CHRIS MCCLOSKEY: Thank you, everyone for joining us today for our Stanley Cup Playoffs conference call. In just a few moments we’ll be joined by NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood and NHL analysts Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick.
We just received this information, and we’ll be putting out a press release out about this this afternoon, but NBCSN delivered its most watched full regular season ever this past season, averaging roughly 378,000 viewers. It also ranked it the best full NHL regular season on cable since 1993‑94. So a great season for the NHL on NBCSN, also NBC games were up, so obviously the combination of NBC and NBCSN were up as well from last year.
But now let’s go to our speakers and take some opening statements. First from Sam Flood our executive producer.
SAM FLOOD: Well, the NBC hockey team is ready to roll. We’ve got people spread out around the country ready for this opening night and opening round of the playoffs. Some exciting matchups, some brackets that create interesting matchups early and potentially fascinating matchups in the Conference Finals. So it will be fun to see how it all plays out.
Nothing like playoff hockey. As we all know it adds a whole other dimension to the game of hockey when Game 7s are involved and overtimes and it can go on and on into the night. Our group is ready with Red Bull and coffee to stay into the wee hours of the morning, because I know Mr. Milbury particularly likes a triple overtime game in his 10:30 window in L.A.
So I’ll pass the buck to Mr. Milbury with that thought.
MIKE MILBURY: Thanks, Sam, yeah, I can’t wait for the triple overtime games, in the second half of a double header. One of the things that’s interesting about this postseason as they always are, there are so many injuries. There are so many things we don’t know about. And with this recent upper body, lower body kind of talk, we don’t know how to measure a lot of what could be serious minuses to certain lineups. So that is obviously something we’re going to keep our eyes on.
But in the East, the question is – is this Washington’s year? I think I’ve said it before – they’re the deepest I’ve ever seen them. I think the one‑two center punch of Backstrom and Kuznetsov is as offensively dynamic as any in the league. Their defense is deeper. Their goaltender tied a record for most wins in a regular season. And yet still there is that seed of doubt that seems to reside in Washington that they might not be able to do it. But I think they’re the team to watch. And can’t underestimate the talent level of Florida.
But the Johnny‑come‑lately has been the Pittsburgh Penguins who showed a remarkable turnaround in the middle of the season, and reimaged themselves into what we thought they would be, which is a quick‑skating, offensively‑gifted team that possesses the puck a lot. Obviously, Sidney Crosby spearheaded that sort of changeover. It’s been fun to watch. Nobody should underestimate them.
In the West, good luck figuring this one out. Chicago stumbles to the finish line, but we’ve all season them stumble, dust themselves off, and get back in it. Anaheim, talk about a stumble. They looked like they crumbled coming out of the gate, and then turned around to finish first in their division. St. Louis is better than they’ve ever been. San Jose is not really on the major radar screen, but had a remarkable year. In many ways Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, that old guard in San Jose, might have as good a chance as they’ve had in a while to be a real player in this thing at the end of the day. So lots of stories in the Western Conference. Pick a favorite, your guess is probably as good as mine, but it’s going to be fascinating to watch them unfold.
JEREMY ROENICK: I totally agree with everything Mike just said, and I think with as great as the National Hockey League is right now in talent and what Sam said also, it’s the greatest time of year, and it’s the greatest playoffs in all of sports, the excitement level. And I think a lot of the excitement level is the amount of superstars that we’re going to see in this year’s playoffs.
We have six teams in what we’d call the Sunbelt, three in California, one in Dallas and two in Florida, having the Florida Panthers in really helps the National Hockey League with its exposure, with Jaromir Jagr back in the playoffs, which is I think is going to be really interesting to watch.
Myself, watching that Chicago‑St. Louis series is going to be awesome. I remember how crazy and how brutal and how competitive those two teams dislike each other and the intensity that goes on within the locker rooms and on the ice through that series. It will be interesting to see if St. Louis can get over that Chicago Blackhawk kind of jinx that they’ve had over them. A lot of people think it’s their year.
But St. Louis, and like what Mike said, Washington, they have to do it in the playoffs and it will be interesting to see how that pressure that’s mounted on them and has continued to mount all year leading up to this how they’ll be able to cope with that.
But all in all, watching Patrick Kane get a hundred points this year, coming into the playoffs, seeing if they can repeat. This is going to be a lot of fun. he matchups are fantastic. There is going to be some really close, close series, and I would not be surprised if there was an early upset in this first round, whether it’s St. Louis upsetting Chicago, or Chicago upsetting St. Louis, or San Jose finding a way to beat Los Angeles. They did beat them in the season series, so it’s going to be very intriguing.
