THE NHL’S 2015 CHRISTMAS WISH LIST

TEN THINGS GMS, PLAYERS AND FANS FROM THE NHL SHOULD BE WISHING FOR THIS CHRISTMAS

(Originally posted on Hautnews.com on December 24th, 2015)

So here we are on Christmas Eve, and while everyone’s asked jolly old St. Nick for something this year, here are ten suggestions that should appear under some NHL Christmas trees tomorrow morning. If you’re reading this Santa, you might want to take a few of these to heart and hopefully some enterprising GMs and hockey execs will leave out some extra cookies and milk for you.

  1. A hobby for the idiots from Las Vegas who came after me on Twitter. Earlier this year I wrote a story on why the NHL shouldn’t put a franchise in Sin City (you’ll notice the absence of any other major sports league teams as well) and before I knew it I found myself in the crosshairs of some angry Las Vegas fans on Twitter, including the guy who ran the bid’s Twitter account. They apparently had nothing better to do with their time on a summer Saturday evening, so if you could Santa, maybe leave a hobby or two in their stocking. Possibly crochet or Sudoku. Or maybe Crazy 8s because I hear playing cards is a big thing in Vegas. And speaking of Twitter . . .
  1. Some exploding coal for some toxic Chicago Blackhawks fans. When Chicago Blackhawks superstar (and renowned party animal) Patrick Kane was being investigated for allegations of rape during the summer, some Blackhawk fans not only decided that he was innocent, but that anyone in the media who didn’t immediately begin singing songs of his innocence deserved threats. CBSChicago.com reporter (and Sports 670 update anchor) Julie DiCaro actually had to stay home from work after getting threatening Tweets from some Blackhawk fans. Common sense and reason doesn’t enter into the equation with animals like this Big Red, so maybe some hand grenades disguised like coal could get the job done.
  1. Some luck for my fantasy hockey team. I don’t know what it is Santa, but this year my players have been dropping like flies. Not minor injuries mind you, but the kind that sidelines players for weeks and even months at a time. Even the players I’ve drafted to replace my injured superstars have been getting themselves injured. At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if some of their legs started falling off. I don’t know how you’d wrap it Big Man, but how about some fantasy health?
  1. A break for Buffalo Sabre fans. Being a Sabre fan these past few years has been a pretty tall order. The team finished dead last in both 2014 and 2015 but they were denied the first overall pick both years (losing out on Connor McDavid last June was especially painful given how Sabre management did everything in its power to finish last). But despite all that, this year was supposed to offer hope for beleaguered Sabres fans. Not a playoff spot mind you, but enough tangible improvement to warrant patient loyalty. Instead, Sabres fans have been treated to a buffet of injury and misfortune. Robin Lehtner, who was supposed to be their goaltender moving forward, has yet to start a game because of injury and Evander Kane, who was supposed to light it up riding shotgun for generational talent Jack Eichel, missed a month with a leg injury (I know, he was on my fantasy team). And speaking of Eichel, while 2015’s second overall pick has been posting pretty good numbers, he isn’t yet in the Calder Trophy conversation, another potential sore point for long suffering Sabres fans.
  1. A do-over for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Columbus lost over 500 man games to injury last season (no other team came close) and even though their non-stop parade of injuries cost them a playoff berth, when the team was healthy it looked mighty fine, ending the season by winning thirteen of its final sixteen games. Adding rising young power forward Brandon Saad over the summer was the icing on the cake and a playoff berth seemed a foregone conclusion for a lot of pundits. No one knows exactly what happened in Ohio but wow did this team fall of the rails at light speed. Mired at the bottom of the standings again with a playoff spot looking like an impossible long shot, Columbus is now stuck with the walking talking temper tantrum known as John Tortorella as it’s coach and the team seems on the verge of dealing away superstar and franchise player Ryan Johansen (one of only two Blue Jackets not to miss any time to injury last season). It’s pretty safe to say Big Red that this was hardly how the Blue Jackets or their fans expected this season to go.
  1. Last year Santa I asked you for some Divine Intervention to save my Edmonton Oilers from themselves. Primarily from horrible management and deliberately blind ownership. Boy did you come through. When we won the right to draft Connor McDavid last April, it set off a chain of events that all fell into place like dominoes from Heaven. Within forty-eight hours our President and General Manager (both the worst in the League) had been demoted and our head coaching position vacated. Over the next few months the proven and competent leadership that replaced them systematically filled the open positions with established names and then went about transforming the roster. But now Santa, I need to ask another monumental favour for my team.

Do you think you could lift the curse that seems to be hanging over this franchise? We     have yet to see what this squad can do since the roster has never been healthy. Jordan Eberle blew his shoulder in training camp, missing the first month of the season. Justin Schultz injured his back just before Halloween, sidelining him a month. The worst has got to be Connor McDavid, the saviour and teenage phenom who was just beginning to bust out after a slow start and dominate games the way few eighteen year olds before him had, when a pair of no talent Philadelphia pylons on skates dragged him into the boards, breaking his left collarbone and putting him on the shelf for several months. And now Oscar Klefbom, arguably our top blue liner, is out an undetermined amount of time after a broken finger somehow became a staff infection in his leg. Perhaps nothing sums up how snake bitten this season has been as much as Nail Yakupov. Finally having a good year (playing alongside McDavid), the embattled Yak has been out for the past few weeks (and will be out a few more) since being dragged down by a falling linesman. Yak sprained his ankle in the fall and will miss approximately a month with the biggest freak injury anyone has ever heard of. But don’t worry Santa, the ref was OK.

  1. A milk carton for the Pittsburgh Penguins offence and the entire Anaheim Ducks organization, since both seem to be missing. When the Penguins stunned the hockey world by acquiring sniper Phil Kessel from the rebuilding Toronto Maple Leafs last July, adding him to the likes of Sydney Crosby, Evengi Malkin and Kris Letang, everyone thought Pittsburgh was going to be a regular feature on the nightly highlight reels. No one was prepared to hand the Pens the Cup mind you (much was made of the team’s remaining holes on the blue line and questions in net), but the question everyone was asking was how many goals would Pittsburgh score? Now the question going into every game is are the Pittsburgh Penguins going to score at all? Sydney Crosby has spent months mired in a scoring slump and Kessel has yet to light anything resembling a fire under the Pens offence. They’ve been downright mediocre and are miles from being the offensive juggernaut just about every one in the world predicted them to be last September.

Anaheim meanwhile is easily the biggest disappointment in the NHL this season. After falling just short of making the Stanley Cup finals last June, no other team was as aggressive as the Ducks in addressing roster needs while deftly managing the salary cap. The Ducks beefed up at every position and were everyone’s favourite to win the Cup at the beginning of the season. The team’s strength combined with their home in the NHL’s weakest division seemed a perfect recipe for regular season dominance and eventual Stanley Cup glory. But now the Ducks are in very real danger of missing the playoffs altogether, their top players have been called out repeatedly in the media and it’s considered only a matter of time before head coach Bruce Boudreau is fired. How bad has it been Santa? The Ducks won just one game in the entire month of October and fared little better in November. Even if Anaheim begins tearing it up in the New Year, they may not be able to make up the ground they lost in the first few months of the season, and could very well find themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time.

