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How to Make the Best of the Worst: Free Agent Alternatives for the Blue Jackets

So, let’s look into a sad future.  A future less than 24 hours from now that sees all of the Jackets big three free agents walk.  It isn’t an unlikely future, unfortunately.  With Florida trading James Reimer so they could acquire and buyout Scott Darling it sure seems like the Panthers are looking to make room for at least one of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, but preferably for Dale Tallon, both of the Russians.  The only talk about Matt Duchene for most of this week has involved Montreal and Nashville and his good friend, Ryan Dzingel, unsurprisingly will not be back in Columbus.

You can’t fault Jarmo Kekalainen for attempting to build a team that compete both in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs and beyond by shoring up his center position with the addition of Duchene.  Bringing in Dzingel to help sell Duchene on a more permanent move while also addressing the weakness on left wing initially seemed brilliant, but ultimately backfired when Head Coach John Tortorella was unable to find a way to co-exist with Dzingel, culminating with scratching Dzingel from the lineup during the Boston series in favor of playing the mercurial Alex Wennberg.  It was pretty clear when Dzingel was talking to the press and cleaning out his locker that he was a goner and Duchene had one less reason to stick around.

Should this all come to past, as noted in my other article, the Jackets shouldn’t just add players to add players.  They should continue to be methodical and creative to address their holes on the left wing and center.

It is important to remember that the center position is more likely to sort itself out internally.  The Jackets have two very good chances to develop a player that can take a role behind Pierre-Luc Dubois in the lineup.  There is every reason to believe Dubois will continue to develop as a first line center.  Which means the pressure on Liam Foudy and Alex Texier is not what it might have been in the past.  Boone Jenner is certainly capable of playing second line minutes in the short term.  Nick Foligno as first line left wing is a bit more concerning.  Foligno is a fine player, but at this point in his career is more suited to play second or even third line minutes.  So, the Jackets should be on the hunt for a center, but probably more importantly, for a left wing both because they lack a current left wing that has high level talent with Panarin’s departure and because their strength going forward is heavily weighted to the right side.

What assets do the Jackets have to offer in a trade?  TSN has conspicuously listed Ryan Murray highly on their Trade Bait list.  This isn’t too surprising.  Murray is due a raise and the Jackets have the opposite problem on defense–they are overstocked on the left side.  With the addition of Gavrikov and with solid play from Dean Kukan in the playoffs (already extended) and with Zach Werenski also due a substantial pay increase, Murray or Markus Nutivaara are probably the easiest players with value to move.  Some would argue David Savard, who played quite well in the playoffs and might be at a high point in his value, particularly as a right-handed shot, but the problem there is that the Jackets lack depth on the right side as it is.  Andrew Peeke is probably the next right handed prospect with a chance to play in the NHL and he is probably not ready to take on that role this year.

The challenge with Murray has always been his ability to stay healthy.  He finally showed his potential this season only to be slowed by another injury.  This makes him a difficult player to trade.  Additionally, the hotter commodity when it comes to defensemen, as noted above, is right handed defensemen.  There are names out there such as Tyson Barrie (whose contract is up after this season) and Rasmus Ristolainen.  Those players may have to find a destination before a team looks at Murray.  Another left defenseman out there who is likely to get serious consideration ahead of Murray if he’s truly available is Shayne Gostisbehere.  So, while Murray is a solid defenseman, he has some competition in the market.

Markus Nutivaara is a solid, cost-controlled defenseman with some upside.  He can play the right side even though he is left handed, so maybe that adds some attraction.  He may have more offensive upside than Murray, but isn’t necessarily as positionally sound as Murray is.  He hasn’t had the same injury history.  But these are the very reasons the Jackets may be less than thrilled to part with Nutivaara.

What else do the Jackets have in the way of assets?  Sonny Milano is still an asset, but, based on the rough season he had that included a serious injury, he is probably more of a throw in at this point.  Bemstrom, Texier and Foudy are untouchable at the moment.  There are certainly deeper prospects like Fix-Wolansky and Kole Sherwood who could be of interest in a trade, but, again, these are not going to be more than add-ins to even out a deal.  The Jackets’ draft pick situation isn’t all that great, but if Duchene is not re-signed, they will have a first round pick in 2020 if they want to dangle it.  However, given the uncertainty of the upcoming season, it seems like hanging onto that pick is the wiser option barring a truly ridiculous trade opportunity becoming available–this is the only time I’ll allow any thought of Mitch Marner because we are not giving up 4 first round picks for him via offer sheet, but if you had to put in 1-2 picks and a player and prospect, yes, you’d probably have to look at that.

I’m not going to entertain trading Werenski this offseason.  No, not even in a trade for Marner.  Maybe if Vladislav Gavrikov has an overwhelming season this would be a consideration next off-season, but I am just not there at this point.  Defensive depth is going to be a key if this team is going to be a contender and I don’t see trading Werenski as a particularly good option

There is one additional asset the Jackets could use in a trade and that is their depth at right wing.  As I noted in my other article, when you look at the Jackets’ right side, they have an overabundance both now and in he future.  Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Emil Bemstrom, Sherwood and Fix-Wollansky are all right wings.  Anderson and Sherwood are the only two with any real size.  The rest are of the speedy and skilled wings.  Anderson’s contract will be up again next year. He will have arbitration rights and his agent has not been easy to deal with in recent negotiations–witness the Mitch Marner situation.  Should he get Marner $11 million, as he hopes, he’ll be shooting for the moon, but not that high, with Anderson next summer.  With the way the Restricted Free Agent Market has changed since his last contract, he could be due for a huge raise.  If arbitration doesn’t go well, it could lead to a short term contract that might lead to Anderson’s departure before the 2021 offseason.

On the other hand, as noted, Anderson is very different from the Jackets other right wings.  He brings a combination of speed and size that is hard to find.  Compare this to Oliver Bjorstrand who has struggled to find ice time competing against Atkinson and Anderson.  Now add Bemstrom to that competition and where does Bjorkstrand fit going forward?  That’s without another prospect like Fix-Wolansky potentially coming up and surprising people (as he has repeatedly).  With the Jackets seemingly unwilling to play Bjorkstrand on his off-wing, where does that leave him?

I’m a huge fan of both Anderson and Bjorkstrand so I am not suggesting them as tradable assets without serious reservations.  They are good players and they may well become even better players.  Frankly, I think Bjorkstrand has been held back by his usage to this point.  But you have to give something to get something and the sign of a good deal (including a trade) is often that neither side is totally happy with it.  Make no mistake though, Anderson and Bjorkstrand are only available for a home run–a first line left wing or a second line (or better) center.

With all of that in mind, who might be some targets and what might be some other things the Jackets could do to put themselves in a position to improve the chances to make a deal?

Let’s start off with the low-hanging fruit–the guys on the trading block or plausibly on it.  Not necessarily in order of possibility or priority.

