Nov 042011
 

Dear Gary (aka Bettman-in-da-house, aka Mr. Commish, aka Saviour-of-Winnipeg),

Not to go all Peaches and Herb (or Jeremy Roenick), but “realignment and it feels so good!”

NHL realignment is the hot talk around the league right now, and I know reviews are mixed concerning your latest plan to re-shape the NHL.

Personally, I like what you’ve reportedly done:

Eastern Conference
Division 1Division 2
PhiladelphiaDet/CBJ
WashingtonMontreal
New York RangersOttawa
New York IslandersBoston
New JerseyBuffalo
CarolinaToronto
Tampa BayPittsburgh
Florida
Western Conference
Division 1Division 2
Det/CBJVancouver
WinnipegEdmonton
ChicagoCalgary
DallasColorado
NashvillePhoenix
St. LouisLos Angeles
MinnesotaAnaheim
San Jose

The first round of the playoffs features divisional play (1 vs 4, 2 vs 3).

After the first round, the remaining teams are seeded 1-4, with 1 playing 4, 2 vs 3, etc.

Now, the Penguins and Flyers hate this proposal, because they’ve got a good rivalry going that fills their rinks, and playing in different divisions will hurt that.  

Teams in the proposed eight-team divisions also have a gripe, because mathematically they have a smaller chance of making the playoffs than teams in a seven-team division.

But you know what Gar (can I call you Gar, as in Danny Gare?), I think you should tell these complainers to stuff it. Your proposed plan reduces travel, solves most (but not all) of the league’s geographic issues, and doesn’t do too much to upset most of the NHL’s current/historic rivalries.

Listen. I’m in a charitable mood. I like what you’ve done for hockey in Edmonton and Winnipeg. I like the salary cap era.

Here are two tweaks that take your plan to the next level.

Tweak #1 – Level the playing field

The biggest gripe I’ve seen outside of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia involves the notion of 8-team divisions and 7-team divisions competing for the same number of playoff spots (4).

That’s easy to fix: make both divisions in each conference the same size. The Eastern Conference gets 16 teams, the Western Conference 14 teams: 

Eastern Conference
Division 1Division 2
PhiladelphiaDetroit
WashingtonMontreal
New York RangersOttawa
New York IslandersBoston
New JerseyBuffalo
CarolinaToronto
Tampa BayPittsburgh
FloridaColumbus
Western Conference
Division 1Division 2
ColoradoVancouver
WinnipegEdmonton
ChicagoCalgary
DallasPhoenix
NashvilleLos Angeles
St. LouisAnaheim
MinnesotaSan Jose

The first round of the playoffs still features divisional play (1 vs 4, 2 vs 3). After the first round, the remaining teams are seeded 1-4, with 1 playing 4, 2 vs 3, etc.

With this small tweak, every team in each Conference has the same odds of making the playoffs. Columbus joins Detroit moving to the East, where both teams geographically should be and want to be. Colorado moves to the “Central-esque” division, where it probably could be if you ever looked at a map of all NHL teams.

Sure, someone may suggest that there’s a greater chance of making the playoffs in the Western Conference than the Eastern Conference. You know what I say to them, Gar? That’s the price you pay for saving thousands of dollars on travel costs, you cheap bastards.

Actually, there’s only one issue with this tweak.

What the heck happens if you have to move the Coyotes out of Phoenix?

Yes Gar, I know that will never happen. I know you’ve been spending the last few years trying to decide which of the 100s of potential owners you want to give the Coyotes to so that the team can stay in Phoenix.

But if, god forbid, you have to move Phoenix, you’ll probably have to move them East (to say, Quebec City? Quelle surprise!). This means you have to, right now, keep Columbus in the West. (Why Columbus? Because they’re still one of the newbie franchises around the board table.)

So, here’s how you solve the 8-team/7-team disparity, while revolutionizing your sport.

 Tweak #2 – Let Teams Pick Their Playoff Opponent 

Eastern Conference
Division 1Division 2
PhiladelphiaDetroit
WashingtonMontreal
New York RangersOttawa
New York IslandersBoston
New JerseyBuffalo
CarolinaToronto
Tampa BayPittsburgh
Florida
Western Conference
Division 1Division 2
ColumbusVancouver
WinnipegEdmonton
ChicagoCalgary
DallasColorado
NashvillePhoenix
St. LouisLos Angeles
MinnesotaAnaheim
San Jose

The four Conference teams with the next best records get the final four playoff spots and the top four teams select their first round opponent. Division winner with the best record picks first. Then the other Division winner. Then the second-place team with the best record. Then the other second-place team gets whoever’s left.  

In the second round, teams are reseeded 1-4 based on regular season performance, with 1 vs 4, 2 vs 3.

Think about the possibilities that result from having teams choose their playoff opponent.

First of all, winning a division or conference would suddenly matter quite a bit. The NHL would reward the best regular season teams by giving them some control – whether it be reduced travel or a weaker opponent. The 11 remaining conference teams would also have equal odds of becoming one of the final four playoff teams – eliminating the eight-team, seven-team divisional bias.

There would be added buzz in April and March as fans talk about potential matchups and seeding races. Instantly, rivalries would be created or renewed once selections are made. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are mad because they don’t play each other as often? Well, problem solved – one can choose to play the other in the first round if they have a good regular season.

Gar, you could take this idea and create another television event, one that would be unique to the North American team sporting market. It would be a professional sports version of the NCAA’s Selection Sunday event. It would be just like the MMA or WWE, where opponents choose one another all the time because it always delivers a compelling storyline.

Mr. Commish, I offer this idea free of charge…although I wouldn’t mind having a division named after me. Or maybe I’ll just take a lifetime invite to the Winter Classic. It’s something we can negotiate later.

You’re welcome.

 THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Isn’t this about the time that the Oilers start falling back to earth? And yet, they played a terrific road game against the Kings, giving up only 19 shots.
  • Same thing can be said about the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are amazingly in first place in the Eastern Conference right now. Then again, it’s been a long time since the Maple Leafs had two scoring lines going like they do right now (Joffrey Lupul-Tim Connolly-Phil Kessel; Clarke MacArthur-Mikael Grabovski-Nik Kulemin).
  • Watching the Blue Jackets-Leafs game, it looked like Leaf shooters were targeting Steve Mason’s blocker-side with great success (4 goals on 11 shots).
  • Speaking of Columbus, this is the earliest they’ve ever gotten to 10 losses. A coaching change is on the way, but Ken Hitchcock isn’t the solution. The Blue Jackets are not strong enough in goal or on defense to play the conservative style Hitchcock demands. At the same time, he hasn’t shown much success coaching younger players, and future of this team is in its prospects.
  • At the same time, anyone who is suggesting Craig Button is a viable candidate for the Blue Jackets front office should give their head a shake. He was a league-worst level GM in Calgary. Lest we forget the trading of J-S Giguere and Marc Savard for bags of pucks, the release of Martin St. Louis and the signing of Roman Turek to a mega-contract.
  • I wonder how folks are feeling about the Erik Johnson for Chris Stewart/Kevin Shattenkirk trade these days? Johnson looks a lot like Bryan McCabe – a big shooter, decent skater with poor defensive instincts. At least McCabe was physical – Johnson plays a Jay Boumeester-like soft defense. Things aren’t puppy dogs and ice cream in St. Louis though either where Chris Stewart has gotten off to a very slow start (2 goals and 3 points in 11 games). In fact, right now the best player might just be Kevin Shattenkirk, who has taken another step, evolving into an intelligent, two-way defenseman playing alongside Alex Pieterangelo.
  • CBC is counting suspensions and concussions this year so you don’t have to.
  • Colorado’s Paul Stastny has yet to score a point at home this year.
  • Mike Smith has been very good for the Coyotes thus far. Makes you wonder what went wrong in Tampa?
  • Speaking of Phoenix, another factor in their early season success is the play of defensemen David Schlemko and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Ekman-Larsson is becoming a factor at both ends of the ice, and looks more and more like a player you build a team around. Schlemko is strong skater who doesn’t make mistakes with the puck.
  • Kudos to the Predators for inking Pekka Rinne to a 7-year/$49-million contract. Rinne is an elite goaltender, and having him signed long-term means Nashville has an important cornerstone in place. This probably means that one of Shea Weber or Ryan Suter is gone, especially since the Predators have some young depth at defense. It also wouldn’t surprise if Rinne’s $7 million annual salary becomes the defacto ceiling for Predator player contracts.
  • One last Predators note – while the media (particularly in Canada) portray Nashville as hockey backwater, it’s nice to see the team showing it’s willing to spend to build a contender. Predator fans have more trust in the franchise today than they did yesterday.
  • Chicago may just be the best team in the league right now. They’re scoring goals despite a terrible powerplay (8.7%, second-last in the league).
  • Yes, the Minnesota Wild are getting strong goaltending. No, they are not getting the production they’d like out of Marek Zidlicky. Zidlicky wasn’t very good last year either, and certainly doesn’t seem like a top-line defenseman anymore. That no-movement, modified no-trade clause in his last contract is starting to look like a big, heavy anchor around GM Chuck Fletcher’s neck.
Oct 142011
 

A collection of hockey thoughts and observations as one settles into a new NHL hockey season:

  • It should be clear to anyone who has watched the Senators play that Paul Maclean hasn’t had any more luck than Cory Clouston at motivating Sergei Gonchar. No one gives up on puck battles quicker than he does.
  • One week doesn’t make an NHL season, but as of today the Senators look an awful lot like the worst team in the NHL.
  • Speaking of NHL defensemen, Sheldon Souray’s big shot has already helped the Dallas Stars. However, Souray also looks a step slower than he did back in his Oiler and Hab days. At some point in the season the Stars will have to manage his minutes at even strength.
  • Staying in Dallas, it’s clear early on that Kari Lehtonen is auditioning for the Ilya Bryzgalov role as “goaltender who single-handedly keeps his team in the playoff hunt.” The Stars are not very good, but Lehtonen has been sensational out of the gate.
  • One more Dallas thought – let’s settle down about their attendance issues. It’s only October (American NHL teams normally struggle at the gate at the start of the season), the Texas Rangers are legitimate World Series contenders (and they’ve played both nights when Stars had woeful home crowds) and they’re finally getting an owner soon.  Texas is blossoming as a hockey state, but the Stars have been on life support as a franchise for the last couple of years. A new owner, with a clear business plan for the community, should rectify the issue.
  • One early season trend: more and more teams on the powerplay are attacking the blueline with speed, only to drop the puck to a trailing player before entering the zone. Since the penalty killers have collapsed on the puck carrier, the trailer usually gains easy entry into the offensive zone.
  • Speaking of early season impressions, despite his -2 rating Nikita Nikitin has had a solid start in St. Louis and may be ready for top-pairing minutes. On the downside, Jaroslav Halak has had a tough time controlling his rebounds and hasn’t looked great in net.
  • Question: Did Aaron Asham take it upon himself to apologize for his post-fight antics or did the Penguins leadership group (Dan Blysma, Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz) encourage him to be regretful post-game? Personally I think it was the latter, in hopes of minimizing any potential suspension.
  • Interesting to see how some teams are dolling out the ice time to start the year. Through Friday, Brian Campbell is getting close to 30-minutes a game in Florida. Surprisingly, Jason Garrison is getting the second-most ice time among Panthers defensemen.
  • Other ice time observations:
  • Most ice-time among Panthers forwards: Kris Versteeg. Probably wishing he’d signed elsewhere: Scottie Upshall, who is only seeing 10-minutes a game in Florida.
  • In Colorado, Daniel Winnick is the surprising ice-time leader among forwards. Actually the Avalanche are taking an offense-by-committee approach to the start of the season. No forward is averaging more than 18-minutes a game, and nine forwards (including Chuck Kobasew !?!!?) are getting at least a minute of powerplay time per game.
  • In St. Louis,  Jason Arnott is seeing only 13-minutes a game in St. Louis, and is seeing less powerplay time than Matt D’Agostini.
  • Speaking of not seeing any powerplay time, Shawn Horcoff looks like the odd-man out in Edmonton. He’s averaged 46 seconds of powerplay time thus far. Adding insult to injury – it took all of two games for the Sportsnet panel (Jeff Marek, John Shannon and Marty McSorley (?!?!)) to speculate that the Oilers may trade Horcoff at some point this year.
  • Don’t look now, but Edmonton’s Ales Hemsky left Thursday’s game against Minnesota early with an an injury to the same shoulder he had surgery on.
  • One last Oiler note: Linus Omark, he of the nifty shootout attempts, is reportedly in Tom Renney’s doghouse.
  • Yes Don Cherry’s days as a relevant commentator are probably over. His recent comments about fighting even have some people calling for his job.  But the CBC owns NHL hockey rights until 2014, and Coach’s Corner remains a ratings goldmine. Whatever the current fallout, expect Cherry to stick it out until the end of the current CBC deal. After that? Says here he retires from regular TV duty.
  • The parade route is already being planned in Toronto where the Maple Leafs are 2-0. Most impressive thing about their start? Phil Kessel, who seems quicker, stronger and more determined than ever before. Heck, he’s even joined Twitter, although it looks like we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for him to post something interesting.
  • A nice recap of the first week by Katie Baker over at Grantland.
  • Sadly, some players still don’t seem to realize the danger of concussions.
  • The top-10 immoveable contracts in the NHL, according to The Hockey News.
  • The New York Islanders 3rd jersey has been leaked.
  • Oct 062011
     

    After more than a month of review, analysis, and rankings, it’s time to predict what will actually happen in the upcoming NHL season.

    If you take all things into consideration, one thing becomes abundantly clear – parity. No team is very strong at each position (coach, goalie, defence, forward), and most teams are only a shade better or worse than another.

    It looks like all the same teams that made the playoffs last year have a good chance of making it again this year. As we’ve discussed though, it’s rare that there’s so little change in the standings from year-to-year. Injuries therefore will be the biggest factor in determining who plays on in April and who doesn’t.

