The NHL couldn’t have planned things any better for the 2014 Stanley Cup Final as the nation’s two biggest media markets will duel against one another for the Cup as the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings start the final series of the year on Wednesday.
Los Angeles managed to squeak by the Chicago Blackhawks after jumping out to a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference Final while the Rangers dispatched the Montreal Canadiens in six games after Carey Price was put on the shelf with an injury.
The early returns on the matchup has many fans and experts pointing to the Kings as the expected champs, giving Los Angeles their second Cup in three years. However, the Rangers have more than enough depth and firepower to not only give the Kings a run but even bring the Cup back to the Big Apple.
Henrik Lundqvist will need to serve as the factor that lifts the Rangers to the Cup as I feel that Los Angeles holds a decided edge in nearly every other facet of the game. Lundqvist has been superb this season while Jonathan Quick has had to work through some struggles and consistency issues over the Kings 21 previous games.
One factor that many are pointing to is that Los Angeles has needed seven games to get through all three of their series while the Rangers are enjoying a bit more rest. However, the Rangers needed seven games against both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia while taking six more to get by Montreal. So they’ve only played one game fewer than the Kings while going through more travel in the first two rounds than the Kings did in their first two series.
It is understandable that the mental exhaustion pushing against the Kings has likely grown in each round as they rallied from a 3-0 deficit against San Jose, battled through a back-and-forth affair against their cross-town rivals and then had to endure a marathon against the Blackhawks. The Rangers have had slightly less stress on their plate, although they had to win three-straight to get by Pittsburgh in the second. So, while the Rangers got to relax on their couches for a few more days after taking the Eastern Conference title, I don’t think they have stores of energy that will help them run LA out of the building on Wednesday.
One intriguing matchup will be how LA’s potent power play fares against New York’s stingy shorthanded unit. The Rangers boast one of the most effective penalty kills in the playoffs while the Kings sit at the top of the league with the extra man. Most of the focus will fall on Lundqvist when the Rangers are shorthanded, but if the Kings lose that portion of their attack it could drastically alter the series.
LA otherwise has a deeper attack and blueline than the Rangers entering the series. The emergence of Dominic Moore, Mats Zuccarello, Benoit Pouliot and Derick Brassard has aided the Rangers along the way, but the forward depth LA possesses is almost unmatched. One you’re past the top line of Brown, Kopitar and Gaborik and the equally impressive That 70’s Line of Pearson, Carter and Toffoli, the Kings still have Dwight King, Justin Williams, Jarret Stoll, Mike Richards and others to their credit. When you consider that three of LA’s lines are equally impressive in their own end as they are in the attacking zone, it makes them that much more daunting of an opponent.
It’s not all that surprising to see such a terrific roster in LA given that they are two years removed from their first Cup victory and they paced the league in terms of possession for the year. When the defensive depth chart includes Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez, Willie Mitchell, Slava Voynov and Robyn Regehr there’s a good chance that every unit that hits the ice is going to be effective.
Don’t misunderstand the tire pumping that I’ve given the Kings as an indication that they’re going to breeze through the Final, I just see them as the superior team.
Brad Richards, Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, Carl Hagelin and Martin St. Louis form an impressive forward corps, but I don’t see the same quality of depth in the New York lineup. Once you’re past McDonagh, Girardi and Staal on the backend things seem to get a little thin as well. Overall, the Rangers are a very strong team that are about to showdown with a stronger, more effective squad.
The NHL’s change to divisional seeding for the playoffs has paid off ten-fold for the league as the Conference Finals are set to begin. A thrilling set of first round series led into another entertaining round two that saw three of the four series go to a game seven. With an Original Six matchup in the East and a rematch of last year’s Conference Final in the West, the third round ought to shake out much the same way the first two rounds did.
Montreal Canadiens vs. New York Rangers
Things could change drastically in this series if Carey Price is unable to play for any length of time. The first game shook out in a way few could have predicted as the Rangers tilted the ice in their favor from the opening faceoff and ran the Habs out of their won building with a 7-2 victory.
It was my expectation that the Canadiens defense could serve as their weak spot but that their depth and speed up front would outperform the Rangers. While New York may have more big guns, it seems as if the Canadiens had depth on their side. Both teams had been largely powered by their third lines and those units will likely be the focal point yet again as each team works to shut down the opponent’s top line.
What could ultimately tip the scales in New York’s favor is their slight defensive advantage. As immensely talented as PK Subban is, the Montreal defensive corps don’t impress me as much as the group New York plays on a nightly basis.
