SI.com's experts discuss the NHL's final four teams vying for the Cup along with the implications of Mike Babcock's move to the Maple Leafs.
Every week, a trio of SI.com staffers will sit down for a discussion of the hockey world's hot-button issues. This week, Michael Blinn, Sarah Kwak and Allan Muir talk about the NHL's Final Four, Conn Smythe candidates, the wide-ranging impact of Mike Babcock's hiring, and the best man for the coaching jobs in New Jersey and Buffalo. First up:
Now that we've had a look at the final four in action, which team is looking most dangerous to you?
MICHAEL BLINN: I slept on the Blackhawks going into Round One, and I'm not sure what I was thinking. Patrick Kane hasn't showed any signs of rust, the ailing blue line is being held together by veteran leaders, and despite an early rough patch, Corey Crawford has been more than good enough to give Chicago a chance to win every night in net. All of the cylinders are firing, and if they can hold off the Ducks, someone from the East is going to have an uphill battle.
SARAH KWAK: Quack, quack, quack! (And just FYI, readers, that's not how you pronounce my last name. Thanks.) The Ducks may have their shortcomings, but they simply have the fewest of the remaining teams. Chicago's defensive depth is an issue—and if the Blackhawks advance and I eat my hat, then yes, Duncan Keith's superhuman minutes should earn him heavy Conn Smythe consideration—and with how many minutes those top four are logging, it's going to catch up. In that marathon Game 2, Anaheim's ice time leader, Francois Beauchemin, would have ranked fourth on Chicago's roster; Hampus Lindholm, who logged 44:07, played two fewer minutes than Chicago's fourth D-man, Johnny Oduya. Sure, everyone on both teams was tired in Game 3, but I think Game 4 is where we may see the real difference in fatigue from Game 2. As for the East, New York's inability to score has only been outdone by their inability to keep Tampa Bay from scoring lately. And, well, Lightning goalie Ben Bishop's .925 postseason save percentage ranks just barely better than Chicago's Corey Crawford's (lowest of the remaining starters). But Crawford also had an atrocious start to the playoffs.
AL MUIR: I picked the Hawks coming in, but that defense—Duncan Keith notwithstanding--has me concerned. I can't argue with your logic for picking the Ducks, Sarah. Depth, health and goaltending have them perfectly positioned to advance to the Final. So do the numbers. Take a look at that goal differential—a league-high 3.58 goals-for and a league-low 1.92 goals-against. They're the best at five-on-five (1.75), they boast the best active power play and penalty kill and they have the best shot differential. Hard not to see them as the favorites after Game 3.
Who has your Conn Smythe support now?
BLINN: Offense gets all the glory, but I think Duncan Keith needs some serious consideration. The Blackhawks' blueliner is anchoring a defense that's having its depth tested, and he's looking superhuman while doing it. His 11 points lead all defensemen, as does his staggering 32:03 average TOI. When you're put on the ice every other minute and contribute in every possible situation, it's really hard to argue against MVP status.
KWAK: Ryan Getzlaf. He's tied for second in points with 16, despite playing four fewer games than those Triplets in Tampa Bay. And he is the heart of the Ducks. He leads the team's forwards in minutes, playing both the power play (ranked second to Minnesota) and the penalty kill (best in the West this postseason). He's their unequivocal leader and the reason why Anaheim hasn't gotten distracted by extracurriculars much this spring.
MUIR: Can't argue with either of those picks if their team comes out on top. I'll mix it up and go with Tyler Johnson. The guy is leading the postseason in goals, points and game winners and he's played a vital role in every Tampa Bay victory. Add in that he's the most entertaining player going right now and he'll be an easy choice if the Bolts win it all...and maybe even if they don't.
Don't know if you heard, but Mike Babcock won't be coaching Detroit next season. What do you make of the Babcock-less Red Wings in 2015-16?
KWAK: Hmm, if I'm not mistaken, the Red Wings have also in their history replaced Jack Adams and Scotty Bowman. As great a coach as Mike Babcock is—and he is Top 10 all time—Detroit is an organization, not just a team. They don't just have Plan B, they have Plans E, F and G. Babcock's likely replacement, Jeff Blashill, has plenty of experience and has learned from the best, so I very much doubt there will be a significant drop off because of a coach. There may be drop-off next season, but that would have more to do with transition on the roster than anything on the bench. The young Red Wings will need to flourish further and show consistency to maintain Detroit's success. If they do take a step back, it'll look much bigger than it actually is. Keep in mind, this year's Red Wings were also four points from missing the postseason.