    This time last year I predicted Boston as the Stanley Cup champion. Read on to find out this year’s predicted winner:

     Western Conference

    1. Vancouver 110-115 points
    2. Anaheim 105-110
    3. Nashville 100-105
    4. Chicago 100-105
    5. San Jose 90-95
    6. Detroit 90-95
    7. St. Louis 90-95
    8. Los Angeles 90-95
    9. Calgary 80-85
    10. Edmonton 75-80
    11. Colorado 70-75
    12. Dallas 70-75
    13. Phoenix 70-75
    14. Minnesota 65-70
    15. Columbus 55-60

    Notes on the above:

    • Surprisingly, I have the Predators rated the best team in the Conference (based on very strong goaltending, defence and coaching scores). Nashville plays in a brutally tough division though. Vancouver plays in the weakest division in the league, and that should lead them to another 1st place showing.
    • I have Chicago, LA and Vancouver rated roughly the same. I don’t have a non-playoff team rated anywhere near the top-8 teams in the West.
    • Could be significantly better than they’re ranked: San Jose (if Niemi plays a full season like his half-season last year); Colorado (if the kids are healthy and Varlamov is a legit goalie); St. Louis (if Halak is healthy and the youth take the next step).
    • Could be significantly worse than they’re ranked: Anaheim (if any of their core gets hurt they have very little depth); Detroit (if Jimmy Howard is only adequate and age catches up to the team); Phoenix (if their goaltending is as weak as expected).
    • Could miss the playoffs: Their division is so tough, a slow start or injury troubles could kill St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago or Nashville’s playoff chances.
    • Could make the playoffs with some luck: Calgary (if Mikka Kiprusof has some magic left, Iginla stays healthy and they incredibly find some secondary scoring).

     Eastern Conference

    1. Washington 110-115
    2. Boston 105-110
    3. Pittsburgh 105-110
    4. Philadelphia 100-105
    5. Buffalo 100-105
    6. Montreal 90-95
    7. NY Rangers 90-95
    8. Tampa Bay 85-90
    9. New Jersey 80-85
    10. Toronto 80-85
    11. Carolina 75-80
    12. NY Islanders 70-75
    13. Winnipeg 70-75
    14. Ottawa 60-65
    15. Florida 55-60

    Notes on the above:

    • Pittsburgh is the highest rated team in the Conference, but its close between them, Boston and Washington. Given the weakness of Washington’s division, the Capitals are likely to take first place.
    • I think the travel schedule of teams in the Southeast Division will have a negative impact on how those teams compete in the standings.  
    • Could be significantly better than they’re ranked: New York Rangers (depends how the kids progress and if Brad Richards performs); New Jersey (depends on Martin Brodeur, Adam Larsson and Mattias Tedenby); New York Islanders (if they get any goaltending they could be in the playoff mix).
    • Could be significantly worse than they’re ranked: Toronto (Corporately, Brian Burke has to get his team into the playoffs this year. The team is awfully young and inexperienced though); Montreal (if Carey Price goes down look out); Tampa Bay (similar to Montreal, they cannot afford a Dwayne Roloson injury).
    • Could miss the playoffs if things don’t gel right: Philadelphia (Chris Pronger’s injury prone, no one really knows what Jaromir Jagr will do and the kids are still kids).
    • Could make the playoffs with some luck: Carolina (great goaltending, okay defence and Eric Staal is an elite player).

    Other fearless predictions for the upcoming season:

    • Conference Finals: Washington over Pittsburgh in the East; Chicago over Nashville in the West
    • Stanley Cup Final: Chicago over Washington
    • Chicago plays Vancouver in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.
    • Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combine to play 120 games this year. Only one of them is available come playoff time.
    • With the Toronto Maple Leafs not making the playoffs, Brian Burke removes himself from the GM position and takes his place as President of the hockey club.
    • Phil Kessel is rumoured to be traded all year.
    • Jaromir Jagr is the most entertaining thing about the new season of HBO 24/7.
    • Lou Lamoriello retires at the end of the season. So does Martin Brodeur, Niklas Lidstrom, Teemu Selanne and Jaime Langenbrunner.
    • The Predators do not trade or re-sign Shea Weber, leaving him a UFARFA for 2012-13.
    • The NHL and NHLPA do not come to terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
    • The Philadelphia Phillies win the World Series over the New York Yankees. Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera promptly retire.
    • Teemu Selanne, Jaromir Jagr and Jarome Iginla fail to score 30 goals.
    • James Neal, Taylor Hall, John Tavares and Tyler Seguin each score 30 goals.
    • A year after her divorce, a Christina Aguilera sex tape is leaked online.
    • The War Horse marks the beginning of the end of Steven Speilberg’s career as a director. It’s awful.
    • Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith do divorce after all.
    • Slash does not appear on stage with Guns N’ Roses at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
    • The Toronto Blue Jays bid on Prince Fielder.
    • There is another recession.
    • Game of Thrones sets new viewing records for HBO.
    • Only Two Broke Girls, The New Girl and Prime Suspect earn a second TV season on a major US television network.
    • The Office without Steve Carrell is terrible.
    • Gabriel Landeskog is the highest scoring rookie. Nino Niederrater wins the Calder Trophy.
    • Alex Ovechkin wins the Art Ross and is the only player to crack 100 points.
    • Jonathan Toews wins the Hart.
    • Shea Weber wins the Norris.
    • Roberto Luongo wins the Vezina.
    • Tuukka Rask replaces Tim Thomas as Bruin starter at some point this season.
    • Shane Doan is traded from Phoenix at his request.
    • Jose Theodore is traded by Florida at the trade deadline.
    • It’s all but confirmed the Phoenix Coyotes will play in Quebec City starting in 2014.
    • The Blue Jackets’ Scott Arniel is the first coach fired. Ron Wilson is next, and whoever replaces Ron Wilson spurs the Leafs to a late-season playoff charge.
    • Coldplay’s new album is considered a disappointment.
    • Brendan Shanahan is forced (allegedly) to resign as NHL disciplinarian.
    • Teemu Selanne is hurt and can’t play in Winnipeg in December.
    • To the financial benefit of the NHL there is no NBA season.
    Oct 052011
     

    Yesterday it was the Eastern Conference goalies. Today, the Western Conference as we wrap up our positional previews.

    A+ Grade

    Nashville
    Last Year (B-)

    A stellar playoff performance proved Pekka Rinne is more than just a product of an elite defensive team. He’s the Conference’s best goaltender right now. If injured, Anders Lindback is a more-than-capable replacement.

    A- Grade

    Anaheim
    Last Year (B)

    Vertigo derailed what was shaping up to be a Vezina-worthy season for Jonas Hiller. Symptom-free, he’s an elite goaltender. Dan Ellis is an okay backup in the short-term, but any injury to Hiller and the Ducks are in trouble.

    B+ Grade

    Vancouver
    Last Year (B+)

    Despite two very inconsistent post-seasons, Roberto Luongo has been a great regular season goaltender. In fact, it could be argued Luongo has something to prove this year, which may mean trouble for opposing shooters. Cory Schneider is a strong backup and can fill in admirably for long stretches. He may be required to do so if Luongo falters again.

    Calgary
    Last Year (B)

    Miika Kiprusoff is starting on the downside of his career, but he’s still capable of Vezina-worthy numbers. The team has high hopes for Henrik Karlsson, who might just be the most talented backup Kiprusoff’s ever had behind him on the depth chart. Then again, we are talking about a list that includes Curtis McElhinney, Vesa Toskala, an-end-of-his-career Curtis Joseph, Jamie McLennan, Phillppe Sauve, Brian Boucher, Roman Turek, Dany Sabourin, Goofy, Greg Goldberg, Lisa Simpson, Lanny McDonald’s moustache, Snidley Whiplash’s moustache and Paul Brandt.   

    B Grade

    St. Louis
    Last Year (B+)

    It was a mixed debut for Jaroslav Halak in St. Louis, as injuries and inconsistency dogged his first season with the Blues. There were enough good moments though to confirm he is no Habs one-season wonder (aka Steve Penney). Ben Bishop and Brian Elliott competed for the backup role in camp, with Elliott winning the role. Both are significant downgrades from Halak.

