Murray puts his stamp on Sabres rebuild with active deadline

Murray puts his stamp on Sabres rebuild with active deadline

Murray puts his stamp on Sabres rebuild with active deadline

It may have taken a late flurry, but Tim Murray put his stamp on the organization with a firm, aggressive series of trades around the 2014 trade deadline.

He got started early by sending Ryan Miller and Steve Ott to St. Louis on Friday and threw his hat in the ring with one of the earlier trades on Wednesday. Murray shipped Brayden McNabb, two second round picks and Jonathan Parker to Los Angeles for Hudson Fasching and Nicolas Deslauriers.

Murray’s punctuated his first deadline with two 11th hour deals involving three of this pending UFAs that ensured previous investments would continue to pay dividends. After finding a dance partner to take Matt Moulson (and Cody McCormick), Murray managed to flip Jaroslav Halak for a younger goaltender with term.

It was a productive deadline that provides the framework for the way Murray will shape the roster through the 2014 and 15 drafts. Two drafts that will see the Sabres make four (possibly five) first round selections.

Buffalo holds additional picks throughout the 2014 and 2015 second round and despite shipping two of them to Los Angeles along with McNabb, Murray came out even after pulling two second round picks in exchange for Moulson. I thought he put it well when he said the team was helped more by the two forwards acquired from LA.

While returning the two picks obtained for Robyn Regehr leaves Buffalo with nothing from that trade, the original acquisition that brought Regehr to Buffalo sees the Sabres come away with Fasching, Deslauriers and the draft pick that became Jake McCabe in exchange for Paul Byron, Chris Butler and Brayden McNabb. All-in-all it’s not the worst return ever.

The best return of the trade is seeing the Sabres manage to flip a position of strength for depth elsewhere. McNabb had been passed on the organizational depth chart by a number of younger talents and although he was still performing at a high level, he was an expendable talent. With Mark Pysyk, Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov and Jake McCabe all in the pipeline, the Sabres aren’t short on defensive prospects. Meanwhile, Fasching is already showing the ability to produce at a high level and Deslauriers provides additional size and depth down the wing.

Deslauriers also brings immediate help to Rochester as Murray is keeping his young, talented prospects away from the nosediving NHL franchise he is no presiding over. It’s the same strategy employed by Ottawa during his time there as the Senators kept their top prospects stashed on a talented Binghampton roster as opposed to a losing atmosphere as the parent club retooled.

Joining Deslauriers, for now, will be Rusty Klesla, an interesting addition to the Halak/Neuvirth swap from the Capitals. Klesla was once a talented, highly sought after blueliner but is a shell of the player who gained prominence in Columbus. Klesla will add even more stability to a very talented Rochester blueline and could certainly see some time in Buffalo as the season winds down.

The Neuvirth trade is all about upside and maximizing return. Trading Miller and Ott was an inevitability. By flipping Halak for two more bodies sees the Miller trade net Buffalo six assets in total as Neuvirth still has term on his deal. Neuvirth will step in as Jhonas Enroth’s backup but he’s certainly going to push for time. There was a period in which Neuvirth appeared to be ready to take over the crease in Washington before a regression saw him passed by Braden Holtby and Phillipp Grubauer.

Neuvirth’s a cheap backup who allows the Sabres to keep Matt Hackett and Nathan Lieuwen in Rochester without having to throw them to the fire that will be the rubber factory that is the Sabres defensive zone. If Ted Nolan and Jim Corsi can reshape Neuvirth he very well may earn a new deal come next summer. Worst case scenario is that he serves as a stop-gap into the 2015 offseason.

Giving up a third round pick along with Halak to swing the deal seems like an overpayment, but at some point the picks need to turn into players. If Neuvirth has to be that pick then so be it. Once again, it’s all about maximizing the return moving forward.

The last trade might be the most interesting as the market that shaped out over the course of the day significantly altered the expected return for many players who were on the block. Although Moulson wasn’t turned into another first round pick like what was originally spitballed when he was first acquired; the return washed out the loss of the picks sent to Los Angeles. Additionally, Torrey Mitchell is a far more serviceable bottom six forward – as if they needed any more – than what Cody McCormick was. That’s particularly true with John Scott and Zenon Konopka both on the roster.

Mitchell could easily fill a role on one of Buffalo’s top three lines but he might end up on the fourth line since Drew Stafford and Chris Stewart will each contend for top-six time while Matt D’Agostini and Brian Flynn both have earned their respective roles. Newly claimed Cory Conacher will get a look at top-six minutes in Moulson’s role and should get every opportunity to reclaim the potential he showcased in Norfolk and Tampa Bay.

