Facing Off is a weekly column debating five of hockey’s hottest topics each and every Monday. From current events like trades and hat tricks to bigger-picture stuff like scandals and expansion — you name it, we’re debating it. Albeit, not always with a serious tone. We’re keeping this column light, so keep that in mind when reading, and feel free to join in on the fun by leaving a comment. Follow us on Twitter (@FacingOff_THW) and get in on the debate there too.
Just like that, the second round is set.
Marcus Johansson scored both goals for Washington, including the overtime winner on a rebound of a shot by perennial playoff hero Justin Williams, as the Capitals persevered in putting away the wild-card Toronto Maple Leafs and setting the stage for another showdown with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
A crazy night comes to a crazy OT finish.
— NHL (@NHL) April 24, 2017
That marquee series pits the defending Stanley Cup champions against the two-time reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners. Sidney Crosby against Alex Ovechkin again — for the third time in their decade-long careers and for the second year in a row.
Hockey fans are in for another treat, with the other division finals featuring the Ottawa Senators against the New York Rangers in the Atlantic, the Anaheim Ducks against the Edmonton Oilers in the Pacific, and the St. Louis Blues against the Nashville Predators in the Central.
The Washington-Pittsburgh rematch in the Metropolitan might hog the headlines, but every matchup offers its share of intrigue.
Dan Mount, the Predators’ lead writer for THW, a longtime Rangers fan and a regular contributor to Facing Off, joins me to recap the first round and preview the second round — complete with our predictions.
— NHL (@NHL) April 24, 2017
Nashville swept Chicago — let that sink in for a minute — now, how far can the Predators go? What were your takeaways from that series?
MOUNT: In the words of WWE wrestler Chris Jericho (and son of former NHLer Ted Irvine): “Drink it, maaaaaaan.”
I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. It wasn’t Nashville eeking out a couple of victories and surviving a seven-game slugfest with a couple of lucky breaks. This was a comprehensive rout by the Predators of a team that many had penciled in for the Stanley Cup Final. Did I think Nashville would put up a tougher fight than most? Absolutely, but I thought Chicago would eventually shine through and win.
However, Pekka Rinne regained the form that made him one of the best in the world. He played some of the best hockey of his career. I think this tweet sums up the dominance of Rinne and how much he stymied Chicago.
After a 4 game series, no Blackhawk had more points than Pekka Rinne ?
— Because It's The Cup (@CauseItsTheCup) April 21, 2017
If Rinne can maintain this level of play and the defense can dominate, it would not surprise me if the Predators reach the conference final for the first time in franchise history. This is not your prototypical eight seed. Nashville was the first No. 8 in the NBA or NHL to sweep a top seed. St. Louis will need to keep playing tough if it wants to top Nashville in the next round.
The biggest takeaway is that Chicago might have to make some changes with some of its older players. I don’t think it’ll be a tear-down, but some familiar names might be gone. However, Hawks fans shouldn’t be too sad because someone like Alex DeBrincat will contribute immediately.
Alex DeBrincat has a goal and an assist. He has as many points tonight as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane had combined in the playoffs.
— Mark Scheig (@markscheig) April 22, 2017
FISHER: Yeah, I don’t think anybody saw this coming. I was calling Nashville a “live underdog” heading into the series, but I still took Chicago in seven based on the Blackhawks’ experience. I saw a fair number of Nashville in seven or even Nashville in six predictions, but nobody dared to suggest Nashville in four straight. That sweep was simply stunning!
One person on the Predators’ bandwagon before the playoffs began was Félix Sicard, another Facing Off regular. On our playoff preview podcast, Félix predicted Nashville would not only beat Chicago but advance all the way to the Stanley Cup Final (losing to Washington). I considered that a surprising pick at the time — and revealed my own shocker in Edmonton (also losing to Washington) — but now I think Félix might have been on to something. I could totally see our underdogs clashing in the Western Conference final.
