Christmas in July for Leafs fans: Tavares goes home to Toronto

July 1 is a big day north of the border. Yeah, it’s Canada Day, so there’s already a lot of celebrating going on. But it’s also when the NHL’s free agent season begins, so there’s plenty of hype and excitement around that every year. This year, however, featured the John Tavares Sweepstakes, so the hype was in overdrive. And the fact that Tavares signed a 7-year, $77 million deal with Toronto today just amped that up exponentially.

I just spent a week up in Toronto and speculation was at a fever pitch, especially given that the Leafs were one of the teams in the hunt for the 27-year-old center. Six teams (Toronto, San Jose, Boston, Dallas, Tampa Bay and the Islanders) had all flown delegations to Los Angeles to meet with Tavares and his agent and make their pitch for his services. The Canadian media was there in force, stationing reporters on the sidewalk outside for hours to hunt for scraps of information that didn’t come.

There was definitely a feeling of restraint among Leafs fans (myself included), given the disappointments of past free agent seasons—most recently in 2016, when the Leafs tried to woo Steven Stamkos but ultimately saw him re-sign with the Lightning. By yesterday, there were reports that the Leafs and Sharks were the finalists along with the Isles; Tavares could have gotten an eighth year if he signed with the Islanders before midnight, but he didn’t, so it appeared they were out of the hunt. Twitter was full of anxiety-ridden hockey fans waiting for a decision all weekend and finally around 1 p.m. Sunday, it came. The native of Mississauga, Ontario (a Toronto suburb) chose his hometown team.

For Leafs fans, it was the team’s biggest free agent signing ever. Toronto has signed big names in the past (Eric Lindros, Ed Belfour, Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Alex Mogilny), but they’ve usually been in the twilight of their careers. Arguably ,the best Leafs’ free agent acquisition was Curtis Joseph in 1998, who backstopped the team to some decent playoff runs over the next four years. There have been some major busts, like David Clarkson (signed in 2013 to seven years and $36 million), Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin and the immortal Jeff Finger (Who? Exactly).

This isn’t that. In Tavares, Toronto gets a franchise center in his prime who’s been overshadowed by the likes of Crosby, Ovechkin and Kane over his nine seasons in the NHL. He’s also been stuck on an Islanders team that has gone through some serious turmoil during that time, with unstable ownership, bad management and an uncertain arena situation.

Now he’s going to a Leafs team that is already stacked with young talent: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander lead a speedy, skilled squad that has made the playoffs the last two years but is looking to take the next step. The Leafs lost some players from last year’s squad to free agency: James Van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov (who current Isles/former Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello inexplicably signed to a four-year contract today) and Roman Polak. One glaring weakness was the right side of the defense, which in this past spring’s playoffs featured Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev and Polak and was victimized repeatedly by the Bruins in Boston’s seven-game victory. New GM Kyle Dubas still has moves to make, so we’ll reserve judgment just yet.

But right now, it’s a matter of gleefully thinking about top three forward line combinations, like this:

Zach Hyman-Matthews-Nylander

Patrick Marleau -Tavares-Marner

Andreas Johnsson-Nazem Kadri-Kasperi Kapanen

The fourth line is still a work in progress, since Tomas Plekanec has re-signed with Montreal. Connor Brown will slot in, but beyond that could be solved by additional free agent signings or promotions from the Leafs’ AHL champion farm team, the Toronto Marlies.

Are the Leafs now a Cup contender? I’d say they’re getting closer. Remember, the Penguins won two straight Cups and the Golden Knights made it to the final this year with defensive squads that were not ranked at the top of the league. There are some more pieces to the puzzle for Toronto, but getting a top player like Tavares is a major step.

The signing also means Dubas will have to get creative over the next few years as Matthews, Marner and Nylander all will be restricted free agents coming off their rookie contracts. Does Dubas move Nylander for a top d-man, or does he keep his stacked offense intact and look for a less expensive defense answer? The Leafs have some decent young d-men in their farm system, including last year’s top pick Timothy Liljegren. Goalie Frederik Andersen has proven he’s a #1, but he could use a little rest in the regular season; he played 66 games in 2017-18 and looked fatigued at times in the playoffs, especially given how much he had to do. Dubas may want to promote Garret Sparks, who had a spectacular year for the Marlies (31-9-1, 1.79 GAA and another 14 years on the way to the Calder Cup) and could provide Andersen with 25-30 games of quality relief.

