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

Pittsburgh Penguins:

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

Best Players:

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

X-Factor

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

 

Columbus Blue Jackets

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

Best Players:

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

X-Factor

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

An NHL coaching job is nothing if not a reminder that all things are temporary. The Philadelphia Flyers made a coaching change, and improved. The Florida Panthers who are a lesser talent made a coaching change and they too improved.  There are teams struggling now, some because of talent, others because of execution.  And while trades, demotions and benchings have and will happen, the person who pays most for poor performance of a team is the head coach.

Todd Richards:

With the NHL’s reigning Vezina trophy winner, and blue chip picks in Jack Johnson, Tim Erixon, Ryan Murray, and Marion Gaborik studding the roster ably complimented by James Wisniewski, RJ Umberger, Nikita Nikitin, Brandon Dubinsky and Nick Foligno a team shouldn’t struggle. They won’t be a world beater, but being tied for last in a mediocre division isn’t where they should be. Yes, once he’s healthy getting Nathan Horton into the lineup should help, but entering action on the 25th the team is 9 points out of the last wildcard spot in the east and only eight points off the league basement.

Jack Capuano:
Capuano may end up being a victim of his own success. Last year the team proved they were capable of playing their way into the post season. They went toe-to-toe with the Pittsburgh Penguins and gave an excellent showing. By comparison, this years on ice product is putrid. In overtime or regulation they’ve lost two thirds of their games. John Tavares, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo are doing their part but it seems Capuano is either misusing or not motivating the other warm bodies on the roster. While it can be argued that Garth Snow failed him by not securing better goaltending, general manager’s are a lot less disposable than coaches.

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

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

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

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

The Rick Nash saga is heating up, and will likely not die out completely if he remains in Columbus until mid August with a slight lull during the playoffs, and a sharp spike after the Cup is raised.

But what is he worth? When Ilya Kovalchuk was traded he had one year left on his contract, had hit fifty goals twice, had three other 40 goal season, and was either the best or second best left wing in the NHL.  Rick Nash was the first overall pick in the draft a year after Kovalchuk, and has put up very good numbers playing at one time or another both center and wing, but not quite on Kovalchuk’s level. When the Thrashers traded Kovalchuk to the Devils, he went with Anssi Salmela, who can probably be described as a AAAA defenseman, and a second round pick. The Devils sent back, a 1st round pick a 2nd rounder, NHL defenseman Johnny Odouya, and some peripheral prospects.  Kovalchuk had one year left on his deal

Nash, has six full season left on his contract. This is both a gift and a curse. Teams wanting to mind their budget and long term projections on who they can afford to retain have cost certainty with the deal. What can’t be guaranteed is performance in relation to contract. He could play at or above the .81 points per game he’s maintained in his career if he’s healthy, and in a compatible system. Equally an injury, incompatible system or a coach with a bias could squash his productivity and leave a team with a Reddenesque deal on their hands.

So what type of return should the Blue Jackets get if they do indeed trade him? If they go just for picks and try and restock and build through the draft, it should be two first round picks for teams expected to finish in the bottom 15 or so, and probably at least one second round pick. If they want to build depth, and get useful special teams and leave offensive production primarily to Jeff Carter and whoever they draft in the lottery this year, they could pick up two or three players who could help their 21st ranked powerplay and their 30th ranked penalty kill. Arguably getting one first round pick and those three or four role players with a couple years left on the deals will make the team more competitive than one or two second tier stars would. If in the, highly unlikely, situation they opt for a simple superstar for superstar trade arguably Eric Staal is the perfect candidate. He was drafted 2nd in 2003, and was part of a cup run. While neither is exactly a raging extrovert, Staal has a bit more force to his play, and may just need a change of scenery.

Going purely off number Staal for Nash isn’t great upgrade, and Staal is justifiably paid more, but Staal has spent most of his time at center, and putting Yakupov or Forsberg on his line, while Carter, Umberger and Johansen form another line has certain appeals. Whatever they decide to do with if they do trade Nash, and can get what they are looking for, it has to help the team form an identity. I haven’t seen the team play with one in the past two seasons and it can’t stay in business without something to help build success and draw crowds. Additionally it’d be nice for someone outside the franchise to know who their All Stars are next season since they are hosting the event.

