First Period -- Whistle while you work
It's actually happening.
Penalties are being called as they were during the regular season. Commissioner Gary Bettman's pre-playoff verbal salvo at referees to call the games as they called a November Blue Jackets-Coyotes game is working.
For the first time since coaches and players started pushing the slash-and-grab envelope to the extreme, the NHL is proactively taking on the role as spring steward. It's too early to tell how this standard of enforcement will play out for the rest of the postseason, but there are some early pros and cons.
Pros: When the game is played at equal strength, it is unquestionably faster. Players are entering the offensive zones with speed and putting the defense on its heels. More goals offer more hope, but the occasional 1-1 game has always had an interesting tension. Now the score may be 1-1 at the end of regulation, but when you give the viewer the impression that someone might score every time they enter the zone with speed, it makes for better viewing. The rise and fall of the heart rate.
We will have more third-period comebacks than two years ago. There will also be fewer overtimes in the early rounds -- making the calls will separate the good teams from the average teams, resulting in fewer early-round overtimes. Not every game will be close and end-of-the-game power plays will also be an overtime deterrent. Lastly, game-winning goals will be prettier. Allowing the buildup of speed will allow for scintillating game-winning goal highlights.
Cons: Power plays slow the game down. Players become stationary. The up-and-down action is stifled and that stops the hitting. I know the NHL's response is that if the players follow the rules, everything will be fine, but I think the stripes can let a little more go in terms of the physical play down low.
If the players become tentative, the edge is gone. And the Stanley Cup playoffs are all about the edge: having the edge, playing on the edge. If the NHL takes away too much of the edge, then they are simply re-creating the regular-season vibe. People don't want to see that. They want to see the playoff edge. Close, in-your-face hockey. Yes, bloody hockey.
The Stanley Cup has always been deemed the toughest trophy to win in sports. But one team going 5-for-13 on the power play does not back up that claim. It is a tough balance, and right now, at least, NHL referees are being consistent. The league needs to keep accumulating video examples of what is and isn't a penalty. The NHL needs to study these different plays, e-mail their conclusions and ask officials for feedback.
Second Period -- The Young and the Restless
Sixteen teams are in the tournament, 14 are home. Those who are home are preparing for June's NHL draft and the free-agency period.
The draft is the more important of the two. The NHL is a faster league, with a salary cap. That makes it a young man's game now more than ever. In terms of talent and fiscal prudence, getting top-level, younger players who will grow together is the recipe for success. Look at the teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs and nearly all of them are built primarily through the draft.
This is even more important now in the salary cap era. Teams able to accumulate entry-level talent, who are immediate impact players, have a huge advantage because those players outperform their contract sevenfold.
Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Dion Phaneuf are already $5 million to $7 million players. Crosby made $850,000 this past season and was one of only seven players to hit 100 points. Ovechkin made $984,200 and was one of only five players to score 50 goals. Phaneuf will be the best defenseman in the NHL next season and he made $942,400 this season. Having these kinds of players is a huge advantage because it allows teams to sign impact free agents. Now, the Penguins tried this last summer, but they signed the wrong free agents and now Craig Patrick is a free agent. To be fair, they reportedly tried to sign Paul Kariya. He would have been a good acquisition and I'm shocked he didn't sign with the Penguins to play with Crosby.
That being said, I wouldn't sign veteran free agents until the team is ready to strike. A young team needs to grow together and fail together. Ottawa was often criticized for not adding more to its roster over the last few seasons. I think the Senators did things the right way. They now have a complete, cohesive unit. Yes, there are concerns in net. But, if healthy, Ottawa is the clear choice to win the Cup.
So, while you enjoy the best tournament on earth over the next two months, keep in mind that most of the teams on the outside looking in are getting better every season.
Third Period -- For the love of Mel Kiper Jr.
The NFL draft is this weekend. 'Tis the season of Mel Kiper and endless draft speculation on where Vince Young and Matt Leinart will end up. The NHL draft is still two months away, but it's not too early to see how things might play out as teams assess their needs for the draft and free agency. Let's look at the first seven, er, bottom seven teams.
