Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Which holdovers could make the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2016?

The Hockey Hall of Fame announced its class of 2015 yesterday, and it’s a big one. The Hall will welcome seven new members this winter: five players and two inductees in the builder’s category.

The big name is Nicklas Lidstrom, the seven-time Norris Trophy winner who’d been considered an absolute first-ballot lock since well before he retired. He’ll be joined by former teammate Sergei Fedorov, who also gets in on the first try. Fedorov wasn’t quite a slam dunk, but he was close, and certainly deserves the honor.

Two other picks will cause at least a little bit of discussion, although for very different reasons. Phil Housley finally gets the call after waiting since 2006. He’s the fourth-highest-scoring defenseman of all time and had nearly 400 points more than the next-highest-scoring blueliner who wasn’t in, but his defensive shortcomings had hurt his candidacy — he’ll be one of a very small group of HOF defensemen with a minus rating over the course of his career.

And then there’s Chris Pronger. On merit, there’s no doubt Pronger belongs in the Hall — he was arguably the best non-Lidstrom defenseman of his era, and is the only blueliner since Bobby Orr to win the MVP. He’s also technically still an active player, despite suffering a career-ending injury in 2011, and that’s where this gets messy. He’s still under contract, and was even traded just a few days ago. But the Hall had already ruled him eligible months ago, so he was going to get in.

The Hall also welcomed three other inductees: builders Bill Hay and Peter Karmanos Jr., and longtime Team USA defenseman (and gold-medal winner) Angela Ruggiero, who becomes the fourth woman honored.

The seven honorees will be inducted in November. In the meantime, it’s time to start picking through the snubs and near misses as we try to figure out who has the inside track on the class of 2016. There aren’t any especially impressive candidates coming into the pool next year, which opens up the field for some players who missed the cut this time.

Here are 10 players who were passed over this year who may have the best case for induction in 2016.

Mark Recchi

Eligible since: 2014

The numbers: 577 goals and 1,533 points over a 22-year career. He won three Cups, played in seven All-Star Games, and was a second-team All-Star once.

The case for: The 1,533-point total ranks 12th all time, and everyone else in the top 25 is either already in or will go in on the first ballot as soon as they’re eligible (Teemu Selanne and Jaromir Jagr). Offensive production has always been the key criteria for induction, so seeing a guy with Recchi’s massive career totals left out seems bizarre.

The case against: Recchi is the classic example of a player who was good for a long time but was never really considered elite. He was very good in the early ’90s, and was a consistent producer well into his forties, but he was never in the conversation for best player in the league, or even close to it.

If I had a vote: If we were picking between guys with a high peak vs. guys who were very good for a long time, I’d take the peak over longevity. But Recchi’s top years were pretty good, and there does come a point when a guy’s career numbers get so high that he has to get in. I think Recchi is right around that zone, so while I don’t mind seeing him wait a bit, he’d get my vote to go in eventually.

Bottom line: Everyone seems to assume Recchi will get in someday. Maybe next year is the year.

Dave Andreychuk

Eligible since: 2009

The numbers: 640 goals, 1,338 points, two All-Star Games.

The case for: He scored the 14th-most goals in NHL history, and every eligible player ahead of him was a slam dunk. In fact, other than Recchi, Andreychuk has over 100 more goals than any other eligible player. That’s stunning, and feels like it should be enough to get him in on its own. He’s also one of the few players to have lifted the Stanley Cup as a captain, having done so in 2004 as the veteran leader on an otherwise young Lightning team.

The case against: Along with Recchi, Andreychuk is the poster child for the “long career, big totals, good but never great” class of player. He played in an All-Star Game only twice and never got significant votes for any major award, and it’s fair to say that nobody ever dragged their kids to the rink to see Andreychuk play. He also racked up most of those goals playing in the high-flying ’80s and early ’90s (although that’s not as big a factor as you might think; on an era-adjusted basis he still ranks 18th all time).

If I had a vote: I’ve lobbied for Andreychuk’s name to be featured more prominently in the HOF discussion; that he rarely generates any sort of buzz is baffling to me. That said, I’m not sure I’d vote for him, for the same reason I wouldn’t have voted for Dino Ciccarelli and would at least hesitate on Recchi.

Bottom line: It doesn’t seem like Andreychuk will ever get in, and if that’s the case, that record of 640 goals for a non-Hall-of-Famer will probably stand forever.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, June 29, 2015

The most (and least) surprising moments from NHL draft weekend

The NHL’s draft weekend is, in theory, a pretty straightforward affair. It’s the annual chance to divide up all the incoming young talent, with teams making their picks, posing for a few photos, and heading home.

In reality, draft weekend often ends up feeling like 90 percent of the league’s offseason crammed into a few days. The combination of having all 30 front offices in one city, incoming cap space, and free agency looming just days away builds up into a whirlwind of rumors, speculation, and (eventually) action.

Some of it works out the way we expect. Some of it doesn’t. So let’s take a look back at this year’s just-concluded draft weekend in stifling Sunrise, Florida, by breaking down all the major moves based on just how surprising they were.

Connor McDavid going first overall: 0/100 — No surprise here; we’ve known that McDavid would be the first overall pick of the 2015 draft for the last three years. He’s the most heavily hyped prospect since Sidney Crosby, and his ridiculous numbers in junior this year — he had 120 points in just 47 games — just reaffirmed his status as the game’s Next Big Thing.

The question now is this: How big? And how quickly? McDavid goes to an Oilers franchise that hasn’t been good at anything other than winning draft lotteries in almost a decade. His arrival, and the front office overhaul the franchise underwent while anticipating it, should spell the end of the Oilers’ misery. The question is how quickly he can get them into the playoffs, and then into Cup contention.

We have some history to look back on. Crosby had 102 points as a rookie in the high-scoring post-lockout 2005-06 season, but Pittsburgh didn’t return to the playoffs until the following year. The Penguins went to the Cup final the year after that, and then won it all in 2009. Alexander Ovechkin debuted the same year as Crosby, but the Caps didn’t make the playoffs until his third season, and they still haven’t been to a final. The Blackhawks debuted the double whammy of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in 2007-08, missed the playoffs, and had won their first Stanley Cup by 2010.

