The hockey news isn't exactly pouring in at a fast and furious rate at this point in the summer, though Friday's NHL news mega-day provided us with some quality happenings and relief. The schedule, the Olympic news and schedule, and the NHL's new division names (Glen Metropolit jokes!) - why it just doesn't get any better than that!
On the schedule: the so called "balanced schedule" should be seen as a a huge boon for paying customers and hockey fans. I'm curious to see if the schedule's "home and home against every other team in the league" wrinkle results in a bit of additional familiarity, about a wider number of teams, for your average fan. That would be a welcome evolution because your average Eastern hockey fan should be more admiring of the slick stylings of one Oliver Ekman-Larrson...
On the Olympics: Canada's "Group" is complete cake, but I really enjoyed watching American hockey fans on twitter pretend that Slovenia is somehow a tougher opponent than Norway or Austria. "B...B...But they have Anze Kopitar!" OK.
Slovenia aside, that division featuring the United States, Slovakia and Russia is clearly "group death."
I'm a Canadian (in case that wasn't clear), and the cupcake group B actually makes me rather nervous. In my life-time the Canadian men's national hockey team has won two Olympic gold medals (2002, 2010) and in each tournament the national team suffered a staggering loss during the round robin round - to the Swedes in 2002, and to the Americans in 2010. All I'm saying is that I'm not convinced that a soft division is a good thing for the Canadians...
The one tough team in Canada's "Group" is Finland, and I'll be curious to see just how old the Finnish roster is. Assuming that Selanne and Saku Koivu are on the team, that could be one of the oldest contending teams at the tournament. They'll have Timmonen and Salo logging big minutes on the back-end too. I'll be curious to see if Barkov makes the Finnish team just because no national team needs an injection of youth quite as badly as the Finns do.
The Fins will also clearly be the team with the most depth in goal. Imagine that one of Tuuka Rask, Kari Lehtonen, Antii Niemi or Pekka Rinne will get left at home - that's just preposterous.
Here's my team Canada Roster by the way:
Line 1: LW: John Tavares, C: Sidney Crosby, RW: Steven Stamkos.
The Canadian national team is already preparing to use Stamkos on the wing at Sochi. Stammer played on Giroux's right-side throughout the world championship tournament this past spring, for example.
It's the right call of course because Canada's depth at centre is completely ridiculous, and a wide swath of pivots should be on the team playing out of position. In my case: the entire first line.
I'm willing to hear arguments for why Eric Staal or Taylor Hall should lineup in this slot ahead of Tavares by the way.
Line 2: LW: Taylor Hall, C: Claude Giroux, RW: Martin St. Louis.
Team Canada always takes a token old guy to every Olympic tournament, and hopefully that old guy is Martin St. Louis this time around. St. Louis somehow has still got it, he has some "setting up Stamkos' one-timer on the power-play" chemistry with Canada's leading goal scorer over the past three seasons, and his skillset translates well on the international ice-surface.
Claude Giroux is hilarious good, and deserves a shot in the top-six I figure. I'm again willing to hear arguments for why Eric Staal should lineup in this slot ahead of Giroux, but for now I see Staal as the teams insurance top-six forward.
Finally Taylor Hall was sixth among all Canadian forwards in points last season, and is a possession beast to boot. I've spoken with some people recently who legitimately don't think Taylor Hall is good, but they're totally wrong. Hall is driving the bus in Edmonton already, and while the results aren't there, he's the sort of electric young talent that Yzerman would be wise to bring to Sochi...
Line 3: RW: Rick Nash, C: Patrice Bergeron, LW: Jonathan Toews.
This is essentially the same line that Babcock put together before the national team's 2012 shellacking of the Russians, except Patrice Bergeron has now surpassed Mike Richards on the depth chart.
A checking line featuring Bergeron and Toews would just be silly. Not only would this line never lose a face-off (ever), but they'd legitimately be able to check the top players on opponent's teams and turn the puck (and the offense) the other way.
You almost feel bad for the other countries teams...
Line 4: RW: Logan Couture, C: Joe Thornton, LW: Patrick Marleau, 13th Forward: Brent Burns.
You may notice a distinct San Jose flavour to my fourth line. This is be design of course. In a vacuum, I'd probably pick a fourth line of Getzlaf or Eric Staal with Jamie Benn and Corey Perry on the wings. That's a line that would be pretty great of course. But I'm not making these picks in a vacuum: I'm making these picks to try and win gold.
