Jan 212013
 

Doesn’t it feel like we were just here? After a full day of NFL playoffs, we’re right back into hockey mode. Let’s just hope tonight’s game goes a little better than last night’s. I mean, it can’t get any worse, right?

Here we go.

Read more #TGATT goodness past the jump.

Jan 182013
 

The Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues could be battling for top spot in the Western Conference this season.

Yesterday, we previewed the Eastern Conference. Today – the Western Conference:

1. St. Louis Blues – 60 points

Status: Contender
Goaltending: A-
Defense: A-
Forwards: B-
Coaching: A

Why: The time is now for the Blues, who are strong in all areas and backstopped by one of the best pairings in the league (Jaroslav Halak, Brian Elliott). A Conference Finals appearance, at the very least, should be expected. Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pieterangelo are among the best young defensemen in the game and eat up minutes on the back end. The addition of rookie winger Vlad Tarasenko should give the Blues three scoring lines with grit.

2. Los Angeles Kings – 58 points

Status: Contender
Goaltending: A+
Defense: B+
Forwards: B
Coaching: B-

Why: The Kings finally played to their potential in last year’s post season, winning the Stanley Cup after a difficult regular season. There’s no reason to expect similar struggles this time around, especially with the lockout-related layoff recharging some of the players’ batteries. An injury to Willie Mitchell hurts somewhat, but should give more icetime to second-year defenseman Slava Voynov, who was the reason L.A. could part with Jack Johnson at last year’s deadline. The Kings are extremely deep at centre, with Anze Kopitar a dominant two-way force (although he’s starting the season with a knee injury). Jonathan Quick was the NHL’s best goalie in 2012, and is supported by Jonathan Bernier, who could easily start for a number of other teams.

3. Vancouver Canucks – 50 points

Status: Decline
Goaltending: A-
Defense: B+
Forwards: B+
Coaching: B-

Why: The window on the Canucks’ Stanley Cup dream is quickly closing. Injuries have rendered Ryan Kesler a question mark, and without him it’s hard to see where the goals will come from beyond the Sedin line. David Booth’s injury also adds to these offensive woes. The team is deep in net, and really needs to move Roberto Luongo as soon as possible to fill gaps up front. The blueline is very solid but unspectacular, with Jason Garrison likely to struggle to repeat last year’s goal-scoring performance. New starting goalie Cory Schneider was the only significant Canuck to spend time playing during the lockout. Expect this team to be slow out of the gate.

4. Detroit Red Wings – 54 points

Status: Decline
Goaltending: B
Defense: C+
Forwards: B
Coaching: A

Why: The Red Wings blueline looks rather suspect, especially when you consider two former Maple Leafs (Carlo Colaiacovo, Ian White) will be expected to shoulder top-4 minutes. Actually, the Wings will likely go as far as two youngsters take them: If Brendan Smith can step in and fill some of the offensive void left by Lidstrom’s retirement, that will be a major boost to the team’s fortunes. Similarly, if Damien Brunner can find chemistry with Henrik Zetterberg, it will fill the void left by Jiri Hudler’s departure. Pavel Datsyuk remains an elite player, and Jimmy Howard is a proven commodity in goal.

5. Nashville Predators – 52 points

Status: Status Quo
Goaltending: A
Defense: B
Forwards: C-
Coaching: B-

Why: The Predators will be successful as long as Pekka Rinne remains a top-end goaltender in the NHL. Thankfully, Rinne played throughout the lockout, and should be in top-form right out of the gate. Yes, the loss of Ryan Suter has an impact, but not as much as you may expect, as youngsters Jonathan Blum and especially Roman Josi are ready for additional minutes. Up front, the team is filled with strong skating grinders, with Craig Smith the most likely Predator to experience a bump in offensive performance. This team will never win pretty, and the style of play likely to be found during this shortened season may actually be to their benefit. For what it’s worth, reviews of Sergei Kostitsyn’s play overseas during the lockout were extremely positive.

6. Phoenix Coyotes – 52 points

Status: Status Quo
Goaltending: B
Defense: B
Forwards: D+
Coaching: A

Why: Mike Smith came out of nowhere to dominate between the pipes, lifting the Coyotes all the way to the Western Conference Finals. A similar level of performance should get them safely back into the playoffs, although an injury would be devastating (the drop-off in quality to backup Jason LaBarbera is massive). Oliver Ekman-Larsson was a point per game defenseman in the AHL, and looks ready to assume the mantle left by Niklas Lidstrom as the best Swedish defenseman in the NHL. Nobody squeezes more out of marginal NHL talent on the third and fourth lines than coach Dave Tippett. Steve Sullivan is unlikely to replace the performance of Ray Whitney (off to Dallas), which means the time is now for Mikel Boedker and Martin Hanzal to find their offensive game. In all honesty, the Predators and Coyotes are arguably the same team playing in different coloured jerseys.

