Haggerty: Previewing the Cup Finals

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Haggerty: Previewing the Cup Finals

NEWARK, NJ -- The waiting is over, and the rest-vs.-rust arguments will cease.

The NHL will drop the puck on a true East Coast-vs.-West Coast Stanley Cup Finals with the sixth-seeded New Jersey Devils hosting the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings, and it all starts Wednesday night.

You dont know if youll ever get the opportunity to play in the Finals, said Devils captain Zach Parise. If you get an opportunity you never know whether youll get the chance again, so you have to make the most of it. Given the circumstances, I dont think there will much of a feeling-out period like there is during the regular season. You have to hate your opponent. I dont think thats going to be a problem for us.

With the Kings making the same kind of noise, and with plenty of storylines on both sides, heres a quick series preview and a fearless prediction:

Goaltenders
Its the kind of master-vs.-the young apprentice tale that any Star Wars fan would love. Martin Brodeur, the veteran of five Stanley Cup Finals and a three-time champion, has done it all in a Hall of Fame career, and knows the end is near at 40 years old. There's little doubt he could reach back for something extra with another Cup on the line so close to retirement, and he has a respectable .923 save percentage, along with a 2.04 goals-against average, so far in the playoffs. He also has four assists while hes sliced and diced opposing forechecks. It will be difficult to conquer the goaltending lion in winter, but Jonathan Quick has been Mr. Everything for the Kings at the other end. He leads all playoff goaltenders with a .946 save percentage and a microscopic 1.54 goals-against average, and has looked unbeatable. But hes never played in the Stanley Cup Finals spotlight before, and hell have to prove he can handle it after looking like Eminem with his hood shrouded over his face at Stanley Cup Media Day on Tuesday. Edge: Devils

Defensemen
Bryce Salvador. Marek Zidlicky. Peter Harrold. Mark Fayne. Who are these guys? The New Jersey Devils' blueline crew has been outstanding while going about their business anonymously, but theres been a sense the balloon could burst if they faced withering forecheck. Enter the Los Angeles Kings, who are led by the closest thing Ive seen to Ray Bourque in todays NHL in Drew Doughty. Doughty has 10 points in 14 games with a plus-10 and is playing 25-plus minutes every night. The rest (Matt Greene, Slava Voynov, Alec Martinez, Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi) are decidedly Jersey-like in their No-Name Quality, but an elite defenseman like Doughty could dominate in a best-of-seven series for the Cup like Niklas Lidstrom before him. Edge: Kings

Forwards
Plenty of talent and firepower on both sides. Ilya Kovalchuk has been a consistent force during New Jerseys playoff run and Zach Parise seemed to finally discover his footing in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Rangers. For L.A., Dustin Brown has been a one-man wrecking crew with his relentless forecheck and gritty nature, and has 16 points and a plus-13 in only 14 games. Anze Kopitar has been equally dominant at the offensive end. But the Kings' biggest strength is that effective postseason players like Dustin Penner, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter stand behind them, and nearly every single one of them has something to prove over the next two weeks. Dont underestimate the fact that many of the Devils forwards have played in the minus through the postseason. They can be exposed offensively and the Kings have the dogs to get the job done. Edge: Kings

Special Teams
This could be where the Devils could do some damage in the series. Kovalchuk has five power-play goals, more than all players on either team, and he is a force of skill on the man advantage. Meanwhile the Kings have gone 6-for-71 while tallying a Bruins-esque 8.1 percent success rate during the playoffs. Their man advantage has been a liability throughout the postseason, though it hasnt been an issue quite yet. Meanwhile, Jersey is humming along at 18.2 percent and has scored twice as many PP goals in the postseason as the Kings. It should be noted that the Kings are also killing 91.2 percent of their penalties while the Devils are under 75 percent effectiveness. Methinks if the Devils win, it will be on the strength of special teams: Edge: Devils

