One Shot

Shot

For most players, the season is now over and it’s time to relax, unwind and think of what you want to improve on for next season. Depending on the level that you play, there are countless things to work on for a hockey player in the off-season. Usually there are 5-10 memories of chances missed or instances where a player wishes that they had been able to change something that they did. It’s much to late to change what has happened last season but preparing yourself to be successful for chances that you will have next season is now more important.

First, rest is important. Make sure that before you start in on your hockey training you have given your body and the hockey muscles (hips, groins, knees, shoulders) significant time to heal from the wear and tear of a long season. Spend time with family and friends away from the rink and the gym. Continuous training for hockey can be detrimental to not only your body, but it can also wear you down mentally. A few weeks or a month without hockey and training on your mind will make you more excited for your return to the gym and ultimately to the ice.

I remember being in my early teens and walking through the rink in my hometown of Wilcox, Saskatchewan during a week of the Notre Dame Summer Hockey School. I walked out to the ice surface to a see Wendel Clark, Maple Leafs legend and Notre Dame alumni, shoot pucks from the slot into an open net. He had about 15-20 pucks and I can’t tell you if he hit his target with every shot but I was amazed at the sound of the puck off the crossbar, posts and even glass while he fired one snapshot after another. I had never seen the wrist strength or power to make a sound like that. I had always been the kid that couldn’t wait to take a big slap shot (still am), but from that point on I knew I needed to work to gain a heavy snapshot.

Rarely in hockey do you have time to let loose with a big slap shot and seldom do you have a one on one opportunity on a goaltender with time to take a shot without a defender trying to block it. It’s possible 80%+ of NHLers have a great shot and 50% of players on each team will have what their own goalies will consider a “bomb”. However, we only know of the actual true snipers because they are the players that are able to showcase their shot with the ability to release it before a defender can block it and the confidence to get into a shooting area and fire the puck.

While I also teach skills training in hockey, I want to give a few tips for those players that either can’t afford to hire a skills coach or live somewhere that ice isn’t available in the off-season. The drill is easy to do at home with just a hockey stick and ball and focuses on possibly a player’s most important skill; shooting release. In today’s hockey, defending teams are taught (and rightly so) to always have sticks in the shooting lane and to use their body to block the puck from reaching the goalie. This drill will help to give you a better chance of getting a shot off before the defender is able to get a stick in the lane. It will also help you to understand where you are best releasing the puck from, giving you your optimal chance to generate a quality shot on goal.

Possibly the most important tip for players of all ages is to recognize your own ideal release point when shooting. Sounds technical, yes, but it’s actually quite simple as most players have a common release point. There is a certain point where you like to, and should, take a wrist/snapshot from. Take one of your sticks that you used from the season and cut it down about the height of your skate blades (you can put an extension in it and re-tape it after if you only have one). Now take a tennis ball or anything that is heavy enough to feel like a puck and find a wall (preferably outside) that you can shoot off of. Take shots with your feet at different points, hands in different positions, pulling the puck towards you with the toe of the stick, and practice shooting with your weight on each foot. If you are a right-handed shooter, you will most likely see that you shoot the hardest with your weight on the right foot and puck close to your right foot (same applies for lefties, with their left foot). By bringing the ball closer to you with the toe of your stick towards your foot before snapping it against the wall you are not only creating momentum, you are also changing the shooting angle that the goalie must adjust to.

Use the different bounces of the ball back to you to practice accepting a bad pass and getting the ball to the ideal point of release for you. Also practice starting with the ball on your backhand and bringing the ball to your release point as quickly as possible to fire it. Do the same starting from behind you and further away from your body. In a game, rarely do you receive the perfect pass and have time to cradle the puck and take your time to hit your spot. One thing to keep in mind while doing this drill off the ice is that during a hockey game, when cruising around the offensive zone as your team has possession, try to be on the balls of your feet (slightly leaning forward) and anticipating the puck coming to you at all times. By practicing getting a puck or ball from wherever you receive it to your release point quickly and being in shooting position, it will only help you to shoot harder. If you have someone to pass to you, even better. Have them alternate where they pass you the ball. Have them bounce one, put one on your backhand, in your feet, etc. If you are able to be on the ice? Even better. But the drill is beneficial both ways.