7. Chicago Blackhawls – 51 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: D
Defense: A
Forwards: A-
Coaching: C+

Why: The elite talent to be found on the Blackhawks roster – and there’s a lot of it – is held back by questionable goaltending. Corey Crawford was inconsistent in goal last season for Chicago, and Ray Emery wasn’t much better. The defense unit is largely unchanged and should be strong, although Duncan Keith’s play dipped slightly in 2011-12. Up front, Marian Hossa should be ready after a devastating playoff hit from Raffi Torres, and Patrick Kane played very well overseas during the lockout.

8. Minnesota Wild – 49 points

Status: Dogfight for the playoffs
Goaltending: B-
Defense: C
Forwards: C+
Coaching: D+

Why: Since when has spending a lot of money on unrestricted free agents led to on-ice success? Granted, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are huge improvements to the Wild roster, but this remains a work-in-progress lineup. Mikko Koivu should thrive with Parise on his wing, but the real key to the Minnesota attack this year will be the development of Mikael Granlund. If Granlund is Calder Trophy-worthy offensively, that should push the Wild into playoff contention. The defense behind Suter is thin and relatively young, and who knows how he will respond to greater responsibility than what he had in Nashville. Nik Backstrom is better-than-average in goal, but has been injury prone of late. His backup – Josh Harding – also has injury issues and was diagnosed with MS in October. Raised expectations and a slow start could cost coach Mike Yeo his job.

9. Edmonton Oilers – 49 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: C-
Defense: C
Forwards: C+
Coaching: C-

Why: Let’s be clear – on paper, right now, it’s hard to see the Oilers as a playoff team. However it’s very likely they will improve upon every grade listed above over the course of the season. That’s what happens when young teams develop and get better. It should also be noted that only the Flyers had more players active during the lockout than the Oilers. Rookie Jeff Schultz has dominated the AHL, and could be the most exciting rookie defenseman to hit the NHL since Sergei Zubov. NHL-calibre play from the rookie Schultz, and injury-free play from Ryan Whitney, will give a significant boost to the Oiler blueline. Meanwhile, the team is loaded with offensive talent up front. Jordan Eberle, in particular, looks like he might be ready to join elite status. Finally, there isn’t a more respected coach internationally than Ralph Krueger. If he lives up to his reputation, it’s just one more reason why the Oilers can make the playoffs.

10. San Jose Sharks – 49 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: C
Defense: A-
Forwards: C+
Coaching: C

Why: The Sharks nucleus remains formidable, but beyond Logan Couture, it is also aging, with the best days behind Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle and Patrick Marleau. San Jose remains a team with a good top-six and a sketchy bottom six group of forwards. The blueline is the team’s strength. Brent Burns is still recovering from off-season surgery and had a disappointing first season on the West Coast, but has the talent to be a solid #2 defenseman. Brad Stuart and Doug Murray are solid defensively, while Marc-Edouard Vlasic is underrated. In goal, Antti Niemi continues his history of inconsistent play, and may be pushed by backup Thomas Greiss.

11. Dallas Stars – 46 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: A-
Defense: C
Forwards: C+
Coaching: C-

Why: The Stars have rolled the dice in the off-season, loading up with aged veterans Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr in efforts to get the team back into the playoffs. It’s quite possible this strategy could blow up in the team’s face, as older players will have their energy and bodies taxed during the shortened season. Top-line forward Jaime Benn is also sitting out with a contract dispute, making it even more likely the Stars get off to a poor start. The blueline is thin, although Alex Goligoski has untapped potential as a puck-mover. The key then is how well Kari Lehtonen can play, and how healthy he can remain. Lehtonen was Vezina-calbire last season.

