Nashville Predators Preview

The message was clear: Shea Weber needs help. After finishing as the top point scorer and one goal shy of being the top goal scorer in 2013/2014, the elite defenseman’s lack of support became more evident than ever.

The biggest move by general manager David Poile was made during the NHL Entry Draft when he traded forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spalling to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for previous 40-goal scorer James Neal. A trade that has generally been viewed as a positive one by the Predators’ fan base.

After acquiring goal scorer James Neal, everyone started asking the obvious question: who is going to deliver him the puck in the same fashion as Evgeni Malkin did in Pittsburgh? Poile went out into free agency to solve the problem to the best of his ability. He came back with three potential first-line centers to partner up with Neal: Olli Jokinen from Winnipeg Jets, Mike Ribeiro from Arizona Coyotes, and Derek Roy from St. Louis Blues. It will be interesting to watch if Ribeiro can revive his much trouble career and if Jokinen or Roy can shine in their new environment.

One thing is clear; Shea Weber cannot do everything on his own if the Nashville Predators wants to be in the hunt for a playoff spot come May.

Buffalo Sabres Preview

Tim Murray’s first summer as general manager of the Buffalo Sabres was a busy one. The disappointing 2013/2014 season resulted in four new assistant coaches for head coach Ted Nolan, including former elite NHL: ers Bryan Trottier and Arturs Irbe. On the player side, the second-overall-pick Sam Reinhart is supposed to bring much needed playmaking ability on the center man position. His intelligence and leadership qualities make him a good candidate to run for captaincy in a few years. Speaking of captaincy, the Sabres are yet to select a captain for the 2014/2015 season. Newly acquired Brian Gionta from free agency is one named that might surface along with current assistant captain Drew Stafford.

The Sabres made two big moves buying out defensemen Christian Ehroff and forward Villo Leino . As a result, they were able to bring in seven players: Matt Moulson and Josh Gorges being the most notable ones.

It will be interesting to see if Swedish goaltender Jhonas Enroth finally can take one addition step to become a true No. 1 goaltender in the National Hockey League, something that is essential for the Sabres after they traded away their best player in recent years, Ryan Miller, at last year’s trade deadline. Also, look for defenseman Tyler Myers to continue to grow into an elite player.

The Buffalo Sabres might not be competitive in 2014/2015 or even in 2015/2016, but they are definitely on the right track.

Kapanen symbol of the new Penguins

With a new general manager and a new head coach in town, the Penguins Penguins are ready for change. They want a new identity, a fresh look now that the Stanley Cup-winning team from 2009 is long gone . First-round pick Kasperi Kapanen is a perfect example of that new identity.

Kapanen has impressed everyone at Penguins prospect camp. New assistant coach Rick Tocchet considers Kapanen to be a legitimate candidate for a spot in the top six, something that has been echoed throughout the whole organization including Jim Rutherford.  Kapanen is a classic high-end talent with great speed, athleticism and stickhandling ability, but it is maturity to the game that have made people starting talking about a potential spot right next to superstar Sidney Crosby.  “He’s even better than I thought he would be. So I was very happy with him. He’s just high-end talent, high-end speed. He’s a very, very mature kid for his age. Obviously, having his father [Sami Kapanen] playing so many years in the NHL and playing with him and brining him up that way, he’s already a pro,” said Penguins new associate general manager Bill Guerin during Penguins’ development camp.

One thing that could pave the way for the young Fin is Jim Rutherford and Mike Johntsons’ new puck possession attitude. They desire all players to be good with the puck, therefore not lining up with skilled players in the top six and grinders in the bottom. Even if Kapanen does not claim a the top six spot, there is a bigger chance of him making the roster than in the old system lead by Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma.

From the sound of it, Pittsburgh’s new playing style seems much more attractive for a hockey lover than the old one. And we are talking about a team that has been one of the most goal-scoring teams in the league during the past five seasons. The new identity may take a while to adapt to and all the pieces may not work out, but the feel of the situation in Pittsburgh right now is good. Everyone seems to be on the same page and buying in to the new way of life. General manager Jim Rutherford may have to go out and get some reinforcements in March or even earlier, but hopefully there won’t be too much of a roller coaster ride this season.

