Stanley Cup Final presents an unlikely matchup

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Stanley Cup Final presents an unlikely matchup

From Comcast SportsNet
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- Roughly two years ago, the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils were the finalists in the free-agent market battle for Ilya Kovalchuk. The Devils won the right to keep the high-scoring Russian with a bid of 102 million. Wednesday night, the teams will start fighting for a much bigger prize, the Stanley Cup. In this contest, skill, heart and desire will decide the outcome. Nothing else. And it doesn't matter that the Devils and Kings aren't the two teams most experts expected to be left standing after three rounds of the playoffs. "You hear it every year, but it doesn't get old: Once you make it in, you have a chance to get here," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. "I think that's one thing that the prognosticators don't consider. I always put it this way, when the playoffs start, the clocks should be reset. Because everyone's starting over, and all 16 teams have a shot to win it all. "I think both teams would agree with that this year." Led by Kovalchuk and a 40-year-old Martin Brodeur, the Devils are just the second No. 6 seed to reach the finals. The 2004 Calgary Flames, coached by Sutter, were the other. Riding the goaltending of Jonathan Quick, the Kings overcame even bigger obstacles. They are only the second No. 8 seed to make it since the conference-based NHL playoff format was introduced in 1993-94. The Edmonton Oilers were the first in 2006. "It's all about winning here, and eliminating distractions and doing what it takes to be successful," said Brodeur, who led the Devils to Cups in 1995, 2000 and 2003. "That's worked for us this year, and really my entire career. For me, to be a part of that is great. To come to the rink every day during my career, knowing we had a chance to win every night is something special. "I've had that my whole career here, and that's been a great ride." While this isn't a glamour series that boasts the likes of a Sidney Crosby, a Steven Stamkos or even a Henrik Lundqvist, it has elements that should help the NHL, and prove entertaining on the ice. To start, this is an East-West series featuring two of the nation's biggest media markets: Los Angeles and the New York metropolitan area. The Kings and Devils also present great story lines. Los Angeles, which heavily courted Kovalchuk in free agency, is making only its second appearance in the Cup finals, having lost in 1993 to Montreal. The Kings are back after a midseason shake-up that saw Sutter replace Terry Murray just before Christmas and a late trade that added skilled scorer Jeff Carter to the lineup. Still, they didn't clinch a playoff berth until the final week of the season. The Kings have been virtually unstoppable since then. They have posted a 12-2 record in the playoffs and knocked off the three top seeds in the Western Conference -- Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix. They have never trailed in a series, winning the first three games in each round. "Everybody's just clicking," Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. "People are used to playing with their linemates now. The lines have been the same from the last part of the season. D pairings are the same. It's just getting used to them. Everyone is playing with confidence. Once you start clicking like that, pucks start going in the net for you." The Devils' story is just as good. They missed the playoffs last season despite retaining Kovalchuk with a 102 million contract that the league said violated its letter of the law. Few expected them to recover this quickly, especially with Brodeur seemingly on his last legs after a sub-par season, and captain Zach Parise returning from a major knee injury. When top center Travis Zajac blew out an Achilles tendon before training camp, the chances of Devils making the finals seemed slim. Guess again. New Jersey won its final six games in the regular season, rallied from 3-2 deficit in the opening round of the playoffs with two overtime wins against Florida, and then eliminated the Flyers and Rangers, their two biggest rivals, in five and six games, respectively. "Last year was tough," said Kovalchuk, who said there was never a doubt in his mind that he would stay in New Jersey. "But we made sure it paid off. We have a great coaching staff, great players here, great group of guys, very close to each other. I think that makes a big difference." The other thing that should be great is the goaltending. The 26-year-old Quick leads playoff netminders in goals-against average (1.54) and save percentage (.946). He has eight road wins in as many starts, posting a 1.55 goals-against average and .948 save percentage in those games. Brodeur is a four-time Vezina Trophy winner. He has played in 24 career Stanley Cup finals games, posting a 15-9 record with a 1.91 goals-against, losing only a series to Colorado in seven games in 2001. The Montreal native is set to become the fifth goaltender in NHL history and first since Jacques Plante in 1970 to appear in the Stanley Cup finals after his 40th birthday: "Well, everyone knows what he's meant to the league and this team, and where he stands in history," Quick said of the NHL's winningest goaltender. "For me, it's not about me against him. It's about the Kings and the Devils." The Devils and Kings are very similar in their approaches. Both want to establish the forecheck, create pressure and have it lead to offense. The Kings, who posted a 25-13-11 regular-season record after Sutter took over, are definitely a little bigger than the Rangers, and they certainly have more depth. Devils defenseman Peter Harrold played five seasons with the Kings before signing with New Jersey this year. He spent the majority of this season at Albany of the AHL, before being inserted into the Devils' postseason rotation. He said both organizations stress team first. "Everything is about the collective, not the individuals," said Harrold, who says this series will be good for hockey. "It's two really big stages. "That's what you want to grow the game."

