Rangers-Devils Eastern Conference finals matchup: Forwards

With the Devils and Rangers set to begin the 2012 Eastern Conference finals tonight at Madison Square Garden, PHT will be spending most of today breaking down the positional matchups.

Forwards

New York Rangers (lines)

Carl Hagelin — Brad Richards — Marian Gaborik

Chris Kreider — Derek Stepan — Ryan Callahan

Ruslan Fedotenko — Brian Boyle — Artem Anisimov

Mike Rupp — John Mitchell — Brandon Prust

Overview: Richards and Gaborik lead the charge with 11 and 10 points respectively, and both have provided timely scoring (Richards especially).

After going scoreless in his first five games, Stepan has eight points in his last nine.

Outside of some occasional production from Anisimov and Boyle’s early heroics against Ottawa, the bottom six hasn’t provided much offense at all.

Strengths: The Rangers are versatile up front. Richards and Gaborik bring the skill, Hagelin and Kreider possess a speed game, Boyle and Callahan are physical presences while fourth-liners Prust and Rupp provide requisite toughness.

Weaknesses: Due in part to their workmanlike approach (and no bonafide No. 2 goalscorer after Gaborik), the Rangers are prone to long dry spells — specially at 5-on-5 (1.36 per game). There was a stretch during the Washington series where NY only scored one “pure” 5-on-5 goal in over 144 minutes of action, not counting Gaborik’s bank shot off Matt Hendricks in Game 6.

New Jersey Devils (lines)

Zach Parise — Patrik Elias — David Clarkson

Alexei Ponikarovsky — Travis Zajac — Ilya Kovalchuk

Petr Sykora — Adam Henrique — Dainius Zubrus

Ryan Carter — Stephen Gionta — Steve Bernier

Overview: Much like their defense, the Devils utilize a balanced attack. Twelve different forwards have at least three points (compared to eight Rangers forwards) with the highly-underrated Sykora-Henrique-Zubrus line combining for 18. That said, New Jersey’s high-end talent has carried the team at times. Most notable was Kovalchuk’s Game 3 performance against Philly which drew “world class” reviews.

Strengths: The forecheck. New Jersey runs an aggressive two-man system that absolutely throttled the Flyers (the Devils outscored them 14-8 even strength.) Here’s what MSG analyst Ken Daneyko told New York Magazine about New Jersey establishing the forecheck against Philly:

I thought the Devils felt they could exploit their defense, and that’s exactly what they did, by getting pucks in the corner — the Devils are one of the better cycling teams in the league — and they use their big bodies protecting it and spending a lot of time in the Flyers’ end.

Even if they didn’t score on a particular shift, if you’re in there 30 or 40 seconds, that can really wear a team down, physically as well as mentally, and I think that’s what they were able to accomplish against the Flyers.

Weaknesses: It’s not the toughest, meanest or most physical group. Peter DeBoer has parked two of the more noteworthy pugilists from the regular season brouhahas (Eric Boulton, Cam Janssen) in favor of more versatile players — like the 5-foot-7, 185-pound Gionta.

PHT Morning Skate: On how Jacques Plante ‘revolutionized’ hockey

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Brian Campbell may have spoken to teams about continuing his career, but he didn’t start negotiating with any of them because he knew he wasn’t willing to continue playing. “I’ve been thinking about [retirement] for a while. At the end of the season, I didn’t know if I was ready to do it anymore. So that was only fair. But I will say July 1 was tough, a tough day. There’ve been some tough days. But I think we’re happy with our decision.” (CSN Chicago)

–The Hockey Writers ranked each team’s farm system from 1 to 31. Interestingly enough, the Vegas Golden Knights don’t have the worst system in the league. That honor belongs to the San Jose Sharks. The number one team on the list is the Philadelphia Flyers. (The Hockey Writers)

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been with the Oilers for six years now, but he still hasn’t established himself as one of the dominant forces on the team. Per the Edmonton Journal, he could be skating on thin ice. “With Draisaitl likely to be paid next season and McDavid already signed to big money the following campaign, the cap budget at centre is tight. Whether Nugent-Hopkins stays or goes in the longer term, he needs a major bounceback next season to prove his worth.” (Edmonton Journal)

–On Nov. 1, 1959, Jacques Plante revolutionized the game of hockey by putting on a goalie mask for the first time. NHL.com contributor Stan Fischler wrote: “The legacy of Plante’s decision is evident in today’s game. Not only are all goaltenders required to wear a mask, but teams must dress two goalies for every game. And when a goalie’s mask comes off during a game, the whistle is blown and play is stopped.” It’s a remarkable story. (NHL.com)

