Tom Wakefield

Feb 082012
 

James Mirtle in the Globe and Mail asked an interesting question Monday – which rebuild is better, the Leafs approach or the Oilers approach?

Ultimately, the answer to this question can only come years from now, when the young promise on each roster has been fulfilled (or not fulfilled, for that matter).

However, as the continued success of the Detroit Red Wings (and continued failure of the Columbus Blue Jackets) suggests, there are franchise factors that can have a major impact on the development of a successful team.

Good ownership is one of these factors. Every fan wishes their team had an owner not only with deep pockets but an ego that demands on-ice success.

A strong front office is another factor. Management that can create an organizational culture that breeds success, dedication and trust. One that can analyze the on-ice product, adapt to new innovations around the league and make difficult decisions when the time comes. A strong front office includes a talented scouting staff that can find NHL-level talent beyond the first round on a consistent basis.

An excellent coaching and training staff is another factor. Staff who can execute management’s vision, communicate with the modern player, know their hockey Xs and Os and can make sure each player is ready to compete on a nightly basis.

Given these factors, the more relevant question to ask right now is which franchise, Toronto or Edmonton, has the people in place to execute its rebuild most effectively?

Ownership

Toronto’s ownership, even with Rogers Communications and Bell Canada taking over controlling interest, seems like it will be entirely focused on the bottom line for the conceivable future.

Meanwhile, in Oilers owner Daryl Katz, Edmonton has a passionate, deep pocketed owner who cares about the success of the hockey club. His communication skills leave something to be desired, but most fans will take an engaged owner over a faceless board of governors any day.

Ownership Edge: Oilers

Front Office

Say what you will about Brian Burke, but he’s won a Cup; helped build the Canucks on- and off-ice into the juggernaut they are today; and has a league reputation as an honest, straight-shooter who takes care of his players.

Sure, speeding-up the Leaf rebuild process by targeting young, established NHL players didn’t exactly pan out. However it did bring the Leafs Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, two B+ level talents.

What Burke has done well though is surround himself with the deepest (and most expensive) front office in the league, and used what draft picks and money (for college players) he’s had to rebuild the Leafs prospect pool (currently ranked 8th by Hockey’s Future).

Meanwhile, Steve Tambellini has had a puzzling start to his career as an NHL General Manager. Hiring Pat Quinn and Tom Renney to serve as co-coaches was the first head-scratcher. Giving Corey Potter a 2-year contract extension after less than a season’s worth of experience is another. The Oilers front office has been slow to address team weaknesses of size and defense as well.

The Colin Fraser trade dispute was a reputational hit, and something that will add to the Oilers’ struggles to attract free agents. At least Hockey’s Future ranks their organization 4th in terms of prospects, so it looks like the team is drafting well. That seems about the only edge it has on Toronto though.

Front Office Edge: Leafs

Coaching

Neither Toronto’s Ron Wilson nor Edmonton’s Tom Renney should be considered an elite coach. Both have had limited success doing what their respective GMs have asked of them. Wilson’s implemented an up-tempo style, even when his roster was littered with players who couldn’t play that style very well. Renney is teaching the young Oilers how to become better professionals, but the team has been among the league’s worst for three years running.

There are things to like about both team’s assistant coaches. Toronto’s Scott Gordon has had the powerplay among the league’s best all year, while Greg Cronin seems to have fixed the penalty kill (no goals against in 15 games). Edmonton’s Associate Coach Ralph Krueger is an international coaching legend, with strong communication and motivational skills.

The biggest difference between the two teams in this area is the training staff. The Oilers have been cursed in recent seasons by the injury bug, punishing a team with little-to-no depth. Injuries haven’t had the same impact on Toronto’s improving roster.

Coaching Edge: Leafs
  
Any discussion of which rebuild is better has to take into consideration who is executing that rebuild.

Both the Leafs and Oilers are flawed organizations with young, talented rosters. But while Edmonton may have higher-end talent on-ice, right now Toronto has stronger people off-ice. As a result, the Leafs seem like the better bet to realize their potential.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Does it really matter that Sam Gagner may have only had 7-points last week? I know I don’t care if the referees are extra generous with their assists.
  • One last Oilers thought – Jordan Eberle, at the time of his draft, projected favourably as another Dany Heatley. Just two years later, Eberle looks to have already eclipsed Heatley as a player. If he can get to 78-points (he has 54 now), he’ll become the highest scoring Oiler since Doug Weight in 2000-01.
  • The Red Wings can deny it all they want, but they desperately need one of Joey MacDonald or Ty Conklin to be solid in goal until Jimmy Howard gets back. The Central Division is a beast, and any prolonged slump could mean St. Louis, Nashville or Chicago leap past them in the standings. It’s hard to get four teams from the same division into the playoffs. The Red Wings can’t afford a set back.
  • If I’m an Eastern Conference team that thinks it can make a post-season run, I am calling Montreal about Hal Gill. Skating-aside, Gill remains one of the top defensive defensemen in the NHL. He would look great in a Rangers uniform.
  • Other trade matches “made in heaven”: Marek Zidlicky to Detroit (a great skating, puck-moving defenseman on a team that plays a puck possession game); Ales Hemsky to Nashville (Hemsky would immediately become the most offensively talented player the Predators have had since Peter Forsberg); Evgeni Nabokov to Tampa Bay (if the Lightning decide to go for the Division crown in a weak Southeast Division); Tuomo Ruutu to Chicago (Blackhawks are incredibly weak on the left-side); Vinny Prospal to Los Angeles (a nice complimentary scorer on a team that needs to find some quickly).
  • Naturally, none of the pairings above have any chance of actually happening, but it’s fun to speculate.
  • Former NHL owner Howard Baldwin talks NHL expansion and hockey in Hartford.
  • Speaking of expansion,more about Seattle as a possible destination for the Coyotes.
  • Here’s former Orca Bay President and CEO Stan McCammon on a possible NHL team in Seattle.
  • This is kind of neat – a breakdown of who sits where in the Avalanche locker room.
  • A nice piece on what Ilya Kovalchuk has become for the Devils.
  • Here’s Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts.
Feb 022012
 

With the NHL Trade deadline a little less than a month from now, speculation is heating up.

Actually, that is a bit of an understatement. Speculation isn’t just heating up, it’s already reached a good rolling boil. We’ve entered the silly season of trade rumours people, where Ryan Getzlaf could be traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, you know, just ‘cuz.

It’s not just fans or the media that can get swept up in the euphoria that is the trade talk. General Managers can too. With that in mind, here are the four worst trade decisions that could be made by a General Manager in the NHL today.

 4. Trade Jeff Carter from the Columbus Blue Jackets

Granted, Carter has had a difficult first season in Columbus. He’s looked lethargic when he’s been healthy (which hasn’t been nearly as much as the team had hoped).  

Carter remains a one-shot scorer though and a first-line centre talent. He’s the type of player you rarely find on the trade market (the last first line centre to be traded was Joe Thornton back in 2005-06).  

In Carter, Rick Nash and Ryan Johansen, there is a good offensive core in place in Columbus. God knows there are other teams trying to build around less up front (cough Phoenix, Florida, Winnipeg to name three cough cough).

Now it could be that the Blue Jackets just want to save themselves some money and get Carter’s $5.27 million off the books. This is incredibly short-sighted thinking. The Blue Jackets need wins to generate revenues. They need talent on the roster to produce wins. Eventually, that talent gets paid, and scoring talent of Carter’s ilk can get a lot more expensive than $5.27 million a season.

Moving Carter doesn’t get the Blue Jackets anywhere closer to wins in the short-term, and is not guaranteed to save them much money in the long-term.

In short – it would be a trade that doesn’t make much sense.  

3. Trade Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres

At one point, it could be argued he was the best goalie in the game, but these days Ryan Miller is pretty, pretty, pretty average . His performance and outspokenness has made him a lightning rod in Buffalo where pre-season optimism has turned into a season-long nightmare.

A great goaltender gives an NHL team a chance to win every night, and turns poor or mediocre teams in all other areas into playoff participants. Miller was once great – there’s no question he could be great again. The smart move in Buffalo would be to consider goaltending “secure” (Jhonas Enroth is a talented youngster who’s earned more time in the crease) and address other needs.

You know, like the Swiss Cheese defense of Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr that would have trouble defending against a minor bantam team some nights.  

