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It’s time for the second of six editions of Premature NHL Prognostication, and we’ll pick up with the division that sports the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Northeast Division looks to be a three-team race this year with Ottawa and Toronto still rebuilding, but by no means should this division be ignored.
The talking points are there for every team contending for the top spot. Boston comes into the season as the defending champions for the first time in nearly 40 years, and brings with it nearly the same roster. Buffalo enjoyed its first offseason while under the passionate ownership of former natural gas drilling mogul Terry Pegula, who has turned his attention to hockey by funding Penn State’s startup program and buying the Sabres, as well as making some lower profile sports acquisitions. And Montreal is Montreal. They’ll always have their fan base, but they bring a squad into 2011-12 that has earned a reputation as playing tough and being better than the sum of its parts after advancing to the eastern conference finals in 2010 and pushing the Bruins to the brink in 2011. Let’s get to the unnecessarily early projections.
1st: Boston Bruins 2010-11: 103 points, 1st in division
The Bruins looked like an upper-echelon team early last season, but really at no point were they “supposed to win” the Stanley Cup. Even coming into Game 7 at Vancouver, the Bruins were a betting underdog, as almost any road team would be. The usual questions that follow a championship season exist:
  • Can the Bruins repeat in 2011-12?
  • Will the hunger be there during the regular season?
  • Will the makeup of the team be the same?
The last question can be answered in the affirmative. Boston has only lost Michael Ryder (to Dallas) and Tomas Kaberle (to Carolina) from its group that played most of the 25 playoff games this past spring. The money wasn’t right for either of them, and so the Bruins did the logical thing: let them walk. Most assume that 43 year-old Mark Recchi is done playing NHL hockey, and the team still has to get third-line winger Brad Marchand back under contract. Perhaps part of the holdup on Marchand’s new deal is due to the fact that team captain Zdeno Chara essentially deported Marchand back to Canada for “partying too hard” in Boston in the weeks that followed the Stanley Cup win. While I think young people drinking too much can be a serious problem, Marchand certainly sounds and plays like a character guy that most hockey teams would appreciate having, and I don’t think there’s any question that he’ll be back in the fold for the Bruins this fall.
Boston’s only free agent acquisition of note is left wing Benoit Pouliot from Montreal, who can be loosely seen as filling the positional hole left by the retiring Recchi.
The goaltending situation in Boston doesn’t really need to be examined too deeply. Tim Thomas is coming off his second Vezina Trophy in three years and the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP. Also on the roster is 24 year-old Tuukka Rask, who started 45 regular season games in 2009-10, along with all 13 playoff games that year. Rask figured to be the Bruins starter coming into last season, but Tim Thomas pretty much led the league in peripheral stats from wire to wire, giving the Bruins no choice but to roll the guy enjoying a season for all-time. Rask still managed to make 29 appearances last year, but regressed with a record of 11-14-2 to go with a 2.67 GAA. His .918 save percentage was solid, but didn’t measure up to his own .931 from the previous season, nor to Thomas’ .938 last year. All in all, there’s no reason to expect the Bruins goaltending to be anything shy of top ten in the league this season, and that’s almost a worst-case scenario.
The thing I love about the Bruins is their ability to do it all. They play a physical style, but also have guys with great skill. David Krejci revealed himself as a sharp shooter in the playoffs, and Nathan Horton came up with huge goal after huge goal before meeting his season’s untimely end early in Game 3 of the finals. Everyone knows about Patrice Bergeron’s two-way game, and Rich Peverley adds some B-Table offense to the team. Nobody is quite sure what to expect from sophomore center Tyler Seguin this year, but he certainly made good of his few opportunities in last year’s playoffs. Seguin has the potential to be the best forward on the team, but it will probably take some time for him to get his grip on the little things that make a guy like Bergeron so effective.
Defensively, the Bruins blue liners sum up the team as a whole. They are big, bruising guys who can jump in offensively and contribute. The back end is obviously led by the big customs agent, 2008-09 Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara. But beyond Chara, the Bruins have minute chewer Dennis Seidenberg, who is defensively sound and a good enough skater and puck handler to factor big offensively as well. The rest of Boston’s defenders are less polished, but they all play a role. Johnny Boychuk can lay a big hit, and Andrew Ference makes sure not to get beat. Ference was plus-22 last season, and tallied two-thirds the number of points in the playoffs as he did in the regular season while playing only one-third the number of games. Then he, er, didn’t flip off the Montreal crowd in the first round of the playoffs. Joe Corvo’s best asset is his belief that he can shoot the puck 120 mph, but if the Bruins are smart Corvo won’t be called upon to do too much this season.
Considering that the Bruins won the division by seven points last season before going on to win the league’s ultimate prize, I see no reason not to peg them as favorites in the Northeast this season.
2nd: Buffalo Sabres 2010-11: 96 points, 3rd in division
Buffalo and Montreal ended up tied behind the Bruins last year, and both teams ended up losing Game 7s on the road in the first round. But unlike Montreal, the Sabres went ape shit trying to land new players under the still new ownership of Pegula. The state of the franchise is a far cry from a few years ago when contraction or relocation seemed like a real possibility.
The reason I like Buffalo to finish ahead of Montreal this season is based on the idea that if two teams start out as equals (both had 96 points and lost in Game 7 of the first round last year), then the team that improves the most should be better in the near future. We’ll get to the breakdown of Montreal next, but the Sabres scored a couple of players in the offseason that signaled their ascent to free agent relevance, in case some people still hadn’t gotten the Pegula memo.
The biggest of the offseason grabs was German-born defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who had spent the previous two seasons with the contending Vancouver Canucks. Ehrhoff’s new 10-year, $40 million contract has been much debated, but the fact is he’s a Sabre now, and that can’t be anything but good for Buffalo on both sides of the puck. Ehrhoff’s fluid skating and puck movement should increase the Sabres’ time of possession and create scoring chances that previously were given to the Sedins and company in Vancouver. Ehrhoff tallied 94 points and played at a plus-55 in his two seasons with the Canucks (159 games played).
The Sabres also scored free agent winger Ville Leino, who came onto the scene in the 2009 playoffs with Detroit. The Red Wings were suffering from their typical injuries, and Leino held down the fort well enough to get the Wings through to the finals, where they eventually lost in seven games to Pittsburgh. Leino was traded the following season to Philadelphia, where he put together his first legitimate NHL season last year. The Finnish forward contributed 53 points in 81 games for the Flyers in 2010-11, and played in all of the team’s 11 playoff games. Leino appears to have solid offensive potential, as he skates well while also using his solid frame to compete for position around the circles. Leino amassed 77 points in 55 games in his final season in Finland with Jokerit Helsinki in 2007-08. He will be 28 years old throughout the upcoming season.