Watch Auston Matthews take a wrist shot. How does he not get his shot blocked as often as others? He knows the point that he needs to get to on the ice for his shot to be a scoring chance and he uses the space leading up to his shooting area to hide the fact that he is shooting. He does a great job of changing the angle on his release point to both give him an edge on the opposing goalie and keep his release point out of the defenceman’s stick range. It is extremely hard to do at full speed but very important to work on as a young player. He often uses a wide stickhandle to draw a defenceman’s stick out before he pulls the puck close to his foot to snap it off. Matthews has coaches breaking down the video of every shot he takes and sufficient ice-time to practice this skill as much as he chooses but he still puts in the work to hone his craft and the results show in his shooting.

While shooting against a wall, imagine a defender trying to disrupt your release with his stick or get his legs in the way of your shot. The longer you take to release the puck, the easier it is for the defensemen and goalie to block your shot as well. Practice a short pull, where you bring the puck only about one foot to release it and then try a few feet, which is about how long a radius of the average release would be. By cutting your release radius from 2 feet to one foot of space while doing a quicker weight-shift, you will get more shots off and shoot harder. Like Matthews, if you can learn to bait a defenceman with slow stickhandling and fire a snapshot within a tight radius, you will earn more scoring chances.

Both defensemen and forwards can practice this, as a defensemen has to get shots through from the blue line with forwards trying to block the shot and the goalie searching for the puck through traffic. By being able to release the puck quicker without as much of a stick pull, it leaves more chance to get a shot on net. It is even beneficial for D-men trying to fire a stretch breakout pass to forwards up ice. Changing the angle and deception can throw off a forechecking forward and give a D-man a passing lane when he thought there may have not been one.

Also, if you are looking to get more on your shot over the summer, consider these few exercise tips to help. Legs generate your power on the weight shift, so be sure to work hamstrings into your workouts. If you stand up and do a quick shooting motion where you have shifted from one side to the other, you can feel the hamstring in your dominant leg engage as you shoot. Be sure to add a few hamstring exercises (deadlifts, Swiss Ball hamstring curl) to build the strength for the season. With the amount of squats, etc that hockey players do, it is important to also build the backside of your shooting base, your legs. Also important is to throw in something to strengthens wrists and forearms. When you are finished with your summer workout, take the heaviest dumbbells that you can safely walk at least 20 yards with and do just that. Move them around as you walk in a circle for a few sets of 30 seconds….believe me, you will feel it the next day (especially when you are driving) and your shooting will improve. It will improve your grip strength and help with your quick release. No access to a gym? Lay down and put your heels on a couch cushion on a non-carpeted floor. Lift your butt up, and pull the cushion with your heels to yourself and back for 3 sets of 15 reps. Get a few heavy items in a couple of bags and walk in circles around your living room after your shooting drill is over.

Lastly, every player’s best chance of scoring as many goals as they want the next season is to play every game. Rest up and then train hard and smart. If this small drill helps you get one more heavy shot on net from a scoring area every second game, you and your team will benefit. I hope it helps.

Thanks for reading.

Jeff Ulmer

jeffulmer44@gmail.com

“Small Things”

Small Things - Jeff Ulmer
Notre Dame Hounds SJHL 1994-1995 | EHC Lustenau ALPS Hockey League 2017-2018

“Small Things”

Growing up in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, a small Canadian village of only a few hundred people (at most), there weren’t many off-season jobs to be had in the summer months after a hockey season. After hockey season, it was baseball season, with anticipation of football season around the corner. Wilcox was a town where every kid played every sport because the numbers meant you had to, as well as playing for neighbouring towns to fill out their numbers too.

In my early teens, my Dad was able to convince the long-time librarian at Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox, Jimmy Williams, to let my younger brother Jason and I spend a few weeks repairing books that would be used the following school year by the students.

Jimmy showed us how we could bring the old books back to life. We would cut the frayed edges with scissors, use some tape and then form a small point on the four corners of each book to spruce them up for another school year. We’d snip any loose strands on the spine and repair any snags or bent pages as best we could and then help to file them in alphabetical order and to which genre they belonged.

Jimmy took meticulous care of his books and would spend each year making sure each book was accounted for and no students were what he termed “packrats”, keeping books in their dorm rooms longer than their terms of rental. Always eccentric, Jimmy was the town’s jumbo pumpkin and tomato grower, picking weeds and dandelions from his garden and lawn by hand. As a bachelor in a tiny town, Jimmy’s house was always circled by us growing up as a “double back” spot to try to snag a second full-size chocolate bar that he offered to all of the kids at Hallowe’en.

