San Jose Sharks

WIth a half dozen or so games to go for most teams, the playoffs are starting to take shape. Although many possibilities still exist, what would be the most interesting first-round matchups that appear as likely as not to fall into place?
Eastern Conference
New York Rangers – If NYR wins the #1 seed, the obvious opponent from a perspective of intrigue is the Washington Capitals. The intrastate argument can be made for a Rangers – Sabres series, but the recent history exists between the Rangers and Caps. The last two times the Rangers have made the playoffs, their season has ended in first-round defeats in the home-seeded Capitals’ building.
Prior to their memorable second-round series with eventual champion Pittsburgh, the #2 seed Capitals had to survive a seven-game series with Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers. New York fell behind 3-1 in the series before forcing the seventh game. This was a feat they could not duplicate last year, when they dropped that road elimination Game 5 in Washington as the #8 seed. If this matchup is to happen, it would be the Rangers who would have home ice and possibly even the Presidents’ Trophy.

If NYR is caught by Pittsburgh, the almost certain first-round pairing would be with Philadelphia in the 4-5 series. That would be a high-profile intradivisional matchup that might have HBO reconsidering its decision to not renew 24/7. The possibility exists for a Rangers – Devils series, but Philly would have to tank it to allow New Jersey to make up a six-point gap with only six games to play.
Boston Bruins – I’ve never taken the “Boston better be careful or they’ll drop the division” talk seriously, and I’m willing to assume that Boston is going to place into the #2 seed in the east. Of all the teams they could face in the first round, I think the most interesting series might be against New Jersey, who sits only two points ahead of Ottawa for the sixth spot. Some would argue that Ottawa or Buffalo are the best opponents for Boston because of the divisional aspect, but I would much rather see a contest between similar-minded teams with very contrasting expectations and recent playoff showings.
Florida Panthers – It’s going to be hard to argue that the Florida series will be interesting no matter who they face simply because nobody cares about hockey in Florida. But if we’re going to pit them against any potential #6 seed, I would personally love to see them face Ottawa. These two teams finished 13th and 15th in the Eastern Conference last season, respectively. But the manner in which they would get to this potential 3-6 matchup is very different.
Florida went out and overspent last summer just to reach the salary cap floor, and had been targeting July 2011 as the month in which the franchise would be able to begin to turn the whole thing around. So far, nobody can argue with the results.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, Ottawa was supposed to be in rebuilding mode. Filip Kuba was supposed to have been dangled in February and shipped off to a playoff contender for yet more young talent and/or draft picks. Everyone of consequence besides Spezza and Anderson were either really old or really young. Alex Auld was the backup goalie.
But the Sens’ veterans ran the show, the rookies were solid and Craig Anderson was nothing if not reliable. Number 41 is never going to be the most consistent tender in the league, but dare I say consistency isn’t really the thing a “crap team” needs in net. Teams that are supposed to suck often have a decent enough, consistent goalie who always faces more shots than his counterpart and usually puts up a respectable 2.60 – 2.75 GAA while getting no goal support. This leads to a good amount of one-goal losses and not enough points in the standings.
A goalie like Anderson, however, is going to miss a lot of fairways and make some double bogeys. But when he’s feeling it, that same top-of-the-crease, gambler attitude is going to steal some games as well. And at the end of the year, that inconsistent style might lead to more wins and overtime/shootout losses, along with some more blowout losses. This leads to more points in the standings, and a better shot at playoff qualification.
Throw in the “goalie against his old team” thing with Anderson against the Panthers (which almost nobody knows or thinks about), and the idea that nobody takes either Ottawa or Florida seriously as eastern conference contenders, and what’s not to like about #3 Florida against #6 Ottawa? At least that leaves more “big boy” series for the rest of you.
Pittsburgh Penguins – This is obvious. If the red-hot, playoff favorite Penguins finish behind New York and get the #4 seed, everyone will want (and almost certainly get) the no holds barred Pennsylvania state title series against the fifth-seeded Philadelphia Flyers. It is entirely possible that the Flyers catch the Pens and get home ice for this series.
If Pittsburgh ends up grabbing the top seed, as most people have felt that they will for a few weeks now, the glaringly obvious NHL wet dream is that Washington finishes in 8th. You don’t need a lecture on the hype that would surround another Pittsburgh – Washington series.
Philadelphia Flyers – The revamped Flyers are probably going to finish third in the Atlantic and get the #5 seed, although the #4 is certainly within reach, and other than the location of a potential seventh game, it doesn’t really matter. The Flyers are probably going to face whoever doesn’t win the division, and whether it’s Pittsburgh or New York, the rivalry exists and doesn’t need manufacturing. The east’s 4-5 series should be one to watch.
I’ve laid out my desired opponents for New Jersey, Ottawa and Washington, and I think Buffalo would be happy to play anyone. I don’t really see a jaw-dropping opponent for the Sabres that would place in the east’s top two, although that’s not to say a series involving Buffalo would be boring.
Western Conference
St. Louis Blues – The Blues are closing in on a rather unforeseen division title and possible Presidents’ Trophy, and their 147 goals allowed this season are best in the league by a laughable margin. St. Louis’ most gimmicky opponent out of the 7 or 8 hole would be Colorado based simply on last year’s trade, but regular readers know what I think of the Avalanche’s front office and general leadership. Because of this void in direction and the fact that Colorado has only four games left to play and are already trailing the 8th spot, I don’t see the Avs getting in.
This would leave the Blues list of potential opponents as the entire Pacific Division with Anaheim swapped out for Calgary. As much as I love the Red Mile and the passion of the Flames’ fans, and as cool as it would be to see what San Jose could do with a #8 by their names (just think, Washington and San Jose as the EIGHT seeds), the most interesting opponent for the Blues from a style of play standpoint might be the Los Angeles Kings.
Sure, it might be a snoozer for the scoreboard operator, but I think the irony of this series would be worth at least five games. Just think, there’s this midwestern squad that doesn’t spend to anywhere near the salary cap, but has figured out a way to master the exact style of play that the team from Hollywood has been trying to play for some time now. Both teams fired their head coaches during the season, but only the small, red-state Blues have seen the kind of ludicrous uptick in results that followed.
Unlike most pundits, I do not think an early exit is inevitable for St. Louis. On top of that, I think the Blues match up with the Kings very well — much in the same manner the ’08 Red Wings did with the Penguins. Similar systems and styles of play, but one team just seems to be doing it better. Despite the studliness of Kings’ goalie Jonathan Quick and the ability of most fans to name more skaters for L.A. than for Dallas or Phoenix, I believe the Blues should actually welcome a first-round series with the Kings, lest they go up against an offense that can actually hurt them.
Vancouver Canucks – The Canucks are either going to get the #1 or #2 seed, and since I think the top six are already determined, I’m not going to waste time dreaming up another first-round series against Chicago. Vancouver’s potential opponents are pretty much the same as those for St. Louis, and of those teams I’d like to see the Canucks face the Dallas Stars.
Dallas is a quiet team that nobody feels they need to pay attention to, but a series with the Canucks would be akin to a #13 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament finally getting on TV. Nobody knows your players’ names until you start canning threes and D’ing up on a team that everybody assumed would advance to the next weekend. It happens every year, and a highlight series with the desperate Canucks might be what it takes to get trending topics in North America like “Jamie Benn” or “Lehtonen.” Dallas has a roster that clearly is highlighted on the blue line, but aren’t those the types of teams that are able to surprise higher seeds in the playoffs?
There’s always the possibility that San Jose slides back into the 7th or 8th seed, and this would make for the highest profile opponent that Vancouver could face in mid-April, but forgive me for not being all that excited to see another shockingly short series between these two.
San Jose Sharks – Chicago. Chicago. My kind of matchup.
This can only happen if San Jose wins the division and Chicago completes its BlackSawks plan of diving for the 6th seed, which looks to be fully operational, but there is absolutely no opponent that would be more salacious for the rest of us third parties.

