The first round of the playoffs may have been the best opening round as a whole in years. The Columbus Blue Jackets traded blows and goals with the Pittsburgh Penguins and had the Metropolitan division winners looking just a bit weak. The loss of David Backes due to a suspend-able hit by Brent Seabrook was clearly the tipping point of the series between the Saint Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks. The San Jose Sharks went from unmitigated domination of the Los Angeles Kings to going into the night with a whimper.

The Philadelphia Flyers played a pretty even series with the New York Rangers that came down to a memorable game seven decided by one goal; the series was also the coming out party for Steve Mason who put up a stellar 1.97 GAA and .939 sv%. The Alex Goligoski and Shawn Horcoff led Dallas Stars put a two game scare into the Anaheim Ducks before succumbing to a focused and superior team. In the battle between snowy Montreal and snowbird heaven Tampa Bay, the Lightning went down in the opening rounds only sweep, minus Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop. In the opening round the Boston Bruins lost the opening game to their Original Six rivals, and then laid them in the dust in four straight wins.

Biggest surprises of the first round:

  • 169 players having more goals than Sidney Crosby, including Luke Schenn, Bryan Allen, Raffi Torres, Jordan Caron and Devante Smith-Pelly
  • How much Jonathan Quick struggled in the first few games, and that Sutter didn’t go to Jones full time.
  • Paul Stastny ending a playoff run with well deserved accolades like “heroic performance” being thrown his way, even around all the love for the shiny new rookie.
  • Paul Martin weighing in at over a point per game. Yes, that Paul Martin.
  • Alex Goligoski gaining zero attention while playing 28:30 a night, putting up 4 points and being a +7 in a six game losing series.
  • How well the very young Colorado Avalanche held together through some very tough games.

Top 3 series of the opening round:

  1. Columbus Blue Jackets vs Pittsburgh Penguins, the pure drama in this matchup was amazing to watch.
  2. Minnesota Wild vs Colorado Avalanche; There is so much young potential in this series it is staggering, Coyle, Neiderrietter, Brodin and Spurgeon we’ll see more of this year, MacKinnon, Landeskog, Hishon, and Duchene we’ll have ot wait until fall for more from.
  3. Chicago Blackhawks vs Saint Louis Blues, as far as the best hockey played game in and game out this series wins, but the drama level wasn’t quiet as high as the other two series.

Realignment brings together four fifths of the old pacific division,  and three fifths of the former northwest division. These seven teams are tied together for the next three seasons and barring expansion or relocation, the short term future beyond that.

Anaheim: Rumor has it this franchise which is soon to leave its teenage years behind will revert to being the Mighty Ducks. The interesting part is it appears to be for just one game. If this is a market test for occasion based team gear it could be the precursor to seeing the Ducks in a Winter Classic game, likely as the visitors. With any luck Emelio Estevez’s career will be resurrected as well.

Calgary: Barring direct divine intervention, the Flames are not going to burn much hotter than it takes to make smores. The biggest move since their season ended was to pick up the enigmatic David Jones. Yes, signing Sean Monahan, and Corban Knight might help address their abysmal lack of depth at center but even if both young men turn in Calder quality campaigns, this Flames team will struggle to escape the lottery.

Edmonton: For the first time in years, the team might just be on the right path. They addressed a weakness that has been glaring and debilitating both in the draft and free agency, and it appears to be the result of Scott Howson’s handiwork. How else do you explain a team that failed to make a useful defensive free agent acquisition in years suddenly do so and draft Darnell Nurse in the zone he was projected? They might not quite make the playoffs, but they have a better chance their Battle of Alberta rivals.

Los Angeles: While mostly a summer of taking care of their own, the Kings did also grab Dan Carcillo for their bottom six, or likely bottom three. We know Jordan Nolan will have to fight for ice time, and probably still have Sidney Crosby’s picture put up in his place. We know the Kings goalie tandem won’t have the same first name for the first time in years and that Ben Scrivens is unlikely to surpass the twenty starts he had in a season in Toronto.

