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No summer vacation for MacTavish, NHL general managers

For most hockey fans, summer is a chance to take a break from hockey and focus on other parts of life. Excluding the NHL draft and Free Agent Frenzy on July 1, the summer can seem pretty dull from a hockey fan standpoint.

For Edmonton Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish, this summer has been anything but dull.

“It was a very busy offseason. For [the Oilers] and other teams that don’t make the playoffs, once the season ends your focus is really on the amateur draft. For Scott Howson, Bill Scott and me, we’ll spend our time looking at eligible players. We’ll meet with our amateur scouts in early June and continue to chip away at our rankings, so we get our draft order down with all of our amateur scouts.”

Even during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, teams that have been eliminated begin looking towards the amateur draft and free agency, hoping to get a solid plan established come draft day.

Craig MacTavish has had a busy summer with the Oilers, trying to improve the team though the amateur draft and free agency. (Photo credit, Sault Star)

Craig MacTavish has had a busy summer with the Oilers, trying to improve the team though the amateur draft and free agency. (Photo credit, Sault Star)

“Early on in June, we will start to focus on what our objectives are from a pro scouting standpoint, and we will start looking at pending free agents develop a strategy on who we’re going to go after. Generally that gets us to the week before the draft.”

A crucial period of the summer for a general manager is the week before the amateur draft, held in Philadelphia this year on June 27, and free agency on July 1, when pending unrestricted free agents become available for any team to scoop up.

“It’s a really busy time coming out of the draft for all general managers, but it is may also be the most entertaining time. The season is over, you’re not beat up from the losing anymore, and your focus has turned to really building and improving your team through the amateur draft and the UFA season, and you try and develop and work a strategy.

“We really targeted three people during free agency; Nikita Nikiten, Mark Fayne and Benoit Pouliot. We ended up getting all three, so that was good.”

Once free agency dies down, management focuses on their development camp, which brings all of the team’s prospects together for about a week.

“We’re there for a week with all our prospects and all our staff, trying to inundate our players and trying to communicate to our prospects what we’re all about, what our expectations are from a cultural standpoint for our organization as well as the conditioning standpoint. After that it dies down again, until preparations for training camps start to ramp up in September. That gives you a little bit of a timeline as to what managers are up to during the summer.”

As for the upcoming season, MacTavish feels the off-season has been productive.

“I’m an optimist. I’m always thinking better times are around the corner. Eventually I’ll be right, but I haven’t been so far in the last few years. I think we have some elements and realistic expectations for improvement, but I’m always cautious. We also changed some of the coaching staff, so there was a lot done.”

Having won four Stanley Cups in his playing years, MacTavish knows a thing or two about what it takes to win.

“Talent wins championships, and we haven’t been in the mix. But we have developing talent, and we firmly believe that there are players there that are going to help us improve greatly. My experience tells me we need patience when developing young players, but our players are getting to a point now that they’re going start having a significant impact on the outcome of a game.”

“Hopefully it’s all moves that will make a positive impact, but you just don’t know until the puck drops in October. It’s all a calculated gamble and calculated risks, and hopefully we made some moves. I think everybody feels they’re improving their team. This time of year, everybody is optimistic, and some are going to be wrong come October 8.”

NHL Playoffs: Stanley Cup Final Predictions

I’d like to begin with congratulating both the Boston Bruins and the Chicago Blackhawks for making it to this year’s Stanley Cup Final. They both got there with very dominant series wins, proving that they are the two best teams in the league. I was right with both my predictions, however I did not think the Bruins would sweep the Penguins. I had them winning in 7 games. I was right on with my “Chicago in 5” pick. That brings me to 10 out of 14, which I am very happy with. Now let’s have a look at this final. I am extremely excited for this final to begin, and I think it is going to be a very hard-fought battle between these two rugged, skilled teams.

Chicago Blackhawks vs Boston Bruins

This is it. It’s the final countdown. We have the two best teams in the league now fighting to be crowned champion. This is going to be a tough battle for either team. Let’s look at both teams from top to bottom.