    Los Angeles
    Last Year (C+)

    There is an embarrassment of riches at this position in Los Angeles, with Jonathan Quick playing extremely well last year, and Jonathan Bernier remaining one of the elite goalie prospects in the league. The Kings will move up this list as these two continue to develop.

    B- Grade

    Chicago Last Year (B-)

    Marty Turco was a Christina Hendricks-sized bust last year, but the emergence of Corey Crawford effectively saved the Blackhawks season. Crawford was very good against the Canucks in the first round last year, and goes into this season as the defacto starter. The backup role is up for grabs, with former badboy Ray Emery competing with prospect Alexander Salak. Emery looked good with the Ducks down the stretch, while Salak toiled in Europe after a good North American showing in 2009-10. Neither were all that special during training camp. (Ed. note: The Blackhawks signed Ray Emery a couple of days ago, and sent Alexander Salak to Rockford in the AHL. – J.J.)

    Dallas
    Last Year (C-)

    Kari Lehtonen brushed aside his injury past and was the Stars’ MVP, almost carrying the team into the playoffs. He’ll be asked to do even more on a weaker Dallas team this year. Andrew Raycroft is serviceable as the backup.

    C+ Grade

    Colorado
    Last Year (C+)

    Semyon Varlamov was a walking band-aid for the Capitals last year, and has yet to play 30 NHL games in a season. There’s no question he’s talented, but durability is a legitimate concern. The Capitals have been a good team as well, so it will be interesting to see what his numbers look like playing for a young Avalanche team. Jean-Sebastien Giguere is a swell guy who’s clearly reaching the end of his career performance-wise. His last two years in Toronto were pedestrian.

    San Jose
    Last Year (C)

    After a horrible start to the season, Antti Niemi was sensational from January until the end of the season. He is unorthodox, and his playoff numbers were disappointing, but when hot he’s one of the better goalies in the league.  Antero Nittymaki is out for 12 weeks meaning Thomas Griess gets a chance to be the backup. Griess has #1 goalie potential.

    C Grade

    Detroit
    Last Year (B)

    Brilliant in his rookie season, Jimmy Howard was hit by the sophomore slump for much of last year. He picked up his game in the post-season though, and seems destined to be a Chris Osgood-level NHL starter. Ty Conklin is the journeyman backup.

    Edmonton
    Last Year (D+)

    Devan Dubnyk was Ken Wregget-esque at times last year, giving an overmatched Oilers team a chance to win. His best days are ahead – the question remains how good of a goaltender he can be. Having completed his jail time, Nikolai Khabibulin enters the year looking to redeem his reputation.

    Minnesota
    Last Year (C)

    Nicklas Backstrom had a bounce-back year between the pipes for a very pedestrian Wild team. He’s a second-tier NHL starter. Josh Harding missed all of last season due to injury, got hurt in training camp and at 27 sees his career at a crossroads. 

    C- Grade

    Phoenix
    Last Year (A)

    Coyotes fans are about to learn how just how hard it is to win in the NHL without elite goaltending. Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera are solid backup goalies at best.

    Columbus
    Last Year (C+)

    Chin up Blue Jackets fans – whereas the Steve Mason era has been a nightmare, the Mark Derkanich era, whenever it starts, has some promise. In the meantime, Curtis Sanford (not this Sanford, the other one) is also in the mix.

    Sep 262011
     

    What do Michael Ryder and Ashton Kutcher have in common?

    Both have previously enjoyed success in supporting roles, and now both are being asked to replace bigger stars that left town after difficult contract negotiations.

    It’s doubtful either will make anyone forget who they’re replacing anytime soon.

    Last Monday, more than 27 million viewers tuned in to see how Two and a Half Men would replace Charlie Sheen with Ashton Kutcher.

    For those that missed it but wondered how it went, allow me to summarize: blandly juvenile.

    Granted, juvenile jokes and innuendo are a big reason why Two and a Half Men is the most popular sitcom on television.

    But there’s no question the show’s charm had a lot to do with Charlie Sheen playing off his real-life reputation.

    Ashton Kutcher brought a different energy to the season premiere. He was Kelso 2.0 – written to be smarter but just as much the same boy-man character who stole laughs and struggled to keep a straight face on That 70’s Show.

    Yep, like Sheen, Kutcher is essentially playing himself. That, however, doesn’t make him interesting. Without the sub-text Sheen’s real-life exploits brought to the sitcom, Kutcher isn’t a strong enough actor to create an interesting character on his own. And he’s struggled throughout his career when given opportunities to play a lead role.

    Meanwhile, Michael Ryder is essentially the only off-season acquisition the Dallas Stars made to replace Brad Richards. He’s also struggled when asked to play a lead role (see Montreal career), and enjoyed great, Stanley Cup success as a top-nine forward in Boston.

    How are he and the rest of the Stars forwards shaping up for the 2011-12 season?

    Let’s get to ranking the Western Conference forward groups:

    A- Grade

    Anaheim
    Last Year (B+)

    For the second year in a row we have a surprise on top of the list. This result is almost entirely due to three things: Corey Perry’s emergence as the Hart Trophy winner; Bobby Ryan’s development into a near-elite player; and Teemu Selanne’s incredible season as a 287-year old (matched only historically by the 2000 year old man ). The first line of Ryan-Ryan Getzlaf-Perry is the best in the league. Like last year though there are real depth issues beyond the top two lines, with Andrew Cogliano skating like Todd Marchant, but in no way capable of replacing the latter’s defensive abilities. If Selanne plays like his age, and none of the youth (Kyle Palmieri in particular) step up into supporting roles, they move down this list quickly.

    B+ Grade

    San Jose
    Last Year (A-)

    Will battle with Los Angeles all year for the title of strongest team down the middle. Martin Havlat also represents a speed upgrade over Dany Heatley, although he’s injury prone and beyond him the right side is fairly punchless.  In fact, like Anaheim this is a team with scoring issues in the bottom six, particularly on the wings. It’s a gritty bunch though, and one that looks tailored for the post-season.

    Vancouver
    Last Year (A-)

    Yet another team at the top of this list with an elite core of scoring talent but some questionable depth. Recently, a James Mirtle piece argued how the Toronto Maple Leafs needed more balanced scoring, as their top four forwards provided 53% of forward goals last season. For the Canucks, the Sedins, Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows provided 58.7% of Vancouver’s forward goals last year. That’s a lot of pressure on a few players. With Kesler and Mason Raymond’s injuries clouding their potential impact this season, Marco Sturm and Mikael Samuelsson will have to pick up some of the offensive slack. The third line (Chris Higgins, Manny Malholtra, Jannik Hansen) has the makings of one of the better shutdown lines in the league.

    Detroit
    Last Year (B+)

    Strong down the middle with Pavel Datsyuk (maybe the best player in the game), Henrik Zetterberg, Valterri Filppula and Darren Helm. They could really use some help on the wings though, as Dan Cleary and Johan Franzen (despite his playoff scoring reputation) are more appropriate options for a strong second line. The wildcard is Jiri Hudler, who was a George-Lucas-messing-with-the-original-Star-Wars-trilogy-again scale disappointment last season. This is a quick, intelligent group of forwards.

