Tonight is the night.  The 2010 NHL Playoffs start in just a few hours as four series get underway tonight, three tomorrow and the eighth and final first-round set starts on Friday.  For the next two months it’ll be pretty much impossible to avoid hockey on TV, at least if you live up here in Canada like I do.  Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins embark on the defense of their Stanley Cup Championship from a year ago.

The Penguins open up their playoffs tonight, hosting the Ottawa Senators in a series where they are clear favorites.  But the Penguins aren’t close to the top seed in the East (they finished 20 points behind Washington) nor are they the hottest team entering the playoffs (that would be Detroit who have won 8 of 10).  Once again Pittsburgh will be forced to prove that they’re more than the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin showcase.  Marc-Andre Fleury has struggled at times this year and he has yet to really cement himself as the dominant presence in goal he was expected to be.

This playoff has a lot of great stories tied into it.  The resurrection of the Los Angeles Kings as a legitimate contender.  Phoenix coming from the dregs of the league to become a 50-win team that nobody predicted.  Buffalo riding the greatness of Ryan Miller to a third seed in the Eastern Conference.  The old veterans in Detroit clawing their way back into the Stanley Cup chase after being discarded earlier this season.

Given time constraints, I can’t dive in and provide pages of analysis as I normally would love to, but here’s a quick and dirty batch of first-round playoff predictions.

Eastern Conference

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens – Capitals win in five games.

Washington just has too much star power.  Even their questions in goal can’t prevent the powers of Ovechkin, Backstrom et al from controlling this match-up.  Sad because there are few things more fun than Montreal on a Stanley Cup run.

(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers – Devils win in five games.

The Flyers had to go to a shootout just to get in.  Marty Brodeur is the keystone, but this Devils team has some great talent all over the ice.  They’re not going to get rattled by the Flyers physical play, and Philly has too many questions in goal.

(3) Buffalo Sabres vs. (6) Boston Bruins – Buffalo wins in six games.

They might only need to score 6 goals to do it, the way these two teams put the puck in the net (note:  poorly).  The Bruins will need Tuuka Rask to match Ryan Miller save for save to stay in this one.  Rask has been superb, but it’s tough to say a rookie can pick up and drag a team into the second round.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Ottawa Senators – Pittsburgh wins in six games.

Crosby and Malkin are going to make Ottawa miserable.  The Sens will miss Kovalev because they just don’t have a lot of scoring depth.  Even having an off year I’d take Marc-Andre Fleury over Brian Elliot.

Western Conference

(1) San Jose Sharks vs.  (8) Colorado Avalanche – Sharks win in five games.

The Sharks can’t choke this fast… right?  They got rolling late in the year after some struggles, but the questions are the same as always.  Can Thornton and Nabokov elevate their game and lead this team like they should?  The Avalanche are just outclassed talent-wise.

(2) Chicago Black Hawks vs. (7) Nashville Predators – Chicago wins in seven games.

The ‘Hawks just have a boatload of balance and depth.  Nine guys scored at least 17 goals for Chicago.  It’s always nice when you can score even if Kane or Toews has an off night.  Pekka Rinne could turn this series for Nashville, but I’m not sure they can score enough goals to win four of seven.

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) Los Angeles Kings – Vancouver wins in six games.

The Kings are young and hungry… but not quite ready yet.  Luongo will outplay Jonny Quick in goal and the Canucks have finally found the offensive depth they’ve been missing for the past several seasons.  The Kings could swing this series with their young guns but unless Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson just crush the Canucks forwards, they’re in tough.

(4) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings – Detroit wins in six games.

Poor Phoenix.  A great, great season and they drew a real bear of a match-up here.  These aren’t the dominating winged-wheel teams of the past, but they’re a veteran club with a ton of playoff moxie and a hot young goalie to boot.  Phoenix needs Ilya Bryzgalov to be great to win, just like the regular season.  This could be a real dog fight, but the Wings have been rolling as of late and are primed for a post-season run.

Some startlingly vanilla picks pretty much ensure that I missed the call on at least a couple of these series.  But it’s playoff hockey and everybody knows what that means:  a hot goalie can swing any playoff series.  Even the entire playoffs, if the goalie is good enough (see:  Roy ’93, Hasek ’99).  So it’ll be interesting to see if a new face emerges to add to the group of goalies who stand out come spring… or if it’s an old favorite like Marty Brodeur who does it again.