Phoenix: We know the Coyotes will be in town for years to come. We know Doan, Smith, Ekman-Larsson and company are anxious to get back to the playoffs. We know the team is one of the top three in the new division, as long as they stay healthy.

San Jose: We know that we don’t know anything about who this team really is. We know that this team doesn’t know anything about who they truly are. We know adding Raffi Torres is a positively confusing move as most teams don’t feel they have a dearth of suspensions due to ill advised hits to opposing players. We know the team needs to move some salary somewhere to become cap compliant. We know Tomas Hertl will need to make big adjustments to the way the game is played in North America. We know those last two items might be related.

Vancouver: We know this teams fans are in for a rough season. Even with a full training camp to shake down with the new coach, the radical interpersonal and coaching differences between the new coach and the old are going to make waves. We know the team is no longer in a division where they can mail in 50 games a year and still win the division without much of a challenge. We know they still haven’t solved their issues at center, and that which Roberto Luongo we see this year is anyone’s guess.

#1 Vs #8

The Chicago Blackhawks seemingly have everything going this season. They have two goalies putting up top flight numbers. they have an upgraded defense that has allowed Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to reclaim the form that helped the team win the Cup a few years back. Better still, they have arguably the best forward group in the NHL; Toews, Kane, Hossa, Saad and Sharp.

The Minnesota Wild are that new kid in playoff town no one knows quite what to make of. On paper the Wild have every tool they need to be dangerous, and even contend. In reality, they lack playoff experience, especially with Pominville and Heatley on the shelf. Add that to five of six blueliners who have never seen the NHL playoffs, and you have a recipe for a dicey playoff series.

Players to watch:

For the Wild, don’t be surprised if rookie Charlie Coyle comes up big in spots, Setogouchi is a threat, and Mikko Koivu is never to be underestimated.

On the other side of the puck for the Blackhawks, Kane, Hossa and Toews can all take over games individually.

Edge:

Chicago, it isn’t purely the quality that they lead in, it is the playoff experience, particularly on the blueline that will decide this series.

#2 vs. #7

Anaheim Ducks have almost no pressure this year. Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are drawing an inexplicable amount of attention, and Chicago was start to finish the best team in the NHL. The Ducks simply have to get on the ice and execute. They have savvy older veterans in Koivu and Selanne. They have high quality younger veterans still in their prime in Ryan, Getzlaf, and Perry. They also have a surprisingly strong backend in net and on the blueline. They don’t have any dominant or elite players there, but they do have several really good ones.

The Detroit Red Wings have made the playoffs again keeping their two decade long streak intact. They have Jimmy Howard who again very quietly put up impressive numbers, they have Datsyuk, and Zetterberg. These are not your Dad’s Red Wing’s though, they just don’t have even one elite talent on their blueline, much less two or three as they have had in years past.

Players to watch:

If the Wings don’t have Howard playing top notch goaltending, they don’t have anything, For them to win,  guys like Tootoo, Smith, and other role players will have to elevate their game.

The Ducks need to have their defense continue to smother their opponents, and have at least one of their goaltenders show up and never take their eyes off of Zetterberg and Datsyuk.

Edge:

Wings can’t win this if the Ducks show up and execute. It’s just that simple.

#3 vs. #6

Vancouver Canucks, it is put up or shutup time in Vancouver. They drama in their net has covered up the fact that this isn’t as good a team as it was in years past. They only won their division by four points, by comparison the Washington Capitals won by 6, and of the six division winners this is the team that scored the least this season. The Sedin twins combined for less goals than Jiri Tlusty. They put up the mediocre season numbers with three of the bottom four teams in their conference playing in their division.

San Jose Sharks are also at the point where if they don’t win the Cup it is tie to break up the band. Marleau, Boyle, and Thornton don’t have many more years left in them and behind them there isn’t much to write home about. What gives this squad a bit of believability is that Niemi, who was part of the Chicago cup run, has turned in the best regular season of his career and played in 43 of the teams 48 games.