But the best new addition to this squad might be an old edition in the form of returning top-line center Derek Roy. The 32nd overall pick from ten years ago was rolling with 35 points in as many games before he tore a quadriceps just before Christmas. Roy returned to play only in the team’s final game in which they were brutally eliminated by Philadelphia. Roy may not quite be Brad Richards, but he is a huge boost to a Buffalo team that had to figure out how to score without him for the final 47 games of the regular season and the first six games against the then-defending eastern conference champ Flyers. Roy is shifty, quick and an excellent passer. I would expect nothing shy of 55 assists assuming Roy is able to play close to 80 games this season.
The Sabres recently resigned backup goaltender Jhonas Enroth, but I wouldn’t expect him to see a whole lot of time this year. Ryan Miller just turned 31 years old and could be entering the final stages of his prime. Most of the Sabres’ acquisitions have to do with owner Pegula’s seriousness about winning, but some of them also have to do with the fact that Buffalo knows that the window for having an all-world goaltender might be closing, albeit slowly. Between the success of elderly chaps like Tim Thomas and Marty Brodeur, and Miller’s own lack of having to carry a lot of weight around (6’2” but only 175 lbs.), I wouldn’t expect to see much decline in Miller’s play for at least four years. But that doesn’t change the fact that goalies are hugely important to winning championships, and Buffalo currently has one of the best. It’s not now-or-never, but it’s somewhat-soon-or-maybe-not-for-a-long-while.
The Sabres still have to figure out how to get into compliance with the salary cap, as they are rostering over $3.5 million too much with their current 23-man squad. But that will get figured out somehow, and I don’t expect it to include any huge losses. The resignings of defensemen Andrej Sekera and Mike Weber help fill out the blue line. Sekera played over 21 minutes a game last year, adding 26 assists. Weber brought the thunder with 158 hits in just 58 games. Bringing back winger Drew Stafford was also a priority in the offseason, and the Sabres did what they probably will do for a while now: they got their man. Stafford scored a four-year deal worth $4 million per season, and he will be expected to bring more consistent scoring than in seasons past. Stafford scored 31 goals in 62 games last season, and will only turn 26 years old in late October.
Two Sabres to Watch
Brad Boyes was brought in at the trading deadline from St. Louis, and the catchphrase that everyone wanted to use to describe Boyes was “sharpshooter.” Well, the gun misfired, because Boyes did not bring the Sabres that offense they desperately needed. He went for 5 goals in 21 regular season games with Buffalo before marking only one up on the board in the Sabres’ seven-game loss to the Flyers. Boyes has one more year left on his contract at a $4 million cap hit, and one has to wonder if he will be around at the end of the season, and maybe even at the beginning.
On defense, Tyler Myers enters his third NHL season. The 6’8” Texas-born Canadian was the rookie of the year in 2009-10, but took a long time to get off the ground last season. Myers was playing better by the end of the season, and contributed five assists and a goal in the seven-game loss to the Flyers. If Myers can emerge as a big-time NHL defenseman this year, then the Sabres have a very formidable group of blue liners. If he cannot, then a lot will be asked of guys like Ehrhoff, Sekera, the offensively-minded Jordan Leopold, and rock-solid Robyn Regehr, who had 180 hits and 142 blocked shots while skating 21:29 per game last year. Leopold is a career minus-28 in eight NHL seasons, despite playing for playoff qualifiers in six of those years. I know that plus/minus is sometimes a misleading or unfair stat, but in this case, I think the numbers fairly represent what I’ve seen on the ice. Leopold did manage 13 goals and 22 assists in 71 games last season, however. In short, the progress of Myers should help determine whether the Sabres are stuck between 6th and 8th in the east or if they can put it together and separate from Montreal while challenging Boston for the division title this season.
3rd: Montreal Canadiens 2010-11: 96 points, 2nd in division
The Canadiens have made a living lately by stuffing their detractors’ words right back where they came from. I doubted that Montreal would even make the playoffs last year, and then wrote that they probably couldn’t handle Boston’s size in round one. Well, they acquitted themselves just fine, again, and I’m done doubting them as a playoff team that can contend with anyone. On paper I don’t think the Canadiens should finish any higher than 8th in the east, but they seem to have a toughness that can’t be quantified.
Toughness means nothing without a good goaltender, and last season Carey Price established himself as one of the better ones in the league. We kept waiting for the immature Price to rear his ugly head, but that never did happen. From the first game of the season all the way to allowing Nathan Horton’s overtime eliminator in Game 7, Price was outstanding. He stood out. I’ve questioned his mental makeup in the past, but after last season, I’m convinced. Price looks like an uber-talented guy who finally grew up and figured out how to get out of his own head and just play hockey hard every night. I actually think a .920 save percentage can be expected this season, and it might need to be achieved. Price’s backup situation went from bad to bad when the Habs replaced Alex Auld with former Avalanche left-hander Peter Budaj. Price played 72 of 82 games last year, and he’ll need to play close to 70 again this year if Montreal wants to make the playoffs. The last time Price had to battle a Slovakian backup, he lost his job to Jaroslav Halak. Don’t expect history to repeat itself with Halak’s international backup, Budaj.
In front of Price will be a group of defensemen with different playing styles. Smooth-skating and hard-shooting Andrei Markov is back from injury and ready to go. The Habs resigned his polar opposite, Hal Gill, to a new one-year deal in the offseason. Gill is a towering man who uses his length and strength to keep defenders from Price’s crease. Youngster P.K. Subban is something of a combination of aforementioned two, possessing neither the size of Gill nor the polished offensive game of Markov, at least not yet. But Subban is just 22, and was able to come up with 14 goals and 24 assists in his rookie campagin last year. He also produced when it counted, as he was the one to notch the power play goal with under two minutes remaining in Game 7 to force overtime in Boston. Although Horton eventually knocked Montreal out, that doesn’t erase Subban’s biggest clutch moment of his young career. Subban had over 100 hits and blocks last year, an indicator that he gets involved often. Much like Tyler Myers in Buffalo, the Canadiens’ back end largely depends upon the progression of its bright youngster, P.K. Subban.
Montreal’s forwards appear to be less threatening on the whole than your typical contender, which is why I can’t project them higher than third in the Northeast. Outside of the short-but-dynamic center Tomas Plekanec, the Habs don’t seem to have a lot of firepower. There’s Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and the newly-signed Erik Cole, who score but can’t create the way Plekanec can. Gionta quietly scored 29 goals last year, while Cammalleri added 19 with 28 assists while missing 15 games due to injury. Cole was Montreal’s big offseason signing, and he is coming off a 26 goal, 26 assist season with Carolina. The Habs need Cole to at least match that output if they are to have a chance to go higher than Buffalo or Boston in this division, but realistically his contract should demand 30+ goals for a team that needs them to come from some consistent sources.