Gary Bettman’s search history: 2012 Sharks – Blackhawks first round + British accent

Yes, we all want the Sharks to fail and finish ninth or something, but in the interest of eyeballs, a San Jose – Chicago series in the 3-6 matchup is another one of those “NHL google images Kate Beckinsale” type scenarios. Let’s get it done. Plus, one of them has to lose!
Nashville Predators – It looks for all the world like the Chicago BlackSawks are going to win the race to the bottom for the 6th seed, and so we’re left with the near certainty of a Nashville – Detroit series in the first round. This is cool, although as a Red Wings fan it’s a bit depressing. There is the whole contrast of styles thing, as well as the contrast of urgency. Detroit did next to nothing transactionally all year despite having all of this extra cap space that team owner Mike Ilitch dumped right into the pie hole of Prince Fielder. Nashville, meanwhile, went out and paid a crazy price at the trade deadline for Paul Gaustad, must have made Alex Radulov some sort of offer he couldn’t refuse to get him back over from Russia a couple weeks ago, threw the cash at goalie Pekka Rinne and hope to be able to do the same for defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber.
The Preds are coming off their first playoff series win in 2011 and are clearly gunning for the Cup right now. The Red Wings look more like an organization that is owned by an 82 year-old man who has already won four Stanley Cups and has that one last thing to do before he dies: get his baseball team a world series title. Look at the change in salary expenditures and policy and tell me I’m wrong.
Detroit Red Wings – Again, it looks like Detroit is going to lose the race to the top to St. Louis and the race to the bottom to Chicago, and will be stuck in the undesirable 4-5 series against Nashville. A series win would get the “see, we’re up there with the best and the struggles were only due to injury” bandwagon up and rolling, while a series loss would kinda, sorta disgrace Nick Lidstrom’s final year. And make no mistake about it, if the Red Wings lose in the first round after two consecutive second-round exits and failing to bring in any personnel help despite having a considerable amount of salary cap space for the first time in years, I highly doubt GM Ken Holland will be able to convince Lidstrom that the team is close enough to a Stanley Cup to warrant another year of unrelenting work. But then, I don’t think or live like Nick Lidstrom. Unfortunately.
Chicago Blackhawks – There’s that dream matchup with San Jose for the rest of us that I mentioned earlier, but I’ll tell you who Chicago shouldn’t want to play: the Dallas Stars. I’m not necessarily calling for a Dallas “upset” over Chicago at this moment, but come April 9th I might be.
The Hawks obviously are hoping for the return of captain Jonathan Toews, and therefore should want to delay any headlining matchups as long as possible. But what seems easier from a physicality perspective: playing San Jose or playing Dallas or Phoenix? To me the answer is obvious, and the Hawks seem like a team that needs to be kicked into gear anyway. Dallas or Phoenix just might lull Chicago to sleep. There’s no way anyone sleeps through a series with San Jose.
So Chicago, San Jose, let’s just see it already.
The Most Interesting (Possible) First Round in the World
Eastern Conference
#1 Pittsburgh v. #8 Washington
#2 Boston v. #7 New Jersey
#3 Florida v. #6 Ottawa
#4 N.Y. Rangers v. #5 Philadelphia
Western Conference
#1 St. Louis v. #8 Los Angeles / Calgary (L.A. for style, Calgary for fandom)
#2 Vancouver v. #7 Dallas
#3 San Jose v. #6 Chicago
#4 Nashville v. #5 Detroit
Apologies to fans of Buffalo and Phoenix, as well as L.A. and Calgary for only putting them halfway into the playoffs. I don’t apologize to any other team, because I don’t believe any other team can get to the playoffs. Except of course the Leafs…

In another classic case of the pot meeting the kettle, Joe Thornton had some choice words for the New York Rangers following the Blueshirts’ 5-2 home win over San Jose Monday night. Instead of complaining about the Rangers’ physical style or seemingly endless waves of annoying players to play against, Thornton instead tilted his head back and delivered what can surely only be a subliminal message for the mirror.
Big Joe was quoted as saying, “They were probably the softest team we played on the trip. We should have had those two points.”
I checked the newspaper to make sure I hadn’t slipped into a multi-year coma. Nope. It’s November 1, 2011. With the date settled, I questioned my own sanity. Had I concocted a bizarro world in which Joe Thornton was known only to me to be a playoff choke artist and big softie? I quickly consulted the internet to make sure I hadn’t swapped out Joe’s career with Mark Messier’s by mistake. Nope. He’s still Joe Thornton; the same Joe Thornton that captains a team that is perennially picked by many to win the Stanley Cup, despite never having come close to winning even the west.
The idea of Joe Thornton calling another team soft is one that is such a reversal that it should have been the punchline of a bad network TV joke. I can see it now, track laughter and all.
Photo via.
Joe Thornton’s lack of mental toughness was confirmed through his T-shirt.