  1. A little more patience from my fellow Oilers fans. If you could Big Man, could you slip a little more resolve into Oilers fans stockings? We’ve been a battered bunch this past decade, saddled with the worst President, the worst GMs and the worst coaches for years, all overseen by an owner whose negligence bordered on criminal. But with Connor McDavid now on the scene and all the necessary front office changes his arrival inspired, we finally had hope-sweet, precious hope. But that hope was tested when we lost our first four games and has been bruised further by a few prolonged losing streaks that have kept us from reaching a .500 record. But if you squint your eyes and turn your head just enough, things are looking up.

The Oilers may have lost a lot of games this season, but they’ve been competitive in just about all of them, something they haven’t been able to say in years. A few more bounces go their way and a few less calls against them and this team could easily be a game or two over the .500 mark right now. They’ve actually come back to win some games, another trait they haven’t displayed since time out of mind, and they’ve managed to steal a few points here and there with some outstanding goaltending (if you would have told an Oilers fan that as recently as last year they would have slapped you in the face with a brick and told you to stop your lies). McDavid’s injury was a big blow, but it allowed the team to recall Leon Draisaitl, who has blown the doors off the NHL and Taylor Hall, who’s spent most of the season among the NHL’s top scorers, is looking every bit like the team’s future captain, both on and off the ice. And when McDavid returns sometime in January, GM Peter Chiarelli will have a surplus of assets he can trade to address other needs.

There’s still a long way to go Santa, but could you just make sure my fellow members of the Copper and Blue Nation stick around just a little longer for the good times? No one should have anticipated a playoff spot this season anyway (though a recent winning streak has put us back in that conversation, a place we haven’t been in December for years), but there would be a certain poetic symbolism if we returned to the post season dance next season, the first in our shiny new home.

  1. A healing factor for Connor McDavid. You know Santa, like the one Wolverine has. And maybe some of those unbreakable Adamantium bones as well. Because if McDavid’s injury in November at the hands of much less talented, slow of foot blue liners, it’s that the young heir apparent has a target on his back. McDavid’s blinding speed coupled with his cat like agility and his sublime puck handling skills proved impossible for most NHL D-men to defend against, so the thug like antics displayed by Flyers blue liners Michael Del Zotto and Brandon Manning, where they basically gang-tackled him into the boards, are likely going to become more common. And more accepted (the NHL has never been eager to protect its stars).

But there’s one other reason Connor’s going to need an ability to heal fast Big Red, and that’s because of Hockey Trolls. McDavid’s good. Really good. He’s been lauded by everyone from Steven Stamkos to Wayne Gretzky (who described him as the best player to come along in the last thirty years) and his skill set is pure offense (though he’s proven he can use his offensive instincts to protect a lead as well), meaning that there’s a sizeable portion of “traditional” hockey fans who will never respect him. There was no shortage of them on social media before the season began begging for him to fail and they tripped over themselves with glee when he went down with his injury. The Great One had his fair share of detractors back in the day, fans who didn’t consider him a real player because he didn’t fight, but Gretz didn’t have to contend with Twitter and Reddit. So if it isn’t too much trouble Santa, could you wrap up a nice healing X-gene and put it under Connor’s tree?

  1. A big pat on the back to P.K. Subban. Already heavily involved in charity work (P.K. and his family are the faces of Hyundai Hockey Helpers, a non profit organization that assists parents struggling with cost of enrolling their kids in North America’s most expensive sport), the popular (and often controversial) Montreal Canadiens defenseman pledged ten million dollars over the next seven years to the Montreal Children’s Hospital. It is by far the biggest single donation a member of the venerated Habs franchise has ever donated to charity. Subban’s contributions on the ice never go unnoticed by his teammates or Habs fans (or their opponents, for that matter), and now, with a wing of the hospital bearing his name, his presence and generosity to the community won’t either.

          An honourable shout out to Washington Capitals winger T.J. Oshie and Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price in this category as well. When the St. Louis Blues traded the popular Oshie to Washington last off-season, five-year-old Libby Lu was so distraught at his departure that she locked herself in a closet crying, refusing to come out. Well, T.J. reached out to little Libby twice, first calling her on a Sportscenter talk show and then by mailing her a crate full of Washington Capitals swag, all of it autographed, ensuring that Libby would not only be a T.J. Oshie fan her entire life, but also a hockey one as well. Meanwhile Carey Price has been heavily involved in a number of youth programs, everything from donating equipment to Aboriginal communities to raffling off his game masks. Price’s community work won him the Jean Beliveau award last October, awarded by the legendary Beliveau’s wife. Good job, gentlemen, good job.

Shayne Kempton

libby-lu-caps-jersey

Advertisements

NORTHERN DRAFT 2015

AFTER THE OILERS SELECT CONNOR MCDAVID FIRST OVERALL, WHICH NAMES DO THE OTHER SIX CANADIAN TEAMS CALL AT THIS YEAR’S NHL ENTRY DRAFT?

As an Edmonton Oilers fan, the only date I’ve had circled on my NHL calendar for the past nine years is the NHL’s annual entry draft. It’s the price you pay for following a team that has innovated new and exciting ways to suck year in and year out. That annual anticipation went through the roof this year though when the Oilers won last April’s draft lottery and the right to drape a copper and blue jersey on phenom Connor McDavid, whose been anointed The Next One by none other then the Great Wayne Gretzky himself. But what about the other six Canadian teams? The 2015 draft is being heralded as possibly the best since the legendary 2003 draft (which is considered the best draft in NHL history), with a pair of generational talents topping the rankings. So here are my armchair predictions for which names Canada’s seven NHL teams should call out at the draft in Tampa Bay this Friday. I went two for seven with my predictions for 2014, and while people may scoff at a success rate of .286, you pull that number off as a batter in baseball and you’ll be pulling down a salary around twenty million a year. Or whatever Donald Trump spends on toupees.   Either way, without further adieu, I present my totally unscientific and unfounded suggestions, recommendations and demands.

Edmonton Oilers: With the 1st overall the pick in this year’s draft, Edmonton will select Connor McDavid. Stop. End of story. TSN analyst (and former Calgary Flames GM) Craig Button perfectly described McDavid’s potential as a player, saying he combines the brilliance of Gretzky, the smooth hands of Mario Lemieux and the speed of Pavel Bure into a player never seen before. McDavid thinks the game at a higher level while skating at Mach speed. He’s been dominating highlight reels since he was 16 and his humility and sportsmanship off the ice has impressed scouts nearly as much as his sublime skills on it. Edmonton hasn’t even drafted McDavid yet and he’s already transformed the franchise, motivating desperately needed change in the most incompetent management and coaching departments in the NHL, and most importantly, getting emotionally exhausted fans excited again. Even Oilers players, who had given up on next season and were secretly hoping to be traded, are happy to be in Edmonton again. A cloud has literally lifted from this organization and its fan base. There is no other choice.

Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs kick off their picks by choosing 4th overall, and the Buds have plenty of holes in their roster to address. But the one need they’ve been trying unsuccessfully to solve the past few years is their lack of a top pivot. Dylan Strome may be the answer. Big (6’3), defensively capable and good on face offs, the younger brother of New Islanders forward Ryan Strome won the OHL scoring championship last year. And while many people will dismiss his scoring championship, claiming he benefitted from Erie Otters team mate and super prospect Connor McDavid (of course he did, who wouldn’t?), the same critics fail to point out that while McDavid missed twenty games with injury and representing Canada at the 2015 World Junior Championships, Strome was still producing at a one hundred point pace. If the Leafs can grab him (there are rumblings that Arizona may select him 3rd overall), they may be advised to give him a nine game taste of the pros next October before sending him back to junior, where he can dominate the OHL and represent Canada at the 2016 WJC. After next season, the sky may be the limit. Strome and 2014 8th overall pick William Nylander could form a dynamic duo down Toronto’s middle for years to come.

