<
>

5 Things: Playoff predictions, Premiere Games cut, and coaching carousel

3/28/2011

1. Handicapping the playoffs -- despite injuries

We were talking to Jim Schoenfeld, assistant GM of the New York Rangers, last week about the Rangers' torrid play of late. But one of the reasons Schoenfeld refused to be drawn into any playoff discussion was the boards in his office. Like many NHL executives, Schoenfeld and the rest of the Rangers brain trust monitor all of the NHL and AHL rosters. Injured players are denoted by a red dot, and Schoenfeld told us he'd never seen the board as covered by red as he has this season. And it's not getting any less red, and that has made handicapping teams' playoff chances almost impossible. Not that it'll stop us from trying.

Here is a list of top-end talent and crucial role players that may miss time for their teams in the playoffs:

  • Manny Malhotra and Dan Hamhuis have both recently departed the Vancouver lineup with Hamhuis lost to a reported concussion Sunday.

  • Pavel Datsyuk has been slow to return from yet another injury, this one a lower body variation, while Todd Bertuzzi and Johan Franzen have both been out for the Wings, although Franzen was hoping to play Monday.

  • Sharp is out for the playoff-hopeful Blackhawks, as we noted.

  • The Kings suffered a double-whammy in the past couple of weeks, losing Justin Williams and Anze Kopitar until well into the postseason.

  • Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby continues to skate and looks like he might try to return at some point this season, but that is pure conjecture. Evgeni Malkin is done for the duration.

  • Chris Pronger should be back for the Flyers.

  • Buffalo's Jordan Leopold is out with a broken hand.

  • Mike Green hasn't played since Feb. 25 after having his bell rung by Derek Stepan of the Rangers, while new Washington center Jason Arnott has been out, too, but should return before the playoffs.

  • There are the long-term injuries to the Montreal blue line, although reports indicate forward Max Pacioretty could return for the playoffs.

  • Phoenix is hoping to see Ed Jovanovski and Martin Hanzal back in the lineup, although Hanzal hasn't skated in two weeks.

All of which goes to say that the balance of power once the playoff tournament starts will be affected in no small way not just by injuries, but by those who return from injury. For instance, the Pens will be difficult to dislodge from the postseason even without Crosby, but have suddenly become favorites along with Washington, Philly and perhaps Boston if Crosby returns. The Kings' chances look bleak given the loss of two key offensive pieces. The hard-working Coyotes' chances go up exponentially if Hanzal and Jovanovski return. The Caps' offensive arsenal is significantly improved with Arnott and Green in the lineup. And so it goes.

2. Less is more with Premiere Games

We're not really surprised that the NHL's pulling back from three sets of Premiere Games in Europe next year to two.

In fact, we wonder if this isn't a way of slowly scaling back the European invasion after a period of oversaturation.

Having been on hand for the first three Premiere events in London, Prague and Stockholm, one had to wonder where the process was headed.

Initially with the Stanley Cup-winning Ducks and Los Angeles in London in the fall of 2007, there was a definite feel of something outside the norm, and while there was no real rooting interests, the seats at London's O2 Arena sold well.

But having ramped it up to include first four teams and then six in three European locales, there was a definite drop-off in the buzz. And we're not just saying that because last fall marked the first time we opted not to cover the event. Indeed, part of that decision was based on the "been there done that" factor.

The matchups didn't provide much oomph and we know our friends at the NHLPA were disappointed they weren't involved more in the discussions.

And really with only three or four viable options for hosting the games: Helsinki, Stockholm, Prague and perhaps every few years Berlin, Bratislava and London, the idea of sending six teams every year and trying to create a sense of event is a tall order.

Having the Red Wings and their strong complement of Swedes in Stockholm was terrific.

And Prague was a nice venue for the Rangers and Tampa a couple of years back, even though Jaromir Jagr was long gone to the Kontinental Hockey League by then.

And having Teemu Selanne in Finland with the Ducks next season would be a terrific moment. But there are only so many "moments" that may capture the European hockey fan, and it's a long way to go to play two games if the returns are going to be diminished by repetitiveness.