These are good problems to have, and as a long-suffering Leafs fan, things look a damn sight better than they did 10, five or even two years ago. Leafs Nation remains the butt of jokes from many fanbases across the league (especially here in Boston), but Dubas, Tavares and co. have a good chance of ending that in the next few years. It’s a good time to be a Maple Leafs fan, for once.

Advertisements

Honeymoon in Vegas: The Knights’ Cinderella season continues

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. The NHL’s 31st team, the Vegas Golden Knights, was a feel-good story from Day 1. GM George McPhee put together a competitive team and most, if not all, experts figured they’d be average at best. The expansion draft held last summer ensured that Vegas would be able to pluck better players than previous rookie franchises, but I’ve got to believe that even McPhee and coach Gerard Gallant had no idea their team was THIS good.

With their 2-1 win on the road Sunday, the Knights closed out the stacked Winnipeg Jets in 5 games and clinched a historic trip to the Stanley Cup final. They’ll face the winner of the Washington-Tampa series, which is currently 3-2 in favor of the Lightning. It’s a big leap from the prediction owner Bill Foley made last summer, when he said the Knights would “be pretty good in three years and we’ll make a run in five or six.”

So how did they do it? Vegas built the team around Marc-Andre Fleury, who backstopped the Penguins to three Cups but was left unprotected by Pittsburgh (who opted to stick with the younger Matt Murray). They then acquired via draft or trade a collection of players other teams gave up on: William Karlsson (who scored 43 goals), Jonathan Marchessault, James Neal, Alex Tuch, Erik Haula, Reilly Smith, David Perron, Deryk Engelland, Luca Sbisa and Cody Eakin. On paper, doesn’t inspire the same kind of fear that the Penguins, Predators or, uh, the Jets do. But here we are in the third week of May and Vegas will be one of two teams to fight for the Cup.

The team is fast, tenacious and skilled, powered by the underdog spirit that has driven them all season long. During this playoff run, Fleury has been Vegas’ best player, but the team has received contributions from just about all corners. In the conference final clincher, fourth-line grinder/tough guy Ryan Reaves scored the game- (and series-) winner with a nifty deflection.

The Knights actually aren’t the first new expansion team to make the Cup final in its first year: St. Louis did it in 1967-68. The big difference, of course, was in that first post-Original Six season, the six new teams were put in the West division, which guaranteed that an expansion club would make the final. The Blues were swept in four by Montreal, as they were the following two years by the Habs and Bruins. Back then, the expansion teams were filled with past-their-prime veterans and unproven youngsters.

As the NHL continued to expand in the following decades, there were some godawful debuts: the Capitals in 1974-75 finished 8-67-5; the Kansas City Scouts were 15-54-11 the same year; the New York Islanders in 1972-73 went 12-60-6; Atlanta’s second franchise, the Thrashers, struggled to go 14-61-7 in 1999-2000; and Ottawa went 10-70-4 in 1991-92. All of which makes the Knights’ 51-24-7 regular season finish all the more impressive as they won the Pacific Division.

With Seattle seemingly the favorite to receive a new team a few years down the line, it’s expected that the expansion draft will follow the same process that helped Vegas ice an immediate success. Whether Seattle can match Vegas remains to be seen, but they’ll be given every opportunity to do so. Of course, it’ll be interesting how the other teams deal with the expansion draft and who they give up, watching how Vegas struck gold with rejects from the Island of Misfit Hockey Players.

In the meantime, there are still games to be played by the Knights this season. Can Vegas win the Cup? At this point, how can you bet against them?