12. Anaheim Ducks – 44 points

Status: Also-rans
Goaltending: C+
Defense: C
Forwards: B
Coaching: C-

Why: Like their state rivals in San Jose, the Anaheim Ducks boast a very solid offensive nucleus in their top two lines (Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, Teemu Selanne) but little depth beyond that upfront. The hope is rookies Nick Bonino, Kyle Palmieri and Devante Smith-Pelly can fill the talent gap, but that’s asking a lot (especially Smith-Pelly, who hasn’t shown much in the AHL). The addition of Scott Niedermayer as an assistant coach is hoped to help the stalled development of Cam Fowler and Luca Sbisa. They must improve to support what is otherwise a slow-footed, veteran blueline. In net, Jonas Hiller had a poor 2011-12 and must rebound for the Ducks to get into the playoff race. A slow start could see some major changes to the roster, not to mention coach and management.

13. Calgary Flames – 43 points

Status: Also-rans
Goaltending: B+
Defense: C+
Forwards: C-
Coaching: C-

Why: There’s just not enough talent on this roster to win a playoff spot, which means it will take a superhuman season from Miikka Kiprusoff to get the Flames to the post-season. At his age (36) that’s a lot to ask. Meanwhile, the team’s best player, Jarome Iginla, has already suffered a groin injury and has a lot of wear and tear on his 35-year old body. The additions of Jiri Hudler, Roman Cervenka (out with a blood clot) and Dennis Wideman are band-aid solutions to solving some of the offensive issues that have plagued the team recently. You can question each players’ willingness to compete and they’re likely to be found in Bob Hartley’s doghouse at some point. In fact, a poor start to the short Flames season could see both Kiprusoff and Iginla finally dealt, in efforts to better secure the team’s future.

14. Colorado Avalanche – 41 points

Status: Wild Card
Goaltending: B
Defense: D
Forwards: C
Coaching: C-

Why: Whereas the Capitals are the biggest question mark in the Eastern Conference, welcome to the biggest question mark in the West. They could win the division; they could end up in last place. The Avalanche certainly feature talented young forwards up front (Matt Duchesne, Gabriel Landeskog, Paul Statsny), but the contract dispute with Ryan O’Reilly is a significant blow. He’s the team’s best two-way player – Colorado’s version of Ryan Kesler – and without him there’s a significant lack of grit and defensive acumen amongst the forward group. The defense looks like a mess. Erik Johnson is still struggling to find a consistent, top-level NHL game. Rookies Tyson Barrie and Stefan Elliott may be asked to add speed and puck-movement to a sluggish blueline, but both play a high-risk game. Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere are a goaltending duo with strong potential but prone to streakiness. Keep in mind – only 5 Avs players were active during the lockout.

15. Columbus Blue Jackets – 38 points

Status: Rebuilding
Goaltending: D-
Defense: C
Forwards: D
Coaching: D+

Why: Essentially, the Blue Jackets have blown themselves up by trading Rick Nash, and are starting from scratch in terms of building a winner. They’re going about it the right way this time, with a focus on building from the net out. They could be better than they’re rated here. Sergei Bobrovsky was lights-out during the lockout in the KHL and has high-end potential. A strong season from him would be the first strong goaltending season Columbus has had in years. On defense, Jack Johnson played very well after being dealt from the Kings, as did Nikita Nikitin (from St. Louis). Add James Wisniewski to the equation and suddenly you have a mobile, solid puck-moving top-three. It’s in their own zone where there could be problems. The biggest hole is up front on offense, where youngster Cam Atkinson looks primed to break out. There’s some decent grit and speed in the mix, but goals will be very hard to come by.

Jan 182013
 

The Sedins and Alex Burrows celebrate a goal against the Anaheim Ducks.

Photo credit: CBC.ca

Not many of us hockey fans thought we would see an NHL game this season, but thankfully, the NHL and NHLPA finally came to their senses, agreed on a new CBA, and we can finally get back to talking, complaining and chirping about our teams and rivalries.

Though I’ll be honest and say that I’m not sure what Vancouver fans are more excited about: seeing the boys back in action or being able to buy all the hotdogs, popcorn and pop they want for only a $1 each, at least during the Canucks’ first 3 home games. I’m going to say it’s a pretty close race.

Who’s Next

Saturday, January 19, 2013 vs. Anaheim Ducks (home game, 7:00 PM start time)

The Canucks and the Anaheim Ducks split 4 games last season, each team winning 2 games. Cory Schneider and Jonas Hiller backstopped their respective teams in those wins.

It should be an interesting season for the Ducks. Both Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are entering the final year of their contracts and both will become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. Saku Koivu, Teemu Selanne and Bobby Ryan are also in the top-six, but other than that, the Ducks have a lot of young players who will try to earn a spot and stick around in a tough shortened season. The Ducks did get bigger and stronger with the additions of Sheldon Souray, Bryan Allen, Daniel Winnik and Brad Staubitz.