Russia remains the last unconquered frontier as far as these games go, but as our friend and colleague Pierre LeBrun reported Saturday, the NHL and KHL couldn't agree on a format, so that has gone by the boards.

One wonders if we might not see the NHL pull back even more dramatically in the future and go for specific "event" games like when Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals do play a regular-season game in Russia, perhaps against Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

In the end, sometimes less is more, and it may open the door to more innovative ways to kick off the NHL season on this side of the Atlantic.

3. Coaching carousel

It's not too early to think about what the offseason coaching carousel might look like in the NHL. The assumption has been that Cory Clouston is for the high dive as soon as the Ottawa Senators' regular season ends in two weeks. But you have to acknowledge Clouston has done a nice job with a lineup that was stripped down by GM Bryan Murray in advance of the trade deadline and by injury.

Did Clouston do enough to earn a reprieve? He's not the most popular guy in Ottawa, but with youngsters like Bobby Butler and Erik Karlsson looking like they're ready to blossom, maybe some consistency behind the bench wouldn't hurt. Not suggesting the leash should be long, but why not give Clouston a shot next fall to carry on what he's done in the final third of a lamentable season in Ottawa?

Most Avs fans are hoping to see a new face behind the bench after the team's monster collapse this year. But you've got to figure Joe Sacco deserves another shot given his yeoman work a year ago. Up to GM Greg Sherman, assuming he's still at the controls, to give Sacco a legitimate starting goalie and see if he can get the job done early next season, assuming the team isn't crippled by injury as it was this season.

Love what Jack Capuano has done with the Islanders, and that means the Islanders will whack him (OK, just kidding). But Capuano sure deserves a shot to get the Isles out of the blocks next season.

Not sure how things will go in Florida for Pete DeBoer, who hasn't had a lot to work with but hasn't gotten all that much out of what little he's had. Given that he's not GM Dale Tallon's man, it could be time for a change. My guess is that DeBoer won't be looking for work for long. He was highly sought-after when the Panthers signed him -- the Sens also courted him, among others -- and his time in Florida shouldn't diminish his standing that much.

4. Win or go home for Blackhawks

Talk about crunch time for the defending Stanley Cup champs. The Chicago Blackhawks woke up Monday morning in eighth place in the Western Conference, one point ahead of Calgary and two ahead of Dallas. The Flames have played three more games than the Hawks, but Dallas has played the same number as Chicago (74 games).

The problem for Chicago is that three of their remaining eight games are against the Detroit Red Wings, starting with a tilt Monday in Detroit. They are in Boston the following night for a tough one against the Northeast Division-leading Bruins. Ouch. In fact, five of the Hawks' final eight games are away from the Madhouse on Madison. Their 17 road wins are the fewest of any of the top eight teams in the Western Conference. The Blackhawks must consider all this without dressing room glue guy -- not to mention the team's most consistent scorer all season -- Patrick Sharp.

Coach Joel Quenneville told reporters Sharp was making surprising progress in coming back from a knee injury, but this is truly gut-check time for the Hawks. We're guessing the Hawks need to win at least four of eight to get in (that would give them 96 points) and likely five to make sure. I say they get the job done.

5. Red Wings' goaltending shortage

We recall having a debate with the inestimable Mr. LeBrun around the trade deadline about the Red Wings' goaltending depth. I suggested that GM Ken Holland might be trolling for some depth between the pipes given Chris Osgood's uncertain status with a recurring groin problem. Mr. LeBrun pooh-poohed the notion, and even when netminders like former Wing Ty Conklin became available -- the Blues at one point put Conklin on waivers before the deadline -- GM Ken Holland stood firm, not wanting to carry three netminders.

Understandable. But now Osgood remains sidelined after it was hoped he would be back days ago, and Jimmy Howard suffered a shoulder injury against Toronto. Howard is expected back either later this week or as late as next weekend. But the fact the Wings will hit the ice against Chicago on Monday night with Joey MacDonald and Thomas McCollum as the tandem of record should be a sobering thought for Wings fans everywhere.