Jan 102013
 
Brian Burke was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs

Photo credit: Vancouver Sun

The full story won’t be told today or tomorrow. But at some point the full story on Brian Burke’s swift exodus from the Toronto Maple Leafs will be known.

However, it’s pretty clear the decision ultimately came down to two things: Burke’s personality and plan.

As Damien Cox wrote in his piece on the firing, Leafs ownership, particularly the Bell faction, felt Burke was “bad for the brand.”

The arguments with Don Cherry; the proclamations about the team’s chances and league business; the interview style that constantly bordered on antagonistic – these are not the kind of public interactions that endears oneself to a corporate enterprise traded on the stock exchange.

Corporations don’t want controversy. Brian Burke in Toronto couldn’t help but court it.

Meanwhile, Leafs ownership made it clear introducing Dave Nonis that the team’s struggles to make the playoffs were a factor in their decision.

Well, duh, screams the Twitter-verse.

But there’s something a little bit more sinister lurking in the comment.

Bell and Rogers bought the Toronto Maple Leafs for $1.07 BILLION dollars over the summer. That’s a lot of money to recoup, and there are share prices to protect.

Return on investment has to start now.

Which means there’s never been more pressure on the Leafs to make the playoffs….

Which means there’s never been more pressure on the Leafs to address their biggest weakness – goaltending.

Burke stated earlier this week he was “90 percent” set on going with James Reimer and Ben Scrivens in goal this year. The stance fit with his most recent rebuilding approach – a patient one.

Over the last two seasons, Toronto had changed from trying to fast-track their way to success (see Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf trades) to the more traditional approach of accumulating assets and building slowly.

But there was no time for Burke’s new, patient approach in ownership’s eyes.

It’s winning time, baby.

And we all know how often that franchise philosophy – usually born out of desperation and delusion – works out in sports.

*****

Anyways, enter Roberto Luongo, who through no fault of his own ended up being rolled up into coverage of Burke’s firing.

Speculation is rampant that Leaf ownership wanted a Luongo deal, Burke did not, and that disagreement led to today’s leadership change.

The thing is, from hockey perspective, NOT trading for Luongo now is the most logical thing to do.

As currently constituted, Luongo’s contract under the new CBA will be a millstone around the necks of whatever team that employs him.

If you’re an NHL opponent, why would you help the Canucks rid themselves of this headache now?

Especially when you can wait out the season, wait for the Canuck’s to buy-out their goalie, and draft a new, “CBA friendly” deal with the player.

Essentially, the Canucks have little leverage in trade talks for Luongo. He has a no-trade clause, which means he has control over where he wants to play. His salary is high, meaning most teams don’t have enough cap room to add him. Weaker performances in high-profile situations have hurt his reputation. His contract is absolutely toxic under the new CBA. Which is why, at the end of the day, even if the Leafs are motivated buyers and the Canucks are motivated sellars, Vancouver’s return is likely to be less significant than most expect.

Mar 272012
 

As we wind down the 2011-12 NHL season, it’s only fitting to take a moment and pay our respects to the “dearly departed” – those teams we know will be golfing in a couple of weeks.

Here now is a quick look at each of the teams looking ahead to 2012-13 already,  in reverse order of today’s standings.

Columbus Blue Jackets

What went wrong: Pretty much everything. James Wisniewski’s 8-game suspension crippled the team out of the gate. Coach Scott Arniel tried switching his team’s approach from an aggressive to conservative style mid-season, but the results were too poor to save his job. Jeff Carter was injured for much of his time in Columbus, and looked like a pout on skates when he did play.  Oh, and Steve Mason is currently ranked 77th amongst NHL goalies in goals against average (3.43).

What went right: Unlike Jeff Carter, Jack Johnson has embraced being a Blue Jacket, and has 10 points in 15 Columbus games. He still has the potential to turn this difficult trade into a real win for the Blue Jackets. Derick Brassard has quietly led the team in scoring since the All-Star Game (20 pts in 27 games).

Off-Season Gameplan: Address the goaltending issues that have hampered the franchise for most of its existence and make peace with Rick Nash. Trading Nash would kill the franchise. If this means firing GM Scott Howson, so be it.

Montreal Canadiens

What went wrong: The front office went insane, firing assistant coaches within hours of game time and throwing Randy Cunneyworth under the bus for his unilingualism. Top veterans Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Mike Cammalleri struggled, rendering a pop-gun offense useless for most of the first-half. And while Carey Price played well, even his numbers were slightly off from last season.

What went right: The Canadiens have embraced their youth as the season’s moved on. Max Pacioretty looks like a top NHL power forward. David Desharnais is second in team scoring since the All-Star Game (22 points in 26 games) and will be Montreal’s defacto second line centre next season. The physical Alex Emelin could be an interesting compliment to Andrei Markov in a top pairing. Lars Eller continues to develop and will flirt with 20 goals this year. Of the veterans, Eric Cole reached the 30-goal plateau for the first time in five years.

Off-Season Gameplan: Draft a talented Russian, whether it’s Alex Galchenyuk or Mikhail Grigorenko, with their highest pick since selecting Mike Komisarek seventh overall in 2001. Alex Kovalev flourished in Montreal, where the fans embraced his offensive flair. There’s no reason to believe that magic can’t happen again.

Edmonton Oilers

What went wrong: Nothing really went wrong – this team is probably as bad as they should be, especially given the injuries they’ve accrued. Of those injuries, the one to Ryan Whitney was the most damaging, as it exposed a very shallow blueline group. Nik Khabibulin has played worse as the season’s gone on, and he may be moved in the off-season. Eric Belanger is having his worst season as a pro, but he has partially solved the team’s faceoff problems.

What went right: Jordan Eberle does look like a young Dany Heatley and should be a Lady Byng candidate this season. The other super kids, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall, both look like they have top-20 NHL player potential. Devyn Dubnyk has a .918 save percentage since the All-Star Game. Sam Gagner continues to show flashes of top-six talent, and leads the team with a +8 rating. Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry have had terrific second halves. The pieces on this team are really starting to come together.

