NHL’s Top Prospects will see plenty of Buffalo

NHL’s Top Prospects will see plenty of Buffalo

NHL’s Top Prospects will see plenty of Buffalo

Buffalo Sabres management has made no mistake about their desire to funnel all of the NHL’s top talent through Western New York.

In the coming weeks and months, Buffalo will play host to the CCM All-American Prospects Game, the NHL Scouting Combine and an Erie Otters home game. Meanwhile, just over the border, St. Catharines will play host to the CHL Top Prospects game this season. That means the top three (if not more) draft prospects for the loaded 2015 draft will be trekking through Buffalo at least twice before next June’s draft. This is a very exciting time for hockey fans in Buffalo.

Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin will be first up as the All-American Prospects game rolls through on September 25. The pair represent two thirds of the Draft’s top three prospects and Eichel will be making a strong push to unseat Connor McDavid as the consensus number one pick. Tickets for the event are on sale now and if the last All-American Prospects game serves as a barometer, good seats will be available.

McDavid is next up on the docket as his Erie Otters come to town on October 22. For those of you who haven’t made the short trip to Erie to se McDavid, this will be your golden opportunity. The Otters are loaded with prospects not named McDavid, but the highly touted “Next One” will obviously be the main attraction.

If October 22 doesn’t happen to work out, you can also catch the Otters in Erie throughout the winter or on any of their visits to face the Niagara Icedogs. In addition to Erie’s regular season visits, McDavid will likely be a hop and skip over the border participating in the BMO Top Prospects game on January 22.

The beauty is that all of these events are happening less than 30 minutes from downtown Buffalo. Expand your hockey radius to Erie and consistent viewings of McDavid can be had in less than a 90 minute drive on a weekly basis.

NHL’s Top Prospects will see plenty of Buffalo

NHL’s Top Prospects will see plenty of Buffalo

All of this is in addition to what will be happening on the ice at First Niagara Center and Blue Cross Arena. Buffalo boasts the league’s deepest and most intriguing prospect pool and a great deal of those players will be on display nightly between both the Sabres and Rochester Americans. So even if the Sabres’ season quickly deteriorates into a mission to pick first overall, there will be plenty of quality hockey being played around the Queen City.

This will be an exciting year in hockey for fans in Buffalo, NY. With so many different teams and players making cameos, Western New York is strengthening its reputation as a hockey Mecca.

NHL Expansion is on the Horizon

NHL Expansion is on the Horizon

NHL Expansion is on the Horizon

Change is coming to the NHL. Recent reports indicate that expansion could grace the league as early as the 2016-17 season. Depending on which report you’ve read, as many as four teams could be added to the mix.

Bringing the league’s numbers to 34 teams would result in a terrific financial windfall for the owners but would likely result in a watered down product for a period of time. While it may not take the league (and sport as a whole) nearly ten years to bounce back in terms of on-ice quality, adding four more teams would almost certainly result in a significantly watered down product.

Considering the last round of expansion came in the midst of the dead puck era, the NHL struggle with an inferior product up through the second most recent lockout. While the game has certainly enjoyed a nice surge in popularity recently, I wonder what the addition of that many jobs would do to the talent pool. It stands to reason that lesser skilled players could result in a surge in goal scoring should the rules be enforced properly, but I’m not overly interested in seeing the league try and fill upwards of 130 more jobs with AHL-level players for the next few years. It seems far more feasible to add a pair of teams to not only limit the impact on the player pool but to also ensure the league isn’t spreading itself too thin.

As of now cities like Toronto, Las Vegas, Seattle, Quebec City and Kansas City have been floated as potential homes for an NHL franchise. Many reports say that Seattle is atop the league’s wish list and Toronto’s size and corporate presence all but ensures financial stability. Further, Quebec City’s new NHL arena will be done soon and there are some deep pocketed owners ready to bring a team back. Vegas has received a ton of press in recent rumors and it appears Sin City will be the next city to host a club while Kansas City sits well apart from the rest of the candidates.