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Well the magic day for the NHL offseason is July 1st.  It’s the start of free agency and usually the day where teams reshape their images, or attempt to shore up weaknesses to retain their position on top.  While not all the rumored and discussed moves came to fruition, many players did change teams and many teams defined their 2009-2010 (and beyond) plans with their first day moves.

Biggest Winners

Vancouver and the Sedins

The announcement that the Sedins had reached an agreement on new contracts with the Canucks shortly before the start of free agency yesterday was a win for both sides.  The Sedins get to continue to play with each other in a city and on a team where they have grown and thrived, for an organization that knows their strengths and weaknesses.  The Canucks get a pretty solid bargain on a pair of 80-point scorers, with each of them earning just over 6 million per season.  That’s much less than the rumored 7-7.5 million they were rumored to be after, and probably could have gotten close to on the open market.

Brian Burke and the Maple Leafs

Burke promised he would make a splash in free agency and he’s already done that.  He traded solid but overpaid blueliner Pavel Kubina to Atlanta for Garnet Exelby, saving the Leafs a couple of million dollars to use elsewhere.  They spent that money saved on the first day, signing Mike Komisarek to a five year deal worth 22.5 million and tough guy Colton Orr to a four-year deal at one million per.  The Leafs can now boast seven NHL caliber defensemen, something they’ve not had for quite some time.   At least until the much anticipated trade of Tomas Kaberle goes through.  If it happens, the Leafs will then have to answer questions about their powerplay.  Like who quarterbacks it.  The Leafs are hardly done though.  They still have around 12 million dollars to spend, and are in desperate need of a top six forward or two.  Not to mention a goalie to pair with young Justin Pogge.

Well They’re Doing Something

The Sutter-led Calgary Flames

The Flames have made their focus pretty clear early on.  They let Mike Cammalleri and his undeniable talent walk away to sign with Montreal, while spending their money instead on defenseman Jay Bouwmeester.  While I absolutely love the Bouwmeester addition, I question the Flames spending around 22 million on their defense.  That’s just on the top six.  The problem the Flames seem poised to encounter is the same one they encountered before adding Cammelleri and Olli Jokinen last season.  An inability to score goals.  They have exactly three guys who are legitimate top-six NHL forwards.  Beyong Iginla, Jokinen and Langkow it looks like a mess to me.  Maybe guys like David Moss, Rene Borque and Curtis Glencross can continue to be 40-point guys.  But when you’re counting on those guys to produce points and score key goals rather than treating it as a bonus I think you’re asking for trouble.  The Flames have a bit of money to spend and would be advised to spend in on someone who can light the lamp or it’s going to be a long season in Calgary.

Bob Gainey and Les Habitants

The Montreal Canadiens have me intrigued, I’ll give them that.  They went into the offseason with 10 free agents and thusfar the only one showing any signs of staying is Alexei Kovalev.  The Habs got started early dealing Chris Higgins and several prospects to New York in exchanges for Scott Gomez.  They then went out and signed two-time 30-goal man Mike Cammalleri, along with former Gomez linemate Brian Gionta.  They also added Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek to fill out a pretty solid blueline.  While neither of those guys is going to set the world ablaze, both are solid NHL defenseman who can give you minutes.  The Habs have Markov and Hamrlik to do the heavy lifting anyway.   These Habs are definitely different than the team we saw crash and burn a season ago.  They’ve still got around 12 million to spend, so they’re by no means done.  I would expect them to continue to pursue Kovalev and probably another top-six forward.

The New Look Rangers

Same as the old Rangers?  We’ll see.  The Rags are one team with a ton of cap room remaining, even after their monster deal with Marian Gaborik and the inevitable re-signing of RFA Chris Higgins.  Will Zherdev come back?  They could certainly use his skill.  They also lack a true playmaker to play with Gaborik, but he’s always gotten by without an elite center anyways.  I actually like both their big moves (Gomez/Higgins, Gaborik signing) as they did a nice job cleaning up a past mistake and picked up maybe the most talented player in free agency.  All the questions about Gaborik are about his health.  He’s one of the best pure goal scorers in the NHL and if healthy will make a run at 45 goals in New York.  For the trivia hounds he’s also the last NHL’er to score 5 goals in a single game.  Now New York must surround him and Chris Drury with more talent.  Their pipe dream about someone taking Wade Redden’s contract needs to stop.  Unless Chris Wallace takes over an NHL team, it ain’t happening.  They could probably move Rozsival but I’m not sure why they would want to.  He is at least a capable player in his own zone and their blueline is mighty thin.  I’d expect to see the Rangers go after another top-six forward.  Maybe even two.  Former Habs Saku Koivu and/or Alex Tanguay would give them a good playmaker for their goal-scorers.  They could also use a solid veteran blueliner.  Perhaps the return of Sergei Zubov?