Other than weeks of summer hockey schools at both Notre Dame and at my alma mater at which I played College hockey, the University of North Dakota, with a short stint in working construction in Grand Forks one summer, that has been the extent of my non-hockey offseason jobs.

Professional hockey players don’t generally have the typical four seasons of a year. There is the season and then the off-season. In professional contracts it usually states that you are unable to play other competitive sports and then still be covered by insurance, so for most it’s now a one (contact) sport life. Sure, golf and fishing and other sports are popular with hockey players, but there aren’t any dual sport athletes in professional hockey.

The hockey season is spent going through a tough training camp in which your physical shape is measured and tested and then 50-80 games, with hundreds of practices, meetings and workouts. Throw in nervous anticipation for each game, a lack of sleep due to travel or a high heart rate during games until 10-11 pm and time away from family and friends for what can be up to 8-9 months of a year. In most cases, unless a championship is won, there is disappointment in defeat, the handshakes and hugs as teammates part ways and a flight or drive home to relax, reflect and then ramp it up again in the second season for a hockey player, the off-season.

A player’s off-season can be a chance to add strength or lose weight, as over the course of a long season the body changes from what it would have looked like during training camp. Players also have the chance to work with a skills coach or on their own to refine their game and improve individual skills. Most importantly, players get a chance to see family and friends and relax away from the rink. Part of an off-season is giving the hockey muscles (groins, hip flexors, etc) time to heal and rest, while also giving your mind a break from all of the inevitable concerns and ups and downs of a season. Playing golf, fishing, barbecues with family, travel with a wife or girlfriend as well as just not thinking about hockey is vital to being able to play a long time in hockey without burning out.

As a believer in playing several sports as a kid without specializing in just hockey, I think it is extremely important to turn off the “hockey mind” and enjoy life (while still staying in shape) for at least a month or two after the season. It may not work for everyone, but I believe that is the main reason that I have played pro hockey for nearly 20 years and still enjoy it.

Athol Murray College Of Notre Dame’s beloved librarian Jimmy Williams passed away in June of 2015. He devoted the last 58 years of his life to serving the students at Notre Dame. He had also spent 15+ years bringing weekly roses to a girl that I attended high school in Notre Dame with after an unfortunate accident put her in the hospital, where she will remain. A selfless man, Jimmy always stressed doing the “small things” and I believe that can relate to all walks of life.

So, as I come up on the ending of season 19 and the uncertainty of whether it will end with a championship or a bitter defeat, I know what the off-season will bring. I will work on “small things” that I can do to improve my own game. Like he taught us to do with his beloved books, I will seek to repair my frayed edges and start fresh for year 20. Thanks Jimmy.

 

Thanks for reading.

Jeff Ulmer

 

jeffulmer44@gmail.com

For The Coaches

For The Coaches

So far (in my 19 years of professional hockey) I have had 30 different head coaches. Some were good, some were bad. Some I couldn’t understand (Russia or Finland), and some I wish that I hadn’t been able to…A lot of good ideas, some bad ideas and several different motivational techniques. Some have given me tips for on and off the ice that have stayed with me throughout my career and I have done my best to pass them on. I’ve seen huddles, body checking, handshakes and prayer before leaving the dressing room to hit the ice. I can’t definitively say that one worked better than the other and it is up to each coach as to what he or she feels will get the most out of their team.

Coaching isn’t just systemic strategy and motivating the 20 players that are looking at you for guidance. It’s managing 20 personalities, styles and different levels of talent into a collective group that believes in what you are teaching them. Every player has his or her role and you are filling a vital role as well. You have to alter your style of coaching from day to day and not coach that day based on what happened at home prior or at the rink yesterday. A team is like a puzzle. How will you fit the 20 pieces together to make it whole?

I’ve had coaches that couldn’t design their own practice to save their life, but had the 20 players ready to skate through a wall for them. Others were the smartest in every room that they walked into, yet couldn’t bring the players together and actually seemed to enjoy belittling players. What works for some won’t work for others, and no coach can have the same systems or style year after year and not get stale. Listen to your players and sense their body language and focus in practice and games. You will be able to sense if they need a wake up call or if you should ease up on them a touch.

Most of your teaching will be done in the dressing room and during practice times. However, practice time is best used when the coach is not talking, so have a clear practice plan and use the allotted ice time for improving your players. Make corrections before or after practice so that you can be sure that the player is focused on you and can fully understand without being distracted. During games, you won’t have time to teach, as it is important to always be in control of the bench, line changes and controlling the flow and mood of your bench.

