Sunday, September 3rd
#NSHLFriedge on the Playoffs & Looming Expansion
Wow. What a few weeks it has been. Playoffs. An MSHL final that was the Battle of the Unlikely. The Islanders and Seguin. The End and Start of the Sousa Era. The Kings and Jets are 19 and 20. Lots to cover, let's get started.
The MSHL playoffs were quite a bit of a surprise for many as the Wolfpack and Mallards took on the "Minnesota North Stars" approach of getting hot at the right time and taking out the favoured competition. As some of the worst MSHL teams last year, both Finalists turned zeroes into heroes and came out ahead (with the Wolfpack coming out slightly more ahead than the Mallards).
What does this mean for the MSHL going forward?
I was asked on Twitter whether or not I thought more teams would take a "one and done" approach to the MSHL. Not to say that's what either of these clubs did, but more to the point that they quickly turned it around in less than a year.
To answer the question: Yes - but not for the reason you'd think.
The league's Board of Directors have eliminated the Pro IIHF contract and are restricting any international players to MSHL only duty. Sounds great, I'm all for it. Let North American talent compete at the elite level and open the door for vets to stick around or for young kids to break through.
With an influx of IIHF talent (see Vezina candidate Jonas Hiller), the MSHL is about to get a production boost. IIHF deals are one year deals and one year deals only with no rights going forward. Any team that thinks an Ilya Kovalchuk on a one year deal would improve their club into immediate competitiveness (he would), can sign him, pay him the big bucks and buy a top line winger to complement their young up and comers.
One GM told me he expects the MSHL IIHF UFA market to be as fierce and competitive as any other part of free agency this off-season. "Hiller, Kovalchuk, Bouchard, Brunner... all top quality players that could turn any team into the MSHL17 version of the Wolfpack or the Mallards."
Speaking of the MSHL: would you look at how quickly a player like Tyson Barrie can go from "MSHL stud" to helping his team reach the Stanley Cup Finals. Fair, he had a lot of help, but the Detroit Red Wings made an improbable run of their own this year and their wealth of MSHL talent played a big part.
With that being said, the Grand Rapids Griffins were an odds on favourite right through the playoffs too. Nino Niederreiter has grown up in the MSHL and will soon graduate to NSHL game where he'll no doubt excel. The Red Wings - Griffins culture seems to defy the "future one and done" MSHL point I made earlier. I guess in truth the direction and speed of travel all depends whose driving the truck and how fast they want to get there.
That brings me to the New York Islanders. The Islanders turned Cleveland Barons turned Washington Capitals turned New York Islanders again. Before the current group was in place the franchise had best been known for only three things: the elite Mike Comrie era, being incredibly cheap and being incredibly MIA. Oh how times have changed.
The Tim Tan era is upon us and his moves have already brought the team a title. True, many of the pieces were inherited, but the addition of Taylor Hall cannot be overlooked. The team is no longer the "autopilot" champion and all things considered, no one would be the least bit surprised if they were back in the finals next year.
"It may be getting tougher for a team like the Islanders..." an anonymous GM told me. "The Sabres relocation to Pittsburgh puts them both in the East. The Sabres franchise is up and coming if you look at the recent regular season successes of their affiliate in Rochester. They've got some talent that may interest an Expansion club too, to be honest. Interesting decisions ahead for the reigning champs."
Moving on to the Expansion teams..
The league has been aware of the Panthers' removal and rebirth for some time, but the Predators' decision had only happened in recent weeks. Two teams out. Two teams in. Easy, right?
GM Sousa's personal relocation overseas made him unreachable and therefore inactive for months. The decision originally to remove him wasn't easy and set to take apart one of the best top to bottom clubs the NSHL has seen. But for the Commissioner and the Board, inactivity is inactivity.
Then, after curfew, a plea came from GM Sousa to return to the league and restore himself as the league's 20th GM - only a couple of years removed from NSHL and MSHL titles. What a bind.
My sources tell me the league was in talks with a couple of people to fill the role when Sousa's request came through. Going on the credibility built through the years, Sousa was awarded the second Expansion franchise - losing what he built as a punishment for inactivity and zero communication.
I asked the Commissioner for his comment on my findings above. His response?
"Look. Anyone can have stuff in their life take over and the NSHL becomes an afterthought. I get it. But it's helpful to know the interest is there to return. The communication lines are open, send a message. We sort out lines and rosters for busy GMs all the time. We lost communication here and made plans to expand that impacted every GM. We were too far along to back up."
Now that GM Sousa is back officially, I'm hearing reports he has already sent feelers out to existing GMs about making a deal to protect their studs from the Expansion Draft. The difficulty he has is he cannot guarantee his Expansion rival in Los Angeles won't take what he agrees to pass on.
According to those in the Sousa / Jets camp, regardless who wins the coin toss on Sunday, the Jets will be taking two former Predators with their only Dispersal Draft picks.
As for the "real" new guy? All is mum. As a referral of Ducks GM Andy the expectation is that GM Tower will not take a "slow and steady" approach to building and will come out guns a-blazing.
Related note: GM Andy tells me the new guy in Los Angeles is the "Hamm of the West" - can't wait to cover his press conferences, let me tell you.
Ok, so we have two new teams entering the fray, there's bound to be some gossip on the trade front, right?
Surprisingly, there's not much that I'm aware of. I do know there's a Red Wings - Lighting now Tigers deal involving goaltender Matt Murray that will likely light a fire. The Tigers will be holding onto an unconfirmed asset for the Red Wings until after the Expansion Draft and will be rewarded for it.
Look for a number of teams to consider this approach, although I doubt many pull it off. Protecting 11 players is definitely more than enough with rookies and prospects exempt.
In a typical situation that's 1 goalie and then the first two lines of forwards and top two pairs of defenders. Teams can stray from that approach obviously, but few need the extra protection given the abundance of up and coming youth in the league.
Finally, I wanted to ask the Commissioner what his plans were for expansion down the line if this goes well. Given that a number of GMs were apparently lining up to take on the 20th team before Johnny Sousa was re-hired. His thoughts were pretty clear: "20 is good. We've got a solid group here. The contraction will help with financial stability of the 18, then the two new teams get a fresh slate. 20 active teams is perfect. We need to build up player depth, specifically goalies. Get them wanting to play I the MSHL and NSHL instead of overseas - then we're golden."
Summer's winding down and the offseason approaches. I suspect you'll hear more from me in the next little bit. It's bound to be hectic. Enjoy!