I could also see Nashville going undefeated through the Central Division bracket. If the Predators can sweep the Blackhawks, surely they can sweep the Blues. The Preds are now the team to beat in the West as far as I’m concerned. So, yes, Félix was right — or so it would seem.
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) April 22, 2017
As for Chicago, I still think that team is built to win more Cups as the youth movement gains more experience. I like the Blackhawks’ roster going forward, and I honestly believe they would have beat any other team in the West in the opening round. They just ran into a brick wall in Rinne and a Predators team that underachieved all season but is now looking like the Cup contender than many anticipated back in October.
What surprised you most about the first round, besides the Blackhawks getting swept? Looking ahead to the second round, what are you most looking forward to and who do you see advancing to the conference finals? Yes, it’s prediction time again.
MOUNT: That old goalies like Rinne and Henrik Lundqvist are having a rebirth. Both guys heard the talk that their time might be running out, but they’ve both turned it around. Lundqvist outdueled Carey Price in a great duel between two world-class goalies. The Rangers could make a surprise run if “The King” continues to vex the opposition.
I’m excited for the Oilers and Ducks series out West. Anaheim is trying to get rid of the sour taste of being dumped by Nashville in the first round last season and has loads of experience with its forwards. Edmonton is finally in the postseason with a young group and an energized fan base. I can’t wait for the games at Rogers Place because it’s going to be exciting.
St. Louis and Nashville is going to be a physical series with some good goaltending as Jake Allen has turned it around after a shaky start. My prediction is that we’re going to see Edmonton versus Nashville in the Western final.
In the Eastern Conference, I’m happy for the Senators because of the cancer scare for Craig Anderson’s wife. Ottawa has really adapted to Guy Boucher’s system and held off a feisty Boston squad. However, I think the Rangers will have too much, especially with the Erik Karlsson battling an injury. New York wins the series in six.
I know Toronto lost the series, but the team showed a lot of guts against mighty Washington. Many penciled the Capitals to win in four or five, but the young Leafs gave it their best shot by pushing so many games to overtime. The future looks bright for Mike Babcock and the Buds.
As for Washington and Pittsburgh, that’s the series American television executives are looking forward to. The Caps did win the Presidents’ Trophy, but that’s not meant anything to the Penguins. Pittsburgh will get a little rest time after eliminating Columbus in short order, and I feel that will help. I’ll take the defending champions in seven.
FISHER: I still can’t get over Nashville in four and I kind of gave it away already, but that’s my second-round prediction too: Nashville in four again, Edmonton in six again. So we’re in agreement on the West final, though I would imagine Félix — THW’s lead writer for Anaheim — has the Ducks over the Oilers. That’s not to call him a homer, as he’d probably still be in the majority with that prediction since Anaheim has won eight straight games — sweeping Calgary in the first round — and is 15-0-3 in its last 18 games dating back to March 10.
— Rogers Place (@RogersPlace) April 23, 2017
The Ducks also have home-ice advantage, so the Oilers will be in tough, but Edmonton beat a battle-tested San Jose team — dethroning the defending Western Conference champion — and gained enough experience to deal with Anaheim. For what it’s worth, the Oilers also won three of five regular-season games against the Ducks, including the most recent meeting. I like Edmonton’s chances and that’s the series I’m most looking forward to. Dan is also right about Rogers Place cranking it up another notch for the second round, as Edmonton’s fans experience euphoria for the first time in more than a decade (since 2006).
In the East, I’m much more on the fence with my predictions. Despite struggling to get past Toronto, I’m still liking Washington’s chances against Pittsburgh. Something tells me the Capitals are going to find another gear and avenge last year’s loss to the Penguins. The Capitals are a better team on paper this spring and the Penguins aren’t as good without Kris Letang and Matt Murray — both injured, though Murray could return at some point in the second round. I’ll go against Dan and take Washington in seven. I do think that series is going the distance again.
