March Madness, spring training, MLB opening day, NHL playoff stretch drive and the Stanley Cup playoffs: from now until mid-June, it’s my favorite time of the year. (I still don’t know how I ended up picking Kansas to win the NCAA basketball national title.)
With less than a month to go before the NHL regular season wraps up, the race for the final spots in the extra season are ramping up – and not just because of the misleading points system. Washington, Buffalo and Winnipeg are slugging it out in the East, while Colorado, Calgary, Phoenix, San Jose and Los Angeles wrestle in the West.
As March and April play out the 2011-12 regular season, here are a few thoughts.
HOW WOULD EDMONTON DRAFT?
Eight points up on last-placed Columbus, it’s unlikely the Oilers will choose No. 1 overall in June. But with the way the two teams have played lately – and the fact they meet up twice more – the Blue Jackets could theoretically still catch Edmonton. And then there’s the lottery that could lead the Oilers to the top pick, too.
If they did end up with No. 1, who would they choose? Sure, this is a question asked most years (Taylor vs. Tyler, Duchene vs. Tavares or Hedman) and it always ends up with the expected result.
But the Oilers are full of young forwards and struggling on the blueline, so would they trade down to select a defenseman, select a defenseman with their own pick, or go with the consensus No. 1, Nail Yakupov? As great a talent as he is expected to be, the fact he is Russian means there is at least a little bit of a risk he’ll eventually go to the Kontinental League. That’s just how it is. Right now the chances appear small he would go back, but the same could have been said for Alexander Radulov, who played his junior days in the QMJHL.
And why would the Oilers take any risks at all with their selection? They already have a tremendous base to start from, so why not make the pick they need and land Matt Dumba or Ryan Murray?
Heck, even if the Oilers end up with the No. 2 pick as anticipated, the same debate could flare up: Another forward, or a much-needed blueline blue-chipper? The Oilers will have a tough decision to make either way.
I’m really curious exactly what Alexander Radulov would bring to the table for the Predators if he comes back this season and how they’d use him right away. The 25-year-old would probably need some time to get back up to speed with the NHL game and readjust to the effects the smaller rink dimensions have on style (four years is a long time). The Predators are winning and playing as one of the league’s best teams right now; heck, they even have the ninth-best offense. And it’s not as though Radulov is an immediate need on the power play, which ranks second in the league.
Radulov is the best player not in the NHL right now and would certainly give the Predators a boost, but I’d be curious to see how coach Barry Trotz works him back into a team that has gelled so well and already made a couple of additions (Andre Kostitsyn, Paul Gaustad). Of course, if there’s any coach to trust with this, it’s Trotz.
The Preds are generally a team that plays it cautious and cool, but they’re all-in this season and will do whatever they can with Radulov to help put them over the top.
THE MVP DEBATE
Steven Stamkos has had an incredible year yet again, but I’m one of those who holds the belief that if your team misses the playoffs, you shouldn’t win the Hart Trophy. I don’t care if you score 10 more goals than the next guy, the most valuable player gets his team to the playoffs.
In the other corner you have Evgeni Malkin, who has been scoring at a pace not seen from him since 2009 and has led the Penguins without Sidney Crosby and, at times, Kris Letang and Jordan Staal.
A third contender is Henrik Lundqvist. What the Rangers workhorse has done this year is nothing short of incredible. The fact he hasn’t yet won a Vezina Trophy is a crime – but that can be made up with a Vezina and a Hart in the same year. This one might come down to whichever team tops the East and, therefore, finishes stronger. (Honorable mentions to Jason Spezza, Claude Giroux and Ilya Kovalchuk.)
BRIAN BURKE’S JOB SECURITY
The Leafs rebuild hasn’t gone as most had hoped it would and there’s been questions about GM Brian Burke’s job security. (When asked about it in a Toronto radio show interview, he hung up on the host.)
If I were making the call, I’d still give Burke another two seasons at the helm. No playoffs this year? Part of the process. No playoffs next year? Tremendously discouraging, but give him one more go. No playoffs in 2013-14? Fail.
I still think talk of dismissal is premature – even if this hasn’t been a rebuild in the true sense of the word, it’s still a rebuild. When Burke arrived, the team was in disarray and he was given the job with the idea it would be a long-term process. The team is better now, though it still needs improvements and Burke is the guy to do it. A firing at this point would be a knee-jerk mistake. Stability is key.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
If the San Jose Sharks miss the playoffs, what happens? Do the GM, coach or both get fired? Which players would/should get traded?
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com’s web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.
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