Oct 282013
 

Capitals-vs_-Canucks-Recap-630x415

Washington Capitals (5-6)
Vancouver Canucks (8-4-1)

After an impressive seven-game road trip (5-1-1), the Vancouver Canucks are back in Vancouver and will take on the Washington Capitals.

As the Capitals look to start a new winning streak after their three-game winning streak came to an end on Saturday night with a 5-2 loss against the Calgary Flames, the Canucks look to continue their own three-game winning streak tonight.

We welcome the Canucks back home, but also, we (expect to) welcome back Alexandre Burrows, who has been out since injuring his foot while blocking a shot on October 3rd during the Canucks season opener against the San Jose Sharks. With Burrows ready to play, he should add some extra energy to a tired team that has just spent the last 7 games and 11 nights on the road.

Who’s Hot

After leading the Canucks to a win against the St. Louis Blues with 2 goals, including the game-winner in overtime, Ryan Kesler now has 7 goals this season. He has scored in three straight games and has 7 points (4 goals and 3 assists) over the past four games. Meanwhile, Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals has 4 goals and 2 assists in the past four games.

Who’s Out

The Canucks are expected to be playing without Jordan Schroeder (foot), Jannik Hansen (upper body) and Dale Weise (lower body).

The Capitals will be playing without defenseman Jack Hillen (lower body – leg) who is on long-term injured reserve.

May 152012
 

New York Rangers (1) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)

Season Series:  Rangers (3-2-1)

What we learned about the Rangers in the Second Round: That Brad Richards, at least this year, is worth every penny New York is paying him. There is a lot of Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman in Richards game this post-season.  The Rangers need Richards (and for that matter, Marian Gaborik, who had a terrific Caps series) to continue playing like this, as without him the team clearly doesn’t have enough scoring to win a playoff series. For that matter, we also learned that Michael Del Zotto has come all the way back from a disasterous 2010-11 season. He helped the Rangers improve their powerplay in the second round. Finally, we learned that the Rangers had enough in the tank after a 7-game first round to go the distance again against Washington. The longer this Conference Final goes though, the worse it will be for the clearly battered-and-bruised Rangers.

What we learned about the Devils in the Second Round: That Peter DeBoer was a terrific hire as coach for the Devils, has he’s taken their traditional defensive excellence and added an up-tempo forecheck that drove Philadelphia’s blueliners crazy in the second round. This is as deep a Devils team upfront as they’ve had since the turn of the century. That Ilya Kovalchuk has overtaken Alex Ovechkin in the rankings of best Russian players, and has become a better leader than anyone expected. That their powerplay had some bite against the Flyers, with two solid offensive lines and Kurtis Foster bombing from the point.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Rangers. DeBoer has done a great job with the Devils but no one has gotten more from his players this year than John Tortorella.

Goaltending: Rangers. Massive edge here. Brodeur has had moments in this post-season but was just “good enough” against the Flyers. Lundqvist is all world.

Defense: Rangers. No team remaining in the playoffs is as disciplined defensively as the Rangers. Their blueline is heads-and-tails better than New Jersey’s, especially with the emergence of Del Zotto in the second round.

Offense: Devils. New Jersey’s tied with Los Angeles for highest scoring team remaining in the playoffs, and they can roll three lines that can contribute offensively. The key to the series for the Devils will be containing Richards and Gaborik. If they can, the Rangers offense is lifeless.

Special Teams: Even. Devils have had a stronger powerplay in the post-season, but their penalty kill has been a sore point through two rounds. Rangers have been mediocre in both areas, although their pp improved against Washington.

Prediction: Rangers in 6.

*****

A word now for the dearly departed:

Philadelphia Flyers

Cause of Death: Poor defensive play.

Prescription: First the Flyers have to figure out what’s going on with Chris Pronger. If Pronger is really headed for retirement, it would make a lot of sense for the team to try and find some cap room to go after Ryan Suter. The Flyers can certainly score, but adding some other veteran, character guys who can improve the penalty kill and help clean up the defensive zone (and not leave Ilya Bryzgalov out to dry like he was left at times in these playoffs) would be a huge boost. This is probably “as bad” as the Flyers are going to be for some time – they’re a powerhouse on the rise.

*****

Washington Capitals

Cause of Death: Self-inflicted Offensive Asphyxiation.

Prescription: Let’s get this out of the way first – this team got no more done under Dale Hunter’s “defensive” system than they did playing Bruce Boudreau’s original “run and gun” hockey. As evidenced as recently as this spring by the Kings and Devils, teams that can score (averaging 3 goals per game) AND defend well are enjoying success. Doing just one, or the other, is not good enough. The Caps have an emerging blueline, some solid character and defensive depth throughout the lineup and hopes are high for goaltender Holtby – what Washington needs to invest in (and have needed to invest in for a long-time now) is secondary scoring. A good, second-line centre who could take the heat off of Alex Ovechkin and Nik Backstrom (who face every team’s top defensive players) would be a huge step in the right direction for the Caps. It would never happen, but man this is a team that could use Jordan Staal (reportedly on the market) or a player of that calibre to anchor the second line.

Apr 282012
 
New York Rangers vs Washington Capitals

Photo credit: New York Times

Yesterday we looked at the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference now, shall we?