The goaltending matchup is also an interesting one, although game one may alter how the rest of the series plays out. Henrik Lundqvist has shown a Hasek-ian propensity to steal games for his team even when they’re overmatched. He’s been nearly impossible to score on and only flukes and perfect tips have been getting the job done lately. Price, meanwhile, has been just as impressive throughout the playoffs. He’d be Montreal’s conn Smythe candidate should the Habs lift the Cup and he will be a key factor in this series.
While game one makes things look bad for Montreal, I think they will find a way to overpower New York thanks to the overall balance of talent. Both teams are very similar to one another but I feel like the Canadiens come away as the winners here.
Montreal in 6
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Los Angeles Kings
This is the showdown between the burgeoning dynasty and the plucky underdogs who won’t go away. Chicago was likely the favorite to win the Cup from the start of the postseason for many fans and experts. They have show little, to no drop off from last season’s Cup run and they got things off on the right foot in game one of this series.
Los Angeles has stared down two separate elimination scenarios and came away victorious in their first two rounds. After winning four-straight elimination games against San Jose, they did it again against the Ducks. Between their first two series, the Kings have played a pair of game sevens and faced elimination a total of six times.
While goaltending is a major reason both of these teams have made it to this point, I feel that this series will be decided by the team’s top lines. The Stanley Cup playoffs are always about matchups, shutdown pairs and the ability to stymie a team’s best weapons. The Kings and Blackhawks have the luxury of not only having incredible forward depth, but a top line that can double as a shutdown unit. So, depending on how Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews’ units fare in this series may just dictate who comes out on top. Game one tells a story where Toews and his wingers enjoyed the advantage and the score reflects exactly that.
Another potential factor is the fatigue that LA is dealing with versus that of the Blackhawks. Chicago got out of both the first and second rounds in six games while the Kings played seven games in each series. As brief as the rest may have been for the Blackhawks, the Kings have not been able to enjoy as much time off. While their first two series were both played in California, those extra games will certainly take a toll on the players. If they’re unable to maintain against Chicago, it could make for a quick series.
STX, a long running lacrosse powerhouse, has dove headfirst into the hockey market as they unveiled their two elite level sticks earlier this year. The Stallion 500 and Surgeon 500 sticks are on the shelves now and Matt Moulson has been using the Stallion 500 for most of the 2013-14 season.
Matt Hoppe, Senior Brand Manager at STX, took some time out of his day to answer some questions for us about STX’s foray into hockey, the tech behind their new sticks and what else is coming down the pipe in the coming months. Matt offers some incredible insight into the development process and an awesome inside look at the products STX offers to players.
Great Skate: STX jumped headfirst into the hockey market this year, how long of a process has the company gone through from the first discussions of releasing a hockey line to the release of the Stallion and Surgeon sticks?
Matt Hoppe:STX has been eyeing an entry into the hockey category for the better part of a decade and really cranked up the intensity and internal efforts (R&D build out/internal staffing/etc) over the past 3 years.
Up front it was imperative to us that we committed the time and effort to really understand the wants and needs of hockey athletes. Before we made a step toward putting a pen to paper for designing anything we spent considerable time talking to players to ensure we were bringing to market products that would respect and advance the game.
As we spent more and more time in rinks talking to players we found, even in regions where lacrosse happens to still be an emerging sport, genuine excitement about the prospect of our company bringing a fresh perspective to the game.
GS: STX is probably best known for their lacrosse equipment. Do you have any professional experience with lacrosse or are you strictly a hockey guy?
MH: I am really green when it comes to lacrosse. It wasn’t a sport that was offered at the prep school I attended (Shattuck- St. Mary’s) and it wasn’t really around in Michigan in the late 80’s early 90’s when I was growing up. I really wish it would have been because it’s clear there is a direct connection between the games from a skill set development standpoint. Both games are incredibly fast and demand a really high level of hand eye coordination.
We have a few incredibly skilled lacrosse players in the office and I’ve been badgering them to teach me the game but we haven’t gotten very far in our lessons yet.
GS: Assuming you’ve had the chance to test each of the sticks, which of the two best suits your game?
MH: One of the perks of the job is definitely equipment testing. We skate once a week as a company and I’ve had the luxury of getting to log some serious hours with both sticks. I’m more of a Stallion guy. The constant flex profile is what I’m more used to using.
I tend to swap back and forth between the two (I love the feel of the Surgeon blade) – but given my skill set (or complete lack thereof) no one would ever mistake me for a dangler or an electric playmaker!
GS: One issue that newer companies seem to struggle with is the mental block some players have in using a product that isn’t produced by a big name company. While the tech behind these sticks and STX’s pedigree speaks for itself, have you noticed any sort of trepidation surrounding the release? What would you say differentiates the Stallion and Surgeon from the sticks made by the “big boys”?