I, for one, don’t see Las Vegas as a horrible option. Their minor league team saw fair support during their existence and if marketed properly I’m willing to be they would receive fair local support. Selling tickets won’t be an issue there as the casinos will be sure to gobble up most, if not all, of the suites along with plenty of normal seats as well. So long as a decent local following can be cultivated I could see Las Vegas as a viable option.

What works in Sin City’s favor is the lack of another big four franchise to pull eyes and interest from a potential hockey club. While it’s about as non-traditional as you can get, I think hockey could take hold in Vegas if the marketing is done right.

Seattle seems like a no brainer at this point. Their football and soccer fans follow their respective teams with rabid intensity and I wouldn’t be surprised to see hockey receive similar support as the on-ice product improves. The lack of a viable building makes things awfully complicated and may set Seattle up better for a relocated franchise as opposed to a new expansion club. Should the arena issue get solved soon, then perhaps the league will work to fast track Seattle and Las Vegas in an effort to balance the conference alignment.

Quebec is another option and a safe one, at that. Media giant Quebecor is backing the new arena and it seems like just a matter of time before the league is bringing back the Nordiques. Like Seattle, I could see Quebec as a strong candidate for a relocated franchise as well as expansion. However, I think Quebec makes more sense for relocation simply because expanding by two teams out west (Seattle and Vegas) would ensure the conferences are balanced.

I think the most ideal scenario for the league would be to relocate one of their struggling franchises while awarding expansion to two owners in each of the cities described above. This way Seattle, Las Vegas and Quebec City each get a team in some combination of expansion and relocation. It matters little who ends up with the relocated team so long as the ownership and conference balance is worked out properly.

Without much more to go on other than reports from anonymous sources, it’s hard to say how legitimate all of this is. Perhaps the league is going to stand fast and wait for Seattle’s arena. Perhaps they’ll make Seattle sit out until their building can be completed while other cities like Vegas and Quebec win new clubs.

Either way, the game is almost certainly set to grow in the next few seasons which marks an exciting time for hockey fans.

CCM promotes explosiveness with the new Tacks skate

CCM promotes explosiveness with the new Tacks skate

CCM promotes explosiveness with the new Tacks skate

 

The new CCM Tacks officially hit the shelves this morning as the return of one of hockey’s most storied equipment lines makes its return.

CCM poured a ton of new technology into the new Tacks line, pulling from some of the success they had with the RBZ while introducing new performance features to make the skate a technological and performance-based marvel.

We talked a bit about the coming release earlier this year while a great deal of the features and technology were still under wraps. Although the skates were seen all over the NHL as they were tested by the likes of Nathan MacKinnon and John Tavares, there was still much to learn about the new skates. Tomorrow everyone will get a chance to experience the new features CCM has included on their newest set of wheels.

One of the most important features that CCM added is the Attack Frame that reinforces the area along the eyelets and the upper heel portion of each boot. The Attack Frame is a carbon fiber reinforcement that stiffens those two specific areas to promote quicker, more explosive starts. This is promoted by CCM’s Pro Core, which has various levels of stiffness throughout the boot to work in unison with the Attack Frame.

The Pro Core is stiffest in the areas where the Attack Frame reinforces while adding stiffness through the middle of the boot in the area between the two stiffest portions. Meanwhile, the Speedbalde 4.0 holder and Hyperglide steel gives the Tacks a similar attack angle as the RBZ’s that promotes cornering and agility.

CCM is also introducing a new Tacks stick to their growing product line. The Tacks stick features an Attack Frame reinforced area designed to reduce torsion during shooting. The new stick also sports the sharp black and gold graphics package of the new skate.

CCM set out to create a skate that provides players with the fastest five steps in hockey. They achieved their goal by finding key areas to add stiffness and promote responsiveness so the most elite skaters would feel the difference in their stride. It’s truly a skate that puts you one stride ahead of your competition.

Reebok combines popular design features with 30K KFS gloves

Reebok combines popular design features with 30K KFS gloves

Reebok combines popular design features with 30K KFS gloves

Reebok isn’t pulling any punches with their Kinetic Fit System. The new Reebok 30K KFS gloves provide a true anatomic fit and bring the Reebok glove line to a new level thanks to the new features introduced this year.