A coach in 2017/2018 has unlimited tools at his or her disposal. An NHL coach, for example, is able to watch an iPad video replay that tells him immediately which of his players made the mistake leading to a goal. He has an assistant coach wired to a coach in the press box telling him whether or not to review a goal that may have been off-side. He is able to teach systems in practice and then rely on a skills coach to develop his players while the nutritionist, masseuse and strength coach get the player ready for competition.

However, that may also make it harder. There can be a lot of conflicting voices in a player’s ear. He sees his highlights on YouTube, his personal skills coach from the summer may be telling him to try the moves they worked on in July, his agent is pushing him to shoot more to reach that number of goals to cash in on the next contract and he is fully aware of his Corsi or Fenwick data, thanks to hockey analytical Twitter.

A coach has the unenviable job of taking each player and massaging his ego just to the point where he won’t think of it during the game. Get him to mute the outside noise and only hear his teammates and coaches. Not easy, but vital. Hockey itself is too fast to worry about what your skating coach has told you to do with your hips, for example, when a 230 pound defenceman has you lined up for a big hit 5 feet from the boards.

So, as a coach, what can you do to be successful in modern hockey? I think systems are important. But tailor your systems for the team that you have. A team’s effort and willingness to work hard will have more value than the best systems. Most reading this will be in minor hockey or a lower level of amateur hockey. Keep it simple, keep the passes short and don’t be too technical. I’ve seen 9 year olds trying the NHL powerplay drop-pass breakout…I’m not saying it isn’t fun for the kids to try new things, but I doubt a 9 year old PK system is so tough to beat that you need the drop pass to disrupt the timing of the penalty killers. But, I’ve been wrong before…

If they are young kids, teach them positioning but give them freedom to be creative. Watching 6-7 year old defencemen stand on the blue line so that they are in a “safe” position is teaching them to be hesitant. Teach young wingers to not post in a stationary position in their own zone and stare at the passer. Rather, have them get used to taking a look up ice to see where their opponent is while they begin moving up ice with some speed. Centres at all levels can learn routes to have themselves facing up ice when they receive the puck, rather than heading straight towards the passing winger. Systems at a young age should always be by far secondary. Teaching young players fundamentals and repetitions of practicing them at game speed will be most important.

I have come up with a simple acronym that can apply to coaches at all levels;

C.O.A.C.H.

Clear– Everyone knows what is expected of them. They are aware of their role and what each player must do for the team to be successful. There are no questions as to what his/her responsibility is in every aspect of the game.

Optimistic– Have faith in your team. They need a leader and you are the one they are looking for. Gave up a goal? It will happen. Move on. Things will get better. Losing streak? Things could be worse, you are all still getting the chance to play (or coach) hockey. Get through it together.

Adaptive– See something that isn’t working? No chemistry in your lines or pairings tonight? Change it now. Injuries? They happen too. Roll with it. Prove to your team that the team is bigger than any one individual. They won’t quit on you.

Current– Times change. So should your systems. Players are faster nowadays, so why slow your own team down? Also, players have changed. Be aware of how you speak to players, and be cognizant of your body language on the bench and in the dressing room.

Human– Your players will make mistakes. How will you react? Will you apologize if it is you that was at fault? How well do you know your team? Speak with your players and find out things about them away from the rink. They will appreciate it. Hockey, in the end, is a game.

Lastly, be the reason that the 8 year old winger on your team wants to continue playing hockey. Be the reason that a 4th line player thinks that he is just as important to the team as the top scorer. And be the coach that can make an average team great.

Good luck this season.

Thanks for reading.

Jeff Ulmer

jeffulmer44@gmail.com

Liked “FOR THE COACHES”? Check out FOR THE ROOKIES.

Hockey; Our Beautiful Game.

Hockey; Our Beautiful Game.

“The Beautiful Game”… Football, for those outside of North America. We have renamed it soccer. And I suppose in a way it is beautiful. Green grass, a shiny ball, players racing back and forth on the pitch. But now freeze that pitch, throw some razors on the hardest shoes you can find, give those players a weapon and allow them to hit each other with their bodies and that weapon while chasing a frozen piece of rubber disc around on the frozen pitch. Shoot that disc past a mask-wearing player with hard pillows on his legs and big oven mitts for gloves? I’d say in a way that that’s even more beautiful.