2. Trade PK Subban from the Montreal Canadiens

PK Subban isn’t your typical NHL player – he’s colourful, opinionated and openly confident – and this has frequently contradicted with the conservative, conformist culture established by the Canadiens in the era of Bob Gainey, Jacques Martin and Pierre Gauthier.

There are few NHL defencemen that offer the same combination of physical gifts, offensive instincts and passion for the big moment as Subban does. He will be an NHL star, and will one day find himself in Norris consideration.

You can count the number of Stanley Cups won by teams without a strong offensive defenseman on one hand. Trading Subban would be akin to the Canadiens admitting they don’t have any plans to truly compete for a Stanley Cup in the near future.  

1. Trade Brendan Morrow from the Dallas Stars

For all the hulabaloo about trading Jarome Iginla from Calgary, the potential trade of Brendan Morrow from Dallas would be the bigger mistake.

Uncertain Stars ownership has wrecked havoc on the franchise’s off-ice fortunes. Now, with new owner Tom Gaglardi in the mix, the team needs to re-establish its relationship with the Dallas community.

Morrow is an obvious, important player around which to build this new relationship. He’s one of the few remaining links to the championship-calibre teams Dallas iced in the late 90s and early 2000s. Moreover, he is the type of character leader that can shape and inspire not only a locker room, but a fan base.

With one of the lowest payrolls in the league, the Stars don’t need to jettison salary. They should move other pieces before moving their captain.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • According to John Shannon on Prime Time Sports last week, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise are best of friends. Does anyone else smell another Teemu Selanne-Paul Kariya-esque situation developing for these two future UFAs?
  • The Sidney Crosby “fracture-no fracture-concussions-no concussion” story sounds more and more like the Eric Lindros situation in Philadelphia every day. There’s no reason to think relationships are poisoned between Crosby and the Penguins, but this certainly makes one wonder how the next contract negotiations between the team and its star player will go in 2013.
  • Let’s all give Alex Radulov the benefit of the doubt here – we all see the bug on his coach’s neck, right? (Editor’s note: Note that the coach behind Radulov was not his head coach, but the goalie coach.)
  • Given that the Winter Classic is also a huge event for league sponsors, the NHL All-Star Game should move to the start of the season. This would give the Winter Classic even more prominence mid-season, and would create a special “kick-off” event for the NHL to start its year. I’d even be in favour of returning to a Stanley Cup champions versus NHL All-Stars format in a neutral site (say Europe).
  • Does Mikhail Grabovski look like a $5 million player? Because that’s what the UFA market is likely to pay him. This is also why it would be of no surprise to see the Leafs either trade their second-line centre at the deadline, or walk away from him on July 1st. He is too inconsistent to be paid like a top-four player.
  • Speaking of the Maple Leafs, the more you watch Nazem Kadri play, the more it seems his best work at the NHL level will come playing for a team other than Toronto. Kadri needs consistent top-six ice time to grow his game, and he won’t get that playing for a team competing for a playoff spot right now.
  • The New York Rangers pass around a fedora to the team’s best player post-game. The St. Louis Blues? A weiner hat. Classic.
  • Sorry Blackhawks fans, but Brendan Morrison isn’t the answer to your second-line centre dilemma. He adds some nice depth as a complimentary, offensive player, but a regular contribution in a top-six role is asking far too much.
  • Finally, I cannot recommend Behind the Moves enough for anyone who loves the business of hockey. Here’s a nice review from over at dobberhockey.
Jan 252012
 

Usually - you know, when the league’s marquee player isn’t in a snit and boycotting the All-Star game – the narrative surrounding the NHL’s mid-season classic (in this case classic is defined as “tired tradition”) is as follows:

“How can we make this game suck less?”

Ironically, 2012 represents the 25th anniversary of the best hockey that’s ever been played during an NHL All-Star event.  Wayne Gretzky himself called it the fastest-paced hockey he had ever played in.

Rendez-Vous ’87 , which pitted a team of NHL All-Stars against a team from the Soviet Union, was the brainchild of then Quebec Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut. The teams split their two games (4-3 NHL, 5-3 U.S.S.R.), and although Russia outscored the NHL 8-7, the series is considered a tie. At the time, legendary Russian coach Viktor Tikhonov noted:

 “The NHL didn’t win and neither did we. The person that won was hockey itself. Both games were like holidays, like festivals, two of the greatest hockey games you’ll ever see.”

More than a two-game series however, Rendez-Vous ’87 was a celebration of North American and Russian culture held within the backdrop of Quebec City’s famous Winter Carnival.  Aubut spent $10-14 million ($20-30 million in today’s money) to bring Soviet chefs, dancers and singers to Canada. Gala gourmet dinners feted international businessmen, politicians and athletes. In short, it was much like the cultural Olympiad that surrounds today’s Olympic Games.  To some, Rendez-Vous ’87 was the first time the NHL truly operated like a professional big league sport.

Rendez-Vous ’87 was also not without controversy. For starters, costs associated with the event were astronomical for the times. A plate at the gala dinner cost $350 per person ($694 in today’s dollars). Only 5% of tickets for the two games at Le Colisee were open to the public. Some local media were critical that the hockey event was ursurping deserved attention away from the traditional Winter Carnival.

Alan Eagleson, head of the NHL Players Association at the time, was also against the event, worried Aubut would be successful and challenge his own place as the official kingpin of international hockey. Eagleson used the cost of local hotel rooms ($146-a-night) as a rallying point, threatening to pull players from the game. 

And yet, Rendez-Vous ’87 is barely remembered in hockey circles. Marcel Aubut’s goal of creating an “important date in hockey history” fell far short.

The question is: why?

Well it doesn’t help that not a single U.S. TV network carried the series. Sure, ESPN broadcast the games, but that was back in the days of America’s Cup and dog show programming for the future broadcasting behemoth. At the time, ESPN was just another SportsChannel America.

The legacy of Rendez-Vous ’87 hasn’t been helped by the Montreal-Quebec City rivalry either. At the time, there was an element of jealousy on the part of Montrealers – a jealousy they would naturally be loathe to admit. Nonetheless, the disappearence of NHL hockey from Quebec City less than ten years later has made forgetting all the more easy in Quebec.

Perhaps the greatest  reason that Rendez-Vous ’87 is but a footnote in history is what came immediately after it. The 1987 Canada Cup was one of the defining moments in Canadian hockey history. Despite the fact that Rendez-Vous ’87 was my first experience watching the Soviets, the 1987 Canada Cup was the pinnacle of the Canada-U.S.S.R. rivalry for my generation. And while Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky had first played together during Rendez-Vous ’87, it was at the Canada Cup that their chemistry bore fruit, leading to the greatest goal by the two greatest players of my childhood.

Less than three years later, Russians were playing in the NHL. The Cold War was coming to a close. Soon there would be a Russian players hoisting the cup; Russian players winning scoring titles and league trophies. The mystique and mystery of hockey from behind the Iron Curtain was gone.

This week, while the NHL trots out its latest gimmick – a fantasy draft - to put some life into the All-Star game, I’ll think back to Quebec City and Rendez-Vous ’87. To a time when the mid-season exhibition meant something more than appeasing corporate sponsors and players trying not to get hurt.

ONE THOUGHT ON THE FLY

Alex Ovechkin’s decision to not play in the NHL All-Star game is another example of why, at the end of his career, we may look at him as Pavel Bure 2.0 (an insanely-talented, but otherwise selfish, non-winner whose career did not live up to the hype). Rumours that he’s been out-of-shape this year don’t help the cause either. Meanwhile, everything about Evgeni Malkin these days screams “heart and soul” or  champion. The career journey of these two Russian superstars (who were once considered “bitter enemies“) shall be fascinating to watch.

Jan 182012
 

Yesterday we took at look at the “real” Western Conference standings after 40 games.

Here now is a look at the East.

Remember, to learn a bit more about an individual team’s strengths and weaknesses, each squad was ranked in six categories*:

  • Goals for (GF) and shots-for (SHF) were chosen to evaluate a team’s offense;
  • Shots-against (SHA) and goals against (GA) were chosen to evaluate a team’s defensive play;
  • Five-on-five (5-on-5) was chosen to evaluate a team’s even-strength/system play;
  • Save percentage (SVPCT) was chosen to evaluate the team’s goaltending performance.

Teams were ranked and then put into groups of five, with those ranking 1-5 in each category designated “great,” 6-10 “good,” 11-15 “above average,” 16-20 “below average,” 21-25 “poor,” 26-30 “awful.”

