Rendez-vous ’87 was hockey at its highest level

International hockey is the focus of some interesting hockey discussions right now. The NHL is still mulling over whether to send players to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, while last fall’s World Cup of Hockey tournament is having a major impact on the current NHL season because of the resulting compressed schedule. But 30 years ago this month, the two-game all-star series known as Rendez-vous ’87 was all anyone was talking about.

At a time when amateurs still played in the Olympics, Rendez-vous was the successor to 1979’s Challenge Cup series, in which a team of NHL all-stars played a squad from the Soviet Union. This time around, there were games on Feb. 11 and 13 in Quebec City, replacing the 1986-87 NHL All-Star Game. To top it off, the games were held in the middle of Quebec’s annual Winter Carnival celebration, which organizer (and Quebec Nordiques president) Marcel Aubut hoped would turn the series into hockey’s version of the Super Bowl. TV coverage on CBC and ESPN brought the games into homes worldwide.

The NHL All-Stars were led by Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, while the Soviet National Team featured plenty of future NHLers (we were still two years away from the first Russian player signing with an NHL squad, Sergei Priakhin) including Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov and Valeri Kamensky.

A fan vote determined the Team NHL starters, which was somewhat controversial because Lemieux got the starting center over Gretzky, despite the Great One having a better statistical season to that point. The team was led by a slew of Edmonton Oilers, who were in the midst of their dynastic ’80s run of five Cups in seven years. In addition to Gretzky and Lemieux in their primes, the team had Mark Messier, Ray Bourque, Jari Kurri, Dale Hawerchuk,  Grant Fuhr and Michel Goulet. The team was coached by Jean Perron, who coached the Montreal Canadiens to the 1985-86 Cup, with assistants Michel Bergeron of Quebec and Bob Johnson of Calgary. The Soviet squad was helmed by the legendary Viktor Tikhonov.

Game 1 went to the NHL All-Stars by a 4-3 score, with Dave Poulin scoring the game-winner late in the third. The Soviets took the second game 5-3, led by Kamensky’s two goals and an assist. Gretzky and Kamensky were named their team’s respective MVPs. But this was no exhibition series. There was hard hitting, spectacular offensive playmaking and stellar goaltending. The series also set the stage for the next Canada Cup tournament, which was held in the fall of 1987 before the NHL season started. The round-robin saw Canada play the Soviet Union in the three-game final series. Each game finished with a 6-5 score: The Soviets won Game 1 in OT, Canada won the second game in double OT (with Lemieux netting a hat trick and Gretzky finishing with five assists) and the clincher was won by Canada thanks to a Gretzky-to-Lemieux play with 1:26 left in regulation.

There have been memorable international series before (1972 Summit Series, 1980 Winter Olympics, 1976 Canada Cup) and after (1987 Canada  Cup, 1996 World Cup, 2002 and 2010 Winter Olympics), but Rendez-vous definitely upped the ante.

Never a dull moment in Bruins-Habs rivalry

There are plenty of great things about hockey, but one of the greatest is the rivalry between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens. Which is why it was so entertaining this week when the Habs suddenly announced that head coach Michel Therrien was fired and being replaced by Claude Julien, who had been fired by the Bruins last week.

At first, it might seem strange that the first-place Canadiens fired their coach with less than two months left in the regular season, but on closer inspection, it makes sense. For the second straight year, Montreal started the season strong, but has struggled mightily. Last year after reeling off nine straight wins to begin the season, goalie Carey Price strained a knee ligament and the team went off the rails, missing the playoffs. This season, Price is healthy, but Montreal has the worst record in the NHL since January, so GM Marc Bergevin undoubtedly decided not to wait for disaster to strike twice.

Meanwhile, the Bruins were also in the midst of a disappointing season when team brass announced that Julien, the winningest coach in team history, was fired and assistant Bruce Cassidy was taking over. Of course, GM Don Sweeney chose to make the announcement when the Boston area was sky high after the New England Patriots’ amazing Super Bowl win, scheduling the press conference right smack dab in the middle of the Pats’ victory parade. If Sweeney was hoping nobody would notice, he was sorely mistaken; Bruins fans already bummed out by the team’s performance the last few years (the Bruins were blown out in their final game of last season to miss the playoffs) lashed out against the move to depose the well-liked Julien.

