Minnesota Wild Have To Be Shaken Up

In my previous article, I wrote about how the Buffalo Sabres made a review of their entire organization and then shook it up after missing the playoffs for the 6th consecutive year and fired their coach and general manager. The same thing needs to be done with the Minnesota Wild. They are in a better position than the Sabres because they make the playoffs each year, but they are not going to win the Stanley Cup if the current situation continues.

A few years ago, Minnesota was like the Sabres and consistently missed the playoffs. Then General Manager Chuck Fletcher made two free agent signings, Zach Parise, and Ryan Suter. Since then, the Wild have made the playoffs each year.

Unfortunately that is as far Fletcher was prepared to go. Every year the Wild make playoffs, are able to beat a bad playoff team, or lose in the first round and nothing more. They cannot beat a true contender. Fletcher has not added any significant talent since to take the Wild to higher levels. Along with the Washington Capitals, Minnesota gets the Stanley Cup of wheel spinning, to the most mediocre team, year after year.

Evidently winning this prize along with Washington was not enough for Fletcher so he went out and hired the most mediocre playoff coach he could find, Bruce Boudreau, himself a former Capitals coach who consistently swims in such waters. Boudreau’s playoff coaching record is identical to that of Minnesota; a coach that can either beat a bad playoff team or lose in the first round. As I wrote in an article on this blog last year, it was a marriage made in heaven. Minnesota and Boudreau both deserved each other.

But this year there is an extra pang in the usual playoff defeat. This time they lost to the St. Louis Blues, an underdog team that even TRIED to help Minnesota win. First they lost significant talent during the off season from their team that went to the Western Conference Final for a rare time. Then they fired Stanley Cup winning coach Ken Hitchcock who was going to retire anyway at the end of the season (He is since unretired with Dallas). Finally they obligingly traded star defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk to give them salary cap space and concentrate on rebuilding for next year. They seemed like easy pickings for Minnesota in the first round.

Instead the Blues rallied around – and just to rub it in even more for Minnesota and Fletcher – Minnesota’s old coach, Mike Yeo, who took the team into the playoffs despite the talent losses and has now put out the Wild with an easy 5 game playoff victory. Yeo had coached the Wild for several years and watched while Fletcher and other management do nothing to improve the Wild so they could advance farther in the playoffs. Nobody really knows how good a playoff coach he really is because after Fletcher improved the Wild by signing Parise and Suter, he left Yeo with the same mediocre team year after year. This led to Yeo’s inevitable firing.

Yeo himself said the usual playoff victory things: That defeating the Wild was nothing special, that Chuck and Bruce were doing a great job. But everybody else knows the truth. It must have been extremely satisfying to beat the Wild after watching Fletcher do nothing significant to improve the team during Yeo’s tenure as coach. And Chuck and Bruce are NOT doing a great job.

It is one thing to lose to a true contender who wins the Stanley Cup like Chicago. It’s quite another to lose to a lowly, upstart team like St. Louis, that stripped itself of talent and was coached by Minnesota’s ex-coach. This defeat has been the lowest playoff blow yet, a real humiliation.

So where do the Minnesota Wild go from here? In Buffalo (perhaps envious of Toronto making the playoffs this year), the owner ripped out the heart of the organization and wants to start over again. How long are the Minnesota Wild going to continue in this wheel-spinning trend? They need significant changes. If Fletcher won’t make them, maybe the first thing to do is make a change at Fletcher’s position. There has never been a Stanley Cup for chokers but if there was, Minnesota, and its eastern counterpart, Washington would be in the Finals for the last several years. For the Wild at least, it is either change or stay the same and probably sink.

Was Toronto The Reason For Buffalo Firing Murray And Bylsma?

Buffalo became the 10th team during the current NHL season – 5 during the regular season, 5 so far during the playoffs – to fire its coach, Dan Bylsma, after only two years in a five year contract. As extra spice, Buffalo joined Los Angeles in firing its general manager, Tim Murray as well. Sabres owner, Terry Pegula, supposedly in consultation with his wife, fired both of them – just after giving Murray a contract extension earlier in the season – on Thursday after Buffalo missed the playoffs for the 6th consecutive season.

There was no warning that something like this was coming until a Buffalo radio station reported that star player, Jack Eichel would not sign a contract extension if Bylsma remained as coach. Eichel denied the story and seemed apologetic in his explanation. He certainly did not express any animosity to Bylsma and Murray. So were there other factors at work?

It could be argued that Bylsma has slipped as a coach since winning the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009. Things went downhill from there (a lot could be accounted for by Marc Andre Fleury’s bad playoff goaltending), Bylsma got fired, and was hired by Murray for Buffalo. In his first season, the Sabres improved by 27 points, though that was still not enough to make the playoffs, and then they regressed a little this season. Bylsma was not helped that Eichel missed a significant amount of the season due to injury.

As for Murray, Pegula would later state that he was only a first time general manager and therefore lacked experience. He has proclaimed that Buffalo’s next general manager will have extensive experience at the NHL level. Buffalo never made the playoffs during Murray’s four year tenure. Still, Murray was responsible for drafting Eichel. If Buffalo drafted another good player for next year and made an astute trade or free agent signing in the coming off season, there is no reason to believe that the Sabres could not continue their climb upwards to a playoff position.