The Importance of Centermen

Jim Rutherford is well on his way of building a new Pittsburgh Penguins team. I like his vision of building a roster that is strong down the middle. Having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Rutherford really doesn’t have another choice, but I like that he considers this a key thing in winning the Stanley Cup.

Centermen are generally the smartest hockey players; they see big portions of the ice and play a part in every aspect of the game. Therefore, there is no accident that most of the greatest hockey players of all time played as centers.  What differ them from all the other hockey-crazed kids growing up is their mind. Their hockey awareness is just so big that it can’t fit into another position on the ice, even as such an early stage in their careers. The center position allows them to be as involved as their skill demands. Defensemen do also have a good look of the ice, but they usually just see it from one side: a defenseman never gets the opportunity to see the game from the opponents’ side, simple because they almost always are skating backwards. Wingers a too locked into the sides of the ice, which gives them a more static view of the game.

In order to win the Stanley Cup, your great centers need to be stars and your good ones need to be character players. And all of them need to be leaders. One big aspect of winning in the playoff is the penalty kill. I always feel much more comfortable having a center as a leader of that four man group, face-offs being one of the reasons. You don’t need a great power play to win a Stanley Cup, sometimes not even a good one. But it certainly doesn’t hurt having two great centermen setting up goal-scoring opportunities in the man advantage.

Just ask any GM whom their first choice would be if they got the chance to build a team from scratch. All of them would pick a center and it would be one of these names: Crosby, Malkin, Toews, Kopitar, Tavares, Stamkos, Datsyuk, Bergeon.

Penguins’ new leadership brings much needed consistency

Days after former Penguins GM, Ray Shero, was fired, co-owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux met with Dejan Kovacevic of Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The owners used two words repeatedly when portraying a vision for how they wanted their team to look. The words were “grit” and “character”. Co-owners Run Burkle and Mario Lemieux believed that the lack of locker room personalities and physical presence on the ice were the main reasons for the Penguins’ early playoff  exits the past four seasons.

Jim Rutherford’s first major move as the Penguins new GM was to hire a new head coach. The hiring process took longer than expected when Rutherford’s first two choices decided to accept other offers, but Mike Johnston was eventually trusted with the position. The next two big events on the calendar in Pittsburgh was the NHL Entry Draft and NHL’s Free Agency. While the new head coach took a step back, Rutherford worked to create the image that Mario Lemieux and co-owner Run Burkle had painted for the Black and Gold.

At the draft, a high-skilled and unexpectedly available forward in Finnish Kasperi Kapanen was selected as the Penguins first pick, giving the organization some much-needed talent up front. The later picks, however, were not used on technically gifted hockey players. Instead, big, strong, hard-working guys with net-front presence and desperate board play were preferred. For example, fifth-round pick Anthony Angello was quoted saying ”I’d definitely say my big role is a physical-presence type of guy, where the defense are skating down and they look over their shoulder and say ‘oh no, there comes Angello, he’s going to put me through the wall.”

Of course, before Penguins even made their first pick a step towards the new image was taken when Jim Rutherford traded James Neal to Nashville Predators for forwards Patric Hörnqvist and Nick Spaling. Most people, including myself, raised their eyebrows at the seemingly lack of exchange the Penguins got for a former 40-goalscorer. However, it did not take long until it all made sense. James Neal was a part of the old image created by Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma and highlighted the teams’ struggles in the playoffs. Also, Neal gets his goal from a far while Hörnqvist and Spaling battle for them in front of the net. And those are the kind of goals you score in the playoffs. Hörnqvist was an assistant captain in Nashville, he is well-known locker-room guy, he has shown his goal-scoring ability in a mediocre team, and he is a right shot. The last part was emphasized by Rutherford, wanting to give his star centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin another option on the ice. In Nick Spaling, the Penguins got a hard-working player that can play both box play and power play and also does his share of goals. The Penguins got tougher, louder and an increase in goal-scoring potential in the playoffs within a matter of minutes.

