Steve Downie

Five Thoughts: Steve Downie’s amazing case for Conn Smythe consideration

With the second round really under way and rolling along now, heroes are starting to emerge around the playoffs. While one guy in San Jose doesn’t totally surprise us, there’s a name in Tampa Bay that has us floored as to how well he’ stepped up for the Lightning. It’s a bit too early to start projecting doom for some teams in the second round, but we do have a few thoughts.

1. It’s just one game, but the Tampa Bay Lightning’s plan of frustrating the hell out of their opponents is working like a charm right now. It may have been a 4-2 win but once the Lightning tool the lead at 3-2 thanks to Steve Stamkos’ goal the remainder of the game became an exercise in frustration for the Caps. Tampa Bay isn’t well know for their defensive abilities for one reason or another but they’re able to get in the face of their opponents and make life difficult. They held the Penguins to 1-35 on the power play in the first round and they kept the Capitals frustrated going 0-5 on the man advantage.

While the Lightning don’t want to keep going down by a man so often or so needlessly, perhaps it’s time we start tossing some praise the way of their penalty kill for how their opponents are struggling.

2. It’s just one game for the Caps but last night’s Game 1 is the sort of game they can get caught up in now and again. It was up and down on the scoreboard, but every goal is a fight to get and mistakes make the situation what it is. Last night’s loss to Tampa Bay is just how every game of this series could end up looking like. Taking care of the puck and staying out of the penalty box becomes that much more important. The Capitals don’t have reason to be worried just yet as dropping the first game, while not optimal, isn’t a back breaker. They did learn right away, however, just what it’s like to deal with the tough Lightning.

3. Steve Downie the Conn Smythe candidate? Could be. Through eight games in the playoffs Downie has two goals and seven assists good for nine points. Nine points ties him with Claude Giroux for second in the playoffs for points just one behind Mike Cammalleri who won’t be getting any more points the rest of the way. Normally when people think of Downie they think of the agitator with a hot streak a mile wide that would happily fight your grandmother if he perceived injustice at her hands on the ice. Downie putting most of the cheap stuff away and being a productive player has been huge for Tampa Bay.

4. If Game 1 between Detroit and San Jose is any indication, we’re in for a doozy of a series. Tight checking, tight scoring, and a matter of small breaks here and there making all the difference. Benn Ferriero getting the overtime winner after his shot glanced off of Brad Stuart’s stick is just an example of the little things that can happen to help change a series. Detroit played well for a good part of the game, but allowing San Jose to get more than 40 shots on goal against them is the Wings’ way of playing with fire. Jimmy Howard played great last night, but they need to give him more support in both goals scored and giving him a break from seeing all that rubber.

5. Forgive us if our man-crush on Joe Pavelski continues to grow. Another goal last night in tying the game up in the third and he continues to score big goals for the Sharks. A lot of folks got on Pavelski’s case for not having a big regular season but if he keeps this up no one will be thinking about that ever again. With four goals in the playoffs so far he’s not setting the world on fire there so much either, but having them all come at the right time will help him continue to build quite the legacy. Considering that some of the Sharks’ other big stars aren’t really rolling offensively, it just makes Pavelski look all the more important.

Looking to make the leap: Nikita Zaitsev

BUFFALO, NY - DECEMBER 26: Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev #2 of Russia dumps the puck in as forward Cody Eakin #21 of Canada tries to block the puck during the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship Group B game between Canada and Russia on December 26, 2010 at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Toronto Maple Leafs day at PHT…

“I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people. The physical part of the game will be different for him in the NHL, but the way he moves the puck and skates and how defensive you now have to be to play, it just really makes you think he can be really successful for the Leafs.”

That quote was from former NHL defenseman Ryan Whitney, speaking in May about newly minted Toronto defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, who went up against Whitney in the KHL.

So needless to say, expectations for Zaitsev this season are fairly high.

And they’re high for reason. At 24, the undrafted blueliner has a wealth of professional experience — seven full campaigns, split between Novosibirsk and CSKA Moscow — and really came into his own over the last few years. He routinely led CSKA in d-man scoring, and was named a KHL first-team all-star in ’14-15.

That pedigree should translate into plenty of opportunities in Toronto.

And hey, Toronto has plenty of opportunities to offer.

It’s likely one of the big reasons Zaitsev chose the Leafs over other interested suitors like Calgary, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (per Sportsnet). The Leafs are still in the early stages of their rebuild, and it shows on defense — based on current projections, Zaitsev could open as a top-four guy alongside Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Matt Hunwick, leapfrogging the likes of Martin Maricin, Roman Polak and Connor Carrick in the process.

The great unknown, of course, is how his success in the KHL will translate into North America. Every NHL club is hoping to land the next Artemi Panarin, but it’s important to remember that 1) Panarin is a forward, and 2) jumped onto a line next to Patrick Kane.

