During last season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the Anaheim Ducks leading in the Western Conference Final, 2-1 in games, I urged you to switch and go with the Chicago Blackhawks over the balance of the series and for the SC Final.
A key element in my betting alteration was the change in defensive game-planning by Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville, who left a blueprint for the rest of the NHL to follow in stopping the Ducks this season.
Some coaches have it; others fail miserably.
This season, the obvious Coach of the Year candidate is one of my favorites since the retirement of Scotty Bowman – Dallas Stars mentor Lindy Ruff.
Buried for 15 seasons under the snow in Buffalo, Ruff was tabbed by Dallas GM Jim Nill to guide the Stars to their current run since 1999 when they nipped Ruff’s Sabres in six games (the controversial Brett Hull “kicked” Cup-clinching goal (LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vF_LRVuhNa4).
Now Ruff may be the true Star of the Stars. This past week, Ruff gained his 100th career victory in Big D, and is eighth in NHL history in wins despite a decade of poor clubs in Buffalo due to a lack of budget to acquire quality players.
However, there are no such monetary problems in Texas, where Nill signed a series of former Cup winners to the roster during the off-season.
Ruff seamlessly integrated them into, perhaps, the current favorites to win it all this spring. The Stars (20-5-2) own the best record in hockey despite playing in its toughest division. (I already ejected my pick of Anaheim as Cup champs weeks ago – thanks, Bruce Boudreau, who also failed with a Washington Capitals squad which just took over first place in the Metropolitan Division).
Among the quintet of players who have held the Stanley Cup are three players from Chicago – all let go due to salary cap restrictions.
While two-way forward Patrick Sharp has scored key goals of late, defensive defenseman Johnny Odaya may be the saving grace for a team with overt problems on the blue line for 40 games in 2014-15, then fixed them only to just get nosed-out qualifying for the playoffs.
One could argue Dallas was the best team in the Central by year’s end, despite solid programs in Nashville, St. Louis, Minnesota and, of course, the Cup champion Blackhawks. Now they may truly be No. 1 overall.
Joining Odaya in the back is Stephen Jones, plus goaltender Antii Niemi, who combined with incumbent Kari Lehtonen for a solid tandem in net. Niemi just registered his 200th career win.
When healthy, Odaya is pared with Jason Demers, while the top pair features Alex Goligoski and John Klingberg.
Jamie Benn, who led the league with 87 points last season, heads the offense along with Tyler Seguin (77 points), giving the Stars the depth and balance needed tor a deep Cup run.
Other coaches hidden in the standings that we like include Dave Tippett (Arizona), Jack Capuano (N.Y. Islanders), Bob Hartley (Calgary), Dave Cameron (Ottawa) and Paul Maurice (Winnipeg) – and, of course, Darryl Sutter (“my” L.A. Kings)
Conversely, we are mixed yet hopeful on Colorado’s Patrick Roy and Florida’s Gerard Gallant – you could also add Willie Desjardins of Vancouver.
And thumbs down go to Peter Laviolette (Nashville), Claude Julien (Boston) and anyone dumb (or desperate) enough to accept a position with Edmonton. Anaheim’s Boudreau may soon join this list, too.
Colorado: Jarome Iginla is three goals away from becoming the 19th player in league history to tally 600 career goals.
Florida: Jaromir Jagr is one goal away from Marcel Dionne (731) for fourth all-time.
500 goals: Fast-approaching is Chicago’s Marian Hossa (491) and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (487) These may be teams to play on as they close on the milestone.
Contact Nick at [email protected].