Five Fire Takes: NHL Playoffs and Offseason

Well, first thing’s first: I am alive. After a bit of an absence from Smokehouse (and the internet in general), your boy is back two glock strapped ready to talk some puck with everybody. The Quack Attack is Back, Jack!

While I had my family worried that I was dead for about two weeks, I was able to follow other sports more closely than I usually do. I developed a deeper love for lacrosse (sport of the future), I realized LaVar Ball is a freaking lunatic for thinking someone will buy ZO2 slides for the same price as Gucci flip flops (you can’t rattle off Future lyrics about Big Baller Brand… not yet, at least) and I came to the conclusion that Derek Jeter is overrated (hot take for another time). That being said, we’re still talking hockey here. We’ve got hot takes firing from all cylinders today, so here we go. Here are my Five Fire Takes regarding the NHL Playoffs and upcoming offseason. If you can’t handle the heat, stay outta the kitchen.

1. The 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs are the best playoffs I’ve seen.

First of all, the NHL Playoffs are the best playoffs in sports. I know this is a bold statement since I’m writing for a website which was strictly basketball until they brought us hockey guys on, but it’s true. Even a pretty well-known guy covering the NBA Playoffs every day thinks it’s true.

God, I love Charles Barkley. Him and Shaq going back and forth at each other on TNT is hysterical. On top of that, he’s a big hockey fan, and he actually knows what he’s talking about. I agree with Sir Charles on 95% of his comments in this video (Only disagree about Ovechkin; more on this later).

His first comment I agree with: “I’m praying that every game goes to overtime, because there is nothing more exciting than overtime hockey.” Me too, Charles. As you all know from my last post, I think overtime hockey is the absolute best. 26 games have gone into OT in this year’s playoffs, and we’re not even done with the Conference Finals.

Even without all the OT, games are coming down to the wire, and every guy on the ice is emptying their tank just to survive another day. For example, take Nashville’s Pontus Aberg (FANTASTIC name, by the way) in Western Conference Final Game 5 against Anaheim. This guy went diving face first into the ice trying to defend a goal and pots the deciding goal 20 seconds later. Aberg, who had one career NHL goal before this play, went into concussion protocol immediately after the goal and did not return. He could’ve went off after face planting, but he grinded it out, and he was the hero for the night because of it. Now, I’m not trying to give off this “hockey is the toughest sport” mentality whatsoever. All athletes give a little extra in the playoffs. That being said, I love a play where a guy puts in work on defense and gets rewarded on offense, and it happens all the time in the NHL playoffs.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are also super unpredictable. It’s like an episode of Jersey Shore. One minute everyone’s at Karma having a good time and then BOOM! Situation’s hooking up with a tranny, there’s a little Snooki smush going on in Vinny’s room and, my favorite, “Ronnie is in straight creep mode right now.” The Nashville Predators, the second wild card team (8 seed in normal playoff talk, but the NHL format is idiotic) took down THE Chicago Blackhawks in four games. Swept ’em. Chicago’s current team is the best dynasty hockey fans have seen since the late ’90’s- early ’00’s Detroit Red Wings, and they just got smoked in the first round. On top of that, the Preds were the playoff team with the worst regular season record, and they just made the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in team history. Unbelievable stuff. Meanwhile, the Cavs and Warriors are about to have one combined loss en route to a third straight matchup in “The Finals”. I’m not trying to throw shade, but everyone and their sister saw this coming. You can’t say the same about the NHL Playoffs, especially this year.

2. For as good as the NHL Playoffs are, the NHL’s advertising is equally as bad.

Over the past 5-10 seasons, the NHL has been making efforts to take fighting out of the game and make hockey a safer sport. Because of this, young guys coming into the league are more skilled than hockey fans have ever seen. The skaters are faster, stronger and have better hands than any generation, and the goalies are becoming more athletic year by year. If this keeps up, the NHL is going to be very fun to watch, even without the fighting.

That brings up one question: If the players today are more skilled than ever and the league is trying to do away with fighting, then why is the NHL advertising the exact opposite?

Throughout this entire season, most of the NHL commercials I’ve seen are montages of old Stanley Cup celebrations, old rivalries and a bunch of guys over 50 years old spelling their name because it’s engraved in the Cup. All but one guy in these commercials (Sidney Crosby) played in the “Old Time Hockey” era, when fighting was a huge factor and goalies were that fat uncoordinated kid from your 5th grade gym class. The EXACT opposite of what the NHL is today.

To prove my point, I’ll take my hometown team: the Philadelphia Flyers. I have been a die-hard Flyers fan since before I can even remember, so it’s hard for me to talk trash on them. But the Flyers’ 1974 and 1975 Stanley Cup winning teams should never appear in an NHL commercial again.

