NBC SPORTS GROUP 2015 NHL STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF CONFERENCE CALL
APRIL 14, 2015
CHRIS MCCLOSKEY: Thank you very much, and welcome, everyone, to our Stanley Cup Playoff conference call today.
For the fourth year in a row, we’ll be televising every game nationally. This year it’s across NBC, NBCSN, NHL Network, CNBC, and the new addition this year is USA Network who will be taking some games on Tuesday and Wednesday nights for the first two rounds.
In a few moments we’ll be joined by our primary NHL game team of Mike “Doc” Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, and Pierre McGuire.
Eddie has had a little bit of a flight delay, so he will probably be calling in at some point in the middle of this call. We apologize if that’s an inconvenience for anyone. We also have our executive producer of NBC and NBCSN, Sam Flood, joining us.
We’ll start with an opening remark from Sam Flood.
SAM FLOOD: Thank you all for joining us. We love the playoffs. No better time of the year when overtimes can go until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., and excitement just reigns supreme this time of the year.
We are thrilled to get started. What’s neat this year is for the first time ever we’re going to have two games on NBC in primetime in the first round. That’s how excited we are. We’re pushing up the primetime windows early. And the way the schedule works, we could have as many as eight primetime windows on NBC, which is, again, a great way to expose the greatest game.
And the greatest play‑by‑play guy to ever do the NHL is on the call, and I’ll pass it to the great “Doc” Emrick.
MIKE “DOC” EMRICK: Thanks a lot. We had a game last Thursday in Calgary and Los Angeles lost, so now we’re going to get our 16th new champion. I think any of you who are listening who are over 25, maybe over 30 will remember at least one of the elite powerhouses and the multiple appearances in the Finals for these teams before we hit this last 16 years. It was Montreal and Detroit in the ’50s, and then Toronto chimed in, and then Montreal again. And in the ’70s, Boston and Philly, and Montreal again, and Pittsburgh and the Red Wings in the next decade, and then the annual change in parade routes that we have now.
And I would say that within the ranks of you listening, and Pierre and I are probably disagreeing on this too, there are a number of Stanley Cup winners in your mind, and there seems to be no clear choice, and that’s what makes these next eight weeks so exciting. We get to be in every arena for every game on one channel or another for the fourth straight year, and that is exciting too.
And in one of those arenas, but in multiple arenas during the first round, including working with me in New York, but also in Washington tomorrow for the Islanders is Pierre McGuire.
PIERRE MCGUIRE: It’s so nice to hear from you, Doc, and thank you very much for that pass. I one-timed it high glove. The biggest thing about the playoffs are the story lines and how many great story lines there are. Will Anaheim be able to hold serve against an unbelievable good story in Winnipeg having made the first playoffs since they moved from Atlanta to Winnipeg? What about the Chicago Blackhawks who a lot of people now think have some kind of energy going because of the addition of Patrick Kane? What about the Presidents’ Trophy winners in New York, and the New York Rangers and the greatness that the Rangers presented this year? What about the five Canadian teams that are now in the playoffs for the first time in a long time when you think about Calgary and Ottawa in particular? And the brilliant young players that we’re seeing around the league, whether it be Johnny Gaudreau out in Calgary, or Mark Stone in Ottawa. You look around the league, and it’s Filip Forsberg in Nashville, amazing stories. What about Alexander Ovechkin and the fact that he’s won five Rocket Richard Trophies, three years in a row, and will he be able to stand and deliver with the Washington Capitals?
So many story lines. So many great opportunities for people to watch spectacular hockey. I don’t think anybody can wait.
Pierre and Doc, the Islanders, it seems like a tale of two cities. They had this tremendous first half and a not so tremendous second half. Is there a point in the season where you think something shifted for them February or March? Did it happen somewhere in that second half but in a marked place?
