We’ve got our final four Stanley Cup playoff teams, with the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning taking on the New York Islanders in Sunday’s semifinal opener and the Vegas Golden Knights hosting the Montreal Canadiens starting Monday.
At first glance, a Tampa Bay-Vegas final seems forthcoming.
The Lightning and Islanders are big, quick puck-movers, but Tampa Bay also has a ferocious power play — aided by having legally circumvented salary-cap rules by keeping Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos on injured reserve for extended periods. Likewise, the Golden Knights and Canadiens play a physical, counterattacking style that eliminates the neutral zone, but Vegas already was an elite team during the regular season before adopting its defensive-minded playoff approach.
Nonetheless, there’s a reason you play the games. It’s easy to have watched the Vegas-Colorado series and concluded the “level of play” was much higher than in the all-Canadian North Division. Also, to assume that because the Central Division was arguably the NHL’s best, the Tampa Bay-Carolina winner would ultimately whip the Islanders-Bruins victor.
But we haven’t seen the divisions play one another to help confirm perceived power imbalances.
Colorado was an ultrafast team, so sure, that series looked quicker even as the Avalanche was turning pucks over to Vegas the same way the Jets did to Montreal. But disciplined positioning can counter speed. My question is whether the Canadiens can maintain that discipline as effectively against four formidable Vegas lines — double what short-handed Winnipeg offered up — though the Minnesota Wild nearly pulled it off against the Golden Knights in Round 1.
As for the Lightning, its power play was the difference against the Hurricanes. The Islanders, as Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy indicated at the cost of a $25,000 fine, don’t get penalized often. So, we’ll see how effective Tampa Bay is if forced to play mostly five-on-five hockey. Remember, the Isles just eliminated a Bruins team that featured Patrice Bergeron at his best and Brad Marchand looking like a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate until New York swung things in Games 4-6.
OK, let’s tackle some mailbag questions.
Question: From @guitarorth: How close are we to signing a coach? And what are the chances of it being Rod Brind’Amour, especially given his current team looks to be exiting the playoffs soon!
Answer: You asked this before the Hurricanes were eliminated, but it’s even more pertinent now. Clearly, Brind’Amour is why Ron Francis hasn’t picked a coach and is waiting through June to see whether his former teammate re-signs with Carolina.
There has been talk of Avalanche coach Jared Bednar getting fired and becoming available. But the expansion Kraken needs a coach who will get the most out of players, not someone whose ultra-talented rosters haven’t done much in the playoffs.
As for Brind’Amour, just named an NHL Coach of the Year finalist, it has been known for while he wants better pay for his assistants. The reported $1.8 million annual salary offered him over three years also seems low. But keep in mind Brind’Amour earned $50 million as a player, so I don’t know how much his salary matters to him.
What might matter is that Carolina, as good as it has looked the past three regular seasons, has spun its playoff wheels since 2019.
If I’m Brind’Amour, I’m asking ownership how seriously it will try to keep defenseman Dougie Hamilton and whether pending restricted free-agent forward Andrei Svechnikov will receive a long-term deal. And if not, what the backup plan is. There’s a fine line in seizing a championship opportunity, and Brind’Amour, whose team enters next season with a sophomore goalie as its No. 1 in Alex Nedeljkovic, must satisfy himself the Canes’ window is still opening and not inching closed.
Q: From @Lars_Mah: Any German players potentially on the Kraken‘s radar for the expansion draft? When will the jerseys be revealed?
A: Well, Leon Draisaitl isn’t going anywhere, and Philipp Grubauer probably isn’t either. Minnesota center Nico Sturm, 26, is an undervalued, two-way depth piece for the Kraken’s analytics team to poach if he’s left unprotected and the Wild don’t expose defenseman Matt Dumba. The Kraken might also prefer Wild goalie Cam Talbot, though Augsburg native Sturm was among the league’s best in defensive goals above replacement and goals above replacement during his limited ice time, according to the Evolving Hockey website. There’s also Buffalo Sabres winger Tobias Rieder, 28, from Landshut, a pending unrestricted free agent who played for Germany at the recent IIHF World Hockey Championships.
On jerseys, the team is trying to finalize prototypes for players to put on at the expansion draft. But it involves overseas manufacturing, so COVID-19 delays are a factor.
Q: From @cniozzy: Should I get my James van Riemsdyk Kraken jersey in the black or the white? Both are nice, I’ll hang up and listen.
A: Black would be slimming. But for a Kraken road game in Philadelphia, the white might help you look bigger and avoid fights with Flyers fans.
Van Riemsdyk makes sense as a Kraken pick, given he’s still an offensive force. What’s got him on the block is his salary-cap hit of $7 million for each of the next two seasons, which shouldn’t be an issue for the Kraken. Some folks are conditioned to think the Kraken must pursue only cost-effective players. But the team must spend at least $48.9 million on its 30 selections and won’t get there if every player taken is a bargain.
So a few players must come with high price tags and, the Kraken hopes, production. This appears to be one such case.
Q: From @abludevil03: Will teams face any penalties for not protecting UFAs they already have handshake deals with? Example: the Capitals being able to leave Ovechkin unprotected because they haven’t made a new contract official yet, even though they intend to, lets them protect an additional player.
A: No, because handshake deals can be broken and constitute a risk for the team exposing the player. It would be punishable only if a team had a signed, binding agreement and didn’t tell anyone. That said, Kraken general manager Ron Francis told me he isn’t planning to draft any unrestricted free agents he can’t sign during his 72-hour advance window.
Q: From @CelestialMosh: Are you going to be a fan of the Kraken, or are you going to be impartial?
A: Completely impartial. Sure, the job is easier when the team does well. But it’s not my job to score or prevent goals, and I certainly won’t get a ring for winning any titles.
I’ll admit, though, part of me will always view the Kraken with fondness after witnessing its birth up close. That predates the team, stretching back through years chronicling battles to get an arena project approved. People often forget how nasty that lobbyist-driven arena fight became at times.
But it was fascinating to observe. I remember my first conversation with Tim Leiweke of the Oak View Group when he arrived on the scene nearly five years ago and the barbs he overcame to get the arena and team to fruition. Most of the current Kraken staffers weren’t around back then, and I wonder how many fully appreciate what it took to create the team.
That said, it’s their team now.
For me, covering the Kraken is a fun byproduct of years spent writing dozens of arena and expansion stories, hours sifting through public records and attending city hall hearings and dealing with one lobbyist after another.
I’ll do what I can to inform and educate people about hockey. Being impartial doesn’t mean going out of your way to be critical — especially with a new team. You cover things honestly and let the team figure out how to best help itself.
I think the ultimate compliment to pay any new team is to treat it as you would the established franchises. The Kraken isn’t a charity case, and it isn’t perfect, either.
It could be generating more local buzz given the NHL playoffs are happening, the expansion draft is five weeks away and you still don’t hear much hockey talk around town. But the pandemic also has hampered the Kraken’s ability to continue the creative public outreach efforts we saw before March 2020.
I have confidence the team will figure this stuff out. And I’ll be there to chronicle where those efforts lead.