These teams earned the nickname “Broad Street Bullies” because they used fighting as a tactic for intimidation. They would come out and beat a team physically with their army of enforcers, and then they’d let their “skilled” guys handle the rest. They were also backed by one of the very few good goalies back in those days, Bernie Parent (The league average for GAA this season was 2.59. Parent and Tony Esposito were the only two goalies below that in 1973-1974, and only 4 goalies were below that mark in 74-75). In 73-74, Dave Schultz had 368 penalty minutes. Moose Dupont had 216. In 74-75, Schultz had 472 penalty minutes, and DuPont had 276. Combined in those two seasons, those two guys spent more time in the box than the entire NHL top 10 in penalty minutes this season. No NHL team had over 1,000 penalty minutes this season, and these guys spent 1,332 minutes in the box for two Cup winning teams. Yeah, great idea to put these guys in commercials advertising for a league trying to do away with fighting. Another bonehead move by the NHL front office to drive fans away.
I didn’t see Connor McDavid, the league’s leading scorer and MVP candidate, in any commercials. Patty Kane and Johnny Toews were nowhere to be found, and they’ve won 3 Cups together in Chicago. Where’s Carey Price? Brent Burns? Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine? These guys are the faces of the NHL, yet they are nowhere in the NHL’s advertising.

You know who I did see? Grant Fuhr, Edmonton’s goalie when they won 5 cups in the ‘80s. Grant Fuhr won a Vezina (best goalie) in 1988 with a 3.43 GAA. That’s terrible in beer league, let alone in the show. Over 50 goalies had better GAA’s than that this year, but this guy copped a Vezina trophy. Might as well have called that thing a participation award back in those days.

In the middle of the NBA playoffs, I don’t see guys like John Stockton, Jerry West and Moses Malone all over their commercials. I don’t even see Magic, Jordan or Kareem. I see LeBron, Steph, Kawhi, IT4 and Harden. Am I seeing Mike Schmidt highlights in Sunday Night Baseball commercials? No, I see Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant and Aaron Judge (Derek Jeter recently, but, like i said,that’s for another time).
The sad truth is, people don’t care about the past anymore. They care about what’s good right now and what will be good in the future. I’m one of those people- I’ve been chanting “Trust The Process” just as much as any other guy. People want today’s stars, not guys who are stuck in the past, which is the case with a whole lot of NHL executives.

The guys in the NHL are more talented than we’ve ever seen. Forwards are faster, defensemen are stronger and goalies are making unbelievable saves. People need to see how talented these guys are, and showing Bobby and Brett Hull spelling their last name together isn’t exactly helping.

Even if it’s not showing off the talent, at least go back to something like this, the greatest commercial in sports history:

3. The Capitals need to take away Ovi’s C or get rid of him altogether.

Everybody needs to give my fellow Smokehouse writer Ethan MacKrell a nice Hallmark “get well soon” card, because his heart has been broken by the Washington Capitals once again. The Caps and E have a relationship exactly like the Red Sox and Ben Wrightman (Jimmy Fallon) in Fever Pitch. He gives his all rooting for his squad year after year, and they always disappoint him.

The Caps lost in the second round after winning the Presidents Trophy (best team in the regular season) for the second year in a row, making it 19 years since the Capitals have made it to a Conference Final series. This means that Alex Ovechkin, arguably the greatest Russian-born NHL player of all time, has not been able to give his Capitals a chance to even play for a Stanley Cup.

Ovi was named team captain during the 2009-2010 season as a 24-year-old, giving fans hope that a bright future was ahead. Now, 7 years later, The Great 8 still hasn’t accomplished anything that he hadn’t done prior to donning the C. In fact, since he was named captain (let’s say the 2010-2011 season, his first full season as captain), Ovi has eclipsed the 80 point mark only twice (2010-2011, 2014-2015). Before he got the C, Ovi’s lowest point total in a season was 92 in 2006-2007. Numbers don’t lie. Ovi can’t handle the C.

Now, I’m not trying to trash Ovechkin’s reputation whatsoever. Individually, Alex Ovechkin is the most accomplished player in the league right now. He’s won 3 Harts (MVP), 6 Rocket Richards (leading goal scorer), 3 Ted Lindsay’s (MVP voted by Players’ Association), an Art Ross (leader in points) and a Calder (Rookie of the Year, which he won over Crosby). He’s been in the top 5 in goal scoring 10 times. He has 6 50-goal seasons. He’s played in 5 All Star Games, and he was voted to another which he didn’t play in. He is 3rd among active players in career goals, behind two guys who have played 20+ seasons in the show (Jaromir Jagr, 45, 23 seasons, and Jarome Iginla, 39, 20 seasons). His individual accomplishments are matched by no one in the league today.