  1.  Jason Zucker.  When you, very publicly, try to trade a guy two times only for it to fail, its probably a sign that its time for both parties to move on.  Zucker is 27 years old and under contract for 4 more years at a cap hit of $5.5 million.  That is probably less than Mats Zuccarello is going to get and he will be the same age is Zuccarello is now when his contract is over.  Minnesota attempted to trade him for Phil Kessel, so they are primarily looking for help at forward.  While his production went from 64 points in 2017-18 to 42 points last year, in his defense, Minnesota was kind of a train wreck.  Nonetheless, would you trade Bjorkstrand or Anderson for Zucker?  I’m not sure I would.  Worth noting–Bjorkstrand’s father is from Minnesota, and you can’t underestimate the whole obsession Wild fans (and management) seem to have for guys with a Minnesota connection.
  2. Nazem Kadri.  You may have heard the Leafs need cap room in order to make room for Mitch Marner’s new contract.  You may also have heard the Leafs were not happy with Kadri’s boneheaded play during their series against Boston.  On a good team like the Leafs, Kadri is a third line center.  But, in a pinch, he can play second line center.  What do the Leafs need? Cap relief.  Cheap help on defense.  The challenge here is that the Leafs also don’t have a lot of depth at center. Shot in the dark–Riley Nash and Dean Kukan?  The Leafs are really in a bad situation, but I don’t buy the idea they move Marner or Nylander.  They will find a way and it probably will involve Kadri departing.  Just not sure there is a true fit here for the Jackets.
  3. Yanni Gourde/Tyler Johnson/Alex Kilorn.  This possibility may be fading.  Had the Lightning added Joe Pavelski, this seemed inevitable to make room for him.  At the moment, subject to change, Dallas seems to be in the lead for Pavelski’s services.  All 3 players have a no-trade clause to complicate matters.  What would the Lightning want?  Cap relief and a cheap defenseman wouldn’t hurt.
  4. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.  Look, let’s just get through this quick.  He’s Spezza 2.0–the guy potentially in the rumor mill that fits a need the Jackets have.  He’s still only 26 years old.  He has 2 years left on his deal for a reasonable $6,000,000 and he plays center AND left wing.  What do the Oilers need?  Defense and, ironically, better wings for Connor McDavid.  And depth.  Maybe Ken Holland is finally the guy to trade RNH, but, I doubt it.  So, he’ll play out the next two years with Edmonton and then probably take his turn on the Dallas carousel of aging centers.
  5. Brandon Saad/Artem Anisimov.  No, I’m just kidding.
  6. David Krecji.  This would be a cap space move if it happened, but the Bruins aren’t giving this guy up for nothing even with his injury history.   His contract is down to the last two years, so the $7,250,000 cap hit suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.  I just think the price will be too steep.  Otherwise, the two year term is nearly perfect for the timeframe it is likely to take Foudy and Texier to develop and it would give them a mentor, etc.
  7. Kyle Turris.  There are a million warning signs with this guy.  The term of his contract is staggering.  His production has decreased.  I mean, there’s a reason the Predators are chasing Duchene.  Heck, even if you traded Alex Wennberg straight up for him in a “change of scenery” deal, I think you might regret it when you were stuck buying him out at a much higher cost than a buyout on Wennberg.  Hard pass.
  8. Mike Hoffman.  After only acquiring him a year ago, his name was in the rumor mill by the deadline.  And he kind of has a reputation as a locker room cancer from the whole mess in Ottawa. But, he only has a year left on his deal, so if it doesn’t work, not a huge deal.  And this is a guy that maybe a straight up trade for Murray works?  Certainly not a Plan A, but it’s a thought.  Likely a short term solution though.
  9. Chris Kreider. If they don’t sign Panarin (unlikely), I’m not sure there is much point in rushing to trade Kreider now rather than trading him at the deadline.  I’m also not convinced he’s a true #1 left wing.  They’d mainly be looking for a younger player/prospect and you do have to keep in mind that maybe John Davidson has his eye on a player in the Jackets organization.  But this seems like a subpar use of assets.
  10. Adam Henrique.  I only listed his name to ask how on earth Bob Murray keeps signing guys like him and Ryan Kesler to these absurd deals.  5 more years and almost $6 million/year cap hit at age 29. Hardest of hard passes.
  11. Nikita Gusev.  So, Vegas decided to rush their window and now they have to pay the piper.  He’s a left wing, but a right shot, so the Jackets may not feel this is ideal.  On the other hand, he’s 26 years old and could come cheap both as far as contract (he’s an arbitration-eligible RFA) and as far as what it takes to get him (Vegas is vulnerable to an offer sheet that gives them very little.). Worth consideration.

Okay, those are some names that are out there, but now let’s get really out there.  Jarmo threw away his Easy Button a long time ago, so, what could he do if he really wanted to get creative and go after a guy that is in the prime of his career?  Let’s talk offer sheets and RFA trades.

No, we are NOT going to talk about Mitch Marner or Brayden Point.  No one in their right mind is giving up 4 first round picks and paying $10 million for these guys.  Just not happening.  If you thought the screams were loud when Jarmo traded picks at the deadline, multiply that by 1000 times.  Just not going to happen.  But there are other guys out there on teams with varying degree of cap issues.  Specifically, Kyle Connor (Winnipeg), Timo Meier (San Jose) and Kevin Labanc (also San Jose).

So, there’s some good news and bad news here.  The good news–the draft compensation for these guys is likely to be substantially lower than it would for Marner and Point.  I would expect, at the high end, you’d be looking at a First, Second and Third Round Pick.  But, here is where the problem for the Jackets starts.  They don’t presently have their second and third round picks.

Enter the Ottawa Senators.  Even after the trade for Nikita Zaitsev which (wink, wink) isn’t yet complete, the Senators are below the cap floor.  Unlike the Jackets, their remaining RFA’s are not likely to push them over the floor.  Perhaps a player like Alex Wennberg might have some value for Ottawa–he’s still young, maybe he really does need a change of scenery.  Perhaps Sonny Milano is of some interest.  Whatever the deal, the Jackets somehow get back their second and third round picks in addition to their first round pick they retained as a result of Duchene now signing.

This would be a very visible tell to teams with restricted free agents that Jarmo was at least considering an offer sheet, which would change the tenor of subsequent conversations centered around a trade for the player in question.  The team would know that if a trade wasn’t worked out, there is a possibility Jarmo simply goes the offer sheet route.  And, frankly, for Meier or Connor in particular, the offer sheet route seems pretty good to me.  A first, second and third round pick for a top line left wing in the prime of their career?  Yes, I’ll do that.

San Jose is more vulnerable because of how close they are to the cap, but Winnipeg still has a lot of holes to fill.  Additionally, after trading Trouba and likely losing Tyler Myers on defense, they really lack defensive depth.  So, there’s a match there, but it could be a steep price–let’s say Murray and one of Bjorkstrand or Anderson.  Of course, the Jets are already potentially marketing Nikolaj Ehlers and if they can manage a trade of Ehlers for a defenseman–let’s say Tyson Barrie–their situation is probably less precarious and they are probably less interested in a trade.  Acquiring Ehlers is also a possibility, but the Jets priorities, to this point have been a right shot defenseman and with Barrie and Ristolainen on the market, it seems like that’s a price they should be able to get.

Kyler Connor would be a catch if he could be acquired.  Speed and size.  34 goals last year and 66 points.  5 points in 6 playoff games.  Connor is one guy that a trade of Anderson would hurt less because you are trading for a version of Anderson with higher upside who plays on the other wing.  Of course, having both of them in your lineup would also be very attractive.  It’s a long shot, but so was landing Panarin in trade.

San Jose, on the other hand, has painted themselves into a corner.  After re-signing Erik Karlsson, they’ve already effectively let Joe Pavelski walk.  Now they have to re-sign Labanc and Meier plus roster spots for 4 more forwards and a 7th defenseman with less than $15,000,000 in cap space and Patrick Marleau wanting to return to the team (presumably on a cheap deal).  Meier and Labanc are just 22 and 23, respectively.  Meier put up 30 goals and 66 points and Labanc had 17 goals and 56 points.  Of the two, Meier projects as more of a first line talent or at least a high end second line talent.  Also, Labanc is a right shot even though a capable left wing.

Teams have used offer sheets strategically in the past to get a team to further hamper their ability to match an offer for the actual target–ironically, it was what San Jose did to acquire Antti Niemi after they gave an offer sheet to Niklas Hjalmarsson.  But I’m not sure if that would work out if you put an offer sheet on Labanc.  The Sharks might let you have him in order to protect Meier.  The direct route is probably the safest–go after Meier first and take Labanc if the Sharks match and put themselves in position that they can’t sign Labanc.  Of course, any offer sheet would be proceeded by a trade discussion and it may well be that San Jose might have interest in a cost-controlled forward and/or defenseman given their current cap situation.

Of course, it is also possible that Jarmo can facilitate a trade if one of these teams is threatened by another team with an offer sheet.  That’s apparently what happened that led to the Brandon Saad trade.  So, Jarmo is no stranger to these territories.

There are a lot of options, but a trade/offer sheet that nets one of Meier or Connor would be the most intriguing and seems like the sort of move Jarmo has made in prior years.