If this all sounds like history repeating itself, it is: Julien’s first NHL coaching gig came in 2003, when he was hired to coach Montreal, replacing the fired Therrien. He spent parts of three seasons with Montreal, coached most of the 2006-07 season in New Jersey (where, ironically, he was presiding over another first-place team before being unceremoniously jettisoned with a week left in the season) and then was Boston’s bench boss for the past nine-plus seasons. In addition to winning the most games in Bruins history, Julien also led the team to the Stanley Cup in 2011, breaking a 39-year drought.

It’s a bold move: Montreal management definitely chose to go with a known entity in Julien, but he was the best coach available and will undoubtedly be hungry to turn an underachieving Habs team around. His defense-first style could rankle fans at times, but you can’t argue with the results. And mid-season coaching changes can have big benefits, as we saw with Pittsburgh last season and more recently with the Bruins, who have won three straight since Cassidy stepped in, including an emphatic 4-0 trouncing of Montreal that sealed Therrien’s fate. Still, Bruins fans can’t be thrilled to see their longtime coach get hired by their hated nemesis.

Sadly, the Bruins and Canadiens don’t have any regular season games left against each other, but wouldn’t it be great if they met in the playoffs? Revenge can be quite the motivator.

Which NHLers will ultimately hear the Hall’s call?

Editor’s note: Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey takes a hard look at which current NHL players should make the Hockey Hall of Fame someday, and which ones won’t quite make the final cut.

In the NHL right now, there are seven no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famers: Sidney Crosby, Jaromir Jagr, Jarome Iginla, Joe Thornton, Zdeno Chara, Alex Ovechkin and Henrik Lundqvist. Their credentials are impeccable and can’t be questioned.

But what about all of other terrific talents in the league? How do we separate the wheat from the chaff and decide who ultimately gets a call from the Hall?

It’s a precarious proposition trying to sift through a number of variables. How do you properly measure star players still in the embryonic stages of their careers? Can we count on guys in their playing peak right now to stay at a similar level of excellence? How much of a factor should longevity play into making potential Hall selections?

So the best way to do it is probably break it down by age. Let’s break it down into four sections—35 and Over, plus players ages 30-to-34, 25-to-29 and 24-and-under—and see who deserves to have a weekend where they’re honored on Yonge Street in Toronto.

SHOULD GET IN: 35 AND OVER

Daniel Sedin: Just became the newest member of the league’s 1,000 Point Club and can still dish the biscuit with the very best. Hart Trophy and Art Ross winner as well as Vancouver’s all-time leading scorer.

Henrik Sedin: The lethal scorer/beneficiary of his twin brother’s passing proclivities, he’ll soon be joining his sibling in the 1K Club and also has an Art Ross Trophy on his mantle at home.

Marian Hossa: Has reinvented himself several times with various organizations, but has always brought the goods when comes to getting on the scoresheet (500+ goals, 1,100+ points).

 

NOT GOING TO CUT IT: 35 AND OVER

Roberto Luongo: Quirky and self deprecating while fantastic between the pipes for the bulk of his career. But he never brought home a Cup, so … sorry, Bobby Lou.

Patrick Marleau: He’s been nothing if not consistently … solid. That works well over a span of almost 20 years, but the Hall? Not in this instance.

Shane Doan: Tip o’ the bucket for his legacy in Winnipeg/Arizona, but simply not worthy of being in this conversation.

Henrik Zetterberg: Has never been the best forward on his own team.

Ryan Miller: Having 340+ career wins is nice, but not enough to earn him a spot.

 

SHOULD GET IN: 30-TO-34 YEARS OLD

Duncan Keith: Still a minute munching machine at age 33; those three Cups in Chicago only help his argument.

Patrice Bergeron: Beloved in Boston but also universally recognized for skill, savvy and ability to come through in the clutch.