Goaltending – These guys are good

Both of these goaltenders have almost identical statistics, from both the regular season and the playoffs. Corey Crawford finished the regular season with a GAA of 1.94, and Tuukka Rask finished with 2.00. As for save percentage, Rask finished with a  .929, with Crawford had a percentage of .926. The stats are almost identical for the playoffs as well.  Crawford leads all goalies with a GAA of 1.74, and Rask is second with a GAA of 1.75. Rask leads all goalies with a save percentage of .943, and Crawford is second with .935. They both lead the league with 12 years, and Rask has only 1 shutout more than Crawford. These two goalies are clearly playing their best hockey of their careers so far, and they have proved themselves as elite goaltenders. To be honest, I don’t feel that it would be fair to give either goalie an edge in this series. They’re both so similar, and they  both have good teams in front of them.

Edge: Even

Defense – It wins championships

When it comes to the defensive corps, both teams have a superstar on their blueline: Duncan Keith for the Blackhawks, and Zdeno Chara for the Boston Bruins. Keith has been a powerhouse on the Blackhawks’ back end, and he has helped his team make it as far as they have. Chara had a slow but steady regular season, yet he has taken his game to another, almost superhuman level. He silenced one of the best players in the world, Evgeni Malkin, holding him to zero point in their four game sweep of the Penguins. Although the Blackhawks have a solid Defensive core, it is difficult to compare it with the Bruins. Boston’s blue line has incredible depth, with Seidenberg, Boychuk and Ference and McQuaid being their best defenders. That is an impressive top-5 defensemen on any teams, and yet they still have rookie sensations Krug, Bartkowski and Halmilton, ready to go. Not only have their defensemen successfully shut down some of the best players in the world, they have also contributed offensively. I realize that the Blackhawks’ defense has been crucial for their success in these playoffs, but I still believe that the Bruins have a stronger group all around.

Edge: Bruins

Forwards – Firing on all cylinders?

When it comes to offense, both teams have some awesome firepower. At first glance, the Blackhawks seem to have the upper hand. They have incredible talent in Toews, Hossa, Kane, Sharp, and secondary scoring from players like Handzus, Shaw and Frolik. The biggest surprise from the Blackhawks’ lineup is Bryan Bickell, who has earned himself a huge pay raise over the summer, with many teams looking to pick him up when free agency opens up. Even with some of their biggest stars, most notably Kane, not playing up to their full potential, the team still finds a way to win, which is exactly what a championship team needs. There is always someone there to pick up the slack, and winning is more important than personal stats. This is also true for the Bruins. Although the Bruins’ first line of Krejci, Horton and Lucic have been firing on all cylinders, the whole team has contributed to their success. Even though the Krejci line has been the hottest line in the playoffs, players like Marchand and Bergeron have also been clutch. Their overtime heroics against all three teams they’ve faced so far has been key to their success, none more important that the overtime win against the Leafs. And nothing has been more of an indication of what the Bruins are willing to sacrifice then Gregory Campbell’s 80-second shift, after breaking his leg blocking a Malkin slap shot. Campbell showed the type of sacrifice and courages it takes to win it all. His team won’t forget what he did for the team, and I’m fairly certain that seeing that type of courage from a teammate makes them want to win a championship for them. Two years ago, they rallied around losing Nathan Horton. This year, they’ll rally around Gregory Campbell.

Edge: Bruins

Prediction: Bruins in 7. This is going to be a tough series for both teams. It’s going to be an incredibly close one, and unfortunately, one team has to lose. When two teams are this close talent-wise, drive and passion can change a series. The Bruins will fight their way to the cup, and they’ll bang and bruise the Blackhawks on their way. I have a lot of respect for both of these teams, and I hate to pick between two such great teams. But the Bruins are playing their best hockey of the season, and they are going to be incredibly tough to handle.

NHL Playoffs: Round 3 Predictions (once again, late. This time I have a reason!)

Once again, I am late with my predictions. Once again, I swear that they were written before round 3 began. The reason this time was that I was having internet connection issues over the last few days at my house. As for round two, I went 3/4, with the San Jose/Los Angeles series being the only one I got wrong. That makes me 8/12 so far, which I’m pretty happy with!