A quick trip to hockey mecca

I grew up in the hockey mecca of Toronto, and even though we moved to the U.S. in 1981, I get back every few years to visit family and take in some games. Usually, I go in the summer, so I see Blue Jays games. But a few weeks ago, I flew up for a three-day, hockey-filled trip.

The main reason for the visit was to go to the Panthers-Leafs game at the Air Canada Centre with my cousin Dev, but I managed to pack a lot of puck-related activities into a short period of time. I flew into Toronto’s Pearson Airport on Sunday morning (2/19) and I immediately knew I was in a hockey-obsessed country because the baggage claim area had TVs playing hockey highlights.

The Winter Olympics were still in full swing at this point and after eating lunch at my uncle’s place in Mississauga (a city of 700,000 west of Toronto), Dev and I went to a bar for a few beers and watched the rebroadcast of that morning’s Canada-Finland men’s hockey game. Later that evening, we gathered around to watch the Leafs-Red Wings game on TV. Okay, it was me, Dev and his 6-year-old son; the 4-year-old was watching Peppa Pig on a computer and the ladies were watching the Olympics on the other TV. The game was pretty exciting, with Auston Matthews getting the winner with 31 seconds left in regulation.

The next day, I joined my cousin, his oldest son and my uncle at an Ontario Hockey League (OHL) game between the Mississauga Steelheads and the Flint Firebirds. The Canadian major junior leagues (the OHL, Quebec Major Junior and Western Hockey League) have been a major source of players for the professional leagues including the NHL. The Mississauga club had four players drafted by NHL teams, including RW Owen Tippett (drafted 10th overall by Florida last year) and C Michael McLeod (drafted by New Jersey in the first round in 2016). The Steelheads are having a .500 season while the Firebirds are stuck in last place in the OHL’s Western Division.

It was a Monday afternoon game on what’s known as Family Day in Canada, a holiday that was adopted in Ontario 10 years ago; the idea is to celebrate the importance of families (it just happens to coincide with Presidents Day in the U.S.). The game was pretty close for two periods, with Mississauga up 1-0 after 2 thanks to the efforts of Flint goalie Luke Cavallin. The Steelheads popped in three goals in the third to win the game 4-0. The stadium promo staff were busy throughout, popping up during breaks in the action to interview fans, leading contests and giving away pizza, so much pizza.

After the game, we took my 6-year-old nephew to his hockey practice. It was fun to watch him and his teammates go through their drills. There were a lot of wipeouts and mishaps as the kids, split up into three age groups, zipped around the ice. After going out to dinner, I came back and watched more Olympic hockey late into the night.

On Tuesday, Dev and I took the train into Toronto in the early afternoon. We went to the Hockey Hall of Fame, which I had last visited in the summer of 2013. It had been redesigned since then and had some cool newer displays, including a big one featuring the 100 Greatest NHL Players and another that had great goalie masks displayed.

We got some dinner and then headed over to the ACC. This was my first Leafs home game since 1998, when I flew up to catch one last game at the old Maple Leaf Gardens (where the Leafs played their final game a few months later). The mood was pretty excited in the rink; the Leafs were in the midst of a hot stretch and neck-and-neck with the Bruins and Lightning for the top spot in the East (they’ve since dropped back a bit). Our seats were up in the third level by one of the nets.

I had expected the Leafs to take it to the Panthers, but it was a pitched battle, with excellent goaltending from Florida’s Roberto Luongo and Leafs’ workhorse Frederik Andersen. James Van Riemsdyk popped in a goal in the first and that was it for scoring, but there was no shortage of chances.

The Leafs are on their way to their second straight playoff appearance, led by a trio of young superstars in Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Alas, Matthews would be injured a few days later thanks to the Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck, who caught him with a blind-side check that left Matthews with a shoulder injury. That was on Feb. 22 and he still hasn’t returned, although it’s expected he’ll be back later this week or early next week. Still, fans have good reason to be hopeful as the Leafs continue to grow into a contender. They’re not defensively ready yet, but they’ll get there. After decades of futility, the Leafs have finally given their obsessed fan base something to get excited about.

