Which teams are the most likely candidates to 'break through' in 2010-11?

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Thumbnail image for conkblockdrinks.jpgLate last week Mike Chen of From the Rink gave his three picks for possible “breakout” teams for the 2010-11 season. I personally agree that the Tampa Bay Lightning and Atlanta Thrashers show some promise, but while it cannot get much worse for the Columbus Blue Jackets, they don’t scream “breakout” to me. (Then again, the Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes showed few signs of life aside from adding a new coach last summer, so Chen’s logic might be pretty sound there.)

That post got me thinking about other candidates. I’m going to cheat a bit by taking a look at all the teams who missed the playoffs rather than the most hopeless teams to see who might have the best chance to jump. The one big exception, though, is that I need to think that each team has a genuine chance to make the playoffs.

St. Louis Blues

Why they might make the playoffs: Much like the Blue Jackets, the Blues were a Central division playoff surprise in 08-09 that came plummeting back to earth last season. The difference is that St. Louis boasts (in my opinion at least) a much stronger roster than Columbus. While they lack a top-end star like Rick Nash, I might take their deeper rotation of quality forwards (David Backes, TJ Oshie, David Perron, etc.) instead. Especially when you consider their superior defensive and goaltending groups.

Glass-half-empty points: That being said, the Central division is a beast. Chicago and Detroit are still the cream of the crop and Nashville is scrappy enough to make third place a tough spot to earn. If Chen is right about the Blue Jackets, that means the division won’t have an obvious weak team, unless that might be the Blues after all.

Thumbnail image for ducksthreeforwards.jpgAnaheim Ducks

Why they might make the playoffs: Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Jonas Hiller and (hopefully) Bobby Ryan plus the two old Finns (Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu) gives the Ducks a nice group in the big minute spots. The Pacific division is unpredictable but might be a little bit less wicked next season with the Sharks a little weaker, the Coyotes primed for a possible regression, the Stars in disarray and the Kings missing out on the Kovalchuk sweepstakes.

Glass-half-empty points: Still, the Ducks might be called the “Ucks” since they have no D. (Like what I did there? Took a page out of the “He’s Ason Kidd because he has no J” book of insults.) Seriously, though, their defense is awful.

Calgary Flames

Why they might make the playoffs: They still have some talent, maybe. Obviously, there’s Iginla and Kipper plus Jay Bouwmeester and Robyn Regehr. I didn’t hate the cheap addition of Alex Tanguay and while I snickered at the Olli Jokinen signing, maybe he can score some filler goals to increase their chances at a playoff berth. Plus, the Sutter brothers are under some serious pressure. Sometimes that brings the best out of people.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for ollijokinen3.jpgSometimes.

Glass-half-empty points: Most hockey people see the Flames as a sinking ship. I have to admit I lean in that direction, but I thought the Flames might be worth mentioning even if it’s just because they’re one of the best teams that didn’t make the playoffs.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Why they might make the playoffs: Like the Flames, their are a lot of heads that could roll if they don’t make the playoffs. The team will get a training camp to congeal after Brian Burke’s many moves (I’d recommend handing out name tags). While I disagree with many of Burke’s transactions, he did get Kris Versteeg for very little and the team is better on paper. Versteeg, Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf and the could-be-better goalie duo of J.S. Giguere and “The Monster”? They won’t rock the world, but this is the Eastern Conference, after all.

Glass-half-empty points: Much like with the Flames, I had to strain to be positive about the Leafs. They’re under a lot of pressure and spending a lot of money to fight for the 7th or 8th spot in the East. The odds are high that the bottom of that conference won’t boast a sleeping giant in the bottom ranks like the Flyers again next summer, but making the playoffs would be quite the change of pace for the moribund Leafs franchise.

So those are my four guesses for teams who might “break through” next season, even if the Ducks and Flames were a bit of a cheat. Did I miss anyone? Share your thoughts in the comments.

If there’s an expansion draft, which goalie should Pittsburgh protect?

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) misses on a shot on Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray (30) during the third period of Game 1 in an NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference semifinal series Thursday, April 28, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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Marc-Andre Fleury could have started in Game 3 on Monday, but didn’t. Instead the Penguins went with Matt Murray, who rewarded their trust by stopping 47 shots in a 3-2 victory over Washington.

What’s remarkable is that no part of that story is surprising at this point. Under different circumstances, the Penguins might have started Fleury as soon as he had the green light to return from his concussion, but why switch course when Murray’s been excelling between the pipes?

But that’s just the reality of these set of circumstances, right? Shouldn’t the starting gig eventually revert back to Fleury given that he is the established upper-echelon goaltender while Murray is still fairly inexperienced?

Under normal circumstances that would seem like a reasonable conclusion and in the short-term that might be the road the Penguins go down, but as Sportsnet recently brought up a potential expansion draft has the power to change things.