CoachingIntangibles
Peter DeBoer managed to survive three years in Florida. For that he gets bonus points. He also has stared down John Tortorella on multiple occasions and bit back at the rabid dog of a hockey coach. For that, an entire New York Rangers media corps wants to give him a hug. Hes squeezed everything he could out of the Devils while surprising many along the way, and surviving injuries early in the season that looked like they would sink his hockey club into the Jersey shore. Beyond the coaches, the leadership of Zach Parise is impressive and the Devils have Stanley Cup Final warriors in guys like Martin Brodeur and Patrik Elias. You have to like that. For Los Angeles, Darryl Sutter likes to say things like Strap on the feedbag and any other manner of farm euphemisms, but under that country-boy exterior the man is crazy like a fox. Edge: Devils by a slight margin

Prediction
It will take the Kings a couple of games to get going after taking seven days off between the Western Conference Finals and the start of the Cup Finals, but they are fast, strong, relentless and explosive. The depth of Los Angeles -- with Carter and Richards coming after Brown and Anze Kopitar -- is exactly the kind of firepower that will give some defensively suspect Devils players fits. In the end Los Angeles will find ways to expose Kovalchuk when hes out on the ice, and the Kings will finally break through against Brodeur. The pick: Kings in six

Haggerty: Bruins playing it pretty safe at the NHL Draft

Haggerty: Bruins playing it pretty safe at the NHL Draft

CHICAGO – As opening nights go at the NHL Draft, Friday night was a bit of a ho-hum affair for the Boston Bruins at the United Center home of the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Bruins went the safe route by drafting a smooth, defensive-minded defenseman with the 18th overall pick when they selected Finnish product Urho Vaakenainen, and in doing so left more dynamic forwards like Kristian Vesalainen and Kailer Yamamoto still on the draft board for other teams to claim as their own. It was a bit of a curious choice given how many defensemen the Bruins already have in the prospect pipeline, but the lack of strength in the draft class seemed to lead teams to carve their own paths looking for players.

MORE: Bruins select defenseman Urho Vaakanainen with No. 18 pick

The 6-foot-1, 188-pounder clearly has miles to go offensively despite his smooth skating and solid passing skills, but there’s also a consideration that the teenager has been playing in the men’s league in Finland for the last couple of seasons. It makes things a little more difficult to project for the Finn D-man, but the Bruins believe there is some upside to his offensive game given the skills, the hockey IQ and the considerable confidence that the player has in his own game.

“His gap control and skating ability are really good. He’s obviously played in the Finnish Elite League at a very young age for one and a half years now and he’s played on the big stage at the world juniors. We feel like there’s a lot of upside for a 200-foot player that gets back on pucks, and then can transition them back out. Being able to cover ice is an important part of the game, and it continues to evolve in that direction,” said Bruins GM Don Sweeney, who indicated Vaakenainen will play in North America in 2018-19 after fulfilling his contractual obligations in Finland. “We tracked what he did on offense at the junior league level prior to him jumping to the elite league, and it lines up pretty well with other elite players that made the jump to that level.

“It’s a valid question and whether he gets put into those [offensive] situations this year is what we’re excited about with his [Finnish] team moving forward.”

While Vaakenainen sounded surprised the Bruins selected him after only a single meeting at the NHL scouting combine, Sweeney said that Boston’s head scout in Finland has enough history with the family to vouch for the kid’s makeup.

So while it’s far from a sexy pick and the Bruins could have tried to hit a home run with an 18th overall selection in a mediocre draft, the B’s will also get some time before anybody is ready to label the Finnish blueliner a boom or a bust.

The rest of the draft night didn’t add up to much for the B’s, however. They made the selection of Vaakenainen after strongly considering dropping down in the first round, and in doing so lost one of the better trade chips in the form of their 2017 first round pick. There were discussions with Minnesota about Marco Scandella and a few trade feelers to other clubs that might listen on a D-man, but the Bruins now have to hit the reset button on trade discussions for left-shot defensemen or top-6 left wings.