The 30K KFS is a two-piece glove that combines the freedom of mobility that’s so popular in four-roll gloves while still offering the snug, responsive fit of an anatomically designed glove. Reebok’s prime focus on the fit moves from the fingers up into the cuff, ensuring a true anatomic fit for each player. This glove-in-glove design allows the KFS to promote both flexibility and fit.

Reebok’s decision to include a new design feature on the back of the hand could potentially make or break the glove for those who put a heavy opinion on the mirror test. The vented portion of the backhand almost looks to have a shell over it, which makes for a unique look that other manufacturers haven’t yet taken on. On a darker based glove you can’t even notice this feature. However, if the base color contrasts the cover, it can offer an odd appearance. This won’t matter for those who aren’t bothered by the overall look, but I could see where some may be turned off.

Despite the potential hurdle in terms of looks, the performance of the glove is truly top notch. In addition to the glove-in-glove fit and mobility, the AX suede palm is reinforced through the middle to ensure a pro feel and high level of durability.

The 30K KFS gloves absolutely provide an upgrade over the previous KFS model, the 11K. With added reinforcements on the back of the hand and thumb, the 30K offers pro-level protection with a unique fit that draws on the greatest traits of a traditional four-roll glove and that of anatomically design gloves.

The new Reebok 30K KFS gloves are in stores now and can be picked up in four different colorways. Get your hands in these now to feel the difference the kinetic fit provides.

CCM Retro Flex pads

CCM Retro Flex pads

CCM Retro Flex pads

After a lengthy vacation from the crease, CCM returned last year with a new entry into the goaltending market. The Extreme Flex pads not only represented CCM’s first official entry into the goaltending world again but it also brought about a pad with some impressive new features.

CCM developed a pad with a soft, flexible boot that allows the pad to sit a bit lower than it’s stiffer Reebok cousins. While the rest of the pad shares many of the same traits as the Reebok pads, the flexible boot and softer face (complete with knee rolls) provides a much more traditional pad than the P4 or current XLT is.

Upon first release, the pad offered a different option for goalies who weren’t as fond of Reebok pads while still providing the option to wear equipment produced by the legendary Lefevre design team. The marriage of Lefevre and Reebok/CCM pads doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon, but this and the former Reebok Larceny remain as the only pads constructed by Reebok or CCM in recent years with a different take than the flat faced look that helps to define Reebok.

CCM took things a step further this past year as they provided a new design option for EFlex users. The RetroFlex pad has the same construction as the original EFlex but with a basic, vertical stitch graphics package. The only color options on the pad, outside of the face of the shin, will be the knee rolls, outer roll and the darts between the knee rolls.

Jonathan Bernier wore the RetroFlex all season and looked particularly good in his vintage colored RetroFlex pads at this year’s winter classic.

Outside of the aesthetic differences between the EFlex and the RetroFlex, there are no other changes between the two. They’re both inspired by more flexible products in the boot while still utilizing the modern core design that can be found in pads like the Reebok XLT and others.

If you find yourself stuck deciding between the EFlex or the RetroFlex, it’s likely a simple decision between a true retro look over a slightly more contemporary graphic on the face of the pad. While I prefer the EFlex simply due to the design options available, the RetroFlex is a beautiful pad. Especially for those netminders who prefer a classic look.

CCM Resistance helmet preview

CCM Resistance helmet preview

CCM Resistance helmet preview

More and more attention and focus in equipment design is being devoted to protecting against rotational impact from hits and collisions. The CCM Resistance helmet has been constructed to add protection against linear and rotational impacts.

CCM has made a few aesthetic changes to the Vector shell that became so wildly popular across the NHL over the past number of years along with adding vital pieces of protection to the liner. These changes and alterations were driven by the desire of CCM to create one of the most protective hockey helmets on the market.

Teaming up with the University of Ottawa, CCM made sure the new features and technology protected the most vital areas of a player’s head by placing the addition padding in strategic locations around the shell and liner.

The R.E.D. System is what sets the Resistance apart from the other helmets that CCM has released in recent years as in brings a whole new level of protection into play. In addition to the traditional foam liner you can find in any high-end helmet, CCM has added two new layers of protection that are specifically combined to reduce rotational impact.

