, only one player above him on the list has fewer NHL games and Subban plays in a much, much more scrutinized market. For well rounded play, Pietrangelo is Subban’s superior for both defensive prowess and levelheadedness.

Are You Sure About That Name:

Why Erik Karlsson makes the list at all is a mystery. There are sixty or seventy wingers in the NHL with less than 100 games played who have better defensive instincts and ability than Karlsson. I could (barely) swallow him coming in at 13 or 14, assuming their were no better choices. There are however, at least half a dozen that don’t even need a sniff test and probably six three to five more that can be made to work. One of the better choices is John Carlson who has a better differential between zone starts and finishes, a better on ice save percentage, but is actually more productive per minute of powerplay time than Karlsson.

My delight upon mature and sober consideration was unmitigated upon not seeing the name Kris Letang on the list. Having heard of his unjustly vaunted prowess for year after year, it is nice to see his exposure in the playoffs the last two years doing some good. I am surprised to Giordano so high on the list especially with only one real season the spotlight to himself, but he does deserve a spot on the list.

While correlation is not causation, it is interesting to note how many of the players who filed for arbitration are doing so as part of teams that have rather small amounts of cap space per player left and the need to fill multiple spots.

The NHLPA put out this list of men who filed to have their contract value determined by a third party.

Starting at the top is Brandon McMillian of the Arizona Coyotes, drafted 85th and having spent a post draft year back in the WHL he’s piled up enough points to be 37th in scoring in his draft class with 6 of his 32 points coming in the 22 games he’s spent in a Coyotes uniform where he averaged about 12:35 a night including  about 0:45 short handed. It’s unlikely he gets more than $850,000 and closer to $775,000 is more likely.

Matt Bartkowski of the Boston Bruins is also a 2008 draft pick, and has been in and out of the NHL lineup since being acquired, but in that four years he’s racked up just 84 NHL regular season games. However, last season he played more than a bit part in 64 games averaging more than 19 minutes a night. He has 20 points all assists in 84 regular season games, and 3points including 1 goal in 15 post season games. Ben Lovejoy is a good comparable (if older) he had the same number of points and was only one worse in +/-, Lovejoy made $1.1million, Jeff Petry likewise had similar numbers and is the same age, he made $1.8 million. Given the Boston Bruins depth at the position, and how Bartkowski has been passed over in the depth chart more than once, if he’s awarded anything north of $1.5m I expect the Bruins to walk. An arbitrator could pin the number anywhere from $1million to $1.8, but I lean toward the lower end.

Joe Colborne is a 6’5 center for the Calgary Flames, he played just a touch over 14 minutes a night and put up a line of 10-1828 -17. Last year’s 80 NHL games are the vast majority of his 96 NHL games. His qualifying offer would have been $660,000. with so little NHL experience, and the other changes in the Flames roster, somewhere between the QO and $725,000 is what he can expect.

Antoine Roussell of the Dallas Stars is possibly the most interesting case this year. A break down of his 209 penalty minutes shows he may be the most disciplined guy to break that mark in years. Very few of the minutes were lazy penalties like hooking and their wasn’t a single high sticking call. 139 of 209 PIMS were one form of major or another. If you had only that to go by, you’d be comparing him to players like Shawn Thornton or Tom Sestito. Add in a 1:40 a night killing penalties, and a line of 14-15-29, and you have a very interesting player. In goals he was tied with players like Matt Stajan ($2.5m)  and Kyle Palmieri ($1.35) . Honestly depending on what the arbitrator decides to set as his biggest contribution, he could end up anywhere from the $650,000 which is just over his QO, to $2.5 a reasonable guess is the $1.1 to $1.4m.

Cameron Gaunce, not entirely sure why he filed for arbitration unless he’s trying to get released and go to Europe or become an RFA. He played just 9 games all of last season, and has a total of 20 NHL games and 1 point. A six foot one defenseman isn’t exactly rare in the NHL, one wonders if the arbitrator will spend longer writing out the decision or proof reading it.

Jimmy Hayes of the Florida Panthers made the most of his 11 minutes a night picking up 18 points with 11 of them goals after being shipped from Chicago to Sunrise. Six and a half feet tall and more than 220lbs the right shot, right wing is a veteran of the NAHL, USHL. and Hockey East before going pro, he has also been traded three times since 2008. He finished with 2 fewer points than Bartkowski with about half the minutes, I wouldn’t expect much more than league minimum.