Calgary Flames: The Flames were one of the most surprising teams this year, making the playoffs and even advancing to the second round in a season where most people thought they’d be competing for the first overall pick. And the secret of this seasons’ success lied with a handful of young players they drafted and developed. The Flames attack boasted the likes of 2015 Calder Trophy nominee Johnny Gaudrea, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett, as well as a handful of other rising young players. The Flames can also take pride in a cupboard full of promising young forward prospects as well, so with the 15th pick in this year’s draft they could do worse then select a defenseman to begin stockpiling a blue line to compliment their forward corps. And Jakub Zboril just might be the perfect defenceman to begin that process. A fiercely competitive, smooth skating, offensively skilled blue liner, Zboril’s skills in his own end are underrated and while he may not be big, he isn’t small and can be physically aggressive when he needs to be. He could be the first step in building a blue line formidable enough to handle the offensive juggernaut that’s taking shape just a few hours north in Edmonton.

Winnipeg Jets: Winnipeg is another club that’s managed to build a strong core of young players that was instrumental in their first playoff appearance since moving to Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011. And adding center Colin White to that mix with the 17th pick would be another step in the right direction. A smart and hard working two-way center with decent offensive instincts and natural leadership abilities, White could well be this teams third line center and top penalty killing forward for years to come. But he also has second line potential and he could be the perfect compliment to Winnipeg’s eventual number one center, Mark Scheifele, for the better part of the next decade. White could be one of the safest, most efficient picks in the first round.

Ottawa Senators: The NHL entry draft has been very good to the Ottawa Senators over their modern history. The Sens have succeeded in finding and developing a wide range of players over the years. They struck gold with current team captain and two time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson (2008), blue liner Codi Ceci (2012) and forward Curtis Lazar (2013) in the mid to high teens of the first round, while uncovering 2015 Calder trophy nominee Mark Stone and forward Mike Hoffman in later rounds. The Sens are more then set for young forwards, both now and in the future, and have a crowded crease, so they should use this deep draft as an opportunity to began improving a middling blue line. Taking Swedish prospect Oliver Kylington with the 18th pick would be an excellent start. The super talented young Swede was originally projected to be a top ten pick (some scouts even had him as high as the top five) coming into this season, but a rough couple of months saw his stock drop. But he remains a smooth skating offensive defenceman with no shortage of speed, skill or confidence. Ottawa didn’t do too bad the last time they drafted an offensive minded Swedish defenceman and could you imagine having two Erik Karlssons quarterbacking their power play? Scary.

Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks roster is getting old fast. The core they’ve relied on for time out of mind is all on the wrong side of thirty (the Sedins will be 35 when the puck drops next October) and Vancouver may have to move out a veteran or two to become cap compliant this summer. While they have a few promising young forwards currently on the roster (Bo Horvat) and a few intriguing ones in the system (Jake Virtanen, Hunter Shinkaruk), their defensive prospects are underwhelming to say the least. That’s why they should take a good long look at Swedish blue liner Gabriel Carlsson when their turn to comes at 23rd. A stay at home behemoth, Carlsson plays with smarts and poise in his own end. Remember that offensive juggernaut we were talking about in Edmonton? Vancouver will be seeing a lot of Connor McDavid and the Oilers over the years and Carlsson could be one of the Canucks best weapons of mass defence. He may be a bit of a project, but Carlsson could one day be a blue line beast that spends thirty minutes a night devouring opposing forwards while anchoring Vancouver’s penalty kill.

Montreal Canadiens: The biggest flaw in the Canadiens roster was exposed during the playoffs when it became painfully apparent that the Habs need a big strong number one center to compete with the likes of Tampa Bay and the New York Rangers in the post season. The problem is that one of those won’t be available when the Canadiens step up to the podium to make the 26th pick. What will be available will be a promising young right winger named Daniel Sprong, who could one day allow the Habs to move promising young forward Alex Galchenyuk back to his natural center position, where he could become the big franchise pivot the Canadiens desperately need to compete in the East. Sprong isn’t big but protects the puck like a villain, is shifty when evading opposing defenders and is downright lethal on the power play. Sprong probably won’t be a first line sniper, but he will provide valuable secondary scoring and could be a fixture on Montreal’s power play for years.

Player To Watch: There is little doubt in the minds of most scouts that Russian goaltender Ilya Samsonov is the best goalie available in this draft. While a goaltender hasn’t been taken in the first round of the draft since 2012 (when Tampa Bay selected Andrei Vasilevskiy 19th overall and Boston selected Malcolm Subban 24th), there are plenty who believe that Samsonov is worthy of a first round pick, especially for teams with multiple picks in the first round and those squads looking for help between the pipes (and wouldn’t you know it, Edmonton fits both bills). But the “Russian Factor” is strong with this one, who is signed at least for the next two seasons with his KHL team. And while there are those who think that may be good for his development, spending the next two years playing against men in the world’s second best professional hockey league, the fact that he skipped the draft combine raised as many red flags as it did eyebrows. Samsonov is easily the biggest gamble in this draft.

Shayne Kempton

FIVE ALIVE

MY EDMONTON OILERS HAD THEIR PLAYOFF HOPES LAID TO REST MONTHS AGO. SO WHO TO FOLLOW THESE STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS? HERE ARE FIVE VERY LIKEABLE CANDIDATES

So here we are, at the beginning of another campaign for Lord Stanley’s coveted chalice. Back in October there were thirty teams with visions of the Stanley Cup dancing in their head, but seven and a half months later the weak and the slow have been culled and we’re down to the sixteen most worthy teams; sixteen that will be reduced to a single champion in two months time.

But the biggest question I find myself asking is who to cheer for. I’ve made no secret that my heart belongs to the Edmonton Oilers, arguably the most dysfunctional franchise in all of professional sports (and I’ve also been one of their most vocal critics). The Oil were essentially banished from chasing Lord Stanley’s Cup some time around November, meaning that for a ninth year in a row, myself and other long suffering Oilers fans are left on the outside looking in (and worse yet, our current and failure obsessed management group seems oblivious or indifferent to the fan base’s growing frustration and fatigue). So I face a choice; ignore the playoffs altogether, choosing to deprive myself of the best hockey all year, or choose another franchise to champion my hopes and dreams. Cheer might be a little too strong for the limited emotional investment I’m willing to make, while support is probably a more accurate term of what I’m looking to offer some NHL franchise over the next few months. Now the question becomes how to narrow it down. While I may not have determined my franchise of choice for this season’s Stanley Cup playoffs yet, I have determined the five teams most worthy of my support. And why.

Winnipeg Jets: Perhaps the second biggest underdogs to even make the playoffs this season, the Jets have been playing desperation hockey for 82 games already, clinching their first post-season berth since landing back in the ‘Peg in 2011. Few pundits believed the Jets had a snowball’s chance to make the playoff dance, but Winnipeg has fought and clawed all season long. When the Evander Kane situation reached apparent critical mass last February, Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff overcame his trade reluctant rep and pulled the trigger on a deal that sent the talented but much maligned young power forward to the struggling Buffalo Sabres in a deal that improved his roster both today and down the road. Every time adversity reared it’s gruesome head, the Jets buckled down and pressed their collective shoulder to the grindstone even harder. It would seem the NHL’s smallest market is this year’s little engine that could, and have so far risen to the occasion through blood, sweat and intestinal fortitude. How can you not like that?