The Olympics is a short, single game elimination tournament played by teams that get minimal practice time to implement systems. Players also have next to no time to adjust to playing with one another. Chemistry is ephemeral at the best of times, but at a short tournament like the Olympics, it's even harder to find...
Which is why I tend to think that the marginal utility of just taking the San Jose power-play and installing it wholesale (but with Burns subbing in for Boyle on the point) outweighs the marginal utility of having a slightly better fourth line forward. The Sharks have consistently led or nearly led the league in power-play shot rate over the past four seasons, and I don't see why anyone would choose to mess with that success...
1st Pairing: Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty.
You may forget that this was Canada's best pairing during the Gold Medal game in 2012. These two speedsters should play together on the National Team for a decade, especially when the game takes place on the international ice surface...
2nd Pairing: Shea Weber and PK Subban
PK Subban replaces Scott Niedermayer in the top-four (which is otherwise unchanged from Vancouver 2012). This situation would give the second pairing two right-handed shots and result in one of Weber or Subban playing on their off-side. That's not an ideal situation of course, but both of these players are solid enough defensively and can do so much damage pulling one timers that I have to think it doesn't matter.
3rd Pairing: Kris Letang and Alex Pietrangelo
This pairing has the same issue: two right-handed shots. In fact Duncan Keith is the only left-handed shot on the team Canada blue-line. Again: that's far from ideal, but none of the other Canadian defenceman who shoot left (and really we're talking about guys like Phaneuf and Hamhuis here) are nearly as good as these six guys...
Ultimately I think Letang will be hard-pressed to make the team, but I'd bring him.
Extra Defenceman: The extra slot should go to someone who shoots left, and ideally can pitch in on the power-play. Arguments can be made for any of Dan Hamhuis, Dion Phaneuf or Brian Campbell, and among that group I'd probably lean Campbell.
Corey Crawford is getting a lot of "buzz" as a candidate to join Team Canada at Sochi, but I'm not buying into it. Crawford is really good (and over scrutinized) but his track record is about as good as Mike Smith's and his sample of stellar play remains relatively small. As such I'll take the more "known" quantity as my third guy.
As for who starts, Canadians haven't wrapped their heads around it yet, but it should be Luongo. In fact, Luongo starting for team Canada is something of a slam dunk.
He's just been the best Canadian born goalie over the past three years (and for the past seven too, but let's hold this analysis to a "what have you done for me lately" standard), and has gold medal winning experience. Also being the starter for team canada in net is kind of like being King: you reign until you lose your slot.
Was that the longest note in ramblings history? I wonder!
Sean Couturier signed a two year, 3.5 million dollar deal with Philly on Saturday and that's a pretty significant steal in my view. Couturier is one of the best, defensively reliable young centreman around but his offense was essentially non-existant last season. As such, it's possible that Philly overpaid (remember: 1.75 MM per season for an RFA is like signing a UFA to 3 MM per season) for a guy who provides defense value but cannot score, but I tend to think that we can expect more production from Couturier over the balance of this two year deal. Love this gamble by Paul Holmgren and co.
The Canucks came to terms with RFA centreman Kellan Lain on Friday, in a move that probably doesn't interest you from a hockey perspective.
But there's some interesting features to Lain's new deal and are worth exploring. Lain has sort of an odd story here in that he signed with the Canucks out of college as a 24 year old this past season, so he was only eligible to sign a one year ELC at the time (which lasted for all of three months). The Canucks qualified Lain this month, extending him an offer that was worth over 800k at the NHL level next season. Where it gets interesting: Lain ultimately came to terms with the team at significantly less than that (600k at the NHL level on a two year deal).
How did the Canucks lower his annual cap-hit when Lain could've just accepted his qualifying offer and made more money if he made the team next season? Well first of all they offered him some insurance: Lain will make 200k per year at the AHL level by the terms of his new contract, he would've made significantly less if he'd just accepted his original qualifying offer.
Secondly, I'll bet the organization let the player know that a number as meagre as 100k means a lot to them over the next two seasons. As clubs deal with the declining salary cap and the resultant crunch, some NHL roster spots will surely be decided as much by the salary cap as by playing ability. If you're a young guy hoping to make an impression: carrying a low cap-hit is pretty much essential if you want to give yourself the best possible shot of making an NHL team.
Finally the Maple Leafs signed former Los Angeles Kings draft pick Christopher Gibson (who despite the North American sounding name hails from Finland). Gibson put together a dynamite season in his draft year, but has put up rather unremarkable numbers in the QMJHL the last two seasons.
The Leafs are obviously enamoured by goaltenders that were drafted by the Los Angeles Kings, however.