Neal Mchale The Hockey Writers
Wednesday Wonders: 21 Thoughts Around the NHL
Ahead of two Game 7s in the West, and just following an epic Game 6 in the East, that saw the Pittsburgh Penguins eliminate the Presidents’ Trophy-winning, Washington Capitals in six games, there’s lots to talk about in the NHL. From a draft lottery to coaching changes to the actual game on the ice, it all makes me wonder. Here are 21 thoughts. Stay with me here.
1. He’s Just a Boy
Among the narratives this playoff year has been the 21-year-old Pittsburgh netminder, Matt Murray. He’s 7-2-1 with a .935 save percentage in nine post-season starts. He’s allowed two or less goals five times. Marc-Andre Fleury appears healthy now, but how could you not stay with the kid?
If the Pens can backstop the high-powered defending Eastern Conference-champion Lightning, Murray could be a favorite for the Conn Smythe.
That’s a ways away, but the feat is not uncommon, at least not to Penguins’ general manager, Jim Rutherford. Cam Ward, then-22, backstopped Carolina to a Stanley Cup championship in 2006. He had played just 28 regular season games that season.
2. Lightning Return
The Penguins run to the finals has been highlighted by their goaltending and secondary offense and by the pure fact that it was so unexpected. They’ll try and again defy the odds versus Tampa in the Eastern Conference finals.
The reigning Eastern Conference champs have been a bit of a surprise themselves. Yes, they have Ben Bishop and Victor Hedman and the triplets. But they also were down Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman.
So far, so good. Tampa is 8-2 in the playoffs and have outscored their opponent, 30-19.
3. Jonathan Drouin
It’s been a trying season for Jonathan Drouin. No thanks to himself. But, when you struggle to find consistency in the regular season, reduced to 21 games all the while publicly vying for a ticket out of town. It takes a toll.
Drouin wasn’t traded at the Feb. 29 deadline and with the injury to Stamkos, he’s found his way back into a regular role. Playing on the second line with Alex Killorn and Valtteri Filppula, the third overall pick from 2013 has found success.
Nine points in 10 games, Drouin tied for third in team-scoring this post-season. Is his request still active? If so, Yzerman has a 21-year-old asset whose market value has never been higher.
4. Stamkos Watch Remains On
With Tampa moving on, the watch remains on for Stamkos. Originally projected to miss one to three months after having surgery to remove a blood clot near his right collarbone.
Stamkos underwent surgery on April 4, which has him at five weeks into his projected-recovery time. He’s been skating in a non-contact jersey and will need to be off blood thinners in order to play.
It goes without saying, but a potent offense without Stamkos could be incredibly dangerous if the 36-goal scorer can return at any point versus Pittsburgh.
5. While We’re Talking About Stamkos
While many are awaiting Stamkos’ return to the line up, there’s an obvious wonder if he’s played his final game for the Lightning.
A pending unrestricted free agent, Stamkos and company have been all quiet on the new contract front. He’ll be looking to cash in on a major upgrade from an already-rich $7.5-million dollar average salary.
Toronto and its fans are drooling over the prospect of landing the local boy (from Markham, Ont.) on July 1. That’s premature for now, but is it that unfathomable?
Tampa has six RFA’s to deal with at season’s end. Among them: Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov. It doesn’t get any easier next summer: Ben Bishop, Victor Hedman Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat all due for new contracts. Do the Lightning want a $9-million (or more) cap hit on their books for eight years? Is this run a sign that maybe they’re a complete enough group without him? Free agency opens in less than 1,200 hours.
6. Isles Falter
The New York Islanders weren’t interested in celebrating the silver lining following their elimination in the second round to the Lightning in five games. No one seemed to indicate the end of a 23-year playoff drought when they knocked off the Panthers in the first round was enough.
What went wrong for the Islanders? They did catch a Tampa team that was probably a lot better than any of us have given them credit. A Tampa team that rebounded to win four-straight after dropping the series-opener at home to New York 5-3.
To their credit, the Islanders battled hard. They forced both games at Barclays to overtime. Prior to then, they played parts of four OT periods with the Panthers, eventually clinching the series in six games with a John Tavares game-winner.
After scoring the most important Islander goal in 23 years, his ninth point in six games, the captain came up mostly empty in round two scoring just two points in five games and being held without a point in four-straight to finish off the 2015-16 season.
7. The Finger-Pointing
I get the sense that the Islander fan-base is starting to lose its patience with head coach Jack Capuano. While ‘Cappy’ guided the team to consecutive 100-point seasons for the first time since 1982, he’s in his sixth season with the organization and fans are beginning to wonder if he’s the long-term guy.