(* – Stats were taken as of Thursday January 12, once all teams had played at least 40 games.)

The Eastern Conference Standings After 40 Games

1. New York Rangers (58 points)
Games 21-40: 1st in Conference (31 points)
Games 1-20: 1st in Conference (27 points)
SVPCT: Great / SHA: Above Average / GF: Good / GA: Great / 5-on-5: Great / SHF: Awful

Notes: The Winter Classic and HBO 24/7 circus certainly didn’t phase the Rangers, who went 15-4-1 in the second quarter to once again stay atop the “real” NHL standings. Marian Gaborik scored at a 50-goal pace during games 21-40, while hard-working captain Ryan Callahan chipped in with 6 goals and 17 points. Meanwhile, Michael Del Zotto was Mike Green-esque, with 3 goals and 16 points from the blueline.

2. Boston Bruins (57 points)
Games 21-40: 2nd in Conference (31 points)
Games 1-20: 2nd in Conference (26 points)
SVPCT: Great / SHA: Poor / GF: Great / GA: Great / 5-on-5: Great / SHF: Great

Notes: Probably the deepest team in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire NHL. Their 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio was at 2.06 after 40 games, the best in the entire league and more than double the league average. Tuukka Rask (1.07 goals against, .964 save percentage) and Tim Thomas (2.17 goals against, .941 save percentage) are practically unbeatable. Making the Bruins even more dangerous: David Krejci has woken up (7 goals, 23 points during games 21-40).

3. Florida Panthers (48 points)
Games 21-40: 6th in Conference (23 points)
Games 1-20: 6th in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Good / SHA: Below Average / GF: Poor / GA: Above Average 5-on-5: Poor / SHF: Above Average

Notes: They’re in third by virtue of leading the Southeast Division after 40 games. Like the Minnesota Wild, the Panthers are starting to fall back to earth. Goal scoring was way down, from 2.95 goals per game in the first quarter to 2.2 goals per game in the second. Somehow Tomas Kopecky was -11 in games 21-40.

4. Philadelphia Flyers (52 points)
Games 21-40: 3rd in Conference (27 points)
Games 1-20: 5th in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Poor / SHA: Good / GF: Great / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Good / SHF: Great

Notes: Sergei Bobrovsky (1.75 goals against, .941 save percentage) was much, much, much better than Ilya Bryzgalov (3.52, .876) in the second quarter. Meanwhile, Kimmo Timonen (1 goal, 13 points. +6) capably replaced Chris Pronger at least in the short-term as the team’s go-to defenseman. Jaromir Jagr slowed down a bit in games 21-40 (6 goals, 14 points vs 18 points in the first quarter), but some of that was due to injury. James Van Riemsdyk has disappointed (3 goals in the second quarter).

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (46 points)
Games 21-40: 9th in Conference (21 points)
Games 1-20: 4th in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Poor / SHA: Great / GF: Good / GA: Good / 5-on-5: Above Average / SHF: Great

Notes: For the second straight year, the Penguins are battling through injuries to keep a playoff spot, only this time Marc-Andre Fleury hasn’t played as well (.902 save percentage in the second quarter). Evgeni Malkin entered beast mode (30 points in games 21-40), and depending on how Pittsburgh finishes could be a Hart Trophy candidate.

6. New Jersey Devils (46 points)
Games 21-40: 7th in Conference (23 points)
Games 1-20: 9th in Conference (23 points)
SVPCT: Awful / SHA: Great / GF: Below Average / 5-on-5: Awful / SHF: Poor

Notes: The Devils cannot make the playoffs with Martin Brodeur as their number one goalie. His save percentage was just .878 in the second quarter. This despite the fact the Devils only gave up 30-or-more shots in three of his 14 starts, and two of the three being overtime games. Zach Parise (8 goals, 22 points) and Ilya Kovalchuk (10 goals, 21 points) awoke in games 21-40, and the Devils have two solid scoring lines for the first time in ages.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs (45 points)
Games 21-40: 10th in Conference (21 points)
Games 1-20: 7th in Conference (24 points)
SVPCT: Below Average / SHA: Poor / GF: Good / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Good / SHF: Poor

Notes: Leaf struggles in the second quarter are well documented already (thanks Toronto-centric hockey media!). The penalty kill was roughly 4% worse (down to 72.3%) and was the difference between a win and a loss most nights. Meanwhile, James Reimer wasn’t very good (3-4-3, 3.23 goals against, .893 save percentage since returning in December from injury).

8. Ottawa Senators (45 points)
Games 21-40: 4th in Conference (24 points)
Games 1-20: 10th in Conference (21 points)
SVPCT: Poor / SHA: Awful / GF: Good / GA: Below Average / 5-on-5: Above Average / SHF: Good

Notes: Ottawa has improved their five-on-five play and with that are rising up the standings. Eight times in the second quarter they played into overtime, garnering 13 of a possible 16 points in those games. Daniel Alfreddsson hit the rejuvenation machine (17 points in 15 December games, versus 10 points in his first 18 games of the year).

9. Washington Capitals (44 points)
Games 21-40: 11th in Conference (19 points)
Games 1-20: 3rd in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Poor / SHA: Above Average / GF: Good / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Below Average / SHF: Poor

Notes: One of the great “what could have beens” in NHL history is what the Capitals could have been if Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens hadn’t gotten into GM George McPhee’s head after one playoff series. Washington’s loss to Montreal effectively ended the “all offense, all the time” experiment that defined the Capitals and could have redefined how elite NHL teams are built. Nowadays, the Capitals are as ho-hum a franchise as can be. On the bright side, Alex Ovechkin (10 goals, 17 points) and Nik Backstrom (6 goals, 19 points) were decent in the second quarter. However, Mike Knuble entered retirement during games 21-40 (1 goal, 2 points), while other core players Brooks Laich (4 goals, 8 points), Alex Semin (5 goals, 11 points), Marcus Johansson (1 goal) struggled. Tomas Vokoun did find his old self (2.45 goals against, .919 save percentage).

10. Winnipeg Jets (43 points)
Games 21-40: 5th in Conference (24 points)
Games 1-20: 13th in Conference (19 points)
SVPCT: Below Average / SHA: Poor / GF: Below Average / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Below Average / SHF: Above Average

Notes: As you can probably guess from the number of times it appears above, the Jets are an average hockey club. Still, they’ve ridden a hot home record (10-3-1 during the second quarter) to position themselves for a run at a playoff spot. Evander Kane (10 goals), Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little (both with 7 goals) had nice second quarters. A Teemu Selanne deadline trade to Winnipeg would be magical.

11. Buffalo Sabres (40 points)
Games 21-40: 14th in Conference (16 points)
Games 1-20: 8th in Conference (24 points)
SVPCT: Above Average / SHA: Awful / GF: Poor / GA: Below Average / 5-on-5: Above Average / SHF: Below Average

Notes: A lot has been made of Ryan Miller’s performance this season, and his second quarter numbers certainly support the criticism (3.21 goals against, .894 save percentage). However, a greater factor in the Sabres decline has been the errors the team made prior to the season. Robyn Regehr (-10 in the second quarter) and Christian Ehrhoff (2 goals, 7 points, -7 in games 21-40) were supposed to improve the defense and haven’t. Ville Leino was supposed to augment the offense, and he clearly hasn’t worked out (1 goal, 5 points in the second quarter). Look for Derek Roy (2 goals, 10 points in games 21-40) to be possibly moved at the trade deadline.

12. Montreal Canadiens (37 Points)
Games 21-40: 15th in Conference (16 points)
Games 1-20: 11th in Conference (21 points)
SVPCT: Below Average / SHA: Good / GF: Below Average / GA: Above Average / 5-on-5: Above Average / SHF: Below Average

Notes: It’s clear the Habs are going in the wrong direction. A notoriously strong defensive team under former coach Jacques Martin, this part of Montreal’s game regressed in the second quarter, with the team giving up more shots and more goals per game. The recent acquisition of Tomas Kaberle did help the powerplay (18.1% with Kaberle in the lineup during the second quarter; 10.4% before his arrival).

