We approach the Ides of March, which means that the sports world is focused on basketball right, particularly the Madness of the NCAA tournament.
That’s okay. I understand. In fact, you ought to read this morning’s post from Kevin Triskett about the potential All-American selections, if you haven’t already. I’m a homer for Wisconsin sports, so you should check out his pick for player of the year. No worries, I’ll be here when you get back.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, it’s time for hockey. With only about 15 games left this season, now is a good time to get your team heading in the right direction. If you want to know what direction that is, the New York Rangers are a good example.
The Cup is All
This actually started as part of a discussion on social media, in reaction to my assertion that if the Rangers don’t lift the Cup this season or next, their window will slam shut. The commenter rightly pointed out that the Rangers are a team whose every year is a “win now!” type of year. They have the clout and the cash to overcome mistakes or a thin farm system, and their front office doesn’t make gigantic blunders (if we’re using Toronto as a measuring stick).
That said, I think the Rangers will be a reeaaal interesting team to watch over the next couple seasons. They (rightly) saw that they have a solid chance at the Cup this year. They’re solid down the middle, crafty on the wings, and with Yandle, that blue line is completely unfair to other teams. Cam Talbot is one of the best backups in the NHL, as he’s displaying in Lundqvist’s absence. I really like Alain Vigneault at the helm — he knows how to get a team deep into the playoffs. The West is having an off year, and the Rangers (at this moment) the match of any team the West might send to the Cup.
But I do think they’ve bet the kids’ college fund to take their run this season (and maybe next). They had one of the thinnest farm systems before the trade deadline, especially at the center position — this is even after they lucked into getting Kevin Hayes (pictured above). Losing Anthony Duclair thins it further, and the Rangers have only four draft picks this year. They’ve got twelve players hitting free agency after this season or next, not including borrowed centerman James Sheppard.
That’s six players whose contracts expire this year, and another six next year. While many of these will be restricted free agents, they’re also on very team-friendly deals. The twelve also include EVERY center not named Derick Brassard, the exact position that New York doesn’t have in development. Oh, and next season, the Rangers are spending about $3.7 million of their cap space on extensions for Staal, Zuccarello, and Talbot.
Here’s the thing: the New York Rangers always seem to get out of the corners they paint themselves into, by luck or savvy. It’s an ability that has earned a lot of grumbling from their rivals. The 2016-17 season may be no different, but I’m really curious to see what kind of Houdini act they’ll pull this time.
Still the Odds-On Favorite?
The Rangers’ act isn’t necessarily a unique one; every GM understands that most teams only get a few opportunities before aging players and the salary cap close the window on a team’s Cup chances. Most of them would also gladly sacrifice a half-decade of depth for winning just one Stanley Cup.
The Chicago Blackhawks finds themselves in a similar-but-different predicament. Next season is when the new contracts for Toews and Kane take effect, and the salary cap didn’t increase as much as everyone originally thought it would. They also desperately need to re-sign Brandon Saad, because he’s often been the lone spark plug when the rest of the team has struggled on ice. They also need to decide on their 2nd-line center, since Richards and Vermette are free agents after this season.
The difference is that, unlike the Rangers, Chicago has a deep farm system. Also unlike the Rangers, unfortunately, Chicago has a reputation for not properly utilizing said system. Prospects don’t get time to play and learn at the NHL level for a full season, unless there’s an injury (Saad) or they don’t mind a bottom-six/pairing role (Shaw, Smith). A lot of the teams in the East have been beneficiaries of the ‘Hawks inability to manage the matriculation of its prospects. The Panthers and Rangers didn’t give up much to get the likes of the Hayes brothers or Brandon Pirri.
Yet Chicago still has a good crop of prospects, so the doom hanging over them is lessened. The question is whether or not they can adequately utilize them going forward. They haven’t had much practice the last couple years.
Can’t Put Out the Flames
A team that has somehow thrived on using prospects is the Calgary Flames. We’re all still waiting for them to drop from the playoff race, but with only fifteen games left on the schedule, the possibility of the Flames edging out last year’s Stanley Cup winners for a playoff spot becomes less ludicrous. After the traded Curtis Glencross and lost Norris candidate Mark Giordano to injury, surely they would start to fall behind the rest of the Pacific, right?
Nope. They’re clawing like a veteran team, despite being having a young and unknown roster. Their underlying numbers resemble those of the 2013 Maple Leafs and the 2014 Avalanche, which means that they don’t project as a deep playoff team if they do make it in. It also means that they’re ripe for a crash next season. But the Flames haven’t crashed yet, and it will be a huge story if they can hold off the Kings (or Canucks, or Sharks) for a chance at the Cup.
Panther- / Senator-Watch
Unfortunately, the Boston Bruins have started to right their ship this past week, meaning that the Panthers and Senators lost ground on the final playoff spot in the East. After smacking around the Flyers, the Bruins are six points up on Florida, and seven points up on Ottawa. Craig Anderson has returned in goal for the Senators, which means that BGSU alum Andrew Hammond is back to the back-up role (even if he is getting the start tonight).
Ah, well. It was fun to cheer against Boston for a little bit.
Cheering for Boston
No, not the Bruins. Over the weekend, the Boston Blades won the CWHL Clarksons Cup, defeating the Montreal Stars on an overtime goal by Janine Weber. While I have no particular love for New England sports teams, the Blades have a trio of forwards who played both for the US Women’s Olympic team in Sochi, and for the University of Wisconsin. Speaking of which…
Basketball isn’t the only NCAA sport to have its spotlight in March. The University of Wisconsin Badgers defeated Bemidji State over the weekend to become the Women’s WCHA champion, earning a spot in the D1 national tournament. If the Badgers can beat Boston University, they’ll be into the Frozen Four — potentially facing WCHA rival Minnesota.
(As a Wisconsin native, I cheer for the Badgers since my alma mater, BGSU, doesn’t have a women’s D1 program. Hell, they almost lost their men’s D1 program. Thankfully, that no longer seems to be a concern.)
Over on the men’s side, the BGSU Falcons pulled out of their late season dive to hold onto the #13 ranking in Men’s D1 hockey. They’re third in the WCHA, and play a best-of-three series against Northern Michigan in the conference quarterfinals. While Michigan Tech and Minnesota State are both top-five teams, nationally, BGSU has beat them in the regular season. If they can work some magic in the WCHA tournament, we might see the Falcons with a chance for the Frozen Four tournament. Oh, one can hope.
Madness, I know, but that’s what March is about, right?