So if you’re an Oilers fan, there’s your realistic window: one more tough season, playoff favorite status the year after that, and Stanley Cup contention soon after. It’s no sure thing, of course, but I’m guessing long-suffering Oilers fans will take it.

McDavid’s selection was the least surprising moment of the entire weekend. Well, except for this one …

This whole thing being a disaster: 0/100 — Let’s play a game called “How the hell did this happen?”

Scene: League headquarters.

NHL executive: “So, Connor McDavid has finally arrived in the NHL. How can we make the best possible first impression with this incredibly marketable new asset?”

Intern: “Hey, has anyone checked to see if the owner of the Oilers would want to awkwardly corner him on live television, then babble on about how wonderful his terrible organization is while blatantly reading off a cue card?”

NHL executive: “Great idea. Did anyone check it with Connor?”

Intern: “Sure did. He said he’d spend the entire segment visibly trying to swallow his own tongue.”

NHL executive: “Awesome, let’s do it!”

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, June 26, 2015

2105 NHL draft preview

The history of the NHL draft has been, to use a polite term, inconsistent. In the 1970s, when the whole concept was still relatively new, nothing made the slightest bit of sense. Things had stabilized a bit by the 1980s, although there were still wide disparities in approaches and every now and then a team would just decide not to show up. The 1990s were filled with draft floor intrigue and costly busts, and even at the turn of the century, it was still fairly common to see the no. 1 pick traded away.

But by the time this current decade arrived, we were well into the cap era and most teams were approaching things in pretty much the same way. “Build through the draft” is every team’s mantra, top picks are almost never traded, the days of the overseas sleeper are long past, and everyone seems to be working from essentially the same information. The bad news is that all of this makes the draft a lot less fun. The good news is that, in theory at least, it should make things a little bit easier to predict.

This year’s draft is in Sunrise, Florida, with Round 1 happening tonight in prime time and everything else squished into a few hours tomorrow. In an attempt to figure out what might happen, let’s take a look at some pieces of conventional wisdom that have emerged over the years, and how they could apply to some of the top prospects who’ll be hearing their names called.

Conventional wisdom no. 1: Sure-thing franchise players are gold

In the cap era, there’s been at least some vague sense of uncertainty over the top pick in every year with the exception of 2005 (Sidney Crosby) and maybe 2008 (Steven Stamkos). Other than that, we’ve always had some degree of suspense over whose name would be called first.

That ends this year. Breaking: The Oilers are going to take Connor McDavid with the no. 1 overall pick. And after that, inside sources indicate that the Sabres are leaning toward Jack Eichel.

And that makes perfect sense, because McDavid and Eichel are two of the most highly regarded draft prospects the league has ever seen. McDavid has been hyped as the next Crosby for years, and he’s considered such a sure thing that there was plenty of speculation certain teams were tanking the 2014-15 season to increase their odds of landing him. (But don’t worry, the NHL assured us this never happens.)

Ironically, after all of that intentional losing, the draft lottery was won by the one terrible team in the league that really was trying its very best. While the Oilers’ lottery win wasn’t the ideal outcome for the league, it certainly shook up a franchise that’s been mired in misery for almost a decade. McDavid has the talent to single-handedly make the Oilers an instant playoff possibility, and he probably makes them Stanley Cup contenders sooner or later. He’s that good.

Eichel is good, too, and in any other year he would be a lock to go no. 1. This isn’t any other year, though, so when the Sabres lost the lottery and GM Tim Murray didn’t try especially hard to mask his disappointment, it was natural to view Eichel as a consolation prize. True as that may be, he’s one hell of a Plan B, and the few Sabres fans who haven’t already moved into the “We never wanted McDavid anyway” denial stage will get there pretty quickly once they get to watch him up close.

So McDavid will go first and Eichel will go second. That much we know. After that, things get interesting.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, June 25, 2015

My NHL Awards ballot

The NHL awards took place last night, broadcast from their traditional home (and, let’s be honest, soon-to-be expansion city) in Las Vegas. There wasn’t much suspense over the MVP, but a handful of other awards were tough calls. Who’d take home the Norris? What about the Calder? Would Rob Riggle be able to get a decent laugh out of this crowd?

This was my second time having a vote as a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. Last year, filling out my ballot was a struggle. This year’s ended up being similar: a fairly straightforward vote for the Hart, an extremely tight race for the Norris, and everything else sort of spread out in between.

Here’s a look at who won what, as well as my own ballot for the awards that the PHWA votes on.

Hart Trophy (Most Valuable Player)

Winner: Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

No surprise here. Price was the heavy favorite, having produced one of the better goaltending seasons in recent memory for a Canadiens team that was otherwise good-but-not-especially-great. There will always be some resistance to the idea of a goalie winning MVP — similar to pitchers in baseball, because some voters just can’t get past the “they already have their own award” hurdle — but it does happen, and as the season wore on, a solid consensus emerged that the award was Price’s to lose. (Price also won the Ted Lindsay Award, the player of the year as voted on by fellow players.)

My ballot:

1. Carey Price, Canadiens

2. Sidney Crosby, Penguins

3. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals

4. John Tavares, Islanders

5. Devan Dubnyk, Wild

I had Crosby higher than most, but I’m fine with that. As you can see, I have no issue giving my vote to a goaltender, but the Dubnyk pick was the one I went back and forth on the most, since it’s basically based on a half-season. But it was one hell of a half-season, and if saving a team’s entire campaign doesn’t qualify as valuable, then I guess I’m missing something.

Vezina Trophy (Best Goaltender)

Winner: Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

Again, no shock here. If Price was considered the league’s most valuable player, it would be tough to make the case he wasn’t also the best goalie. The only surprise was that it wasn’t unanimous, with three voters going with someone else as their first pick.

My ballot: None. The Vezina is picked by the GMs, but I would have voted for Price.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

What five of the smartest moves of the 2014 offseason can teach us about 2015

We’re now officially a few days into the 2015 offseason, which means we’re also just a year or so away from knowing how badly everyone screwed it up.

After all, that’s the way NHL offseasons usually go. There’s lots of excitement as the moves are being made, with plenty of blind optimism countered by an occasional unexplained sense of dread. And then, after enough time has passed, the benefit of hindsight kicks in and we realize that most of what happened was a mistake.

