Month: June 2014

Scott Kazmir: The Road to Baseball Redemption

kazmirScott Kazmir has been down a road many baseball players have taken: A road with no exit.

by Devon Teeple

At some point, every player’s career comes to an end. Regardless of age or how good you may think you are, the powers that be can make it all go away.

A few short years ago, Scott Kazmir was at a crossroads in his career. Injuries, control problems, and a lack of confidence haunted him. Whatever the cause, his career was all but over.

Until 2013, Kazmir’s last appearance at the Major League level came with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2011. He appeared in one game, surrendered five runs and was promptly released. His future was then in limbo, and the once promising career of this first-round draft pick was uncertain.

Drafted by the New York Mets in the first round of the 2002 amateur draft, Kazmir was traded to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays two years later as part of one of the worst trades in recent memory. In return for the young lefty hurler, the Mets received Victor Zambrano, who was 9-7 with a 4.43 earned run average at the time of the trade.1

Zambrano recorded eight wins over the next three seasons, while Kazmir became the ace of a young Rays staff. Six years in Tampa saw Kazmir develop into one of the best left-handers the game had seen in quite some time. Despite a small frame (6’0, 185), he was blessed with an arm that could light up the radar gun in the mid 90’s.

Midway through the 2010 season, his fastball was clocked at a touch over 90 mph (90.5). It was the first time in his career that his fastball averaged under 91 mph. It was his first full season with the Los Angeles Angels, and his armor had begun to show cracks.

A combination of injuries and poor pitch selection were contributing factors to what became the worst three-year stretch of his career.

The signs were always there. From 2009 until 2011, his velocity2 dropped nearly five mph, and he was relying on his fastball more than ever. Batters were connecting with his pitches in the strike zone at abnormally high rates (94.7 percent in 2011), and hitters weren’t missing pitches in the strike zone (3.2% in 2011).

When Kazmir was released, it looked like he was done at the ripe old age of 27, but Kazmir wasn’t ready to throw int he towel. Despite getting pounded start after start, Kazmir battled each time he took the mound. After his release, he regrouped and started anew with the first-year independent, Sugar Land Skeeters.

As I had previously written, Kazmir’s time in Sugar Land was anything but normal. (Click here to read the entire piece.)

“The Sugar Land Skeeters took a flyer on Kazmir this past year and despite some rough patches that included a nine walk performance against the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, he regained the form that once made him an All-Star, leading to people around the game to again take notice.

In 14 games with the Skeeters, he put together a 3-6 record with a 5.34 ERA with 51 strikeouts in 64 innings. Walks -his Achilles’ heel – were under control for the second half of his Skeeters season, allowing three walks or less in five of his six final starts.

His progress was seemingly over shadowed by the performances of Jason Lane (whohad just signed with the Minnesota Twins) and Roger Clemens (who started a comeback trail of his own). Yet Kazmir, determined to get back to the Show, continued his comeback, joining the Gigantes de Carlina of the Puerto Rican Winter League.”3

The Cleveland Indians took a chance by signing him to a minor league contract. It paid off for the Indians, who made it to the post-season and for Kazmir, who proved all the critics wrong.

His numbers didn’t represent anything earth-shattering; 10-9, 4.04 ERA, 158 innings, 167 strikeouts, 47 walks, 1.323 WHIP, 9.2 SO/9. Although, they were very similar to his 2008 All-Star year with the Rays, and considering where he was just a few months prior, last season can be considered the best of his career.

The rejuvenated Kazmir was granted Free Agency by the Indians, and he promptly signed4 a two-year deal worth $22 million with the Oakland Athletics. In less than half a year with the AL West-leading Athletics, Kazmir has been one of the best pitchers in the game.

In 16 starts5, he’s tied for fourth in the AL with 9 wins, and his 2.66 ERA is good for fifth. He’s been so good, even though he surrendered seven runs to the New York Mets in his last start, he still sits in the top five of the following categories: WHIP (1.01), Average Allowed (.217), Winning Percentage (.750) and Hits Per Nine Innings (7.16).