Henrik Sedin led the Canucks with 5 points (1G-4A) and a plus-7 rating in the season series. Bobby Ryan led the Ducks with 7 points (2G-5A), but was a minus-3 in those matchups.

Sunday, January 20, 2013 vs. Edmonton Oilers (home game, 6:00 PM)

It’s clear that the Edmonton Oilers know how to win…. the first overall pick in drafts.

Kidding aside, the Oilers, for the third consecutive year, won the right to draft first overall in the NHL Entry Draft and used it to select Russian phenom, Nail Yakupov. Because of their talented, young core, which also includes Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and prized free agent-signing, Justin Schultz, many feel this is the time they start making a push in the NorthWest Division.

Now, many Canucks fans were disappointed that the BC-born Schultz decided to sign with Edmonton last summer, but hey, the Canucks just signed Jim Vandermeer and Cam Barker – don’t worry guys, we got this.

The Canucks won 5 of the 6 games last season against the Oilers. Alex Burrows led the Canucks with 8 points (3G-5A) while Eberle and Hall both led the Oilers with 6 points each.

Wednesday, January 24, 2013 vs. Calgary Flames (home game, 7:00 PM)

The Calgary Flames boosted their forwards with the additions of Roman Cervenka and Jiri Hudler, both of whom are welcome additions to a team that finished 24th overall in the league in scoring. They also added defenseman Dennis Wideman, who scored 11 goals and 46 points last season, by signing him to a hefty 5-year contract worth $26.5 million.

Turning 36 years old this season, it will be interesting to see how many games Flames workhorse, Miikka Kiprusoff, will get, especially since the schedule of this tough shortened season demands a lot of games in a short amount of time. Personally, because he’s in my hockey pool, I’m hoping he starts all 48 games.

The Canucks were 3-2-1 against the Flames last season. Alex Edler led all Canucks skaters with 6 points (1G-5A) while Mike Cammalleri, who was traded from the Montreal Canadiens back to the Flames in January, scored 4 goals in just 3 games played against the Canucks.

Friday, January 25, 2013 at Anahiem Ducks (away game, 7:00 PM)

Since this will be the second meeting between the two teams, I thought this would be a good time to bring up something that everyone notices, but not many people talk about – can we please address the unfortunate balding of Ryan Getzlaf? Great player, pretty good looking, bad genetics. Poor guy.

Sunday, January 27, 2013 vs. San Jose Sharks (away game, 5:00 PM)

The San Jose Sharks are always one of the top teams in the Western Conference. Well, at least they are during the regular season. With the likes of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, Martin Havlat, Logan Couture and Dan Boyle, the Sharks have a solid core group of players. Plus, this summer, they added some grit by signing Adam Burish and some veteran stability on the backend by signing ex-Wing, Brad Stuart.

The Canucks were able to get 7 out of a possible 8 points against the Sharks last season; their lone loss in the series came in the shootout. Kevin Bieksa led the Canucks with 4 assists in 4 games. Couture and Mini Joe each had 4 points for the Sharks.

Jan 142013
 

Henrik Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks shakes hands with Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings.

Photo credit: Toronto Star

Finally.

After winning a second consecutive Presidents Trophy and then falling to the eventual Stanley Cup champions, Los Angeles Kings, in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, and after almost nine months of wallowing in the what might have been, the Vancouver Canucks will finally hit the ice again this Saturday to start the 2012/2013 NHL season.

The team released their 48-game regular season schedule this weekend. They’ll be playing 4 or 5 games against each Northwest Division opponent, and 3 games against each of the other teams in the Western Conference. They’ll play 0 games against teams in the Eastern Conference.

Because of the shortened season, Canucks fans, unfortunately, again won’t see the likes of Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos in Vancouver. Regardless, there are still some marquee match-ups on tap; here are 5 of them:

Saturday, January 19th vs Anaheim Ducks

The Canucks want to make it up to fans for putting them through the 113-day lockout, and they’re starting on opening night. The Canucks have promised a full night of festivities, including selecting a lucky fan to drop the ceremonial puck before the game, giving the jersey of the players’ backs, and offering 50% discounts on team merchandise and $1 hotdogs, popcorn and drinks.

Friday, February 1st vs Chicago Blackhawks

This will be the two teams’ first meeting since Duncan Keith’s cheap shot to Daniel Sedin’s head. For his transgression, Keith earned a 5-game rest before the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Canucks sorely missed their leading scorer, fizzled out in the first round of the playoffs, and fans have been demanding for their pound of flesh ever since.

