While this year’s NBA Finals is a clash of titans, the third installment in an immensely successful summer blockbuster franchise, the 2017 Stanley Cup Final is set up like Rocky. Coming out of the Eastern Conference is the Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending champions captained by the NHL’s biggest star. Coming out of the Western Conference is the Nashville Predators, the second wild card team (A.K.A. the #8 seed in a playoff format the gives me such a headache I find myself looking for my glasses only to find out I’m already wearing them while staring at the standings on NHL.com trying to make sense of it during the season) and a late-90s expansion team that had never been past the second round of the playoffs prior to this spring. While I will be surely be pulling for the Preds in this series, regardless of outcome, these teams bring out the best hockey has to offer.
The Penguins are hockey royalty at this point. Sure, there were some lean years in the time after the departures of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr and before the arrivals of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but they are going for their fifth Stanley Cup win and are in their seventh trip to the Final in a 26 year span. With a win in the upcoming series, the Crosby/Malkin Era Penguins will have more Cups than their Lemieux/Jagr Era predecessors, and young goaltender Matt Murray will be well on his way to becoming this generation’s Ken Dryden.
While the Penguins are the well-established franchise looking to become the first to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings, the Predators have spent the last 20 years trying to prove they belong in this league. David Poile built this Nashville franchise patiently and methodically, and to borrow a take from Greg Wyshynski, embraced the role of being “Nashville’s Team” and not just a team in Nashville. That patience and that commitment to representing the community in a non-traditional hockey market such has Nashville has endeared the Preds to their fans and transformed Nashville into a sneaky-great hockey city. After this playoff run, Nashville is sneaky no more.
For years hockey fans and media members, primarily in Canadian and Original Six markets have bemoaned NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s strategy in the 1990s of moving teams from the north to the south, and popping up expansion franchises in mostly non-traditional hockey markets. The Quebec Nordiques were moved to Denver and became the Colorado Avalanche, and won the Stanley Cup in their first season in their new city. The Minnesota North Stars became the Dallas Stars, and won the Stanley Cup a few years later. The Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes within their first decade in Raleigh. The Florida Panthers and San Jose Sharks made appearances in the Stanley Cup Final, and the Anaheim Ducks and Tampa Bay Lightning won the Cup. While they have not had much playoff success to speak of, the Arizona Coyotes can justify their existence because last year’s #1 overall draft pick, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is a Scottsdale, Arizona native, and got into the sport from going to Yotes games. In each of these victories, both actual and moral, I can see Bettman wanting to scream “I told you so!” to all that thought putting hockey in the south was a terrible idea. Before this playoffs, Nashville was a great hockey city with great hockey fans, but now the rest of the hockey world is finally starting to notice.
The Predators’ incredible playoff run began in earnest by shocking hockey fans across North America when they swept the formidable Chicago Blackhawks and inspired my favorite Reddit post of all time from a dismayed Hawks fan, but it really began with a franchise-altering trade last summer. The Preds sent All-Star defenseman and team captain Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens for a younger All-Star defenseman in P.K. Subban. It was a phenomenal trade for Nashville. Weber is a very good player, but Subban is better, younger, and on a better contract. The trade could have been justified for Montreal if replacing Subban with Weber led to greater success in the short term, but one year later, the Habs were eliminated in the first round by the New York Rangers, and the Preds are already deeper in the playoffs than they have ever been.
Subban is one of the most exciting and charismatic players in the NHL, and as a Boston Bruins fan, I was thrilled to have him off the Canadiens. He is so likable. Even when he was in Montreal, I had such a hard time hating him the more I learned about him. Adding P.K. to a Predators team that was already trending in the right direction made them one of the NHL’s most intriguing teams this season. Even through their struggles, I thought they were better than their seeding, and I was not totally shocked by the way they disposed of Chicago.
On one hand, Nashville is not Rocky Balboa to Pittsburgh’s Apollo Creed because they have more than a puncher’s chance once the puck drops on the series tonight. They are a deep defensive team even beyond Subban, and they are getting great goaltending from Pekka Rinne, who seems to have turned the clocks back a couple years during this playoff run. While the Preds have suffered their share of injuries, most notably Ryan Johansen and team captain Mike Fisher (A.K.A. Mr. Carrie Underwood), the Pens have been without their best defenseman, Kris Letang, for the duration of the tournament. The injury induced mismatches could make for a very interesting series with Pittsburgh’s great forwards going against Nashville’s great defensemen.