1. St. Louis Blues: The Blues are picking first overall for the first time in franchise history, and just their luck, there isn't a ready-made Calder Trophy winner waiting for them. They need just about everything and have plenty of cap space. Which raises the question: Will we see more trades of high draft picks for multiple players? A team that is capped out can rid itself of two or three players for an inexpensive draft pick. The good team gets cap relief and an 18-year-old they can develop over two to three seasons. The bad team gets two or three ready-made players and perhaps a first pick in the late first round as part of a draft-pick switch. Especially in draft pools like this year where there is no Kovalchuk, Ovechkin or Crosby.
The Blues need everything. I would approach the draft strategy like an expansion team. Stay young, accumulate high picks over the next three drafts and then add in veterans as the unrestricted free agency age drops. Picking up Keith Tkachuk's option was smart, because they will be able to trade him for a first-round pick down the road.
Free agency: Only cheap veterans. Play the young guys and get back in the lottery again next year and hope you get Angelo Esposito in the 2007 draft.
Draft: I would select Jordan Staal with the No. 1 pick. A big center that just looks and sounds like a Blue. Give him two seasons to add 10-15 more pounds and then show him to Missouri.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins: Talentwise, the Penguins are in good shape. They have high-level, young assets in Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury and Evgeni Malkin. They also have a couple of second-tier prospects who could grow together as "glue" guys. It is still not certain if Malkin will be freed from his Russian contract to play next season. Sergei Gonchar has offered to mentor him if Gonchar remains in Pittsburgh, so there are positive signs if Malkin wants to play in the NHL next season.
My gut is Malkin will be in Pittsburgh next season. Either way, the Penguins are probably still a lottery team, unless they try the veteran free-agency route again. We just don't know how deep the new owner's pockets will be. Would they offer Patrik Elias a five-year, $35-million dollar deal to play with Crosby? Will they sign two or three $3 million defensemen? We probably won't know about the arena until December. It will either be a glorious season or an absolutely depressing one in Pittsburgh next winter.
Free agency: Since the Penguins are for sale, they will keep costs down to keep the team attractive for a buyer. Also, who will be the new GM? Steve Tambellini? There are rumors Pat Brisson of IMG, Crosby's agent, might pull a Mike Barnett and become the Penguins' GM.
Draft: Erik Johnson or Phil Kessel? Johnson is probably three years away and is no certain perennial All-Star. He looks like he will be very good, but it is not clear-cut. Can Kessel play in the NHL next season? He has multiple red flags -- he lacks vision and his defense is well below par. Still, he has the speed and the shot. There have been whispers that he has "Lindros-like" family concerns. If he is there at No. 2, do you take him and put him on the wing with Malkin or Crosby?
Kessel would probably score 40-50 goals next season playing with Crosby, despite any personal rivalry they might have. Get Sid the puck, use your speed, learn how to get open and finish. Good times. He also could be a minus-412. I'd interview them both. Look them in the eye. Go to their homes. Look around the house. Peek in the medicine cabinet. Meet the Fockers. And then make my decision. I'd love the job of interviewing these prospects. I bet the Penguins take Johnson.
3. Chicago Blackhawks: The Blackhawks select third in the draft. Kessel still might be there with all of his red flags. What do the Blackhawks do? They have a decent corps of young players and overpriced veterans. They are kind of in no man's land. If the vets all stay healthy next season and the young players step it up, could we have a Carolina Hurricanes on our hands? Not quite. The Blackhawks need a young playmaker and Jonathan Toews is that guy. He turns 18 this month, so he is very young. He had 22 goals on 102 shots in 42 games as a 17-year-old freshman at North Dakota this past year. He is 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds. I know I grew two more inches after I turned 18. We'll see what happens to Toews -- 6-2, 195 pounds with good hands would make a nice Blackhawk in a couple of years.
Free agency: After the judgment shown last summer, I would stay away from expensive free agents. Keep developing the kids.
Draft: Take Toews. Have him go back to North Dakota, play in another World Junior tournament, and win a National Championship in the spring. Then, play him with Jack Skille for the 2007-08 Blackhawks season.
