With NHL training camps underway this week hockey fans can start to make their predictions. Last year the Penguins skated, to their second straight Stanley Cup .A seven game hard fought series over Nashville. The Predators were one , of the most surprising teams in the NHL last season. The start of training camp means every team gets a fresh new start. During the summer teams retooled and got ready for the upcoming season. Three teams to keep an eye on are Edmonton, Dallas, and Boston. Dallas and Edmonton were very active this past off season.For the Bruins they were fairly quiet. Boston was busy negotiating a long term deal for David Pastrnak. Still no deal has yet to be announced. Dallas was the busiest team this off season. The Stars added veteran goalie Ben Bishop. Bishop. Bishop was traded to LA at the trade deadline,but ended up signing with Dallas this summer. The Stars will have great depth at goaltending ,as Bishop and KariLehtonen will split the time. The biggest move was signing long time NHL coal Ken Hitchcock to a contract. Hitchcock’s experience will greatly help Dallas. With captain Jamie Benn,and Tyler Sguin the Stars should be much better than their 34-37 and 70 point record. Hitchcock has the experience to mold the Stars into a playoff team. Along with Bishop , Dallas acquired defenseman center Martin Hanzal,and forward Tyler Pitlick. Edmonton is another team to keep an eye on. The Oilers rewarded star center Connor Mc David to an eight year 100 million dollar deal. Mc David was was one of the leagues best players last year. The Oilers selected McDavid number one overall in 2015 Mc David and teammate Leon Draisaitl together make the Oilers a very scary team. General manager Peter Chairelli has got the Oilers back to respectability in just three years.If the Oilers can play solid defense in front of goalie Cam Talbot they will be a team to challenge the Penguins in the playoffs. Boston under first year head coach Bruce Cassidy is another team that will surprise a lot of fans. Currently the Bruins are in negotiations with star forward David Pastrnak. If the Bruins can sign Padtrnak theycould be one of the biggest stories in hockey. The Bruins have a strong goaltender in Tukka Rask. The Bruins also have one of the youngest teams in the league. After losing in the opening round last year to Ottawa gained valuable playoff experience. The Bruins are led by number one pick Charlie McAvoy. McAvoy joins a host of young talent such as Brandon Carlo, Jakub Zboril Austin Czarnik, Sean Kuraly, Rob O’Gara, Noel Accari , Frank Vatrano. If Cassidy can mold the veterans, with the young players the Bruins could be serious contenders in 2017/18.
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.
There were not many NHL trades this time around. Reading why, most general managers blame the salary cap and the admission of Las Vegas and its expansion draft. I will not analyze every trade but some of the more significant ones.
1. Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington by St. Louis
This was the big blockbuster trade. I have read that Alexander Ovechkin had been pressuring General Manager Brian MacLellan to do something significant and he obliged but Ovechkin may be signing his own death warrant and that of coach Barry Trotz in Washington if this does not work. Ovechkin has never been able to lift ANY of his teams (no matter who coaches them), Washington or Russia to the championship level in significant tournaments. The latest flop was Russia making the semi-finals in the World Cup where Canada fired 47 shots at overworked, heroic goaltender Sergi Bobrovsky.
Washington has yet to make the Eastern Conference Final during the Ovechkin era, never mind winning the Stanley Cup. Last year they added T J Oshie and ran away with the President’s Trophy but still flopped in the playoffs. Now they have added Shattenkirk but is it enough? There are formidable opponents who know how to win it all, Pittsburgh and Chicago lurking, plus the danger of any improved teams. It was a bold and brave trade for MacLellan to make, a firm commitment that Washington wants to be a champion. The heat is off MacLellan. He has done his best at the trade deadline. But now the heat is really on Ovechkin and Trotz. If there were few excuses last year, there are none now. Washington MUST win at least two playoff rounds. And if they do not, it may be time to recognize that Ovechkin is not what he has been billed to be, keep Shattenkirk, and the next blockbuster Washington trade will involve him.
