Observations on Team USA World Junior camp in Lake Placid

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The World Junior Championships aren’t until late December, but teams got their preparations underway with development camps both in Edmonton for Team Canada and in Lake Placid, NY for Team Finland, Team Sweden, and Team USA. I spent Thursday in Lake Placid to check out Team USA’s game against Team Finland to see how the team was looking. Team USA wraps up their camp today with a game against Sweden.

Team USA is bringing back a lot of talent from last year’s team and those more experienced players played strong against Finland. Panthers prospects Nick Bjugstad and Rocco Grimaldi looked good. Grimaldi’s speed and tenacity allows him to keep up with anyone and his ability to move with the puck is unparalleled. Bjugstad is a big kid and can be imposing when lining up at center. Team USA coach Dean Blais has moved him from center to wing and back to see where they can get him going in camp, but he looked good against Finland.

Another forward who looked good was 2011 New York Rangers first round pick J.T. Miller. Miller had a thunderous first period controlling play, forcing the issue offensively and pressuring Finnish defenders on the forecheck. While Miller did pick up a pair of penalties, one that Blais described as a “momentum killer” his abilities as one of the new guys on the team will help make Team USA a better squad in Edmonton at this year’s championships.

source: Getty ImagesMinnesota wild prospects Charlie Coyle (obtained in the Devin Setoguchi-Brent Burns trade) and Jason Zucker had solid games as well. Zucker was able to make up for a poor early penalty against Finland by setting up Bjugstad for a goal. Zucker’s abilities last year in the World Junior Championships showed he has loads of talent but perhaps some bad luck as he hit a lot of posts. The same happened against Finland, but his abilities on the ice are special and he’s set to be one of the big time leaders of this year’s team.

Team USA’s strengths over the years in the WJCs has come from their defense and goaltending and that’s no different this time around. Team USA is able to roll out there with a host of guys that can play different roles on the blue line. Hurricanes prospect Justin Faulk is a smooth puck handler and an offensive threat, especially on the power play. With guys like Jarred Tinordi and Stephen Johns, the U.S. can handle things physically and defend strong as well.

The guy to keep an eye on for the next few years, however, is Seth Jones. At 6’3″ 198 pounds and just 16 years-old, Jones is going to be a hotly watched prospect when he’s eligible for the NHL Draft in 2013. Seeing Jones get to play against Finland he’s raw, but there’s huge promise there. Blais says that Jones has some work to do yet though.

“He makes mistakes too but he makes them out of trying to do something, ” Blais says. “He’s got to communicate a little bit more. He’s so young that he doesn’t want to talk too much but he has to. He’s got to communicate when he’s open and get the puck. But certainly he’s pretty reliable and pretty impressive so far in the tryouts.”

While Jones may not make the final cut for this year’s WJC team, he’s showing that he’ll be a guy worth watching develop over the next few years.

source: Getty ImagesWhen it comes to goaltending, the U.S. has a wealth of riches. Dallas Stars 2010 first round pick Jack Campbell is set to be the man in goal again but 2011 Ducks second round pick John Gibson and 2012 draft eligible Cornell sophomore Andy Iles are there waiting in the wings. Iles plays a very aggressive style and Blais loves the way he plays goal.

“Andy’s been real good. Andy’s going to push Jack Campbell a lot,” says Blais. “I don’t know how his tean’s [Cornell] going to be if he’s the goalie or not, I’m not sure but for us he’s certainly impressed us. He’s going to challenge, in my mind, Jack.”

With a seeming wealth of riches in goal, Team USA would seem likely to not have too many problems finding a way to win even if Campbell struggles. Having more than one goalie to bank on worked great for Blais when he coached the 2010 Team USA WJC team that won gold as he had both Jack Campbell and Mike Lee to rotate in and out of goal as needed.

As for Finland, there was one player to take note of in Buffalo Sabres 2011 first round pick Joel Armia. Armia scored a beautiful goal in the first period to get Finland ahead early after capitalizing on a Justin Faulk blue line turnover. Good thing for Armia that he played well in an otherwise tepid game for the Finns as Sabres top brass spent the week in Lake Placid watching him including head coach Lindy Ruff and owner Terry Pegula.