We went home after the game and I was set to leave the next morning, but my flight was delayed so I watched a little more Olympic hockey before heading out. Strangely enough, I left Toronto where it was 35 degrees and rainy and arrived in Boston to find it sunny and in the mid-70s. (We’ve reverted back into winter mode, though: as I write this, we’re in the midst of a blizzard and our third nor’easter in the last few weeks.)  The puck theme continued as I went to play hockey that night. It’s not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle, right?

NHL 2017-18 Season Preview: Back for the Attack

It’s that time of year again. I love the summer, but those three-plus months without hockey are tough. But as we know, summer is fleeting and here we are back in the fall with the beginning of the NHL regular season upon us. I was so busy last week I didn’t even have time to do a season preview before the first pucks were dropped last Wednesday. So instead, here’s a quick rundown of what I’m looking forward to and expecting this NHL season.

Predictions are tricky. You may think you have a team pegged and then they go and do the opposite. Last year at this time, I wrongly predicted that Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, Boston, Columbus and Calgary would miss the playoffs, while I had the likes of Tampa, Detroit, Philly, the Islanders, Florida, Los Angeles and Dallas all reaching the postseason. I was just a bit off, but I wasn’t the only one.

There’s a lot of young talent in the league that is ready to step up and take the mantle from the likes of Crosby and Kane. Teams are going with skill and speed over size and grit and it’s making for some exciting hockey. The likes of McDavid, Matthews and Eichel are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

New rules. I was happy to see the league institute a new rule around the coach’s offside challenge of goals, which slowed things down considerably last season. Now there are some stakes: if a coach loses his challenge, his team is penalized for delay of game. That should make teams a little more hesitant about challenging goals; indeed, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault challenged a Maple Leafs goal on Saturday night and was penalized after the challenge was shot down. If the end result this season is fewer frivolous offside challenges, it will be worth it.

The NHL is also cracking down on hard slashes to the glove, an issue that came to a head last season with Sid Crosby’s unpunished slash that nearly severed part of Marc Methot’s finger. It remains to be seen how far refs will go in making these calls: will any stick contact to the glove be called, or will it be only hard hacks? Another rule change hopes to prevent cheating on faceoffs by doling out penalties to centers who try to angle for position in the faceoff circle by either moving their skates inside the markings or using head butts to gain position against their opponents.  There were a lot of warnings and eventual penalties called for this in the preseason, but hopefully, teams will figure it out as the season wears on.

More goals? Through the first handful of games, there have been a ton of goals scored. Alex Ovechkin had hat tricks in consecutive periods (in two different games), the Leafs and Hawks burst through the gate with 15 goals in their first two games and defenses in general were looking a little shell-shocked. No doubt teams will settle down, but let’s hope the offenses of the league can keep things interesting.

He’s back. It was great to see the ageless (okay, he’s 45) Jaromir Jagr sign with Calgary right before the season started. He’s only 57 games away from passing Gordie Howe for most games played in NHL history, but he’s not just a feel-good story. Jagr can still play, and he’ll give a talented, young Flames squad both veteran experience and top-notch playmaking ability. I hope he plays forever.

Vegas, baby. The Vegas Golden Knights made their debut last week and it was glorious, going 2-0 out of the gate. Nobody expects that to continue, but it’s nice to see the new club get off to a good start. It’ll be interesting to see whether the team can build a strong fan base out in the desert.

No Winter Olympics. Not for NHL players, anyway. This was announced by the league in the spring, but it’s worth noting again that the NHL will not be taking a two-week break in February to allow its players to participate for their native countries in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea. The league cited the disruption to regular season play, as well as the time zone difference and negligible benefits as reasoning for the decision to skip the Olympics for the time since 1994. It’s disappointing for fans (at least this fan, anyway) and it looks like 2022 isn’t happening because the International Olympic Committee has gone on record as saying participation in the 2018 Games is a pre-requisite for being part of the following tournament.

