There was a nice quiet day of trades in the NHL heading into the Expansion Draft that will allow the Vegas Golden Knights to plump up their organization.

4: In Division Trade

When you make a trade within your division, you’re almost certainly always saying that someone involved is irrelevant. When the Jonathan Drouin for Mikhail Sergachev went down we learned something. We already knew the Canadiens make goofy trades for frequently non-hockey reasons. So we either learned that Yzerman doesn’t in anyway value the player he spent a year refusing to trade even when Drouin failed to report to the AHL, or that he’s revealed the depth of his respect for the Montreal organization.

It’s almost certainly the latter. Given the lack of skilled, speedy offensive centers who can keep up with Jonathan Drouin in Montreal, and who the head coach is, the math isn’t hard. Yzerman expects Drouin to be less impactful in Montreal than he was in Montreal. Clearing five point five million from his cap didn’t hurt, but sticking a player on a team who you can expect to produce at about seventy five cents on the dollar doesn’t happen often, when it’s a division rival its cheap at twice the price.

3: Commitment?

For years the Arizona Coyotes were wed in holy matrimony to Mike Smith, the Calgary Flames on the other hand had a soured soiree with Chad Johnson. Smith had Vezina quality seasons in a Coyotes uniform, and was also awful With nearly 500 regular season starts, the veteran has seen a lot, but its likely the 35 year still has a few good seasons on the clock.

Johnson has played only about a quarter as many games and is one of the better gents in a backup roll in the NHL. In a starting role he’s untested.

The question is are the Coyotes unwilling to keep their commitment for the final two years of Smith’s contract, or was the newest Calgary Flame wanting out of town due to the uncertainty that seems to be as thick in the wind as the sand?

 

2:  Franchise or Franc-choice?

Nathan Beaulieu was talked up in two languages as the best thing to happen to Montreal’s blueline in a long time just a couple years ago. In the Montreal tradition, like McDonagh, Subban, Weber, and half a dozen others expected to be NHL contributors, he’s moved along, and again to a division rival. The Buffalo Sabres who just added their general manager, add a defensemen picked 17th for a third round pick. Is Beaulieu going to achieve what McDonagh or Subban have? Probably not, but Yannick Webber was let go for nothing by the Montreal Canadiens, and like his fellow recovering Hab P.K. Subban, he just ran to the Cup finals.

With just over 200 games played in the NHL, we’re starting to see who he really is. Was it not speaking French? A lack of faith in him from Julien, or just another Habs blunder.

1: Two Little is Not Enough

The Coyotes did make a move. They should have made more. With teams like the Matt Dumba, and Hampus Lindholm or even Codi Ceci potentially available, the most vulnerable team to losing anyone did themselves a great disservice by not making a second notable move to enhance the defense. Even if they decided not to keep Dumba or another player after a trade, its certain the value he holds would allow them to pick up another piece or two to help them move in the right direction.

Each year we as 30 teams go careening through the grueling season hell bent on playing at least sixteen more when it is over, we have the chance to see the most difficult and most subtle position played by the good, the bad, the forgettable and the elite. Getting the Norris trophy (normally) means you are an elite defenseman. Here’s the guys to watch this year.

  • Shea Weber, he’s long overdue, his team has a shot at the playoffs with the improvements up front, and the return to health of Pekka Rinne.
  • Ryan McDonagh, a new name to watch, he’s got two solid tenders to play in front of, a decent squad even without Stepan or a few weeks, and his team is fresh off a deep playoff run.
  • Drew Doughty, I’d have been much happier to see him win last year than the guy who did, and I don’t expect his performance to dip this season, top level defenseman with the most Ray Bourque like mix of skill and skating of any player in the NHL.
  • Zdeno Chara, the elder statesmen of the top end defensemen in the NHL, he’s go one Norris, and the defense crew he plays with now just got younger and less experienced.
  • Alex Pietrangelo, this is one of the players who doesn’t get recognized because he doesn’t have one outstanding area of strength that’s easy to pin down, however he also doesn’t have any areas where he’s average or below average.
  • Ryan Suter, top shelf defenseman who was suffered mutual penalization with Shea Weber for playing together, now playing with a rather young mostly nameless defense.
  • Victor Hedman, consistent producer of points, while his actually defensive numbers don’t fall into the same league as the rest of he watchlist, he’s still more worthy than certain recent winners.

Gary Lawless and other have decided that the Winnipeg Jets most recognizable defenseman, an All Star, Stanley Cup champion, and Olympian is just not good enough.

When you compare him to some of the defenseman who make a similar amount of money, you can see where some complaints about his defensive struggles can creep in.