But perhaps Pegula was watching what was going on across Lake Ontario in Toronto. After the horrid ownership of the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund, the Maple Leafs cleared the decks. First, new president Brendan Shanahan hired probably the current top coach in the NHL, Mike Babcock and then followed that up by hiring a proven, Stanley Cup winning general manager, Lou Lamoriello. Lamoriello then selected Auston Matthews with the overall number one draft pick and watched his Maple Leafs become one of the biggest surprises of the current season, making the playoffs after being last overall last year.

Pegula might have been envious, believing that his Sabres should be where the Maple Leafs currently are, and lost patience. After missing the playoffs for the 6th consecutive time and drafting Eichel the previous season, he noted the difference in progress and felt that the Sabres were just spinning their wheels under the current management. Considering that Bylsma’s contract was still in its early years and that he had granted Murray an extension only a few months earlier, this change is especially financially costly.

Four of Buffalo’s closest rivals from the old division days, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Boston made the playoffs this year while Buffalo got left behind. That might have grated on Pegula who might have seen Buffalo’s lack of progress to be a direct reflection of his ownership and would subject him to media attack and fan dislike. So he has taken a chance and made a significant change in direction. He had better be right. If his new combination does not improve the Sabres and they continue to miss the playoffs, all he has to do is look in the mirror and find the answer as to why.

Undeserved End For Inglorious Blue Jackets

Nobody expected the Columbus Blue Jackets to make the playoffs. They were the biggest surprise of the 2016-17 NHL regular season. They over-achieved and finished with the third best record in the Eastern Conference.

But their reward was to face the team with the second best record, the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, certainly the team to beat in the east, if not the favorite to win it all again for the second straight year. They were probably the worst team the Blue Jackets could have drawn in the first round of the playoffs. Even playing first-place choker, Washington would have been better.

Actually this should not be an issue at all. Indeed, this article should not have to be written. Everybody should be proud of the Blue Jackets, giving their fans the finest season in the franchise history which included a near-NHL record of 16 straight wins, making the playoffs, and then winning a game in the first round against the team that is probably the favorite to win this year’s Stanley Cup tournament. But it’s not enough.

The Blue Jackets play in probably the strangest area for NHL professional hockey in North America, Ohio-Indiana, close to the Canadian border where hockey should be a hotbed. Instead mysteriously, top level hockey is very unpopular in this region and nobody has ever been able to explain why. In my articles, I refer to the region as the “Death Valley” of top level professional hockey. Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis are failed NHL-WHA franchises. Not even Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier could save hockey in this region when they played for the various defunct teams. Columbus is simply the best and longest surviving NHL team.

So the pressure was on the Blue Jackets to win this playoff round, not because it was Pittsburgh, not because it meant progress for the team, but to convince the Ohio-Indiana sports fan to support the franchise. Ever since the founding of this team in 2000, it has been a precarious franchise. In many of its seasons, the team has lost money. Gimmicks and low ticket prices have been used to attract fans. During many of its seasons, there have been rumors of it being folded or moved to another city.

Its history is inglorious. The Blue Jackets have only made the playoffs three times in 17 years and have yet to win a playoff round. Their playoff record is now 3-12. That record is not going to pack them in. I don’t care if their opponent was the Pittsburgh Penguins, the likely Stanley Cup winner. Columbus HAD to win that series.

Sure the Blue Jackets had their best season ever and sure the Blue Jackets nearly broke the NHL record for consecutive wins. The Ohio-Indiana fan is going to smile and be proud, but they won’t be convinced and believe in this team unless they see progress in the playoffs where it really counts. A playoff victory over somebody is the symbol of that progress or lack of progress. Instead the Blue Jackets drew the worst opponent that they and the NHL could have wanted. For this year at least, the NHL has to rue the playoff format that they had set up. Calgary can be swept in four games by Anaheim but that’s okay. The fans are going to be pleased with the progress made and come back next year. Not so in Columbus.

In my prediction article, I wrote that Columbus would have been better off if Pittsburgh’s goaltender Matt Murray had been injured instead of defenseman Kris Letang, because Pittsburgh would have been forced to play the erratic Marc Andre Fleury. But Pittsburgh played without Letang AND Murray and still won easily. Columbus made Fleury look better than he really is. They are far from being a true contender. That is not going impress Ohio-Indiana fans.

Columbus is mostly a team of no-names who played good, dependable hockey this year. They have few star players to attract crowds. And next year, it is quite conceivable that they won’t make the playoffs again. Pittsburgh, Washington, New York Rangers and Montreal are still around. Toronto, Ottawa, and Boston all improved. It is quite conceivable that Philadelphia, New York Islanders, Florida, Carolina and possibly Buffalo will be good enough to make the playoffs next year if they draft and trade well in the off season. It will be very difficult for Columbus to replicate this year’s success.

By losing so ingloriously to Pittsburgh (even if they do win the Stanley Cup) in the first round of the playoffs, Columbus will probably lose most of the attendance gains they made this year. They needed to make believers out of people in a region where hockey is unpopular, but this playoff episode did more harm than good. The NHL has been praying for this franchise to turn around but they got the worst playoff pairing that was possible. The shadow of Quebec, Hamilton, Hartford or wherever still hangs over this franchise. A sad ending for a team that deserved better this season.