We’ve all seen those instances where the idiot at work actually comes up with a halfway decent idea that leads to praise from the higher ups. The result is a sick measure of validation to all of the idiot’s future ideas, no matter how absurd or grounded in fantasy they may be.
I feel like the last couple of playoff years were the decent idea for Joe Thornton. His Sharks beat the Red Wings in the playoffs in both years, and many people, including myself, were hailing his newfound playoff grit and toughness. And now it would seem that a couple of conference semifinal victories in consecutive springs is now enough to anoint Thornton a professor of snarl. Never mind the fact that everybody in their right mind sees the absurdity in his mislabeling of the Rangers — the sickest thing is that he believes it. The next thing you know, Big Joe will be rolling into Chicago calling Brent Seabrook a female reproductive organ, and the transformation into total delusion will be complete. We’ll have a regular Dwight Schrute in our league. And just like on The Office, it may be roaring for the onlookers, but is probably just a series of eye rolls for those on the ground level.
Photo via.
The Assistant (to the) Regional Manager… or the Captain of the SJ Sharks?

One of those ground level employees who was not amused was Rangers’ head coach John Tortorella, who summed up the obvious response by essentially saying that if he worked hard and stayed clean, Thornton may have a chance to one day be regarded as one of the Colin Montgomeries of hockey. Check out Torts’ response:
“Joe’s a heck of a player, but here’s a player popping off about our team, and Joe hasn’t won a God damn thing in this league. He could go down as a player, being one of the better players in our league never to win anything. So what he should do is just shut up. It was uncalled for, it was classless, and I’ve never had it happen like that before.”
Well stated, John. As a supporter of the Red Wings, I’ve taken note of Thornton’s new early-round playoff success and calm storm that he’s brought the past two springs. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that in two career conference finals, Thornton’s Sharks have won exactly one hockey game in nine tries. Not exactly on the cusp if you ask me. Not exactly an achievement that seems worthy of a graduation from the school of sissies, especially when we remember that those teams were highly touted coming in.
And with ill-advised, inaccurate statements like the one last night about the Rangers, Joe Thornton is almost ready to have his application reviewed by the school of punks. I know he was really just trying to project his own perceived deficiencies onto others, but at least win one Clarence S. Campbell Bowl before you run your mouth about who works hard and who doesn’t.
This may come as a surprise to some, but the Pacific Division was by far hockey’s best from top to bottom last season. Dallas brought it up the rear, but still came in ninth in the west, and that was only after losing on the final evening to miss out on the final playoff spot (which went to Chicago out of the Central).
But the Pacific failed to perform in the playoffs, as the division went 1-3 collectively in series against teams from other divisions (San Jose beating Detroit in seven games was the lone series victory). This season, I expect the Pacific to have two teams in contention for the conference crown, while there are two other teams that I think are set up to take a step backward. Let’s get to the meat.