PIERRE MCGUIRE: I think part of it was fatigue for Jaroslav Halak. He wasn’t near as good in the second part of the season as he was in the first part of the season. That’s usually the way he’s played throughout his career.
But I go back to 2010 when he was a goalie for the Montreal Canadiens and he engineered a huge upset over the Washington Capitals and won a Game 5 and Game 7 on the road in Washington to the point where I think the Canadiens were outshot 32‑16 in Game 7, and Halak was just off the charts great.
So I wouldn’t read too much into a second‑half performance.
I think another thing that really hurt the Islanders was the injury to Kyle Okposo. The detached retina really caused some problems.
But there have been some good stories. Because of that, Anders Lee really elevated his game. The young player out of Notre Dame. He did some great things for the Islanders, and the injury down the stretch to Travis Hamonic didn’t help much.
But I think the Islanders will be a formidable opponent. The biggest thing in this series will be will John Tavares be able to overcome the size and physicality of the Washington Capitals? And that is going to be a huge question mark in this series.
MIKE “DOC” EMRICK: Yeah, the marquee has terrific names with the captains on it. And I concur with Pierre about Halak. And there was some discussion about that just yesterday, about whether Halak might have something on the Caps or not, or whether there was a situation where the Caps might have something on him, and Troy Brouwer summed it up better than I did. We know a lot about him, and he knows a lot about us, so let’s see who dominates in this thing.
I think, too, that we really down the home stretch had a lot of teams with the same problem. We wound up being sort of flavor of the month this year in the NHL where there were teams dominant for a while. And that was probably just a reflection of what for some people is a curse word, but I don’t think the league feels that way, is the parity of it all. It’s very hard to sustain an entire season. If you have injuries, for example, Boychuk, if you have significant things going on with your team, the difference between winning a game by a goal and losing by one or two is very small.
That is the reason that teams just went through stretches. Detroit was dominant for a while, and then they weren’t. The Penguins in the fall as well as from Thanksgiving to Christmas were tremendous, then it all tailed off. It’s the same situation with the Islanders and in most cases or injuries I guess it’s just not unusual. The big thing is every post that you hit that caused a loss, and every goal that hits crossbar and went in got you in the playoffs, and showing I have a tremendous grasp of the obvious, everything’s 0‑0 now. So all of that stuff has to be forgotten, and now we just go on from there.
That is, again, the reason this is such an energized time because there haven’t been any mistakes made yet.
Doc and Pierre, how far do you think the Lightning can go and why?
MIKE “DOC” EMRICK: The Lightning can go far. I think because of their goaltending and their attention to offense and their the ability that they have to score a ton of goals is going to ‑‑ in a league where defense and goaltending seem to be predominant right now, I think that’s going to stand them in very good stead.
This is a challenging first‑round series for them. But on the surface it doesn’t appear they are going in without full sails, and the Red Wings are sort of going in without full sails.
I think the one thing too is that the Red Wings have made their choice in goal. It’s Mrazek. They are a little healthier than they were when they suffered so much in that stretch in the latter part of March. And Tampa Bay just hasn’t really faltered much. You can point out maybe a couple of stretches that weren’t so good for them. But I think their powerhouse approach throughout the entire year has been really solid. And I do like Ben Bishop as a goalie.
PIERRE MCGUIRE: What’s interesting about this series is both starting goaltenders, Mrazek and Bishop, have yet to play in an NHL playoff game. That’s number one. Number two, I love the development of the young players in Tampa, whether it be Tyler Johnson or Nikita Kucherov or Ondrej Palat or even Alex Killorn, and now Jonathan Drouin.
But the biggest thing to me is will Tampa Bay get some of their injured defensemen back? And how far from a hundred percent will they be? Where will Jason Garrison be? Where will Andrej Sustr be? Is there potential for Braydon Coburn to come back?
