NHL conference previews and MVP watch

Dustin BrownNow that we are down to the Final Four, lets take a look at which players are likely to take the Conn Smythe trophy home if their team lifts the Stanley Cup. Here are the front runners from each of the remaining teams, as well as a prediction for who will be playing for the right to be named the NHL’s best for 2012.

– Dustin Brown, Los Angeles Kings

Jonathan Quick has been spectacular as well, but no one has been as valuable to the King’s Cinderella run than the Captain. Brown went into this playoff as maybe one of the most underrated players in hockey, but he certainly no longer is. He has 7 goals and 6 assists, good for 13 points in only 11 games and is a sparking +11. Brown has always been a tough player willing to do the dirty work to help his team and can score, but not like this. And not only is he scoring, he is scoring when it matters as 3 of his goals are game winners, best in the playoffs. On a team that had issues scoring in the regular season, Brown has been invaluable to the success of the LA Kings.

– David Clarkson, New Jersey Devils

The Devils have no clear favorite for the playoff MVP as their top guns all are pretty much equal in points and Broudeur has had a few dud games. Clarkson though is the type of grinder that thrives in the playoffs and has been important to the successful defensive performance that stopped the Flyers offensive assault. Clarkson has only scored twice, but both are GWG.

– Brad Richards, New York Rangers

It’s not often that a big off season signing earns his paycheck. It’s far less often that he deserves more, and give his performance so far Richards might. Richards was by far the best player in the Rangers second round victory over the Washington Capitals as his line was the only one to really get anything going versus the stout Capitals defense. He he also has lived up to his clutch reputation as he was involved in the 3 most important goals of the series. He set up Gaborik for the Game 3 triple OT winner, scored the miracle goal in Game 5 and scored the early goal in Game 7 that the Caps never recovered from. Lundqvist has been good, but Richards has been clutch.

– Mike Smith, Phoenix Coyotes

Others have been good for the Yotes, but none have been as valuable as the goalie Smith. Smith has faced the most shots in the playoffs thus far despite playing less games than Brodeur and Lundqvist and sports an impressive 1.85 GAA and .948 S%. He was virtually unbearable in the deciding game versus the Hawks and stated slow but finished strong against the Predators. Many could argue the Coyotes do not have the offense that the Hawks or Predators do, yet they are still playing. Chalk that up to Mike Smith.

Predictions for the Conference Finals:

Rangers in 7: The Rangers have not been unbeatable this playoffs and had to fight to get where they are. Nothing wrong with that, but an experienced Devils squad will give them some trouble. The no name defense with the Hall of Famer goalie have been great and the Rangers will have to fight to get back to the Finals for the 1st time since 1994. But the Rangers, led by Richards and Lundqvist, have put in the work to earn the big goals so far and expect that to continue versus a good, but not quite as talented, Devils team.  Expect another close series for the Blueshirts.

Kings in 6: When you’re on, you’re on, and the Kings are on. LA found their scoring touch at the right time and have been unstoppable. Many considered the Kings a Cup contender at the beginning of the year, but they could not score. Now they can. Look for the Kopitar/Brown/Williams line to continue to wreck havoc on the Yotes and for Quick to continue his Vezina like performance he has put on all year. The Coyotes will catch a break here and there and make this interesting as it is unlikely the Kings stay this hot, but look for an LA-NY Final.

Matt Ragghianti is an NHL writer for The Sports Blitz Network and can be contacted at MRagghianti@TheSportsBlitz.com

Can Mike Smith save the Phoenix Coyotes?

Mike SmithOn the heels of beating the popular dark horse pick Chicago Blackhawks, the Phoenix Coyotes currently hold a 2-0 series lead over the heavily favored Nashville Predators. Leading the charge has been former Tampa Bay castoff Mike Smith, whose 2.03 GAA and 9.42 S% through 8 games ranks in the top 5 among all goalies. Offensively, Mikkel Bodeker has not one but two game winning overtime goals and deadline acquisition Antoine Vermette leads the way in points with 8 in 8 games. In addition, defenseman Keith Yandle leads all defensemen in points with 7 and Shane Doan is the feel good story of the playoffs. The arena is finally full and experts and fans alike are starting to take notice of the hockey team in the desert. But one person has yet to really notice what the Yotes are doing; the owner. That’s because, the Phoenix Coyotes, the Pacific Division Champions, have no owner.

The Phoenix Coyotes began as the Winnipeg Jets until their relocation to Phoenix (and then Glendale) in 1996 in the NHL’s attempt to widen their reach beyond traditional hockey markets. The Coyotes tried to make a splash early in their history by signing the likes of Jeremy Roenick, Keith Tkachuk, and future Hall of Famer Mike Gartner, which resulted in excitement and regular season success, but never equated to success in April. After just barely losing to the St Louis Blues in the first round in 1999, the Coyotes went one for nine when it came to making the postseason and suffered through the NHL lockout in a non-traditional market. The lack of success coupled with a year off devastated the franchise as attendance plummeted. Even the hiring of “the Great One” Wayne Gretzky and the construction of a new arena in 2002 could not reinvigorate a beaten fan base and in 2009 the team filed for bankruptcy. But, 2009 also marked the turnaround for the Yotes as GM Don Maloney, Head Coach Dave Tippett, and longtime Jet and Coyotes Shane Doan led the Coyotes to their first playoff appearance since 2002. That success has continued to today as the Coyotes won their first ever playoff series against Chicago last week and look to put the stranglehold on Nashville Wednesday night. Yet they still do not have an owner or a stable home.

So, can the heroics of Mike Smith and the leadership of Shane Doan save the Coyotes? Unless the NHL decides to contract the league, the franchise itself will live on. The question is where and under whose leadership? The NHL is stuck in a hard spot, as they want to continue to broaden the leagues appeal in the South, but also want to make money. Currently, the Yotes rank dead last in the league in attendance and have been either last or second to last the past three seasons, despite regular season success. Meanwhile, the focus of the league in 2012 is much different than it was in 1996. In 1996 the NHL was riding the Gretzky in LA wave to an expanded market that included teams like Phoenix, Nashville, and Carolina. But, with the leagues declining revenue and viewership following the lockout, the focus has shifted from spreading the brand to making sure the brand survives.

And that means more money, which means Canada. And unfortunately for the few diehard Coyote fans, the test run for the NHL has not gone in their favor, as the relocated Atlanta Thrashers have sold out every home game since their move to Winnipeg. And the Jets were not even that good. Imagine how successful a good team would be in a place like Hamilton (where they almost moved until the NHL claimed that bankruptcy was not a reason to circumvent league rules and move the team) or Quebec. But, due likely to their recent success, the NHL is giving the Coyotes every chance to continue to call Jobing.com Arena home. The Yotes were almost bought in 2010, but the deal with the league fell apart and the city of Glendale had to cover the teams loses in 2010 season to keep them in town, which they did again this past season. Every effort to sell the team and keep them in Phoenix has fallen apart and it has reached the point that unless Glendale continues to support the team, the only financially responsible move is to relocate to Canada. And you can bet the taxpayers in Arizona are getting tired of footing the bill and any new owner at this point has to see what the Jets have done and move the team. Success has simply not improved the profit or the attendance. Mike Smith, Keith Yandle, and Canadian Olympic star Shane Doan would be loved in Canada, whereas they are only supported in Glendale in the playoffs.

So can Mike Smith save the Coyotes? If he wins the Stanley Cup for them one would assume someone would step up and keep the team in Phoenix. But that still might not be the best option. The best thing for the success of the franchise and the league as a whole is to relocate to Canada, even if Mike Smith delivers the Cup to Glendale.