Canadians live and breathe hockey; it’s in our blood. It is far and away our most popular sport and you can even find hockey on Canadian currency (back of the 5-dollar bill). Americans have closed the talent gap considerably that once existed at one time between the two countries and are now considered nearly on par with the Canadians. The Russians, Swedes and Finns are known as Olympic contenders and other European countries are gaining on the powerhouses as well. Passion, pride, cohesiveness between teammates, trust, honesty, integrity…. they are all words spoken in describing hockey. But one word is synonymous with the sport of hockey; competition.

Competition. For everything. It’s not a sport for everyone. If you’re waiting for your turn, then prepare to wait forever. If you want the puck and you want to score, you need to compete to get it, compete to keep it and compete some more to score.

Of the 4 major sports in North America, only hockey is the sport that doesn’t give each team equal chance at possession. There is no bottom of the ninth, kickoff return or inbounds to give your team the ball (puck). It’s a 60 minute battle for possession and competition to see who can not only win the puck but keep it long enough to make a scoring play.

Football may have more body contact for the 10 seconds or so of each play, but no game is played at the speed of hockey with the constant motion of the athlete for an extended amount of time (shift length) that hockey has. Baseball players have their turn at bat and in the field need to be ready for the ball to be hit to them, while a pitcher’s heart rate will be high with the stress, movement and effort of pitching, but hockey has 12 bodies in constant motion for an entire shift, which could be up to 50 seconds. Basketball comes the closest to constant physical exertion, but there is no real body contact allowed, thus having players exert less energy. (If you don’t agree then try skating after taking a big hit that stops all of your momentum).

In hockey, the greatest players in the game sit on the bench and don’t handle the puck for the majority of the game. Your body needs a 2 minute rest after 50 seconds of maximum effort. Thus, the best forwards in the world will top out at 22-23 minutes of 60 and defencemen 26-28 of 60. As a result, hockey is a team sport in which you must draw on all of the players to contribute. It’s why at the end of the game, all players feel as if they’ve contributed and you rarely hear a hockey interviewee substitute “I” for “we”. In football, baseball and basketball, the star players handle the ball the entire game and each get a fair shot. An at-bat, 4 downs and a possession arrow in basketball all give the players their chance at creating offence. In hockey? Get it yourself. Earn it.

Football coaches must design several plays and relay them through the quarterback or middle linebacker’s helmet radio to call each play. Baseball players have their individual chances at the plate, having been guided by a hitting coach or, if in the field, a fielding coach. They have time to check the signs from the third base coach and check him for when to take an extra base or score a run as well. Basketball coaches have the ability to draw plays to get their player a good look for a shot and can relay the code of the play as the starting 5 head up the court. Hockey? No time. Coaches have taught the players some technique or systems in practice but once the game starts it is up to the players to produce. Teaching is over and the coaches rarely ever get a chance to correct systems or individual mistakes during the game, with the exception of the 2 intermissions. A coach turns into a motivator, intimidator or a cheerleader once the puck is dropped.

The best hockey coaches, as can be the case in the other sports, are the coaches that can deal with negative results and get players to remain positive and focused through inevitable miscues. A hockey bench is a small and confined place. It’s like sitting on a large couch with 15 sweaty friends while your dad and his 2 friends stand behind you. There is nowhere to hide, and believe me, you can feel it when the coach is staring bullets at you from behind your back. You can sense frustration, positivity, pride and nervousness from the coaches and there is nothing better in any sport than having a positive coach that believes in his group.

So, next time you are at a hockey game or even watching a game on TV, look for the demeanour of the coach, the flows of the line changes, the maximum effort of the participants, the post-shift exhaustion of the players and really how little the top players are even on the ice. You’ll see a team of 20 players, backed by coaches that, after 60 minutes (and sometimes more), are exhausted. Win or lose, they will huddle by their goaltender and look at each other to congratulate each other on an honest effort. There is nothing better than playing hockey and being given not only a chance to play, but to compete together as a team and try to win.

Enjoy the season.

Thanks for reading.

~Jeff Ulmer

jeffulmer44@gmail.com

NHL Roster Construction: West vs East in 2017/2018 and Who Will Win?