Yesterday afternoon the Bruins front office set of a wave of speculation. All they had to do was let the hockey universe know they were going to be holding a press conference today at 6pm. No one I’ve seen, or heard knows anything and the lines of speculation are both long and distinguished. Some of the more plausible ones include:

  • A trade, either major along the lines of acquiring a number 2 or 3 defenseman, or goal scorer to help finish when on the powerplay. Or just a shakeup move or shuffling of excess and or disappointing parts .Andrew Alberts and Chuck Kobasew were all traded early in the season under Chiarelli. Peter also pulled off some last years key trades well in advance of the deadline, so a settling in period is clearly part of his philosophy.
  • A contract extension for someone in management. I could be his, or someone else.
  • A change in parts of the coaching staff.
  • Injury updates: Marc Savard being the most discussed, but some have pointed out Krejci and Mcquaid’s injuries as cause for concern as well questioning the extent to which Rask is recovered.
  • Others have wondered about health of off ice personnel and management.

Trade talk has focused on a few specific people, without the overwhelming, ridiculous, and flat out wrong push given in notable quarters to the acquisition of Tomas Kaberle. While that doesn’t mean this won’t be a major trade, it is entirely possible the trade won’t be for who is most speculated.

  • Ryan Whitney of the Edmonton Oilers is a big contributor from the backend. He’s been in the 40 point range most seasons, and peaked at 59. Points wise that lines him right up with Zdeno Chara, he’s also a 28 year old Boston native with a four million dollar cap hit this year and next.
  • Daniel Alfredsson is one of the more interesting players speculated. Age and injury history make the amount of time and money left on his contract risky, but the fact he’s still up to playing over 19 minutes a game which is comparable to Patrice Bergeron who is more than a decade younger is solid counter balance. Add to that Chiarelli’s days in Ottawa, the fact he was worn the C even through all the nastiness the last few years there, and that he is well known to Chara and Kelly and you bring the appeal a bit higher. He was a big part of the Senators “golden years” when they were crushingly dominant, but at 38 has still not won a Cup.
  • Rene Bourque (no relation) of the Calgary Flames has his name floated about in trade talks about as often as Michael Ryder did after his first season here, and for similar reasons. When he’s good, he’s damned good, when he’s not he’s almost invisible. His cap hit is reasonable considering he’s produced two straight 27 goal seasons on team with questionable centers.

Those are the three most reasonable and frequently speculated trades. Some others possibilities exist, and are at least to me more interesting.

  • The New York Rangers are sputtering. They may have beat the Jets last night, but through seven games they’ve only scored fourteen goals. As much as they like having Dubinsky and Callahan are very similar players playing on the same line and it is possible a different player might be what is needed to give the team some mojo. Neither is playing particularly well, both play center and wing, often alternating during the game. Both were recently signed, but Sather and company can’t have too much room left on the leash after the way the team has ended the last couple seasons.
  • Kyle Turris is frequently named in speculation since the Phoenix Coyotes and he have yet to reach an agreement, but I don’t find this likely given how many times the GM has said he’d rather let Turris sit the year than trade him.
  • The Columbus Blue Jackets have just about flatlined. They have 1 point in eight games, have allowed more goals than any team in the league, and spent a lot of money in the off season specifically so they could see more teams below them in the standings than above them. Of the players they might be willing to move, R.J. Umberger is former Flyer with a lot of playoff experience who has the center/wing experience that the Bruins management favors, I suspect going back would be defensemen and maybe a goalie.
  • The Nashville Predators have a lot of big decisions to make both as management and players. Pekka Rinne and Ryan Suter will be UFA’s if not signed by July 1, Shea Weber will be an RFA with arbitration rights. Weber has indicated he only wants to stay if they are committed to winning, I can’t imagine Suter and Rinne have said or done anything different. While I don’t expect we’d land any of them, a couple draft picks from a team that might finish outside the playoffs in exchange for parts of our system that don’t fit could be win-win for both teams.
  • Another team that for the sake of it’s long term survival, and recent change in ownership can’t be ignored in any trade speculation, especially given how much change there was in Buffalo when Pegula took over is the Winnipeg Jets. They aren’t an expansion team, but they might as well be, and they will need to to keep the fan base very satisfied with such a small building to draw revenue from.

Free agency is a high nearly unrivaled on the hockey schedule. Guys who played in a system they didn’t fit in last season can shoot for a better fit. Players who’s entry level deals are expiring can look forward to a more comfortable income. Fans who loathed the contract of an anchor on their roster can cheer its expiration. Best of all, any UFA becomes possible, if only for an hour or two. Here are some of the players I find most interesting in this years class.