Brent Burns: Third in the league in scoring at the All-Star break, what he’s doing on the back line as a converted forward has been nothing short of remarkable.

Evgeni Malkin: Repeated time on the sidelines could hurt his candidacy, but there’s no denying his ability or what he’s done with a Hart Trophy, a Conn Smythe and two Cups to his name.

 

SKILLED, BUT ULTIMATELY NOT HALL-WORTHY: 30-TO-34 YEARS OLD

Jonathan Quick: Toughest choice for me was to leave him off. Two otherworldly Cup winning performances, but will injuries ultimately take their toll on the 31-year-old?

Ryan Getzlaf: He makes the Hall of Really, Really Good Players, not the Hall of Fame.

Corey Perry: Like his Anaheim running mate, see above.

Ryan Suter: Great stamina and leadership both in NHL and international hockey, but a tick or two below what it means to reside in the Hall.

Shea Weber: Besides Al MacInnis, what other HOF defender is best known for his booming shot? That alone won’t cut it for Weber.

Joe Pavelski: Captain America moniker fits him perfectly, but resume is lacking for Hall induction.

Rick Nash: Never quite pushed through to the ultra greatness threshold that he should have reached by now.

Thomas Vanek: Could look like the league’s best 1-on-1 player in certain games, but also has disappeared for stretches of his career.

 

LOOKING GOOD TO GET IN: 25-TO-29 YEARS OLD

Patrick Kane: May very well retire as the greatest American-born player of all time.

Jonathan Toews: Outstanding three-zone player and immense leader who captained three Cup winners in six seasons.

Erik Karlsson: Generational talent buried on a bad Ottawa team, but anyone who follows the league knows he’s the best all-around defenseman and offensive pioneer.

 

UPWARD TRAJECTORY GIVES THEM A CHANCE: 25-TO-29 YEARS OLD

Steven Stamkos: Only injury can prevent him from continuing his run of scoring greatness.

Carey Price: He’s not Ken Dryden (who is?), but he’s Montreal’s most important player the best thing between the pipes there since Patrick Roy.

Jamie Benn: Talented playmaker and scorer, effective leader and grittier than you’d expect.

Anze Kopitar: In the Bergeron/Toews mold in that his stats might not jump off the page, but his valuable exceeds mere numbers.

Victor Hedman: Has matured into a beast of a blueliner with size, strength and skill.

John Tavares: Great player in a terrible organization needs a chance to flourish elsewhere while he’s still young.

Vladimir Tarasenko: Might be a reach, but early indications are promising for this rocket-shot scoring star in the Midwest.

 

SKILLED, BUT PROBABLY NOT HALL-WORTHY: 25-TO-29 YEARS OLD

Phil Kessel: Too streaky, and his days as an elite scorer are nearing the end.

P.K. Subban: Fun, flashy and owner of a cannon shot—but will he ever fulfill his true potential?

Claude Giroux: Better version of a former Flyers captain (Mike Richards) with resolve for days on end, but often a healthy scratch for Team Canada in big games.

Nicklas Backstrom: Skilled passer has obviously benefited from playing with Ovechkin, but are his accomplishments on their own Hall-worthy? No.

 

EARLY FAVORITES FROM THE 24-AND-UNDER CROWD

Connor McDavid: Runs neck-and-neck with Ovechkin for title of NHL’s Most Exciting Player. Talent up the wazoo.

Tyler Seguin: More than living up to the expectations of a No. 2 overall pick; talented marksman will continue to get better.

Jack Eichel: Sky is the limit for this 20-year-old wunderkind; if he can ever bring a Cup to Buffalo, he’ll be a shoo-in.

Johnny Gaudreau: A human shot of adrenaline who can fly and fire the puck in a blur of amazement.

Auston Matthews: How many other Hall of Famers began their NHL careers with a 4-goal game? He’s just scratching at the surface of his immense potential.

 

Halfway there: A look at the NHL’s first half

The NHL has a few days to go until the four-day All-Star break. With the league a little more than halfway through the regular season, it’s a good time to check in with a roundup of some of the biggest stories in the game so far.