13. Tampa Bay Lightning (37 points)
Games 21-40: 12th in Conference (17 points)
Games 1-20: 12th in Conference (20 points)
SVPCT: Awful / SHA: Below Average / GF: Above Average / GA: Awful / 5-on-5: Below Average / SHF: Poor

Notes: There’s nothing wrong in Tampa Bay a decent goaltender couldn’t cure. Dwayne Roloson has become the worst goalie in the league (4.63 goals against, .866 save percentage in the second quarter) while Mathieu Garon has been below average (2.84 goals against, .901 save percentage during games 21-40). Could Martin St. Louis be dealt for a young goalie? Or do they go to the well one more time for a veteran Islanders goaltender (Evgeni Nabokov)? Marc-Andre Bergeron has cooled off since his hot start (1 goal, 6 points in the second quarter).

14. New York Islanders (36 points)
Games 21-40: 8th in Conference (22 points)
Games 1-20: 15th in the Conference (14 points)
SVPCT: Below Average / SHA: Above Average / GF: Poor / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Poor / SHF: Below Average

Notes: The Islanders turned it around in the second quarter, particularly on the attack. They went from 1.90 goals per game in the first quarter to 2.55 during games 21-40. The powerplay was a big part of this increase, scoring at a 25.8% clip, almost an 11% improvement over the first 20 games of the year. John Tavares has arrived (6 goals, 23 points in the second quarter).

15. Carolina Hurricanes (32 points)
Games 21-40: 13th in Conference (17 points)
Games 1-20: 14th in the Conference (15 points)
SVPCT: Awful / SHA: Awful / GF: Below Average / GA: Above Average / 5-on-5: Awful / SHF: Above Average

Notes: If you can believe it, Cam Ward’s play has gotten worse statistically as the season has gone along. His save percentage was .890 in November, .878 in December. The ‘Canes scored more in the second quarter, while reducing their shots against slightly under new coach Kirk Muller. Muller also gave the young talent on the team a chance (Drayson Bowman from around 7 minutes of ice-time to 15+; Zac Dalpe from around 5 minutes of ice time to 13+). Quietly, Eric Staal’s game returned (13 points in 14 December games).

Jan 172012
 

At the end of the 20-game mark, I took a look at the “real” NHL standings in the East and West.

Now that every team has played their 40th game, it’s time to even the playing field once again and see what’s really been going on in the NHL.

Last time, I made special mention of a team’s special teams, goals for and goals against performance for the season.

This time, to learn a bit more about an individual team’s strengths and weaknesses, each squad was ranked in six categories*:

  • Goals for (GF) and shots-for (SHF) were chosen to evaluate a team’s offense;
  • Goals against (GA) and shots-against (SHA) were chosen to evaluate a team’s defensive play;
  • Five-on-five (5-on-5) was chosen to evaluate a team’s even-strength/system play;
  • Save percentage (SVPCT) was chosen to evaluate the team’s goaltending performance.

Teams were then ranked and put into groups of five, with those ranking 1-5 in each category designated “great,” 6-10 “good,” 11-15 “above average,” 16-20 “below average,” 21-25 “poor,” 26-30 “awful.”

(* – Stats were taken as of Thursday, January 12th, once all teams had played their 40th game.)

The Western Conference After 40 Games:

1. San Jose Sharks (53 points)
Games 21-40: 3rd in Conference (26 points)
Games 1-20: 1st in Conference (27 points)
SVPCT: Good / SHA: Great / GF: Above Average / GA: Good / 5-on-5: Great / SHF: Great

Notes: One of the most complete teams in the NHL and one of the toughest teams at 5-on-5 (tied with St. Louis for 3rd overall). Surprisingly, Michal Handzus (1 goal, 10 assists) had almost as many points as Joe Thornton (3 goals, 11 assists) in the second quarter. Martin Havlat, who found a way to hurt himself hopping the boards onto the ice, has been a bust.

2. Chicago Blackhawks (52 points)
Games 21-40: 5th in Conference (25 points)
Games 1-20: 3rd in Conference (27 points)
SVPCT: Poor / SHA: Above Average / GF: Great / GA: Below Average / 5-on-5: Good / SHF: Good

Notes: This is a team getting it done with offense, as the penalty kill and goaltending have been inconsistent all season. Marian Hossa (20 pts in the second quarter) looks like he’s five-years younger. Secondary scoring was absent in games 21-40. Dave Bolland (3 goals), Viktor Stalberg (4 goals) and Michael Frolik (2 goals) struggled.

3. Vancouver Canucks (51 points)
Games 21-40: 1st in Conference (30 points)
Games 1-20: 11th in Conference (21 points)
SVPCT: Good / SHA: Above Average / GF: Great / GA: Good / 5-on-5: Good / SHF: Good

Notes: A dominant second quarter revealed the Canucks look ready again for a long playoff run. Ryan Kesler was almost a point-per-game player in December (14 points in 15 games). For all the fan criticism, Keith Ballard was +10 in the second quarter.

4. Detroit Red Wings (51 points)
Games 21-40: 4th in Conference (26 points)
Games 1-20: 5th in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Good / SHA: Great / GF: Great / GA: Good / 5-on-5: Great / SHF: Great

Notes: Those of us waiting for the Red Wings to collapse into a rebuild will probably wait forever, as it looks like Valtteri Filppula (9 goals, 18 points in the second quarter) and Jiri Hudler (9 goals, 16 points) have finally established themselves as scoring threats. Meanwhile, Pavel Datsyuk (24 points) and Henrik Zetterberg (just 4 goals but 20 points) keep rolling. Interestingly, Nicklas Lidstrom had a pedestrian games 21-40 (2 goals, 7 points).

5. St. Louis Blues (51 points)
Games 21-40: 2nd in Conference (29 points)
Games 1-20: 9th in Conference (22 points)
SVPCT: Great / SHA: Great / GF: Below Average / GA: Great / 5-on-5: Great / SHF: Good

Notes: It didn’t take long for the Blues to play Hitchcock hockey did it? Sure, St. Louis still has trouble scoring, but the powerplay’s improving (9.2% in the first quarter, 18% during the second quarter). Meanwhile, the Blues goalie tandem was dynamite in games 21-40. Both Brian Elliott (7-4, 1.91 goals against, .931 save percentage) and Jaroslav Halak (6-0-3, 1.95 goals against, .929 save percentage) played like all-stars.

6. Minnesota Wild (48 points)
Games 21-40: 11th in Conference (21 points)
Games 1-20: 2nd in Conference (27 points)
SVPCT: Great / SHA: Awful / GF: Awful / GA: Great / 5-on-5: Below Average / SHF: Awful

Notes: It seems pretty clear that amazing start to the season was built on a house of cards – there’s a lot not working in Minnesota. After a hot start, Niklas Backstrom has been average lately (.908 save percentage in December), while the team’s goals against in the second quarter was almost a full goal higher than the first quarter (from 1.98 to 2.75).

7. Dallas Stars (47 points)
Games 21-40: 8th in Conference (23 points)
Games 1-20: 7th in Conference (24 points)
SVPCT: Above Average / SHA: Awful / GF: Above Average / GA: Below Average / 5-on-5: Good / SHF: Below Average

Notes: The Stars will be one of the teams in the Western Conference fighting tooth-and-nail for a final playoff spot. After a great start, Sheldon Souray was cooling off in the second quarter prior to his injury (3 assists, -1 in 14 games). Meanwhile, Stephane Robidas was a -6 during games 21-40. In Kari Lehtonen’s absence, Richard Bachman was solid (2.56 goals against, .917 save percentage) while Andrew Raycroft was not (3.49 goals against since November 23rd).

8. Nashville Predators (46 points)
Games 21-40: 10th in Conference (22 points)
Games 1-20: 6th in Conference (24 points)
SVPCT: Above Average / SHA: Poor / GF: Above Average / GA: Above Average / 5-on-5: Below Average / SHF: Awful

Notes: Another team trending downward thanks to disappointing goaltending play. Pekke Renne was rather human for games 21-40 (2.95 goals against, .904 save percentage). Rookie Craig Smith had just 1 goal in the second quarter, while Patric Hornqvist had 2.

9. Los Angeles Kings (45 points)
Games 21-40: 9th in Conference (22 points)
Games 1-20: 8th in Conference (23 points)
SVPCT: Great / SHA: Good / GF: Awful / GA: Great / 5-on-5: Poor / SHF: Good

Notes: During the second quarter, the Kings only scored three or more goals four times. Stats like that are why coaches get fired. Simon Gagne went goalless for December (2 assist in 12 games), while Jack Johnson was -6 during games 21-40. The team desperately needs a sniper – do they have enough to put into a package for Zach Parise? Goaltender Jonathan Bernier would have to be in the mix.

