The beautiful part of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a reporter who otherwise follows the Toronto Maple Leafs is, you get exposed to the rest of the league.
Often that means watching players that, for the most part, you only see on the highlights or read about. You get to make observations such as:
-Jason Spezza might be the perfect No. 2 center. That said, he was a pretty darned good No. 1 center with the Ottawa Senators, especially after he started paying attention to the defensive side of the game. With the Dallas Stars, he slides in behind Tyler Seguin where he doesn’t face the opposition’s top checkers or shutdown pair on defence. Oh, and when Seguin is unavailable, Spezza can produce at a quality No. 1 center’s pace while maintaining his No. 2 spot.
-Given the choice between having Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty or Brent Burns – the top three defencemen in the NHL according to many – I might just take Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues. He may not have Karlsson’s offensive flair and ability to control the pace of the game or Doughty’s sandpaper edge or Burns', uh, beard, but Pietrangelo plays a nearly flawless game. He is a great skater, offers above average offence, doesn’t shy away from physical play and is a huge minute muncher.
-While we’re on the subject of defencemen, Roman Josi has quietly supplanted Shea Weber as the best D-man on the Nashville Predators. Not that there is anything wrong with Weber’s game, but Josi, 25, is a more efficient skater which enables him to join the rush and then get back into position if the Predators lose the puck. Josi seems like a logical candidate for the Norris Trophy in the very near future.
-I have always believed you do not need great goaltending to be successful in the playoffs, you simply cannot have bad goaltending. It might be too early to anoint Matt Murray as the starter for the Pittsburgh Penguins moving forward, despite his solid play in place of the concussed Marc-Andre Fleury, but Murray has supplied give-us-a-chance-to-win goaltending against the second-highest scoring team in the league in the regular season. And he’s on the verge of eliminating Braden Holtby who will likely win the Vezina Trophy and could be the NHL’s MVP.
-Joe Thornton’s reputation as a star player who has been unable to take his game to the required higher level in the playoffs is justified. For some crazy reason, though, at the age of 36, Thornton has attacked these playoffs like a man possessed. Maybe it’s the change in the way the game is played with less emphasis on physical play and intimidation and more on skill or maybe he views this as possibly his last chance at winning the Stanley Cup.
-Ryan Johansen has the size (6-foot-3, 220-pounds) and skill to be an elite center in the NHL. The question is, does he have the drive? Because Johansen is so talented there is no doubt he’ll have a long, prosperous career. There are times when it seems like he hesitates taking control of the game, like he is unwilling to push himself to the next level. Perhaps that is why the Columbus Blue Jackets deemed him expendable. I give the Predators the edge in the trade the brought Johansen to Nashville for defenceman Seth Jones, but I believe Johansen can be more impactful.
-Watching Alex Ovechkin this time of year can be quite confusing. Especially when you consider he has never found his way into the third round of the playoffs. Ovechkin scores more than a point per game (966 points in 839 games) in the regular season, but his production dips in the playoffs (78 points in 82 games). I have suggested he puts too much emphasis on his physical play which wears down his energy and takes away from his offense, but both Don Cherry and former NHL GM Craig Button say that is nuts. Cherry believes Ovechkin needs to be a one-man wrecking crew. With his team on the verge of elimination after winning the President’s Trophy, Ovechkin had better figure out how he can best help his team soon.