St. Louis and San Jose. Regular-season titans. Postseason chumps.
There will be change within both franchises. Minimal if they are wise.
There is no shame in losing to Chicago and Los Angeles. The Blackhawks and the Kings are the model organizations of the Western Conference. With their separate styles — Chicago uses a Formula 1 approach, LA prefers monster trucks — the two behemoths are built for current and future championships.
They’re well-coached. Their general managers have assembled deep, powerful rosters. Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty, and Anze Kopitar are superstars. So are Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith.
But neither outcome had to happen for the Blues or Sharks.
The Blues controlled their fate in early April. They could have set themselves up for a first-round match against Minnesota by clinching one of the top two seeds. But the Blues started their spiral with six straight losses to close out the regular season. They tumbled down the standings to draw the Blackhawks in the opening round. St. Louis entered the postseason with too many bruises and too little confidence.
“We’re doing some things correctly,” general manager Doug Armstrong said during the Blues’ end-of-season press conference. “But we’re not doing enough correctly to win in April, May, and June. Quite honestly, I’ve got to quit worrying about May. We’ve got to get out of April first, and we’re not doing that yet. My job responsibility is to peel back the layers and see if we can work together with this group to get to a new level, or make necessary changes to get to a new level.”
Armstrong and his colleagues believed Ryan Miller was the final piece in helping the Blues advance to June. Miller’s numbers (2.72 goals-against average, .923 save percentage)
Instead, Miller got worse. In 19 regular-season appearances, Miller went 10-8-1 with a 2.47 GAA and a .903 save percentage. In the playoffs, Miller had a 2.70 GAA and an .897 save percentage.
Miller, even more than most goalies, is a creature of habit. He likes everything just so, from going through his postgame routine to leaning on Jim Corsi, his longtime goaltending coach. The trade threw off Miller’s sense of normalcy. He never became comfortable. That’s on both Miller and the Blues for not factoring in how a late-season address change would affect his play.
It’s doubtful St. Louis will bring back Miller. Buffalo GM Tim Murray shrewdly included conditional insurance based on Miller re-upping with St. Louis. If Miller re-signs with the Blues before they make their first pick in June, for example, Buffalo would receive St. Louis’s 2014 first-rounder. That’s not going to happen.
The Blues believe Jake Allen (33-16-3, 2.03 GAA, .928 save percentage for Chicago, the Blues’ farm team) is ready to be a full-time NHL goalie. Armstrong should invest his bucks in acquiring more depth up front.
Miller, who will be unrestricted, could land in San Jose. The Sharks will have to do something, most likely let go of coach Todd McLellan, to address their implosion.
When they were rolling, the Sharks defined controlled chaos. They overwhelmed the Kings with their speed, size, and skill. But the Kings stood their ground while the Sharks panicked. San Jose played scared. McLellan couldn’t fix it.
It would have helped had San Jose’s big boys earned their paychecks. In their four losses, Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, and Brent Burns combined for zero points. Patrick Marleau had two assists. Joe Pavelski had one goal. That’s nowhere near good enough.
Antti Niemi didn’t help things either. Niemi had a 3.74 GAA and an .884 save percentage in the playoffs. McLellan hooked Niemi in Games 4 and 5. He sat out Game 6. Niemi was good, not great, in the regular season, when he had a 2.39 GAA and a .913 save percentage.
Niemi has a year left on his deal. The Sharks need to determine whether the former ring winner can straighten himself out. If not, Miller would be an improvement. With a full camp and regular season to acclimate to a new city, organization, and system, the ex-Sabre could ease into his game. The Sharks’ core is too good to suffer through mediocre playoff goaltending.
Neither Armstrong nor San Jose GM Doug Wilson would be wise to swing a sledgehammer to their rosters. Both teams will be very good again next year. But they have the bad luck of possibly drawing Chicago or LA in the playoffs again. When that happens, good teams go golfing early.
Red Wings were left out on defense
As coach of Team Canada, Mike Babcock worked in fantasyland. Each of his defensive pairings had a lefty and a righty. Retrievals were smooth. D-to-D passes were crisp. Breakouts flowed through center ice. Jay Bouwmeester played with Alex Pietrangelo. Duncan Keith was paired with Shea Weber. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Drew Doughty were partners.