On the other hand, Nashville is Rocky Balboa because Rocky did not need to win the first fight with Creed to build a seven movie franchise out of it. Rocky didn’t win the first time. All he had to do was go the distance to make a name for himself. The Preds are a young team, and their window to compete is wide open. They have already exceeded the expectations anyone had for them two months ago. While the Stanley Cup is about actual victories and not moral ones, the Preds have already won on some level. If nothing else, they have proven that they belong in the Stanley Cup Final, and their fans belong in the NHL.
They have a great goalie in Braden Holtby. They have a great coach in Barry Trotz (Trotz Trotz Trotz! As Tony Kornheiser is fond of saying). They have one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of hockey in Alex Ovechkin. The Washington Capitals are the class of the NHL’s Eastern Conference and should be the the favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Final, if not win it, yet in the Ovechkin Era, they have never gotten out of the second round. It’s at the point where you have to ask about the Caps: if they can’t do it this year, will they ever?
This has been the history of the Washington Capitals for some 40 years. They are often good, occasionally great in the regular season, but that greatness almost never translates for more than a round in the playoffs, with the exception of the 1997-98 season when they made the Final, but lost to the defending champion Detroit Red Wings. They are the “choking dogs,” as Kornheiser likes to call them, of the NHL. Some of it is bad luck, some of it in recent years has been running into Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington’s personal kryptonite.
Jokes are often made that the San Jose Sharks are the Capitals of the Western Conference, or that the Caps are the Sharks of the East, but even San Jose broke through and made the Final last season. If the last 12 months have taught us nothing else, we have certainly learned that the unexpected can and will happen, and sports curses are made to be broken. The Sharks broke through the same year as the Cubs, and the Caps could be next.
That is why they are one of the biggest winners of the NHL trade deadline, acquiring defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues without having to give up anyone from their NHL roster. Shattenkirk not only bolsters their strength at the blue line, he is perhaps better prepared for what the Washington Capitals need than anyone on the trade market. Shattenkirk made a name for himself as a power-play quarterback in St. Louis, being the guy to set up Russian-born sniper Vladimir Tarasenko, so it should be an easy transition dishing the puck to Russian-born sniper Alex Ovechkin in D.C.
Best of all for the Capitals, Kevin Shattenkirk is the opposite of a choking dog: he is a prevailing Terrier. Shattenkirk was a member of the Boston University Terriers team that won the NCAA National Championship in 2009, and he assisted Colby Cohen on the overtime game-winner in the National Championship Game against Miami University. That game, it should be noted, was played at Verizon Center in Washington D.C., so Shattenkirk may have experienced better postseason success at Verizon Center, albeit in college, than anyone on the Capitals’ roster.
Nothing is guaranteed in hockey. Nothing is guaranteed in any sport, but that is especially true in hockey because it is on ice, and everything that happens is based on another mistake. That being said, on paper, the Caps should be the best team at the end, and that was true before adding Shattenkirk. Bur history also tells us the team that should win and the team that does win are often not the same. This trade helps their chances of a better outcome, though. We will see how it plays out.
With the head scratching news that the New Jersey Devils have hired two co-head coaches, or something like that, in the form of Scott Stevens and Adam Oates, this headline is what I’ve been asking myself all day. Usually the Jets are the team in the Garden State that leaves us with more questions than answers when it comes to personnel moves (and as a Patriots fan, I am forever thankful for their ineptitude), but this time it’s the Devils, a hockey club that has won three Stanley Cups in my lifetime, second only behind the Detroit Red Wings in that duration, that has everyone confused. This could be another stroke of brilliance for longtime Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello, or it could mean the beginning of the end. Nothing lasts forever, not even Martin Brodeur’s career between the New Jersey pipes, and maybe not even the Lamoriello era in New Jersey.
