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McGuire: Health, depth key to success in short season

by Dave Lozo /

The NHL is back this weekend, as is the NHL on NBC, with the Flyers playing host to the Penguins and the Blackhawks paying a visit to the Kings on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET, and the Sabres playing their first game of the season Sunday at 12:30 p.m. ET at home against the Flyers.

NBC analyst Pierre McGuire will be between the benches for both Flyers games. A 48-game season is nothing new to McGuire, who was an assistant coach with the Ottawa Senators during the 48-game season of 1994-95.

What are McGuire’s thoughts on the three teams he'll be watching this weekend? Which teams will benefit most playing a condensed schedule? He answered all that and more during a phone interview Wednesday:

Which teams do you think will benefit the most from playing 48 games in 99 days?

"I think teams that have good goaltending, creative coaching staffs, teams that have a lot depth down the middle, teams that can stay healthy and teams that thrive on the special teams -- those are the teams that are going to be really good in a 48-game schedule. But a big part of it is having your goaltender be healthy or having a great tandem. If you have depth down the middle, especially with a lot of the divisional and conference play we're going to see, you can really do some tough things in terms of matchups when you have depth down the middle. But it's tough on anybody because if you have one or two key players go down with injury, you're in tough shape."

With Ryan Kesler and David Booth out to start the season, are the Vancouver Canucks one of those teams in tough shape?

"Exactly. They are one of those teams with a huge expectation level on their group. They're obviously going to have to make a decision on Roberto Luongo at some point. Maybe they can turn him into some insurance because of the injury situation. Andrew Ebbett and Jordan Schroeder, those are two very good young players, and they're kids that can make a difference, but I don't think either of them is a legitimate second-line center in the League. So that's something they have to look at. The (groin) injury to Booth was something they obviously weren't counting on. That's tough stuff for them. They're in real good shape in a lot of other situations – their power play should be very good, their penalty killing should be excellent, their goaltending should be really good. And obviously they can score, so they've got a lot of good elements. But you have to have four lines.

"If you think back to 1994-95, the Devils were a four-line team. Their fourth line -- The Crash Line, with Randy McKay, Bobby Holik and Mike Peluso -- that line made a big difference. So you've got to be four lines deep in order to win this kind of a situation."

You said earlier that depth down the middle, goaltending and good special teams is what you need in a short season. Don't the Penguins fit that bill?

"What Ray Shero did by acquiring Tomas Vokoun was very strong. Vokoun's not going there to take [Marc-Andre] Fleury's ice. He understands his role and Ray had Vokoun in Nashville, so he's very aware of how hard Vokoun works. That's going to be a positive. Vokoun knows where he is in his career. The fact he's on a two-year deal gives him some insurance as an older player in the League. It's a phenomenal situation for everyone in Pittsburgh. Their depth down the middle is obviously huge. The biggest thing is Ray Shero has a lot of chips to play in the game if he needs to make a trade only because he has this unbelievable amount of depth on defense -- young depth on defense that doesn't cost a lot money in terms of salary cap."

Every season, it seems like the Flyers go through serious changes and always wind up near the top of the Eastern Conference. They lost Matt Carle, traded James van Riemsdyk for Luke Schenn and lost Shea Weber after signing him to an offer sheet. Can they contend again this year?

"Well, they've got one of the best young leaders in the sport in Claude Giroux. He's everything you need in a captain and arguably the best player on their team. In fact, I think anyone who tried to argue against it would be making a mistake. He's tough, he's proud, he's skillful, he's fast, he can play in every situation. He got medical ailments fixed over the offseason, so he's been remedied. I think Philadelphia is going to be a very difficult team to play against. They lost Matt Carle, but they got Luke Schenn and I think Schenn playing with Kimmo Timonen will be huge. I think you'll see him have a huge bounce-back. I think Philadelphia is so well-coached. They've got some really interesting pieces to the puzzle. Brayden Schenn is just starting to scratch the surface. He's going to be very, very good."

One theory about playing in a shortened season is teams that didn't go through a lot of changes in the offseason will be better off because of familiarity with each other and their systems. Do you buy into that?

"They'd like to think so. They talk a lot about it, those teams. But if they get off to an 0-4 start or a 1-5 start, all that goes out the window. This thing is so fluid right now. You can say all the different things you want going into the season, but yeah, that can help you, but you don't know that for sure. You think it will, but you don't know it. That's the biggest thing, in my opinion, because I went through this on the management side of things back in 1994-95. You've got to make sure you don't have prolonged losing streaks. That's so critical and your players need to know that. You're going to lose games, but you can't lose four or five of them in a row. You've got to be aware that you have to nip losing streaks in the bud quick -- real quick. That's a key part of this kind of a season."

Are we overthinking the shorter season? Aren't the good teams still the good teams?

"That's right. We do overthink it because we haven't had anything to think about for a long time. But yeah, everyone is overanalyzing it. I think that's a good thing. I think hot stove-ing it is really good. And a lot of the best coaches are doing a lot of historical study on what happened in 1994-95, at what teams did do well or didn't do well, and what happened coming out of the last lockout, when we missed a full season, and how things started to turn. A lot of people are looking at a lot of different things and I think that bodes well for the League going forward because you'll have more people who are more informed than ever before."

The other team you have this weekend is the Sabres, and they had a disappointing season in 2011-12 after making a big splash in the summer. What do you see for them this season?

"There's some check marks you need to put by certain guys' names, whether they're going to be successful. No. 1, you have to hope that Cody Hodgson can be a legitimate first-line center. If you can put a check mark by that, that's a positive. You got to hope that Tyler Ennis can have a huge offensive season and really produce consistent offense. And the third thing is you have to hope Tyler Myers has more of a bounce-back season going back to when he was a rookie in the League rather than last year. So if you can put check marks by Cody Hodgson, Tyler Ennis and Tyler Myers and those guys are delivering, you've got a real good chance to have a real good team in Buffalo. Because Ryan Miller will stand and deliver. He's been very outspoken during the lockout and he's a guy with a lot of pride and a lot of professionalism, and I think he's going to stand and deliver."

In 1995, 14 of 16 teams that made the playoffs in 1994 reached the postseason again. Which teams that missed the playoffs last season have the best chance of getting there this season?

"I'd say Tampa Bay and Carolina in the East along with Buffalo that have a legitimate chance of making it. It'll be interesting to see who doesn't make it, because there will be a lot of pressure on the Florida Panthers after making the playoffs and having home ice last year. But usually after teams do that, the next year they have a little bit of a fallback. But again, this is a unique environment because of the 48 games, so we'll see how that plays out.

"In the West, I'd like to think that Anaheim would push to make a playoff spot and I also like to think the Edmonton Oilers are going to come close. I don't know if they have enough in the back to make it, but I like to think those are two teams that were on the outside looking in that can potentially make it."

With the Oilers, does it come down to their blue line with Ryan Whitney's health and Justin Schultz's adjustment to the NHL?

"No, it matters how Devan Dubnyk is in goal. I think it matters how their overall defense plays. It matters how Ralph Krueger adapts to being a coach in the NHL, not an associate coach or coaching internationally. Because it's one thing to be an associate coach, but it's another to be a head coach. So there's a lot of moving parts in Edmonton that are going to be really important. And quite frankly, their young players are really good offensively -- they really are. But nobody talks about whether they're good or not defensively and that's something we're going to find out once we see them play a lot."


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