Wednesday night the NHL playoffs will open. This year there will be five Canadian teams ready to dance when the puck drops, two California teams, and only one Original Six matchup.

The Montreal Canadiens vs The New York Rangers

Unlike last year the Canadiens have a playoff berth. Also unlike last year they now have Shea Weber, Carey PriceAlex Radulov, Andrew Shaw and a cup winning coach behind the bench in the person of Claude Julien, The edge in this series is going to belong to which ever team can force the other to play their game. The Canadiens allowed fewer goals, the Rangers scored more. The Rangers aren’t far removed from a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, but no one is talking about them. The Rangers head into the playoffs remarkably healthy with no major players on the injury report. The Canadiens have the best pairing of top end number one defenseman and top flight goalie, and no one is talking about them either.

For the Canadiens it is really simple: Can Gallagher, Galchenyuk, and Radulov play in the Rangers end and score?

For the Rangers it is equally simple: Can they shore up the aging and infirm Lundqvist?

Biggest Strength

  • Canadiens: Goaltending
  • Rangers: depth of scoring

Biggest Weakness

  • Canadiens: goal scoring
  • Rangers: coaching

 

Minnesota Wild vs Saint Louis Blues

This series will get written off by many as “low key” and “boring”, don’t believe it for a minute. Both teams are happy to have avoided the Blackhawks in the first round, and the two central division rivals have been going at it since the Twin Cities reentered the NHL.. Special teams could be where this series is decided. The Blues and Wild each finished the season at over 21% on the powerplay. Expect a good amount of physicality. Vlad Sobotka has returned to the NHL in time to play for the Blues, Charlie Coyle and Nino Neiderietter will be there to deliver hit for hit.

In pure stats, the Wild have a marked advantage on both sides of the puck. That may well be offset by the invigoration former Wild coach Yeo has brought to the Blues who had a strong run to the end of the season.

Biggest Strength

  • Wild: balance
  • Blues: momentum

Biggest Weakness

  • Wild: Iffy and arguably overplayed Dubnyk in the last six weeks of the season.
  • Blues: Scoring depth

 

Edmonton Oilers vs San Jose Sharks

This series can be subtitled A Tale of Two Cities, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times. The Oilers charged hard and climbed into a home ice advantage in the first round. The Sharks were grabbed by the undertow and yanked from a nine point lead in the division to making people doubt they’d see the second season with their skates on. The Sharks are built around an aging core, the Oilers are a team for whom the oldest members of the core are in their early twenties at the latest. The Oilers haven’t been in the playoffs in a very long time, and the Sharks were within reach of getting their names on the Cup last year.

For the Sharks to move on they have to find scoring. Their bottom six, their defense not named Burns will all need to pitch in.

For the Oilers, they will need to expand their core and learn how to play in the playoffs from the guys who have gone deep.

Biggest Strength

  • Oilers: Offense
  • Sharks: Experience

Biggest Weakness

  • Oilers: Penalty Kill
  • Sharks: Depth

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Columbus BlueJackets

This might just be the best, hardest fought series in the first round series this year. The Pittsburgh Penguins have to be considered the Columbus BlueJackets biggest rivals at this point, and I don’t think the Penguins like the Jackets very much either. It goes beyond Dubinsky versus Crosby. It’s going to be Bobrovski versus Murray, Seth Jones against Phil Kessel, Jack Johnson against Bryan Rust. This series will get personal, and will feature some of the best play in the NHL playoffs.

This is likely the the most evenly matched series in the east. The Penguins are better offensively, the Jackets defensively.

Biggest Strengths

  • Jackets: Defense and goaltending
  • Penguins: Offense

Biggest Weakness

  • Jackets: Inconsistency.
  • Penguins: Dinged up defense

 

Anaheim Ducks vs Calgary Flames

The Ducks and Flames both played strong at the end of the year. The Flames are highlighted by the dynamic Sean Monahan, Mark Giordano on the backend, and Johnny Gaudreau the Boston College alumni. The Flames are a pretty balanced team, they aren’t very good or very bad at anything. The Ducks team needs to find some offense from their best players. The Flames need to be consistent sixty minutes a game. This is likely to be the lowest scoring series in the first round.

