The NHL playoffs are in full swing and we saw the second round begin late last week. This week, I look at one of the NHL’s good problems, some interesting contract decisions and a name you need to know for the rest of the playoffs.
1. Wild Cards are Great for CompetitionLast week, I wrote about how the upset of both number one teams, the Calgary Flames and Tampa Bay Lightning, was bad for the NHL. It might be fun to see upsets every now and then, but people want to see the best teams advance. I still believe that 100%. Although, the one major benefit of lower seeds making deep playoff runs is that more teams will be willing to buy at the deadline, which creates more competitive teams.
It seems that all professional leagues that employ a salary cap have become obsessed with tanking, seeing it as the only viable option to build a great team from scratch. That has created a void of middle-tier teams and increased the number of putrid teams. The NHL has been lucky to avoid that problem. That is because lower seeded teams have had frequent success in the playoffs. This year is a prime example, where all four wild card teams advanced.
The success of wild card teams in the playoffs encourages middling teams to buy at the deadline which also spreads out talent. So instead of two or three super-teams and the rest being stragglers, the result is 16 teams that are all good and capable of winning games. Columbus is this year’s best example. Their general manager, Jarmo Kekäläinen, felt a large pressure to make the playoffs because of his inability to lock superstars, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, into extensions before the season ended. That led to him pushing all his chips to the middle of the table and acquiring Matt Duchene at the deadline. The move has paid off so far. Columbus was hanging on for dear life in the playoff race before acquiring Duchene and is now tied 1-1 with Boston in the conference semi-finals.
As much as I hate seeing Tampa and Calgary ousted in the first round, I do feel that wild card teams having success is great for the league because more teams will stay competitive through the end of the season and into the playoffs. And as the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings proved, a wild card team can win the Stanley Cup. The possibility that we see another wild card team win it all this year looks to be greater than ever.
2. Boston’s Cup to Lose
The Tampa Bay Lightning dominated the headlines the entire season. They had arguably the best player, goaltender, defenseman, coach, and team. So the headlines were well deserved. Now that they will be watching the rest of the playoffs from their couches, it’s time for us to turn our attention to another powerhouse, the Boston Bruins.
Boston is clearly the best team left in the playoffs. They were tied with Calgary for the second-highest point total this season with 107. The Bruins have one of the most experienced rosters in the NHL and are deep at every position. With Tampa gone, they should be the clear favorite to take home the Stanley Cup.
If Boston does go all the way, it would drastically change the narrative on this season. If Tampa had gone on to win it all, the narrative would have been that the Lightning were arguably the greatest team of the salary cap era. If the Bruins win the Cup, I believe the history will look back on them fondly. Because when they see that the Bruins won it all after finishing as the second-best team in their conference, people won’t scratch their heads and wonder what happened; they will believe that Boston deserved to win the Cup. If another team were to win, people would chalk this season up as an outlier and the Stanley Cup winner as a fluke. I’m not saying one of the seven other teams left in the playoffs doesn’t deserve to win or isn’t worthy. I’m strictly speaking from a narrative perspective. And the Bruins are the only team left that is good enough to change that narrative.
If they don’t win, this will be truly one of the most random seasons that I can remember.
3. What to do with Mitch Marner?Many of the storylines that had to do with the Maple Leafs this season revolved around contract extensions for their big stars. Most notably, Williams Nylander, who sat out a good chunk of the season until the two sides agreed on an extension. More recently, superstar Auston Matthews and the team agreed on a new five-year deal. If you’re keeping score at home, that means two of the Leafs’ young studs will enter this summer as RFAs, Mitch Marner and Kasperi Kapanen. I’m going to focus on only Marner, because he’s going to command a lot more money.
The worst thing that could have happened for the Leafs this year was for Marner to have the season he had. Marner exploded, setting new career highs in goals, assists, and points, finishing with 26-68-94. He earned himself a very nice pay day. But how much is he worth?
To put it in perspective, Nylander signed a six-year contract worth $41.77 million and Matthews signed a five-year contract worth $58.17 million. I believe Marner is WORTH an amount right in between his two teammates. Although he now has more career points and the highest single-season point total between the three players, Matthews is a generational talent and will always be the highest priority financially. So I would say Marner is worth somewhere in the $45-$50 million range. I have no doubt he could get more money on the open market if he wanted to.
The Leafs only have $6 million in cap space for next season, and that’s without re-signing Kapanen or any other players. They will have to get very creative if they want to keep all three players under contract. This probably means Kapanen leaves in a sign-and-trade. General Manager Kyle Dubas will have to break out every trick in the book to re-sign Marner. He will also have to decide what other players on his roster are expendable if he wants to keep Kapanen or Jake Gardiner. This is going to be one of the most exciting storylines going into the offseason.
4. The Legend of Roope Hintz
If you read that header and have no idea who Roope Hintz is or if he is even a hockey player, watch this video.
Now you want to know.
To be honest, I barely knew who Hintz was before he made that play in Saturday’s Game 2 against the Blues. I saw his name on the scoresheet a few times, but didn’t give it much thought beyond that. His play as of late has warranted an introduction.
Hintz is a 22-year-old left wing from Tampere, Finland. He was drafted 49th overall in the 2015 Draft, 14 picks after Sebastian Aho and one before Jordan Greenway. Hintz spent all of last year with the Star’s AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars, scoring 20 goals and 35 points in 70 games. This year, his first in the NHL, he finished the regular season with nine goals and 13 assists in 58 games. He has really stepped up his game this playoff run, playing alongside ex-Ranger, Mats Zuccarello. Hintz has scored four goals and seven points in eight games. That’s more than teammates Alexander Radulov and Tyler Seguin.
If this is truly Hintz’s coming out party, then the Stars are very dangerous. Coming into the playoffs, they were lacking depth at forward. They obviously have one of the best top-lines in the league with Jamie Benn, Seguin, and Radulov. They traded for Zuccarello in attempt to add that depth. If Hintz can keep it going and provide the secondary scoring Dallas so desperately needs, then we might be talking about the legend of Roope Hintz for longer than a week.
5. Jack Hughes Passes Alex OvechkinAs we get closer to the draft, Jack Hughes news will become unavoidable. So before we get sick of it (if you aren’t already), Hughes reached another milestone this past week. Hughes is now the all-time points leader in the history of the Men’s IIHF World U18 Championship. The record previously belonged to Washington Capitals winger, Alex Ovechkin. Hughes scored a combined 32 points between this year’s and last year’s tournaments; Ovechkin’s record was 31.
Anytime you can align yourself with Ovechkin is noteworthy. Unfortunately for Hughes, he wasn’t able to do enough to bring home the gold medal for the Americans. It will be okay, because Ovechkin didn’t win a gold medal in the IIHF U-18’s either, and he turned out alright.
The next step for Hughes will be preparing for the NHL Draft, which begins on Friday, June 21. He is almost a lock to go first-overall to the New Jersey Devils. I would bet the farm that the Devils take him first over Finnish sensation, Kaapo Kakko. We will have to wait and see. ■
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.