You don’t even bother asking about injuries because they’re such a closely guarded secret. But one thing that could present problems for Tampa, and I don’t think it’s a big secret, is Mike Babcock is one of the most creative coaches in the National Hockey League. Coaching matters this time of year. Jon Cooper got swept last year. First time going through the playoffs, he got swept by Montreal. How is he going to react to a coach like Mike Babcock who is going to present all kinds of coaching match‑up problems?
I do like the way Tampa has played this year. I love the way Jon Cooper has presented his message to his team. They respect their opponent. Steve Yzerman is going to have a lot to do with game preparation and the coaching staff.
I think this could be a tremendous series. I really do.
You mentioned the Johnson, Kucherov, and Palat. What makes that line with those three guys a dynamic force?
PIERRE MCGUIRE: Their speed and their puck possession more than anything else. I’ve watched every Tampa game this year, and one of the reasons why is just blown away by Tyler Johnson, especially when he’s healthy, his ability to dominate a smaller man with the puck. Kucherov is a phenomenal finisher as is Palat, but they just seem to feed off one another so well.
The thing to me, one of the guys that’s not getting enough credit down there, Stevie has done a great job as a general manager, but Al Murray has gone in there and they’ve stolen players. These are far from being first‑round picks. These are depth picks in the draft. And Tyler Johnson wasn’t even a draft pick. This goes to show you how thorough their preparation is in Tampa. And it reminds me a lot of Detroit South because there are a lot of the same characteristics in the players in Detroit that you’re seeing with the players in Tampa.
MIKE “DOC” EMRICK: I was ready to call this a short series until I started thinking about the last few games Detroit has played where numbers 13 and 40 seem to have made the most important plays. I think the X‑factor with Detroit is Abdelkader, and if it’s going to ‑‑ if he’s going to have to miss games, then that’s going to affect them largely, I think, in this series because he’s the guy with his chin out. He’s the guy that makes things happen for the other guys out there.
Pierre, are you on board with that too?
PIERRE MCGUIRE: I totally agree. And it’s unfortunate because they made a really slick acquisition at the deadline in Eric Cole, and now it looks like Eric Cole’s career might be in jeopardy. That’s a big loss for them. Because when you have Cole and Abdelkader, that plants a seed of doubt in the defensemen who have to go back and get the puck. I totally concur with Doc.
MIKE “DOC” EMRICK: 262 goals is just awfully hard to ignore.
Pierre and Eddie, if he’s on yet. I’m not sure. Only two of the last ten teams to win the Presidents’ Cup have gone on to win the Stanley Cup. How do you explain that?
PIERRE MCGUIRE: Fatigue in the chase more than anything else. You’re a marquis team so everybody gears up and plays like it’s their Super Bowl every time you come to town. Injuries happen. Parity in the league. I think Doc touched on it brilliantly before in terms of the parity in the league. It’s not a dirty word. It’s a real word and it matters in our league. It’s been going on since 2005 when the salary cap was implemented. We haven’t had expansion in over a decade and a half. So the talent bucket is full around the league.
The difference between the upper‑echelon teams and lower echelon teams is not as great as everybody thinks. We have a thing in our sport that maybe outside of soccer that nobody else has. It’s called a goalie. And goalie is a great equalizer. So I think you can put it into a lot of different contexts.
But I think the biggest thing is every game that these teams play that are upper‑echelon teams, every team that plays against them, it’s like their Super Bowl.
What about the Rangers prospect this year for making it 3 out of 11?
PIERRE MCGUIRE: I think the Rangers are in a pretty good position. One of the reasons why Henrik Lundqvist got hurt in early January and Cam Talbot came in, and that gave Henrik, who is not getting any younger, a little opportunity to rest up, especially after that long run last year where they lost a Game 5 after a long overtime game in Game 5 in Los Angeles in the Stanley Cup Final. I think after the Olympics too, by the way, when they got the silver metal, and Henrik was a big part of that.