Perhaps Scandella’s $4 million per season salary was an issue for the Bruins, or maybe the Bruins didn’t want to give up their first round pick for a 27-year-old D-man coming off a so-so season with the Wild. Either way, there wasn’t enough momentum for the Bruins to get a trade done with a bevy of defensemen rumored to be available if the offer is good enough.

“I was on the record saying that we’d be offering our first round pick for target-specific players, and we did do that,” said Sweeney. “I don’t blame teams for not necessarily wanting to go through with it, so we went ahead with a player we wanted with our own pick. We continue to build what we think is a good group of guys moving forward.

“There are a couple of areas we’d like to address and get better. We’re trying to help our team currently. Certainly Brandon [Carlo] jumped into our lineup and we hope Charlie [McAvoy] will carry over what he did, and we have other players that will push. We have six returning defensemen we feel good about and we’ll certainly push from underneath, but it’s an area we’ll continue to address. We have some forwards that we also hope will come online, but we’ll never stop exploring and trying to improve our club.”

So let’s sum it all up after a week of additions and subtractions from the Original Six organization: The Bruins added a decidedly vanilla defenseman in the first round of the NHL Draft that might be a simple stay-at-home guy, and they weren’t able to muster any kind of deals for a D-man or winger to enhance the NHL roster. On the other hand, they didn’t give up much over the week as well and they didn’t do much at all to harm a solid roster that looked like they were finally on the right track pushing into the playoffs last season.

The Bruins could be in store for an action-packed Day Two of the draft on Saturday full of promising prospects and bountiful trades, but it sure feels like the 2017 NHL Draft in Chicago isn’t going to be a very memorable one for the Black and Gold. 

Bruins select defenseman Urho Vaakanainen with No. 18 pick

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Bruins select defenseman Urho Vaakanainen with No. 18 pick

CHICAGO – Well, the Bruins are certainly opening themselves up for a little second-guessing.

The B’s were trying to move their first-round pick, but ultimately made the selection in Finnish D-man Urho Vaakenainen, who is described by scouts as a classic stay-at-home defenseman type without much offensive upside.

MORE - Report: Bruins among several teams interested in Wild's Scandella

The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Vaakenainen had a goal in six games for Team Finland at a disappointing World Junior tournament, and didn’t post anything eye-catching while playing for JYP of SM-Liiga where he appeared in 41 games, tallying two goals and four assists along with a plus/minus rating of plus-five. He spent the 2015-16 season with Blues of SM-Liiga, scoring a goal and five assists in 25 games.

Some scouting reports cast him as strictly a stay-at-home D-man with limited offensive skills while other scouting reports give him a little more credit for his two-way game and smooth puck-moving abilities without any big holes in his game.

“Has an uncanny ability to get his stick in shooting and passing lanes. Just don’t expect offense,” said Sportsnet anchor and prospect aficionado Jeff Marek leading up to the draft in one of his mock drafts. “He won’t be out there late in a game to tie it up, but you’ll love him out there protecting a lead.”

Vaakenainen said he was surprised to be taken by the Bruins given that he had just one conversation with them at the NHL Scouting Combine, and hadn’t really talked to any Bruins scouts throughout the hockey season. On the plus side, Vaakenainen said he models his game after Nashville defenseman Roman Josi and prides himself on his skating, his passing and shooting and his ability to play the two-way game.

“I think I’m a great skater…good with the puck,” said Vaakenainen. “I have a great first pass. I’m a complete package and a two-way defenseman, steady guy. My expectation was to go in the first round. I wasn’t expecting to go Boston, but the first round was my expectation. I met them at the combine, but that was it. That was the only meeting in person.”

Clearly, it remains to be seen how a young, raw prospect like Vaakenainen develops over time and there were plenty of mock drafts and scouting services that him getting selected in the first round. Still, once in a while it wouldn’t kill the Bruins to go with a player holding larger upside like Finnish power forward Kristian Vesalainen or dynamic, undersized winger Kailer Yamamoto.