MH: There will always be a bit of a barrier to entry with new products from a new company. This is definitely something we are aware of from a consumer standpoint. We know the best way to get someone comfortable with the products is to have them try it first-hand. To that end we’ll be out in the market offering demo days and we’ve worked with our retail partners (like Great Skate) to provide them demo stock for their shooting areas in their stores.
Probably the biggest advantage our sticks have going for them is overall feel and playability. Our sticks have an incredibly high balance point giving them a very good off the rack “feel”). The stick blades have also been specifically tuned to the sticks to give players that extra edge when shooting or receiving passes etc.).
We’ve been making elite level game changing equipment for 40+ years at STX. So while we might be new to hockey we wouldn’t have put our hockey sticks into the market if we didn’t believe in them.
GS: Something that I really like about the line, in addition to the performance benefits, is that the graphics aren’t overdone and the stick isn’t weighed down with extra paint like you see with certain companies. Was there any consideration to dress the sticks up more or was the clear focus to ensure elite performance?
MH: This was a clear choice for a couple of reasons. Luckily we have some really strong brand pillars from our lacrosse and field hockey lines that we were able to bring over to ice hockey (the Surgeon and Stallion product names). So in some respects the color palette, design aesthetics, and player archetypes were already in place.
However, even with that base to work from, I’ve got 30 years in and around the game of hockey and we have several other folks here (for example – Rocco Amonte our NHL rep) who have been around the game even longer and that experience provides a nice base to work from when thinking about providing elite level players what they need.
A LOT of care and thought went into the stick designs. We wanted to balance making them pop on ice, appeal to the up close inspection you often get when kids are picking them up at retail stores, and probably most importantly was ensuring the top down view of the stick wasn’t busy. We know how fast the game moves and any distraction to a player’s peripheral vision can be the difference between making a play and getting run over.
GS: The Power and Precision Flex Profiles are very interesting features for each of the sticks. Could you shed a little more light on the technology that went into each stick and the benefits a player will get from using each?
MH: Absolutely, both sticks benefit from a very high balance point (which naturally extends the taper of the stick). This longer taper allows players to load the stick with less effort.
Speaking specifically about the two sticks The POWER FLEX profile of the Stallion is set up for players who are used to using a constant flex profile stick. The Stallion is going to load with a more traditional feel and will really respond well to players we take a lot of one timers or heavy snap shots etc. This is a stick that is going to give players who like to lean into their shots a little extra boost.
The PRECISION FLEX of the Surgeon line is going to provide players that dual kick point that has become a little more popular over the past few years. With the Surgeon 500 players are going to notice that elongated taper even more as the lower kick point will load incredibly fast when taking quick wristers or making quick passing plays in tight.
GS: Each stick has its own unique blade construction as well. This is a feature that seems to be the next big thing in stick design and STX is out ahead of the pack in pairing blade stiffness to the type of stick you’re buying. What’s the thought process behind this development and what are the benefits?
MH: Balancing the demand for a stick that really has pop with the desire to offer players that elusive wood blade “puck feel” is the most difficult part of stick design.
We know that certain players really want a stick that enhances their shot speed. While other players really value feel and being able to know where that puck is on their stick at all times. That means offering them options – gone are the days where you can just crank out a composite stick, put a graphic on it, and call it a day. Players are far too savvy to accept that. They want finely tuned performance and we believe that our sticks offer players just that. From the blade, to the flex profile, to the balance point we’ve tried to put together two distinct stick lines that provide players options and performance.
GS: With both sticks catering to the elite player, are there any plans to begin developing price point models for the player who may not be looking for the elite performance offered by these two models?
MH: Yes, we have great price point sticks (for both the Surgeon and the Stallion stick lines) that will be available this fall.
GS: I’m not sure if I’m the only one to pick up on this, but it’s slightly ironic to see a player who was selected in the National Lacrosse League draft as the poster boy for your line. Are you able to talk a little bit about the process of bringing Matt Moulson on to use the sticks and how involved he’s been in developing the line?
MH: Matt is obviously a very talented athlete. His NHL success speaks for itself and yes (great catch) he is/was a very talented lacrosse player. He actually is still very interested in lacrosse and is very knowledgeable about the game itself.
Matt was a guy we identified very early on in the process as someone we really wanted to try to partner with. He’s a guy that has, until very recently, flown under the radar. Which for the amount of points he has produced over the past 5 years is astounding.
We approached Matt early in the season and he was aware of our brand right away (from his lacrosse background) and once we determined there was some interest in working together we immediately had him jump into the product development/testing process with us.
