This is it. Eighty-two games are in the books. Now, it's a two month sprint to 16 wins. Just to make the playoffs this year was a monumental task, whether you played in the Eastern Conference or the Western Conference. The eighth seeded team in the West, the Winnipeg Jets, needed 99 points to make the playoffs. Things weren't any easier in the East, as Pittsburgh needed 98 points to make the playoffs. That is ridiculous. Every year since the '04-'05 lockout the minimum standard to even make the playoffs has been escalating exponentially. The sad thing, in 2 weeks, 8 of the 16 teams who busted their butts to get to 100 points will be eliminated from the playoffs.
As we get ready to plop down on our sofas to watch some playoff hockey, I would like to take a moment to share some thoughts with you on the 2014-15 season that just wrapped up.
Tanking for Connor McDavid
On the flip side, while the majority of the league excelled this season, a handful of teams, not so subtly, tanked. Edmonton, Toronto, Arizona, Colorado and Buffalo all lost a bunch of games in the hopes of being dead last in the league to better their chance of drafting 1st overall. This year's draft is projected to include at least two potential superstars in Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. The draft lottery determines who will be pick first and the odds of selecting number one overall are greatest if you finish last in the NHL. Quite frankly, I think it's shameful to reward ineptitude. I think that every team should have a chance at the first overall pick, even the Stanley Cup winner. I don't think the odds should be equal either. Back in 2005, the NHL gave everyone the chance to select Sidney Crosby at number one. That year, every team started with three balls in the lottery barrel. A team lost a ball for every playoff appearance in the past 3 seasons or the number one overall pick the previous four years. Buffalo, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers and Columbus had three balls. Anaheim, Atlanta (now Winnipeg), Calgary, Carolina, Chicago, Edmonton, LA, Minnesota, Nashville and Phoenix (now Arizona) each had two balls. And the remaining 16 teams each had one ball in play. I believe a similar draft lottery should be in play every season. Any team that makes the playoffs should get one ball and teams that don't make the playoffs should get an extra ball.
One should be cautious about trying to lose anyway. Edmonton provides a sobering example. The Oilers had 3 1st overall picks in a row from 2010-2012, drafting Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov respectively. Again this season, the Oilers have a solid chance of landing the 1st overall pick. The junior hockey league is significantly easier than the NHL. Numerous players have played well at the junior level only to falter in the NHL. Pat Falloon is perhaps the most notable example. His best year was his rookie year, when he notched 59 points, which is solid. If you want to be successful in the NHL you can't just draft the best players year after year. nor, can you buy a championship team with a salary cap in place. Instead, success arises from a combination of solid drafting, good development and recruiting good free agents. Plus, you need a coach/system that gels with the team you have.
Shootouts have been in place to settle tie games that go beyond five minutes of overtime since 2005. You either love shootouts or you hate them. Skilled teams love them. Teams that miss the playoffs by one or two points hate them. The NHL General Managers discussed the issue during their meetings in March. It was forwarded to the competition committee to play 3-on-3 hockey in OT as a way to reduce the number of games decided in the shootout.
In an attempt to reduce the number of shootouts, teams switched ends and there was a dry scrape of the ice, by the Zamboni for the first month and then the ice crew only for the rest of the season. The effort appeared to have little effect. This season, 291 games went beyond regulation time and of those, 173 or 59.4% went to a shootout.
Admittedly, the shootout is not an ideal way to end games but I would take it over a tie game. It would be nice to see more games end before the shootout so I am in favor of some 3 on 3 hockey. There are two proposed formats in play. In one format, teams would start OT 4 on 4 and move to 3 on 3 at the 1st whistle after the 3rd minute. In the second format, OT would be only 3 on 3. I suspect the former will be more likely to be implemented
A third hot button issue that came up this season is goalie interference. This has always been a grey area, as often times goalies will flop at any contact to sell a call. My view is the goalie's space is the blue paint and the goalie must have that space. However, I do not think we should go back to 1999 where the Stanley cup was decided on a Brett Hull goal when he had a toe in the blue paint but was not touching the goalie.
At the same time, goalies are not built to take a body check so they must be treated more delicately. In terms of questionable goals, the call should be allowed to be overturned on the basis of interference vs. no interference. I like the idea proposed during the GM meetings where a coach can challenge a call like interference provided the team has a time out.
Five Canadian teams in the Playoffs
Canadian teams overall had great success with five of the seven teams making the playoffs. Toronto and Edmonton were the only teams to miss the playoffs and boy, did they ever. Edmonton's collapse was less surprising given their recent history. Toronto was actually in a playoff position heading into the new year, then they fired coach Randy Carlyle and the team just gave up. The Leafs won just 5 times after the new year.
Ottawa and Winnipeg snuck in as wildcard seeds and both have potential to do some damage in the playoffs. Their goalies Andrei Pavelec and Andrew Hammond are both on ridiculous hot streaks.
Vancouver is having a bounce back year after missing the playoffs last season. Clearly John Torterella was a bad hire that tried to implement/force upon the Canucks a system that wasn't ideal for their players. They had many injuries last season and their stars, Sedins, Edler and Burrows especially had career low stats and looked awful.
Calgary is a team that is up and coming. They were not expected to make the playoffs and that alone means they should not be taken lightly. Every time the Canucks and Flames have met in round one, the winner has gone on to the cup final.
Will the trend continue? Will we see a Habs-Canucks or Habs-Flames final. Personally, I would love to see the former match-up as the Canucks and Habs are the two teams I follow most. It's very possible it could happen as the league is wide open this year and every team has weaknesses.
The Habs Season That Was
Montreal had a strong season this year. As mentioned, the bar to even secure a playoff berth was exceptionally high, so it was a massive accomplishment to secure home ice advantage. Do the Habs have concerns heading into the playoffs? Absolutely, but so does virtually every team this year.
Look at Ottawa. Sure, they are riding a hot goalie but Hammond is bound to cool off sometime and the Senators are inexperienced in the playoffs and bound to make mistakes. I thought GM Marc Bergevin made some solid trades this season, getting depth on defense in Sergei Gonchar and getting rid of bad contracts like Rene Bourque.
Dustin Tokarski held his own as a backup. Carey Price was Carey Price and carried the team on his shoulders numerous times. The Habs must give him more goal support in the post-season or it could be an early exit. I think Montreal will prevail in the opening round but it won't be easy
Buckle up Habs fans. Get your beer and popcorn ready and #GoHabsGo
A Habs fan blogging from BC