The R.E.D. system combines a series of liquid filled bladders with EEP molded shock absorbers called Impact Pods that aid in reducing linear impacts. Both work in a similar method of absorbing the impact and motion of a player’s head when taking impact during a game. The R.E.D. liquid bladders work to slow any rotation of the head while the Impact Pods expand and retract with direct collisions.

The Resistance joins Bauer’s RE-AKT helmet as two of the most protective helmets that specifically target rotational and linear impacts with specific targeted areas for increased protection.

Eastern Conference second round preview and prediction

Eastern Conference second round preview and prediction

Eastern Conference second round preview and prediction

I managed to pull together a very respectable record in picking the first round series. Colorado’s late collapse on Wednesday kept me from a perfect record but I’m quite pleased going 7-1 over those eight series. I even managed to peg the length of a number of those series as well, a nice bonus to accompany the prognostication.

The East kicks things off tonight and the full second round will be up and running by this weekend. The NHL must be pleased once again as the divisional format produced an eventful first round and a few very enticing second round matchups.

Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens

Yet another storied rivalry that will grow thanks to the NHL’s new format. There’s a different type of hate between the fans in Boston and Montreal and there’s even a few rivalries on the ice.

This sets up as an interesting series that sees the Bruins pit the deep, physical lineup against the speedy, skilled group in Montreal. The Canadiens have some beef in their lineup, but from top to bottom their roster reflects differently than that of their opponents.

Both teams made quick work of their opponents in the first round as Montreal was the first team to advance with the Bruins not far behind. Boston’s series against Detroit was the last one to begin which shortened their break between series a bit. But Montreal’s sweep and Boston’s five-game series win will allow both squads to lick any lingering wounds before the next round.

They’re going to need their health, as well, as the Bruins can expect to drive to the paint in both ends and push their opponents around. Montreal will need to gear up to get knocked around during the series and will benefit from producing on the counterattack.

What to watch for

Montreal ousted Tampa in systematic fashion, benefitting from weak goaltending and a team with limited depth. Now they head to a series with arguably the league’s best goaltender a team with four terrific defensemen and at least three sound lines. Montreal will not only need to adjust to the level of competition but also  finding the proper match for Boston’s lines as the series progresses.

Boston should win this series. While the Canadiens have a great goaltender and some impressive talent atop their roster, there are holes that Boston can exploit along the way. First, I expect Thomas Vanek and Max Pacioretty to see a lot of Patrice Bergeron this series. While you could argue the Canadiens have other scorers, none function on the level of Vanek or Paciortetty.

Between the pipes

BOS: Tuukka Rask

MTL: Carey Parice

Edge: Boston. Only ever so slightly do I give Rask the nod over Price. This is primarily motivated by Rask’s postseason experience the last few years vs. that of Price. Both had strong showings at the Olympics and both have been strong thus far in the playoffs. I’ll take Rask ever so slightly above Price this time around.

Boston in six

Pittsburgh Penguins  vs. New York Rangers

The Penguins have the opportunity to take advantage of New York’s lengthy first round series with the Flyers. Scheduling constraints not only set the Rangers up with a back-to-back set for games six and seven but also puts them in a situation to see them play six games in eight days.

New York is going to be a darkhorse favorite for plenty of fans and pundits as the Rangers showed the ability to score in bunches (at times) while receiving timely goaltending. Meanwhile, the Penguins enter the second round this year much in the way they did in 2013. They clawed their way past a pesky lower seed in six games despite the better efforts of their goaltender to secure early tee times for the summer.

Marc Andre Fleury’s struggles continue to be amplified as the goaltender is looking at a third-straight postseason of a bloated goals against average and a sinking save percentage. He looked to have found his game in the deciding game six against Columbus before the Blue Jackets barrage almost tied the contest. Now, it’s likely that the fans and possibly his teammates are gripping their sticks a little tighter with concern over the play of the guy behind them.

What to watch for

This series is going to be all about goaltending for me. Can Fleury shake the cobwebs enough to string together a few  more wins? Can Henrik Lundqvist steal a game or two in order to put the heat on the Pens stars? Which goalie will take control of the series? It’s fun to think about because Lundqvist has been playing so well while Fleury’s play remains right around average.