But there are restrictions in the real world of the NHL. Of his available defensemen — six for the first four games, seven for Game 5 — the Detroit coach didn’t have a single right-shot defenseman. Brendan Smith, Danny DeKeyser, and Brian Lashoff, all lefties, had to play their weak side. This is not ideal for experienced teams, let alone young ones.
If the Wings can land a right-shot defenseman, they could improve their breakouts. Pucks would get up to their fast and skilled forwards quicker. A pace-pusher like Smith could return to his strong side. A righty would also help Detroit’s power play. They need someone who can tee up one-timers when Pavel Datsyuk dishes from the right-side half-boards.
One candidate could be Dennis Wideman. The ex-Bruin is on Calgary’s books for three more seasons at $5.25 million annually, according to www.capgeek.com. Wideman played his final game on March 5 before the Flames shut the right-shot defenseman down because of an upper-body injury.
Wideman would be a good fit in Detroit. If he played with a mobile partner, Wideman wouldn’t have to rush the puck. He’s good at making seam passes like ex-Wing Brian Rafalski.
The Flames are rebuilding under new GM Brad Treliving. If they wheel the 31-year-old Wideman, the Flames could get younger and free up cap space.
The Wings also could pursue help via free agency. Pittsburgh’s Matt Niskanen is scheduled to reach UFA status. But Niskanen will have multiple suitors if he hits the market. The Wings would have to overpay to land the 27-year-old.
“Times have changed in the National Hockey League,” Red Wings GM Ken Holland said during his end-of-year press conference. “July 1 free agency is a time for support players and secondary players. Teams now sign their best players to long-term contracts. They don’t hit the market. I told the team this morning that a lot of what we try to do has to be internal.”
The Wings like Ryan Sproul. The right-shot defenseman was one of Detroit’s two second-round picks in 2011 (left-shot defenseman Xavier Ouellet was the other). Sproul scored 11 goals and 21 assists in 72 games for Grand Rapids, Detroit’s AHL affiliate. But Sproul is only 21. He’s played in one career NHL game. Experience matters.
Signings will be few in changing free agency
On July 5, Thomas Vanek will likely sign a big-bucks contract with Minnesota. Ryan Miller could find a team looking for an experienced, if fading, ace.
And that will be that for high-impact signings.
As Ken Holland noted, the free market is not what it once was. GMs do not let their stars reach unrestricted free agency. They don’t even let them approach the final year of their deal. David Krejci, who will be a UFA after 2014-15, will claim an extension with the Bruins before the season begins. Consider the likes of Nathan Horton, Jaromir Jagr, Andrew Ference, and Anton Khudobin last year. The only players who reach the free market are the ones teams don’t want back.
July 5 is now a time for rifles instead of shotguns. Last year, the Bruins signed Jarome Iginla on July 5. Iginla became part of the Bruins’ leadership group. But Iginla was a targeted signing. The Bruins had a niche. Iginla filled it.
The shift is toward drafting, developing, and trades. Teams are investing in their amateur scouting departments to identify the best young players. This is the preferred route. Picks operate under cost savings on their entry-level contracts. A team’s prospects develop together once they reach the AHL. GMs can use picks for trade currency.
For these reasons, the NHL’s critical dates are now in late June when the draft takes place. All the GMs and their scouts are together. Players become available via trade. Picks come into play. Successful GMs strike at this time, complement their rosters in July, and hit the lake in August.
Avalanche must gain control — of the puck
The Avalanche rode Semyon Varlamov hard all season. Varlamov responded by providing Vezina-caliber goaltending for rookie coach Patrick Roy. Because of Colorado’s inability to control the puck, Varlamov was the busiest goalie in the league. Opponents hammered the ex-Capital with 2,013 shots, the most pucks any goalie saw. That heat continued in the playoffs, and Varlamov ultimately cracked in Game 7 against Minnesota. It’s unfair to think Varlamov can stand up to such pressure again next year, which is why the Avalanche have to address their puck-possession issues during the summer. They have a decision to make on UFA-to-be Paul Stastny, who led the team in playoff scoring while centering Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon. If they don’t bring Stastny back, they have to invest their savings in defense. They have a No. 1 defenseman in Erik Johnson, but the depth falls off after that. Roy knows firsthand that even the best goalies can’t save their teammates if they never have the puck.