Off-Season Gameplan: Not much needs to be done upfront, but it’s the defense that needs tinkering. Another top-4 defenseman, or a youngster (draft pick) with top-pairing talent should be a priority. Help for Dubnyk would be an asset as well.

Minnesota Wild

What went wrong: Minnesota’s lack of offensive depth was exposed by injuries to Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Mikko Koivu. As a result, just like the Habs, a slight weakening of the team’s defensive play was enough to sewer the Wild’s playoff chances. The Wild might not have a 25-goal scorer this season. Josh Harding has had a disappointing second half (2 wins in 10 games, a .904 save percentage).

What went right:  Despite some historically low numbers, Dany Heatley has been a more competitive player with the Wild than he was in San Jose or Ottawa. Jared Spurgeon has played well enough that the Wild could trade Nick Schultz. Nik Backstrom has been his usual solid self.

Off-Season Gameplan: Bring on the kids. Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle could both see top-six roles in the NHL next season, bringing much needed offensive talent to the Wild roster. The Wild should also be in the running for a lottery pick in a draft that is loaded with quality defenseman. Beyond the influx of youth, Zach Parise should be targetted if he hits unrestricted free agency. It’s the type of move that would not only help the team, but would satiate restless Wild fans who feel the franchise has been spinning its wheels.

New York Islanders

What went wrong: For the Islanders to take the next step they need to work on their 5-on-5 play. They’ve ranked near the bottom of this category all year. Michael Grabner suffered from the sophomore slump (16 goals). One has to ask whether his skating talents can continue to flourish in a league where hooking and holding has crept back into play. Heralded rookie Nino Niederreiter has suffered through a lost season on the Island, with just one assist in 49 games. He’s averaged fourth-line minutes to boot.

What went right: John Tavares took another step towards greatness, improving his strength and speed and looking on many nights like a future Art Ross candidate. As Tavares has blossomed he’s lifted his linemates to new heights – Matt Moulson may reach 40 goals this year and P.A. Parenteau will have more than 50 assists. Together they have given the Islanders a dynamic first line, which is usually enough to fight for a playoff spot. New York’s powerplay has also been good all year, and Evgeni Nabokov has given the Islanders good goaltending on a nightly basis.

Off-Season Gameplan: GM Garth Snow should make resigning P.A. Parenteau a priority. Given the misuse of Nino Niederreiter this season, one wonders if the Islanders still see him as a top-six talent. If not, moving him could net a solid return. Continuing to build offensive depth, and acquiring a solid, stay-at-home top-four defenseman, should also be on New York’s shopping list. A few tweaks and this team will fight for a playoff spot next year.

Toronto Maple Leafs

What went wrong: The Leafs gambled on James Reimer and it came up snake eyes. As a result, the run-and-gun Leafs have given up goals by the bushel, eventually costing coach Ron Wilson his job. The defensive depth hasn’t materialized, with Mike Komisarek looking AHL-bound, John-Michael Liles frequently swimming out of position in his own zone and Luke Schenn regressing in his fourth season. In a broader sense, GM Brian Burke’s rebuild hasn’t gone well either – compared to the team he inherited, the Leafs are only better in a few areas (top-line wingers; top-two defensemen; more prospects). Otherwise this team looks a lot like the 2008-09 team that was jettisoned out of town. None of the replacements, particularly those acquired through free agency, have been actual upgrades.

What went right: All due respect to Tyler Seguin, but Phil Kessel remains the better player in that trade and will likely finish top-5 in league scoring. He is Mike Gartner 2.0. Healthy for the first time and stronger than ever before, Joffrey Lupul established himself as a top-line winger and compliment to Kessel, playing in the All-Star Game before getting hurt. Jake Gardiner and Carl Gunnarson have emerged as potential top-four defenseman, with Gardiner in particular showing flashes of offensive prowess.

Off-Season Gameplan: It’s a make-or-break off-season for GM Brian Burke. New coach Randy Carlyle demands a conservative style of play this roster wasn’t built for, which means major changes could be afoot. A lottery pick would be beneficial, as the Leafs could use a top-line talent to go with the complimentary-type players drafted in previous seasons. However, the most important move the team could make this summer is to solidify their goaltending position. Whether it’s taking Roberto Luongo off of Vancouver’s hands (I know, NTC), grabbing one of the “elite” young goaltenders (Josh Harding, Corey Schneider, Jonathan Bernier), or making a play for Jaroslav Halak. The Leafs won’t make the playoffs next year without a solution in net.

Anaheim Ducks

What went wrong: The Ducks just dug themselves too deep a hole. Whereas last year the team found its game amidst rumours the players had turned on coach Randy Carlyle, Anaheim couldn’t do the same this season, eventually leading to Carlyle’s firing. In particular, Jonas Hiller struggled early, and captain Ryan Getzlaf has had a nightmare season (one goal since the All Star Game).  Sophomore Cam Fowler has also struggled (-24 on the year).

What went right: The team has responded to coach Bruce Boudreau, and a full season under his direction should see the Ducks return to the post-season. Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne and Bobby Ryan have performed well for coach “Gabby.” Sheldon Brookbank has done a good job as the sixth defenseman, while Toni Lydman remains one of the better defensive defenseman in the league.

Off-Season Gameplan: Signs point to Selanne returning, which means the Ducks core remains as good as any in the NHL. Devante Smith-Pelley will likely have a top-six role to lose in training camp, but the Ducks could really use an upgrade at second-line centre. Impending free agent Saku Koivu can’t adequately fill that role anymore. Some veteran grit to the third and fourth lines would help as well.

Carolina Hurricanes:

What went wrong: Terrible starts to the season from Cam Ward and Eric Staal effectively put the Hurricanes behind the eight-ball. An injury to Joni Pitkanen – the team’s best offensive defenseman – didn’t help either. Carolina’s special teams, particularly the penalty kill, have been among the league’s weakest. No team gives up more shots-per-game than Carolina. Jeff Skinner hasn’t been the same player since returning from injury.

What went right: Surprisingly, Jiri Tlusty has had a strong second-half, placing second in team scoring (18 points in 22 games). Tim Gleason has been a beast defensively and remains one of the most underrated blueliners in the game. Chad LaRose will flirt with 20 goals this year. Staal’s been terrific since about December.

