Ranking the NHL's 2014 outdoor schedule

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Ranking the NHL's 2014 outdoor schedule

On Jan. 1, the 2014 Winter Classic will kick start the NHL’s outdoor schedule, during which a total of six games will be played in the elements. Here’s how I rank them:

Penguins vs. Blackhawks, March 1, Soldier Field
A Windy City winter wonderland will provide hockey fans a star-studded outdoor classic in what could be a Stanley Cup Finals preview.

Soldier Field, just off the shore of Lake Michigan, could make for a frigid affair in a stadium that produced the Monsters of the Midway. The aerials and scenes of downtown Chicago in the distance will only add to the allure of this game.

The 2009 contest between the Blackhawks and Red Wings at Wrigley Field produced one of the best Winter Classics to date, but this matchup has the potential of topping it.

Pond hockey rating: 10

Ducks vs. Kings, Jan. 25, Dodger Stadium
What makes this game intriguing, perhaps even more than the two teams involved, is the question of whether an outdoor hockey game can actually be played in Southern California.

Temperatures in L.A. late in January range from the high 40s to the low 50s. Any chance of seeing palm trees adorn the field at Dodger Stadium would serve as a nice touch.

This is the also the first game after the Winter Classic, so the novelty of an outdoor setting will still have a uniqueness about it.

The Ducks and Kings are currently the top two teams in the Pacific Division, and their L.A.-based rivalry just might boil over at Chavez Ravine.

Pond hockey rating: 8

Red Wings vs. Maple Leafs, Jan. 1, Michigan Stadium
An Original Six matchup in a stadium filled with nostalgia is certain to produce an attendance record for an NHL game.

Unfortunately, HBO’s "24/7" isn’t creating much buildup as Detroit and Toronto continue to struggle heading into this game with no real compelling storylines developing between either team. Both teams desperately need their star players healthy for this game to have any entertainment value.

Still, it’s New Year’s Day with Doc Emrick calling the shots on NBC. Tough to beat.

Pond hockey rating: 6.5

Devils vs. Rangers, Jan. 26, Yankee Stadium
Outdoor hockey in The Big Apple for the first time.

The timing of this game is ideal as it won’t be swallowed up by the hype of an NFL Sunday. This game conveniently falls between the AFC/NFC Championship weekend and the Super Bowl at nearby MetLife Stadium the following week when sports fans are languishing for anything before the big game.

Although the Devils and Rangers have been mediocre in the first half of the season, the possibility of a Henrik Lundqvist-Martin Brodeur showdown could make this game one of the memorable ones on the schedule.

Pond hockey rating: 5.5

Senators vs. Canucks, March 2, BC Place
After watching the Penguins and Blackhawks the previous day, the Heritage Classic will feel like the Triple-A All-Star Game, which is typically played the day after Major League baseball’s Midsummer Classic.

Certainly, there will be excitement north of the border, but here in the U.S., the interest level will rank right up there with an Indians-Mariners doubleheader in a venue that holds no historical relevance.

However, the Canucks are still in the upper echelon of the Western Conference, which gives this game some credibility. Let’s hope the Senators can turn their season around in time to make this game an important one for both teams.

Pond hockey rating: 4

Islanders vs. Rangers, Jan. 29, Yankee Stadium
On a bad day (Wednesday), with a bad team (the Islanders are at the bottom of the woeful Metropolitan Division), in a venue where the novelty will have already worn off after watching the Devils and Rangers three days earlier.

By then, sports fans will be in all-out Super Bowl mode. Barring a four-goal effort from John Tavares or a 10-round shootout, I fear this game will be the real dud on the outdoor circuit.

Pond hockey rating: 2

NHL Notes: Islanders fire head coach Jack Capuano

NHL Notes: Islanders fire head coach Jack Capuano

The struggling New York Islanders fired coach Jack Capuano on Tuesday, ending his tenure in the middle of its seventh season.

General manager Garth Snow named assistant GM/coach Doug Weight as Capuano's interim replacement. Snow told reporters Tuesday that the Islanders weren't where they wanted to be in the standings and that everyone's disappointed in their performance his season.

"At the end of the day organizationally I don't think Jack was probably going to be a coach that we were going to bring back," Snow said, adding that the team will begin a full-time coaching search now.

Snow said the halfway point of the season played a role in the timing of firing Capuano a day after beating the Boston Bruins 4-0. The Islanders were 17-17-8 and are in last place in the Eastern Conference with 42 points (see full story).

Predators: Hunt claimed, Fiala sent to AHL
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Nashville Predators have claimed defenseman Brad Hunt off waivers from the St. Louis Blues.

In other moves announced Tuesday, the Predators assigned forward Kevin Fiala to their American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee and have placed defenseman Petter Granberg on injured reserve.

Hunt had one goal and four assists in nine games for St. Louis this season. He has appeared in a total of 30 NHL games over parts of four seasons with the Edmonton Oilers and St. Louis. He has two career goals and six assists.

Fiala has six goals and three assists in 32 games for Nashville this season.

Granberg has played in 10 games for the Predators and has 10 penalty minutes.