Players to watch:

Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa are two guys you should never ever count out, for the Canucks to do well, these two will likely be the biggest impact players.

Joe Thornton appears to have learned how to play big in the playoffs, and Raffi Torres (when he plays clean) is a surprisingly good playoff player.

Edge:

This series is almost a push, but I give the edge to San Jose, Thornton, Marleau, Couture are are better right now than any three forwards you can name for the Sharks, and with Schneider’s injury and the general chaos in British Columbia I don’t like the Canucks chances.

#4 vs. #5

The Saint Louis Blues boast some damn fine players no one talks about because the team is too far south. David Backes is a game changer, Pietrangelo is one of the best defensemen in the game, and Chris Stewart turned in more points in 48 games this year than he did in 79 last year. Goaltending is clearly this teams weakness, but with Oshie coming back the team gains immediately in two way play.

The reigning champions the Los Angeles Kings have to get scoring from more people than just Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown, if for no other reason than Jonathan Quick is not as good this year as last. They’ve gotten a slight refresh adding Regehr and injecting Muzzin into the lineup, but the roster is really almost identical. You have to question the teams hunger a little.

Players to watch:

Drew Doughty emerged as an elite two way defenseman during last year playoffs establishing his bona fides in his own end in addition to the offensive ability he’s always displayed, he and Mike Richards who is frequently overlooked on this team will be crucial to this team going anywhere.

For the Blues, Vladimir Sobotka just finds an extra gear in the playoffs and he can tilt the ice, but he won’t be enough, Bouwmeester, Oshie, and Perron will have to show up and put in work.

Edge:

This is a push, the Blues I think have the edge in hunger, the Kings have the edge in knowing how to win in the post season.

Total Wins by eliminated teams this round; 9

 

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

 

Teams:

  • on April 17th the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets would have a better chance of making the playoffs than last years eastern conference champions the New Jersey Devils.
  • the Los Angeles Kings would have a better offense than the Boston Bruins, Vancouver Canucks, or Philadelphia Flyers.
  • only three of the top five powerplays would belong to playoff teams while five of five penalty kills would belong to playoff teams.
  • the Montreal Canadiens, and the Ottawa Senators would have more penalties per game than the Anaheim Ducks.
  • only two of the bottom five faceoff teams would be in playoff position, while all of the top five faceoff teams would be in.
  • zero of last years eastern conference division winners, The Panthers, The Rangers, and the Bruins would be in that position today.
  • zero of last years bottom five years teams would be there right now.

Players:

  • despite missing games with a concussion, Brad Marchand would still be tied for a top 20 position in goal scoring.
  • Alex Ovechkin would not only be the only player in double digits in powerplay goals, but also have a six goal cushion on those tied for second.
  • half of Adam Henrique’s ten goals would come on special teams, two short handed, and three on the powerplay.
  • the league leader in short handed assists would have three, and be Lee Stempniak.
  • the only defenseman in the NHL with more than one short handed assist would be, Jay Bouwmeester.
  • heading into the last handful of games of the season, Daniel Alfredsson would have almost twice the PIMS of Raffi Torres.
  • seven of the top ten defensemen in assists would be left handed shots, Mark Streit, Duncan Keith, Niklas Kronwall, Alex Goligoski, Sergei Gonchar, Kimmo Timonen, Ryan Suter, but two of the top three would be right handed, Kris Letang and P.K. Subban.
  • Sergei Bobrovsky would be the only goaltender in the top five for sv% and the top five for shootout wins.
  • the top ten goalies by save percentage would combine for a cap hit o $23,875,000 with over a quarter of it belonging to Henrik Lundqvist, who’s team has the lowest point total.

One of the things that I hope both sides of the NHL/NHLPA showdown over how the next decades money will be split is that the current discipline system is utterly inadequate. As mentioned previously diving is an issue that needs to be shot dead. With fines that might as well not exist despite their being cheating as unfair as performance enhancing drugs (and far more common) nothing has been done to curb it.