The similarities between last year’s win over the Islanders and this year’s win over Columbus are unrelated when you consider the series that is upon these two teams. However, the same storyline now haunts the Penguins. While they dispatched a lesser opponent with a game to go, it never looked easy for the Pens. For a team with so much fire power that’s not necessarily something you want following you around.

Meanwhile, the Rangers simply need to find their offense. They exploded at times against the Flyers but were stymied just as much. This is a team that lives and dies with it’s top six and if Rick Nash, Brad Richards and friends aren’t firing on all cylinders it will be a quick series.

Between the pipes

PIT: Marc-Andre Fleury

NYR: Henrik Lundqvist

Edge: Rangers. Lundqvist was a rock throughout the first round. His game six hiccup came thanks to a number of odd-man chances for the Flyers and not so much weak or soft goals. While Lundqvist has a decided edge over Fleury in this series the jury is out on the Rangers ability to give him proper goal support.

New York in seven

Western Conference second round preview and prediction

There’s little doubt that the Western Conference boasted the better of the first round series now that the dust has settled. The Blues and Blackhawks lived up to expectations and the Kings-Sharks epic was must-see-TV. The Wild and Avalanche didn’t disappoint in their seven-game swing and the Ducks and Stars made things interesting despite not having much of a q-rating at the outset.

Now the challenge is to see if these two second round series can do the same. The Kings and Ducks certainly have the rival fan bases to make for an interesting series, but will it play out on the ice. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks and Wild rekindle their pleasantries from last year’s first round.

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Minnesota Wild

The Blackhawks have had a little more time to rest after their battle against St. Louis and they certainly needed the time off. They played a very physical six-game set and with a couple stars already nagged up entering the playoffs. They’ll have the edge in terms of depth and in net and while this won’t likely be the five-game cake walk that last year’s series was, I expect them to advance past the Wild.

Minnesota enters this series after going the distance with Colorado. They probably should have gotten out of that series sooner than they did but the Avs managed to steal a couple games early on. While I don’t think fatigue will be a major factor for the Wild, it won’t help them in terms of the grand scheme of matching up with the Chicago juggernaut.

What to watch for

The Blackhawks just have to keep playing their game. They have a consistent three-line attack and a fourth line that is serviceable enough to keep the ice time relatively balance across the board. Corey Crawford was terrific in the latter half of their first series and should be able to carry over that momentum to this series. If the Blackhawks carry a 2-0 lead to Minnesota this could be a very short series.

Minnesota needs to find a way to check Chicago’s big guns. The Blues weren’t able to contain them as Kane, Toews and Sharp ran roughshod over them in the first round and can do the same if the Wild can’t keep them on a short leash. Depth scoring will be vital as the Wild’s top line will more than likely be neutralized for a good portion of the series.

Between the pipes

CHI: Corey Crawford

MIN: Darcy Kuemper or Ilya Bryzgalov

Edge: Chicago. This is an easy one. Crawford was the better of the two goalies between he and Ryan Miller in the first round and will be the same against Minnesota’s third and fourth string goalies (technically). Kuemper’s assumed head injury will likely push Bryzgalov in net to start the series and after dropping the first two games to Colorado I’m not sure what he will muster against the Blackhawks.

Blackhawks in five

Anahem Ducks vs. Los Angeles Kings

The Freeway Faceoff finally gets to take place in the postseason. The fan bases of these two teams simply don’t get along and while the rivalry may not be as heated on the ice, the arenas will be packed and loud for the entire series.

The Ducks, like the Blackhaws, have had a few days of while the Kings wrapped up their reverse sweep of San Jose. Anaheim played a heated series with Dallas and having the ability to unwind a bit from such a tense series should serve them well. While they aren’t laden with grizzled vets, the Ducks will certainly benefit from the time off.

Los Angeles could potentially enter the series mentally zapped. They just strung together four-straight wins while facing elimination to knock off their neighbors from NorCal in the first round. Erasing San Jose’s 3-0 lead wasn’t going to be an easy task and hopefully the Kings didn’t empty their tanks just getting out of the first round.