2017 Stanley Cup Finals

 

-The “salary cap era”… No longer can a team like the Red Wings of the early 2000s load up on All Stars to fill every position, be heavy Stanley Cup favourites and run the table to win the Stanley Cup. Imagine a team that can only give a rising star Pavel Datsyuk just over 13 minutes per game because Yzerman, Shanahan, Hull, Fedorov, Robitaille and Larionov are better options…! It now takes a group of smart scouts, managers and coaches to build a winning lineup to fit under the salary cap, without the added luxury of having a generous owner (such as the late Mike Ilitch) willing to pay for an All Star lineup at nearly any cost.

 

How is it possible to build a dynasty-style lineup? Research, development, luck and the right people involved. Accumulate assets through the draft or free agency, hire the right people to develop them and set them on the correct path, then time it correctly whereby your veterans are in their prime when the high-flying rookies debut. Then, fit those hefty veteran contracts in with the entry level rookies. A good coaching staff will then find the balance of playing time and chemistry with the players in which they are given. But continue to churn out a winning lineup year after year over a span of 82 games??? Tough to do. You can see how teams such as the Detroit Red Wings of the current era finally have to consider their own inevitable rebuild.

 

Weigh the competition. Look around the league. What do they have that we can compete with? What’s our window? Can we win this year? Next year? Where will our veterans be salary-wise when it is time to sign our rookies to their long term contracts? Will our veterans take more money for less term, allowing us to prepare for the young players’ paydays? Will we lose our young guys before they will sign an extension when eligible? How can we sign a key piece that will fit with our plans through free agency? All valid questions that have to be answered by those running the organization that you cheer for. If you saw your favourite team stand pat or even shoot for the moon and take a run at the top free agents on July 1st, you can bet they met for hours on end internally to come up with the decisions to offer and sign players or not to. There are still a few key pieces on the board, and we will see where each team is when training camps begin.

 

-How do the conferences differ?

When I look at the western conference, I see the top teams built to contend for the next 3-4 years with similar strengths. A few top forwards, a dependable goaltender and a very strong defence that is young (ish) and controllable (under contract for the next few seasons without the risk of losing them to free agency). Nashville and Anaheim met in the western conference final and they were very alike. Young, hungry forwards that carried the pace of play, sprinkled with skilled veterans and led by at least 4-5 dependable, all around defencemen. Their defencemen were able to jump into the rush, but also play fast and physical in making a first pass in their own zone and clear opponents from the front of the net. Roman Josi of the Predators and Cam Fowler of the Ducks will only get better as their surrounding casts get deeper and they will both move up into the top tier of defencemen as they play meaningful games deep in the playoffs. Both Rinne and Gibson are also big goalies that will stop a first shot behind those defencemen. So, if your team is in the west can they compete with those teams this season? Chicago may need a small rebuild on the fly (while dealing with a contract like Seabrook’s) to stay fast enough and a team like Dallas has been smart to add a dependable goalie and a few defencemen (as well as Radulov) to jump into the competition for the playoffs. They may need a few more pieces to be called a Stanley Cup contender, however. St. Louis and Minnesota will be threats but may not be as strong or deep as the others. San Jose and LA lost some pieces but will be in the conversation and Edmonton and Calgary will both compete as long as McDavid is healthy and Mike Smith can backstop a solid D-corps (perhaps this season’s Nashville) in Calgary. The way the west is built, the team that stays healthy and can get into the playoffs without any key injuries will have a good shot to represent the conference. It would not be surprising to see one of the defensive stalwarts like Nashville, Anaheim or Calgary standing at the end, unless McDavid, Kane, or Tarasenko can lead their teams to win a playoff round or two against those defensive corps. Tough to do.

 

In the East I see less focus put on building from the defensive side, although possibly two of the top three or four defencemen in the NHL are in the conference (Karlsson and Hedman). Also, although there are several top goalies in the conference, such as Price, Bobrovsky, Murray and Holtby, I would say that offence rules in the east. From Sidney and Malkin to Ovechkin, Mathews, Stamkos, Eichel, Barkov, Tavares and Giroux, it is an offensive conference. Where the west has teams with 3 or 4 of the top 30-40 defencemen, it seems there aren’t any eastern conference teams with more than 1 or 2. There are the studs like Karlsson, Hedman, Weber, Letang, Werenski, McDonaugh and possibly Gardiner or Ristolainen soon, but there isn’t a second guy in those defensive corps that are right on their heels. Possibly Morgan Reilly is the closest, but there are no defensive juggernauts like in the west. Washington chose not to offer the big contracts to Shattenkirk and Alzner, as well as Justin Williams so I see Pittsburgh (if Letang is healthy) and Toronto (great Marleau addition), who added to their depth, as favourites. Teams like the Rangers, Lightning and Bruins may become contenders once again and Montreal will be in the thick of things with a healthy Carey Price. Columbus and Ottawa will need to repeat overachieving seasons which will be difficult (but possible) to do and the other teams appear that they may need to battle to make the playoffs.