All in all, I can’t wait. It’s going to be great. We’re in the studio all prepared for it, and I’m sure we’re going to give everybody a good show in the studio as well as NHL’s going to give us a good show on the ice.
Jeremy, I’m working on a piece, we’re talking about the Chicago Blackhawks and what they’ve done, but I’m looking at Artemi Panarin, and whether you think as a former player that a 24‑year‑old with six years, five years of NHL experience should be a contender for Rookie of the Year?
JEREMY ROENICK: Well, if you remember my rookie year with Mike Modano, we both lost out to the Rookie of the Year to Sergei Makarov, and that’s when they actually changed the rules to have the age limit reduced. Now Panarin is still coming over to the best league in the world. He’s still coming to a new country. He’s still having to deal with the different hardships that you do living in a country when you don’t speak the language.
Yes, his talents are a little bit more advanced because of the KHL, but still, he is a rookie. Still he has to do a lot to have to get over the style of play, the physicality of the play. Yes, he’s had Patrick Kane with him to help him along the way, but, yeah, I think still 24 years old, he definitely should be in there, and I don’t think anybody will beat him. He’s just been as dynamic as any player, especially any rookie player in the National Hockey League. I have no problem with it.
Jeremy and Mike, Alex Ovechkin is having a difficult season getting to 50 goals. How important is a long playoff run for him in terms of his legacy, career and accomplishments and how we all kind of judge him?
JEREMY ROENICK: I think it’s huge for him, and I know I’ve talked to him that he is 100% concentrating on his playoff run. Get him his run to a 50‑goal season again was absolutely masterful. But what he’s done with his overall game in turning himself into a more all-around game, defensive player, more responsible, a guy who is accepted maybe at times last minute, but plays as a captain. I think it’s now time for him to see what his legacy is going to be if he can win a Stanley Cup. I think that’s the last thing on his radar right now, and that’s what he’s told me. I’m sure that he’s going on thinking that this is his best opportunity and I would expect Alex Ovechkin to be flying starting the first game.
As a coach, does he look more like a mature player than he did early in his career?
MIKE MILBURY: He looks like a player that’s expanded his game a bit. Do I think he’s dramatically different? No. Do I think he’s a defensive specialist? No. He just happens to possess the ability to do what is the object of the game, that is score goals better than anybody that’s presently in it. And in that, there is great value.
The great thing for Ovechkin this time around is he’s got a posse. There is a good goaltender, there is a depth of defenseman, there is a premium defenseman in Carlson. There is a one‑two punch down the middle. They have some toughness. They brought in some experience with Oshie, and particularly Williams who has been able to find ways to win the Cup. And it was said best, we’ll know about this team once we get to the playoffs. Regardless of the fact that Barry Trotz has not gone deep into the playoffs. He was in a whole different scenario in Nashville.
I think this guy has the experience and looks like he has the demeanor to handle the pressures of a playoff run. I think I’ll be surprised if they don’t get past the second round.
Jeremy and Mike, just your thoughts on who you lean toward in the Panthers‑Islanders series, and how far you could envision this Panther team going realistically?
MIKE MILBURY: The Islanders still have some injuries that I mentioned off the top here. I don’t know which hands will be on deck. I think based on what I’ve seen that could leave them vulnerable. I know Florida has at least one significant injury, but they have, I think enough depth offensively to handle it. I think their goaltender has been solid, experienced, has been in big games before.
I think this is a team that’s ready to make a statement. I would give the edge to the Florida Panthers. I think it’s their time, and with the Islanders not being quite 100%, I think they need to take advantage of it. I don’t think it will be easy…the Islanders have always been a tough out. And with a player of Tavares’ caliber and physicality to the game, they’re going to make it difficult on anybody. But I give the edge to Florida.
JEREMY ROENICK: I agree. Without question, their talent in Florida is immense. Their goal scoring ability is great. Their defense is so strong. I agree the goaltender in Luongo has played extremely well. The one thing I question with Florida is their youth and the lack of playoff experience with some of the young guys.
We all know come playoff time when the intensity ramps up, physicality ramps up, the speed amps up, how these guys are going to manage that early, and how quickly they can adjust to that. I think especially when you’re playing the Islanders who have a very keen way of playing fast hockey, in‑your‑face hockey. Coach Capuano really energizes them properly.
The Islanders have to make sure they get some secondary scoring. If guys like Brock Nelson don’t show up on the scoreboard, it’s going to be hard for them to win, especially with the goaltender issues. But I give Florida definitely the heads up here.