Take last year. We saw a busy summer of trades, signings, re-signings, and others deals, and as with most years, the majority of the big moves didn’t work out. Some seemed fine at the time, but turned out to be busts. Some were widely panned by everyone from the beginning, and everyone turned out to be right. And some moves worked out reasonably well, but for various reasons didn’t quite provide the contender-making boost that teams were hoping for — we can file the acquisition of big names like Jason Spezza, Paul Stastny, Ryan Miller, and Jarome Iginla into that category.

But there are always a few exceptions, and some of last year’s moves did work out — brilliantly in some cases. So today, let’s put on our 20/20 hindsight glasses and take a look at five of the best transactions of the 2014 offseason to see what we can learn from them heading into this summer.

1. The Islanders Bolster the Blue Line

The move: OK, we’re cheating a bit here, since we’re actually looking at two moves, but they were similar enough in timing and intent that we’ll lump them together.

Coming off a brutal 2013-14 season, the Islanders were reasonably well stocked with offensive talent, but needed big help in goal and on the blue line. They addressed the former by trading for the rights to Jaroslav Halak and then signing him before free agency, which is a move that we could also include on this list if you’re willing to count May as the offseason.

That still left the defense, and as the summer wore on it looked like GM Garth Snow had struck out. Then, less than a week before opening night, the rumor mill churned to life with reports that the Isles had acquired a defenseman. It was Boston’s Johnny Boychuk. No, wait, scratch that, it was Chicago’s Nick Leddy. Eventually, the source of the confusion became clear: The Islanders had actually landed both guys on the same day. The moves addressed a need, the price was reasonable, and the Isles went on to post their first 100-point season in more than 30 years.

The lesson: In addition to the timing and the position, both trades had another factor in common: They involved teams that would have liked to have kept the players, but were forced to make tough choices because of looming salary-cap crunches. It’s not hard to see how that lesson could apply to this coming offseason, as several teams will once again be tight against a cap that could come in lower than projected. That includes both the Bruins and Blackhawks yet again, but they’re far from the only ones.

With the cap not rising much this year, teams may be under more pressure than ever to cut contracts, and they probably won’t be able to wait until October to do it. As the Islanders showed, some available cap room, a few inexpensive assets to dangle, and a little bit of patience can add up to a nice little bargain or two.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, June 19, 2015

The 2015 offseason guide

The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup four days ago, but you could be forgiven if you’ve already forgotten about that. Based on their reports from Wednesday’s media event, even the Chicago players are a little fuzzy on the details at this point.

As for the rest of us, we’re just doing what hockey fans do: forgetting all about the just-concluded playoffs and immediately moving into offseason mode. And that’s probably a good thing, since the NHL doesn’t exactly give us much of a breather. The offseason has already arrived, with buyout and arbitration windows opening up and just more than one week until the entry draft. Here’s a look at everything you need to know to get you through the next few days and weeks.

The Draft

The entry draft happens next Friday and Saturday at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, and unlike recent years there won’t be much suspense over the top picks. The first round will open with the official coronation of Connor McDavid as the league’s Next Big Thing, not to mention the latest savior of the Edmonton Oilers. After that, the Sabres will pick Jack Eichel, and GM Tim Murray will try really, really hard to seem happy about it.

That’s when things will get unpredictable, as the next tier of top prospects could go in any order. The Coyotes hold the third pick and could opt for defensemen Noah Hanifin or Ivan Provorov, or take one of the top forwards, like Dylan Strome or Mitch Marner. Their choice will dictate what the Maple Leafs, Hurricanes, and Devils do with the next picks, and whether any other teams want to swoop in and move up. It should lead to an interesting opening round of a draft class that’s considered reasonably strong if not top-heavy. We’ll have a full preview next week.

Of course, as has become tradition, the actual picks may be overshadowed by the wheeling and dealing that goes on down on the draft floor. Which brings us to …

The Trade Market

You remember blockbuster trades. They were those things that used to happen all the time and were amazing fun for fans to argue about, right up until every GM in the league got timid and decided the salary cap gave them plausible cover to stop doing their jobs. Ringing any bells? Vaguely?

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup... again

One of those odd unwritten rules of pro hockey is that your entire life revolves around winning the Stanley Cup, but when you’re one game away from actually doing it, you have to pretend like you haven’t noticed. You have to claim it’s just another game, and maybe even feign some degree of surprise that anyone would treat it any other way.

So Monday, hours away from a chance at capturing their third Stanley Cup in six years, that’s what the Blackhawks did. After their morning skate, player after player swore that the night would be like any other game. They repeated it like a mantra, almost robotically. Just another game. No big deal. It’s only a championship on the line. For their part, the Lightning were just as coy, shrugging off any suggestions that having their very playoff lives on the line made this game any sort of big deal.

The charade lasted all morning, right up until Lightning coach Jon Cooper addressed the media. He was asked whether this was, indeed, just another game.

“No chance,” he replied, incredulous. “The Stanley Cup’s in the building. I can’t believe they would say, ‘Oh, it’s just another game.’”

“We know it’s just not another game,” he continued, gaining steam as he went. “This is much different than Game 1. You got to win or you go home. On the other side, you know what happens if they win.”

“No. I don’t like to sugarcoat anything. This is the reality of the business we’re in.”

He’s right, of course, even if he’s not supposed to say it. This wasn’t just another game. As it turns out, it would be the last game of the series and the season, and the one that saw a new dynasty crowned. And it would be the night the reality Cooper spoke of finally caught up with the Lightning.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Stanley Cup final gets weird

“To me, this series has been expect the unexpected.”

That was Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper on Saturday night, after his team had dropped a 2-1 decision on home ice in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final. He was offering the observation in response to a question about whether back-to-back 2-1 final scores meant that the series had settled into a defensive struggle, but it was probably a comforting message to deliver in the bigger picture right now. That’s because today, with the Blackhawks leading the series 3-2 and holding home ice for Monday’s Game 6, the expectation is that Chicago is about to win the Stanley Cup.

Tonight marks the first time in the modern era that the Blackhawks will have a chance to skate the Cup on home ice. Given their well-documented excess of talent, experience, and, yes, resiliency, blowing it now to a Lightning team that’s young and hurting would seem to go against the script.

