Skip to main content

Bluelines: They Said it Couldn't Be Done, but the South Loves Hockey

Stan Fischler is back with his weekly Bluelines column, looking at how the Southern United States have embraced hockey in a big way, Los Angeles' continued success this season, Jake Muzzin, the Seattle Kraken and more.
USATSI_17777633

Let's get serious.

Pretend that this was 1992, and you were asked to choose between Ottawa and Tampa Bay. The question would be: which would be the more successful NHL franchise? Which would you select? (And remember, they entered the NHL simultaneously.)

The answer then would have been the no-brainer-of-all-no-brainers; Ottawa silly. Its hockey roots date back to the 19th century; it's a good, cold town and nurtured such Hall of Famers as Frank Boucher and Frank Nighbor to stardom.

As for Tampa Bay it was regarded as a guaranteed Phil Esposito flop franchise, which bounced from one bad arena to one worse ballpark to, finally, a state-of-the-art hockey rink.

Today, The Cigar City has become a heck of a hockey burgh. As for Ottawa, well, Canada's Capital is at best, hangin' in there. And what does that tell you?

It tells you that The Southland has become rich hockey country. Big-time. Exhibit B, as in Big, would be that Happy Go Lucky Dixie town in Tennessee. Yow-zuh, Nashville has become another hockey boom town below the Mason-Dixon Line.

You could have seen it first-hand at the recent, gala banner-hanging night for retired Preds goalie Pekka Rinne. But that was just the appetizer. It was followed by, of all things, an outdoor game that sold out Nissan Field with a sellout crowd of more than 60,000.

A large part of credit for Nashville's renaissance belongs to the fellow who's been with the team since its get-go. That would be the genial g.m. David Poile. So, it made sense for me to ask him how Nashville transformed from a "Are you kidding me?" dream to a hockey hot spot.

"Just like many other things in this industry, it's all about relationships," says Poile, whose dad, Bud Poile was a Maple Leafs multi-Stanley Cup-winner. "Relationships with the fans and with the community; the quicker the buy-in from everyone.

"And, oh, by the way, winning a few games doesn't hurt either. Ultimately, you have to put a successful and entertaining product on the ice. But without the proper groundwork in the community, any gains would be short-lived."

The Predators staff deserves full marks for the hard work invested. That's what led to long-lasting success and such a magnificent jubilee as the Stadium game against the Lightning.

Poile: "That was just another prime example to show that what really matters is not your latitude but your attitude. And Smashville has the right ingredients to be a great hockey town -- no question."

What it all proves is that the Gary Bettman scheme for populating the NHL with teams in Florida, California and Texas makes as much sense as Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg.

Sure there have been glitches. Arizona would have worked better had a rink been placed downtown not in yonder Glendale. But if current plans jell, the Coyotes will wind up with a fancy-schmancy arena in Tempe. For now, they'll have to be "Tempe-rarilly" happy playing in a new, compact Arizona University arena. Cozy, yes, but not the worst thing in the world.

Phoenix-Tempe can become hockey country. Didn't the fair state of Arizona help develop Auston Matthews -- arguably the best player in the NHL.

(Part Two about how The Southland has welcomed NHL hockey will run in the next issue.)

-----

CROWNING THE KINGS

Most of the Know-It-Alls picked Tinseltown's team to finish in the Pacific Division's bottom half, but the standings show us otherwise. With minimal fuss or fanfare, GM Rob Blake's outfit has been doing very well, thank you. But what I want to know is why?

My ever-insightful sidekick, Michael Augello, credits the off-season moves by Rapid Rob.

"Blake got his club excellent young talent," Augello affirms."Players such as Quinton Byfield, Alex Turcotte, Gabe Vilardi and Tobias Bjornfot have improved the prospect lifeline."

But it's more than that. After dispatching Jeff Carter to Pitt, Blake locked up winger Alex Iafallo and sent a pair of draft picks to Nashville for winger Vik Arvidsson.

Augello: "The defense was bolstered by the signing of vet Alex Edler and strengthened up the middle by signing center Phil Danault. Iafallo and Arvidsson have provided much-needed scoring depth along with a breakout year for winger Adrian Kempe.

"But the key move was the addition of Danault who gives coach Todd McLellan a two-way center to match up against the opposition's top line. He frees up Anze Kopitar to concentrate on generating offense."

The pretty postscript is that Norris Trophy-winner Drew Doughty is back to provide help for goalies Jon Quick and Cal Petersen. Ergo: The Kings are going to finish a lot higher than the forecasters believed.

------

I'M JUST SAYIN':

* If I'm new Chicago boss Kyle Davidson, I'd keep Patrick Kane and urge Jonathan Toews to retire. There's no room for sentimentality with Windy City hockey.

* But if Toews wants to continue playing; no problem. He can be traded.

* The beauty of Bruce Boudreau is that he's a no-B.S. guy. After his Canucks beat the Rangers and the next night got clobbered by New Jersey, some player alibied that the loss was due to back-to-back games.

* "I don't get the 'Back To Back' thing," snapped Cousin Brucie. "That excuse goes out the window." (As it should -- and did!).

* Jeff Blashill must have been an electrician. He says "You can't just turn on the switch and go from practice to the games."

* Sure it's too early to tell but New Jersey may have found a goaltending gem in German-born Nico Daws. So far, so pretty darn good.

* Watch out for Jack Hughes. He's beginning to live up to his notices. A recent NHL.com panel picked Jack at the top of its list of American-born budding aces. Jason Robertson, Trevor Zegras, Jake Oettinger and Quinn Hughes were in the top five.

