Day 1 of free agency 2014: a look at what the Jets did

- July 1st, 2014

So it was a busier day than the trade deadline for the Winnipeg Jets, but not nearly as busy as many teams in the Western Conference — and specifically inside the ultra-competitive Central Division.

As more than $500 million was handed out around the league before dinner-time, the Jets identified a third-line centre and locked up Mathieu Perreault for three years and $9 million.

I didn’t have Perreault on my watch list, partly because he didn’t become available until Monday at 4 p.m. CT, when the Anaheim Ducks failed to give him a qualifying offer — allowing the RFA to become a UFA.

The Ducks did make Perreault an offer, but both sides decided to move on, allowing the Jets to swoop in and find their replacement for Olli Jokinen.

It’s too early to tell if Perreault is an upgrade, but what we know is that he’s younger (26 compared to 35) and cheaper (than the $4.5 million Jokinen made last year) and he’s better in the faceoff circle (Perreault was the Ducks’ top draw man at 52.7% last season).

“I had a couple offers but the one from Winnipeg was a better one for me. It’s a great fit,” Perreault said on a conference call. “I spoke with (Jets head coach) Paul Maurice earlier today and they want to have three lines that can score every night. I can bring a lot of speed. Winnipeg has always been a team all about speed. It’s a part of my game I like to use, I’m a smart player, I can produce. I can play a little bit of power play. I’m going to bring speed, energy and skill as well.”

Perreault unveiled an interesting nugget during the call, mentioning that Maurice told him Evander Kane was a candidate to play on his line this season.

Guess that makes some sense, considering Kane hasn’t had a regular centre for the past five seasons.

Personally, I still think Maurice gives the trio of Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Kane spend time together but that line did get some time together and the Jets’ head coach said that sometimes you can have too much speed on one line.

Time will tell what happens with the line combos.

But I digress.

Perreault doesn’t give the Jets a bigger body in the middle and while Jokinen didn’t play a real physical game, his size allowed him to match up against many of the bigger centre’s in the West.

However, having watched Perreault dating back to his time with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League (winning a pair of Calder Cup titles, one of which came against the Manitoba Moose in 2009), he is a skilled playmaker and has a nose for the net (his 18 goals, 43 points were both career highs and were the same totals Jokinen posted).

The Jets made plenty of inquiries during the five-day courting period before free agency officially opened and were said to be in on several other players on Tuesday, though it’s tough to see how far down the road those discussions got.

Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff spoke for about 18 minutes on Tuesday after the signing and addressed a variety of subjects, including the UFAs who were with the team last year.

“Montoya is the only one that’s signed. The other players, again, through different reasons, being it contractual, CBA, again, the way things go, you maybe look to try and change things up a little bit. They are all out there in those regards, that’s not to say that all of them, some of them or none of them will back with us in the organization. None of them were as a situation where we are turning our back, but again it’s got to be the right fit for both sides,” he said.

Cheveldayoff provided an update on the recovery of Grant Clitsome, who had season-ending back surgery after being limited to 32 games (two goals, 12 points).

“Grant’s recovery, from all indications, is coming along well. He’ll have some further checkups here at development camp, I believe, when we come in here next week,” said Cheveldayoff.

The Jets also signed D-man Adam Pardy on Monday before he hit free agency. I spoke with him Monday for my story, but here’s what Cheveldayoff had to say about keeping him in the fold.

“Pardy signed blindly with us last year, with respect to never being part of the organization and was a very useful part for us when we ran into injuries and such and ended up playing essentially the whole season for us. I’m sure that  if he had gone to the market, he could have had different options available to him. It was only a couple years ago, he was making $2 million as a player. We feel very fortunate he committed to us when he did at the number he did,” said Cheveldayoff

With Pardy sticking around, the Jets were unable to come to terms with Zach Redmond, who had an excellent playoff with the St. John’s IceCaps after enduring several injuries this season and being limited to just 10 games with the Jets.

Redmond signed a one-way, two-year deal worth $1.5 million with the Colorado Avalanche, who were the top team in the Western Conference during the regular season but have been looking for help on D. Colorado also got Brad Stuart in a trade on Tuesday, but Redmond should have a chance to play on the third pair for the Avs next season.

I had a good chat with Redmond on Tuesday afternoon but I’m not sure how much made the paper, so I’ll include the full piece near the bottom of this post.

The other UFA the Jets lost on Tuesday was goalie Al Montoya, who signed a two-year deal worth $2.1 to be Roberto Luongo’s backup. When it was looking more and more like Montoya was going to move on, I identified the Panthers and Washington Capitals as two prime landing spots for the man who was 13-8-3 last season with a 2.30 GAA and .920 save %.

So Michael Hutchinson is another step closer to becoming the Jets’ backup goalie. I expect him to have some competition, it will be interesting to see how much NHL experience that individual has or if someone like James Reimer or Peter Budaj is pursued via trade or they find an unrestricted free agent to come on board.

It was a big day in the Central Division as five clubs were active (the Predators weren’t but they added 40-goal scorer James Neal at the draft).

Cheveldayoff was asked if he was worried about the Jets keeping up with the competition.

“All you can control is what you can control. You go out into the marketplace and there’s obviously some very big names that (signed) on this day. Players signed for different reasons in different places. Opportunities exist everywhere and when players get to free agency they get to chose and go where they go,” said Cheveldayoff. “It’s always a tough day because everybody wants to look across the street and see what the other guy has done. Everyone seems to perceive you always want to do more but the reality is there is different parameters and there’s different
situations for every team.”

I asked if Cheveldayoff thought there could be some “value” players as free agency moves to Day 2 and beyond.

“I don’t know that you hear too many times ‘value’ on Day 1 of free agency. I think it’s a time where if you feel there’s a right fit, wherever that fit may be, you try to strike. If you’re fortunate enough to be in that conversation, you hope that it gets done.

“There’s always a little bit of, not letdown, but re-assessment of where things are at after Day 1. I don’t think things happened maybe even a little faster than normal, given the fact that a lot of the parameters might have been discussed prior to the actual opening of free agency.”

What else might the Jets’ do to bolster the roster? Cheveldayoff said there were still a few irons in the fire, including the pursuit of another Top-6 forward.

It will be interesting to see what else transpires here during the coming days.

On Tuesday morning, I spoke with forward Chris Thorburn, who re-upped with the Jets for three years and $3.6 million and as expected, he was thrilled about the chance to stick around.

One of the biggest things Thorburn is excited about is the possibility of being able to spend a decade with the Jets/Atlanta Thrashers’ organization.

“It’s funny you say that, I was talking to my wife last night and I was doing the math. At the end of this contract to have 10 years with one organization, not a lot of players experience that and that is something I’m proud of and take pride in,” said Thorburn.

Although there was some other interest during the wooing period, Thorburn said he believes in the direction of the Jets.

“From an organizational standpoint, they’re doing everything they can to develop a winner in Winnipeg  and I just want to be part of that,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time until we’re successful and I want to make sure that I’m a part of that.”

After watching his season be cut short by a foot injury (broken talus), Thorburn says he’s back to full health.

“I’m ready to go, everything healed up nice and there’s no discomfort at all,” said Thorburn, who has 36 goals, 97 points and 656 penalty minutes in 523 NHL games. “It’s not like I’m wondering if it’s going to feel good in my skate I’ve already skated a few times. It seems like it will be fresh for training camp.”

At the end of the day, Thorburn’s value will always stretch beyond the stats, as he’s considered a glue guy and a team player.

Finding a way to help the Jets break the cycle of losing is something he’s focused on.