I’m not nearly as excited about the Senators and Rangers, and that will likely be the series I pay the least attention to. I would have much preferred the Rangers and Bruins as Original Six rivals, or the Senators and Canadiens as regional rivals north of the border. Alas, the Hockey Gods gave us the Senators and Rangers. And the NHL gave Ottawa home-ice advantage despite finishing with four fewer points than New York in the regular-season standings. Blame the wild-card format for that, but I’m banking on some good karma coming the Rangers’ way in winning this series in six. Yes, at home.
As for other first-round surprises, I was (and still am) in awe of the fight that Toronto put up against Washington, finishing with two fewer goals (16-18) and two more shots (213-211) over six games — five of them requiring overtime, tying a record for the most overtime games in a playoff series.
All combined, the eight division semifinals set a new record for the most overtime games in a playoff round with 18.
We probably shouldn’t be surprised by St. Louis beating Minnesota and a Bruce Boudreau team falling short in the playoffs, but I didn’t see that coming either — especially not in five games, with the Blues winning three in a row over the Wild in Minnesota. Remember, the Blues were sellers at the trade deadline in adding an extra first-round pick for Kevin Shattenkirk, while the Wild were buyers in parting with their first-rounder for Martin Hanzal. Funny how that worked out — well, not funny if you are Chuck Fletcher.
Boom goes the dynamite in Buffalo — the Sabres fired head coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Tim Murray — so now what? Who should they hire as replacements? Who would be on your short-list of candidates?
MOUNT: I really thought Bylsma would get another year to turn it around, but I guess Terry Pegula didn’t like that the team regressed in points. I thought the Sabres were a much better team than last year, but the other teams in the Atlantic got better at a quicker rate and the injuries to Robin Lehner were a factor.
Murray getting fired was shocking because I thought he was restocking the team with young prospects like Jack Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen and Sam Reinhart to name a few. The fan base is starving for playoff hockey, but I thought they were seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.
I smell a reunion between Daryl Sutter and Dean Lombardi in the Queen City. Pegula is willing to splash the cash to get high-profile people and these two would make an impact. Lombardi did a great job building the Kings up from nothing and Sutter is a no-nonsense coach who would shape a talented core.
I know there’s a nostalgia factor with Lindy Ruff, but I’m always wary of someone going back after being let go a few seasons ago. The Ted Nolan reunion didn’t work out too well in Western New York. Phil Housley of the Predators would be a good choice for coach and he’s a former Sabre.
As for the GM choices other than Lombardi, Norm MacIver has been part of Stan Bowman’s staff in Chicago and is deserving of a shot. I’d also take a look at Rick Dudley because he’s an in-house candidate that would help with some form of continuity.
FISHER: There is a growing sense that Buffalo had become a dysfunctional franchise under Murray and Bylsma, and perhaps starting at the very top with Pegula. I wasn’t overly shocked by this shakeup, but I do wonder where it leaves Dan Lambert — the farm-team coach in Rochester who was recruited by Bylsma and initially served as one of his assistants in Buffalo. I wonder if more changes could be coming once new leadership is established.
I don’t think Buffalo is the right fit for Sutter. If Bylsma was clashing with Eichel, Sutter would be too overbearing and things would go from bad to worse. Lombardi might be a better fit there as GM and I don’t think he’d demand Sutter as a package deal, but it sounds like the Sabres are going to hire another first-timer like they did in luring Murray from Ottawa.
There are no shortage of candidates fitting that criteria, and MacIver would be near the top of my list as well. If he got the GM job, you’d have to consider Kevin Dineen — a Blackhawks assistant under Joel Quenneville — as a strong candidate for head coach. With Chicago’s playoff collapse, both men might be ready to broaden their horizons and do their own thing elsewhere. Buffalo could offer that opportunity.