What to watch for

Anaheim hasn’t been a sterling puck possession team this year. They’ve had struggles in that neighborhood and are now about to face one of the league’s best possessions squads. The Ducks also stumbled upon some goaltending questions after the first round and it’s looking likely that Jonas Hiller may retake his crease. Of course, it’s also possible that John Gibson gets a call to take over against the Kings.

LA simply needs to do what they’ve done all year. They carry possession and dictate the pace better than nearly every other team. They can rely on their goaltender and so long as their offense remains hot they’ll be a very difficult out for the Ducks.

Between the Pipes

ANA: Jonas Hiller

LA: Jonathan Quick

Edge: Los Angeles. Quick was spectacular once game four began. While Hiller has stolen series in the past he also lost his crease to two rookies this year. Bruce Boudreau seemed hesitant to go back to him against the Stars and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see Boudreau go in another direction. Quick is the winner here no matter who plays for the Ducks.

Los Angeles in six

Floating changes to the NHL Draft Lottery

Floating changes to the NHL Draft Lottery

Floating changes to the NHL Draft Lottery

As the talent at the top of the NHL Draft continues to rise each year the topic of tanking to ensure higher odds at the first overall pick is becoming a hot topic. While the current system is designed to give the 30th place finisher the best opportunity to pick first, there is a better chance that team picks second given the odds.

With next year’s draft featuring a pair of generational talents at the top of the prospect pool, rumors and chatter have abounded regarding change to the lottery system in hopes of curbing the practice of tanking.

There doesn’t seem to be a good system that is strictly based off the order of finish in the standings. The system floated by Elliotte Friedman a few weeks back included a few nuances that wouldn’t only decrease the 30th place finisher’s chances but take into account a number of seasons as opposed to the one that had just passed.

However, it’s a fairly nuanced system that points towards even more complicated and convoluted systems for determining the first overall pick while preventing teams from taking nosedives to the bottom of the standings.

One idea I’m particularly fond of is a version of something similar I heard on NHL Network Radio a while back. If I’m not mistaken the original thought came from Mike Brophy, so direct the appropriate praise to him for the genesis of this idea.

The plan would be to still reward the worst teams with the highest picks in each year’s draft. You can’t have parity and turnover within the league unless you follow such a pattern. It also ensures that bad teams will improve – or should improve if you’re the Oilers – by picking high. In a league driven by revenues, perennial basement dwellers will eventually see lots of red ink if they can’t bring in players to overhaul their roster.

My plan would include the league’s five worst teams – although this could be expanded if necessary – in a competition to determine who wins the first overall pick. I stress the term win because this would be a standings-based competition that would be evaluated on each team’s performance after a certain point in the year. This way you can’t simply hit the brakes on your year, sell off your assets and wait to see what the lottery balls do for you once the season wraps. Meanwhile, if you finish 30th you’re still assured to draft high enough to get some help.

The competition wouldn’t affect the regular season schedule, nor would it be a separate postseason tournament – although that would rule. It would simply be standings based just as each division race is determined. Whichever team ends the year with the most points after the competition begins wins the first overall pick.

Beginning this competition, let’s call it the NHL Draft Challenge, would likely be the toughest thing to determine. You could either run it over a certain number of games each year to ensure similar results each season or you could run it from the first game after the fifth worst team is eliminated.

There are a few issues with this portion of things, I know. First, the team in fifth on March 1 could wind up finishing ninth by the end of the year. Just as the team in 12th could nosedive and wind up 4th by the end of the year. This lends credence to using a set number of games each year towards the end of the regular season. The last 10 games for the league’s five worst teams, for example. That not only provides a concrete definition of the games being considered, but it also can provide a failsafe for those teams who surge or regress in the final weeks of the year.

Ideally this would be something that you would track in realtime. Almost like the NASCAR standings. That way each night the teams in the running are truly competing for that top pick as opposed to simply evaluating the standings once the year is out. If that means you need to expand this beyond the bottom five teams, so be it. But I’d rather determine the participants by a certain point in the year – probably shortly after St. Patrick’s Day – and officially begin the NHL Draft Challenge at that time.