May 4, 2016: If expansion hits, which Pens goalie is protected?

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May 4, 2016: If expansion hits, which Pens goalie is protected?

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while giving a warm May the Fourth Be With You to everybody out there.

*Mike Francesa has declared sports radio war on former New York Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro, and it’s getting ugly folks.

 

*A humbled Bruce Boudreau, who really didn’t need to be humbled given what a nice man he is, will have a long line of NHL suitors interested in his services.

 

*The Northeastern University hockey team has gone to some extremes with their pregame wrestling matches.

 

*Pro Hockey Talk asks the question: if there’s an expansion draft, which goaltender should the Penguins protect given what’s going on in their playoff series?

 

*A really nice gesture within the PHT morning skate with Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper going to bat for a Lightning beat reporter that finds himself out of a job.

 

*Max Domi had a very memorable rookie season even if it didn’t end with any serious consideration for the Calder Trophy.

 

*The Nashville Predators got a little better this week with the decision to kick Mike Ribeiro up into the press box.

 

*For something completely different: these Han Solo uniform jerseys for the Durham Bulls’ Star Wars Night are the freakin’ truth.

Patriots contract dance is a daunting one

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Patriots contract dance is a daunting one

We are in the Patriots’ silent spring. Aside from the ongoing mud wrestle Tom Brady’s engaged in with the NFL and the noise surrounding that, it’s quiet with the football team.

Minimal personnel outflow. An interesting haul of B-list free agents. A workmanlike draft of players who won’t likely make much impact in their rookie seasons.

But this calm precedes a roster storm the team is facing over the next nine months.

Nine players of major consequence are entering the final year of their contracts. On offense, it’s not a crisis. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is the only expiring contract.

Defensively? Different story. Linebackers Donta Hightower and Jamie Collins, defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard, defensive backs Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon and Malcolm Butler (restricted free agent) are all expiring. As is special teams ace and captain Matthew Slater.

But wait, there’s still more. A bunch of the free agent/trade imports the Patriots made are here on one-year deals: tight ends Martellus Bennett and Clay Harbor, defensive linemen Chris Long and Terrance Knighton and guard Jonathan Cooper.

Add in OL Marcus Cannon, RB LeGarrette Blount, DL Alan Branch, WR Aaron Dobson, RB Brandon Bolden, LB Jonathan Freeny, FB James Develin, WR Chris Harper, TE Michael Williams, G Cameron Fleming and lower-tier free agent signings like DT Markus Kuhn, WR Nate Washington, LB Ramon Humber, CB E.J. Biggers and DE Frank Kearse and overall there are 30 (!!) players with expiring deals.

A few of those players won’t even make it through the summer with the team. And the fact others, like Bennett, Long, Knighton, Cooper, Blount and Washington, are on one-year “show us” deals isn’t bad. It’s smart.

But the volume of consequential players – especially on defense – who’ll be looking for new deals means there’s an interesting dance for Bill Belichick and Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio to engage in.

The Patriots have to do what’s best for their football team. But some of the players whose contracts are up are obligated to do what’s best for themselves business-wise.

And a lot of them are in line for their second contracts. They are facing what will probably be the most pivotal financial period in their lives over the next few months.

Consider a player like Jamie Collins. A second-round pick in 2013, his initial contract was for $3.76M. You take out taxes, agent fees, expenses, etc. and how much money do you think Collins has to show for the three seasons in which he’s been a rising star in the league? Certainly not enough to feel financially comfortable for the rest of his life.

But – barring catastrophic injury – Collins’ next contract is going to be a huge financial haul that should set up him and his family for decades.

By comparison, Lavonte David of the Buccaneers signed a five-year $50M contract with more than $25M guaranteed last August. Both play outside linebacker at a high level. Both were initially second-round picks (David, No. 58 in 2012; Collins, No. 52 in 2013).