Scott Gomez and his $7.3 million cap hit continue to be talking points, but salary aside, he is the one forward besides Plekanec who has the speed and touch to create for others. Frankly, Gomez was not good enough last season. He limped in with 38 points (only 7 goals) and was minus-15 in 2010-11. But if Gomez can channel previous seasons, then the Habs can have their second centerman that they desperately need offensively. Since the lockout, Gomez had assist totals of 51, 47, 54, 42 and 47 before last year’s disappointing output of 31. The Alaskan is only 31 years old, so it’s not as if he’s over the hill and has no chance to physically recapture the magic, although it seems like Gomez should be older by now. He broke into the NHL in 1999 and played all 82 games in his Stanley Cup winning rookie season with the Devils. Since then Gomez won another Cup in 2003 before playing two seasons each for the Rangers and Canadiens, which brings us to the present. A two-time Cup winner with 508 career assists at the age of 31 shouldn’t be written off, but the Habs need a bounce back season by Gomez in a bad way.
Given their goaltending, talent at the very top, and fighting spirit, I think the Habs have the chance to compete with anyone. But considering what I think is a lack of depth up against a big spender and a defending champion, I think third place is what Montreal should expect this season, which should be good enough to get them back into the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
4th: Toronto Maple Leafs 2010-11: 85 points, 4th in division
Based on my love for Craig Anderson, I really wanted to put Ottawa here. But I just couldn’t. The Leafs have done what they could do lately to improve the squad while also focusing on the long-term health of the organization. They dealt away players that they knew were either leaving or demanding big paydays, as well as wingers who couldn’t live up to top-six responsibilities without all-star Cup winners around them.
The Leafs got a passionate effort out of no-name goaltender James Reimer, and rewarded him with a new three-year contract that more than tripled his pay grade. Reimer is expected to be the Leafs’ starter in net, but the previously anointed one, Jonas “The Monster” Gustavsson, is still hanging around and certainly doesn’t want his NHL career to go down in flames. A little healthy competition could turn out to be beneficial for the Leafs, if not this season, then later on down the line after one of them had to actually win a competition.
I’m almost done talking about winger Phil Kessel. The guy’s a great shooter, he’s got potential as well as past performance, but he hasn’t totally lived up to the trade that brought him to Toronto yet. In fairness, we all give Rick Nash and Marian Gaborik the asterisk of not having played with a great center, and yet Kessel’s situation hasn’t been any different in Toronto. The Leafs brought in Tim Connolly from Buffalo, so we’ll see if he’s the answer to Kessel’s goal scoring consistency questions.
The team also scored forward Matthew Lombardi and defenseman Cody Franson from Nashville in exchange for Robert Slaney and former Red Wing bust Brett Lebda. At the very least, the Leafs upgraded at each position this season with that trade. At most, they robbed the Preds. We’ll see how it turns out, as Lombardi is coming off a concussion that basically erased his entire season (he played two games). Franson notched a surprising 21 assists from the blue line last season, despite only playing 15:10 a night.
Toronto had a couple of forwards who “came up” last season, including center Clarke MacArthur and his linemate Nikolai Kulemin. Those guys played out of their minds from the second line last year, and we’ll see if either of them was a one-hit wonder or if the Leafs found a couple gems.
There were also some forwards who didn’t quite live up, starting with center Tyler Bozak. I think some of the Leafs’ youngsters suffered a little bit from being under the microscope. Bozak and Nazem Kadri should have better seasons this year, and one never knows if winger Joffrey Lupul is ready to return to being a sniper like he was with Anaheim once upon a time (and I mean “once;” Lupul only really overachieved during the 2006 playoffs). The Leafs hope so, as Lupul is the third-highest paid forward on the team. Anyone willing to bet that he scores in the top three? I didn’t think so.
Toronto has a few winners on defense. Besides the newly-acquired Franson, the Leafs boast one of the better overall defensemen in Dion Phaneuf. The big guy leads the team in salary, and rightfully so. Phaneuf must continue to bring it at a high level while also bringing along Toronto’s young defensemen, Keith Aulie, 22, and Luke Schenn, 21. Schenn is an RFA right now, but is really just waiting on a new contract. I can’t see any way the Leafs don’t come to terms with the promising blue liner who has the gifts to become one of the league’s best.
The Maple Leafs look like a team in rebuilding mode, and they seem to have a fan base that is ready to stay the course. Playoff appearances are always desired, but there’s almost no chance of the ultimate success this year, and I expect the team to keep building toward that ultimate goal somewhere down the line through consistent improvement. Fourth place is the status quo this year for Toronto. Finishing fifth would be underachieving, while beating out Montreal, Buffalo or Boston would be pleasantly unexpected. I don’t expect it, and the Leafs should finish around 10th or 11th in the eastern conference in 2011-12.
5th: Ottawa Senators 2010-11: 74 points, 5th in division
I really want to believe in the Sens. They have a goalie in Craig Anderson who rocked a 2.05 GAA in 18 games with the team last year, following a dreadful 3.28 behind a group of skaters who seemingly couldn’t care less in Colorado. One reason I wanted to pick Ottawa ahead of Toronto this year was based on Anderson’s first game with the Senators on February 19. He had one of his patented “give a damn” games and stopped all 47 shots in a 1-0 road shootout win over the Leafs. I expect Craig to enjoy a fresh season in Ottawa playing behind a group of players who seemed to love playing for the vocal goalie.
But then I looked at the rosters and realized the two problems with taking Ottawa over anyone this year. First, they just aren’t deep enough at NHL positions. They have plenty of solid young talent that contributed big time in bringing the AHL affiliate Binghamton Senators its first Calder Cup championship. But those guys aren’t ready to be day-in, day-out performers at the level needed to succeed in the NHL. And that would be fine, if the Senators had big time top-line players who took care of business.
Enter Jason Spezza, one of the few players I’m more tired of talking about than Phil Kessel. The Sens top center is still rolling at almost a point-a-game clip, and still rolling at a miss 20 games a season clip. And honestly, a team that is as young as the Sens needs its big time offensive talent to deliver at least a point a game. Fifteen players of consequence scored at that pace last season, and a team like the Sens need a guy like Spezza to be in that top 15 if they’re going to be able to overachieve. But despite Spezza’s talent, I doubt he’ll top 70 points this year, for inexplicable reasons. I mean it shouldn’t even be plausible to go back and relive the Alexei Yashin trade in 2001, but Spezza at least makes you wonder. Ok, you’re right, no he doesn’t. But still.