New York Rangers (1) vs. Washington Capitals (7)

Season Series: Tied 2-2

What we Learned About the Rangers: 

It was more about what we were able to confirm than what we learned. Even with the addition of Brad Richards (who led the team in scoring in round one), this is a New York team built to keep goals out, not score them in bushels. Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin could add that offense in time, but right now their biggest contribution seems to be speed. Derek Stepan was arguably the team’s best forward in the first round. Henrik Lundqvist got out of the first round for the first time in four years and cemented his status as the game’s best. With the Bruins out of the playoffs the Rangers are now the best defensive team remaining in the East. Given they’re the top seed; given that defensive excellence; given Henrik Lundqvist; these Blueshirts enter this series as prohibitive favourites.

What we Learned about the Capitals: 

A heck of a lot. For starters, we learned that coach Dale Hunter will play whoever he feels is going, meaning that stars Alex Ovechkin, Nik Backstrom and Alex Semin all saw reduced minutes at different times in the last series. We learned that the Capitals blueline is starting to really come of age, with Karl Alzner especially making a difference defensively. We learned that the Caps have become a patient team – they’ll wait for their opponent to make mistakes rather than push the tempo themselves. Oh, and we learned that the Caps have a pretty good third string goalie, especially when the entire team is going to great lengths to protect him. Look, this isn’t the Capitals team that captured our hearts years ago. But their round one performance certainly revealed this is a hockey club that, after years of disappointment, has improved character on its roster. Boston – the more talented, deeper team – trapped and passively played their way to a series loss. It’s quite possible the Rangers, with their similar style, who’ve lost to Washington in the last two playoffs, could do the same.

Quick Decisions: 

Coaching: Rangers. Tortorella has won a Cup and, well, I’ve got segments of 24/7 cued for whenever I need an inspirational speech. Hunter’s won a round but the jury is still out on him being a capable NHL bench boss.

Goaltending: Rangers. Yes Braden Holtby looked like Ken Dryden in round one. But Lundqvist is the best in the game. Best Washington can hope for here is a draw.

Defense: Rangers. It’s closer than expected based on Washington’s excellent performance against the Bruins. Both teams have strong defense cores, with the Caps a bit more dynamic along the blueline (Mike Green had a nice series against the Bruins). Ranger forwards execute the defensive system in their sleep, while the Caps still have a few players who freelance from time to time.

Offense: Even. Washington has more talented players but they don’t have much beyond their big three scorers. The Rangers have slightly more scoring on their second and third lines but Marian Gaborik – their strongest sniper – had a pedestrian first round. Expect a low scoring series.

Special Teams: Even. Both teams have the resources to be better in this area. Washington’s special teams were average in the regular season and slightly better in the first round. The Rangers powerplay has been frustrating for most of the year, but surprisingly their strong penalty kill was lit up a bit by the Senators.

Prediction: Capitals in 7.

*****

Philadelphia Flyers (5) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)

Season Series: Philadelphia (3-2-1)

What we Learned About Philadelphia:

That they have probably the most offensive depth in the Eastern Conference. We also learned that their willingness to take risks often leaves goalie Ilya Bryzgalov hung out to dry. We learned that Braydon Coburn has taken another step and is a legitimate top-pairing defenseman. We learned that Danny Briere can still raise his game in the post-season and that Claude Giroux might be the best player in the league right now. We learned that Max Talbot has gotten better since leaving Pittsburgh.

What we Learned About New Jersey:

We learned maybe the biggest lesson of the first round – that Ilya Kovalchuk has become a more complete player and has grown into a leadership role. We learned that Martin Brodeur has some magic left (very solid in Game 7) but that his game can leave him at any given moment. The Devils also showed some weak defensive play that’s unlike the great Devils team of old. This is certainly the weakest blueline left in the playoffs and arguably the weakest goaltending left in the playoffs.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Philadelphia (Peter DeBoer has done a very good job bringing speed and a more dynamic approach to the Devils. The Flyers Peter Laviolette though is an elite coach)

Goaltending: Flyers. Slight edge here. Bryzgalov isn’t as bad as his first round stats against the Penguins and Brodeur isn’t as good as his against the pop-gun Panthers. Bryzgalov’s numbers were slightly stronger in the regular season and have been stronger over the last few years.

Defense: Flyers. Another slight edge attributable to a stronger Flyers blueline. Nick Grossman has been a nice addition, while Matt Carle and Kimmo Timmonen are stronger than anything the Devils have on defense.

Offense: Flyers. It’s the Flyers top three lines versus the Devils’ top-two. That depth, and the ability of coach Laviolette to mix and match 10 forwards with offensive skill (list includes youngsters Matt Read, Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn), give Philadelphia a definitive advantage here. The Devils still can’t get any offense from their blueline on a consistant basis.

Prediction: Flyers in 5.

*****

And finally, a final word for the dearly departed:

Boston Bruins

Cause of Death: Self-asphyxiation – injuries robbed the team of offensive depth, and Claude Julien’s passive system didn’t generate enough opportunities for the team to score.

Prescription: Continue to search for a creative blueline to quarterback the powerplay. Explore another top-six forward to potentially replace Nathan Horton, whose future is cloudy due to concussion.

*****

Florida Panthers

Cause of Death: Lack of talent

Prescription: Stay the course. This Panthers team as constructed is an interim measure while the team’s best young players develop at their own pace. Adding a Jonathan Huberdeau next year will only help this club.

*****

Pittsburgh Penguins

Cause of Death: A lack of defense and goaltending.