When you talk feel-good stories, the Kazmir transformation from independent cast-off to top lefty in the game is remarkable. Legendary even. There has never been, in my memory, anyone else that has gone from the top of the baseball world to the bottom and again back to the top of the mountain so quickly. Once cast side, Scott Kazmir has become a sought-after commodity again.

1 – Yahoo Sports
2 – Fangraphs
3 – The GM Perspective
4 – Hardball Talk
5 – MLB.com

Devon is the Founder and Executive Director of The GM’s Perspective and a contributor at Designated For Assignment. He is a former professional baseball player with the River City Rascals & Gateway Grizzlies. Currently, Devon is a Manager at a financial institution in Northern Ontario Canada, and can be reached at devon@thegmsperspective.com. You can follow The GM’s Perspective on twitter and facebook. His full bio can be seen here.

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NHL Breaking News: Ducks Get Kesler

keslerRyan Kesler is the latest Canucks player hoping to land in greener pastures.

We will never know just how close the Vancouver Canucks’ Ryan Kesler came to being traded at this past season’s NHL trade deadline, but it has been reported that Kesler is now a member of the Anaheim Ducks.

ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun reported, and later confirmed, that the Ducks have sent forward Nick Bonino, defenseman Luca Sbisa, and their first round pick (24th overall) in tonight’s NHL draft to the Canucks for the former Selke Trophy winner.  According to LeBrun the teams will also swap third round draft slots.

Kesler is just another piece in the dismantling of the Canucks. The 29-year old joins goalie Roberto Luongo (traded) and David Booth (buyout) as former Canucks. The team also fired team president and GM Mike Gilles, and coach John Tortorella. The two were replaced by Jim Benning and Willie Desjardins, respectively. Former Canucks’ star Trevor Linden was also named president of hockey operations.

Kesler has two years remaining on the six-year, $30MM deal he signed with Vancouver prior to the 2010-2011 season. His contract will have a $5MM impact on Anaheim’s salary cap for those two years.

The 23rd overall pick in the 2003 NHL draft, Kesler has played his entire 10 year career with Vancouver. His best season was the first of his current contract, in which he tallied career highs in goals (41) and assists (32), won the Selke for best defensive forward, and finished eighth in the league MVP voting.

Bonino blossomed this season, with 47 points in 77 games. Acquired from the San Jose Sharks in 2009, the 6’1″ centerman appeared in 189 games over five seasons with Anaheim. He has three years remaining on his deal with an annual $1.9MM cap hit.

Sbisa was the 19th overall pick by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2008. He was sent to Anaheim as part of a package that brought defenseman Chris Pronger to Philly the following year. The native of Italy has struggled the last two years after putting up a stellar 2011-2012 campaign. He’s in the final year of his contract, with a $2.175MM cap hit.

Salary information obtained from capgeek.com

Statistics obtain from hockey-reference.com

Bennett, Ekblad, Lead Pack of 2014 NHL Prospects

aaron_ekblad_barrie_colts[1]Aaron Ekblad is expected to be the #1 pick in the NHL Amateur Draft (photo courtsy of fansided)

by Alli Baker

The 2014 NHL draft is upon us ( 7 pm EDT).  And while this year’s group of prospects may not look as dynamic or exciting as last year’s crop, this annual event always seems to have an impact in some way.

These prospects now have the chance to change the 2014-2015 season for their new teams. Take the Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon, for example. MacKinnon, who was the first overall pick last year, provided a huge presence for Colorado this year, and won the Calder Trophy in the process. While this is the goal of all draft prospects, only a few succeed in truly having a dramatically positive effect.

This year’s draft prospects are not projected to have this same sort of influence. “I don’t recall a year recently when there were as many question marks.” an NHL scout recently commented on this year’s prospects. “Skilled kids who lack size; players who might have issues with attitude or commitment. It seems to be a really volatile draft.” 1 Nonetheless, these top prospect like Samuel Bennett, Aaron Ekblad, and Sam Reinhart who are expected to go near the top of the draft, are still projected to provide some kind of an impact.

