Here's a switch: Usually, by the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, an awful lot of NHL general managers are having buyers' remorse for the moves they made at the annual trading deadline. Usually, the price for rentals is high and the return, with a few notable exceptions over the years, modest to minuscule. But on Saturday, two of the biggest names to change places both scored twice: Marian Gaborik to lead the Los Angeles Kings to a dramatic overtime win over the Anaheim Ducks; and Thomas Vanek, who had the Montreal Canadiens two goals up before the Boston Bruins rallied with four third-period goals to square the series at a game apiece.
What's more, both Gaborik and Vanek were value buys for their respective general managers, Dean Lombardi and Marc Bergevin. In past years, first-round draft choices and grade-A prospects were the coin of the realm at the deadline. This year, it was B-level prospects and second-round picks.
Now, it is fair to say that the Kings are far happier with Gaborik's overall play than the Canadiens are with Vanek's, in part because Gaborik has bought into what coach Darryl Sutter is selling - which is that hockey is a 200-foot game and offence largely comes from defence. It doesn't hurt that Gaborik has played virtually his entire time in Los Angeles alongside the underrated Anze Kopitar, a Frank J. Selke Trophy finalist who also happened to be leading the playoffs in scoring with 13 points through Sunday.
Like Vanek, Gaborik is primarily a finisher and thus needs a creative offensive centre to get him the puck in scoring position. But as Sutter pointed out when the deal was originally made, Gaborik's shortcomings were overblown. He has been a plus-player for most of his career, even though the early part of his career came with the expansion Minnesota Wild, a not-very-good team that did have a coach, Jacques Lemaire, in place who stressed defence.
Vanek? When coach Michel Therrien spoke in general terms about the need for work ethic, attitude and competing as three virtues that were non-negotiable in the Canadiens' world, it sure sounded as if he were talking about Vanek, even though he insisted it was just a general observation. Vanek isn't as reliable defensively, which is why the Kings had minimal interest in him when they searching for scoring reinforcements. Instead, they targeted Gaborik because he'd previously expressed an interest in playing for them back in 2009 when he was an unrestricted free agent and ultimately chose to sign with the New York Rangers. Gaborik will make that choice again this summer, and no matter what happens from here to the end of the playoffs, the Kings have a desire to keep him on, provided they can make his next salary fit under the cap, which is going up about $4-million (U.S.) next year.
The Gaborik acquisition was an astute piece of horse-trading by Lombardi, someone who the Kings wanted at a time when his stock was deeply devalued - and the Columbus Blue Jackets just wanted him gone. Gaborik had had a tough year, injury-wise. He was sidelined early with a knee problem and then, upon his return just before Christmas, broke his collarbone. He had only six goals in 22 games for Columbus before joining the Kings, where he finished with five more in the 19 games he played for them. He already has that many goals (five) thus far in the playoffs.
The fact is, the general lack of interest in Gaborik by teams around the NHL permitted Lombardi to make such a good deal for him. Lombardi was able to get Columbus to take back a player that he didn't want - Matt Frattin, who wasn't playing in L.A. and ended up not playing much for the Blue Jackets either - and also got them to pick up half of what remained of Gaborik's $7.5-million contract, because the Kings were essentially capped out. Los Angeles was prepared to play hardball in the negotiations with the Blue Jackets because they had a fallback plan in mind - and would have made an 11th-hour pitch to the Calgary Flames for Mike Cammalleri had the deal with Columbus fallen through.
Columbus does have a second-rounder to show for it, plus a conditional third-round pick that presumably will go to the Blue Jackets if the Kings can sign Gaborik to an extension in the summer. Sutter, who doesn't lavish praise on individuals too often, suggested that the Kings might not have executed their great escape against the San Jose Sharks in the opening round of the playoffs had it not been for Gaborik's scoring contributions. Gaborik has - so far, anyway - been this year's answer to Jeff Carter, who came over from the Blue Jackets two years earlier. And we all know how that turned out - with a Stanley Cup. Déjà vu all over again maybe?
SINGING THE BLUES: Because of the new divisional playoff structure, it was clear going into the opening round that two legitimate Stanley Cup contenders – the Kings or the San Jose Sharks; and the Blackhawks or the St. Louis Blues – would be bounced in the first round. Eventually, playoff pedigrees ultimately triumphed, and in the aftermath of disappointing losses for the Blues and Sharks – again – someone on Twitter suggested the two disappointing clubs be traded for each other and then relocated to Cleveland to play. Laugh-out-loud funny, yes, but there’s also a germ of logic there too.
The Sharks have a lot of high-end offensive talent and the Blues have a lot of players with a fabulous work ethic. The Blues also have greater depth on defence between the No. 1 and 5 guys than any other team in the league, with Roman Polak and Barrett Jackman valued highly by other teams because of their physical presence. There should be a match and there could be a match, except for the fact that both of the two older offensive linchpins on the Sharks, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, aren’t going anywhere.
Both signed contract extensions with the Sharks this past season, giving up their rights to become free agents, and took terms and dollars that were considered attractive cap hits to the Sharks. They did so because playing in San Jose suits them. They have roots there, they are dug in and they don’t want to move elsewhere. It’s a different situation for Dan Boyle who, at 37, didn’t get an extension done because the two sides couldn’t agree on term. San Jose was – and maybe still is – willing to go forward on one-year deals. Boyle, if he wants to sign for two years, will likely have to test the open market.