1st: San Jose Sharks 2010-11: 105 points, 1st in division
This was tough. I typed out two paragraphs about why the LA Kings will win the Pacific in 2011-12 before I came to the conclusion that I don’t believe they will. On paper, I think the Kings might be the better team, but there’s something to be said for a group of players that have won four division titles in a row and knocked their new challengers out of the playoffs last year.
Of course, these Sharks won’t be the same team, as they shipped Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to Minnesota in separate deals that landed them winger Martin Havlat and defenseman Brent Burns. But the Sharks are good enough in their top six, four, and one that I think it’s slightly more likely that they win the division than it is that LA does.
That top six is indisputably led by center Joe Thornton, who has been maligned by some for failing to yet win a Stanley Cup. But putting blame aside, Thornton should be evaluated as a supremely gifted hockey player. He is a 6’4” center with hands like few who’ve ever played the game, and he’s listed at 230 pounds. Because he’s fast for his size and can protect the puck with his frame and strength, Thornton can play pretty much any type of game he wants. And it’s not like everyone didn’t already know he was a freak — he was the #1 overall pick in the 1997 entry draft. At 23 years old he was the captain of the Boston Bruins. The Bruins traded Thornton to San Jose in 2006, and Thornton was named league MVP after splitting 81 games between the two teams. Thornton had 125 points that year.
Perhaps the best reason why Thornton is not thought of as a prodigy the way seemingly every #1 overall pick is these days is because of the timeline of the internet. We all remember the outpouring of joy the Pittsburgh Penguins showed when they were awarded the #1 pick to draft Sidney Crosby with in 2005. He wasn’t even legal yet, but he had a nickname (“The Next One”), and we all knew it largely thanks to the internet. As the internet has evolved, everyone’s access to amateur player rankings has increased, and it has gotten to the point where we have to assume who the top pick will be, and why all of the bad teams need him. We had the attempt to dub the Edmonton Oilers’ abysmal 2009-10 season “the fall for Taylor Hall” that rightfully never really caught on. But as solid as most of these #1 picks always are, I don’t think there should have been more hype surrounding guys like Taylor Hall and John Tavares than there was around Joe Thornton. At 32 years old, Thornton only has a few more years left before his game could drop off a little bit, so the time for him to finally make good on this incredible hockey gift he’s been given has just about come.
Surrounding the elite centerman in the Wild’s top six will be Patrick Marleau, Martin Havlat, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe and Logan Couture. All of these players offer different strengths (and in some cases, weaknesses), and that’s what could make San Jose’s top two lines a couple of the more intriguing in the NHL this season. It will be interesting to see how the Sharks fare without Heatley. He is regarded as a top-notch scorer in the league, but he only scored 26 goals last season, and hasn’t reached 40 in a season since 2007-08. The Sharks sent him to Minnesota in exchange for Havlat, who offers a salary that is $2.5 million less than Heatley’s. If Havlat can keep from kicking players or being immortalized in one of the greater parodies / diss songs of all-time, there’s no reason he can’t pour in at least 20 goals and give the Sharks a more physical presence than Heatley did. But of course, Havlat must stay interested, which he says he will now that he’s on a team that should be participating in playoff hockey. Of course the last time Havlat played some playoff hockey, he got Kronwalled.
San Jose landed smooth-skating defensemen Burns, also from Minnesota, in a separate trade with the Wild. Burns fits San Jose’s playing style perfectly, as he has no qualms using his superior skating to get involved offensively, a la Sharks D man Dan Boyle. Burns should skate with Marc-Edouard Vlasic on the second line, behind Boyle and hard-hitting Douglas Murray. I think Vlasic is the man who could be upgraded, but he’s good enough not to lose games. The Sharks aren’t great on their third defensive pairing, but then, who really is? They will probably skate out Jason Demers and newly-signed Jim Vandermeer.
In goal, Antti Niemi consolidated his 2010 Stanley Cup victory with a steadily improving second season last year. Niemi started out so bad that many were calling for Antero Niittymaki to take the starting job. But Niemi corrected, avoided the crash-and-burn, and actually ascended higher than ever before his season ended at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks on one of the weirdest goals in NHL playoff history. Niemi can be expected to be in the top ten in peripherals this season, as he was 11th and 12th last year with his 2.38 GAA and .920 save percentage. Those stats were clearly hindered by his awful start, and it should be safe to assume that Niemi should come out of the gates better than last year.
2nd: Los Angeles Kings 2010-11: 98 points, 4th in division
Those two paragraphs I had written about why the Kings should win the Pacific started with the fact that they should be improved from last season thanks to some key acquisitions and returns to health, and included the idea that it is possible that San Jose did not upgrade their roster through their own moves. We’ve evaluated the Sharks, but there shouldn’t be nearly as much of a question surrounding whether the Kings improved from last season to this one.
LA started by trading center Brayden Schenn, hockey’s ultimate prospect, along with Wayne Simmonds and a 2012 second round draft pick to Philadelphia for center Mike Richards, who not only captained the Flyers, but also played a key role in helping Canada win the 2010 Olympic gold medal. Outside of acquiring Schenn and freeing up some cap space, it’s unclear why the Flyers would trade Richards. Many have assumed that he must have been a problem in the locker room, but we really don’t have any publicly known facts to base that off of. Regardless of the validity of people’s suspicions, I don’t think there’s any reason to assume that Richards will blow up the Kings’ chemistry, which needs to grow anyway.
Richards joins a team that already has a star center in Anze Kopitar. The first Slovenian to play in the NHL will turn 24 later in August, just like Sidney Crosby. People have been calling for Kopitar’s breakout season for a couple years now, but he was sidelined at the end of last year with a broken ankle. The Kings were ousted by San Jose in six games without the services of Kopitar (or, of course, Richards). Some article that I didn’t read on ESPN insider called for Kopitar to win the MVP this year, which I think is probably a bit much considering he has never averaged a point per game in any season, although he’s been very close in three of the five he’s played in the NHL so far. There are some similarities between Kopitar and big Joe Thornton, starting with size, but Kopitar’s game is a little more forward-skating and a little less creative, although neither player gives up a whole lot to the other. I’d suspect Anze can finally break the point-per-game barrier this year, but I wouldn’t expect more than 90 from the big man.
Part of the reason I’m curbing my expectations for this so-called MVP candidate is the LA wingers need to step their games up a bit. The one true exception is Dustin Brown, who I think is one of the premier right wings in the league. Aside from being third in the league with 300 hits, Brown led the Kings with 28 goals and added 29 assists, good for fourth on the team. The stud from Ithaca, NY has been the captain of the Kings for three years, and does a fine job in that role. Brown will turn 27 in November.
The other right wing is Justin Williams, who matched Brown’s 57 point output despite missing 9 games to injury. Williams was solid, but the Kings need even more if they’re going to win the division and/or enjoy playoff success this year. Williams needs to stay on the ice (maybe even play more than 17:15 a night) and continue to improve his offensive game because the Kings need the goals.
Opposite Brown and Williams on the left side will be Dustin Penner and Simon Gagne, neither of whom were Kings when the calendar flipped to 2011. Gagne has tallied only 40 points in each of the last two seasons, but both were shortened by injury. Perhaps more importantly, Gagne has played in 34 playoff games in those seasons, which means his teams enjoy some playoff success. He didn’t just phone it in either; Gagne was able to score 14 goals in the last two playoff years with Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, respectively. That pace would translate to 33 goals over an 82 game season, but Gagne hasn’t kept that pace during the regular season nor kept his health since 2008-09. If he can give the Kings a full season, the offensive numbers should be better than last year, when LA only outscored Columbus, Minnesota and Edmonton in the west.