As for St. Louis, it seemed that last year they had finally made the breakthrough that Washington had failed to do by making the Western Conference Final. Now all they needed to do was add one or two more significant players to get them over the final hump. Instead they lost significant talent in the off season, fired coach Ken Hitchcock, and have now traded Shattenkirk in the prime of his career. They have gone back to where they were, in a rebuilding situation. Obviously they did not have much faith in the team they built last year that did so well. How committed are they to building a championship team?
2. Johnny Oduya from Dallas to Chicago
If the pattern remains true, Chicago wins the Stanley Cup every other year. Chicago is currently on a five game winning streak including a decisive victory over defending champion Pittsburgh. By reacquiring Oduya from Dallas, one of the most disappointing teams this season, Chicago has added significant depth to its defense and has served notice that it intends win the Stanley Cup again this season. Despite Minnesota’s improvement, Chicago is still the team to beat in the Western Conference.
It is not much of a trade for Dallas, which still has to pay part of Oduya’s salary and only gets small financial relief. It is an admission that the team has to be rebuilt and that more changes will be coming in the off season.
3. Ben Bishop from Tampa Bay to Los Angeles
A swap of goaltenders, Ben Bishop for Peter Budaj. I rate this as a clear win for Tampa Bay and secondarily for Budaj. Tampa Bay has Andrei Vasilevskiy whom the Lightning believes will be their goaltender of the future and now Budaj who had done an admirable job filling in for Jonathan Quick. Bishop was a number one goaltender but had an unfortunate knack of getting injured at key moments when Tampa Bay needed him most. And when Steve Stamkos got injured earlier this year, the team failed to rally and Bishop’s goaltending has proved to be insufficient to keep Tampa Bay in a playoff spot. Now they have got rid of his large salary and are giving Budaj a chance to battle Vasilevkiy to become Tampa Bay’s number one goaltender.
It is hard to see what Los Angeles gains by this trade. They have got Jonathan Quick back and will undoubtably use him for most of the games during the rest of the season and probably all the playoff games if they make it. Why do you want to pay a large salary to a number one goaltender like Bishop to sit on the bench? The Kings must think that Quick is brittle and will get injured again so they needed some insurance. Right now they are battling the St. Louis Blues for the last playoff spot. But the Blues did Los Angeles far more of a favor by trading Kevin Shattenkirk and admitting they were in rebuilding mode than Los Angeles did by getting Bishop. All this to get the last playoff position in the Western Conference. If teams have money to throw around, Los Angeles is doing it.
4. Jerome Iginla from Colorado to Los Angeles
Again I have to give Colorado the edge over Los Angeles. Iginla is a great player but he is 39 and well past his prime. In the long term Colorado is happy to be rid of his large salary. This is merely a short term deal for Los Angeles to get that last playoff position based on the logic that Iginla played so well for coach Darryl Sutter when they were together in Calgary. He can probably help Los Angeles make the playoffs but again it comes across like a deal made by a franchise with money to burn. For both the Bishop and Iginla deals, Los Angeles had better make the playoffs and get its money back in playoff revenue or else they have wasted a lot of money for nothing.
In other trades:
Detroit after being successful for so long began dumping salaries to clear the way to build a new successful era. So did Dallas and New Jersey. Toronto and Columbus added some experienced players to help them either make a playoff run or cope with the pressures of the playoffs. Florida still believes they can make the playoffs by acquiring Thomas Vanek. So does Boston which got Drew Stafford from Winnipeg. The Flyers got Valtteri Filppula from Tampa Bay. Something has to give between Toronto, Florida, Philadelphia, and Boston. Add in Ottawa, New York Islanders and Tampa Bay who are all battling for the last three playoff spots and some of these teams are going to be disappointed with the trades they made. But now these are the final rosters that are going to be competing for the playoffs. The outcome and the verdict begins this evening.