Go Big or Stay Home: Why the Jackets Should Avoid the Middle Road

After a year of highs (the sweep of Tampa) and lows (the Panarin and Bobrovsky saga), it all comes down to less than 24 hours for the Columbus Blue Jackets future to be determined.  While some may hope for a last minute change of heart from Panarin, that ship seems to have sailed.  With each passing minute, the chance for a sign and trade that nets some value from the departing Russians also fades.  It would seem the competitors for their services are more willing to overpay on annual salary than they are to give an asset to the Jackets to get an eighth year for the player.  So it. goes.

Matt Duchene’s future with the Jackets is also seriously in doubt.  However, of the three, the consensus seems to be that Duchene is the one that might still be persuaded to stay.  As I predicted previously, there seem to be 3 suitors based on Duchene’s personal preferences and cap space to sign him:  the Jackets, the Canadiens and the Predators.  The Predators seemed like a foregone conclusion when Ray Shero decided to help the Predators and his own team while potentially hurting the Jackets by taking on all of P.K. Subban’s salary.  However, proximity to home and the fact that Duchene grew up rooting for the Habs could tip the scales toward Montreal.  On the other hand, the Jackets might be a safe middle ground both literally and figuratively–geographically between home and Nashville’s country music scene that Duchene loves and also competitively somewhere between the Predators and Montreal as far as capability of competing for a Cup.

The Jackets shouldn’t shy away from backing up the Brinks truck to Duchene.  They came this far, might as well go all in.  Overpaying a productive player like Duchene, as I’ll explain, makes substantially more sense than paying for the likes of Mats Zuccarello.

There will be a cost to signing Duchene, make no mistake.  It is the same cost that the Jackets would have had to extending Panarin, which they were clearly ready to do even though the Jackets have more depth at wing than they do at center, presently.  The problem isn’t this year.  The Jackets had plenty of cap space to sign Bobrovsky and Panarin, which was likely the initial plan.  That’s even after paying Ryan Murray and Zach Werenski for their new contracts.  It is next offseason where things get tricky.

Let’s just assume for a moment that Werenski’s AAV on his next deal is around $6.5 million give the current free agent market.  You could argue up or down from there, but I think that is a safe midpoint.  Let’s also assume Murray ends up with an AAV of $4.5 million. Again, you could argue up or down from there, but that is probably a safe midpoint.  So, their combined AAV comes in around $11 million.  Also, worth pointing out that for this reason the Jackets are in no danger of being under the cap floor.

Now, let’s say that Duchene signs an 8 year extension and let’s just be conservative and say that the AAV is around $10 million.  That still leaves the Jackets about $7 million in cap space for this season.  But, again, next season is where it becomes tricky.  Anderson, Dubois and Merzlikins will all be RFA’s.  That Jackets would have only about $15 million in cap space to sign all 3.  They could make room with a buyout of Brandon Dubinsky, that would give them an extra, roughly $3 million.  They could also make room with a buyout of Alex Wennberg.  This actually creates more cap room–about $4.5 million.  The only problem would be that Wennberg would impact the Jackets’ cap through 2025-26.

There is another alternative if Duchene is signed that will certainly frighten some.  However, as I’ll detail in a separate article, it may end up being an alternative if the Jackets don’t sign Duchene–trade Josh Anderson.

I know what you are going to say: “Trade Anderson?  Are you nuts?  His size and speed.  He is exactly what you want in a player, particularly in the playoffs.”  I don’t disagree with any of this, but I also look to the future and I wonder how much it will cost to retain Anderson and whether the Jackets strength on the right side justifies trading Anderson to add someone on the left side, where the Jackets depth is weaker.  With respect to re-signing him, let’s keep in mind his last contract negotiation wasn’t pleasant and Darren Ferris will be even more emboldened should he actually get Mitch Marner $11 million or more per year.  What sort of contract will Ferris seek for Anderson if he puts up 30 goals or more next season?

If you are going to trade Anderson, you have to get a left wing that is cost-controlled for, ideally, at least the next 4 years.  Again, I’ll discuss this separately in another article.

Either way, getting Duchene keeps the Jackets as an immediate contender in the 2019-20 season by shoring up their center situation. With Dubois, Duchene and Jenner, there is probably a fight for the final center spot between the incumbent, Wennberg, Riley Nash, Alex Texier and Liam Foudy.  Something is likely to sort itself out there and it isn’t necessary for Texier or Foudy to have to face the immediate pressure of being a #2 center.  Heck, they might end up playing left wing to ease into the league.

Even if you trade Anderson as a result of signing Duchene, you have Atkinson locked in as the top right wing and Bjorkstrand moving up to the second line, where he played well to finish the season.  From there you have Bemstrom potentially getting a shot on the third line where, again, pressure will be lower on him.  If he isn’t quite ready, perhaps Sherwood is.  If not, depending on who takes the vacant center spot, Riley Nash might take on this role.  The right side really is not a problem even if Anderson were to be moved.

If the Jackets swing and miss on Duchene, they should not fall to the temptation of the middle ground.  Taking a shot and Anders Lee would be worthwhile because of the weakness on the left side and because of Lee’s talent level and skillset.  Unlike the departing Panarin, Lee is a guy who likes to play low in the offensive zone and who will grind and cycle the puck.  The idea of him with Dubois and Atkinson is intriguing and not too steep of a fall off from Panarin.  Joe Pavelski would have been interesting, but he apparently rebuffed a request by the Jackets to speak with him.  Gustav Nyquist is, perhaps, the must below-the-radar option.  He actually had more points than Lee last season, though is less of a goal scorer.  He’s capable of playing all three forward positions, which is always nice for a guy like him who, ideally, is a middle six forward.

After those two, it is a steep drop off.  One name connected to the Jackets has been Mats Zuccarello.  This has all the makings of a bad deal considering that Zuccarello is looking for 4-5 years on his deal and will be 32 years old entering the season.  His production has declined already and he’s only hit the 20 goal plateau once in his career.  As it stands, the Jackets cap situation gets even better in two years when Dubinsky and Foligno are off the books, giving the Jackets room when they need it to sign Bjorkstrand’s next contract, and Jones’ next contract, etc.  Adding Zuccarello takes away some of that future cap flexibility and feels like the sort of deal that may later result in a buyout.

Signing Zuccarello also takes away flexibility next offseason to go after free agents after getting Anderson and Dubois signed.  Taylor Hall will potentially be available, but so will guys like Alex Galchenyuk and Mikael Granlund.  If the Habs sign Duchene, an offer sheet for Max Domi would be an option.  Nothing about Zuccarello suggests that he is worth taking away options next offseason.  With Lee and Nyquist, at least they address immediate needs at left wing or center, but, perhaps the better approach is to simply stick with what the Jackets have and search for trade options.  Again, stay tuned for some thoughts on that.

That would serve another purpose–a test of John Tortorella’s ability to get the most out of players that fit the current NHL, but don’t necessarily fit the coach’s personal biases.  With no additions to the current roster, Torts will be forced to co-exist with the likes of Sonny Milano, Alex Texier, Eric Robinson and Emil Bemstrom and to get the most out of them if the team is going to succeed.  He’s going to have to get more out of Oliver Bjorkstrand and, for better or worse, Alex Wennberg.  If he can’t do that, when you look at the Jackets pipeline, some of the most talented of which are undersized wings, you have to ask if he is the right man for the job going forward.  Staying the course will give a clear answer on whether Torts is right for the job and will also give a clear answer on whether guys like Milano and Wennberg, in particular, have a future in the organization.  Overpaying a guy like Zuccarello and/or bringing in a guy like Brian Boyle will just allow Torts to, once again, bury young players.  If you aren’t adding a difference maker like Lee or keeping a guy like Duchene, that seems ill-advised.

So, we’ll know which way the Jackets go in less than 24 hours, but here is hoping that they either keep Duchene, damn the cost or perhaps add high end talent like Lee or even Nyquist.  Barring that, here’s hoping they have faith in the talent that made them comfortable to make the Duchene trade in the first place instead of feeling the need to placate fans (and their coach) with a guy like Mats Zuccarello.