Midyear leaders: In the East, Washington, Columbus (!), Pittsburgh and Montreal are solidly in playoff position, with the Rangers fairly locked into the first Wild Card spot. But the rest of the East is in the hunt for the postseason right now. Ottawa and Toronto are currently sitting in the second and third Atlantic Division spots, but Boston, Florida, Detroit, Buffalo and Tampa Bay are all within six points of the Leafs. The Flyers are sitting in the second Wild Card, but again, only five points separate them from last place in the conference. The West, as usual, has a lot of powerful teams, but they’re not the ones you expect: Sure, Chicago and San Jose are in the mix, but Minnesota, Anaheim and Edmonton are all having strong seasons so far. Nashville, St. Louis and Calgary are all in playoff spots at this writing, but Vancouver, Los Angeles, Winnipeg and Dallas are all in contention. Arizona and Colorado, however, are way out of the picture.

Scoring: Connor McDavid is living up to the hype that made him the consensus #1 pick in 2015. After an injury-shortened rookie year, McDavid currently leads the league in scoring, albeit narrowly over the Penguins’ dynamic duo of Sid Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. San Jose’s Brent Burns is having a huge year by scoring at a point-a-game pace as a defenseman, which is unheard of these days. In the goals race, Crosby leads with 28, followed by Jeff Carter with 24, Cam Atkinson with 23 and Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Leafs super-rookie Auston Matthews with 22.  McDavid leads the league with 40 assists, followed by Nicklas Backstrom with 34 and Patrick Kane with 33. For the netminders, Devan Dubnyk of the Wild leads in GAA with 1.91 and save percentage with .935, while Sergei Bobrovsky of Columbus has 28 wins and Braden Holtby of the Caps has the most shutouts with 6.

Freaky streaky: There has been some serious streaking going on so far this year. Philadelphia reeled off 10 straight into mid-December. After a tough start to the season, the Blue Jackets caught fire and won 16 straight between Nov. 29 and Jan. 3, riding the hot goaltending of Bobrovsky and receiving timely offense from Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg, Nick Foligno, Brandon Saad and Sam Gagner. Along the way, the Jackets ended Minnesota’s 12-game streak. In the end, the Jackets fell a game short of the record of 17 set by Pittsburgh in 1992-93; they lost to Washington, which has been the hottest team in the league since.

Bye bye week: The New Year brought a new concept to the NHL: the bye week. Because of the compressed schedule this season due to the World Cup of Hockey last fall, every team will take a league-mandated five-day break: no games, no practices, no nothing. The bye weeks were negotiated by the NHL Players Association to give players a break before the playoff stretch run. How the week will affect teams in the hunt remains to be seen, although it hasn’t seemed to hurt the teams that have already taken the mini-vacation (Pittsburgh, Rangers, Islanders, Toronto, Ottawa, Philly, Arizona, Colorado…okay, the last two are continuing their awful play).

Golden child: Well, it became official in November: The newest NHL franchise will be called the Vegas Golden Knights. The team starts play next fall, but the NHL.com shop already has an assortment of Golden Knights merch for sale (although no jerseys yet). Not exactly sure what a golden knight is, but the logo’s decent. The other 30 teams are already casting an eye towards the expansion draft in June in terms of which players they’ll protect and who they’ll expose to possibly become members of the inaugural major pro team in Las Vegas.

Sidney Crosby: No longer the Kid, but still the best

There’s been a lot of talk about the wealth of young talent in the NHL this season, as the likes of Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner light up the scoresheet with regularity. But lest we get too excited about the youngsters, best to remember that the top player in the game has been around for over a decade. Yep, Sid the Kid is now Sid the Man.

It’s not like Sidney Crosby has spent the last several years in a cave, but he’s been overshadowed by the likes of Patrick Kane and Alex Ovechkin. But leading his Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup last spring seemed to restore Crosby to his former glory. And he’s off to an explosive start this season, with 21 goals in 26 games; he’s on pace to score 61.