“That’s my goal and it’s probably one of my most disappointing stats. I don’t even have a playoff game to show for and that’s something that I’m starving for” said Thorburn. “Obviously people in Winnipeg want the playoffs. As a player, at the end of your career, it’s all about about what kind of success you have in the playoffs and that’s something I can’t report right now.

“But during the course of these three years, I’m excited to build up that resume.”

There was a lot of backlash on Twitter about the Jets bringing back Thorburn. I’ll confess that I was surprised by the term of the deal and thought he might get squeezed out with Anthony Peluso perhaps taking on a bigger role but I’m not shocked that Thorburn is sticking around.

Below is the full story from my discussion with Redmond that may not have made the paper in its entirety.

MOVING ON
Defenceman Zach Redmond was interested in returning to the Jets but ultimately signed a one-way, two-year deal with the Colorado Avalanche worth $1.5 million.

“My main thing was that I wanted to get the best opportunity I could to play in the NHL and Colorado was high on me,” Redmond said from Michigan. “Basically the bottom line is there’s no room on the right side on defence. That’s all it came down to. It’s nothing personal. I have nothing but great things to say about Winnipeg and St. John’s.”

Redmond was asked if he ever wondered how things may have turned out were it not for the life-threatening skate-cut injury he suffered in February of 2013?

“I don’t know. I could think about all day,” said Redmond. “You could go through what may or may not have happened but it worked out this way for a reason and we’ll see how it goes.”

Redmond said it was “pretty cool” to get recruiting calls from Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy and president Joe Sakic during the courting process, noting those were guys he “grew up idolizing” when he was growing up.

“I’m a fan of how they play, they play fast and they’ve got a young team. It’s heading in the right direction,” said Redmond. “This is my first time on a new team. New challenges are always good.”

- 30 -

That’s going to do it for today.

It’s been an interesting few days here, going back to the NHL Draft in Philadelphia.

I will provide any updates I can on Wednesday.

Be sure to check www.winnipegsun.com for today’s stories or pick up Wednesday’s paper for a full recap.

I’ve got a column recapping what the Jets did on Day 1, a sidebar on Chris Thorburn and a notebook that is topped by the newest Jet, Mathieu Perreault.

Stanley Cup final: the prediction

- June 4th, 2014

It all comes down to this, two teams enter, one leaves with the shiny silver mug and the other heads into the off-season with nothing but pangs of regret.

Hockey can be a cruel game sometimes and no more so than coming up anywhere between one and four wins short of capturing the Stanley Cup.

That distinction will fall on either the Los Angeles Kings (46-28-8, 100 points, 6th in West) or New York Rangers (45-31-6, 96 points, 5th in East), who open the 2014 Stanley Cup final tonight at Staples Center.

The Kings enter as a heavy favourite in the eyes of many after surviving three consecutive Game 7s, all of which were won on the road by a club that has become the definition of a playoff-hardened group.

Los Angeles deserves full marks for reaching this point, how can you not appreciate the fact they came back from 3-0 down in the opening round against a very good San Jose Sharks club.

If that wasn’t enough, knocking off the defending Stanley Cup champions, erasing a third-period deficit for good measure, is no simple feat.

So you can’t blame most of the experts for crowning the Kings (pun intended) before this series even begins.

With a Stanley Cup winner like Jonathan Quick in goal, a future Norris Trophy winner in Drew Doughty leading the way along with the likes of Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik and Anze Kopitar, it’s hard not to believe the Kings are destined to complete the journey by raising Lord Stanley’s mug for the second time in three seasons.

However, there’s a part of me that just can’t help but wonder if the Kings — despite all the resiliency shown this spring — might not be able to close this out.

I understand why Kings head coach Darryl Sutter says that if given the choice of one goalie in a winner-take-all game he’d go with Quick, but there have been some anxious moments for him during these playoffs.

And the man standing in the crease at the other end of the ice, Henrik Lundqvist, could end up being the biggest difference-maker in this series.

Lundqvist, who led Sweden to a gold medal in 2006, is sick and tired of hearing about how he might not have what it takes to win the grandest prize.

There’s little doubt that Lundqvist is going to have to be the best goalie in this series in order to give the Rangers a chance — and some feel even that might not be enough.

But it’s not just Lundqvist that gives the Broadway Blueshirts a fighting chance.

All season long, Alain Vigneault has been playing a four-line game, allowing his top players to stay fresh.

While it’s tough to match the likes of Kopitar, Carter, Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards down the middle, the Rangers have Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard, Brad Richards and Dominic Moore.

It’s obvious the Kings play a more physical style but the Rangers ability to push the pace could create some problems in the defensive zone for L.A.

Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi are going to have to be top-notch, while Marc Staal and Anton Stralman will need to hold the fort likely against that 70s line with Carter, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson.

McDonagh is playing at a similar level to Doughty after needing a good chunk of the opening-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers to find his game.

Not only is he good defensively, he’s been chipping in with points and is a quiet leader in the Rangers’ room.

To me, this series hinges on Rick Nash, a power forward who has been doing the little things throughout the playoffs but now needs to provide the type of offence he was brought in by the Rangers to do — come through with big goals.

With his speed and ability to get to the blue paint, Nash could be the guy who finds a way to push the Rangers over the top in a series that few expect them to win.

And with Marty St. Louis so close to capping an emotional journey after what has been a tumultuous past few months, I’m willing to put my 11-3 record (1-1 last round, missing the Kings) on the line while taking the Rangers to upset the Kings in six nail-biting games.

Enjoy the series and don’t be afraid to share your picks here as well.

IceCaps set to open Eastern Conference final

- May 23rd, 2014

A well-rested St. John’s IceCaps team (waiting for their next opponent since eliminating the Norfolk Admirals in Game 6 last Friday) is ready to resume their quest for the Calder Cup on Saturday night at Mile Once Centre against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who survived a nail-biting seventh game with the Providence Bruins on Wednesday.

This week I’ve spoken to IceCaps head coach Keith McCambridge, 2013 Winnipeg Jets’ first rounder Josh Morrissey and goalie Michael Hutchinson and I’ll share a few leftovers from those conversations here but the immediate goal of the post is to provide a bit of background for the match-up itself, which offers up a number of interesting storylines.

The primary affiliate of the Winnipeg Jets is up against the top farm club of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The WBS Pens’ roster includes a couple of players with ties to the Jets, including Spencer Machacek, whose career path has flattened out a bit since his productive late-season call-up in 2011-12.

Machacek has only two assists in seven playoff games after putting up 10 goals and 14 points in 22 games with the AHL Penguins after a trade from the Columbus Blue Jackets. He also had nine goals and 19 points in 34 games with the Springfield Falcons before the move was made.

The other loose connection to the Jets is Pens’ goalie Peter Mannino, who played a period of relief against the Florida Panthers back in November of 2011 (stopping all four shots he faced) during a recall but he returned to the AHL shortly after and saw Eddie Pasquale steal the No. 1 job before he was eventually moved to the Portland Pirates.

Mannino had another tumultuous season, refusing an ECHL assignment before eventually coming around to report.

By season’s end, he had moved into a starting role with Wilkes-Barre and during these playoffs, he’s 7-4 with a 2.51 goals against average and .901 save percentage.

Given how well Hutchinson has been playing, it looks like the IceCaps should have a slight edge in goal but this figures to be a tightly-contested series.

When the IceCaps were bounced from the Eastern Conference final two years ago by the Norfolk Admirals, they didn’t have home-ice advantage and were up against a powerhouse that ended up winning the Calder Cup (with Dustin Tokarski in goal).

