Sizing up the Big Four, as ‘do or die time’ begins

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No disrespect to the other eight teams, all of which are still alive in the Olympic tournament. But let’s face it, Slovenia, Austria, Norway, and Latvia aren’t winning this thing, and Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and even Finland would be a surprise if they did. After the preliminary round, one of the Big Four is still expected to take gold here in Sochi, so let’s size each of them up:

United States: The most impressive team so far. Dominated Slovakia and Slovenia, and beat Russia in a shootout. “We get a couple of days off to rest up, use it to our advantage and try to get better every day,” said forward Patrick Kane. “But it’s do or die time now. This is where the fun begins.” Indeed, everything the U.S. has done will be forgotten if it lets up in the quarterfinals, where it will face the winner of the Slovakia-Czech Republic qualification contest. Assuming no letup, its next opponent would likely be Canada, with either Russia, Sweden or Finland in the gold-medal game. Not an easy path, to say the least. Phil Kessel has been the star for the Americans, leading the tourney with seven points (four goals and three assists) while playing on a line with regular Toronto linemate James van Riemsdyk and San Jose’s Joe Pavelski. Kane, however, has been less productive, and was a bit down on himself following the Slovenia win. The challenge for the U.S. will be to avoid what happened to the Swedes in 2010, when they went undefeated through the prelims only to lose to Slovakia in the quarters. Speaking of…

Sweden: Usually no big fans of the Finns, the Swedes owe their neighbors for taking Canada to overtime on Sunday, a result that gave the Tre Kronor the top seed out of the prelims. A relatively easy quarterfinal against either Austria or Slovenia now awaits, and if everything goes well, Russia or Finland next and the U.S. or Canada in the gold-medal game. One big problem: despite the fact they haven’t lost yet, the Swedes really haven’t been very good. Since losing Henrik “everything” Zetterberg, they needed Henrik Lundqvist to be brilliant in the early part of the Swiss game — “They were all over us the first 10 minutes,” he said — and they had to come from behind to beat Latvia after trailing 2-1. “Improvements need to be made,” said Lundqvist. “We need to play a lot smarter than we did [versus Latvia].”

Canada: Mike Babcock thinks the media is too hard on his team, and he has a point to an extent. Team Canada has been outstanding defensively and possession-wise, and despite only beating Finland 2-1 in overtime, Babcock had the chances at 16-5 for the red and white. “Our next game is going to be just like [the Finland game],” he said Monday. “The best thing for us is what happened yesterday; our players know this is what we’re in for. That’s what the game is. If we think we’re getting seven, we’re watching the wrong sport. It’s gonna be 2-1.” He may be right, because Canada is likely to play Switzerland next, and the Swiss have only surrendered one goal all tournament. Still, it’s not unfair to question why Canada, which boasts five of the top 10 scorers in the NHL this season, has only managed five goals in three games from its forwards. Is it a matter of bad luck (i.e. just not finishing)? Is it the way they’re being defended? Is it the way the referees are calling (or not calling) it? Or is it simply that the forwards, featuring the one and only Sidney Crosby, just aren’t clicking the way they should be? In 2010, the Canadians had an uneven preliminary round, then won four straight to take gold. They’ll only have to win three in 2014, with a probable semifinal versus the Americans, and a gold-medal game against Russia, Sweden, or Finland.

Russia: The most compelling story, so we saved it for last. Like the host Canadians in 2010, the 2014 hosts didn’t advance directly to the quarterfinals. As such, they’ll have to play Norway Tuesday for a spot against the Finns in the quarters. Beat Norway and Finland and it’s almost certainly Sweden in the semis, with likely the United States or Canada in the gold-medal game. And how amazing would either of those match-ups be? First things first though. Oddly enough, the Russians’ most impressive performance of the prelims was probably the only one they lost, on Saturday to T.J. Oshie and company. A late disallowed goal, which would’ve counted in the NHL, left many of their fans feeling robbed; however, that won’t be the difference between winning gold and a nation erupting in celebration, or not. What might be the difference is special teams. “We not score on the power play and we had many power plays,” said Pavel Datsyuk after Sunday’s 1-0 defeat of Slovakia in a shootout. “We need to work on it more.” On paper, the Russians’ power play — featuring the likes of Datsyuk, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Andrei Markov — couldn’t look much more imposing. But in the first three games, it’s only scored twice in almost 24 minutes with the man advantage.

