The second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs opens this week and the games should be great. We're talking heavyweight matchups. Pittsburgh-Washington. Winnipeg-Nashville. Tampa Bay against Boston or Toronto. And there's the Pacific battle between Vegas and San Jose.
Every time people say the Golden Knights are just too raw to keep winning, they go and do it. That four-game sweep over Los Angeles was ultra impressive and it really has fan bases around the league wondering: Why can't we do that? It's a common refrain for teams that are struggling to even make the playoffs (see: Sabres, Buffalo) or ones that have gone years or maybe their entire history (like Columbus) without winning a series.
Vegas gets in during its first year and its first series is a sweep. There's got to be a lot of lessons about team building in this magic Golden Knights season.
A big one is the Golden Knights don't have any contract or trade albatrosses around their neck. General Manager George McPhee started with a clean slate. No big-money busts. No must-play guys because of previous deals. Nobody gets to do that.
"Their salary structure is dynamite. That's absolutely No. 1 to me," former Sabres and current Vegas television analyst Brad May told this corner last week by phone. "They don't have anybody out of whack, out of line in that structure."
Indeed, the Vegas playoff roster features six players making between $3.7 million and the top, the $5.75 million earned by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault are both signed to extensions now paying $5 million a year, while young players like William Karlsson and Shea Theodore are making a combined $1.9 million this year and will get raises as restricted free agents but won't break the bank either.
"George McPhee has found that niche at around $5 million," May said. "He can have 7-8-9 players at that number and literally be well under the salary cap and fill holes. He has motivated players who are handsomely paid but modestly at the same time. The structure isn't out of whack and it gives George a lot of flexibility."
So without cap issues, what did the Knights do to get good fast? Certainly they finagled the expansion draft with some teams (raise your hands, Florida, Minnesota, St. Louis and Anaheim). But McPhee's team is following the current blueprint of speed, speed and more speed. Heavy hockey is over, as evidenced by the first-round sweeps of Los Angeles and Anaheim. The Kings, in fact, have won just one playoff game since their 2014 Cup triumph over the New York Rangers.
McPhee and his staff identified players who needed a chance in bigger roles like Karlsson and it's paid off handsomely. No one thinks Karlsson is a regular 40-goal scorer because of a high shooting percentage this season but he's certainly not a six-goal player like he was last year in Columbus either.
I always hated how the Sabres used guys like Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste this year. They bounced back and forth from Rochester, not doing a lot here. One reason? How were they going to do much playing with the likes of Johan Larsson and Jordan Nolan? The Sabres simply didn't give their fringe forwards enough of a chance with top players, which is exactly how Vegas thrived.
And, of course, Vegas' players aren't complacent. They've got a chip on their shoulder. Somebody didn't want them. And every game was revenge, either for you with your old team or somebody in the next locker over who got left unprotected by their team.
And here we are, with an expansion team having remarkably good odds of winning the Stanley Cup in its first year. It's all amazing. But you would hope every GM in the league is taking copious notes on it.
"They built it on speed and character and maybe some players have overachieved or came out more than we anticipated," May said. "Of the eight teams that will remain, they have as good a chance as anyone else. Absolutely. The best? They'll have to prove it. But they've been consistent all year. They're competitive.
"When they won Game Four in LA, they didn't jump off the bench like they won the Stanley Cup. Sure, they were all happy and all embraced. But guys took their time. What was it? 'Round one accomplished. Let's enjoy this for 12 hours and back to work.' It's very impressive to see that."
Good call by Pegula
Terry Pegula was about two years too late in not raising Sabres season ticket prices but at least last week's announcement gives bedraggled fans some food for thought. The organization has been too tone deaf for too long but there's been a sense the last few months that the team is (finally) listening to its customers on a variety of topics much more than in earlier years of the Pegula ownership.
You can't go back on past mistakes but it's never too late to stop taking your fans for granted either. Especially your long-standing customers. No idea how many of them will be back next season, especially if the Sabres lose Saturday night's draft lottery. But there was no possible way to justify yet another increase.