This IceCaps team looks deeper than the one from the 2012 playoffs, but we’re about to find out.

Hutchinson was impressive for the Jets during his late-season recall, going 2-1 in three starts with a 1.64 goals against average and .943 save percentage.

Make no mistake, his NHL experience gave Hutchinson a big boost as he returned to The Rock.

“Just the confidence you gain from playing those three games and having success in those games went a long way coming into the playoffs and knowing that the intensity ramps up. But since I had success in the NHL, I know that I can raise my game in the playoffs and have success in the playoffs. That little bit of confidence definitely went a long way,” he said

Yes, the sample size at the NHL-level is extremely small but coupled with what he’s accomplished this season in working his way up from the ECHL to be a stalwart at the AHL-level, Hutchinson figures to at least be involved in the competition for the Jets’ backup job this fall.

For the time being, Hutchinson is simply soaking up the experience of reaching the third round of the Calder Cup playoffs.

“It’s awesome. Getting a little taste of it last year was great,” said Hutchinson, who had two relief appearances with the P-Bruins last spring. “It was kind of hard sitting on the bench last year and watching the team play. This year, I’m just really enjoying being a part of it, even more so. It’s always nice having success in the playoffs. Right now, I’m just enjoying every second of it. The team is playing great in front of me too. It’s just been a really good run so far.”

When asked what it was like to be eight wins away from a championship, Hutchinson stepped into the one-day-at-a-time territory that most players put forth at this time of year but did offer a glimpse of what he was feeling.

“It’s definitely a really cool experience. There’s only four teams in the league left right now. You’re happy that you’ve made it this far. But the end goal is to win the Calder Cup. No team is going to roll over and just let you walk through a series. We’re going to have a battle with them and we can’t look past that,” he said.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Hutchinson’s strong play is that it’s the first extended playoff run since he was a member of the London Knights on the Ontario Hockey League in 2010, when he appeared in 12 post-season games.

“There’s a lot of stuff you learn over the years. That was quite a few years ago. The mental side of my game has come a long way since then,” said Hutchinson. “The best advice I got before these playoffs was from (Jets goalie coach) Wade Flaherty. He said you have to play the same game you’ve been playing all season. All of the players ramp up the intensity and bring a bit more but as a goalie, you have to keep doing the same thing. You can’t make saves before the puck gets there or psyche yourself out. I found myself in junior, I was getting a little too pumped up for games, too antsy and that’s when you start making mistakes. If you do make a mistake, you can’t dwell on it. Just go in with the same approach that you did during the whole season. If you had success in the season and you come in with the same mindset, it should work.”

But how has Hutchinson been able to avoid a potential letdown in returning to the AHL for the playoffs?

“Just working hard every day has helped a lot. It doesn’t matter which level you’re at, if you’re working hard you can get adjusted to the speed of that league,” said Hutchinson. “I’ve focused on having good habits every day, on being competitive and just trying to help the team win games. The rest of the stuff takes care of itself when you can make the saves and help your team, keep them in the game or just make sure you’re there to help back them up.”

Hutchinson has certainly been doing a good job of that, no doubt about it.

“He’s very competitive, he’s very prepared,” said Morrissey. “I room with him on the road and get a chance to see him away from the rink. He’s a consummate pro. I’ve been able to learn a lot from him and he’s taught me a lot, just from watching him. He’s bringing everything he has every night and he’s going out there and preparing properly. As a goalie, he’s confident and calm. But he’s competitive. Not only does he work hard, he’s always on the ice for practice early, he’s always taking optional skates and stuff like that.”

If you’re looking for a statistical update on the IceCaps, here you go:

http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/csl_po.php?tid=6443

As for the Penguins, it’s an interesting roster composition, with a nice blend of experienced talent with some top prospects — which is very similar to how the IceCaps were constructed.

One of their clutch performers in the post-season has been left-winger Anton Zlobin, who has five goals (three of which were game-winners), while college free agent signing Conor Sheary had five goals and eight points in seven games against the Bruins last round and has nine points overall.

Some of those names with NHL experience include Chuck Kobasew, team captain Tom Kostopoulos, Harry Zolnierczyk, Jayson Megna and Brian Gibbons (among others) up front and Brendan Mikkelson on the back end.

As I mentioned in this week’s In the Hangar off-season Jets’ column, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jets were taking a close look at Gibbons, who has blazing speed and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Gibbons has the versatility to play centre or the wing and might be able to provide an upgrade to the Jets’ bottom six, which appears to be a priority for Kevin Cheveldayoff this off-season.

The Penguins’ defence corps is solid, with three very good prospects in Simon Depres, Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington, of Canadian world junior fame and a former captain of the London Knights team that took part in the Memorial Cup last spring in Saskatoon.

That means the IceCaps’ forwards are going to have to work hard to generate offensive opportunities (the Penguins gave up the fewest shots on goal in the AHL this season).

The IceCaps have been getting a lot of production from their blue-liners as well, with six goals and 36 points combined.

After sitting out Game 6 against the Norfolk Admirals, IceCaps captain Jason Jaffray remains day-to-day with an undisclosed injury but I would expect him to be ready for Game 1. A serious neck injury prevented Jaffray from appearing in the 2012 playoffs and he’s hungry to win a Calder Cup after reaching the final in 2009 before losing in six games to the Hershey Bears.

The Penguins could get skilled centre Andrew Ebbett back at some point, but he’s been limited to four games (two goals, six points) in the playoffs because of an injury.

For those of you looking to get a good WBS Penguins perspective on Twitter, be sure to check out my old friend Jonathan Bombulie, who has been covering the team for the Citizens’ Voice since 1999, the year of their inception. Find him here:

Games 1 and 2 in Newfoundland start at 5 p.m. CT. Below is the complete schedule:

Game 1: May 24, Penguins at IceCaps, 5 pm. CT
Game 2: May 25, Penguins at IceCaps, 5 p.m. CT
Game 3: May 28, IceCaps at Penguins, 6:05 p.m. CT
Game 4: May 29, IceCaps at Penguins, 6:05 p.m.  CT
Game 5: May 31, IceCaps at Penguins, 6:05 p.m. CT *
Game 6: June 3, Penguins at IceCaps, 5 p.m. CT *
Game 7: June 4, Penguins at IceCaps, 5 p.m. CT, *
* if necessary

Western Conference final predication

- May 17th, 2014

No need for pre-amble, it’s on to the Western Conference final.

Chicago Blackhawks (46-21-15, 107 points, third in Central Division) vs Los Angeles Kings (46-28-87, 100 points, third in Pacific Division)

NUMBERS GAME: The Blackhawks have won nine of the past 11 games dating back to the 2012-13 regular season and swept the three meetings this season, outscoring the Kings 9-4. The Blackhawks also eliminated the Kings in the Western Conference final last spring. The only other playoff meeting was in 1974, when the Blackhawks eliminated them in five games. This is the third consecutive trip to the conference final for the Kings, who captured the Stanley Cup in 2012.