In saying that, Housley is my favourite for the head-coaching position. Buffalo might have to wait until Nashville’s playoff run ends to talk to him, but I think Housley would be worth the wait. He’s an offensive-minded coach who would seemingly work well with Eichel, and he was a terrific defenceman in his playing days with the Sabres, so Housley could further mentor Ristolainen and some of Buffalo’s other up-and-coming blueliners like Jake McCabe, Casey Nelson and Brendan Guhle.
Housley would be my guy, but I would also try to hire David Quinn as an associate coach. Quinn coached Eichel at Boston University and has past experience as an NHL assistant coach with Colorado. I don’t know what relationship there is, if any, between Housley and Quinn, but that partnership would be worth exploring. Quinn had a down year at BU, so he’d presumably be interested in another pro gig.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 23, 2017
Housley and Lombardi have both been involved with USA Hockey in recent years, so perhaps there is more familiarity between them. I wouldn’t rule out Lombardi just yet, but the likes of Paul Fenton in Nashville, Jason Botterill in Pittsburgh, former Sabre Chris Drury with the Rangers and even Kyle Dubas in Toronto are among the many intriguing options, along with the aforementioned MacIver in Chicago.
Third Man In
CHAD DEDOMINICIS (Sabres lead writer for THW): Bylsma wasn’t really the surprise here. The way the season went and ended, I expected the Sabres to move on from the embattled coach. Murray was the one that really shook me. I never really gave much thought to the idea that he wouldn’t get at least one more year. He really only got one year to get his team into the playoffs after the tank, I mean rebuild.
Terry Pegula trying to fix Buffalo sports like…… pic.twitter.com/jb2jM25u2G
— Buffalo Blitz (@BuffaloBlitzFB) April 21, 2017
The part that worries me the most here is the timing. Terry Pegula needs to find his new head of the hockey department quickly to be ready for the busy summer ahead. The Pegulas will be hiring their third general manager and fourth head coach in six years of owning the Sabres. It doesn’t appear that they have anyone within the organization that is qualified to assist in the search for the right person for the job.
This makes me think that Pegula’s first step should be getting a director of hockey operations to run the hockey department. Then that person can lead the general manager search with the Pegulas. Of course, that hire will be crucial. It has to be the right hire this time around. The Sabres haven’t made the playoffs in six years and fans are starting to become restless.
Pegula said in his press conference on Friday that he was looking for someone with experience to run the hockey side, which may be another indicator of his desire to hire a hockey ops director. The Sabres will have a good list of candidates to evaluate. This type of job doesn’t open very often with solid pieces already in place like Eichel, Reinhart, Ristolainen, Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane.
— Buffalo News Sports (@TBNSports) April 22, 2017
For the general manager position, I have three guys that are on the top of my list. First is MacIver, the Chicago Blackhawks assistant GM. He’s been under one of the best in the business in Bowman. Bringing over that winning culture could be good for the franchise.
Another guy is Fenton from the Predators. He was in the discussion for the job when Murray was hired a few years ago. Lastly, Dubas is a very intriguing name. Dubas is the assistant general manager of the Maple Leafs. He was part of building the Leafs into a playoff team and has done a good job with their minor-league team, the Toronto Marlies.
Dubas is also interesting to me because of the head-coaching hire as well. He may want to bring Leafs assistant coach D.J. Smith or Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe with him to the Sabres.
Quinn is another name to watch because of his connection to coaching Eichel. It’s not only about Eichel. Quinn has the qualifications to be a head coach in the NHL for any team. I just think his ties to the Sabres’ star center are hard to look past.
How much do you think Eichel influenced Pegula’s decision? Should Eichel have a say in the matter? Should star players be able to dictate personnel? Should Eichel be part of the selection committee for the new coach?
MOUNT: I think he played somewhat of a hand, but not as much as people think. I think you should take a star player’s input on a coach, but it shouldn’t be the be-all or end-all. Dictating coaches is something you hear more about in the NBA with guys like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James being the deciding vote when selecting a coach.