Calgary Flames: This was supposed to be just the second year of the Flames official rebuild. When Calgary traded franchise cornerstone Jarome Iginla in the spring of 2013, it signaled a long overdue changing of the guard for the Flames, one that was supposed to see them competing for the first overall pick in this June’s entry draft. But things haven’t quite followed that particular script. While Winnipeg may have been the NHL’s second biggest playoff underdog story, the Flames were by far it’s largest. Everyone kept expecting Calgary to fall out of playoff contention any day, but the Flames kept the naysayers waiting and silenced them for good when they fought and shoved their way into the playoff picture. The Flames were this year’s Come Back Kids, leading the NHL in comebacks when they trailed opponents by a goal or more entering the third period. To a man, Calgary embraced a new “Never Say Die” culture; one adopted by the new leadership Calgary ownership brought in to complete the rebuild. There’s a lesson there that Calgary’s provincial cousins down the road in Edmonton have failed to realize, and if the Flames go deep in this year’s playoffs, it will serve to embarrass the Oiler’s incompetent brass even more. And that’s reason enough to show them some love.

Ottawa Senators: Ottawa was another team that wasn’t supposed to be part of the playoff equation this year, but enough dominoes fell into place to allow the Ottawa Senators to stage the biggest second half turnaround in NHL history. And simply put, the Sens, bar none, were the NHL’s biggest Cinderella Story this year. Sure, the team played better under Dave Cameron, who replaced 2013 Jack Adams winning coach Paul MacLean after Ottawa fired the Walrus mid-season. And sure, new captain Erik Karlsson deserves a healthy dose of credit, leading the team in scoring (again) while leading all NHL blue liners in points (again), not to mention how important Ottawa’s young guns were to their success this season; with Mark Stone (who should win the Calder trophy for best rookie), Mike Hoffman (who lead both Ottawa and all NHL freshmen in goals), Mika Zibanejad (2011’s sixth overall pick who looks to have usurped Kyle Turris as Ottawa’s number one centre) and Curtis Lazar (a big part of Canada’s gold medal winning squad at this year’s World Junior tournament). But the Sens momentous turnaround belongs primarily to one player-Andrew “Hamburglar” Hammond. When Ottawa’s regular net minders went down with injuries at the end of January and Hammond, who was posting less then mediocre numbers with the AHL Binghamton Senators, was thrust into the Sens crease, everyone pretty much stuck a fork in Ottawa’s playoff hopes (the Sens were 14 points out of a playoff spot at that point). But a funny thing happened-Hammond became the architect of a bona fide NHL Miracle on Ice. The Sens became supernova hot overnight and Hammond began breaking 80 year old records as he pulled Ottawa into the playoffs. And if that wasn’t enough of a storybook plot line for you, the team is pulling to give GM Bryan Murray, whose been battling terminal cancer all season long, one final season of memorable hockey and they’ll be dedicating every second of success to the memory of assistant coach Mike Lee who died a few days ago. This team will be playing with unimaginable emotional chutzpah.

Montreal Canadiens: The Habs were Canada’s lone post-season representative last year and they battled all the way to the Eastern Conference final before being eliminated by the New York Rangers. It is quite possible those two meet again this spring, possibly battling once again for the privilege of representing the East in the Stanley Cup Finals and a potential rematch between these two powerhouses will be epic as both teams have improved significantly since last June. I’ve always favoured the NHL’s masked men and while not taking anything away from the aforementioned Andrew Hammond or the Minnesota Wild’s Devan Dubnyk (who pulled a similar resurrection act with Minnesota’s flailing playoff hopes), Carey Price has quietly put together an historical campaign that has put his name alongside legends like Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy. His season long numbers have guaranteed him the Vezina trophy as the League’s top goalie and there’s also plenty of chatter about him taking home the Hart as the NHL’s most valuable player as well. And while I’ve never denied his flaws, it never fails to amaze me how little respect P.K. Subban gets, especially after his heroics last spring against the Boston Bruins (Subban took home the Norris trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman in 2013 and was the NHL’s second highest scoring blue liner this season). Maybe another deep post season run will get him some much-deserved respect. But my biggest reason for wanting to see the Habs enjoy some Stanley Cup success is Jeff Petry. Petry became the most recent in a long line of whipping boys for Edmonton Oilers management and fans despite numbers showing he was the best defenseman on a team where the blue line was their biggest weakness. The Oilers showed him little respect, signalling they were planning on trading him when they signed him to a single year deal last summer and then followed through on their intentions by shipping him to the Habs for draft picks at last March’s trade deadline. Yes, a team with a notoriously weak blue line gave away their best d-man for nothing (reason number 517 why Edmonton has spent the better part of the past decade well outside the playoff bubble). Seeing Petry, who was immediately slotted into the Habs top defensive four upon arrival, playing for the Stanley Cup will be an added bonus to humiliate Oilers brass.

Minnesota Wild: With the previous four entries on the list hailing from north of the border, this selection may leave you scratching your head a bit. And make no mistake, I’d love to see the Stanley Cup return to the Great White North for the first time in 22 years, but I’m also a pragmatist and with American teams constituting two thirds of playoff bound squads (including heavy hitters like the Rangers, Chicago, Anaheim, Nashville and others), the numbers are stacked against a Canadian captain skating victory laps holding the Cup aloft this June. And I do admire the way the Wild, a perennial playoff absentee a few years ago, have built their team, combining smart drafting, patient and efficient player development, shrewd trading and a few big free agent splashes into a recipe that has turned them into everyone’s favourite dark horse in the West. But my true motive for wanting to see the Wild raise a banner or two following this spring’s playoffs is Minnesota goaltending hero and former Edmonton Oiler Devan Dubnyk. You see, like Jeff Petry was this season, Dubnyk was Edmonton’s scapegoat last year, being dealt to the Nashville Predators for (overpaid) fourth line grinder Matt Hendricks.   During the lockout shortened 2013 season, Dubnyk, whose career had been trending upwards, finally seized hold of Edmonton’s top net minding job, but as soon as Dallas Eakins came on board as the Oilers bench boss, he was among a number of young players whose careers went south in a hurry (sophomores Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz being the other two). Now Oiler apologists will point out that Dubnyk fared poorly with Nashville after the deal in question and never played a single minute for the Canadiens when the Preds dealt him to Montreal later that season. But what those pundits fail to point out is that when Dubs landed in Nashville he was well behind Pekka Rinne on the depth chart and when he arrived in Montreal he was behind Carey Price, Peter Budaj and Dustin Tokarski. When the Arizona Coyotes signed him to a one-year deal last summer, Dubs began posting numbers superior than starter and former Olympian Mike Smith (on a horrible team, no less) and when the Wild acquired him for the bank breaking price of a third round draft pick last January, Dubnyk (who set new standards for work horses everywhere, starting all but one game between then and the end of the season) turned Minnesota’s fortunes around nearly as much as Hammond did Ottawa’s. In fact, my dream final this year is a Minnesota-Montreal matchup, where no matter who wins, one of Edmonton’s head slapping mistakes will be on full display, and one will eventually have his name etched onto the Stanley Cup.

Shayne Kempton

THE NHL’S 2014 CHRISTMAS WISH LIST

WHAT TEAMS AND FANS SHOULD PROBABLY ASK JOLLY OLD SANTA FOR THIS CHRISTMAS SEASON

 Well hello Santa. So good to see you again. How is Mrs. Claus doing? Well I hope (because let’s be honest Big Man, we both know the whole operation comes tumbling down without the Missus). And the elves? The reindeer? Rudolph still getting up to his regular hijinks? That polar scamp. Totally incorrigible.