  • Brent Seabrook is a consummate defensive defenseman often overlooked because he plays in Duncan Keith’s shadow.
  • Ryan McDonagh is quickly becoming one of the best known defensemen in the entire NHL. Part of that is playing for the New York Rangers, part of it is that he’s just that good.
  • Kevin Bieksa has some deficiencies, but has never been the focus of his team, he’s above average but not elite.

And then there are the players who make about the same who are not notably better than Byfuglien, and likely worse, or at least with questionable consistency and or frequent health issues.

  • Dennis Wideman, known for bobbling pucks at the blueline, and that’s perhaps the most noticeable consistency in his game, it should also be noted that no team with Wideman on it has ever made it out of the second round of the NHL playoffs.
  • Keith Yandle, probably the most comparable in on ice production. The biggest difference between the two is Yandle plays in a highly defensive system where there are several high end defensive forwards and good goaltending.
  • Paul Martin of the Pittsburgh Penguins would be lucky to named in the first ten by anyone not reading off the teams roster, and despite playing in front of a goalie with better stats than Big Buff, he’s got an on ice SV% that’s actually further below the #1 goalies Sv%.
  • Nicklas Kronwall is a bit better defensively, and again playing in front of better goaltending, but offensively? He’s played about 60 more games than the Jets blueliner, but has about half the goals.

No one burdened with glorious clue has ever called Dustin Byfuglien the best defenseman in the NHL. He is however one of he most recognizable due to his size, melanin level, skating ability and offensive prowess. He’s also hands down the most recognizable player on Winnipeg Jets. The same way people you used to say Joe Thornton could or should do more during the Boston Bruins 2000-01 season, there are upper ceilings on everyone’s talent and more importantly the fact that good player, great player or elite player they can only be in one place on the ice.

In the entire history of the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets franchise, the team has never had any real depth. Their top six forwards after one and two, or very occasionally three have been a toss up. The top four in defense has largely been a matter of who had the endurance to play 22 or 26 minutes minutes and who didn’t. While Byfuglien can undoubtedly play better (possibly moving to right wing) he’s not the worst defenseman in the league, or even the worst in his pay bracket.  Whatever is wrong with Byfuglien’s play, and it does certainly have issues, Byfuglien isn’t even in the top 5 problems for the Winnipeg Jets.

The New York Rangers have six players signed beyond the 2013-2014 season. That does not include a goaltender, and does include one center who many consider a buyout candidate if he doesn’t return to all star status this year. As of right now, it also does not include Derek Stepan who has been their best forward over the last two years. For Rangers fans, this should be a cause for something slightly stronger than concern.

Two years ago the Rangers were in the Eastern Conference finals, they were beaten by the New Jersey Devils. That was the high water mark for recent Rangers history. Glen Sather who just celebrated his 69th birthday, has been at the helm since June of 2000. In that team we’ve seen lockouts, new CBAs the retirement of an entire era of greats, and not a single cup win.

Without sugar-coating it; Glen Sather has specialized in paying the wrong players huge amounts to come to New York and fail in the Rangers system and scapegoating coaches. Sather’s early years included finishing out of the playoffs with the aid of Pavel Bure, Mark Messier, and other highly paid players. Of all the coaches he’s booted, John Torterella had the best winning percentage, and Sather’s own 2003-2004 season in which he turned in a .428 winning percentage as coach was the worst. Tom Renney was a victim of Sather’s questionable decision making as well.

Wade Redden is perhaps the best example of players who were paid well beyond their ability to produce in New York, but he’s just one name on a long, long list. Scott Gomez was signed to a contract that may have been more responsible than any other for owners wanting limits to contract terms. Marian Gaborik is another of the standout examples of talented players who for whatever reason are unsuited to life in the Big Apple. Brad Richards has yet to flourish in the Garden, Rick Nash who was the most sought after trade piece for more than a year, didn’t silence his critics with a rather anemic post season this year, it is hard to to put him into the success category for Sather.

In terms of reliability and durability, the two best players signed to the New York Rangers after this season are Ryan McDonagh and Carl Hagelin. The two are fierce competitors, undeniably talented, and yet I doubt they’d make a top 10 list at their positions if the NHL’s head scouts are polled, certainly they would not if you poll the media.

While the cap is certainly a consideration when it comes to who is and isn’t signed, leaving 75% of your roster unsigned is a sign of one of three things; 1:  someone seeking leverage for their own contract extension,  2: someone contemplating massive turnover or 3: something that bears no resemblance to competence.