 

 

SPHL Announces Change to Playoff Format

It isn’t too often that you see an extreme change in the sport of hockey. For the most part, the game has remain untouched for many years. What does change over time is the quality of players, safety and efficiency of equipment (there was once a time when goalies didn’t wear masks and stick blades weren’t curved), but most importantly, the rules and procedures the game is played by. Whether it’s incorporating a trapezoid, bearing down on faceoff issues, or realigning conferences and divisions, fans and players alike have had to adjust to new league policies over the years. A recent change to the SPHL playoff format is starting to attract a lot of attention because it is, well, extreme.

The Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) was founded in 2004 and currently has 10 active teams. It is the most established level of professional hockey in North America beyond the ECHL. The league is home to former Collegiate and Juniors players who simply want to keep their careers alive. The league (as the title suggest) should also be credited for bringing the sport of hockey to a market that is not usually thought of. Generally speaking, hockey is not prevalent in the southern part of the United States, largely due to competition among other sports, but the SPHL has steadily changed that. They have slowly attracted more followers and fans, but a recent announcement may be the game-changing decision they need for even further success.

Yesterday, the organization announced that their teams would now be subject to a “Challenge Round” during the opening round of the SPHL Playoffs. This decision will surely turn a few heads and lead to quite a bit of speculation. Immediately see the term “Challenge Round” and wonder what it means and what the league is attempting to do. So, let’s break this down:

– The top eight teams qualify for the playoffs

– The top three teams earn the opportunity to choose their first round opponent

– The fourth-place team will square off against the remaining opponent

– All pairs will face off in a best-of-three series

– The winning teams will be re-seeded for the second round

The SPHL will forgo the typical system of seeding teams based on their regular season record and allow the top finishers in the league (1st, 2nd, and 3rd) to choose their first-round opponent (mind…blown…). I have witnessed some crazy ideas, but this one tops them all. Is it really that insane? Will it even last beyond this season? Even though it’s such a weird idea, why do I kind of like it? So many questions…

Let’s be honest with ourselves: the NHL regular season doesn’t always correlate to the NHL post season. When was the last time a Presidents’ Trophy winner also took home the Stanley Cup? *Quick Google Search* Well, it was done by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 12-13 season, but it has only occurred twice in the last 15 seasons. Teams sometimes lose the mentality that every game matters and often times only concern themselves with securing a playoff spot. A Presidents’ Trophy is always a nice pat on the back, but we all know the Stanley Cup is what matters.

The SPHL is taking a risk, trying something new, and attempting to throw a carrot on a stick that any organization will want to chase after. It’s different, but very creative. Their hope is to see improved play during the regular season, as well as higher attendance numbers during the playoffs. They really have nothing to lose. It could flop, but if it does, it’s back to the drawing board. Low risk, high reward, why wouldn’t you take a shot at it?

At this point, you have to be thinking the same thing that all hockey fans are pondering: Is there any way the NHL would actually try this? Simply put, probably not. This type of change could seriously shock the NHL fan base, potentially not in a good way. The league has competed with the NFL and NBA over viewers for years and it’s unlikely they try something that could risk their fan support. However, a current poll at NBC Sports reveals roughly 64% of voters would like to see the NHL attempt something like this. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some league officials out there are keeping an eye on this situation to see how it pans out. They won’t jump right in, but the SPHL may have created a ripple effect that could eventually impact other hockey leagues.

Lake Erie leads Calder Cup Finals 2-0 heading home for Games 3 & 4

By: Nick Lanciani

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The Lake Erie Monsters defeated the Hershey Bears 5-3 on Friday night in Game 2 of the Calder Cup Finals on road ice at Giant Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Monsters goalie, Anton Forsberg made 27 saves on 30 shots against in the win, while Justin Peters managed just 24 saves on 28 shots faced for the loss. Lake Erie now leads the series 2-0.

lake-erie-monsters-logo-13bd4f971e24a58cZach Werenski kicked off scoring just 3:05 into the first period with a power play goal that gave Lake Erie a 1-0 lead on an impressive snipe from the 18-year-old defenseman.

The goal was Werenski’s 5th of the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs and was assisted by Ryan Craig and T.J. Tynan.

After one period the Bears lead in shots on goal 10-9, despite trailing to the Monsters 1-0 on the scoreboard.

Oliver Bjorkstrand made it a 2-0 game for the Monsters almost four and a half minutes into the second period with his 6th goal of the playoffs. Markus Hannikainen had the only assist on Bjorkstrand’s goal at 4:29 of the period.

Hershey cut Lake Erie’s lead in half on a power play goal from Zach Sill at 8:48 of the second period. Sill found his own rebound and powered it behind Forsberg for the goal. Carter Camper and Aaron Ness were credited with the primary and secondary assists on Sill’s 6th goal of the postseason. The Bears had now made it a one goal game, albeit trailing 2-1.

But it seemed as though just as quickly the Bears got back into the game the Monsters pulled away once again shortly thereafter. Actually, it didn’t seem that way– it was that way.

Lukas Sedlak added his 9th of the playoffs at 13:51 of the period and put Lake Erie back up by two. Kerby Rychel and Hannikainen picked up the assists on Sedlak’s goal, which made it 3-1 Monsters heading into the second intermission.

Hershey, again, outshot Lake Erie 13-7 in the second period, despite trailing 3-1 on the scoreboard after forty minutes of play.

Bjorkstrand picked up his 2nd goal of the night with a power play goal at 2:04 of the third period. Michael Chaput and Daniel Zaar assisted on Bjorkstrand’s 7th goal of the playoffs. With the goal, the Monsters were ahead by the same margin of victory in Game 1 (4-1).

297_hershey-bears-primary-2013But Tyler Lewington had other plans for the Monsters as he worked his way past Lake Erie’s defense and snapped one past Forsberg for his 4th of postseason. Chris Bourque and Ness assisted on the goal that made it a 4-2 game at 9:57 with plenty of time left in the third period for Hershey to make things interesting.

Lexington’s goal provided just enough momentum for the Bears to start to swing things their way as Liam O’Brien picked up his 4th playoff goal on a no look pass from Aaron Ness. Travis Boyd was also credited with an assist on O’Brien’s goal at 11:51 of the third.

In a close 4-3 battle the Monsters held the Bears off long enough for Hershey to make the tough decision of pulling Justin Peters with 1:01 to go in regulation for an extra attacker.

Despite their man advantage, the Bears were unable to tie the game and force overtime as Zaar crushed Hershey’s remaining hopes and dreams in Game 2 with an empty net goal at 18:59 of the period. Craig and Chaput added assists on Zaar’s 6th goal of the postseason.

At the final horn, Lake Erie had won 5-3 and outshot Hershey 13-7 in the third period. With a 2-0 series lead as a result of Friday’s win, the Monsters are hungry for more on home ice in Games 3 and 4. If necessary, Game 5 is also in Lake Erie, so momentum could be vastly on their side should they slip up in one of the next two games.

For Hershey, the loss was bittersweet– unlike their chocolate in town– but they have history on their side, as the last team to win the Calder Cup after trailing 2-0 in the series in 2010 against the Texas Stars. That Bears team was also the only team in Calder Cup history to win it all after dropping their first two games on home ice.

Friday’s loss was also the first back-to-back loss for Hershey since March 19-20th (and first consecutive losses at home since January 17th and 25th).

Game 3 is scheduled for Monday night at 7:00 PM ET in Lake Erie, where the Monsters stand a chance to go up 3-0 in the series.

Zaar and Lake Erie Come From Behind and Easily Defeat Hershey to Take Game 1 of the Calder Cup Finals.

 

cc16_primaryDown the Frozen River is now covering the AHL! If you don’t know what the AHL is I will let you know! The AHL (American Hockey League) is called the minor league. The reason why it is called this is because it is a level below the NHL (National Hockey League). Each team in the NHL and the AHL are affiliated with each other. This means that every single NHL team signs a contract with an AHL team. A player can either be called up by the NHL team or sent down to the AHL team during the season as well.

Both the Hershey Bears and the Lake Erie Monsters will begin their quest for the 2016 AHL Calder Cup. It features the Bears (who’s NHL affiliate is the Washington Capitals) out of the East Coast and the Monsters (who are affiliated with the Columbus Blue Jackets) out of the West Coast. This is the Bears first appearance in the finals since the 2009-2010 season when they won it all beating the Texas Stars 4 games to 2. While this is Lake Erie’s first Calder Cup Final appearance in franchise history.

