James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.

Alex Ovechkin: Not the biggest fan of the NHL’s current playoff format

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Alex Ovechkin-haters aren’t going to like this, but that doesn’t automatically mean his point isn’t valid.

Simply put, Ovechkin believes that the NHL’s current playoff format doesn’t really do a great job rewarding the team that wins the Presidents’ Trophy.

He explained as much to CSN Mid-Atlantic’s Tarik El-Bashir.

“The schedule in the playoffs is kind of weird,” Ovechkin said, “because you play first team and fourth and then you play against Pittsburgh. … Then you think, why [do we] need to win Presidents’ Trophy to play against the best team?

“It’s tough to think about it. It’s kind of weird, but there’s nothing you can do.”

Again, Ovechkin’s critics will do what they normally do with this.

/Waits for them to grumble about excuses.

Even if you believe that he’s just griping, the Washington Capitals star has a point. It’s a little odd that Washington (120 points in the regular season to win the Presidents’ Trophy) faced the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.

The Penguins didn’t just finish 2015-16 on a hot streak. They collected 104 standings points, second-most in the Eastern Conference. It’s understandable that Ovechkin feels a little bewildered that he wouldn’t take on such an opponent in, say, the third round.

(Which he’s never seen, as his haters will surely scream at their screens.)

The NHL has plenty of reasons to go with the current format, from encouraging rivalries to possibly limiting travel headaches. Just about any setup will inspire some complaints.

Ovechkin’s free to criticize the format, but the bottom line is that his Capitals will need to beat some tough playoff opponents regardless of how a bracket rolls out. If they’re not needing to face the Penguins, there are plenty of other worthy adversaries, such as the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Yes, Stephen Gionta is getting an Islanders tryout

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Following up on an earlier report, the New York Islanders did indeed hand Stephen Gionta a PTO.

A certain segment of Islanders fans might be delighted/angered by the Islanders flirting with signing a long-time member of the New Jersey Devils organization. Gionta, 32, played all 82 games for the Devils last season.

The more interesting aspect comes down to how much of a chance he really has to make a dent on the roster.

As Mike Halford notes, the Islanders have eventually signed former Devils before after trying them out, as Steve Bernier aced his chance. With 270 regular season games and some playoff experience under his belt, you could do worse than Gionta as a depth forward.

On the other hand, Lighthouse Hockey wonders if he might just count as training camp “filler.”

Islanders GM Garth Snow has a knack for unearthing under-the-radar gems, but Gionta would likely be satisfied with merely landing a contract.

Doughty: Canada’s experience trumps North America’s skill

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If you want to make a chic top pick for the 2016 World Cup and believe that Sweden’s not exciting enough, maybe you’re going to tab North America.

It’s easy to see why, from their dominant work in exhibitions to the bulletin board material they’re providing thanks to a health dose of self-confidence.

They might not be able to pull the “No one believes in us” routine, though.

Jonathan Toews made it clear that North America is on Canada’s radar, for one, as he told Sportsnet.

“It would be stupid to disregard a team like that,” Toews said. “I think they’re going to come out flying, there’s no pressure on them. … They’re going to make you worry about their offensive weapons every time they have the puck. There’s nobody you can take lightly, and especially them I would say.”

Drew Doughty doesn’t seem thrilled about comments such as those made by Nathan MacKinnon about North America being the most skilled. Either way, he believes that experience will win out.

Let’s not kid ourselves, though. Both teams are deeply talented, and Canada has plenty of guys who are still in their prime. Doughty, for instance, is somehow just 26 despite already compiling a Hall of Fame-worthy resume.

Canada and North America are separated into different groups, so here’s hoping we get to see them face off.

Another hockey genius believes that hockey needs more genius

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At times, it feels like hockey coaches sap the joy out of the sport in the pursuit of wins. The painful thing to admit is that such tactics are usually justified.

We’ve seen quite a few instances in which a great artist of the game finds the sport’s creativity a little lacking, and we can add Pavel Datsyuk to that list.

Some might bristle at what the departed NHL star had to say to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but it could be because the truth hurts.

“There are not many creative players now,” Datsyuk said on Sunday. “It’s less and less every year. There’s lots of talent, but teams are playing more systems.”

It’s important to note that the stickhandling magician isn’t really saying that players are bad. Instead, he’s arguing that much of that skill is being suffocated by excessive structure.

One cannot help but find the timing of these comments rather amusing, as the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons recently reported that Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg told the Detroit Red Wings that they wouldn’t re-sign if Mike Babcock was still around.

Why it was time for Mike Babcock to leave the Red Wings: In exit interviews in different seasons before this one, both Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk told management they would not re-sign with the Wings if Babcock was still the coach.

There are murmurs here and there that Babcock might scare off the occasional free agent, yet few would deny his acumen as a head coach.

In a way, that’s the point, really: to be effective, sometimes you have to be so rigid that you bore everyone to tears.

Circling back to an earlier point, Datsyuk is far from the only player who has criticized the style of play in the NHL as of late.

Losing a lot of Datsyuks

Some of the brightest minds align with the former Red Wings star. Consider what Wayne Gretzky said to the New York Times about the more grinding mindset in the modern game.

“When I was 10 years old, they’d throw a puck on the ice and say, ‘Go score,’” Gretzky said. “Now, at 10 years old, the kids are taught to play in their lanes. Defensemen stay back. Everybody blocks shots … It’s changed completely. I think the biggest thing we’ve lost is a little bit of our creativity and imagination in general.”

Igor Larianov, a legend so brainy he earned the nickname “The Professor,” seemed heartbroken in discussing this philosophical change in an article for The Players’ Tribune. This one line seems especially prescient since it came before Datsyuk decided to leave:

We lose a lot of Pavel Datsyuks to the closed-minded nature of the AHL and NHL.

(Chilling to think about, right?)

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As we ponder why scoring continues to drop (or at best, continues to stagnate), there are methods to boost the game a bit here and there.

Bringing about more lasting changes would probably go a lot deeper, however, as you’d likely need to find a way to encourage coaches to do the thing they seem to fear the most: take risks.

Safe might not be death in the NHL, but it sure is boring.

Patrik Berglund replaces Rickard Rakell for Sweden

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Whatever it is exactly that’s bothering Rickard Rakell, it’s bad enough that he’s now out of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Luckily for Sweden, they have a decent replacement in Patrik Berglund of the St. Louis Blues.

You could probably argue that Rakell boasts a higher ceiling than the solid-and-steady Berglund, but the latter brings more NHL experience to the table. One would speculate that he’ll be comfortable taking a less glamorous role behind Sweden’s higher-end firepower.

Rakell was hospitalized due to what sounds like stomach issues, and as NHL.com reports, it seems like they’re still trying to determine the issue.

“He didn’t feel any better [Sunday] so he went back to the hospital,” Team Sweden coach Rikard Gronborg said Sunday. “So far we haven’t found anything.”

Yikes. Hopefully they sort that situation out for the promising young Anaheim Ducks scorer.

Sweden’s next game is against Europe on Wednesday.