Expectations have been high for Crosby since he was a teenager. He led the Penguins to the Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, winning in the latter to mark the team’s first championship since the early ’90s with Lemieux and Jagr. He racked up plenty of awards and accolades along the way, including scoring the gold-medal winning goal for Canada in the 2010 Winter Olympics. His fiery style isn’t without its detractors; some say he’s whiny, and he definitely has a way of getting under the skin of opponents.

It’s easy to forget that Crosby was on a similar tear in 2010-11 with 66 points in 41 games when he sustained a serious concussion in the Winter Classic and was forced to take the rest of the season off. He only played 22 games the following season and then 36 in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season before he took a slapshot to the mouth and broke his jaw; he missed over a month before returning in the playoffs. The following season, he led the league in scoring with 104 points, proving he was back after a few years of uncertainty.

Last season, the Penguins were in disarray at midseason. Coach Mike Johnston was fired in early December and some (including this NY Post columnist) were calling Crosby a coach-killer and malcontent. Mike Sullivan took over and the Pens turned their season around, defeating the Rangers, regular season champs Washington, Tampa Bay and the San Jose Sharks to win the Cup. Crosby was named playoff MVP, although Phil Kessel might have had a better postseason. Still, Crosby was vindicated after years of disappointment following the 2009 Cup win. Nothing answers back at your critics like winning.

Now Sid is back at it, seemingly scoring at will and leading a Penguins team that has the second-best record in the league. And while he’s no longer the Kid, he’s only 28. There could be a lot of years left for Crosby to continue making his mark.

The kids are alright: NHL’s youth movement is paying off

If there’s one thing we’ve learned so far in this NHL season, it’s that Whitney Houston was right: The children are our future.

Whereas once upon a time, NHL teams relied on face-punchers and journeyman grinders to populate their third and fourth lines, now they’re increasingly turning to the prospects they once used as trade bait and minor league fodder. And clubs that once thought spending big bucks on veteran free agents was the path to victory are stockpiling draft picks and going with young talent instead.

Of course, you can’t just call up a bunch of teenagers and expect immediate success. See the Edmonton Oilers of the last several years. Without good management and the ability to mix good young talent with veterans, youngster-laden teams can be fairly ineffective.

But this season, it seems there is a glut of young talent making an impression. It started in September during the World Cup of Hockey when Team North America’s collection of 23-and-unders took the tournament by storm with their up-tempo and exuberant play. The last two #1 draft picks, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Toronto’s Auston Matthews, played on a line together and formed a potent one-two combination.

McDavid has continued his strong play into the regular season and is currently the NHL’s leading scorer with 29 points. The Oilers got off to a strong start and still lead the Pacific Division, although things have tightened up considerably in the last few weeks. Despite unloading the likes of Taylor Hall to the Devils in the offseason, Edmonton is still loaded with young guns like Jordan Eberle, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Darnell Nurse.

Another organization looking to turn around its fortunes is the Toronto Maple Leafs. With its Stanley Cup drought closing in on 50 years, the Leafs have given up the ill-advised free agent signings of years past and turned to a youth movement. Part of that meant shedding high-priced veterans and free agents and loading up on draft picks. The plan has been in the works for a few years now after Brendan Shanahan took over the reins. Last year, the Leafs essentially tanked the season and won the top pick in the draft: Matthews. But Auston of Arizona isn’t the only weapon the Leafs have. There’s the electrifying Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman and more on the farm (Jeremy Bracco, Kerby Rychel, Kasperi Kapanen). The Leafs are young and impetuous and are still erratic and defensively challenged, but they’ve been exciting to watch on most nights and they’re on the periphery of a playoff spot.

