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Hello, puckheads. The big man is back at work. One week left in the regular season and then I'm on the playoff trail for two months. Giddy-up!
But first, some random thoughts after spending a week in Florida:
1. The Calder debate
Let me preface this thought by saying I believe Jimmy Howard should be nominated for the Vezina Trophy; his season has been that outstanding. But I do not believe the Detroit Red Wings goalie should win the Calder Trophy. Confused? Don't be. Howard is 26 years old, four years older than Sidney Crosby, who is in his fifth NHL season. Howard is five years older than Patrick Kane, the Calder Trophy winner from two seasons ago.
I understand Howard is eligible for the award (he just slipped under the age cutoff) and he will be among my five choices in my official NHL awards ballot when I fill it out this week, but he won't be my first choice.
Tyler Myers turned 20 this past February. What he's done patrolling the blue line for the Buffalo Sabres has been truly outstanding. Among all his defensive talents, he's third in rookie scoring, trailing only forwards Matt Duchene and John Tavares. The fact he's six years younger than Howard is a big difference in my book. A month ago, I gave Duchene the nod in an early look at the awards, but I've shifted back to Myers.
2. The Montreal net
In the dramatic and pressure-packed market that is Montreal, the goalie story has had incredible legs this season. And it only went up a notch last week. Some Bell Centre fans booed Carey Price last Wednesday after he was named third star in a 2-1 loss to Carolina. Tough crowd, indeed. And those fans are idiots for booing him. The kid has had no offensive support this season. Price's .912 save percentage is better than the likes of Pekka Rinne, Jonathan Quick and Marc-Andre Fleury, a fact that no doubt surprises many of you.
The problem is, the other guy sharing the net with him in Montreal this season happens to have the third-best save percentage in the entire NHL at .927. Jaroslav Halak also doubles Price in the most important stat of all: wins. That's why the Slovak has won out in the season-long battle and will be the starter come playoff time. But what do you do this summer if you're GM Pierre Gauthier?
Both goalies are restricted free agents. There's no room for both to return; neither goalie wants to share the No. 1 job again and, more importantly, the Habs have cap issues and need to re-sign UFA center Tomas Plekanec. So Price or Halak will almost surely be dealt.
Which one do you deal? Halak will turn 25 next month, while Price will be 23 in August. As one NHL scout told me this season, Halak is the better goalie right now, but you can't discount the upside with Price. Tough call for Gauthier. Either way, he needs to recoup some offense in return. And regardless of which netminder the Habs choose to keep, both goalies are No. 1 material for years to come.
3. Which team comes out of the West?
Before I went on vacation, I tweeted that Washington-Vancouver was my choice for a Cup finals matchup at that point. I still like the Caps coming out of the East, but now I have some doubts with the Canucks. And it's not just Roberto Luongo's struggles, but also the defensive-zone mistakes by the blue-line corps in front of him. The Canucks would have benefited greatly from picking up a top-four blueliner at the March 3 trade deadline, but I understand those players don't grow on trees and GM Mike Gillis has made it his mantra that he doesn't like paying for rentals.
I may still stick with the Canucks next week when I am pressed for my official Cup finals prediction, but right now I'm on the fence. The question is, if not Vancouver, then who?
San Jose has played better of late after breaking out of a March swoon that had Sharks fans feeling nervous. Still, the ghosts of playoffs past always give you reason for pause, not to mention the visions of Evgeni Nabokov in the Olympic quarterfinals.
The Blackhawks? There's the team I'd personally love to see in the finals just for esthetic reasons. I mean, can you imagine the roar at the United Center? The league would drool at the chance to get the long-suffering Original Six club in the finals with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane taking on either Washington's Alex Ovechkin or Pittsburgh's Crosby. For that league dream to become reality, however, Antti Niemi or Cristobal Huet must turn in two months of hockey not too many people think they have in them. Niemi was solid Sunday against Calgary, but ...
The top three Western powerhouse teams have questions marks ... which has already led several of my media colleagues to jump on the comfortable Hockeytown, USA bandwagon. I mean, why not? The Red Wings are healthy, they're rolling and know what it takes once the calendar flips from April to May. Then, there's Phoenix. Is a trip to the Cup finals that much of a stretch? A bigger stretch than 102 points in the standings when everyone had them in the basement last fall?
I'll take seven more days to dwell on my Western pick, but I'll be doing it without much confidence. Never before has the West been so wide open, and that's great for fans of this game. We're in store for one heck of a postseason.