NBC Sports Hockey Analyst Pierre McGuire joined WSUM and Wisconsin Hockey’s own Dan Labosky and Patrick Sexton last week. During his time on the air, he dished on who he thought would win the Central Division, whether the Penguins could win the cup again, his prediction for the Maurice Richard Trophy and Wisconsin Head Hockey Coach Tony Granato, among other things. Some questions have been edited for brevity…
WSUM: Pierre, we just wanted to talk about Pittsburgh being back-to-back Stanley Cup champions, but they had some big losses over the offseason… Do you think there’s a chance of them three-peating?
Pierre McGuire: It’s never easy to repeat. I was part of a team in ’91 and ’92 in Pittsburgh that actually did win back-to-back so the Penguins have done this twice. It’s never easy to do that. You obviously need to be an aggressive organization in the offseason, fellas, but I think the biggest thing is that they’ve got some young players filtering through their system that may surprise some people, which is really positive, and obviously the stability of Matt Murray in goal, you talked about the addition of Antti Niemi, I would expect that getting Christopher Letang back, who didn’t play one playoff game for them last year, is going to help them a ton. Zach Aston-Reese is a kid that was a Hobey Baker Award nominee and finalist out of Northeastern University. He looks like he’s got a legitimate chance to make their team as a scoring winger, so there’s a lot of positives going on in Pittsburgh. How easy is it to three-peat? Not very, but if there’s a team that could do it, it could be them.
WSUM: Being in Madison, obviously there’s a lot of Chicago Blackhawks fans, being two hours away. Also, I’m a Minnesota guy so I love my Wild. Kind of give us an outlook on the Central because aside from the Avalanche, it’s one of the best divisions in hockey. There’s so many storylines. Can Chicago bounce back from getting swept? Nashville back to the cup?
Pierre: I think Dallas is going to be really improved, so that’s going to cause a little bit of a problem for some of those teams in the Central. I would expect Nashville’s not going to fall off too much. I know they’re going to miss Mike Fisher a little but I would expect Kevin Fiala, he broke his leg in the second round of the playoffs last year, has had a phenomenal preseason for them. I would expect that he’ll bounce back and hopefully alleviate a little of that loss of Mike Fisher. They’re obviously really structured on defense and in goal, so Nashville’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Chicago’s going to be outstanding. Getting Brandon Saad back is huge. He’s already had a hat-trick this preseason. I know Jonathan Toews about the opportunity to play with him. Nick Schmaltz could be a huge story. I know you guys are aware of him. They’re counting on him being their second line center playing with Patrick Kane and if that’s the case, that moves Anisimov down to the three-hole replacing Marcus Kruger which gives them a lot of additional depth. Then finally Minnesota; I think the Wild are going to be outstanding. I think the Wild will be great. Part of it will be because of the addition of Matt Cullen. Part of it I think is because a player like Luke Kunin is going to make a difference there and I think they’re embarrassed by some of their playoff flops. I would expect them to be good. The team that really is hard to figure out in the whole division will be Winnipeg, because on Paper, they should be as good as anybody and they never are. This is very interesting, to watch how they do, but Minnesota and Chicago are going to be really, really good.
WSUM: What goes into Winnipeg under-performing? Is that coaching, is that just too high of expectations?
Pierre: I think there’s a lot. Goaltending is part of it, end-zone coverage is part of it. I think that defensively last year, probably only Colorado had worse end-zone coverage than Winnipeg and Colorado was terrible. There’s some issues there. I talked to a player who played there the last few years the other day and he said if they get off to a bad start it could be really problematic there, but I would say the big thing there is that their end-zone coverage just isn’t that good.
WSUM: With this new face-off rule resulting in so many power plays, obviously the league tries to bring in more offense every year. Do you think it’s going to be a case where there are going to be a lot more power plays? Are there going to be more power play goals or are the players just going to find a way to adjust and adapt to the rule changes as they usually do?
Pierre: Players will adapt but I think the one thing is guys who aren’t that good on face-offs when you can’t cheat anymore, those guys will be exposed. I think players that have really quick hands and long arms, those are guys that have a chance to be dominant face-off players, so it’s going to be really interesting to watch how that plays out. In terms of power plays, I think early in the year there will be more power plays for all the teams in the league, but I think eventually it’ll slow down. The biggest adjustment will be for defenders with the new slashing rules. I talked to Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues the other day. The slashing protocols are going to make it really, really hard for defensive defensemen against unique players, so that will be interesting to watch how that plays out.
WSUM: You mentioned a couple college hockey players… being college hockey players ourselves, it’s always interesting to see guys move up in the rankings. How do you think college hockey has impacted the NHL in terms of player development and with the roster structured how it is?