Here’s a closer look at the projected Top Ten prospects of the 2014 NHL draft:

10. Jake Virtanen: Known for his scoring ability, Virtanen would provide any team with extra offense and aggressiveness. The Calgary Hitman scored 45 goals last year in the WHL.  He also accumulated 100 penalty minutes, demonstrating that he has both goal-scoring talent and a mean streak. Although he possesses obvious talent, it has been said that he lacks “great vision or hockey sense,” which puts Virtanen at the bottom of our top 10. 2

9. Haydn Fleury: Considered the second-best defenseman available in this year’s draft, Fleury is quite the package. The 6’3″, 201 lb. Canadian possesses size, speed, and good hockey sense. However, unlike defenseman Aaron Ekblad, Fleury doesn’t display the same offensive knack. Although he scored 46 points last year in the WHL, Fleury lacks offensive explosiveness.

8: Nikolaj Ehlers: A speedy player with good puck-handling skills, Ehlers would provide any team with some explosive offense. The Dane scored over 100 points while playing in Halifax, however, he played alongside Jonathan Drouin, who was also a very talented goal scorer. This leads one to wonder whether Ehlers has goal-scoaring talent, or he just had an extremely talented line mate. Ehlers’ size is also somewhat of a concern. At 5’11”, 162 lbs, he may end up getting pushed around in the NHL.

7: William Nylander: Son of veteran NHL player Michael Nylander, William has inherited his father’s hockey skills and is known for his impressive agility, quickness, and great hands. Nylander scored an insane 16 points in seven games during last year’s under-18 games, proving he has offensive talent. However, at 5’11”, 175 lbs.,the left wing is small in size and he has some strength to gain. He has also been said to be “sometimes selfish, always a diva.” Although he definitely has talent, his attitude problems have lowered his draft value. <sup>2<sup>

6: Nick Ritchie: This big forward possesses both formidable size and scoring talent. Ritchie scored 39 goals for the Peterborough Petes, showing his goal-scoring talent. On top of that, Ritchie isn’t afraid to throw his weight around. At 6’3″, 236 pounds, this combination of size and offensive talent lands Ritchie at number six on the list.

5: Leon Draisaitl: Draisaitl appears to be the total package; he has size, speed, and he has been a consistent goal scorer. Nicknamed “The German Gretzky,” Draisaitl is set to become the highest-drafted German player. This center for the Prince Albert Raiders scored 38 goals in 64 games during the 2013-14 season, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down offensively. Yet, he has been said to lack hockey instincts and therefore he likely won’t be draft higher than number five.

4: Michael Dal Colle: Dal Colle is a talented goal-scorer with a solid two-way game. The left wing has been compared to Ryan Getzlaf and has the ability to provide a real offensive impact wherever he plays. However, his lanky frame and lack of weight are a possible concern at the NHL level. If Dal Colle bulks up, he really doesn’t have many other flaws. 3

3: Sam Reinhardt: Reinhardt has intelligence on the ice and the ability to handle the puck, yet his size is nothing extraordinary and his speed has caused him to be described as “barely an average skater.” However, it’s possible for his smart play and exceptional puck-handling to make up for his lack of speed and size. With a little more time to develop, Reinhardt has the potential to develop into a solid NHL forward.

2: Sam Bennett: Bennett’s character and play on the ice have been given rave reviews by almost everyone out there, and there’s no doubt he has offensive skill. However, Bennett failed to do even a single pull-up at the draft combine, leading some to wonder about his strength. Even so, Bennett is still a solid goal scorer and his NHL future is most likely not going to be impacted much by the fact that he couldn’t do a pull-up. “He’s a fantastic player and a highly skilled guy,” according to Matt Nichol, a former strength coach for the Maple Leafs. With that being said, Bennett is projected to be taken within the top three. 4

1. Aaron Ekblad: Ekblad, a defenseman for Barrie Colt, has been projected to go within the top three by every scout that has surveyed him. The 18-year-old from Winsdor, Canada, stands at 6’4″ and weighs 213 pounds, making him a physical force as well as a talented puck handler. He leads the OHL in goals scored by a defenseman (23), and he has been compared to Shea Weber and Chris Pronger. A scout recently told the Toronto Sun that “He’s an NHL passer already. He’s the most flawless of the top players and he’s the most NHL-ready.” Ekblad has a little bit of everything and is by far the best defenseman of the 2014 draft, making him the top pick on this list. 1