The long term deals under the still drying CBA are rolling in. Some of them make great sense, some make no sense. But given how hard line some of the owners were on not signing anyone longer than five years just a few short months ago, the deals are a bit eye opening when taken en-mass.

Matt Duchene is among the newest names to ink a lengthy deal. His five year deal starting July 1, 2015 will be his third contact and see him an unrestricted free agent at age 28.  The second forward taken in 2009, and the third pick overall he is second in scoring only to John Tavares in his draft class. The soft spoken forward out of the Brampton Battalion and Haliburton Ontario has had an up and down career.

A six million dollar contract is certainly not outside the zone of similar players, but it is a bit high and perhaps risky. The two forwards nearest him in scoring from that 2009 draft will both make less when this contract kicks in. Evander Kane in five less games has only two less goals than Duchene, and plays a much more physical game on a team less rich with high draft picks at forward. John Tavares handily leads Duchene in goals, assists, points and has been notably healthier, missing just 3 games since both debuted in the 2009-10 season. In the playoffs Duchene mustered just three assist in what is his only playoff appearance to date. With a lack of consistency, a scary series of injuries that include games lost to knee, ankle, and groin issues, and an inability to separate himself from the pack, a five year six million a year contract before Duchene even enters the final year of his second deal seems poorly thought out by the front office.

Dustin Brown is one of the better know players in the Western Conference, and perhaps the NHL as a whole. Well known both for playing physically and an ability to draw penalties that has earned him a derisive soubriquet “Fall Down Brown” from fan bases other than that of the Los Angeles Kings. While not an explosive scorer, and playing on a defensive minded team Brown taken 13th in the 2003 draft is tenth in scoring, and second in games played eclipsing the next several skaters by more than forty games.

At twenty-eight years old we know who Dustin Brown is, and what to expect of him in any given season. 22-26 goals, 25-32 assists. Add to that more than 275 hits a season, about two minutes of short handed time on ice per night, and a durable body and the Kings captain’s 8 year signing is a bit less risky. It is unlikely. The new deal will keep him locked up until he’s 37, while some might argue he’s slightly overpaid in the early years of the contract that will about even out over the final two or three years. Overall, a reasonable deal. Offensive production might fade towards the end of his deal, but he does enough on the ice that his offense isn’t his primary contribution.

One of the most difficult positions in hockey, in fact the most difficult position to project is goaltender. They take longer to develop than even defensemen and aside from healthy in their teens and early twenties there is nothing that will indicate if a player will play a long time in the NHL or not. This makes signing a goalie to an eight year contract a risk that is hard to even grant “calculated” status. Recent history has shown us Dwayne Roloson go from All Star quality play one season to saying his NHL goodbyes the next year. Steve Mason broke into the NHL and won the Calder on the strength of a 61 game season with Columbus, and a .916sv%.

Tuukka Rask’s contract makes ties him for top paid NHL goalie with Jonathan Quick and Pekka Rinne. Rask was drafted the same year as Quick and has played less than half as many regular season games, and a third less playoff games. Quick has also notably won a Cup, and been his team key contributor in that crusade. Rask has also worked a very light workload in his NHL career serving mostly as a backup and being sidelined by break downs to a frame that can only be called “spindly”. For some reason the Boston Bruins front office saw fit to give an enormous contract to a goalie who has a serious groin injury on his resume, has tossed teammates under the bus, and had perhaps the most notable temper tantrum in the last decade of AHL hockey.

The normally shrewd Peter Chiarelli made a curious move here. The Bruins aren’t completely without goaltending. Svedberg has adjusted to the North American game quite well, even bringing a level of aggression that would do Ron Hextall proud with him, Malcolm Subban, Zane Gotherberg, and Adam Morrison are all part of the system. And the team has recently found itself to be rich in NHL quality defenseman with the emergence of Krug, Bartkowsi, and Hamilton, not to mention the acquisition of Morrow and other blueliners in the system. I’m a bit baffled by a contract that is about 20% high and long.

If goaltenders are the hardest to project even after they hit the NHL, defenseman are probably the easiest by their mid twenties. That makes the New York Rangers locking up Ryan McDonagh almost a no brainer. The 12th pick of the 2007 draft by the Montreal Canadiens, McDonagh never played for the Habs as he was traded to the Rangers as part of the Scott Gomez fleecing of the Canadiens.

Since breaking into the NHL in his first year out of college he’s played just about every game, and all three of his first seasons under a harsh and demanding coach. How well he’ll adjust to the new head coaches system is anyone’s guess, but head coaches are more easily replaced than star defensemen. The contact will leave him a UFA at age 30.With a cap hit of less than five million a year for defenseman who was averaged 25 minutes a night for each of the last two regular seasons and 26.5 in the last two post seasons, it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than that Sather and company got a good deal.