The game started out with both teams gaining equal chances but no one could get the momentum they needed to score. This would change with just 4:28 into the opening frame. Lake Erie would gain the puck at their own blue line, center T.J. Tynan would receive a beautiful stretch pass. Tynan would go in all alone on a breakaway from the attacking blue line in. Tynan would skate right into the slot fake a slap shot and opened up to his forehand trying to go upstairs for the goal. Well, Bears goalie Justin Peters was having none of this and stretched out with his left pad to rob Tynan with the tip of his pad. This save kept the game scoreless.

Lake Erie was all over Hershey front to back controlling most of the first period. This relentless pressure resulted in the Monsters second prime scoring chance of the first period.

with 7:28 into the period Monsters winger Sonny Milano would make a great defensive play Bears defender Ryan Stanton at the right dot just outside Hershey’s zone. Milano picked pocketed the puck right off Stanton’s stick and went in all alone for their second breakaway of the period. Milano would fancy his luck opting to go to his right just like Tynan did before. The result was the same for Milano and Peters stood tall and stopped his shot with his left pad/blocker to keep the game scoreless.

This provided a HUGE boost for the Bears as 3:10 later Hershey would grab the game’s first goal.

Bears winger Chris Bourque would burst into the offensive zone on the right side, stop on a T at the tops of the circle, and skate back up to the tops of the blue line. Bourque would find a cutting Jakub Vrana with a rifle of a pass while Vrana was barreling into the zone. Vrana would receive the pass at the top of the high slot and roof a laser of a wrist shot beating Monsters goalie Anton Forsberg high over his blocker for the 1-0 lead. This was Vrana’s 8th goal of the playoffs tying him for the league lead.

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Lake Erie would end the period down a goal which they were not happy about. The Monsters were controlling a majority of the first with a lot of pressure in the o-zone. They also did a solid job limiting the Bears shots to the outside despite giving up the opening goal.

The start of the second period was no different than the start of the first. What I mean by this was that both teams, again, had a couple chances but none of them were big. Both goalies came up big, especially Anton Forsberg of the Monsters.

Finally, after all, the pressure to start the period Lake Erie was able to get past Hershey’s defenders and tie this game up. With just about eight minutes gone in the middle frame, Monsters’ Daniel Zaar would get a pass from fellow linemate Alex Broadhurst in the neutral zone. Zaar would take the tape to tape pass at center ice and speed past Bears defender Tyler Lewington and in on another breakaway. Zaar would speed into the slot and rip a wrister under the glove hand of Justin Peters and just inside the right post for his 4th goal of the playoffs and leveling the score at one goal apiece.

Surprisingly, after Zaar’s goal to tie the game, neither Hershey or Lake Erie were able to gain any momentum back to their side. Both goalies again acted like brick walls and did not let another goal get by them and the middle period ended 1-1.

The start of the third period was much different. The Bears were in on the attack looking for the goal to break the tie. Their pressure paid off as we would get the first penalty of the game just 58 seconds into the third. Monsters center Alex Broadhurst would get called for two minutes after he hooked a Bears player. This sent Hershey to their first PP of the game but was unable to break the deadlock after some solid saves from Forsberg.

Then just about four minutes and change later Lake Erie would grab the go-ahead and eventual game-winning goal thanks to winger Trent Vogelhuber. Captain Ryan Craig would feed Vogelhuber behind Hershey’s net. Vogelhuber would corral the pass, skate behind the net, and come out from behind the right side of the net. He would skate right to the right dot, turn around, and whip (what looked like to be a harmless shot) on net. The puck took a deflection off Bears defender Aaron Ness’ stick and through the 5 hole of Justin Peters for the 2-1 lead.

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The play would then settle down for the next five minutes of play as both teams settle down into their roles. Lake Erie defending and Hershey pressing for that tying goal.

Hershey would go back to their second and last man advantage of the game as winger Josh Anderson got the gate for roughing. Hershey would once again, gain a little momentum with a flurry of shots but the Monsters were able to kill off the pressure.

Then with 6:27 remaining in the last period the Monsters were back on the offensive prowl and tallied a very important insurance goal. Bears defender Ryan Stanton looked to keep the puck, step around the forecheck and start a rush from his own zone. This was a bad idea as Lake Erie’s first goal scorer Daniel Zaar would make another beautiful defensive pick and steal the puck right from Stanton’s stick at the left-hand dot. Zaar would then be all alone for a small breakaway where he took full advantage. Bears goalie Justin Peters looked to poke check the puck away but failed. In doing this, he opened up his 5 hole and Zaar finessed the puck right through his legs for the two-goal lead at 3-1. This was Zaar’s second goal of the game.

Just 1:36 later the Monsters would strike again! Lake Erie’s winger Oliver Bjorkstrand would feed the puck over to D-man Dean Kukan at the right side blue line. Kukan would put a helpless wrister towards the net that was deflected by winger Markus Hannikainen in the slot and sneaked past Justin Peters for the 4-1 lead with just four minutes. The Bears were unable to muster any offensive after this deflecting goal and the score ended with the Monsters’ easily taking the game 4-1.

Lake Erie’s goalie Anton Forsberg stopped 26 out of 27 shots for a stunning .963 SV% while Hershey’s goalie Justin Peters turned away 22 out of 26 shots for a terrible .846 SV%. The Bears led in shots (27-26). There were only 2 penalties in the game with both of them going to Lake Erie. The Bears were 0/2 on the man advantage while the Monsters did not get a chance.

Lake Erie now leads the series 1-0. These two teams will suit up again Friday night for Game 2 in Hershey with puck drop at 7 pm.

 

Huskies Bite Back in Rematch With Rebels, Advance to Memorial Cup Final.

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Alright Down the Frozen River and hockey fans, we here are going to try something new for the first time! This subject, surprisingly, doesn’t have anything to do with the NHL! What?!? I am covering a junior game for the first time! What does this mean?!?! Well, tonight we will be recapping the 2016 Memorial Cup Hockey Semi-Final Game between the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies and the Red Deer Rebels. The Memorial Cup is a junior hockey championship trophy awarded annually to the CHL (Canadian Hockey League) champion. It is awarded to a team following a round-robin tourney, between four teams, between a host team, and the champions of the CHL’s three leagues: the OHL which is the Ontario Hockey League, the QMJHL which is the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and WHL which is the Western Hockey League.

 

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The teams involved in this year tournament are the London Knights of the OHL, Red Deer Rebels out of the WHL who are also the host team this year, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies from the QMJHL, and, last but not least, the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL.

 

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(The Brandon Wheat Kings locked up the 2nd overall spot in the WHL going 48-18-4-2 with 102 points, only four points out of first. The Wheat Kings went on to win the Ed Chynoweth Cup, which is given to the playoff champion. Brandon winded up crushing the Seattle Thunderbirds in five games to capture the crown and a spot to the Memorial Cup. While the London Knights finished 2nd in their division going 51-14-2-1 with 105 points to end the regular season. They actually tied the Erie Otters in their division in points, but the reason why they finished 2nd was they had one less win then the Otters. So since they finished 2nd, ended up 5th overall behind the four regular season division champs. The Knights went on to capture the J. Ross Robertson Cup, which is also for the playoff champion. They only lost two games the entire playoffs, sweeping every round after the first round.)

Tonight was the play in game for the Championship Game against the London Knights who earned an automatic bid to the Final game after going 3-0 in round robin play. The Rouyn-Noranda Huskies had a bye into the semifinal matchup and awaited the winner of the quarterfinal game between the Brandon Wheat Kinds and the Red Deer Rebels. The Wheat Kings jumped out to a 1-0 lead halfway through the middle period. The Rebels fought their way back into the contest tying the game with a little over five minutes remaining in the game. That’s when Red Deer tallied the game-winning goal in Over Time with a minute left in extra time to punch their ticket to the Semis aginst the Huskies.