I’ll give you a great example of how his insight has translated over to our product development process. In an early stick sample we sent him he was having difficulties with blade torsion when taking one timers. So we went back in and tweaked the stiffness of the hosel on his sticks until we met the feel he was after. This change was something ultimately migrated over to our Stallion sticks line now at retail. His input had a direct impact on our product development – which speaks to the invaluable nature of our partnership with Matt.
GS: Moulson uses the Stallion and I noticed Cody Hodgson with a handful of Stallions when he was cleaning out his locker a few weeks ago. Should we expect to see more NHLers using the Stallion and Surgeon next year?
MH: Yes absolutely. We knew we wanted to spend a year working with Matt and getting the product right and launched into market. You should expect to see us expand our player relationships in the NHL next season.
GS: Based on the NHL players you’ve dealt with to this point have you noticed that the Stallion is the more popular model amongst them? Or has it been a fairly even split?
MH: It has actually been split pretty evenly the Surgeon has been a stick that has gotten rave reviews from players and the Stallion, with its constant flex profile, is one that is very common among NHL’ers.
GS: Speaking of seeing the sticks in the NHL, it’s my understanding that companies need to pay a fee in order for their logos to be shown on equipment used by players. Was there any consideration to not pay the fee to the league or does the exposure garnered outweigh those costs? (I realize that some of these questions may be off limits, so if you’re unable to answer them or provide detailed descriptions I understand)
MH: The NHL does charge a fee to allow companies to put their products on ice. There was never a consideration to not pay the fee. We fully respect and value the exposure the NHL brings to the table from a sports marketing and product visibility perspective. The athletes playing in the NHL are at the pinnacle of the sport – garnering their input and approval is something we know is a must for long term success.
GS: Should we expect to see STX gloves gracing the hands ofNHLers next year? If yes, can you drop any hints as to what we might expect?
MH: Matt Moulson is actually wearing our new Stallion glove now. He started wearing it in the last few weeks of the regular season. It was incredible for us to deliver him a glove a few games before the playoffs started and watch him swap right into it without missing a beat.
STX has a long history of designing and developing gloves and protective – so we are very confident what we are working on it going to really impress the broader hockey community.
Looking forward you can expect to see gloves and protective equipment that offer players enhanced mobility, targeted protection, and the usage of materials not super common to the game.
Being new to ice hockey we have the ability to pave our way into the sport in whatever manner we see best. That means you’ll see us doing some things over the next 12-24 months which might feel a bit different (and we view that as a good thing) but first and foremost you’ll always see us respecting the game and only providing products that we believe give players a measurable performance advantage on the ice.
The Surgeon 500 and Stallion 500 sticks are just the tip of iceberg. We have a lot of really amazing, and in some cases game changing, products we are putting the final touches on. It is going to be an exciting 12 months in the hockey department here at STX!
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.
Picking OT goal scorers has become one of the best games to play amongst friends in recent years. The prevalence of the practice has expanded to countless online contests, many of which are run through Twitter.
Now you have the opportunity to win a $10 e-gift card to Great Skate by participating in our own OT Challenge.
The Great Skate OT Challenge will run for the rest of the playoffs and will be done exclusively via the Great Skate Twitter account @greatskate. The rules are simple and not unlike many other OT guessing games out there.
First, you must follow the Great Skate Twitter account and be sure to retweet the game instructions that were sent out yesterday. Second, make your picks by tagging them with #GreatSkateOTChallenge. You should pick one player per team. If you guess the right play you’ll be entered into a drawing to win the $10 gift card.
Now that the season has finally wound down the real fun can begin. The NHL Playoffs begin on Wednesday evening as three different series kick off the 2014 postseason.
While the Boston Bruins claimed the President’s Trophy this year, the Western Conference boasts four of the league’s top five teams based on the final point standings. The West has been regarded as the stronger conference this season, but there’s a strong possibility that the team coming away with the Clarence C. Campbell Cup will have taken a savage beating to get there.
Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild
The Avalanche used a late run and a backslide by St. Louis to sneak into the top spot in the Central Division. The surge not only lifted the Avs to a division title but also out of a first round showdown with Chicago. They’ll face Central Division rival, Minnesota, who finished with a stranglehold on the first wild card position in the West.
Minnesota worked through a goaltending carousel in order to capture what would have previously been considered the seventh seed under the old playoff format. They finished seven points clear of Dallas and wound up with a nice cushion in the standings as Dallas and Phoenix fought for the final position.
What to Watch For
Colorado has been powered by their young core that features three top-three selections. Matt Duchene (3rd overall 2009) is on the shelf with an injury but captain Gabriel Landeskog (2nd overall 2011) and Nathan MacKinnon (1st overall 2013) have kept the ship on course over the last few weeks. While Duchene won’t likely factor in this series, the Avs have solid scoring depth and have received stout goaltending for much of the season.