It’s hard to proclaim the Sabres winners at the deadline simply because they’re in 30th place and there’s obviously no intention of changing that. However, Murray has positioned himself very well with four guaranteed first round picks and five more guaranteed second round picks in the next two drafts. He added two forwards, one of which is two years into his development, and another who’s showed tremendous growth since his draft.

Murray did his duty in moving five pending UFAs and flipping depth for an organizational need. It’s not a deadline that was going to produce immediate returns. The draft will not only yield an organizational cornerstone and serve as a springboard for additional trades. I give Murray full marks for the moves he made on Wednesday and for what he is set to do in the next 18 months.

Trade Deadline Recap: Winners and Losers

It’s safe to say the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline was an entertaining one. A flurry of late deals saw a significant number of big names change teams as contenders stockpile for the stretch run as the sellers fill their cupboards with picks and prospects for the future.

The toughest thing about declaring winners and losers at a trade deadline, draft or in free agency is that there are so many levels on which a deal can be judged. The New York Rangers are a better team today with Martin St. Louis, but the Tampa Bay Lightning will likely be the true winners of the deal as they picked up at least one first round pick that could become two.

Now, if the Rangers were to win the Cup the point would be moot. The Rangers would have accomplished what they set out to do by making this trade. That’s what is so fascinating about the deadline. You have winners and losers once the dust settles, but six months later the tables are turned and those losers are suddenly reaping the benefits of the trade they made at the previous deadline.

This year’s deadline produced a number of big trades and a handful of teams distinguished themselves when all was said and done on Wednesday.

Winners

Montreal Canadiens – The Habs needed to find additional scoring to bolster their top-six heading into the stretch run. If they hoped to compete with teams like Boston and Pittsburgh, additional offense was going to be key. They added a major piece for a low price, acquiring Thomas Vanek from the Islanders for just a second round pick and a prospect. It was not only a trade that addressed Montreal’s immediate need with the most coveted player on the trade block. Paying the minimal price they did to the Islanders makes this that much more of a great move.

St. Louis Blues – The Blues only made one trade, but it was a big one. They acquired Ryan Miller, who is expected to put them over the top in net along with some added grit and character in Steve Ott. They paid quite a bit for the pair, sending the Sabres a handful of pieces that included picks and players. However, the Blues unloaded Chris Stewart who never quite found his game in St. Louis and Jaroslav Halak, a goalie who didn’t pan out the way they expected when he was signed as a free agent. This trade should give the Blues the final pieces to make a serious push for the Cup, now they just need to find their way out of the ultra-talented Western Conference.

Buffalo Sabres – The Sabres are winners simply because of the way Tim Murray stocked his cupboards for the future. He unloaded five unrestricted free agents for players with term on their contracts and additional picks and prospects. The Sabres hold four first round picks in the next two drafts and that has the potential to grow to five if the Blues make the Conference Finals or re-sign Miller prior to the draft (a condition in the Miller trade). Buffalo is well positioned for a high pick in the 2014 draft and they hold two picks in what’s expected to be a deep draft in 2015. While they’re lurking near the bottom of the league today, these moves set them up well for the future.

Tampa Bay Lightning – Good on Steve Yzerman for unloading a headache and getting an impressive return for him. Clearly Martin St. Louis didn’t want to remain in Tampa and Yzerman was able to snag a first and second round pick with a trick set of conditions that could see another first round pick added to the stockpile. Ryan Callahan is a nice addition but I’d be very surprised if he chooses to re-sign in Tampa. The one thing the Bolts missed on was replacing some of St. Louis’ scoring with another addition. That could serve as a challenge for the rest of this season.

Minnesota Wild – Much in the way Montreal addressed their needs by paying a relatively low price, Minnesota did the same. Giving up two second round picks for Matt Moulson and only a fourth to bolster their goaltending depth with Ilya Bryzgalov was a nice way to manage the deadline for Chuck Fletcher. Byrzgalov represents a slight gamble compared to some of the other goaltenders on the market, but it was such a low price that he managed to avoid overpaying for a rental in net.

Losers

New York Islanders – This is an easy one. Garth Snow waited until the 11th hour to move Thomas Vanek and didn’t wind up with the value many expected him to fetch. In fact, he didn’t even get the same value he paid for the sniper. In the end, he turned Matt Moulson, a conditional (2014 or 2015) first round pick and a 2015 second round pick into a 2014 second round pick and Sebastian Collberg. Not a good end to the trade season for Snow and the Islanders.

Vancouver Canucks – Mike Gillis keeps finding new and interesting ways to surprise the hockey world. After blinking first at last year’s draft, he traded Cory Schneider for a first round pick in hopes of ending his team’s goaltending circus once and for all. Less than a year later Roberto Luongo is out the door for a relatively minimal return from the Florida Panthers. It’s an ugly situation in Vancouver that’s bound to get worse as they’ve gone from Western Conference contender to a team in retooling mode overnight.