If I could get your response to how the Red Wings are playing right now, and their chances against a Tampa team that’s a little banged up?
MIKE MILBURY: If you’re a Detroit supporter, you can’t be happy with the way they finished the season. They were spanked in Boston, and they were sort of embarrassed, I think in New York. It was a game that demonstrated that even a depleted New York Ranger lineup could handle the Detroit Red Wings. They’re not on fire by any stretch of the imagination. Their goaltending has been all of a sudden suspect. First it was Howard and then Mrazek as the number one goaltender, and then they’re fine, and now there are some issues.
I don’t know if Kronwall is a hundred percent. He hasn’t been quite as good since he came back from injury. Datsyuk, the rumors about his pending possible retirement or switch to the KHL has to be a little bit unsettling in Detroit.
Having said all that, they have great team speed. Their power play has recently, anyway, mostly been pretty effective. Had a pretty good streak of power‑play goals in consecutive games. If they can put it together in a timely fashion, they can be okay. Let’s not forget that the opponent that they face in the first round is as dinged up as you can possibly be.
So Detroit has an opportunity to find their game, take advantage of a weakened opponent, and find themselves in the second round.
JEREMY ROENICK: This is a tough one for me. I agree with Michael. I think with Stamkos out, Stralman out, those are two huge holes on offense, defense, that you can’t replace. The one thing that Tampa has going for them is their goaltender. Ben Bishop was up in the top goaltenders all year in terms of stats and his play. But Detroit got lucky. They backed into the playoffs. They kept their streak alive. I would have to think in that locker room there is a little bit of sense of release that they are there. I think with release comes a little bit of I think a better thinking mentality. They might go out there thinking they’re the underdogs, and being that underdog and having that, I think that burn of them losing last year the way that they did to Tampa, I wouldn’t be surprised if Detroit comes out flying. They use that speed that Mike just talked about to upset Tampa. I think it’s the best opportunity for them to beat them because of the injuries.
But they have to, have to figure out their goaltending situation, and hopefully get one of these guys to wake up and put a consistent run of games together for Detroit.
MIKE MILBURY: I find it an interesting match‑up because there are two teams that are sort of wounded ducks here, yet they get an opportunity to play another wounded duck and perhaps get their game together or get somebody healthy and get into that second round and see what they can do. Either way, I don’t think either team could be unhappy with the draw that they have. Because right now these two teams are vulnerable.
Thank you for doing this today. Obviously Martin Jones had a really good year, and the Sharks have a really good back‑up in Reimer. Just curious, how long do you think Jones’ leash is if he happens to struggle a little bit early in the series against the Kings?
JEREMY ROENICK: I truly believe that getting Reimer has really pushed Martin Jones a little bit to be as consistent as he possibly can. Reimer’s come in, three shutouts. They’ve finished the season for him. It’s really, I think, put another stamp on how much better San Jose has gotten this year. I think Pete DeBoer has done an amazing job piecing together the right players. Getting the young guys to buy into a system, and to get them playing with confidence.
Joe Thornton looks as good as I can remember him playing with Joe Pavelski being that new leader. I think they are so deep from lines one through four, and we haven’t seen this with the San Jose Sharks. But Martin Jones is a guy that I think is ready for that new challenge. He has been a back‑up goaltender. This is the first year that he’s had that starting job, and this is the first real test of where his career’s going to go. He’s a great goaltender. He’s capable of doing the job, but I think everybody’s going to be waiting to see how Jones reacts and how he plays early in this series, because he’s playing against a team that’s going to temper him offensively in the Kings. Plus he’s playing his old mate that he used to be behind in Jonathan Quick. I can see him wanting to get the best of the guy that he stood behind and sat behind for a while.
MIKE MILBURY: San Jose, we talked about them for many years. You can’t deny it. Marleau and Thornton are not getting any younger, and the window, whether it’s closed this year or say it’s closed next year, it’s closing, at least with these guys. Pivotal roles on their team. So they need to as a group put it together early against a really tough opponent because Jones is not a proven playoff commodity, I would think that the leash would rather be short than long since the move to San Jose has proven to be very beneficial to Reimer. It seems to breathe life into his ‑‑ who wouldn’t feel a little bit up lifted after being under the scrutiny of the media in Toronto when your team is wallowing at the end and you’re near the bottom of the pack?
So he’s got a new lease on life, and his ability to be there and play well in front of a group that needs to take advantage of this open window puts him in a position to step in. But I think Jones is going to have to stumble noticeably in order to see that happen.