Minnesota features a more veteran laden lineup with a few elite talents that power their engine. Ryan Suter is their minute eating stalwart and his fellow free agent classmate Zach Parise headlines a forward group with plenty of offensive pedigree. There may be some question marks in the crease, but the players playing in front of Ilya Bryzgalov can skate with just about anyone in the league.
Colorado is the favorite entering the series despite Duchene’s absence. While I think that Suter’s ability on the backend and Minnesota’s ability to match a great deal of Colorado’s lineup will keep the series close, I think that the Avs have enough depth to really give Minnesota fits. If the Wild’s scorers are able to get free it could be a long series. But if cast behind Landeskog and MacKinnon
Edge: Colorado. Varlamov is going to get some votes for the Vezina and could potentially be a finalist. Bryzgalov’s resurgence in Minnesota has been nice to see after the rough ride he got in Philadelphia the last few years. While his play has improved, his countryman has been a rock for the entire year.
Colorado in six
Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues
Things couldn’t have ended much worse for the Blues as they’ve seen a bevvy of injuries underscore an ugly losing streak that knocked them from the top spot in the west and into an incredibly challenging series against the defending Cup champs.
Chicago enters the series a little banged up as well with both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are nursing injuries of their own. The Blackhawks dropped the season series against the Blues but seem to have had their number lately, winning their last two meetings quite decisively.
What to watch for
This series is going to hinge on two things for the Blues: their goal scoring and goaltending. Ryan Miller has had a rough streak to end the season and has plenty of Blues fans questioning why they spent so much to acquire him. He hasn’t gotten much goal support despite the incredible puck possession the Blues exhibit each night. St. Louis has been shutout in three of their last six and they’ll need superhuman goaltending from Miller or Brian Elliott if they expect to get by the Hawks. But hoping to win four 1-0 games wouldn’t work if Dominik Hasek was in net.
As for the Blackhawks, they have the depth to be a very scary team even when Toews and Kane aren’t at 100%. If those two return and dominate this will be a very short series. If they remain hobbled the onus will fall on Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to carry the load. Given their collective skillset it shouldn’t be an issue.
The Blues will need to hope they heal up quickly if they plan on advancing past the first round. Should they get healthy prior to the series I could see them matching Chicago player-for-player should Toews and Kane not see considerable minutes. Depth scoring will likely drive the series as I expect each team’s top guns to be locked down for the duration of the series. If that is the case I’d say the Hawks come away winners.
Edge: Chicago. On paper you might choose Miller over Crawford but the former has hit the skids hard as of late and Crawford is the proud owner of a Cup ring. Whether or not both teams return to full health, Miller will have far more to prove in the series and I expect the Blackhawks to be victorious.
Chicago in six
Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars
This is expected to be a series that advanced stats fans watch very closely. The Ducks finished the year with below average possession numbers while the Stars were quite respectable in that department. Many who track advanced stats closely see the Stars as a legitimate threat to the Ducks in the first round despite how the standings shook out.
Anaheim has a solid blueline and a pair of world-class scorers in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Getzlaf is probably going to finish second to Sidney Crosby in the Hart Trophy voting while Perry continues to pour in goals like it’s going out of style. Bruce Boudreau will have a tough choice to make in net as Jonas Hiller has been okay but not tremendous this year. Meanwhile Frederik Andersen and John Gibson are both viable options to roll with. However, the youth of the latter two makes them tough to roll with right off the bat.
Dallas saw a major roster overhaul kickoff last summer and the result is a playoff berth. Pairing Tyler Seguin with Jamie Benn has created a scoring duo that can run with any team’s top line across the league. Seeing if they can outscore Getzlaf and Perry will be fascinating although their success may hinge on Kari Lehtonen’s performance. If he’s on, I expect the Stars to pull the upset.
What to watch for
Anaheim needs sound goaltending and I suspect that Hiller isn’t the solution to that particular issue. While he’s started the majority of their games this season, it would appear as if Andersen or Gibson could be the direction to follow. I would assume that Hiller starts but is given a very short leash to operate on. Goal scoring won’t be a problem for the Ducks as they have a very deep lineup, but they’ll be relying heavily on their netminders to advance.
What could serve as Dallas’ Achilles Heel is their depth. It’s not so much that it’s lacking but I don’t know how well it matches up with what Anaheim will roll out. If Benn and Seguin are locked down, I’ll be interested to see where their goal scoring will come from.
This is setting up to be a home team series as line matching and locking down scorers will likely drive each team’s respective game plan and success.
Edge: Dallas. Lehtonen is always one wrong move away from injury but he’s been very steady for the Stars all year. While Hiller could be described as dependable, he hasn’t been outstanding and, in turn, hasn’t inspired much faith with his play. Lehtonen is the constant here while the Ducks are in limbo.