Warsofsky may get his chance elsewhere
Were it not for Torey Krug, David Warsofsky would probably be a full-time NHLer. The third-year pro has developed into a trustworthy defender and a smooth quarterback on the power play. The Marshfield native isn’t big, nor does he have high-end speed. But good hockey sense and a quick stick will make Warsofsky a third-pairing NHL defenseman and power-play specialist. The trouble is Warsofsky is parked behind Krug. The Bruins would not want to dress two undersized left-shot defensemen. While the Bruins would like to keep Warsofsky for depth, he could bring assets from a team in search of PP help. Consider the Sabres, who had the second-worst power play in the NHL (14.1 percent). Christian Ehrhoff was the left-shot point man with one goal and 11 helpers on the power play. There’s no guarantee Ehrhoff will be back.
Hartnell’s future cloudy with Flyers
Scott Hartnell still is a good player. The 32-year-old power forward spent most of the season riding on Philadelphia’s top line with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. For the most part, the line controlled the puck and created scoring chances while playing against high-end competition. Hartnell scored 20 goals and 32 assists in 78 games. The Flyers are not concerned with his projected production. The problem is Hartnell is signed through 2019 at $4.75 million annually, according to www.capgeek.com. By then, he will be 37. It is not a kind age for power forwards. Hartnell’s high-water mark was in 2012-13, when he scored 37 goals and 30 assists along with 136 penalty minutes in 82 games. It was a contract year, and Hartnell landed his current six-year, $28.5 million deal. The following year, Hartnell scored just eight goals in 32 games. He rebounded this season. But he finished the playoffs off the first line, replaced by Michael Raffl. Hartnell’s legs and production are showing signs of future wear.
AHL coach Blashill sprouting Wings?
There are currently four coaching vacancies (Washington, Florida, Nashville, Vancouver), with more to come. One rising AHL star, however, will not be made available. The Wings do not intend to give teams permission to interview Jeff Blashill, their coach in Grand Rapids. Blashill led the Griffins to the Calder Cup in 2012-13. Blashill’s development charges included Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheahan, Brendan Smith, and Luke Glendening. They’re all varsity players now. Blashill did his prep work at Miami University as an assistant to Enrico Blasi. After two years in the USHL, Blashill coached at Western Michigan University, where future Wing Danny DeKeyser was one of his charges. Jon Cooper made the jump from the AHL to Tampa Bay. Blashill could be next.
In previous seasons, as the NHL’s big-ticket TV rights-holder, CBC called the shots on the playoff schedule. The network had first dibs on its preferred series, especially those featuring Canadian teams who could play in Saturday’s Hockey Night in Canada sweet spot. But that deference has gone missing as the transition begins from CBC to Rogers Communications, which will be Canada’s national carrier starting in 2014-15 . . . NHL referees and linesmen have the toughest job. There is no other sport played with such pace and physicality. It’s impossible to get every call right because of the game’s speed. But it would help all parties if the NHL and its GMs considered using the same two referees and linesmen for every game of a playoff series. There would be a more consistent standard of what is and isn’t a penalty . . . Best wishes to Tom Poti, who officially called it quits Thursday. The Worcester native concluded his career with 69 goals and 258 assists in 824 games for Edmonton, the Rangers, Islanders, and Washington. The former Cushing Academy standout was, for two years at BU, one of college hockey’s elite puck-moving defensemen . . . Good guy Hal Gill probably has reached the end of the line. The 39-year-old, who made the Philadelphia roster on a tryout basis, dressed for only seven games this season, including one in the playoffs. In Game 5, Gill was on the bad end of a wretched Braydon Coburn pass into his skates. When Gill couldn’t recover, Dominic Moore scored the winning goal for the Rangers. If this is it for Gill, the Bolton native deserves a hand for remaking his game following the 2004-05 lockout, when the Bruins considered him a relic. There’s always room in hockey for smarts, experience, and heart.