Is that styrofoam cup biodegradable, Jason?

Spezza reminds me of one of the many memorable quotes from the movie The Big Lebowski, where Jackie Treehorn sends a couple of collectors to The Dude’s apartment to collect sums of money that didn’t exist in The Dude’s household. After dunking The Dude’s head in the toilet and peeing on his rug, the thugs start to figure out that they got the wrong Jeffrey Lebowski. One intruder looks to the other and asks, “Woo, isn’t this guy supposed to be a millionaire?” Woo takes about a second before concluding that The Dude “looks like a fucking loser.”

Photo via
“No, like I said, Woo peed on my rug.”

Perhaps these words are a bit harsh and untrue, as Spezza is a multi-millionaire and has enjoyed periods of winning, most notably during the three-year stretch immediately following the lockout that saw the Sens make the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007. Spezza did manage 90, 87 and 92 points in those seasons, respectively. Yet the Lebowski summary remains. You watch him play, and you realize why he was the #2 pick in the draft in 2001. He shows control with the puck, speed and precision passing that can get any fan base excited. But then you keep watching and you notice that he can’t stay on the ice. You notice that his assist totals went south around the same time that fellow #2 overall pick (from the 2000 draft) Dany Heatley wore out his welcome in Ottawa and was subsequently traded to San Jose for Milan Michalek, who isn’t a top-six NHL forward, and Jonathan Cheechoo, who inexplicably led the NHL with 56 goals in 2005-06 before he forgot how to score and was waived, sent to Binghamton, and bought out of his contract before quietly rejoining the Sharks minor league team.
And so now, outside of aging captain Daniel Alfredsson, Spezza has almost nobody to turn to for support. Spezza’s individual talent leads one to compare him with the other Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire. But he’s quietly letting a promising career slide into irrelevance, albeit with the help of the organization dealing away talented players in exchange for very little. It’s too early to write Jason Spezza off, but from a team game standpoint, per Woo in Lebowski, he’s starting to look like a bleeping loser.
Aside from Spezza, the rest of the Senator veterans didn’t do enough last season, and from top to bottom don’t really have the ability to score enough goals to contend. Ottawa outscored only New Jersey in the entire NHL last year, so simple improvement may not be enough to get into the playoffs this year, or even to beat out Toronto in the division. I love Anderson, and I like the Sens talent on defense in the forms of Sergei Gonchar, Filip Kuba, Chris Phillips and Erik Karlsson, but I just don’t see enough offensive depth for Ottawa to contend for the playoffs in 2011-12. Former Red Wings assistant Paul MacLean will take over head coaching duties for the Senators this year. It’s a rebuilding process, and one that the B-Sens showed has real promise. The time just hasn’t come yet.
Next up, we’ll round out the eastern conference with our premature picks for the order of finish in the Southeast Division.
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For the most part, hockey culture has always been a step ahead in terms of toughness, respect, maturity and balance of mind. But as our nation of simps continues to stretch its tentacles, sometimes even the hockey world falls victim to the wrong kind of thinking.
Never is this meaningless bravado more evident than at the trade deadline and the offseason. These are the times when teams are attempting to bolster their rosters and have to make tough decisions regarding the on-ice personnel of the franchise. They are also the times when mistakes are made that can set a franchise back.

My two arguments can basically be summed up by the following two statements: 1) Talk is cheap, so don’t worry about making statements with your roster moves; and 2) Don’t be a simp — trade the player while you still can.




Before we go further, I want to say that I believe that most NHL owners and general managers do a pretty good job. Most front offices are doing a respectable job, and the congestion of last season’s final standings offer evidence of as much. Up to 27 teams have either playoff hopes or at least something to sell to their fans in terms of buying low and getting in on the new look of the team early, before it potentially grows into a really good squad. I think the latter depicts teams like Ottawa, Edmonton, Columbus and Florida, while the former describes almost every other team in the league. For the record, I believe Colorado and the New York Islanders offer neither in the short term, and although New Jersey certainly has playoff hopes this year, they still have some explaining to do.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s talk about the two dumbest lines of thinking when it comes to the magical dates of hockey buzz that are the trade deadline and the commencement of free agency.

Sign Players Based on Reality, Not Perception

First, we’ll deal with the offseason. There is a lot of rhetoric in the entire world of sports that says that a team must either resign its star players or go out and add other star players so that the team “makes a statement” of its intent to compete or shows that it has top-level ambition. I know that once a phrase gets repeated enough it becomes the de facto truth, but that does not make it true. This idea that a team must sign high ticket players in order to show that it is serious about winning is absurd. The reason to sign players to larger-than-warranted contracts is to win, not to give the impression that the team is trying to win.
This whole line of thinking misses the point, and furthers one of the most astounding false philosophies in the history of competitive sports: that perception is reality. This phrase originated as a way to basically say that there are multiple sides to every story, that what you perceive is your reality and what I perceive is my reality. Who is to say who is right? This is a legitimate issue for philosophy, science, literature and the like, but it has absolutely no place in professional sports.
Perception is not reality in professional sports. The scoreboard is reality. The standings are reality. The championship is reality. Sports are not a philosophical debate, nor a study into anti-realism. Professional sports are decided based on a set of league rules for determining a champion based on quantitative results of games that are also played according to league rules. That’s it. That’s what sports are.
I am not suggesting that sports are nothing else. Sure, teams are important to communities and people’s sense of identity. They give people the ability to blow off steam or forget about their troubles for a time. Teams offer kids the dreams of one day playing on those teams. Teams offer a boost to local economies.
But I’m arguing against this growing social media culture that seems to be forgetting that ultimately the goal is to achieve your goal. That sounds stupid and obvious, but really look at the way we analyze sports. Hockey isn’t quite as bad as the rest of the big North American sports, but we still see some of the same overused quotes. Right now, the big story in Major League Baseball is whether the N.Y. Mets, who have no money, are forced to hold onto star shortstop Jose Reyes for the rest of the season and attempt to sign him to a new contract in the winter. Mets ownership has stated that it wants to sign Reyes as proof to their fans that they are in it to win it. That’s the stupidest reason to make a move I’ve ever heard. Reyes is in the final year of his contract and has been toying with the Mets since signing an extension five years ago. He has told the team he will not participate in contract negotiations for the rest of the season, “because he wants to focus on baseball.” That’s a veiled excuse. It should read, “because he is pretty sure he doesn’t want to play for this team past the expiration of his contract.”
I digress into the Reyes MLB case study because it touches on both points I want to make regarding the hockey offseason and trade deadline. Since we are talking about the offseason, let’s look at it from the perspective of a team trying to sign a player. July 1 looked a lot like what Republicans have been forecasting for decades now — hyper-inflation. On that day, the terms of each contract were more jaw-dropping than the ones prior, and it got to a point where Brad Richards almost looks underpaid after signing with the N.Y. Rangers on July 2. In fact, after the initial day of free agency, many players have been signed to deals that are financially favorable to the franchises. So what happened on July 1?
People lost their minds. People felt desperate to keep up with the Joneses. People felt that perception was reality. The perception was that if my team is one that is going out and landing players, then my team is a player in the game, and this will translate to wins on the ice. And I agree that teams like Buffalo and Florida got better on July 1, but did every franchise out there get good value and set itself up for a solid future? Some did, some didn’t. Only time will tell for certain who the losers were on 1 July 2011, but there will certainly be some.
Last year gave us a perfect example of what can happen when a hockey team becomes obsessed with creating an image of strength, and figuring that this perceived strength will translate to actual on-ice success, and that example was the New Jersey Devils. The Devils thrived for many years playing their hard-working, trapping defensive style along with an emphasis on puck and positional responsibility in all three zones. They used this uncoined “sixty minutes of hell” philosophy to wear down opponents en route to Stanley Cups in 1995, 2000 and 2003. Then, near the trade deadline in 2010, the Devils acquired the offensively flamboyant Ilya Kovalchuk from Atlanta, a team that refused to be simped and dealt their star winger when they felt like he wasn’t going to resign with the Thrashers after his contract expired in less than five months.
The acquisition of Kovalchuk was admirable; it signaled that New Jersey understood that it could use an infusion of scoring, and that its championship window with Martin Brodeur was starting to close. Ultimately, the move didn’t work out, as the division champion Devils were bounced by Atlantic rivals Philadelphia in the first round. Kovalchuk can hardly be blamed for the loss, but the fact remained that the experiment didn’t work out, and that could have been the end of it.
Photo courtesy VancouverSun.com
Ah, the old saying: It’s all fun and games until a defensive-minded team ties up a ton of its salary cap for the next fifteen years on a winger that doesn’t get back on defense and turns the puck over. If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it one time.