Other Scattered Musings…

I really like the upgrade that the Edmonton Oilers made in net.  Nothing against Dwayne Roloson.  He’s been a capable NHL goaltender and has been outstanding at times.  But I feel that Khabibulin is a clear upgrade.  He’s capable of a heavy workload, and has proven himself in the playoffs on more than one occasion.  Getting him for less than 4 million seems like a bargain.

Chicago replacing Havlat with Hossa is an upgrade, but not a huge one in my opinion.  They paid a heavy premium and while Hossa might score more goals their overall production is similar on a per-game basis.  Hossa doesn’t have the same injury history as Havlat obviously, but in terms of ability I feel they are very close.  I’d be less worried about the deal for Chicago if they weren’t going to have to worry about keeping guys like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in the next couple of seasons.    Havlat was apparently pretty upset about the way things went with Chicago.  He had stated he was going to stay in Chi-town before they gave his money to Hossa.

I like Minnesota’s signing of Havlat to replace Gaborik.  Havlat should be a popular player in Minnesota.  He’s got plenty of skill and more than enough heart.  If he can stay on the ice he should succeed there with the new-look Wild.

We just spent the last few weeks listening to comparisons between the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins and the 1984 Edmonton Oilers.  Those comparisons will be referenced even more now that the Penguins have pulled off the upset and defeated the Red Wings, probably the NHL’s most successful franchise in the last 15 years.  But beyond the surface comparisons of similar Stanley Cup Finals results and Gretzky/Messier to Crosby/Malkin, how valid is this comparison for the newly crowned Stanley Cup Champions?  And was it correct for the Red Wings to be casually cast in the role of the New York Islanders?

Changing of the Guard?

Clearly one major consideration is that we’re in a different era.  We’ve actually passed through several different eras since those Oilers hoisted their first cup.  We had the run and gun era that extended through the 80’s into the early ’90s.  As the ’90s progressed we moved into the expansion era which was also the trap era, a time that almost killed the whole league and helped lead to the lockout.  Now we’re in the post-lockout era, seeing the best hockey we’ve seen in 15 years.  We’re also in the cap era and that is a major consideration that people seem to overlook.

Back in the ’80s the Oilers only broke up because Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington made some bad business moves outside of hockey and essentially sold Wayne Gretzky to the L.A. Kings.  Here in 2009 the Penguins already find themselves hard up against the NHL’s salary cap structure, and that’s with several key young players and veterans needing contract extensions in the near future.  If the Penguins have to say goodbye to an elite player it won’t be due to ownership but rather due to the new structure of the league itself.  Nine members of the Pens Cup-winning roster will find themselves in free agency this summer and that will be where the true test of the Penguins as an organization happens.  If they truly want to be the Oilers of the new NHL they will have to find a way to surround Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and Gonchar with the supporting cast they’ll need in order to keep winning.  That’s easier said than done as Malkin’s salary alone jumps from under a million through the rookie salary structure to his extension figure which is 9 million dollars.

Then you’ve got the likes of Rob Scuderi, Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko, Hal Gill… guys who played a lot of big minutes for the Penguins in the playoffs.  Are they franchise players?  No, but given the contributions they all made to the Penguins Stanley Cup win you could definitely argue that they’re critical.  Imagine if those Oilers had to replace Charlie Huddy, Randy Gregg, Dave Hunter and Ken Linseman from that ’84 team.  Now imagine they have to do it with minimal salary cap space, because that’s the dilemma the Penguins are facing.   That’s without even factoring in the inevitable extensions that will be signed by Cup hero Maxime Talbot and Kris Letang, Gonchar’s heir apparent on the blueline.

Even if the Penguins manage to replenish their depth this offseason defending their Stanley Cup victory won’t be easy.  But before they can fight the next battle on the ice they must win a series of them off it.  They’ve got exactly five wingers under contract for next season, and that includes seldom-used Eric Godard and converted center Tyler Kennedy.  They need to see development from prospects like Alex Goligoski and Eric Tangredi, who would allow them to add fresh legs to their roster at a minimal price.  They will also have to hope that the lure of playing for the defending Stanley Cup Champions will convince some role players to settle in Pittsburgh for a smaller amount of green.