But that’s just scratching the surface of the potentially great NHL youth. There’s forwards like Jack Eichel of the Sabres, Dylan Larkin of the Wings, Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele of Winnipeg, Aleksander Barkov of Florida, Nathan MacKinnon of the Avs, Tampa’s Jonathan Drouin and Nikita Kucherov, Alex Galchenyuk of Montreal, Filip Forsberg of Nashville, David Pastrnak of the Bruins, Max Domi of Phoenix and Johnny Gaudreau of Calgary. On the defensive end, you have d-men Aaron Ekblad of the Panthers, Shane Gostisbehere of Philly, Colton Parayko of the Blues, Seth Jones of Columbus, Jacob Trouba of Winnipeg and Noah Hanifin of Carolina and goalies John Gibson of the Ducks, Matt Murray of Pittsburgh and Connor Hellebuyck of the Jets.

The future is bright for the NHL, now that young stars are allowed to shine with more regularity.

NHL 2016-17 Season Preview, Part Deux: Here we go!

Editor’s note: Cold As Ice head honcho Jay Kumar previews the new NHL season.

Two weeks ago, Canada won the 2016 World Cup of Hockey by sweeping the two-game final series over Europe in dramatic fashion, with two goals in the last three minutes of game 2. And with that, the Canadians celebrated and then went to join their respective NHL team training camps. The tournament of stars is over. It’s time for the 82-game grind to begin. On to the 2016-17 season!

Four months after the Pittsburgh Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup, a new season means a clean slate and new opportunities for the NHL’s 30 clubs. There was a lot of player movement in the offseason, some huge trades and plenty of free agent signings. Subban for Weber. Lucic to the Oilers, Okposo to the Sabres, Backes to the Bruins. Some teams made big moves by holding onto their assets; Tampa was able to re-sign Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevsky and just this week, last season’s leading scorer Nikita Kucherov.

There are also injuries to major players to start the season. None more major than Sidney Crosby, who just came off a huge year in which he re-established himself as the league’s premier forward with MVP performances in the playoffs and then the World Cup. This week, it came out that Crosby sustained a concussion in practice last Friday and will be out indefinitely. Definitely a tough blow for a guy who had serious concussion issues several seasons ago. Yesterday, Sabres wunderkind Jack Eichel had to be helped off the ice after he went down in practice with a high ankle sprain. In addition, the Panthers lost key forward Jonathan Huberdeau to a leg laceration and Nick Bjugstad to a broken hand. Kings forward Marian Gaborik suffered a broken foot in the World Cup. Islanders forward Mikhail Grabovski is out with a concussion and Jaden Schwartz of the Blues is out with an elbow injury.

Hope springs eternal, but only 16 teams will make the postseason. Let’s break it down a bit.

Eastern Conference

The elite

Washington

For all their postseason failings, the Caps are stacked with talent. Between Ovechkin, Backstrom and Holtby, the feeling has to be the time is now.

Pittsburgh

The Crosby injury has to hurt, especially given how unpredictable concussions can be. Still, the Pens are loaded with the likes of Kessel, Malkin, Letang, et al. They’ve got more than enough to be a force until Sid the Kid returns.

Tampa Bay

As mentioned earlier, the Lightning were able to keep a deep, contending and still young team intact. Steve Yzerman has built a club that could be around when all is said and done next spring.

Above average

Florida

While the ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr keeps chugging along, he distracts everyone from the terrific young team in Florida. Tons of talent and yeah, a few major injuries, but a team that has a great future and possibly a great present.

New York Rangers

Time is running out for King Henrik and his quest for the Cup. The Rangers got a little younger by adding former Sens top pick Mika Zibanejad and landing coveted college free agent Jimmy Vesey, but there are still plenty of holes to fill.

 

Squeaking in

Philadelphia

The Flyers have some nice pieces in captain Claude Giroux, scorers Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds and sophomore defense sensation Shane Gostisbehere, but GM Ron Hextall still hasn’t addressed the team’s glaring weakness (one that has been the problem in Philly since Hextall was between the pipes): goaltending. There have been flashes over the years, but Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth don’t exactly strike fear in opposing shooters.

New York Islanders

The Isles have one of the league’s great young leaders in John Tavares, but they lost some depth when Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen departed as free agents. P.A. Parenteau was signed as a free agent but surprisingly released on waivers this week and claimed by the Devils; the team is hoping youngsters Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauviller can step in. Netminder Jaroslav Halak had a strong World Cup, but the Isles D is looking a tad thin.