Y’know Santa, it’s not just Christmas we celebrate at this time of year, but we’re also at the point on the calendar where just about every team in the NHL has played at least a third or more of their current regular season, and there are a few franchises (and in the case of number two, a long suffering and oft ignored fan base) who are probably counting on a goodie or two in your sack to salvage the rest of the campaign. Or at least make life a little more bearable until the mercy of the balmy summer months.   But just in case any have forgotten amidst the hectic hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, I’ve taken the liberty of assembling a list of ten things that teams or fans should ask you for this Yuletide.

10.  Another Hart trophy, scoring championship and First Team All-Star berth for Sidney Crosby. I’m not a Pens fan Santa, or a Crosby one, but Sid the Kid’s critics (and he has many) act like a pack of rabid, ravenous wolves that pounce on any chance to diss or put him down. A Stanley Cup champion and two-time Olympic Gold Medalist, Sid’s got more personal hardware then any other player currently skating. In the world. But still, there are millions of “fans” who love to hate on him with savage abandon.   He could discover a cure for cancer tomorrow and they’d all flock to Facebook to bash him for not devoting every waking second to hockey and defying nature. A bunch of new awards won’t really silence Sid’s haters, but it will make their absurd, petty rhetoric look even more foolish.

9.  If you could Santa, you might want to consider wrapping super-prospect Connor McDavid in an Ottawa Senators jersey this year, and gifting him, not to Sens fans in general, but the ones who didn’t throw Jason Spezza under the bus last year. Now the Sens don’t have to finish last in in the NHL in order to draft Connor first overall this June (the Oilers had all but wrapped up dead last by Halloween) but the Sens playoff chances this season are looking a little less then 50/50 (far smarter people than yours truly have crunched the numbers using a decade’s worth of data and have determined that Ottawa, who was several spots removed from a playoff spot in early December, has around a twenty-five percent chance to make the post season next spring). Any team that misses the playoffs this season will have at least a 13.5% chance to land The Next Big Thing. Bigger gambles have paid off.

8.  Glasses for the people who apparently didn’t see the Montreal Canadiens 2014 playoff run and refuse to accept that Habs blue liner P.K. Subban is one of the game’s elite defencemen. The 2013 Norris Trophy winner and member of Canada’s Gold Medal winning 2014 Olympic team, Subban was a dominant one man force who, combined with Carey Price’s heroics in net, dragged the Habs to victory over their much bigger, deeper, more skilled and much more favoured Beantown rivals during their second round matchup last spring. Subban got in the Bruins’ face, he never let up and when he wasn’t getting in Boston’s head or under their skin, he was putting pucks in their net. Even after the Big Bad Bruins took a 3-2 series lead and everyone wrote Montreal off, Subban refused to throw in the towel and somehow stepped it up a notch, leading the Bleu et Blanc to victory in seven.  If after all that people weren’t ready to acknowledge P.K.’s place among the game’s current best, there’s something desperately wrong with their eyes. Of course, for a few of these rotten apples (and I’ve tangled with one or two online), their hatred really only runs skin deep. And speaking of skins . . .

7.  A thick one for current Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson. The slick young Swede is superbly skilled, his awesome skill set leans towards the offensive side of the game, he isn’t overly physical and he’s European. In short Big Red, he’s everything Canadian “purists” hate in a hockey player. If the Sens struggle the rest of the way and fail to qualify for the post season, it won’t take long for the Sens Army to turn on Karlsson the way it turned on then captain Jason Spezza last season. Sports fans eat their own like no one else, and Ottawa’s hockey community has proven just as eager to chow down on anyone in a Sens jersey if things don’t go as well as they planned at season’s end.  Karlson will prove no exception.

6.  A huge lump of coal for the pretentious ass hats who run the Hockey Hall of Fame. The late Pat Burns was finally inducted into the Hall this year Santa, four years after he died from cancer. The kicker is he was eligible for admission before his unfortunate death and his wife confided after his passing that he secretly hoped he would be alive to see the day when he’d be inducted. It would have been such a little thing for the brains at the HHoF to bend a rule here or there and induct him while he was alive to see and enjoy it. But no, the walking, talking vials of syphilis that run the Hall couldn’t lower themselves to be actual feeling human beings. And Santa, that coal you put in their stockings? Could you make it the exploding kind? Pretty please?

5.  A lifetime ban from the Canadian Tire Centre for the Sens and Leafs fans that got into a flying brawl last November (during the game where both teams observed a moment of silence for the recently slain Cpl. Cirillo, no less). I don’t know how it started but everyone saw how it ended, with a member of each tribe hugging each other as they hurtled down the concrete stairs. In the days following the video’s Mach speed tour of the Internet, everyone was picking sides. IT WAS THE SENS FAN’S FAULT!  IT WAS THE LEAFS FAN’S FAULT! The truth is Big Red, it was the fault of everyone involved; everyone wearing a jersey during that scuffle was a douchebag, regardless of the logo. And while odds are the idiots who went down the stairs are still feeling it (good), justice will only truly be served if the two of them, Sen and Leafs fan alike, are prevented entry into the CTC (or any other Ottawa arena). For the rest of their lives.

4.  For Martin Brodeur to retire as a New Jersey Devil. The legendary Brodeur is currently doing a fine job holding down the fort in St. Louis crease, but his contract ends in June and once Blues starter Brian Elliot recovers from injury or future franchise goalie Jake Allen is ready to assume the reigns full time, Brodeur will be a 42 year old goalie on the outside looking in. So Santa, I think it only fair (and reasonable), that next September the New Jersey Devils sign Brodeur, who wrote an entire record book during his time manning New Jersey’s net, to a one game contract. Give him a start him against Edmonton or Carolina so he can grab one final win and then retire wearing the Devils jersey on a victorious note.

3.  A case of finger leprosy for the Leafs fans who took to Twitter to criticize, insult and berate Toronto goalie James Reimer’s wife, April. When Reimer struggled last spring (during a meltdown that affected every member of the roster and spelled the end of Toronto’s post season chances) and had a few lack luster games this past fall, some Leafs “fans” thought it would be a good idea to use Twitter to go after the man’s wife. Cause y’know, that’s the bravest and most reasonable thing of all to do. It should be mentioned that Mrs. Reimer handled the situation with grace and there were no shortage of other Leafs fans who rallied to her defense, but the idea they’ll get away with it still ticks in my craw. I made a tweet criticizing the Twidiots who targeted her (and I was completely civilized-I swear!) and found myself in the cross hairs of one or two malicious malcontents. And not only that Santa, even you have to admit that the mental image of a bunch of enraged fans racing to Twitter to voice their angry venom but have to resort to pecking the keyboard with their noses because they shed their diseased fingers is hysterical.

2.  A playoff berth for the Edmonton Oilers. I’m gonna be frank with you on this one Big Red, I, like millions of other Oilers fans, have abandoned hope that we’re ever going to see another meaningful game of hockey played in the month of April without divine intervention. Our coach is a one man blunder factory who ESPN recently named the worst bench boss in the NHL, our current GM doesn’t seem to have a long term plan or know what he’s doing (an affliction also suffered by his two predecessors), we’re saddled with the worst team president in the history of, well, ever, and an owner whose indifference to the strained loyalty of the team’s suffering fans is bordering on being criminally reckless. Even the most hardcore fan and the loudest team apologists have given up. It’s isn’t like we haven’t had opportunities to right the ship that’s been sinking for nine consecutive years Santa, but we seem to have gone out of our way to squander each and every one of them. I fear if you can’t fit a small miracle under Oiler Nation’s collective Christmas tree, the playoffs will become a permanent pipe dream and we’ll be forced to sustain ourselves on the memories of our long distant glory years.