NFL No Model For The NHL – Or Anybody Else

This is supposed to be a blog about hockey, but I cannot refrain from commenting on the recent actions of the NHL’s sister professional North American sports league, the NFL which continues to exhibit sheer cold-blooded ruthlessness which ought to make every sports fan around the world – never mind in just North America and never mind if they are hockey, soccer, baseball, basketball or some other sport fans – shiver with horror. Everybody has complaints about NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, real or mythical, but compared to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Bettman, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred have halos over their heads.

In just two years, the NFL has stripped three “traditional” franchises from their cities, not because of poor fan support, not because their playing facility was particularly odious, but because they can get a “better deal” elsewhere. So much for loyal fan support, so much for extensive local media coverage, so much for local corporate support, so much for local taxpayer dollars being used to fund stadium construction; if all that gets in the way, it gets swept aside without a blink of the eye or a stirring of regret. The Los Angeles Rams are at least traditional, but the Los Angeles Chargers and the Las Vegas Raiders? Ugh!

The problem is the sheer mindless, fanatical hold that professional football has on its fans. Since the rise of the NFL in the 1960s when it overtook baseball as America’s number one sport, the NFL can get away with things that the NHL, MLB, and the NBA can only gape at and dream of. Name any other league where the sheer number of franchise shifts for reasons other than poor fan support or an outmoded facility occurs. Cleveland, Baltimore, Houston, now St. Louis (twice), Oakland (twice), and San Diego have been shifted causing immense pain to local fans.

No, I haven’t forgotten or left out Los Angeles, but Los Angeles is a unique case. Los Angeles is the only city to stand up to the NFL and not give in to blackmail about building new stadiums and other perks, etc., and bow down to the league like the others did. In Los Angeles, the movie star, not the sports athlete is king and queen, so when the Rams and Raiders left in the 1990s, Los Angeles merely yawned, put up its feet and was quite content to live without NFL football for 20 years. The NFL never forgot and forgave this humiliation, that its second largest market had shut them out and ignored them.

That makes the shift of the Chargers and the Rams even more disgraceful. Los Angeles certainly was not down on its knees begging for the NFL to come back. But Los Angeles is a much bigger market than “small city” St. Louis and San Diego and the NFL was determined to wipe out the humiliation of not having even one team in its second largest market, so they had to go. Football loving St. Louis and San Diego lost their teams to a city that could not care less. Oakland and St. Louis had traditions of winning the Super Bowl. None of this matters.

Now contrast that with the NHL where Gary Bettman struggles to keep the Arizona Coyotes going, when he opened the door in 2010, for Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford to come back by offering reasonable conditions (no mention of a $500 million expansion fee then), and with the NBA making an unofficial promise to Seattle to bring back the Supersonics if they can solve their arena problem. And MLB has had talks about starting the Expos in Montreal again.

Even more shameful is that none of this had to happen. All the NFL had to do was make a commitment to expanding the league to the next symmetrical number of 40 – divisions with 5 teams in them instead of 4 – and there would be no need to strip any city of its franchise. There are plenty of candidates – there are approximately 60 large metropolitan areas in Canada and the United States so every league is only a fraction of the size it could be. Certainly by inviting back Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford, adding Las Vegas, and considering Seattle and several other cities, the NHL showed it is prepared to move past the 32 team barrier and go for 40 teams. In fact, before the Mortgage Meltdown, it seemed inevitable that all four professional sports leagues were heading to 40 at the minimum.

But expansion was never considered as an option by the NFL. Long before the Chargers and Rams were shifted, there were several websites on the Internet listing cities whose teams could be moved to Los Angeles. Certainly Buffalo, Minnesota, Jacksonville as well as the three victims were on the list. That ought to make the fans in those cities feel good about how much the NFL loves them and appreciates their support, and about how precarious their situation really is. If they don’t build new stadiums with other perks when requested… it’s goodbye NFL to some to some other place that will. No other league in North America is so ruthless.

One other consequence of the NFL’s policy of relocation instead of expansion is that there is now a huge backlog of cities who would like to be part of the next 8 expansion teams to 40, and you can bet that many of these cities are ready to capitulate on even the most ridiculously excessive of the NFL’s terms. These cities could have been enjoying NFL football long ago, except for the NFL’s obsession with Los Angeles and its determination not to expand beyond 32 teams. San Antonio, Portland, Toronto, Montreal, Birmingham, Salt Lake City, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Mexico City and faraway London, now to be joined by Oakland, St. Louis, and San Diego have been mentioned at various times. But the NFL ignored and shut them out. Los Angeles had to be resolved one way or another.

But the NFL’s arrogance does not stop with the shifting of franchises. It was the NFL, specifically the Dallas Cowboys, who started to take the game away from the “common fan” and burden city taxpayers. In 1971, by building Texas Stadium with the new idea of adding “luxury boxes” and other perky seating, the NFL introduced the “European” and “Asian” traditional social structure of “classes” into supposedly “equal” America. From then on new stadiums and arenas had to built with privileged seating in order to meet expenses and increase revenue – usually at taxpayer expense. The cost to build them soared. Also added would be pay tv, higher ticket prices and expensive merchandise that would cost more because it had an NFL sports logo on it. Football and other professional sports have been steadily moving into the exclusive domain of the rich. During the Obama administration, 45 million Americans (and uncounted Canadians) have been unofficially labeled as “poor”. They can never hope to enter the sports palaces that in many cases their tax dollars helped to build.

