By Jim Kelley
May 27, 2010

My playoff bracket, still posted somewhere on this site, is in shambles and I won't even begin to defend it. But I will say this: I made the majority of my picks based on what I thought would be the best teams with the best goaltending.

Obviously, that didn't work. Didn't even come close.

It's too early to say there's a trend in the NHL and all-world goaltending is no longer the primary reason for winning, but there does seem to be at least a case for saying that adequate goaltending is good enough, provided that it is supported by great team defense.

The Canadiens won two series against two of the best teams in the game (Washington and Pittsburgh) with a smothering defense and the ability to quickly gain control of loose pucks in their own end and move them out in a timely fashion. The Flyers, with arguably the weakest goaltending coming into the playoffs, have won three rounds (including a comeback from an 0-3 deficit vs. Boston) with pretty much the same game plan. The Blackhawks, who don't often get credit for their overall team defense -- largely because they have such a talented young offense -- limited the Sharks to just seven goals in four games despite going with a goalie who had no playoff experience prior to this season.

Antti Niemi is an open book as a goalie who can be beat from in close and off high shots (all of Patrick Marleau's goals were to the upper half of the cage; the problem for the Sharks being that they didn't get near enough of those type of shots to win). They also couldn't hold leads, a trait that marked Boston's win over Buffalo despite the fact that the Sabres had what was thought to be an all-world goalie in Ryan Miller. New Jersey and Martin Brodeur fell to the Flyers in much the same way.

That said, I'm probably jinxing Philadelphia by picking the Flyers to win the Cup in six. I realize that Chicago is the perceived team of destiny and the Blackhawks have more speed than the Flyers and superb mental toughness, especially when playing on the road, but I'm picking Philly largely because they can match up in front and on the back end. The Flyers also have a more physical edge to their game as well as an up-tempo attack that will get to Niemi in ways that other teams did not.

The Eastern Conference doesn't get a lot of credit for its quality of play lately, but you have to admire the commitment of certain players.

Simon Gagne came back to the Flyers' lineup against Boston after having surgery on a broken toe. Teammate Jeff Carter returned after breaking his right foot, an injury that was preceded by a broken left foot, and he played in Game 4 of the Flyers' series against the Canadiens. Ian Laperriere returned to the ice in the same game with a full face shield after taking a puck to the mug in the first round against New Jersey. Pittsburgh's Jordan Staal and Montreal's Hal Gill missed some time due to skate cuts, but quickly recovered from injuries many thought would take weeks to heal.

There were heroes in the West as well, as Chicago's Duncan Keith took a puck in the face in Game 4 against the Sharks and lost upward of seven teeth. He barely missed a shift, but there didn't seem to be the same kind of intensity regarding shot blocking in some of the western series as there was in the east. One could argue that the Sharks, with Dan Boyle and a few other notable exceptions, headed that list.

I know the Sharks are saying that anyone who knows hockey knows they weren't really swept by the Blackhawks in the western finals, at least not in the traditional way of being run right out via a bunch of lopsided scores.

Memo to San Jose: the history books will record four wins for the Blackhawks and none for you, and not only will that be recorded for all time, it will be remembered that way as well.

You didn't win a single game. With the exception of Marleau, who performed admirably, you produced almost no offense (seven goals), and provided no answers to the Blackhawks' offense, especially Dustin Byfuglien. Your much-touted offseason acquisition, Dany Heatley, he of "I want more options" fame in forcing his trade out of Ottawa, was a complete bust again (two goals over three series; one meaningful, the other a garbage-time tally in a blowout loss, both coming against Detroit).

Against the Hawks, Heatley added nothing and, for the record, took the penalty that led to the game-winning and series-winning goal. True, management covered for him with a claim that he was hampered by a groin injury, but lots of players play hurt in the playoffs and manage to accomplish something. Heatley played to the level of his one and only Stanley Cup Final appearance wirh Ottawa in which he also accomplished nothing.

It's hard for a conference champion to acknowledge defeat. Just ask the Capitals. And to be fair, the Sharks lost to the team that finished second in the West by a single point but with better numbers in goals-for (271-264) and goals-against (209-215) and, given the playoff results to date, appears to be better by a wide margin.

But this was supposed to be San Jose's year. The Sharks had a veteran team with players who have been tested both in victory and in painful defeat, and were up against a foe powered mostly by youth that hadn't been in this kind of situation. As a veteran and supposedly mature team, the Sharks had every reason to believe they could win.

