No panic in Detroit, but there's uneasiness in Jersey
Over a 30-hour period this weekend, the New York tristate area lost its two remaining NHL playoff teams. And while there is no shame in going down in the second round, as the Rangers and Devils did, the losses leave both teams with varying levels of uncertainty heading into the offseason.
In Manhattan, the Rangers rode a second-half charge into the playoffs, swept hapless Atlanta and then took the NHL's best regular-season team, Buffalo, to a sixth game in a tightly contested series that featured two overtime games and a boatload of drama. Henrik Lundqvist reaffirmed his position as one of the top young goaltenders in the game and Jaromir Jagr, along with linemate Michael Nylander, was terrific. The pair combined for 24 points in 10 games. But the Rangers lacked enough offensive depth to keep pace with the Sabres and their defensive lineup could probably use a puck-moving defenseman capable of quarterbacking a power play.
The Rangers may look across the river to New Jersey, where the Devils lost to the Senators in five games and failed to advance beyond the second round for the fourth time in the last five playoff seasons (they did manage to win the Stanley Cup in the other season, which counts for something).
The Devils have significantly more questions to answer before next fall rolls around, not the least of which will be deciding what to do about the possible loss of key components -- defensive anchor Brian Rafalski and NHL playoff scoring leader Scott Gomez, both of whom are set to become unrestricted free agents July 1. Both will command top dollar on the open market and the Devils rarely, if ever, pay top dollar.
There's also the issue of finding a coach willing to work within the bizarre atmosphere that permeates Lou Lamoriello Land. The man who made winning a habit in New Jersey fired coach Claude Julien with three games to go in the regular season; and while he was able to coax his team past a one-line Tampa Bay Lightning squad, Lamoriello as coach had no answer for the Senators' big line or physical play and superior defensive skill.
No one's going to fault all-world netminder Martin Brodeur for the Devils' woes. He stopped 129 of the last 138 shots he faced after being bombed in Game 1, while the Devils managed to score just seven times in the series' final four games. Still, a couple of soft goals midway through the series, lapses that followed similar lapses against Tampa Bay, changed the tenor and raised some questions about Brodeur's workload. Were these missteps a function of having played in 78 regular-season games?
With Brodeur celebrating his 35th birthday this past weekend, the fact the Devils have no viable backup is an issue that will have to be addressed if they want to be considered Cup contenders moving forward.
No sellouts, but not down and out
There's been much debate about the empty seats at Detroit's venerable Joe Louis Arena this playoff season. But a little perspective, please.
After failing to sell out the team's six home playoff games so far, Hockeytown might have taken a few knocks. But anyone concerned the Red Wings are heading down the slippery slope of decline first popularized by the Chicago Blackhawks need not worry.
A number of factors have contributed to what is a modest falling off in arena fan support.
First, the local economy, which is so dependent on the moribund domestic car industry, is in the dumps. The Wings also hiked ticket prices for the playoffs, and the casual fans haven't anted up as they have in the past. The price increase may be one factor, but another is the unprecedented competition for the attention of the Detroit sports fan.
When the Wings were the toast of the town through the 1990s, the Tigers were junk, the Lions were, well, the Lions and the Pistons weren't a factor. Now, the Tigers are coming off a trip to the World Series and the Pistons are a league force and are likewise in the second round of the playoffs. The Red Wings, meanwhile, have not advanced beyond the second round since their last Stanley Cup win in 2002.
Throw all these factors in the hopper and you've got a recipe for empty seats.
Still, the Red Wings remain the marquee team in the local sports market. Last weekend, when the Tigers, Pistons and Red Wings were all playing and the NFL draft was under way, a quarter of all Detroit homes were tuned in to sports and the Red Wings were the top draw.
Ruff's done it again
The votes have already been cast, but after the Sabres' second-round series victory over the Rangers, Buffalo's Lindy Ruff showed why he's again on the coach of the year ballot after winning the Jack Adams Award last season.
Unhappy with the play of slick forward Maxim Afinogenov, Ruff made the Russian a healthy scratch for Game 4 despite the fact Afinogenov recorded 61 points in 56 games and was a plus-19 during the regular season. It was a gutsy move in a series during which goals were hard to come by.
Afinogenov was back in the lineup for Game 5 and scored the overtime winner that gave the Sabres an improbable come-from-behind victory and set the stage for Sunday's series clincher.
If Ruff knew Afinogenov was going to respond that way, he would have benched him earlier.
Time will tell for Shumway, Coyotes
The Arizona Republic has quoted Phoenix Coyotes CEO Jeff Shumway as saying the team is ready to start interviewing candidates for the GM post, a position that opened when the team fired GM Mike Barnett and director of hockey operations Cliff Fletcher last month.
Shumway offered veiled criticism of coach and part-owner Wayne Gretzky regarding the laissez-faire atmosphere surrounding the team.
"What we need are guys who want to play hockey in Phoenix. I don't think the nature of the city affects just us. It affects other sports teams in town, too," Shumway recently told the Arizona Republic. "You get guys here that realize it's a great place to live and a great place to collect a paycheck. We need to get rid of that attitude.
"I'll be blunt about this. When I started holding meetings in December, I was stunned that we didn't seem to have a plan. There wasn't a vision of what it means to be a Coyote."
Shumway also fired longtime and highly regarded PR man Rich Nairn and most recently canned broadcaster Curt Keilback, who had been with the franchise for 27 years.
Gee, that must have been the problem -- media relations and broadcasting. Well, now Shumway will finally get a chance to put his money where his mouth is. His decision on hiring a new GM may well be the most important hire in the franchise's history and determine whether the team has a future in the desert or not.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has reported former Penguins GM Craig Patrick is on the list of nine possible candidates, which suggests Shumway is on track to bury the team, given that Patrick helped turn the Penguins into an NHL laughingstock during the 2005-'06 season.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com
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