I think that injury might have helped the Rangers, not hurt them. Rick Nash is back to playing where Rick Nash needs to be. Their difference between last year and this year too, quite frankly, is the development of two of their young center icemen in Derek Stepan and Brassard, Derick Brassard. Those two guys have improved tremendously from a year ago. Contrary to what the analytics people will tell you, both those players have really significantly improved. And Kevin Hayes out of Boston College was like found money. And Dominic Moore might be one of the best fourth line centers in the league.
So when you put the Rangers on paper, you win with your depth down the middle. They’ve got it down the middle at center, they’ve got it with depths in defense, and they’ve got it in goal. So the Rangers are in a really good spot, I think.
Doc, you saw the Blues lose to Chicago in the first round last year, and you’ve seen them plenty of times this year. Do you believe they’re better suited for the playoffs this year and why?
MIKE “DOC” EMRICK: Yeah, I do. I think a lot of it, and just to quote Ken Hitchcock, because we saw him last Sunday morning, is that they learn to play a new way once they had all of these injuries, and they went through that stretch and that long road trip in March. But he said this is the stretch that’s made the greatest difference in our team going into the playoffs because now we’ve learned to play the old way, which is grinding it out, using the size advantage that they have.
And I think they will against Minnesota. And I think they’re better built for the playoffs now, and they don’t have to play Chicago right away. This time it’s Minnesota, which is not Chicago and it’s not Los Angeles. No soft touch. A lot of wheels moving for Minnesota as they get into the playoffs.
But I concur with what you are posing, that this is a team that is now built and built better than it was a year ago.
Pierre, the Blues have been knocking on the door for a few years now. For lack of a better term, is now the time to put up or shut up?
PIERRE MCGUIRE: I would say yes, I think that’s more than fair. Part of the reason I believe that is because of the additions they’ve made, whether at the trade deadline or in the off‑season. Paul Stastny has been a good addition when it comes to face‑off play. Jori Lehtera has been a fantastic addition. Four years of professional experience in the KHL. He led the Finnish league in scoring before he went to the KHL. Played on a bronze medal‑winning team last year in the Olympics with Finland. He’s been a brilliant addition. Dmitrij Jaskin who had 99 points his last year, a junior, has come in, and Ken Hitchcock ‑‑ he revels to Doc and Eddie and I all the time, Ken Hitchcock does, about Dmitrij Jaskin. He’s been like found money.
This is a dangerous team because they have all these offensive weapons. Tarasenko and Schwartz have had brilliant seasons again this year. So this is a team that you have to grind it out. Now they can not just grind it out, they can score it out too. They’re a very, very dangerous team.
MIKE “DOC” EMRICK: And they don’t have to play Winnipeg in the first round. Winnipeg is kind of, Pierre, like we used to say about Philadelphia, you may beat them, but you aren’t going to be the same as when you started.
PIERRE MCGUIRE: I agree.
Sam, you mentioned the value of the broad audience of those NBC primetime games, also the addition of these USA games. How valuable are they as far as something you might not normally see from these games on a typical playoff night?
SAM FLOOD: I think it’s the power of the peacock to be able to have all these assets that Comcast put together with NBC Universal, to be on these multiple platforms, to touch this USA audience for the first time. As we all know, USA used to be the home of hockey years and years ago. But to be able to touch that audience and get them to get a taste of the NHL, we think that’s a huge advantage for the league and for us.
The way this opening round sets up, the excitement of the draft lotto in the opening Saturday night with Eichel and McDavid available, and we’ll find out what team gets one of these two players on their roster next year, I think that adds more interest to the opening Saturday night of the playoffs. USA coming out of the blocks with two games tomorrow night, a big opportunity.
So I think it all builds to a great opportunity to expose new people, as you said, to this game.
Doc, if you had to choose one or more of the four wildcard teams to shock the field and reach the Stanley Cup Final, who would it be?