Colorado Avalanche – They’re a borderline addition to this end of the list as they could have easily stood pat and moved forward with the team they have built. However, they decided to ship a second round pick to Calgary for Reto Berra, a goaltender who has upside but clearly hasn’t settled into the NHL game just yet. It’s a steep price to pay for a backup goaltender when other positions could have provided the Avs a bigger impact this season.

CCM going back to Tacks

CCM going back to Tacks

CCM going back to Tacks

The return is coming. CCM will be reintroducing the world to the Tacks line in the coming months as the manufacturer brings a new skate line to complement the RBZ line that burst onto the scene last year.

Already being used in the NHL, Nathan MacKinnon made the unofficial news official when he posted a picture of his new skates to his Instagram account earlier in the season. While MacKinnon’s picture simply added fuel to an already burning fire of rumors and whispers about the skates, the official unveiling of the line won’t come until July ‘14.

The Tacks, on the surface look like a combination of the RBZ and Bauer TotalOne in the aesthetics department. It’s a sleek skate with bright yellow graphics that pop off a basic black boot. The design of the boot has plenty of surface similarities to it’s cousin, the RBZ. Adding in a Speedblade 4.0 holder and Hyperglide blade provides even more similarity between the two skates. Additionally, you can deduce that the Tacks will share the aggressive stance and turning radius that the RBZ boasts.

The comparison to the TotalOne is simply drawn from the yellow trim on a black base. However, the Tacks will utilize a stiff carbon boot construction designed to add straight-line explosiveness. Two features, the AttackFrame and T6 Pro Core will combine to add stiffness and high-end performance for the wearer specifically for explosive acceleration.

Exactly where the skates will fall on the fit scale is an unknown as many specific details about the new line are still under lockdown. Understandably so as CCM is bringing back perhaps the most storied and celebrated skate ever and introducing new technology that will put it on the same level as the most popular skates in stores today.

2014 NHL Trade Deadline Primer

2014 NHL Trade Deadline Primer

2014 NHL Trade Deadline Primer

Just over seven days separate 30 general managers from the feeding frenzy that is the NHL trade deadline. Of course, recent years have resembled a salad bar more so than an all-you-can-eat buffet. While the blockbusters that fans and media love have become rare, the action at the deadline will still be there.

There are already a host of names floating around the rumor wires as real and make believe insiders and sources report on the whispers they hear about the players who will end up being moved in the coming days. Marquee names like Ryan Miller and Ryan Callahan are making the rounds with fans of contending teams are waiting to see what their GM can poach from the annual swap meet.

The 2014 deadline ought to provide a few fireworks specifically because of teams like the Sabres, Islanders and Oilers. All three are sliding towards the draft lottery in hopes that they win the right to pick first overall and each will likely unload some stars prior to the deadline.

Based on many reports, Edmonton appeared to be very close to dealing Sam Gagner to Los Angeles prior to the Olympic break and Gagner is still said to be on the block along with Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky. The Oilers could certainly market a few of their other young stars in hopes of shoring up their blueline, but their five-year rebuild will likely continue into yet another draft lottery where their number of top-3 selections will grow to four after winning the draft lottery three years in a row (2009-2012).

Losing John Tavares will likely ensure that the Islanders begin playing for 2015 as they’ll try to get a king’s ransom for Thomas Vanek and Andrew MacDonald as the two pending free agents will attract plenty of attention from teams battling for playoff positioning. Moving the two may also allow Garth Snow to protect his 2015 first round pick as Vanek and MacDonald could potentially net a first round pick each, giving Snow a security blanket, of sorts, for this year when he may need to give up his potential lottery pick to the Sabres as part of the Vanek/Moulson deal.

Buffalo is expected to be very busy as Miller, Moulson and Steve Ott are all expected to be moved and each has their own market value as the deadline approaches. A few teams are said to be interested in Miller, although the number who will likely make a legitimate offer won’t likely eclipse five. My gut tells me he ends up in Washington where George McPhee is on the hot seat and his team’s goaltending has kept them from playoff contention this year.

Ott and Moulson are said to have many more suitors and exactly where they end up is anyone’s guess. I wouldn’t be overly surprised to see Moulson end up in Ottawa where Tim Murray not only knows the prospect pool that he’d be gaining talent from, but his time with the organization may make negotiations go a bit quicker. Ott’s landing spot could be quite literally anywhere as his game can adapt to a number of different styles and any contender would be interested in adding an energy player like him. My money would be on a Western team, but that’s about as far as I would go in terms of guessing his destination.