Sam, a lot has been made of no Canadian teams being in and the impact that may have on ratings and all that. But on the production end, you’ve got Sharks, Blackhawks, Capitals and Flyers. Those are four teams in the playoffs with Comcast, RSN ties and they’re in the NBC Sports Regional Sports Network group. From the production end, what ways can that help you tackle this big first round where there are so many games you have to produce?
SAM FLOOD: Well, it’s great for us, because it’s one production philosophy and production team from the broadcast network games to the CSN games to the RSNs, we have the same goal in showcasing hockey in the best way possible. So the regionals will be covering some of the games in the first round of the playoffs for us. So we’ll be taking the city of Philadelphia for some of the games. We’re not taking Chicago and St. Louis night one, but we are for Game 2 of that series. And we’ll do the San Jose series. Just about all the games will be produced by that group out there, and we’ve been doing this all year It’s part of the new big family and the NBC Sports Group that’s all working as one for the common goal.
First on the chances of the Philadelphia Flyers against the Capitals, especially if they could steal a game in Washington and plant that seed of doubt in the Capitals?
JEREMY ROENICK: Well, I think one thing for Philly, I think the run that they’ve been on to get there has been extremely punishing and exhausting. For them to be in it is a tremendous ‑‑ I think it’s been a tremendous aspect and lift in Philadelphia. There is no pressure right now in the Philadelphia Flyers. They’re playing against a team that everybody is expecting to beat them, the Washington Capitals have run through the regular season and have made it look relatively easy.
Everybody is not ‑‑ I don’t think there is anybody that thinks that Philly will win outside of Philadelphia. So for them to come out and play as loose and driving and try to be that spoiler sometimes can be in their benefit. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but if there is a team that has shown that they can beat Washington and they can beat some of these big teams, the Philadelphia Flyers are a team because of the way they’ve made the playoffs with beating some big teams on the road and going on the stretch that they have. Leads you to believe that if they can steal one out of Washington, their belief will get stronger, they’ll get more physical, and the harder that Washington will have to play to win.
To see how Washington deals with the pressure of having to go through a team that everybody’s expecting them to win in the first round knockout would be as embarrassing as probably ever in the history of the Washington Capitals. So there are a lot of intangibles that go on there. But I still think Washington, you have to give them the heavy, heavy favorite in this.
MIKE MILBURY: I preface my statement with our watching and covering the game between Philadelphia and Washington not so long ago, which was one of the best games that we had on, I think, all season long, that Philadelphia managed to win in a nail biter. Even though Washington didn’t have anything at stake, they still seemed to be committed, so that would give them some hope.
But there is no chance for Philadelphia to beat Washington unless they can get more than just from one line. That means Jake Voracek has to wake up. I don’t know what’s happened to him since he was injured. I don’t know if his injury is still bothering him. We can never get those answers until, sometimes not even until the season’s over, but he’s not the player that they expect him to be. And a one‑trick pony doesn’t often win the blue ribbon in this particular contest.
JEREMY ROENICK: Yeah, to increase on that, Mike, I think they’re playing with one goaltender. And they’ve played with Steve Mason to get there, and they have relied heavily on putting a lot of minutes on him. I don’t know how tired Mason is going to be. I don’t know his physical condition right now, whether he has bumps and bruises. But if he happens to not play well and they have no option of who to put in because Emery has not been around all year.
MIKE MILBURY: Neuvirth played a little at the end.
JEREMY ROENICK: Yeah, Neuvirth is back, but you don’t know whether he’s feeling good enough yet. He was supposed to be out for a month and a half, two months with a knee, and then next thing you know, he’s back on the bench. I think that sends up a lot of red flags for a lot of people and players. Yes, he’s played well, but is he capable of coming in and playing well enough with his physical injuries that he’s had? So in goal to me Flyers are relying on a guy that’s played a lot of minutes lately.
My second question is do you think the Rangers have one more long playoff run in them?
MIKE MILBURY: No.
Okay. All right. Why is that?
MIKE MILBURY: Well, I don’t like their match‑up. They’re up against a spunky, confident, all of a sudden swashbuckling type of group. McDonagh’s absence is not to be underestimated. I think that they are vulnerable on the blue line. Without them, I don’t know where Girardi is in all this stuff. Last I looked at him, he looked like he was in lala‑land. I don’t know if he’ll come around to recover. We won’t know any of these health issues until they actually drop the puck.