Scott Hannan: If he insists on the $4.5 million a year of his last contract he could be in for slim pickings.  Offensively speaking he’s not quite as gifted as the otherwise comparable Andrew Ference. He does play about six minutes more per game than Ference in Washington, but there were a lot more injuries on the blueline of the Capitals this season. Still at 32, 6’2 and 225 he’s likely got two or three more seasons of similar contributions before beginning to decline.

Joel Ward: What a post season party this man had. He led his team in scoring, briefly led the NHL in goals in the post season, and made life miserable for the Vancouver Canucks in the second round. If you look up the word “workhorse” in your dictionary of hockey terms this mans picture might just be there. Of his ten goals last regular season five were power play goals and four were game winners. Those were good for third and second on the team, relied upon in all situations he led the Predators forwards in time on ice last season, its hard to see him not being retained at a decent price. Its also unlikely he’ll fail to get a deal worth more than the $1.5 million he got last season.

Scottie Upshall (@ScottieUpshall): After a season ending knee injury two seasons ago, he responded by coming back with a career high in goals and hits. With the ability to play both wings, good speed and some playoff experience it will be interesting to see where he lands. He was traded at the deadline from Phoenix to Columbus where he was reunited with former Flyers teammate RJ Umberger and now another former Flyer Jeff Carter has joined the crew. The $2.25m he earned last year probably isn’t far off from what his next deal will be. It will be interesting to see if the 27 year old goes for a short three year or less deal or for a longer one that might include a no trade clause.

Simon Gagne, is almost certainly the most pure scorer under thirty five in this free agent crop. He’s also got a collection of injuries that stretches on for pages. His last contract was for north of five million a year which is perfectly acceptable for a two time forty goal scorer. His last two season topped off at 17 goals a piece. While all players are a risk, as a GM I can see people steering clear or only offering one or two year deals

Anton Babchuck. The well traveled blueliner has seen a few cities already in his career. Of all the free agent defensemen he’s got the second highest powerplay goal total. He’s first in short handed points in that group. Overall he was the third highest scoring defenseman in this UFA crop. At 27 with those stats if his agent can’t double his salary this season they should be fired.

 

While Savard is a nearly peerless playmaker who can make passes that only a handful of other men can, I’m not convinced his loss is fatal to the playoff hopes of the Bruins. In 25 games he was a -7 and put up just 10 points. Unlike last year or the year before he did not contribute to the penalty kill, and even with him the power play wasn’t stellar. That said, as of right now the Bruins still lead the northeast division, have a great PK, and a solid record against most of the other top teams in the east. They have won their last three against Carolina, have won against Washington, have a shutout over Philly, and have beaten the Penguins, the Lightning have been grounded, and Atlanta fell apart after their last meeting with the Bruins. It is true that the powerplay will become more of an issue in the playoffs, but even there we can look forward to some growth.

Potential replacements for the center position currently filled by Zach Hamill could be either a 1st line production center, of which their are very few, and fewer still on teams that would be willing to part with them. Or they could be a third line checking center. Bergeron can fill either of the two roles, and Krejci is best suited to being the secondary scoring line role.

For either position, given the deficiencies of the team and its playing system this center should have a few qualities:

  • At least 3 trips to the playoffs.
  • a faceoff percentage over 50%
  • the ability to play on both sides of the puck
  • drive to thrive

Some possible candidates are:

  • RJ Umberger, former Flyer, current Blue Jacket has seen action in the playoffs, on two different clubs.  Plays both center and left wing. Umberger is also a big body at 220 and would give the center position much needed size.
  • Brooks Laich, will be a UFA this summer, plays the PK, blocks shots, hits and has been a 20+ goal scorer three times.
  • Vladimir Sobotka, already familiar with the Bruins system, good at faceoffs, was important for the Bruins in the playoffs last year, is fearless and will be able to stand the media attention here in Boston.
  • While the least likely prospect, if the Penguins decide to pull the plug on the season with no time table for Crosby’s return, and Malkin due back about the same time as Savard, Jordan Staal would give the Penguins cap room, and probably get them either a roster player and a probably a 1st round pick and prospect in return. With this they could address their chronic weakness on wing, and their cap crunch.
  • Patrick Sharp, is probably on the team with the most ability to pull the plug on the season and not have a huge fan backlash. While he’s slightly below 50% in faceoffs, he’s got 51 games of playoff experience, a cup ring, 26 goals, and is on pace for a career points year despite the draw down in talent around him.
  • By the trade deadline, despite my preseason pick, the LA Kings could fall out of the race. In which case both Jared Stoll and Michael Handzus might serve the team better by serving someone else for a draft pick. Both are UFA’s either this summer or next and while neither is a number one center, they could fill the third line role admirably. Both have extensive playoff experience as well.