Biggest Strength

  • Ducks: John Gibson
  • Flames: Balance

Biggest Weakness

  • Ducks: Scoring
  • Flames: Netminding

Don’t forget to listen to this weeks Two Man ForeCheck and look for part two around noon eastern on Wednesday for the rest of the previews and some predictions for the first round.

Earlier today we learned a little bit more about the NHL’s Department of Player Safety and their modus operandi. They handed Brad Marchand a two game suspension for his blatant spearing incident. We have to ask a couple key questions, and then look at the sum of them.

Number one:

What does it mean for the Bruins?

Number two:

What does it mean for Brad Marchand

Number three:

How is this consistent for the NHL?

 

For the Boston Bruins it largely means that they got an enormous emotional boost in a game where they were flat, listless and maybe even disinterested before the incident. From the start of the penalty to the end of the game they played forty of the best minutes in a while. The five minute kill was spirited, deft, and smart. The team clearly wanted to win both for Marchand, and for themselves. When he comes back he’ll be rested and that’s always a good thing. There’s little to no chance of him being injured in the last two mostly meaningless games. The only thing they need to do is avoid the Capitals in the first round. Beyond that, there’s not much difference in their chances of success with or without home ice advantage, against the Toronto Maple Leafs, or the Ottawa Senators. What they’ll also get a look at one or two prospects, and returning injured players.

For Marchand it means the next time he’s punted from the lineup it is likely to be six to eight games. It also means he might get run a couple times in his next Tampa Bay Lightning. As above, it means he has two nights off to get rested, work on his stick handling and decompress. He may even have time to figure out a way to keep a leash on his temper. It also means he will have to wait until next year or later to join the forty goal club.

The NHL had two options with this situation. Go big, or do nothing. Marchand is a repeat offender. It was egregious. It was something Marchand didn’t even deny. The NHL chose to go small. They could have gone for two regular season and two playoff games. They could have done nothing and pronounced the game misconduct and five minute major sufficient, particularly since Dotchin was able to continue the game.

What’s worse is that the league once more enunciated to the furthest corners of the galaxy that there are two sets of rules in the NHL. One for most of the NHL. One set for Sidney Crosby. Of the two incidents Crosby’s is clearly worse to any objective observer. When Marchand committed his infraction he was engaged in a clear, close, and physical battle. He was crosschecked high on the back, and arguably on the base of the neck. Crosby was a full stick length away. He had to go out of his way to reach out with his arms and stick fully extended for his amateur attempt at sexual reassignment of Ryan O’Reilly.

Where is the censure here? No penalty was called. No league call. No fine. No suspension. It’s clear Sidney Crosby did a better job neutering the front office of the NHL than he did Ryan O’Reilly. The NHL Wheel Of Justice Spins on.

Don’t forget to check out this week’s Two Man ForeCheck

I finally return to my favorite feature column.

If I told you in September that

Teams:

  • on 2/12 there would be three teams in playoff spots, including the Canadiens, Senators, and Leafs with the Calgary Flames knocking on the door
  • the best penalty kill in the NHL would belong to the Carolina Hurricanes.
  • the Montreal Canadiens would be 2nd in times shorthanded, with 197 times through 57 games
  • the Dallas Stars would not only have a worse powerplay than the Boston Bruins but be in the bottom third of the league
  • the Columbus Blue Jackets would be the only team in February with zero shorthanded goals allowed.
  • three of the top five NHL teams in five on five goals for would be outside the the playoffs
  • nearly one quarter of the teams holding a playoff spot including the Saint Louis Blues, Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators would have an even or negative goal differential.