That way, as the end of the season approaches the teams in the cellar would have something to play for over their final 10 games. The team with the best record would win the first pick. I’d also reward the second and third place finishers in the Challenge with the second and third overall picks. The rest of the draft order would be determined by order of finish in the standings. This way you reward the teams who succeed in the challenge while not completely handcuffing the 30th and 29th place teams if they’re truly horrible.

One way to avoid that would be to install a sliding scale, of sorts. This Challenge could still encompass the five, seven, ten or even fourteen non-playoff teams but rather than using a set number of games a point percentage of games once a team had been eliminated. While teams who are eliminated on the final week or weekend may need to be excluded, it would eliminate some of the confusing elements to picking the participants. This way teams eliminated later could still be part of the Challenge while not being at a disadvantage in terms of the number of games they could play upon their elimination from playoff contention.

One other wrinkle this would add would be regarding the trade deadline and impending free agents. There is the potential to limit the number of true sellers at the deadline because of the potential interest in grabbing that first pick. Simply selling off UFAs for draft picks would be far less prevalent than true hockey trades so that even the league’s worst teams maintain some competitiveness.

Obviously there will still be sellers as a team like the 2013-14 Sabres who know they need to build through the draft will still value trades like the one that sent Matt Moulson to Minnesota. But I’d assume that some teams may hold onto certain players in the event they believe they can land the first pick.

This isn’t a perfect system. Picking the right time to choose the teams who would be participating and not excluding teams who may enter the bottom five later in the year would complicate matters. But it would also add excitement and interest for the teams and fans who would otherwise be wallowing through a 29th or 30th place season.

Here’s the rundown of the system once again:

–          The league’s bottom five teams would compete over their final 10 games to determine who wins the first overall draft pick

o   The number of teams could be expanded if necessary.

–          The number of points accumulated in the standings over those final 10 games would determine the winner

–          The competition would occur in real time as each of the final 10 games are played by each participating team

–          The top three finishers in the Draft Challenge would win the top three picks. The rest of the draft order would be determined by order of finish in the standings.

–          Teams that qualify for the Challenge would be determined once the fifth worst team was officially eliminated from the playoffs.

–          If the point percentage system is used, the Challenge would begin for each team once they were eliminated from the playoffs

o   Under that system, the percentage of points earned vs. available would determine the standings for the Draft Challenge

o   Teams eliminated on the final weekend or week of the season may not be eligible for participation depending on the number of games they’d have remaining

A honky tonk hockey roadtrip

A honky tonk hockey roadtrip

A honky tonk hockey roadtrip

Last month I shared some thoughts on making a trip to catch a junior hockey game. For those who live close enough to a major junior team, it’s an affordable, worthwhile trip to take. I recently returned from another type of hockey trip that’s a little larger in terms of scale.

I traveled to Nashville to take in a Predators game at Bridgestone Arena. It marked the third NHL game I’d seen in a building besides First Niagara Center and the fifth NHL venue I have attended. Technically it was the six as I saw the Penguins play at Mellon Arena while I witness a hockey game at their new home, the CONSOL Energy Center. The other arenas I’ve been to are Air Canada Centre, Rogers Arena and then FNC, CONSOL and Mellon.

The trip to Nashville was centered around a larger trip to take in the sights and sounds of Music City. But the game served as the main event with visits to local watering holes and music venues serving as a nice compliment to the game itself.

When it comes to sports road trips I’m a complete novice. Luckily Nashville has more than enough to keep you occupied during the day and night. Broadway is packed to the gills with bars that feature live music every night and you’ll be hard pressed to find a poor act, especially at the larger joints. We saw at least two acts each of the three nights we were out and none of them disappointed. In addition, the Midtown area provides a much different vibe with a more laid back vibe at each of the patio bars along that strip.

But Broadway is not only where the live music is bountiful but where Bridgestone Arena resides. It makes for an awesome pre and postgame atmosphere as the bars are full with Preds fans at all times and almost the entire arena empties to that one strip.

Bridgestone itself is an attractive building with open concourses and an interesting layout. Like First Niagara Center, Bridgestone has a large entry atrium with the ticket office, team store and access to each level right as you walk in. I really like this type of layout because you’re not funneled into a cramped space upon walking in the front door. You know where you are and you have options as to where you can go.