4. Washington Capitals: With Ovechkin in the lineup, the Capitals gained six wins and 11 more points than the 2003-04 season. The fact that he was a plus player on such an awful defensive team is only more rookie of the year evidence for him. His line usually had the puck.
The Capitals could go a few ways. They need defensemen and they could use a young center. If you want to improve quickly, you are always better off getting veteran defensemen via free agency and drafting skill. When you have such an immediate star like Ovechkin, it can make an organization impatient.
Free agency: They need a couple of rear guards. I said rear guards. Hal Gill on line No. 2.
Draft: I like Peter Mueller and think he fits in with the Capitals' developing style of play. He would be here at this point and would be a high-value pick. The Caps do like to think outside the box. Last year, they took 6-foot-5 defenseman Sasha Pokulok with the 14th pick in the first round. I wouldn't be surprised if they took Nigel Williams here, a big defenseman on his way to Wisconsin in the fall. The Capitals draft out of need, more than Central Scouting ranking.
5. Boston Bruins: Who knows here? We don't know who the GM will be or what the long-term philosophy is. We don't know how much influence Harry Sinden has. Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs probably should have demoted Sinden to season-ticket holder emeritus. If Jacobs hired Ray Bourque to be president, then Bourque could have hired Dean Lombardi to be GM. And then Lombardi could have hired Mike Eaves from Wisconsin. Then the Bruins could have moved forward. But we know that won't happen, especially since Lombardi is in Los Angeles now.
Free agency: The Bruins usually make one free-agency splash just from a pure marketing sense. Got to get those season-ticket renewals! We'll know Sinden is still in charge if the Bruins trade Patrice Bergeron to create cap space so the Bruins can sign Brendan Witt.
Draft: Kessel will still be here. If Sinden is still calling the shots, the Bruins will draft their 289th defenseman in the past five years, Bobby Sanguinetti from the OHL. Chris Stewart also has Bruin written all over him. He's a big right winger who can score and get to the penalty box. Hmm.
6. Columbus Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets were 6-3-1 in their last 10 games and are in a position to take the best player on the draft board, regardless of position. They won't have lots of free-agency options because they are close to the cap. The Jackets are what they are right now.
Free agency: Outside of the first line, the Jackets could upgrade anywhere with a midlevel free-agent signing. They can't spend too much. They have some aging veterans who will not be performing up to their salaries in the coming years. Their window is somewhat small unless some of their young guys really blossom, a possibility in the faster, younger NHL. They could use a second-line center. They need Gilbert Brule or Dan Fritsche to make a great leap forward next season.
Draft: I see Sweden's Nicklas Backstrom in the Blue Jackets future. Smart, two-way players are what the Jackets need.
7. New York Islanders: The Islanders have great fans. Truly passionate and special. Naturally, their Stanley Cups in the '80s spawned a spirited fan base. But more than the championships, the Islanders were a unique team. They were a great movie with great actors. Now they are a mess. All those bad trades and short-sighted plans have left them with little hope for the immediate future. That being said, there is an adequate enough core that, if the right coach were brought in to elevate everyone's play, the Islanders could be competitive. Hello, Andy Murray?
Free agency: They will probably make a run at Elias, and who wouldn't? But they need to start creating a new Islander identity of young, drafted players.
Draft: You just know this is where Kessel will end up.
The Mother of All Mailbags
I, along with every other mere mortal in the world of hockey, wish to humbly ask your forgiveness for doubting your predictions on Sidney Crosby. I must admit, I called you a fool for much of the summer and early season for saying Crosby would break 100 points when the season before established stars had failed to hit the mark. I will no longer doubt your column ever again.
Man, I hope this makes it to your column.
A hockey fan
Well, OK. I'll put this in the e-mail bag. I feel VERY uncomfortable about putting it in here. But, since you asked … (Yes, I'm gonna milk this prediction for awhile now that my Mighty Ducks over the Red Wings pick in 2003 has expired.)
Well, it's going to be a "great" hockey playoffs for those of us with the Dish Network and the Center Ice package. Looking at the scheduling, every game on OLN is going to be blacked out on Center Ice. For those of us that are Wings fans, this is nothing short of ridiculous. Thanks ever so much to the powers that be for having such an outstanding television package. Way to cut out a significant portion of the viewing audience.