Detroit

The post-Datsyuk era has begun, as the Wings mainstay decided to go home to Russia. The team still has its usual quota of speedy forwards, but there are concerns about an older D corps and the dependability of keepers Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek.

Not this year

Boston, Buffalo, Carolina, Columbus, Montreal, New Jersey, Ottawa, Toronto

 

Western Conference

The elite

Nashville

The perennially disappointed Preds pulled off a shocking blockbuster trade in the offseason, dealing mainstay d-man Shea Weber to Montreal for P.K.  Subban. The flamboyant Subban gives Nashville a younger, electrifying leader with a more reasonable contract. The Preds are hoping he’s the last piece of the puzzle. The likes of forwards Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and James Neal, stud defenseman Roman Josi and goalie Pekka Rinne should be tough to beat.

Dallas

The Stars are an exciting team, with offense to spare from guys like Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp. If they can play a modicum of defense and get some good goaltending from Antti Niemi, Dallas may just survive the brutal Western Conference playoff gauntlet.

Chicago

What can you say about the Hawks? Simply the best team in the league over the last seven years, with three Cups in that span, Chicago is looking to rebound after a disappointing first-round loss to St. Louis last spring. Still loaded to the brim with sick talent (Kane, Toews, Panarin, Hossa) and replenished with six rookies on the opening night roster, it’d be foolish to disregard this always-dangerous team.

Above average

San Jose

The Sharks finally broke through to the Cup finals after years of early playoff exits, but it wasn’t enough to beat the speedy Penguins. They’ve got lots of talent, but they’re also a pretty old team. Will Jumbo Joe Thornton and crew have enough to make another Cup run?

Los Angeles

Like the Blackhawks, LA has been another consistently excellent team for the last several years. They’ll make the playoffs and make another run, although goalie Jonathan Quick’s recent decline could be of concern.

St. Louis

The Blues are yet another deep West squad that has yet to break through into a true Cup contender. Goaltending has been an annual problem that hasn’t really been addressed, but the club is hoping Jake Allen can take the next step (especially after dealing former #1 Brian Elliott to the Flames).

Squeaking in

Minnesota

After some playoff bumps in the road, the Wild are hoping new coach Bruce Boudreau can ignite the team’s offense and do some damage. The team has plenty of quality players—Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Eric Staal, Devan Dubnyk, Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund and Teemu Pulkkinen (just plucked off the waiver wire from the Red Wings)—but the West is full of challenges.

Anaheim

The Ducks are yet another Western club that has felt playoff disappointment regularly in the last several seasons (after winning the Cup in 2007). In the offseason, coach Bruce Boudreau was canned and curiously replaced by former coach Randy Carlyle, most recently experiencing abject failure in Toronto. The team also opted to dish goalie Fredrik Andersen to the Leafs for Jonathan Bernier, who will back up John Gibson. Plenty of weapons in Getzlaf, Perry, Silfverberg et al., but don’t expect Anaheim to get much further than they did last season.

 

Not this year

Arizona, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Vancouver, Winnipeg

 

Predictions:

East: Lightning over Capitals

West: Predators over Stars

Stanley Cup: Tampa Bay

Hart (MVP): Alex Ovechkin

Art Ross (leading scorer): Patrick Kane

Norris (best defenseman): Victor Hedman

Vezina (best goalie): Cory Schneider

Calder (best rookie): Auston Matthews

Selke (best defensive forward): Patrice Bergeron

Adams (best coach): Jon Cooper

NHL 2016-17 Season Preview: Picking the winners

Editor’s note: Contributor Phil Stacey helps us kick off the NHL season with a preview of which teams he thinks will make the postseason.

Picking which NHL teams will make the playoffs before the season actually begins—you know, before injuries and trades and coaching changes and momentum swings and lulls that go from a few games to a few weeks and disappointing veterans and unheralded rookies making an impact and so on—is like shooting fish in a barrel.