And I also have to remind my readers of the NFL’s hatred of foreigners, which I have written about in articles on this blog and others. Too many times I have mentioned the excessive price of tickets in Toronto when the Buffalo Bills played some of their games there. The Toronto games never came close to selling out. The gouging of “inferior”, “ignorant” Canadians so “privileged” to watch superior NFL football instead of the inferior CFL kind made even the most fanatical Toronto NFL fan check his wallet.

And the NFL showed “stuffy” Britain that it could be just as snobby as any member of the upper class nobility. For their British games, the NFL usually selects a match between the worst teams in the league that have no chance of selling out and ships the game to football-starved London. Last year the British fans started to notice what was going on and protested against the obvious arrogance. That’s a great way to increase the growth of football around the world. That’s a great way to dispel the image of the “ugly American”.

If Americans could somehow find ways to rid themselves of their football obsession, the NFL would not get away with the arrogant things it does. They would be forced to have to sell their product like everybody else instead of shrugging their shoulders and assuming a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. There’s talk about the CFL moving into these abandoned markets. It’s fanciful but I doubt if the CFL with its own precarious markets wants to make an enemy out of the powerful NFL and its cold-blooded ruthlessness.

At least the NHL, NBA, and MLB have not reached these low depths – yet. The NFL’s arrogance should make every hockey fan around the world shiver and be glad that the NHL still has what little consideration for its fans left. Former Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower used to warn Americans about the danger of the “military-industrial complex” getting out of hand. To which they should add the “sports complex” called the NFL that shows little care for anybody no matter how loyal a fan they may be.

Let’s Review The Harvesting Of NHL Coaches

5 NHL coaches were fired during the regular season and as soon as the season ended, other teams wasted no time in shoving the head coaches out the door. And as usual, most were unfair. So far, four more coaches paid the price.

1.            Dallas Stars – Lindy Ruff
Ruff is a good coach, but he has never won the big one. Last year, perhaps he got the Dallas Stars to over-achieve and that led management and fans to expect big things this season. But Dallas – with many notable big names and star players – did not show anything this year. Instead of building on or at least matching last year’s progress, Dallas regressed back to their old position of two years ago, so Ruff’s dismissal could have been predicted. Dallas has a lot of big salaries for underachieving players so many of them could be next and Dallas has made that clear by imitating Anaheim and bringing back their only Stanley Cup winning coach, Ken Hitchcock whom St. Louis fired earlier.

2.        Florida Panthers – Tom Rowe
Florida is in the unique position of firing their coach during the regular season and then firing his successor in the off-season. Gerard Gallant had taken the Panthers to a seldom-realized division title last year and actually had a winning record this year too when Florida without any warning became the first team to fire a coach and replace him with General Manager, Tom Rowe. But of the 5 teams that fired their coaches during the regular season, the Panthers were the only team not to respond to the new coach and improve. Now Rowe has been removed as both coach and general manager, but at least retains a job as special adviser. Dale Tallon is back in the General Manager’s harness. All this is done by an organization that seldom makes the playoffs, ensuring consistent bad attendance, and is a leading candidate to be shifted to Quebec, Hartford, or elsewhere. Florida is a laughingstock and these coaching changes show why. Unlike Tampa Bay where hockey is popular, the ownership and management are a major reason why hockey remains unpopular in the southern part of the state. Gallant was a leading candidate to be hired in the off season and the new Las Vegas Golden Knights showed their savvy by making him their first-ever coach, something that might have been predicted.

3.       Vancouver Canucks – Willie Desjardins
If any coaching change was the most unfair during this season, this has to rank near the top. Desjardins was placed in charge of a team on the way down, with its two top stars, the Sedin brothers over the hill and near retirement. Somehow he was expected to turn this team that has no top young draft choices on its roster into winners. Even in this downward spiral, Desjardins had approximately a .500 record over three seasons. Vancouver needed to rebuild with young stars as early as back then. Who is the Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews on this team? No one. Not even the best of coaches can do anything if the team’s top players are aging and in decline and no good young talent for the future has been added. How good a coach was Desjardins? We’ll never know, at least in Vancouver.

4.        Los Angeles – Darryl Sutter and Dean Lombardi
This ranks near the top as the most controversial change of the season, Los Angeles getting rid of the coach and general manager who gave them their only two championships. Admittedly, Lombardi might have slipped. Since the last championship, the Los Angeles attack has consistently declined and Lombardi has failed to find the right replacements either by draft, trade, or free agent signing. Trading for Ben Bishop when the team needed more offense was extremely questionable. But do you take such an extreme step as firing him only three years after winning it all for the second time? And the decline of attacking personnel is hardly Darryl Sutter’s fault. He still has this team playing well defensively. Lombardi and Sutter will immediately become leading candidates to be hired again sometime and somewhere in the future.

2016-17 NHL First Playoff Round Predictions

Well it is the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs again with 7 new teams in this year’s tournament.  Changes are particularly noticeable in the Eastern Conference where 5 new teams have made it.  And Canada which had no teams last year has 5 this year.  As customary, before going into each playoff matchup, I’ll list players and teams that have extra pressure on them and thus have more to lose than other teams.

Overjoyed

The CBC, which has five Canadian teams in the playoffs this year, including its biggest market, Toronto.  Big ratings are coming.