 

Bold(ish) Prediction?

Who will be standing at the end and meet in the 2018 Stanley Cup finals? Perhaps it will be the western team that can score on their powerplays, given the strength of their defensive corps. Or the eastern team (like this year’s Senators) that can stick to a strong defensive system to counter the offensive teams in the east. We will see. All 31 teams will begin with a clean slate and the optimism that they have a chance to win.

 

I will predict a repeat of the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals, but with the Predators edging the Penguins to bring the Stanley Cup to “Smashville”. Calgary and Toronto will narrowly miss reaching the finals, once again energizing the “Red Mile” in Calgary and “Maple leaf Square” in Toronto. But, as we well know, anything can and will happen. Let’s simply hope 2017/2018 is as exciting as 2016/2017 was for all hockey fans.

 

Enjoy the off-season.

 

Thanks for reading.

 

~Jeff Ulmer

jeffulmer44@gmail.com

 

 

2017 NHL FREE AGENCY PREDICTIONS

NHL Free Agency

Free agency day! It’s like Christmas for hockey fans…Will your team sign the big stud free agent or will he stay where he is for the “hometown discount?” Does his wife like it where he is? Kids in school? What about his workout buddy, has he sold him on how good it is where he plays? Isn’t his agent tight with the guys in Toronto? The Rangers have money to spend…Montreal has holes…everyone needs a Shattenkirk-type defenceman! A lot of questions, to be sure, and nobody knows the answer to any of them…so shouldn’t we just wait and see how it all plays out? Nah, let’s guess and see how right (or wrong) we are…here are my best guesses.

1. Kevin Shattenkirk
-Every team does covet a Shattenkirk-type. But not every team can afford a free agent powerplay quarterback that is looking to cash in on a max term contract. Yes, he didn’t play his best in the playoffs, but if you’re looking for a guy to take the keys and drive the powerplay bus, Washington already has a particular Russian shooter that needs his shot attempts…and Ovechkin is probably the better choice taking most of the shots anyways, to be honest. With strong defencemen over in the West, I think he stays out east and cashes in.
Best Guess? 
 
New York Rangers (7y/6.5 per)
2. Alexander Radulov
 
-A 30 year old that hasn’t had the 80 game grind that most 30 year olds have had…but he has played for Team Russia quite a bit, making his seasons just as long. However, the hunger and “want” that he plays with is noticeably different than his first stint in the NHL. Now with a family, he seems like he “gets it” now. I could see a team giving him 5-6 years, and he will be in high demand. I could also see him waiting a few hours to see who comes in with a 6-7 year offer (while Montreal waits) before ultimately making his decision.
Best Guess?
 
-Montreal Canadiens (5y/6m per)
3. Joe Thornton
 
-Quietly, “Jumbo” hits free agency, after being one of the top assist men in the NHL seemingly forever. Every team could use him, but it will be a team with some cap space that can give him and his family a multi-year deal that will land him. I’m assuming he’d love to stay in San Jose if it can work for both parties, but this being his first crack at being wooed by several teams, let’s assume his family is ok with a drastic move. Would he like to join Shattenkirk in the “Big Apple” and play with his old Davos teammate Rick Nash? What about LA? I would like to say the Rangers but if they land “Shattdeuces” I think they would look at a cheaper option.
Best Guess?
 
-San Jose Sharks (2y/4.5m per)
4. Patrick Marleau
 
-Let’s stay with the “old Sharks” theme. Marleau has been a Shark forever. Wouldn’t he just stay? Couldn’t they have just found a way to keep him on the old “hometown discount?” I’d have to think that there is a reason he’s going to free agency…but his kids and wife must want to stay in San Jose, no? So many questions. For fun, let’s say they are fine with a big move, as maybe a move closer to his home province in Saskatchewan is what he is after…the Flames could use a speedy veteran to pair with those youngsters.
Best Guess?
 
