Ryan Kesler

Race for the Conn Smythe Trophy

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Now that we’re down to the Conference finals in the East and West, it’s time to get serious about breaking down the race for the other postseason trophy to be handed out at the conclusion of the Stanley Cup finals.

The Conn Smythe Trophy goes out to the most valuable player during the Stanley Cup playoffs and with just four teams to choose from, we’ve got some good cases being made from each of them. We’ll take a look at each team and who the leader and the dark horse candidates are. Think a case needs to be made for someone else? You can always shout at us in the comments.

Boston Bruins

Front runner: Boston is all about the stellar work from Tim Thomas in goal. With a 2.03 goals against average and a .934 save percentage through 11 games in the postseason, Thomas is, statistically speaking, the second best goalie in the playoffs. He’s been rock solid the way he has been all year long in goal for the Bruins as he appears headed for another Vezina Trophy.

When things have gotten too wild around the Bruins goal, Thomas has been cool and collected shutting down opponents. Considering the Bruins haven’t been lights out with the offense, you have to look to the defense and goaltending to find the guys carrying the load and Thomas has been their man.

Dark horse pick: This might be more about betting on the future, but let’s take a look at David Krejci. Through the entire first series against Montreal, Krejci was invisible scoring just one goal. Against Philadelphia, however, Krejci piled up four goals and five assists and now with team playoff points leader Patrice Bergeron, Krejci’s importance is even higher to the team to lead the way at center.

San Jose Sharks

Front runner: Ryane Clowe is the guy we’re eyeballing as the favorite here. With 13 points he’s the team leader and he’s been instrumental to energizing the team throughout the playoffs. It’s no mistake that the Red Wings played their best game of the playoffs against San Jose in Game 6 with Clowe out of the lineup. Clowe plays physical, plays an offensive game that’s more grimy than it is pretty, and finds ways to upset opposing teams routinely. He should have a lot of chirping targets against Vancouver.

Dark horse: Joe Pavelski. Pavelski has just five goals and two assists through the playoffs but name a goal he’s scored that hasn’t been absolutely huge. Pavelski was a bit quiet during the Detroit series with two goals and an assist, but if Pavelski picks up on his heroics against Vancouver and gets the Sharks into their first Stanley Cup final, the legend of Joe Pavelski will only grow larger.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Front runner: Dwayne Roloson is the man. I know the first name that comes to mind is Martin St. Louis and for good reason as he’s got 13 points tying him for second in the playoffs. Roloson, however, has been out of his mind good. Roloson leads all goalies in the playoffs in goals against average (2.01), save percentage (.941), shots against and saves (389, 366). Without Roloson playing as well as he has, the Lightning are toast in the playoffs and likely booted in the first round by Pittsburgh. His work in frustrating the Caps was just as admirable. When you’re as good as he’s been in the playoffs, it’s hard not to pick him as the favorite.

Dark horse: Take your pick between Sean Bergenheim and Steve Downie here. Bergenheim is tied for the lead in goals scored in the playoffs with seven while Downie has shaken off his agitator reputation to put up 12 points. Virtual no-name guys rising to the occasion make for a great story but the truth is, Tampa is loaded with guys who could be in the running.

Vancouver Canucks

Front runner: Ryan Kesler is the runaway favorite here for Vancouver. Kesler’s work against Chicago was quiet but helpful earning four assists. Against Nashville, however, he was a holy terror on ice racking up five goals and six assists. Kesler’s 15 points tie him with the ousted Pavel Datsyuk for the NHL playoff lead in points. While the Sedin twins haven’t exactly been other-worldly the way they ought to be, Kesler’s been dynamic all around.

Dark horse: It’s not really a dark horse pick, but Roberto Luongo has to be up there. He’s earned a shutout in each round of the playoffs, his numbers were unreal against Nashville (1.63 GAA, .933 SV%), and now that he’s past the bogeymen from Chicago, another round or two of putting up big numbers like that could help him steal the trophy from his teammate if the Canucks win the Stanley Cup.

Boudreau: Flames made ‘mountain out of a molehill’ over Gaudreau slash

ST PAUL, MN - OCTOBER 15: Head coach Bruce Boudreau of the Minnesota Wild looks on during the game against Winnipeg Jets on October 15, 2016 at Xcel Energy Center in St Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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Calgary will face Minnesota tonight, for the first time since losing Johnny Gaudreau to a broken finger in a 1-0 win over the Wild on Nov. 15.

Much has transpired since.

The Flames were pretty upset about all the slashes Gaudreau took that night, and spoke candidly (and often!) about it. That, in turn, led to Bruce Boudreau offering up the following on Friday:

According to Calgary GM Brad Treliving, a third-period slash by Eric Staal was the one that did the damage, breaking Gaudreau’s finger and leading to corrective surgery, which sidelined him for six weeks.