THE SKINNY: The Kings have been able to stave off elimination in six consecutive games this post-season after falling behind 3-0 in the opening round against the San Jose Sharks. Not sure if they have nine lives in these playoffs, but we could find out shortly. Captain Jonathan Toews has four game-winners among his five goals and 10 points in the playoffs while Patrick Kane has three of his own (Brandon Saad has the other). This dynamic duo has been at the core of the Blackhawks’ championship runs in 2010 and 2013 and are once again showing the way this spring. After a lacklustre regular season, Bryan Bickell has six goals and nine points in 12 playoff games, playing a power-forward game. Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith have combined for 19 points and are playing heavy minutes, while Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya have done  great job in a shutdown role. Although he’s rarely viewed as an upper-echelon netminder, Corey Crawford is making a strong case to joining that group, raising his level and stealing games. Here’s what Toews had to say about Crawford on Friday (thanks to Tracey Meyers of CSN Chicago for sending along the quotes): “Even him being a huge part of our Stanley cup winning team last year, it doesn’t seem like it’s getting easier for him. But he keeps rising to challenges, picking his game up and improving in so many ways, specially mentally, to be able to handle that pressure. I feel like after every game I’m answering questions about him and I joke I’m running out of things to say. But that pretty much sums it up right there with the way he’s matured as a player,” said Toews. As for the Kings, Justin Williams continued his Game 7 production by getting the lamp-lighter against the Anaeheim Ducks, while Jeff Carter and Mike Richards also had big efforts to help bring an end to Teemu Selanne’s career. Anze Kopitar is getting his due as a two-way player as a Selke finalist, while Marian Gaborik makes the Kings more dynamic than they were last spring, while Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson are coming into their own. The Kings play a solid defesnive game and must get more offence from Drew Doughty if they want to advance. Jonathan Quick has been up-and-down but he’ll help keep this series tight. However, I just can’t bet against Toews and Kane. Take the Blackhawks in six games.

Round 3 has arrived: Eastern Conference predictions

- May 17th, 2014

The second round is in the books after the Los Angeles Kings stepped into the elimination chamber for the sixth time of the post-season and came out with a 6-2 win that ended the NHL career of former Winnipeg Jets’ sniper Teemu Selanne.

I’ll turn my attention to the West a little later, after looking a little more closely at the conference final rematch between the Kings and Chicago Blackhawks.

For now, I’m happy to report I was 3-1 last round and improved to 10-2 overall in these playoffs in the prediction game. My miss was believing the Boston Bruins, my Stanley Cup pick going into the season and into the post-season, would defeat the Montreal Canadiens.

As mentioned before last round, while on the playoff trail covering the Rangers and Flyers in the first round, there was some chatter going around that the Canadiens were the type of team that had what it took to knock off the Bruins. Turns out they were right, guess I shouldn’t have ignored those beliefs but I wasn’t completely sold.

Turns out the Habs matched up well not only in the regular season but carried it over into the post-season and in the end, Carey Price was a big difference-maker, outplaying Tuukka Rask.

The Bruins didn’t get enough from David Krejci, who was the playoff points leader in two of the past three seasons, or several other key cogs.

And the Canadiens were the group that showcased more depth, surprisingly. Danny Briere continued his playoff magic and Winnipegger Dale Weise made an impact as well — and I’m not talking about driving Milan Lucic nuts either.

Weise scored the ice-breaking goal in Game 7 and did a nice job in a fourth-line role, playing a physical game.

Meanwhile, the Rangers found a way to rally from a 3-1 series deficit, much of which came on an emotional level after the passing of Marty St. Louis’ mother France. It was a heart-warming story, not to mention an impressive one, but it wouldn’t have been possible without goalie Henrik Lundqvist — who continued his Game 7 mastery, winning his fifth in a row, knocking the Pittsburgh Penguins out of the tournament and leading to the dismissal of Pens’ GM Ray Shero.

The Eastern Conference final features another Original Six match-up.

Montreal Canadiens (46-28-8, 100 points, 2nd in Atlantic Division) vs New York Rangers (45-31-6,96 points, 2nd in Metropolitan Division)
NUMBERS GAME: It’s the 15th playoff meeting for the two franchises, but first since 1996 so it could take a while for the hate meter to rise. In case you were wondering, both the Rangers and Canadiens have won seven series against one another. This year, the Canadiens won two of the three head-to-head meetings.

THE SKINNY: Surely, you’ve heard how Lundqvist struggles in Montreal, so much so that he’s served as the backup for the past four meetings at the Bell Centre and he hasn’t won there since 2009. Just so you know, Lundqvist is 4-5-2 with a 3.87 goals against average and .876 save percentage in his career in Montreal. But guess what? I’m here to tell you that doesn’t mean squat in this series. And neither does the fact Price is 4-1-0 with three shutouts and two goals allowed (149 saves on 151 shots) in his past five meetings with the Rangers. Yes, Price won the last head-to-head match-up at the Olympics as Canada defeated Sweden to win the gold medal in Sochi. But it says here the goalies will cancel each other out in this series. Both will play great. That’s why I think it comes down to depth. And while the Habs fourth line may have out-dueled the Bruins last round, Dominic Moore, Brian Boyle and either Derek Dorsett and/or Dan Carcillo could present a different challenge in this series. St. Louis will be further galvanized by the fact his teammates will attend his mother’s funeral on Sunday and he’ll help drive the offence. Derick Brassard got on the production train in Round 2 (four goals, including two game-winners) and if Rick Nash can start one of his scoring streaks after going without a goal in 14 games so far, look out. Brandon Prust gave the Canadiens a nice lift and will be motivated to face his former team, look for him to play well. I’m intrigued to see if Alex Galchenyuk could make an impact after being cleared to return to full practice and whether or not Max Pacioretty can keep it going after a strong finish to the series. Brendan Gallagher is going to play well, P.K. Subban will continue to contribute on the back end but at the end of day, I’m taking the Broadway Blueshirts in one more long series. Rangers in seven.

On to round 2: 2nd round predictions

- May 1st, 2014

NEW YORK — So close to perfection in the opening round picks department.
Had the San Jose Sharks not become the fourth team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 series lead, yours truly would have made it through Round 1 with a flawless 8-0 record.
Considering my first-round sleeper pick, the Minnesota Wild, scored late in regulation and overcame four one-goal deficits before getting the OT winner from Nino Neiderreiter, I’m happy to put 7-1 in my back pocket and move onto the next round of selections.
My biggest issue with that lone miss was that I had the Sharks advancing to the Stanley Cup final before losing to the Boston Bruins, so I’ll have to adjust my Western Conference finalist (don’t worry I’ve got a pretty good idea where I’m going with that one).

Western Conference

Central Division final

Chicago Blackhawks (3) vs Minnesota Wild (1st wild card)

Season series: 3-1 -1 Minnesota

THE SKINNY: While providing one of the most entertaining series of the first round, my hunch about the defending champion Blackhawks finding their groove at the right time came to fruition, with Winnipegger Jonathan Toews playing a large role in the outcome. So did Duncan Keith, who has been tremendous so far. The fact Brent Seabrook had to sit out a three-game suspension for his hit on David Backes means that he’ll be fresh for the remainder of what should be a long run. For the Wild, what a dramatic comeback but were it not for a pair of blown leads with the Avalanche net empty, they could have moved on in six games, maybe even five. The injury to Darcy Kuemper could leave the Wild crease back in the hands of Ilya Bryzgalov, who made one save in relief to earn the Game 7 victory. The Wild are on the rise, but it’s hard to imagine this series going longer than the five games it took the Blackhawks to eliminate Zach Parise and company last spring. Blackhawks in five.

Pacific Division final

Anaheim Ducks (1) vs Los Angeles Kings (3)

Season series: 4-0-1 Anaheim

THE SKINNY: The Dallas Stars gave the Ducks all they could handle in the opening round, while the Kings showed incredible resolve to overcome a 3-0 deficit against the high-flying Sharks While it’s good for Bruce Boudreau to know he has two options available to him in veteran Jonas Hiller and rookie Frederik Andersson, Jonathan Quick was out-of-this-world  good during the final four games against the Sharks — yielding only five goals (after giving up 16 goals in first three games and only five in the final four wins). The Ducks got some important contributions from depth players, but this match-up is all about how captain Ryan Getzlaf does in the head-to-head battle with Kings pivot Anze Kopitar. Getzlaf will be up for the challenge but this could be the series that Kopitar shows folks around the league just how good a two-way player he is. It’s also the type of series where Drew Doughty might be able to push the pace like he did for Team Canada at the 2014 Olympics. It’ll be a tight one, but I’m taking Darryl Sutter’s Kings in seven.

