Cold As Ice: Don’t call it a comeback

Editor’s note: Welcome to Cold As Ice, 2.0! This blog is new, but we originally started writing about the NHL a few years ago for Popblerd. We took a couple of seasons off, but we’re back for the 2015-16 NHL season. Stephen Mapes, a diehard Pittsburgh Penguins fan living in California, and Jay Kumar, a long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fan living in the Boston area, will be posting regularly throughout the season, providing insight and analysis on the ins and outs of the NHL. For our initial post, we got together to chat about what to expect once the regular season gets underway on Wednesday, Oct. 7.

Jay: Well, we’re back. I have to admit I’m a little distracted right now from the start of the NHL season by the amazing run the Blue Jays have had, but I’m still excited about hockey. What are you looking forward to this season?

Stephen: I feel like every offseason the Penguins front office pulls some voodoo magic to produce an even more amazing line-up then last year, and then we forget how to play hockey in the playoffs. But this year I’m feeling like we’ve got a good balance of forward guns with a workable blue line. Not just thanks to the Phil, but because we managed to keep our younger defense talent like Pouliot and Maata.

So I am looking forward to a Pens team that can score at will, but also can stop goals and not leaving Fleury out to dry and the target of many an angry Yinzer.

sudden death

Jay: I can’t say I feel the same sense of optimism about my Maple Leafs, at least not for the next season or two. The Leafs are in the midst of a major rebuilding effort, having cleaned house after last season’s disaster. They brought in Mike Babcock to coach on a historic 8-year, $50 million contract. They brought in Lou frickin’ Lamoriello as GM. And yeah, they traded Phil Kessel to your Penguins for prospects. This year’s going to be difficult. Babcock says it’s going to take three years to get back to contention through building up high draft picks and young talent. I guess we Leaf fans have to console ourselves with the belief that the reward is down the road. Hey, it’s been 48 years since their last Cup. What’s a few more?

Stephen: If you’re going to put your futures in the hands of anyone, Babcock and Lamoriello are a hell of a team to believe in.

Jay: Big changes ahead this season. The introduction of 3-on-3 overtime for one. What do you think about it?

Stephen: As a hockey fan, I love it. OT hockey is thrilling and hockey lives on the thrill of seeing a puck surge from one end and back. The three man rosters are going to leave room for some exciting set-ups and shots, but also allow goalies to shine. The shootout can be fun too, sure, but it always felt like a cop-out. As a Pens fan, I’ll miss it because we seemed to win so many extra points in the shootout thanks to Crosby and Malkin and Fleury, who is probably good because he practices against Crosby and Malkin. But a three-man force chosen from Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Bonino, Hornqvist, et al is still going to be formidable.

I know you’ve never been a fan of the shootout. So I take it you’re excited?

Jay: Yeah, I like it. I’ve always felt the shootout, while exciting, is the wrong way to resolve a team game. Sure, the 3-on-3 is gimmicky, too, but it should be fun to watch and hopefully will reduce the number of shootouts.

Another change is the coach’s challenge. I know challenges in other sports have had mixed results. What do you think about the NHL adopting it?

Stephen: I think like baseball we’re going to have to wait and see how it goes in the wild. Hockey is such a fast-paced game and as a purist, I love the idea of the hockey gods going against you, be it an iffy goal or an offside that should have been called. But on the other hand, you hate to see games decided by stuff like that, especially in neck-and-neck battles. My hope is it’s going to iron out some of those borderline issues but not break down the flow of the game. I don’t expect to see coaches abusing it, but if they do, it’s going to be a cause of consternation for a lot of long-time fans.

Jay: The manager’s challenge in MLB has been iffy so far. It’s definitely slowed down the game, which is something baseball definitely doesn’t need. It looks like there’s a limited amount of situations NHL coaches can challenge, so hopefully it doesn’t get overused.

Before we get to our look at the teams, any thoughts on the World Cup of Hockey, which will be held next September before the 2016-2017 season? Some interesting teams they’ve added this time around.

Stephen: Yeah, some of the groups are a touch confusing, such as Team North America, which is exclusively the under 23 year olds from Team USA and Team Canada, but I do think the grouping are going to add some much more exciting competition. I think if every tournament boils down to the U.S., Canada, and whichever European countries happen to be on, it’s going to get boring. And unlike the World Cup, hockey seems a little less ideal for producing those Cinderella wild cards. I think it’s going to be a compelling showdown.

Jay: I’ve always enjoyed the international competitions like the World Cup (and its previous incarnation, the Canada Cup) and the Olympics. Players definitely seem to take pride in playing for their countries, moreso than in the other sports. And the talent is so spread out now that pretty much every team is competitive. Not sure about the under-23 and rest of Europe teams, but it should be fun. The last World Cup was in ’04, right before the lockout that wiped out that season.

Stephen: Speaking of under-23s, this season has a LOT of exciting young talent. Thoughts on who to keep an eye on?

Jay: Obviously Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel in Edmonton and Buffalo, respectively, will be interesting to watch as the stud #1 and #2 picks in last summer’s draft. But I’m a big fan of Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues, who had a breakout season last year. Victor Hedman emerged as a dominant d-man in the Lightning’s run to the finals last year. He could win the Norris this year. Johnny Gaudreau in Calgary had an excellent rookie year and will only get better. And Morgan Rielly on the Leafs could be ready to emerge as a star under Babcock’s tutelage.