This Isn’t Your Father’s Veteran Team

These Red Wings are not the New York Islanders, for a number of reasons.  For one thing these Wings are significantly older than those Islanders were.  Yep, that’s right.  The Islanders are often-times painted as a veteran team that was on it’s last legs as a group, but that wasn’t really the case.  Mike Bossy was 26.  Trottier was 27.  Denis Potvin 29.  They had youngsters like John Tonelli (26), Greg Gilbert (21) and Brent Sutter (21) up front with Tomas Jonsson (23) on the blueline.  They also had some 18 year old kid named Pat Lafontaine who put on quite a display of skill once he joined the team during that ’84 year.  What really killed the Islanders was the decline of franchise goaltender Billy Smith, and their inability to replicate the depth and chemistry brought to those early 80’s teams by the likes of Butch Goring and Bob Nystrom.  Not to mention Mike Bossy’s injury problems that caused him to retire at just 30 years old.

So no, these Wings are not those Isles.  The Wings have never been built around one goalie, nor do they have a superstar with a debilitating injury.  What they do have is excellent organizational depth, and they’re going to need that going forward.  Why?  Only a handful of key personnel on the Wings are younger than 28.  Given the Wings proven ability to find and develop talent this is less of a concern than it would be for most teams but it’s still a concern in this salary cap era.  The Wings only have three free agents they’d really want to retain, with Marian Hossa and Mikael Samuelsson being UFA while Jiri Hudler holds RFA status.  Samuelsson and Hudler will likely return, unless someone throws an insane number at Hudler in hopes Detroit won’t match.  If that happens it’s unlikely the Wings would be in a position to keep him.  Hossa is also a question mark.  He signed a one-year deal to win a Cup in Detroit, something that clearly didn’t work out as he hoped.  Now he has to ask himself if he wants to roll those dice again, or seek a longer term.  There will still be teams out there willing to shell out money to Hossa, though probably not as many as a year ago given his playoff performance.

By and large the Wings will enter next year with the same roster as this season, and that has to be somewhat troubling for Detroit fans.  They’ve got an aging netminder in Osgood, who while he was excellent most of the playoffs was just not quite good enough in the finals.  No doubt they’d like to get something from youngster Jimmy Howard, but to do that they’d have to give him more than a couple of games a year with the parent club.  Maybe 2009-10 will be that year.  The real concern for the Wings is that they looked so tired against the Penguins.  Even in their early series victories you got the sense they lacked an extra gear to shift into.  Was that a fatigue issue that can be addressed, or is it just something they’ll have to overcome?  The Western Conference won’t get any easier next season, to be sure.

They also have to wonder what they’ll continue to get from their older veterans including Osgood, Kris Draper, Tomas Holmstrom, Brian Rafalski and Kirk Maltby.  Rafalski is one of the leagues smoothest skaters but even he looked pretty ragged at times against Pittsburgh.  How much longer can the greatest defenseman of this generation (Lidstrom) continue to perform at such a high level?  He’s 38 now with 1330 games plus another 235 playoff contests on his odometer.  If they want to get back to the finals in an effort for that 5th title in 13 seasons, they’re going to have to address a lot of questions about age and how that factors into their depth for 2009-10.

Into The Offseason…

With the Stanley Cup awarded we officially start the NHL offseason.  This is the quietest time of year for the league, with the NHL Draft and the start of free agency (July 1st) a couple of weeks away.  You’ll see some clubs quietly signing players to extensions or new contracts, while the trade hype and the draft hype build up over the next 10 days.  Then we’ll finally see what happens to super-prospect John Tavares and who the players in free agency will be.

It’s a great day to be a sports fan.  The NBA and NHL are both in the midst of their final series and we’re getting into some good mid-season baseball.  Tuesday was also the start of the MLB Draft which in recent years has really made a move in terms of importance.  It seems like all the majors sports are placing more of an emphasis on the draft.  I can understand it with the NBA and NFL since guys step in right away.  It also makes sense for the NHL because it gets them some buzz during their offseason.  I am however surprised at the MLB pushing the draft so much.  Is it just because of Strasburg or is it a part of their larger strategy that includes stuff like running their own blogging network, tweeting info via twitter.com and the expansion of MLB TV?  Either way, this is the first time in a long time that I know much about the MLB draft going into it.