Prescription: Find a stronger back-up goaltender to spell Marc-Andre Fleury when his game escapes him. Upgrade defensive depth, as Paul Martin struggled in the post-season and the third-pairing barely played.

*****

Ottawa Senators

Cause of Death: Lack of composure in Game 6.

Prescription: Stay the course. Composure comes with experience. The Senators shuffled all their young players into the lineup to get them playoff exposure. That should pay dividends next year.

Apr 112012
 
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers

Photo credit: canada.com

New York Rangers (1) vs. Ottawa Senators (8)

Season Series: Ottawa (3-1)

It’s been a rather Cinderella season for the New York Rangers, who rode their improving young core, particularly on defense, to their most successful season since they won the Stanley Cup in 1993-94. Marion Gaborik eclipsed 40-goals for the third time and is the most dangerous Rangers forward. Ryan Callahan (29 goals) is the most complete player on the team and is a Selke Candidate this year. Brad Richards scored some key goals during the season, but his 66 points and -1 were somewhat disappointing. For all the hype over Henrik Lundquist’s performance this year, since March he’s been rather pedestrian (2.60 goals against; .895 save percentage). Nonetheless, this is the strongest blueline (highlighted by career years from Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonough and Michael Del Zotto) Lundquist’s ever played behind.

Speaking of Cinderella seasons, the Senators were destined for a lottery pick according to most pre-season prognostications. Coach Paul Maurice brought the offense from his stint in Detroit, but more importantly the emergence of Erik Karlsson transformed Ottawa into one of the most dangerous teams in the league. Leading the attack upfront was Jason Spezza, who played 80 games for the first time in three years and was among the league-leaders in scoring. Craig Anderson actually improved as the season went along, helping the team almost shave half-a-goal against per game off their record post All-Star Game. This is a very young team though, and Anderson will have to come up huge if the Sens are to have a chance in the series.

Key Player, Rangers: Marian Gaborik

The Rangers will need their best offensive player to have a terrific post-season if the team has any chance of a Cup run. Gaborik’s compete-level will be tested by anOttawateam that will punish him physically every time he touches the puck.

Key Player, Senators: Erik Karlsson

Similar to Gaborik, Karlsson is the straw the stirs the Senators offensive drink.  The Rangers are going to go after Ottawa’s young quarterback defenseman and make him pay the price every time he goes back for the puck in his own zone. If Rangers such as Brandon Dubinsky are successful limiting Karlsson, they’ll neutralize Ottawa’s attack.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Rangers. John Tortorella’s won a Stanley Cup and should get the match-ups he wants with home-ice advantage.

Goaltending: Rangers. As strong as Anderson played this season few goalies are in Lundquist’s league.

Defense: Rangers. Despite improved play from Filip Kuba and Karlsson’s excellence, New York’s blueline has greater depth and is augmented by a strong two-way forward group.

Scoring: Senators. Top-4 in the league scoring-wise, and only one of three teams to average more than three goals-per-game after the All-Star break.

Special Teams: Even. Ottawa’s stronger on the powerplay, while the Rangers were among the league’s best on the penalty kill.

Prediction: Rangers in 6

*****

Boston Bruins (2) vs. Washington Capitals (7)

Season Series: Washington (3-1)

The defending champion Boston Bruins were tied with Ottawa for the second-fewest points among playoff teams in their last 41 games (45 points). Poor goaltending was a major factor, as while the Bruins reduced their shots against after the All-Star Game, their goalies could only muster a .899 save percentage. Nonetheless, this is a team that’s arguably as deep as the Cup winners last year, with Tyler Seguin (team-leading 67-points) having replaced Mark Recchi; Brian Rolston playing the Rich Peverley role (15 points in 21 Bruins games) and Joe Corvo filling the Tomas Kaberle position as “offensive defenseman who needs his ice-time well-managed.” Nathan Horton’s injury has been somewhat off-set by improved play by Benoit Pouliot. A repeat is not out of the question.

If there is a playoff team that would like to forget its regular season it’s the Washington Capitals, who went from pre-season favourites to run away with the Southeast Division to coming this close to finishing outside the playoffs.  The firing of Bruce Boudreau brought Dale Hunter back to the Washington franchise, but the team really didn’t improve their play. The Caps were 30-23-7 under the new coach and, for the first time in years, struggled to find any offense. Hunter’s system (or lack thereof) was criticized by his own players, and a war-of-words between Roman Hamrlik and his coach added to speculation Hunter was in-over-his-head at the NHL level. Tomas Vokoun (currently suffering from a groin injury) was roughly league-average in goal, which didn’t help matters. In reality though, part of Washington’s problem was directly tied to their lack of offensive depth, particularly in the wake of Niklas Backstrom’s absence due to concussion. With Backstrom back, this is a Caps team that enters the playoffs with a few gamebreakers (Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Backstrom), a strong commitment to defense and an improved blueline (Mike Green’s play has fallen off a cliff, but John Carlson and Dmitri Orlov have stepped up). The pieces are there for this team to surprise… or leave the post-season after four-straight losses.

Key Player, Boston: Tim Thomas

Boston’s veteran goalie has been rather average in 2012. If he can’t find his game now, the Capitals will stick around longer than many people think.  

Key Player, Washington: Alex Ovechkin

He is the most talented player in this series and a match-up against Zdeno Chara should be incredibly challenging. But Ovechkin, rather quietly, has been terrific down the stretch (12 goals in 19 games) and has Backstrom back as his centre. A special effort by Ovechkin could re-write this Capitals season and give the Bruins fits.