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division final

Boston Bruins (1) vs Montreal Canadiens (2)

Season series: 3-1 Montreal

THE SKINNY: It’s the 34th playoff series for these two Original Six rivals and there should be plenty of vitriol and passion displayed by both sides. The Canadiens caught a break in the opening round as the Tampa Bay Lightning had issues in net after Ben Bishop was unable to participate. There will be no such break while going up against Tuukka Rask, but the Habs are solid in goal with Carey Price and he’ll need to elevate his game to help this series go long. Thomas Vanek has been a great addition, but the physical price he’ll need to pay to be productive is going to rise considerably against the Bruins. And can guys like P.K. Subban and Brendan Gallagher get under the skin of the Bruins? To me, this series comes down to the depth and size of the Bruins and eventually, they’ll be able to wear down the Canadiens. Habs make it interesting, but Bruins take the series in six games.

Metropolitan Division final

Pittsburgh Penguins (1) vs New York Rangers (2)

Season series: 2-1-1

THE SKINNY: Both teams faced a stiff challenge in the opening round, as the Penguins went six games with the Columbus Blue Jackets and nearly saw a 4-0 third-period lead vanish in Game 6 before holding on and snuffing out the rally, thanks in part to a hat trick from Evgeni Malkin. For the Rangers, they were unable to string consecutive victories together against the Philadelphia Flyers but they improved to 4-0 in Game 7s during the past three? seasons with a 2-1 win at Madison Square Garden. After seeing a pair of two-day breaks between games against the Flyers, the Rangers are continuing a stretch that will see them play six games in eight days. The Rangers were led by veterans Marty St. Louis and Brad Richards in the opening round (two goals, six points for each), while Rick Nash was held to four assists to give him just one goal in 19 9 post-season contests since the Blueshirts acquired him from the Columbus Blue Jackets. Marc-Andre Fleury had some big moments during the opening round, but he had some wobbly ones as well. Henrik Lundqvist gives the Rangers an edge in goal and the Rangers ability to roll four lines could come in handy against a Penguins squad that isn’t as deep up front,  despite holding an edge in high-end talent among the top forwards. Ryan McDonagh, Dan Giradi and Marc Staal also combine to give the Rangers an edge on the bak end. So unless Sidney Crosby (held without a goal in his past 11 playoff games) puts the team on his back (which is entirely possible), the opportunity for an upset is clearly there and that’s why I’m taking the Rangers in seven games.

Enjoy Round 2!

After being proud to be part of the Sun Media playoff team, I’m passing the Rangers over to Terry Koshan of the Toronto Sun — who covered the Blue Jackets and Penguins in Round 1.

Morrissey ready for playoffs as IceCaps face Devils

- April 25th, 2014

PHILADELPHIA — It’s been relatively quiet in Jet-land since Paul Maurice was locked up and Kevin Cheveldayoff gave his season-ending state of the union.

I’ve been busy covering the first-round match-up between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers for the Sun Media chain, but earlier this week I caught up with St. John’s IceCaps head coach Keith McCambridge and Jets’ 2013 first rounder Josh Morrissey to do a playoff preview.

If you missed it, that story can be found right here: http://www.winnipegsun.com/2014/04/23/st-johns-icecaps-aiming-for-long-calder-cup-playoff-run

I spoke at length with McCambridge on how the team is shaping up and about how some of the Jets’ top prospects have performed this season but I’ll save those comments for another post as this one will focus on Morrissey.

This was my first opportunity to speak with Morrissey since he appeared in the pre-season with the Jets and he’s encountered a lot of interesting things since then…

“Whirlwind is a pretty good word. It’s been a crazy year for me with world juniors and the draft and all of that,” Morrissey said from Providence, R.I., where the IceCaps were staying since closing out the AHL season on the road. “My first training camp, going back to junior, wearing the captain’s C (with the Prince Albert Raiders) and now having the chance to come up here is a pretty big event for me.

“I’ve had a busy year and a lot of hockey the last 12 months, but for me I think I’ve been able to grow a lot as a player. My game has really come along over the course of this year as well.”

The IceCaps series starts in Albany, N.J. tonight against the top affiliate of the New Jersey Devils but when I spoke with Morrissey, it was just a day after visiting Fenway Park for the first time for a game featuring the Red Sox and Yankees.

“That was kind of a cool thing, that’s for sure,” said Morrissey. “I asked the guys, is this what every AHL road trip is like? And they kind of laughed. It’s been pretty great. I came at the right time.”

The best time is yet to come for Morrissey, as these playoffs should serve as another important step in the process building toward training camp next September.

“I’ve been able to adjust and learn every day,” said Morrissey, who had an assist in eight AHL games since joining the IceCaps. “It’s been a great experience so far.”

How has he found the adjustment to the pro game?

“At first, I wasn’t sure what to expect coming up to pro,” said Morrissey, the 13th overall pick in 2013. “Obviously I spent time in Winnipeg during training camp and what-not, but coming in at the end of the season with a playoff team, I’ve been pretty fortunate. From what I’ve heard from a lot of guys, it’s one of the best groups of guys that is around.”

Morrissey has been paired mostly with Kris Fredheim, a former Vancouver Canucks draft pick, and also will be featured on one of the power-play units during the playoffs.

Playing an expanded role is always good for the confidence of a young player who is basically still getting his feet wet at this level. He knows the intensity is only going to be amped up as the IceCaps pursue what they hope is a long run.

“I’m just trying to come in here and help any way that I can,” said Morrissey. “It’s been great for me. When I came here, I wasn’t sure how that I’d be used, but at the same time I didn’t want to come in and disrupt everything that’s going on, with how well the team has been doing this year before I got here. Going forward, however they decide to use me, I’ll stay positive and go with it.

“It’s definitely given me a lot of confidence in the first eight games, having the chance to go in and play and not be used super sparingly or not in key situations. For the most part, I’m just trying to play my game and do what I’ve been doing in junior.”

What Morrissey did in junior this season was impressive, piling up 28 goals and 73 points in 59 games — well above the 15 goals and 47 points in 70 games he put up the year before he was chosen by the Jets. Those 28 goals established a PA Raiders franchise record and his overall play earned him a nomination for the Top Defenceman in the Western Hockey League (Morrissey is up against fellow first rounder Derrick Pouliot, a top prospect of the Pittsburgh Penguins).

As for the match-up itself, the Devils have a pair of Winnipeggers in their lineup in Kelly and Darcy Zajac, two of the three younger brothers of Travis.

Kelly was second on the Devils in scoring this season (behind Joe Whitney), putting up 12 goals and 44 points, while Darcy was hurt much of the year and managed one goal and six points in 19 games.

The Devils have Keith Kincaid in goal and a strong defence that was bolstered by the addition of Eric Gelinas, Adam Larsson (the third overall pick in 2011) and Jon Merrill.

This should be a good series, but bolstered by Michael Hutchinson in goal, I’ll take the IceCaps to win the series in five games.

John Albert, who got his first taste of the NHL earlier this season, has been excellent down the stretch and really developed his offensive game, finishing with 28 goals and 45 points in 63 games to finish sixth on the team in scoring.

