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.

PHT Morning Skate: Marc-Andre Fleury’s ‘thank you’ letter to Pittsburgh

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–Sean McIndoe provides a list of 12 teams that are facing a high amount of pressure this off-season. The Canadiens still need a center, the Caps need something to get over the hump and the Avs need to shake things up after having one of the worst seasons in recent history. (Sportsnet)

–Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has moved on from the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it’s pretty clear that he won’t forget his years there. Fleury mentioned all of his best memories in a “thank you” letter to the people of Pittsburgh. “So thank you, fans. I wish I could put into words how much of an impact your support has made on me and my family. We have become Pittsburghers.” (The Players’ Tribune)

–The Hockey News handed out some of their own (made up) awards for the 2016-17 season. The Mario Lemieux Award, which is given to the best player in the NHL, went to Edmonton’s Connor McDavid. The Wayne Gretzky Award, given to the league’s most valuable player, also went to McDavid. (The Hockey News)

Scott Darling has moved from Chicago to Carolina this off-season. As of right now, he doesn’t have his old no. 33, but he’s working on getting it from forward Derek Ryan. The goalie even tried having open negotiations on Twitter. In the end, they were able to get something done. (BarDown)

–The Boston Bruins didn’t make a ton of noise during the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, as they just seemed to fly under the radar. Beat reporter Joe Haggerty handed out draft grades for each of the team’s selections. First-rounder Urho Vaakenainen only fetched a B-minus. (CSN New England)

–Teemu Selanne found out he was going to the Hockey Hall of Fame yesterday. His incredible career got going with a legendary rookie season that saw him score 76 goals and 132 points. Those are numbers we’ll probably never see again. (NHL.com)

Report: Capitals keep Connolly for two years, $3 million

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Earlier on Monday the Washington Capitals did not extend a qualifying offer to restricted free agent Brett Connolly. Even with that decision there were indications the team was still looking to re-sign him before he became an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

On Monday night the team reportedly did just that.

According to TSN’s Bob McKenzie the Capitals have agreed to terms with Connolly on a two-year contract that will pay him an average annual salary of $1.5 million per season.

He played the 2016-17 season on a one-year deal that paid him $850,000.

The 24-year-old Connolly appeared in 66 games for the Capitals this past season, scoring 15 goals and posting excellent possession numbers to make him a valuable depth player for a team that won the Presidents’ Trophy for the second year in a row. But after being held without a point in his first seven playoff games he found himself as a healthy scratch for the remainder of their second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, being replaced by Paul Carey.

 

Trade: Vegas sends Marc Methot to Stars

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After being selected in the expansion draft Marc Methot‘s stay with the Vegas Golden Knights was a very brief one.

The veteran defenseman was traded to the Dallas Stars on Monday evening in exchange for a 2020 second-round draft pick and goalie prospect Dylan Ferguson.

Ferguson was just selection by the Stars this past weekend in the seventh-round.

It has been expected that Vegas would continue to deal players it selected in the expansion draft as it looks to build its organization from the ground up, and draft picks seem to be their desired return at this point in trades.

After making 12 selections this past weekend thanks to their many pre-expansion draft dealings, the Golden Knights have already started to stockpile future draft picks in several trades. They already have 11 draft picks, including three second-round selections, for the 2019 draft (which is still two years away) and already nine for the 2020 draft (three years away!). That total includes another three second-rounders in 2020 including the pick they just acquired for Methot.

They also have Pittsburgh’s second-round pick in 2020 in exchange for taking goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in the expansion draft.

As for the Stars, they are clearly looking to reshape their defense after taking a pretty significant step backwards this past season. They were 29th in the NHL in goals against.

In 68 games with the Ottawa Senators this past season Methot scored zero goals while recording 12 assists. He spent most of his time the past few seasons playing alongside Erik Karlsson. He might get an opportunity to play next to another Swedish star in Dallas if the Stars decide to pair him with John Klingberg.

Vegas picked a lot of veteran defensemen in the expansion draft with the hopes of potentially flipping them to other teams (Jason Garrison, Alexei Emlin, Clayton Stoner, just to name a few). If the return for Methot on Monday night is any indicator of what to expect, you should probably expect more future draft picks to come their way if they end up dealing any of them in the coming weeks.

Stability, Stanley Cup aspirations ‘a breath of fresh air’ for Mike Smith

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The Calgary Flames officially introduced their two newest players on Monday afternoon when they welcomed starting goaltender Mike Smith and defenseman Travis Hamonic to the organization.

The addition of Hamonic gives the Flames what should be an outstanding top-four on defense as he joins a blue line that already features Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton.

While that defense might be one of the better ones in the Western Conference, the Flames are hopeful that Smith can help solidify a goaltending position that was a major question mark this past season and a significant weakness for much of it.

It’s not only a big move for the Flames, but it also seems to be an exciting one for Smith as he goes from a team in a clear rebuild mode that hasn’t made the playoffs in five years to one that suddenly has Stanley Cup aspirations.

On Monday, Smith was asked about what it is like for him going from a team that was constantly surrounded by uncertainty off the ice and what it will be like to play for a team that wants to keep getting closer to a Stanley Cup.

“It’s a breath of fresh air,” said Smith. “It’s something I have been begging for quite some time now. I am a competitor, and I want to win real bad. I feel like this move is an opportunity and a challenge and I am going to take it on full steam. I really respect this team, playing against them is always a challenge. I look forward to being on this side of it and helping this team be real successful.”

Smith spent the past six seasons in Arizona, compiling a .916 save percentage during that time. He is coming off of a 2016-17 season that saw him go 19-26-9 in 55 games with a .914 save percentage.

Flames goalies finished the season with a .910 mark as Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson spent most of the season splitting time in the crease. Neither goalie will be back this season making it the second year in a row they have completely overhauled the position.

With a defense that figures to be one of the best in the Western Conference and an offense led by young stars Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk the Flames are clearly in a win-now mode. That is going to put a ton of pressure on Smith to solidify the position. That pressure does not seem to bother him.

“The position calls for that,” said Smith, via the Flames’ website. “I’ve taken it upon myself to be that guy, every time I go on the ice.

“I’m one guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. I want to win so bad that sometimes it can work against me. I think, though, with experience in the league I’ve learned how to handle that, how to be a solid force back there. I think I can bring some leadership, be a calming influence back there.”