But the diving is just one small part. There needs to be power for oversight of officiating given to the NHLPA. Some officials clearly are incompetent to hand towels to the officials who do take the ice. Some mechanism for forceful correction of the egregiously bad officiating needs to come into being, immediately. It could even be a joint General Mangers/Governors NHLPA work group to address the worst of the mess.

The third level is bringing in a person or persons to be the basis for appeals. Currently the disciplinarian is installed by Gary Bettman, who also get’s to in his own sweet time decide on appeals. As we’ve seen with the Raffi Torres debacle, without a strict deadline Bettman is able to effectively pocket veto any suspensions he doesn’t wish to address. Him doing so is unfair to the team owners, the players and the fans. Is Raffi Torres going to be the reason a team wins or loses a playoff series? Unlikely, but what if the next person appealing is Alex Ovechkin who is now a “repeat offender” if Bettman answers in any less time than elapsed in the Torres case he’ll clearly be showing favoritism. He’s doubly undermined the system and it makes the NHL look bad.

There are other problems that need to be dealt with sure, but these issues can affect teams bottom line by millions of dollars a year and should not be ignored.

One of the things the NHLPA and Ownership desperately need to come together on is a reasonable system for suspensions and fines. Currently Brendan Shanahan and the Department of Player Safety can decide to suspend a player for a hundred games with no real recourse for the player, the players association or the team that player is a member of. Not only is there no written and unambiguous system for fines and suspensions there is no sane appeal system.

As we’re currently experiencing with the Raffi Torres suspension, there is no deadline on the reviewer to enact their decision. Worse the appeals court as it were is the person who put Shanahan in place. So Bettman is put in the position of either undermining his employee(s) or looking ineffectual. Further either call he makes is a judgement call. As it is, he can simply drag out announcing any finding until after the suspension is served in full. Without a firm time limit no one even has firm ground to stand on to say he’s taking too long.

Any arbitrator should not be an NHL employee. It should certainly not be decided by any one person. Either a group of three players or player representatives together with a retired official as tie braking judge and three general managers or team governors should be involved, or possibly an entirely independent arbitrator.

But before there can be an appeals system, there needs to be a valid process for discipline. Currently, as evidenced by the spaghetti thrown at the wall approach we’ve seen this year there is no system, and we don’t even know what’s a capital offense and what’s jay walking. As inadequate as many feel some of the punishments spelled out in the NHL rulebook are, at least they exist.

The jockeying for position at the negotiations has already begun. It would be nice if both sides remembered this minor issue while trying to steer the league into the future. When you can’t get through a single playoff series without one or both teams and their fanbases, not to mention the neutral fans questioning the system, its efficacy, and the quality of it’s agents on a daily basis there is more than a problem, you have a threat to the long term health of the league.

The John Tortorella press conference are kinda hilarious. Never known for wanting to breathe the same air as media members Tortorella takes it to a special place each post season. Complete sentences disappear faster than ice time for guys not living up to his expectations. The number of things he’s willing to discuss goes from nearly two teaspoons worth in March and the first week of April to just enough to see in the bottom of a single spoon by the middle of April. It’s clockwork, it might as well be tax day.

And yet the media is shocked and appalled it’s happening. This is when the laziest, most venal members of the media reveal themselves for what they truly are. It’s not the job of any athlete or organization to provide good copy and hand out stories in sippy cups with a side of goldfish crackers. Writers should write. If were in charge of a news organization and saw one of my staffers kvetching all over social media about someone “not giving them enough”, I know who’d be getting the warmest pink slip the next time layoffs rolled around.