1.  This might be the biggest one of all to ask for Santa, but if you can swing it, how about a few comfortable years of remission for Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray? Things aren’t looking too bright for Mr. Murray as he battles stage four cancer and both he and his doctors have admitted that at this point the best anyone can do is manage the situation. There are few guys out there in professional sports as classy as Mr. Murray, and if anyone in the NHL currently deserves a miracle of this size, it’s him. If you can only pull off one thing on this list Santa, it should be this one and I’ll make you a deal; if you can swing this particular stocking stuffer, I’ll leave out an extra large plate of double stuff Oreos.

Shayne Kempton

SURPRISE SURPRISE

SUNDAY I LISTED THE 5 NHL TEAMS I THOUGHT WERE THE BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS LAST SEASON. TODAY I THOUGHT I’D SHARE THE 5 I THOUGHT WERE THE MOST SURPRISING

5. NEW JERSEY DEVILS

After bleeding high profile free agents the past few seasons (Zach Parise in 2012, David Clarkson last summer) and the “retirement” of Ilya Kovalchuk, no one outside of the most optimistic Devils fan thought New Jersey had a shot at the post season. Most observers, myself included, thought the Devils would have been in the running for the first overall selection in last June’s entry draft if the NHL hadn’t stripped them of their first round pick for trying to circumvent the salary cap with, you guessed it, Ilya Kovalchuck’s contract (the NHL would ease the penalty, awarding New Jersey the 30th overall selection). But while New Jersey was never really in the playoff conversation last season, they were never out of it either, finishing 10th in the Eastern conference and surprisingly only missing the post season dance by five lonely little points. In fact, GM Lou Lamoriello was able to leverage last season’s surprising success to convince Jaromir Jagr to return for another season, lock up their current top blue liner Mike Greene for another four years and lure Mike Cammilleri away from the Calgary Flames as a free agent. Not bad for a team a lot of people wrote off last summer.

4. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

While I didn’t think the Bolts would finish as low as they did in 2013 (finishing higher then only Florida in the East and drafting third overall), I didn’t think they were playoff material either, especially after they bought out Vincent Lecavalier, the former face of the franchise. But Tampa Bay started the season by winning games. A lot of games. When Steve Stamkos broke his leg in November, sidelining him for three months and costing him a spot on Canada’s Olympic team, most people wrote them off. But they kept winning. Just after the Olympics, when long time sniper and future Hall of Famer Martin St.-Louis demanded a trade because he felt snubbed by Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman for initially being left off Canada’s Olympic roster (Stevie Y wasted little time tapping St.-Louis to replace the injured Stamkos), many observers felt that would disrupt Tampa’s chemistry more then enough to crash their season. But they kept winning (and managed to get an excellent return for the disgruntled St.-Louis). Buoyed by a Vezina caliber season from goalie Ben Bishop and carried by a collection of young forwards that Yzerman had quietly assembled, the Lightning soared from second last in the East in 2013 to the top of their division in only a single season.

3. COLORADO AVALANCHE

Like the Lightning, I didn’t think Colorado was going to do as poorly in 2014 as they did in 2013, when they finished dead last in the West and owned the second worst record in the league. But I hardly expected them to go from the basement to the top of their division (arguably the toughest in the NHL) either. But rookie coach Patrick Roy coaxed an outstanding season from goalie Semyon Varlamov and guided a dynamic collection of young forwards to the Pacific Division title, bringing respectability back to a once mighty franchise that had fallen on desperate times in recent years. Varlamov was nominated for the Vezina as the NHL’s top goalie, 2013 first overall pick Nathan MacKinnon won the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year, Matt Duchesne enjoyed a breakout season that saw him named to Canada’s Olympic roster over the likes of Taylor Hall and Claude Giroux, Ryan O’Reilly proved why he was so coveted as a restricted free agent the previous year, power forward Gabriel Landeskog proved why he was named the youngest captain in team history (and represented his native Sweden in Sochi) and Paul Stastny regained his former glory. Throw in vets Alex Tanguay and P.A. Parenteau and after suffering through years where Colorado couldn’t buy a goal, the Avs terrorized opposing goalies with one of the deadliest attacks in the NHL last season.

2. MONTREAL CANADIENS

Be honest, did you really think the Habs would be the only team from north of the border to qualify for the NHL post season? And did you honestly expect them to get all the way to the third round? I didn’t, particularly when they ran up against their long time rivals from Beantown in the second round. In a lot of people’s eyes, Boston was destined for a second consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup final, and the 2011 Stanley Cup champs were also the 2014 Presidents Cup winners, dominating the NHL during the regular season. And when the Bruins went up 3-2 in the series, a lot of people were ready to throw in the towel on the Habs. Including yours truly. But with Carey Price saving more rubber then a recycling plant in the Habs net and defenseman P.K. Subban becoming a more unstoppable force of nature with every game, the Habs proved to be the real deal. And had Price not been injured in the opening game of the Habs third round series against the New York Rangers, you could very well have seen the Bleu et Blanc facing off against the L.A. Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals. And speaking of New York . . .

1. NEW YORK RANGERS

The Rangers were by far the most surprising team this past season. New York enjoyed a decent regular season, finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference and twelve overall, but weren’t exactly the sexiest pick to represent the East in the Stanley Cup finals. Even the trade deadline acquisition of Martin St-Louis drew little attention. After all, it was hardly a secret that St.-Louis, who demanded a trade out of Tampa Bay following the Sochi Olympics, would only waive his no trade clause for the Rangers, And while they raised a few eyebrows when they knocked the Philadelphia Flyers out of the playoffs in the opening round, it wasn’t until the second round that the blue shirts started to make some real noise. When the Rangers found themselves on the wrong side of a 3-1 deficit during their second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, most fans gave them up for dead. But the Rangers roared back, sending Sidney Crosby, Evengi Malkin and company packing, winning the first game of their comeback without St.-Louis, who was attending his mother’s funeral. And for an encore, the Rangers knocked the red-hot P.K. Subban and Montreal Canadiens out next, clawing and fighting their way to the Final. True, the Rangers benefitted from a weaker Eastern Conference (the east looks like it’s completely up for grabs next season), but they displayed no shortage of tenacity in their unlikely trek to their date with Los Angeles.