Red Deer finished 6th overall in the Western Hockey League during the regular season going 45-24-1-2 and 93 points and clinching a spot in the playoffs. The Rebels lost in the Eastern Conference Championship Series 4 games to 1 of the WHL playoffs against, believe it or not, the Wheat Kings. While the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies were the regular season champs finishing in 1st place with an impressive 54-9-3-2 record with 113 points! That was 20 points better than the second-place team! The Huskies went on to win the Presidents Cup, which is awarded to the playoff champion. They won the required 16 games in each of the four rounds, and only lost three total games! So clearly this game was going to be a battle.

Coming into the game, the starting goaltender for each team were a little less than impressive with their stats. The Huskies goalie Chase Marchand had an amazing QMJHL playoff run appearing in all 19 games going 15-3 with an astounding 1.35 GAA and a .946 SV% and a marvelous shutout streak of 223:23. His numbers led all netminders in the playoffs (he also led all goalies in GAA in the regular season with 2.42). Coming into tonight’s game, Chase went 1-2 with a horrid 4.02 GAA and .883 SV% in his 3 Memorial Cup Games.

While Red Deers goalie Rylan Toth played nine games in their playoffs. His record was a less impressive 3-5-1 with a .905 SV% and a 3.19 GAA. As well as his 2-1 record, a 2.94 GAA and a .904 SV%. So clearly Marchand was much better in his playoffs then Toth. When Toth has been much better in his three games in the MC (Memorial Cup).

Red Deer is looking to become the first host team to advance and play in the Finals since 2012. The last team to do this were the Shawinigan Cataractes who beat the London Knights 2-1 in front of their home crowd to win it all. Now if the Huskies win, it will be their first time ever in the Final.

Alright finally (now the fun part begins) let’s get to the game! Here’s what went down:

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The game started off with a very quick pace. Both clubs combined for a total of six shots within the first four minutes of the game. Then with the seventh shot of the first period, just 4:50 into the opening frame we finally got the game’s first prime scoring chance. Huskies defender Allan Carron grabbed the loose puck along the left side boards. Carron skated to the bottom of the left side hash marks in the slot and let a sharp wrister on net. Rebel goalie Rylan Toth was up to the task and blockered the shot into the corner to keep the score at zero.

Then a minute later, it was Red Deer’s turn to try and break the deadlock. Rebels center Jeff de Wit flew down the right-hand side into the attacking zone, taking on the defender. Wit made some nifty moves and found his way to the left side dot. Wit noticed a shot opportunity and took full advantage as he rifled a wrist shot that was pegged for the top left corner. Huskies goalie Chase Marchand somehow, some way was able to get his right shoulder in the way and deflected the puck into the corner for his best save of the game so far.

Five minutes later, we would then get the games first penalty. Rebels D-man Austin Strand got a two minute trip to the sin bin for high sticking minor. This would send Rouyn-Noranda to their first manpower advantage of the game. It only took the Huskies 33 seconds to strike first for the games first goal. San Jose draftee and Huskies star Timo Meier would intercept a bad pass from a Rebels D in their own zone at the top of the left circle. Meier saw Senators draft pick Francis Perron wide open across the ice on the right circle. Meier hit Perron with a sweet pass right in his wheelhouse and Perron let a one-time clap bomb go. Perron’s heat-seeking shot beat Toth far side, back in the direction he came from, to open the scoring at 1-0. This was Perron’s first goal of the MC.

It only took Rouyn-Noranda 1:07 later to double their score. Huskies winger and Colorado pick A.J. Greer fell over with the puck in the left corner of the attacking zone. Toronto draftee Martins Dzierkals picked up the puck in the corner and drove right to the front of the net. For some reason, Rebels defenders gave him all of the time and room that he wanted. Dzierkals took advantage of this and flipped a wimpy backhand shot on net that beat Toth between his legs. Dzierkals first goal of the MC and it increased his team’s lead to 2-0.

At the 16:51 mark of the first period, the Huskies took their first penalty of the game. Bruins draftee and Huskies D-man Jeremy Lauzon got called for roughing on Rebels center Jeff de Wit. This now put the Rebels on their first PP of the game where they looked to cut into the two-goal deficit before the intermission. Unfortunately, thanks to stellar penalty killing and goaltending, the Huskies killed it off only giving up two shots.

The first period ended with the Huskies up 2-0 thanks to goals 1:07 apart and solid goaltending from Chase Marchand.

The second period opened up with the Rebels in on the attack. Just 20 seconds into the period Red Deer had an offensive zone faceoff. The Rebels won the faceoff and D-man Kyle Doetzel found himself with the puck at the point. Doetzel fired a slap shot right towards the net that was deflected on its way through. Goalie Marchand looked to glove the shot down, but since it was deflected, the puck hit the top of his glove and rang right off the crossbar and out! Red Deer was that close to scoring and cutting into the lead.

Once again, a minute later, the Rebels had another prime chance to score. Other Bruins pick and Rebels winger Jake DeBrusk came speeding down the left-hand side and into the offensive zone. DeBrusk picked his head up at the bottom of the circle and lasered a pass over to captain Luke Philp in front of the net. Philp directed the pass on net and was stoned by Marchand with his glove again to keep the score at 2-0.

Red Deer were all over the Huskies in the opening minutes of the second period. They held the puck in the attacking zone for a while and were relentless on the puck. They managed to get five shots within the first three minutes. All the shots were high-quality scoring chances but were turned away by Marchand.

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Rouyn-Noranda went back on to the power play 3:46 into the middle frame. Red Deer defender Josh Mahura got caught for interfering with Huskies winger Martins Dzierkals. The Huskies looked to strike on the PP for another crushing goal. Well, the Huskies got just want they wanted and scored with 42 seconds left on the power play. With all the PP time being spent in the offensive zone on the prowl for a goal. Ottawa draft pick and Huskies winger Francis Perron had the puck at the top of the left-hand circle. Perron passed the puck up to D-man Nikolas Brouillard who unloaded a nasty one-time slapper that beat Rebel goalie Rylan Toth over his glove, off the post, and went into triple their lead at 3-0. This was Brouillard first goal of the MC and team’s second power-play goal of the game.

With 7:31 left in period two Red Deer would get another chance to score on their second power play of the game. Rouyn-Noranda winger Mathieu Boucher got caught for slashing Rebels center Conner Bleackley. Finally, after all of Red Deer’s pressure, they were able to get one past “on point” (don’t worry, that means good) Chase Marchand after a flurry of shots (three in eight seconds). Rebels center Michael Spacek had the puck at the left circle looking for options to pass to. Spacek found fellow D-man and Hurricanes draft pick Hayden Fleury open in the middle of the ice at the top of the point with a pass. Fleury wasted no time and put a one-t slapshot on net in hopes for a rebound. His wish was granted when the puck was deflected in the slot and slid right to captain Luke Philp just above the crease off to the right. Philp grabbed the loose puck and slammed the puck into the open net right before Marchand could get his pad over to his right. This was Philp’s second goal of the MC and brought his team back in the game at 3-1.

Three minutes later Red Deer would go right back on their third man advantage hoping to strike just like last time. Huskies D-man Jeremy Lauzon would make his second trip to the box, this time for holding Rebels winger Evan Polei. Sadly for Red Deer, they were held to just one shot thanks to stellar penalty killing from Rouyn-Noranda.

Towards the end of the period, specifically 50 seconds left, Red Deer would get one last chance before the second period would come to a close. Rebel defender Colton Bobyk, who is well known for his slap shot, decided to change it up a bit. Bobyk would fancy his luck with the puck and try to take it upon his own to score a goal. Bobyk would move on into the offensive zone just above the left circle. Bobyk ripped a wrist shot on net, that was labeled for the top right corner. Huskies Chase Marchand had other ideas and reached out and robbed Bobyk with a heavenly glove save to keep his team’s two-goal lead at 3-1 going into the second intermission.

As the third period started, Red Deer’s players and fans realized their season was coming to an end and were pushing to get a goal.

Five minutes into the final period, Rouyn-Noranda would get their third PP of the contest. Rebels winger Grayson Pawlenchuk got tacked with an infraction for cross checking on Huskies Mathieu Boucher. Red Deer kept their composure, only gave up one shot, and killed off the penalty with poise. Things did not get any better for Red Deer as they took another penalty four minutes later. This time, it was D-man Kyle Doetzel hauling down Huskies winger Timo Meier with a hook and sent Rouyn-Noranda to their fourth power play. Once again, Red Deer were ecstatic on the PK and killed it off.

