Friday, May 28, 2010

2010 Stanley Cup Final (prediction)

7. Philadelphia v. 2. Chicago
So, it has come to this: 30 teams plod through a rugged 82-game schedule in hopes of positioning themselves to making the playoffs. Sixteen teams have been whittled down to two, and those two will vie for Lord Stanley's Cup. In the case of the Western Conference champion Chicago Blackhawks, it's not a surprise that they're here, their first appearance in the finals since 1992. As for the Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia Flyers, making their first finals appearance since 1997, it appears to be a total shock as a seventh-seed making it all the way to the finals considering the two biggest names in the game (Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby) stand in the Flyers' way. But is it really a surprise? Prior to the season, the Flyers were among the favorites in the East before they plummeted in the standings and made the postseason on the second to last day. But the Flyers have had a star-studded and salary-packed lineup all season long. They've come together in these playoffs.

So how does NBC and Versus market teams that feature Michael Leighton (Flyers) and Antti Niemi (Blackhawks) in goal? Who would have predicted this at the start of the season? Certainly not me. But this series pairs two major-market squads going against one another that reached this point in many different ways, yet they also shared many common traits. The Flyers, who made history by becoming only the third team in NHL history to overcome an 0-3 series deficit in the conference semifinals against Boston, have imposed their will up front against all opponents while getting solid goaltending from both Brian Boucher (who is injured) and now Leighton, who blanked Montreal in the conference finals. Former Blue Chris Pronger is proving his value by playing 28-29 minutes per game on the blue line and captain Mike Richards is playing as if he is on a mission. Pronger will be in the Cup finals for the third time in five seasons (he won it with Anaheim in 2007) and Leighton will go up against the team he used to play for earlier in his career. The Flyers have won eight of nine games since that epic comeback against the Bruins and it's no coincidence that their level of play flew through the roof since the return from injuries from both Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter, especially Gagne. The Hawks, without a Cup since 1961, have done it with ... well ... everything. Start from the back: Niemi has been brilliant, especially in the series sweep over San Jose when he grossly outplayed Nabokov. Chicago's D-men have not overwhelmed but have done what they've done all year -- play rock-steady and simply getting the job done. No ifs, ands or buts about it. Captain Jonathan Toews is doing it all ... and leading the league in playoff points. Linemates Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien has made this trio lethal. Maybe the best move by former Blues coach Joel Quenneville was converting 'Big Buff' into a forward. He was a terror in that series against the Sharks. And there's Marian Hossa, the big free agent pick-up for Chicago who is in his third straight Cup final series ... and the bad omen for the Blackhawks is he is 0 for 2.

The areas around the goal that Byfuglien was successful in won't be as smooth this go-around. The Flyers D-men will be punishing, they'll bruise and batter anyone around their net. So the Hawks, only if they want to pay the price, will try and impose some will in the crease areas. I don't know if Chicago's D-men can have the same success against the Flyer forwards, who will do everything to make life miserable for Niemi just as they did for the Canadiens' Jaroslav Halak.

Many of these series thus far, particularly in the East, have gone against the grain. Upsets have been a common theme. In the West, it's been par for the course. The top guns have flexed their muscles, and thus, here is why you have the Hawks on the cusp of raising Lord Stanley. I think this is going to be a knock-em-out, drag-em-out series and success will be met with a price. There will be bruised and battered bodies when all is said and done. While it wouldn't surprise me to see the Flyers win it, I like the Hawks here in seven. Chicago's resume getting here (series wins over an underrated Nashville, Vancouver and San Jose) is more imposing to me than that of Philadelphia (New Jersey, Boston and Montreal). Blues fans ought to love this cause I've been so wrong here in the last couple rounds, but I say there will be a big party on Michigan Ave and Coach Q will get the best of Prongs in the battle of former Blues.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Kekalainen to leave Blues for Jokerit HC

Team's director of amateur scouting/assistant GM
to take president/GM post in native Finland

ST. LOUIS -- Jarmo Kekalainen called his return to his native Finland "impossible to refuse."

Kekalainen, the Blues' assistant general manager and director of amateur scouting, will officially resign his post effective June 30 after eight seasons with the club. Kekalainen will stay on with the Blues through this summer's NHL Entry Draft. The draft will take place June 25-26 in Los Angeles.

The Blues announced on Monday that Kekalainen, 43, will become the president and general manager of Jokerit Hockey Club of the Finnish Elite League effective August 15, according to the Jokerit team website, signing a five-year contract.

"I see a really great opportunity with Jokerit," Kekalainen said in a press conference Monday in Finland. "My fingers are itching already.

"It was just too good to pass up. ... We want to grow the world's top young players."

Kekalainen has been the driving force in the Blues' drafting since 2002 and is responsible for the team's selection of players such as Erik Johnson, T.J. Oshie, David Backes, David Perron, Roman Polak, Patrik Berglund, Alex Pietrangelo, Lars Eller and Ian Cole.

"Jarmo has been a good, solid citizen for the Blues," Blues President John Davidson said. "It's not easy for a European to come over and get into the NHL ranks (in management), but he's done a good job. He represented the club well."

Kekalainen has made it known in the past his desire to one day run a team of his own. When he was given the title of assistant general manager a couple years ago and with current GM Larry Pleau's intentions of retiring in the near future at that time, there was speculation that Kekalainen was being groomed to become the team's next general manager. However, the Blues have since hired Doug Armstrong, opting for someone with more experience.

"Doug Armstrong came to the Blues with a ton of experience, very well respected," Davidson said. "Not any disrespect to Jarmo, but we needed Jarmo to help us (with the draft). If the draft hadn't worked, where would we be?"

Prior to joining the Blues, Kekalainen served in many of the same capacities with the Ottawa Senators for seven seasons, which included director of player personnel for three years.

While in Ottawa, Kekalainen simultaneously served as IFK Helsinki's general manager from 1995-99. His decision speaks for itself that his ultimate goal is to be a GM, preferably the NHL one day.

"Those decisions are out of my hands," Kekalainen said. "I've always been a guy who lets his work speak for itself and the rest will follow. ... Everybody makes decisions they think are the best for the organization, and I'm respectful for that."

After the draft, the Tampere, Finland native will begin his new venture. And he's ready to roll up his sleeves and go to work.

"I know the league I'm going into is not the NHL, but the only thing that gets me back to the NHL as a GM is to do a remarkable job with Jokerit," Kekalainen said.

There was no immediate announcement as to who the Blues will announce as Kekalainen's replacement. But it is an important decision for this franchise moving forward.

Friday, May 14, 2010

2010 Conference Final (predictions)

1. San Jose v. 2. Chicago
Unlike the out-of-whack Eastern Conference, the Western Conference finals plays out true to form, and this matchup will be a terrific matchup for all fans to see. These two teams were the two best teams in the conference all season and fittingly, the winner will move on to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. Several factors play out when trying to dissect two teams pretty evenly matched up, so you try and search for those small intangibles that gives one team an edge over the other. For the Sharks, their best player has been Joe Pavelski. This guy has brought it to the table every game in these playoffs, and what really sticks out is his physical presence, an area I thought the Sharks lacked in heading into these playoffs. His teammates have followed his lead in that area. Playing physical will be a key element for the Sharks in this series, because the Blackhawks will most certainly carry around a physical element to their game from a number of people. We know San Jose will get production from Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau. That trio came alive in beating the Red Wings. They will produce against the Hawks' D-corps and goalie Antti Niemi. For San Jose to have success, secondary scoring from Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi, Ryane Clowe and Co. will be crucial. For Chicago, this team is tough to face because they are as deep a team as there is in these playoffs and certainly they have the most balanced depth of the Final Four. I really like Joel Quenneville's ability to roll out four lines that consistently produce at both ends but. Jonathan Toews is leading the league in playoff points and Patrick Kane is among the league leaders, so they're getting it from their young stars but also from Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg, who came up with some big points in the series win over Vancouver. And 'Big Buff' Dustin Byfuglien is using his size and strength wisely. Niemi is still somewhat skittish for me, and I'm still waiting for him to implode on a more consistent basis. But he's been able to bounce back from bad losses. The special teams will be pretty even, so not much of an edge there either way. I like Evgeni Nabokov in goal here. I've been skeptical of him in the past but he's played some big games over Chicago. I think he will be the difference in a tight series that can most certainly go either way. The Blackhawks are not afraid of going on the road, evidenced by their mastery of Vancouver. Each team will probably get a relatively easy win, but the games will be tight and one executed play and/or flaw will be the difference in many of these games, just like a No. 1 and No. 2 seeded series should play out. But I think this is the year that San Jose finally breaks into the finals and plays for the big prize.

7. Philadelphia v. 8. Montreal

OK, I'm going to get this out of the way now: am I really writing about the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens in the conference finals? As ESPN's Skip Bayless would say: Really? Really? Well, yes, and what a great story both of these teams carry with them into these conference finals. First off, how can I not mention right off the bat the Flyers making history, becoming only the third team in NHL history to come back from an 0-3 series deficit and win in seven, becoming the first team since the 1975 NY Islanders to do so? And not only that, but they were down 3-0 in Game 7 Friday at Boston. Once again, Skip Bayless on cue: Really? Really? And how about those Les Habitants de Montreal? Not only did Jaroslav Halak and Co. stun Alex Ovechkin and the Presidents' Trophy winning Washington Capitals, they then bounced Sid the Kid and the Pittsburgh Penguins out as well. The Canadiens disposed the two bets players in the game in back-to-back rounds. So great storylines by both of these teams. So what do they have left going against each other? Well, for starters, let's go with the goaltending, where Montreal has a big -- I mean big -- edge in. Halak is the best goalie in these playoffs and by far the best remaining of the four. The Flyers have been playing musical goalies since Ray Emery went down, and it was Michael Leighton -- did I just say that? -- that won Games 6 and 7 over the B's after Brian Boucher -- did I just say that too? -- hurt his knee early in Game 6. Both teams could get big boosts with the returns of two key players, forward Jeff Carter (broken foot) for Philly and defenseman Andrei Markov (knee) for the Canadiens. Think that Simon Gagne has infused some life into this Flyers team? How about two game-winners over the Bruins. Mike Richards is playing well, as is old friend Chris Pronger. And how about the Canadiens' Mike Cammalleri, who leads all players in goal-scoring in these playoffs with 12? He and Brian Gionta have paid off to be two huge acquisitions for the Habs. I really like Maxim Lapierre and Tomas Plekanec (are you listening, Blues?). Both these teams are really performing well on the power play, so special teams could go a long way in determining this series. Although I think the Flyers have the edge in momentum simply because of their rise to this round. And even though this playoff season has been far from this notion, I still say the best goaltender prevails in the postseason, and Halak is head and shoulders better than anyone the Flyers have, and Montreal has just as many, if not more, weapons than the Flyers have. Philly will try to throw those big, burly forwards in Halak's face, but he has yet to buckle in these pressure situations. And in the end, one Original Six squad -- and the greatest NHL franchise of all time -- will go for Stanley Cup No. 25.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Blues in search of new investors

TowerBrook Capital Partners selling stake in franchise

ST. LOUIS -- The largest investor in the Blues' ownership group has decided to pull ranks and sell its stake in the hockey club.

TowerBrook Capital Partners, an investment equity firm with a majority base in New York along with San Francisco and London, are reportedly going to remain with Dave Checketts and the Sports Capital Partners Worldwide until new investors are found.

Eric Gelfand, a spokesman for SCP Worldwide, said in an email that, "The daily operations of the organization will not be affected and the team is not for sale."

SCP Worldwide has hired Citibank sports agency group to help in the process of finding new investors. There is no timetable in finding new investors at this time.

"When we purchased the St. Louis Blues in 2006, we were joined by a strong group of our friends and investors," SCP Worldwide said in a statement. "Later, we were fortunate to add local ownership when Tom Stillman joined us. Together, we have built a strong foundation for success and stability in St. Louis. We knew at the outset that our private equity partners at TowerBrook had defined investment and operational objectives, which have now been reached. Therefore, we at SCP have retained the sports agency group at Citibank to help us find new investment partners to join us and Tom Stillman as we continue to remain committed to the City of St. Louis and the St. Louis Blues organization."

Blues fans may question the move now, since the franchise is well on its way to becoming a profitable turnaround after the debacle of Bill and Nancy Laurie's final few years with the club when it was reported the Blues were losing in excess of $30 million per season.

But TowerBrook has had a history, as do many private equity firms, of specializing in short-term investments instead of long-term ones.

"Dave Checketts and SCP Worldwide have done a remarkable job of restoring the pride and passion of the St. Louis Blues," TowerBrook officials said in a statement. "We joined this investment group because of the many past investment successes we have had with Dave. We knew that he, along with his partners, would help revive this franchise and they have delivered since day one. It now sits on a very solid foundation, one that we have been very proud to help rebuild."

The Blues (40-32-10) finished five points out of a playoff spot this past season and this decision will not affect the day-to-day operations of the management team. Therefore, the Blues will pursue all means necessary in improving the hockey club and focus on the goal of bringing the Stanley Cup to St. Louis through free agency and/or trades.