In the immediate aftermath of their loss, when San Jose became just the fourth team in NHL history to lose a series after winning the first three games, Sharks’ general manager Doug Wilson gave coach Todd McLellan a vote of confidence which should put to rest any rumours that McLellan might be the fall guy for the collapse. Wilson promised change and noted that “status quo” was not an option.
The Sharks do have their core tied up to long-term contracts, so the one area where they could potentially make a splash would be to alter their goaltending. Antti Niemi had a mediocre season and when the series was on the line, he was outplayed by the Kings’ Jonathan Quick. Theoretically, the Sharks could go after the Blues Ryan Miller, who will become an unrestricted free agent this summer and clearly wasn’t the answer St. Louis was looking for. Because his wife is an actress, the suspicion has been that Miller’s preferred destination would be a West Coast team, most preferably in southern California, but Quick is established in L.A. and while Anaheim will likely let Jonas Hiller walk in the off-season, the Ducks will most likely to turn to a couple of youngsters, John Gibson and Frederik Andersen, to tend goal for them next year. The Blues, for that matter, are planning to put Jake Allen on their roster after a successful American Hockey League season, which will likely leave Miller casting about for a good option. Maybe he’d take something short in San Jose to prove that he can be a playoff difference-maker.
The one sign of hope for both St. Louis and San Jose is that internally, they are starting to develop younger impact offensive players. Vladimir Tarasenko, playing probably too soon after breaking his right thumb, had a few great moments against the Blackhawks, as did Jaden Schwartz. Meanwhile, San Jose’s Thomas Hertl, who had his rookie season undermined by a knee injury, came back for the end of the season and though his conditioning wasn’t where he wanted it to be, proved dangerous around the net again. Any future playoff success will likely hinge on how quickly those players move into the next echelon of NHL stardom.
THE CONTROVERSY OVER ANALYTICS: Last week, in an extensive press conference to introduce the new Calgary Flames’ general manager Brad Treliving, a question about analytics was raised. Directed specifically to Treliving, and meant to explore his interest in the new approaches to analysing and attempting to quantify performance, Treliving stayed squarely on the fence, noting that he believes that while there’s value in the numbers, he is also old-school enough to believe that the numbers have to pass the eyeball test – and they cannot be solely relied on to make a full and proper evaluation.
What was most interesting probably was that, unsolicited, Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke jumped into the discussion. Burke clearly wanted to get in his two cents and made an offer he wanted circulated publicly.
“Let’s get the record straight on this too,” said Burke. “The first analytics system I see that will help us win, I’ll buy it – and I’ll pay cash so that no one else can use it. I’m not a dinosaur on that, but I think what’s happened is, this one quote from me from the MIT conference that’s been broadcast all over where I said, ‘statistics are like a lamp post to a drunk – useful for support but not for illumination.’ People confuse statistics and arithmetic and mathematics with analytics.
“Analytics to me are, can you take data and do some predictive work that will help me draft or trade better? I haven’t seen the system that comes close to doing that. Statistical analysis – about face-offs, and where guys play – we use that all the time; and we’ve been using it for 20 years. That to me is not analytics. The first guy, or anyone here, that’s got a system worth buying, we pay cash.”
Treliving, meanwhile, answered this way: “What I believe in is information. You’re always trying to find information - a player’s history, background, all these types of things. The more information you can collect, it helps you make decisions. We did some things in Phoenix, I know analytics is the catch phrase here. I guess it would be an analytical approach in some respects. To me, it gives you something to look at. It gives you another little piece. And quite frankly, I don’t like sharing that information. I know we all like to keep it close to the vest here. So there are some things we’re going to bring here. Ultimately, I believe you have to go see players and you have to watch games and you have to have a belief in the game you want to play and the type of players you want to have play for you. We’ll be leading the league in digging for information.”
THIS AND THAT: Peter Laviolette, fired three games into this season by the Philadelphia Flyers, will likely get interviews for both the vacant Florida Panthers and Nashville Predators’ jobs. The likeliest scenario might be Barry Trotz landing in Florida and Laviolette joining the Preds … There was some confusion last week over Paul Holmgren’s future as the Philadelphia Flyers general manager. The Flyers repatriated Ron Hextall last summer from the Kings, with a view that he would be groomed for Holmgren’s spot eventually. Holmgren, however, isn’t ready to step down yet and if Hextall is getting itchy to run his own team, the Flyers will not stand in the way of his interviewing for one of the NHL’s available general manager’s openings … Good news for all those Matt Cooke fans out there. The Minnesota bad boy is scheduled to return for Game 4 of the Wild’s second-round series with the Blackhawks, which would mark the end of his seven-game suspension for kneeing the Colorado Avalanche’s Tyson Barrie in the opening round. It means, for starters, that Cooke’s suspension won’t cost him any actual salary. That would have only happened if Minnesota had been eliminated in the first round and his suspension had spilled over until the start of next year. Minnesota was, on balance, the better team in the series, but Colorado didn’t look the same offensively after they lost Barrie … After playing for just two teams for most of the first eight years of his career, goaltender Jaroslav Halak is now property of his fourth team in about two months. Halak went from St. Louis to Buffalo to Washington and then to the New York Islanders, who acquired his rights last week for a fourth-round pick. Halak is a pending unrestricted free agent, but the Islanders believe they can sign him to a multi-year deal prior to July 1 by promising him, once and for all, that he would be the team’s defined No. 1 goalie. The pick that the Islanders dealt for Halak’s rights originally belonged to the Blackhawks. New York picked it up when they traded Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Peter Regin to the Blackhawks back in February.