MIKE “DOC” EMRICK: Well, you’re probably going to laugh given what has happened in the last two weeks or so and the fact that they’re playing with Presidents’ Trophy winner. Pittsburgh has struck me as a team that we’ve walked in the dressing room and it seems like a different culture. But I’ve gone back 42 years of doing this, and I’ve seen changes in teams that do have potential unused. Over the three‑day period that ends on Sunday, this year Saturday, and resumes on Wednesday, sometimes transformations take place. If they win one of the two games in New York, they might start thinking a little more together than they have been in these games that we’ve seen down the stretch.
Anything is possible with 0‑0. That would be my long shot to be one of the teams to come out of it. But the same token, given the talent base that they have, it would be my favorite among the four that are out there to really shock.
PIERRE MCGUIRE: I’m going to go to the Western Conference and touch on Paul Maurice and the Winnipeg Jets. That building is going to be electrifying for that team. Those people have been starving for playoff hockey ever since the original team left to go to Arizona, and ever since the new team came from Atlanta they’ve thrived as a crowd.
They are one of the most raucous crowds in the National Hockey League. They’re a big team. They’re built for playoff success. The biggest thing that’s going to happen for them and if they’re going to be successful is going to be Ondrej Pavelec who is going to have to stand on his head the way he has over the last five or six games. If he can do that, then potentially they have a chance. But it’s not going to be easy against Anaheim.
But if you would ask me about a wildcard team that could shock, it could potentially be Winnipeg. And the biggest reason why, if they could steal a game like Pittsburgh, going back to Winnipeg, Mike, my goodness gracious, that would be hellacious for the Anaheim Ducks in the first round.
Even though the Rangers reached a Cup Finals a year ago, there seemed to be a bit of surprise for the longest time that they went on to win the Presidents’ Cup this season. Why was that and what turned it around?
MIKE “DOC” EMRICK: Well, I didn’t really see it as a surprise. Honestly, I thought they’d be really good and really strong this year. But, again, you’re talking to somebody that had Boston and Pittsburgh winning the two divisions this year. And we saw how one failed and one didn’t even make it.
But I really thought the Rangers would be my second‑place team in their division. I didn’t think they’d win it. I thought they’d be credible and solid up there. But I didn’t pick them for first overall, that’s for sure. I just really felt like they were a solid team. They had that tremendous run last year, and why wouldn’t they have another tremendous run this year?
And for that matter, when we’re in the fall, we can really only pick as far as the regular season because after the trade deadline, the composition of changes ‑‑ of teams change so radically.
I’m not surprised by the Rangers performance, and I really wasn’t surprised that much by Rick Nash. I knew that he would be a tremendous goal scorer, but surprised me more than this season was last year in the playoffs. I thought that was unusual. But this is his chance to keep going full bore and show us a lot more this year in the playoffs.
PIERRE McGUIRE: I think one of the reasons the Rangers are so improved is, again, their depth down the middle, and the addition of Kevin Hayes as a former first‑round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, they couldn’t get him signed. Hayes and his agents exposed a loophole much like Justin Schultz did, who is now with the Edmonton Oilers. And he moved on from Boston College to play for the Rangers, and that’s really helped solidify their lineup down the middle.
But the other thing is workplace environment that Alain Vigneault and his staff have created there, Scotty Arniel and Ulf Samuelsson, his two assistant coaches, along with Benoit Allaire, the goalie coach, you can see the job Allaire did just by the performance of Cam Talbot.
There are a lot of good story lines with the Rangers, but the biggest thing is team cohesion. It used to be team dysfunction for a long period of time. They are team cohesion. It all starts at the top with Alain Vigneault and the coaching message he’s presented to his players.
MIKE “DOC” EMRICK: Yeah, he’s one of my choices for Coach of the Year.
As a follow‑up, is there anything about Pittsburgh that would concern the Rangers?
