The Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks clinched their respective divisions on Sunday, but like a lot of contending teams it seems like the last couple weeks have not gone that smoothly.
If you look at the top three teams in each conference, it speaks to how the road to the Stanley Cup doesn't directly go through any one city.
In past years, you could see a definitive team or two that was a stand alone club. But not this year. Each of these six teams have blemishes (and maybe that's a result of the salary cap evening out talent) but it certainly will make a for a wide open field once the playoffs start.
In the Eastern Conference, the Capitals have not named a playoff starter and this isn't terribly unusual. As soon as Bruce Boudreau does name his No. 1, it won't quiet any second guessing. It will be easiest to name Jose Theodore, who had a fantastic stretch from the middle of January until three starts ago - struggling twice before picking up a solid victory. He started the first playoff game last year and was replaced for the duration by Semyon Varlamov (who has battled groin and knee problems this year). Both goalies have virtually the same save percentage and that makes the call a tough one and virtually a toss-up.
Playing goal is not an easy job in Washington. While the team in front of you can outscore a lot of problems, you have make difficult saves each night because there are times that the Caps get caught running around in their zone. Now I don't believe they play the "wrong way" (as R.J. Umberger of the Blue Jackets suggests), but the Caps' unrest in goal can't be a constant if they hope to surpass last year's playoff run.
Buffalo may not scare people from top to bottom, but they will be a difficult opponent. They have the best goalie this year in Ryan Miller, the rookie of the year in Tyler Myers and are a tenacious, fast team. Their Achilles Heel might be their lack of size up front. And with injuries to Patrick Kaleta and leading scorer Tim Connolly, their depth will be tested. The Sabres have 12 players with 10 or more goals, but they may get worn down as the grind moves into a third series.
The Devils are certainly intriguing. I like this team, their head coach Jacques Lemaire and their addition of Ilya Kovalchuk. But their record since Jan. 1 (17-16-6) is poor. They can't seem to get anything going, so it's tough to really believe they can find consistency for the bigger picture.
In the Western Conference, the issues seem pretty clear cut for me. If you're confident in the Sharks' ability to turn up their collective playoff grit, stand over here at this spot - but you won't have to wait long becuase it's a pretty short line! I think their defence will be tested by speed as Douglas Murray and Niclas Wallin are not speedsters. Joe Thornton and his crew have the anvil of past playoff flops around their necks. And is this the year that goaltender Evgeni Nabokov steals a series? He hasn't been terrible in the past, but the Sharks need more than he has given.
The Blackhawks' loss of Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson has thrown their defence into flux and the long time pair of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook is being split up to try to get some balance on the back end. They are not deep without these their injured defencemen, though Campbell feels he might be ready sooner than many expect. That leads, of course, to goaltending - where Antti Niemi will be the starter. It's hard to know how the rookie will play as he has no NHL playoff experience. Can he be consistent? No one knows, but it just has to be him in net - and not Cristobal Huet (who looked like he was playing dodgeball in the last month).
As for Vancouver, it seems odd to say that scoring goals won't be a problem, but it sure does seem that way. Mikael Samuelsson returned to the lineup on Sunday and with Steve Bernier getting closer to returning, the Canucks have a lot of options up front. And throw Michael Grabner's name into the mix as well. The speedster had his first NHL hat trick in Anaheim on Friday and coach Alain Vigneault will have a lot of parts to move around that will make the Canucks tough to shut down for long stretches. The defence is an entirely different story. Willie Mitchell's return (from a concussion suffered when Evgeni Malkin shoved him into the boards in January) seems unlikely at this point and this leaves their defence very thin. Check out the struggling Roberto Luongo's goals-against average since Mitchell went down. It's three-quarters of a goal worse since then! The Canucks better hope Luongo can find some magic soon, because his post-Olympic numbers have not been inspiring. Defenceman Andrew Alberts was picked up at the deadline for depth, but he has looked way too slow to play in the Western Conference after playing his previous 325 games in the East. Kevin Bieksa has not found his game at all and the Canucks may be forced to ride their Top 4 guys to big minutes. That's always a dangerous way to go if you hope to be around for a long time.
So who do you like? Me, I'm going to go with Washington and Chicago - but with only a little bit of conviction!
