This week, I take a look at the fall of both top-seeded teams.. I also highlight Steve Yzerman’s return to Hockey Town and some key playoff roster moves.
1. Top Seeds Go Down
As of last Sunday, the East’s top seed, the Tampa Bay Lightning, were down 3-0 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs. The West’s top-seed, the Calgary Flames, were tied 1-1 with the Colorado Avalanche. Fast forward one week later, and both top-seeds have been eliminated from the playoffs. It is the first time in NHL history both top-seeds have been eliminated in the first round.
I for one did not want to see Tampa Bay get bounced in the first round. I don’t think it’s good for hockey to see the best regular-season team in a long time get eliminated so easily. I like to think of an upset of the top seed as a novelty. It’s fun every once in a while, but only because it happens so infrequently. I wanted to see this year’s Lightning team win the Stanley Cup and cement their legacy as the greatest team in the salary cap era.
Additionally, who wants to see the Blue Jackets play in the second round? The playoffs are designed so we can see the best teams rise to the top and meet in the later rounds. I am not interested in a Columbus vs Maple Leafs/Bruins series.
As much as I don’t like the Flames losing in the first round, I do like the Avalanche and they are a much more talented team than the Blue Jackets. I’ve written about their top-line numerous times and they are must-watch TV when they are on. I hope they continue to wreak havoc on the Western Conference and make a run into the later rounds.
2. Yzerman Returns
Now for my favorite news of the week. On Friday, the Detroit Red Wings announced that longtime Captain and Hall-of-Famer, Steve Yzerman, will return to the organization and take over as the new Executive Vice President & General Manager. Yzerman will replace Ken Holland, who has led the Red Wings’ front office for the past 22 years. Holland will be promoted to senior vice president and will also serve in an advisory role. This is a major move for the Wings; not only to bring Stevie Y back to the organization but to hire a new GM with a proven track record.
Yzerman had stepped down as GM in Tampa Bay before the season started. He cited family time as the main reason he stepped down from his post. Even after retiring and taking the Tampa job, Yzerman’s main residence has been in metro Detroit. He also has two daughters that attend college in Michigan. The second he stepped down the rumors started to swirl that he would be returning to Detroit after his contract expired at the end of the season. I was excited, but I didn’t have the faith he would come home this quickly.
I always try to remain objective in my opinions, but I am juiced for this. No, not because Yzerman is a god among Detroit sports fans (the first jersey I ever owned was a Steve Yzerman jersey), but because of the job he did as GM down in Tampa. This is the man that drafted the soon-to-be Hart Trophy winner, Nikita Kucherov, in the second round. This is the guy who convinced future Hall-of-Famer Steven Stamkos to forgo Free Agency and take a discount to stay in Tampa. This is the GM who built the greatest regular season team in the salary cap era. He knows what he’s doing.
He will no doubt have his work cut out for him when he gets going in Detroit. Thankfully, the Red Wings have a few nice pieces to work with. Dylan Larkin is already signed long-term and a few big contracts will be off the books in the next year or two. If Yzerman can find a way to dump guys like Darren Helm and Frans Nielsen, then the Red Wings could be competition for a championship in the next two to three years.
That is only possible because of the work of long-time GM, Ken Holland. As painful as it was for Holland to start the rebuild in Detroit, albeit it took too long, he has done an admirable job over the last two seasons. He drafted phenom Filip Zadina and fleeced the Golden Knights by trading Tomas Tatar (and his contract) for picks. Not to mention he was the GM for three Stanley Cup victories. As much as I was frustrated with Holland over the last few seasons, I want to thank him for his commitment to the franchise and for his hard work over the last few decades in Detroit.
In a league where talent is key, Yzerman knows where to find it. I’m confident that with Yzerman leading the charge, the Red Wings will return to their former glory sooner rather than later. It’s going to be an exciting summer if you’re a Red Wings fan.
3. Jaden Schwartz Deplanes the Jets
At the start of the season, one of the first “Unloved Teams” I featured was the St. Louis Blues. I wrote about how they were playing far below expectations and weren’t getting enough production from their defense. At the time, they had the second-worst record in the Western Conference. How the times have changed. Not only did the Blues climb all the way back to make the playoffs, but they also defeated the Winnipeg Jets in the first round.
I for one thought the Jets would represent the West in the Stanley Cup Finals. They had firepower all over their roster. They were oozing talent and looked far better than St. Louis on paper. But that’s why they play the games. The Blues handled the Jets and finished the series off winning game six on Saturday. They have Jaden Schwartz to thank for that. The Blues won the game 3-2, with all three goals coming from Schwartz. The Jets made a late run and scored a goal with under a minute left, but they couldn’t tie the game.
This team must feel unstoppable right now. They were far closer to winning the draft lottery than they were winning the Stanley Cup in the fall. They aren’t the flashiest team in the playoffs, but they could be the most dangerous. I definitely plan on watching them continue their quest to win their first Stanley Cup as a franchise.
4. Oshie Goes Down
I hate injuries in the playoffs. I want to see each team at full strength battle it out over a seven-game series. Unfortunately, for the Washington Capitals, they will be without forward T.J. Oshie, for what looks like the remainder of the playoffs. Oshie was pushed into the boards by Hurricanes’ forward, Warren Foegele, during Thursday night’s game. The push caused Oshie to smash into the boards in full force, breaking his clavicle.
This is not good news for the Caps. Oshie was an integral part of Washington’s Stanley Cup run last year, scoring eight goals and adding 13 assists. He provides great secondary scoring for a team top-heavy with forwards. The playoffs are all about who can score gritty goals and get the most out of their depth. If you remember, Devante Smith-Pelly and Lars Eller scored the two big goals for Washington in the deciding game during last year’s Stanley Cup Finals. If the Caps win the series and advance to the next round, they would play the New York Islanders. The Islanders have been one of the best defensive teams all season. Goals would be at a premium during that series. I’ll be watching to see how the Capitals can replace Oshie’s scoring and continue to win games against great defensive teams.
5. Enter Nikita Gusev
One of the lesser talked about news stories over the last week in the NHL is the Golden Knights’ signing of Nikita Gusev. Gusev is a 26-year-old Russian winger that has spent his entire career in the KHL. If you watched the Olympics last summer, you might remember him as he was arguably the best player on the ice, scoring 12 points in six games. He also won the KHL’s MVP last season and is 10th all time in points..
Gusev was a seventh-round pick of the Lightning back in 2012. The Lightning traded Gusev, a 2017 second-round pick, and a 2018 fourth-round pick in exchange for the Golden Knights selecting Jason Garrison in the expansion draft. On April 14th, Gusev made his move to the NHL official by signing a one-year ELC with Vegas.
Some of you might be thinking, “Who the hell is this guy and why do I care?” If you’re thinking that, I don’t blame you. Gusev hasn’t played for the Knights yet but he could make his debut at any time. Gusev could definitely be an X-Factor for the Knights as the playoffs roll on. I would love to see Gusev live up to his potential and take over these playoffs. He is my player to watch throughout this series if the Knights struggle to get anything going on offense. He would also be a huge piece of the puzzle for Vegas as they continue to build a better roster each year. ■
Blake Isaacs is a die-hard Red Wings fan that doesn’t go to as many games as he should. He is also a big fan of 7-Eleven Slurpeees, Chipotle, and all things Michigan State. Follow him on Twitter @bisaacs1995.