Penner, on the other hand, appears to be stalling somewhat. After being traded to LA on deadline day this past season, Penner had two goals and four assists in 19 games. He added a goal and an assist in the first round loss to San Jose. People say he underachieved, but I’m not sure everybody realizes exactly what kind of a player Dustin Penner is. Because of his size and 32-goal season in 2009-10 for the Oilers, everyone assumes he has to be a top-six forward in the NHL. I’m not sure it wouldn’t be better for him to play third-line minutes and get into that grinding mentality. Unfortunately, the Kings don’t have the luxury of trying that out right now, as Penner and Gagne are, until further developments, the best two left wingers on the team.
Defensively, the Kings should be alright on the top four, but any injuries could expose their lack of depth. One way or another, Drew Doughty is going to play hockey for the LA Kings this year, unless they choose to trade him at some point. He’s waiting on a big contract, and talks could progress now that Shea Weber’s situation has been sorted out and there’s a dollar figure attached. Whether the Kings should shell out crazy terms for Doughty long-term is another matter, but in terms of 2011-12, Doughty is a much-needed piece of the Kings’ puzzle. Along with Doughty are Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi, who play some pretty good defense. Rounding out the top four is Jack Johnson, who plays defense like he’s chilling on a beach with an acoustic guitar, singing about rabbits. He’s not that Jack Johnson, but he is no more of a defensive success than the musician. Johnson hits a good amount of guys and skates some high minute totals, but he’s never seen a minus-1 that he didn’t like. But, he poured in 37 assists last year, so he’s great. On the last line of defense, the Kings have basher Matt Greene and then a slew of options at sixth defender. Many assume that spot will go to Alec Martinez.
The Kings’ goaltending situation doesn’t need a lot of previewing. Jonathan Quick has now gone 3-for-3 in having good seasons, and turned in his best one yet in 2010-11. Quick’s .918 save percentage tied Marc-Andre Fleury for 13th in the league, while his 2.24 GAA was good for fifth. Behind Quick is fellow youngster Jonathan Bernier, who had a Niemi-like season, except that he made his turnaround over only 25 appearances. Both goalies are entering the penultimate years of their contracts, with both (especially Quick) looking for a payday come summer 2013.
Los Angeles has the goaltending, centermen and team defense to win this division in 2011-12, but I’m leaning slightly in the direction of the San Jose Sharks.
3rd: Anaheim Ducks 2010-11: 99 points, 2nd in division
This prediction has two conditions: 1) Jonas Hiller must be ready to play hockey, and 2) Teemu Selanne must want to continue to play hockey. If either of these conditions are not met, especially condition #1, I’m picking Anaheim fourth. Let’s examine why.
Everybody knows and loves the Ducks’ top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. And why not? It’s a great line. They do it all, and more impressively, all of them do it all. But after them, Teemu Selanne is absolutely needed on the roster in order for the Ducks to score the goals to overcome those that they statistically should give up. Selanne is considering retirement after kind of shocking the hockey world with an 80-point season in 73 games last year. The Finnish Flash is 41 now, but he’s still needed for this Anaheim offense.
The reason why Selanne is needed might lie with Hiller’s condition. The Twitterverse is abuzz with photos of Hiller skating recently, so it looks like the left-handed goalie should be ready to return from his season-long bout with vertigo. If he is fully recovered, the Ducks are solid at starting goaltender. If he’s not, this could be a grease fire. Anaheim was 10th in the west last year in goals allowed, and surprisingly were only 7th in goals scored. That’s an average of 8.5, which makes the Ducks a borderline playoff team, which is what I believe they will be this year. Hiller’s backup appears to be Dan Ellis, which begs the question, “Why the hell didn’t Anaheim give Ray Emery a new contract?” Whatever the reason, they didn’t, and now if Hiller suffers a relapse of vertigo or comes down with any injury at all, the Ducks will be left with Dan Ellis to hold down the fort. Forgive me for not loving a repeat of Anaheim’s second-place finish in the Pacific.
The Ducks have a well-defined top four on defense consisting of Lubomir Visnovsky, Toni Lydman, Francois Beauchemin and Cam Fowler. Visnovsky led all NHL defensemen with 50 assists last season, and was second amongst blue liners with 18 goals (losing out only to Dustin Byfuglien, who is a converted winger). The guy was a power play leader, tallying 31 special teams points, as well as skating over 24 minutes a night. Visnovsky was plus-18, which was only bested on the Anaheim roster by Lydman, who was an appalling plus-32 (the league lead was plus-33 (Zdeno Chara)). Lydman did the rest too, as he had 141 hits and 178 blocks. That block total was bested only by Beauchemin for the Ducks, who also had 122 hits of his own. The biggest question mark in Anaheim’s top four will be Fowler and the commencement of his second season. Last year, the 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft lit it up offensively, scoring 10 goals and 30 assists. But the rookie turned in a minus-25 for the year, which screams of some liability. Granted, plus/minus is not the best stat to use to grade a player’s helpfulness to the team, but Fowler needs to cut that minus in half if his second season can be seen as a rightful improvement to a young career that seems to have no limitations.
After those four, the Ducks can probably feel comfortable rolling Luca Sbisa and Kurtis Foster as the third defensive pairing, but we’ll see if those two hold their spots.
Anaheim’s offense beyond the top line is worrisome if Selanne hangs them up. Centering that line is Saku Koivu, who while aging can still hold his own and at times show flashes of his previous self. But the fact that anyone is debating whether he or Andrew Cogliano will be the second line center kind of says a lot. And let me just say, it has to be Koivu.