Look for him to be a difference maker in this series as well.

Finally, I’ll end this post with a by the numbers box for your enjoyment.

St. John’s IceCaps (4) vs Albany Devils (5)

Best-of-five series

Schedule
Fri, Apr. 25 – St. John’s at Albany, 6 p.m. CT
Sat, Apr. 26 – St. John’s at Albany, 6 p.m. CT
Wed, Apr. 30, Albany at St. John’s, 5 p.m. CT
* Fri, May 2 – Albany at St. John’s, 5 p.m. CT
* Sat, May 3 – Albany at St. John’s, 5 p.m. CT
* if necessary

St. John’s IceCaps: 76GP, 46-23-3, 5, 99 points. 3rd in Atlantic Division, 4th in Eastern Conference. 258 goals for, 207 goals against

Albany Devils: 40-23-5-8, 93 points, 220 goals for, 193 goals against. 2nd in Northeast Division, 5th in Eastern Conference

IceCaps team leaders
Points: Jason Jaffray (59)
Goals: John Albert (28)
Assists: Jason Jaffray (41)
Penalty minutes: JC Lipon (136)
Goaltending: Michael Hutchinson (17-5-1, 2.30 GAA, .923 save % in 24 GP)

Jets’ AHL prospect watch
D Brenden Kichton: 76GP, 10G, 38A, 48P
C John Albert: 63GP, 28G, 17A, 45P
RW Carl Klingberg: 65GP, 22G, 20A, 42P
C Eric O’Dell: 42GP, 17G, 25A, 42P
RW JC Lipon 72GP, 9G, 322A, 41P
C Adam Lowry: 64GP, 17G, 16A, 33P
C Patrice Cormier: 61GP, 9G, 17A, 26P
D Zach Redmond: 40GP, 6G, 19A, 25P
D Julian Melchiori: 50GP, 1G, 10A, 11P
D Ben Chiraot: 65GP, 6G, 14A, 20P
D Josh Morrissey: 8GP, 0G, 1A, 1P

Maurice locked up, Cheveldayoff provides state of union

- April 16th, 2014

NEW YORK — After getting the green light from his family after sitting down at the table with them to discuss the future, Paul Maurice is getting his wish.

As I was watching the New York Rangers go through the paces at their practice rink in Greenburgh, the Jets unveiled that Maurice had signed a four-year contract to remain as head coach.

I wrote a column back on Mar. 14 saying I expected Maurice to be back and that a four-year deal would probably get it done, so this doesn’t come as a surprise.

Neither is the timing of it. During his address on Sunday, Maurice hinted that something could happen after the organizational meetings were complete and he returned home to see his wife and kids.

“I actually flew home yesterday because I had made the promise to the family that we were doing it at the kitchen table. And I’d said that enough times in the media that I can’t now do this by phone,” said Cheveldayoff. “Kevin and I quickly agreed to what was fair for both sides…. got home and that took about three minutes, too. Said I wanted to go to Winnipeg and I wanted the family to be a part of it, and I thought it’d be great for the family. They all smiled and said, ‘Let’s go.’ I called Kevin and said we’re in, and put a (For Sale) sign on the front steps today.”

Why not wait to see if some other NHL teams might come calling?

“I looked around. That’s part of what you do as a coach, try to find the best place. There wasn’t in my mind another place like this, that fit for me. This was the team I wanted to coach,” said Maurice. “I don’t want to say I had my eye on this job. But I had my eye on this team for a while. I thought there was enough improvement that could be made with the personnel here, and because it was so young it could get better. It’s the place that best suits my strengths and what we can do in the short-term.”

There was plenty of talking about structure and continuing to push for the answer of what Jets’ hockey is going to look like.

Maurice showed me enough since taking over from Claude Noel on Jan. 12 and it will be interesting to see what he can do with the benefit of having a full training camp.

It’s going to be a tougher training camp, with an emphasis on increasing the conditioning levels, something players were warned about but are apparently on board with (not that they have much of a choice if they want to remain in the lineup).

“I’ve gotten fairly good over the years at knowing when a player’s saying what you want to hear and when they’re telling you what they mean and what they believe. And the core veteran guys want that direction. They like the focus of where we’re going, and they just want to win. They love playing for the Winnipeg Jets,” said Maurice. “What we’ve got to do is get this thing on track, so that those kind of leaders want to be here when the time comes for them to make the decision.”

Here’s what Cheveldayoff had to say about keeping Maurice in the fold.

“We’re extremely proud and looking forward to the future with Paul,” said Cheveldayoff. “It was a real pleasure to sit there and have discussions about the future and see his excitement with respect to what we have here today… and direction and plan we want to take this franchise in. We strongly believe in the plan. We are extremely excited about having a coach that believes in the plan that is excited to be here. He’s excited to get his family situated in Winnipeg. It’s an important day.

“He has the experience of being with different organizations at different cycles that they have been in. From the moment he got in here he talked about our size, he talked about our speed. But the thing that really intrigued him was the youth of our team, and the youth of our core. Until you get an opportunity to work with someone, you don’t truly appreciate what they bring to the table on a day-to-day basis. He’s an impressive hockey coach, but he’s a very impressive person, as well.”

Why not consider other alternatives, like Manitoba product Barry Trotz?

“(Maurice) is the right guy. He’s the fit for our organization. He knows this organization in and out,” said Cheveldayoff. “He had the opportunity to say no… to say, ‘You know what? I’ve been here, I’ve looked around, I don’t like it.’ He knows there’s going to be opportunities out there to potentially go to other places. But his enthusiasm and his excitement and genuine feel for this group was certainly something that pushed us. We’re extremely excited about Paul Maurice as our coach.”

The contracts of both men expire at the same time, so it’s obvious these two will sink or swim together.

Aside from getting his contract taken care of, Maurice was also confirmed as an assistant coach with Team Canada for next month’s IIHF world men’s championship in Minsk, Belarus, joining a staff that includes Peter DeBoer of the New Jersey Devils and head coach Dave Tippett of the Phoenix Coyotes.

One of the players Maurice and company will be coaching is Jets centre Mark Scheifele, who is recovering nicely from a knee injury he suffered on Mar. 4 against the New York Islanders.

“It’s coming long good. I feel stronger and I feel more comfortable with my knee, it’s been feeling good lately,” Scheifele said on Sunday before answering my question about the hit from Calvin de Haan that landed him on the shelf. “Obviously, I wasn’t happy about it. I know it’s hockey and I’ve probably taken a hit like that hundreds of times in my life. It just caught me at a split second that I was vulnerable. It’s a tough thing to deal with, but it was better than what it could have been and I’m happy with that.

“It’s tough to be out any time and to be out in the playoff push, it definitely sucked to not be with the guys at that time of the year. Every night, I wished I was out there and next year, I’m going to come back stronger and that much more hungry.”

Shifting gears, if you hadn’t already noticed, social media nearly exploded during Cheveldayoff’s press conference as he boldly announced that Ondrej Pavelec would be the Jets’ No. 1 goalie next season.

Pavelec’s struggles last season were well-documented, but this move doesn’t come as a big surprise either. There’s no way Maurice gives his vote of confidence like he did on Sunday if the Jets were considering a buyout for Pavelec.

Maurice went out of his way to say you won’t get a good read on Pavelec’s potential until the Jets play better in front of him, something I’ve been saying for a few years now.

Time will tell obviously, what we know for sure is that unless Cheveldayoff changes his minded or something unexpected happens, the Jets will take a pass on using one of their compliance buyouts on Pavelec and won’t pay the embattled netminder around $8 million to do nothing or to play for another team.