It’s Draft-y In Here

I’ve been following the MLB draft hype, although about 90 percent of what is written is about Strasburg’s amazing ability (which I don’t doubt) and about Boras’ insane demands (which I also don’t doubt).  I can appreciate that this is the big money story here and Strasburg might well be a once in a generation prospect, but I’d like to see a little more digging into other guys that are likely to be good players coming out of the draft.  Maybe that’s just me though.  It was nice to see the draft being prominently displayed on a lot of big name sports websites.  I can’t remember the last time I saw this many mainstream mocks.

I’ll give my .02 on the Strasburg contract debate, for whatever it’s worth.  I think that he will end up signing with the Nationals and it’ll end up being closer to that 10 million dollar mark than 20.  It sure as heck won’t be the 50 million Scott Boras threw out there.  This is the same guy who counseled Varitek to pass on 10 million in arbitration only to have him sign for a fraction of that months later.  Whoops.  Strasburg will set a new record (I’d guess 14-15 million range) but he’s not going to shatter the draft structure.

It could use some shattering though.  Hopefully in the next CBA they find a way to limit this stuff so that the lowest drafting teams can draft based on needs and scouting rather than “signability”.  Nothing irritates me more than a guy manipulating the draft via contract talks.  It hurts the league.

The Karma Payback

After some pretty favorable officiating down the stretch in Game 2, the Lakers couldn’t convert on their opportunities tonight.  There were several points in the game that it seemed as though the Lakers were about to take over and put a hurting on Orlando, but they simply could not deliver the dagger.  The Magic got extremely hot early and even when they cooled down, Los Angeles didn’t get enough stops and of all people Kobe couldn’t hit his free throws.  If Kobe hits like usual at the line, LA wins.  That’s gotta hurt for a guy who can’t smile.  Did you know he hasn’t smiled in two months?  ESPN told me so.

To be fair to Kobe, the Lakers wouldn’t have been in this game at all without his phenomenal play in the first half.  He was making play after play and shot after shot, but at the end of the game he just could not get the freebies down.  You know that’s eating at him heading into Game 4.

I actually think that tonight’s game was bad news more than good news for Orlando.  They shot phenomenally (62.5% FG), Kobe missed half his free throws and they won by exactly four points.  At home.  With two of those being gimme free throws when the game was over.  Can they build on some things from this game?  Absolutely.  Whether they do or not remains to be seen.  I’d bet my last dollar that the Lakers will play hungry defense in Game 4 and win by double-digits.  I’d also expect an improved performance from one Lamar Odom, who while he didn’t play poorly was invisible for large stretches tonight, especially on the glass.

Orlando’s best bet for another win is continued hot shooting from downtown, and using Jameer Nelson to change the pace rather than dominate the ball.  Rashard Lewis will have to continue his coming out party if Orlando wants to pick up their franchises second ever NBA Finals victory.

Seventh Heaven On Friday Night

I’m sure Gary Bettman cried tears of joy when the Penguins pulled out a tough and impressive Game 6 victory against the Red Wings, assuring that we will see a Game 7 in Detroit on Friday night.  That is if he wasn’t too busy trying to prop up dying NHL franchises to notice.

It’s the dream scenario for the NHL and for broadcaster NBC.  The Red Wings have become the Yankees of the NHL in the last decade-plus.  They’re always good, they always seem to get the best talent and they’re much more fun to root against than for (unless you’re a Wings fan, of course).  They’re simply a powerhouse and matching them up with Sidney Crosby, Gino Malkin and the rest of the exciting Pittsburgh Penguins has resulted in exactly the kind of hockey the NHL wants to showcase… at least for a few games.  The first two games in Detroit were good but not great, and Game 5 in Detroit was a real stinker.  But the other three were absolute gems, and Game 7 has the potential to be epic.  Pavel Datsyuk is getting his sea legs back and the always doubted Chris Osgood has been stellar for the Wings in net.  Case in point would be last night’s game where he held Detroit in the game for two periods when the Penguins were clearly the aggressors.

The Stanley Cup is supposed to be the two best teams in hockey and I’d have to say that this series has definitely delivered on that.  We’ll get to see Zetterberg vs. Crosby for one more night, and that could either answer or raise a lot of questions about Sid the Kid.  He has been spectacular for the Penguins on many nights in these playoffs but he seems genuinely bothered by Zetterberg who has been doing his best vintage Sergei Fedorov impression with his two-way play.

Stay Tuned…

This week won’t slow down either.  The MLB Draft continues tomorrow (not to mention the schedule of games) with the NBA Finals resuming on Thursday and the NHL crowning their Stanley Cup Champions on Friday.