The RFA defensemen are the cream of this years free agent crop. There are at least three number one or potential number one defensemen in this crop. and another half dozen who can play in the two or three spot.

Alex Pietrangelo, the best player due a contract this year. He is the three zone soldier who is the bulwark the St Louis Blues defense is built on.  Pietrangelo produces solidly in the regular and post season and plays big minutes in all situations.

Cody Franson,  way back when he was traded from Nashville to Toronto (two years ago) I said he was the best piece of talent in the deal. This year in the Maple Leafs return to the playoffs he put up 6 points in seven games against the Boston Bruins, while playing almost 23 minutes a night.

Jared  Cowen selected nineth in the 2009 draft, this towering blueliner spent most of the past season on the injured reserve returning in time to play all ten of the Senators games, and 18:33 of TOI/G. While he’s played fewere gaes than either Franson or Pietrangelo, it is really tough to look at what he has done, and the situations he’s been used in and not contemplate adding him to the team.

Zach Bogosion if he had spent his career anywhere other than the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise, he’d probably be a household name by now. If you nee a guy who can jump into your middle pairing and who still has the potential to move up from there in the future this is the guy.

Ryan McDonagh the Rangers defense is built around guys who can lay the body into an opponent, block shots, and skate long and hard. Huge minutes have come McDonagh’s way in the regular season, and the second season.

Karl Alzner the Washington Capitals rely heavily upon Alzner, two years ago through fourteen playoff games he led the team in time on ice, this year in seven games he played over three minutes a night of shorthanded time on ice.

Jake Muzzin in perhaps the deepest NHL quality talent pool Muzzin has fought his way into a strong position as part of its top six. Muzzin is a it more defensive minded thatn most of the men on this list but he’s also demonstrated a capacity to play mistake free hockey against quality opponents, he was second on the Kings this season with an on ice save percentage of .934.

 

The NHL trade deadline is less than three weeks away, some players may or may not be healthy by then, but should still be shuffled of onto the roster of someone else either for a strong return, a change of scenery for them or the potential return and or cap space.

Thomas Vanek:

It is as plain as the snow on Buffalo streets that the team is in need of rebuild. Vanek has shown this season he can contribute big time but at 29, it is unlikely he’ll be as powerful offensively in 3-5 years when the team might be ready to contend. For Deroit, Nashville, or Los Angeles who have cap space and might want to add scoring, he’s the number one option who might be available.

Mike Green:

The Washington Capitals are retooling on the fly, and trying to develop a new system of play. You can’t do that if you aren’t in the lineup. Last season Green played just 32 games, a total he may have trouble matching this year, the year before just 49. Since breaking into the league he’s had just one year where he played all 82 games. With cap contraction a reality, his six million dollars would look mighty fine if it belonged to someone else. If anyone is willing to take him for more than a 2nd round pick and a solid prospect, the return is worth it.

Jarome Iginla:

One of the great ambassadors for the sport deserves a chance to win a cup.  Of the top contenders, all of them have cap space and can likely be parted from two or three prospects and or picks. Better still, all three of the four are American teams so there’s less likelihood fans see it as a betrayal. Far be it for me to suggest that waiving a no movement clause doesn’t burn bridges or imply collusion between players being traded and management, but one could take a look at Keith Tkachuk’s career and draw their own conclusions.

Andrei Markov:

While as constituted the Montreal Canadiens are a likely contender, swapping the injury prone Markov out for a first or second line center who can actually win faceoffs would shore up their penalty kill, give them more puck possession, and likely improve their goal scored. With a full year left on his contract, a few teams ought to be interested just to see how much he can help groom their young blueliners.

Jake Gardinier:

Why in the world he’s in the Leafs dog house is anyones guess. His fall from grace has happened faster and just as inexplicably as Keith Aulies, and the time he’s spending in the AHL is as wasteful as Nazim Kadri’s, maybe worse since the big team has a coach who is getting results. If the Leafs don’t want him, there’s a good 20 teams who will be happy to exchange “AHL prospects” with the Leafs to relieve them of their burden. With his agent getting in on the inquiry via social media, it is only a matter of time before the situation becomes a distraction to the team.

Johnny Boychuk:

The former AHL defenseman of the year has stagnated badly. It began almost as soon as he got to the NHL, clearly a change of scenery is in order. While his $3.3million cap his isn’t by itself that bad, hes the Bruins second highest paid defenseman, and currently has as many points as Shawn Thornton and has seen his powerplay time on ice go from  1:01 per game in 2010-11 to 0:09 per game this year.