Difficult to see now, but remember: Flyers’ window just starting to open

Difficult to see now, but remember: Flyers’ window just starting to open

They can’t win away from the Wells Fargo Center. They’ve seen a nine-point cushion in the wild-card standings vanish and when they resume play on Saturday, they’ll be out of the playoff picture.

The Flyers are who we thought they were. A fringe playoff team lacking in too many areas to be considered a serious contender, despite the overachievement of last season.

When the Flyers entered their bye week, they sat one point ahead of Carolina for the final wild-card spot and two points ahead of Florida and Ottawa. They are 3-8-3 in 14 games since their 10-game winning streak was snapped and were blown out in back-to-back games in Boston and Washington by a combined score of 11-3.

Yet, they’re still on the brink of the postseason — for now. Perhaps it’s time for a trade from the front office to send a shockwave through the locker room? Not so fast.

“If we can make our team better, we will,” Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said last week at Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees, New Jersey. “But we’re staying on course.

“I don’t care if we win every game the rest of the year or lose every game, we’re staying on course. We set out on a course two and a half years ago — we’re not deviating from what we planned. I’m not going to make a trade to send a message.”

It’s easy to get carried away in win streaks and unexpected playoff appearances, especially in Philadelphia, where the four major sports teams are rebuilding. It’s even easier to scream for a team to go for it when it shows a glimpse into its full potential.

That is what makes sports fun. It’s what makes for good sports debate programs and entertaining talking heads. But it’s not how organizations should run their operations.

It’s certainly not how Hextall runs his regime with the Flyers. Hextall has a clear vision, and time and time again has shown no signs of expediting his plan for immediate help. He has made it a purpose to build through the draft. We have to remember that and realize that the Flyers’ front office is playing the long game here, not the short game.

“Right now, we’re gonna stick with what we’ve got here and move forward,” Hextall said Sunday in Washington. “But on a day-to-day basis, I always look at how we can make our club better, and if there’s something that we think makes our club better, we’ll do it.

“The worst thing you can do is overreact when things aren’t going right and that’s not gonna happen. But if we can find a way to make ourselves better, we will.”

Let’s take a step back and make some sense of the Flyers’ current state. They are seventh in the Eastern Conference with 50 points as of Tuesday morning. They are 8-12-3 on the road, with nine straight defeats away from South Philadelphia. They are a top-10 scoring team, with 127 goals, but have allowed a league-high 144 goals against.

Steve Mason’s confidence is completely shook. Michal Neuvirth hasn’t been much better, if at all. Claude Giroux hasn’t scored a goal in 11 games and has just one marker in his last 17 games. (To be fair, he does have seven assists in his last eight games.)

Shayne Gostisbehere has been a healthy scratch twice this season, with his latest coming last Saturday in Boston. He’s struggled with his gap defense, among other areas, and is enduring growing pains in his second NHL season — as expected.

While the Flyers’ defense has scored 102 points, second most in the NHL, it struggles with gaps, turnovers and has too many breakdowns. Ivan Provorov, 20, has been the lone bright spot among the group of eight defensemen.

Head coach Dave Hakstol has juggled his lines and defensive pairs in attempts to find something that works. Some of the moves have worked, others have not. Questioning some of Hakstol’s lineup decisions is fair, but there’s no question his systems work.

There is only so much Hakstol can do with what he has to work with. Part of the blame can be placed on Hextall because this team, as currently constructed, is not there yet. It is, however, unfair to put every decision Hakstol makes under a microscope.

“Hak has tried a lot of things,” Hextall said. “In the end, it’s a group and we win together, we lose together. We have to react as a group better when something doesn’t go our way. That’s bottom line. … Line changes, different D combinations, flipping Mase, Neuvy. Everything that’s there, Hak has tried. In the end it comes down to our whole group just being better and not reacting the way we do when something negative happens.”

One of the reasons Hextall opted to hire Hakstol, who came directly from college with no prior NHL coaching experience, is development. Growth takes time, and there is rhyme or reason behind each Hakstol benching, whether we see it or not.

The Flyers’ play the last few weeks has been dumbfounding because a lot of the same mistakes that plagued the team in the beginning of the season — lax team defensive coverage, bad decisions with the puck, letting opponents enter the zone too easily, among others — are reappearing, and that’s a fair criticism of the current coaching staff.

But, when we put things in perspective, there are positives. Provorov has proven he’s the real deal, and he just turned 20 last Friday. Travis Konecny is here, and while he’s been the victim of a Hakstol benching, he’s shown glimpses of what’s to come. Jakub Voracek (41 points) has bounced back, Wayne Simmonds is an All-Star and has added penalty kill to his résumé. Brayden Schenn leads the NHL in power-play goals with 11, though his 5-on-5 scoring could improve. And there’s a lot of upside in the farm system, with the potential of seeing an influx of kids joining the Flyers as early as next season. 

“The window is actually starting to open, the way I see it,” Hextall said last week. “The kids we have on our team. The kids we have coming. There’s things happening here that are good. We’re going to get better here. We’re not going to get worse.”

And Hextall is right — the window is just opening and will only open wider. Patience remains key here, and don’t just trust the process with the Flyers. Enjoy the course.