Players

  • Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators would be tied for second in blocked shots per game.
  • Brayden Schenn would lead the NHL in powerplay goals
  • that Sidney Crosby would tied for 86th in powerplay assists
  • Jeff Carter would lead his team and the NHL in game winning goals, including one third of the tallies for the Kings
  • three of the top five rookies in the NHL in scoring would all play on one team: Mitchell Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander
  • Peter Budaj would have his best career save percentage, the Kings in a playoff position, 26 wins, and the lead in shutouts.
  • two goalies would hold 30 win seasons, Devan Dubnyk and Sergei Bobrovsky, in less than 45 games played and also both be in the top 5 in total saves.

 

If I told you any of this in September would you have believed me?

Look for the next episode of Two Man Forecheck soon!

We’ll talk: Mike Illitch and his legacy, Claude Julien, expansion, the New York Islanders and more. Give my co-host @TheOffWing a follow and catch up on what he’s writing at TheOffWing.com .

The Pittsburgh Penguins have gotten off to a great start this season. They lead the Metropolitan Division with a game in hand. They are the only team in their division with a double digit goal differential. No one has a better or even a comparable powerplay, and their goaltender is having a career year. Sidney Crosby is producing at a rate he never has before, and he, Hornqvist and Malkin are all producing half or more of their points on the powerplay.

That’s the problem. Most of this is completely unsustainable. The Penguins powerplay is rocking along at 35.6%. Going back all the way to the 2005-06 season, the best a powerplay has finished is 26.8%. That’s 9% below what the team is rolling along at, and still well above the 21-22% the top powerplays have finished at in the last decade. When you consider that they are 13th in 5 on 5 scoring, you have to wonder how hard the fall will be.

Marc-Andre Fleury is saving a noticeably higher number of pucks than is normal for him. A career .911% save percentage with over 500 games played and no full season higher than .918, means people shouldn’t fall in love with his current .924. Through 12 games played he is also facing more shots per game than anytime in the last five years.

While there are lots of reasons for the decline, the Pittsburgh Penguins are near the top of the league in scoring in the first and second periods, and twentieth in third.  In the third period they’ve also allowed more goals than in any other period, 30% more goals than in either the first or second period. Is it conditioning? Is it desperation by the other team? Or are the Penguins just getting caught playing passively and running out the clock as happens to many teams?

Unsustainable powerplay, high reliance upon it for scoring, weak 3rd period, a goaltender fighting above his weight class all on one team add up to a team that will slide backwards at some point soon.

For the second year in a row, the Metropolitan is the weakest division in hockey and it isn’t even close. Some teams are better than last year, others are worse, and anyone who tells you what the others will do is just a bit out of their mind.

Top shelf:

New York Rangers

The Rangers are a safe bet for the playoffs and likely for the division title as well. Lundqvist will be entering the season with a quality backup, and most of the key players in front of him healthy. Despite an injury to top center Stepan that will keep him until around Halloween, the Rangers have otherwise good health up and down the lineup, McDonaugh, Staal, Girardi on the backend, St. Louis, Nash, Brassard and Hagelin up front will do the heavy lifting for the team again.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Like the Rangers, the Blue Jackets have a high quality goalie, this one who just happens to be in a contract year. They also have an underrated defense group. Jack Johnson, Ryan Murphy, James Wisniewski and the rest will contribute at both ends of the ice. The forward group is unheralded as well, Brandon Dubinsky rarely gets the recognition he deserves, Scott Hartnell is a legitimate scoring threat who should be entering the season with something to prove. If Johansen can be signed, and retained, and Horton can have a healthy season, this team is going to be more than a handful.

Wild Cards

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins have a lot of chaos factors to contend with this year. A new coach is one. Their putative number one goaltender is on an expiring contract and unlike Crosby, Malkin, and Letang was not extended early. They lost two of their top four defensemen from last year. Matt Niskanen was their top points producer and Brooks Orpik led the team in short handed time on ice. To replace them they brought in Christian Ehrhoff. Aside from the top 3-4 names, it would be hard for an observer to guess where the rest of the forward group sits as most of them look a lot like bottom line players.