Off-Season Gameplan: With some solid youngsters up-front in the pipeline (Zac Dalpe, Zach Boychuk), what Carolina could really use is a veteran defenseman. Rumours that the Hurricanes are interested in Ryan Suter if he becomes a free agent underscore this belief. With the offense essentially living-or-dying on the Eric Staal’s back (shades of the 1990s Toronto Maple Leafs and Mats Sundin), Carolina has to hope Jeff Skinner rebounds next year.   

Tampa Bay Lightning

What went wrong: The clock struck midnight on the pumpkin named Dwayne Roloson, as the veteran netminder has been arguably the NHL’s worst goalie all year. The team’s blueline hasn’t played as well as last season either, with Eric Brewer in particular not living up to his playoff performance. With only four goals and averaging just 11-odd minutes of ice-time, one wonders if Brett Connolly’s development has been hurt playing in the NHL this season. Marc-Andre Bergeron’s injury meant the Lightning went most of the year without a true poweplay threat from the point. The penalty killing has struggled.

What went right: Steven Stamkos remains the league’s elite sniper, and should pick up the Richard Trophy for his 50+ goal efforts this season. Victor Hedman has had a strong second-half (+4, 10 points in 22 games), as has Teddy Purcell (33 points in 27 games). The latter is noteworthy, since it’s been done in Vincent Lecavalier’s absence.

Off-Season Gameplan: Goaltending. Tampa Bay doesn’t really have any, and needs to find it in the off-season. Beyond that a solid defenseman in the draft would go a long way to shoring up the blueline for the future. Offensive depth would be the third priority, particularly given that Martin St. Louis will be 37 next year.

Mar 062012
 

It seems these days not a day goes by that there isn’t something about the mediocre Toronto Maple Leafs that’s making the headlines. 

At first blush, the signing of Mikhail Grabovski to a five year, $27.5 million contract seems rather ludicrous. We’re talking about high-end salary for a streaky scorer that’s never put up 30-goals or 60 points.

 But is the contract really that far out of whack? Let’s do this arbitration-style, and look at some comparables.

Comparable #1: The 2004 NHL Entry Draft – Part 1

Grabovski was drafted 150th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. There were 30 centres selected prior to that, although only 19 have made the NHL, and only nine have played 240+ games (the rough equivalent of three NHL seasons):

PlayerDraftedSalary Cap HitGPPPPG+/-PIM
Evgeni Malkin2nd$8.7 M4104991.2237406
David Krejci63rd$5.25 M3592600.7258128
Mikhail Grabovski150th$5.5 M3041950.6410188
Travis Zajac20th$3.89 M4162520.6137126
Brandon Dubinsky60th$4.2 M3772050.5422446
Dave Bolland32nd$3.375 M2841480.5232181
Tyler Kennedy99th$2 M3091460.4730162
Rostislav Olesz7th$3.125 M3551320.37-10118
Torrey Mitchell126th$1.367 M263700.2713137

Clearly Malkin remains the best centre taken in the draft. Grabovski though is in the running for second-best (with Krejci, Zajac and Dubinsky).

Comparable #2: The 2004 NHL Entry Draft – Part 2

When you take all players from this entry draft into consideration, there are a group of players who have played a similar number of games to Grabovski: 

PlayerDraftedSalary Cap HitGPPPPG+/-PIM
Blake Wheeler5th$2.55 M3091810.5954188
Blake Comeau47th$2.5 M3061320.43-49159
Tyler Kennedy99th$2 M3091460.4730162
Kris Versteeg134th$3.083 M3091960.6315185
Mikhail Grabovski150th$5.5 M3041950.6410188
Troy Brouwer214th$2.35 M3031320.44-1214

Clearly from the above table Kris Versteeg’s career production is the most similar to Grabovski’s. Furthermore, just like Grabovski, Versteeg’s career-to-date is without a 30-goal or 60-point season.

Comparable #3: What Does Cap Geek Say?

A search function on Cap Geek  gives the user the chance to find comparable salary cap hits for any player. These are the centres Cap Geek selects as Mikhail Grabovski’s salary comparables:

PlayerAgeSalary Cap HitGPPPPG+/-PIM
Ryan Getzlaf26$5.325 M4974600.9364481
John Tavares21$5.5 M2271840.81-3397
Jason Pominville29$5.3 M5254170.7941155
Mike Richards26$5.75 M5103830.7543458
Jeff Carter27$5.27 M5043700.7341302
Patrick Sharp30$5.9 M5523710.6759375
Tomas Plekanec29$5 M5353530.6613322
Mikhail Grabovski28$5.5 M3041950.6410188
Ryan Kesler27$5 M5453320.6152487
Shawn Horcoff33$5.5 M7494330.58-43479

It’s an interesting list. The Horcoff contract is widely regarded as a huge albatross for the Oilers. He’s also the oldest centre on this list, with the most experience (and least production).  Kesler has fewer points per game than Grabovski, although he plays a far more well-rounded style (physical, defensive-minded, good on faceoffs) than the Leafs player. In fact, many of the players on this list bring “more to the table” than Grabovski does on a nightly basis.

With his new contract, Grabovski is effectively being paid to produce the type of offense consistent with a first-line player. Yet most of the comparable centres on this list produce more offense than he does.

The majority of players on this list have also played around 500 games, or roughly two more seasons than Grabovski has. While it seems logical to pay a player like Tavares this kind of salary early in his career (he’s an elite talent that the Islanders have locked-up long term), Grabovski is 28-years old. The player he will be is the player he is right now.

And the player he is right now looks like a player who doesn’t necessarily fit in with this group.

Looking at all these lists, it’s clear Grabovski will be overpaid at $5.5 million per season.