Here we go with round 3. This is going to be a difficult round to predict, because for the first time in a while there are no real underdogs. These are the four best teams in the league, and they’re also the last 4 Stanley Cup winning teams. A fellow blogger, Kevin (check out his blog HERE), discovered that there are 56 players from the four remaining teams who already have their name on the cup. These are teams that have already proven that they can win it all, and I’m sure they’re all hungry to do it again. This is going to be a fun to watch.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Boston Bruins

This is going to be an amazing series. The big story everyone it talking about is the Jarome Iginla “snub” of Boston. The whole Iginla saga is really for the fans and the media, and I am quite confident that it is not being discussed in either locker room. These guys are professionals. Iginla made a decision, and Boston has moved on. No hard feelings. No bad blood. So now that we’ve covered that non-issue, let’s discuss the important details of this series.

There’s no doubt, in my mind anyway, that Pittsburgh and Boston are the two best teams from the East this season. They are the two teams that deserve to be in the final, and that makes for a tough, entertaining series. Pittsburgh has some of the most talented players in the world on their team, and they did everything they could to make it even better before the trade deadline. I’ve heard a lot of experts saying that Pittsburgh will be Boston’s greatest challenge so far in these playoffs, but I feel that people are missing something; Boston will also be Pittsburgh’s biggest challenge so far. With all due respect to the Islanders and the Senators, they aren’t exactly powerhouses in the East. Both teams defied odds by making it to the playoffs, and they played their hearts out against the Penguins. But now, Boston is going to give Pittsburgh their biggest challenge yet. Unlike the Islanders and Senators, the Bruins are solid from front to back. They are tough, they can score, they can hit, and they can defend. The Bruins also have the big, tough players that can hit the Penguins stars enough to get them off their game, much like the Flyers in last year’s playoffs. When the Penguins are off their game, they take penalties and go for the big hit, instead of focusing on scoring. That plays right into the Bruins’ advantage. However, if the Penguins can resist the urge to retaliate and take stupid penalties, then they have good odds for beating the Bruins.

The penguins’ biggest weakness is when they are in their own zone. Although they have all the talent in the world offensively, they are surprisingly bad in their own zone, especially with man-to-man coverage. If the Bruins can keep the Penguins crammed in their own zone, the chances will show up. What the Bruins need to watch out for is taking penalties, because the penguins have the best power play in the league. The Bruins also have the best penalty kill, but there is no point in tempting fate. This series might come down to Pittsburgh’s’ power play against Boston’s penalty kill. We’ll see how that works out.

Prediction: Boston in 7. A tough choice, but I think Boston is going to get Pittsburgh off their game right from the start, and the Penguins will have a tough time scoring against the Bruins’ solid defensive core.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Chicago Blackhawks vs Los Angeles Kings

Alright, last round I doubted the Kings. I felt bad doing it, because they are a good team. Unfortunately, I have to do it again. The Kings are a great team, and they have the best goalie in the league playing some of his best hockey. They have great talent up front, and a superstar in Doughty, who is just inches away from being the great offensive defenseman from last year’s Stanley Cup-winning run. But Chicago is simply too strong. They have an incredible tandem of offensive players, some of which haven’t even hit their stride yet. If Toews and Kane really get going, much like how they were in the regular season, then the Kings will really be in trouble. They’ve been winning courtesy of their other lines, and some excellent goaltending by Crawford. In reality, the Blackhawks have been able to win, even if they’re not playing to their full potential. It’s only a matter of time until that time bomb ticks for the final time, and they get going with everything they’ve got.

The Kings have had a lot of trouble scoring consistently, and they’ve been able to get by thanks to one man: Jonathan Quick. He has been phenomenal, and I challenge anyone to tell me otherwise. But you can only rely on one man for so long until it comes back to bite you. Against a team like Chicago, you need more than just an excellent goaltender to get by. You also need to be able to score, which is extremely hard to do against a stingy Chicago team. Unfortunately for the Kings, I believe that this will be the end of their cup run for this year. Chicago is just to hot to handle, and Los Angeles is going to figure that out extremely fast.

Prediction: Chicago in 5. Chicago is going to make to the Cup final this year. A team that lost only 7 games in the regular season, that’s exactly where we all though they would end up.

One-on-one with Chris Nilan

Earlier this week, I wrote about agitators and enforcers over the last 40 years, and the changes in their productivity (HERE is the link to that post). The statistics showed that players are almost half as productive as they used to be 30 years ago, and they are also taking fewer penalties. I found these results very interesting, and I had a few theories as to what has changed, although I had no proof to back them up.