Ducks in seven
San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings
It’s safe to say this series is precisely why the NHL switched back to the divisional format. The opportunity for the Sharks, Ducks and Kings to see each other in the postseason along with other rivalries like the Canadiens and Bruins and Penguins and Flyers were the blueprint. It’s safe to say that this one shows they might have gotten things right.
The Kings did their thing yet again, cruising through the regular season and locking up a playoff spot relatively early on. Their goaltender captured the Jennings Trophy and they made some adept moves at the deadline to strengthen their depth, particularly up front, and they appear to be poised for another run.
San Jose isn’t easy to ignore as their up and coming stars have taken over from the old core that couldn’t get over the hump in the early 2000s. The fact that the old core still remains adds to the ridiculous talent pool the Sharks boast as Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski compliment Joe Thornton, Partrick Marleau and others.
What to watch for
The Sharks talent up front features two lines that would be the top line for a majority of the teams around the league. The fact that they are able to spread that talent over not two, but three lines speaks to the roster they’ve built. I think they are left wanting on the back end to an extent and while they have some elite talent on the blue line (see Vlasic, Marc-Edouard) that might be the only weak spot they have.
Los Angeles has the talent to completely blow games open with their dominant puck possession style. They boast a likely Selke Finalist in Anze Kopitar, an explosive scoring winger in Jeff Carter and a number of complimentary pieces that rounds out their top nine. They also have Justin Williams, who has proven to be beyond clutch come playoff time. Their blueline is sound and I’d definitely give their group the edge over San Jose’s blueline in terms of a head-to-head comparison.
This has all the makings for a knock down, seven game series which the winner will likely crawl, not walk, away from. I really have no idea who I’d favor between the two teams, although a recent Cup and the edge in net likely favors the Kings.
Edge: Los Angeles. While Niemi has had a great year, Quick’s has been better. He captured the Jennings Trophy (with some help from Martin Jones) and already has a Conn Smythe Trophy to his record. He’s been terrific yet again this year and there’s no reason to think he isn’t good for at least one series win this spring.
Los Angeles in seven
Eastern Conference playoff preview and prediction
A pair of Eastern Conference series kick off this year’s postseason and while the East may not be as deep or talented as the West, their best teams can run with anyone in the league.
Boston and the Penguins are the favorites to come out of the East but I won’t be surprised to see one, or both, upset along the way.
Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings
Detroit extended their impressive playoff streak to 23 seasons despite battling a ridiculous number of injuries down the stretch this year. While most of their walking wounded are preparing to return, the level of health the team will be playing at is certainly going to be a focal point.
Boston, meanwhile, captured the President’s Trophy and steamrolled the East on their way to a 117 point season. The Bruins bully their way around with an impressive combination of size and skill throughout their lineup.
What to watch for
Patrice Bergeron is going to win the Selke Trophy again and he’s going to garner votes for the Hart Trophy as well. He’s not an offensive powerhouse but his positive puck possession numbers make his line a lethal trio to handle. Offseason acquisition Loui Eriksson was beat up a bit this season but if he can return to full health for the playoffs he’d present the Bruins another tremendous scoring option. The obvious story along the blueline is Zdeno Chara but his countryman Andrej Meszaros has proven to be a terrific deadline acquisition for Peter Chiarelli and has shored up what was already a strong group.
The Wings get a nice treat in their first year in the East with a berth against last year’s Cup finalists coming off a stretch run where their playoff streak was in jeopardy due to a number of injuries. Pavel Datsyuk is back on the ice but isn’t likely back to full strength just yet. Henrik Zetterberg appears to be somewhat close to a return. However, even if he does make it back for this series, what sort of condition will he be in?
Detroit’s youth will have to carry them to victories as players like Gustav Nyqusit, Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco will be looked to as important cogs to any success the Red Wings will have. The key for Boston will be to lean on the Red Wings defensive corps. They’re a youthful bunch who could be targeted by the Bruins, especially at the TD Garden when Claude Julien has the last change.
Edge: Boston. Jimmy Howard is a terrific goaltender but Tuukka Rask happens to be better. Rask is a lock to win the Vezina and I expect him to steal at least one game on his own this series.
Boston in five
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Montreal Canadiens
If the San Jose/Los Angeles series is the perfect example of the division format I’d argue that this series is the antitheses of that. Both teams are talented groups with a handful of exciting players dotting each roster. However, there’s no real meat to the matchup itself.