***

Raffi Torres had his appeal hearing with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman today. This is to appeal the hit that ended Marian Hossa’s post season. For those who missed it or need a refresher:

It was without a doubt a bad, brutal, unneeded and suspendable hit. It was a head shot, which last post season earned Rome a four post season game seat. Torres is a repeat offender so doubling that is still appropriate. If you want to tack on four additional games for leaving his feat again,  no problem.   Even 15 games would be acceptable, reasonable and in line with previous suspensions. 24 however is not. 24 games, especially given the number that are/could be playoff games is just absurd. It bares no resemblance to the suspensions given out even to other repeat offenders and puts this up there with players who have done unspeakably stupid things that don’t even marginally have a place in hockey, like for example Dale Hunter’s well documented suspension.

Truth #1

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had no business being in the NHL this season.

As everyone with a functioning frontal lobe knew he had the skill to be in the NHL, but not the body. His two separate injuries are ample proof of this. Twenty games missed, and now a  shoulder that is likely to become a recurring injury. What good did his being in the NHL do the Oilers this season? They were still a lottery team. The Oilers burnt a year of his entry level contract to no long term gain for the organization. The development of Magnus Paaravi and other prospects was pushed back as well. Instead of rushing Nugent-Hopkins to the NHL, the Oilers “leadership” should have taken the long view and had him on a strong conditioning stint that would have packed some muscle onto his frame. While no hockey player needs to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger circa 1980,  a lot of winning faceoffs is muscle, and his 37.5% win percentage added to the injuries, and the eyeball test speak volumes.

Truth #2

The on ice #NHLOfficials and Brendan Shanahan’s Department of Player Safety Propaganda have done such a marvelous job over the last seven or eight months that no one knows what a penalty short of the Raffi Torres late-leap-headshot actually is. This is like the courts tossing out every fourth case short of murder and alternating twenty year sentences and community service for all other charges regardless of if they were property damage, manslaughter or jay walking. Most fans, and many players who have played close attention all year long are no closer to a definitive understanding what exactly is a clip, a late hit, or a charge today than in the Campbell era. We have learned however that headshot’s really aren’t a priority. When clipping and boarding calls get harsher suspensions, the handwriting is on the walls and superimposed on the image of every NHL broadcast.

Good News Bad News For Both the Bruins and Capitals

Item 1: The Bruins solved Holtby.

Item 2: The Capitals won anyways.

***

With Raffi Torres gone for the foreseeable future it will be interesting to see if the much discussed penalty free buyout is included in the next CBA if the Coyotes or whoever they are and wherever they are by next fall, decide to use this on him. His contract isn’t outrageous unless of you believe he shouldn’t have one at all, so it is possible a buyer would decide to bury him in the AHL if he didn’t change his game.

***

Missing defensemen are becoming more common. The Florida Panthers are playing without Jason Garrison. The Philadelphia Flyers are definitely missing the services of Grossman. The Boston Bruins will very likely not put Corvo on the ice next game after he blocked a shot earlier today.  Hal Gill hasn’t played in a while for the Nashville Predators.

***

The Florida Panthers series against the New Jersey Devils has to be the most entertaining series in the opening round. The tempo has been solid, the play tight. There’s been offense, there’s been defense and lots of drama. You might not be used to seeing half of one roster on TV and in arena advertisements a few dozen times on your way to your seat, but hot damn the actions been good.

The Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins on the other hand have been painful to watch. The sloppiest hockey the NHL has seen since the preseason following the lockout. Stupid penalties by players who should know better, and goaltending who’s most consistent well executed play is digging the puck out of the back of the net.

***

For those who missed it, the NHL network is playing OHL games midday you can get a look at top prospects like Cody Ceci in action.

***

How good it is for the NHL as a whole and the teams individually for both the Florida Panthers and Phoenix Coyotes to win their first division titles can’t be understated. Florida will probably not ever produce NHL superstars at the rate that Ontario does, but there is a big enough population there so that even if only 1% of teens reach the USHL, division one college or CHL level hockey, that is still a very large number of young men. Arizona isn’t a small state either and it could if the Coyotes stay and are successful match Saskatchewan or Newfoundland. Between the two states you’ve got a population almost equal to all of Canada which is why they ar ethere in the first place: advertising and tv money if nothing else.