    Los Angeles
    Last Year (A-)

    As discussed above, Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Jarrett Stoll give the Kings arguably the strongest set of centremen in the league. The acquisition of Simon Gagne was a wonderful under-the-radar move. His play improved exponentially as the season went on last year in Tampa Bay and he’s shown previous chemistry playing alongside Richards. Kyle Clifford and Brad Richardson are youngsters providing grit on the third line, while Ethan Moreau will try to extend his career as a veteran 4th line presence. Really, if Dustin Penner can demonstrate any kind of scoring consistency, this could be the Conference’s best group of forwards.

    B Grade

    St. Louis
    Last Year (C+)

    On paper this a solid, still improving two-way group that might have greater depth than some of the teams ranked higher. While they lack an elite point producer, they could legitimately see seven 20-goal scorers this year (Patrik Berglund, David Backes, Andy McDonald, T.J. Oshie, David Perron, Alex Steen and Chris Stewart). Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner bring Stanley Cup experience.

    Chicago
    Last Year (A+)

    Make no mistake – the core of the Blackhawks forward brigade (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, David Bolland, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa) is good enough to sit atop this ranking. It’s the complimentary players that are still very much a work in progress. Andrew Brunette is a good addition to help the powerplay, but at this point zambonis move faster. Meanwhile, none of Michael Frolik, Viktor Stalberg or Rostislav Olesz has shown any sort of consistency in their young careers. If one of them finds “it” offensively, the ‘Hawks move up this list.

    Columbus
    Last Year (C-)

    Things are looking up in Ohio as Rick Nash finally has some talent to partner with. Jeff Carter and Vaclav Prospal bring much needed scoring depth to the Blue Jacket attack and Ryan Johansen is an elite prospect (although he may be brought along slowly).  The third and fourth lines are inexperienced but play hard. R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette are decent second-line talents.

    B- Grade

    Edmonton
    Last Year (C+)

    The future is very bright in Edmonton, but it’s not here quite yet. Taylor Hall looks like a future Maurice Richard candidate and Jordan Eberle looks like a future 30-goal scorer. Alex Hemsky is in his contract year, and seems poised for a career year. Then again, that’s said every year, and he always finds a way to get hurt. Adding Ryan Smyth and Eric Belanger addressed two weaknesses (leadership and face-off prowess), but it’s Ben Eager who represents the most important off-season move. Together with Darcy Hordichuk, the Oilers have size that can contribute at the NHL level for the first time in at least two seasons. This group could surprise.

    C+ Grade

    Minnesota
    Last Year (C)

    It’s a career crossroads for Dany Heatley. Granted, he played hurt last March and throughout the Sharks playoff run, but a lack of effort has been associated with the former 50-goal scorer for a few seasons now. (You know who else you could say that about? Everyone involved in HBO’s Entourage.) Meanwhile, a healthy Pierre-Marc Bouchard and greater opportunity for Devin Setoguchi give the Wild their best top-six forwards in franchise history.

    C Grade

    Colorado
    Last Year (B+)

    Last year’s rankings warned of a potential sophomore slump for this group, and boy did they deliver in that regard. There’s still some real promise here though. Gabriel Landeskog was a terrific draft pick, adding some Brendan Morrow-esque qualities to a young, finesse-based lineup. The question is health as Milan Hejduk is older than some countries; Peter Mueller missed much of last season; and David Jones is a band-aid player. If this group can stay healthy they climb these rankings. 

    Dallas
    Last Year (C+)

    What was a solid top-six is now weaker thanks to Richard’s departure. Jamie Benn will likely shift into the centre ice position, and Ryder will be given every chance to cement himself as a go-to goal scorer on the club. He’s streaky though, which leaves Loui Eriksson the only natural goal-scorer on the roster. Vernon Fiddler and Adam Burish are decent third-line grinders, but there’s very little offense in the bottom-six.

    Calgary
    Last Year (C+)

    The Flames may slip another grade before the start of the season if Jarome Iginla continues to have back troubles. Those back troubles are really no surprise though – he’s been carrying this team for a long time. There’s some nice grit here, and they’ll remain a tough team to play against. But scoring is going to be a struggle. That’s why there’s a lot of pressure on Mikael Backlund to evolve into an impact offensive player this year.

    Nashville
    Last Year (C-)

    With all due respect to Martin Erat, there really isn’t a legitimate first line player on the Predators roster. That being said, this is a team filled with forwards who do the “little things” right, and they may just be the best defensive group collectively in the NHL. In many ways Predators forwards are similar to Calgary as a group, although younger and without an Iginla to build around. Keeping the comparison in mind, Colin Wilson is Nashville’s Mikael Backlund. 

    C- Grade

    Phoenix
    Last Year (C)

    You know you’re in trouble when Ray Whitney is the most dangerous forward on the roster. The Coyotes may have the worst group of centres in the NHL, and that’s counting Kyle Turris, who is (inexplicably) holding out. I imagine Turris asking for more money has gone about as well as this. How much longer does Shane Doan really have to play in the desert?

    Sep 152011
     

    The other day, we looked at the Eastern Conference bluelines. Today, let’s look at the Western Conference defence rankings.

    A Grade

    Chicago
    Last Year (A+)

    A slip in the ratings heading into 2011-12, as neither Duncan Keith nor Brent Seabrook were quite as good last year as they were the season before. Meanwhile, Nick Hjalmarsson also disappointed. However, Nick Leddy looks like a future top-4 stalwart, and there’s some veteran depth now with the signings of Steve Montador, Sean O’Donnell and Sami Lepisto.

    Los Angeles
    Last Year (A-)

    This is assuming Drew Doughty signs. Otherwise they drop a grade. Doughty struggled with some injuries last year, but he remains a perennial Norris Trophy candidate. Jack Johnson’s plus/minus was awful (-21), but he played well in Doughty’s absence and looks like a legitimate first pairing guy. The rest of the group is an average mix of youth and experience, with Matt Green being the best defensive guy on the team.

    Nashville
    Last Year (B+)

    It should come as no surprise that the three teams with two top-level defencemen on the roster are all ranked at the top of this list. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter round out the trifecta of excellence, and quite easily could be the best twosome of the lot. Jonathon Blum and Ryan Ellis offer some young offensive promise, with Blum in particular looking ready to play 18 minutes a night. Kevin Klein (not this Kevin Kline) and Francis Bouillon are serviceable.

    B+ Grade

    Phoenix
    Last Year (B-)

    The Coyote blueline is a veteran heavy group that represents the only real strength the team has heading into the season. Keith Yandle was an offensive force last year, and it will be interesting to see if he can repeat his Norris-worthy campaign. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the future and will be given more minutes this season.

    B Grade

    San Jose
    Last Year (B+)

    Listening to some people, you’d think Brent Burns was the second coming of Scott Niedermayer. He isn’t. Instead, he’s a solid, 40+-point defenceman who can take pressure off Dan Boyle and give the team one of the league’s better top-fours (Boyle/Murray, Burns/Vlasic). Speaking of which, put me down in favour of Picklesnake.

    Detroit
    Last Year (A-)

    Sorry, but Ian White isn’t Brian Rafalski, and the Red Wing defence is weaker due to the latter’s retirement. Niklas Kronwall played the best hockey of his career last year, but the franchise could really use one of Jonathan Ericsson and Jakub Kindl to emerge. Is Nick Lidstrom the greatest defenseman of all time? Discuss.