Then with 6:50 left in the final frame, the Huskies were looking to tack on another insurance goal. Huskies winger Timo Meier was in a battle on the left point blue line into the attacking zone. Meier made a fantastic play and tipped the puck to Av’s draft pick and streaking center Julien Nantel to send him in on a breakaway. Nantel tried fooling Rebel goalie Rylan Toth with a couple fake moves and put a little wrister on net from the slot. Toth made a confident and easy right pad save and pushed the puck into the right corner to keep the game tied and give the Rebels a little glimmer of hope.

Red Deer tried another common tactic with 2:21 remaining. They pulled their goalie to get an extra attacker on the ice and play some 6 on 5 hockey. Well, this did not work at all one bit! Thanks to some stunning defense from Rouyn-Noranda in their own zone, they didn’t allow a single shot. This usually doesn’t happen with a man advantage, especially with the goalie is pulled, but the Huskies were up to the challenge and shut the Rebels down.

The game ended with the Huskies pulling out the win 3-1. Rebels goalie Rylan Toth stopped 24 out of 27 shots for a .889 SV% while Huskies goalie Chase Marchand stopped a whopping 36 out of 37 shots for a .973 SV %.

The Rouyn-Noranda Huskies will now face the RED HOT London Knights and Mitch Marner in the Championship Game on Sunday afternoon at 4:30. The game can be seen on NHL Network.

How the Flyers Got Here (and Where They’ll Go)

Frank Fanelli officially joins Down the Frozen River with his first post and explains what it felt like for Philadelphia Flyers fans heading into this weekend’s action and how far he thinks the Flyers will be able to go in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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By: Frank Fanelli

As the Flyers geared up for their playoff push, for us Flyers fans, it felt like the 2009-2010 season all over again. That season, the Flyers were very shaky- going up and down in the standings battling for a playoff spot with the New York Rangers. In their last 12 games, the 2009-2010 Flyers went 2-10, which was terrible down the stretch, but somehow it all came down to the very last game of the regular season against the Rangers. Philadelphia eventually won 2-1 in a nerve-wracking shootout.

This year is very much just like that year in all aspects of the season. In their first 20 games the Flyers went a disappointing 6-14 to start the season. When I first saw this start to the season I thought to myself “Oh boy, here’s to another disappointing season with no postseason play” I was livid with their start because this year I thought it was going to be so much different.

Well, their mid-season form took to full affect just like always, going back and forth with win after win then a string of loss after loss. It really wasn’t a promising sight. I mean the Flyers were still in contention but I thought nothing of it because they never showed any potential to creep into a playoff spot. Now that has completely changed!

On March 3rd the Flyers sat at 29-34, just out of a playoff spot and got a huge wakeup call by getting thrashed 4-0 to the mediocre Edmonton Oilers— AT home nonetheless! This, without a doubt in my mind, was a call to action for the Philly squad, coming back the next game and demolishing the Columbus Blue Jackets 6-0 and kick started this team’s push to the playoffs.

The Flyers then went on a resurgent 10-7 run in their next 17, leading up to their record at 39-27-13 with 91 points entering Friday— barely hanging on to that last Wild Card spot. From then, I believed the Flyers would make the playoffs because of the way they had been playing lately. They had 3 games remaining on their schedule, against the below average Toronto Maple Leafs, the Pittsburgh Penguins (who are on fire), and a strong New York Islanders team to end their season.

*Editor’s note: The Flyers lost, 4-3, in overtime to the Maple Leafs, and then beat the Penguins and Islanders to cap off their season, if you’ve been under a rock. Although by now, hopefully you know they’re in and the matchups have been determined.*

Prior to clinching, I believed that if the Flyers wanted to make the playoffs, they were going to have to realize they needed to pick up their play! The Flyers would make the playoffs because they have played very solid as a whole team and they would realize this and push to the end.

Philadelphia will play the Washington Capitals, who locked up the President’s Trophy with the best record in the NHL, in the first round of the playoffs. These two teams split the 4-game season series 2-2, with both teams trading wins back and forth. These 4 games were always a constant battle with the Capitals outscoring the Flyers 12 goals to 10. Also 3 of the 4 games were separated by only 1 goal with 2 of the games going past regulation. Philadelphia won both of those games. The Flyers are 110-78-19 overall against the Capitals. Going 2-2 against them in 4 playoff series matchups dating back to 1984, with 3 of the 4 series matchups going to 6 or 7 games!

So clearly the facts are all there for it to be a very close and intense playoff matchup, which any hockey fan will love to watch. I think the Flyers will battle the Capitals in an intense 6 game series favoring the Flyers in the end, but this is where I think their “Cinderella” type season will come to an end.

I just do not see the Flyers making a long run in this year’s playoffs, especially with how hot the Penguins, Lightning, Panthers and even the Rangers have been playing lately. Even with Michal Neuvirth projected to be back in the lineup, ready and healthy for the playoffs. The Flyers simply do not have enough fire power in their offense.

For example, their star captain Claude Giroux through 79 games only had 66 points when he was projected to reach 81. Their second in “command” Jakub Voracek only had 53 points through 70 games when he was originally projected to have 73. These two players are clear examples on why Philadelphia will go out in the second round because they do not have enough offensive prowl.

Let alone their very shaky defense, which has a very hard time scoring as well. Their top scorer, rookie sensation Shayne Gostisbehere, who had an astonishing 43 points in 61 games up to Friday, which ranked 7th in scoring among rookies. Other than “Ghost” they have no offensive production from their defense, who also can be exploited for a good amount of goals which is very risky.

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Michal Neuvirth (Left) with Steve Mason (right) (USA Today Images)

Last but not least their goalies are sub-par to say the least. Their “rock” Steve Mason, as of late, in his last 15 games leading up to Friday, went 9-4-2 with a .950% SV and a 2.10 GAA. He has had to fill in for Neuvirth, because before Neuvirth got hurt, he was basically the starter. So Mason has been a HUGE part of the Flyers success in their recent games, but I do not see Mason being a productive starter in the postseason.

The reason why is because of his measly playoff record, going 2-6 with a .907% and a 3.11 GAA in 8 starts with Columbus and Philly. Even if Michal Neuvirth is able to come back in time (which he is, as of Sunday) for the playoffs— his playoff record is 4-5 with a .914% and a 2.30 GAA in 9 starts with Washington.

Clearly, as you can tell, both of these goalies have proven that neither of them are a reliable playoff starter. With the Flyers low offensive production, shaky defense, and unreliable goaltending, these are just a couple of prime examples as to why the Flyers will bow out in the second round of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Sabres, Blue and Gold Scrimmage Entertains Hopeful Future

Down the Frozen River analyst, Colby Kephart recently ventured to the Buffalo Sabres Development Camp and captured some photos, videos, and thoughts related to the offseason experience.

By: Colby Kephart

Sabres prospects await play during the anthems in front of nearly 17,000 fans.
Sabres prospects await play during the anthems in front of nearly 17,000 fans.

All penalties in the game resulted in an automatic penalty shot as opposed to the usual special teams play.

2015 2nd overall pick, Jack Eichel, got things rolling with the first penalty shot of the game on Jonas Johansson (who was selected in the 3rd round in 2014).

Victor Olofsson (a 7th round selection in 2014) converted on a penalty shot against Johansson.

Following the scrimmage, both teams squared off in a shootout, with Sam Reinhart shooting first for the blue team.

Hudson Fasching (blue) and Jack Eichel (gold) also had opportunities in the shootout.

2015 2nd round pick, defenseman, Brendan “GOOO” Guhle, also had a chance in the shootout.

At the end of the day all of the players gathered at center ice to salute the fans in attendance.

A few standout players were center, Samson Reinhart, who had 2 goals and an assist, goaltender, Jason Kasdorf- acquired in the Tyler Myers trade with the Winnipeg Jets- played solid, and Josh Chapman. Kasdorf was calm and kept his net clear in his 30 minutes of play. Chapman, a defenseman, was by far a fan favorite with his a rough and tough stye. During the second period he got in a fight with Justin Kea, trading punches like no other. Chapman also put his body on the line blocking shots and hitting hard. Most of Buffalo believes he will receive a contract and be a part of the Rochester Americans roster in the AHL next season.