But that was not the end of it, and the Devils might end up paying dearly for their commitment to perception. New Jersey didn’t let the Kovalchuk thing go, and there was constant deflection from the moment the trade was made that the Devils were not simply renting Kovalchuk, despite what everybody was thinking. It seems as if the Devils were so committed to debunking the idea that they rented Kovalchuk for the 2010 playoffs knowing that they couldn’t afford him in the offseason that they went against every grain of their identity and ended up signing the Russian winger to a 15-year contract, despite the fact that he makes little effort to get back on defense or play “Devils hockey.” Kovalchuk’s cap hit is currently $6.67 million per season for the next 14 years (as always, per CapGeek.com). The Devils finished 11th in the Eastern Conference last year. What’s worse is that they now might not have enough money to keep Zach Parise on board. Parise is a RFA who has epitomized “Devils hockey” in the last few years, but now the Devils only have about $7.8 million to add four players to finalize their roster. It would still cost another team a lot of draft picks to sign Parise to an offer sheet, but unlike the situation in Tampa with Steven Stamkos, there is a decent chance that the Devils simply could not match a high offer from another team for Parise.
Photo via
Wait, you signed a lesser LW to a fifteen-year contract without checking with Zach Parise (above) first? I heard the New York Knicks were looking for a GM…

If the Devils were to lose Parise, it would solidify their summer 2010 descent to the dark side in which they forgot who they were and ended up much worse off because of it. Quite simply, Zach Parise wins more NHL games than Ilya Kovalchuk. They play the same position, which is its own study of insanity. So what happened? Why would a franchise make a move that is so contrary to its historical mantra? Quite simply, the Devils were too concerned with making a statement of intent, with trying to prove some twisted form of ambition, with how they would be perceived, with things that are irrelevant.
There are many front offices that have largely resisted the urge to overspend or forget what their team is built around, but one that sticks out in this offseason is that of the Detroit Red Wings. General manager Ken Holland had money to blow for the first time in many offseasons when Brian Rafalski abruptly retired, and in doing so, gave Holland and the Red Wings $6 million to play with.
Rafalski hung up the skates, giving Detroit an unexpected $6 million hole to fill.

Many people were assuming that the Wings would be very active on July 1. The Wings were supposed to find a way to replace Rafalski and bolster the lineup in an effort to get over San Jose and Vancouver in the west; to hold off Chicago and Nashville in the division; to keep up with Los Angeles, who acquired a true NHL star in Mike Richards from Philadelphia in late June. After all, what would the Wings be saying if they failed to make some big signings?
But Holland played it cool. He brought back a few of his own free agents in Drew Miller, Patrick Eaves and Jonathan Ericsson. Then he went out and signed two right-handed defensemen (Mike Commodore and Ian White) for a total of less than $4 million in an effort to replace Rafalski by committee, which was the only way it could have possibly been done anyway. What would have been the point of going out and getting a guy like Tomas Kaberle (who shoots left, by the way) for close to as much money as Rafalski vacated? To put it in better perspective, why pay Kaberle 70% of what you’re paying Nicklas Lidstrom? He doesn’t give you anywhere near 70% of Lidstrom’s returns.
Regarding the situation with Lidstrom, having the reigning Norris winner coming back for what many assume is a final year could have only added pressure on Holland to go out and mortgage the future for the best possible chance to win the 2012 Cup. Once Lidstrom heads home to Sweden for good, there is a real chance that the Red Wings take a step back in the central division. Therefore, there exists a strong urgency for the Red Wings to grab that one last Stanley Cup as an icing on the cake for one of the great fifteen-year runs in recent league history. But Holland and the Wings’ front office have resisted the urge to sacrifice the future by dealing prospects, unloading draft picks, and spending cash irrationally. The result is a franchise that looks like it has an infrastructure that is set up to add many more years to its already best active playoff streak of 20 straight seasons. And it’s all because they didn’t sign players to bad contracts in a frantic chase for immediate gratification. They didn’t trade away youngsters who continue to come into their own with either the big club or in Grand Rapids. They didn’t deal away draft picks for aging, overpaid players whose best years are in the rearview.
Of course, sticking with this philosophy may not lead to any more Stanley Cups for the Red Wings, but it certainly leaves them with a better chance to be at least a contender for years to come than had they abandoned their mantras and tried to leverage a champion by adding unmovable parts that don’t fit with the squad. The Wings worried about reality instead of perception, and as a result, they have a 22-man roster that looks pretty formidable for even the best teams in the league. They have only a backup goalie left to sign, and after doing so the team should have almost all of Rafalski’s surrendered cap space to hold on to. Having this extra cash allows the Wings to either chase some replacements in the 2012 offseason, or make some deadline deals this year to bring in some considerable upgrades that may have expiring contracts. In case you’re wondering, there is a better class of 2012 free agents than the one we have spent the last week tracking, and those are the players that get moved the most in late February.
Which brings me to my next point…
Trade Your Impending UFAs (If You Can’t Win the Cup Now)
If your team is able to dodge the panic bullet in the offseason, fear not, as there is still another period where the ticking of a clock can make people with authority act crazy. In the offseason, the ticking clock is the one that displays the time left on a player’s free agency. Once that player agrees to terms with one team, time has run out. There is no knowing when this will be, and that adds some urgency to every team bidding on an individual player.
But in the case of the trade deadline, the time of the clock’s expiration is known. Many teams still feel the crunch when it comes time to decide whether to keep players or rebuild, and likewise for those teams trying to decide which piece(s) to add to make a run for the Stanley Cup.
In most instances where a good team tries to bolster up, I tend not to criticize these good teams for overpaying or bringing in a rental. After all, my team has won four Cups in my lifetime, and I know how awesome it is to win one. There’s no knowing for sure whether the Boston Bruins would have won this past Cup without the trade deadline acquisition of Kaberle, although many of his detractors are probably scoffing at this right now. But the fact is they brought in a guy that was pretty polarizing amongst fans and analysts, and it resulted in a championship. I’m not sure that you can’t put a price on winning the Cup, but whatever that price may be, it is much higher than the one the Bruins paid to rent Kaberle for a few months. So fair play, and congratulations.