And that’s where the good news for Tampa Bay kicks in, because so far this matchup hasn’t much gone according to plan. Patrick Kane and Steven Stamkos can’t score, but Cedric Paquette and Antoine Vermette can. The series has been the closest we’ve ever seen — it’s the first time in final history that no team has held a two-goal lead at any point through five games — yet we’ve somehow avoided any overtime. And every now and then, an injured goalie who sometimes seems like he can barely stand decides to charge out of his net to body check his own defenseman. (More on that last bit in a second, since it turns out to be important.)

Given all that, it made a certain sort of sense when the hockey world arrived back in Tampa last weekend to find that the downtown had been taken over by an anime convention, with the streets full of cosplaying fans dressed as superheroes and cartoon characters. When you’ve got a Stanley Cup that refuses to make much sense, why not mix in a few grown men dressed as Pikachu?

Somehow, it all worked together. Over here is an enthusiastic 16-year-old with a lightsaber getting dropped off at the entrance by his mom. Over there is an unheralded 21-year-old rookie going head-to-head with All-Stars and winning. This lady is pretending she can cast magic spells. That guy is pretending he didn’t bite anyone. Here’s Captain America, there’s Captain Everything, and the whole time you’re just thinking, Why not? Why the hell not? Who ever said any of this should make sense?

And so, it goes without saying, the big moment from Saturday’s game didn’t come off of a brilliant rush or a sterling defensive effort. No, it came six minutes into a scoreless game, on a seemingly harmless Blackhawks clearing attempt into the Lightning zone that defenseman Victor Hedman was heading back to handle. Patrick Sharp was on him, but not in any sort of dangerous way, and Hedman was ready to chip the puck off the boards to send Stamkos off on a breakout when … well, see for yourself.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, June 12, 2015

Grab bag: The case of the disappearing Cup winner

In this week's grab bag:
- Should playoff beards be banned?
- An obscure player with a bizarre claim to fame
- Don Cherry struggles with pronunciation, chapter infinity
- Comedy stars
- And a YouTube breakdown of the time that the Stanley Cup winning goal was scored in overtime, and we all missed it.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Is Marian Hossa a future Hall of Famer?

There’s a conversation about the Chicago Blackhawks that seems to repeat itself as their playoff run rolls on. It goes something like this: Somebody wonders out loud how many future Hall of Famers are on the roster. Someone else immediately rattles off the names of the team’s big three — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith. And someone else points out that head coach Joel Quenneville will be an obvious choice.

Then there’s a pause, the question hangs in the air for a bit, and finally someone hesitantly adds “ … and maybe Marian Hossa?”

At 36, Hossa has spent this latest playoff run doing what Hossa does: a little bit of everything, often quietly, and usually from just outside the spotlight. Last night he had an assist on Toews’s opening goal, giving him four points in the series. With the Hawks now deploying him on a line with Toews and Patrick Sharp, he figures to be a key figure over the second half of the series.

He also makes for the subject of an interesting HOF debate. My experience has been that people say it’s a relatively easy call — they just can’t agree on the call. To some, he’s a slam dunk. To others, he’s a respected player who falls solidly into the “Hall of Very Good” but just doesn’t have the résumé to deserve more than that.

So as Hossa makes what by now has become his near-annual appearance in the Stanley Cup final, it’s fair to ask: Are we watching a future Hall of Famer? Let’s walk through the pros and cons.

The Numbers

Hossa crossed the 1,000-point mark early in the season, and with 486 goals he should get to 500 next year. Those tend to be the big milestones for HOF candidates, at least among forwards, so by crossing them Hossa guarantees himself a spot in the discussion.

But that’s about all it guarantees, because those milestones don’t carry the same weight that they once did. There are plenty of guys in the 500/1,000 club whose HOF candidacy never gained serious traction. That includes players like Pierre Turgeon (515/1,327), Pat Verbeek (522/1,063), Keith Tkachuk (538/1,065), and, for reasons that nobody has ever fully explained, Dave Andreychuk (640/1,338). Jeremy Roenick (513/1,216) hasn’t been inducted and looks like he may never be, and even Mark Recchi (577/1,533) didn’t get in on the first try, although virtually everyone agrees he will eventually. So Hossa’s number are good, but they’re well short of making him any kind of a sure thing.

Of course, unlike all those guys mentioned above, Hossa played his entire career in the dead puck era. But even on an era-adjusted basis, he’s still trailing Roenick and Turgeon, and he’s miles behind Andreychuk and Recchi.

On the other hand, all those numbers are for the regular season only — mix in his 143 career playoff points, second only to Jaromir Jagr among active players, and Hossa gets a boost.

The Honors

This may be the strongest argument for the “good but not great” side of the debate. Hossa has never won a major award and was a finalist only once (for the Calder as Rookie of the Year in 1999; he came in second to Chris Drury). He has one postseason All-Star selection, making the second team in 2009. And that’s pretty much it. His best finish in Hart Trophy voting for MVP was 10th; his only other top-five finishes for any award came for the Lady Byng in 2003 and the Selke last year.

He did appear in five All-Star Games, which isn’t bad in a league where that game is often wiped out by lockouts and Olympics. But the lack of any significant hardware, or even all that many near misses, paints a picture of a very good player who was never in the conversation as being among the league’s best.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Resiliency Factor

When it comes to playoff hockey, “resilient” is a funny word. It’s undoubtedly a compliment. In fact, it’s one of the best things you can say about a collection of players. Resilient means you don’t quit. Resilient means mental toughness. Resilient means character, leadership, and speaks to your compete level … and any number of the hockey world’s other favorite clichés all rolled into one. Good teams have it. Bad teams dream of getting it. Resilient is a badge of honor.

But it’s a badge you only get to wear when you’re losing. Tough times are a prerequisite of resiliency. After all, no team has ever been resilient when it was up 3-0 in a series. It’s a great card to have in your hand, but it can’t be played until the scoreboard is crooked, the injuries are mounting, and a series (and season) is slipping away.

Resilient means you never give up. But it also means you might be kind of screwed.

Today, the Chicago Blackhawks are resilient, which is a nice way of saying they’re in trouble. They trail the Stanley Cup final 2-1 after a Game 3 loss at home in which they gave up the winner with three minutes left in regulation after getting only one puck past a goaltender who could barely stand. A loss in Game 4 tonight in Chicago would give the Lightning a chance to skate the Stanley Cup around their home ice in Game 5. Tonight is not quite a must-win game — at some point we can probably acknowledge that the term has lost all meaning — but it’s close.