1) Speaking of the Canucks' defencemen, how about Shane O'Brien? He was basically banished from the team for showing up late for practice and O'Brien can't seem to get out of his own way. At one point, he weighed 227 pounds. He weighed in after the Olympic break closer to 240! Are you kidding me? Who can put on 13 pounds DURING a season? This is a classic case of a role player becoming way more of the story than a team needs him to be. At times, a player will forget that the game affords him a lifestyle, not the other way around. This isn't a new problem for O'Brien - it actually came with him from Tampa. He has been riding the bike and skating on his own to get back in the good graces, but he needs to take his career seriously or he won't have the one he should.
2) Alex Kovalev is the most talented teammate I ever played with. But is there any clearer reason why he is about the most frustrating guy than this? He recently scored his first goal since Feb. 14 and his first POINT in 12 games, but said he wasn't in a slump! "That's what you guys call it,” he said. “I play the game I always play. If it works, it works". Eugene Melnyk must be thrilled with that go-getter attitude. What do you expect for $5 million? How about passion? How about consistent effort?
3) The Philadelphia Flyers lost 1-0 to Montreal on Friday, a game where they were robbed by Jaroslav Halak. But they struck quickly against Detroit on Sunday en route to a huge 4-3 victory. Dan Carcillo and Ian Laperriere ran around, stayed disciplined throughout the game and made life miserable for Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom. When cap restrictions come off for the playoffs, Detroit will have Brad May around to try to mitigate that tactic. But I thought Carcillo and Laperriere were terrific on Sunday. The Flyers are teetering on the cut line, so how big is their season ending home-and-home with the ninth place New York Rangers going to be?
Hi Ray, I was wondering what you thought about teams designating a "star player" whose contract wouldn't count against the salary cap? I think it would help teams out a lot by freeing up some cash to sign a player who can compliment their star!
Adrian in Saskatoon
There are many ideas and thoughts about the salary cap. Just think about what your suggestion can mean. Each team would pull a contract off their cap. The big revenue teams would certainly have an advantage and that is one of the reasons for the cap. Look at baseball, a sport with no cap. While several different teams have won recently, how'd you like to be a fan in Kansas City, San Diego, or Toronto for that matter? The best teams are in a different stratosphere. There are unwieldy things about the cap, but I think it has done the job overall to give more teams a chance.
It seems that some cities, such as Edmonton, Minnesota and Atlanta, always have a difficult time attracting marquee free agents, whereas other teams such as Detroit and the New York Rangers make big signings every year. What factors does a player consider when evaluating offers from different teams? I've read that everything from the city's tax rate, to crime rates, to weather and beauty affect their decision. How did you come to the decision to sign with the Rangers and Thrashers?
Lots of things go into a choice and all the factors you mention are significant. And everyone looks at these things differently. I signed with the Rangers because I was down to two teams - the Rangers and the Stars. The Rangers were a year removed from the Cup and the Stars had missed the playoffs the previous year. I felt the Rangers were a better team and I would have a better chance to win there. They offered more money as well and this was my first big payday in my 11 years to that point. It didn't work so well however - I was traded to L.A. seven months later! That was way West and way farther from a chance to win. With Atlanta, it was the best offer I had at age 35 coming off four knee surgeries.
I was wondering if the fact that Washington and Vancouver players hold the Top 9 spots for plus-minus stats have any significant value heading into postseason play, or if it is just a side effect of them being the two of the most offensive teams in the league?
A bit of both really. You can't generally be a big plus player if your team doesn't score a lot, although you have to look at that stat with a grain of salt. It can't be the total story, but you don' t often find any teams that win with a whole bunch of minus players.
Do you get the sense that the time has come where a move out of Calgary may be beneficial for both the club and Jarome Iginla? Given that he's 33 and with what he did at the Olympics, his value may never be any higher than it will be this summer. With the Flames clearly entering a transition period (a period that could last the rest of Iginla's contract), I think it might be best for both sides if they looked at dealing him to a team that has a chance to win sooner rather than later. With a $7 million dollar contract, a deal with the right team would be challenging. Do you think teams would take that chance on Iginla at 33, and if so, what might they get for him?
Regards, Jason in North Delta
The last year of Iginla's contract (2012-13), is also the last year for big dollar deals for Robin Regehr and Miikka Kiprusoff and leaves one more year on Jay Bouwmeester's deal. The Flames have $26 million committed to six players in that last season. To move Iginla wouldn't be that difficult, but you would have to take some significant salary back as the other team would have to move some. The balance would be who the Flames get back. I did receive several letters this week about this topic, split pretty evenly about keeping Iginla or moving him. For me, I'd keep Jarome, but he may have to re invent his game a bit (which isn't impossible) to find a way to get more quality scoring chances on a regular basis.
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