    B- Grade

    Anaheim
    Last Year (C)

    A solid mix of veterans and youth, although the bottom pairing looks quite weak. Taking nothing away from Nick Lidstrom’s historic year as a 40-year old, veteran Lubomir Visnovsky also found himself hooked up to the rejuvenation machine last season. At 35, Visnovsky was deserving of Norris consideration. Toni Lydman is the stabilizing presence, as the Ducks play a lot better with him in the lineup. No one likes to predict a sophomore slump, but it wouldn’t surprise if Cam Fowler regressed a bit in year two.

    St. Louis
    Last Year (B)

    To be honest, who knows exactly what to expect from the Blues defence this year. It’s awfully young and full of promise, kind of like Lindsay Lohan once was (side note: how creepy is it that someone sat down and made that video?). Anyways, we all know how LiLo turned out. That being said, Alex Pietrangelo seems ready to become a top-10 NHL defenceman, and Roman Polak is one of the better defensive players in the league. If Kevin Shattenkirk and Nikita Nikitin can find consistency, this can become an elite group.

    Vancouver
    Last Year (B+)

    They may have only lost Christian Ehroff, but Vancouver’s defence doesn’t seem as deep heading into this season. For one, it’s hard to believe Kevin Bieksa will repeat his career-best performance last year. Similarly, Keith Ballard is a shadow of the player he once was, and would probably benefit from playing on a different team, under a new coach. The Canucks are excited about Chris Tanev and the coach loves Aaron Rome, but neither are ready or capable of playing big minutes. No, the only way Vancouver’s defence moves up these rankings this year is if Alex Edler takes the next step in his development.

    C+ Grade

    Calgary
    Last Year (B)

    Let’s just all admit that Jay Bouwmeester is the new Brett Hedican – a beautiful skating defenceman who is average in all other aspects of the game. Anton Babchuk and Chris Butler have puck-moving talent, and add some speed to what was a statuesque Flames blueline. Speaking of statues, Scott Hannan replaces Robyn Regehr as the “Calgary Flame most likely to be passed by an opponent on the way to a scoring chance.”

    C Grade

    Minnesota
    Last Year (C)

    I’d be surprised if Wild employees, let alone fans or hockey followers, could name the starting six defenceman who will suit up for the team opening night. With Minnesota moving towards a more offensive approach, Marek Zidlicky could see a jump in production. The philosophical change should also cement roster spots for Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon – two decent skating players with puck-moving potential. Nick Schultz is a warrior and underrated.

    Dallas
    Last Year (D)

    Make no mistake, if two of Sheldon Souray, Brad Lukowich, Adam Pardy or Mark Fistric play together at any point in the NHL this year, that pairing will be the worst in the entire league. That the franchise decided to give Sheldon Souray a shot should tell you this will be a rebuilding year in Dallas. Souray wasn’t very good in the AHL last year, and his last regular NHL action was roughly two years ago. The top-two pairings are okay, with Alex Goligoski the most creative, Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley the most reliable, and Nick Grossman the best defender.

    Columbus
    Last Year (C+)

    They added James Wisniewski, you say. The rest of the top-six is arguably league-worst, I say.

    Colorado
    Last Year (B-)

    They could move back up the standings based on two developments: One, Erik Johnson figures it out and takes the next step (and the scuttlebutt is he’s been a horse preparing in the off-season). Two, Jan Hejda proves it wasn’t a Blue Jacket mirage and he really is one of the better defensive defencemen in the league. We’ll see. Sadly, the rest of the Colorado defence is young and questionable.

    C- Grade

    Edmonton
    Last Year (C-)

    There’s nothing wrong with loading up on talented offensive players through the draft. At some point though, the Oilers are going to have to figure out that preventing goals is another way to win games. Ryan Whitney was putting in a team MVP-esque performance last year before he got hurt, and talk is he’s hurt himself again in the off-season. Without Whitney, the Oiler blueline is the worst in the NHL. Theo Peckham is a beast though.

    Sep 072011
     

    As discussed in yesterday’s post, changing a coach at mid-season, rather than in the off-season, seems to have a greater positive impact on team performance.

    Examining all the coaching moves since the start of the 2005-06 season reveals some other interesting tidbits:

    1. Only four coaches hired at mid-season led their teams to a worse performance than the coach they replaced:
      • 2009-10 Philadelphia: Peter Laviolette (.535) replaced John Stevens (.540). One could argue these are almost equal results.
      • 2008-09 Tampa Bay: Rick Tocchet (.397 winning percentage) replaced Barry Melrose (.438). Funny how Melrose was ridiculed for his performance returning to the bench, while Rick Tocchet demonstrated himself to be just as incompetent.
      • 2008-09 Montreal: Bob Gainey (.500) replaced Guy Carbonneau (.583)
      • 2005-06 Los Angeles: John Torchetti (.417) replaced Andy Murray (.564)

    2. The best improvement by a coach hired in the off-season:
      • 2009-10 Phoenix: Dave Tippett (+28 points after replacing Wayne Gretzky)
      • 2009-10 Colorado: Joe Sacco (+27 points after replacing Tony Granato)
      • 2010-11 Tampa Bay: Guy Boucher (+23 points after replacing Rick Tocchet)
      • 2007-08 Boston: Claude Julien (+18 points after replacing Dave Lewis). You’re not likely to see any of the four names replaced on this list named as NHL head coaches ever again.

    3. The worst performance by teams after hiring a coach in the off-season:
      • 2008-09 Colorado: Tony Granato (-27 points after replacing Joel Quennville)
      • 2010-11 New Jersey: John Maclean + Jacques Lemaire (-24 points after replacing Jacques Lemaire)
      • 2009-10 Edmonton: Pat Quinn (-23 points after replacing Craig MacTavish)
      • 2006-07 Los Angeles: Marc Crawford (-21 points after replacing Andy Murray + John Torchetti)

    One final note – for all the talk that Pat Quinn’s coaching time had passed after that brutal 62-point performance for the Oilers, it’s worth noting Tom Renney led an stronger Edmonton team to exactly the same number of points the following season.

    Here now are the coaching rankings for the Western Conference:

     A Grade

    Mike Babcock – Detroit
    Last Year (A)

    The best coach in the game? Probably. The demise of the Red Wings has been increasingly predicted over the last few years, and yet it never seems to actually happen. Credit the coach, who knows exactly the right buttons to push to motivate each player.

    Barry Trotz – Nashville
    Last Year (B+)

    Nashville fell a sniper short of upsetting Vancouver in the second round. That’s not Trotz’s fault, who clearly outcoached Alain Vigneault during the series. He’s among the best in the league.

    B+ Grade

    Joel Quenneville – Chicago
    Last Year (B+)

    Getting the Blackhawks – a team gutted by so many moves in the offseason that the players probably needed name tags in training camp – into the playoffs last year was an underrated coaching accomplishment.

    Alain Vigneault – Vancouver
    Last Year (B-)

    You coach a team into the Cup Final you get to move up these rankings. Yet, he still has an inexplicable man-crush on Aaron Rome; has turned once-promising Keith Ballard into an ECHL’er; and is at least partially to blame for the unsportsmanlike attitude that permeates Canuck culture. Last year was likely the pinnacle of Vigneault’s coaching career.

    B Grade

    Randy Carlyle – Anaheim
    Last Year (B)

    Carlyle headed into last season at a crossroads, with whispers of his having lost the room heard around the league. Instead, the coach and team rallied to a playoff spot. He did a great job not only integrating Cam Fowler into the lineup, but protecting him and his confidence.