Fortunately for me, I have Direct TV, OLN, and I work at a somewhat profitable television network that pays its employees to watch sports. I will watch EVERY playoff game. I can't imagine a Wings fan, or a Flyers fan, or a Flames fan, or a Sharks fan working in Alabama the next two months, who does not have the chance to see any Stanley Cup playoff games except the ones on NBC on the weekend. And even the Sharks fan in Alabama probably would have had the Red Wing/Oilers game on Sunday. This isn't about OLN. They had little time to get a television team together and continue to improve. They have put score and time on the top of the screen for the playoffs (another Bettman mandate?), and although it needs to go about an inch higher, it's better than it was before. This is about tens of millions of homes who don't have access to the greatest sports show on Earth.
Just when I was starting to warm up to OLN, they hit us with a new one. I live in Central N.J. and am a Cablevision subscriber and have the Center Ice package. Tuned in for the Flames/Ducks tonight to find out that it is being blacked out. I figured, no problem I'll get the CBC broadcast on the NHL package. No Game! Bad job by whoever is responsible. Can't see how the NHL allows this stuff.
Disclaimer: I put these e-mails in because I have received bucketfuls. This space is your space. A reflection of the Inbox.
You've made light of the sad state of the Bruins in Boston, but the Chicago Blackhawks are the undisputed champion of NHL ineptitude.
No home TV, 5,000 fans in the seats some nights, eight to 10 rookies (who have some pizzazz; Brent Seabrook is a hell of a player) in the lineup each night, a terrible product and no hope in sight. It may be bad to be mocked and ridiculed; it's another to be ignored completely. The main Hawks coverage (as in anything that's not off the AP wire) is in the third largest newspaper -- a suburban daily. There is no Hawks talk on the radio, because it would drive listeners away. No highlights on the nightly news. Heck, the Hawks have to BUY their own airtime to broadcast games. As a lifelong fan of the Hawks, it's hard to be a fan when there is no hope, little future, but still the best uniforms in sport.
The Blackhawks have missed the playoffs seven of the last eight seasons. They haven't won a playoff series since the 1996 Stanley Cup playoffs. The Bruins and Blackhawks are very similar. Owners who covet popcorn and parking money over wins, and top-level hockey men, Bob Pulford and Harry Sinden, who wield too big of a presence to allow for forward thinking and change. Professional sports are smarter and more precise than even the early '90s. The Bruins and Blackhawks are truly Sony Walkman cassette players in a digital world.
I am a 16-year-old that is coming ever closer to the next chapter in his life, college. My dream is to be a sports journalist and cover hockey for ESPN. I realize that these dreams are lofty, but why dream about anything less? How do I get started in doing so?
P.S. -- Check out Bloc Party, Arcade Fire and the Arctic Monkeys, because I know you have good taste in music!
This was my path to fulfilling my dream of working at ESPN.
Mom and dad gave me an old tape recorder when I was 11. I turned down the sound on the TV and did play-by-play of every sport, played newscaster and played DJ. I chose a college with a campus TV station, radio station and school newspaper (Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio) that was intimate to increase opportunities and allow me to play varsity sports.
Accepted poverty-level wages (seriously) to be a cameraman for a small news operation on Cape Cod, living on Frosted Flakes, Snickers and pasta. I got the sports anchor job nine months later and stayed there five years and accumulated massive debts. Got a job in Providence, R.I., in 1994. Hired by ESPN in 1996. Named host of NHL 2Night in 1998. Began writing this column in 2001.
Through it all, I did what I did because of the love of sports, writing and music. I did what I wanted to do and didn't listen to anyone who sought to veer me in a different direction. Be humble to allow for alterations, show up every day to take advantage of opportunities, have a vision (nothing in life is more important than visualization, nothing.) and stick it out. That was my plan and philosophy. Know thyself, come up with your own plan, and proceed.
As of right now, Paul Kariya has 342-448-790 in 739 games. He should be able to reach the 500-goal and 1,000-point mark before he retires. He is still surviving in the league due to his creativity, speed, vision and hockey smarts. He is one of the reasons that I'm playing hockey right now (Being a fellow Asian hockey player myself), and it would be great if he made it all the way. So what do you think about his chances getting in the HOF?