Fletcher gone in Minnesota
Tim Murray's best friend and favorite trading partner among GMs was Minnesota's Chuck Fletcher. Jason Botterill's first big trade last summer was with Fletcher, whom he worked with in Pittsburgh. Don't look for the Wild-Sabres trade pipeline to continue as Fletcher was sacked after nine years by Wild owner Craig Leipold on Monday.
The Wild simply weren't competitive in their 5-0 loss at Winnipeg on Friday that ended their first-round series in five games and gave them a third straight first-round exit. Minnesota has made the playoff six straight years but won only two series and never got past the second round.
"I shared with Chuck we wanted to go further. I wanted a new set of eyes on this team,” Leipold said.
The Wild owner is not looking to rebuild. He feels the team needs some changes but that coach Bruce Boudreau is likely the right man for the job. Injuries to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were damaging but the Wild's core of young players hasn't been good enough.
Fletcher's moves look dubious. He protected players on the current roster and let Erik Haula and Alex Tuch both go to Vegas. He acquired Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis from the Sabres, and should any GM really have been acquiring two middling forwards from last year's Buffalo team?
Ennis was a healthy scratch for four games against the Jets. After just eight goals and 22 points in 73 games, he's considered a candidate for a buyout of the final year of five-year, $23-million contract he signed with the Sabres in 2014 that carries a $4.6 million cap hit.
"We want to win a Stanley Cup, and that doesn’t mean that that’s going to be next year, but I want someone to help me with a plan that for the next three or four years, to win a Stanley Cup,” Leipold said. “The fans deserve to win one here. This is the 'State of Hockey' and I’m really confident that we’re going to have candidates that are interested in coming here because of our fans, because of our market, because of our team."
Reports out of Minnesota have Nashville assistant Paul Fenton as the leading man in the wings.
Jackets left blue again
You have to feel for the good folks of Columbus, with another season going by and still nary a playoff series victory. The Blue Jackets are now 0 for 4 in the postseason since they were born in 2000 and have yet to finish higher than third in a division. That's some major futility there.
“This is a kick in the teeth. No one feels good in here," captain Nick Foligno said after the 6-3 loss to the Capitals in Game Six, the Jackets' fourth straight defeat in the series. "We had a 2-0 lead and didn’t win. That doesn’t happen.”
What went wrong after they won the first two games in Washington? Among other things, the Jackets just didn't get nearly enough goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky, who has allowed three-plus goals in 12 straight playoff starts. Bobrovsky's career playoff record is just 5-14 with a 3.49 goals-against average and .891 save percentage. He was at 3.18 and .900 in this series. Not nearly good enough in crunch time.
Around the boards
- Devils defenseman Sami Vatanen confirmed Tuesday at locker cleanout day he had a concussion from the hit he absorbed from Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov. The Lightning star escaped a suspension likely because it was ruled the head was not the principal point of contact of the hit but it certainly looked like he left his feet and made plenty of head contact. Not to mention he caused an injury. Doesn't do much for the notion that the Department of Player Safety won't go after star players who cross the line.
- A Boston win in Game 7 against Toronto would mean the top two teams in each conference are meeting in the second round (Tampa-Boston, Nashville-Winnipeg). This can happen too much under this format and can hurt the conference final as well as even the Stanley Cup final.
- There's no good explanation to get away from 1/8, 2/7, 3/6, 4/5 in the first round and reseeding the four survivors in the conference. Oh, but there is. You do that and the league doesn't get its heavily promoted NCAA-style bracket challenge on NHL.com. Ridiculous.
- In nine of the last 10 years they've qualified for the playoffs, the Bruins have gone the distance in at least one series. They're 4-6 in those series, winning three of them in their 2011 Cup run that was capped by a Game 7 shutout win in Vancouver. The Sabres, by contrast, have played just six Game 7s in their entire history and don't forget that until the last 10 years they used to make the playoffs almost every season. Buffalo's record in those games is 1-5, with the lone win coming on Derek Plante's overtime goal that beat Ottawa in 1997.
- Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, speaking to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on frustrated, beer can-tossing fans late in Sunday's Game 6 clincher in Philadelphia: "They decided to waste their money and throw some things on the ice that they had already spent money on. I guess some of them have more money than brains.”