We are the World (Cup of Hockey)

Editor’s note: We fully intended to write a World Cup of Hockey preview two weeks ago, but life got in the way. Nevertheless, here we are gearing up for the final series between the presumptive favorite Canada and the unexpected geezer castoffs of Europe. The best-of-three final starts Tuesday night.

The NHL regular season starts on Oct. 12, but luckily we got a head start on hockey a few weeks early with the World Cup of Hockey. First known as the Canada Cup, the tournament has lost a lot of its luster since the NHL started sending its players to the Winter Olympics (starting with the ’98 Nagano games). The last WCOH was in 2004 and was exciting enough, but it had the bad fortune to be followed immediately by a season-long lockout. But with future NHL involvement in the Olympics up in the air, the league and NHL Players Association were counting on this tournament to get the WCOH brand back in the public’s mind again.

The final series will feature powerhouse Canada, led by Sid Crosby, Brad Marchand and Carey Price, against the veteran-laden Europe squad, which includes Zdeno Chara, Anze Kopitar and Jaroslav Halak. Nobody’s expecting the series to go beyond two games, but Europe has been confounding expectations since the pre-tournament when the under-23 North America team skated circles around it. The Euros—comprised of players from eight countries that aren’t Russia, Sweden, Czech Republic or Finland—slowly got their bearings and improved as the games went on. Europe lost to Canada in its first game, but took out the Czechs, US and Sweden to make the final. Canada should win easily, but if Halak stays hot and the Euros get some clutch scoring, who knows?

A few other observations from the past two weeks:

  • Many consider it a cash grab, and ticket sales were sluggish for some of the non-Canada games, but I’ve always enjoyed these best-on-best tournaments. Sure, it doesn’t match up to the 1976 or 1987 Canada Cups (the latter of which featured Gretzky and Lemieux in their prime on the same line), or even the 1996 World Cup (which saw the American squad knock off the Canucks in a thrilling final), but the players always get fired up for international competitions and this is no exception.
  • Before getting bumped after Russia took out Finland to get out of the preliminary round (because Russia had the tiebreaker after beating NA), the North American squad was the buzz of the WCOH. Full of speed and skill, the team was led by Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, the #1 overall pick who has yet to play his first NHL game for the Leafs. It would have been fun to see the young bucks take on Canada. The NA-Sweden game was an epic battle, marked by an OT with end-to-end rushes and a sick game-winner by Nathan MacKinnon.
  • One team that was definitely overshadowed by the NA kids was team USA, which favored veteran grit over speed and youth and was led by loudmouth coach John Tortorella. The team went 0-3 and went out with a whimper instead of a bang. It certainly didn’t help the low profile of the tournament that the US team sucked out loud. It’ll be interesting to see if USA Hockey goes with a different approach (and different leadership) next time around.
  • The WCOH marked the first time pro hockey has been on ESPN since…the last World Cup in 2004. After that season’s lockout, the NHL’s TV contract was up and the league opted to go with the Outdoor Life Network/Versus/NBC Sports. Meanwhile, ESPN promptly ignored the NHL in its SportsCenter highlight shows and hockey became an afterthought on the biggest sports TV network in the U.S. So it was interesting to see the NHL go with ESPN for this WCOH, even though it’s still in the middle of its deal with NBC. Familiar faces like Barry Melrose, Steve Levy, John Buccigross and Linda Cohn were enthusiastic about presenting hockey again, and ESPN put some of its muscle behind the WCOH, even though it faced tough competition with the baseball pennant races and the start of the NFL and college football seasons. Ultimately, ratings haven’t been great, but it’s been nice to see hockey on the Worldwide Leader again.
  • Excited to watch the WCOH final series, but also getting pumped for the new NHL season. Look for a season preview here coming soon!

The money will roll right in: NHL free agency kicks off with flurry of activity

July 1 means different things to different people. North of the border, it’s Canada Day, a national holiday that celebrates the day in 1867 when the country was formed. Here in the U.S., it’s three days before our big holiday, Independence Day. And in the NHL, it’s the beginning of the annual free agency period, which finds GMs spending money like drunken sailors. Today was no exception, with a dizzying amount of signings that made varying amounts of sense.