Being able to dictate a coach is something that might give Eichel a reputation. Remember that Ovechkin had the label of “coach killer” early on in his career before Barry Trotz became an unlikely perfect fit. If my prediction of Sutter to the Sabres holds true, Eichel will fall into line because Sutter doesn’t take any prisoners.
Eichel should not be on the search committee at all. I could understand Crosby or Ovechkin, but Eichel hasn’t done anything in the league yet to get that kind of sway. Let the Pegulas and the new general manager be the deciding factor and find a guy that will maximize the former Boston University star’s potential.
FISHER: I more or less agree with everything Dan said. I do think Eichel made it clear that he wouldn’t be signing an extension with Buffalo this summer if Bylsma was staying on as the coach.
Somehow that conversation, be it with Murray or directly with Pegula, leaked out and was vehemently denied by Eichel and his agent, only to have Bylsma and Murray both “relieved of their duties” within 48 hours. That was no coincidence. Eichel absolutely impacted that decision and forced Pegula’s hand to some degree.
Perhaps Eichel’s problem was more with Bylsma but Murray was backing his coach and not planning to make a change, so Pegula stepped in and fired them both. If that’s how it played out — and this is all pure speculation on my part — then it’s risky business for Pegula because it gives Eichel a sense of entitlement and control over all things Sabres. Much like the power LeBron wields in Cleveland, infamously demanding a midseason coaching coach when things appeared to be going perfectly fine there. Granted, that move did work out for the Cavaliers.
I’m with Dan that Eichel doesn’t deserve that kind of input at this stage of his professional career. His potential stardom is undeniable and it wouldn’t surprise me if Eichel ascends to the top 10 in league scoring next season — with Housley coaching, not Sutter — but he can’t be calling the shots like this. I’m a big fan of Eichel’s ability, but his personality is starting to remind me more and more of Eric Lindros. That’s why part of me still feels a seasoned GM, like Lombardi, might be best for Buffalo. Somebody who can come in and establish an order of command, stand his ground and reshape the Sabres’ roster without interference from players or agents.
I’m sure Sutter would put Eichel in his place too, if need be, but that might not translate to on-ice success. The new coach will have to work with, not against Eichel, and I feel like Housley could push the right buttons with help from Quinn.
Buffalo isn’t the only team without a coach right now. There are also vacancies in Florida and Vancouver. Who do you see as the best fits for the Panthers and Canucks? Do you like the fit with John Stevens taking over in Los Angeles, Ken Hitchcock returning to Dallas and Gerard Gallant landing in Vegas as recent hires?
MOUNT: I think the front office in Vancouver is going to have to find a guy that has some patience. The Canucks are going to probably tear down the whole thing and be in for a long rebuild. They’ll be young in certain spots and it’s going to take time to become a contender. I wouldn’t mind seeing Travis Green of the AHL’s Utica Comets getting a shot. He knows the roster and they had success in getting to the Calder Cup final a couple of seasons ago. Although, Trevor Linden has some interest in talking to Ralph Krueger.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 18, 2017
Like I said earlier, I’m not a fan of reboots and the Hitchcock thing is like trying to do a sequel of a movie that doesn’t hold up. I do think Hitchcock will implore Jim Nill to address the defense and goalie situation. However, not being able to handle his goalies is what cost Hitchcock his job in St. Louis.
I think the Gallant hire was perfect for Vegas. He was the victim of the front-office power struggle between Tom Rowe and Dale Tallon and the Panthers shouldn’t have fired him. He did a great job with a young team that had pieces from other teams, which is what he’ll be doing for the Golden Knights. He won’t get this team into the playoffs in the first couple of seasons, but he’ll get the Knights on the right path providing George McPhee makes the right moves.
As for Stevens, I’m worried that he’s a lot like Sutter. Stevens will give younger players a shot, but he’s wired a lot like his old bench boss. The Kings were a Jonathan Quick injury away from getting into the postseason and this team is closer to success than others that have or will make coaching changes.