1 – TSN CA

2 – Bleacher Report

3 – Pro Hockey Talk (Colle)

4 – Pro Hockey Talk (Bennett)

Alli Baker is a hockey fanatic and contributor for Designated for Assignment.  She can be reached at allibaker23@aol.com or followed on Twitter at @allibaker23

Hartnell and Umberger Switch Places As Draft Nears

scott-hartnellHartnell says he was forced out of Philadelphia (photo courtesy of rantsports.com)

by Drew Sarver

It’s been only 11 days since the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup, but the front offices of the National Hockey League teams are in full swing in preparation for the amateur draft (June 27-28) and the free agent period, which begins on July 1.

The week started out yesterday with a trade between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Columbus Blue Jackets. The two exchanged veterans with Scott Hartnell sent from Philly to Ohio for R.J. Umberger, a 4th round pick in next year’s draft.

Will this be the beginning of another shakeup for the Flyers, who have not won the Stanley Cup since 1975? It’s hard to tell so far. For once, they finally have a quality goalie in Steve Mason, but they finished third in the division, not far above the two wild card teams.

Hartnell, 32, shook off some early injuries to have a decent year – 20 goals (9 on the power play), 103 penalty minutes, and +11 in 78 games played – but he was pretty much invisible in a seven-game, first-round playoff loss to the New York Rangers. He will have a $4.75MM impact on the Blue Jackets’ salary cap and he has five years remaining on his current contract.

Hartnell plays with a rough-and-tumble style that should give the Blue Jackets a more physical presence on the ice. The former 1st round draft pick, sixth overall in 2000, Hartnell spent the last seven years in Philadelphia after six seasons with Nashville. The Predators dealt the left wing along with current Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timmonen for a first round pick after the 2006-2007 season. Hartnell scored a career-high 37 goals and 60 points for the Flyers three seasons ago.

Though he produced five 20-plus goal seasons, Umberger has never been a big point producer. This past season, he posted the second-worst total of his career, with 34 points in 74 games. Also 32-years of age, Umberger played for the Flyers for the first three seasons of his career before he was dealt to Columbus after the 2007-2008 season. He received one vote for the Selke Trophy, for best defensive forward, in his first year with the Blue Jackets. His last year in Philly was arguably his best season when he scored 10 goals and added five assists in 17 postseason games. (The Flyers lost in the Eastern Conference finals to the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games.)

Umberger doesn’t represent much of a savings on the cap, (his cap hit is $4.6MM),  but his contract is two years shorter than Hartnell’s.

Hartnell spoke with reporters on Monday and said he was forced out of Philadelphia. “A few days ago … four or five days ago now … my agent got the call from Hexy (new Flyers GM Ron Hextall) and said there were a couple of teams that inquired about me. He hummed (sic) and hawed about my role and my position in Philadelphia, and he decided it was best for me to move on from the Flyers”.1 Hartnell had to waive his no-trade clause to make the deal happen.

Part of the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) was to grant each team two amnesty buyouts. The move allows team to take two salaries off their books without a hit to the salary cap. The team cannot renegotiate a new deal with the bought-out players. Just three players, listed below, have been bought out so far by their current teams.  Teams have until June 30 to give players the boot. The salary cap for next season is expected to be about $71MM.

Dallas Stars – D Aaron Rome
Rome represented just a $1.5MM hit to the cap in what would have been the final year of his contract. He averaged just over 13 minutes of ice time per game. He’s a stay-at-home defenseman, who has been criticized for not using his size (6’1″, 218 lbs) enough.2

New York Rangers – C/LW Brad Richards
This was a no-brainer for Rangers’ GM Glen Sather. Richards’ time in New York has been underwhelming to say the least. While he had a much better season under first-year coach Alain Vigneault than he did  in his two years under John Tortorella, Richards was invisible in the Stanley Cup finals, except when he made a mistake. Last season, he managed just one point in 10 playoff games. Even if the Rangers had won the cup, his fate was likely sealed, since the 34-year old stood to make $6.67MM for each of the next six years.