As Sportsnet reported:

An interesting aspect of the recent deal worked out by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association regarding expansion draft rules is that only players with a full no-movement clause will have to be protected by their team, according to a source.

Fleury’s contract includes a no-movement clause for the purposes of waivers or being assigned to the American Hockey League, but it is limited when it comes to trades. Each year he submits a 12-team list of teams where he can’t be dealt.

As a result, he’s not exempt from the expansion process and the Penguins would have to decide between protecting either him or Murray if both remained on the roster through the end of next season. It might ultimately force general manager Jim Rutherford into making up his mind sooner in order to trade one away and get a return on the asset.

Sportsnet goes into detail about Murray’s performance in the playoffs as well as the situation this has left Marc-Andre Fleury in and it’s a good read. For our purposes right now, let’s focus on the what if scenario of that possible expansion draft.

It might all sound premature given that Murray only has 19 total playoff and regular season NHL games under his belt and certainly there’s a lot that could happen between now and any potential expansion draft that would make the Penguins’ decision easier. At the same time, it’s worth keeping in mind that the 21-year-old goaltender didn’t come out of nowhere this season. The majority of people might not have paid attention to Murray prior to this season, but his 2014-15 AHL rookie campaign was nothing short of incredible and he remained dominant in the AHL in 2015-16 before getting summoned.

In that context, Murray is more than just a hot goaltender and even if he gets lit up in Game 4 tonight resulting in Fleury being thrust back into service, that wouldn’t dismiss this conversation as no longer relevant. Either way the Penguins decision in an expansion draft would come down to picking between the relative safety of 31-year-old Fleury or the high potential of Murray.

It’s a tough call to make, but the consolation for the Penguins is that they won’t be the only team forced to make difficult decisions as the result of an expansion draft, should one happen.

PHT Morning Skate: Hartley’s not the first to get fired within year of winning Jack Adams Award

Calgary Flames head coach Bob Hartley sets a play during overtime of an NHL hockey game against the Boston Bruins in Boston, Thursday, March 5, 2015. The Flames defeated the Bruins 4-3 in overtime. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
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PHT’s Morning Skate takes a look around the world of hockey to see what’s happening and what we’ll be talking about around the NHL world and beyond.

It took less than a year for Bob Hartley to go from winning the Jack Adams Award as the league’s top coach to being fired. That might seem like an incredible drop, but Hartley’s not the first to go through this. (Calgary Sun)

Speaking of the Hartley firing, Mark Giordano said “it’s an eye-opener for a lot of our players.” (Calgary Sun)

Pittsburgh has a 2-1 edge in its second round series, but between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals captain has been the bigger contributor. (CSN Mid-Atlantic)

After spending a season with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers, Mark Morris has decided to go back to coaching college hockey. (The News & Observer)

If you have $7.19 million lying around, you might be able to buy Ryan Getzlaf‘s Corona del Mar house. (Orange County Register)

Finally, on a different note, the Tampa Bay Times have bought and shutdown the Tampa Tribune, as USA Today reported. That ended Erik Erlendsson’s tenure as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s beat writer for the Tribune and Lightning coach Jon Cooper took it upon himself to write this:

Fights, hits and a blown kiss: Stars and Blues get nasty

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Things were getting out of hand between the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues on the scoreboard in an eventual 6-1 Blues win.

They were also getting a little raucous on the ice when it was clear that the Stars weren’t going to stage a comeback.

Jamie Benn was whistled for cross-checking Alex Pietrangelo, but it was Stephen Johns‘ hit from behind on Pietrangelo really revved up the violence.

Watch that hit and then the scrum that ensued in the video above, which included a scary display of an angry Ryan Reaves … who got creative at the end.

You may also want the kiss alone, so here it is:

Memo: rough stuff might not work so well against the Blues.

Read about that blowout here.

Blues bombard Stars, go up 2-1 in series

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Sometimes a final score is misleading. In the case of the St. Louis Blues’ 6-1 thrashing of the Dallas Stars, it might just be the start of the story.

Honestly, the most positive thing the Stars can say is “Well, at least it was just one game.”

It was one ugly game, however, and now the Blues hold a 2-1 series lead with a chance to really take control if they can win Game 4 at home.

The Blues dominated just about every category on Tuesday, firing more shots on goal, enjoying better special teams play and throwing more hits. They even blocked a higher number of shots, which often isn’t the case for the squad that carries play.

This leaves the Stars picking up the pieces, especially when it comes to their work in their own end.

Do you put greater blame on struggling goalies Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi or is this more about the Stars’ lax defensive coverage? The scary answer may be “Both,” and the Stars likely know that they need to find answers quickly.

On the bright side for Dallas, it is just one game … and the Blues were searching for answers of their own after Game 1.

We saw the Blues turn things around with these two straight wins, so now the Stars must show that they can gather themselves and play the attacking, out-score-your-mistakes style that got them here.

Granted, they may have to keep an eye out for supplemental discipline after some rough stuff toward the end of the game.