So tonight will be a test of the Blackhawks’ resiliency. Luckily for them, they have plenty. The Blackhawks know it — on media day, coach Joel Quenneville told reporters that “the resiliency of this group is as good as you’re ever going to find.” The Lightning know it — Alex Killorn described Chicago as a “resilient group” last week. (An important note: There is no such thing as a resilient team. It’s always a resilient group or, in rare cases, a resilient bunch.) And we heard all about it in the conference finals against the Anaheim Ducks, when Chicago trailed the series three separate times before finally coming back to win in seven games. The Blackhawks were “really resilient,” according to Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano. Cam Fowler echoed that they had “resiliency and attitude … they never quit.”

Of course, that Hawks-Ducks series was a battle between teams that both laid claim to the resilient label — and not just resilient, but “tremendously resilient,” according to Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau after Game 5. The Ducks would show resiliency one night, then the Blackhawks would resilient them right back the next. That’s where this can get kind of complicated, since we don’t quite know who’s really resilient until it’s all over and we find out who won.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

When Stanley Cup final goalies get hurt

Ben Bishop didn’t have a leg to stand on. Literally. At various points during last night’s Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final in Chicago, Bishop struggled just to stand up. At other points, he made it seem like going side-to-side was difficult. And yet he somehow stuck around for the entire game, eventually earning the decision in Tampa Bay’s 3-2 win.

As painful as it was to watch, last night was an improvement. On Saturday, Bishop’s mysterious injury forced him out of Game 2 — he briefly returned and then left again, this time for good. Backup Andrei Vasilevskiy was forced into action in the game’s final minutes. At this point, it wouldn’t be a surprise if we see him again this series. Bishop is toughing it out, but he looks like a guy who is on borrowed time.

And so, we find ourselves playing out a story line that’s exceedingly rare in a Stanley Cup final. For the first time in almost a decade, we have a starting goaltender suffering a significant mid-series injury, one that has already forced him out of action once and could do so again.

Uh, you might want to stop reading right here, Oilers fans.

Seriously, just do it. Close the browser tab. Everything is going so well for you right now. Between Connor McDavid, Peter Chiarelli, and Todd McLellan, you’ve basically just enjoyed the best month any team could have without actually playing any games. Life is good for you right now. So stop reading.

Because today, in the aftermath of the Bishop ordeal, we’re going to look back at the last time an established starter got hurt during the final. And that means going back to 2006 and the series between the Oilers and Hurricanes.

(Seriously, Oilers fans: Leave now. Final warning. Any especially squeamish Lightning fans may want to bail, too, come to think of it.)

The 2006 Cup final was the first played in two years, thanks to the lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. When play finally resumed in October 2005, hockey fans were treated to a league with a new salary cap, new rules, and a new emphasis on calling the rulebook by the letter. The result was the best kind of chaos, a season when conventional wisdom and expert predictions went out the window. Scoring jumped, two generational talents debuted, and the eventual MVP was traded midseason. It was a fun time.

That sense of unpredictability carried over into the playoffs. In the East, the Hurricanes ultimately edged the Sabres, which wasn’t especially surprising. But in the West, where the heavily favored Red Wings had racked up 124 points to emerge as the clear-cut Cup favorite, all four underdogs won in the opening round. After beating Detroit, the Oilers made an unprecedented run all the way to the final as the no. 8 seed, knocking off the Sharks and Mighty Ducks along the way.

Many fans remember that Oilers team as a ragtag group of misfits that barely sneaked into the playoffs and pulled off a minor miracle to make it to the final, but as we’ve covered before, that’s not quite true. The Oilers actually were a pretty darn good team whose season was almost ruined by historically awful goaltending. The 2006 Oilers could score, they posted solid possession numbers (as best we can tell), and they had Chris Pronger. They also spent most of the year passing the starter’s job between Jussi Markkanen, Ty Conklin, and Mike Morrison, none of whom managed to post a save percentage better than .885.

That led to a gutsy trade deadline gamble, with the Oilers sending their first-round pick to the Wild for veteran Dwayne Roloson, a pending free agent. It was a risky move. The Oilers were in danger of missing the playoffs, so it was possible they were giving up a high pick for a month’s worth of regular-season work from a player who would bolt in the offseason. But it paid off beautifully, as Roloson solidified the position during the season and then played brilliantly during the playoff run.

By the time they reached the final, Edmonton looked every bit like a team that could beat Carolina and earn the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1990. With Roloson playing well, Pronger leading the way, a cast of unlikely heroes emerging, and an entire nation largely united behind them, the Oilers had a distinct “team of destiny” feel to them. In a wild and unpredictable season, there was no better ending you could script than the Edmonton Oilers skating off with the Stanley Cup.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, June 8, 2015

What we know and what we don't after two games of the Stanley Cup final

Ah, the old rotating goalies trick. Works every time.

Saturday night’s Lightning win over the Blackhawks, which knotted their Stanley Cup final at one game apiece, was highlighted by a wild third period in which the Lightning made three goaltending changes after starter Ben Bishop couldn’t continue due to … well, something. That brought in rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy for one shift, during which the Lightning scored the eventual winner. Bishop returned shortly after and played a few more minutes before leaving again, with Vasilevskiy making five saves the rest of the way to seal the win in relief.

It was a bizarre and confusing scene — Steven Stamkos told reporters that the players were relying on the PA announcements to figure out who their current goalie was — and it led to several questions. Was Bishop, to put this delicately, suffering from flu-like symptoms? (Apparently not.) Was he hurt? (It would seem so, although everyone appears to have a different theory over just what the problem might be.) And when exactly did whatever it was start to bother him? (Well, that part gets tricky.)

Based on the timing of his exit, plenty of fans assumed that Bishop had been hurt on the Blackhawks’ controversial goal early in the third period that tied the game 3-3. That play saw Marian Hossa appear to interfere with Bishop by shoving the goalie’s pad with his stick. But there are two problems with that theory. The first is that Bishop’s immediate reaction of chasing down the officials to protest the non-call sure didn’t look like a guy who’d just suffered an injury. The second is that there had already been signs that something wasn’t right before the goal.