Toronto’s desperate for a number one centre. Now they’ve got a player who can’t play like one, but certainly gets paid like one.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Speaking of the Leafs, Grabovski’s now paid more than Phil Kessel, the Leafs top scorer. That can’t sit well with Kessel, who’s carried the team’s offense this season. It also gets the Spidey-senses tingling – maybe there could be a Rick Nash for Phil Kessel trade in the off-season after all.
  • From a few weeks ago, here’s the Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle on what Grabovski is worth.
  • Final Leafs note – Randy Carlyle will bring necessary structure to the Toronto Maple Leafs. But let’s not forget Ducks players grew to hate their coach, and dressing room issues were a large part of the last two years in Anaheim. It would not be a surprise to see, at the end of the day, that Ron Wilson will have coached more Leaf games than Randy Carlyle.
  • I lied about it being the final Leafs note. This happened today on Toronto radio. Must bring back warm memories for Vancouver sports radio listeners.
  • Rumoured complaints by the Senators, Canucks and Maple Leafs about Ron Maclean and Don Cherry are just another reason why it’s easy to believe the CBC is getting out of the hockey business after their contract runs out.
  • So Sidney Crosby’s head is clear and it looks like he might be ready to go for the playoffs. Except that the playoffs are played at a faster, more physical pace than the regular season. In everyone’s rush to get Crosby back on the ice, isn’t it in his best interests to take as much time off as possible and start fresh for the 2012-13 season?
  • The Globe and Mail selects the 2014 Men’s Olympic Hockey Team so Steve Yzerman doesn’t have to.
  • Interesting news that Canada currently sits fourth in the world hockey rankings. Here are the top-10 rankings in descending order: Russia; Finland; Sweden; Canada; Czech Republic; United States; Switzerland; Germany; Norway; Slovakia.
  • Dobber writes a personal note to George McPhee and Ted Leonsis that sounds similar to what was said in this space a few weeks ago.
  • Not making too big a deal about this, but Tim Thomas’s numbers in 2012 aren’t at their usual level of excellence (11-9, 2.66 goals against, .909 save percentage). With Tuukka Rask out and Marty Turco signed, the Bruins have to hope that Thomas finds his old form in time for the playoffs.
  • Grant Clitsome on playing in Winnipeg: “The hardest thing to adjust to was having to shout at your teammates as you can’t hear them with how loud the crowd is.”
  • In case you missed it, a breakdown of each team’s height, weight and age post-trade deadline.
  • A nice analysis on Fear the Fin about the San Jose Sharks recent slide.
  • Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts.
Feb 282012
 

Let’s get this out of the way first.

I’m still not convinced Columbus’ interest in dealing Rick Nash wasn’t a creation of TSN and Sportsnet. The two networks needed a big name to speculate about to drive up ratings for their annual Trade Deadline TV marathons.

Sadly for those networks, Nash remains a Blue Jacket at least until the draft, where the hype will be built up all over again. I am giddy with anticipation (and by giddy I mean hitting my head with a shoe to make the idea of 24 hour coverage of “The Rick Nash Trade – Part Two” go away).

Nonetheless, the trade deadline did produce some moves – 15 trades involving 31 players, according to TSN. As per usual, the moves quickly revealed who’s serious about the Stanley Cup.

Based on team performance and moves they made, here now are the REAL contenders for the Stanley Cup.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Vancouver

The Canucks enter the final portion of the NHL season with the strongest group of forwards they’ve had in a long time, if not ever. The 2012 version of Sammy Pahlsson is a step-slower, slightly less-effective than the one who helped the Anaheim Ducks with the Cup in 2007. However he remains a strong shutdown centreman who can win faceoffs (he led the Blue Jackets in faceoffs prior to the trade, winning 51.1%).

In Zack Kassian, Vancouver effectively replaced Raffi Torres from last year’s playoff run with someone younger and with 20-30 goal potential. Kassian could even develop into the big, scoring winger the team hasn’t had since Todd Bertuzzi left town. Kassian models his game after Bruins bruiser Milan Lucic, which is probably music to the ears of most Canuck fans.

Marc-Andre Gragnani is an underrated puck-moving defenseman who is about to have the spotlight shine on him. There are folks who think he could flourish into a 40-50 point player, and there are certainly similarities between his game and ex-Canuck Christian Ehrhoff. Those similarities include some puzzling play in the defensive zone.

Bottom Line: This Canuck team looks primed for another long post-season run. Cody Hodgson is a big chip to play, but when you consider the team’s time is now (and Vancouver already has Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler in the top two centre positions), Gillis has made the team stronger than it was yesterday.

Potential weakness: The blueline.

2. San Jose

While there will be folks who scoff, let’s remember that the Sharks have made the Conference Finals in back-to-back seasons, and they will enter these playoffs with likely their deepest team ever. Like the Canucks, the Sharks have had some concerns regarding secondary scoring and forward depth, and the acquisitions of Daniel Winnik, T.J. Galiardi (and previously Dominic Moore) address this area.

Winnik was one of Colorado’s most important forwards, playing tough minutes and leading team forwards in ice time for much of the year. The improved play of Gabriel Landeskog and Winnik’s status as an impending UFA made him expendable. He’ll look very good alongside Michael Handzus on San Jose’s third line.

T.J. Galiardi has been an offensive tease so far in his career but he’s got the talent to be a fringe top-six player. Ray Fererro mentioned during Trade Deadline coverage today that Galiardi came to training camp having put on too much muscle, which hampered the player’s speed. Galiardi is an adequate replacement for Martin Havlat, allowing the injury-prone star to take his time to get back into the lineup.

Bottom Line: The Sharks improved their defense in the off-season, and now have improved their foward group. If Martin Havlat comes back healthy, and they get any kind of goaltending, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Sharks three-peat as Conference Finalists, perhaps even graduating to the Cup Final. A re-match with the Canucks would not surprise.

Potential weakness: Goaltending

3. Nashville

Why the Predators and not the Red Wings? Detroit only tinkered with their team (adding Kyle Quincey), and now enter the playoffs with pretty much the same group that’s been knocked out of the playoffs early the last two years.

Meanwhile, the Predators are showing Ryan Suter the money and  pushing their chips to the middle of the table. They were rumoured to have made a big push for Rick Nash, and when that didn’t materialize, they quickly added Andrei Kostitsyn from Montreal. He’s an enigmatic scorer, but he is a scorer, and a legitimate top-6 one at that. Playing with his brother Sergei could be problematic (one friend commented beer sales are about to go up in bars around Nashville), but it’s unlikely coach Barry Trotz will let any off-ice shenanigans impact the team on-ice.