10. Colorado Avalanche (43 points)
Games 21-40:6th in Conference (24 points)
Games 1-20: 12th in Conference (19 points)
SVPCT: Below Average / SHA: Good / GF: Poor / GA: Below Average / 5-on-5: Awful / SHF: Above Average

Notes: For being a young, skating team, the Avalanche sure have a tough time scoring. Youngsters Matt Duchene (3 goals, 8 points), Paul Stastny (5 goals, 8 points) and David Jones (2 assists) all struggled in the second quarter.

11. Phoenix Coyotes (42 points)
Games 21-40: 12th in Conference (17 points)
Games 1-20: 4th in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Good / SHA: Poor / GF: Poor / GA: Good / 5-on-5: Above Average / SHF: Below Average

Notes: Pretty easy to see why they fell so far in the second quarter – Mike Smith returned back to earth (13 games, 5 wins, 3.38 goals against, .894 save percentage). Key forwards Shane Doan (3 goals, -7) and Martin Hanzel (2 goals) were MIA during games 21-40.

12. Calgary Flames (41 points)
Games 21-40: 7th in Conference (24 points)
Games 1-20: 13th in Conference (17 points)
SVPCT: Above Average / SHA: Below Average / GF: Awful / GA: Above Average / 5-on-5: Poor / SHF: Poor

Notes: It hasn’t been a great season in Calgary, but the Flames were a playoff team during the second quarter. One of the reasons was an improved powerplay, which helped the team score enough to win games. Naturally, Jarome Iginla was at the centre of this improvement (9 goals, 21 points, +7 in 20 games), although Olli Jokinen was right behind (7 goals, 19 points, +2). In the absence of Mark Giordano, Derek Smith stepped up (9 points), leading all Flames defensemen in scoring in the second quarter.

13. Edmonton Oilers (35 points)
Games 21-40: 15th in Conference (13 points)
Games 1-20: 10th in Conference (22 points)
SVPCT: Above Average / SHA: Below Average / GF: Above Average / GA: Above Average / 5-on-5: Poor / SHF: Awful

Notes: Introducing the worst team in the Western Conference during the second quarter. Yes, their defense is AHL-caliber, but some blame on the Oilers’ collapse should fall on the shoulders of the team’s veterans. Shawn Horcoff (4 goals, -8) and Ales Hemsky (2 goals, -4) underperformed, while Ryan Smyth (4 goals, 12 points, +2) was only marginally better.

14. Anaheim Ducks (30 points)
Games 21-40: 14th in Conference (14 points)
Games 1-20: 14th in Conference (16 points)
SVPCT: Awful / SHA: Below Average / GF: Poor / GA: Awful / 5-on-5: Awful / SHF: Awful

Notes: The fabulous core of the Ducks got rolling in the second quarter. Teemu Selanne (7 goals, 20 points), Corey Perry (11 goals, 21 points), Bobby Ryan (10 goals, 16 points) and Ryan Getzlaf (3 goals, 15 points) sparked the offense. However, a lack of depth and poor goaltending (Jonas Hiller had a 3.32 goals against and .892 save percentage in games 21-40) has kept Anaheim near the bottom of the Western Conference.

15. Columbus Blue Jackets (27 points)
Games 21-40: 13th in Conference (15 points)
Games 1-20: 15th in Conference (12 points)
SVPCT: Awful / SHA: Good / GF: Awful / GA: Awful / 5-on-5: Awful / SHF: Above Average

Notes: At the time of this study, Columbus was one of only six teams with a team save percentage under .900 (they were at .894). For what it’s worth, league average at the time was .912. Players playing their way out of town: Antoine Vermette (3 goals, 2 assists in the second quarter); Derick Brassard (2 goals, 5 assists); and Vinny Prospel (2 goals, 10 points). Could someone explain how keeping Ryan Johansen in the NHL (2 goals, 4 assists during games 21-40) is helping him develop into a top-six NHL forward?

Jan 102012
 

If someone you know is in a car crash, the first thing you want to know is how badly hurt they are.

The 2011-12 season of the Columbus Blue Jackets has been an epic car crash.

But in the grand scheme of things, they’re not too badly hurt.

Why? Just like someone struggling with addiction, sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to start your way back to the top.

For the Blue Jackets, this year has been rock bottom – and the path to the top is pretty clear.

Here’s why the future isn’t all that dark in Columbus:

1. The first overall pick this year is a dandy.

Nail Yakupov has been heralded as the best Russian prospect since Alex Ovechkin and has drawn comparisons to Pavel Bure. Unlike many of the Russian forwards that come to play in the NHL, Yakupov has strong on-ice vision and knows how to use his teammates (witness the 4-assist game against Canada in the World Juniors). A torn meniscus shouldn’t dampen his NHL future, and he’s already stated he doesn’t want to play in the KHL. If the Blue Jackets remain as the worst team in the NHL and don’t lose their first overall pick in the draft lottery, Yakupov could have the same impact as Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have had on their respective teams.

2. They already have a veteran superstar to build and market the team around.

Rick Nash has never had an elite centre to play with, and for the most part has been almost a lone-gunman his team’s attack, making it easy for the opposition to defend against him. However, he remains an elite talent, with great speed for a power forward and terrific goal-scoring hands. In many ways, he could become what Jarome Iginla came to mean to the Calgary Flames, both on the ice and in the community. The Blue Jackets would be fools to move him. Besides, teams when trading a superstar of Nash’s standing rarely get equal value back in a trade (witness the Joe Thornton deal from Boston years ago).

3. Their attendance woes are greatly exaggerated.

One of the great myths propagated by hockey media (particularly Toronto hockey media) is that Columbus is just another failed NHL expansion team destined to move.

Well hold on a minute.

From 2000-2004 Columbus was actually a top-15 market attendance-wise in the NHL, peaking at 8th overall in the league in 2001-02. Granted, years of on-ice incompetence eventually wore the lustre off of going to Blue Jackets games. But if you look at the history of the franchise (2000-present), they’re actually only 21st in league attendance:

RankTeamAverage Attendance (2000-present)
1Montreal Canadiens20,837
2Detroit Red Wings18, 859
.........
21Columbus Blue Jackets16,168
22Boston Bruins16,083
23Florida Panthers15,625
24Carolina Hurricanes15, 441
25New Jersey Devils15, 157
26Anaheim Ducks14, 988
27Nashville Predators14, 935
28Atlanta/Winnipeg14, 714
29Phoenix Coyotes13, 823
30New York Islanders13, 090

The success or failure of a hockey market can only truly be measured once the local team has experienced both sustained success and failure.

Columbus has only known failure. It’s not a stretch to think the team will fill their building again once the team enjoys some success.

4. It doesn’t take a rocket science to see where this team needs to improve.

Let’s get this out of the way first. Scott Howson has been at best mediocre, at worst a failure, as Blue Jackets general manager. The remainder of this season, and what he can accomplish in the off-season, will decide if he remains the team’s architect in 2013.

Howson has already stated Columbus is open-for-business. There’s a nice breakdown of who could be moved here. Who the team ships out though is almost secondary to the importance of what it brings back.

In this case, the only acceptable return is a goalie who can make a difference night in, night out at the NHL level.

The Steve Mason era has to end. Other than during Mason’s rookie season, the team’s goaltending has been among the league worst. A great team can win with average goaltending. A rebuilding team can only win with great goaltending.

The Blue Jackets need to find that goaltending – that is priority no. 1. Maybe it’s Jonathan Bernier in Los Angeles; Cory Schneider in Vancouver; Thomas Griess in San Jose; Anders Lindback in Nashville; or Sergei Bobrovsky in Philadelphia. Maybe it’s 2012 unrestricted free agents Tomas Vokun in Washington or Ray Emery in Chicago. Maybe it’s a a draft pick like Andrei Vasilevski. Maybe it’s prospect Mark Dekanich, who has been knocking on the door in Columbus for awhile but can’t seem to stay healthy.

Whoever it is, the Blue Jackets must turn that perennial weakness into a position of strength for the team to turn around.