The work towards the new image continued in one of the most crazy free agency days in modern NHL history. Former Penguin defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen were giving monster contracts, Deryk Engelland was way overpaid by the Calgary Flames, and even Joe Vitale and Tanner Glass managed to scramble together undeserved paydays. And out of nowhere, Jim Rutheford managed to get the best available defenseman in Chrisitan Ehrhoff at $4 milion for one year. The next three signings done by the Penguins echoed the owners’ words “grit” and “character”. Blake Comeau and Taylor Chorney were signed during the first day of free agency, while the former Philadelphia Flyer and troublesome Steve Downie was given a one year deal during Day 2.

Things are looking up for the Pittsburgh Penguins, even though they may eventually need another top-six winger. Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis cannot both be up there if the Penguins are going to be back in the Stanley Cup Final come April. A few possible free-agent targets remains, although current restricted free agents such as Brandon Sutter and Nick Spaling are going to get new contracts before addition money is spent on any new players. In any case, there is a lot more excitement in the town of Pittsburgh this summer than it has been for a long time.

Quick Thoughts after Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final

Anze Kopitar is a great hockey player. He is so dominate at both ends of the ice. Some people don’t understand how hard it is to be as skilled both offensively and defensively as Kopitar is. The way you play the game in the opponent’s and your own zone is not comparable; it takes two different kinds of skill set. Every hockey coach on the planet loves the kind of player Anze Kopitar is. Whenever there is an empty sheet of ice around the puck, expect to see No. 11 in black arrive in one or two seconds. Kopitar reminds me of Datsyuk. Especially when it comes to the insane amount of time both of them seem to have with the puck. Both of them can fight off one or two defensemen with one hand while protecting the puck with the other. Both can sneak across the opponent’s defensive zone just inside the blue line to deliver a perfect drop pass, or continue to skate down behind the opponent’s net and buy some time for their teammates. Their stickhandling is top-notch, with Datsyuk having the upper hand on Kopitar. Both centermen can make nifty little passes in tight areas and neither one of them ever gets stuck in a corner or gets into too much trouble in front of the opposition’s net. Look for Kopitar to keep dominating the rest of the Stanley Cup Final and earn himself a first Conn Smythe Trophy.

Henrik Lundqvist is one of the greatest competitors in the game. The way he fights off pucks, sticks, skates and everything else that enters his crease is impressive. Especially considering how calm he looks doing it. I don’t think Lundqvist gets enough credit for his stick play ability. It is a big part of his positioning: to get pucks out of the areas he doesn’t feel comfortable with them being in. The Rangers have won every of their games in this year’s playoff except for the first two victories against Philadelphia because of Lundqvist. And the Rangers know just how important he is for their team. Last night when Lundqvist got hit by Jeff Carter’s shoulder and fell to the ice, the Rangers’ players just stopped in their tracks. They didn’t even retaliate when their star goaltender was attacked behind his own net. They just watched in horror while the Swede struggled to get up. After a scary 20-30 seconds, Lundqvist was able to shake it off and continue the rest of the game without any noticeable limitations to his play.

How great of a goaltender is Jonathan Quick really? Wait, hear me out people! I know a lot of you consider him among the Top 5 or even the Top 3 goaltenders in the league. I am not so sure. The last two playoffs, Quick has been outstanding and his postseason numbers prove that. But there is a difference between being a great playoff performer and an all-around great goaltender. His 2011-2012 season speaks for itself and he was almost indisputably the reason the Kings got to the playoffs that season, earning him a Vezina Trophy nomination along the way. I still don’t consider Jonathan Quick a Top 3 goaltender in the National Hockey League, due to how uneven he can be. Sometimes Quick’s play drops to below average. We have seen it most presently in this year’s playoffs, but also in the past. I consider Lundqvist, Rask and Price the best in the game, with Quick, Bobrovsky & Crawford chasing behind. I am not sold on Ben Bishop or Semyon Varlamov yet; I think Mike Smith never will top his amazing 2011-2012 season, and Pekka Rinne has been too injure-prone this season to be up there. The difference between the top goalies in the NHL and the rest is their lack of bad stretches. If they do have a bad stretch, it doesn’t last for long and they always come out better because of it. In this year’s playoff, The Kings have been forced to outscore teams like the San Jose Sharks, the Anaheim Ducks and now the New York Rangers, because of Quick’s sloppy play in net. With that being said, I would still feel pretty darn good heading into the playoffs with Jonathan Quick in net. He makes big, timely saves and he is tremendous when the game is on the line. At the end of the day, all you want from your goaltender is for him to give you the chance to win every game and Jonathan Quick does just that.