Those signs came on the stoppage before the goal, when Bishop called over teammates Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman for a brief conference in the crease. The two defensemen then headed for the bench — not for a line change, but to report something to the team’s trainer. It seemed as if something was up, and that suspicion grew stronger minutes later when Bishop himself sought out the trainer after heading to the bench on a delayed penalty. Minutes later, during a TV timeout, he headed off the ice and straight down the hallway to the Lightning dressing room, and the great Ben Bishop Mystery was on.

Of course, it all leads to the most important question of them all: Can he play tonight? Lightning coach Jon Cooper danced around the question yesterday, saying Bishop “could be available” and that we might find out more when the Lightning take to the ice for today’s game-day skate, which is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. ET.

If Bishop can’t go, the switch over to Vasilevskiy won’t be as big a downgrade as you might expect. The 20-year-old Russian is one of the top goaltending prospects in hockey, and he has experience playing games both internationally and in the KHL. That doesn’t compare to the level of pressure he’d face in a Stanley Cup final start, of course, and maybe he melts down in the bright spotlight. But there’s a chance he could be every bit as good as Bishop has been, and maybe even better.

As we await word of who’ll get the start tonight, let’s take a look back over the past few days in Tampa for some of the other things we don’t yet know about this series, and a handful of things that we do.

What we know: The Triplets are alive and (probably) well

The Lightning’s top line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov had been deadly over the first two rounds, but had slowed down midway through the conference finals against New York. Of particular concern was Johnson, who came into Saturday with a league-leading 12 playoff goals but hadn’t found the net since Game 3 against the Rangers.

That had led to speculation that he may be hurt, and that speculation only increased when he briefly left Saturday morning’s skate. He denied it, because he’s a hockey player and that’s what he’d do if his rib cage were jutting out of his chest, but with the Lightning held to two goals or fewer in four of those five games, his mini-slump was developing into a major story.

For now, at least, we can relax. Johnson scored the Lightning’s third goal midway through the second. It was an ugly goal, one that had no business getting by Corey Crawford, but it counted, and combined with Kucherov’s marker seven minutes earlier it gave the Triplets a two-goal night. Healthy or not, they’ll take it.

What we don’t know: When the Blackhawks stars will break through

That leads us to the series’ other big stars up front, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The two have been just about unstoppable through most of the playoffs, especially when deployed on the same line. But over the first two games against Tampa Bay, they’ve been held to just one lone assist between them. On Saturday, Kane didn’t even manage a shot on goal, which is just about unheard of.

You’ll note that we’re asking “when” Toews and Kane will start scoring, not “if”; they’re just too good to be shut down over the course of an entire series. But the Lightning have done a good enough job over the first two games that Chicago coach Joel Quenneville split the duo up midway through Game 2, with Hossa moving up to play on Toews’s wing while Kane drops back to a line centered by Brad Richards.

A big part of the reason for Kane and Toews’s quiet start has been the play of the Lightning’s top pairing of Hedman and Stralman. But plenty of credit also goes to the play of Cedric Paquette, the 21-year-old Lightning center who drew the task of going head-to-head with Toews. It was such a potentially overwhelming assignment that Cooper didn’t even bother to tell him about it before Game 1; Paquette was left to figure it out for himself when he kept getting sent over the boards and finding Toews waiting for him.2 On Saturday, Paquette even chipped in with the Lightning’s first goal, a rare offensive contribution from a Tampa Bay bottom six that hadn’t contributed much of anything offensively in weeks.

After Saturday’s game, Paquette admitted that the lack of scoring outside the top two lines had been discouraging. “I was really frustrated,” he said. “My playoff wasn’t going the way I wanted … Coop told us, ‘You guys need to chip in if we want to win that Cup.’”

After Game 1, Cooper hung the nickname “Captain Everything” on Toews, and it’s a good one. But based on the first two games, we might have to start calling Paquette “Captain Everything Else.”

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, June 5, 2015

How much does Stanley Cup Final experience matter?

The numbers are jarring, bordering on unfair. The Chicago Blackhawks come into this final with a roster that boasts 26 Stanley Cup rings. Most of the core, including Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith, each have two.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, by comparison, have one. That’s it. One ring, total, from an entire roster. And that one, belonging to Valtteri Filppula, is seven years old.

This Lightning team is young. And more importantly, the core is remarkably young. The captain, Steven Stamkos, is 25. The best defenseman, Victor Hedman, is 24. The top line features Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, both 24, along with Nikita Kucherov, who is 21. The starting goalie, Ben Bishop, is a comparatively ancient 28, but he’d never played a NHL playoff game until this season. The guy who has been given the task of shutting down Toews is Cedric Paquette, a 21-year-old rookie who’s so young that coach Jon Cooper didn’t even tell him about his assignment for fear of throwing him off his game.

Total Stanley Cup final games played between the group of them, heading into Wednesday’s Game 1: zero. And they’re facing a Blackhawks team making its third trip in six years. The Lightning have never been here before; the Blackhawks practically live here. In a series in which most of the matchups are too close to call, the experience factor is a laughably one-sided mismatch.

The question is, will any of it matter?

As fans, we love the idea that experience counts, and that having been there before confers some sort of advantage. It feeds into something we want to believe about how difficult this game’s journey to a championship really is. We drone on endlessly about the Stanley Cup being the hardest trophy to win in all of sports, and if that’s really true, then it seems like something that you shouldn’t be able to do on the first try. We want to see you fail, and learn from that, and then come back older and wiser, having finally figured out how to win.

However, the Stanley Cup memories we seem to love best all play against this theme. It’s Ray Bourque finally getting his hands on the Cup after two decades. It’s the lightbulb going off for Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings. It’s the 1983 Oilers, young and cocky, getting their butts kicked by the veteran Islanders, and only then realizing how much further they had to go.

And because we love the idea so much, we tend to forget about the stories that don’t fit the narrative. We forget about the teams that skip the years of hardship and near misses and jump straight to a championship. If anything, they’re the exceptions that prove the rule.

There’s a common-sense test that kicks in here, and the experience mythos doesn’t exactly pass with flying colors. After all, how much different can playing for the Stanley Cup really be? How much can a game that most of these guys have been playing their entire lives really change — how much more can there really be to learn, simply because it’s the Cup?