Jay Bouwmeester:

Until the team finds a goaltender who can stop a beach ball, it doesn’t matter who is on the blueline. Bouwmeester is contributing at half a point per game, his highest level since arriving in Calgary. His contract is up after next season, and I can’t see him wanting to resign in Calgary, so the sooner he waives his no trade clause and get’s moving the sooner he can rebuild his market value an maybe not have to take an enormous pay cut in 2012-15, with luck he might win a cup a long the way.

Sam Gagner:

While he’s the surprise leader of the Oilers scoring race, he’s also due a new contract July 1. With the wealth of forward talent the team has and no chance of making the playoffs, Gagner might be the best trade piece the team has to acquire a solid, defensive minded top pairing defenseman or at least a couple very strong prospects.

Marc Staal:

When it comes to luck, if Marc didn’t have bad luck, he wouldn’t have any at all. Both his brothers have won a Stanley Cup and he hasn’t, one of them concussed him, and now he’s caught a puck with his brow. From the team standpoint, his time downchecked due to injury has left a great deal of space for other players to mature into. The Rangers have just 17 players signed for next season and only nine million to sign the six other roster spots something has to give, of the players who need a contract come July the first are Michael Sauer, Carl Hagelin, Ryan McDonaugh, and Derek Stepan, moving out Staal’s four million for a rasher of picks or prospects before the deadline or at the draft makes a lot of sense.

The Western Conference has already kicked off it’s final round, and done so in style. The East has its time in the limelight now.

The Rangers and Devils will at least from the perspective of travel both get to play as many home games as it takes to finish the series. That rest could come into play for both teams. The Rangers while a much younger team overall, have had several overtime games including that triple overtime game against the large and physical Capitals. The Devils.

The Devils have the advantages of two less games, notably less overtime, and more rest since the end of a not very taxing series with the Flyers. They may need it. They have a much higher average age, but also have their own rookies in the lineup. In addition to a legend in goal who is playing some of his best hockey in a decade, they have the most skilled player left in the playoffs Ilya Kovalchuk.

The breakdown:

Goaltending:

  • Lundqvist is having hands-down the best post season of his career, one concern might be that the Devils take more shots per game than anyone the Rangers have faced, and part of his success is that the Rangers typically allow very few shots.
  • Brodeur looks more like the legend than we’ve seen in recent years. This could be a tipping point either way. If he reverts to the player of the last two or three post seasons that will be the death-knell for the team. If however he has two strong games to start the series he will be in the head of a team who mostly grew up watching him.

Forwards:

  • The Rangers forwards have been enough to get the job done, but not spectacular. How well they do will be determined by how well Gaborik and Hagelin use their speed, and players like Callahan and Stepan distribute the puck in a timely manner.
  • Kovalchuk, Parise, Zajac need to push through a much better defense than they have seen this post season. I expect the adjustment to be harder for Clarkson and Henrique, which means it’s just about time for Ponikarovsky to come out of his coma and contribute.

Defense:

  • The Rangers defense is the most reliable component of the team. McDonagh and Girardi have been huge, Staal has rounded back into Norris-like form, and Del Zotto has been key figure, as a six man unit a defense doesn’t play much better. The question will be how well they handle some of the big, skilled, bodies of the Devils in a seven game series after all the hard play of the Caps, and extra time.
  • The Devils defense has seen its defensive defensemen earning the most ice time. It’s a formula that’s worked thus far. The Devils will need timely contributions from the more offensive minded defensemen in order to advance.

Intangibles:

Neither team has had to come back from being down 0-3 or run into a game they had to come back from four goal down to win or golf. But neither has had an easy post season, the Devils went the distance with the scrappy Panthers in the opening round, the Rangers will play their fifteenth game of the second season against the Devils. After health which becomes a huge drain this late, depth is going to be huge in deciding the series. Both teams have five players who have scored three or more goals in the post season. The Devils however who have played less games have gotten at least one goal from 15 players, while the the Rangers have had only 11 light the lamp.

These division rivals could also see the return of good scraps to the playoffs. 22 Fighting majors in six regular season games isn’t the type of emotion you can smother in the playoffs.

“Lazy Russian Count”*

  • Rangers: 1
  • Devils: 2

“Good Canadian Boy Count”*

  • Rangers: 10
  • Devils: 7

*Both counts taken from current rosters as displayed on team websites.

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

1: New York Rangers vs  #8 Washington Capitals

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

2: Boston Bruins vs #7 Ottawa Senators

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

3: Florida Panthers vs #6 New Jersey Devils

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

#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs #5 Philadelphia Flyers

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