Vancouver Canucks – LW David Booth
Booth scored 60 points in 72 games in the 2008-2009 season, but it has been all downhill from there. The speedy winger, with a history of concussions, tallied just 9 goals and 10 assists in this past season.

 

1 – Puck Daddy

2 – The Hockey News – Aaron Rome

3 – The Hockey News – David Booth

Cap statistics courtesy of Capgeek.com

Drew Sarver is the founder, publisher, managing editor, and a contributor for Designated For Assignment. He can be followed on twitter at @mypinstripes and @d4assignment or contacted by email at dsarver@d4assignment.com.

NHL Stanley Cup: Kings 2 Games From Coronation

DustinBrownKings’ captain Dustin Brown’s Game 2 winner put the Kings halfway to another Cup.

by Drew Sarver

Watching the relentless style of the Los Angeles Kings makes you wonder why the Kings aren’t going for a three-peat of the Stanley Cup rather than their second title in three years.  The Kings have taken the first two games from the New York Rangers in overtime and double overtime. Both games played on the left coast saw Los Angeles come back from two goal deficits to force the extra ice time. They’re the first team to come back from two goal deficits to win in three straight games. The first was the finale of the Western Conference Finals when they topped the Chicago Blackhawks.

While the Rangers tremendous speed has been their biggest asset in the series, the big-bodied Kings hit from beginning to end. And they just keep coming.

Saturday night the Rangers were hoping to bounce back from their Game 1 disappointment and it appeared they might just do that. Game 2 started out in much the same manner as Game 1 with the Rangers netting the first two goals. But things turned around in the third period with New York ahead 4-2.

The Kings’ controversial third goal will be talked about for some time to come, but the aftermath was more frustrating for fans who saw the Rangers lose control of the game. It started when the Kings’ Matt Greene shot the puck from the right point. Kings’ winger Dwight King was  a sandwich between goalie Henrik Lundqvist and defenseman Ryan McDonagh in the Rangers crease. Greene’s shot hit King and got past Lundqvist for the goal. A two-goal lead was suddenly one and the shift in momentum was palpable.

Lundqvist immediately expressed his frustration to referee Brian O’Halloran, who signaled good goal. O’Halloran’s two part explanation was the puck was already past Lundqvist when contact was made and the contact was initiated by McDonagh.1 There is currently no video review for goaltender interference, but that could change as a result of the impact of the Kings’ goal. It was an odd no-call considering the Rangers Benoit Pouliot had gotten called for goaltender interference earlier in the game on a play that had less contact with the puck nowhere in sight.

The goal came within the first two minutes of third period and fired up the Kings’ fan base. Just as they had in the first game and throughout this year’s playoffs, the Kings took advantage of their opportunities. Former Ranger Marian Gaborik swept a loose puck in the slot past Lundqvist to tie the game at four apiece with a little over 12 minutes remaining in regulation.

After a scoreless first overtime – kept that way when Kings’ goalie Jonathan Quick stopped the Rangers’ Chris Kreider on a breakaway – Dustin Brown redirected Willie Mitchell’s blast from the left point past Lundqvist for the game winner at 10:26 of the second extra session. Just like that the Kings are in command of the best of seven series.

Notes

Many in the media predicted the Kings would be tired entering the series after having gone the full seven games in their three previous series. The Western Conference semi-finals concluded with a Game 7 overtime. While the Kings may be tired, they don’t look tired. In fact, it’s the Rangers who appear to be more tired. The Rangers, particularly in Game 2, often fell to the ice without contact. Bad skates or tired legs?

Only five teams in the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs have come back from a 2-0 deficit to win the championship. The 2011 Boston Bruins and 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins rallied from two down to win the title. They’re the only teams to do so in the last 40 years.

Rangers defenseman John Moore returned from a two game suspension for elbowing Montreal’s Dale Weise in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. Defenseman Rafael Diaz was a healthy scratch. Dan Carcillo’s 10 game suspension, for abusing an official, was reduced to six games and he could return for the fourth game of the series.

1 – sports.yahoo.com

 

Drew Sarver is the founder, publisher, managing editor, and a contributor for Designated For Assignment. He can be followed on twitter at @mypinstripes and @d4assignment or contacted by email at dsarver@d4assignment.com.