However, he has no postseason team accomplishments on his hockey resume. No Cups, No Wales Trophies, not even an appearance in a Conference Finals. If we want to go international, his Russian national teams have not placed higher than 4th in the Olympics. No Cups and no Olympic medals. Ovi just doesn’t know how to win.

Ovechkin will be 32 at the beginning of next season, and his goal total plummeted this season, as did his ice time. It’s safe to say that Ovi is past his prime. He’s still a key player, but I don’t think we’ll see him pot more than 40 goals in a season again.

As much as Ovi has meant to the Washington Capitals organization, they need to let him go and move on. The longer the Caps wait to send him to another team, the less they’re gonna be able to get for him. They might as well just move on now and let him finish his career somewhere else.

If the Caps want to keep Ovi in DC for his career, they at least need to take away his C. Simply put, he’s not a leader. Leaders win championships, and it’s not gonna happen in Washington as long as Ovi is donning a C. Give it to Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov or even Justin “Game 7” Williams. If they want to win a cup, this needs to happen.

  1. Sorry, Caps, but Barry Trotz needs to go, too.

Regardless of Ovi’s questionable leadership skills, the Capitals are way too talented of a team to be losing in the second round year after year. Yes, I understand that the playoff setup is bogus because the top 2 teams in the entire league play each other in the second round. Still, the team dominated for two straight regular seasons. They have more talent on their roster than any team in the league. Why can’t they even make it to the Conference Finals?

Then I realized, Barry Trotz has never made it past the second round either. Trotz was the head coach of the Nashville Predators from 1998, when the Preds came into the league as an expansion team. He obviously wasn’t successful right from the get-go; it’s not easy to compete as an expansion team. But, he turned them into a playoff team in six years. Impressive, yes, but what did he do in the Playoffs?

In 15 years with Nashville, Trotz’s teams qualified for the playoffs 7 times. They made it to the second round twice. They never made it to the Conference Final. He was fired after not making the playoffs in 2013-14, when he was replaced by Peter Laviolette (should still be the Flyers coach). Last night, Lavy and his Preds just clinched the Western Conference and will be playing in the Stanley Cup Final. 15 years with Trotz, no Conference Finals appearances. 3 years with someone else, Nashville’s playing for the Cup.

You could argue that his Preds teams weren’t as talented as they are now. Okay, well let’s look at his history in Washington.

First year with Trotz: Caps were the fourth best team in the Eastern Conference, second in the Metropolitan Division. They lost in the second round to the New York Rangers. Not only did they lose, but they blew a 3-1 lead in the series.

Second year with Trotz: Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy. Best team in the show. They lose in the second round to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Third year: Same old song and dance. The Caps repeat as Presidents’ Trophy winners and lose to the Pens in the second round again.

That’s 10 playoff appearances for Trotz, and he’s 0-for-5 in the second round. He had no excuse with these Capitals teams, either. Their squad is absolutely stacked with talent and they have a top three goalie in the league with Braden Holtby. They have only gotten better the past 3 years. It’s probably not the team that needs a change; it’s the coaching.

Another problem may be that the Caps hired somebody who hasn’t won before. Before Trotz, Bruce Boudreau was the team’s last long-term coach (Dale Hunter and Adam Oates coached between Trotz and Boudreau, but neither guy lasted long). Boudreau has become known as one of the worst playoff coaches in NHL history. With the Caps, his teams won the division in all of his 4 full seasons, but couldn’t get past the second round. Same exact thing happened in Anaheim; four straight division championships, no cups. Now, with Minnesota, his team had an unbelievable regular season, but were eliminated in the first round by St. Louis. Bruce Boudreau has a terrible playoff reputation, and Barry Trotz looks like he’s following that same path

In fact, no Washington Capitals coach in franchise history has ever won a Stanley Cup as a coach. 16 coaches in team history, and none of them won a single ring before, during or after their time with the Caps.

With those facts on the table, the number one item on the Caps’ offseason agenda needs to be “hire a coach who has won before”. The Capitals deserve a Cup more than any team in the league, but they need someone who has been there to lead them. And, luckily for them, they have exactly who they need: Darryl Sutter. Sutter won two cups with the LA Kings in 2012 and 2014. The Kings just let him go after missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. He’s looking for a job, and the Caps are looking for a Cup. It’s the perfect match.

There’s no denying that the Capitals are going to lose big time this offseason. They have a big handful of guys with expired contracts, and they’re not able to pay all of them. If they fire Trotz, hire Sutter, and give the C to someone other than Ovi, I could really see big things happening in DC next season.