Let’s take a look at some of the bigger signings today:

  • Edmonton signs Milan Lucic, 7 years, $42 million. Two days after his colossally boneheaded trade of Taylor Hall to NJ for Adam Larsson, Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli ratchets up the stupid with this deal reuniting him with Lucic, a power forward he had with the Bruins when they won the Cup in 2011. The 28-year-old power forward should help the young Oilers in the next few years, but the real puzzler is the no-movement clause in all years of the contract (with a modified no-trade clause in the last two years where Lucic can give the team a list of teams he’s willing to be dealt to). All of which goes to show Chiarelli, who saddled the Bruins with plenty of similar albatross contracts before he was let go, hasn’t learned a thing.
  • Buffalo signs Kyle Okposo, 7 years, $42 million. Sabres owner Terry Pegula was willing to open the bank vault to lure Steven Stamkos to Buffalo, and when that failed, it didn’t keep him from writing checks. Okposo is a good player, but again with the 7-year deal (with NMC in the first two years and modified NTC in the remainder). Have 7-year contracts ever been a good idea for unrestricted free agents?
  • Boston signs David Backes, 5 years, $30 million. This one was a surprise. The former St. Louis captain has been a tough and effective player for the Blues, but now we’re talking about a 32-year-old who has a lot of wear and tear on his body. How effective will he be in his mid-30s? Backes is the kind of player you pick up when you’re one or two players away from Cup contention, but the Bruins are certainly nowhere near that level.
  • Islanders sign Andrew Ladd, 7 years, $38.5 million. The Isles took a big hit this offseason, losing major contributors like Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin (okay, not major, but still…). Ladd’s 30 and has been a solid offensive performer and good leader for several years, but seven years? Damn.
  • Calgary signs Troy Brouwer, 4 years, $18 million. Brouwer, a consistent 18- to 20-goal scorer, parlayed a clutch playoff performance for the Blues (8-5-13 in 20 games) into a decent payday. This isn’t an awful contract for Flames president Brian Burke, who has signed his share of terrible ones over the years. The 30-year-old Brouwer should be a stabilizing force for talented young Flames like Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund, and he should be effective for most of the four-year deal.
  • Detroit signs Frans Nielsen, 6 years, $31.25 million. One thing many pundits are saying is how Nielsen is such an underrated player, and I suppose he is. But he’s scored 20 more or goals exactly twice in his career, and he’s 32. Six years? Yikes.
  • Florida signs James Reimer, 5 years, $17 million. This is a smart, cost-effective contract for the Panthers, which is a good thing, because they just dropped a ton of coin signing 20-year-old stud d-man Aaron Ekblad (8 years, $60 million) and free agent Keith Yandle (7 years, $44 million). It’s especially smart because number one keeper Roberto Luongo is expected to be out until November after offseason hip surgery. Reimer, who joins recently acquired Reto Berra in the Florida goaltending tandem, finished the season as Martin Jones’ backup in San Jose, but is better known for his travails in Toronto the last several seasons. He should do fine with a decent defense in front of him.
  • Minnesota signs Eric Staal, 3 years, $10.5 million. For a team that has spent a boatload of money the last few years, this actually isn’t a horrendous deal financially. But for 31-year-old Staal, who was a consistent 70-point player but has seen a serious dropoff the last four seasons (13-26-39 in 83 games for the Canes and Rangers this season). Is there anything left in the tank?
  • Vancouver signs Loui Eriksson, 6 years, $36 million. Eriksson is a solid player who’s been saddled with the “guy traded for Tyler Seguin” label the last few years. He was fairly quiet in his first two seasons for the Bruins but put up nice 30-33-63 stats this past year. Still, one has to wonder what he’ll be like in the last three years of that deal. The Canucks are hoping he can click with the Sedin twins, but as with most of these long-term deals, it doesn’t look like a winner in the end.
  • Philadelphia signs Dale Wiese, 4 years, $9.4 million. Wiese is an agitator who can put the puck in the net on occasion, but this falls into the category of deals that the Flyers love to sign. Throwing money at third- and fourth-liners. How’s that goalie situation looking?
  • Toronto signs Matt Martin, 4 years, $10 million. Martin led the league in hits this season, but he’s a bottom-six guy. The Leafs were looking for a gritty guy to mix in with young offensive types like William Nylander, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. He should be a decent addition, but one wonders if there was a cheaper alternative.
  • Detroit signs Thomas Vanek, 1 year, $2.6 million. Vanek was once one of the NHL’s premier goal scorers with the Sabres, but that was many moons ago. Now he’s considered an underachiever who was bought out of his contract by the Wild last week. He’s still a 20-goal scorer and the Wings are hoping he’s out for redemption. At the very least, they’re not spending a whole lot on him.
  • San Jose signs Mikkel Boedker, 4 years, $16 million. The Sharks might have paid a little high for Boedker, a speedy forward who potted 17 goals and 51 points this year for the Coyotes and Avs. Still, he bolsters the depth of a team that’s already deep. One thing the Sharks found out when they faced Pittsburgh in the Cup final was that they could use more speed, and they’ve addressed that here.
  • Tampa Bay re-signs Victor Hedman (8 years, $63 million) and Andrei Vasilevsky (3 years, $10.5 million). After locking up Steven Stamkos earlier in the week, the Lightning did the same with their 25-year-old monster d-man Hedman and their backup goalie Vasilevsky, who played well subbing for injured Ben Bishop in the playoffs. GM Steve Yzerman knows that his team is already a Cup contender, having made the finals two years and just falling short of beating the eventual Cup champs Pittsburgh this year. Smart moves.