Stephen: Agree with you there, and while he’s a bit outside the under-23 group, I’m excited to see how Kadri continues to develop, especially as Kessel’s absence makes him that much more integral to the team. For the Pens, Maata and Pouliot have had exciting starts, and I’m hoping they can continue to develop into rounded defenseman.

Jay: Yeah, this is Kadri’s do or die year. He had a setback last year and was suspended for being late for practice last season; hopefully he comes in with a good attitude. Okay, let’s move on to our conference/division previews and start with the Eastern Conference. Who are your picks to click in the East?

Stephen: I’d be remiss if I didn’t give my Penguins some props, and bias aside, I think they’re poised to do damage. They’ve added depth and the only missing weapons are Martin and Sutter. Last year it was injuries (and some Malkin yips) that sank us, so I think we’ve got a shot. As always Rangers and Bruins are going to be stalwarts, I imagine. But after that, it opens up. Buffalo was a turd of record-setting proportions but with Eichel onboard and Bylsma at the helm, we could be in for some surprises. Philly has made some decent off season moves and could make up for their futility of last season. Then of course there are the Islanders, who always seem so damn close to hitting that elite level thanks to Tavares. Florida has Jagr. Ottawa has the chance to surprise again if the Hamburglar repeats his last season magic. In fact the only teams I don’t like are the Devils, who seem to be mandating AARP memberships to be on the roster, and the Leafs, if only because they are by their own admission rebuilding (sorry, Jay).

Your picks?

Jay: I like the Lightning, who took their game to another level in the playoffs last spring. If Ben Bishop can bounce back from his injury and the young forward corps can keep progressing, they’re going to be dangerous. The Penguins and Rangers have veteran squads—one focused on offense, one on defense, but both want and need to win now. I think the Islanders are ready to finally break through. John Tavares is a special player and he’s going to lead a strong collection of forwards and a solid defense in front of Jaro Halak. I was less impressed with the moves made by the Bruins and I’m not sold on Don Sweeney as GM. Montreal and Washington are also above average teams that could make some noise. Detroit is always dangerous, even without Babcock, and Columbus may contend for playoff spot. I don’t expect any of the other teams in the East, especially the Leafs, to do much this year.

How about the West?

Stephen: God, I still forget Detroit is in the East now. It feels so wrong.

The West is going to be interesting. We have the Hawks coming fresh off the championship, with a few pieces gone but a lot of their major weapons still intact. There’s Dallas, who is looking dangerous coming into the season. The Ducks are always a silent threat, and I do not expect the Kings to be underwhelming two years in a row. There are the Blues too, who look so damn good on paper but seem to have a Sharks-level knack for collapsing in the post-season. Then of course, there are the Sharks, who seems to be reaching the twilight years of the Thornton/Marleau era. Colorado has a developing crop of young guys too that might be surprising. And then there is Connor McDavid on Edmonton, who is the closest thing to a ringer we’ve seen in many a class of rookies. I think it’s going to be a rough year for Vancouver after their recent roster moves, and I’m not sure Calgary is deep enough to repeat last season’s magic. It will be interesting to see where the dust settles after the first few weeks and see if any clear contenders rise.

Jay: The West is a beast. So many good teams. The Ducks and Hawks are probably the two best teams in the league, so you know they’re going to be right up near the top all season. The Patrick Kane alleged rape case has been such a strange distraction; it’ll be interesting to see how he plays with that hanging over his head. The Blues tried to shake things up by trading American Hero T.J. Oshie, but they’ve got a lot to prove that they’re not just perennial playoff chokers. The Kings had to be one of the best teams to ever miss the playoffs; that won’t happen again. Adding Lucic into the mix was smart; he’ll give them some more beef in those battles with Anaheim and Chicago. Dallas should step things up with the addition of Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya from your Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks; they’re already got ridiculous offensive upside with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Calgary added a big piece in Dougie Hamilton from the Bruins; still can’t believe Boston traded him away. Minnesota’s got a fast and defensively strong team. Nashville has an excellent defensive squad by could use some help up the middle. Winnipeg made some strides last year. And that still leaves teams like San Jose, Edmonton and Colorado fighting for a spot. Always interesting in the West.

Any big predictions? Who’s going to be in the finals?

Stephen: It’s so hard to tell thanks to the depth of both conferences, but I like the Penguins for the East, just because I really think Crosby and Kessel are going to gel into a Jagr/Lemieux-esque nightmare. I give that with the caveat that injuries and shoddy defense don’t become the norm down the stretch. For the West, I think this is the year Anaheim finally gets that deep push they need to challenge in the finals. From there? I think Ducks have the edge, but I really want to see the Pens finally meet expectations for a season. And you best believe if my predictions come true, I will sell any vital organs necessary to get tickets to a Stanley Cup game in Anaheim.

How about you?

Jay: I think this is the year Anaheim finally breaks through to that elite level. I too am excited to watch the Penguins, especially with my boy Kessel playing with Sid and/or Geno and possibly netting 50, but I believe the Lightning are a more complete team than any other in the East. I say Ducks-‘Ning in the finals, with the Ducks prevailing.

Stephen: Fair enough. The Lightning do seem to have a balance that’s missing from a lot of their Eastern compatriots.

Jay: Indeed. Although my predictions are often wrong. Whatever the case, I’m looking forward to seeing how this season plays out and contributing to this very blog with you.

Stephen: Same here! It should be a great season, and hopefully a fun ride for us and whoever comes along via the blog!

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