 Players With Extra Pressure

  1. Alexander Ovechkin

Every year Ovechkin tops the list of players with the most pressure on them in the playoffs.  He has a basket load of individual honors, both in the NHL and internationally, but he has the most horrible team records.  The latest was his Russian team making the semi-finals at September’s World Cup where they were badly out-shot and beaten by Canada.  Believe it or not, that was actually an improvement.  Washington under his leadership has never even made the Conference finals in the playoffs and frequently gets upset by lesser teams.  He is past the peak of his playing days and time is running out for a Stanley Cup victory.  He used to be compared to Sidney Crosby but his team record is nowhere on the horizon.  Unless he wins a championship, his mentor is Marcel Dionne who had a similar career.  Somehow the pressure on him increases every year, especially this year because Washington has acquired top defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, largely at Ovechkin’s insistence.  Washington is expected to win it all and if they do not, and Ovechkin is in the spotlight because of it, perhaps it is time to trade him and go in a new direction.

  1. Brooks Orpik

Right behind Ovechkin is his long time teammate Brooks Orpik who played like a bonehead in last year’s playoffs and was a major reason Washington lost to Pittsburgh.  Like Ovechkin he is past his prime and time is running out on him in Washington.  He too could be shoved out the door if Washington flops in the playoffs.

  1. Braden Holtby

The goaltender of the Washington Capitals, giving the team the hat-trick of players under the gun.  Holtby is not a bad goaltender but he is nothing special.  One just has to compare his work with that of Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray last year who seized his chance and ran with it all the way to the Stanley Cup where he should have been named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner.  Holtby has to rise above what he can usually do and outplay the goaltenders of other top contenders.  He has extra pressure on him now that Shattenkirk is here.  If he cannot do it, Washington may have to get another goaltender to complete the final piece of the puzzle.

  1. Henrik Lundqvist

The Alexander Ovechkin of NHL goaltenders.  At least he has a better record than Ovechkin in the playoffs because he took the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup Final where they lost to Los Angeles.  But that was only once and his record in playoffs and international competition is undistinguished.  The latest unremarkable effort was in September’s World Cup where he let in two critical goals to the hybrids Europe and North America and Sweden was put out of the playoffs.  Now he has to go up against Carey Price in the first round and outplay him.

  1. Carey Price

Price at least has a distinguished international record both at the Olympics and the World Cup.  But his Stanley Cup playoff record is not good where he has the Montreal defense, not the Canada defense to protect him.  As noted above, he faces another top goaltender in the first round, Lundqvist in a similar situation, and the loser is going to come out, especially if one badly outplays the other, with a diminished reputation and questions hanging above him.  That will mean increased pressure in future Stanley Cup playoffs.  Something has to give.

  1. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry

Under mediocre playoff coach, Bruce Boudreau, the Anaheim Ducks have choked against lesser teams.  But they have rehired their Stanley Cup winning coach, Randy Carlyle again so the pressure will now be more focused on the players who failed to rise to the occasion under Boudreau.  If the Ducks fall to a lesser team in the playoffs this year, management might conclude that the roster is not good enough and does not respond any more.  Top players like Getzlaf and Perry would come under serious re-evaluation and could be traded as part of a rebuilding process.

  1. Bruce Boudreau and Chuck Fletcher

I know this section is supposed to be about players but Boudreau and Fletcher, the coach and general manager of the Minnesota Wild belong on it.  Boudreau is like Ovechkin in the playoffs.  His teams can beat lesser lights but never a true contender.  Fletcher’s team, Minnesota got Zach Parise and Ryan Suter a few years ago, patted himself on the back and then assumed that was enough to be a Stanley Cup champion.  Alas Minnesota has never risen above mediocrity in the playoffs and has never added significantly better talent since to rise any further.  Then last year, Fletcher hired mediocre playoff coach Boudreau.  The perfect combination.  Minnesota had better show something in this year’s playoffs or attention and pressure will be focused on the management, coaching, and ownership where it will belong.

Teams With Extra Pressure (The “Show Me” Teams)

  1. Washington Capitals

It goes without saying that the team with three players on the list above and the now two-time President’s Trophy winner has the most pressure on it again.  The minimum that is acceptable for Washington is to make the Eastern Conference Final which has never happened during the Ovechkin era.  Coach Barry Trotz will be under fire if the team underperforms because now Kevin Shattenkirk has been added, but NO COACH either in the NHL or internationally has been able to make a winner out of Alexander Ovechkin.  General Manager Brian MacLellan got himself and the owners off the hook by boldly and bravely getting Shattenkirk at the trade deadline.  Last year they got T. J. Oshie who made a notable contribution but it still was not enough.  As noted above, if Washington flops and any of the three players listed in the above section is a part of the reason, it may be overdue time to try to keep Shattenkirk and Oshie, trade the others and go in a new direction.

  1. Minnesota Wild

Right behind the Capitals are the Minnesota Wild, especially since the Bruce Boudreau Regular Season Machine did so well this year.  But Minnesota looked brittle coming down the home stretch and only their excellent earlier record kept them in second place in their division.  Even more ominous was that they did poorly head-to-head against Chicago, who is the favorite in the Western Conference.  As noted above, Minnesota added Suter and Parise and have done nothing since.  If the Wild flops again and continues to stagnate, there should be a shake-up of both the roster and the management.