* More and more, Boston is impressing me as a hot homestretch bet. Bruce Cassidy is a darn, good coach. And the agile Alaskan, Jeremy Swayman, could become a latter-day Frankie Brimsek.

* TSN's Travis Yost believes that the Habs might be interested in bolstering their goaltending with Alex Georgiev. That would have been true had the Canadiens been thinking of the 2020 Georgiev. The current edition is an unreasonable facsimile of an ace.

* Among the saddest stories of the current campaign is the absence of Carey Price.

* ESPN's Mark Messier believes that the Rangers are "comfortable" on the big stage. They looked okay in the nationally -- chippy, I might add -- game last week in Pittsburgh.

* This issue no doubt will be debated 'til the cows come home: Does Sidney Crosby get a special break from the refs? (A harmless discussion, you must admit.)

* The recent soft call against Rangers defenseman Ryan Lindgren for hooking Sid in the third period got the soapbox orators in action.

* One longtime observer claims, "I continue to believe this remains a "Thank You" to Mario Lemieux for saving the franchise twice."

* How about the Caps pitching for Marc-Andre Fleury since their current stoppers look second and third rate from here.

* Exhaling after all the fuss and fanfare in Smashvillei, David Poile tells me, "The week gave me pause as to how far we've come to be known as a hockey town. Nashville knows how to throw a party."

* I'm rooting for Anaheim to make the playoffs. Everybody picked them for the cellar. Ryan Getzlaf says, NO! Trevor Zegras says NO! Ditto, my old New Jersey pal, Pat Verbeek.

* Another bunch worth pulling for is the Blue Jackets, also slated for the depth. Yeah, they're trailing the pack but they still have a shot. I want it for John Davidson.

*If I'm Marty St.Louis, I leave the goaltending with Andrew Hammond. Let The Hamburgler show you he can be the Habs starter next season. The Burglar is 3-0-0 so far. Can't do better than that!

* I liked The Hockey News headline: "Should The Leafs Shop For A Goalie?" My answer: does the sun rise in the East?"

* Here's another reason why hockey players are the best: Virtually every time you ask one -- as in Trevor Zegras on Tuesday night -- about his goal, he shares the wealth: "It was a great play by my teammates," said Zeggy.

* The other day I was touting Portland Winterhawks goalie Taylor Gauthier as a good get for an NHL team. Alas, the Penguins just signed him to a three-year, entry-level contract.

* We all remember how Hall of Famers Mark Messier and Chris Chelios were dedicated leaders. Word out of ESPN is that they're impressing staffers "with their commitment to do well at their new craft."

WHO SAID THIS? "I've played two old-timers' games. That's more than I played as Bernie Parent's back-up." (Answer below)

MULLING OVER MUZZIN MOVES

Since Jake (The Rake) Muzzin's latest concussion puts him in the "We Don"t Know When He'll Be Back" category, it's anyone's guess what Trader Kyle Dubas will do. With Muzzin on LTIR it opens up nearly all of his $5,625 million salary.

Pal Mike Augello figures that allows the Dubas to acquire players before the Trade Deadline. That's assuming that Muzzin remains out for the rest of the regular season, a la the Bolts' Nik Kucherov last year.

Augello figures that Toronto could be willing to exchange a future first-round pick and other prospects to get players with term. And if you're wondering why all of this matters, here's the answer: If Kyle's Leafs fail to survive the first playoff round, neither will Sir Dubas!

KRAKEN NOT ALL THAT IT WAS CRACKED UP TO BE

No question; the Golden Knights of Vegas made it tough for Seattle's Kraken. It all came down to this; if the Nevada outfit could be so good, so fast, why not Washington's entry?

The answer is obvious; Vegas did better in virtually every area and Seattle was overrated by virtually every "Insider" or us Outsiders. For example, The Athletic, which likes to think it knows more than all of us put together, called the Kraken "a 95-point team."

Guess what? The Kraks are on pace for a 27-win 62-point season. My Seattle fisherman, Glenn Dreyfuss, has the answers and they start in goal. Phil Grubauer's game has been lame while Chris Dredger has been, well, eh.

Dreyfuss: "The silver lining is that g.m. Ron Francis is now relieved of the pressure to be a trade-deadline buyer. He can maintain his slow-and-steady wins the race approach. That means no one on the roster is untouchable.

"The other silver lining happens to be the team's patient fan base. In one recent game, Grubauer allowed an early, stoppable goal. When he made a save moments later, fans didn't respond with a cynical Bronx cheer. Instead, they supportively shouted his name,

'Gruuuu!' Francis can only hope that largesse will continue."

Our sage Gus Vic puts it another way: "The Kraken are exactly where I believe they'd be.Vegas set a ridiculously unrealistic target. Secondly, the roster drafted by Ron Francis simply isn't good enough to make the playoffs, let alone reach .500.

"On the other hand, they will improve and take more of a path of a conventional expansion team. Give them two or three years. They'll get there."

ANSWER TO WHO SAID THIS? Bobby Taylor, Bernie Parent's back-up goalie for the two-time Stanley Cup champion Flyers.

TOP HEADLINES

Pete DeBoer

Golden Knights Fire DeBoer After Team Misses Playoffs

The Vegas Golden Knights have fired head coach Peter DeBoer after failing to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

Lane Lambert

Islanders Promote Lane Lambert to Coach

Lane Lambert will coach the New York Islanders after the team relieved Barry Trotz of his duties last week.

USATSI_18279374
Play

Fischler Report: Thoughts After a Sizzling First Round

Stan Fischler shares his thoughts from the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, including why the Leafs lost again, which teams look the best and so much more.