New York Islanders

The Islanders actually made some smart moves this summer. They picked up and locked up Grabovski giving them a compelling one two punch at center. Their defense is a whole lot of young and learning with Visnovsky and Carkner for contrast. On the backend they have two goalies new to the system, the up, then down, then sideways Jaroslav Halak and the surprising Chad Johnson. I will be equally unsurprised if this team is in the playoffs, or in the bottom five in the league.

Washington Capitals

The Capitals are the east coast equivalent of the San Jose Sharks. On paper they’ve had the talent to win the Cup at lest once in the last decade, on ice, not so much. They too have a new coach, and possibly more importantly they have a coach who recognizes what he’s dealing with. Barry Trotz did what was probably the smartest thing a Capitals coach has done in several years and put Ovechkin back on left wing where he is most comfortable and had several pretty good seasons. The defense could shake out into pairings of Carlson-Greene, Niskanen-Orpik, and Alzner-Erskine, which as top six defense units go, is better than many can boast.

The Rest

Philadelphia Flyers

Even allowing for the Pronger/Timonen money once the season starts and he can be placed on LTIR, the Flyers are still in cap trouble. The roster genuinely looks like the team is trying to tank but just doesn’t know how. Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, and Jacob Voracek are all top end players, the rest of the forward group and much of the rest of the roster feels like the punchline to an inside joke that you’re not quite inside enough for. That said, this is largely the group that managed to make the playoffs last year.

New Jersey Devils

On the plus side the added Mike Cammalleri and finally admitted who their number one goaltender is. On the other side of the balance they added Martin Havlat who is generally good for one bizarre injury and twenty or more man games lost. The defense is rather bland, no one makes over Zajac’s $5.75m and yet they are still only three million from the cap, all without their seeming to have found a backup goalie.

Carolina Hurricanes

The season will kickoff on a sour note with Jordan Staal down-checked for an unknown amount of time with a broken leg. Even assuming Jordan Staal and he rest of the top six forwards were healthy and productive all season, Caniacs were still in for a long slog. The teams defense has high water marks that are merely average followed up by players who are at historical drought levels of talent. It would not be a surprise to see this team draft in the top three next June. The only real hope in season for this team is for the coach with the enthusiastic backing of management to go with whichever goalie is playing better and not with the one they’ve been trying to pass off a a franchise goalie for half a decade.

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?

It seems every other blog post at the start of the season, the run up to the trade deadline, and again around free agency is deploring the plight of some franchise who is being strangled by the cap ceiling. Without even looking you can imagine all the articles on who the Chicago Blackhawks could have gotten if only they didn’t have “cap trouble”. You could probably while a away the entire off-season reading the articles decrying how cap trouble is depriving the Pittsburgh Penguins of the ability to (finally) find the right wingers to propel Sidney Crosby to his clearly fated 250 point season. You have a better chance of driving four consecutive Boston rush hours without seeing a moving violation than you do of not finding on average one post per site detailing how awful it is that the Bruins are being handcuffed by this contract or that and it being the cause of all their cap trouble.

You could rinse and repeat for all the other top ten teams to the salary cap. And that’s exactly what you should do. Wash your mouth out with soap and keep doing so every time you use the cop out of cap trouble to describe where a team stands or its current woes. Cap Trouble doesn’t exist. Management trouble is what you are talking about. Every front office in the league is working under the same ceiling.

How do teams get into this mythical place? Poor decisions by its leadership. In some cases players selected by a previous regime are still in place and those contracts are an anchor. The current CBA addresses that as well, in addition to the traditional buyouts teams were granted two get out of jail free cards handily labelled compliance buyouts that are perfect for jettisoning dead weight. Barring ownership interference, there’s not really any excuse for any General Manager or President to have a single contract they don’t want on their roster if they’ve been in their position more than four years.

Some of the sub-prime choices come as part and parcel of an inability to draft and develop talent. Here’s a hint; if your fanbase can’t identify three players drafted, developed and promoted to a spot in the roster where they succeed for each five years you’re in office, you probably are doing a poor job with at least one of the drafting or developing. Three should be regarded as minimum figure, especially if your team was bad in the early years of your tenure.