  1. Columbus Blue Jackets

Actually neither players, coaches, or management should have any extra pressure on them.  They have overachieved.  But Columbus plays in the Ohio-Indiana area, close to the Canadian border, where hockey is mysteriously unpopular, which I have termed the “Death Valley” of professional hockey.  The Blue Jackets get consistently bad attendance.  They have only made the playoffs three times in their history and have never won a playoff series.  Sure Columbus had the finest regular season in their history, but is that enough to convince local fans to support the team?  The cynical fans may be saying “Show me” before they really start believing in this team and that means a playoff victory.  And if that is still not enough to attract increased attendance, perhaps it may be time to consider a franchise shift to Quebec, Hamilton, or Hartford.

Stanley Cup First Round Predictions

Eastern Conference

  1. Washington Capitals Vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

All the pressure is on Washington but at least in this round they should not have to worry.  They have to be heavily favored over newly arrived Toronto which is a team full of rookies making their Stanley Cup playoff debuts.  As if the Leafs didn’t have enough to worry about in this round, the Capitals added star defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk to push them over the top.  This is the first playoff meeting ever between Washington and Toronto.  It may seem a mismatch but the season series was very close, Washington winning 2-1 with one game going into overtime.  The best things the Maple Leafs have going for them is that they have the young, up-coming superstar Auston Matthews, the overall number one pick this year who has been everything the Leafs wanted, and wants to make his playoff debut just as good as his regular season debut was; and the coaching of Mike Babcock.  But with all the experience and star players, the Capitals should win in 5 games.

P.S.  If the Capitals somehow blow this series, I would not want to be a Washington Capital in the off season.

  1. Montreal Canadiens Vs. New York Rangers

These two teams probably knew for months that they would be facing each other in the first round of the playoffs.  At one time it seemed that both of them would be challenging for the President’s Trophy but they faded and weaknesses have showed.  Montreal went so far as to fire its coach and replace him with their old mentor, Stanley Cup winning coach, Claude Julien who won with Boston.  The Canadiens swept their series with the Rangers, establishing a clear edge over them.

Coaching wise the hockey gods mischievously matched up French Canadian coaches Alain Vigneault of the New York Rangers against (you remember) the coach who beat him in the Stanley Cup Finals in 7 games, Claude Julien, another edge for the Canadiens.  Canadiens have home ice.  Henrik Lundqvist can be counted on to let in at least one goal at the wrong time.  Montreal in 6 or 7 games.

  1. Pittsburgh Penguins Vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

Poor Columbus.  They overachieved and ended up with the worst playoff matchup possible, the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, just when they needed to convince local fans that they were for real the most.  Even playing against choker Washington would have been better.  The only good news that Columbus got was that Pittsburgh’s best defenseman, Kris Letang is out for the entire playoffs.  But Evgeni Malkin will be back and combined with Sidney Crosby that should be enough for victory for Pittsburgh over Columbus who are a team of no-names.  Sergei Bobrovsky is a good goaltender but Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray won it all last year.  It would have been better for Columbus if Murray had been injured instead of Letang and Pittsburgh would have had to start the erratic Marc Andre Fleury.  In Columbus’s favor is that they played Pittsburgh even head-to-head this year.  Pittsburgh has the home ice edge and is vastly superior in talent and playoff experience.  Columbus’s only hope is that the Letang injury means a serious drop-off in defensive performance but that won’t happen with Murray in Pittsburgh’s net.  Pittsburgh in 5 or 6 games.

  1. Ottawa Senators Vs. Boston Bruins

This is the first playoff meeting between these teams since the 1920s.  The Senators played bad hockey down the stretch and on paper may be the weakest team in the Eastern Conference playoffs.  They would probably lose to every other playoff team in the conference – except the Boston Bruins who are 0-3-1 against them.  For that reason, the Senators have to be favored in this series though it could go either way, especially if Boston goaltender Tukka Rask gets hot and outplays Craig Anderson.  Ottawa in 6 or 7 games.

Western Conference

  1. Chicago Blackhawks Vs. Nashville Predators

When Nashville got P. K. Subban from Montreal for Shea Weber, many Predator fans and a whole bunch of predictors at the NHL website assumed that the Predators had got the “final piece of the puzzle” and that Nashville would at least be the Western Conference champion.  Instead the Predators nearly finished out of the playoffs and only a late surge of good hockey got them back in.  Subban is certainly not enough to topple Chicago who have won three Stanley Cups since 2010 and have to be the favorites this year to win it all again, especially since Pittsburgh lost Kris Letang.  Chicago has too much talent and is too well coached to lose to a team like Nashville that needs a lot more talent than Subban to become a champion.  Chicago in 5 games.

  1. Minnesota Wild Vs. St. Louis Blues

Bruce Boudreau is a mediocre playoff coach.  The Minnesota Wild are a mediocre playoff team.  The St. Louis Blues made a bit of a break-through last year and reached the Western Conference Final, where they seldom go, but then lost talent in the off-season and then obligingly traded one of their top defensemen, Kevin Shattenkirk so that Los Angeles could make the playoffs while they rebuilt their team.  Instead the Blues responded and made the playoffs while Minnesota had a horrible last quarter of the season.  Minnesota which is supposed to be superior cannot lose to a team which at least on paper is much worse than last year.  Can they?  Then again, they are the Minnesota Wild and he is coach Bruce Boudreau…  And the hockey gods continued their weird sense of humor by matching Minnesota against their old coach, Mike Yeo.  This is tough to predict.  It could go either way.  At least on paper, Minnesota should win, but I’ll go out on a limb and say St. Louis will rankle Boudreau and General Manager Chuck Fletcher and win for Yeo in 7 games.