Is it possible that we’ve all just been telling ourselves a story? Could any of this possibly matter as much as we want it to?

Hockey fans have argued about the subject for decades, and attempts have been made to quantify it. One recent study suggested that experience may have mattered in the pre-cap era but doesn’t seem to anymore. But maybe it’s the sort of thing that you can’t really capture with the numbers. Maybe you really do have to have been there, under the bright lights and a few million eyes, and had the chance to feel it in your gut.

Lightning defenseman Matt Carle is one of the few Tampa Bay players who has been here before, back in 2010 with the Flyers. That would seem to give him license to buy into the idea. But when he was asked about it on Wednesday, he wouldn’t take the bait.

“It’s hockey, you know? It’s the same sized ice sheet. Same building we’ve always been playing in,” Carle said. Then he gestured at a locker room packed full of media. “This is the only thing that’s really different, is how many people are in here covering the series, and the people watching. That’s all that’s different.”

“Once the puck drops, we’re just trying to play a structured system and play the way we know how … Once that puck drops, it’s playing hockey and having fun.”

Stamkos hasn’t been here before, but his words echoed Carle’s when I asked him if anything about playing in the final would feel different.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A beginner's guide to game one

Every day of the Stanley Cup finals brings at least one micro-controversy, those little issues that flare up sometime around mid-morning and cause a good day or two of fist-shaking before eventually being forgotten.

At one point yesterday, the issue of the moment was a beginner’s guide to hockey published by one of the local Tampa papers. The reaction was predictable: old-school diehards rolling their eyes at a city that has had a team for 22 years needing a refresher on icing, followed by more forgiving types scolding those diehards to be more welcoming to new fans.

Every sport’s fan base gets its back up over new fans, but it seems to be a specialty in the hockey world. After all, NHL fans have spent so many years being told what’s wrong with their sport that they’re instinctively defensive of their turf. But that approach does more harm than good, because hockey has plenty of room for new fans. There’s lots of space available on the bandwagon, and the more rookie fans who climb aboard, the better.

So in that spirit, let’s do this game story in the style of a beginner’s guide to NHL hockey. Consider it a peace offering to any new fans, in Tampa Bay or beyond, who are trying to figure out the rules of this fun but occasionally confusing game.

Rule no. 1: Hockey is a sport that is played by two teams. Or at least it’s supposed to be. As last night’s first period wore on, it began to seem as if the Blackhawks had missed that particular memo. The Lightning dominated, outpacing the Hawks in shot attempts and often spending extended periods in the Chicago zone.

That sort of thing isn’t news when it comes to the Lightning, a tremendously talented team that can often overwhelm lesser opposition. But it is new for the Blackhawks, who haven’t fallen into that lesser-opponent category in a long time. The Blackhawks are the bullies of the NHL postseason and have been for years, and while nobody can be expected to bring their best game every night, it was still stunning to see them chasing the play for as long as they were.

The early imbalance stoked an already enthusiastic Tampa Bay crowd, one that had just finished being blasted by a series of pregame scoreboard videos that ran for roughly as long as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Having endured that ordeal, they celebrated by cheering on the Lightning toward what quickly started to feel like an inevitable first goal.

Rule no. 2: In hockey, teams attempt to score a goal by directing the puck into their opponent’s net. This can be done in any number of ways; popular methods include the slap shot, the backhand, or the deflection. Or, if you’re Alex Killorn, all three things at once.

I’d strongly encourage you to click that link and watch Killorn’s first-period goal a few times, because I’m honestly not sure I can do it justice. Anton Stralman takes a shot from the point that’s almost comically unthreatening as it flutters toward the net like a knuckleball, headed well wide. And then, at least theoretically on purpose, Kilorn reaches back and swats the puck out of the air. The NHL’s official box score described it as a “tip-in,” which is technically the correct term for a shot that’s redirected but doesn’t seem quite adequate for a play that more closely resembled someone delivering a midflight 7-iron to a monarch butterfly.

The goal came less than five minutes in, and gave the Lightning a 1-0 lead. In today’s NHL, that tends to be important.

Rule no. 3: The winning team is the one that scores the most goals over the course of the game. In theory, that means that the lead can change hands several times, and comebacks are possible. In reality, not so much, and that’s especially true in games involving these two teams. The Blackhawks came into last night sporting a 9-1 record when scoring first in these playoffs; the Lightning were even better at a perfect 9-0. When they score first, they win, and Killorn’s circus act had just given them that first goal.

Tampa Bay fans spend much of each game chanting “Let’s Go Bolts.” If you happen to suffer from an acute inability to interpret chants at sporting events, that can end up sounding confusingly like “Let’s Go Home,” which would be far better, as if cocky Lightning fans are already chalking up the win and moving on to the next one. As the Lightning followed Killorn’s goal with more and more time in the Chicago zone, you started to wonder if that might be right.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Stanley Cup preview

The Stanley Cup final gets started tonight in Tampa, as the young Lightning face the seasoned Blackhawks. It’s a fantastic matchup, one featuring plenty of star power and two teams that have at times looked both vulnerable and invincible over the past few weeks.

The Blackhawks have won two Cups since 2010; the Lightning look poised to win a few more down the road. But it’s this year’s that is up for grabs, so let’s see if we can figure out who’s going to win this thing by breaking down all the usual categories — plus a few more.


Lightning: Tampa Bay is stacked up front, so much so that franchise player Steven Stamkos has somehow wound up as an afterthought for much of the playoffs. After a slow start to the postseason, Stamkos heated up against the Rangers with goals in four straight games, and linemates Alex Killorn and Valtteri Filppula have come along for the ride. That essentially gives the Lightning two no. 1 lines, since the “Triplets” trio of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov shows no signs of slowing down.

If there’s a concern, it’s that the top six is basically doing all the team’s scoring. Filppula has three goals, while the other five each have at least seven; by comparison, nobody else on the team has more than one. That includes guys like Ryan Callahan and Cedric Paquette, who’ve been largely invisible on the offensive side. If you’re a Lightning fan, you could look at that as a good thing — the bottom six are playing other roles, and if they ever did start chipping in, the offense would basically be unstoppable. But with a matchup coming for one of those top lines against Jonathan Toews and friends, there has to be at least a little bit of concern with how top-heavy the Lightning lines are.