It’s also rumored that Ryan Callahan will likely be skating in a new city after the deadline and he’d also add the two way element that so many teams find valuable. While trading Callahan may be expected, I’m fully expecting to see at least one big trade that catches everyone off guard. It could be something similar to the Marian Gaborik trade last year that saw a host of players swapped between New York and Columbus. Regardless of who is moved, count on at least one of those to catch you off guard before the day is out on the 5th. Also keep an eye on the trade wire in the days leading up to the deadline as a few moves could easily come prior to next Wednesday.

Recapping the 2014 Olympic Tournament

Recapping the 2014 Olympic Tournament

Recapping the 2014 Olympic Tournament

In the end, the deepest, most talented team prevailed. Canada repeated their 2010 ice hockey sweep by capturing gold on both the men’s and women’s side in Sochi.

While the women’s result was always going to come down to the United States and Canada, the men’s tournament represented a much different picture with five squads with strong chances for a medal with that number ballooning to six or even seven depending how the rosters were analyzed.

The women’s tournament was one filled with many firsts. Not only did a new format take over, but a first time medalist prevailed in the bronze medal game as Switzerland came out ahead after a wild third period. While the rest of the field is still well behind the sport’s two superpowers, the rest of the world is slowly catching up. No longer is the wide gap between the Americans and Canadians bridged by just the Swedes and the Finns. Russia is making strides and the Swiss officially established themselves on the international stage.

It will still take some time for teams like the Swiss to get close to the US and Canadians – and the Finns may suffer a setback with Nora Raty’s retirement – but the fact that there are signs of parity is encouraging.

On the men’s side an entertaining group play round turned into a somewhat stunning  elimination playoff as the Latvians knocked off a trendy darkhorse in the Swiss before putting a scare into Canada – despite the Canadians dominance throughout the game. Slovenia also surprised many in wining not one but two games to find themselves in the quarterfinals as well.

The rest of the tournament played out as many expected. The US victory over Russia was perhaps a slight surprise as was the virtual no-show by the Slovakians. The end result was certainly easy to predict as the Canadians didn’t just have the most talented roster, but their gameplan shutdown their opponents when it mattered most. The Finns, US and Swedes could barely muster any offense against Canada and the result was a second-straight gold medal for a nation whose dominance at the World Juniors in the early 2000s is showing on the Olympic stage now with talents like Crosby, Price and Toews leading the way.

While my prediction of the final four was accurate, I ultimately missed on the medal order. However, I’m quite pleased that I not only foresaw Finland’s run to the medal round, but accurately predicted the bronze and gold medal matchups.

Whether or not the NHL decides to send players to the 2018 Games is yet to be determined. The 14-hour time difference will make games nearly impossible to watch live and there will certainly be other reasons (owners) that will make the decision a tough one. However, the game took center stage once again and it would be a shame to not see the NHL represented once again.

While an NHL filled Canadian roster will be an early favorite in 2018, there is plenty of impressive talent working up on the American side and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the US playing for gold in Korea.

Most Outstanding Player

Men – Teemu Selanne: Teemu Forever. He was named the tournament MVP and proved that he is still an ageless wonder. This has been a terrific farewell tour for him and earning another Olympic medal is a nice way to start his home stretch.

Women – Maire-Philip Poulin: She was the hero in 2010 and was again the hero in 2014, scoring the tying and winning goals for the Canadian women.

Most Outstanding Goaltender

Men – Tuukka Rask: Had Rask not fallen ill prior to their game against Sweden perhaps the Finns would have played for gold. Regardless, Rask was dominant throughout the tournament and although Carey Price is wearing gold, Rask’s play was more valuable to his team than Price’s.

Women – Florence Schelling: She carried her team to bronze and was phenomenal in doing so. Her skills in net will make the Swiss a threat to medal in 2018.

Biggest Surprise

Slovenia’s success in their first Olympics was not only a surprise but a breath of fresh air. They hung with the Russians in their first game and then dispatched the Slovaks on their way to the top seed in the first qualification round. Their win over Austria put them another upset away from the medal round. While they were easily dispatched by Sweden, Slovenia proved that they weren’t just going to lay down in their first Olympic games.

Looking Ahead

I’m willing to bet that the NHL ends up sending their stars to the 2018 Olympics despite the challenges of the massive time change, owners apprehension and the chance that the World Cup of Hockey will be back on the table prior to the 2018 Olympics. It just seems foolish to not put the NHL’s stars on an international stage like this when the opportunity presents itself. It’s almost like free marketing in that way.

On the Ice: Warrior Covert DT2 gloves

On the Ice: Warrior Covert DT2 gloves

On the Ice: Warrior Covert DT2 gloves

Warrior’s Dynasty (previously Franchise) glove line has long been a favorite at nearly every level of the game. Now, Warrior has a counterpart to their classic four-roll glove.