  1. Edmonton Oilers Vs. San Jose Sharks

Last year, San Jose coach Peter DeBoer took a team that was supposed to be over the hill and on the way down into new territory, all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.  For part of this season, San Jose looked like that team, but the Sharks had a horrible last quarter and tumbled out of first place in their division to third.  Has an aging reality finally caught up to the Sharks?  Meanwhile the Oilers, under Sidney Crosby’s heir, Connor McDavid made the playoffs after 10 years of futility.  Added to the spice and intrigue is that the perverted hockey gods decided that the Oilers coach should be San Jose’s old coach, Todd McLellan.  Martin Jones, who played so well for the Sharks in net during last year’s playoffs gives San Jose an edge at a key position.  Unknown positive factor for the Oilers:  How good is Connor McDavid?  San Jose has nothing like him, just like they had nobody like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in last year’s final.  Unknown negative factor for the Oilers:  It took Wayne Gretzky three years before the Oilers won a playoff round.  If San Jose had been playing good down the stretch, I would take them based on their playoff experience and Jones’ goaltending.  But I don’t think San Jose will find themselves this time, McDavid will be the difference, and the Oilers will win in 6 games.

  1. Anaheim Ducks Vs. Calgary Flames

The Ducks had been choking in the playoffs under mediocre playoff coach Bruce Boudreau, so they reached back into their past and rehired their Stanley Cup winning coach, Randy Carlyle again.  So far it has paid off.  The Ducks kept their heads while the Sharks faded and the Oilers and Flames also took a run at them and ended up winning their division.  Carlyle certainly has the experience and knowledge to keep them playing that way in the playoffs.  Meanwhile Calgary got hot at the right time and put together a 10 game winning streak in the last quarter of the regular season, just when they needed it the most.  Rookie coach Glenn Gulutan should also be saluted because he took a team that seemed headed for the bottom of the Western Conference standings at the beginning of the season, turned it around and got it into the playoffs.  Unknown factor:  The coaching of Gulutan.  Will he be just as good in the playoffs as he was in the regular season?  Can he match the experienced, Stanley Cup winning coach, Carlyle?  And how will the goaltending match up?  This could go in Calgary’s favor if all the unknown factors go their way.  Anaheim’s veterans have more to lose in this series than up and coming Calgary.  Based on what I know about Carlyle, I’ll take the Ducks in 6 games.

Early Stanley Cup Prediction

Since the beginning of the season, until otherwise proven, I’ve consistently said that the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins were the teams to beat and I still hold to that.  When Pittsburgh built its team around the latest member on Canada’s Golden Hockey Chain, Sidney Crosby (A list of the top Canadian players of their generation who is head and shoulders above everyone else, dating back to Maurice Richard), and top Russian, Evgeni Malkin, it was predicted that Pittsburgh would win many Stanley Cups during the coming era.  But while Pittsburgh floundered under the bad goaltending of Marc Andre Fleury, Chicago seized its opportunity to win every other year.  Chicago is back again this year and Pittsburgh has been hurt by the injury to top defenseman, Kris Letang.  A dream matchup will be a Chicago-Pittsburgh final and the Blackhawks will continue their pattern by winning their fourth Stanley Cup in 8 years.

NHL 2016-17 Final Regular Season Report

This last section of the quarterly reports for the current NHL season serves two purposes.  First it tells what significantly happened in the final quarter of the season, and second, it wraps up the meaning of the regular season as a whole.

Biggest Surprises

1.      Columbus Blue Jackets

The franchise was in decline and so was the career of former Stanley Cup Champion coach John Tortorella who got horrible results with Team USA in September’s World Cup.  But the Blue Jackets. mainly a team of no-names, responded to his coaching and unexpectedly produced a near NHL record of 16 straight wins and gave their franchise the best regular season in their history.  It remains to be seen if this can generate better attendance in the future.

2.     Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs have improved in coaching, at the general manager level, and they selected Auston Matthews as the number one player in this year’s draft and he has turned out to be everything they hoped for.  For the first time since before the ownership of the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund, there is real hope for this franchise.  The Leafs have made the playoffs for only the second time after the Teachers horrible ownership has ended and regardless of what they do in the post-season, it is onward and upward for the team.

Biggest Disappointments

In any order…

1.      Dallas Stars

After making enormous progress last year, it was the task of the Stars to build on the foundations they had established and take the next step to being a legitimate contender in the Western Conference.  Instead they never showed anything of their potential all year.  Dallas has some notable names on their roster, meaning that many large contracts could either be traded or dumped in the off season in response to this underachieving performance.

2.     Los Angeles Kings

A few years ago, the Kings were winning Stanley Cups and were one of the two teams favored to win it all at the beginning of each year.  They are still an excellent defensive team but their attack has dwindled into minuscule levels.  They will be drafting a top forward or an attacking defenseman in the off season.

3.     Tampa Bay Lightning

On paper the Lightning had the second best roster in the Eastern Conference behind the Pittsburgh Penguins and General Manager Steve Yzerman signed all his free agents in an attempt to win the Stanley Cup now.  Then Steve Stamkos got injured and the team never responded, just like the Montreal Canadiens did last year when Carey Price got hurt.  Yzerman has already made significant changes to the disappointing roster by trading goaltender Ben Bishop who always seemed to get injured at the wrong time to Los Angeles and is committing to Andrei Vasilevskiy and Peter Budaj.  A more serious problem is whether the Lightning can build a team around Stamkos who has a habit of getting seriously injured for long periods of time too easily and too frequently.  Stamkos is the kind of player who could put a team over the top but he is not much good if he is always on the sidelines.