Quick Decisions

Coaching: Bruins. This is Hunter’s first trip to the NHL post-season; Boston’s Claude Julien is among the league’s best.

Goaltending: Bruins. Closer than you might think given Tim Thomas’s struggles. Who knows how Vokoun will play – and if he’ll play – meaning it’ll be up to Michael Neuvrith or Braden Holtby to shock the world.

Defense: Bruins. Washington potentially has more blueline talent but the Bruins are a more complete and effective group, both forwards and defense.

Scoring:  Bruins. Dale Hunter hasn’t been able to get Washington’s offense firing, while the Bruins can roll four scoring lines.

Special Teams: Bruins. Slight edge due to stronger penalty killing.

Prediction: Bruins in 7

*****

Florida Panthers (3) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)

Season Series: Florida (2-1-1)

The Florida Panthers enter these playoffs as the lowest scoring team in the Eastern Conference. Historically, teams with the fewest goals to reach the playoffs usually make quick first-round exits. Furthermore, the Panthers enter the post-season with the worst goal differential remaining – another ominous omen. Having said that, there are a few reasons why Florida won the Southeast Division. For starters, the Panthers have received solid goaltending from both Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen. More importantly, Brian Campbell (52 points) had a renaissance and Jason Garrison (16 goals) had a career year, helping to turn a below-average blueline into a decent group. Florida also got great mileage from its top line of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg, although they tailed off as the season wore on (Versteeg had just 4 goals after the All-Star Game).

Coached by former Panthers bench boss Peter DeBoer, the Devils implemented a more aggressive system this season to strong results. Nowhere was this more impressive than on the penalty kill, where New Jersey led the league with 15 shorthanded goals. Ilya Kovalchuk had his best season from a complete player perspective, leading the team in goals, points, ice-time and playing a penalty killing role. David Clarkson (30 goals), a healthy Zack Parise (31 goals), Patrick Elias (78 points) Petr Sykora (21 goals) and rookie Adam Henrique (51 points) have given New Jersey more scoring depth than they’ve had in years. This depth upfront hasn’t translated to the defense however, as the Devils blueline is much like Easter Island (aka a bunch of statues). Rookie Adam Larsson led defenseman in scoring with 18 points but has found himself a healthy scratch down the stretch. There’s a lot of pressure on Marek Zidlicky to be a powerplay quarterback in the post-season.

Key Player, Panthers: Brian Campbell

Not only is Campbell likely to play more minutes than anyone else in the series (outside of the goalies), but he’ll be asked to contribute at both ends of the ice. If Florida wins the series the powerplay – on which Campbell is the quarterback – will have to be a factor. Similarly, it would not be a surprise to see the smooth-skating Campbell matched-up against Ilya Kovalchuk, in the hopes that speed can counteract speed.

Key Player, Devils: Martin Brodeur

Brodeur isn’t the goalie we all remember, but his numbers and play did improve as the season went along (.921 save percentage after the break). And yet, he hasn’t won a playoff series in five years. Poor play from Brodeur is probably the only way the Panthers can win this series.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Even. Both teams are led by coaches in the playoffs for the first time. Both did good jobs in the regular season.

Goaltending: Even. Brodeur and the Devils goaltending were much improved in the second-half, but Florida’s Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmenson were just as strong all year for the Panthers.

Defense: Even. The Panthers blueline is stronger than that of the Devils, but New Jersey’s system and team approach to defending the goal remains elite.

Scoring: Devils. Florida scored only 2.29 goals-per-game after the All-Star break, worst among playoff teams.

Special Teams: Devils. Florida was 7th on the powerplay but 25th on the penalty kill. New Jersey was 1st overall on the penalty kill and 14th on the powerplay.

Prediction: Devils in 5

*****

Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (5)

Season Series: Philadelphia (4-2)

There’s a lot of hype about the Penguins as they enter the playoffs, and the buzz is legitimate. Pittsburgh played at a 60-win, 315-goal pace in the second half of the season, and enter the playoffs relatively healthy. There may not be another team in the league more equipped to transition from an attack-focused approach to a defensive one than the Penguins. Evgeni Malkin (109 points) is this year’s likely Hart Trophy winner, and there were times he simply dominated opponents in the offensive zone. His chemistry with James Neal (40 goals) might be the best in the league. Given reduced ice-time upon his return from a concussion, Sidney Crosby also dazzled, putting up 37 points in 22 games this season. When you add Jordan Staal (25 goals) to the mix, this is the deepest team at centre in the league. It’s also the most fragile, as each of Staal, Crosby and Malkin have battled injuries in the past. An injury to Malkin or Crosby especially could change the fate of any playoff series. On defense, Kris Letang battled injuries all season but when healthy looked like a Norris candidate. Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek are a strong shutdown pairing. 

Despite major changes in the off-season, it was really business as usual for the Flyers, who reached 100 points for the second-straight year. Team success was predicated on offense, as Philadelphia was one of just three teams to average more than three goals-per-game. Claude Giroux was a major reason for the team’s offense, establishing himself among the league’s elite scorers with 93 points. Having said that, a strong rookie campaign from Matt Read (24 goals) and a breakout season for Scott Hartnell (37 goals) helped give the Flyers three solid scoring lines. Rookie Sean Couturier played the shutdown centre role all season, and it will be interesting to see how he fares in that role during the playoffs. On defense, the addition of Nicklas Grossman gave the Flyers the capable defensive-defenseman they didn’t have once Chris Pronger was lost for the year (career?) due to injury. Kimmo Timonen (43 points) also took on a greater role after Pronger’s injury, and played some of the best hockey of his career. In goal, Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky were the subject of criticism all season, but their play improved substantially after the All-Star Game.