The Covert glove line that was introduced last year is built on more of a tapered, anatomic fit as compared to the more traditional fit of the Dynasty gloves. Now that the Covert line is a year old, Warrior has started making some interesting changes to the line. One, is a special Limited Edition “World Tour” line for this year. The Limited Edition glove is designed with the Olympics in mind as the special edition colors that are available include Canada, the United States, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Quebec and a blackout version of the US and Canadian gloves.

This line compliments the typical colorway availability in the DT2 glove and offers players a chance to get a unique pair of one-off gloves. While including Quebec is a somewhat odd choice when the rest of the designs are Olympic inspired, but the powder blue glove with a white cuff was too much to turn down and those were the pair I picked off the shelf.

Out of the Box

These are a good looking pair of gloves. The design standard on the line is basic but includes sharp edges that defines the graphic package in each color. The Quebec glove is just powder blue and white, so there is not contrast color on the back of the hand. However, the white trim surrounding the area where a contrast color would go helps the glove to pop.

The DT2 uses Warrior’s Polygiene liner that not only wicks away moisture but also battles odor to keep your gloves clean and smelling fresh for a longer period of time. The Polygiene liner also utilized the Chillwave feature which keeps your hand cool which helps to work in unison with the Polygiene liner for a clean, fresh interior.

As a former lacrosse player, I really like when a glove fits tight on my hand. I’m not overly comfortable wearing a loose fitting glove like a Dynasty or Bauer Nexus as the back of my hand is often separated from the back portion of the glove. The Covert offers a tight, snug fit without limiting mobility in the hand or wrist while playing. The fingers and knuckles are a little tight the first time you put these on, but bending the fingers back and over will help to break the glove in and after a couple of ice times you’ll be all set.

On the Ice

As someone who not only prefers a tighter fitting glove, but coming from a pair of gloves that didn’t fit perfectly, I immediately noticed how much more comfortable I was stick handling, passing and shooting with the new gloves. I had gone from a pair that would sometimes feel perfect but other times would be far too loose for my liking. There’s no wiggle room here (no pun intended) as the fit and build of these gloves allow for a snug, comfortable skate.

The change was so drastic that during warmups I actually was hitting the puck too hard while stickhandling because the gloves moved in perfect unison with my hands.

After a few icetimes I haven’t had a moment where I was trying to adjust how my hands felt on the fly or feeling that I didn’t get good wood on a pass or shot because my wrists felt as if these were slipping out of my gloves.

The gloves only required a pair of games to feel broken in as I did spend a little time breaking in the fingers and knuckles prior to my first game, so that may have sped up the break in process. I’m not only pleased to have made the decision to get an upgrade with my gloves, but choosing an anatomically designed pair will be something that goes a long way for me game-to-game.

Olympic gear watch

Olympic gear watch

Olympic gear watch

As hockey equipment has evolved, the ability for players to swap out gear for special events has been a growing trend. Goaltenders are the easiest to pick out as they sport different helmets and pads for events like the Winter Classic each season.

The Olympics are not immune to this change as skaters need to switch over to gloves and pants that align with their country’s colors and some goaltenders choose to wear new equipment as well to match their nation’s colors.

It will be pretty easy to notice which goaltenders have made changes as their new gear will certainly stand out as opposed to what they wear on a nightly basis in the NHL. Most players will likely wear a shell over their team-issued pants to remain as comfortable as possible and skaters have likely had a chance to break in their Olympic gloves for at least a week.

There will be some other changes that may or may not stand out to fans as they’re watching the games aside from the simple color change that a player’s gear will undergo. Like the NHL, the IIHF has specific equipment standards and those standards must be followed by all players.

In the crease, some equipment manufacturers choose not to pay the fee to the IIHF so their company logos can be shown during play. Vaughn is a company that has long been logo-less in international play and that trend will likely continue this year as Tuukka Rask and Jimmy Howard are both heading to Sochi without the Vaughn branding on their equipment.

Ryan Miller’s gear was changed over to red, white and blue using a special aftermarket product that will keep him from breaking in new equipment for the short tournament. As you’ll notice, Miller’s pads (and gloves) still have the Vaughn logos showing but he’ll likely need to have those covered up.

As the games continue small things like that will probably become more obvious and one feature of the 2010 games in Vancouver seems to have carried over to Sochi. Forwards, who will have small Sochi logos on the front and back of their helmets, will have an interesting change made to their gloves.

An interesting rule was created heading into the 2010 Olympics which limited the size of manufacturer logos on the cuff of player gloves. This meant that the size of the font needed to be reduced from the relatively large font found on the ice in NHL games and on the shelves in stores.