Insane in the membrane: NHL offseason trade action hits hard and fast

Editor’s note: Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey (@philstacey_sn) recaps a crazy afternoon of offseason NHL action this week, days before the scheduled free agent frenzy was to begin.

“Honestly, why anyone follows/watches the NBA over NHL is mind boggling.”

Your faithful puck scribe tweeted that out around 4 p.m. on Wednesday, when in less than a half hour three mega stories from out of the National Hockey League hit the faithful like a tsunami in the Pacific Ocean.

Former No. 1 overall pick Taylor Hall, traded by the Edmonton Oilers for—wait, are you sure??—New Jersey Devils defenseman Adam Larsson.

Whoa.

Then, an atomic bomb: P.K. Subban is dealt from Montreal to Nashville, straight up, for Shea Weber in a man-for-man deal of elite blueliners.

Double whoa.

Then came the news that crushed the dreams of many who had hoped and prayed and maybe even written a note to Santa Claus in a please-please-please-can-we-get-him type fantasy (looking at you, Toronto, Buffalo, Detroit, et. al. ): Steven Stamkos decides to stay in Tampa Bay after all, signing an eight-year, $68 million pact to take what would’ve been the biggest ever free agent acquisition off the market.

As Chachi Arcola used to say: Wa wa wa.

It was an amazing day (hour?) in league history, especially coming on the eve of free agency. Three major shakeups in one day that saw hundreds of millions of dollars switch hands, teams try to strengthen their present (and future) core, and leaving us puckheads giddily wondering what lies ahead in 2016-17.

Let’s take a quick look at the winners and losers in these deals, beginning with the obvious:

WINNER: Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bolts keep the face of their franchise and best player despite rampant rumors for more than a year that he’d be heading for a “hockey market” or an Original 6 team. Turns out the 26-year-old center is more than happy to ply his trade for the next eight seasons in sunny FLA, which also happens to have the best corps of young, skilled players around him to chase the Stanley Cup.

LOSER: Edmonton Oilers. Peter Chiarelli has made plenty of good trades in his tenure as an NHL general manager. He robbed the Maple Leafs blind by sending Andrew Raycroft north for Tuukka Rask. He pilfered Johnny Boychuk from the Avalanche for Matt Hendricks. He managed to land a still-useful Mark Recchi (and a second round pick!) from Tampa Bay for Matt Lashoff and Martins Karsums. Dennis Seidenberg and Matt Bartkowski from Florida for Byron Bitz and Craig Weller? Huge win. In the short term, dealing Phil Kessel to Toronto for what turned out to be Dougie Hamilton, Tyler Seguin and Jared Knight made sense.  Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell from the Panthers for Dennis Wideman, a first and third rounder? Great steal. BUT … the deal he’ll be most remembered for is shipping Seguin off to Dallas for Loui Eriksson as the centerpieces of a 7-player deal, and that … has … not … worked … out. The Hall for Larsson swap may turn out equally as badly; a plenty-spry, 24-year-old wing who has put up 80 points in a season already for a defenseman who may only turn out to be, at best, a second pairing guy? Oh Peter; Harvard is really going to start to distance itself from you with these recent rash decisions.