Key Player, Pittsburgh: Matt Cooke

There’s every reason to expect this Penguins and Flyers series will get ugly. Cooke (19 goals) has had a terrific year, introducing self-control into his game and becoming an effective checking line player. If Cooke can play like Esa Tikkanen, acting as a defensive pest but staying above the expected Flyers shenanigans, he could drive Philadelhpia crazy and into a march to the penalty box. 

Key Player, Philadelphia: Jaromir Jagr

As much pressure as there will be on Ilya Bryzgalov’s shoulders, Jaromir Jagr is the key veteran presence in this young Flyers dressing room. Jagr battled groin injuries during the second-half of the season but demonstrated at times he can still dominate play, particularly down low in the offensive zone. The Flyers can’t win this series if Jagr is a passenger – they need him to be a catalyst.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Even. Both are Stanley Cup winners; both are among the best in the game.

Goaltending: Even. Statistically, Philadelphia received better goaltending from its netminders than Pittsburgh did this year. The Penguins’ Marc-Andre Fleury has become somewhat of a modern day Grant Fuhr – a big game goalie whose statistics otherwise seem unremarkable.

Defense: Penguins. The Penguins have proven without Crosby or Malkin they can be an elite defensive team in the NHL. The Flyers would rather trade chances with their opponent, and their blueline isn’t nearly as deep.

Offense: Penguins. Despite some impressive scoring depth on the Flyers roster the Penguins, with Crosby and Malkin, offer a Lemieux-Francis, Gretzky-Messier, Forsberg-Sakic –like twosome. Containing both of them will be impossible.

Special Teams: Penguins. The Penguins are top ten on both the powerplay and penalty kill, while Philadelphia’s penalty kill has been bottom-third of the league.

Prediction: Penguins in 7

Apr 042012
 

With 98% of the NHL season behind us, it’s time to fill in an imaginary awards ballot.

But before we get to that, let’s take a moment to consider two more dead teams:

Calgary Flames

What went wrong: No team had an easier stretch drive schedule among teams fighting for the last Western Conference playoff spots than the Flames did. They failed to reach the post season because they couldn’t score. The Flames as a team are currently 25th in shots on goal per game. They’re 3-9 in shootouts, rivalling Montreal (5-11) and Carolina (0-6) for the league’s worst record in the skills competition. Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen and Curtis Glencross will finish the year as the team’s lone 20-goal scorers. None of them are consistent (Iginla’s slow starts have become legendary). Calgary sits last in the league in faceoff performance.

What went right: Mikka Kiprusoff carried the team all season with stellar play between the pipes. When finally healthy for the second-half Mark Giordano played well. He has 16 points after the All-Star break and has helped Calgary reach 11th in the NHL on the powerplay. Mike Cammalleri has struggled to stay healthy with the Flames but when dressed has scored at a 30-goal pace.

Off-Season Gameplan: It’s been said in this space more than once, but this aging Calgary team desperately needs a rebuild. After three years of missing the playoffs there’s clearly not enough talent in the lineup to reach the post-season. There isn’t enough organizational depth right now either to create hope for better days in the future. This may the last chance Calgary gets to shop Jarome Iginla before seeing his value depreciate completely on the marketplace.

Winnipeg Jets

What went wrong: There was lots of talk pre-season about what the travel schedule would do to not only the Jets, but other teams in the Southeast Division. Clearly it was a factor for the Manitoba team, as Winnipeg has put together a terrible road record (13-21-5). The penalty kill is below 80%, which hurts a team that’s short-handed a lot (25th worst). As well as Ondrej Pavelec has been at times this season, he tired down the stretch (3.13 goals against in March) and currently ranks 57th in the league in save percentage (.906). Alex Burmistrov was improved this season, but his offensive progression has been slow (just 28 points in year two). Eric Fehr (3 points, 35 games) was a bust, while Tanner Glass (-12) was asked to do too much.

What went right: Blake Wheeler (61 points) and Evander Kane (29 goals) have taken steps forward as top-six, even top-line players. Dustin Byfuglien has had a strong second-half. Off the scrap-heap, Kyle Wellwood has been an effective offensive player (47 points despite just 14:57 per game in ice-time). The MTS Centre has proven to be one of the few home-ice advantages left in the NHL.

Off-Season Gameplan: Continue to build around a very solid core. Veteran depth, particularly the type that could improve the defensive side of Winnipeg’s game, would be helpful. Mark Scheifele will get the Burmistrov treatment next year. If Scheifele’s ready, he could supply enough offense to bring the playoffs back to Manitoba.

***

Now with that little bit of ugly business out of the way, let’s take a quick look at who deserves award recognition for the 2011-2012 NHL season.

Hart Trophy – Evgeni Malkin

Runners-up: Jason Spezza; Henrik Lundqvist

Malkin has been arguably the league’s best player this year. Lundqvist is probably the most valuable, but goalies rarely win this award. A Hart nomination is the feather-in-the-cap to a marvellous season from Jason Spezza.