The most consistently successful teams in NHL history are those that build from the goaltender out. It’s time Columbus followed the blueprint.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • One final Blue Jacket thought - the time to fire coach Scott Arniel was two months ago, when the season was still somewhat salvagable. Letting Arniel try to change the team’s on-ice philosophy on the fly during the season only further muddled the direction of the team. As stated above, the future could be rosy in Columbus if the right moves are made right now. Howson’s handling of Arniel though creates more doubt he’s the GM to right-the-ship.
  • Can’t stop laughing at the headlines involving Dustin Penner’s injury while eating pancakes. With only four goals and 15 points in 50 career games now with Los Angeles, he could be moved at the trade deadline. The question is – who would want him? Love these unasked follow-up questions to Penner about his injury too.
  • This is why expansion is coming soon to the NHL – it would address the “unbalanced” conference issue the NHLPA has with the league’s proposed realignment. Adding two teams to the proposed “East” (say Metro Toronto and Quebec City) would give every conference eight teams. Such a move would also add a lot of profits to the league, which in turn benefits both owners and players.
  • If the NHL does expand let’s hope they reduce the roster size. There’s not enough talent for 30 teams, let alone 32.
  • Here are ESPN’s first-half grades.
  • The Emperor has no clothes Part #1 – Here’s why the Washington Capitals do not make the playoffs this year: Dale Hunter is in over his head as coach; beyond Alex Ovechkin and Niklas Backstrom, the team is overrated offensively; the team lacks the discipline to commit to a defensive scheme; GM George McPhee has made the critical mistake of overvaluing players on his own roster.
  • The Emperor has no clothes Part #2 – It sure looks like the Edmonton Oilers, despite all their high draft picks, are on the fast-track to nowhere. They’re likely the worst team in the league right now. Sure that can happen when your team’s best players get hurt. It’s more likely to happen when you ice an AHL-level defense and feature only adequate goaltending.
  • “We’re in the people business too, and I would look like an idiot not to put him in” says Ken Hitchcock about giving Jaroslav Halak the start in Montreal. Funny how this comment made me think about how the Canucks chose to start Cory Schneider against Boston over the weekend. Sure Vancouver won, but it was probably bad people business for Roberto Luongo.
  • One last Canucks thought: Sami Salo had been playing some of the best hockey of his career before getting hurt against the Bruins. Vancouver’s rolling right now, but defensive depth must remain a trade priority if this team intends to make a long Stanley Cup run.
Jan 042012
 

In the spirit of the New Year, here are five resolutions the NHL should make for 2012:

1. Abandon the “game is too fast” narrative

As the NHL concussion issue has grown, so too has the argument that the game is currently too fast. According to Ex-NHL’ers (most recently Eric Lindros) and several general managers (Carolina’s Jim Rutherford is the most vocal at the moment), putting the red line back in would slow the game down and reduce the number of concussions taking place on ice.

This, naturally, is complete poppycock and a classic case of conservative, backward NHL thinking.

If someone were to study this issue (and you have to assume someone with the NHL and NHLPA is studying this), the numbers would prove the majority of concussions occur away from the middle of the ice, along the boards, whether the puck is part of the play or not. The numbers would also suggest fighting contributes a significant number of concussions to the league’s totals.

The flow of NHL hockey – the quickness with which teams’ transition from offense to defense and back again – has never been greater. As a result the games, even with scoring trending downward, remain exciting.

Putting the red line back in would reduce this flow and give us an NHL product not unlike the dead puck era of the late 1990s early 2000s.  

No thank you.

2. Change overtime

Are shootouts exciting? Yes. Have we exhausted the premise? Absolutely. Shootouts are a nightly occurrence. Also, when was the last time you talked about a shootout goal around the water cooler the next day?(Probably after this one?)

Let’s presume the NHL’s reasons behind the current 4-on-4 overtime and shootout format were a) to guarantee a game result and eliminate ties; b) to keep teams in playoff races longer by offering up extra points; c) to give games a consistent length of play for easier television network scheduling.  

These issues would all still be addressed if the NHL adopted the 3-on-3 overtime proposition they’ve been studying.

Think about it. Everyone loves 4-on-4 overtime hockey and 3-on-3 would bring even more offense and drama to the sport. There would be more mistakes, more scoring chances and naturally more goals because it’s tougher to defend 3-on-3 than 4-on-4. 

 The NHL should adopt 3-on-3 overtime. It can keep the shootouts if it wants to, but they’ll rightfully be the rarity rather than the norm they’ve become.

3. Put the Winter Classic in Detroit

This one feels like it might actually happen, and the arguments are nicely summarized here. Besides, Detroit didn’t insist on moving to the Eastern Conference in realignment after all, so the NHL may owe the team a favour. The Red Wings have been the NHL’s marquee U.S. team – not to mention the league’s elite franchise – for almost two decades. They deserve a chance to host the Winter Classic, preferably against the rival Chicago Blackhawks. What an alumni game that would be.

4. Move the Phoenix Coyotes

Let’s put everyone out of their misery, shall we? The most logical place to move the team is Quebec City, but they’ve still got arena and ownership issues to address. Besides, as Elliotte Friedman points out, the NHL might want to leverage interest in Quebec City and Metro Toronto to reap an expansion fee windfall down the road. If this means the Coyotes have to therefore move to Kansas City, Seattle or (god forbid) Las Vegas, at least there’s hope those markets could one day love hockey. None of that hope exists in Phoenix anymore.

Sadly, the NHL probably can’t sell the team until after a new collective bargaining agreement offers a new ownership group some cost-certainty. This means 2012-13 could feature another year of lame-duck, desert dog hockey.

5. Negotiate a new Collective Bargaining Agreement for September 1st, 2012

Forget the details of potential negotiations for a second – here’s why the NHL and NHLPA should only come to an agreement in September 2012.

Other than the NHL draft and the start of free agency on July 1st, the NHL off-season is a snooze fest, confined to the margins of the sporting landscape. Many fans are okay with this, having been exhausted from an NHL post-season that drags on until June. In general, fans are happy to forget about hockey until training camp in September.

Both the NFL and NBA generated huge buzz and sent their fans into frenzy by forcing their off-seasons into a compressed amount of time. The NHL could also benefit from this, using the first two weeks of September as the off-season, and the last two weeks as a compressed training camp schedule. Then they can drop the puck as planned, without having lost a single game to a work stoppage but having created a month-long extravaganza for fans.

No one wants to miss a game of NHL hockey due to collective bargaining. But it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if the NHL and NHLPA waited until August to start serious talks.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • In case you missed it, here’s the story that says the six Canadian teams account for 33% of the league’s profits.
  • One more Toronto Star link – this time about the hometown team’s terrible December. That’s what happens when you’ve got some historically bad penalty killing by the Maple Leafs.
  • Hard to believe, but the Montreal Canadiens have lost 15 games in which they’ve held a lead so far this year.
  • Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury. He had already started to come back to earth performance-wise. His December numbers: 2 goals, 6 assists in 12 games.
  • Having said that, Edmonton’s Jordan Eberle started this morning 8th overall in the league scoring race (16 goals, 25 assists, 41 points).
  • The Colorado Avalanche are 18-1 in their past 19 shootouts. They’re still not the best shootout team of all-time though. That’s the New Jersey Devils (50 wins, 26 losses). The Devils are 8-1 in the shootout this season.
  • Four favourite things about this year’s 24/7 Flyers vs. Rangers: New York’s Christmas Sweater party; the Broadway fedora Rangers players give to their player of the game; Brad Richards telling Tom Sestito “One day in the NHL for you. It’s fantasy camp for you”; everything involving John Tortorella. Hard to watch the series and not think there’s something special brewing in The Big Apple this season.
  • Loved the Winter Classic alumni game, and hope it continues to grow in prominence. It was nice to see John LeClair and Eric Lindros combine for the game’s first goal. Lindros was by far the most dominating junior player I’ve ever seen play.
  • Also interesting to see how, even in retirement, Mark Messier can’t stand losing. His interviews during the game were surprisingly intense.
  • Disappointing to see this year’s Winter Classic was the lowest-rated of all-time. That’s what happens when you a) move it to January 2nd, a workday for many people and b) move the start time around.
  • The actual Winter Classic game was a lot of fun, but I wish the audio was mixed differently. Everyone keeps talking about the incredible atmosphere at the ballpark, but the ambient/crowd noise is mixed to a minimum for broadcast.
Dec 232011
 

Season’s Greetings, CHB readers!

In honour of the season, we got together and thought we’d give you a lump of coal …err, a festive edition of our Fantasy Hockey Pool update.