Also in the top six is Jason Blake, who has never really lived up to the humongous contract he signed in 2007. Blake will count for $4 million against the cap for Anaheim this year before the Ducks will be out from under that one. He contributed 16 goals and 16 assists in 76 games last year. If Selanne does not round out the top-six, the Ducks may be inclined to increase the role of former Bowling Green Falcon Dan Sexton, whose scoring totals would need to increase drastically in order to soften the blow of a Selanne retirement from scorched earth to mere meteorite collision.
While I really like Anaheim’s defensemen at the top, I don’t think the Ducks have enough depth in any aspect of the game to get back to the top (or second) of the Pacific Division. And if Jonas Hiller is unable to resume regular starting duties, watch out.
4th: Dallas Stars 2010-11: 95 points, 5th in division
I discovered something while doing the research for this write-up: I actually like the Dallas Stars. I blasted them about a month ago for not trading Brad Richards, and while that has left them in shambles at the center position, they are actually above average at wing and on defense. Who knows what goalie Kari Lehtonen will bring to the table this year, but the former #2 overall pick certainly has the talent to also be above average, which I would call the top 15 goalies in the NHL (30 teams, but account for the fact that some use two goalies frequently).
Let’s start with the things I love about the 2011-12 Stars. If Sheldon Souray can give Dallas anything, literally anything, then he makes the Stars’ defensive corps good. Not above average, but good. How that translates to the goals allowed stat remains to be seen, but Dallas has every reason to trust its defensemen.
Stephane Robidas is one of my favorite players in the NHL. The guy had 216 hits and 135 blocks last year, as well as 30 points (17 on special teams) while skating 24:31 per game. He’s a fantasy gem for leagues that calculate stats like those — you know, stats that translate to on-ice team success. And now he’ll have a true #1 running mate in Alex Goligoski, who I touched upon in the preview of the Atlantic Division under the section on the Penguins, who traded the D man last season for James Neal and Matt Niskanen. More on Neal’s departure later. But Goligoski could be a game changer for Dallas.
The University of Minnesota product put up 46 points last season with both teams, skated 22:14, blocked 106 shots and played a quarterback-type role on the power play. Pittsburgh could afford to lose that latter aspect of Goligoski’s game thanks to already having Kris Letang, but the PPQB is something that Dallas needed desperately. Robidas can handle those duties, but he’s better off being the second most offensively talented defenseman on the ice.
Also on the blue line are Trevor Daley, Nicklas Grossman, Mark Fistric and Adam Pardy. One of the above will be the odd man out, unless it’s Souray. Daley and Grossman could start out the year as the second pairing. Daley had 27 points and 124 blocks last year while skating over 22 minutes; Grossman hit 161 guys. Both finished last season a plus-7. I’ll admit my ignorance on Pardy’s game. He looks to me like the strongest candidate for healthy scratch-dom, but he’s got to have this $2 million cap hit for a reason, right? Either way, we’re debating third-line defensive pairings at this point, and I already like what Dallas has going on in front of that, so let’s move on.
The Stars are worthy of envy at the wings. Left winger Brendan Morrow is heading into his sixth season as the captain of the Stars, and his game is worthy of wearing the “C.” Watching him play usually makes me think of Clint Eastwood’s characters, which can only be taken as a great compliment. The guy does everything, complains about nothing, and has gold medals for Team Canada from the 2010 Olympics and 2004 World Championships. He has only the Stanley Cup left to join the Triple Gold Club, although I don’t think there’s any way that happens in Dallas in 2012. But, the Stars may be on the right track if they can add some centers.
Aside from Morrow, the Stars have a couple wingers with great hands who actually make that translate into scoring goals. Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn are supremely talented offensively. Having these wingers, specifically Benn, is the biggest reason the Stars could afford to trade away James Neal in order to get that much needed defensive piece in Goligoski.
The biggest question will be whether Benn and Eriksson will have a center who can set them up, or if they’ll be added to the class of Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik and all of the other sharp-shooting wingers who had to do it alone. It should be noted that neither Nash nor Gaborik will have that continued excuse anymore. Perhaps Benn and Eriksson will become the new poster boys for that club.
A guy who looks like he should be able to score with Benn and Eriksson is the freshly crowned champ, Michael Ryder. The enigmatic right wing seems to have all the tools but none of the consistency, as he has yet to reach the 60-point mark since his rookie season in 2003-04. It could be that we overrated his talent, or it could be that scoring in the 50s is a perfectly acceptable output for a second-line forward. But Ryder failed to approach even that number in his last two seasons in Boston, amassing only 74 points while playing all but three games since puck drop ’09. That’s an average of 37 points, and Dallas will want (need?) at least 10 more than that this year if they want to finish third in the division and have a shot at a return to the playoffs.
Below these four, Dallas has a couple wingers who can play center in Steve Ott and Vernon Fiddler. Both are good on faceoffs and physical in open play. The Stars may need one of them to center the second line, as they really have nobody after top center Mike Ribeiro thanks to the free departure of Richards on July 2 to New York. Dallas also has tough guy Adam Burish, who won the Cup in 2010 with Chicago and can be counted on to keep opponents from taking too many liberties on the rest of the talented Stars. Their lower lines are pretty much your stock NHL lower lines, although I really like Fiddler joining this team. He may play on the fourth line, but he tends to get things accomplished in his brief playing time. Watch him play and you’ll see how an average talent can make a career out of working hard and playing smart.
In goal, the Stars need Kari Lehtonen to just take ownership and get it done. He didn’t have the best team in front of him last year, but he certainly didn’t have the worst either. Lehtonen went 2.55 / .914 last year, good for 17th / 23rd in the league. There’s nothing wrong with having average peripherals while shouldering the bulk of the load for a team, but Lehtonen can do so much better. His career is starting to take a Van Wilder arc, as the guy with all the gifts who can’t seem to put it all together and ascend to world-class status. In his defense, last year was his first injury-free season since 2006-07, and there is still time for the 27 year-old to get the steady flow of games under his belt and show his improvement. But the time may be now, as he only has two years left on his contract at $3.55 million per, and in order to get another big one he’s going to need to play well.
Another reason he’ll need to play well is the lack of a competitive backup. Andrew Raycroft returns as the second stringer in Dallas, and while he’s fine, he’s not going to push for a sizable chunk of starts. I expect Lehtonen to start around 68 games, and I expect top 15 peripheral numbers at the least. Anything short of that, and the Van Wilder arc continues. Anything within that realm, and Dallas has an excellent shot at supplanting Anaheim and Phoenix as a playoff team out of the Pacific. Although, it would be nice if they could find the money (they’re around the cap floor) to go get a legitimate center.
5th: Phoenix Coyotes 2010-11: 99 points, 3rd in division
I spent the spring bowing down to the Phoenix Coyotes and lamenting fans and observers for failing to see the beauty with which the ‘Yotes played. So, I’m an idiot. The Coyotes sputtered, gave up the fourth seed to Anaheim (and fifth to Nashville), and were the only team to get swept out of the first round of the playoffs. Subtract the starting goalie, a top-line defenseman and my beloved Vern Fiddler, and I can’t see the Coyotes getting back to the playoffs for a third straight season.
The biggest bright spot on the team might be defenseman Keith Yandle, who skates smoothly and distributes the puck with precision. He had a cool 48 assists last year along with 11 goals, putting him at the A-table as far as offensive defensemen go in the NHL today. Derek Morris and Adrian Aucoin are serviceable top-four defensemen who can get their hits in. Aucoin can still contribute some points despite having just turned 38. Morris added 136 blocked shots last year.
It appears as if the fourth piece is going to again be Michal Rozsival, who was alright splitting time last year between the Rangers and Coyotes. What’s staggering is his $5 million cap hit this year. Either pick up your defense, pick up your scoring, or skate the hell out of some minutes. Rozsival was in the low 100s in hits and blocks last year (100 and 108), scored 21 points and only skated 21 minutes. Those are fine numbers for an NHL defenseman. That’s actually chipping in. But at $5 million, the Coyotes need a lot more from the man who has seen a decline in his play since signing that big four-year contract that is finally set to expire next summer. The Coyotes are rolling out this top four after losing Ed Jovanovski to Florida last month. Jovo was a big reason why the Coyotes qualified for the playoffs two years in a row.
Shane Doan led the Coyotes last year with 20 goals. Somehow, a team that had only one 20-goal scorer managed to place 8th in the west in total offense. This offense-by-committee squad of forwards is mostly returning, with the exceptions of Eric Belanger and Fiddler. Phoenix added lower-line forwards Raffi Torres and Boyd Gordon. Center Martin Hanzal is a Doan-like player, and should be fun to watch in his fifth NHL season. But in total, the Coyotes would need another season of contributions from everyone in order to stay afloat, and with the loss of Jovanovski I don’t think the team is more apt to create scoring chances. Then again, maybe it’s time for BizNasty2point0 to take his rightful spot on an NHL team’s second line…
…And we’re back. On top of needing at least the same offensive output, the Coyotes might need substantially more offense to win games given the loss of starting goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. They brought in Mike Smith from Tampa Bay, who had a really great end to his season, but I’m not positive that being able to string together some heady starts as the bona fide backup translates into certainty that Smith has figured out the mental side of being an everyday starter in the league. He had countless opportunities to be just that in Tampa Bay before Steve Yzerman decided that they needed to trade for Dwayne Roloson in the middle of last season, but Smith never consolidated any of his breaks. I will say he looked like a calm man this past spring, and I hope he has finally figured out what he needs to do to be consistent in the league, but I don’t think anyone can be certain that he has. Even if he has, how is a consistent Mike Smith automatically an equal to what Bryzgalov has given the Coyotes over the past few years? It’s not automatic, probably not even likely, and so I guess I have to continue to be a skeptic.
All things considered, Phoenix looks to me like the best candidates for last place in the Pacific this season.