Then there are players like Harmon and Ryan – good rising players who are not going to be paid like stars and may never be Pro Bowlers but are going to play in the league for a long time. Last season, Ryan took a huge step forward, starting opposite Malcolm Butler, putting up some outstanding advanced statistics and increasing his profile around the league. Harmon had a similar year. Ryan will have made $2.77M by the end of his rookie deal; Harmon will make $2.71M.

Unlike Collins, who is a freak talent and is going to get teams throwing tens of millions at him, Ryan and Harmon have a little more uncertainty. If the Patriots present them with offers prior to this year, do they take the security of knowing they are program mainstays or do they wait it out and test the market.

Ryan can look at a player like Buster Skrine who signed a $25M deal with the Jets last year and say, “Whoa… that could be me.” Harmon will have to see the offer he gets from the Patriots and compare it to the one the team gave his good friend Devin McCourty last year ($47.5M). Is Harmon half the player McCourty is? One-third? Will another team see in Harmon the potential to be comparable to McCourty?

Hightower, a former first-round pick, is more financially set than the other guys staring at second contracts. Hightower was down to make $7.724M from 2012-15. The Patriots picked up his fifth-year option for 2016 which will pay him $7.75M. So he’s in position to make more than $15M by the end of the season. He’s another player who could command more than $50M in a new deal if he goes to free agency. Would he be willing to take the security of staying in New England for a deal that may not be as lucrative as what he could command on the open market?

That’s what Jerod Mayo did and it proved to be the right move. Mayo – who came into the league under the previous CBA that was more lucrative for rookie first-rounders – agreed to a five-year extension in December of 2011 before his fourth NFL season was up, 15 months before he would have become a free agent. The extension was worth $48.5M. Mayo wound up on season-ending IR in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and he renegotiated his deal a couple of times but there was good security built into that deal. He retired recently having made more than $42M in the NFL.

We could go on with individual situations – Malcolm Butler could reasonably expect to make more than Janoris Jenkins who signed with the Giants for $62M this offseason, but Butler’s two years from unrestricted free agency and making less than $1M in salary this year; Jabaal Sheard needed to prove himself after a slow start to his career in Cleveland led him to a the two-year, $11M deal he signed with the Patriots. He’s en route to doing that and is – thanks to signing that short-term deal – in line to get another crack to cash in while in his prime.

And nobody should begrudge these players for doing so. We all know by now the future physical peril they put themselves in and we will never run out of stories related to young men who blew their money thinking it would never dry up. The players owe it to themselves and their families to make sure they are compensated as well as they can be.

Belichick, Caserio and the Krafts are aware of that too. Their chore is to do right by as many of these guys as they can against a hard salary cap and make sure the team isn’t mortgaged to its eyeballs.

It’s as complex a contractual puzzle as I can recall.

Bruins need leaders to follow

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Bruins need leaders to follow

This is the third in a five-part series about the breakdowns that doomed the team this season, and what must change for the Black and Gold to once again get moving in the right direction. 

First things first: The leadership and general vibe around the Bruins dressing room was actually a little better last year than it was during a particularly listless 2014-15 season.

But the sometimes-motivational, sometimes-calming and sometimes-stern voices inside the room still couldn’t have been anywhere close to optimal levels as the Bruins went 3-8-1 in their final 12 games to once again finish a single point out of the playoffs. Even if the Bruin players haven’t technically quit on long-time coach Claude Julien, two straight late-season collapses make everybody wonder if the proper message and motivations are getting from the coaches to the leadership group and then on to the rank-and-file.

To lose so many games in regulation that late in the season is an indictment of the team's mental toughness. As is the disturbing tendency to shrink from the biggest challenges: The first three games of the season (an 0-3 record with a 7-16 goal differential). The Winter Classic (a 5-1 loss to the Canadiens). Milan Lucic's return to Boston (a 9-2 thrashing at the hands of Lucic's Kings). And that final, must-win game against Ottawa (a stunning 6-1 beatdown).

For whatever reason, it's seemed a lot more joyless around the Bruins on a daily basis in the last few years than it was back in their contending days, when big, bright personalities like Shawn Thornton, Johnny Boychuk and Andrew Ference were around. It's not something easily manufactured, or replaced once you’ve lost it. Bringing in a veteran glue guy like Max Talbot obviously wasn’t enough.

