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.

Feb 062011
 

[Every weekend, Canucks Hockey Blog goes out of town as Tom Wakefield (@tomwakefield88) posts his thoughts on what's happening around the NHL.]

Martin Brodeur and Jarome Iginla

If Canada was really serious about hockey – if Prime Minister Stephen Harper was the hockey fan he says he is – then NHL Trade Deadline Day would be a national holiday.

Other than the opening night of the season, no other day on the hockey calendar offers hockey fans as much hope.

What about July 1st, the first day of free agency? Only if your team is a buyer.

Draft day? Only if your team has a first-round pick.

The beauty of NHL Trade Deadline Day is that it serves fans of all teams. Every move can be painted as a step toward a better tomorrow.

The only question is if that better tomorrow is this year, next year, or a few years from now.

Between today and what will be the busiest day in Canadian sports broadcasting (February 28th), thousands upon thousands of words will be said, tweeted and written about who will be dealt, and for what, on Trade Deadline Day.

Except for this column.

Here is a list of players with “tradeability” (aka trade value, brought to you by the same naming folks who brought you “drinkability,” “dunkability,” and “Sham-wow”), who won’t move at the deadline.

Martin Brodeur

Brodeur is 38-years old on a team that’s not only facing a long rebuilding process, but suddenly is losing ownership investors. What is there left for him to do in the Garden State? He’s got one year left on his contract at a cap-hit of $5.2 million. Colorado and Tampa Bay are two teams in particular who are looking to make a playoff push and have the cap space this year and next. Nonetheless, there is every indication that Brodeur is happy playing out the string in New Jersey.

What’s that saying: better to flame out than fade away? Patrick Roy wouldn’t fade away like it seems Martin Brodeur will.

Jarome Iginla

Without a membership to the Great Water Buffalo Society of General Managers, there’s no way of knowing for sure. However, it seems the goal of trading in the NHL is to move an asset when it is as close to its peak value as possible, hopefully before it stops returning on your investment entirely.

Jarome Iginla has done everything and more for the Flames. He won’t be more valuable two-years from now (power forwards rarely age well). The Los Angeles Kings are desperate for an impact forward. They have some interesting young talent, including Braydon Schenn and 57 goalie prospects (ok, a slight exaggeration). It seems logical to make a deal.

Nevertheless, Jay Feaster has told everyone who’ll listen that his veteran stars (Iginla and Mikka Kiprusoff in particular) are safe, because his blueprint is to find a few core players and build a winning franchise around that core.

How this is a different approach from 29 other teams in the league is a head-scratcher. Perhaps someone should check that Feaster is talking about the same core group that has failed Calgary every year since a Stanley Cup run six years ago.

Tomas Kaberle

Pausing a moment while Leaf fans finish screaming in frustration… Looking back at the history books, practically every Stanley Cup winner has had a quality puck-moving defenceman anchoring its powerplay. The market for Kaberle should be big, with any of Tampa Bay, Colorado, St. Louis, Dallas, Nashville, Phoenix, Carolina and the New York Rangers having cap space and playoff aspirations.

The problem is the Maple Leafs can’t afford to be a lottery pick again, and no other defenceman on the roster (including “Neon” Dion Phaneuf) has shown any aptitude with the puck. Seriously, it’s like watching the film 2001 before the obelisk showed the prehistoric apes how to use tools, some nights.

Adding to the situation is that Kaberle (depending on which source you trust) has never used his no-trade clause previously wielded his no-trade clause like Thor wields his hammer.

The last remaining member of the infamous Muskoka 5, there’s no reason for Kaberle to agree to be traded somewhere for a few extra months of hockey (inconveniencing him and his family).

Watch for him to simply wait out the year, go play in the World Championships, and choose his destination (probably featuring lots of sunshine) on July 1st.

Hey, it’s kinda the same choice former captain Mats Sundin made, isn’t it?

Ales Hemsky

Since most of the NHL Trade Deadline Day media originate from Toronto, you can expect future stories about how the Edmonton Oilers, in the midst of a scorched-earth rebuild, are looking for prospects and draft picks for their best players.

Make no mistake, despite the day-to-day improvements of Taylor Hall, Ales Hemsky is Edmonton’s best player. Granted he’s injury prone, but he is also a magician with the puck – Glenn Anderson-like skills with a playmaker’s heart and vision. There is greatness in him, and for the Oilers to be great once again, they need to hold onto all the elite talent they can.

The great Terry Jones seems to agree.

Brad Richards

Another impending UFA. However, the Dallas Stars need a playoff run not only to help sell the team, but to add some much needed money to the team’s bottom line.

As the Jamie Langenbrunner trade demonstrated, this is a team adding, not subtracting, talent from the roster. Richards isn’t going anywhere (yet).

Alex Kovalev

Detroit General Manager Ken Holland has a theory that teams that score more than three goals a game usually coast into playoff spots. Somewhere lurking inside Alex Kovalev is Hall-of-Fame talent. With the right motivation, in the right situation, Kovalev could easily help a team get to that three goals-a-game level.

Sadly though it seems the mystery-wrapped-in-an-enigma that is Alex Kovalev will finish his career without one last, great flourish. His latest knee injury, when added to his reputation, probably scares off any team that might be interested.

The Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings make some trade-sense, as they might be the last two teams that would be able to motivate Kovalev. However, it appears neither team can afford his contract.

Sergei Gonchar

Some will argue that getting Gonchar out of Ottawa would be a coup, since few defencemen in the past decade have seen the offensive side of the game better. As previously discussed, the best teams in the league always have a good puck-moving defenceman at their disposal.

The problem for the Senators is that the best teams in the league don’t want to pay a 36-year old with beer-league defensive skills $11 million over the next two years.

It’s shocking that, despite the Kovalev and Gonchar contracts, Eugene Melnyk is still looking to keep Bryan Murray inside the organization in some capacity after this season is over.

Maxime Talbot

Yet another UFA, Talbot might just be the most recognizable “other guy” amongst Penguin forwards not named Crosby, Malkin or Staal. He’s earned this recognition with his speed, grit and determination – all the characteristics a Cup team needs in abundance. Some team will overpay for his services in the off-season (probably Toronto).

Earning just over $1 million, Talbot would be a classic Trade Deadline Day acquisition for a young team on the rise, or a team on the cusp of something special. The thing is, this Penguins team is one of the latter.

They have no real reason to move Talbot.

Kevin Bieksa

Vancouver’s favourite whipping boy, salary cap issues looked like they would finally force the Canucks to move Bieksa at the start of the year. Instead, injuries have allowed the maligned blueliner to not only stay in the lineup, but reward the team with maybe the best play of his career.

His poor decision-making will forever keep him from being a true top-pairing defender, but every team in the league wants depth on defence for the post-season.

Bieksa, as a second-pairing, second-powerplay defenceman, would be an attractive option to a few teams, including the New York Rangers.

In keeping Bieksa, the Canucks already have what other teams will be looking for on NHL Trade Deadline Day.

Jan 092011
 

[Every weekend, Canucks Hockey Blog goes out of town as Tom Wakefield (@tomwakefield88) posts his thoughts on what's happening around the NHL.]

Team Russia wins gold at 2011 World Junior Hockey Championships

The National Hockey League (NHL) is the world’s best hockey league.

The question is, how much longer will it be the only destination for the world’s best players?

The European invasion of the late 1970s, followed by the fall of Russian Communism in the late 1980s, opened the door for the world’s best to earn a substantial income playing NHL hockey.

The Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) certainly didn’t look like it would threaten this fact when it launched in 2008. Sure, the oil money that backed the league was significant, but a generation of Russian players were raised to look West for money and hockey fame.

Malkin. Ovechkin. Kovalchuk. These players were exposed to the NHL through scouts, agents and their national heroes, who all played overseas. There was no way they would abandon their NHL dreams to play in the new KHL.

Thus, the KHL launched as a league featuring well-paid players that were too old, too slow, or too borderline for the NHL.

However, two-plus years since the KHL launched, Commissioner Alexander Medvedev and the Russian Hockey Federation have put a plan in place to ensure the KHL can evolve into a true NHL competitor.

That plan? Shutdown the Russian hockey pipeline to North America, and play politics with the national team.

First, by refusing to sign a transfer agreement with the NHL, North American interest in the best young Russian hockey players has cooled. Young talent is an investment, and without a transfer agreement in place there’s no guarentee an NHL team will see their investment ever pay off.

Secondly, Russians are leveraging international competition – the type of hockey most of their youngsters dream of playing – to promote and reward KHL players.

Our first glimpse of this as North Americans was during the 2010 Winter Games. The 2010 Russian Olympic Hockey team had nine KHL’ers on it. Anyone who watched the tournament saw that those players received some favourable ice-time from coach Viacheslav Bykov, with rather mixed results.

The 2011 Russian Junior team invited seven Canadian Junior Hockey League players to camp, but only kept one for the tournament – goalie Igor Bobkov. Every other player on the roster was from the KHL. The result? A shocking gold medal victory.

It’s pretty easy to see that this type of protectionism could eventually lead a new generation of Russian hockey players to choose the KHL over the NHL.

Which means the day will soon come that all of the world’s best players aren’t playing in the NHL.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Interesting spreadsheet by the Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle about the average age, height and weight of NHL teams. Biggest surprise? Perhaps that Florida is the 7th oldest team.
  • One reason why the Blue Jackets have fallen on hard times of late – their defence, which played so well through the first quarter of the season, has really fallen back to earth.
  • A lot of talk in Toronto about how Mikhail Grabovski has come into his own this year. The biggest difference? He’s hitting the net more than he ever has before with his laser shot.
  • A 9-3 loss to Toronto is a reminder that Thrashers goaltender Ondrej Pavelec was once considered too inconsistent to be a number one goalie.
  • The acquisitions of both Dwayne Roloson and Jamie Langenbrunner confirm that, despite financial issues for each franchise, both the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars are gunning for the playoffs Of the two players, expect Roloson to have the biggest immediate impact. The Lightning don’t give up nearly as many shots as the Islanders did, and Roloson, despite his age, has fewer miles on him than most 41-year old goalies.
  • All discussion that Lagenbrunner could replace Brad Richards if he bolts the Stars as a UFA is ridiculous. Langenbrunner at this stage is a complimentary, veteran presence. He’s not a top-six guy.
  • Word out of Edmonton is Shawn Horcoff is ahead of schedule to return from his knee injury.
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