So, the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs are down to the final six-pack of games, with Left Coast and Right Coast battling it out. In the meantime, things are buzzing in various ways on Nationwide Boulevard and elsewhere throughout the league. Time for another survey of the happenings-- from the sublime to the ridiculous:
Spooky Hockey Hell Dream -- With full apologies to The Book of Mormon (the musical, not the book), this Sanley Cup Playoff is my absolute nightmare match-up. While the number of former Blue Jackets plays a role (Anton Stralman playing for the Stanley Cup? Really?), it's much more deep-seated than that. Growing up in the S.F. Bay Area, you learn to hate all things Los Angeles, particularly when it comes to sports. Add Jeff Carter to the mix, and the L.A. Kings are just about at the bottom of my list of teams. However, New York falls below even that, likely stemming from my mother pinning a New York Yankees pennant on our front door after Bobby Richardson robbed Willie McCovey of a hit in Game 7 of the 1962 World Series, depriving my Giants of the title. So, be it Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets, Nets, Knicks or Rangers . . . ugh.
That Being Said . . . With that out of my system, you have to love the level of hockey being played -- not only in the Finals, but throughout the playoffs, which have been universally entertaining. As much as I might dislike the two finalists, you have to admire the skills of both squads, but particularly the Kings. Henrik Lundqvist has put the Rangers on his back for the entire playoffs, and while he's had periodic help from some quarters, he's the reason they are in the finals. The Kings, on the other hand, are where I see the Jackets heading. They have guys willing to play a physical game, yet can put the puck in the net. They also have a few snipers who they allow to do what they do best. A good defensive corps with one stud, a very good guy in net -- and they can play with speed.
Speaking of Speed . . .It was refreshing to hear coach Todd Richards talk about the need for the Blue Jackets to play with more speed. With his emphasis on hitting everything in sight, sometimes the game on the ice can get awfully static, and that's when the club gets in trouble. Speed, of course, is more than just the ability to skate fast -- its is the ability to play fast. That comes with time and familiarity, and you need look no further than the Kings to see how that works.
While on the subject of Richards, his two-year contract extension was simultaneously well-deserved on his part and smart on the club's part. He was forced to deal with some significant injury spells, and kept the ship steady during the early drought. He brought home a winner, and the team showed both character and increased skill as the season progressed. At the same time, with only a two-year deal, the club protected itself in the event things take an ugly turn. It's a win-win right now. What I wish for Richards going forward are two primary things:
1. Allow guys to do what they do best -- while still holding them accountable. Not everyone is going to be good at beating the crap out of the opposition, and it takes them out of their games. As L.A. shows, you can have a physical team, but allow your scorers the freedom to do what they need to do. The "wear-'em-down" philosophy is good -- to a point. It's something you want to have in your arsenal, but it does not work as well in the playoffs, and it takes a heavy toll on your own squad over the course of 82 games. L.A .has found that balance, and I hope Richards finds it as well. I'm sure Cam Atkinson would be appreciative . . .
2. Just once in awhile . . . even for variety . . . smile, laugh, throw something, do something to show emotion. Nobody is saying you have to be John Tortorella, and there is a lot to be said for calm stewardship, but letting the pulse get over 40 once in a while would be a good thing.
A Coaching Loss -- The news that Dan Hinote was leaving the team for family reasons was a surprise and a disappointment. Hinote brought energy and humor to the coaching staff and the room, was a terrific ambassador for the club, and had to help keep things loose during that pressure-cooker environment down the stretch. I think he'll be missed more than folks are admitting right now. Best wishes to him and his family, and I hope that circumstances permit him to return to the club at some point.
A Coaching Travesty -- In the meantime, the Pittsburgh Penguins should be ashamed for the way they treated Dan Bylsma. While I have no quarrel with making a coaching change in Pittsburgh, the way they dangled him on a string, to the point where a guy who never, ever reports something unless it's fact (TSN's Bob MacKenzie), reported that both Ray Shero and Bylsma were being fired, only to have Shero take the fall alone at the ensuing presser. At the time, the professed reason was to allow the new general manager time to assess the situation. Well, the hiring of former Carolina GM Jim Rutherford as the new hockey guy in Pittsburgh came today . . . and Dan Bylsma was fired today. No, Jim, really . . . take some time to think about it. The only conclusion you can come to is that the Penguins brass wanted Bylsma to resign, so that he would be in the running for some of the other jobs, which would save a pile of buy-out money. Bylsma wasn't that stupid. Badly played, Pittsburgh.
Cats Sleeping with Dogs -- With the hirings of Barry Trotz in Washington and Peter Laviolette in Nashville, you have to be scratching your head and going, "Huh?" Trotz, known for his defensive, tight-fisted way of playing, takes over a squad that is the Air Coryell (Google it, kids) of the NHL. Didn't the Caps try this two years ago, causing Ovechkin to have his worst season in recent memory? Meanwhile, offensively-geared Laviolette takes over a club whose best shooter is on the blue line. The prediction here is a long year of frustration in both venues.
On the Home Front -- focus at Nationwide Arena now turns fully to personnel matters, with lots of anticipation over potential trades, free agent acquisitions and draft picks. Which direction will they go -- offense or defense. A little of both? Which kids will make the club? Which vets will be gone? The signing of Simon Hjalmarsson was a low risk deal that could have some significant upside on the offensive front, while the impending trade of R.J. Umberger may or may not bring value in return. By the way, speaking of Umberger, is anybody else a little ticked that word of Umberger's request leaked out? Whatever you may think of his value to the club, leaking his discontent does nothing to help his trade value. Not smart.
The Dispatch has reported that talks are underway with Ryan Johansen, as they well should be. No question the kid gets a big raise. The major question will be whether this is THE contract, or whether there will be a two year bridge deal to provide some insurance against this year being a fluke. Unlikely that it was, but such is the stuff of contract discussions. I predict that the deal gets done in relatively short order. RFA status is not a huge hammer, but by the same token, the club does not want to alienate Johansen at this point. Davidson and Jarmo know what they are doing.
Surprisingly little word on any of the other impending free agents -- MacKenzie, Skille, Comeau, Schultz, Nikitin and McElhinney (all UFA) and Savard, Tropp, Prout and Frattin -- the remaining RFAs. Personally, I think Nikitin is headed to the KHL, and I doubt McElhinney is back. There are too many other options for back-up goaltending, and it was clear that there was little confidence in him down the stretch. I'd like to see both Skille and Comeau back, but not sure the organization is as enthralled with Skille. The others depend upon what the front office sees out there in free agency, what trade noises are being made, and who is expected to challenge for roster spots in camp. Good problems to have, but it will make for a potentially frantic last three weeks of June. Hold on to your hats.
We'll start looking at free agents and some other meaty issues over the next few weeks, as our draft profiles continue. Stay tuned.