Norris Trophy – Zdeno Chara

Runners-up: Alex Pieterangelo; Erik Karlsson

Chara wins because he’s put forth his strongest offensive season while retaining defensive dominance (+33 leads all d-men). Karlsson’s had a magical season but his defensive play remains average. Under Ken Hitchcock, Alex Pieterangelo has arrived, breaking the 50-point barrier but more importantly playing extremely well defensively night in, night out.

Vezina Trophy – Henrik Lundqvist

Runners-up: Jonathan Quick; Mike Smith

The Rangers success gives Lundqvist the nod over Quick, whose Los Angeles Kings team have been in a playoff dogfight all season. Mike Smith’s career rejuvenation in Phoenix gives him a slight edge over the two St. Louis Blues goalies (Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott) who’ve split too much playing time to be considered.

Selke Trophy – Patrice Bergeron

Runners-up: David Backes; Anze Kopitar

Bergeron wins almost 60% of his draws and is one of the league’s premiere penalty killers. Backes has flourished under Ken Hitchcock, leading Blues forwards in goals, points, hits and blocked shots. Kopitar deserves greater recognition, is leading the Kings in points once again but, more importantly to this category, has been Los Angeles best defensive player as well.

Calder Trophy – Gabriel Landeskog

Runners-up: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins; Matt Read

Not only is Landeskog tied for the rookie points lead, but he’s an incredible +23 and has played in all situations for the Avs down the stretch. He’s a future captain. Nugent-Hopkins is the most offensively-gifted rookie, but injuries have prevented him from running away with the freshman scoring crown. Matt Read leads all rookies in goals and has become an important player in the Flyers lineup.

Adams Trophy – Ken Hitchcock

Runners-up: Paul Maclean; John Tortorella

Hitchcock’s turned a middle-of-the-pack team into arguably the best team in the Western Conference. Paul Maclean has done wonders in Ottawa, taking a Sens team destined for a lottery pick into the playoffs. Tortorella’s nomination is a reward for guiding a team that’s out-performed its roster’s talent level all season.

 THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Another take on possible NHL awards, this one from ESPN.
  • Let’s just get this out of the way: Mike Milbury was a joke as a general manager and he’s a joke as a commentator. His take on league affairs is almost always neanderthal and ultra-traditionalist. Attacking Sidney Crosby gets your name in the paper though.
  • This definitely should be on any list of craziest goals of the year. It also epitomizes the difference in heart between the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs.
  • At this point, wouldn’t it be for the best for everyone if the Washington Capitals missed the playoffs, fired their coach, and re-built their approach around Ovechkin’s offense than see the gutsy Sabres (one of the best teams in the NHL since the All-Star Game) come up short?
  • Quietly, Willie Mitchell’s having one of the best defensive defenseman seasons in the NHL this year. Granted, the ultra-conservative Kings gameplay helps in that regard.
  • Still without a contract, you have to expect the Edmonton Oilers are ready to walk away from Tom Renney. The talk is Todd Nelson, coach of Edmonton’s AHL farm team, will get a long look. Hard to believe he’s the guy who can take this young team to the next level.
  • It’s a small sample size, but the Nashville Predators are 4-3 in Alex Radulov’s seven games. The big Russian has 3 goals, 6 points in that span and has fit extremely well into the lineup.
  • For all of those people ready to anoint the Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh, let’s acknowledge the fact that the Penguins are actually 25th in the NHL in team save percentage. Marc-Andre Fleury, not Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby, will have the biggest say in how far the Penguins go in the playoffs.
  • Speaking of which, the Chicago Blackhawks, for what it’s worth, are 27th in the NHL in team save percentage. Numbers-wise, Chicago’s entering the post-season with the worst goaltending amongst remaining teams.
  • Some other interesting Pre/Post-All-Star Game numbers: Winnipeg was 22nd in league scoring during the first half; 3rd so far in the second half. Buffalo was 25th in the first-half; 5th in the second half. Going the other way, Vancouver was 3rd in the first half scoring-wise; 15th in the second half. Washington was 9th in the first half; 26th in the second half.
  • Defensively, the Bruins have gone from 4th in the first half to 22nd in the second half. Minnesota from 8th in the first half to 25th and Pittsburgh from 10th to 23rd. Improving their defensive play in the second half were teams like Buffalo (26th to 7th), Anaheim (23rd to 8th), Colorado (21st to 5th) and Ottawa (27th to 13th).
Feb 222012
 

One game does not represent an entire NHL season.  

But Washington’s 5-0 loss to Carolina Monday night was another of the growing number of nails being hammered into the coffin laying rest to the Washington Capitals – 2011-12 edition.

Make no mistake, this Washington team is taking after Monty Python’s dead parrot – it’s bereft of life, destined to rest in peace.

And to think just 24 months ago this was a team destined to transform and dominate the NHL landscape.

There are two reasons why the juggernaut Washington Capitals of 2009-10 have transformed into a Cinderella-sized pumpkin.  

The Little Reason: Injuries to their core players

Mike Green had 76 points in 75 games in the 2009-10 season. In the two seasons since, Green has played just 61 regular season games total. He is the straw that stirs the Washington attack, and he’s been MIA for most of the last two seasons.

This year, the team’s number #1 centre – Nicklas Backstrom – has missed significant time due to a concussion. The drop-off in talent from Backstrom to Marcus Johansson is the equivalent of leaving Charlize Theron to date Mayim Bialik.