The Canadiens feature a tremendous goaltender and nice depth up and down their lineup. They might be a little thin on the blue line and their five-on-five scoring leaves you wanting but when you have a forward group that features Max Pacioretty and Thomas Vanek on the same line, it’s likely that you have something working in your favor. Finding scoring beyond those two could prove to be a challenge.
Tampa Bay suffered what could be a major blow at the end of the year as Ben Bishop went down with an injury and is a question mark for this first round series. Steven Stamkos is on a level that few other NHLers can reach and will be a major factor for the Bolts in this series. Like the Canadiens, Tampa will rely on their secondary scoring to advance past the first round.
What to watch for
Montreal’s power play is tremendous. Vanek and Pacioretty are both lethal scorers and PK Subban is equally potent from the point. However, if that top line gets shut down by the Lightning, the Canadiens could be in a lot of trouble. However, their special teams are phenomenal and could certainly wind up as the difference maker in this series.
If Ben Bishop doesn’t come back in time to make a difference in this series the Lightning could be cooked before the first puck drops. Even if he does return, his physical condition could make him more of a hindrance than a benefit. Tampa will need to match Montreal on special teams and their young stars will need to shine.
I believe Tampa Bay has a little more depth than Montreal up front. Should that depth start producing early I could see the Lightning coming away with the win. However, Bishop’s status likely condemns the Lightning to an early exit which is unfortunate considering the season they enjoyed.
Edge: Montreal. If Bishop was at full health this would be a dead heat. Both Price and Bishop are going to garner attention for the Vezina and have been two of the league’s best goalies this year. Lindback has been quite streaky and represents a significant drop off when compared to Bishop.
Montreal in five
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
At some point the Blue Jackets will catch a break. Their first playoff appearance in franchise history saw them face the Red Wings who were in the middle of a run where they played for back-to-back Cups. Columbus was overmatched by a Red Wings roster that is starting to tail off when compared to this year’s team. Now the Blue Jackets are treated to a showdown with Sidney Crosby and co. in the 2014 first round.
While the Blue Jackets have some nice pieces, Ryan Johansen immediately comes to mind, they don’t have that cornerstone talent you can look to for a big performance. They score by committee and are a team that defines the whole being greater than the sum of it’s parts. They have a number of exciting young talents to keep an eye on, but lacking that big gun could hurt them in the end.
The Penguins come as advertised. They have one of the best forward groups in the league that is top heavy with offensive dynamos like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and others. They’re blueline is a little thin and Marc-Andre Fleury is surrounded by question marks. Their shortcomings are well documented but they’re often overshadowed by their strengths.
What to watch for
If Columbus hopes to compete in this series they’ll need to have all four lines rolling with their top nine chipping in on a regular basis. If they’re able to quiet one of Pittsburgh’s top units they’ll have a punchers chance based on the overall depth they possess.
The Blue Jackets certainly have the edge in net and the mental makeup of Fluery heading into this series is going to be something to focus on. He is likely operating on a short leash even with an unstable situation behind him. However, even if Fleury struggles, Tomas Vokoun was part of last year’s Eastern Conference Final appearance. I find it hard to say that they don’t have enough talent and fire power to get past Columbus.
Pittsburgh will wind up taking this series simply because they have too many heads to contain. While the Blue Jackets feature a lineup with more than one line that can score, the Penguins take that to a whole different level.
Edge: Columbus. While I’m not the biggest fan of Bobrovsky, he’s shown much more promise and success than Fluery this season. While Fleury benefits from playing behind what almost equates to an All Star team in some respects, Bobrovsky handles a more difficult workload. While I see the Penguins taking the series, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was in spite of Fleury.
Pittsburgh in six
New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers
It may not be the Flyers and Penguins, but this series still boasts some nice background to build on. While neither squad started the year well, each rallied hard to not only qualify for the post season but avoid a serious push at a wild card position.
The Rangers come in with the edge in net but I’d argue that the Flyers have the edge in terms of talent up front. I suspect that a lot of New York’s success will come from the ability to match Ryan McDonagh and friends against Claude Giroux. If Giroux’s line is stymied the Rangers will have a lot of success in this round. If not, watch out.
Philly doesn’t necessarily live and die with Giroux, of course, but he’s clearly their MVP. While the Rangers probably have the stronger blue line, I don’t think the Flyers will be outdone with their ability to shutdown New York’s top scorers thanks to Sean Couturier. It sets things up for a chess match of line matching and shutdown players as both coaches have specific targets they need to hone in on.
What to watch for
The Rangers are an interesting case as they have a number of recognizable names but don’t boast the scoring depth like many other teams in this year’s playoffs. Martin St. Louis hasn’t caught on as of yet and his struggles highlight a forward group with big names but lack big numbers. If Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello are shutdown, the Rangers may struggle to score goals.