PIERRE MCGUIRE: I think so. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Marc‑Andre Fleury, those three things alone would concern you when you play against Pittsburgh. Part of the deal is with Pittsburgh, if Fleury can pull a Ken Dryden from ’71 or Patrick Roy from ’86, and isn’t it interesting that Roy did the damage for Montreal against the Rangers in ’86, yeah, anything can happen, absolutely, because Fleury has been that good this year.
The one problem for Pittsburgh is they’ve had so many decimating injuries on the back end, it’s going to be extremely difficult, I think, for them to keep it together.
MIKE “DOC” EMRICK: Yeah, they did have a lot fewer goals scored than the Rangers did. The other thing too is Pittsburgh’s defense has been really makeshift due to injuries, due to players leaving and going to other teams, and the Rangers are really good at that.
Following up on the Tyler Johnson line a little bit, their emergence this year and the success that they’ve had, what kind of match‑up problems are they going to present with Detroit in trying to slow down one over the other?
PIERRE MCGUIRE: Here’s the dangerous thing, and, Doc, I hate to jump in on this one. The creative coach in Mike Babcock, you’ve got to be really careful. Because you have Tyler that’s really good down the middle. And, yes, Brian Boyle’s defensive impact. And, yes, Steven Stamkos is good down the middle. And, yes, Valtteri Filppula knows how to play against Detroit. But Babcock can split up Zetterberg and Datsyuk, not only great offensive players, but they’re phenomenal defensive players, they really are. And Riley Sheahan is one of the most improved players in the National Hockey League for Detroit.
would be really careful about looking at the match‑ups on paper and saying Tampa’s got an edge here. I’ve watched Mike work. I know who trained him. I know how he’s come around. I’d be careful talking about who is going to dictate the match‑up situation in this one.
MIKE “DOC” EMRICK: Yeah, they have Miller and Glendening that played together too. If you look at the depths of Tampa Bay down the middle, you have to look at what Pierre is pointing out. That goes all the way to the fourth line of Detroit that they’re so skilled defensively, too.
Pierre, you mentioned Jon Cooper in his second year after getting swept last year. Do you notice any difference about him in year two compared to year one so far?
PIERRE MCGUIRE: He’s so much more comfortable in his own skin. I had the privilege of spending time with Jon down the stretch. One of the things that really blew me away is how comfortable he was in every facet of the game. X’s and O’s, communication with his players, delegating authority to his assistants, knowing the strengths and weakness of his team, relationship with his general manager. He’s not looking over his shoulder anymore. He now knows he’s in the National Hockey League, and he’s pretty darn good at what he does. I think his players have fed off that.
The thing I like about his staff more than anything else, you’ve got a man like Rick Bowness who has coached over 2,000 games in the National Hockey League. You have another man like Stevie Thomas who played over a thousand games in the National Hockey League who has been a useful asset when it comes to working with the players. And George Gwozdecky, when he coached at the University of Denver, one of the most revered coaches in the NCAA, with tons of tactical experience in particular. So the thing in Tampa is so strong. I think Jon has done a great job in terms of being comfortable in his own skin delegating, but also having relationships. Jon is a relationship builder, and he’s really good at it.
What playoff match in the Eastern Conference are you guys more intrigued about?
PIERRE MCGUIRE: I’m intrigued by every single one of them. I think every single match‑up the East is unbelievably good and it could be lethal. So there is not one over the other that I’m looking at. I get to work in two of them and maybe more depending on how the schedule works out. But, no, I’m really, really excited about every match‑up in the East.
MIKE “DOC” EMRICK: The two that strike me the most are the ones that involve two captains that are huge names and big scorers in the Islanders and Washington. As well as Pittsburgh and the Rangers just because it’s the Presidents’ Trophy guys against Sid and Geno. And whether this will be the year that Marc‑Andre Fleury remembers about ’08‑’09, because the team itself has failed him in the early exits they’ve had. But he did win a championship. He’s not unproven, and he could make this interesting despite what the odds makers say. It could be interesting if he has one of those remarkable games in New York.