Other than Alex Ovechkin, these are the team’s two best, most dynamic players. Without them it’s a no brainer the Capitals have struggled more.

The Big Reason: GM George McPhee abandoned his plan

The 2009-10 Capitals were having fun tearing up the league on their way to a 121-point season. They were the “go-go” Capitals, featuring seven 20+ goal scorers.

Flash forward to today, and the Capitals will be lucky to have four 20-goal scorers.

2009-10 Capitals 20-goal scorers:

Ovechkin 50
Semin 40
Backstrom 33
Knuble 29
Laich 25
Fleischmann 23
Fehr 21

2011-12 Capitals 20-goal scorers (on pace):

Ovechkin 34
Semin 22
Brouwer 21
Chimera 21

Where did the offense go?

It was left in Montreal during the Spring of 2010.

That seven game loss to the Canadiens was devastating to the Capitals front office, who expected nothing less than a championship run that year.

Looking back, it’s easy to see how the Capitals lost the series after being up three-games-to-one:

1) They were a young team (younger than the team that lost to Pittsburgh the year before). Inexperienced playoff teams are extremely suspect to the whims of momentum (both positive and negative).

2) Confidence is a major factor in the success of special teams, and the Capitals just didn’t have it in their powerplay (1-for-33 in the series). This meant the Habs could take penalties without punishment.

3) Montreal employed a passive trap when they had the lead, which confounded coach Bruce Boudreau.

4) Montreal paid extra-special attention to Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom defensively, challenging the rest of the Capitals to create offense.

5) Montreal netminder Jaroslav Halak put on the greatest playoff goaltending performance since Patrick Roy in 1992-93, if not longer.

Given the above, the steps that had to be taken to get the Capitals to the Stanley Cup Final were clear:

1) Find some playoff experience to add to the dressing room.

2) Count on better luck (Halak-esque performances don’t happen every year).

3) Support coach Boudreau in figuring out how to beat the trap.

4) Find an impact second-line centre to take the pressure off of Ovechkin and Backstrom.

Instead, General Manager George McPhee went in the opposite direction, abandoning the style of play he’d built the team on for one that put a priority on defensive accountability.  

It’s been downhill ever since.

The 2010-11 Capitals racked up 107 points but their goals per game rate fell more than a full goal (-1.09). A distance emerged between the team’s run-and-gun – and best – player (Ovechkin) and its coach. Talented Tomas Fleischmann was shipped out for the blueline carcass known as Scott Hannan.  

Come playoff time, Washington was swept by another trapping team, this time the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round. But unlike during the Montreal series (where Washington generated scoring chances to no avail), the Capitals went meekly into the off-season, and with little offensive push back.

This past summer, GM George McPhee doubled-down on his defensive bet. He added Tomas Vokoun to play goal, and brought in Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and Roman Hamrlik to bring size and grit to the team. 

What none of these players do is create offense on their own.

And, for the first part of the 2011-12 season, they couldn’t stop a puck either. Vokoun got off to a poor start, and despite his team out-shooting and out-chancing the opposition, Bruce Boudreau was fired.

The hiring of Dale Hunter was the last bit of “defensive desperation” to come out of the Washington front office. As discussed last week, Hunter’s hard-nosed, no-nonsense approach has stifled what creativity has remained in the Capitals attack.

The transformation of this team from “go-go” to “no-go” is now complete.

Today the Washington Capitals are in a desperate fight for their playoff lives. It didn’t have to be this way.

If Capitals fans should blame anyone, it’s GM George McPhee.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • No big surprise – this interview suggests the man behind the Seattle arena bid could care less about the NHL.
  • Meanwhile, it looks like the NHL would like to sell the Phoenix Coyotes to the bid that includes Jeremy Roenick.
  • Speaking of the Coyotes, it’s been quite the season for Radim Vrbata. He’s cracked 30 goals for the first time, and at least one person thinks he should be a Hart candidate.
  • Don’t look now but Tyler Myers has found his game in Buffalo. He’s got 2 goals, 7 points and is a +7 in his last 10 games.
  • Here’s a Detroit reaction to acquiring Kyle Quincey. Here’s more analysis from Colorado’s Mile High Hockey blog. From here it looks like a trade that helps out all three teams.
  • A great Maclean’s piece on the rise of hockey in the United States. Maybe moving into the sunbelt regions wasn’t such a bad idea for the game after all.
  • As much as there is to like about David Booth on the second line for the Canucks, they still need one more offensive piece and a defenseman, if they plan on making another Cup run this year. Mason Raymond hasn’t looked like a top-six player all year, and the blueline remains inconsistent.
  • Since the free advice is flowing, here’s some for Nashville GM David Poile – there might not be a better year to make a run at the Stanley Cup. Who knows if you’ll ever have Ryan Suter and Shea Weber under contract again, you’ve got the young assets to move, and you’re one of the toughest teams to play against in the league. Ales Hemsky, Ray Whitney, Derek Roy, etc. etc. – go get some deadline offense and push your chips into the middle of the table.
  • In case you missed it, Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts.
  • I know Antoine Vermette is struggling, but this return for him certainly doesn’t give anyone confidence Scott Howson is the type of GM who can maximize the return in any Rick Nash or Jeff Carter trade. It also doesn’t address their goaltending issues either.
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 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.
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 032011
 

When the Tampa Bay Lightning signed Victor Hedman to a 5-year, $20 million deal earlier in the week, there weren’t too many people complaining.