If you’re drafting and or developing poorly, you’re paying for it elsewhere. You’re either holding on to players past their usefulness, overpaying pending free agents to retain them or throwing cash at the free agent market like Mardi Gras beads. One of the cash equivalents that most just don’t pay enough attention to is the quantity of no trade and no movement clauses. If cash, readily replaceable is the equivalent of Mardi Gras beads, NTC’s and NMC’s are like diamond engagement rings, or maybe having a kid together. When more than a quarter of your roster has them you’re probably doing something wrong. If you get to one third or one half your roster, dust off an update your resume and remember where the file is, you’re gonna need it.

Another management failure that leads to misspending is undervaluing a player who fits right and then having to replace them because they refused to play at a Wal-Mart wage. Are some of those players overvaluing themselves? Absolutely, and those should be parted with, via trade if possible. But most, can be gotten back into the fold for about the fair market value for their talent. Free agents that you have to bid against the free market on the other hand almost always cost more than whoever they are replacing. Likewise, when you have to trade from a position of weakness to address a hole in your roster you will overpay unless you’re dealing with someone completely unimpeded by clue.

One last time: There is no such thing as cap trouble, there is only management trouble which influences the whole organization and how it spends money. If you think this post was written specifically about your own team, well, they probably were considered. But no, this is one of those trends in the NHL that reminds me of cars sliding uncontrollably across an icy surface at each other, it rarely ends pretty or with lots of smiles.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been the most disappointing team in the NHL every year since they won the cup in the entire eastern conference. The Sharks arguably are worse, but then San Jose never actually won offering up the proof that they could, the Penguins did. Why is the new broom needed?

The problem isn’t lack of talent. Whatever else can be said of Crosby, Letang, and Fleury, they have not covered themselves with glory in the playoffs. When they did win the cup, Malkin was the Conn-Smyth winner, Fleury allowed more goals than any other goaltender in that post season. Crosby now has seventeen post season games with just one goal. In this years post season he generated zero points in six games. Letang was scoreless in ten games. In his case, he is coming back from a stroke and a lot of time off, but since being drafted he’s only crossed 75 games in one regular season. Whatever good Letang may do a team offensively, and that’s undeniable, defensively he leaves room for notable improvement.

If anyone needs explained to them why Marc-Andre Fleury needs to be ousted from the Pittsburgh crease, I really can’t help you. He’s a living blooper reel of post season gaffes. His ability to track the puck in pressure situations in almost non-existent. This years .915 sv% is by far his highest in five post seasons, last year he lost the starting job to a man who hadn’t played in the playoffs in about a decade.

Dan Bylsma has failed to keep this team focused in the playoffs every year since his first full season. Five playoff runs, all ending with him looking befuddled on his way to the handshake line after no visible attempts to camp the troubled waters on his bench in the previous several games. The last two years they’ve gotten through their first rounds not because they deserved to win based on the way they played, but because neither the Islanders nor Blue Jackets possessed any measure of playoff experience. This year with America’s best hockey players on his roster for the Olympics he did nothing. The team failed to medal because he is a one trick pony; put the two best offensive players together and pray. That’s it.

Ray Shero has been hunting a white whale for years. Year in, year out he goes out and looks for “someone to play with Crosby”, he brings someone in, they don’t gel, and that person gets shuffled to Malkin’s line where they normally produce at least at the level they did before arriving there. But the subtext to what Shero has done the past half decade is even more alarming when you realize who most of the players brought in were. Last year it was Jarome Iginla and Brendan Morrow, both former team captains, in the past almost everyone brought in has worn a letter. Why? Whether he is willing to admit it or not, some part of him recognized the lack of leadership at ice level. And yet, he kept doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

For Pittsburgh to improve the changes need to be wholesale; Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma need to be given their walking papers. Sidney Crosby and at least one of Marc-Andre Fleury or Kris Letang need to go as well. Without changing the supposed leadership, and the actual faces of the team you can’t change its direction, mental composition or yearly fate.

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.