The NFL Is Screwing You Out Of Your Roman Numerals

sb50

Super Bowl What?

by Drew Sarver

Say it ain’t so Joe…Namath. The NFL announced that the fiftieth Super Bowl, played in two years, will not have any Roman numerals in its logo. Horse Hockey! Wrong sport, but it was such an eloquent response from Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H.

Super Bowl 10, Super Bowl 25, Super Bowl 30. Do those look good at all? NO. But Super Bowl X, Super Bowl XXV, and Super Bowl XXX are All-American awesomeness.  How could the NFL do this to us? To the Romans?

Super Bowl 50? That’s lame, granted Super Bowl L isn’t exactly sexy, but it’s still Roman and it’s still a numeral. Whose to say we can’t change the Roman Alphabet, er, Numeralbet anyway? Whose going to protest? Julius Caesar? You saw what happened to him. Et tu Goodell?

How about Super Bowl XXXXX – Look at it, bow down to it, revel in it. Who cares that is not how you say 50 in Roman numerals. It’s not like the Romans have a union or anything.

Or, hey NFL guys, how about you make up your own symbols? The fonts “Wingdings” and “Marlet” have to be there for some reason.

sbnew50

 

Now THAT’s what I’m talking about!

 

Drew Sarver is the founder, publisher, managing editor, and a contributor for Designated For Assignment. He can be followed on twitter at @mypinstripes and @d4assignment or contacted by email at dsarver@d4assignment.com.

NHL Stanley Cup Final – Kings vs. Rangers

StanleyCup

The Stanley Cup champion. There can be only one!

by Drew Sarver

When you think about Los Angeles sports teams, physical toughness isn’t usually what comes to mind. The Magic Johnson-led Lakers couldn’t handle the Larry Bird-led Celtics until the Lakers upped their physical game. The result was two more championships in 1985 and 1987. The LA Kings epitomize toughness and physicality.

On the other hand, when you think about New York City sports teams, physical and mental toughness is one of the first things that come to mind. Whether it’s rebounding from 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers and the residents of the Tri-State area are made of tough stuff. Against this backdrop of steely stoicism, you don’t necessarily think about people being in touch with their emotional side. Yet the New York Rangers are fine representation for family and watching each other’s backs.

The two biggest markets in sports are ready to clash in what could be an epic Stanley Cup Final. Major League Baseball saw the two cities duke it out four times, but the last World Series final between the Yankees and Dodgers was 1981. The Knicks and Lakers met in classic NBA finals in 1970, ‘72, and ‘73. The east and west coast powers have not met in football, which now stands as the only one of the four major sports where that is the case.

Beginning tonight, the Kings and Rangers will maneuver, coach, hit, shoot and pass the puck and kick- and glove-save it away for up to two weeks. When one team reaches that magical fourth victory in the best-of-seven series, the Stanley Cup will be wheeled out by white-glove clad men for the greatest celebration in modern sports.

The Teams

LA Kings (Stanley Cup Victory – 2012; Runner up – 1993)

Don’t let the words of Los Angeles Kings head coach Darryl Sutter fool you. He’s trying to play the underdog. But his team, which is largely intact from when they won the Stanley Cup two years ago, is the clear favorite.

After playing three conference series, the last of which ended in a Game 7 overtime victory on Sunday night, will the Kings show any fatigue? In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup, that’s not happening, at least from the outset when adrenaline takes over. The third period will be the true indicator of whether there is any lag from the Western conference finals.

The Kings are a beast that you better finish off when you have the chance. Their first round series with the San Jose Sharks saw the Kings fall behind three games to none. Four straight wins followed, including a 5-1 wipeout in Game 7.

The Anaheim Ducks looked like they would be the ones to knock the Kings off their throne when they erased a 2-0 deficit in games and won three straight. Forget about it…the Kings forced a Game 7 with a 2-1 victory at home and then dominated another seventh game on the road, 6-2.