It also made for some confusing visuals as the smaller logos looked out of place on the ice (check out Brian Rafalski’s gloves in the bottom portion of this picture). Easton decided against putting their logo in the smaller font and swapped out the Easton font for each country’s name with a smaller Easton logo on a different part of the cuff. Warrior and Bauer followed suit with the rule and based on action from the women’s games early on, it appears that the rule is back for 2014.

One other big change will be the handful of players using Bauer’s OD1N equipment. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Towes, Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Henrik Lundqvist were all tabbed to test the revolutionary gear that Bauer is comparing to a concept care. The player skates will stand out most as their peculiar design is like nothing that’s ever been worn before.

The OD1N line is designed to save massive amounts of weight that will ultimately give players more boost and stamina on a game-to-game basis. While it’s unexpected to be seen in stores anytime soon, keep an eye on those players to see if their game receives a noticeable boost.

If you notice any other distinct differences in something a player is wearing, leave a comment here or on the Great Skate Facebook page. It’s interesting to see some of the new and exciting products that companies will release around this time.

Predicting the Olympic Tournament

The Olympic break is finally upon us and, depending on logistics, could be the last Olympics that features NHL players representing their countries.

Each team will have fairly limited practice time given the short time period between the NHL break and beginning of the Olympic tournament. This could serve as an early benefit for some of the assumed underdogs who have fewer NHL players making the hop across the Atlantic, but even those players will need to take breaks from their respective national teams for the Olympic tournament. The games will officially open on February 8 and the tournament will run until February 23.

There are some changes between the 2010 and 2014 games in which the IIHF allowed the 2010 men’s and women’s tournaments to be played on NHL sized rinks as opposed to an international surface. The Sochi ice will be nearly 15 feet wider than the ice most of the participants are used to and that adjustment could also come into play as the tournament moves along.

One interesting feature of this year’s tournament is the pool seeding. Based on the 2012 IIHF World Championships, there are decidedly difficult pools that were determined by the IIHF World Rankings. The US and Russians highlight an impressive Group A that includes Slovakia and Slovenia, a group that will not provide an easy out for anyone. Group B is headlined by the defending gold and bronze medalists in Canada and Finland, respectively. Norway and Austria round out the group as the Norweigians are no longer the new kid on the block for the tournament. Group C is filled out by Sweden, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Latvia. That is perhaps the one group which could produce a surprising upset given the Swiss’ propensity to play big in international events.

Group B may be the easiest to prognosticate with Groups A and B each having a pair of darkhorse teams that could cause trouble for the favorites.

Group A

While the United States’ run to a silver medal in 2010 was impressive, they’re faced with an equally difficult road to a first round bye this year. Ryan Miller’s preliminary round dominance helped the Americans over Canada and to a top seeding for the quarters. It will take an equally impressive performance in goal (from Miller or Jonathan Quick) and the requisite goal support to lift the US over Russia this year. The US roster has more elite talent this year compared to what may be described as a more complete team in 2010. While leaving Bobby Ryan out was a surprise to many, the US roster still has some impressive talent in their top-six.

The Russians enter the tournament as the hometown favorite with plenty to prove after a disastrous showing in Vancouver. While goaltending and defense show as potential weak spots on the roster, the firepower they boast at forward makes them an immediate contender regardless of who is in net. Should Semyon Varlamov maintain a consistent level of play, he could easily elevate the Russians to the top team in the tournament.

Both the Americans and Russians will need to be aware of the Slovakians in pool play. The Slovaks made a strong run to the bronze medal game and a fourth place finish in Vancouver on the back of a veteran lineup. While some of the old guard has moved on, a number of their young stars have come into their own at the NHL level. They will not only prove to be a tough team to defeat but certainly a squad which will make noise in the quarterfinals.

Slovenia is brand new to the Olympic tournament and boasts just one NHL talent; Anze Kopitar. While Kopitar is truly a world-class talent, he will need a ton of help to lift the Slovenians to victories in Sochi. While I doubt that they escape pool play with a victory, their appearance alone in the tournament is a major victory for their national program.

Outlook: The group winner will likely come down to the US and Russia although I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see the Slovaks steal at least one point from one of those two squads in preliminary play. Preliminary Standings: Russia (2-1-0-0), United States (2-0-0-1), Slovakia (1-0-1-1), Slovenia (0-0-0-3). Records are listed in order of Win-OT Win-OT Loss-Loss. Three points are awarded for a regulation win, two for an OT win and 1 point for an OT loss.

Group B

The Canadians earned an easy berth in their pool considering some of the veteran talent that the Finns will have at this year’s tournament. The Canadians are an all-star team. There is no other way to describe the wealth of talent they’ll bring to Sochi. While goaltending was expected to be a question mark for the tournament, one of Carey Price, Roberto Luongo or Mike Smith will be able to carry the load for the stacked roster in front of them.