    Dave Tippet – Phoenix
    Last Year (B)

    Performed another coaching miracle getting the Coyotes into the playoffs last year, but faces his greatest challenge trying to do that without Ilya Bryzgalov in 2011-12.

    B- Grade

    Tom Renney – Edmonton
    Last Year (B-)

    The Oilers featured stronger systems play and a better dressing room atmosphere last year, but failed to improve in the standings. A terrific coaching “teacher,” at some point Edmonton brass will have to ask themselves if Renney has the chops to take a team far into the playoffs. That’s a question that’s still a few seasons off though.

    C+ Grade

    Terry Murray – Los Angeles (FIRED WATCH)
    Last Year (C+)

    Let’s make it two years in a row for Murray to find his name on the “Fired Watch.” Expectations haven’t been this high for the Kings since Gretzky was in town. An adequate bench boss, he hasn’t coached a team out of the first round since the Flyers made the Stanley Cup in 1997.

    Todd McLellan – San Jose
    Last Year (C)

    Won a classic series against the Detroit Red Wings (and coach Mike Babcock) and got his team to the Conference Final for the second year in a row. And yet, he still hasn’t really helped the team shed its underachieving label.

    C Grade

    Davis Payne – St. Louis (FIRED WATCH)
    Last Year (C)

    With the Blues expected to rise in the standings this year the heat is on Payne, who is also in the final year of his contract. Injuries crippled the team last year, but St. Louis was also inconsistent and prone to weak first period efforts.

    Brent Sutter – Calgary (FIRED WATCH)
    Last Year (C)

    Still looking for the same success in the NHL that he had coaching junior hockey. He seemed a bit more flexible handling his roster once brother Darryl was out of the mix. Still, with a veteran-laden squad like the Flames, it’s playoffs or bust.

    Joe Sacco – Colorado
    Last Year (C+)

    Sacco, heralded as a great communicator after his first year as coach, had a tough second season. The team looked unprepared at times and Sacco’s seemingly random benching of players was odd (Chris Stewart was a healthy scratch before being dealt).

    Scott Arniel – Columbus (FIRED WATCH)
    Last Year (C)

    You know what the definition of a square-peg and round-hole problem is? Meshing Arniel’s puck possession gameplan with the Blue Jackets roster last year. It didn’t work. The personnel is stronger this year in Columbus, so now it’s up to Arniel to deliver some results.

    Glen Gulutzan – Dallas
    Last Year (N/A)

    Another rookie head coach, this time taking over from “The Hair” (aka Marc Crawford). Despite team assurances, it does look like Gulutzan’s price-tag (ie. cheap) played a part in his being hired over other coaching options (Craig MacTavish, Ken Hitchcock, etc). Gulutzan has had an impressive minor league coaching career, particularly in the ECHL. You know who else had a pretty impressive ECHL coaching career? John Brophy, who’s actually in the ECHL Hall of Fame. Just sayin’…

    Mike Yeo – Minnesota
    Last Year (N/A)

    Yeo takes over from Todd Richards, promising to bring offensive hockey to the Wild. The former Penguins powerplay coach is young (39) and, well, eager, as his visit to Finland to meet with Mikko Koivu can attest. He only has one season of head coaching experience though, and the ditches along the NHL highway are full of wannabe assistants who couldn’t make it as head coaches.

    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 192011
     

    [I Watched This Game is a recurring feature at Pass it to Bulis, the hockey blog that knows who needs the puck. It chronicles the insights and observations of two guys who watched a hockey game. To view all the other wonderful stuff PITB does, visit Pass It To Bulis.]

    Give the Canucks credit for showing up to play this one. After a horrendous outing in Minnesota exposed their tired road legs, the excuses for a second consecutive poor performance were readymade. Instead, the Canucks vehemently defied the wishes of their bodies in Colorado, and kept up with the speedy Avalanche. They outshot the Avs 43 to 30 and picked up a well-earned point. It could have been two points, even, had the Canucks managed to push through their mental sluggishness the way they did their physical sluggishness.

    Unfortunately for them, it was not so, and the mental mistakes came fast and furious. Bad penalties; bad passes; bad reads; lazy backchecks. Against a young, aggressive team like the Avalanche, that crap’s not gonna fly. Although, by getting the regulation tie, I guess it sort of did. Hmm. Okay, it did, but then, in the end, it didn’t (not unlike the Avro Arrow). Whatever. I watched this game:

    • Likely, neither team will be particularly happy with the way they played tonight (the Canucks were slow and sloppy, and the Avalanche let a tired road team take the lead three times) but both teams will be happy to leave the stadium with points. It’s like sports day in grade school. Everybody gets a ribbon!
    • The Canucks’ power play covers all manner of sins sometimes. Both Edler and Ehrhoff blasted PP goals from the point that gave their team the lead, and these goals were vital. Had the Canucks had to open up and play from behind for even one second in this game, their suspect defensive play would have been even more prominent, and it could have gotten out of hand.
    • It’s been a long time since the Canucks have had a sexy callup like Sergei Shirokov, so it was nice to see him play a standout game in his first NHL action this year. He scored his first career goal on a beautiful move (above), and he had a game-high six shots. But, before you get excited, consider he’s played two fewer games this month–and nine fewer NHL games. He had fresh legs. He was like Anne Bancroft on skates, his legs were so fresh. Let’s wait to see whether or not he can be a standout when the rest of his team isn’t playing on fumes, but he was a breath of fresh air tonight. Most importantly, he looked capable of creating his own offense, something Kesler’s wings have to be able to do. A good start for Shirok.
    • The other callup, Chris Tanev, acquitted himself admirably as well. He finished the night a minus-1, but it’s hard to fault him on the Luongo misplay that gave David Jones his first of two on the night. Jones was his man, for sure, but everyone in the building thought Luongo would swallow up that puck as it came off the boards. Other than that, Tanev was solid. He got on the ice for just under thirteen minutes, far more than anyone would have expected. He admirably broke up a 3-on-1 when Keith Ballard heeded Qris’s advice to step it up, pranks-wise and decided to pull the old fall-down-so-the-rookie-has-to-fend-off-a-3-on-1 routine. Funny guy, that Ballard.
    • Don’t tell the Vancouver media I said this, but here’s your proof that the star awards mean nothing: Alex Edler was named the game’s third star. Clearly, someone didn’t watch the game (probably John Garrett, who has made a living watching games, but always seems to be attending his first one). While it’s true that Edler had a standout game offensively with a goal and an assist, he played one of his worst games of the season defensively. He constantly lost his man, he bobbled pucks at the blue line, he looked dreadfully slow. Despite finishing the game even in the plus/minus category, Edler was on the ice for two Colorado goals, both on the penalty kill, and both times he got absolutely embarrassed by David Jones in front of the net. Jones isn’t a small guy, but Edler’s bigger, and the fact that Edler allowed himself to get moved right out of the play twice is unacceptable. Watch the highlight package. Colorado goals one and four are mirror images of one another, as Jones simply shades Edler into the useless area, opening up the exact same cross-ice pass. On the first goal, you can find Edler at the side of the net when the pass comes across. On the fourth goal, that’s him in the middle, lazily dropping down to block nothing, opening up the same pass and rendering himself helpless to prevent Jones from finding the rebound. A terrible game from #23 tonight.
    • Kevin Bieksa, on the other hand, played solidly. Nearly every shift, he was breaking up an odd-man rush or clearing the zone before things got dangerous. He finished with 2 hits, 4 takeaways and 3 blocked shots, and considering these three stats are typically undercounted (especially when you play for the road team), that’s one hell of a stat line.
    • Keith Ballard had a decent game as well, but has anyone noticed how often this guy falls? He’s like an ancient empire on skates. Methinks Keith “Babylon” Ballard needs to heed the words of the prophet Jeremiah.
    • Is Adam Foote a diplomat’s son? He’s clearly got some sort of immunity. Foote’s a handsy guy, but it doesn’t seem to matter who he grabs, punches, or holds–there’s never a call. He could grope the First Lady and someone would call it a smart, veteran play.
    • The referees missed some egregious offenses, but Raffi Torres sure made it easy on them, huh? Both of his penalties tonight were of the are-you-kidding-me variety, especially his second one. Who tugs on a jersey? Not since Theodore Tugboat have I seen such pathetic tugging. Skeeter and I observed that Raffi Torres has three modes: 1) skateskateskateskate 2) get puck, and 3) put puck. Unfortunately, none of the three modes is any more detailed than that, and Raffi often skimps on the details. Torres is playing some dumb hockey right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if he suffers a benching in the near future.
    • Speaking of penalties, Henrik Sedin’s penalty in overtime was fully warranted. Granted, his man went down easy, but everyone knows there are a two situations where you should never stick your arm out. The first is when you’re chasing to break up a two-on-one. The second is when you’re on a school bus. That’s how you lose a limb.
    • A better performance by Roberto Luongo and the Canucks probably leave Denver with a win. He’ll get no pass tonight; he was the freshest Canuck and he should have played like it. When your star goaltender is rested and your team isn’t, you need a star goaltending performance, and the Canucks didn’t get it. The second and third goals are both ones he probably should have had. Know what else he should have had? A Bacon Mushroom Melt. It’s only ever at Wendy’s for a limited time, and it’s delicious. But now it’s gone, and who knows how long he’ll have to wait for them to bring it back? /regret
    • And finally, Jeff Tambellini was the fourth-line center tonight, and while he did a fine job (especially in the faceoff circle, where he was 5-for-6) I’m not sure I like he and Mason Raymond on that line together. They’re too tiny, and tiny on the fourth line is a bad idea, unless it’s an ironic nickname for someone huge, like Tiny, the classic character from SNES’s Clayfighter.
    Jan 032011
     