Philly has the most dynamic line between the two teams and Giroux, Jakub Voarcek and Scott Hartnell are a lethal trio who will be difficult to contain. They’ll see a whole lot of McDonagh and Craig Berube will need to be clever to try and work them away from that matchup. They also have a potential question mark in goal. While Steve Mason seems to have shaken the poor play that chased him from Columbus, exactly how well he will play remains in limbo.
The Rangers may luck out with the question marks in goal and the thin blue line the Flyers will ice. If they can get players not named Nash and Zuccarello scoring this could be a quick series. If not, watch the Flyers advance.
Edge: New York. Lundqvist probably won’t walk away with any hardware this season but he’s a perennial Vezina Candidate for a reason. Mason happens to be good but that’s probably where the scale stops. While Lundqvist can be relied on to steal a game it’s more likely that Mason will be relied on not to lose a game.
Rangers in seven
Stay tuned here for more previews and predictions as each series progresses.
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.
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.
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.
With Tim Murray named the new General Manager for the Sabres, the front office makeover has been completed nearly two months after it began with the introduction of Ted Nolan and Pat LaFontaine.
LaFontaine’s extensive search for a GM ran through a gamut of candidates before landing on Murray, who served as Ottawa’s Assistant General Manager prior to this appointment. While the process took far longer than expected or desired for many (including myself) it would appear that LaFontaine exhausted all options and vetted every candidate on his list to the fullest extent. While the original timeline was expected to only be a few weeks, I give credit to LaFontaine for conducting the search properly. If it indicates the type of work ethic LaFontaine will put into his position, I’m confident that the Sabres will be in good hands with him at the hockey department’s helm.
Murray also seems like a strong pick despite the early clubhouse leaders being names like Jason Botterill and Paul Fenton. A vast majority of Murray’s tenure in the NHL has seen him at the reigns of amateur talent evaluation and draft operations. He was part of a management team that scouted and drafted players like Joffery Lupul, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan in Anaheim before working with his uncle in Ottawa to draft players like Erik Karlsson, Jared Cowen, Jakub Silfverberg, Robin Lehner and others. One interesting thing I found when perusing the drafts of team’s he’s been with is that he’s had varying success in the middle rounds (like most GMs) and the Ducks swung and missed on back-to-back first round selections after Murray’s departure.
Pierre LeBrun has pointed out that Murray’s talent lies in talent evaluation and it would appear that his talents are particularly effective with younger players as his duties as Binghamton’s GM helped the Baby Sens win a Calder Cup just three years ago. Given the scores of picks and prospects the Sabres own, Murray appears to be a strong fit for guiding the Sabres through their rebuild.
Murray’s tenure as Buffalo’s General Manager begins at an interesting time, with the Olympics just a month away and just two months out from the trade deadline. Murray will need time to evaluate the organization, evaluate the talent depth from the junior level up through the AHL and then determining what assets he already has in the NHL as well.
It’s likely a tricky situation to find himself in as he’ll likely want at least a month to go through his own organizational evaluation before being in a situation to make any necessary decisions towards the future of the team’s future. That includes trading or re-signing Ryan Miller, Matt Moulson and Steve Ott among other decisions that will need to be made prior to the deadline.
I’m expecting a quiet January from Murray as he figures out exactly what he has in the NHL and AHL while also assessing the direction the team will be heading in the offseason. The Olympic break will prevent him from making any moves prior to the deadline, but it will also allow him an extra month to take a look at his prospects in junior and Rochester prior to the NHL getting back up to speed leading up to the trade deadline. The only real question mark about Murray is the role that he played in the trades made by the Senators in recent years and if he’ll be a strong presence at the trade tables when it comes time to negotiate for the Sabres.
Don’t expect to see any fireworks from Murray in the short term as I would expect and adept talent manager – as Murray is said to be – to take their time determining the strengths and weaknesses of their organizational depth. Certainly there will be fans who expect him to wheel and deal from the minute he settles into his new office, but that seems wildly unrealistic.
He’s going to be tasked with determining the solution to the Ryan Miller saga and he’ll likely be judged on that in the short term, particularly if Miller leaves for greener pastures. While the route he takes with Miller will likely shape his legacy, his actual effectiveness won’t be determined for at least two or three years as how he drafts might wind up being the most vital trait he brings to Buffalo.
While it’s important to get first overall selections and land generational talents, it’s equally important to have a GM who is capable of guiding the ship in the right direction. Murray’s knack for talent evaluation and strong drafting says a lot about his pedigree.
I’m certainly confident in the choice the LaFontaine and the Sabres have made with Murray and although it may be some time before he makes a significant move, I’m looking forward to seeing how Murray operates at the helm.