Usually when you think of an NHL owner, you think of a guy in a suit and being rather super executive like. Not Terry Pegula as he was there looking like just another fan checking out the action in shorts, sneakers, and a Sabres fleece. Yes, owners are real people too.

Team USA’s chances to win gold at this year’s World Junior Championships are strong again and while Canada is by far the favorite, it’ll be up to the United States to find that motivation and extra gear to be able to win it all. Playing it this year in Edmonton and Calgary will make the atmosphere even more intense to deal with, but that didn’t stop Blais and Team USA in 2010 from winning it all in Canada, and they’ll hope to find that magic once again.

Blackhawks fire assistant coach Mike Kitchen

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Stan Bowman promised there’d be changes, and today those changes began.

The Chicago Blackhawks have fired longtime assistant coach Mike Kitchen. A member of Joel Quenneville’s staff since 2010, Kitchen spent seven seasons in Chicago, winning two championships along the way.

“We believe this decision is best for our organization moving forward,” said Bowman, the general manager. “Mike had an impact on two different Stanley Cup championship teams during his tenure in Chicago. We appreciate his many contributions and wish he and his family success in the future.”

Kitchen was in charge of the Blackhawks’ penalty kill, which finished 24th after a terrible start to the regular season.

Though the ‘Hawks only surrendered one power-play goal in four losses to the Predators, Quenneville’s staff was bound to change in the wake of such a disappointing postseason performance.

Quenneville’s other assistant, Kevin Dineen, is still on the staff.

Two days after elimination, Montreal’s focus turns to Price extension

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On Saturday, Carey Price‘s season came to an abrupt end with a Game 6 loss to the Rangers.

On Monday, Price’s offseason got underway.

During his end-of-year media availability, Montreal’s prized netminder was faced with questions about his contract status, foreshadowing what Price will likely be dealing with until pen is put to paper.

Here’s an excerpt of part of the exchange, from Hockey 360:

Q: What are your expectations about your contract situation?

Price: I don’t have any worries about it. I’m sure it’ll all take care of itself.

Q: Would you be open to talk about an extension for July 1?

Price: Yeah, of course. I love playing here. I’m sure we’ll figure something out.

Price, who turns 30 this August, is heading into the last of a six-year, $39 million deal with a $6.5M average annual cap hit. As mentioned, he’s eligible to sign an extension on the first of July, and there’s already been speculation as to what that deal would look like.

Armed with leverage at negotiating table — the 2015 Hart Trophy, nominated for the Vezina in two of the last three years — it’s feasible Price could command similar money to Henrik Lundqvist, currently the NHL’s highest-paid netminder (a seven-year, $59.5 million deal with an $8.5M cap hit).

But there are factors to consider.

The first, of course, is that Habs GM Marc Bergevin has other significant spending to do this summer. Alex Radulov, who finished second on the team in scoring during the regular season and led the Habs in the playoffs, is an unrestricted free agent. Per reports, he’s looking to cash in.

Alex Galchenyuk, the former 30-goal scorer and at one point the club’s No. 1 center of the future, is a pending RFA. That negotiation alone will be fascinating.

Price was asked about his negotiations, and how they might reflect the club’s need to be cost-effective in order to remain competitive. He dodged it artfully — “that’s a tough question to be asking me right now,” he said — but later acknowledged he understood the business side of things, and that the club is currently in its Stanley Cup window.

“I want to stay here,” he explained. “[I want to] figure out a way to make all the pieces fit, and bring a championship here.”

Five impressive stats from the first round

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.976Pekka Rinne‘s save percentage in four games against Chicago, all of them victories, two of them shutouts. Rinne only allowed three goals on 126 shots by the Blackhawks, who had all sorts of trouble generating quality scoring chances against the tight-checking Predators. Though Rinne may not have had the toughest saves to make, he kept the mistakes to a minimum, and he was a big reason for the sweep.

11 — Points for Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, who had two goals and nine assists in five games against Columbus. Malkin is now just seven points shy of the 18 he registered in last year’s playoffs, and that took 23 games. His career high in the postseason is 36 points, which earned him the 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy.