The Slashgate conversation lasted for a while. Treliving acknowledged he later spoke with NHL Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom about the club’s frustration regarding the incident.

“When you look at that game, it wasn’t the first one,” he said, per the Calgary Sun. “This wasn’t a unicorn that popped up in the middle of a period. By our count there were 11 chops on (Gaudreau) in the game.

“Two, three, four, I got it, but maybe at nine we dial it in a bit.”

In related news, the Wild have recalled 6-foot-4, 211-pound tough guy Kurtis Gabriel for tonight’s game, and it looks as though he could be making his season debut.

What has happened to the Dallas Stars?

Pittsburgh Penguins' Patric Hornqvist (72) can't get to a rebound off Dallas Stars goalie Antti Niemi with Julius Honka (6) defending during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene Puskar)
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The Dallas Stars are the worst defensive team in the NHL.

That’s just a fact. The Stars are surrendering 3.40 goals per game, and no team has a higher goals-against than that. Philadelphia’s next at 3.20, followed by Arizona at 3.14. The best is San Jose at 2.08.

Last night, the Stars fell 6-2 in Pittsburgh. With the loss, their record dropped to 9-10-6. They are now one point back of Nashville for the final wild-card spot, and the Predators have three games in hand.

What has happened to last year’s Stars?

Well, it would be easy to point at Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen and blame the goalies for everything. Those two haven’t been great this season, and that’s an understatement. Niemi has a .902 save percentage; Lehtonen’s is .885. For all the good work Jim Nill has done as general manager, he has botched the one position a GM absolutely cannot botch.

But outside of Dallas, far too little attention has been paid to the big changes in another part of the Stars’ lineup. This offseason, Alex Goligoski left for Arizona and Jason Demers signed in Florida. Those two veteran defensemen played the first- and fourth-most minutes for the Stars last season, and a team does not lose a pair of top-four defenseman and just keep going like nothing happened.

The Stars did sign Dan Hamhuis in free agency, but he’s struggled in a new setting. John Klingberg, their top defender, has also had a tough start.

Last night, with Johnny Oduya out injured, the Stars were forced to play the defending Stanley Cup champs with three rookies on defense: Stephen Johns, Esa Lindell, and Julius HonkaThe other three were Klingberg, Hamhuis, and Jamie Oleksiak, the latter of whom has played fewer than 100 NHL games. Patrik Nemeth was a healthy scratch. He’s inexperienced too. 

“We all take pride in here, and that’s just not good enough. It’s frustrating,” said forward Tyler Seguin., per the Stars’ website. “We have to dig deep. We’re not digging deep enough right now. From our best players to everybody, we have to dig deeper, especially in those big moments and find ways to win hockey games.”

Seguin is still producing on offense, with 25 points in 25 games. But he was a minus-2 against the Penguins, and he’s a minus-11 overall. Meanwhile, the Stars’ other top center, Jason Spezza, is a team-worst minus-15; Klingberg is minus-10; captain Jamie Benn is minus-7; and so is Patrick Sharp.

Now, plus-minus can be a misleading stat. On bad teams, good players often have big negatives.

But that’s the thing. It happens on bad teams, and the Stars are not supposed to be a bad team. They are supposed to be Stanley Cup contenders.

So far this season, everything about them says bad team. Bad defensive numbers. Bad goaltending. Bad penalty killing. Bottom third of the league in score-adjusted Corsi, so it’s not bad luck.

Yes, they’ve had injuries. So have lots of teams. The Stars will still have major questions in goal and on the back end when they get healthy.

The big question right now is whether they can recover and still make the playoffs. Because they’re starting to dig a hole, and if it gets much deeper, they’re going to get buried.

Speaking of digging holes, the Stars play the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday.

Two bad teams, going at it.

Bad, until they prove otherwise.

Related: Colorado’s core is under heavy scrutiny, yet again

Colorado’s core is under heavy scrutiny, yet again

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 25: (l-r) Joe Sakic and Alan Hepple of the Colorado Avalanche attend the 2016 NHL Draft on June 25, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Prior to Thursday’s loss to Columbus, Colorado GM Joe Sakic was asked how his core players have performed during an ugly 9-12-1 start to the year — “inconsistent,” he said — and was then asked he had any intention of breaking the core up.

“Not right now, no,” Sakic said, per the Denver Post. “It’s early in the year.

“I have faith in them, but to me, the start is not a core thing — it’s a team thing.”

Not long after Sakic said that, the Avs lost their fourth straight game, putting them on 19 points — tied with Arizona for the fewest in the NHL.