Pierre: First of all, younger players weren’t cheap, so that makes it more cap-friendly. That’s really positive. Number two, the training that’s going on and the professionalism of the coaching staffs at the Division I level of college hockey is phenomenal. Thirdly, I think for a lot of players who are 18, 19 or 20, they’re not ready to play in the NHL. Going to college is great because it allows them to have Monday through Thursday to train and really work on things they need to work on, whereas in junior hockey, it’s almost every other day you’re playing a game, you don’t really have the time to train properly. I think college hockey has done a fantastic job and they have been doing a fantastic job going back to the 1980s when I was playing in it and even coaching in it. People forget, Joey Mullins is in the hall of fame as a college hockey player at Boston College, Joe Nieuwendyk was a great college hockey player, played at Cornell… I coached a kid named Jamie Baker at St. Lawrence who was a great player for the San Jose Sharks over time. There’s so many… Chris Chelios out of the University of Wisconsin, Gary Suter out of the University of Wisconsin, Neal Broten out of the University of Minnesota, Brett Hull out of Minnesota-Duluth. I can keep going, so college hockey has been doing a lot of good work for a long time… Adam Oates out of RPI.
WSUM: You mentioned St. Lawrence, you coached there, got your start at Hobart and you’ve been along the track in just about every different area. Talk about the biggest challenge you had to overcome early on in your career to get where you are now.
Pierre: I played my first year pro in Europe and played pretty well and had a really good year and eventually was signed by the New Jersey Devils and had some really good times with that organization, never played any regular season games. Then at the end of one training camp, I got sent to the… IHL and I couldn’t believe it. I was really shocked and almost befuddled and I said, “you know what? I’m out. I’m going to get into coaching.” I didn’t want to go back to Europe. The clock was ticking, but having to adjust… That was my one goal, to play in the NHL, and I never had a chance to do it, even though I was owned by an organization and played exhibition games for them, never had a chance to play a regular season game, so I had to re-adjust my goals pretty quickly and I did that. I started by taking a Division III coaching job and worked my way up the ladder… and eventually found my way to a DI school in St. Lawrence. After two years there, I got hired by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
WSUM: What’s been your favorite area of hockey to work in?
Pierre: I loved coaching. I loved working with young players, I loved watching young players evolve and develop. It was something that never got old. I remember skating with an 18-year-old Jaromir Jagr for hundreds of hours. I remember working with Larry Murphy, Joey Mullins, who were about the same age as me… Watching them evolve as players… they would be the first two players on the ice, working on their release points on their shots, I would pass them thousands of pucks a week… So many good memories working with an 18-year-old kid named Chris Pronger when he broke into the National Hockey League. I have great memories, really really good memories of working with a lot of young players and even older players who eventually turned into being really special, it never gets old. This year, one of my former players, Mark Recchi, is going into the hall of fame. I’m so proud of him. I’ll never forget working with him when he was just a young guy out of… the Western Hockey League. That’s the part of hockey that I think I love the most: just watching players develop.
WSUM: Is there any team that you see making big strides from last year to this year and maybe a couple of individual award guys: The goalie of the year, rookie of the year?
Pierre: I would say the team to really watch for in terms of being really improved will be the Dallas Stars. I think Dallas has a chance to really take another step forward, especially if Ben Bishop plays as well as I think he can… They shouldn’t spend a lot of time in their own zone defending, they have more than enough offensive firepower, so I think Dallas could be a really improved team in the West in particular. In the East, I would be very careful of Carolina and I’d be very careful of Buffalo. I think both of those teams have a chance to really be significantly improved, so that will be fun to watch. In terms of awards, I think Connor McDavid will lead the league in scoring again but I think Sidney Crosby will be right on his tail. I think the Toronto Maple Leafs have a legitimate chance to get to the Eastern Conference Finals. There are a lot of really good storylines around the league. In terms of Rookie of the Year, I think it’s too early to really say. I want to see a lot of these guys on opening night rosters and see how many of them actually make it because it’s not going to be that easy for young players to be in the league this year.
[On Wisconsin Head Coach Tony Granato]
I look forward to watching your Badgers play this year. I know you guys will be part of it. Coach Granato is a good friend of mine and I can tell you a quick Tony Granato story when he was breaking into the league. He was with the New York Rangers and I was coaching. He talked more than any guy I ever saw. One time he came by our bench and the coach of our team, Scotty Bowman said “Hey, you talk so much, you should probably go upstairs and sell some programs too.” In all seriousness, he was a tremendous player. All the gifts he had, he made the most of them. He was a hard-worker and a really popular teammate. He was very, very popular with his teammates.