Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 6 - Slovakia v United States

In routing Slovakia, Americans display the ‘kind of depth’ that ‘you need to have’

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SOCHI, Russia – It may not be blessed with a superstar like Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, but the United States men’s hockey team showed Thursday what four solid lines with a healthy mix of talent, tenacity and chemistry can do.

A dominant 7-1 win over Slovakia was how the U.S. opened its 2014 Olympic tournament. Paul Stastny scored twice while skating between wingers Max Pacioretty and T.J. Oshie on a line that was technically the Americans’ fourth, but sure didn’t play that way.

Not that the trio’s effectiveness surprised head coach Dan Bylsma.

“We talked about it going into the game,” said Bylsma, “that the line of Stastny, Pacioretty, and Oshie could be our best line in this game, and it turned out to be that for us.

“Not only did they find themselves on the score sheet, I think every time over the boards they made something positive happen with their shifts, with their offensive zone time. That’s the kind of depth throughout your lineup that you need to have, that we do have.”

Phil Kessel had a big game as well, finishing with a goal and two assists while showing off his already-proven chemistry with Toronto teammate James van Riemsdyk, who assisted on Kessel’s second-period tally.

“He is on fire,” van Riemsdyk said of Kessel. “It is fun to play with him and the game is coming really easy to him right now. He is working hard and creating a lot.”

The pair of Maple Leafs, centered by Joe Pavelski, also combined to set up John Carlson for the game’s first goal.

On top of all that, Patrick Kane and Ryan Kesler – usually on opposite sides of a fierce (or at least once-fierce) rivalry in the NHL – seemed to click, with the former setting up the latter for the one-timer game-winner early in the second period.

“He’s always looking for you,” Kesler said of playing with Kane. “He’s always dangerous when he gets the puck. For whatever reason, we seem to be reading off each other well, and I like playing with him a lot.”

And remember that finding chemistry in rapid fashion is especially important in a short tournament like the Olympics, where there’s so little time to gel before the win-or-go-home games begin.

“You need to figure out each other’s lines quick, get chemistry,” said Kesler. “If you do that, you’re going to be successful.”

Next up for the Americans? A date Saturday with the host Russians in the showcase contest of the preliminary round.

Alex Ovechkin. Evgeni Malkin. Pavel Datsyuk. Alex Semin. Ilya Kovalchuk. The Russians may not have the kind of forward depth the Americans showed off today, but Bylsma – who coaches Malkin in Pittsburgh – doesn’t know if any team can match the hosts’ top-end skill.

“Their team is very talented,” said Bylsma, “maybe the most talented in the tournament, with some of the star players they have. Evgeni Malkin, I’ve seen him do things that I don’t know what he’s going to do next, and how he does it offensively and with the puck.

“So to have a game plan, or to tell someone what to expect, you might have to expect the unexpected against a player of that ilk, how talented he is. … It’s not just going to be one or two players on their team that we have to be concerned with. We may have a little more information on how to get to Evgeni Malkin, but I’m not sure it’s going to be the full story.”

The timing of the Gudbranson trade was…interesting

Florida Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson (44) gets up from the ice after being pushed in the second period during a preseason NHL hockey game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
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It seems like only yesterday that the Florida Panthers were raving about Erik Gudbranson.

Except it wasn’t yesterday.

It was earlier this month.

“Guddy has taken a big step for our team this year,” coach Gerard Gallant said, per the Sun Sentinel. “He’s very confident, moves the puck real well and is a big part of our blue line.”

“He’s really going to be a special player for a lot of years in this league and hopefully for a lot of years with the Panthers,” said veteran d-man Brian Campbell.

Now, Florida had just signed Gudbranson to a one-year contract extension, so of course there was raving to be done.

But it still surprised many when he was traded to Vancouver yesterday.

For example:

Not that Gudbranson was given away for nothing. The return the Panthers got from the Canucks was considerable. Jared McCann could be a top-six forward one day, and there was more.

“The fact we were able to add draft picks this year, second and fourth round, 33 and 93, we felt gave us two picks that we got back that we lost on the trading deadline,” general manager Tom Rowe told reporters.

Rowe also conceded that trading Gudbranson was a “very, very difficult decision.”

The timing, though.

The timing was pretty hard to ignore.

Rowe, of course, was just named Florida’s new GM. He replaced Dale Tallon, who was “promoted” (or demoted, depending who you ask) to the role of director of hockey ops.

It was all part of a big, managerial shakeup — one that was driven in large part by analytics:

Would you be surprised to learn that Gudbranson did not have a particularly high Corsi?

From Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com:

Panthers

Now, we’re not saying the Panthers made this trade solely because of advanced stats. When there’s a salary cap, difficult decisions need to be made. Gudbranson will need a new contract next summer, and he won’t be cheap to re-sign.

Added Rowe: “The way [Michael Matheson] played in the playoffs and at the World Championship for an outstanding Canadian team really gave us more of a comfort level to do this.”

Still, it was only two years ago that Tallon was saying Gudbranson was “likely going to be the captain of our team some day.” And it was only a few weeks ago that Tallon called Gudbranson “an important part of our young core who has continued to develop into a reliable, physical presence on our blue line and a strong leader in our locker room.”

So yeah, whether or not you like the deal for the Panthers, it’s more than fair to wonder who, or what, was the driving force behind it.

One thing’s for sure — the Panthers are going to look very different on the back end next season. Gudbranson’s gone; Willie Mitchell is unlikely to be back; and Campbell is an unrestricted free agent who may test the market.

In the playoffs, no defenseman played more for Florida than Gudbranson. After him, it was Campbell.

Related: People are wondering — do the Florida Panthers know what they’re doing?

Some tough decisions await the Blues

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Yet again, the St. Louis Blues failed to achieve their ultimate goal.

And boy does it hurt right now.

“We’re all hurting,” coach Ken Hitchcock said last night after getting eliminated by the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Final.

“You don’t want this to be our best opportunity. You want this to be a building block. In this game, in this era, in this cap world, you don’t know where you’re going to be a year from now.”

Indeed, GM Doug Armstrong has some tough decisions to make this offseason.

At the top of the list is whether to bring Hitchcock back. Yes, the Blues did better than 26 other teams, and yes, they finally got past the first round. Still, there are people who believe this will be it for the head coach, that a new voice could help. Overall, Hitchcock has done a great job in St. Louis. But then, so did Todd McLellan in San Jose. Sometimes, change can be good.

Then there are the unrestricted free agents. Both captain David Backes and winger Troy Brouwer need new contracts. The former is 32, the latter 30. The former had seven goals in the playoffs, the latter eight. How much money will they want? How much term? The second question might be the most important.

On the back end, it’s Kevin Shattenkirk that will garner the most attention. He’s signed through next season before he can become an unrestricted free agent. Just 27 years old, and considering the demand for what he does, he’ll be very expensive to keep. And with the emergence of Colton Parayko, trading Shattenkirk could probably be justified, especially if the return is good. A team like the Boston Bruins might be willing to pay up.

Right now, the pain is still fresh for the Blues.

“It’s so hard to win in the league right now,” said Hitchcock. “It’s so hard to win a series. So hard to just get in the playoffs. When you get this far, you get this close, you think you got the opportunity.”

The challenge for Armstrong will be to give his team another opportunity next season. And with the draft less than a month away, all these tough decisions will need to be made very soon.

Goals of the Week get tougher as Cup Final approaches

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The Stanley Cup Final is almost upon us and picking the very best Goals of the Week is a tough task. See how we did on this edition!

Just for Men: Mike Commodore

RALEIGH, NC - JUNE 14:  Mike Commodore #22 of the Carolina Hurricanes warms up before game five of the 2006 NHL Stanley Cup Finals against the Edmonton Oilers on June 14, 2006 at the RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Maybe one would argue that time hasn’t been kind to the 2006 Stanley Cup-winning Carolina Hurricanes (at least compared to the pedigree of other winners), but Mike Commodore’s incredible red afro and beard rank as one of hockey’s most timeless combinations.

Seriously, just take a step back from your monitor* and bask in the splendor of that carrot-topped Commodore.

Even then-President George W. Bush remarked on Commodore’s bushy hair and beard (or its tragic absence) when the Canes visited the White House:

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all for coming. Have a seat. It’s a pretty big deal for a guy that doesn’t know how to ice skate — (laughter) — to welcome the Carolina Hurricanes to the White House. We appreciate you coming. You know, I’m not sure what is prettier, the Stanley Cup, or Mike Commodore’s hair. (Laughter.) A little disappointed you got a haircut. (Laughter.) But, welcome.

Good stuff.

And it really is kind of disappointing any time you see Commodore relatively clean-shaven. It’s like Superman without a big “S” on his chest or Metallica with short hair or any number of not-quite-right sights.

* – If you’re doing the Rumsfeld-style “standing at your desk” thing then … kneel for a second maybe?