Goaltending is the precise strength for the Finnish national team as each of their three goaltenders would start for just about every country in this year’s Olympic Games aside from, perhaps the Swedes or Americans. Tuukka Rask is likely the starter but Antti Niemi and Kari Kehtonen are equally capable of stealing a game on a nightly basis. There are some impressive, young talents on this roster that is still anchored by the old guard entering the tournament. If they get hot, they’ll be very difficult to beat.

While Norway was thoroughly dominated in what turned out to be the strongest pool in the 2010 games (Canada, US and Switzerland), they enter the 2014 games with a stronger international resume and the experience of having played in an Olympic tournament just four years earlier. While they’ll surely see little success against the Canadians or Finns, I can see them stealing a preliminary round win over Austria before facing another superior opponent in the quarters.

Austria, like Slovenia, is a new kid on the block. The presence of NHL players on the roster could give them a slight edge over the Norwegians in terms of depth. That NHL talent might just put them over the edge when it comes to their showdown with Norway. But with a pair of teams with very few players in North American leagues, it’s hard to pinpoint where each will end up.

Outlook: This should be cut and dry. The Canadians will likely seize the first seed in the quarters while neither Austria or Norway will threaten Finland. The real key is if the Finns will get help elsewhere to snag the fourth first-round bye. Preliminary Standings: Canada (3-0-0-0), Finland (2-0-0-1), Norway (0-1-0-2), Austria (0-0-1-2)

Group C

This is an interesting group as the Swedes will certainly enter the tournament as the prohibitive favorite amongst their three opponents. Sweden’s roster is an impressive collection of two-way talent with a ton of depth in the middle of the ice. Henrik Lundqvist will carry the load in the crease and I expect the Swedes to present a serious challenge for gold.

A few interesting roster choices makes the Czech Republic a borderline group. While there are plenty of NHL names on the roster, they are bringing quite a bit of age along with them, notably, Petr Nedved and Jaromir Jagr. While Jagr has proven to be an ageless wonder, some of the other roster choices perplexed those in the hockey community. The Czechs will live and die with Ondrej Pavelec which, depending on your opinion of him, could be a precarious way to go about the tournament.

I expect the Swiss squad to surprise people this year. Jonas Hiller is beyond dialed in at this point and they have seemingly progressed each and every year on the international stage. While they won’t likely pull any Belarussian surprises on the Swedes, I can definitely see them upsetting the Czech’s on their way to the elimination round. If Hiller isn’t at his best the Swiss will struggle. But if he continues the play he’s displayed this season, I’d expect them to grab a few wins.

The Latvians wind up in a very challenging group and their path through the preliminaries may only be topped by the Slovenians. While fans in Buffalo will certainly be excited to see Ted Nolan behind the bench and Zemgus Girgensons on the ice, I doubt that the Latvian’s compete level will do enough to get them a win in the opening round.

Outlook: Sweden takes this group running away with the Swiss stealing a win off the Czech’s and slotting in the second spot in the group. The Latvians will likely be fourth with the Czech’s in third somewhat by default. Preliminary Standings: Sweden (3-0-0-0), Switzerland (2-0-0-1), Czech Republic (1-0-0-2), Latvia (0-0-0-3)

Elimination & Medal Round

Based on my loose prognostications I have the Canadians, Russians, Swedes and Finns advancing with a first round bye, although the US and maybe even Switzerland could be in the conversation for a bye depending on their goal differential. Where I think a curveball might be thrown is in the path to the medal round.

While the Canadians and Swedes will certainly advance to the medal round games, I could see the Russians or Finns upset along the way. I am hopeful that the Americans will be one of the four teams playing for a medal with Switzerland being my surprise pick to advance to the final four. From there I expect the depth of the participating teams to win out with the Canadians defeating Sweden for gold in 2014.

Medal Predictions:

Gold: Sweden

Silver: Canada

Bronze: United States

Choosing between a cage or shield

Choosing between a cage or shield - Greatskate.com

Choosing between a cage or shield – Greatskate.com

All players get to the point when they have the opportunity to choose between a cage and a shield (or no facial protection). Typically that time is when you reach adult recreational leagues.

Most adult leagues allow anyone over the age of 18 to play, which means that when players reach 18 years of age, they’ll finally have the choice of taking off their cage and upgrading to a visor should they choose that route.

When it comes down to comfort and overall vision, the visor takes the cake every time. There’s nothing snapped up around your chin and nothing to obstruct your view of the ice. When it comes to safety, however, the cage wins out every time. Despite owning an Oakley visor, I wear a cage for all of my games.