Photo via
Tomas Kaberle in the only place he ever wants to be: just inside the opponent’s blue line.

But enough about the good teams who have a legitimate shot to win the Stanley Cup; let’s talk about the teams that don’t. If a team has a coveted player that is in the final year of his contract, and the team has no chance to win the Stanley Cup in the current season, then the player must be traded. This year saw two prime examples of teams that have no chance to win the ultimate prize failing to trade off sought-after pieces that were leaving the franchise in the offseason anyway.
Now more than ever, players are interested in winning. Blasphemy, you say? Here’s what I’m not saying: that players in previous eras did not try to win as much as those in the current era. That is not my point at all. My point is: as the world has moved on, athletes have become more likely to leave a franchise that treats them well in exchange for a better chance at winning a championship. Sure, money plays a factor in these deals for a lot of players, but for prime time players the offers are largely the same. It’s a lot of money to go to Team A, or a lot of money to go to Team B.
This season, the Dallas Stars sat on center Brad Richards the entire season, only to eventually finish 9th in the west because they couldn’t win a game on the last night of the season against the city that they used to play in. Had they won that game, they would have had to defeat Vancouver, San Jose, and then the winner of a Detroit – Nashville series to win the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl and advance to play the Bruins. There was no chance this was going to happen. None. To make matters worse, Richards had given every indication that he was not going to sign a new contract with the Stars. When one party in a relationship says it likes the idea of “testing the waters,” it’s usually a good time for the other party to trade the other one in.

Photo courtesy
Everyone knew 2010-11 was the last season for this. Everyone but Dallas Stars brass.

In the east, the Florida Panthers were holding onto goalie Tomas Vokoun, who had given no indication that he wanted to continue with the losing club. Vokoun played last season at the age of 34, and had already been making solid money. There was every indication that Vokoun wanted to play out the rest of his days with a playoff team, and yet the Panthers failed to deal the keeper. And this situation was even worse than the one in Dallas, because Florida did not have the excuses of ownership limbo or competing for the last playoff spot to offer as reasons to hold onto Vokoun. Quite simply, there was no reason to hold onto Vokoun until the end of his contract. None at all. There was no upside. The Panthers finished last in the eastern conference with Vokoun. How much worse could it have been without him?
Photo courtesy
“But I don’t wanna trade Vokoun; we’ll only get pennies on the dollar.” Okay then, take nothing instead.

It is true that when every other team believes that a team has to trade a player, the result is lowered value for the team that is “forced” to trade a Richards or Vokoun. But if the player is drawing attention from multiple teams, then the holders are not forced to trade them to any one team. Even if the value for those players is lower than it “should have been,” stubbornness is a terrible reason to refuse to get something in return for an asset that you know is departing anyway. And make no mistake about it, Dallas and Florida knew these two players were leaving, because remember, players want to play on winning teams now. Especially players in their thirties. So, what does it matter if you can only get one prospect or one or two draft picks? That’s more than what you will get if you just sit around and wait to miss the playoffs or get smashed in the first round by holding onto these guys who are dying to get out. For all of these reasons, I think the failure to trade Vokoun was one of the most inexplicable failures to boost a franchise that I’ve seen. He was not coming back. He didn’t fit in with your upcoming offseason plans. You finished last in the conference anyway, and got nothing for him except freed up salary, which you don’t use and would have had anyway by trading him. Find me a worse theoretical non-trade in hockey.
Perhaps the biggest problem that leads to these teams consistently failing to trade players who are upcoming UFAs and want to play on winning teams is that the front office members are too close to the situation. Of course, this is naturally how it has to be. If a person works for a team, they are closely aligned with that team. But this creates subjectivity, which is another way to say that the natural tendency is to plan for your team’s future with emotions involved. It’s impossible to be an emotionless robot, but perhaps teams should start bringing in some more objective consultants who know a bit about the game, but have no dog in the fight (besides this single-job paycheck).
Every general manager and owner has a tendency to see his team’s situation or brand as better than it is, which takes us back to that perception versus reality thing. The front office’s perception is that their organization is on the way up and is a great place to play, so that is their reality. Players who are free agents get to take a look at every team, and they get to perceive teams’ situations the way they will, and that becomes their realities. This failure to see their own overrating of themselves probably plays a role in why certain non-contending teams are unable to come to grips with where their teams really stand in the pecking order. This leads to holding onto a pipe dream of resigning a player who up to this point has not signed a contract extension.
The Marisa Miller Conundrum

Let’s put this in gentlemens’ terms. It’s going to be hard to draw a perfect parallel, since there is the dynamic of a franchise owning a player’s rights, but we’ll give it a try. Ladies, if you can’t put yourself in a man’s shoes, then substitute the female names with male ones, and it should all make sense.
So you’re a man somewhere between the ages of 26 and 35. At the current time, you have convinced all-world supermodel Marisa Miller to date you. In fact, it’s going alright, and you’ve got half a mind to propose.

Photo courtesy FHM
Marisa Miller: Sure, I’m the worldwide #1, but I have every intention to stay with your team, regular schmoe. What’s that, sign an extension? Well, not today, but…

But here’s the thing: for some reason, whether it be for work, school, something, there is a point in time coming where the two of you will have to be in separate halves of the world for the foreseeable future. This point in time is coming in, say, three months. You know from previous experience that the odds of maintaining a successful long-distance relationship are about 7 to 1. Those odds are made worse by the fact that she is Marisa Miller, and you’re you.

Photo via
Oh, hi incredibly mediocre boyfriend that struggles to compete for the playoffs. Don’t be silly, I’m not going anywhere. I look terrible without makeup!