2015 Western Conference Finals Preview

By: Nick Lanciani

Unknown-2                                         2015 Western Conference Finals

Unknown1) Anaheim Ducks vs. 3) Chicago Blackhawks

Game 1 Sunday, May 17 3 PM EST on NBC

ANA- Round 1- defeated WPG in 4 games. Round 2- defeated CGY in 5 games. First WCF appearance since 2007 (the same year they won the Cup).

CHI- Round 1- defeated NSH in 6 games. Round 2- defeated MIN in 4 games. Fourth WCF appearance in six years (2010, 2013, 2014, 2015). 

Anaheim Ducks have home ice advantage.

Frederik Andersen and Corey Crawford, two goalies that you probably wouldn’t expect to hear about in the same conversation, but they’ve made it anyway- all the way to the 2015 Western Conference Finals, in fact. It might not be as much to do with goaltending, as it has been to do with dominance all around for both the Anaheim Ducks and the Chicago Blackhawks so far in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Ducks have had plenty of offense from their star forwards Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler, Ryan Getzlaf, and others, and so have the Blackhawks in Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Marian Hossa. Perry is the leading point scorer of the playoffs so far with 7-8-15 totals in 9 games played. Kane is second with 7-6-13 totals in 10 games.

Anaheim has the best power play completion percentage, 31.0%, while Chicago ranks 5th in the playoffs. Both teams have scored 3.20 goals per game or more (Anaheim again leads with a slight advantage, 3.89 goals per game, compared to Chicago’s 3.20 goals per game). Meanwhile, the Ducks also have an advantage in goals against per game, 2.00, compared to the Blackhawks 2.80, which ranks 11th out of the 16 teams in the playoffs.

Of the teams that have played at least 8 games in the playoffs, Anaheim has 5 skaters ranked in the top 10 in Corsi %, with Hampus Lindholm the highest ranking Duck in 2nd with a 58.84 Corsi%. The Ducks also have four players ranked between 11th and 20th in Corsi% with the same parameters as above. Chicago, on the other hand, has four players in the 11th through 20th range, leaving only Montreal’s Brandon Prust, and the New York Rangers, Dan Boyle, as the other representatives from other teams 11th-20th in Corsi%.

While Corsi is usually a good indicator of offensive production, in terms of shot attempts for, and defensive ability, in terms of lowering shot attempts against; Corsi has rendered all but useless thus far in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Seriously. The Calgary Flames made it as far as they did with the worse Corsi as a team (41.73 Corsi%) compared to the best in Corsi%, the St. Louis Blues (60.49)- and they lost in the First Round.

The bottom line- this series will be wide open and highly competitive. We’re in for some great hockey. Anaheim has a plethora of defensemen to enhance their stellar goaltending from Andersen and offensive ability from Perry, Kesler, and just about anyone else on any given night as they’ve shown since Game 1 against Winnipeg back in the first round.

Chicago has Kane, Toews, Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Crawford, and oh yeah- other clutch players- Johnny Oduya and well, practically everyone else on their roster. If needed, Scott Darling has proven that he can hold his own in times of trouble (or basically anytime Crawford gives up a lot of goals, high, glove side).

This series really won’t be about who is the better team, but rather, who has the puck luck at the right time. At the end of the day, whether it’s Anaheim or Chicago, either team has a much better chance of winning the Stanley Cup than the New York Rangers or the Tampa Bay Lightning.

If the Ducks are going to win this series, it’s going to be because everything kept clicking; Perry, Kesler, and Co. need to keep the ball rolling. If the Blackhawks are to win this series, it’ll be because Kane and Toews began putting on a show all on their own and controlled the Ducks.

2015 Eastern Conference Finals Preview

By: Nick Lanciani

2015 Eastern Conference Finals 

New York Rangers Logo1) New York Rangers vs. Unknown-12) Tampa Bay Lightning

Game 1 Saturday, May 16 1 PM EST on NBC

NYR- Round 1- defeated PIT in 5 games. Round 2- defeated WSH in 7 games. 3rd ECF finals appearance in 4 years (2012, 2014, and 2015).

TB- Round 1- defeated DET in 7 games. Round 2- defeated MTL in 6 games. 3rd ECF finals appearance in franchise history (2004, 2011, and 2015)- first time since 2011.

New York Rangers have home ice advantage.

Henrik Lundqvist is still searching for his first Stanley Cup. Yes, that’s hard to believe for a goalie of his caliber, but it’s true. He’s run into other teams on great runs, most notably the team the New York Rangers just beat on Wednesday night, the Washington Capitals. Some hockey writers argue that Braden Holtby has shown that he can be considered an elite goaltender.

Wrong.

He needs another year of performing just like he did this year to cement his status as a potential elite goaltender (fear not, Washington fans- before you bust out the fisticuffs- I think he is capable of doing it, he just needs one more year of stellar play to be considered elite).

But anyway, back to Lundqvist. He’s backstopped the New York Rangers and kept them in many games throughout the first couple of rounds of the playoffs and it seems as though they are beginning to understand now that you need to score in order to win. And scoring more than one goal is a good thing. Lundqvist has a .944 SV% and a 1.60 GAA in 12 games played so far, whereas Tampa Bay Lightning goalie, Ben Bishop, has a .931 SV% and a 1.81 GAA in 13 GP.

Both goaltenders have been superb. Bishop’s current run reminds me of Tim Thomas’s 2011 Stanley Cup run with the Boston Bruins in that he has been a large factor in Tampa’s game. The Lightning have had sparks of brilliance when all four lines and all three defensive pairs are rolling right along and things are absolutely fantastic to watch. The Triplet Line aside, the Lightning still have an incredible roster of youth, sprinkled in with some veteran talent and experience.

Also of note in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals, there are numerous former Lightning players, now Rangers, and former Rangers, now Lightning, going head to head in this series. If that’s not enough alone to hype up, not only who won the trade (remember the Martin St. Louis fiasco?), but the sheer fact that those players were smart enough and lucky enough to leave one good team for another.

Despite the hype of the pure talent in the West, there is pure grit and heart in the East with amazing storylines of how careers came to be, were shaped, and how they currently are. St. Louis, Dan Boyle, and Dominic Moore all once spent time in Tampa. Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan, and Anton Stralman have all spent time with the Rangers (please tell me you recall the St. Louis for Callahan trade now).

The Rangers are the current President’s Trophy champions are should show why they are, however have struggled to get the offensive power on full blast from a night to night basis. Their defense is solid and obviously their goaltending is the cream of the crop. Tampa, on the other hand, has leading goal scorer in the playoffs, Tyler Johnson, alongside the gifted goal scorer Steven Stamkos, and the rest of their powerful roster that can also score on any given night.

Tampa’s defense is similar to the Rangers, however Bishop certainly is no Lundqvist when it comes to the strength of their net. Should Bishop need to be pulled, Andrei Vasilevsky- A 20 YEAR OLD BACKUP GOALIE- certainly can play well, but is no match for New York’s backup, Cam Talbot (should Lundqvist have a rare off night when things count the most).

Forget Corsi in this series. Only three players (two from Tampa, one from New York) rank in the top 20 in the playoffs with at least 8 games played. But do remember goaltending, as New York ranks first in fewest goals against per game with 1.67 (Tampa ranks 5th with 2.15). Again, both goalies have left everyone in awe of their athleticism, but how will they respond facing even quicker teams than the ones they faced in the last round?

The Lightning have scored 2.62 goals for per game so far, meanwhile the Rangers only score about 2.00 goals for per game (15th out of the 16 teams in the playoffs, although technically they are tied for 13th, if that makes you feel better). Both penalty kills are evenly matched (NYR ranks 4th, TB ranks 6th) and as a matter of fact, so are their power play units (TB ranks 9th, NYR rank 11th).

No matter what, if the Rangers are going to win, they’re going to need their best players to start stepping up and holding their weight- Rick Nash. If the Lightning are going to win, they’re going to need to keep their momentum going and not get discouraged if Lundqvist robs them of a great scoring chance every now and then.