–It’s always fun to think about how teams over in Europe would do against an NHL team. With the help of a couple of Russian hockey journalists, The Score put together a KHL all-star team, and asked fans to vote on where they think that team would finish in the NHL. Most people feel like the KHL all-stars would finish somewhere between 17th and 29th in the NHL. (The Score)

Justin Williams signed a contract with the Carolina Hurricanes this summer, which means he had to move out of Washington. Some of his valuables got a little more attention than others:

Teammates, friends were glad to see Okposo back on the ice

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From the sound of things, Kyle Okposo‘s presence at “Da Beauty League” was a beautiful sight for Buffalo Sabres teammates, former teammates on the New York Islanders, and friends around the NHL.

NHL.com’s Jessi Pierce was at that informal game, which apparently didn’t go well for Okposo’s team.

That’s not the important part, certainly not in July. While Pierce noted that Okposo wasn’t comfortable answering questions during his first on-ice action in almost four months, it sounds like the talented winger was looking good on Wednesday night.

Onlookers agreed with that sentiment, and also seconded the notion that he’s been doing well this summer, overall.

“Obviously seeing a teammate go through something like that and struggle to get healthy is tough,” Sabres teammate Hudson Fasching said, via Pierce’s piece for NHL.com. “He’s such a good guy and going through a lot with that whole deal, trying to figure out what was wrong.

“I’m just happy he’s healthy and happy for him to get back.”

It was already noted that Okposo is expected to be ready for Sabres training camp, yet nights like these make it clearer that he’s likely on course. That’s a fantastic turnaround from his health scare in April.

Pierce also has more here.

Gaudreau on Flames’ future: ‘We have three great years ahead of us’

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Things change quickly in hockey, but it’s often especially interesting when someone gives their team a “window” for their best chances at success.

Considering the trying summer for the Capitals, GM Brian MacLellan’s two-year window proclamation might have been dead-on for Washington. If Johnny Gaudreau has similar prognosticating skills, then the Calgary Flames need to take some big swings in the next three seasons.

“I think we have three great years ahead of us,” Gaudreau said last week, according to NHL.com. “I’m really looking forward to these next three years.”

No, this isn’t Gaudreau hedging his bets based on his own situation; his contract runs through 2021-22. His partner-in-crime Sean Monahan‘s deal expires after 2022-23, so it’s not that, either.

Instead, the dazzling young forward noted that some of the team’s most important supporting cast members are locked in for three more years. Take a look:

Expiring after 2019-20:

T.J. Brodie ($4.65 million)
Travis Hamonic ($3.86M)
Michael Frolik ($4.3M)
Troy Brouwer ($4.5M)
Michael Stone ($3.5M)

Meanwhile, Mike Smith‘s contract lasts two more seasons, as does the rookie deal for Matthew Tkachuk. Dougie Hamilton‘s signed up for four more himself.

Gaudreau likely didn’t have this in mind, but it’s reasonable to wonder how much longer Mark Giordano will be at or near an elite level. Yes, he’s at a reasonable $6.75M for five more seasons, but he’s already 33.

All things considered, Gaudreau is reasonable in pinpointing these next three seasons specifically. In particular, defensemen as talented as Brodie and Hamonic are almost certain to command higher prices.

On the other hand, merely having such a talented player as Gaudreau signed for such a reasonable deal – not to mention the Flames lacking many “albatross” contracts – could mean that they’ll have a solid chance at competing for some time. Still, Gaudreau might be right that this is Calgary’s best chance at winning big in quite some time.

AHL teams can loan certain players to 2018 Winter Olympics

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Players on American Hockey League contracts will be eligible to play in the 2018 Winter Olympics.

President and CEO David Andrews confirmed through a league spokesman Wednesday that teams were informed they could loan players on AHL contracts to national teams for the purposes of participating in the Pyeongchang Olympics. The AHL sent a memo to its 30 clubs saying players could only be loaned for Olympic participation from Feb. 5-26.

The Olympic men’s hockey tournament runs from Feb. 9-25. Like the NHL, which is not having its players participate for the first time since 1994, the AHL does not have an Olympic break in its schedule.

The AHL’s decision does not affect players assigned to that league on NHL contracts. No final decision has been made about those players.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey