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Friday 24th Mar 2017

Last Friday, my buddy Chicago Joe and I were driving to the Joe Louis Arena to watch the Wings/Blackhawks rivalry game for the last time ever in that fabled barn, and on the way there, the discussion switched to football, and inevitably the Detroit Lions came up and his hatred for them. As we talked about the upcoming season, Joe mentioned how he thought the Lions were closer to winning the Super Bowl than not winning it. That observation made me think about which NHL teams are actually closer to winning the Cup than not winning it, and which non-playoff teams would win the Cup before teams currently in the playoff picture. 

There are a few teams that will make the playoffs this season that I don’t see winning the Cup for awhile regardless of where they are sitting at the end of each season, barring a miracle like the signing of John Tavares as a UFA, for starters. I think the Arizona Coyotes are closer to winning a Stanley Cup than the Rangers are. New York is almost dead last in prospects ratings and have a bunch of good players on their team, but no great players except for goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and his window is closing each day as age creeps into the mix. 

Arizona, on the other hand, may be taking their lumps right now, but some of their young players are up with the big team earning their lumps and learning as they go, and the Coyotes cupboards are stacked with prime prospects such as Boston University standout Clayton Keller and super scorer on the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters Dylan Strome. At 6’3” and 198 pounds, Strome already has an NHL body, and he can score in bunches. The Coyotes also feature six studs all under the age of 21 who are already earning their paychecks on the big club: Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Christian Dvorak, Jakob Chychrun, Logan Crouse and Brenden Perlini. So, if you hate the Coyote howl as the team’s goal-scoring horn, get used to it because it’s going to be getting overtime very soon.

The Winnipeg Jets are another team much closer to winning a Cup than not winning one, and may be just a stellar net minder away from being a consistent playoff team. With four studs under 21 already on the Jets, including rookie goal-scoring phenom Patrik Laine, and two top prospects in The Hockey News Top 50 Prospects issue, things for Winnipeg look to be heading in a way more successful direction with this Jets team, as opposed to the one that headed to Phoenix 21 years ago.

We could have a literal Border War on our hands with the Jets and the Minnesota Wild, as the Wild have five of the top 45 prospects from the Hockey News list in their system right now. That mix of injected youth with the young leaders currently on the team, like Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Matthew Dumba and Nino Niederreiter, ensures that the Central Division will very soon have a power struggle that doesn’t include Chicago.

The Carolina Hurricanes are another team that I feel is closer to winning a Cup. Regardless of their youth, Carolina has been stockpiling high-end draft picks for years, and it may not be next season, but in maybe five years or less, this team will be going deep into the playoffs. The Hurricanes are currently second in the league when on the Penalty Kill, and special teams will be a huge key to their regular season and postseason success. Learning to defend your keep is key, and youth is abundant on this squad. Jordan Staal is the elder statesman of this forward group at the ripe old age of 28, while rookie Sebastian Aho is only 19 and already a leader on this team both on the ice and in the locker room. 

Carolina is going to be an exciting team to watch very soon, so be patient Hurricane faithful, your time is coming. Last season, the Canes landed Québec Major-Junior League scoring stud Julien Gauthier 21st overall, and Calgary Hitmen offensive defenseman Jake Bean at 13th overall. This season has been an improvement over last season, but it will yield another relatively high first round pick. With three picks in the second and third rounds this year, it’s going to be raining prospects for Ron Francis and the Canes nation. 

As I look at the league standings after last night’s slate of games, I really only see five true Cup contenders. Chicago is lights out, the San Jose Sharks' window is closing fast and this may be their last year with this group as age and free agency hit next year. The Eastern Conference has the defending Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, President Cup winner Washington Capitals and the explosive and young Columbus Blue Jackets, who will be doing this 100-point thing for the next five to ten seasons. I will add the Minnesota Wild to the mix as well with their new defensive philosophy brought on by Assistant Coach Scott Stevens, a man who knows a few things about playing D and winning Stanley Cups. 

You can always reach me @PolkaPat.

As the regular season pushes its way to the close, the scoring race has tightened up of late, and I couldn’t be happier with the prospects of maybe, once again, a 100-point season, or maybe even a 50-goal campaign. Up until two weeks ago it was the Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby show, but over these past two weeks, Brad Marchand has gone bananas and tied or taken the lead in not only the Art Ross race, but also in the Rocket Richard race as the league’s best goal scorer.

Marchand was always lurking in or around the top ten, but stellar performances night in and night out have pushed this Bruin to the top. Since the turn of the New Year, Marchand has scored 25 goals, with eight multi-goal games, including a hat-trick in Vancouver on Monday night. I’ll go as far to say that Marchand may also win the Selke as the league’s best defensive forward, with his three short-handed goals and seven short-handed points.

Not to be outdone, the first American to ever win the Art Ross, Patrick Kane, has jumped to the forefront as well as the Blackhawks continue to club their way through the Western Conference. Kane has 15 goals since the calendar has turned to February, and over his last 10 games he has 11 goals and 15 points. Kane is looking to repeat his title run from last year as the NHL’s top scorer. As of this writing, Marchand, Kane and McDavid are all tied with 76 points, and at number ten sits Tyler Seguin with 67 points, so anyone in the top ten could skate away with some impressive trophy case hardware by April 9th.

After the 76-point log jam at the top, Sidney Crosby is holding down the fourth spot with 74 points, while playing six less games than the leaders. Teammate Evgeni Malkin is at 72 points while missing seven games, which just shows how skilled those Penguins are down the middle. With these two on the third ranked power play (22.47%), the chances of adding points at the same time are very good. Points or no points, this dynamic duo only cares about one trophy, the one that is earned through battles and raised in mid-June.

Nicklas Backstrom silently sits in sixth place with 71 of the quietest points in the NHL, and with the Stanley Cup on the mind of every Capital, Backstrom would much rather keep his stats silent, along with the rest of his teammates. Most players among the top 25 scorers in the NHL have a running mate somewhere in the mix, and Alexander Ovechkin is down at 23, but they always run in tandem, which is something you need to remember come draft day. Always get two from a line. Kane/Panarin, Seguin/Benn, Pavelski/Burns?

Oh yes, Brent Burns is currently seventh in the league with an even 70 points, and I pray he wins the scoring title. Burns is just one of the most adored players in the NHL by its young fans. Burns is also a HUGE force on the ice. The converted forward makes scoring from the point with snap shots look like walking, way too easy. Anchoring the Sharks dominant power play loaded with All-Stars, Burns can continue his offensive assault.

My current man crush, Nikita Kucherov, is sitting in eighth right now with 69 points, and like Malkin, he's only played 62 games thus far. The Lightning are loaded up front, and have one of the top three defensemen in the NHL anchoring their power play as well in Victor Hedman, who sits at 24th in points. Kucherov could be the one who sneaks past the leaders and wins the Art Ross, so deadly with the puck. My money is on Nikita powering the Lightning into the playoffs after an awful start.

Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele falls in at nine with 69 points as well, and his running mate, uber rookie Patrik Laine, falls in at 20th with an even 60 points thus far. I cannot say enough about how excited I am about this year’s awesome rookie class. It will not be long before this Winnipeg team gets their act together and makes a deep playoff push. I’m betting they’ll make a play for Ben Bishop come July 1 while the youngsters currently in the net have time to mature.

Holding down the #10 spot is Tyler Seguin, and with all that scoring, the glaring hole in his game and the entire Dallas Stars team is the lack of defense. Seguin currently is at +/- minus 15, which is horrid from where the Stars ended last season with 109 points and the best record in the Western Conference.

There are only three weeks left in the NHL regular season, so watch as many games as you can, as most of them will hold playoff implications. Well, at least two-thirds of them will. Time to go check out MLB box scores and NHL highlights.

You can always reach me @PolkaPat.

Earlier this week, we saw Alexander Ovechkin call his own number and get his 1000th point on a nifty little snap shot, while passing Rocket Richard with his 545th goal in the process for 29th all-time. By the end of this week, Henrik Sedin will have joined Ovi as the 85th member of this club, while twin brother Daniel sits back at 967 points right now and may still hit that mark later this year. In between the Sedin twins sits Sidney Crosby at 988 points, and he may hit 1000 by the end of next week the way the Penguins have been scoring lately. Yet 1000 points alone doesn’t punch your ticket to the NHL Hall of Fame.

Everyone in the top 29 is in the Hall of Fame except Dave Andreychuk, and he is tied at 29 with Denis Savard, who is in the Hall, at 1338 points. Active players who are up there in the scoring are Joe Thornton at 24th with 1370 points and Jarome Iginla with 1284 points sitting at 34th overall. Will either of them make it to the Hall? Neither has piled up the individual awards and neither of them has won a Stanley Cup yet, but we will see. There are players with much weaker resumes already inducted, while some that are not inducted and have not had their careers shortened by injury and have that much needed hardware. For example, Mark Howe and Scott Niedermayer are in the Hall while Sergei Zubov is not, yet their career numbers are similar.

This whole Hall of Fame diatribe came to mind after Major League Baseball announced this year's inductees, and the final run for Tim Raines, an excellent player but never a Rickey Henderson. But I’m glad Rock is getting in, and maybe one day MLB will smarten up and give Montreal back its Expos.

But, the comparison and argument, not just in hockey but in any sport, is determining a baseline for greatness to get into the Hall. For example, Alexander Ovechkin will be a shoe in for the Hockey Hall of Fame, but will the Sedin twins' efforts merit such consideration?

How about Roberto Luongo, who moved up the win list for goalies over the past week as well by passing Terry Sawchuk for fifth place with his 448th career win. Curtis Joseph is one spot ahead of Luongo and Cujo is not in the Hall of Fame, so will Bobby Lou make it in? He has spent most of his career on mediocre squads, yet led the league in wins a few times. But as with Joseph, I think the Hall will again punish a very good player for longevity and lack of personal awards, which is a shame because Cujo, Luongo, Chris Osgood and Mike Vernon all belong enshrined in Toronto, and that’s not the Red Wing in me talking (Well maybe it is?).

On Wednesday night, Connor McDavid reached the 100-point mark in his 92nd game, third fastest in Oilers history and fourth fastest amongst active players. Ovechkin did it in 77 games, Sidney Crosby in 80 and Evgeni Malkin in 89 games. This is elite company for McDavid, and he is elite. Watching him skate is just a privilege with that speed. He reminds me of Sergei Fedorov with the passing, shooting and speed. Now he just needs three Stanley Cups, one Hart Trophy (which may be this year), and two Selke’s.

I guess it is the age old subjective question we all have about who we like, what we think is great, and how that relates to the opinions of other fans. But, while it might be nice to simply have a formulaic baseline about what qualifies a guy for a Hall of Fame, it is a lot more fun to speculate and argue.

You can always reach me here or on Twitter @PolkaPat.

For 25 years, the Detroit Red Wings have made the NHL’s playoffs. This year, the streak will end, and it has been a great run for the city of Detroit. The playoff streak started in 1992, but the years prior to that year were the NHL Entry Drafts that were the beginnings, and the building of the beast.

It all began 35 years ago, when Little Caesars owner Mike Ilitch's family bought the Detroit Red Wings from fabled NHL Owner Bruce Norris for eight million dollars. Yes, that is correct, EIGHT million dollars. After several unsuccessful seasons and losing seasons, Detroit was piling up the draft picks from the “Dead Wings” era. The 1983 NHL Entry Draft was the first huge step in the right direction for Detroit. With the fourth overall draft pick, the Wings drafted Center Steve Yzerman from the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League. Along with Yzerman, the Wings later drafted some muscle and core players Bob Probert and Joey Kocur.

The next ten years were considered the “Yzerman Years” due to his flat-out dominance on the offensive end. Yzerman regularly put puck into the net, and butts into the seats of the Joe Louis Arena, which is also in its last season as an NHL barn. Building off a 1987 playoff berth in which Detroit won a series for only the second time in the modern era before getting destroyed by the Edmonton Oilers in five games, new Head Coach Jacques Demers had many of the right pieces at this point. In 1988, the Wings went on to win their first division title in 23 years.

The 1989 NHL Entry Draft brought in three studs who became mainstays and fan favorites in the lineup until 1997. In that draft, the Wings got Nicklas Lidstrom in the third round, Sergei Fedorov in the fourth round and Vladimir Konstantinov in the 11th round. This extremely talented draft pool also landed Detroit Mike Sillinger in the first round and Dallas Drake in the sixth round. Both of those picks played over 1000 NHL games.

In 1993, former Montreal Canadiens coaching legend Scotty Bowman took over as bench boss after Demers and Bryan Murray failed to get the Red Wings back to the Conference Finals, and in the strike-shortened season of 1994-95, Detroit made the Stanley Cup Finals only to be swept by the New Jersey Devils in four games.

The Red Wings were adding key free-agent players and making the necessary trade to get more gritty and less pretty. The Russian Five was born in this period when we added Russian superstars Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov, along with former Calgary Flames Stanley Cup winning goaltender Mike Vernon.

In the 1995-96 season, the Wings went on to break the NHL record in regular season wins with 62, only to fall in the Conference Finals to the much and always hated Colorado Avalanche, who won their first Stanley Cup that year. It was in that playoff series where the “Blood Feud” began after a dirty blind side boarding of Kris Draper by Claude Lemieux, which would be avenged in March of the following season.

The beginning of the 1996-97 season brought in powerhouse scoring forward Brendan Shanahan from the Hartford Whalers in exchange for smooth skating stud Paul Coffey and the rugged Keith Primeau. Shanny was the last piece to the puzzle and after dismantling Colorado in the Conference Finals, Detroit swept the Philadelphia Flyers for our first Stanley Cup in 42 seasons. A few days after the Cup win, Konstantinov, Fetisov and the team masseuse were involved in a limo accident that left Vladdy paralyzed.

In 1998, the Red Wings won their second Stanley Cup in a row by sweeping the Washington Capitals, making it two straight Finals sweeps for Detroit. The Wings also became the first team since the 1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins to win the Cup in back-to-back seasons, all the while playing inspired for their injured teammate. Two more Stanley Cups would come to Motown, including a powerhouse 2001-02 team that beat the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1 in the Finals. Detroit has had nine players from that squad inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In 2008, the Red Wings would be pressed to the limit but win the Cup for the fourth time with a seven-game victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. This time, Super Swede Nicklas Lidstrom became the first ever European player to Captain a Stanley Cup Champion. They returned to the Cup Finals in 2009, but this time Detroit came out on the losing end of a well fought seven-game series with Pittsburgh. This would be the Wings' last trip to the finals during the 25-year playoff streak.

Earlier this year, on February 10th, Detroit owner Mike Ilitch died, and it is only fitting that his team’s playoff streak will end this season, and one of the best arenas in the NHL will be closing its doors as well.

Mike Ilitch and his family, the Red Wings staff, players, scouts, doctors, and every single employee at the Joe Louis Arena has made the last 25 years of my sports life one of the most cherished and happily remembered eras of my life, so thank you for making and keeping Detroit great!

You can always reach me @PolkaPat.

Earlier this week, the NHL named the remaining players to the Divisional All-Star teams, and with every All-Star roster there are the snubbed players. I personally picked out ten players who are not as deserving as the league assigned players, but I do not like to follow the same old boring NHL rules. First, I am not having a representative from every team. If a team sucks, players do not belong unless guys are absolutely tearing it up.

The All-Star game should be an honor given to you by the league for your efforts and the play of your team, so if Pittsburgh has five players in the All-Star game, then they have earned it. Second, I’m not naming this team just to sell All-Star sweaters, so sorry Jonathan Toews. Even JT admitted he’s not playing better than Artem Anisimov, Marian Hossa or Artemi Panarin, and I agree and appreciate JT’s honesty in the matter, for Captain Serious is also Captain Honest.

In the Atlantic Division, I only replaced two players with players whom I think are more deserving and are not faces to represent a sweater. Frans Nielsen from my beloved Red Wings is first out and Boston’s David Pastrnak is in by a landslide, and Pastrynk will be in many more games of this ilk due to his awesome skill set. The young Bruins right wing is second on the B’s in scoring with 19 goals, 31 points, and is +/- plus 14, only trailing All-Star Brad Marchand. Boston is in second place in the Atlantic while the Red Wings are in dead last, and Nielsen is third in scoring on the Red Wings with eight goals, 23 points, and +/- minus 10. There is no way he or any other Red Wing belongs in this game and that’s a fact. My second bounce out is Panthers center Vincent Trocheck. While he is having a decent year, his numbers are just marginal, and he's third on the Panthers in scoring. Mark Stone from Ottawa is his replacement, and he’s been one of the hotter players over the last 20 games and is playing much better than Trocheck.

In the mighty Metropolitan Division, I swapped out three players, including all-world talent John Tavares with his 11 goals and 27 points. In his place, I’m going with a player who has really earned the nod. Columbus forward Cam Atkinson is a no-brainer, as he's leading the NHL’s best team with 20 goals and 40 points. The second player to get the gate in this division is Taylor Hall with his nine whole goals and 25 points. Phil Kessel is more deserving of this All-Star spot than in any year of his career, yet the NHL and all its wisdom doesn’t seem to think so. Kessel is also third on his team in scoring, but he’s also seventh in the NHL in scoring with 13 goals and 41 points. Yes, Phil Kessel has 28 assists (that is not a typing error), and he belongs with his teammates Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in this game. Lastly, why in the wide wide world of sports is Zach Werenski not on the All-Star team and his running mate Seth Jones is? If Werenski wasn’t on the Columbus Blue Jackets, they would not have 60 points right now. That’s what kind of player he is. Seth Jones is really good, but this roster spot should go to the former Wolverine.

The Central Division also has three players going bye-bye in lieu of Polka’s Picks, and Jonathan Toews is not on my roster. I agree with his claim about Artemi Panarin, and he’s my replacement for Toews (look at the stats then argue with me). Next, Winnipeg Jets young center Mark Scheifele is in my All-Star game without a doubt. He leads the Jets in scoring and is one of the NHL’s future studs. Wait, he already is a stud. Out of the game now is Colorado center Nathan MacKinnon. Sorry Nate, your team stinks and your inability to consistently find the back of the net and bigger inability to defend you net has you enjoying a long weekend taking personal stock in your efforts on the ice. Finally, P.K. Subban, you are out cowboy. You haven’t played since December 15th and haven’t been all that great anyway. Just because the fans voted you Captain doesn’t make you safe from my chopping block. Dustin Byfuglien is your replacement. While just fifth on the Jets in scoring, fantasy wise, Big Buff is one of the best with his shots, hits and penalty minutes along with his scoring, making him a top four defenseman.

Finally, the defending All-Star Game Champion Pacific Division has only two players needing to be replaced, but a few Ducks were in my shotgun’s sights and I gave them a pass due to their efforts and their team's early-season success. Bo Horvat, you are bounced. While you lead your team in scoring and are one of the few bright spots in Vancouver, Leon Draisaitl is just playing much better on a better team. Leon has been the man Edmonton drafted fourth overall since this summer’s World Cup of Hockey. Second on the Oilers with 15 goals and 35 points, Draisaitl has just been a pleasure to watch this season. Lastly, Arizona goalie Mike Smith is out, and his replacement is Oilers netminder Cam Talbot. His name is all over the goalie leaderboard and not for all the good statistics. He is first in the NHL in Goals Against (95), Shots Against (1148), and Saves (1053). That means the team in front of him plays defense worse than a major junior team. Talbot is tied for fifth with three shutouts, and is also tops in minutes played at 2272. His workload alone earned him this Polka All-Star selection.

You can always reach me @PolkaPat

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