The Vancouver Canucks grabbed an amusing 4-2 road win Sunday afternoon over the San Jose Sharks, making the series count 3-1 in favor of the Canucks for the third straight series.  Vancouver failed to put either Chicago or Nashville away on Game 5’s home ice, but will get a third crack at a fifth game clincher Tuesday night.

I was in and out for this game, but upon checking the stats two things jumped out at me.  It wasn’t all of the 5-on-3 goals that Vancouver got in the second period, nor the Sharks’ 0 for 5 power play fiasco.  First, San Jose gave the puck away 18 times in Game 4.  Conversely, Vancouver made only five charitable donations.  The takeaway numbers were 10 to 3 in favor of Vancouver as well.  Eighteen giveaways makes no sense in an all-in home playoff game.  This kind of a performance only adds fuel to the team’s detractors, and eventually the Sharks will mentally succumb and adopt the characteristics that they feel they are unfairly labeled with.  That is, of course, if they haven’t already done so.
The second stat that made me laugh was the shots on goal total.  San Jose 35, Vancouver 13.  That’s not backwards.  Vancouver scored four goals on thirteen shots, giving Antti Niemi a whopping nine saves and a laughable .692 save percentage.  Of course, this evaluation of Niemi isn’t entirely fair, since the Canucks scored three goals on three shots with the two-man advantages, but his even strength save percentage was still only .857.  Roberto Luongo’s, meanwhile, was a solid .923 before you count his 8 saves in killing off every Sharks power play.
This shot total paints a picture of a bullfight, where San Jose kept charging and coming close to scoring, only to see Vancouver dance aside at the last millisecond to not only dodge pain, but inflict embarrassment on the Sharks.  And to lose a game 4-2 in which you outshot your opponents 35 to 13, there’s no way to not feel some embarrassment, on top of some anger, and maybe even a touch of despair.  We’ll find out in Game 5.
Vancouver deserves a well done for grabbing the road split they wanted, and have the opportunity to finally get back to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1994.  Game 5 is Tuesday night at 9:00 p.m. ET, 6:00 p.m. PT in Vancouver.
Of note:  2010 league MVP Henrik Sedin assisted on all four Vancouver goals in Game 4.

As I wrote in the previous entry, we all seemed to have forgotten how best-of-7 series work when everyone was celebrating the death of the San Jose Sharks.  Color me not surprised, and now we have two conference finals series that have the favorites leading 2-1 and trying to grab a win on the road to fly home dormie.

But, the coolest thing about this weekend’s Game 4s is the start time.  Boston at Tampa Bay starts today (Saturday) at 1:30 p.m. ET, while Vancouver will try again at San Jose on Sunday, with puck drop scheduled for 3:00 p.m. ET.

These will be the last afternoon games of the season, as every game from here on out will start at 8:00 p.m. or later.  While hockey is certainly a nighttime sport, it is always neat to see important games played while the sun is high in the sky.  I’ve always felt like early games tended to favor the road team, as the crowd hasn’t had time to get revved up, and the home team might feel a little uncomfortable with the break in routine.  The road team is already uncomfortable because they are on the road, but if you have to play one last game before flying home, I’d have to think you would want to get started (and finished) as early as possible.  If the Canucks and Bruins are already going through the road team uneasiness, the last thing the Lightning or Sharks want to do is match their opponents’ altered routine.  Because of this, both Tampa Bay and San Jose will need to get off to a flying start and help the crowd forget that they’d rather be tanning.

Of the four teams remaining, only Vancouver has failed to win a recent afternoon game, and that’s because they haven’t had the chance. Tampa Bay throttled Pittsburgh 8-2 on the road, Boston destroyed Philadelphia 7-3 on the road, and San Jose beat Detroit 2-1 at home in recent afternoon games.  Vancouver has yet to play an early playoff game, but the Canucks were victorious at Los Angeles on March 5, the date of their most recent afternoon game.

Hope everyone has a good weekend and works in some NHL playoffs to their schedule.

First thing’s first:  well done to the Vancouver Canucks last night.  They played a very solid final forty minutes and turned a 2-2 game into a 7-3 victory.

But now everybody is declaring the series over, and piling on San Jose because they lost a road game by a lopsided score.  It’s amazing to me how people have decided, in seemingly every sport that has a “best-of-7” playoff series format, that each and every series is 90 to 100 percent over after Game 2.  It’s simply incredible to me.  Because the Canucks actually didn’t blow home ice advantage yet, that means that this series is over.  I couldn’t disagree more, and I still think Vancouver will win the series.

This desperate need to declare a series over and bash the “losing” team has become an epidemic in our caffeinated society that no longer has the patience to consider the possibility that things might change from the way they are today.  Today, the Canucks lead the series 2-0.  By the end of the weekend, it could be over in a sweep.  Or, it could be 2-2, if the Sharks are able to do what most elite teams feel they should do:  hold serve in the first two home games.  The series could even be 3-1 in favor of Vancouver, which would follow the trend of the Canucks’ first two series.  Just wondering, but how did each of those home Game 5s turn out when Vancouver had the opportunity to close out the series?  Oh that’s right, both series went six anyway.  But there’s no way this series could possibly turn out to be decent, right?  And a six game series, by definition, is a good series.  That doesn’t mean that good hockey had to be played, but it means the losing team had that opportunity to push the series seven games, and therefore, it was a competitive series.  But, there’s no way the Sharks can make a competitive series out of this.  Not a chance.

Yesterday we looked at how in the previous two seasons, 75% of games at this stage of the playoffs and later are won by the home team.  That number held up perfectly through the first four games of the conference finals, as Vancouver went 2-0 at home, and Boston went 1-1, for a combined 3-1, or 75%.  If this number holds up over the next four games, then San Jose and Tampa Bay will combine to lose 1 of their 4 home games over the next four days.  So the sweep would be out the window, and there would be a 50% chance that Tampa Bay is the team that loses a home game, and both series would go back north tied at two games apiece.  I’m not saying this 75% statistic will always hold true, but I’m saying people need to stop declaring a series over after two games, because history has shown time and time again that situations change.