Paul Gaustad is another effective grinder on a team full of them, and acquiring Hal Gill earlier in the week gives the Predators a premiere shutdown defenseman, perhaps one destined to matchup with Ryan Kesler this season.

Bottom Line: The Predators are one of the toughest teams to play against in the NHL, and they were a sniper-away from beating the Canucks in last year’s playoffs. Andrei Kostitsyn might not be Paul Kariya or Peter Forsberg, but he is someone who can create offense on his own. With a deep defense, strong goaltending and an upgraded forward group, Nashville has become the dark horse team to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup.

Potential weakness: Scoring

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Boston

Remember, these are the defending Stanley Cup champions, who have retained much of the team from last year. The addition of Brian Rolston effectively replaces the departed Mark Recchi, although the emergence of Tyler Seguin means less is expected of Rolston in an offensive role. He might become a key part of the second powerplay unit, shooting darts from the point. Otherwise he’ll play a bottom-six role.

Meanwhile, there is a common belief today that you need 8 NHL-ready defenseman to go far in the playoffs. Greg Zanon and Mike Mottau fit that bill, the former one of the better shot blockers in the league, while the latter is a good skater and marginal puck-mover.

Bottom Line: Boston looks like a team ready to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.

Potential weakness: Nathan Horton’s health

2. New York Rangers

Why the Rangers, when they didn’t make a single move of significance (apologies to John Scott) at the Trade Deadline? Sometimes, the best move a team can make is no move. The 2012 New York Rangers are greater than the sum of their parts, and messing with that chemistry in a significant way could upset everything the team has been building towards.

Rick Nash would have been sexy, but there’s no telling how his arrival would have worked in the locker room. GM Glen Sather was smart to let this team prove what it can do in the playoffs, and then tinker as necessary in the off-season.

Bottom Line: Thanks to Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, the Rangers are Nashville-East with more scoring. That makes them a Cup contender.

Potential weakness: Scoring

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Couldn’t put Pittsburgh on the list for one reason – there’s no guarantee Sidney Crosby is coming back. If he does, and he’s healthy, they’re added to the contender mix. The thing is, with how aggressive play is in the playoffs, does anyone think Sidney Crosby would survive a long playoff run without another injury?
  • The Flyers aren’t a contender, and really, haven’t been one all season. They’re fun to watch but there are too many holes on defense or in goal to be considered among the elite. Could be a different story in a few years though.
  • Puzzling move #1: The Toronto Maple Leafs trading Keith Aulie, who remains a legit defensive prospect - one who could become Hal Gill 2.0. Yes Toronto has depth on the blueline, but acquiring Carter Ashton for Aulie seems like acquiring 50 cents on the dollar. Ashton projects as a 3rd line guy at best. Burke is living and dying by his current roster in Toronto. It’s likely not enough to get the team into the playoffs.
  • Puzzling move #2: The Edmonton Oilers trading Tom Gilbert to their division rivals the Minnesota Wild for Nick Schultz. I think this sums it up nicely. Perhaps all this really means is that Edmonton intends to draft an offensive defenseman in the first round this year, and pair him with Schultz immediately.
  • Talked a lot about the Vancouver – Buffalo trade above, but one more thing: there’s no question Cody Hodgson is the most talented player in the deal, but from a Canucks standpoint they’re looking to win now. Long-term, it could be a trade the Canucks regret, although it does seem the franchise never warmed to the guy. Biggest immediate concern - what happens if one of Kesler or Sedin gets hurt?
  • Johnny Oduya is a nice complimentary pickup by the Blackhawks, but they needed more (another d-man, another scoring forward) for their playoff chances to truly improve. Right now, the ‘Hawks look like a second round team at best.
  • It’s rare you see the Flames apologize to the Oilers.
  • It would not surprise me if Ben Bishop eventually forced Craig Anderson out of town in Ottawa. Bishop is a very good goalie prospect, and the team already has Robin Lehner on the farm. It could be Anderson becomes the known asset the Senators eventually move for needed pieces.
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.
Sep 132011
 

There is no greater union in the NHL today than Brian Burke and Toronto Maple Leafs.

For all his bluster, and for all his previous on-ice success, Burke’s greatest strength is jousting with the media. And if there’s one thing media saturated Toronto needs is a Maple Leaf general manager with an aptitude for soundbytes.

During last week’s “state of the union”-type press scrum with Toronto media, Burke insisted the Leafs defence “stacks up really well against just about any other team in the East.”

Does it really? Let’s take a look at Eastern Conference defence rankings headed into the 2011-12 season.

B+ Grade

Boston
Last Year (A)

A slip in the rankings based entirely on two things: 1) As bad as Tomas Kaberle was for the Bruins (and make no mistake, he was this type of bad), Joe Corvo is worse and 2) Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference and Adam McQuaid are all defensive-first guys. Expect the Bruins to search for another elite puckmover (preferably one who doesn’t cause as many goals against as Corvo) at the trade deadline again this year. 

Philadelphia
Last Year (A+)

Rated as the best defence in the Eastern Conference last year, the Flyers drop a full grade thanks to Chris Pronger’s uncertain health and advancing age. On a related note, someone else who is also losing marks for uncertain health and advancing age: Christina Ricci.

Washington
Last Year (B)

Quietly, this has become a real area of strength for the Capitals. In fact this group could become the league’s best as early as this year. John Carlson and Karl Alzner are up-and-comers, and could prove to be a top-defensive pairing in the NHL for years to come. Mike Green had a very difficult 2010-11 season, but even a mild return-to-offensive form would help the Washington powerplay immensely. Dennis Wideman is another puck-mover for the second powerplay unit, while Roman Hamerlik is a veteran warrior.

B Grade

Pittsburgh
Last Year (B+)

One of the best top-two defence pairings in the league, with Kris Letang leading the blueline attack. The issue is depth, as Matt Niskanen stopped developing last year and Ben Lovejoy is more AHL’er than NHL’er.