Predictions

I’m not seeing a Pittsburgh three-peat this season. Here’s my picks to click:

East: Tampa Bay over Toronto

West: Edmonton over Minnesota

Stanley Cup: Tampa Bay

Hart (MVP): Connor McDavid

Art Ross (leading scorer): Connor McDavid

Norris (best defenseman): Brent Burns

Vezina (best goalie): Braden Holtby

Calder (best rookie): Charlie McAvoy

Selke (best defensive forward): Patrice Bergeron

Adams (best coach): Mike Babcock

Of Easter Eve and multiple overtimes

Watching last night’s epic Leafs-Caps double OT classic took me back 30 years to April 18-19, 1987, when the Capitals and Islanders engaged in what became known as the Easter Epic.

I was home from college for the weekend and preparing to make one of my semi-annual appearances in church the following morning. My dad, my brother and I settled in to watch game 7 of the Patrick Division semifinals (aka the first round of the playoffs) at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. The Isles were a few years past their early ’80s run of Stanley Cup dominance, but they still had some of their stars from those teams, including Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy, who were the top two scorers that season. The Caps were a team on the rise after several years of bottom-dwelling, and they had taken a 3-1 lead in the series. The Isles bounced back to tie the series and send it to a decisive seventh game.

The game was broadcast on ESPN with Mike Emrick and Bill Clement handling the announcing duties; all the other series had already been decided. The Capitals were winning 2-1 until Trottier tied it up with five minutes left in regulation and it went to OT. Goalies Bob Mason for the Caps and Kelly Hrudey were outstanding throughout, but especially as the OT periods wore on. The Capitals had a sizable edge in shots, but weren’t able to dent the twine after regulation.

The game started at 7:30 p.m. and rolled on into Easter Sunday. I realized that I needed to get up at 6 a.m., but I wasn’t about to go to bed without seeing how the game ended. Pretty sure my brother bailed at some point, but my dad and I stuck it out. Things were getting loopy as the game moved into the 4th overtime period, as Emrick and Clement were letting their freak flag fly.

Finally at 1:58 a.m., about eight minutes into the 4th OT, Pat Lafontaine spun at the Caps blueline and fired a slapper at the net that somehow found its way past a bunch of players and Mason to win the game and series for the Islanders. I had been rooting for the Capitals, partly because they hadn’t won anything yet and also because a guy from my dorm at UNH, Steve Leach, was now on the team.  But I was also kind of relieved the game was over and I could go to bed. In the end, Hrudey had stopped 73 of 75 shots and Mason made 54 saves. The Islanders moved on to face the Philadelphia Flyers in the next round; the Flyers won the series in seven games and made it all the way to the finals, where they would lose to Wayne Gretzky and Edmonton. I don’t really remember much about going to church later that morning, but I’m sure there was plenty of yawning involved.

The Caps, meanwhile, still haven’t won a Cup, but they played in an even longer game in 1996 vs. the Penguins, when game 4 of the conference finals went to the final minute of the 4th OT before Pittsburgh’s Petr Nedved fired in the winner. I watched that one, too, but by that point, I was living by myself and was able to sleep in the next day.

Thirty years after the Easter Epic, the Leafs and Caps battled in game 2 of their opening round series. It was again a family-centered evening as we went out to dinner with my mother and my brother and his wife, who were in town from Northern Ireland for the holiday. We missed the first period, saw the second and then missed most of the third on the drive home. It was a white-knuckle ride through the OT periods, finally ending in the second OT when Kasperi Kapanen of the Leafs fired home his second of the game for the winner. The game was over not long after 11:30 p.m., so it wasn’t quite an Easter Epic, but it was pretty damn close.

Cold As Ice Playoff Preview: Here We Go!

We’re back on the cusp of the greatest postseason tournament in sports: the NHL playoffs. Everything takes on an air of desperation in the playoffs, making just about every game full of excitement and drama. And it’s a grueling death march to the Stanley Cup, with four best-of-seven rounds required to get to the top of the mountain. Rarely do things play out the way I think they will, but just for chuckles, here are my first-round picks.