Of them all only Handzus has a no movement clause, Staal is probably a pure pipe dream or too expensive, and that leaves Umberger as likely being the easiest to get with the highest ceiling. I’d be kinda shocked to see anyone of these guys land here, but Chiarelli did say he’d be busy this trade season so all things are possible.

Every year, on every team in any sport on the planet someone is blamed for each failure. The failure doesn’t have to be real, doesn’t have to be their fault, they just end up being blamed. Before last season, and well into early spring Bob Gainey’s named was linked to more jokes than perhaps any other GM in the NHL. With the Smurfs he’d assembled for his forwards, and the money spent on their salaries even his firmest adherents had to wonder what’s he thinking? I didn’t even expect them to make the playoffs, and then they rattled off back to back series wins against the defenseless although offensively gifted Capitals and Penguins.  With his successors offloading of Halak to clear up the goalie controversy, it’s only a matter of time before we find out if Gauthier is similarly ridiculed or at least temporarily granted the status of hockey genius.

In Chicago, Dale Tallon was questioned to the ends of the earth for his unique and singular salary cap arrangements. The BlackHawks won the Cup and most was forgiven. Just days after the bright spot in flyover country celebrated the end of its Stanley Cup drought, the fire sale began.  Over the next several weeks, roughly eighty goals and six thousand* minutes of time on ice would disappear over the trade horizon. If the BlackHawks who finished just ten points ahead of the Detroit Red Wings don’t have a strong showing, who will be fingered? Will Tallon get the blame? Will someone who’s looking at the championship season through the golden glow of never-was claim Turco is a lesser goalie Niemi? Or perhaps the Bowman family mystique will gather a little tarnish and the current GM will be blamed for not getting a better exchange for the departed Versteeg, Sopel, Byfugelien and others?

In Boston, not without a great deal of reason, Denis Wideman and Michael Ryder were the undisputed owners of the dog house. Wideman who’s season is best summed up in the video of him picking his nose, and not just his collision with slighter partner Matt Hunwick but the subsequent fall to the ice was actively booed at home. Ryder was far less spectacular in his gross failures seeming to have just as much positive impact on a given game from the bench as from the ice. Then too there is the fact he is the only person who saw the vicious and career threatening hit on Marc Savard from beginning to end, and did nothing about it. This season with with Wideman banished to hockey (and sports in general) exile in south Florida, Ryder needs to do everything he can to stave off the ire of the fans, and earn his next contract. If he puts in a concerted effort he might just avoid being the most irksome member of the organization. Claude Julien is probably the man next most likely to find himself on the outs with fans. His loyalty to players is both a gift and a curse, he undeniably wanted Ryder and Wideman to succeed last season and gave them every opportunity to do so. Yet, the refusal to sit either of them for even a period, much less a game or two in the press box provided no incentive for an admittedly thin AHL prospect group to do better, and an early benching of two long time ‘coaches guys’ might have kept the Bruins from having to dump Derek Morris.  Punishments that that are aimed at the principle and pour encourager les autres are a long, long tradition because they work.

It will be will be interesting to see who emerges as their teams scapegoat this year. Will the blame be at ice level as is likely in some cases? Will General Managers like George McFee be called on the carpet for failing to improve their teams defense, if (when) they are ripped apart in the playoffs for this very failing again? Will Rick Nash, RJ Umberger and Steve Mason get all the blame in Columbus for a team with more than seven million in cap space failing to make any noise in the playoffs? How about the situation in Nashville? They have two of the best defensemen in the NHL in Weber and Suter, and not a great deal else. Will the coach be cast from the chariot at the end of the season (or sooner) if they fail to thrive? And too, one must wonder who is to blame for the status of the Islanders new arena.

*Six thousand is roughly a quarter of the 24,600 minutes of play by skaters in each season assuming no penalties.