I suspect he’ll remain the guy in Brooklyn. I don’t even really think his leash will be tightened. Isles’ GM Garth Snow doesn’t really care what people think about him and how he conducts business. In a lot of ways, that’s a good attitude to have, in fact.
With an ownership shift coming in July perhaps there are sweeping changes that begin at the top. Is Snow safe? I’d again venture to say yes, but we’ll see. He’s done an actually OK job with the Islanders despite some forgettable moments along the way.
8. Hamonic Rescinds Trade Request
Some good news on the Travis Hamonic front, as reported by Arthur Staple of Newsday.
Hamonic went on to clarify that the health situation of a relative back home has stabilized itself and he is no longer seeking a trade to be closer to the Manitoba area. The Jets and Oilers were among those expected to show interest amidst the reports.
First of all, fantastic news for the Hamonic family. And secondly, the Isles have to be happy to cross this off a laundry list worth of off-season work that will have to be done.
It also should lessen the burden on a so-so defense. They have some puck mobility and good enough skaters, but it’s a lot of mid-pairing defensemen. Hamonic might not be a legitimate top-pairing defender, but he’s probably the most well-rounded.
9. More Summer Work
Back to that Islanders’ laundry list. Of course the ownership change could prove to be just a formality, but it could also open the door to some changes within. For now, that’s TBD.
As too is the status of the seven unrestricted and four restricted free agents that will have to be dealt with. Among the unrestricted are Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen. With 64 and 52 points respectively, they finished second and third in team scoring this season, trailing only Tavares (70). There’s also ultra-effective fourth line pest, Matt Martin.
This season the three combined for $6.5-million on the team’s payroll last year. Okposo alone will likely cost more than that come July. That probably means he will go to free agency. The Isles have to look ahead with Tavares’ contract up in 2018.
The restricted free agent side is highlighted by Casey Cizikas and Ryan Strome. They won’t break the bank, but will get decent bumps in pay. I wonder what the future will hold for Strome? The 2011 fifth overall pick by the Islanders had a disappointing campaign, scoring 28 points in 71 games. He’s a year removed from tallying 50 in 81.
10. Boudreau’s Last Gig
Remember the last time the Islanders traded a former fifth overall pick? It was 2013 when Nino Niederreiter was cut adrift by the Islanders after three seasons and just 10 games played in New York. He was dealt for Cal Clutterbuck, who has performed admirably with the Isles, but Niederreiter fresh off a career-high 43 points is looking to be a legitimate producer in the NHL. Nice add by Chuck Fletcher.
The Minnesota Wild were able to snag the best UFA coach in landing Bruce Boudreau on Saturday, less than two weeks following his dismissal from Anaheim after a fourth-consecutive game seven loss at home.
Boudreau told reporters on Tuesday that this was his final stop in coaching. He’d like to stay on as long as possible, he added, but said he told his wife this was the last place he was going.
Boudreau has produced some of the best regular season records during his tenure with Washington and Anaheim, sporting a career 409-162-80 record. This isn’t nearly as talented a group as the ones he inherited prior, but they certainly have some pieces. Can ‘Gabby push them to the next level?
11. Number Crunch
The Wild have one of the more perplexing salary caps in the NHL. Five players have cap hits of $5.6 million or greater. The same five also have no-movement clauses. If there’s expansion at the end of next season, all five must be protected, per reported expansion draft rules announced last month.
The Wild also have to deal with some important restricted free agents this summer in Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker. Followed by Niederreiter and Erik Haula next year.
Jared Spurgeon’s new four-year, $20.7-million dollar extension will also kick in next season. A $5.1 AAV. While the Wild have some good important pieces, they might find themselves in a cap crunch that could have to be addressed as early as this summer.
I’m not saying Ryan Suter and Zach Parise are in any real danger to leave Minnesota, they do have no-move clauses to control their own destiny, but can they really have two players combining for a shade over $15 million dollars for the next nine seasons?
If one is more likely than the other to leave, I’d say it would be Parise. Where? Could be a number of places. A return to N.J. might fit , but maybe that means south of Newark, where his collegiate coach at North Dakota, Dave Hakstol is.
12. What’s Next for R.J. Umberger?
Speaking of Hakstol and south Jersey, what’s going on with the Flyers this summer? Not much news has really come out, though there has been many suggesting that R.J. Umberger’s second go-around with Philly will end in a buyout. Umberger himself saying he believes that will be his fate.
After being drafted 16th overall by the Canucks in 2001, Umberger decided to forgo his senior season to turn professional. After failing to come to terms with a contract and sitting out the entire 2003-04 season, he was dealt to the New York Rangers, who also could not agree to terms. Allowing the then-22-year-old Umberger to go to free agency, where he signed with the Flyers. He played with Philly until June, 2008, when he was dealt to Columbus for a pair of draft picks.