Though not necessarily well played at times, the conference finals between the Kings and the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks was a classic. This time it was the Kings blowing a lead when the series appeared to be over. Back-to-back victories were earned by Chicago in Games 5, which went to double overtime, and in Game 6 which forced yet another seventh road game for LA. In their 21st playoff game of the year, the Kings’ Alec Martinez got a fortuitous bounce off of Blackhawks’ defenseman Nick Leddy, and the puck sailed past goalie Corey Crawford for the game winner.

NY Rangers (Stanley Cup Victories – 1928, 1933, 1940, 1994; Runner up – 1929, 1932, 1937, 1950, 1972, 1979)

No one expected the Rangers to reach the Stanley Cup final this year. There was no reason to expect it with the inconsistency that plagued the regular season or the powerless power play or their inability to score goals.

Then the trade deadline came and GM Glen Sather had a tough decision to make. Should he hold on to free-agent-to-be captain and spiritual leader, Ryan Callahan, or deal him so as not to lose out on any return if he walked after the season? Martin St. Louis was doing his own deliberating down in Tampa Bay. The 13-year veteran, possibly prompted by the decision of Lightning GM and Team Canada Executive Director Steve Yzerman to pass over his selection for the 2014 Canadian Olympic team, demanded a trade. He had one destination in mind, the New York Rangers, which would put him near his home in Connecticut.

On March 5, the Rangers sent Callahan, a first round draft pick, and a conditional first round pick to the Lightning for St. Louis and a pair of conditional picks. St. Louis managed just one goal and eight points in 19 games, and many wondered aloud if the 38-year old could handle playing in New York. But his teammates, especially friend and former Lightning teammate Brad Richards, knew better. The playoffs began and St. Louis started clicking.

The Rangers battled division rival Philadelphia before they squeaked out a 2-1 win in Game 7 at home. When they fell behind the Pittsburgh Penguins three games to one in the conference semi-finals, most pundits and fans started making their offseason plans. Then a tragic event seemed to turn things around.  St. Louis’ mother, France, died unexpectedly at the age of 63.

St. Louis and his family were embraced by the Rangers and a close team became even closer. The team, sparked by the play of St. Louis and goalie Henrik Lundqvist, won three straight games to capture the series. Like the Kings, the Rangers had won Game 7 on the road. The specialty units, especially the power play, had improved dramatically.

In the conference finals, the Rangers faced off against long-time “Original Six” rival, the Montreal Canadiens. The played their best game of the postseason in the Game 6 clincher, which saw Lundqvist and the Rangers win 1-0.

The Coaches

Head man Darryl Sutter is part of hockey royalty. Along with his brothers Duane, Brent, Brian, Ron, and Rich, he played in the NHL, and Brent’s son Brandon is currently a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Prior to coming to LA, Sutter coached the Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames. He was behind the bench for the Flames team that went to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals with the Tampa Lightning in 2004. The Lightning, which included St. Louis and Richards, won the finale 2-1.

Sutter was also GM of the Flames and resigned as coach after the 2005-2006 season to concentrate on his front office position. He stepped down in the middle of the 2010-2011 season and was hired a little less than a year later to replace Terry Murray as the Kings’ head coach. Sutter then won his first Stanley Cup when the Kings swept the New Jersey Devils in the 2012 final.

Alain Vigneault knows what it is like to get to the mountain top, but also how rough it is to come back down. The former defenseman played just 42 games over parts of two seasons in the NHL before going into coaching. After not finding success in parts of four seasons with Montreal, Vigneault was hired as the Vancouver Canucks’ head man in 2006-2007. The Canucks finished with the best record in the division and/or NHL six times in the regular season, but made it to the finals just once. There they lost to the Boston Bruins in seven games after holding a 3 games to 2 lead. After being swept in the first round last year, the Canucks fired Vigneault, who basically swapped jobs with fellow fired coach John Tortorella.