How did our rankings shape up as of Wednesday morning? Read on:

Goose is my Wingman (Chris) – 89.5 points (current rank: 1st)

If there is one thing that I’ve learned during my meteoric climb to the top of the standings, it’s definitely humility.  I’ve been called a drunken boater by Lizz, had my strategic draft process mocked by Ed, seen my definition of an A-list actor trashed by Tom, and pretty much been knocked at every corner by all the writers here at CHB.  So you probably would forgive me if I were to take pot-shots from the high ground, but I won’t sink to that level.  Instead, I’ll just bask in the warmth and glow that first place provides to a select few.

And seeing as it’s the holiday season, I want to share with you two holiday videos that not only share the warmth I’m enjoying but correlate to my journey in the pool so far.

Yes, good ol’ Billy Mack (as played by Bill Nighy – definitive A-list actor).  Just like Billy, I was disrespected early on but eventually found my way to the top of the charts.  And seriously, is there any better movie to watch at Christmas?

And while my super strategic draft mechanism has me in the position I am today, I have been accused of drinking a bit too much of the Egg Nog this holiday season.  But who might have spiked it?  Yes… who exactly spiked the Egg Nog?  My guess is Lizz.  I mean… she called me a drunken boater and I sense that she’s bitter I’m on the top of the pool standings.

But I’m beyond all that.  I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy Auto Draft… err… New Year!

2 Sedins 0 Cups (Tom) – 85.5 points (current rank: 2nd)

Just like another famous second-place finisher (George W. Bush), I’m demanding a recount. Losing to Chris in this pool would be like like losing a tennis match to a blindfolded Reba McEntire – shocking, yet strangely arousing. Hmm. Perhaps I’ve said too much.

For those have you who’ve been away, here’s a summary of all the NHL-related headlines through the first 2+ months of the season: concussions; concussions; concussions; concussions; concussions; Sidney Crosby; concussions; concussions; concussions; concussions; coach fired; concussions; coach fired; concussions; coach fired; concussions; coaches fired; concussions; concussions; concussions. There, now you’re up-to-date.

One final note – as a true gift to you: The perfect Rum and Egg Nog recipe (must be over legal drinking age to continue reading):

1. Get one clean glass (you’d be surprised at how many people get this wrong by going with a dirty glass or, in some cases, an old boot).

2. Inside the glass, toss in three ice cubes (they should clink in the glass. If they don’t, start over).

3. Put in the glass – 1 part rum (eyeball it. If you go over one part, might as well continue to two parts).

4. Two and a half parts egg nogg (eyeball it. Basically, if you pour egg nogg to the point your cup runneth over, well, first you’ve been watching too many episodes of The Borgias - who says “cup runneth over” anymore? Secondly, you’ve clearly been drinking too much. Call a cab. Even if you’re in your own house. Call a cab).

5. Nutmeg shavings (no, contrary to what your hairy roommate might tell you, shaver shavings are not a suitable substitute).

6. Stir

7. Drink

Welcome to flavour country.

Mr. Haiku (Clay) – 82 points (current rank: 3rd)

The recent rash of concussions has hit this team hard as both Jeff Skinner and Kris Letang have been out for quite a while now.  However, I’ve managed stay in the top 3 thanks to the stellar play of Daniel Sedin, Marian Hossa, and Tim Thomas. 

In the spirit of Christmas, I give full props to Chris “I Don’t Need to Show Up at the Draft” Golden who has taken over first place.  I wonder how the other poolsters feel that his auto-drafted team is way ahead of theirs.  And thanks and congrats to Tom, who is comfortably in second place and for putting these recaps together.  And to the other 5 poolies who continue to make me look good.

And Merry Christmas to all of you loyal CHB readers.  You must be loyal indeed if you’re even reading this hockey pool post! 

Church’s Chiggins (Ed) – 75 points (current rank: 4th)

I’ve got the Washington Capitals of the CHB hockey pool. Wildly inconsistent with subpar goaltending. While my boys might be terrible one week, they could put up 15 points in a day and shoot up 7 points in the standings but one way or another, they’re not living up to expectations. 

 …I guess it was no coincidence I started the year with three actual Washington Capitals on my roster.

But then maybe we’re all just doing this wrong. I mean, Chris doesn’t even have a 4th defenseman and he’s in top spot. Auto-draft to victory!

The Hamhuis Ballards (J.J.) – 73 points (current rank: 5th)

Just like Batman has The Joker and Jenn has Angelina, Santa has the Grinch.

And on my CHBWFHP team, I have a couple of grinches.

Henrik Zetterberg has 23 points in 33 games, which puts him on pace to finish with 57 points – or roughly the same pace Kyle Wellwood is on.

After 34 games, Christian Ehrhoff has 16 points and one less goal than Aaron Rome. He’s also a minus-11 – only seven defensemen in the entire league have a worse plus/minus rating.

Oh the Who-manity.

Burrows Buddy (Liz) – 54 points (current rank: 7th)

Looks like I’m still second to last, which is keeping with my “just finish not last” mantra.

I think part of my problem is that I really need to pay better attention to injuries. When my players get hurt I seem to clue in about a week later that maybe I should bench them, so I should work on that. I also made some changes to my line up for the first time, dropping Brandon Sutter and Michael Grabner, while picking up Alex Steen and Ilya Kovalchuk.

I think my team’s leading in penalty minutes, which means they’re either dirty or scrappy, but I’ll take it either way, since it’s also the only stat I’m leading in. By the way guys, I’m still not sure I understand how scoring works. I’m fairly certain I’d have been better off letting a computer make my picks like Chris did.

Dec 212011
 

Next year is the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Canadiens-Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup Final.

Don’t expect a repeat appearence from either team.

Today, the Kings made it official, hiring Darryl Sutter as their new coach.

We talked last week about how hiring Sutter might just be the least imaginative, worst-thought-out decision GM Dean Lombardi could make for his team.

The Kings already defend well – it’s hard to see Sutter adding to this area.

The Kings already had a coach who demanded accountability – and it’s doubtful Darryl Sutter will do this in a way that’s more innovative than Terry Murray.  

Scoring is the Kings primary area of weakness, as it has been for the past couple of seasons.

Who knows – hatred of Sutter may rally players in the dressing room and get the team into the playoffs. There’s certainly enough talent on the roster for the Kings to be a playoff team.

But it’s doubtful the Kings make it, and blame should rest squarely on Lombardi’s shoulders.

He’s the one who’s had incredible difficulty acquiring the game-breaker Los Angeles has needed for the past three seasons (despite having a bevy of young talent to trade).

He’s the one who played hardball with Drew Doughty, resulting in a missed training camp, hurt feelings and a sub-par season to date.

He’s the one who traded for Dustin Penner last year, when anyone following the Oilers knew motivating the big guy was a challenge.

He’s the one who decided to give Justin Williams another $3.5+ million contract after his first 20-goal season in four years.

To his credit, Lombardi’s created a deep organization with strength on the blueline and in goal.  

But teams that win in the NHL can score. And most of Lombardi’s moves to help the attack have been like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

 *****

Speaking of the Titanic, sorry Canadiens fans, but the Habs have hit their iceberg, and it’s named Pierre Gauthier.  

While Jacques Martin may be the devil for creating hockey devoid of any offensive flourish, the fact remains that he got an incredible amount of success out of an (arguably) mediocre cast of players.

Firing coach Martin was clearly the act of a general manager (Gauthier) scrambling to keep blame off his shoulders.

You know, where it should be.

It’s Gauthier who completely botched the Andre Markov situation, giving him a long-term contract without first confirming the extent of the defenseman’s knee injury. Four months in, it would be a surprise to see Markov play this season.

Gauthier built the 2011-12 team with Markov penciled in on the blueline, and he has had to scramble (Chris Campoli, Tomas Kaberle) to fill the gap. Results of the scrambling have been mixed to say the least.

Meanwhile, the Habs continue to feature a pop-gun attack. Assistant coach Perry Pearn was the scapegoat earlier in the year. Now Jacques Martin’s fallen on the sword. In either case, it wasn’t their fault the team hasn’t drafted or traded for a 30-goal talent since Michael Cammalleri joined Montreal three years ago.

Even in the Cammalleri case, good goal-scorers need to play with centremen who can create space and opportunity on the ice. This describes something other than the corpse of Scott Gomez, who’s been given more rope by the Montreal front office than all the cowboys at the Calgary Stampede.

Now, St. Patrick himself, Patrick Roy, has let it be known he’d be interested in coaching the team… if they call him after this season. That’s nice of Patrick to give the Montreal media something to chew on over the holiday season, if not the rest of the NHL season.