Eastern Conference

Washington (1) vs. Toronto (WC2)

The Capitals are a team loaded with weapons that should have won a Cup by now but hasn’t, despite several years of regular season excellence. Led by the great Alex Ovechkin, the Caps boast a potent offense, a solid defense and one of the best goalies in the game in Braden Holtby. After years of early playoff exits, anything short of a Cup is failure for this crew. Meanwhile, you’ve got the upstart Leafs, who featured six rookies in prominent roles including the power trio of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Already not the strongest club defensively, the Leafs saw two of their regular d-men (Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak) suffer injuries in the last game of the season and number 1 goalie Frederik Andersen fall victim to a head shot by Pens goon Tom Sestito in the game before. They’re going to need all three to make any headway against Washington, but more than likely, it won’t be enough.

Capitals in 5.

 

Pittsburgh (2) vs. Columbus (3)

These teams don’t like each other. The defending Cup champ Penguins got some bad news last week when their top defenseman Kris Letang was ruled out for the playoffs after undergoing neck surgery. But they’ve still got Crosby, Kessel and a deep selection of offensive weapons, not the least of which is Evgeni Malkin, who is expected to return to the lineup after almost a month. Trade deadline pickups Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit will pick up some of the slack for Letang, but it will take some strong goaltending from Matt Murray to help the Pens go deep into the playoffs. The Blue Jackets had their best season ever, finishing with 108 points, but they stumbled through to the end at a 1-6 clip. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has been a beast, but the Jackets will need big contributions from the likes of Cam Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg, Brandon Saad and Nick Foligno to stand a chance at knocking off the Penguins. Look for John Tortorella’s squad to play a gritty, hard-hitting series to throw the Pens off their game. Pittsburgh has too much weaponry to be stopped, though.

Penguins in 6.

 

Montreal (1) vs. New York Rangers (WC1)

This is going to be a fun series. A true battle of great goalies: Henrik Lundqvist vs. Carey Price. There’s no love lost between the clubs, especially since NY’s Chris Kreider took out Price in the Eastern Conference finals three years ago. Neither team has much of an offensive attack, so look for a lot of low-scoring games and stud d-men Ryan McDonagh and Shea Weber to play major roles in the outcome. Ultimately, Price will come out on top again.

Canadiens in 7.

 

Ottawa (2) vs. Boston (3)

After canning Claude Julien in February, the Bruins turned their season around under assistant Bruce Cassidy. The new coach freed up his offense and the club was re-energized, led by pest-turned-elite-scorer Brad Marchand. The B’s will be put to the test by the trap-happy Senators, who can effectively put both opponents and fans to sleep with their defense-first style. Breaking out of the Ottawa malaise will be crucial if Boston hopes to advance. It won’t be easy, but they’ll do it.

Bruins in 7.

 

Western Conference

Chicago (1) vs. Nashville (WC2)

The Blackhawks are stacked with talent as always and even though they stumbled down the stretch, they still have to be considered one of the favorites to win the Cup. Kane, Toews, Keith and co. will do battle with a dangerous Predators team that’s built to succeed in the postseason. PK Subban had an underwhelming regular season, but all that will be forgotten if he can lead the Preds past the Hawks. It will be tough, but the Hawks will move on.

Blackhawks in 6.

 

Minnesota (2) vs. St. Louis (3)

The focus in this series will be on the coaches as much as the players. First-year Wild coach Bruce Boudreau has famously had strong teams in Washington and Anaheim that flamed out early. Meanwhile, Mike Yeo of St. Louis, who took over midseason from Ken Hitchcock, will be facing his old team. The Wild have a strong all-around team that took a big leap forward this year; the Blues are solid as always, but they won’t have enough to advance.

Wild in 6.

Anaheim (1) vs. Calgary (WC1)

There’s some bad blood between these teams after Calgary captain Mark Giordano took out Ducks d-man Cam Fowler with a knee-on-knee hit last week. The Flames have some strong young talent led by Johnny Gaudreau, but even without Fowler, the Ducks are too much to handle.

Ducks in 5.