It also something captain Zdeno Chara was still smarting about during Bruins break-up day a couple of weeks ago.

“Obviously if you don’t have the effort, you won’t have results," he said. "I can’t really tell you that the whole season’s been a disappointment. We’ve shown some positive stretches and things that we’ve done well, and we improved. But when times were [there] to fold up or respond, we always kind of find ourselves taking steps backwards. That was one of the things that was disappointing, and frustrating.

“I think that we are close, but close is not close enough. We’ve seen the last two years that we missed the playoffs by a point, two points. It’s just, I mean, we’re there, but obviously the commitment has got to be on a higher level. The execution has to be on a higher level, and that’s like I said, every individual has to be better in that area. Like we’re always saying, Game 1 and Game 82, they shouldn’t be different. Every game counts. Every point counts.”

Those disturbing trends had Julien looking inward for answers.

“What I did was a self-evaluation . . . " he said. "Do I still have the ear of the dressing room? Are they still hearing?"

And in the end, Julien -- who could easily have found another job (like with the Senators) had he left Boston -- feels he's up for the challenge.

"I don’t want to be that guy that bails just because all of a sudden you hit a bump in the road," he said. "I want to be that guys that perseveres. It’s okay to be remembered right now as the winningest coach in Bruins history" -- a plateau he reached during the season -- "but I’d rather be remembered for a guy who had enough character to go back to the trenches, dig his heels in and help turn this organization around.”

Those sentiments certainly send the right kind of stubborn, determined and positive message the Bruins need to hear. But it’s also going to take something different from the players.

Chara and Patrice Bergeron have led by example with feverish work ethics, and a daily approach that doesn’t leave any room for compromise from those with a different agenda. But neither is a rah-rah, emotional-touchstone player, someone who can easily break the tension when things start going south . . . as they did in the final month in each of the last two seasons. This is where a Thornton, a Boychuk or a Ference would have known the proper way to challenge a wayward teammate, to stand up and bear the brunt of a withering critical jab from Julien, or simply pick just the right time to crack a joke that would ease the tension. Or to know when it was vital to stand up for a teammate on the ice, and show the kind of backbone and feistiness that the Bruins have sorely lacked in the last two years.

These are little things to be sure, but they can turn into very big things if neglected. While the Bruins were choking on fumes in their dressing room in the season’s final 12 games, Thornton was in Florida with his Panthers teammates enjoying the “Kevin Spacey in Space” hooded sweatshirt phenomenon that people around the team say Thornton came up with midway through the season.  

Those kinds of little touches go a long way in building a winner, and making sure the weight of expectation never gets too heavy.

It simply feels like those expectations, combined with the serious erosion of talent/depth, have sucked some of the fun out of being a Bruin, and that really comes across at critical times during the season. It also feels like some players are simply straying from the system more than before, and not being pulled into the collective group as they might have been in the past.

Chris Kelly is the kind of player who can be instrumental in those areas, and certainly has the experience -- along with the respect of his teammates, and the willingness to say what needs to be said -- to be that kind of leader. There’s a reason Kelly was re-introduced as an important voice late in the season as he rehabbed from his broken leg, even though he wasn’t all that close to a return to the lineup.

Needless to say, Kelly’s presence is missed when he’s injured and away from the group for an extended period, like last season. That will be a consideration as the 35-year-old approaches free agency on July 1; he may have greater value to the Bruins than he would anywhere else around the NHL.

“From a . . . [team] glue standpoint, obviously . . . there was a void with Chris not being part of our locker room. Claude and I had a lot of talks about that," said general manager Don Sweeney. While admitting "Chris’ health is what we have to evaluate, first and foremost, as to when he can contribute on the ice to us", Sweeney hinted there may be more to the decision than that.

"Sometimes, those guys, it’s not necessarily the stat line always, but there’s some glue there that you do miss when he’s not [around]," said Sweeney. "[Kelly is] a little under-appreciated in that regard.”

Still, the Bruins need more than Kelly and the lead-by-example authority of Chara and Bergeron. Talent is always the most important deciding factor in the ultimate fate of a hockey club, but the simple fact is that the B's underachieved in each of the last two seasons with teams that should have made the playoffs.

That’s the ultimate warning sign that things aren’t as good as they could be, or should be, and need to be changed.