After watching the first round of this year’s playoffs, it became clear just how much better the Western Conference teams were than the ones playing in the Eastern Conference. It became even clearer in the second round watching the Chicago Blackhawks flex their muscles against a lesser opponent in the Minnesota Wild and the entertaining series between the Anaheim Ducks and the L.A. Kings. Of course, it was the most evident during the Conference Finals. The seven game series between the Blackhawks and the Kings were one for the ages. They played fast, tough, and intense hockey that left no room for errors. Watching that series and comparing it to the Eastern Conference Final between the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens, it was clear that the Stanley Cup was going to either the city of Chicago or Los Angeles. I thought the cup final would end in five or even four games. Sweeping an opponent is very difficult in the playoffs and doing it in a Stanley Cup Final is god damn near impossible. That is how big of a difference I thought the skill level was between the two Conference Final series. Actually, I am not sure if any Eastern Conference team would have survived even the first round if they had played out west, except for the Boston Bruins. The dominance of the Western Conference teams have increased over the past three seasons and next year it is possible that we get a new cup winner out of California.

Jim Rutherford to be named new GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins

At 1.p.m. ET, the Pittsburgh Penguins will hold a press conference where they will officially announce Jim Rutherford as the new GM, as reported by Bob McKenzie of TSN. The 65-year-old resigned as general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes in April and moved into an advisory role as team president after 20 years in the organization. During Rutherford’s tenure, the Whalers/Hurricanes went to the Stanley Cup Playoffs five times, earning three division titles, two Eastern Conference titles and winning the Stanley Cup in 2006.

The Penguins have been searching for a new general manager after firing Ray Shero on May 16th, just three days after the Penguins were eliminated in seven games by the New York Rangers. In recent weeks, three names in Tampa Bay’s assistant GM Julien BriseBois, Penguins’ interim general manager Jason Botterill, and NBC analyst Pierre McGuire have been considered the leading candidates for the job. Rutherford’s name did not surface until Tuesday and has denied commenting on the matter.

The main reason for Shero’s firing was, according to owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, the lack of influential forwards for the Penguins that were taken in the draft. That’s why hiring Rutherford would come as a bit of a surprise. Since 2005, the Hurricanes have really only drafted one impact forward in the 2010 seventh-overall-pick Jeff Skinner. Depth center Brandon Sutter of the Pittsburgh Penguins was also a first rounder taken by Rutherford and the Carolina Hurricanes. Elias Lindholm was taken in the 2013 first round and has yet to make a real impact on the Hurricanes roster, although he played 58 games this season and put up a total of 21 points (9+12).  Considering Shero often picked in the later stages of the first round, one could argue that he has had more success than Rutherford.

The Penguins do have familiarity with Rutherford, not only during his short period as a goaltender with them, but also as a GM. Rutherford was the one who orchestrated the franchise-altering trade that sent Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes for Brand Sutter, defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin and the first-round pick, that turned into the 2013-2014 WHL Defenseman of the Year, Derrick Pouliot. The Hurricanes have selected some defensive talent in Ryan Murphy and NHL regulars Justin Faulk and Brett Bellemore, but Ray Shero did not receive criticism for his pick of defensemen. The Penguins leading goal-scorer in this year’s playoffs, Jussi Jokinen, was actually waved by Rutherford and the Hurricanes during 2012-13. Jokinen, being a UFA this summer, was considered very unlikely to re-sign with the Penguins and with the hiring of Rutherford it is safe to say that he won’t be playing in black and gold next season.

The Hurricanes have actually had a pretty similar team to the Penguins with some top-end talent and lack of support behind them. That being said, Rutherford did not have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to build around (with no disrespect to Eric Staal), and a change of scenery is seldomly a bad thing. Also, Rutherford could possibly be brought in to groom a GM in training, Jason Botterill (as in the case of Ron Francis), who could take over in four-five years.

The first line of business for Rutherford will be to evaluate head coach Dan Bylsma and his associates to potentially have a new coaching staff in place for the NHL draft on June 27-28 in Philadelphia.

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