Shayne Kempton

 

FANTASTIC FOUR

IT’S DOWN TO JUST FOUR TEAMS CHASING THE NHL’S ULTIMATE PRIZE AND THERE ARE SOME FAMILIAR FACES ALONG WITH SOME SURPRISING NEW ONES

      And then there were four. Four teams are all that remain in the hunt for the Stanley Cup and each offers plenty of intrigue and questions. While the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings clashing for the second consecutive season to represent the West in the Stanley Cup Final probably doesn’t surprise a lot of hockey fans, the fact that the East is up for grabs between the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens blows more than a few predictions out of the water (mine included). There are three original six teams included among the Final Four, as well as the first Canadian team in seven years, the defending Stanley Cup champions, the 2012 Stanley Cup champions, the team that won the Cup twenty years ago (the Rangers) and the team that won it twenty seasons ago (Montreal, adjusted for the 2005 lockout that scrapped that year’s post season). And each remaining roster includes at least two members from Canada’s gold medal winning team from the Sochi Winter Games, meaning that no matter what happens over the next few weeks, a couple of players will accomplish the incredible feat of winning both an Olympic gold medal and a Stanley Cup ring in the same year. Its gonna be an awesome end to the 2013-2014 campaign.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: No team is a better example of excellence and champion building in today’s NHL than the Chicago Blackhawks. A decade ago, the Blackhawks were consistently written off as perennial losers and the only time they were ever mentioned in the same sentence as the playoffs was as the punch line of a joke. But through smart drafting, patient development, shrewd trades and a handful of brilliant free agency signings, the Blackhawks are on the cusp of being a modern day dynasty. They had to strip some parts after their Stanley Cup parade in 2010 for salary cap reasons, but were still playoff worthy in 2011 and 2012 before winning the Cup again last spring. It should come as no surprise that the Hawks were tied with Detroit and St. Louis for sending the most players to the Olympics (including Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith to wear the Maple Leaf) or that this is their third appearance in the NHL’s Final Four in the past five years. Nor should it come as any surprise that they remain most people’s favourites for the 2014 Stanley Cup

 LOS ANGELES KINGS: 2012’s Stanley Cup winners are looking to avenge their 2013 elimination by Chi-town this spring and get some of that Dynasty recognition for themselves. They are perhaps the only team in the League right now that can challenge Chicago in terms of depth and playoff caliber talent. Despite some big names up front, the Kings did have some scoring difficulties during the regular season. That was until they added sniper Marion Gaborik at the trade deadline and now roll three lines that are a danger to score at any time. With Drew Doughty leading a deep blue line and franchise goalie Jonathan Quick as the last line of defense between the pipes, the Kings are a super power. And if anyone doubts the Kings’ emotional resolve, well you can just ask the San Jose Sharks, who jumped out to a commanding 3-0 lead during their first round matchup, only to watch L.A. storm back and become just the fourth team in NHL history to overcome such a deficit and win their series. What turned the tide during that matchup? For the first three games, Quick wasn’t on his game. For the last four he was unbeatable. Now the Kings are contending for the Cup and San Jose is doing a full post mortem on their entire organization. Enough said.

 MONTREAL CANADIENS: I have to hand it to the Habs; I didn’t give them much of a chance against the Boston Bruins in their second round series. Boston was the East’s answer to the Chicago Blackhawks, tailor built for playoff success from the ground up with one of the best goalies, one of the best defensemen and one of the best two-way forwards in the game all wearing Bruins’ jerseys. Good thing nobody told Les Habitants that. Anyone who doesn’t believe that Carey Price and P.K. Subban are now prime time talents in today’s NHL clearly wasn’t paying attention. The Bruins made a habit of outshooting and out chancing the Habs early in the series, but Price routinely made game-saving stops while Subban increasingly dominated the ice, challenging the Bruins as often as he could, refusing to back down when they challenged him and putting more than his fair share of pucks behind Tuuka Rask. Meanwhile, Montreal’s forwards adapted to Boston’s bigger yet less mobile defense, allowing them to gradually take the lead in shots and scoring chances. Montreal proved they wouldn’t be intimidated by either the odds or bigger teams and through perseverance and self-confidence now find themselves the first team representing the Great white North in the Final Four since the Ottawa Senators in 2007 (and 20 seasons after they won it all in 1993, over Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings no less). And while losing Price to a knee injury is a devastating blow, if there’s one team that seems destined to overcome such enormous adversity this spring, it’s Montreal. Does another goalie rise to the occasion in Price’s absence? Does Peter Budaj rekindle his days as a starter? Or does an unheralded prospect like Dustin Tokarski get in touch with his inner Bill Ranford and emerge as the team’s savior? This could be interesting.

 NEW YORK RANGERS: At the beginning of the season, would anyone outside of New York’s dressing room have thought the Rangers would still be playing meaningful hockey in mid-May? Even at the beginning of the playoffs, no one outside the most optimistic Rangers fan thought they’d get this far. And when Pittsburgh jumped out to a 3-1 lead in their second round series, the Rangers were given up for dead by just about everyone. But that’ why they play the games. Henrik Lundqvist, who backstopped his native Sweden to silver at Sochi last February, has reasserted himself as The King, keeping his team in games no matter how many shots they give up or how difficult the Rangers attack finds it to score. The Rangers blue line meanwhile, may be the most underrated defense corps in the NHL and the entire team blocks more shots then targets at a shooting range on NRA appreciation day. Scoring on the Rangers sometimes resembles a feat of Herculean proportions (just ask the Philadelphia Flyers, Sidney Crosby and Evengi Malkin). Deadline acquisition Martin St.-Louis not only offers experience (having won the Cup in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning) but an emotional fire as well, playing in tribute to his mother who tragically passed away earlier this month (the Rangers defeated the Penguins in the game St.-Louis missed, embracing the mantra “Win it for Marty,” a win that sparked their comeback). The simple fact is New York is red hot right now with most cylinders firing at warp speed. If Rick Nash can return to form, the Rangers may be this year’s Cinderella team, an unstoppable David that slays all the remaining Goliaths on their path to Stanley Cup glory.

 Shayne Kempton

HERE’S A QUICK LOOK AT HOW CANADA’S TEAMS LOOK AFTER A HECTIC FEW WEEKS IN THE NHL

English: Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Karls...

English: Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson prior to a National Hockey League game against the Calgary Flames. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now wasn’t that an interesting couple of weeks, hockey fans?  From a draft that was considered deeper than any other in the past decade, to a free agent pool that was originally considered weak but picked up steam as teams shed salaries via compliance buyouts in the days leading up to the June 5th free agent feeding frenzy with an interesting trade or two thrown in for good measure, there was plenty for hockey junkies to sink they’re teeth into.  Many teams aren’t done yet, there are some who shouldn’t be done yet and still more who should call it quits (but probably won’t), but for the time being I’ve decided to take a look at some of the big changes made by the Canadian teams so far this summer and how they’re looking now.

CALGARY FLAMES:  Flames GM Jay Feaster had three first round picks headed into the entry draft and a cupboard bare of elite prospects.  Feaster kept his picks, using the sixth overall selection to nab Sean Monohan, a player that made Flames’ management drool.  The Flames have made no secret that the former Ottawa 67s captain will probably be in their lineup next opening night, possibly joining Corban Knight, a promising college prospect the Flames pried away from the Florida Panthers just before the draft.

But what should concern Flames fans is the lack of depth Calgary has to surround their young building blocks with.  The Flames sent forward Alex Tanguay and defenceman Cory Sarich to Colorado for forward Ryan Jones and defenceman Shane O’Brien, arguably downgrades at both position.  They added T.J Galiardi and tough guy Brian McGratton to beef up their shallow forward corps, but neither one is going to appear on the score sheet often (or in McGratton’s case, the lineup).  The Fames D is looking pretty weak in the post Jay Boumester era, despite adding Kris Russell.  Unless Karri Ramo miraculously morphs into the next Martin Brodeur between now and October, the Flames are going to be seeing a lot of rubber filling their net next season.  Neither the young Finn nor veteran backup Joey MacDonald appear up to the challenge of adequately replacing the recently retired Mikka Kiprusoff.  Right now, it looks like Year One A.I. (After Iginla) is going to be a long, painful one for the Flames and their fans.