But what the hell, let’s give it a shot anyway.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

  1. Tampa Bay Lightning: Aside from maybe an upgrade over Ben Bishop in goal, where would you improve this team? From scoring and speed to defense and depth, Steve Yzerman has built a club that’s stacked to the gills.
  2. Washington Capitals: There have been teams (see: Boston Bruins, 2011) that had to suffer a crushing playoff defeat before earning ultimate victory the following season. Alexander Ovechkin, Braden Holtby & Co. can only hope this is the way they shoo away their postseason demons for good.
  3. Pittsburgh Penguins: Is Sidney Crosby’s concussion a precautionary measure or a legitimate concern? Can Matt Murray remain a bona fide No. 1 goalie in the NHL? Will Geno Malkin return to the scoring force he was in years past? How will Phil Kessel play now that he has his ring? Can the Penguins repeat and become the first team to do so in 21 years?
  4. Florida Panthers: After years of being a league laughingstock, the Panthers have built a foundation that virtually every other NHL club would love to own. Lots of young, fast, talented and hungry players eager to erase last year’s one-and-done playoff appearance.
  5. Montreal Canadiens: Does Carey Price mean that much to the Canadiens’ franchise that no one else could pick up the slack and carry the team a year ago? Assuming the all-star goaltender can stay healthy this winter, we’ll find out.
  6. New York Rangers: It’s easy to feel like their chances of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup for the first time since 1994 are slipping away and that Henrik Lundqvist won’t ever get his name on the mug. Still, the Broadway Blueshirts had a lot more rest this offseason—thanks to a first round exit at the hands of eventual champion Pittsburgh—and start this campaign more rested than they have in years.
  7. New Jersey Devils: Legitimate Vezina Trophy candidate in Corey Schneider keeps them in virtually every game they play. If Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique & Co. can find a way to pop the puck in the net with more frequency—and the team can win a few OT games for a change—Jersey earns a postseason ticket.
  8. New York Islanders: Not sure I’d bet the farm on a Jaroslav Halak-Thomas Greiss goaltending tandem, but it seems to work for the Islanders. John Tavares alone is worth 85 points and probably 10-15 points in the standings.

Eastern Conference champion: Washington Capitals

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

  1. Chicago Blackhawks: Best coach, best leader, top scorer. The pieces may change around those three men (Joel Quenneville, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane), but along with a killer D and steady Corey Crawford in goal, the Hawks are going to be there in the end.
  2. Dallas Stars: A one-year wonder, or the start of something big happening in Big D? That’s the question so many of us want answered this season. Closest thing we’ve seen to firewagon hockey in 20 years.
  3. Calgary Flames: While it all fell apart in Alberta a year ago, I’m sensing the Flames might do a complete reversal and turn it around in ‘16-‘17. Johnny Gaudreau’s recent signing cements the team’s commitment to winning: starting now.
  4. Nashville Predators: If Dallas is the league’s run-and-gun bunch, Nashville combines speed with more structure. Adding P.K. Subban to an already elite defensive corps could put the Preds in line for their best season in franchise history.
  5. San Jose Sharks: Long postseason run to the Cup final, then eight of their players taking part in the World Cup of Hockey just two minutes later. Might be some tired legs that will need to be dealt with at some point this season.
  6. Los Angeles Kings: I’ve gotten the feeling that over the last half-dozen years, it doesn’t matter to the Kings where they finish in the playoff race as long as they get in. No matter what seed they end up slotted in, they’ve had a tendency to make the most of their opportunities. Need a much better season from Jonathan Quick in goal, though.
  7. Minnesota Wild: Switch this team into the Eastern Conference and they’re probably a top-3 seed. Yeah, sometimes life is unfair. That just gives Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Devan Dubnyk and friends a reason to prove their doubters wrong.
  8. St. Louis Blues: Saying goodbye to David Backes, Troy Brower and Brian Elliott doesn’t feel like a step in the right direction. Will be challenged by Anaheim and Winnipeg for this final spot right down to the wire.

Western Conference champion: Dallas Stars

STANLEY CUP CHAMPION: Washington over Dallas in 7

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.