Lehtera: Trade from Blues to Flyers will be ‘good for me’

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Let’s be honest. Jori Lehtera felt like a bit of an afterthought in the trade that sent Brayden Schenn to the St. Louis Blues and some significant picks to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Just consider the PHT headline: “Flyers send Schenn to Blues, take on Lehtera’s contract.”

That’s certainly a fair way to look at it, as the Flyers received the 27th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft and a conditional first-rounder in the deal. Would they have gotten such a haul for Schenn if they didn’t absord Lehtera’s $4.7 million cap hit, which expires after 2018-19?

Again, it’s easy to lose track of the human factor, as Lehtera was moved from the only NHL team he’s ever suited up for. While he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Rutherford that the news brought out both good and bad emotions, the 29-year-old believes that he’ll benefit on the ice.

“I have no idea why (the Blues traded me), but I think it’s better for me that I got traded, so I don’t really care why,” Lehtera said. “That’s the business part of hockey. It’s always tough to leave when you know all of the guys and the city. But hockey-wise, it’s going to be good for me. I didn’t play well at the end, but I think a new start will be really good for me.”

It’s been an interesting few years for Lehtera.

His numbers have dropped from his nifty rookie season (14 goals, 44 points) to 2015-16 (34 points) and finally last season (22 points).

Context matters, naturally, as centering a line of Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko inflated his numbers, especially earlier on.

Still, that couldn’t have been a promising trend for both the player and the team.

The challenge will be to really make a mark with Philly. With Claude Giroux, Valtteri Filppula, Sean Couturier, and possibly even Nolan Patrick in the way, Lehtera would have plenty of competition down the middle. It wouldn’t be shocking if he was asked to move to the wing on occasion.

Lehtera certainly has plenty to prove, but he also gets a chance to make a positive first impression. If he can make an impact, then he’ll make Flyers GM Ron Hextall look that much brighter in the process.

Report: Avalanche will soon have AHL affiliate in Colorado

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There are upgrades that improve teams in dramatic ways, and then there are moves that improve quality of life.

Mike Chambers of The Denver Post reports that the Colorado Avalanche will make a tweak that would likely be a big plus in the quality of life category: starting in 2018-19, the Colorado Eagles will be their AHL affiliate. The Eagles will be bumped from an ECHL team to the AHL.

At the moment, the Avs’ affiliate is the San Antonio Rampage (pictured). So, yeah, there will be a nice advantage in a) calling players up and b) management having more opportunities to keep an eye on prospects.

The Budweiser Events Center is about a one-hour drive to the Pepsi Center according to Google Maps, depending upon traffic. So yeah, that’s an easier situation than traveling from Texas.

The Avalanche haven’t made this news official; Chambers cites two anonymous sources. With the change coming for 2018-19, it’s possible that confirmation might not come for a while. More from Chambers:

The Avs, citing their contract with the Rampage, declined comment, but vice president Jean Martineau confirmed the team’s contract with San Antonio ends after the 2017-18 season. Eagles general manager Chris Stewart could not be reached for comment.

Will Rangers fans warm up to Vigneault this season?

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This post is part of Rangers Day on PHT…

From the way many New York Rangers fans discuss Alain Vigneault, you’d think he was presiding over the era of 1997-98 to 2003-04, when the Rangers missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons.

Impressive results

From a sheer win-loss standpoint, Vigneault’s been a success, even if the Rangers haven’t been able to win it all. The Rangers’ points percentage has been at .628, almost as strong as his .632 mark with the Canucks, when AV took Vancouver within one win of that elusive Stanley Cup title.

(Breaking: things haven’t gone so smoothly for Vancouver since he left town.)

The Rangers are 192-108-28 under Vigneault. They made an unexpected run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final and also brought them to the 2015 Eastern Conference Final.

Plenty of critics

Of course, Vigneault wasn’t on the ice winning those games, and many would (understandably) attribute the Rangers’ successes to the players, most notably Henrik Lundqvist. In the eyes of many, this team’s successes come despite Vigneault.

Again, the criticisms are often as harsh as they are widespread.

Sometimes people find his defensive pairing decisions maddening. If you want to make some Rangers fans wince, just utter the name Tanner Glass. SBNation Rangers blog Blueshirt Banter provides a portal into such angst, with headlines like “Rangers demise started at the top” and failing grades for his playoff maneuvering.

Twitter can honestly get a little weird with the AV vitriol, although … maybe that’s to be expected? Consider this a random example that’s on the more, well, SFW spectrum:

Not everyone is bashing Vigneault, mind you, but his critics can sometimes resemble a chorus.