Still The Teams To Beat

Until it is proven otherwise, the Pittsburgh Penguins in the east and the Chicago Blackhawks in the west are the teams to beat and should be favored in the playoffs.

Show Me

Washington Capitals won the President’s trophy again and the Minnesota Wild and coach Bruce Boudreau posted pretty regular season numbers.  But until they do it in the playoffs…

Most Puzzling Team Of The Year

The Philadelphia Flyers had a 10 game winning streak and seemed certain to make the playoffs comfortably and somehow failed to do so.

It Didn’t Matter/Bad Decision

5 teams, Florida Panthers, St. Louis Blues, New York Islanders, Boston Bruins, and Montreal Canadiens fired their coaches.  Of the 5, the first one to do so, the Florida Panthers, who fired Gerard Gallant even though he had a winning record and had won a division title only the year before, were the only team who failed to respond and improve under their new coach and tumbled down the standings to a losing record.  Of course this is typical of a team that seldom makes the playoffs and regularly gets bad attendance.  Gallant is now one the leading candidates to be hired in the off season.

Hot At The Right Time

The Calgary Flames fashioned the longest winning streak of the fourth quarter, 10 games, and put themselves into the playoffs.  Honorable mention: Boston Bruins.

Here At Last

The Edmonton Oilers finally made the playoffs after 10 years with their noses to the window, under Sidney Crosby’s heir apparent, Connor McDavid.  But what is startling is how bad most of the over-all number one picks in this period that Edmonton had were.  The Oilers parted with two more of them this year.  Nail Yakupov now plays a minor role with St. Louis.  And New Jersey got Taylor Hall in the off season to boost its attack and has become bad defensively, falling to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.  Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, still with the Oilers has the worst plus-minus ratings on the team.  Are his days numbered?  Is there a lesson to be learned here?  That high number one picks are not always the best way to build a team.

End Of An Era

1.     Detroit Red Wings

The Mike Ilitch glory years are over with the sad death of the man most responsible for reviving the franchise.  Added to the loss of Gordie Howe, these are sad times in Detroit.  The Red Wings failed to make the playoffs after a record 26 straight years but this is not a time of condemning but saluting a great organization.  The reason Detroit fell was because they have not been able to draft top players for a long time.  A new era will begin next year with new ownership, a new arena, and a top draft choice.

2.     Vancouver Canucks

The Sedin brothers era is winding down.  Unlike Detroit which made the most of its glory period and won four Stanley Cups, the best the Sedins could do was take Vancouver to a 7 game Stanley Cup Final.  It’s been downhill ever since.  Soon the Sedins will retire and join Trevor Linden and Pavel Bure as the best all-time Canuck players.  But Vancouver is still waiting for its moment of glory.

Off Season Drama

1.     The Future of the New York Islanders

This season should prove one thing.  Things cannot get any better for the New York Islanders until they solve their arena problem.  Usually when a team has a bad season like the Islanders did in which they fired their coach, you can point the finger at the owner, the management, the coach, or the roster.  But none of these things can really be applied to the Islanders and they find themselves in the extremely rare case where the facility they play in is probably the deciding factor.

The Barclay Center is the poorest arena in the NHL.  Built for basketball, it has the second smallest seating in the league which the Islanders cannot sell out, has bad ice, and is the only rink that has obstructive view seats.  The Islanders cannot remain there and be a viable team in the NHL.  It is shabby treatment for a team with such a notable history.  The best hope for the team is a possible new arena in Queens and the second option is to take up the offer of Hartford which made an open pitch for the Islanders to become the Whalers and plans to renovate the XL Center to get back into the NHL.  But if the Islanders with their glorious history disappeared, it would be a tremendous loss of face and status for the NHL in the United States.

2.     Will Quebec Get a team?

Somehow the Quebec City situation has to be resolved.  The NHL loves the new Videotron arena and is more than happy with the fanatical Quebec market that is now over 800,000 in the city and stretches from half way to Montreal into the Maritime provinces.  But they cannot abide potential owner Pierre Karl Peladeau.  So what happens?  The NHL grants an expansion team to Quebec with brand new owners either from within or outside of the Province of Quebec?  Peladeau manages to reconcile with the NHL Board and finally his offer is accepted?  An existing NHL franchise is shifted from the Eastern Conference to Quebec like what happened to Winnipeg?  Or does Quebec remain in limbo until its ownership problem is solved… potentially indefinitely forever.

3.     Where will Arizona Play?

The NHL has publicly stated that the Arizona Coyotes have no future in Glendale.  Insanely, there is actually a bill before the Arizona legislature promising taxpayer money to build yet another arena for a franchise that has had only one decent season in its history,  and is vacating a facility, built at a cost of several hundred million taxpayer dollars specifically for the Coyotes that is only 13 years old.  But it has been predicted that such a bill is unlikely to pass leaving the Coyotes with no future in Phoenix unless a miracle occurs.  If the Coyotes move, it has to be to a western city or the league conferences will become even more unbalanced.  Las Vegas is gone as an option and Seattle, whom the NHL favors, still cannot resolve its arena problem.  So will Houston, Kansas City, Portland, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, San Francisco, even Saskatoon come to the rescue?