EDMONTON OILERS:  Newly minted Oilers GM Craig MacTavish told long-suffering Oilers fans to expect bold things in the near future.  They didn’t have to wait long.  MacT resisted the urge to trade the seventh overall pick for immediate help or to use it to take yet another skilled forward, opting instead to draft promising young defenceman Darnell Nurse, a future cornerstone of the blue line.  Then things got interesting.

MacTavish managed to move captain Shawn Horcroff and his considerable salary to Dallas in return for young depth defenceman Philip Larson and also signed promising young defender Anton Belov out of the KHL.  He signed Jason Labarbera and Richard Bachman to solidify the Oilers goaltending behind Devan Dubnyk and added veteran Andrew Ferrence to stabilize their shaky blue line (though he raised more than a few eyebrows by signing the 34 year old to a four year deal that included a No Movement Clause).  Free agent addition Boyd Gordon is the defensive minded faceoff specialist the Oilers have needed for years and MacTavish followed his free agent adventures by trading for left-winger David Perron to increase the Oilers firepower.  But perhaps the Oilers biggest move was replacing head coach Ralph Krueger with the highly sought after Dallas Eakins, a former AHL coach who has a record of getting promising young players to perform.  On paper, the Oilers may be a better team than they were two weeks ago.  But two weeks ago, they were really, really bad.

English: Edmonton Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff...

English: Edmonton Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff prior to a National Hockey League game against the Calgary Flames. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

MONTREAL CANADIENS:  The Montreal Canadiens went into the off season with two objectives in mind; get rid of Thomas Kaberle and his ridiculous contract (check) and add size to a forward corps that, while deep and fast and skilled, was too often pushed around, particularly by the Ottawa Senators in the 2013 playoffs.  That last one looks like it will still need some time.

Bergevin went with size and character at the draft, adding prospect Michael McCarron with the 25th overall pick, but his decision to bring in skilled but undersized Danny Briere after the Philadelphia Flyers bought the veteran out left a few Montreal fans scratching their heads.  There’s no doubt Briere brings an abundance of talent and heart to the Habs, but he’s collected quite the list of injuries over the last few seasons (including a handful of concussions) and at five-foot-ten, the fragile forward could find that regular contests against Boston and Toronto and Ottawa’s blue lines might drive him to drink.  The Habs brought in pugilist George Parros, but he’s a thirteenth or fourteenth forward who will be of little use when the Habs need talent on the ice as well as grit.  Vincent Lecavalier would have been the perfect addition to this team, and you have to wonder what went wrong with the Habs plans to sign him.  Or if they had any plans to sign him at all.

OTTAWA SENATORS:  No other Canadian team saw as much drama on July 5th as the Ottawa Senators.  Sens fans were thrown for a Mount Everest sized loop when Daniel Alfredsson, the face and heart of the franchise, a Sen for the past seventeen seasons and the team’s captain for the past fourteen, decided to play what will probably be his final season in the NHL wearing a Detroit Red Wings jersey.  While Ottawa fans were digesting that bitter pill, Sens GM Bryan Murray pulled off the biggest trade of the day, acquiring Bobby Ryan from the Anaheim Ducks in return for young forward Jacob Silverberg, prospect Stefan Noesan and a first round pick in 2014 (a bit of an overpayment in my opinion, but when a GM’s just lost his franchise’s most popular and beloved player, I guess he isn’t in his most logical frame of mind).  The Sens also added skilled grinder Clarke MacArthur from the rival Maple Leafs and essentially replaced Sergei Gonchar on their blue line with former Sen Joe Coro (at about the fifth of Gonchar’s price).  The Sens are probably set for now, even though they have plenty of cap space left.  The franchise will probably spend the rest of the summer signing their few restricted free agents and answering questions about both Daniel Alfredsson’s abrupt departure and some uncomfortable rumours about Eugene Melnyk’s finances.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS:  While Ottawa may have had the most dramatic off-season so far, the Leafs have had the busiest.  Toronto GM Dave Nonis

Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

surprised more than a few pundits and fans alike when he acquired goalie Jonathan Bernier from the L.A. Kings just before the draft, but when he stole centre David Bolland from the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and selected hulking forward Pierre Gauthier 21st overall, he laid out the schematic he hopes will lead the Toronto Maple Leafs back to Stanley Cup glory.  And while everyone expected the Leafs to buy out expensive AHL defenceman Mike Komisarek, Nonis had another trick up his sleeve by buying out popular centre Mikhail Grabovski as well (Grabovski had more than a few colourful parting shots for Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle on his way out of town).  Nonis then won a bidding war against the Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers for free agent power forward David Clarkson and he brought back forward Tyler Bozak for a much more reasonable price than what Bozak had originally been demanding.  Nonis and the Leafs will now probably spend the rest of the summer getting Nazem Kadri and their other restricted free agents signed to new deals.  And that ticking you hear?  That’s the countdown for the beginning of the Dion Phaneuf trade rumours.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS:  To put it simply, this franchise is a mess.  The Vancouver Canucks got the ball rolling by firing head coach Alain Vigneault, eventually replacing him with people person John Tortorella.  The Canucks upgraded the bottom six of their forward corps by replacing Ian Laparierre (who signed with the St. Louis Blues as a free agent) with Brad Richardson and adding depth forward Mike Santorelli.  They added blue liner Yannick Weber while buying out veteran defenseman Keith Ballard to free some cap space, easing pressure to deal someone expensive like Alex Edler.  Now, could there have been anything else on Vancouver GM Mike Gillis’ to do list?

Oh yeah, solve Vancouver’s prolonged goaltending saga.  Gillis had all but guaranteed that embattled starting goalie Roberto Luongo would be starting the 2013-14 NHL season somewhere other than Vancouver.  Whether through trade or a compliance buyout, everyone and their second cousin figured Luongo was going to be forwarding his mail to a new address sometime very soon.  And to solve all his crease problems, Gillis dealt goalie Cory Schneider to the New Jersey devils for the ninth overall pick in the 2013 entry draft (and used said pick to select Bo Horvat).  Yep, after everything that’s happened, Roberto Luongo remains a Vancouver Canuck (you can see my additional thought on the whole shebang here https://ottawaedge.wordpress.com/2013/07/05/net-gains/).  Who else is willing to bet real money that emotional bull-in-the-china-shop, “my guys stink” coach John Tortorella is just the man to rebuild all the burnt bridges and heal the damaged egos in Vancouver?  Anyone?

WINNIPEG JETS:  The Jets could literally smell a playoff spot last April before blowing their last few games and falling just outside the post- season bubble.  But the Jets positioned themselves well for this free agent season and have taken advantage of teams looking to unload heavy contracts to squeeze under the reduced cap (like prying Devon Setoguchi away from a cap stressed Minnesota Wild or Michael Frolik from the Chicago Blackhawks for instance).  While disgruntled forward Alex Burmivstrov is headed back to his native Russia for the next two years (at least), the Jets added gritty forward Matt Halischuk and depth defenceman Adam Pardy.  Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff also managed to add excellent blue line prospect Josh Morrisey with the thirteenth overall pick at this year’s entry draft while defenceman Jacob Trouba, their top pick from the 2012 draft, is expected to make an immediate impact on an already deep Winnipeg blue-line next season.  The Jets have plenty of cap space left after letting the likes of Nik Antropov and Ron Hainsey go via free agency, although they’ll need most of it to sign their own RFAs.  Still, you get the feeling Cheveldayoff isn’t done yet.  The Jets are one team to keep your eye on for the rest of the summer.

Shayne Kempton

WINDS OF CHANGE