Ultimately, he returned to Philly in the Scott Hartnell deal, a trade more about salary clearance than re-acquiring a familiar face. Umberger scored just 26 points in 106 games in his return to the black and orange. A buyout does appear imminent, but what’s next for the Pennsylvania native? Now 34, he’s a diminished player. Maybe he can find a camp invite, otherwise he may have to hang them up.
13. The Senior Club
While we’re talking about the prospect of hanging ’em up, how about Jaromir Jagr, who has signed another one-year contract with the Panthers. This one will end with Jagr aged 45.
He’s the oldest, but not the only advanced-aged (in hockey terminology) defying Father Time. Shane Doan appears to be eager to return to Arizona, that is, if the general manager, 13 years his junior, wants to bring their captain back.
Five other 36-plus guys who did the same this season:
Matt Cullen, 39, Pittsburgh-32 points in 82 games. Following up a strong regular season with an ageless performance in the post-season.
Jarome Iginla, 38, Colorado-47 points in 82 games. How is he 38? I feel like it was just yesterday when he was lighting up the league with back-to-back 90-point seasons from 2006-07 to 2007-08.
Jason Chimera, 37, Washington-40 points in 82 games. Still a decent speedster.
Pavel Datsyuk, 37, Detroit-49 points in 66 games. Have we seen the last of the ‘Magic Man’? He’s expected to make that announcement at the conclusion of the World Championships. There’s no denying, he’s been a fun player to watch.
Marian Hossa, 36, Chicago-33 points in 64 games. He signed a 12-year contract with the Blackhawks in 2009. So far, he’s worked that into three Stanley Cups and nearly $52-million in salary. His contract still has five years remaining, albeit at lesser dollars than the first seven years of the arrangement, but he’s still playing with great pride.
14. The Old Shark
Purposely left off that list was 36-year-old Joe Thornton, because he and the Sharks warrant their own discussion. Ahead of Thursday’s game seven at home versus Nashville, the longtime NHL-er with nearly 1,400 games and a massive beard to his name, is having a tremendous run with San Jose.
A year removed from the drama that unfolded in San Jose, Thornton and the Sharks are back in the playoffs and making some noise about it too. They knocked off inner-state rival, Los Angeles in five games to silence the ghosts of the 2014, 3-0 series lead blown to the eventual-cup champs. They have a new coach in Pete DeBoer and a new leader in Joe Pavelski. And that seems quite fine for Thornton.
All Thornton did this season was score 80-plus points for the first time since 2010, nearly reach the 20-goal mark (19) and led by example to a group of seasoned veterans and some newcomers, like Joonas Donskoi, Chris Tierney and William Karlsson.
If this is the year the Sharks finally do it, Thornton won’t be the first to touch the cup but he might get the loudest ovation when he is second in line to do so.
15. Patrick Marleau
Let’s also not forget about Patrick Marleau. He’s 35 and looking like another guy who is repeatedly flipping off Father Time. Forty-eight points in 82 games, seven in 11 post-season games. He’s continued to be an ultra-important part of the Sharks’ offensive attack.
This, comes despite the fact that he reportedly asked for a trade in November. Ultimately, it never materialized into anything and Marleau is likely thrilled about that.
16. Coaching Carousel
Back to the always-revolving coaching door. There’s currently two vacancy in the NHL: Anaheim and Calgary.
Both have reportedly interviewed former Wild head coach, Mike Yeo. Former Maple Leafs’ head coach also interviewed for the vacancy in Calgary. No surprise given the connection to team president Brian Burke.
One team that’s somewhat in limbo, though: the Kings.
Darryl Sutter hasn’t signed an extension to return has head coach yet, opting to wait it out and see what the Kings may look like as the early off-season progresses. That likely means he’ll be looking at making a final decision sometime after or shortly before free agency.
I’m sure there are lots of moving parts for this to all come together, but I recall his brother Brent leaving the Devils in June, 2008, eventually coming on as the head coach in Calgary, where Darryl at the time was the team’s GM. He resigned from that job in 2010. I wonder if he’d consider a return back. He has the obvious organizational familiarity and his ‘jam’ approach would certainly please Burke.
17. Coaching Carousel, part II
Guy Boucher was the guy all along, Sens’ GM Pierre Dorion told reporters on Monday. Some have cited Boucher’s hiring versus Boudreau as more Eugene Melnyk penny-pinching. Ultimately, I think Boucher is a better fit for the Sens regardless. This is a team in a transition with young players, Boucher did a pretty good job with a young Teddy Purcell and Stamkos in Tampa, among others. Now he’ll turn his attention to Mark Stone (23), Mike Hoffman (25) and Cocy Ceci (21), along with some other youth that makes up much of Ottawa’s core.