The sightlines in the arena are nice as the seating bowl isn’t arranged in an odd manner and the focus is on the game. Perhaps the coolest thing is that the press box isn’t separated from the 300 level. I very nearly ran over David Poile in the first intermission and Seth Jones was chatting with a couple fans when I walked by in the second intermission. It’s certainly an odd setting to have visiting scouts, scratches and other media personalities wandering around the concourse. I didn’t notice any fans asking for autographs, which is honorable, but it did seem as if they weren’t afraid to approach anyone they recognized.

As for the fans, they’re terrific. The Preds promote a loud, college-like atmosphere at their games. The fans are engaged from the drop of the puck and stay loud the entire night. The Preds help to promote this by keeping in-game promotions to a minimum, keeping the focus on the game you’re watching and primarily using pump-up videos and music between whistles. This means the Kiss Cam, Blooper reel and fans on the video board shots are saved for intermission. I can’t express how much I enjoyed that. Replays were queued up almost immediately, from multiple angles after nearly every stoppage and there was only the odd fan shot prior to play beginning.

The Preds led for most of the game and the 4-3 shootout win for the home side was back-and-forth, which helped keep everyone interested for the duration of the contest. There was one pump up feature I grew tired of after two periods and it was the combination of a movie clip and a “make some noise” graphic that was used consistently. While it served to keep the crowd raucous, it got old after a while.

I should point out that I did not make the trip to see my hometown team, but simply a game at the arena. This isn’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, but the new NHL schedule provides for a home-and-home for every team in the league. That means your hometown team plays at least one road game in every arena if you must see them on any future trip.

Nashville is quite a haul from Buffalo, especially if you’re driving. But cities like Columbus, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Toronto and every New York are a manageable drive from the Nickel City. Boston, Philly and Washington DC aren’t too far away either. That’s ten teams within a reasonable drive from Buffalo that would make a terrific road trip for any fan. Find a hotel close to the arena or an entertainment district, snag a set of seats (aftermarket or box office) and hit the road.

Holiday Gift Guide for skaters

Bauer Vapor APX Mini Stick

Manufacturers bring top-end sticks to childhood favorite

With the holiday season upon us, hockey players are going to be filling their lists with all sorts of gift ideas. Some may be in need of an upgrade of a certain piece of equipment while others may be hoping to get the newest technology in their hands.

As you prepare to begin your shopping this year, keep some of these ideas in mind for the hockey players on your list:

Sticks: There are some awesome deals on sticks out there currently along with some very cool new technology that has really set a number of manufacturers apart from the others. One very cool idea, especially for the holidays is the MyBauer program. It is a feature that Bauer offers which will allow you to fully customize a stick just like the pros do. From flex and pattern right down to your own name and number, it is a very cool, personal gift idea. The new Easton VSeries is a brand new line from Easton with some incredible features and a lightweight profile across the entire line. The V5E comes at a great price point and offers many of the benefits that the VSeries has introduced. There are also a ton of great deals on Warrior’s full collection, including the Dynasty AX3. The Dynasty line is a tremendous collection with some groundbreaking technology from a company that is making huge strides with their impressive stick technology.

Gloves: Of all the gloves on the shelves nowadays, there isn’t anything cooler than the exclusive Warrior Bonafide Winter Classic gloves. These are a special edition glove designed by Warrior to compliment the uniforms that will be worn by Detroit and Toronto in this year’s Winter Classic. Both gloves come in 13 and 14-inch models and are very basic, but classic in their look. These will be huge favorites this winter. The Warrior Covert DT2 gloves also slot in at a phenomenal price point along with the incredibly comfy CCM CL400 gloves. If you’re looking for more color options than Toronto or Detroit, those two models would be a great place to start.

One last piece to keep in mind is the Youth Hockey Package. If a family member is hoping to, or has already started playing hockey, this is a wonderful gift to give. It features every piece of equipment that you need to get started; including a helmet, pants, shoulder pads, skates, gloves, shin guards and elbow pads. All that’s needed is a stick, a skater and a rink and your new player is good to go.

Stocking Stuffers: Laces, tape and hockey apparel are always welcome presents for hockey players of all ages.