There have been a lot of changes in San Jose over the past few years, but this fact remains: a franchise with four consecutive 100-point seasons has yet to make it to the Stanley Cup Final. One of the reasons seems to be that it accepts defeat and makes excuses for it.

In the NHL, anyone who knows hockey knows that won't get it done.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman gets a lot of criticism for the ownership mess that has been the Phoenix Coyotes these past few years, and much of it is deserved, but in the credit where credit is due department, he's done the job in Tampa Bay.

First off, the commissioner found an owner for the Lightning. Not just any owner -- and certainly not a "bunch of cowboys " as former head coach John Tortorella successfully tagged the previous group. In Jeff Vinik, Bettman appears to have brought a creditable owner with real money to the NHL Board of Governors' table. We use the word "appears" not because we don't believe in Vinik or his wealth; it's just that when it comes to ownership issues in the NHL, well, it's always best to be cautious until things play themselves out.

But giving Vinik the benefit of the doubt created by the likes of NHL owners who are either in jail, going to jail, or should be in jail, he is the kind that appears willing to bring stability and a sense of business purpose to a franchise that desperately needs it.

It's fair to assume (because these things always go unspoken) that Bettman steered Vinik to Steve Yzerman as Tampa Bay's new general manager. That's because Vinik, who knows next to nothing regarding the inner workings of a sports franchise, had intended to hire a CEO to run his newly acquired business and then let the CEO hire a GM. Well, he still hasn't found that CEO, but someone advised him to go out and get the best new face on the GM want-to-be scene.

Despite being a former legendary Detroit Red Wings captain and celebrated player, as well as a GM-in-training with one of the best-run franchises in the league, Yzerman has no real track record. Sure, he had success at the World Championships and in putting together Canada's 2010 gold medal-winning Olympic team, and that counts for something, But it's an entirely different operation when you have most of the world's best hockey talent at your disposal and need only to fit the great pieces into a cohesive team. It's something else again to work against 29 other GMs with a talent pool made up of draft gambles, free agents of widely varying quality, and a salary cap.

To be sure, Yzerman was an in-demand up-and-comer. Some team would surely have taken him this offseason, but someone had to put the two together. Vinik wasn't well informed enough to make this happen all by himself. Yzerman is smart enough to know that he wasn't going to go to just any franchise. It had to be one that he had reason to suspect he could be successful with during his first time out. Tampa Bay didn't qualify until Vinik came on the scene, and even then there was reason for doubt on both sides.

Enter Bettman and a match that should work for all concerned.

Vinik gets a rookie, but one who has rookie of the year potential. Yzerman gets a team with some assets already in place -- Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and, if he's in the mood, Vincent Lecavalier -- but he also gets the much needed free hand to do things his own way.

Tampa Bay is a franchise in need of change. Vinik went on record as saying that Yzerman would answer only to him and not be encumbered by whoever is named CEO. That's important for any GM, especially a first-timer who is bound to make mistakes and needs to be able to defend his actions to the owner and not someone in the front office who might, in a power struggle, benefit from the GM's gaffes. That was pretty close to the norm in the previous Tampa setup, as there were turf wars throughout the operation that pretty much led to the demise of a team that won the Stanley Cup in 2004 and appeared en route to being a model for success in Bettman's oft-criticized "southern strategy."

Yzerman needs to find a coach. He needs to meet with scouts and form a plan on how to play with the sixth pick in the upcoming draft. He needs to analyze a roster that has an almost equal blend of potential and problems, and he needs to put his stamp on a front office that likely will see more than a few changes over time. Oh, and he also has to win back a fan base that owes no allegiance to Steve Yzerman the hockey player or even the Steve Yzerman who was once the golden child in Detroit and seeming heir-apparent to head that operation.

He's out on his own now, but I for one wouldn't bet against him. Yzerman the player would do whatever was necessary to win, and Yzerman in his post-playing career didn't just say that he wanted to be a GM. He went to finishing school in and outside the Detroit organization in a committed effort to make it happen. Nobody is a sure thing in their chosen field, but when you look at Yzerman's pedigree, his work habits, his commitment to winning, and his commitment to being the best he can be at anything he tries, it's hard to bet against his chances for success.

This is a good move for Tampa and, arguably, a great move for Vinik and the NHL. The commissioner won't say a word about how it all came about, but he should at least take a silent bow. Tampa Bay is a franchise worth saving and there are now people in place who appear to have both the means and the ways to make it happen.

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