Montreal
Last Year (B)

P.K. Subban is the real deal and should excite the Molson Centre crowd for years to come. On paper this is another strong two-way group, although Andrei Markov’s health remains a concern. if Alexei Yemelin is any good this group moves up a grade. It’s funny how Hal Gill has turned from the tallest pylon in the league as a Maple Leaf into arguably the league’s best shutdown defenceman.

Winnipeg
Last Year (C+)

The Jets would have ranked higher on this list if Dustin Byfuglien weighed less than roughly 300 lbs. Modify your expectations appropriately, ladies and gentlemen. Otherwise, a new coach should breathe life into Zach Bogosian’s development, and Tobias Enstrom has firmly established himself as a better-defending version of Tomas Kaberle. Too bad about those new uniforms though – talk about bland. They look like a rejected Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment logo. 

B- Grade

Buffalo
Last Year (B-)

The sophomore slump hit Tyler Myers like a pie-in-the-face, but he recovered with a strong second-half. The additions of Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehroff are steps in the right direction, although both players have already experienced their best days in the league. Regehr has looked slow for a few seasons in Calgary, while Ehroff will be hard-pressed to post 50-points again. The Sabres just don’t activate their defence like the Canucks do.

Toronto
Last Year (B+)

Sorry, but Brian Burke’s fudging the truth a little when it comes to his defence core. Either that or he’s incredibly optimistic. This is one of the youngest bluelines in the NHL, and inconsistency should be expected. Continued improvements from Luke Schenn and Keith Aulie would move this group up a few spots, especially if Dion Phaneuf plays as well as he did in the second half of last year. However, it’s just as easy to see this group of youngsters struggle, bringing down the team with it.

C+ Grade

New York Rangers
Last Year (D+)

This is a blueline headed in the right direction. Marc Staal and especially Dan Girardi took big steps toward becoming impact defenceman. Like the Maple Leafs though this is a very young group, and inconsistency will be a nightly threat. There’s a lot of hype about Tim Erixon, who was arguably Calgary’s top prospect before being dealt to New York. But it’s not like the Flames need defencemen, or youth, or you know, the promise of a better tomorrow.

Tampa Bay
Last Year (D)

The Lightning are moving up these standings based on the continued improvement of Victor Hedman and the acquisition of Eric Brewer, one of the most underrated defenceman in the entire league. Pavel Kubina and Marc-Andre Bergeron are liabilities though. 

Carolina
Last Year (C-)

There’s some solid offensive promise here, with veterans Joni Pitkanen and Tomas Kaberle supported by future powerplay specialist Jaime McBain and hard-shooting Derek Joslin. It’s the defensive side of the game where this group is lacking, although Tim Gleason is underrated. Bryan Allen and Jay Harrison are borderline starters on a contending team – here they’ll play key minutes.

C Grade

New Jersey
Last Year (C+)

Other than Gabriel Landeskog there may not be another 2011 draftee with an easier time making the NHL than Adam Larsson. The Devils are that desperate to inject some offense into their blueline. If Larsson can have a Cam Fowler-esque impact, this group moves up the standings, as Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov are two of the best defensive defenceman in the league. Otherwise it’s an average group with below average skill playing for a franchise that might not be able to pay its bills. Tell me again why putting multiple teams in Southern Ontario isn’t a good idea? They’re certainly struggling to make it work in New York.

Florida
Last Year (C-)

It’s an eclectic mix on the Panther blueline, with a rock-solid rookie (Erik Gudbranson), a “ready-to-retire-to-Miami” veteran (Ed Jovanovski), a reclamation project (Brian Campbell) and swashbuckling Russian (Dmitry Kulikov) anchoring the top-two defensive pairings. And yes it is as much fun to type the term “swashbuckling Russian” as it is to say “swashbuckling Russian.”  It wouldn’t surprise if Brian Campbell has his best year in a long time in Florida. It would surprise if Ed Jovanovski was healthy enough to play 40 games and doesn’t quit to take up shuffleboard.

New York Islanders
Last Year (D)

While few people were noticing, Andrew MacDonald had a heck of the year playing well at both ends of the ice. A healthy return to the NHL by Mark Streit would give the Islanders two defenceman to build around. The rest of the blueline looks like AHL scrap though.

C- Grade

Ottawa
Last Year (C+)

While Erik Karlsson, Sergei Gonchar and rookie David Rundblad are talented offensive players, I wouldn’t expect them to defend a snow fort well, let alone an NHL goaltender. Chris Phillips can’t solve all the team’s defensive problems, and Brian Lee and Filip Kuba are two of the worst defenceman in the league. Goaltender Craig Anderson better be healthy, because he’s going to face a lot of shots this year.

Feb 192011
 

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

Matt Martin, New York Islanders, Max Talbot, Pittsburgh Penguins

Photo credit: canada.com

They say you can teach a player to play defence, but you can never teach a player offense. Offense comes from within – from a player’s imagination, intellect and feel for the game they play.

Two professional sports leagues seem to understand this, and have changed their rules to cater to the offensive side of their game.

Over the last decade, the NFL has gone out of its way to protect the player on-field through which all offense is orchestrated: the quarterback.

As Bill Simmons wrote last fall, when it comes to the NFL today it is pretty much “glorified flag football with better plays.”

It’s also fair to say, given that football has replaced baseball as America’s sport, and given that the Super Bowl has just set record ratings, this change has been a good one for the NFL and its bottom-line.

Meanwhile the NBA, certainly since the launch of the Bird-Magic era, has marketed their entire product around the league’s best offensive players. Rule changes, specifically around the 2001-02 season, have favoured offense.

And, whether it’s real or imagined, being an NBA superstar means getting the benefit of a referee’s call. Sneeze on the game’s best players and you’re likely to be called for a foul.

Like the NFL, the NBA understands that it’s the offensive side of the game that brings and keeps fans around the sport.

This brings us to the NHL, and discussions this week about the return of 70’s-style “goon” hockey.

Of the “big three” North American sports that feature player-on-player contact (hockey, football, basketball), only the NHL doesn’t go out of its way to protect its star offensive players.