I realize that a lot of the Shark bashing today comes because of who the Sharks are — the team that always loses when it’s gut check time.  But, much as I’ve written about the misconception that Vancouver “chokes,” I think we should really look closer at this so-called San Jose “choking” problem.

We could go all the way back to the inception of the franchise, and I would get to show why 2004 was not at all a choke job, but I’d like to keep it based on post-lockout seasons.  One reason for this is that 2006 was the year the Sharks traded for Joe Thornton, and also because so much of the team that is relevant today did not play for San Jose prior to the lockout.

Since the lockout, only last year was San Jose eliminated in less than six games.  In each of the other four losses, the Sharks figured out a way to get two of the first five games, which should not be considered embarrassing.  Sure, losing a series is never good, but nobody before Chicago last year was able to put a shellacking on the Sharks in a playoff series.  Also, look at the teams San Jose lost to.  In 2006, Edmonton had already beaten top-seeded Detroit, and came within one win of the Stanley Cup.  In ’07, the Sharks were beaten by the Red Wings.  In ’08, San Jose dropped a disappointing six-game series to the hot Dallas Stars, who were the talk of the playoffs for coming together and displaying how to implement “playoff hockey.”  In ’09, San Jose got beaten in the first round by a nightmare 8 seed in the Anaheim Ducks.  I can’t see how anyone would have been shocked by that result, as the Ducks were only two years removed from being Stanley Cup champions, and sported the same roster, which was better than San Jose’s roster anyway.  Then came last year, when San Jose beat Detroit in five games before getting swept by Chicago.

So I would be failing to see where the unquestioned labels of “chokers” and “heartless” come from, except that I know how much of a fact-ignoring, non-reflective, mob mentality society we’ve become.  Don’t become one of the masses.  Wait and see, like all wise people do.

With all of this said, of course I think that Vancouver will win the series, because I thought they were a little bit better than San Jose coming in, and they already have a 2-0 lead.  But this is to say, “I think Vancouver will win the series,” not “this series is unequivocally over.”  I’ve seen way too many playoff series to say something that short-sighted.

And didn’t the old adage used to go something like, “A series hasn’t started until a team wins on the road?”  Come to think of it, that phrase had never been more popular that it was in the last few years.  I guess we have already scrapped that idea, or forgotten about it.  Decaffeination is dead.

Today is Monday, and there are no games on the NHL schedule, the IIHF World Championships are over, and there’s not even an expletive NBA game on tonight.  Seems like the perfect time to try to make sense of these conference finals matchups.

I touched on the first game of the Bruins / Lightning series the other day, but as far as projecting forward, this is as good a time as any.  My general feeling is that people shouldn’t overreact to the first game of a seven game series.  With this said, I already liked Boston coming into the playoffs to reach this round — the same cannot be said for Tampa Bay.  Like everyone else, I liked Boston’s punishing defenders, who can also get involved offensively.  I also thought the Bruins possessed a lot of different types of scoring options, from shooters like Recchi, Krejci, and Horton to the power forwards like Milan Lucic.  And of course, everyone loves Tim Thomas.

What I didn’t seem to quite understand until right around Game 2 of the second round was both how physical this Tampa Bay team can be, and how unhindered they are on the blue line.  The Lightning’s trade deadline acquisition of defensive defenseman (I hate that this phrase has to be stated, but it does nowadays) Eric Brewer from St. Louis.  The last time a team captain got traded in midseason, Joe Thornton collected the Art Ross and Hart Memorial Trophies as league leading scorer and MVP.  Brewer certainly isn’t up for MVP in June, but his arrival has shifted the way Tampa Bay has seen its own strengths and weaknesses.  When added to the early season trade for goalie Dwayne Roloson, the Brewer deal solidified the Lightning as a team that not only could light the lamp in the regular season, but could play the defense necessary to win playoff hockey games.  Kudos to Steve Yzerman for getting these deals done in his first season as general manager in Tampa.  Tuesday, the Lightning have a golden opportunity to knock Boston to the mat for an eight-count before boarding the plane to Tampa for Games 3 and 4.  I do not think the Bruins will go into Tampa and win both games, as they did in Montreal in round one, and therefore I think it is imperative that Boston finds a way to out muscle Tampa Bay and play the responsible hockey needed to keep the Lightning off the scoresheet as much as possible.

As far as the Canucks / Sharks opener goes, I hear a lot of talk about the Sharks choking and the Canucks using last night’s third period as a stepping stone to more victories in the series.  I have to say, a loss in Game 1 would have been far more costly to Vancouver than it is to San Jose.  First, and obviously, Vancouver was at home, and therefore “needed” to defend home ice.  But second, I sort of get the feeling that San Jose really likes this matchup with the Canucks.  It is true that Vancouver took 7 points from San Jose this year, compared to the Sharks’ 3, but anybody who has watched the NHL this year has to think that San Jose was just the slightest of underdogs coming in.  San Jose’s perfect 5-0 overtime record is still intact in these playoffs, while the Canucks have gone just 2-2 in the extra frame.  And San Jose isn’t really giving anything up to Vancouver line for line except for probably defensemen three through six.  That does matter, but not to the extent that San Jose “had to” win Game 1.  It was a solid game played by both teams, but Vancouver played better and deserved to win probably by one goal, which they did.  The Canucks did that in the last series against Nashville as well, only to have the Predators fire back with a vengeance in a Game 2 road victory that saw them outshoot the Canucks 46-33.  It will be funny to see how many flip-floppers there will be regarding this series if San Jose is able to do something similar in Vancouver for Game 2, which is Wednesday night.

And a final note:  it is being widely speculated that Winnipeg will indeed get a team next year, but that it will be the Atlanta Thrashers, and not the previously suspected Phoenix Coyotes.  I don’t care to discuss such things until announcements are made, but the talk is that it is almost a certainty.  What’s more interesting is that the Winnipeg franchise would be playing eastern conference hockey next year in a division with Washington, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Florida, because the NHL Board of Governors does not have enough time to get together and vote on this small matter of realignment in time for it to go into effect for the fall of 2011.  After next season, Winnipeg would then move to the west, and make way for a western team to head over to the east.  It has been speculated that the team would be Nashville, as it would make geographic sense to put them in the southeast division with the above-mentioned four teams.  Like I said, until announcements are made, I’ll save my time and yours.

Thanks for reading, cheers.

*** And a congratulations to Finland for winning the 2011 IIHF World Championship with a five-goal third period in the gold medal game over Sweden, to win the game 6-1. ***