But I think they are without their captain and their biggest minute man in McDonagh against a team that seems to like to just wind it up and go like crazy, and it’s really fun to watch. They have their questions too. I mean, I don’t know where Fleury is, I don’t know where Malkin is, but this guy Crosby had a hell of a run at the end of the year. And it seems like his foot soldiers followed closely behind him.
It will be an interesting series. But I asked the same thing about the team from Pittsburgh that are going to be up tough for the Rangers to handle.
I’m following up on the Red Wings topic you were discussing earlier, specifically about Jimmy Howard. Now we’re assuming that he’s a number one guy going into the playoffs. That’s an assumption, but that’s what we think. Can you break down his season a little bit more for us?
MIKE MILBURY: Well, I don’t know. Tale of two cities, I guess. This has been one of those situations, we’ve had several of them throughout the league, for example in St. Louis as to who is the number one goaltender? First we thought it would be maybe Mrazek last year, then Howard reemerges, and then stumbles, Mrazek comes in, and he stumbles.
I don’t know where his head is at, he wasn’t overwhelming at the end of the year. There were moments I thought he was soft. He can be a terrific goaltender. It’s a big question mark for Detroit. The goaltending, which was not supposed to be a question mark, now is. Only the playing of the game is going to answer that. But he got knocked out of the box in Detroit against Detroit. Not going to point the finger all at him, but he did get knocked out of the box. While he wasn’t really gravely at fault in the finale, they weren’t able to win it.
So I think throughout the locker room and in the goaltending position in particular, there are seeds of doubt, and that’s never a good thing heading into the playoffs.
JEREMY ROENICK: I totally agree. I’ll even go to the fact to the point to see that I wouldn’t trust Mrazek right now. With the amount of games that he’s been pulled here in the last two months and the way that Jimmy Howard did play when he came in and really won some big hockey games for Detroit and kept them in a lot of games, the experience of Jimmy Howard will help.
But if I were the Detroit Red Wings and I was a player, I’d be very nervous and interested to see how my goaltender plays night‑in, night‑out. If they see that Jimmy Howard’s on, this team’s a lot more dangerous. They take more chances. I think they’re getting more energized. But it’s almost like this team waits to see how their goaltender is going to perform. I don’t – I’m not a big fan of Detroit’s defense. I think they’re big and slow.
Ericsson is slow and big, Smith is slow and big, Quincey’s slow and big. With the speed that Tampa possesses, they could really put a lot of havoc on Detroit’s goaltending. I think that’s the big question mark going into this first series. Everybody’s going to be waiting to see if their goaltender, whoever is in there, I believe it would be Howard, is going to be sharp or not.
Jeremy, you had talked about again the exposure that the league will get with the California teams and the Sunbelt teams at the same time as is mentioned. There aren’t any Canadian teams in the mix this year. What’s that do to the tradition of the league and at the same time, I guess, not playing north of the border is a good thing for Nielsen ratings?
JEREMY ROENICK: Well, I think Sam can talk a little more about ratings and teams that are in the playoffs. I’ll stay out of that. But I know as a hockey fan, it’s never nice or great seeing Canadians out of the playoffs. It’s, as they say, they claim it to be a Canadian’s game. They’re passionate about it up there. I’m sure there is a lot of mourning across Canada that there are no Canadian teams vying for the Cup this year.
But I think it shows how strong the National Hockey League is and the parity in the National Hockey League that you can have a team like Florida win the Atlantic division and play as well as they have. Anaheim has really rebounded from some of the awful starts. The L.A. Kings remain strong. But Dallas, how Dallas has come on this year and really was one of the surprise teams to me all year being able to still keep that high potent offense, and making some of the additions of Sharp and Oduya and bringing them in to help with the goaltending situation there in Dallas.
I think Lindy Ruff has done an amazing job with this team. You have to watch out for this team in Dallas. It’s just a compliment to the National Hockey League and how great the players are and the parity. Especially in a cap driven system that’s made teams a lot more competitive.
MIKE MILBURY: Not a good year for Canada. No Canadian teams in the playoffs, always down about 35%. Not too many happy people there. But there are some great teams there. They’ll bounce back. In the meantime nobody’s saying it here, but it’s probably better for us for ratings
SAM FLOOD: The most important thing is the length of the series. The more six and seven game series, the more people watch. That’s more important. If we get a bunch of four and outs, we’d rather have Canadian teams in. All we care about is length of series. The longer the better, and we like the alternate teams to win. So the odd games won by one team, the even games won by the other, and then game 7 have at it, go to at least one overtime and we’ll be happy.