Perhaps this is because a certain element of hockey culture has a grip on every nook and cranny of the NHL operation.

From analysts in the media to NHL headquarters to various general managers and coaches throughout the league, professional hockey is overrun with former “tough guys.”

We’re talking the types of players who would fill the bottom of an NHL roster. Players who, when active, exhibited characteristics of sacrifice, toughness and intimidation. Players who more often used their stick as a weapon than a creative tool.

In short – we’re talking about an entire culture created and enforced by former players who could never play the game at the same level of teammates who exhibited the very best the sport has to offer.

This culture recently went to work taking Mario Lemieux to task for his comments about the state the NHL game. They were quick to point out that the Penguins are themselves one of the league’s most penalized teams, employing a player like Matt Cooke, whose job on-ice is based purely on intimidation and intent-to-injure.

Yet despite these unfortunate truths, the fact of the matter is that the NHL is better off when its greatest players contribute their voice to the direction of the sport.

It is a shame another part of the hockey culture is to defer to the status quo, and not “rock the boat.”

Because as it stands, the game’s being left to the Neanderthals.

And that’s not a good thing for the future of the game.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Stephen Brunt hammered away at the same nail in a column earlier this week.
  • For what it’s worth, the NHL’s hiring of Brendan Shanahan and Rob Blake – two skilled players now contributing to the league’s hockey operations – is a step in the right direction.
  • Four random solutions to NHL “gooning:” 1) designate an instigator for every fight, resulting in a powerplay for one team 2) hand out suspensions of increasing seriousness based on the number of instigators (5, 10, 15) a player earns in a year 3) adopt the NBA approach and call more penalties when the league’s best players are infracted upon 4) Adopt Pierre Maguire’s suggestion and reduce the NHL roster by one player.
  • This pretty much sums up the season Nik Antropov’s having in Atlanta: USA Today talks about how adding Blake Wheeler will address the Thrasher’s lack of size up the middle. Antropov’s only 6’6 and plays centre.
  • Nice touch having both the Flyers and the Hurricanes wear #17 jerseys pre-game in honour of Rod Brind’Amour’s banner raising. Speaking of Brind’Amour, I wonder if there are any Oiler fans left in Edmonton willing to argue the similarities between Shawn Horcoff and the former Carolina captain.
  • Brian Burke is already looking to leverage his two new first-round draft picks in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft into an earlier selection. The thing is, the 2011 draft is reportedly a weak one beyond the first few selections. Two late-round picks might not move the Leafs up quite as far as they’d like…
  • …which means plan B may just be dangling those two first-round draft picks in front of cash-strapped teams with young restricted free agents seeking pay raises. Zach Parise (NJ), Shea Weber (NSH), Brent Seabrook (CHI), Zach Bogosian (ATL), Kyle Okposo (NYI) all fit that description, even if their respective teams may not want to move them.
  • As a pending UFA, not sure if Craig Anderson will want to stick around Ottawa for the next few years as they rebuild. That being said, it may be the best chance he has next year of starting the year as a #1 goalie.
  • Meanwhile, in Brian Elliott the Avalanche get a goalie of (at least this year) equal ability, who is also younger, cheaper and may yet improve.
  • Injuries and a low-profile have robbed him of some of the lustre he had as a younger defenceman in Edmonton, but make-no-mistake Tampa Bay got a good one in Eric Brewer. His offense has never truly materialized, but he’s very sound in his own zone, and can play an effective physical game.
Jan 152011
 

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

Doug Wilson, San Jose Sharks

Photo credit: Forbes

As the NHL All-Star Game approaches (yawn), so too does the trade deadline and the final stretch towards the Stanley Cup playoffs.

While there is some significant separation between playoff and non-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference, the Western Conference is a dogfight.

With this in mind, here now are five GMs facing important decisions at this stage of the season.

Doug Wilson, San Jose Sharks

The Challenge: Some questionable moves and a weakened backend has turned the perennially contending San Jose Sharks into a team that might miss the playoffs.

His Choice: Does he make a move now to save the season, or does he ride it out and make major changes in the off-season?

One Opinion: Ride it out. Outside of Danny Boyle, it’s obvious the Sharks defence struggles moving the puck. Granted, Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have been miserable, but together they take up so much salary cap room that it is impossible to make significant roster changes during the year. Expect the Sharks to try and upgrade their defence in a minor way, while hoping their “Big 3” can turn it on in time to make the post-season.

Crazy Thought: If this was the NBA, where sign-and-trades are common, you could almost rationalize a Tomas Kaberle for Patrick Marleau type of move. The Leafs need more top-end forward talent, consider themselves deep on defence, and have some salary cap room. Alas, this isn’t the NBA, and Kaberle is a pending UFA after this year.

Bryan Murray, Ottawa Senators

The Challenge: Starting to rebuild the Ottawa Senators franchise before he is fired.

His Choice: There are a ton of choices, but perhaps the most interesting is to trade Daniel Alfredsson for prospects and draft picks.

One Opinion: Trade Alfie. If he’s open to being dealt, Alfredsson would be a very attractive piece around the NHL. In addition to his on-ice contributions (currently leading the Sens team in points), Alfredsson is a bit of a bargain. During the last two years of his contract, his cap hit is $4.875 per year. However, he’ll be paid just $5.5 million ($4.5 million + $1 million) over the same period. That’s intriguing math to a budget-conscious contending team that could use an experienced, top-six forward. At the same time, dealing Alfredsson to a contender would be a symbolic “turning of the page” for the Senators franchise.

Crazy Thought: It’s not really that crazy. Everyone knows the Los Angeles Kings have cap space and are looking for a top-6 scoring forward. They’re a natural fit. It’d be more fun to see Alfie in Colorado though – a young team that loves to run-and-gun and has some cap space as well.

Dale Tallon, Florida Panthers

The Challenge: Tallon was very adamant his plan was to rebuild the Florida Panthers using the same scorched earth approach he used to rebuild the Chicago Blackhawks. And yet there have been enough on-ice positives this year that the playoffs are still a possibility.