Okay, so now you’re getting a little antsy, and you bring up the topic of marriage. Never mind the fact that Miller is married in real life — for the purposes of this experiment, she is not and has never been married. Upon your prodding, she admits that she is unsure of the whole idea, and would need more time to decide were “someone” to pop the question to her today. Again, you know that if three months pass, you are not getting a “yes.”
Here’s a wrinkle: because you are known to currently be dating Miller exclusively, female interest in you has picked up. You get word through backchannels that Alison Brie and Adrianne Palicki have let it slip that they would very much like to get to know you. Again, insert whatever names you want. The point is that you now have two lesser-known, younger-but-currently-less-hot professionals that want to play for your team (a.k.a. date you), and remember that this hypo has an American author, thus the particular names.

                        Photo courtesy
Adrianne Palicki was wondering if you were free next Saturday night.

Alison Brie: If he’s cool enough to land Marisa Miller, of course I’d be interested. Photo via.
Now, the flipside to this wrinkle is that their interest in you, rightly or wrongly, is based on you being able to lock down this supermodel that they admire. If Miller dumps you, this interest will disappear. If you try to cheat, Miller will dump you. If you let the three-month period expire and your relationship with Miller ceases to continue, the interest from the other women will disappear.
Quick: what do you do?
Here’s what you do if you’re a simp: you ride out the three-month period with Miller despite being given every indication that she is not interested in signing a long-term extension (engagement) with you. Then when that period ends, you throw up a hail mary of love, Roy Williams-style, and propose to a woman who has no reason to want to accept. One of you is leaving; she is embarking on a big upturn in her career / life. In other words, she’s going to test the waters.

Photo courtesy
Yeah, it’s a $3 million bra, but I might stay with you, middle of the pack team — I mean boyfriend. Let’s just ride this out, and we’ll decide on a new contract in the summer, okay?

You get rejected, and now have no leverage to turn your previously good position into any assets at all.
Here’s what you do if you’re objective and looking to build a future that will always be relevant: you trade Miller, a highly coveted partner, for the chance to see what happens with two younger potential partners who are interested. I know this isn’t exactly how it works in the real world of relationships, but in some ways it kind of is. And it’s the best I could do to parallel the situations of hockey front offices with impending UFA players.
By waiting the Marisa Miller situation out, the guy ends up with nothing and has to start from scratch. By not trading guys like Brad Richards or Tomas Vokoun, the Stars and Panthers get absolutely nothing in exchange for the players leaving, which the teams should have known was going to happen anyway.

Photo via
Alison reminds you that the trade deadline is coming, and you ain’t winning the Cup with Marisa this year. Whatcha gonna do?

By making the tough decision and cutting ties with Miller, the guy ends up keeping his dignity and parlaying that into an opportunity to see if he can’t build a winner with Brie or Palicki.

Photo courtesy
Adrianne: “No, but really though. Hi. I’m from Toledo.”

Comparatively, by trading players that either aren’t coming back or will have diminishing returns for prospects and/or draft picks, a team gives itself a chance to build something with players that it would not have otherwise had if it did the weak thing and let the UFA hang around and bolt upon the expiration of his contract. The Toronto Maple Leafs did a solid job of unloading Kaberle and Kris Versteeg to competing rivals Boston and Philadelphia. Sure, Versteeg wasn’t an impending UFA, but he is going to be a RFA after this upcoming season, and there wasn’t much of a chance he’d be a Leaf after that. They traded Marisa Miller in for a shot at future success. Kudos.
There were other teams that did a good job of realizing who they were, including the Panthers. Dale Tallon, Michael Yormark and the boys in Florida were able to unload Bryan McCabe, Bryan Allen, Michael Frolik, Dennis Wideman and others in order to set themselves up for this summer and beyond. But that one question remains: why not Vokoun? It doesn’t matter if the offers weren’t “good enough,” because the fact was that Vokoun was leaving for free this summer. Get something while you can.
Not All Overspending Is Warrantless
There were a few teams that have overspent this month for good reason. In general, I believe that you should always be looking for value as a consumer of anything, including hockey players. But in the case of our beloved Florida Panthers, they were kind of forced into signing players to inflated deals just to reach the salary cap floor of $48.3 million. The team is currently at $49.8 million with only one player left to roster. When we look at it that way, paying Scottie Upshall $3.5 million this season doesn’t look nearly as bad. It looks almost necessary. Who else were they going to pay that money to? The answer is likely to a player who is even less deserving of it.

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Easy there, Tallon. I said you did a good job overall. Just don’t get the Vokoun thing.

Another team that turned heads in the past two weeks is the Buffalo Sabres. Some people have been using that patented line to say that the Sabres are signing all of these big-time players to bigger-time deals in order to show everyone that they are serious about chasing the Cup. I think it’s probably more that they are actually chasing the Cup. And when we look at the makeup of the squad now, there really isn’t much room to criticize the moves of this offseason. Most of the bad deals that they have on the books date back to before Terry Pegula bought the team this winter (see Ales Kotalik, Tomas Vanek). On top of that reprieve, Ryan Miller is a week from his 31st birthday. Miller is in the prime of his career, but that won’t last forever. There are another few years where the Sabres may boast the best goaltender in the game, and they wanted to go out and acquire the requisite offense to support their 2010 Vezina winner. Again, these were solid deals because they were based on reality, and not perception.
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Buffalo Savior: Terry Pegula is the Buffalo Sabres new owner, and he gives a damn.

The last team I’ll touch upon before bringing this entry to a long-awaited close is the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Jackets lost some players this offseason, including Upshall, Commodore, Mathieu Garon and Jan Hejda, but they added a couple big-time players as well. Right before the month of June ended, Columbus acquired the rights to defenseman James Wisniewski, who was on the radar of many good teams in the NHL. The Jackets were able to sign Wiz by throwing a slightly front-loaded six-year contract his way that averages $5.5 million per season. Adding Wisniewski helps the team win hockey games, but it also aligns with the one instance in which making a perception signing is allowable — when a team needs to add fans. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still stupid to run a team based on trying to conjure up perceptions of ambition rather than building an actual on-ice winner, but teams like Columbus and some of the southern teams do actually need to create some interest. Of course, the best way to do this is to win, but signing a guy like Wiz does both.
Photo via
James Wisniewski and his awesome white stick got PAID.