    [I Watched This Game is a recurring feature at Pass it to Bulis, the hockey blog that knows who needs the puck. It chronicles the insights and observations of two guys who watched a hockey game. To view all the other wonderful stuff PITB does, visit Pass It To Bulis.]

    With a gritty, hard-fought win against the Avalanche, the Canucks have won 5 straight, haven’t lost in regulation in 12 games, and have the best goal differential in the NHL. And, oh yeah, they’re first place in the entire NHL right now. Now, there are plenty of spoilsports out there who will complain that being first place in January is meaningless, or that no one cares about the President’s Trophy, just the Stanley Cup. To them I say, “Boo! Boo! Boo!” I, for one, am a Canucks fan and I will take pleasure in the Canucks doing well, whether you like it or not. I take pleasure in watching the Canucks win, and I watched this game:

    • Alexandre Bolduc got his first NHL goal (above), added a particularly savvy assist, and finished a game-high +2, but let’s not lose perspective. He still played only 5:52 in the game and didn’t see a single shift after Paul Stastny narrowed the lead to one. That said, he made the most out of his limited time tonight. His heads up play on the odd bounce that led to Mason Raymond’s goal was very nifty. I suspect he got a brief lecture on knowing where his teammates are on the ice after confessing in a 1st intermission interview that he had no idea where Glass was on the 2-on-1 that led to his goal.
    • The scorekeeper for tonight’s game was apparently feeling generous, as somehow Kevin Bieksa received an assist on Mason Raymond’s goal despite about 5 different players, including a couple from the Avalanche, touching the puck between his last touch and the goal. Unless Bieksa’s giant forehead gives him telekinetic powers, there’s no way he should get an assist, although that would explain the bizarre bounce that puck took off the seamless glass.
    • Unsurprisingly, Mason Raymond got the most ice-time for the fourth line as he saw some penalty killing duty and briefly skated 4-on-4 with Jeff Tambellini. He still played under 10 minutes in his return to the lineup, but it seemed clear that his hand wasn’t impairing his shot, as he fired 3 on net including the snipe from the slot for the gamewinning goal. Welcome back, Raymond, we missed you.
    • While the fourth line did all the scoring, Roberto Luongo did all the saving. He was fantastic in net, making 31 and a half saves. He battled hard through traffic to make saves and didn’t give up many rebounds, unless he clearly meant to, like when he sprung Glass and Bolduc with a great kick-save pass. Seriously, he got credited with an assist on that one. I honestly was not aware that they gave assists for giving up a rebound. That’s like saying the wall in Shaolin Soccer was passing the ball to Mighty Steel Leg Sing.
    • Ehrhoff and Edler were solid as a tandem. The duo played the most minutes for the Canucks and made nice plays at both ends of the rink. Ehrhoff was connecting well with his passes, had 3 shots on net, and was smart with his stickwork in the defensive end, getting credit for 2 takeaways. Edler was the more physical of the two and was credited with 3 hits, including this destruction of T.J. Galiardi. If that video doesn’t work, try this one, it’s a bit of a better angle.
    • In a show of solidarity for the Make it Seven campaign, the Avalanche played the dying moments of the game with 7 skaters on the ice. J.J. Guerrero from Canucks Hockey Blog has the picture to prove it. The refs were getting a fair amount of criticism from Canucks fans during this game and that gaffe won’t help their case.
    • For my part, I think it’s just nice to see the Canucks winning in spite of the difference in powerplay time. The Canucks penalty kill was perfect at 5-for-5 and didn’t even give up a single shot on net for the latter 3 powerplays. Lost in the hubbub of their record and powerplay has been the steady work of the penalty kill which jumped up to third in the league with their performance tonight. They are far better at being shorthanded than Dr. Curt Connors.
    • Despite not recording any points, the top three lines did not play particularly poorly. The Sedins had several shifts where they penned the Avalanche in with strong possession and the second line shifted the momentum several times with their speed. It was a solid shift by the third line that led to the possession on which Mason Raymond scored his goal. Part of the problem was all the penalties that prevented them from icing their normal lines for large chunks of the game. It’s incredibly encouraging, however, to see the team pick up a win without any points from their top offensive contributors: balanced scoring is the key to playoff success.
    • Part of the reason the normal offensive contributors didn’t show up on the scoresheet tonight was faceoffs. Manny Malhotra was the only centre above 50% and even he had a relatively pedestrian 53%. It’s troubling because the Avalanche are a sub-50% team on faceoffs. On the plus side, they were 5-for-8 shorthanded, which aided their killing abilities like a golden gun.
    • During the broadcast, Shorty promoted an interview with Alison Sweeney, host of The Biggest Loser, on Breakfast Television. Garrett: Alison Sweeney is on “Days of Our Lives.” Do you watch that? Shorty: No.
    • Mikael Samuelsson apparently had 5 shots on goal. Did you even notice him tonight? Because I didn’t. Torres, on the other hand, was very noticeable, unfortunately for the wrong reasons. He took two very dumb penalties. You can criticize the officiating if you want, but the 4 minute difference in powerplay time can easily be pinned on Torres.

    And on that critical note, congratulations to the Canucks for moving to the top of the NHL. Continue being awesome, boys.

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