WINNER: New Jersey Devils. Team Soprano got younger, faster and, most importantly, the shot of offensive adrenaline it desperately needs to claw their way up the Metropolitan Division standings and push the Rangers, Islanders and Flyers for a playoff spot. Somehow, they hoodwinked Chiarelli into taking only Larsson back in return. A win of epic proportions.

LOSER: Montreal Canadiens. (And yes, I absolutely LOVE typing those words). Marc Bergevin was a marginal defenseman as a player, more known as a clown prince who was among the NHL’s best jokesters. Well, fans throughout Quebec aren’t exactly guffawing after he dealt the 27-year-old Subban for the 31-year-old Weber. While still a No. 1 defenseman (with an absolute cannon of a shot to boot), Weber is not only on the books for another eight years of huge money—his contract runs until he’s 41 years old—but metrics show that he’s actually in decline in several key areas (puck possession, ability to carry the puck out of the zone, 5-on-5 effectiveness) while Subban is at an elite level in the same categories. (And can he even flop properly—a Canadien prerequisite?) The notoriously fickle Montreal boo birds will be out in full force at the slightest mistake caused by Weber, a seemingly good guy and terrific player who will be castigated for who he isn’t, not who he is.

WINNER: Nashville Predators. P.K. Subban isn’t only one of the best defensemen in the NHL—one with a Norris Trophy on his resume, a knack for delivering in the clutch and who is just now entering his prime as a professional—but equally important, he could “make” hockey in Smashville. An organization with a steady fanbase over the years, Subban’s infectious enthusiasm and larger-than-life personality (not to mention his humanitarian spirit and selfless off-ice ways) could invigorate hockey in the honky tonk to levels never previously seen. Nashvillians cared for and supported Shea Weber; they’ll love P.K. Subban both for his on-ice play and mark he leaves off of it.

With any luck, we’ll have more craziness when the NHL’s free agent period opens at noon tomorrow.

 

Draft, schmaft: The Leafs look ahead to the Auston Matthews era

At the NHL draft Friday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs surprised absolutely nobody by choosing Auston Matthews with the first pick. Matthews gives the Leafs something they haven’t had since captain Mats Sundin left town after the 2007-08 season: a big #1 center who (theoretically) can dominate. Although there was some speculation that Finn Patrick Laine could go in the top spot, everybody knew that the Leafs needed a center and that Matthews, an 18-year-old out of Arizona of all places, was the man-child to fit the bill.

It’s been a long, winding road of futility for the Leafs since their last Stanley Cup win in 1967, but the current management team led by team president Brendan Shanahan and GM Lou Lamoriello has been essentially building a new team from scratch. Star winger Phil Kessel was dealt to the Penguins last summer for what seemed to be a fairly low price, Pittsburgh’s #1 pick this year (plus some prospects), especially after the Pens went all the way to win the Cup. But the Leafs then turned that pick into their new top goalie, getting Frederik Andersen from Anaheim. And then they used their remaining 11 picks to stockpile players with size and potential. You never really know what any of these players will do, but for now at least, the future looks bright.

This is a far different approach from Leafs management teams in the past. GM Cliff Fletcher loved getting veterans and in 1996 infamously uttered the words “Draft schmaft” when asked about the draft picks he was trading away for aging players. Successive Leafs GMs followed similar paths: John Ferguson Jr., Brian Burke and Dave Nonis (as well as Fletcher in an interim stint) traded away plenty of picks and young players including Tuukka Rask, Alex Steen, Tyler Seguin (the pick that turned into him, anyway), Anton Stralman and the picks that turned into Rickard Rakell and John Gibson (in return for a first rounder that they used to pick the immortal Tyler Biggs).

In short order, Shanahan and crew have loaded up on young talent. In addition to the likes of Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri and James Van Riemsdyk, the Leafs have added the likes of William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Mitch Marner (who flat out dominated the OHL this season), Nikita Zaitsev and Nikita Soshnikov, as well as the slew of picks they chose over the weekend. The future’s bright indeed.

But now comes the question of how the rebuild proceeds. Do the Leafs go for another season of futility and build up more high picks, or do they start adding veteran pieces now? There are indications Toronto could go the latter route, with the trade and signing of Andersen and the persistent rumors that they’re going to make a run for free agent Steven Stamkos (although it appears they’ll have plenty of competition). Will they pick up some pieces to support Matthews in his rookie season (assuming he makes the team)? Certainly coach Mike Babcock is making himself heard in the debate as well.