Blackhawks: The Blackhawks feature just as much star power as the Lightning, and maybe more. Toews and Patrick Kane get most of the attention, especially when they’re playing together (as they did in the late stages of the Anaheim series). Toews is that rare player who can be dominant at both ends, and Kane’s knack for scoring big goals is becoming legendary. Mix in a young star in Brandon Saad and a pair of old ones in Marian Hossa and ex-Lightning Brad Richards, and you’ve got enough firepower in the top six to push a guy like Patrick Sharp down to the third line.

The edge: There aren’t many teams that can match the Lightning’s top six, but the Hawks are one of them. And Chicago’s better depth and more balanced scoring gives it an edge here.


Lightning: Victor Hedman is the kind of guy you might not fully appreciate until you see him play live. You watch a Lightning shift and find yourself thinking Who’s that huge guy back there? and you realize it’s Hedman (he’s listed at 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds). Then a few seconds later you think Who’s that fast guy up there? and you realize it’s Hedman again. He’s smart, skilled, and just 24 years old; it’s scary to think about what he could be in another year or two.

The rest of the blue line is solid, which is an upgrade from the unit of recent years that was often a weak link. The other key guy to watch is Anton Stralman, a longtime darling of the analytics crowd who finally seems to be breaking through to some mainstream attention. He’s not big, but he’s a skilled puck-mover and a possession monster who doesn’t make many mistakes.

Blackhawks: Duncan Keith is getting all the attention these days, and rightfully so. He’s been ridiculously good at both ends of the rink, and would probably win the Conn Smythe if voting were held today. He plays huge minutes, and at some point you’d assume that fatigue would have to become a factor, but he’s such a physical freak that maybe he really can play 30 minutes a game (with gusts to 40 in overtime) without wearing down, at least for up to seven more games.

Beyond Keith, the rest of the Hawks’ top four is excellent, with Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook, and Johnny Oduya playing big roles. Things then get dodgy, though, because the fifth and sixth slots have been a mess. The Hawks have been using some combination of David Rundblad, Kimmo Timonen, and Kyle Cumiskey and don’t seem to trust any of them, limiting their minutes and sheltering them as much as possible. That’s tough to do, especially on the road, and it tends to catch up with teams. It hasn’t really yet for the Hawks, but it would make life a lot easier if at least one of those guys could up his game enough to take some of the heat off the big four.

The edge: We’ll give the edge here to the Blackhawks, at least for as long as Keith can keep up the Superman routine, but Hedman and Stralman mean it’s not as big a gap as you might think.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

What went wrong? How 14 playoff teams ended up on the sidelines

And so we’re down to two. After a pair of weekend Game 7s, we finally have our Stanley Cup final matchup, as the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks prepare to drop the puck for Game 1 tomorrow night.

We’ll spend the next few weeks picking apart the Hawks and Lightning, starting with a detailed final preview that will run tomorrow. But before we get there, let’s take today as an opportunity to look back at the 14 playoff teams that didn’t make it to the promised land and are left to ask the question: What went wrong? What fatal flaw kept each of this year’s playoff casualties from taking their place on the league’s biggest stage? And perhaps more importantly, can they fix it?

Needless to say, this will be easier for some teams than others. Sometimes a well-built team runs into another well-built team and somebody has to lose, and digging for some greater shortcoming feels like nitpicking. Of course, in other cases, we’ll have to work a bit to narrow the list of flaws down to just one.

Here’s a look at each of the 14 teams that fell short of the final and why it happened, in the order that they were eliminated.

Winnipeg Jets

What went wrong? Ondrej Pavelec just wasn’t good enough. That wouldn’t have been a surprise based on his career numbers, which are decidedly average, but he was very good for most of this season and downright fantastic over the season’s final month. So as strange as it now seems in hindsight, there was reason to look at the Jets-Ducks series and figure that Winnipeg held an advantage in goal.

Instead, Pavelec posted a sub-.900 save percentage and gave up four or more in three of the series’ four games. Would the Jets have won with better goaltending? Probably not. The Ducks just crushed them, and anyone short of late-’90s Dominik Hasek probably would have only delayed the inevitable. But Pavelec was the weakest link in a series full of them.

Can they fix it? The Jets have stuck by Pavelec for years, so they apparently don’t think there’s anything here to fix. Backup Michael Hutchinson was excellent as a rookie, and Team USA World Championship hero Connor Hellebuyck is in the system, so there’s depth at the position. Trading Pavelec now would be a gutsy move that could pay off, but it seems exceedingly unlikely.

Pittsburgh Penguins

What went wrong? There wasn’t enough depth. That’s been an issue in Pittsburgh for years, as a top-heavy lineup hasn’t been able to get the timely contributions from role players that seem to define Cup contenders. When Sidney Crosby didn’t dominate and Evgeni Malkin disappeared, there wasn’t enough talent to pick up the slack.

All that said, we’re leaving out a pretty important detail: The Penguins were devastated by injuries, especially on the blue line, where key players like Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff weren’t available. That kind of bad luck will thin out any team, no matter how well built, and the Penguins deserve credit for still playing a very good Rangers team fairly tight.

Can they fix it? They’ll get healthy again, and it’s always easier to add depth than top-end talent. The bigger question in Pittsburgh is whether they should tear down the core by moving a guy like Malkin. I don’t think they need to do that — you’ll notice that I didn’t go with “Malkin choked” as their biggest problem — but I don’t get a vote. The Pens wouldn’t be the first team to overreact to a disappointing playoffs, so they’ll be interesting to watch this summer.

Nashville Predators

What went wrong? Shea Weber got hurt. Oh, there were other flaws, not least of which was a lack of scoring up front and Pekka Rinne’s second-half regression into a merely average goaltender. But even with those problems hanging over them, the Predators still gave the Blackhawks all they could handle, and they did it while losing their best player to a dislocated kneecap midway through Game 2. If Weber had returned to the series, maybe it would have been enough to flip the result of Chicago’s triple-OT win in Game 4. And if that had been the case, then the Predators would have hosted Game 7, and … well, who knows, right?

Can they fix it? Weber is expected to be back at full health in time for training camp, so this one’s an easy “yes.” Now about Rinne and those forwards …

>> Read the full post on Grantland