In Gauthier’s hands, the 2011-12 Habs are devolving into a circus.

Expect a new ringmaster under the Habs big top next year.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • How about that ego on Patrick Roy? The NHL is an old boys club, and yet here’s Patrick, throwing Randy Cunneyworth and Joe Sacco under the bus. Coaching junior hockey is incredibly different than coaching in the NHL, and we’ve seen how other icons (cough Gretzky cough) have struggled reaching and motivating NHL-level players. It’s one thing to use your legend to push a team of kids; it’s another to get men to that. Roy will create headlines, but good luck to Montreal or Colorado if they hire him – they’ll need it.
  • It’s pretty easy to guess Patrick Roy’s future: successful QMHL coach/owner; failed NHL Coach; outstanding NHL studio analyst. Basically, it says here he becomes the new Jacques Demers or Mario Tremblay.
  • One more thing about the Habs – so their powerplay is miserable (12.3%), yet they just made the man responsible for the powerplay (Randy Cunneyworth) the head coach. That is a bigger red flag to me than a coach who can’t speak French. You can learn French – a coach either knows, or doesn’t know, how to make a powerplay excel.
  • Add Doug Maclean’s voice to those suggesting Mike Richards’ off-ice “issues” have continued in Los Angeles.
  • Interesting to hear Ken Hitchcock say during an interview on Prime Time Sports that his approach to coaching in the NHL today is the exact opposite to the one he used coaching in Dallas. Why did Hitchcock change? It’s a new generation of players (Generation X, Generation Y), who respond and are motivated differently. I wonder if Darryl Sutter is taking notes.
  • For being in a playoff race, there are few teams in the NHL softer in front of their own goal than Toronto. You can put a lawn chair down in the slot comfortably, especially on the powerplay.
  • Doesn’t Mark Messier have enough money? Saying the Canucks “owe” him, even if justified, just reopens old wounds locally. Make no mistake – Messier’s time in Vancouver contradicts the legend he built for himself in Edmonton and New York. It’s like the Canucks got Mark’s evil twin “Mike” Messier instead.
  • Love these Fenwick power rankings. Bottom line – Minnesota will be hard-pressed to keep their season up through 82-games, while these advanced stats are more evidence of the great job Kevin Dineen’s doing in Florida.
  • Here’s Puck Daddy’s 10-worst hockey decisions of 2011. It’s a great list, although I’d say Crosby playing back on January 5th should be #1.
  • Always enjoy reading about Mario Lemieux getting back on the ice, even if it’s just to practice. Probably the most physically-gifted player of all time.
  • Players with more points than Alex Ovechkin (who has 22): Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Bozak, P.A Parenteau, Rich Peverley and 78 others. Players with more goals (Ovechkin has 10): Ryan Jones, Jason Chimera, Chris Kelly, Jannik Hansen and 69 others.
  • Final Ovechkin pile-on: he’s got 5 points in 9 games under new coach Dale Hunter. It’s early, but the coaching change doesn’t seem to have altered much in Washington.
Dec 132011
 

Things that make one wonder on a Tuesday: 

The Kings are in Trouble 

Has Dean Lombardi lost his mind? 

According to reports, the Los Angeles Kings are looking at Darryl Sutter as their next coach. 

Because the Lombardi-Sutter connection won championships in San Jose, right? 

Look, it’s not like the problem with the Kings isn’t well-known. They aren’t scoring enough goals (last in the league). Their point-producers, outside of Anze Kopitar, are all under-performing. 

How Sutter – a notorious “defense-first, -second and –third” coach – could be seen as the right person to create scoring is a mystery.   

Not to mention the fact that Sutter hasn’t coached in five years and, towards the end of his time in Calgary, seemed to have an “out-of-touch-with-today’s-players” smell about him. 

Meanwhile, just down the road Randy Carlyle sits, waiting for his phone to ring. Carlyle has won a Stanley Cup (something the Kings never have), is a butt-kicking coach (something the Kings players need), and his Ducks team could score (five times in the top-15, including three top-10 finishes, over seven years).   

Hiring Darryl Sutter would reek of a kind of nepotism and backward, nostalgia-thinking that brings into question Lombardi’s actual ability to build a Stanley Cup champion. 

Let’s face it: Lombardi teams have historically been in the “good, but not good enough” category. 

Here’s hoping for Kings fans Lombardi’s interest in Darryl Sutter is nothing more than a courtesy call to an old friend. 

Otherwise, this would be a move in the absolute wrong direction for the franchise. 

NHL Concussions 

So now we can add Claude Giroux to the list of prominent NHL scorers felled by concussion. 

To be honest, this discussion has become incredibly tiresome. It’s clear neither the NHL nor the NHLPA view these head injuries as a major issue, or else greater steps would have already been taken to improve player safety. 

You know, steps like eliminating fourth line goons, increasing suspensions and fines, investing in new helmet and neck guard research or getting rid of high-density polyethylene shoulder pads, elbow pads and shin guards.

That’s right, the same stuff used for ballistic plates, folding chairs, riverbank enforcements and natural gas pipes can be found in NHL equipment. 

As has been said in this space before, the NHL decision-making culture isn’t exactly a progressive one. It’s a league run by people who value toughness over skill, and equate truculence for heart and passion. 

At this point, it’s fairly obvious what needs to happen before the NHL gets its house in order on the concussion and player safety issue. 

No, it’s not a Sidney Crosby retirement. 

It’s another Bill Masterton moment.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Hey look, The Hockey News agrees about Darryl Sutter.
  • According to this timeline, does Sidney Crosby only have 400-odd games left in his career?:
Name PPG before concussion First “serious” concussion Age at first “serious” concussion GP post first concussion PPG post first concussion # of concussions Retired at 
Pat LaFontaine 1.06 April 6, 1990 – hit by James Patrick 25 410 (7 seasons) 1.30 32 
Eric Lindros 1.41 March 7, 1998 – hit by Darius Kasparaitus 25 400 (7 seasons) 0.895 34 
Sidney Crosby 1.39 January 1, 2011 – hit by David Steckel 23 ????????????
  • Speaking of concussions, a nice wrap up by Sports Illustrated of 16 NHL’ers whose careers ended due to concussion-related injury.  Some of the names may surprise you.
  • Final concussion note – speculation is Jeff Skinner suffered one last week against Edmonton’s Andy Sutton.
  • One more note on the Kings firing Terry Murray – nice guy, overrated coach. Not sure if he coaches again in the NHL.
  • If you think about it, the approach Dale Tallon is taking to rebuilding the Panthers (invest in veterans while filling up the farm system with prospects) is similar to what Dean Lombardi did in San Jose originally. Despite the lack of championships, the Sharks truly have become the model expansion franchise in the NHL.
  • Dear New Jersey Devils – if Kurtis Foster is the answer, you’ve been asking the wrong question.
  • Speaking of the Devils, their penalty kill is an absolute joy to watch. Opponents have very little time to set-up in the offensive zone.
  • Last Devils thought – they really made Tampa’s defense look slow on Monday night. Particularly Brett Clark, who was caught flat-footed at the blueline on two New Jersey goals.
  • Lots of kudos to go around for the way the New York Rangers are playing right now, but here’s two things to note: 1) their young defense, particularly Dan Girardi, has improved over last year. Girardi has played like an All-Star so far this season. 2) Marian Gaborik is healthy, returning to game-breaking form he had two seasons ago.  The Rangers have a balanced attack for the first time in a long time.
  • Since Washington’s Mike Green has been hurt, John Carlson has 14 points in 14 games.
  • Don’t look now, but the Hurricanes are 1-5 under Kirk Muller. Meanwhile, Dale Hunter has the Capitals at 3-3 after six games, while Bruce Boudreau is 1-3-1 in Anaheim, and Ken Hitchcock is 11-2-3 in St. Louis.
  • Steven Stamkos may sit fourth in league scoring, but he hasn’t had much luck on the powerplay. He’s on pace for just 8 powerplay goals, down from 17 last year.
  • Some interesting time-on-ice stats: Brooks Laich leads Capitals forwards in ice-time (although Alex Ovechkin’s ice-time has gone up under Dale Hunter); Daniel Winnik leads all Avalanche forwards (interesting, given he essentially plays a checking role); Ryan Suter (not Shea Weber) leads Nashville in ice-time; Jeff Carter (not Rick Nash) leads all Blue Jackets forwards.
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