-Calgary Flames (2y/3.75m per)
5. Karl Alzner
 
-Another guy who has waited a while to be wooed by some other suitors. It sounds like Washington will move on, and Alzner has quietly become a steady, dependable D-man to play some big minutes against opposing teams’ top lines. He hasn’t missed a regular season game for years and he won’t be as expensive as a Shattenkirk. Every team would be smart to check in, but only a few may want to spend big money on a non-powerplay guy. He’d be perfect for the Leafs but they won’t want to dip into their “Mathews/Marner/Nylander fund” two years from now…Ottawa would work but he may choose another spot. Buffalo may offer more than he may take but I will take a stab at him wanting to try a Canadian city. We’ll see.
Best Guess?
 
-Montreal Canadiens (5y/5m per)
6. Martin Hanzal
 
-Size, skill and plays centre. Again, every team would want him. Few will be wanting to go for a 4 year commitment or longer but I think he will get that. I imagine that he loved the desert and would return there but may be looking away from the rebuild after getting a taste of the playoffs again with the Wild. It seems like everyone knows his name and that he is good, but a lot of fans haven’t seen enough of him to say…let’s say he wants a taste of a different western market and a shot at winning now…and there is one team that looked extremely thin at centre when their #1 centre was lost for the playoffs. Johansen could use some help down the middle….
Best Guess?
 
-Nashville Predators (4y/4.25m per)
7. Justin Williams
 
-Sorry, had to make #7 Mr. Game 7….he’d be perfect in Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, Pittsburgh or back in Washington. He is such a smart player that you can’t go wrong having him on the ice in big situations, hence the big goals. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind winning with the group that they have assembled in Washington and he looks like a perfect complement for Kuznetsov with the Capitals. Will he want a change of scenery? Will the Capitals spend the money they won’t give Shattenkirk or Alzner and keep Williams while they have Ovie and Backstrom nearing the twilight of their prime? I just think he has the perfect fit there.
Best Guess?
 
-Washington Capitals (2y/3.75m per)
8. Michael Del Zotto
 
-This one just seems like the perfect situation to snag a guy that needs a reclamation project. I’m sure Rangers fans will be quick to point out the “Del Zaster” he can be in his own end but he can skate and may just need a fresh start with a team that can give him some 2nd unit PP time and play him with a “stay at home” defenceman that can cover for him. He can shoot, skate and will have some suitors…I think he is a left-handed version of Justin Schultz, and things have turned out well for him and the Penguins on that reclamation project…
Best Guess?
 
-Pittsburgh Penguins (2y/3m per)
9. Thomas Vanek
 
-He can score. And he’s relatively cheap. Put him on a good line and have him stay around the net on the powerplays…he will nab his 10th 20 goal year. There are a lot of top centres around the NHL that would like to have a smart winger to play with and who isn’t afraid to score from the “dirty areas”. I think a lot of teams check in on him and he goes with his best chance to play on a good powerplay unit…he’d look good playing with the top lefties that they can run out there for the Oilers…
Best Guess?
 
-Edmonton Oilers (2y/2.75m per)
10. Michael Stone
 
-Right handed defenceman…big, can skate and he’s only 27. The only problem is that he made 4 million last year, which may be about as much as most teams will want to spend, and he is bound to create a bidding war after Shattenkirk and Alzner are off of the board. He’d do well to wait for a few hours and let the big dogs make their choices before he makes his, but he will still get a nice contract. Buffalo seems like they are waiting to spend some money on a younger top 4, and Ottawa would like to have him join Karlsson and Ceci as right shooting D-men, I’m sure. The Oilers could do worse as well…
Best Guess?
 
-Ottawa Senators (4y/4.25m per)
Speed Round
 
Several key pieces remain…let’s take a shot.
Sam Gagner (CLB), Andrei Markov (MTL), Radim Vrbata (ARI), Ryan Miller (BUF), Brian Elliott (PHI), Dmitry Kulikov (DET), Shane Doan (EDM), Dan Girardi (TOR), Nail Yakupov (ARI), Jarome Iginla (BOS), Drew Stafford (PHI), Mike Fisher (NSH), Nick Bonino (TOR), Chris Kunitz (PIT), Antti Niemi (PHI), Jonathan Bernier (NYI), Jaromir Jagr (FLA), Scott Hartnell (TOR), Johnny Oduya (VAN), Patrick Sharp (CHI), Benoit Pouliot (MTL), Brian Gionta (NJD), Ales Hemsky (DAL), Ron Hainsey (PIT).
 
Thanks for reading…feel free to leave your predictions or comments. Let’s see how it all shakes out.
Jeff Ulmer