Glass floor

Of course, any passionate fan base will have its qualms with coaches. People have been discussing “the pros and cons of Alain Vigneault” for ages.

It’s easy to get caught up in your favorite team and ignore the notion that virtually every coach has “their guys.”

In this case, “their guys” means marginal players whose elevated roles leaves fans shaking their heads. Jon Cooper seemingly favored Andrej Sustr and arguably never really trusted Jonathan Drouin. Maple Leafs fans weren’t always thrilled to see, say, Roman Polak getting serious minutes. The list goes on and on.

A turning point?

With that in mind, the 2017-18 season could be an especially fascinating chapter in the love-hate affair between Rangers fans and Vigneault.

Frankly, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton took measures to protect Vigneault from himself, and those changes might just leave fans begrudgingly agreeing with more AV moves than usual … or it might send some over the edge if old habits die hard.

As much as people criticize individual moves, Vigneault made a strong argument that he’s a versatile coach in 2016-17, taking a more modern approach with the Rangers. It mostly worked, and now this team has better tools to improve their transition game.

To an extent, it’s addition by subtraction, as Dan Girardi‘s time mercifully ends, and with it the motivation for AV to give him big minutes. This opens the door for more mobile defenders to get time, such as promising young blueliner Brady Skjei.

The actual additions are most important. Kevin Shattenkirk stands, on paper, as a massive upgrade, especially if he slides into a pairing with Ryan McDonagh (who some believe has been dragged down by Girardi for years).

Another key will be how Marc Staal is used. If the emphasis shifts from Staal to Shattenkirk, McDonagh, Skjei, Brendan Smith and maybe even Anthony DeAngelo, stats-minded Rangers fans might be pleased.

Maybe most importantly for the mental health of some fans, that lure to put Glass in the lineup is also gone.

***

To some extent, criticisms are just the nature of the beast for coaches in professional sports. Vigneault’s been around long enough to realize that.

Even so, the highs and lows of Vigneault can sometimes be quite dramatic, making him a polarizing subject for fans. This season should be especially interesting to watch from the perspective of Rangers fans, whether AV makes changes or continues to frustrate them in familiar ways.

Rick Nash at career crossroads in contract year

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This post is part of Rangers Day on PHT…

New York Rangers GM Jeff Gorton has indeed done a great job managing the team’s salary structure. In that context, it might be tough to justify the idea of extending an aging power forward who will be 34 when his current deal expires next summer.

There are more than a few people who believe that the Rangers would be wise to bring Rick Nash back, however. Just recently, Josh Lipman made such an argument for Fansided and a similar thought surfaced from Jackson Heil of The Hockey Writers.

Of course, wherever Nash goes, he figures to see a decrease in pay – maybe a drastic drop – from the $7.8 million cap hit that expires after 2017-18.

For Nash, it’s a fork in the road during what’s been a somewhat odd career.

Nash is closing in on 500 career goals, as the winger already produced 416 in 989 regular-season games. He’s become quite the specialist in New York, scoring 127 goals vs. 97 assists in 315 contests with the Rangers.

On those playoff questions

As Rangers fans likely know too well, there have been some playoff headaches.

It’s wrong to say that Nash has never enjoyed postseason success. In 19 games during their 2015 run, he managed 14 points. He also had four points in what was otherwise a miserable five-game series for the Rangers against the Penguins in 2016.

His strange run of bad luck resurfaced this past postseason, so for all we know, Nash might not ever fully silence critics regarding his supposed lack of “clutch play.”

Best option available?

When people picture Nash’s future, many envision him hitting the free agent market in 2018.

The Rangers might not be so wise to outright dismiss bringing Nash back, though. New York boasts some nice forwards, but it’s plausible that Nash could remain one of their most reliable snipers, even at an advanced age. Lipman points out that Nash easily outclasses other Rangers during his time with the team from a sniping perspective; while he generated 127 goals during that time, the second-most prolific scorer was Derek Stepan, who only managed 90.

It’s worth noting that, despite being limited to 67 regular-season games in 2016-17, Nash still scored 23 goals. Nash generated 42 goals as recently as 2014-15, which was one of his only healthy campaigns with the Rangers.

Now, it’s rarely safe to assume that a player will become more durable as he ages, so that’s another concern to consider.

Still, if the price is reasonable, Nash brings a lot to the table.

The 2017-18 season stands as a year that could have a huge impact on Nash’s future. The Rangers should at least keep an open mind about being a part of his future beyond this next season.