What could account for the transition in statistics we have seen over the last 40 years? I decided to get in touch with someone who has first-hand experience in the field, Montreal Canadiens’ former tough guy Chris ‘Knuckles’ Nilan. Chris is a former Stanley Cup champion (in the 1985-1986 season), and is one of only 9 players to crack the 3000 PIM milestone, with a total of 3034 penalty minutes. He showed up in my research 6 times, topping the league in PIM in the 83-84 and 84-85 seasons. If anyone knows about high penalty-minute players and their roles on the team, it’s Chris.

I asked him about the clear changes in the statistics over the last 40 years, and what has changed. “Well, I think that the rule changes that the league has made over the years has had an impact on the way tough guys can play the game. They have made rule changes to tone down fighting, such as the instigator rule, because they want to discourage the staged fights. Taking out the red line also sped the game up. There are rule changes to make the game faster, and that makes it difficult for the tough guys to keep up.” He also pointed out that there has been a change in the way the game is played. “In today’s NHL, to be competitive you need to have 4 functional lines. You can’t have a guy who sits on the bench, and only goes out and fights. It’s difficult to win when you have players who you can’t put on the ice for 10-15 minutes.”

He also touched on the fact that players who can both fight and play are rare. “There’s players like Neil, Clarkson, Lucic, Prust. They can all fight, but they can also score. Back in the day, teams liked to have three or four tough guys on their team. In Boston, they usually had about five, and they still do. They have Lucic, Chara, McQuaid. These are all guys that can fight and play at the same time. You’re lucky if you have players like that. It means that they can react to what happens on the ice at any time. Before, you had to wait until the next shift to put your goon out. These days if Lucic is on the ice, he can respond if a player on the other team crosses the line.”

I asked Chris if, as an enforcer, he felt that his role was to simply bring energy and defend his teammates, or if there was still an emphasis on producing offensively. “Well, first and foremost, I was a hockey player. I had a role on the team. I knew my role, I knew how to do my role, and I liked my role. As an example, when I played with Guy Carbonneau and Bob Gainey, we were always put up against the other team’s first line. We had a defensive role, which was to shut down their best players. But when you could help the team offensively, I did. And I was effective for the team offensively. I scored 21 goals (In the 84-85 season) and 19 goals (in the 85-86 season), so I also helped the team when I could.

I then asked Chris what he thinks the future holds for the enforcer role. “To be honest, I don’t know, I can’t predict the future. But I don’t see them banning fighting anytime in the near future, I think they would have a hard time justifying that. I think we might start seeing less and less emphasis on the role of enforcer. Unless they change the rules again, I don’t see it going back to the way it was in the 80s. “

“The NHL doesn’t like showing fighting on their networks or in the highlights. It makes them look violent. No other sport has fighting like that, except for boxing. Showing fights also bring up the debates about fighting in the NHL.”

“It also seems like these days, guys are dropping the gloves at all the wrong times. Every time a guy does a clean hit, they have to defend themselves. It’s almost as if teams are on edge, and that they’re too eager to drop the gloves, even after a clean hit. On the other hand, players don’t always go after another team’s player after a cheap shot. When I was playing, if a guy gave a cheap shot, he was damn sure he’d pay for it. And in those days, we didn’t see the types of concussion problems we have in the current NHL. It might be the speed of the game, but how fast has it really sped up? Maybe it’s because guys aren’t afraid of retaliation after cheap shots. They can get away with it without having to pay the price.”

I just want to thank Chris Nilan for doing this. I think it’s worth sharing how I got the chance for this interview. I emailed the information section of his website, asking for his opinion on my research. I suggested an email or I could meet him in the coming weeks. The next morning I check my phone, and I see that there is a voicemail. The voicemail was from Nilan himself, saying that he wanted to talk about the article, and to call him back. He then gave me a ten-minute interview, answering any questions I had. He had no obligation to help me, and he took time out of his day to help an amateur blogger with an article. He is an incredibly nice man, and I really appreciate the time he took to help me. I just thought you should know how nice of a guy ‘Knuckles’ is. He is the kind of guy who’s heart is as big as his fists.