Dwight King is a homegrown bottom six forward who has now been part of two Stanley Cup wins. His 30 points last year put him ahead of team captain Dustin Brown, 3 of his 15 goals came on special teams, he played well both home and away, and left him 7th on the team in scoring. Of comparable production are Rich Peverley ($3.25m), Tobias Enstrom ($5.75m), last year King made $775k. A $2.25M payday isn’t out of the question, but expect something a bit closer to $1.8m.

Justin Fontaine is another really interesting case. Last year he was true rookie for the Minnesota Wild playing 66 regular season games and 9 playoff games. The Bonnyville Alberta native was 4th on the team in goals with 13 and did it in a spare 12:15 a night. His pre-NHL career could indicate there’s  solid chance this numbers climb.

Lars Eller has to be one of the most frustrating players for fans and management to watch. He shows flashes that make you think he’s got the juice to be a 20+ team 2nd line center, and then wallows about the ice making you wonder why anyone gives him more than fourth line minutes for interminable stretches. Of his 58 minor PIMS last 48 could be called lazy or careless penalties. Another two or three years at his current salary would bring him to UFA status, and give him a chance to decide who he is as a player.$1.75 to 2.1 isn’t outside possibility but I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Montraal Canadiens say thanks but no thanks at anything over $1.8.

P.K. Subban, he’s arguably the best defenseman in the NHL under 27, he’s won a Norris, he was nearly a point per game player in the playoffs last season and three of his four NHL season, including the lockout shortened one, had double digit goal totals. At 25 if the Habs can sign him for 6+ years they should. The 6.25price range for similar aged and quality defensemen is $6.25-$7.5, and that is about where he should sign.

Part two coming soon.

 

We’re four games into the latest battle in a playoff war that stretches back to before the grandparents of several players on either side were born. We’ve seen one goaltender continue a career year, one defensemen further etch his name into league history, a call up redefine the series with a single shot, and a man who waited half a decade to make his NHL debut outshine his entire team. And someone still needs to win two games.

For the Montreal Canadiens, they came into the series and odd form of underdog. Yes the finished a distant third in the division, a long way down from the President’s Trophy Winning Boston Bruins. But they also won the season series between the teams and most of the last double handful of regular season games.

What’s gotten them this far:

  • Carey Price has been spectacular. He’s got three games in this series with a sv% of .929 or better, and seems to be stopping everything.
  • Offensively, P.K. Subban has been top notch. He’s gotten timely goals on the powerplay and at even strength and has piled up six points in four games which is more than a little good.

What they need to do to win the series:

  • Find a way to smother the third line. Carl Soderberg has been the most consistent Bruins forward this series, he’s been 1/4th of an inch from scoring or assisting on a goal a dozen times and they can’t get allowing that.
  • Keep Price’s lines of sight clear, when there have been any amount of bodies in front, goals are going in.
  • Spend more time in the offensive zone, the amount of shot, and shot attempts they’ve given up makes it shocking they are even in the series.

The Boston Bruins entered the post season prohibitive favorites. They were expected to run the board and have time to take a 3 day cruise to the Bahamas between rounds. After a gaffe against the Red Wings (who also won the season series against the Bruins) the Kings of Causeway laid rubber from Boston to Motown and back.

What’s gotten them this far:

  • Patrice Bergeron (four points), Zdeno Chara (+5), Brad Marchand (5pts +6) have been the stars they’re billed as.
  • Depth and balance, despite Krejci’s wasted minutes, others have been around to fill the void; Smith, Fraser, Paille have taken his ignored burden and spread it on their own shoulders.
  • Better coaching, Claude Julien, Doug Houda and company have outmaneuvered their opposite number.

What they need to do to win the series:

  • Get Lucic and Iginla some help, it doesn’t matter if they locate Krejci’s drive and hockey sense or put someone else between them, the number of times these two, one 240 or so and the the other a soon to be 37 year old have made it to the net or corners while Krejci is almost in the zone or just entering is staggering.
  • Prop up Rask’s confidence any way they can. He’s got exactly one game this series with a sv% over .894. No one expects him to be stellar all the time, but average isn’t something he should be looking up at.
  • Communicate better from the bench to the penalty box, they’ve had brain farts in front of the net, at the offensive blueline, and everywhere else.

There is no extreme advantage in this series. Head to head the Canadiens have produced better results, but against the league at large the Bruins are handily better. The Bruins have won a Stanley Cup more recently, but there is a lot of playoff experience on the Montreal roster as well.