The Goalies

Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick’s resume shows a Stanley Cup championship, an Olympic Silver medal for Team USA (2010) and a second place finish in the Vezina Trophy voting, for the league’s best goalie, in 2012. The Kings current playoff run in no way reflects the way they blew through opponents en route to the championship two years ago. That team went 16-4 in the playoffs and Quick held opponents to a 1.41 goals per game. He also stopped nearly 95% of the shots he faced. This year, Quick has a 2.86 goals-against-average (GAA) and the team has allowed many more shots on goal than the winning squad. The 28-yr old is at his best when he stays in the crease area and doesn’t wander too much. He has a tendency to drop down too quickly at times, which can allow an opponent to roof the puck to beat him.1 http://forecaster.thehockeynews.com/hockeynews/hockey/player.php?5348

Rangers’ goalie Henrik Lundqvist has won Gold and Silver Olympic medals representing his native Sweden, and won the 2012 Vezina Trophy, beating out Quick. He was the runner up last season. This is the 32-year old’s first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. After a rough start to the season, in which he was at times benched for back up Cam Talbot, Lundqvist was outstanding in the second half of the year and carried that level of play into the postseason. He has a 2.03 GAA and has stopped 92.8% of his opponent’s shots. Lundqvist likes to play deep in the crease and has a strong glove hand. His style is used to take away low shots, so expect opponents to try to beat him in the upper part of the net.2 http://forecaster.thehockeynews.com/hockeynews/hockey/player.php?2585

The Defense

The Kings’ Drew Doughty is arguably one of the best defensemen in hockey. He was the second overall pick in the 2008 NHL entry draft, following high-scorer Steven Stamkos. The Ontario native has scored 10 or more goals four times in his six-year career and is smooth as glass when handling the puck. He finished third in the Norris Trophy voting, for best defenseman, in 2012 when he collected a career-high 59 points. He added 16 points, including a tournament-high 12 assists, as the Kings won the Cup. The Rangers need to be aware of Doughty’s tendency to pinch into the offensive zone. The durable 24-year old averaged better than 25 minutes of ice time per game during the regular season and upped that by two minutes in the playoffs.

The Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh was the 12th overall pick by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2007 draft. That same year, the Rangers signed free agent center Scott Gomez to an awful seven-year, $51MM contract. After two mediocre seasons in the Big Apple, the Rangers were desperate to trade Gomez and the Canadiens were desperate for a top center. Gomez and Tom Pyatt headed to Montreal for three players, including McDonagh. Whether he knew what he had at the time or not, it turned out to be one of the best deals that Sather ever made. The soon-to-be 25-year old defenseman stepped up his offense this season and set career highs with 14 goals and 43 points, but it’s his transition from offense to defense and stopping shooters in the defensive zone that makes McDonagh special.

The Snipers

Marian Gaborik knows what it’s like to wear the red, white, and blue of the New York Rangers. He did so for three-plus seasons and scored 41 goals for NY two years ago. But his style of play was stifled under former head coach John Tortorella’s “defense first” approach, and he was sent packing to Columbus for three current Rangers – Derick Brassard, John Moore, and Derek Dorsett. Gaborik missed half of this season due to injury and was dealt to the Kings at the trade deadline in March for two draft picks. Gaborik is now healthy again and has topped all playoff scorers with 12 goals, 10 of them at even strength. Many of “Gabby’s” goals come from his ability to elude defensemen around the net.

The Rangers’ Rick Nash was acquired from Columbus prior to the 2012-2013 season for three players and a first round pick. The hope was that he could combine with Gaborik to give the Rangers a pair of solid scoring lines. A player’s strike/owner’s lockout didn’t help, but the experiment failed and the Rangers parted company with Gaborik. Nash was solid in his first year in New York with 21 goals and 42 points in 44 games. A concussion had a major impact on Nash earlier this year and he finished with just 39 points in 65 games. He also lacked playoff experience and postseason success, and the Rangers’ fans let him have it when he went without a goal in the first two rounds this year. Nash finally got his offense going in the conference finals with three goals and a pair of assists. Just as importantly, he’s been responsible in his own zone and has played a physical game.

The Prediction

The Kings have an experienced, playoff-tested squad that has just about seen and done it all this year. They find ways to win, not ways to lose. For that reason, the prediction here is the Kings in six.

 

Drew Sarver is the founder, publisher, managing editor, and a contributor for Designated For Assignment. He can be followed on twitter at @mypinstripes and @d4assignment or contacted by email at dsarver@d4assignment.com.