29.4% — Washington’s power play in six games against the Maple Leafs. That’s not the highest success rate in these playoffs — Calgary’s was 37.5 percent, Pittsburgh’s 33.3 percent — but in a series that saw five games go to overtime, the Caps could’ve easily been eliminated if they hadn’t converted five times with the man advantage. Alex Ovechkin scored twice on the PP, while T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, and John Carlson got the other three.

9 — Different goal-scorers for the Edmonton Oilers, who showed they can be more than just Connor McDavid in defeating the Sharks in six. True, McDavid led the Oilers with four points (2G, 2A). But it was bottom-six winger Zack Kassian who played the hero early on, with back-to-back winning goals in Games 2 and 3. Then David Desharnais notched the winner in Game 5, followed by Anton Slepyshev in Game 6.

5 — Points for Ducks rookie defenseman Shea Theodore (2G, 3A) in four games against the Flames. Only Erik Karlsson has more points (6) among d-men in these playoffs, and Karlsson played six games against the Bruins. Theodore downplayed his postseason production, telling reporters, “You get good bounces every once in a while.” But the 21-year-old put up piles of points in junior, and he did the same in the AHL. So really, we shouldn’t be all that surprised that he’s doing it in the NHL now.

Wild owner confirms Fletcher safe as GM

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After a disappointing first-round playoff exit, Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold has given GM Chuck Fletcher a vote of confidence.

Per the Star-Tribune, Leipold confirmed on Sunday that Fletcher’s job was safe, potentially to quiet speculation about the longtime GM’s job security in the wake of a disappointing finish.

But Leipold’s vote of confidence also provides an interesting backdrop for when Fletcher meets with the media this week.

There’s no denying that, after a 49-win and 106-point campaign, crashing out in five games to St. Louis — and to former head coach Mike Yeo — is unacceptable. But how Fletcher positions this will be telling. There’s a chance he could pin the Wild’s lack of success on the tremendous goaltending of Jake Allen, much like head coach Bruce Boudreau did. He could also argue Minnesota was, by nearly every metric, the better of the two teams over the course of the series, and chalk up the loss to a lack of puck luck.

But that won’t be easy.

This marks Minnesota’s second consecutive first-round exit, having been bounced in six games by Dallas last year. And it comes after Fletcher went big at the trade deadline, acquiring Martin Hanzal and Ryan White from Arizona in exchange for a bevy of draft picks.

“We’re just putting our chips in the middle of the table for this year,” Fletcher said at the time, per NHL.com. “We like our group and we think our players deserve the best chance possible to compete [and want to] see what we can do. Again, nothing’s promised and we know it will be tough, but I think our thought is we may as well take a swing and see how far we can go.”

More: Fletcher went all-in at the deadline, and now… this

At this stage, the GM has some serious questions to ask of his team. How much longer can things revolve around the aging core of captain Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter? All have been quality players during their time with the Wild, but two facts cannot be ignored: 1) Koivu just turned 34, while Parise and Suter turn 33 later this year, and 2) the trio has never made it past the second playoff round.

Interestingly, Leipold has suggested the current group might not be championship caliber. “I don’t know, they could surprise me,” he said in January. “But I don’t think we’ve got that type of team. We haven’t built it yet.”

And to be fair, the Wild do have building blocks in place for the future.

Four of Fletcher’s draftees starred on the international stage at the 2017 World Juniors — Kirill Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson-Ek, Jordan Greenway and Luke Kunin — and it has to be exciting that a pair of young skaters, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter, took significant leaps forward this season.

Granlund, 25, led the team in scoring with 69 points and emerged as one of the club’s most important players. Niederreiter, 24, posted career highs in points (57) and goals (25), suggesting he’s also ready to embrace a bigger role with more responsibility.

And to that end, Fletcher has huge decisions to make on both players, who are pending RFAs. The Wild don’t have a ton of financial flexibility, and it’s fair to suggest Granlund (who made $3M last season) and Niederreiter ($2.66M) will both need significant raises.

There’s a lot of work for Fletcher to do this summer.

But at least he’ll get a chance to do it.