Prior to acquiring Wisniewski, the Jackets were one-half of Philadelphia’s blockbuster June 23rd when they traded for Flyers center Jeff Carter. I’ve been critical of Carter in the past based on the length and terms of his contract, but on a team that is mired in fifth in its division in terms of franchise prestige, Carter is a relatively solid offensive pickup. Carter has eleven years left on a contract that carries a $5.27 million cap hit, and a known full no-trade clause from 2012-13 to 2014-15, but I’m not sure the Blue Jackets had the option to continue to sit back and fail. There have been whispers about the team being forced to shut down operations in Columbus for a little while now, and the last thing the front office wants is to engineer a team that had to move or contract. Never mind the fact that they’d all be out of jobs; it’s an embarrassing failure to be at the helm for that sort of thing. So in the case of Columbus, well done for giving off the perception of trying to win. Now, it’s time to merge perception with reality.

The score is only 1-0, but Philadelphia outshot Buffalo 16-2 in the first period.  Ryan Miller has been great, but his team looks completely impotent and overmatched.  This is the kind of game we would have expected back in January, when Philly was leading the east and Buffalo looked nowhere near the playoffs. There are still 40 minutes left, and games tend to have ebbs and flows, but Buffalo is getting blown out as bad as any team down a goal ever has.

Let’s see how the second plays out…

There’s something I’ve always found fascinating about Game 6s.  I know that Game 7s are obviously everyone’s favorite game of a series, but Game 6s are really underrated.  Maybe it’s because I’ve always preferred semifinals or “conference” championship rounds in pretty much all competitions, and Game 6s have that sort of penultimate feel to them, of course positioned against the possibility of playoff extinction for the team facing elimination.

Today we have three Game 6s, with two of the home teams actually leading their respective series.  It starts soon with the Buffalo Sabres looking to close out the defending conference champion Philadelphia Flyers. I haven’t written about this series much, and it would be foolish to try to start 20 minutes before Game 6 starts, but there are two things that should be interesting to watch.  First, it seems unclear even now whether center Derek Roy will be making his return for the Sabres today.  My gut would tell me no, but coach Lindy Ruff has been dropping hints for days about this.  Roy hasn’t played since Christmas, but at that time he was leading a very disappointing Sabres squad in scoring.  Since Roy picked up his injury, the team was sold to a guy who cares and the Sabres found themselves making that playoff run.  Now they find themselves with a home closeout opportunity, and they really need to make this one count.  There’s no way I would consider Buffalo likely to advance should they have to play a Game 7 in Philly on Tuesday, even if Roy is likely to be in the lineup.

The second thing to watch is the Flyer crease.  It is being reported that Michael Leighton will make his first playoff start, and in fact only his second start of the entire season.  Leighton came off last year’s finals run with an injury to start the year, and found himself the odd man out after Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher started the year so well.  But after Game 2’s yanking of the rookie Russian, and Game 5’s pulling of the veteran Boucher, Leighton found himself between the pipes in a game that the Flyers came back to take to overtime.  Buffalo did score on Leighton to win two nights ago, but you could hardly say that Leighton had anything to do with the Flyers’ loss.  After all, he entered the game down 3-0, and ended up losing in OT 4-3 after saving his first 20 shots, before eventually succumbing to the game ender.  Starting Leighton today could be seen as a panic move, but it also could be seen as a team starting the goalie that they feel gives them the best chance to win.  In addition to Leighton, it appears that Chris Pronger will be making his first appearance today.

If the Sabres are able to win today, they’ll book their date with the Washington Capitals in the conference semifinals.  The winners of the other two series would then face each other.

The second game today is the other one seeing the home team with a 3-2 series lead.  Anaheim will try to keep their season alive by winning tonight in Nashville and forcing a Game 7 Tuesday night at their place, the Honda Center.  I don’t think there’s any prediction necessary, except that the Ducks need to reverse this trend of allowing 5 more shots than they take.  It seems unlikely that they could do that on the road, but it was Game 4 in Nashville when the Ducks outshot the Preds by a whopping 38-22 margin.  They’ve been outshot in the other four games, which screams of a lack of attention to detail and perhaps the youth on their blueline, but it would be foolish to think that an Anaheim win today was impossible, especially given the record for road teams in this first round of play.  It will be Ray Emery vs. Pekka Rinne in nets, to nobody’s surprise.

The final game of the night will be Vancouver at Chicago.  That game seems worthy of it’s own entry, so I will come back to that at some point before the 7:30 p.m. eastern start time.

The puck is dropping in Buffalo on NBC.

There are ten games on the NHL lineup tonight, but none is larger for the teams involved than the 7:30 p.m. tilt between Buffalo and Carolina.  The game takes place at the HSBC Arena in Buffalo, and that could be a cause for concern for the Hurricanes.  Carolina is 1-6-2 in their nine road games since February 1.  While neither the offense nor defense is solely to blame, it is worth noting that team captain and star center Eric Staal has only one multi-point game in that span, home or away (a 19 game span).

The Sabres, on the other hand, have been trending upward since the sale of the team to Terry Pegula last month.  Buffalo concluded a 7-game road trip on Saturday, and came home for a 6-4 win over Ottawa on Sunday.  Throw in the emotional passing of franchise legend and French Connection member Rick Martin, and the team is in full us-against-the-world mode.  But what is on the line for both teams is more than just two points, but instead an opportunity to go a long way toward qualifying for the playoffs, which of course offer opportunities for team building and maybe even conference glory considering the vulnerability of eastern teams this season.

Buffalo sits in a 7th place tie with the New York Rangers, who play at home tonight against the Islanders.  Buffalo has a game in hand on the Rangers, and therefore can expect to need a win tonight to keep pace, and something of a cushion between themselves and the dreaded 9th spot.

That 9th spot currently belongs to the Hurricanes, who come into tonight’s game with 72 points and also that one game in hand on NYR.  For the Canes, tonight’s game is as close to a must-win as one could see in game 70 of a regular season.  Should Carolina take zero points from tonight’s game, they risk falling six points out of the last playoff spot.  While that is not insurmountable, Carolina does not have the luxury of facing the Rangers later in the year to make up two points on them.  Buffalo does host NYR on March 30, before traveling to Carolina on April 3 for a rematch of tonight’s game.

As far as keys to the game go, the goaltenders don’t seem to want to give any insight as to the result of this one.  Cam Ward and Ryan Miller have faced each other twice this year, splitting the games and sporting nearly identical GAAs (2.53 for Ward; 2.49 for Miller).  The lone discernible difference may show up in the save percentage department, as Ward sports a healthy .922 against Buffalo, while Miller carries a slightly below average .906 versus the Canes.  If Carolina is to avoid being outshot on the road tonight, then Staal should figure to play a key role with his size, speed, scoring ability (29 goals), and creativity (34 assists).  If he cannot find a way to unlock the Sabre defense and get pucks past Ryan Miller, it should figure to be just another in a growing line of disappointment and missed opportunities away from home for the Hurricanes.

And that would suit Pegula and the surging Buffalo Sabres just fine.  The game is tonight at 7:30 on Versus in the U.S.