Stevens and Oates are replacing Peter DeBoer, who was hired in 2011 as the successor to Jacques Lemaire, who retired after his third stint with New Jersey, but let the team to its first Stanley Cup championship in 1995. In DeBoer’s first season, he led the Devils to the Stanley Cup Finals, defeating the hated rival New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals. They caught lightning in a bottle, with Martin Brodeur turning the clocks back in a goalie showdown for the ages against New York’s Henrik Lundqvist. The magic ran out in the Finals against the Los Angeles Kings, however, as young American goaltender Jonathan Quick carried the eighth best team from the West to its first ever Stanley Cup.
After that, things went south for New Jersey, losing captain Zach Parise in free agency to the Minnesota Wild in the lockout-extended 2012 offseason, losing sniper Ilya Kovalchuk (who had been under contract for the next decade) to the temptation to play professional hockey in his native Russia, and having to part ways with Brodeur, who was so synonymous with the New Jersey Devils uniform, that his jersey appears on an episode of Seinfeld from 20 years ago (Brodeur now plays for the St. Louis Blues, and this just looks weird after seeing him in red and black for so long). Sure, they signed an all time great like Jaromir Jagr, and he is still able to produce at a high level at the age of 42, but the Devils have struggled in close games, and have been dreadful in shootouts ever since losing Kovalchuk (who was in Russia’s shortened shootout rotation against T.J. Oshie and Team USA in the 2014 Olympics). Shootout losses cost New Jersey a shot at the playoffs in what was a wide-open Eastern Conference last season, and they were off to another bad start this year.
Scott Stevens and Adam Oates have both been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Stevens was the fifth overall pick, selected by the Washington Capitals, in 1982, and was the Devils’ captain for their Stanley Cup championships in 1995, 2000, and 2003, and his #4 now resides in the rafters of Prudential Center. He is one of the elite defensive defensemen in the history of the game. Oates, a center, was on the losing end of the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, and also played for the Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues (where he and Stevens were teammates), Boston Bruins, Edmonton Oilers, Philadelphia Flyers, and Washington Capitals (whom he coached from 2012 to 2014). Oates went undrafted, but after a standout career at RPI, Oates would eventually become the NHL’s all time leader in points among former college hockey players. Both have impressive achievements to their names, but neither has gotten a head coaching chance where they were in a good position to succeed, and I’m not sure this is a great chance, either.
Lamoriello’s idea is to have Stevens coach the defensemen and Oates coach the forwards, like defensive and offensive coordinators in football, except in hockey d-men and forwards have to be on the ice together and work as a cohesive unit. it makes sense to have offense and defense run by different coaches in football because Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork never have to be on the field at the same time, but this seems crazy. Stevens and Oates will both have the opportunity to prove themselves worthy of sole possession of head coaching responsibilities, which provides us with ample opportunity to observe potential House of Cards-esque scheming and backstabbing in this quest for power. If Adam Oates starts having weird asides with an audience that isn’t really there during press conferences (even though Oates looks more like Ray Liotta than Kevin Spacey), then fan favorite Stevens had better watch his back.
As I was writing this, another report came out that in addition to Oates and Stevens, Lamoriello will be coaching as well, creating an unprecedented head coach triumvirate. Lamoriello has gone behind the Devils bench on an interim basis before, and it could be a great way to evaluate a team that needs to make moves to rebuild and get younger (their two best players are Jaromir Jagr, 42, and Patrik Elias, 38). It also provides him with a more hands-on chance to observe Stevens and Oates’ head coaching styles. Lamoriello has been running the hockey operations for the Devils since 1987, is the longest tenured GM in the NHL, and has had great success. He has lasted ownership changes, and his success has carried over into other sports (he owns a minority stake in the New York Yankees), and his job is probably safe as long as he wants it. It’s not the conventional way of doing things, but conventional doesn’t keep things fresh when the losses pile up and a fanbase that is used to winning hockey hasn’t been getting any for the last three years. To make matters worse for New Jersey fans, the rival New York Rangers and Islanders remain competitive throughout the Devils’ struggles. They don’t have to be good this year, but drafting well and coaching well is crucial in this transition phase. This could go really well, or really poorly, but either way, Lou Lamoriello and the Devils have my attention.