“He’s relatively a young goaltender when it comes to being a starting goaltender. When you give those young players those opportunities to excel, there’s going to be some bumps along the way,” said Cheveldayoff. “Like any professional athlete, the onus is on them to take care of all the things they need to do. The onus is on the coach and the org to put a plan in place to have players being able to succeed in the course of being a team.

“As far as statistical date, we could sit here and have debates all day about different percentages or goals against… at the end of the day, everyone gets judged on the results. If we sat there and broke it into 10-game segments, I’m sure there are some great segments there that Ondrej would have had. You take some other 10-game segments and there’s probably some that he’d like back.”

It’s obvious that this is a huge summer for Pavelec and it will be interesting to see what he’s going to do after getting the support of his head coach and GM in April and not having to wonder any longer if he’s on the trading block or a candidate to be bought out.

Getting into the best shape of his career seems like an obvious place to start and doing whatever it takes to repair his confidence should be high on the priority list as well.

Speaking of goalies, Cheveldayoff was noncommittal when asked about the backup position.

“There’s still some analysis that will go on there,”he said. “We’ve got some good young goaltenders within our system right now. We saw Hutch play at the end of the year, and played really well. No decisions have been made, yet.”

Michael Frolik, a pending RFA who put up 15 goals and 42 points, is a top priority this off-season and I expect the Jets to make him a multiyear offer.

“That’s someone we feel has grown into a big part of this organization and we’ll certainly look at reaching out to his representatives at an appropriate time,” said Cheveldayoff, who went on to say more internal discussions are required on several RFA and UFA fronts.

One UFA who is virtually guaranteed not to be back is Devin Setoguchi, who managed only 11 goals and 27 points in 76 games after arriving from the Minnesota Wild for a second round pick in 2014.

“It was going to be a good gamble to try and expand the core. It goes back to trying to expand the core all the time. Obviously, you have to take some chances,” said Cheveldayoff. “Some of them are going to work out, some of them aren’t. It’s something you certainly learn from. We’re extremely excited what Fro did for us. And obviously with Devin things didn’t quite work out as we had hoped or expected. But you’d say that both ways.

“You’re only given so many different tools to use to try and build (through the draft). If there’s an opportunity to use an asset that will continue to grow the core of our team, we’ll look at that again.”

That’s the attitude Cheveldayoff has to have. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see now that Setoguchi’s production wasn’t worth what turned into the 39th overall pick in 2014 but it probably would have been if he had scored 20 goals instead of 11.

With that in mind, are there some untouchables on the Jets’ roster right now?

“There’s guys we believe are going to be Winnipeg Jets for a long, long time,” said Cheveldayoff. “We hope the players that want to be here that we want to have part of his group will be there. It’s such an overused term. But there’s a lot of guys on this team that I wouldn’t be trading right now. Because I believe they’re going to be players that are going to help us achieve not only making the playoffs, but get beyond the playoffs, beyond rounds in the playoffs.”

Cheveldayoff also talked about working to expand the core and answered a question about the importance of not wasting the prime years of several of the Jets’ key pieces.

“The objective is to get in, certainly, to the playoffs. But the ultimate objective is to go far and deep into the playoffs,” said Cheveldayoff. “And in order to do that you have to establish a core and then build around the core. In the first couple of years we’ve spent the time in trying to establish the core. There’s numerous players that were part of the organization that have moved on. And now you’re seeing several players that have been signed, some of them long-term… it’s about establishing something and then building around it.

“These are experiences they’re going to grow from. The future can only come one day at a time. I can’t accelerate that aspect of things. We’re going to continue to look at different avenues to try and build the team and grow the team and grow people that fit around the core and expand the core. Ultimately what you want is your core to grow from four or five guys to six or seven or eight guys. And people that are on the same and people that are buying into the program Paul is going to put into place.”

So how far along are the Jets’ in their big-picture plan after missing the playoffs in three consecutive seasons?

“I don’t know if you can really place a term on rebuilding or retooling. There’s lots of different terms out there. Again, there’s no time frame on development of a young player,” said Cheveldayoff. “And there’s no magic solution to say in X years we will be at this point. Because if anyone can predict the future they’re a better person than I am.

“You don’t sit there and say, ‘in three years we will be at X, or in five years we will be at X.’ You can’t think in those terms. You have to think in how can we grow, how can we build? Sometimes it takes longer than that. Sometimes things happen quicker.

“Certainly we’d love to have made the playoffs, because that is part of the growth of the team. Once you get to that point you learn not only what it takes but what it takes to excel. Everybody is certainly striving for that. And there’s 14 other teams saying the same message here at that point. So not making the playoffs is obviously disappointing for everybody. It’s why you play the game. But you can really lose sight of the long-range plans if you fall prey to the short-term disappointments. I’d love to find that magic cure to say, ‘If we just get this guy, we’re in.’  But the game doesn’t lend itself like that.”

Cheveldayoff spoke for nearly 50 minutes and columnist Paul Friesen handled all of the stories on Maurice, the Jets’ GM and a sidebar on Maurice and Scheifele heading to the worlds in Thursday’s paper and online at www.winnipegsun.com.

Be sure to check out my playoff picks on the blog and remember I’ll be covering the series between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers for the Sun Media chain and QMI Agency.

Enjoy the playoffs folks. Don’t be afraid to share your thoughts in the comments section, on Twitter or by email to ken.wiebe@sunmedia.ca.

Playoff picks: Western Conference

- April 16th, 2014

NEW YORK — Perhaps the best part of the Stanley Cup picks is that you get an opportunity to make up for the failed predictions of the pre-season.

Well, they weren’t all failed but I’m sure not proud of my selection of the Colorado Avalanche to finish dead last in the Central Division. I figured the team would respond to new head coach Patrick Roy, but that it might take more than one season for the full impact to be felt.

Instead, they not only qualified for the playoffs but passed both the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues to finish first in the Central Division and earn home-ice advantage through the first two rounds (should they advance).

Anyway, there’s my crow-eating for the day. Feel free to share you pre-season prediction successes and failures in the comments section.

For what it’s worth, I had the Blues winning the President’s Trophy, which was looking like a safe bet until a six-game losing skid to end the regular season. The San Jose Sharks were my pick to come out of the Western Conference in the playoffs and I’m sticking by that selection, while realizing they could get bounced in the first round given how tough it will be to come out of the Pacific.

Here we go:

Central Division semis

Colorado Avalanche (1) 52-22-8, 112 points vs Minnesota Wild (first wild card) 43-27-12, 98 pointsThe Avalanche go in as the favourite and you’d think that I learned my lesson after underestimating the Avalanche going into the campaign. However, not having Matt Duchene to start the series is a big factor. To me, he drives the offence for the Avalanche. There’s still depth up front with Ryan O’Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and company, but I’m not sold on Colorado’s defence and the Wild have some weapons that could cause some commotion in Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle and Matt Moulson to name a few. Matt Cooke is a guy who could get under the skin of the Avalanche in this series. Ryan Suter is going to need to play 30 or more minutes nightly and while unpredicatable, Ilya Bryzgalov has been outstanding for the Wild since arriving from the Edmonton Oilers, going 7-1-3 with a .911 save percentage and 2.11 goals against average. Provided Bryzgalov is steady, the Wild could pull off the upset special in Round 1. I’m taking the Wild in seven games.