With the NHL’s free agent season starting July 1, the Leafs will be the focus of many in the hockey world as we wonder which road they travel. The amazing thing about Shanahan’s reign so far is the eternally cynical Toronto fans have bought in to the plan. After decades of short cuts and disappointment, what’s a few more years to build a Cup winner the right way? Leaf fans (including this one) hope the wait will be worth it.

Sweet victory: How the Penguins turned things around

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Editor’s note: Cold As Ice contributor and diehard Penguins fan Stephen Mapes looks back at the unlikely path Pittsburgh took to reach hockey’s highest pinnacle.

There’s nothing quite like the joy of seeing the team you’ve cheered, agonized over, and obsessively followed all year hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup aloft. After a season like this one, though, it feels even sweeter.

Looking back at the preseason predictions from Jay and myself, I can’t help but laugh at just how wrong I was about my Penguins going into the season. I was convinced that Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel were going to gel immediately and that our defense was going to be A-okay in its early season form.

Neither of those things came true, and by late 2015, I had began to think perhaps GM Jim Rutherford’s offseason magic had all been for naught, as we were hanging onto playoff dreams by a thread thanks mostly to goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and not much else. Crosby was quiet, Kessel wasn’t fitting in, and Mike Johnston’s defense-first strategy was failing to do much defensively.

Then, on December 12, the pieces began to fall into place. Johnston was fired, Mike Sullivan was ushered aboard, and the Pens began their climb through the Metro division, from 15-10-3 to 48-26-8. Sullivan brought with him a new commitment to speed and aggressive offense, a no-nonsense attitude that extended to even our star players, and, most importantly, his choice talent from Wilkes-Barre.

You can’t help but marvel at the apparent happenstance that lead to the playoff incarnation of the Penguins. First, there was the loss of Fleury to a concussion that gave the net to the young Matt Murray, one of the season’s feel good stories as the 21-year-old became one of the few rookies to lead a team all the way to hockey’s greatest accomplishment. I don’t know if I’d go so far to say Murray was the reason the Pens won. His side-to-side game was at times frustrating, his glove game still needs work, and the swarming Pens defense and heavy shot blocking kept his save totals modest.

But Murray brought with him a resiliency that steadied the team, bouncing back from his few bad games to clock in strong performances. In fact, Murray ended the playoffs having never lost back-to-back games and posting a sub 1.72 GAA after losses.

The real “fate” moment of the season, however, was the loss of Evgeni Malkin late in the season, which birthed the legendary HBK line as Kessel, who struggled all season to find chemistry on the Pens, found his home with the lightning fast Carl Hagelin and the gritty, playmaking Nick Bonino. Whereas I do believe the Pens may have seen similar success behind a healthy Fleury, I can say with confidence that without HBK, the Pens don’t make it past the second round.

Their existence gave the Pens a top 9, bottom 3 offense that simply wore down opposing defenses through sheer attrition. No longer could opponents commit their best D-men to the Crosby/Malkin threats. Now typically sheltered second- and third-pairing defenses were seeing a fast, end-to-end offense that would feel right at home on the first line of many other teams. That speed and depth became apparent as each series wore on, as the Pens dominated shot totals and spent long stretches camped in the offensive zone.

But my final kudos have to go our ragtag defense, which I grew to lovingly refer to as “Letang’s Island of Misfit D-men.” Here was a squad that found solid play from castoffs like Justin Schultz and Ian Cole, that swarmed and cleared pucks with such tenacity that typical big stars like Ovechkin, Thornton, and Pavelski all but disappeared, and who blocked so many shots that Murray rarely had to show his mettle. While the defense may have lacked big names and big bodies, it covered its shortcomings with raw speed. Letang was the leader throughout, putting up massive minutes and finding the scoresheet when needed. While most people were splitting the Conn Smythe debate between Crosby, Kessel and Murray, Letang was building his own silent case.

In the end, Crosby did earn the coveted MVP award, thanks to his leadership, playmaking, and efforts to wear down the top lines of each opponent faced. But the fact that there was such debate at all — that at least four players seemed equally deserving — speaks to why the Pens were able to outlast talent teams like the Caps and the Sharks. This was a team effort, the most balanced Pens squad I have ever seen, and the proudest I’ve been as a Penguins fan.