And then, in his first real bit of message-sending, head coach Jared Bednar took the core to task.

“I’m going to say this,” Bednar said in his postgame media availability. “Tonight, I thought our supporting cast did a real good job up front. I didn’t love some of our top guys tonight. Not that they didn’t work hard, but I didn’t love their game as a whole.”

The controversy surrounding Colorado’s core guys dates back to the Patrick Roy era. After missing the playoffs for a second straight year — which he called “unacceptable” — Roy unloaded on his top players in an April radio interview, saying “the core needs to show more leadership.”

“It was like this when I played for Montreal, it was like this when I played for the Avs,” Roy continued. “The core are the ones that have to carry the team. They’re the ones where, when you lose a game, it has to hurt from the inside. You should want more.”

At this point, it’s probably prudent to identify exactly who comprises the Avs’ core. The Post says it’s “generally considered to be six players, now all tied up to long-term contracts.” Six of the longest-term contracts on Colorado’s books belong to Nathan MacKinnon (signed through 2023), Erik Johnson (2023), Gabriel Landeskog (2021), Tyson Barrie (2020), Matt Duchene (2019) and Semyon Varlamov (2019).

Carl Soderberg, signed through 2020, could be seen as the potential seventh member.

Roy clearly wanted to move on from at least some of these guys, and the fact Sakic didn’t was a major reason why Roy abruptly resigned in August. But it wasn’t that Sakic just keep the core intact — he actually strengthened his commitment to it by giving Barrie a four-year extension this summer, at a time when many figured the puck-moving blueliner would be dealt.

In light of that, it’s not really surprising that Sakic came out yesterday and publicly defended his core guys.

He’s sticking to his guns.

For now, anyway.

Like the Blackhawks, the Ducks have a youth movement of their own

Anaheim Ducks' Ondrej Kase, center, of the Czech Republic, celebrates his goal against the Vancouver Canucks with Ryan Getzlaf, left, Nick Ritchie, front right, and Cam Fowler, back, during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Vancouver, British Columba. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
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The Anaheim Ducks, after a fairly unimpressive start under new/old coach Randy Carlyle, are slowly but surely beginning to find their game. The Ducks dominated the Canucks last night in Vancouver, a 3-1 triumph that came after consecutive victories in San Jose and at home to Montreal.

Last night’s game-winning goal was scored by Ondrej Kase, a 21-year-old rookie forward from the Czech Republic who was playing only his eighth NHL game.

That’s worth mentioning, because the Ducks have been forced to introduce a number of young forwards into their lineup, after losing the likes of David Perron, Chris Stewart, and Jamie McGinn to free agency, and while Nate Thompson remains sidelined with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Carlyle was asked if his lineup needed some fresh blood anyway, after last season’s disappointing first-round playoff exit.

“Well, if we did or didn’t, it was budget,” he said. “Simple as that. So that’s the way the hockey world works. You can’t maintain the level of player and the pay scale when you have talent in your lineup that grows. So you always have to have a fresh supplement of talent, and they have to be entry-level people.”

The Ducks, of course, had to give significant raises to a couple of their young stars, Rickard Rakell and Hampus Lindholm.

     Read more: With Lindholm signed, Ducks GM hopes to keep team together

Kase, a seventh-round draft pick in 2014, is just one of the rookie forwards who’ve played for the Ducks this season. Joseph Cramarossa is another. Nick Ritchie isn’t a rookie, but he’s still on his entry-level deal.

“We’re still very much so a work in progress from the standpoint that we haven’t found a niche for every player,” said Carlyle. “You know, big Ritchie’s been a good player for us. … Cramarossa basically coming in and earning a spot in training camp. Kase. Those are decent entries into our lineup and we don’t have to play them too high. And that really helps when you don’t have to put them into your top-six forward grouping.”

That’s because the Ducks still have veterans like Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Corey PerryJakob SilfverbergAndrew Cogliano, and Antoine Vermette.

The Ducks, in that way, are a lot like the Chicago Blackhawks, who’ve been forced to an even larger extent to insert fresh blood into their lineup. It’s been a work in progress for Chicago as well. Though the ‘Hawks have been winning a lot of games, they’ve been heavily reliant on their veterans for goals. Whether they can become a consistent three- or four-line threat by springtime remains to be seen.

In fact, for both teams, that question may very well determine how far they go in the playoffs.

Because like Carlyle said, for teams to remain successful in today’s NHL, there has to be that constant supply of young talent. The Pittsburgh Penguins, with their contributions from all the Baby Pens, proved that again last season.

When that supply runs out, well, did you see the team the Ducks played last night? There’s a reason the Canucks are no longer among the league’s elite. Their supply ran out for a few years, and it’s only starting now to be replenished.