St. Louis Blues (2) 52-23-7, 111 points vs Chicago Blackhawks (3) 46-21-5, 107 points

Going into this season, I was convinced that the Blues were going to be able to put the playoff disappointment of the past two springs behind them and would break through after consecutive defeats to the Los Angeles Kings. But as hard as it is to believe, the Blues actually found themselves with a tougher first-round opponent than those two previous springs. And while I like a lot of what the Blues bring to the table — including what I think is among the top defence corps’ in the entire NHL and the forward group of Alex Steen, David Backes, T.J. Oshie and company, it’s tough to bet against the defending champions in the opening round. Ryan Miller gives the Blues an edge in goal and while Steve Ott hasn’t chipped in much offensively since his arrival from Buffalo, he’s the type of disruptive force that could help St. Louis push through. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane should be rested after skipping some games at the end of the regular season to get healthy. Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa should be key contributors and this is the type of series where Bryan Bickell might be able to find his playoff form that earned him a big raise. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya and Nicklas Hjalmarsson. Provided Corey Crawford supplies adequate netminding, the Blues could be in for a third straight spring of discontent. Blackhawks in seven.

Pacific Division semis

Anaheim Ducks (1) 54-20-8, 116 points vs Dallas Stars (second wild card) 40-31-11, 91 points

The Ducks are so deep in goal that their starter for much of the season, Jonas Hiller, is unlikely to dress for the series opener as rookie Frederik Andersson gets the call and John Gibson moves into the backup role. Ryan Getzlaf had an MVP-type season (he was second on my ballot) and Corey Perry remains one of the purest goal scorers in the NHL. Teemu Selanne is hoping his fond farewell season includes a Stanley Cup to go along with the bronze medal he earned at the Olympics. Mathieu Perreault, Andrew Cogliano, Patrick Maroon, Nick Bonino, Matt Beleskey, Jakob Silfverberg and Kyle Palmieri must provide secondary scoring, while the defence corps of Francois Beauchemin, Bryan Allen, rookie Hapus Lindholm and late addition Stephane Robidas must be on their game to withstand the push that is sure to be coming from Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. The Stars should be loose in this one as their retooling under GM Jim Nill and head coach Lindy Ruff is ahead of schedule. Kari Lehtonen might steal a couple games in this series, but the lack of depth on the back end could prove to be the Stars’ undoing as the Ducks win the series in six.

San Jose Sharks (2) 51-22-9, 111 points vs Los Angeles Kings (3) 46-28-8, 100 points

The Kings are that team that nobody wanted to match up with in the opening round of the playoffs, thanks to the goaltending of Jonathan Quick, the defensive wizardry of Drew Doughty and the underrated two-way play of Anze Kopitar. Although the Kings are the lowest scoring team in the post-season, Marian Gaborik has given the offensive attack another weapon, Tyler Toffoli should benefit from the taste of the playoffs he enjoyed last spring. Mike Richards had only 11 goals and 41 points this season but this is his time to shine and if the Kings are to advance, he’ll be right in the middle of things. Ultimately, I think the Sharks are ready to learn from their playoff disappointments of year’s past and have the horses to not only outlast their California rival but to make a lengthy playoff run. Marc-Edourd Vlasic is an unheralded force on the blue line and the offensive depth includes the likes of Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Brent Burns, Tommy Wingels and rookie Tomas Hertl, who is ready to return from a knee injury. The Sharks have a nice safety net in Alex Stalock, but Antti Niemi must do his part to help his team advance and it says here that he will. Sharks in seven.

Playoff picks: Eastern Conference preview

- April 16th, 2014

NEW YORK — Bring on the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It’s that time of the year, which means the predictions are pouring in.

Going back in my notebook, I was happy to report that I chose to Boston Bruins to win the Eastern Conference in our Sun Media season preview and I’m going to stick with that pick, though the rest of the road could be interesting this spring, with plenty of interesting storylines to follow.

Remember the 1 through 8 seeding has been replaced by divisional playoffs with two wild-cards.

Let’s break down the four match-ups:

Atlantic Division semis

Boston Bruins (1) 54-19-9, 117 points vs Detroit Red Wings (2nd wild card) 39-28-15, 93 points

The Red Wings had to scratch and claw just to get into the post-season party and extend an impressive run of 23 consecutive playoff appearances, but their reward is running into the President’s Trophy winner and the team I picked to win the Stanley Cup. Dan DeKeyser and Niklas Kronwall must have a strong series on the back end, while Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar must help Pavel Datsyuk with the Red Wings’ offensive attack. Mike Babcock is one of the best coaches in the NHL and is sure to come up with an insightful game plan. But Tuukka Rask is one of the best goalies in the NHL, Zdeno Chara is playing at an elite level once again and the Bruins four-line depth — led by the two-way talent of Patrice Bergeron and fellow 30-goal scorer Jarome Iginla — should be enough to help Boston win this series in six games.

Tampa Bay Lightning (2) 46-27-9, 101 points vs Montreal Canadiens (3rd) 46-28-8, 100 points

A shootout was required to see which team would have home-ice advantage in this series but not having goalie Ben Bishop at least to start the series could be a tough thing for the Lightning to overcome. Head coach Jon Cooper did an outstanding job with a group that only had sniper Steven Stamkos for 36 games this season and traded its captain (Marty St. Louis) at the deadline for Ryan Callahan. The Lightning got great contributions from rookies Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, while Victor Hedman (13 goals, 55 points) is really coming into his own on the back end. Hard-hitting blue-liner Radko Gudas is another guy to watch in this series. If Bishop was at full health, I’d give the edge to the Lightning. However, relying on Anders Lindback is an awfully tough task for a team that is going to be forced to try and shut down the likes of Max Pacioretty (39 goals) and Thomas Vanek, who was an excellent addition at the trade deadline. Feisty Brendan Gallagher could play a big role as well. Look for P.K. Subban to be a force on the blue line for the Habs, who take the series in six games.

Metropolitan Division semis

Pittsburgh Penguins (1) 51-24-7, 109 points vs Columbus Blue Jackets (1st wild card) 43-32-7, 93 points

The Penguins are finally getting closer to full health after losing more than 500 man games due to injury this season. Captain Sidney Crosby won the Art Ross Trophy in a landslide (104 points) and led the way in all aspects while Chris Kunitz provided consistent production (35 goals, 67 points) after linemate Pascal Dupuis went down with a knee injury. James Neal needs to be a force, while Brandon Sutter will be tasked with shutting down Blue Jackets centre Ryan Johansen, who enjoyed a breakout season. Many are picking goalie Sergei Bobrovski and the Jackets as their Cinderella team in Round 1. But not having Nathan Horton is a big loss for Columbus, as his playoff experience would have given the team a big boosts. From where I sit, the return of Kris Letang from a stroke and the emergence of rookie Olli Maata on the back end, coupled with a return to form from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury after last spring’s meltdown means the Penguins win this series in five games.

New York Rangers (2) 45-31-6, 96 points vs Philadelphia Flyers (3) 42-30-10, 94 points

The Flyers open the series with Ray Emery in goal and while he’s had success against the Rangers in the past and boasts playoff experience, he didn’t have a great season. Henrik Lundqvist was going to give the Rangers the edge in the crease whether Steve Mason was healthy or not, as he really came on strong in mid-December and later led Sweden to a silver medal at the Olympics. It will be interesting to see how the Flyers’ defence corps holds up in this series, but forwards like Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Scott Hartnell, Brayden Schenn, Vincent Lecavalier and Sean Couturier could keep things interesting. Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi are going to log a lot of shutdown minutes, while a healthy Marc Staal should go a long way in containing the Flyers’ attack. At the end of the day, I think Marty St. Louis finds his scoring touch and Rick Nash puts last season’s playoff disappointment behind him as the Rangers win this series in six games.