In year of playoff surprises, Pittsburgh’s march to the Cup was biggest of all

When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. Going into the Stanley Cup Final series between Pittsburgh and San Jose, most observers (including me and my colleague Phil) felt that the Sharks were simply the better team and would prevail. Nope. Not even close.

On the surface of it, the six-game final appeared fairly close, with three one-goal games (two of which were decided by overtime) and three two-goal decisions. But after Pittsburgh closed out the series last night with a 3-1 victory in the Shark Tank, it was obvious that Mike Sullivan’s charges were consistently the superior club throughout.

How did they do it? Speed. Tenacity. Opportunism. The Pens came up big whenever they needed to, and when they didn’t, it was Sharks goalie Martin Jones who prevented the series from being a sweep. Led by captain (and playoff MVP) Sidney Crosby, the Penguins never let up the entire series. Their team speed had the Sharks consistently on their heels, defending against the onslaught of the likes of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin (who got better as the series wore on), Phil Kessel, Conor Sheary, et al. Defensively, the Pens blocked so many shots and gave the offensively gifted Sharks little time to set up, and when shots did get through, Matt Murray made big saves. The line of Kessel, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin continued to bring the heat as they did throughout the playoffs, but it was the depth of the lineup that shone through for Pittsburgh. Everyone was dangerous. When it wasn’t one of the top offensive players delivering, it was a guy like Eric Fehr.

San Jose never quit, and had they been able to take advantage of their chances, we could be talking about getting ready for game 7 in Pittsburgh Wednesday night. The Sharks’ big threats—Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau—were never able to get rolling against the Pens’ defense led by Kris Letang. It was the team defensive approach—something we’ve never really seen from Pittsburgh before—that made the difference. Even the loss of Trevor Daley in the previous round didn’t affect the Pens D one iota.

Some may quibble at Crosby receiving the Conn Smythe award as playoff MVP; it could have gone to Murray or Kessel or even Letang. But there’s no disputing the leadership, the big plays and the selfless effort that the Artist Formerly Known as Sid the Kid displayed during the grueling four-round gladiator showdown that is the NHL playoffs. Once derided as supremely talented but a whiny crybaby, Crosby has remade himself as a gritty competitor who delivers in high-pressure situations. He was always a clutch performer, but leading this team to this most unexpected of Cups has elevated Crosby to another level of greatness. A lot of fans in opposing cities may not like it, but they can’t deny it.

Ultimately, the Penguins won four series in which they were considered the underdog. At midseason, the team was a shambles under coach Mike Johnston, who was fired in December. Sullivan, a longtime assistant who had a stint coaching Thornton and the Bruins a decade ago, was able to turn a troubled team around in a remarkable fashion. That he was able to do so with a rookie goalie and a patchwork defense is all the more impressive. There were plenty of other teams that appeared to have a better shot at winning the Cup: Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, Tampa, St. Louis, Anaheim, and yes, San Jose. They all fell by the wayside as Pittsburgh kept working hard and surprising opponents and observers alike. It was a championship well earned and no doubt for the Pens, it was immensely satisfying to prove all the naysayers wrong.

Saying farewell to Mr. Hockey

Fans love to argue about the greatest teams and players in their favorite sports. For hockey fans, that debate tends to center around Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr, but there’s no denying the greatness and longevity of the man who dominated the sport for decades.

Gordie Howe, who died yesterday at the age of 88, didn’t just dominate pro hockey, he embodied the game. Hence the nickname Mr. Hockey, of course, but the Saskatchewan native combined all the attributes of an ideal player: Power, sublime skill, finesse, a mean streak and class. Those last two were often at odds because Howe wouldn’t hesitate to drill you with one of those massive elbows or drop the gloves if you were out of line.

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Howe played in an era where nobody wore a helmet (though he played long enough that he was one of the last to not wear one). He was a brawny farm boy who combined brute strength with offensive smarts and an occasionally nasty disposition. And even though it has been 36 years since he played in the NHL, the term “Gordie Howe hat trick” (when you get a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game) is still used regularly.