Anaheim has the most daunting task. To replace a coach that in most other circumstances would not have been let go. This is a win-now Ducks core and the decision is vastly important in this team being able to reach that next level.
18. Seventh Heaven
Hope you’re still with me. We have two game seven’s in 48 hours. It can’t get much better than that. St. Louis at Dallas on Wednesday; Nashville at San Jose on Thursday.
If I was a betting man, I’d say Blues vs. Sharks in the Western Finals. But, my gut is telling me it might be the other way entirely. I guess that’s the joy of game seven. Unpredictability.
Dallas looked terrible in game six. St. Louis out-attempted them 75-25 in the game. Dallas managed a 3-0 lead after the 20 minutes, but had just seven shots on goal in the next 40. Kari Lehtonen, who had been pulled in back-to-back games in the series, has done almost all you could ask out of a defense that has been easily the most concerning in the playoffs. No question they have an arsenal of scoring, but that defense is questionable to say the least.
19. Seventh Heaven, part II
From the playoff’s worst defense to its best and the Nashville Predators. They boast an insanely deep defense. The team’s top pairing of Roman Josi and Shea Weber combined for 112 points this season and 16 points in 13 playoff games.
It doesn’t just end with them, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis are a solid second defensive unit. Anchoring the Preds has been 25-year-old Anthony Bitetto paired with 34-year-old Barret Jackman. Even versus a defense with Brent Burns, the Preds have a slight advantage on the back end.
Pekka Rinne too deserves some credit. After a rather mediocre regular season, he’s come up large (larger than his frame) for Nashville this series. He struggled in game six, allowing three goals on 18 shots, but his team bailed him out forcing the tie and winning in OT.
It’s not like he hasn’t bailed them out this playoff year, too. He made 44 saves in the Preds’ 4-3 triple-OT thriller last week.
Nashville’s offense has actually been better than most thought it would be this post-season, but they probably can’t win unless Rinne is all-world in game seven. Luckily, he was versus Anaheim.
20. Caps Sadness
Plenty will be written in the coming days about the Washington Capitals, who again were ousted in the second round. 120-point season for naught. The disappointment in Alex Ovechkin’s face was tough to watch. The second time in as many seasons that his season was ended in overtime. The Caps made some changes to their roster and got an unbelievable performance out of Braden Holtby, who should cruise to his first Vezina trophy. Head coach Barry Trotz, also a likely winner of an NHL award, for coach of the year, did an incredible job, yet again.
What’s next for the Caps? Likely some names will be gone. A good locker room guy like Chimera is probably on his way out. He’s coming off a 40 point season, but he’s unlikely to have his contract renewed.
Just spit-balling some names that could be available for Washington on the open market:
Radim Vrbata, 34-Vancouver. He struggled producing and with injuries this season. But he’s just a year removed from scoring 31 and 63 points.
Teddy Purcell, 30-Edmonton/Florida. Purcell, who was dealt to the Panthers just before the deadline, scored 43 points in 76 games. He could offer some options to the Caps’ top-nine.
David Perron, 27-Pittsburgh/Anaheim. Hard to imagine the Ducks don’t find a way to keep Perron around. They traded Carl Hagelin for him in January and it’s been a good swap for both sides. Perron had some injury problems this season, but he’s definitely worth consideration if he’s available.
21. The Golden Ticket
In a final discussion, I’ll quickly touch upon the Toronto Maple Leafs, who finally had something go their way. I spend time each week listening to TSN 1050 in Toronto. There, the 4p.m. to 7p.m. Overdrive crew of ex-NHL-er’s Jeff O’Neill and Jamie McLennan join radio guy, Bryan Hayes. In my time listening to their program, which used to be on during the 12p.m. hour as ‘Leafs Lunch,’ I’ve developed a bit of a soft spot for the Maple Leafs, the epicenter of the hockey world who never seemed to win when it counted, or lose for that matter.
But that all changed on April 30, with the announcement that Toronto had finally won something. The gold ticket (which wasn’t even gold this time around), awarding them the first overall pick at the NHL Entry Draft–likely, American center, Auston Matthews.
It’ll be the first time the Leafs have picked first since 1985 when they selected Wendel Clark. It’s the first time Lou Lamoriello will select first overall as a general manager. With New Jersey, he picked 5th once (1989, Bill Guerin), 4th once (2011, Adam Larsson), 3rd once (1991, Scott Niedermayer) and 2nd once (1987, Brendan Shanahan). The latter of which is now Lamoriello’s boss in Toronto.
Thanks for staying with me on this.
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