His Choice: Stick to the long-term plan or make a post-season run.

One Opinion: Stick to the plan. Under Peter DeBoer and back-stopped by Tomas Vokun, the Panthers have been one of the elite defensive teams in the NHL this year. If they were able to generate any kind of offense, they’d be even closer to the playoffs than they are now (nine points back). However, trading for offense is usually costly, and young offense is rarely dealt around the NHL. Let’s not forget, this is one of the older teams in the NHL. While they’ve kept things interesting, it’s in the team’s best interest to move some pieces at the trade deadline and keep getting younger.

Crazy Thought: Trades between teams in the same division are rarely made. It’s too bad, since Niclas Bergfors is young, can score and is lodged in the Atlanta Thrashers doghouse. It would be interesting to see what he could add to the Panthers offense down the stretch.

Brian Burke, Toronto Maple Leafs

The Challenge: The Toronto Maple Leafs were supposed to be better than 25th in the NHL by this stage of team’s rebuilding plan.

His Choice: Fire Ron Wilson or keep him for another year.

One Opinion: Keep Wilson. Wilson is a decent, detail-oriented coach that insists on having his team play a puck-pursuit, aggressive style of hockey. Sadly, there just isn’t enough talent on the team to execute this style effectively. It’s not his fault either that the team hasn’t had a good goaltender during his entire Leafs coaching career.

Crazy Thought: One rumour out of Toronto is that Brian Burke is set to replace Rich Peddie as President of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Ltd. If that’s the case, Dave Nonis would become the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. General Manager’s usually want their “own guy” behind the bench, meaning that if Burke moves “up,” Wilson’s probably “out.”

Don Maloney, Phoenix Coyotes

The Challenge: The Phoenix Coyotes are proving last year’s playoff appearance wasn’t a fluke, and impending free agent goalie Ilya Bryzgalov remains the biggest reason for the team’s success.

His Choice: Sign Bryzgalov or lose him to free agency in the off-season.

One Opinion: Sign him. Like all things with the Coyotes, this one’s complicated by their dicey ownership situation. There is no question that the team would like to re-sign Bryzgalov, but first they want an owner in place to sign the cheques. That’s a fine argument, except when you consider that Bryzgalov may be one of, if not the, most valuable player in the NHL. Without him this Coyotes team goes back to looking like a lottery-pick, bottom-dwelling mess. As the current owners of the franchise, the NHL should do what’s necessary to solidify the franchise’s existence, while protecting the team as an investment, and get Bryzgalov signed.

Crazy Thought: Damien Cox already mentioned it, but the Toronto Maple Leafs would have a big interest if Ilya Bryzgalov became a free agent. Remember, Brian Burke is Bryzgalov’s former GM and did him a favour by placing him on waivers three years ago. That being said, there would be a number of teams eager to bid on an elite NHL goalie. Bryzgalov’s return to Phoenix would be doubtful if he became a UFA.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • While they’re struggling of late, the Los Angeles Kings are still a +16 in the goals for/goals against department. That’s fourth in the Conference, behind Chicago, Detroit and Vancouver.
  • Not sure what exactly it means in the big picture of things, but Pierre LeBrun ranks each NHL Division.
  • James Mirtle looks at the NHL’s best defensive forwards and defensive defencemen at the half-way mark. While not the most foolproof analysis, it serves as another reminder that Tomas Plekanec has become quite the player for Montreal.
  • Statistically, the worst team 5-on-5 but in the playoffs? The Tampa Bay Lightning. Those numbers should really improve if Dwayne Roloson can keep up his play in goal.
  • Statistically, the best team 5-on-5 but outside the playoff picture? Florida. They’re knocking on the door of being a top-10 team in this area.
  • With the success of the Winter Classic, both financially, critically and schmooze-festly, there’s no need for an All-Star Game anymore. NHL should just name a mid-season All-Star team and be done with it.
  • Remember when Simon Gagne was considered the defensive presence on an Olympic line with Joe Sakic and Jarome Iginla? Well he’s a -20 in 26 games this year.
  • NHL ice-time leaders amongst forwards: 1. Ilya Kovalchuk 2. Eric Staal 3. Sidney Crosby 4. Corey Perry 5. Brad Richards. 6. Alex Ovechkin. The most interesting name appears at #25: former Leafs castaway Alex Steen is playing 20 minutes a night in St. Louis.
Feb 272010
 

I love Brian Burke, he’s a character and I would have him back as GM of my Canucks any day but I’m getting sick of him perpetuating this “underdog” nonsense. This isn’t 1980. For those that don’t know In 1980 the Americans were a bunch of amateur and collegiate players that beat the Russians and ended up winning the gold medal at those Olympics in their next game against Finland. That game against the Soviets was named the “Miracle On Ice”.

Now I know Burke is notorious for two things: great quotes, and mind games. This whole Olympics he has perpetuated this label that the Americans are some sort of under dog and what’s frustrating is how everyone just eats it up. Has anyone taken the time to look at their squad? In hindsight it’s a very smart move by him. It eases the pressure on the team, and gets them emotionally into the game if they buy into it. The interesting thing though was the overwhelming response by the media and writers who in some cases reacted like the American win over Canada was on par with the second coming of Jesus. The reactions that I saw about beating Canada at “Canada’s Game” just blew my mind.

The Americans while not having as deep a pool of talent to select from as Canada, have put together a team that’s on par with Canada’s in almost every facet. The Americans have an all-star cast of their own that have donned the red white and blue and the notion that they are some vast under dog is just absurd. Belarus in an elimination game, Latvia, Germany, those are under dog teams. A team that boasts Ryan Miller, Phil Kessel, Chris Drury, Patrick Kane and Zach Parise amongst others is not some sort of under dog.

When the USA and Canada face off on Sunday in a rematch of the Salt Lake City gold medal game one thing’s for sure – we are going to be witness to the best hockey game played in North America, ever. May the best team win and if that does turn out to be Canada, I hope Brian Burke’s underdog label makes Team USA feel better about second place. This is Canada’s game and to quote Swiss alpine Olympian Didier Couche “second is the first loser”.

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