The reason I choose to go with a cage is strictly motivated by safety. I’ve see too many players get caught with sticks or pucks (I’ve caught a puck in the mouth myself) to justify wearing a visor. In addition, my vision isn’t all that bothered by a cage either. Perhaps it is because I grew up playing goalie and a player’s helmet offer so much more in terms of peripheral views as it is. Regardless, a cage is the choice for me.

However, you may be in a different position.

Determining if you want to wear a cage or visor comes down to little more than personal preference. If you’re comfortable with just a visor on, then you shouldn’t even think twice about wearing one. You’ll love the comfort that comes with little to obstruct your view of the ice. Picking that visor is where the decision making process will begin.

There are a number of companies making visors today, but Oakley and Bauer stand above the rest in terms of quality and durability. Most visor purchases will come down to brand and design as each company offers a handful of different options. Great Skate offers both the Bauer and Oakley models in a straight or aviator cut that is more of a personal preference for the wearer. The aviator is a more stylized model with a curved bottom line which could affect what you look at depending on how focused you are on the bottom of the visor and the ice. The straight models are what’s seen a bit more often in the NHL as a majority of players opt for the simple look with their visor.

Bauer recently introduced the Pro Clip visor line which utilizes all of their normal visor models but with a quick release, tool-less shield replacement when it comes time to start using a new visor. It’s an interesting development as putting a visor on a helmet falls somewhere between rocket science and flying on the difficulty scale.

The one thing about the Pro Clip visors that I’m curious about is how often do they need to be changed? It would be somewhat worrisome if they consistently need to be replaced as a lack of durability would certainly be an issue.

If a visor isn’t what you’re looking for, there are a ton of options for cages at Great Skate, including the CCM 580 which is a popular choice amongst a great many collegiate player. The Bauer RE-AKT titanium is a high-end model that offers a super lightweight option. However, the CCM might be the best designed cage out there. Bauer and Reebok each have a decent option for their helmets, but the CCM offers a good view of the ice and also passes the mirror test with flying colors.

One other option, of course, is the full face shield. The Bauer Concept is a design that’s been around forever and has gained popularity in recent years and anti-fog treatments have made these far more manageable to use.

If you’re considering making a switch to a visor or simply looking to pick up a new cage, keep this in mind as you’re making your choice at Great Skate.

Sabres decision on Grigorenko shows flaws in NHL/CHL agreement

Sabres decision on Grigorenko shows flaws in NHL/CHL agreement

Sabres decision on Grigorenko shows flaws in NHL/CHL agreement

Mikhail Grigorenko’s initial decision to refuse this assignment to Quebec was the newest chapter in the winding tale of his poorly managed development with the Sabres.

The genesis of the awkward situation – the refusal to report to Quebec, the Facebook comment asking for time to think and final decision to report – stems back to the push to keep him in Buffalo at the start of last season. The well documented and mishandling of Grigorenko has resulted in two burned years of his entry level contract and what could be a growing rift between the team and player.

Although mishandling Grigorenko has become a spotlight matter for two straight seasons, the inability to do anything other than to keep him in Buffalo or send him back the QMJHL has not only handcuffed the franchise but also underscores a rule that requires changing between the NHL and CHL. Here’s some background reading on the agreement.

Whether or not Girgorenko could fill a role on the current Sabres roster is another argument, what’s obvious is that some sort of change needs to be made to the agreement. Specifically one that will provide teams with an opportunity to put certain players in the AHL despite them being under the 20-year old limit.

Something along the lines of the CHL exceptional player status would serve NHL teams the necessary leverage to move those players that are beyond the skill level of the CHL but not yet ready to play in the NHL. Ideally this would be a rule that wouldn’t be used on a yearly basis but only on the rare occurrence that a player is better served developing at the professional level.

Much like filing for exceptional player status, an NHL club – or perhaps a player’s agent – would petition some sort of board made up of NHL, CHL and maybe even AHL executives who would determine if a player was worthy of being granted access to play in the AHL.

It seems like a fairly obvious step to take. Every so often there are players who hop between the CHL and NHL to start a season but don’t fall in for a full time job with an NHL club. A simple petition and evaluation process to provide players the opportunity to grow, as opposed to completely dominating at the junior level, seems like a logical step to take.

The ultimate goal is to continue protecting the CHL from having their players poached too early while allowing those who are completely dominant a route to continue their development at the proper level. That doesn’t mean that Grigorenko would necessary be granted an exception to play in the AHL this season or last, but there would at least be an avenue to explore such an option rather than having the Sabres try to circumvent the rule by putting him on a conditioning assignment.

Hopefully this is something that is being discussed by the NHL and CHL in some form as Grigorenko’s situation has cast a spotlight on the flaws in the system, but the need to make a change isn’t a new development.