 

Edmonton (2) vs. San Jose (3)

This series will essentially be the Young Guns vs. the Old Farts. In his second year, Connor McDavid took his place as the most electrifying player in the NHL, leading the league in scoring and taking over games with his blazing speed and ability. Cam Talbot solidified the Oilers with a 42-win season in goal and veteran pickups like Milan Lucic provided the jam the team had lacked. Meanwhile, the Sharks are ailing, with Joe Thornton and Logan Couture both missing time at the end of the season with injuries. Brent Burns had a monster year and the team still has offensive support from Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau, but it’s time for Edmonton’s kids to shine.

Oilers in 6.

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL: Washington over Montreal in 6.

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL: Chicago over Anaheim in 6.

STANLEY CUP: Washington over Chicago in 7.

CONN SMYTHE WINNER: Ovechkin

 

And while we’re at it, here are Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey’s picks to click in the postseason:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Bruins over Senators in 7: Pastrnak and Marchand come up with key goals as B’s win three games in OT for series win.

Capitals over Maple Leafs in 5: It’s now or never for the best team Alexander Ovechkin has ever played with in the NHL.

Rangers over Canadiens in 5: Henrik Lundqvist outplays Carey Price; Rangers’ physicality is a difference maker, too.

Penguins over Blue Jackets in 5: Injuries aside, the Penguins are built for playoff hockey and will prove it in this round.

EAST FINALCapitals over Rangers in 6

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Blackhawks over Predators in 6: I can see Nashville splitting the first four games before the Hawks take charge for good.

Wild over Blues in 4: Minnesota heads into the posteason with a head full of steam…and St. Louis doesn’t have the teeth to respond.

Sharks over Oilers in 7: Jumbo Joe, Patty Marleau & Co. have one last run in them, enough to hold off these young whippersnappers.

Ducks over Flames in 6: Anaheim will not only be battling Calgary, but the stigma that they too often fall flat in the playoffs.

WEST FINALWild over Ducks in 6

STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS: Wild over Capitals in 6

Conn Smythe Trophy winner: Zach Parise, Wild

The future is now: Leafs are back in the playoffs

When the Toronto Maple Leafs hired Mike Babcock as their high-priced, high-profile head coach in 2015, he warned that there was going to be some pain before the Leafs worked their way back to respectability.

And indeed, his first season behind the bench resulted in a last-place finish as the team unloaded veterans and contracts and loaded up on draft picks, ultimately landing the top pick in the draft courtesy of the lottery. The Leafs drafted much-touted Auston Matthews last June and while he was expected to make the team, not many expected the club to do much this season. Leaf fans were prepared for another year without a postseason appearance; after all, the team had missed the playoffs 10 out of the previous 11 seasons. The one playoff series was in 2013, a heartbreaking seven-game loss to the Bruins.

But Matthews and his merry gang of rookies (including William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Nikita Zaitsev) confounded all expectations and led the Leafs to the second wild card spot in the East. For his part, Matthews appears to have sealed up the Calder Trophy with his strong finish, ending up with 40 goals and 69 points. But he wasn’t the only weapon: Toronto had five players with at least 20 goals and five with 60 points or more. The special teams were strong and Frederik Andersen provided excellent goaltending.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. The defense can be sloppy at times and the Leafs had a tendency to cough up leads, although that seemed to have been remedied in the last few weeks of the season (until game 82, anyway). That last blown lead was painful, because the Leafs were up 2-0 vs. Columbus in their final game of the season and one point would have secured a higher seed and a first-round playoff series with Ottawa instead of powerhouse Washington.

So now the Leafs head to DC Thursday night to take on Alex Ovechkin and the Caps, who rolled to a league-leading 118 points and are looking to finally get that Stanley Cup that keeps eluding them. The Leafs, who finished with 95 points, are considered major underdogs against one of the best defensive teams in the league. Babcock noted Sunday night that all the pressure is on Washington, and he’s right. Toronto’s expected to lose, but don’t tell the Leafs that. Matthews and the kids are just having a blast and the few veterans (James Van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Brian Boyle, Leo Komarov, Tyler Bozak) are gearing up for a battle. They’re young, but it would be foolish to look past the Leafs. Because someday soon, it’ll be their time.

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.