The transition for defenders has generally been tougher, something folks in Philly saw last year with the failed Evgeny Medvedev experience.

Of course, Zaitsev has a few more things going for him than his fellow Russian. He’s younger than Medvedev by nearly a decade, and is a coveted right-handed shot (Medvedev’s a lefty).

And like most players coming over from the KHL, Zaitsev’s on a one-year, performance bonus-laden contract that amounts to a “prove it” deal in the NHL.

That should be enough motivation to help him make the leap.

And if it’s not, there’s always the leap back to Russia.

‘Canes extend GM Francis, who’s ‘rebuilt our organization the right way’

Ron Francis
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The Carolina Hurricanes locked in a key part — arguably the most key part — of their rebuild on Tuesday, signing GM Rom Francis to a contract extension through the 2018-19 campaign.

“Ron has rebuilt our organization the right way, stocking our team and system with young players who will help this franchise compete for the Stanley Cup year in and year out,” club owner Peter Karmanos said in a release. “I’m thrilled that he will continue to see the job through.

“The future is very bright for the Hurricanes in Carolina.”

Francis, 53, has been on the job in Carolina for the past two years, and has done a terrific job of stockpiling young talent through the draft and via trade: Noah Hanifin, Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho, Haydn Fleury, Jake Bean and Julien Gauthier, to name a few.

Francis was also instrumental in hiring head coach Bill Peters. At the time of the hire, Peters was something of an unknown — an under-the-radar assistant with no NHL head coaching experience — but has since developed into one of the game’s more respected bench bosses.

Peters was named the bench boss for Team Canada at the most recent world championship, and led the country to gold.

This fall, he’ll reprise his role as Mike Babcock’s assistant for Canada at the World Cup of Hockey.

“When you go back a couple years ago, there were a lot of questions about who we had hired,” Francis explained in July, when he extended Peters’ contract through 2019. “[Peters] wasn’t really well known, but in the two years he’s been here, he’s done a tremendous job.”

For all the praise Francis has received during his short time on the job in Carolina, there is one area of concern — goaltending. This summer, Francis made the curious move of bringing Cam Ward back on a two-year deal, resurrecting the Ward-Eddie Lack tandem that struggled at times last season.

It’ll be interesting to see how that move plays out.

It’s Toronto Maple Leafs day at PHT

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Auston Matthews poses for a portrait after being selected first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in round one during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images)
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In a lot of ways, the 2015-16 season represented more of the same for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The results were nearly identical to 2014-15, right down to finishing in the basement of the East (69 points last season, 68 the one the year before).

Indeed, Brendan Shanahan is probably correct in saying that the Maple Leafs earned the No. 1 pick “the hard way,” or at least “earned” the higher draft lottery odds that helped them land Auston Matthews.

The big question, really, is how long will fans be patient with the Maple Leafs taking baby steps in the right direction?

Off-season

Naturally, the team tried to make more a leap forward in seeking Steven Stamkos and, to a less dramatic extent, Jimmy Vesey.

They fell short in those regards, but that doesn’t mean that management merely idled while hoping for improvements from in-house development.

The Maple Leafs made bold changes in net, ending the Jonathan Bernier era while betting big on Frederik Andersen and also bringing in a promising backup in Jhonas Enroth.

Beyond those big moves in net, the Maple Leafs made some minor adjustments. They handed surprising money and term to Matt Martin while taking short-term fliers on veterans Milan Michalek and Roman Polak.

On paper, this team still looks quite a few steps away from being a playoff contender, but perhaps we’ll start to see things come together?

A lot of that rides on the work of Matthews, Morgan Rielly and other young players (William Nylander, Mitch Marner) who may or may not make a lasting impact on the regular season roster.

Will the rebuilding plan start to pay dividends? PHT explores the iconic franchise on Tuesday.

Keep your head up: Hurricanes reportedly hand Raffi Torres a PTO

VANCOUVER, CANADA - MAY 3:  Raffi Torres #13 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal against the Vancouver Canucks for a 3-2 victory in overtime in Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, May 03, 2013 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
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From opting against fighting the NHL’s 41-game suspension to seeing his season derailed by knee issues, there was the feeling that the league had seen the last of controversial forward Raffi Torres.

Perhaps not.

The Carolina Hurricanes reportedly handed the 34-year-old a PTO, according to former Hurricanes defenseman Aaron Ward.

It’s something the Raleigh News & Observer’s Chip Alexander also mentioned on Monday.

With Bryan Bickell added to the mix during this off-season, the Hurricanes seem interesting in adding some beef. It’s unclear if Torres is really in the sort of condition to make a mark, but Carolina’s going to at least take a look at him.

Beware, pre-season opponents and training camp teammates.