FISHER: I have the same concerns about Stevens. He was Sutter’s right-hand man in L.A. and I just think the Kings needed an entirely new voice, not an echo of the old one that had faded, if not fallen on deaf ears in recent years. Unlike Dan, I don’t think the Kings are on the cusp of being contenders again. I think Los Angeles is trending towards Vancouver territory and could be the next Pacific Division team to delve into a full rebuild. The Alberta teams are obviously on the rise and only going to get stronger in the coming years, while Anaheim and San Jose are still better on paper than Los Angeles.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 23, 2017
If the Kings wanted some form of continuity, they would have been better off promoting Mike Stothers from the AHL’s Ontario Reign in my opinion. But Rob Blake and Stevens go way back, so it was a predictable hire and we’ll see if their friendship can withstand the murky waters ahead. Stothers probably wouldn’t have been my top choice for the L.A. job either. I would have looked outside the organization, possibly at Ruff or even Hitchcock. Considering the Kings’ strengths, I think Hitchcock’s system could have been successful in prolonging the inevitable rebuild for a couple more years of making the playoffs.
Kings never expanded search past John Stevens, however, Rob Blake did speak with Jim Montgomery about a role as an assistant coach in LA…
— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) April 23, 2017
That said, Hitchcock was clearly destined for Dallas. He has a longstanding relationship with Stars owner Tom Gaglardi and Hitchcock will likely retire down there regardless of the results. I’m more optimistic about that reunion than Dan, considering how good the Stars were two years ago and how many injuries they endured this season. I could see a resurgence next season with much the same roster, but especially if Nill can shore up the defence for Hitchcock. The goaltending is going to be a work in progress too, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ben Bishop become Dallas’ opening-night starter. But do the Stars buy out both Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi to free up the money to sign Bishop? Or do they continue to deploy the league’s most expensive tandem next season? Maybe Vegas does Dallas a favour by selecting one of them in the expansion draft, or taking one in a trade if Nill throws in a sweetener like Valeri Nichushkin.
Speaking of Vegas, Gallant had been my top choice for the Golden Knights too. I think Vegas is putting all the off-ice pieces in place for a winning team down the road. Like Dan, I doubt it happens in the inaugural season, but the future should be bright for Vegas with Gallant guiding a young group towards playoff contention over the next couple years. With the hiring of Gallant, we can further speculate about the type of players that Vegas will pick in the expansion draft, but that’s a topic for another day.
In Vancouver, it sure sounds like Green is going to be the guy, and I read a funny line in a newspaper column that there’s a better chance of Freddy Krueger coaching the Canucks than Ralph. I’m a big fan of Ralph and thought he got shafted in Edmonton — unceremoniously dismissed over Skype — but, despite resurfacing with Team Europe at the World Cup of Hockey, it sounds like he’s happy overseas in his role as a high-paying soccer executive.
Otherwise, Ralph Krueger would have been a quality candidate for both Vancouver and Florida. The Panthers’ hire is going to be the most intriguing in terms of whether it’ll be a Tallon type of old-time hockey guy like Ruff or more of an analytical mind to ownership’s liking, perhaps somebody like Dallas Eakins. That decision may be telling into how much control Tallon has in his second stint as Florida’s GM.
I could throw out dozens of other names that could be of interest to Florida — both old- and new-school coaches — but the delay there suggests to me that the Panthers may be interested in somebody from a team that is still playing. It could be Housley again, but Washington associate coach Todd Reirden has been on the radar of a few teams too. Perhaps Kirk Muller’s name could surface for the Florida job now that Montreal is out as well. It could also be a lesser known like Denver University’s Jim Montgomery, who is among the candidates being interviewed. Stay tuned!
Who won this round of Facing Off? Feel free to weigh-in with your opinions in the comments below. We will be checking in periodically to both defend and expand on our initial answers. If you want us to face-off over a topic, we’re open to suggestions as well.