Paul Kariya has played in 739 NHL games. 342-448-790. He's won an NCAA Division I title, a Hobey Baker Award, Olympic gold medal, three NHL First Team All-Star selections, two Second Team All-Star selections.
After his four-assist game against the Sharks in Game 1 of the Sharks-Predators series, Kariya had played 37 playoff games with point totals of 14-20-34. Solid. He doesn't shrink in the big moments. Kariya is 31 years old. His small size probably gives him about five more solid years before he loses speed. I would think in those five years, he would play in about 350 games. That would give him 1,089 games played. I project him to have point totals of 467-658-1025. That's 0.46 goals a game. Better than Lanny McDonald, Glenn Anderson and Brendan Shanahan, and about the same as Steve Yzerman. Of course, Kariya can't be judged on his goal-scoring stats alone because he sets up goals so well. He's smart, stylish, fast and productive. I thought his Olympic snub was the biggest snub of them all last February. Paul Kariya is a Hall of Famer.
If the Penguins do end up moving, why don't they go to Milwaukee? I think that they would have a great fan base there. I mean, look at how many fans show up to University of Wisconsin hockey games. Plus, this would allow my beloved Detroit Red Wings the opportunity to go to the Eastern Conference, where they belong. Also, I would encourage the NHL to consider a team in Las Vegas. They would get fans in the door just because the game is another form of entertainment. This could open the eyes of non-hockey fans and convert them into fans of the NHL. What happens in Vegas doesn't always have to stay in Vegas.
A national television deal aside, I've said places like Wisconsin and Connecticut are ideal hockey places because of the multi-level hockey programs from in house to college. Milwaukee is the 19th-largest city in the United States. Madison is 72 miles away and Badger hockey is so popular, I don't know how much impact that would have. One thing is certain, the NHL should not expand.
In my down time, I tend to read every article ESPN.com has to offer, after reading about the Leafs dropping Pat Quinn, I realized Mr. Melrose said that Quinn may only come back as a general manager. This left me to think -- Wow, Pat Quinn not behind a bench every night? Kind of foreign to me. My first thought was that Quinn would be high on the list of teams who didn't make the second season. What do you think of Quinn in Boston? Heck, what do you think of Quinn behind the bench anywhere else?
Thanks for your time.
Jim Thorpe, Pa.
Pat Quinn has a presence and a track record of success. He's obviously very smart. He doesn't run a 21st century practice, but it's hard to argue with his success. The Bruins are not a good fit in my mind. I don't see any team right now that would immediately hire Quinn. He should sit out for a year, take a broadcasting job, step away from the game and see what happens in places like Columbus, St. Louis and Atlanta in terms of GM and/or coaching.
How can you not even include Buffalo's Lindy Ruff in the candidates for coach of the year? I think it is safe to say that the Sabres have been this year's biggest surprise. Ruff and the Sabres laid low over the offseason because they were sure about their young talent despite the criticism, while other teams were scrambling to pick up any name stars.
The Sabres have been getting overlooked all year and I can't wait for a nice playoff run to silence all the critics.
Lindy Ruff is a great coach. Like I wrote last week, there has never been greater NHL coaching depth. There are 10 coaches who could win coach of the year and Lindy Ruff is certainly one of them.
Since next season's rookie class shouldn't be as strong as this year. Who's your forerunner for the Calder next year? Evgeni Malkin, Bobby Ryan or could we even go with Anze Kopitar? Or maybe Marek Schwarz?
AEAN Robert Sheetz
If Evgeni Malkin plays in the NHL next season, he will be a runaway Calder Trophy winner for Rookie of the Year. He will finish in the top 8-15 in scoring -- 34-52-86-ish.
Thanks for your columns. They have me laughing away as I sit here in my barracks. All I can say now is "Go Sabres!"
Inshore Boat Unit -- 28
"Operation Iraqi Freedom"
Chris Drury is your Hockey God, Scott.
John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is firstname.lastname@example.org.