Howe played 25 years with the Detroit Red Wings from 1946-1971 before retiring, leading the Wings to four Stanley Cups and racking up incredible scoring achievements; he was in the top 5 league scorers for a ridiculous 20 straight years. But after a year of retirement (and induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame), he came back to play in the new World Hockey Association, a rival to the NHL that lured established stars like Howe and Bobby Hull with the promise of higher salaries. Another attraction for Howe was getting to play with his sons Mark and Marty on the Houston Aeros (and later the New England/Hartford Whalers). Now in his 40s, Howe led the team to consecutive championships and continued to score at an impressive pace. The WHA folded in 1979 and the Whalers were one of the four teams absorbed by the NHL, which allowed Howe to play one final NHL season at the age of 51. He played all 80 games and scored a respectable 15 goals and 26 assists before hanging up his skates for good.

I’m old enough to have seen Howe play on TV as a kid for the Whalers, but the memories are hazy now. Obviously, I never saw him in his prime, just like I never saw Orr until his last hurrah in the 1976 Canada Cup. I grew up on Gretzky and his obliteration of the record books (mostly Howe’s records) in the ’80s and ’90s. And later came players like Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, but to me, it always comes back to Gretzky, Howe and Orr.

I’ve always felt Gretzky was the greatest of all time, but Howe was a close second. Gretzky’s biggest influence was Howe, even though their games were polar opposites. Gretzky left the hitting and fighting to bigger guys; he was more concerned about putting the puck in the net. Whereas Howe went to all the dirty areas of the ice and could beat you with his stick or his fists. In his later years, Howe built the Mr. Hockey brand and became a pop culture icon long after his playing career ended. He was a prominent part of a classic Simpsons episode, his jersey was featured in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off by director/longtime fan John Hughes, and he appeared in ESPN promos. And he was the ultimate ambassador for hockey, appearing at countless events and always approachable to fans and non-fans alike.

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Gordie Howe represented a bygone era, when the game was primarily played by Canadians, but he also played a large role (along with Gretzky) in introducing the game to Americans. Was he the greatest of all time? Maybe. To me, he transcended the world of statistics. Gordie Howe WAS hockey. Pure and simple.

Cold As Ice Stanley Cup Final Preview, Part Deux: Feel The Burns

Editor’s note: Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey weighs in with his preview of the Cup final.

I’ve been watching the National Hockey League for almost 40 years now, and never can I recall a postseason as unpredictable as this.

I’ve picked more losers during these playoffs than Eddie Mush did at the racetrack in “A Bronx Tale.” I had both the Sharks and Penguins losing in the first round. Ironically, I’ve bet against the Pittsburgh Penguins in each of the first three rounds, and each time been proven wrong by the Sons of Mario Lemieux.

Unfortunately for the Penguins and their fans, I think their streak of remarkable playoff fortune is about to come to an end.

You don’t reach the Stanley Cup final on pure luck, of course. A multitude of events have to sync properly in your favor, including timely scoring, huge saves at key moments, and role players stepping forward to assume the role of hero for a shift, a period, a game or even an entire series. Having said that, I don’t think those confluence of circumstances will continue for the Steel City Boys against a Sharks team that—pardon the pun—hungers for its first ever championship.

I’m picking San Jose to sip from hockey’s holy chalice in six games—although a shorter series would not surprise me. Here are the primary reasons I believe the state of California will claim top honors in the NHL for the fourth time in a decade:

  • It’s the biggest advantage the Sharks hold over the Penguins, and it’s not even close. Brent Burns might win the Conn Smythe Award on his presence alone; the burly, bushy blueliner can do everything from muscle foes from the front of his crease to jump start the offense, be it 5-on-5 or with the man advantage. He’s a different maker literally every shift he takes. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Roman Polak, Paul Martin and Justin Braun all bring a level of effectiveness and shutdown capabilities. Pittsburgh is less mobile, prone to making mistakes in their own end and, after a season-ending injury to Trevor Daley in the Eastern Conference Final against Tampa Bay, much thinner. Kris Letang is going to be asked to play big minutes—like 30 minutes a night—and San Jose’s big boys will wear him down over the course of this series.
  • Speed. Both teams have oodles of it, but the Sharks go from zero to 60 just a stride or two faster. Burners like Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and fourth liner Joonas Donskoi, among others, are attacking forwards with nonstop motors. The Penguins don’t exactly employ a fleet of Yugos, not with Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin and Letang in the lineup, but the Sharks are better from 1-to-18.
  • The road to riches. Consider who both squads defeated to reach this point. San Jose ripped through the favored Los Angeles Kings, the plucky Nashville Predators and an excellent (but forever snakebitten) St. Louis Blues club. All three were excellent defensively until the Sharks tore through them with relative ease. The Penguins, in reaching the peak of the much more inferior Eastern Conference, they defeated a slow New York Rangers team that showed the fatigue of long playoff runs the previous two seasons; a Washington Capitals club that once again choked under the weight of postseason expectations; and a Tampa Bay Lightning squad that fizzled in Games 6 and 7. Advantage, Sharks.
  • Midnight strikes for Matt Murray. It’s been one of the best stories of this year’s postseason: Matt Murray riding to the rescue and backstopping the Penguins to win after win, series after series in these playoffs. He’s been fun to watch in goal … but in the Cup final, he’ll go back to being a pumpkin. Martin Jones, the far more reliable and technically sound of the two, gets his name etched on the Cup for San Jose.

I’m no Sidney Crosby hater—far from it. I love his game, his net drive, his willingness to do anything it takes to get a win. But his ’stache? Terrible. How do you not go with the Grizzly Adams look of Thornton, Burns & Co.?

I’m looking forward to Pavelski being handed the Cup, then turning it over to the first two picks of the 1997 Draft—Joe Thornton, then Patrick Marleau—as they happily lift the lightest 35 pound silver mug of their lives.

 

Stanley Cup Final preview: It’s Shark season

Well, it’s been nearly eight months since the 2015-16 NHL season kicked off and we’re finally ready to decide the winner of the Stanley Cup. It has been an interesting playoff season so far, with a lot of the predicted favorites getting bumped off: Washington, Chicago, LA, Anaheim. The conference finals were excellent matchups, but ultimately it was the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks triumphing with similar styles: Speed, offensive flair, a dash of grit, deep rosters and just enough goaltending to get the job done.

It’s nice that teams with uptempo styles are on the biggest stage; as much I like the Blues, Ken Hitchcock-run teams tend to play a stifling defensive style that can be as exciting as watching paint dry. This series is going to be all about speed, forechecking and special teams.

Great storylines abound:

  • Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau finally getting to the fourth round after years of frustration.
  • Sidney Crosby and company back in the finals after winning the Cup in 2009 and then falling short the last six years.
  • perennially underappreciated Phil Kessel sticking it to the critics and fans in his former cities by leading the Pens in playoff scoring.
  • Pittsburgh getting huge contributions from the likes of Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Nick Bonino et al.
  • Would you have predicted back in October that the starting goalies in the Cup finals would be Matt Murray and Martin Jones? No, you would not have.

Both teams run four effective lines. Offensively, the Sharks have a red-hot Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture (who’s quietly leading the postseason in scoring), Brent Burns and key contributions from Joel Ward, Joonas Donskoi, Tomas Hertl and Chris Tierney. On the defensive end, Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Paul Martin lead a tough D squad that shut down opposing stars like Vladimir Tarasenko, Filip Forsberg and Tyler Toffoli in previous series. Jones has been solid in goal throughout.

The Pens have marquee names like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but it has been the line of Kessel teaming up with Carl Hagelin and Bonino that has carried the offensive load. Throw in veterans Chris Kunitz, Patric Hornqvist and Matt Cullen along with the upstarts Rust and Sheary and you’ve got a team that has surprised everyone with its depth and two-way play. The Pens will miss Trevor Daley, who excelled on defense before breaking his ankle in the last round. The heat is on stud d-man Kris Letang, young Olli Maata, Brian Dumoulin and Ben Lovejoy to hold off the waves of offensive the Sharks will throw at them. Matt Murray is the starter despite being yanked in favor of longtime #1 Marc-Andre Fleury in the third period of game 4 and for all of game 5 vs. Tampa. If he falters, coach Mike Sullivan will likely have a quick hook.

Most critics are picking the Sharks, but Pittsburgh has been exceeding expectations all postseason. I’m also going with San Jose, but it’s not going to be easy. Crosby has been getting better as the playoffs wore on and reminding people why he’s still one of the best in the game. Ultimately, however, Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski and crew will get their names on the Cup and I for one will be happy to see it.

Sharks in 6.