It was “Wow” and “It figures” rolled into one. Game 7 of the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars’ Central Division final matchup was surprising and unsurprising.
The Stars, eating a 6-1 drubbing at home after winning Game 6 on the road? Hm. Not sure anyone saw such a lopsided defeat coming. But the way they lost summed up their season, as a festering problem never got resolved. It came down to goaltending.
Kari Lehtonen was a nightmare in Game 7, allowing three goals on eight shots. One game earlier, he was sensational, stopping 35 of 37 Blues attempts and almost singlehandedly extending the series. Lehtonen appeared in 11 playoff games, posting a save percentage of .946 or higher in four and an SP below .900 in six. He got pulled mid-game twice.
Antti Niemi entered Wednesday’s Game 7 in relief after the first period and wasn’t much better, allowing two goals on 10 shots. He, too, was inconsistent in the post-season, posing a .933 SP or better twice and sitting below .800 in his three other appearances, two of which came in relief.
No one should act overly shocked to learn the Stars’ goaltending undid them when it mattered in the post-season. General manager Jim Nill believed it was prudent to spell Kari Lehtonen because of Dallas’ brutal travel schedule and committed a $4.5-million cap hit last summer for three years of Niemi’s services. Coupled with Lehtonen’s $5,9-million AAV, that meant a $10.2-million commitment for two goalies who weren’t top-15 commodities in the NHL. Lehtonen and Niemi ranked 38th and 40th in 2015-16 with SPs of .906 and .905, respectively. Among the 49 goalies with 1,000 or more minutes played 5-on-5 this year, Lehtonen was 47th, Niemi 29th. Poor regular-season play translated into unreliable post-season play in the end, and coach Lindy Ruff’s occasional wavering between starters from game to game couldn’t have helped either netminder’s confidence.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have won the 2016 NHL draft lottery and will pick No. 1 overall for the first time since they nabbed Wendel Clark in 1985. This is good news for the sport, whether you love or hate the Leafs. It’s the equivalent of a high-profile player landing with the New York Knicks in basketball. When the Leafs choose what they hope is their next – and dare I say first – real superstar, fans can decide for themselves if that rookie is a hero or villain. It makes for a fascinating story either way.
Auston Matthews is the player most experts expect the Toronto Maple Leafs to draft June 24. He ranks No. 1 in THN’s Draft Preview, due out in the next couple weeks, and on virtually every other major publication’s prospect list. And yet, rumors have begun flying around social media predicting something other than the Leafs picking Matthews will happen June 24. That smoke is clickbait, and there’s no fire to accompany it. Let’s extinguish three of the more ridiculous theories circulating in the hockey media landscape at the moment. And, yes, I’m aware that merely discussing them makes this piece clickbait about clickbait. Apologies.
Welcome, everyone. Thanks for coming. Just walking through the door is a courageous first step. There’s coffee and donuts on the table in the corner. When you’re ready, sit with me in the circle.
Everyone join hands. It’s time to discuss the real possibility the Edmonton Oilers win the draft lottery this Saturday and pick first overall for the fifth time in seven years.
Their chances: 13.5 percent. It doesn’t make the Copper and Blue the favorite – that would be the Toronto Maple Leafs at 20 percent – but Edmonton has the second-best odds. The Oil sat third-best a year ago at 11.5 percent and still managed to win the Connor McDavid Ping-Pong Sweepstakes, so we know they have a chance, technically a better one this time around.
When the New York Rangers cleaned out their stalls Tuesday morning, defenseman Dan Boyle cursed out a couple of reporters he felt were unfairly critical of him and refused to start his breakup interview until they left the scrum. We’re going to chalk that up to a proud veteran who is going down swinging and will probably look at that incident after second sober thought with regret.
But in a way, Boyle and his rant – which will almost certainly be his last as an NHL player – provide a microcosm of the situation that is facing his soon-to-be-former team. Boyle could have gone quietly into the night or he could have come out with one last flurry. He chose the latter.
Marc-Andre Fleury is a great goaltender. He’s also one of hockey’s most universally liked players, one of the good guys. He has no timetable for his recovery from a second concussion sustained this season.
Our hearts go out to him. And yet, while no one would ever classify two concussions as a good thing, the Pittsburgh Penguins have squeezed lemonade out of that lemon by putting youngster Matt Murray in the spotlight. He’s won two straight starts while Fleury recovers. Murray has won five straight overall, and he’s 7-2 with a 1.88 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in 2015-16, his maiden NHL voyage.
The key takeaway from Murray, 21, dominating immediately at the sport’s highest level: nobody who knew anything about him expected anything less. The kid has looked like a star in the making for a while now. He rates as the Pens’ No. 1 prospect and sits 39th among all NHL prospects in THN Future Watch 2016. He posted pre-forward-pass numbers in his first full AHL season a year ago, going 25-10-1 with a 1.58 goals-against average, .941 save percentage and 12 shutouts in just 40 appearances. He set an all-time league record for longest shutout streak at 304 minutes and 11 seconds. He won the Aldege ‘Baz’ Bastien Memorial Award as the circuit’s top goalie.
News broke this week that Nail Yakupov has asked the Oilers to trade him. That’s probably not devastating news for Edmonton fans, most of whom have soured on the unproductive winger. Four years after being taken with the first overall pick in the 2012 draft, there’s little question that Yakupov is dangerously close to settling into bust territory.
But there’s good news for the Oilers. Trading a disappointing first overall pick is far from unprecedented. And in fact, history tells us that it’s even possible to extract some value from the deal. So let’s look back on five times in NHL history that a first overall bust was dealt a few years into their career, how those trades worked out, and what lessons the Oilers might be able to learn from them.
Can’t, or won’t? It almost doesn’t matter at this point.
The Edmonton Oilers are once again failing their way to a reward, like a C+ student with helicopter parents. Poor Auston Matthews is probably checking out the West Edmonton Mall website right now for good food court spots, since all of us, viscerally, know that the Oilers are going to win the draft lottery again.
Watching the Oilers these days falls somewhere between painful and infuriating – and I’m neutral; I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone who lists themselves as a fan of the team. The defense is still in shambles, the goaltending hasn’t been able to cover enough. These have been problems for years and in light of the news that Nail Yakupov had requested a trade, it is borderline offensive that the Oilers haven’t made a blockbuster move this season (or last, for that matter).
The team-swapping fun doesn’t change as soon as the NHL trade deadline ends. Now, we get to study the ripple effects across the league. We won’t know the true impact of every contender’s moves until the playoffs, and the sellers acquired pieces that may not bear fruit for years. In fantasy hockey pools, however, we’ll see immediate changes in player values. Some guys will benefit from being thrust into bigger assignments on new teams. Others will improve simply because they suddenly have better linemates. And vacancies left by seller teams may create room for youngsters to climb depth charts.
Here are five names enjoying value boosts for the stretch run after the trade deadline.