  1. The Vegas Golden Knights might be better than most people think.

For as much as I bash Gary Bettman, he definitely has done some good for the NHL with the league expansion. When Bettman took over as the league’s commissioner in 1993, there were 24 teams in the NHL. In his first seven years at the helm, he added six teams to the league (Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets, Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets). On top of that, he helped make hockey much more popular in the American South by relocating small-market northern teams to southern cities (Quebec Nordiques to Denver, Minnesota North Stars to Dallas, Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix/Glendale, Hartford Whalers to Raleigh). This expansion played a huge role in popularizing youth hockey in the south, which led to some good NHLers today, such as Auston Matthews (AZ), Seth Jones (TX) and Shayne Gostisbehere (FL).

After taking some time off from relocations and expansion (outside of Atlanta moving to Winnipeg), Bettman is back at it again, bringing Las Vegas it’s first major professional sports team: the Vegas Golden Knights. The Knights are set to begin NHL play next season, with an expansion draft taking place on June 21.

The Golden Knights were off to a rough start from before they announced their team name. They had a big name revealing party outside of their home arena, and it was an absolute mess. Knights Owner Bill Foley planned on showing a video of the entire expansion process, leading to the name reveal. Well, something happened with the video, and it was never shown. Foley and Bettman stood on the stage struggling to find a replacement for the video, but everything went wrong. On top of that, the team’s website was timed to go live right after the name reveal, so fans saw the team name on the internet before it was ever officially announced. This all happened live on NHL Network, a terrible start for the NHL’s newest franchise.

Foley, GM George McPhee and recently named head coach Gerard Gallant can only hope that the team’s transition into the league will go more smoothly on the ice than off, but it’s tough for an expansion franchise to make an impact right from the get-go. The expansion draft protection rules allow teams to protect either 7 forwards, 3 defenseman and a goalie (7-3-1) or 8 skaters and a goalie (8-1). This allows teams to protect their key guys and their young prospects, leaving Vegas a bunch of role players to choose from.

However, there is a lot of hope for the upstart franchise. A few teams have some underrated players who may be left unprotected, and others may have so many good players that they need to let one loose and hope for the best. The Knights may catch a few breaks in this expansion draft with a few young, promising players.

First off, we’ll start with the Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks have an extremely talented core with Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Corey Perry, Sami Vatanen and Cam Fowler, among others. However, their deep talent will leave either Rickard Rakell or Jakob Silfverberg unprotected. Rakell is younger and had more goals than Silfverberg this year, so Rakell will most likely be protected first. Either way, both guys are capable of 25-30 goals a year, and who knows how good they could be when given a first line role. I think Vegas will pick up Silfverberg, which will be huge for the upstart franchise as he’s coming off the best year of his career.

Headed to Chicago, the ‘Hawks have a long list of franchise guys with no movement clauses, forcing the front office to protect them. One guy that doesn’t have a no trade clause is defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk. The 25-year-old is capable of being a top 2 defenseman in the league, and it’s looking like the Blackhawks won’t be able to keep him safe. Don’t be surprised if TVR is donning the black and gold next season.

Nashville is another team that is facing a tough situation headed into this draft. They have two choices: they can use the 7-3-1 protection strategy, most likely leaving defenseman Mattias Ekholm available, or they can go with the 8-1, protect Ekholm, but leaving very key forwards like James Neal, Viktor Arvidsson or Colton Sissons. No matter what happens, Nashville is coming out with a big fat L after the draft.

Other good players that could end up in Vegas post-expansion draft are forwards Jonathan Marchessault (Florida), Vladislav Namestnikov (Tampa Bay) and Jason Zucker (Minnesota), along with Dmitry Orlov (Washington), Ian Cole (Pittsburgh) and Brayden McNabb (LA) on the back end. That is not a bad start to the squad at all.

On top of having plenty of options at the draft, this year’s free agent market is full of established veterans who can still play. One of those guys is Washington Capital T.J Oshie. Oshie just had his first 30 goal season, and he’s looking for a big payday. He’s only gotten better with an increased role, so who knows what he could do if he becomes the number one guy for the Vegas Golden Knights. I would love to see Oshie playing in Vegas next year, and I think it’s a realistic possibility as long as they’re willing to write him the big check.

I’m obviously not coming out here saying that the Golden Knights are gonna burst into the league and win a cup. As much as I would love to see that happen, it’s just not realistic. However, don’t expect them to be a pushover next year. They will be a very competitive team, possibly a playoff team, if they play their cards right at the expansion draft. June 21 on NBC Sports Network, we’ll see what the Sin City is working with next season.

 

That’s all I got for now. I hope you guys enjoyed hearing my takes and feel free to debate with me about them. There’s plenty where that came from. I hope I made up for lost time and unwritten work, and I’ll try not to go missing again. Enjoy the Stanley Cup Finals starting Monday Night. Go Preds.

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