BLINN: I don't see too much of a problem here. Much like their prospect pool, the Wings have brought along some coaching talent in a slow, calculated manner. Supposed successor Jeff Blashill has succeeded at the every level he's coached at (NCAA, USHL, AHL), and knows how the organization works. On the ice, the team is stocked with successful and still-contributing veterans and plenty of young talent, while the pool is filled with smartly developed players. I don't expect them to be on top of the East in 2015-16, but they'll be in the playoff mix for sure.
MUIR: It's not the absence of Babcock that worries me about that team. It's the extra year of mileage on Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall. I love their kids as much as the next guy, and I think we could see Teemu Pulkkinen and Dylan Larkin assume regular roles before the year's out. But there's still a lot of weight placed on the shoulders of those creaky vets, none of whom should be expected to play 75-plus games. So yeah, I think there's a real chance of regression for this team, no matter who is standing behind the bench.
What does Babcock's contract with the Maple Leafs mean for the future of coaching in the NHL? Is this the beginning of the end of the disposable coach era or is this just a one-off that couldn't be replicated anywhere else?
BLINN: It's developing like the goalie pool: there's a few elite guys, some very good ones, and then a whole bunch looking to making the jump up the ladder. I think if he ever hits the open market again, a coach like two-time Cup winner Joel Quenneville might have a little more command of his situations than others out there.
KWAK: It's huge for a handful of coaches, and maybe long-term, it'll be a big for everyone. But I actually think Todd McLellan in Edmonton is the more impactful deal, getting $15 million over five years ($3 million per year). McLellan is a great coach, of course, but he does not have a Stanley Cup as a head coach, and he hasn’t made it past the conference final. Yet, he still commanded more than Quenneville (reportedly at $2.75 million) or two-time Cup finalist with two different teams Alain Vigneault (reportedly $2 million). If I'm a fairly successful coach looking to make the most out of my extension or a new job, the McLellan deal is the one I show them.
MUIR: That's exactly what I was going to say, Sarah. I was shocked by the numbers I heard for the McLellan deal. Not that he's overpaid necessarily, but compared to what we've seen other coaches receive recently ... well, just look at Claude Julien. A Cup winner in Boston, his deal (3 years, $7.5 million) is nowhere near that lucrative. Give McLellan credit for taking advantage of a huge demand this spring for proven coaching. And like you said, it's that deal, not the perfect storm of desperation and deep pockets in Toronto, that'll set the tone for future coaching negotiations.
Now that Babs is off the market, there are several teams looking for Plan B. Give me your perfect team/coaching option combo.
KWAK: I like Paul MacLean in New Jersey. Look at what he did in Ottawa, building a playoff team out of seemingly very little twice. Very smart, he would have a very coachable and hard-working group in New Jersey, which has missed the postseason now three years in a row—their longest drought since the mid-1980s. With some changes in the front office, I think a new and thoughtful coach like MacLean, who was rumored to be in the running for the job last December, would do New Jersey well.
BLINN: I can see Dan Byslma setting up shop in Buffalo quite comfortably. He has the veteran savvy to help mold a talent-laden group that's in desperate need of a fresh start. Evander Kane, Tyler Ennis, Zach Bogosian and the soon-to-be-drafted Jack Eichel could all learn a lot from a guy with Disco Dan's resume, and he could play a big role in accelerating the Sabres' rebuild.
MUIR: I'm looking at the Sabres too, but I like Luke Richardson as their best option. The Binghamton coach has done a remarkable job funneling young talent like Jakob Silfverberg, Mika Zibanejad, Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman from the AHL to Ottawa over the past couple seasons, so he has that very particular set of skills needed to develop Buffalo's deep pool of prospects. His NHL experience—just eight defenders in history played more than his 1,417 games—buys him credibility with the team's vets. Plus, he has a relationship with Tim Murray. The current Sabres GM served as Binghamton's GM when he was with the Senators organization. Seems like the perfect fit to me.