The online community, particularly Tampa Bay fans, applauded Steve Yzerman for keeping Hedman’s cost relatively low. According to the consensus, $4 million a year for 5 years is a great price for an improving, future franchise defenseman.

There’s no question Hedman is an improving player, particularly on the defensive side of the game.

But franchise cornerstone? Someone who dominates at both ends of the ice?

I’m not so sure Hedman has that in him.

I decided to compare eight under-24 blueliners to Hedman. I averaged each player’s career totals (up to December 1st) out over an 82-game schedule to create a fair comparison.

BornNameGAP+/-PIMShotsHitsBlocked ShotsGiveawaysTakeaways
1988E. Johnson82936-1156167931034937
1989D. Doughty113142460140134977525
1989L. Schenn41620-5581152251437135
1990V. Hedman41923-380105681065834
1990Z. Bogosian91625-13611631561105141
1990T. Myers1031414371151011217936
1990A. Pieterangelo1127381223161561123445
1990E. Karlsson103848-194619149707754

Then, I ranked each player 1 to 8 in each category (1 if they ranked first in the category and 8 if they ranked last) and added up their scores.

RankNameSalary after 2011/2012GAP+/-PIMShotsHitsBlocked ShotsGiveawaysTakeawaysTotal
1Pieterangelo$3.16 M154114731229
2Myers$5.5 M323226428537
3KarlssonRFA311831887141
4Doughty$7.0 M122265376842
5E. JohnsonRFA645642562444
6Bogosian$2.5 M576773243347
7Schenn$3.6 M778556115651
8Hedman$4.0 M767488654762

Yikes, Hedman-fans.

According to this list, Hedman actually comes in last, behind the much-maligned Erik Johnson, Zach Bogosian and Luke Schenn.

Granted, this isn’t exactly the most scientific method. For example, Alex Pieterangelo is probably helped from having played only one full season’s worth of games. However, I think the exercise fairly highlights the biggest flaw in Hedman’s game – his offense.

When Hedman was drafted, he was described as a shifty and creative offensive prospect.

That just hasn’t materialized.

Will it?

Let’s take a quick look at the point production of some of the league’s better offensive defensemen after their first three years in the NHL.

RankNameSalary after 2011/2012GAP+/-PIMShotsHitsBlocked ShotsGiveawaysTakeawaysTotal
1Pieterangelo$3.16 M154114731229
2Myers$5.5 M323226428537
3KarlssonRFA311831887141
4Doughty$7.0 M122265376842
5E. JohnsonRFA645642562444
6Bogosian$2.5 M576773243347
7Schenn$3.6 M778556115651
8Hedman$4.0 M767488654762

Ouch again.

Look, Hedman is young enough that there is still considerable room for him to grow as an NHL player.

But it’s fair to say there are already signs that he may never become the offensive player he was expected to be.

Hedman looks like another Zbynek Michalek (0.28 points/game), Marc Staal (0.25 pts/gm) or Eric Brewer (0.28 pts/gm).

That’s not a bad career path, but it’s not exactly the one he was hyped to have when drafted.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Even after a 6-5 loss to Nashville, and some weak defensive play lately, I’d still pick the Canucks right now to win the Northwest Division.
  • Just one man’s opinion, but here’s betting Paul Maurice’s career as an NHL head coach is over.
  • One of the definitions of madness is repeating something over and over with the expectation of a different result. That’s why it’s crazy the Washington Capitals replaced Bruce Boudreau with Dale Hunter. The Caps front-office wanted Boudreau to be tougher on his players, and he was this year. It didn’t work. What makes anyone think Hunter, who it seems is being asked to coach the same way (limited minutes so far for Ovechkin, for example), will have any more success? Sure, Hunter was a former NHL player, but many of his players were toddlers when he had his best days in the league. And remember – junior coaches don’t exactly have the best track record jumping straight into the NHL.
  • Meanwhile, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Bruce Boudreau get a lot out of the Ducks. Randy Carlyle was hard on his players; Boudreau is a player’s coach.
  • Is it too soon to anoint Jhonas Enroth an NHL starting goalie? The Sabres have 3 wins in 10 games since Ryan Miller’s injury. Enroth’s five-hole at times during this stretch has been Allan Bester-esque.
  • Beware Western Conference – the Red Wings are heating up.  They hit an estimated 569 posts against Buffalo, moving the puck around like they had a 60-minute powerplay.
  • Here’s Forbes’ report on NHL franchises. My favourite stat – teams are worth 47% more than they were before the lockout. Also: the Jets are worth 21% more playing in Winnipeg than they were in Atlanta.
  • Speaking of franchise values, hard to disagree with the common sentiment right now that the league’s headed for another work stoppage. NHL owners must be looking at the NFL and NBA deals and licking their lips.
  • A quiet milestone – the NHL has reached its 1000th shootout. Most goals – Jussi Jokinen. Most attempts – Brad Richards.
  • Before Friday night’s game, Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was on an 89-point pace over a full season. That’s the most rookie points since Sidney Crosby (102) and Alex Ovechkin (106) in 2005-06.
  • For those counting the hours until there are changes in Columbus, it should be noted the team is 5-3-2 (not including their result against Edmonton) since Jeff Carter returned to the lineup November 12th.
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