The hockey equivalent to the haphazardness of a coin flip is the deflected goal – and that’s really how you can assess the Chicago Blackhawks’ overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings Sunday night. It was a random act of fate deciding what had been a back-and-forth but mostly evenly played (and thoroughly entertaining) series.
Blackhawks’ coach Joel Quenneville was bidding for his 100th NHL playoff win to go with the 700-plus regular-season wins he’s recorded in a long and distinguished career. For him to describe the crushing loss – and the circumstances of the loss, a long point shot from Alec Martinez that deflected in off Nick Leddy – as one of the toughest he’s ever endured says something. The Blackhawks were that close to buttoning down their third trip to the Stanley Cup final in the past five years.
In each of the two recent years in which Chicago won, general manager Stan Bowman had to move some valuable contributors out in order to make the salary-cap numbers work. After 2010, the roster required major surgery; after 2013, he made only a handful of tweaks (although the decision to let Dave Bolland go probably hurt them in the long run against a team as deep as Los Angeles was at centre).
But when Bowman sits down to get his roster in place for next year, the focus will be deepening the defence corps. Leddy was unlucky on the winning goal, but he is a relatively unreliable defensive option, and along with Michal Rozsival, was part of a pair that the Kings exposed time and again in the series. Leddy is signed for another year at $2.7-million, but the Blackhawks would probably be better off moving David Rundblad in, who can probably do the same for far less - $785,000 - next year. Another likely option will be Klas Dahlback, a third-round pick back in 2011 who had a good year in AHL Rockford and was with the Blackhawks throughout the playoffs.
Bowman has done a nice job of getting virtually every key player under contract for next season. The real test will come the year after, when both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews become unrestricted free agents.
Currently, both players are making the same exact salaries - $6.3-million – and it probably isn’t far-fetched to say both will be in line for significant raises. On the basis of Toews’s value to the team - and the generally held view that if you could pick one player to start a team from scratch, it would be him -it’s hard to imagine he’d settle for less than Sidney Crosby money, and that’s probably where the negotiating fun will start.
Crosby got signed under the last collective bargaining agreement, so he received $104.4-million over 12 years, with an average of $8.7-million, which was permitted because the final three throwaway years are at $3-million apiece. In terms of actual dollars in his bank account, Crosby earned $12-million this year and will do so again for the next two seasons. Overall, in the first nine years of the contract, Crosby will never earn less than $9-million.
Since Kane and Toews are virtually inseparable in the marketing of the Blackhawks, the former will likely want the same money as the latter – and it’s going to get pricey, as the salary cap starts to inch up again.
Negotiations can officially start after July 1, and that will be Bowman’s priority, to get the two signed early, which will then give him lots of time to tweak the rest of the roster around them.
Under the new collective bargaining agreement, they can only sign for a maximum of eight years, and it is fair to say that whatever they agree to, it will set the bar for the rest of the league going forward. The value of two players of that stature, with their winning pedigrees, is incalculable to the Blackhawks. They know it - and so do their agents.
MAD MIKE WITH THE ANSWER: Mike Milbury, an analyst on NBCSN, had an interesting idea about how to do away with the embellishing of penalties that seemed so prevalent in the third-round series between the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers.
Currently, as it stands, the penalties generally offset. A referee will call a penalty, but if in his mind, the fouled player goes to extra lengths to “sell” the infraction, he gets two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct, essentially cancelling out a power-play opportunity.
According to Milbury, if the league truly wants to wean this behaviour out of the game – and I think we can all agree it really is an odious thing – then it needs to go a step further and assess a double minor against the player guilty of the theatrics. If that were to happen, Milbury thinks it would stop the actors just like that.
I tend to agree. It might seem like overkill in the beginning, but if we can stop hockey from becoming soccer, it will be worth it in the end.
BIG MAC TO THE RESCUE: There were a lot of lukewarm assessments of the Washington Capitals decision to promote Brian MacLellan to general manager, as opposed to hiring someone from outside the organization, to give them a fresh look and approach. The thinking was that the Capitals had gone stale after 17 years of George McPhee at the helm and by promoting his assistant, they were simply guaranteed that not much will change.
Most of the negativity came from people who remember MacLellan as a player – big and strong, but not overly physical and not all that fast, sort of an earlier version of Dustin Penner. MacLellan played for the 1989 Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames, acquired just before the trading deadline for Perry Berezan. Coach Terry Crisp used him occasionally on the top line with Joe Nieuwendyk and Hakan Loob and other times on a fourth line centered by Theo Fleury.
In those days, we traveled with the team and I sat on flights beside MacLellan a number of times. He was very quiet, very smart, and had a sneaky understated sense of humour. If you paid attention, he could really make you laugh. He was a support player on the championship team and Crisp consistently wanted a more physical brand of hockey from him; the two didn’t always see eye-to-eye on that.
If memory serves, he was quite outspoken about the goon element in the game. But there is another depth to MacLellan that if charts his own course, he’s smart enough to be really good at this. And in the meantime, unlike a lot of ex-players finding front-office work these days, he has put the years in to learn the business.
AND FINALLY: A long time ago, I started promoting the idea of a crossover playoff series once the NHL got down to the Final Four, so that the top team in the Western Conference would play the No. 2 in the East and the East’s top seed would play the second seed in the West.
This year, that would have produced Chicago-New York and Los Angeles-Montreal semi-finals; and yes, the travel would have been more complicated than what they had – and the winning team crossing three time zones would be at a disadvantage to the team crossing just one. But that might have also created a more compelling Stanley Cup final too. It’s hard to imagine Los Angeles - New York coming anywhere near L.A.-Chicago in terms of sheer entertainment value.
The Rangers are going to benefit from the fact that they’ll get three extra days of rest, while the Kings and Blackhawks went right down to the wire, playing seven emotionally charged games which could ultimately take their toll on the teams. And after both had relatively painless travel in the first two rounds, it ramped up to the usual complicated Western Conference travel in the third – back and forth, every other day, four-hour flights across two time zones.
It will be interesting to see what’s left in the Kings’ tank, and if the Rangers can exploit that to their advantage, at least early on. One New York win in the opener will put an end to all that Twitter talk about the Kings winning in three.