Monday, January 28th at Los Angeles Kings

The last time the Canucks tried to avenge a playoff loss, they beat the Bruins in Boston in a spectacularly entertaining and dirty game. It was a Saturday matinee game in January, but also, the peak of their season. Likewise, the Canucks will want to win this rematch against the Kings, but they have to also understand that this game is only game 6 of 48.

Saturday, March 30th at Edmonton Oilers

The Canucks play the Oilers and their phenom five of Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz five times this season – twice at Rogers Arena and three times in Edmontom – but this is the only one televised nationally on CBC Hockey Night in Canada.

Saturday, March 16th vs Detroit Red Wings

Even without Nicklas Lidstrom manning their blueline, the Red Wings are still a big draw in Vancouver. They still have some firepower and skill in the lineup with Pavel Datsyuk and new captain, Henrik Zetterberg. After leaving for a few years to play for the Canucks and the Florida Panthers, the ever-quotable Mikael Samuelsson re-signed back with Detroit this past summer.

Jan 012013
 
Bure Scores Another Goal

Photo credit: The Canadian Press – Dave Buston

After trying out Tom’s Rum & Egg Nog recipe last night and getting your New Years Eve party on, we here at CHB thought we would regale you with more thoughts & prognostications on what we think is in store for the Canucks in 2013.

Matt Lee (@mattlee61)

Which brings about what to expect in 2013. Will there be a shortened 48-game season? My guess is yes; I’m an optimist by nature and I think both the owners and players would hate to see another full season flushed down the toilet. But the journey to this point has been like a roller coaster; one very ugly, scary, and sickening roller coaster you can never get off of.

If there’s a season, I’m looking forward to it. Instead of writing what to expect, here’s a brief list of questions I’m interested in seeing answered:

  1. Will Cory Schneider be able to handle a season as the new king of the Canucks crease?
  2. Can Jason Garrison and Zack Kassian live up to the monumental expectations placed upon them as new arrivals?
  3. What version of Ryan Kesler will show up when he returns? The guy who called himself “Bull” in his early days, or the player we saw flopping his way to a first round playoff exit?
  4. Are the Canucks going to retire Pavel Bure’s #10 or has that ship sailed?
  5. Will the Sedin twins production soar or sag after a lengthy layoff?

Anyone have a crystal ball?

Victoria Pattison (@concretefluff)

As for 2013, I can see the Canucks being undefeated for the first half of January (hahaha, had to be said!).

In all seriousness, I don’t see anything happening for the Canucks in 2013 because I don’t see the lockout ending in time. If the hockey Gods’ pull out a miracle and there is a season, my money is on the Canucks to win the Cup. A season this short would leave no room for burnout and hopefully less chance for injuries (I’m looking at you Ryan Kesler), which, in my opinion, has been the Canucks biggest problems.

But to be very honest here, I don’t want the Canucks to win the Cup on a short season. Because, as some of you know, I married the biggest Canucks hater on the planet and if we win the Cup on a shortened lockout season all I will hear for the rest of my life is “It doesn’t count because the season was short”. I know it’s selfish but I would rather avoid divorce than win a Cup on a short season.

Clay Imoo (@canuckclay)

What can Canucks fans look forward to in 2013?

Firstly, I truly believe that there will still be a 2012-2013 (well technically 2013) season. Having said that, I think the shortened season will work towards the Canucks’ advantage. They can’t afford a slow start as a losing streak of 4 or 5 games could conceivably put them out of the playoffs early. There is enough veteran leadership to hopefully help the team get out of the gates quickly.

I’m very interested in what becomes of Roberto Luongo. Does he turn into a second-line centre? Perhaps a couple of depth players? A prospect or two? Luongo’s fate will undoubtedly be the biggest story surrounding the team until something is done. Thus, the Canucks will need to rely on their veteran leadership to help the team remain focused on the task at hand: a strong start in a shortened season.

Look for the Canucks to hold off the improved Minnesota Wild and surging Edmonton Oilers to secure yet another Northwest Division title.

Ed Lau (@edlau)

2013 looks to be a big year with the Olympics of competitive facial hair growing, the World Beard and Moustache Championships held in Germany. Will Wolfgang Schneider use home field to his advantage to defend his natural moustache crown? Can Evan Gillespie of Canada take the championship away from freestyle moustache juggernaut Keith “Gandhi Jones” Haubrich? Will we see a surprise in the Fu Manchu division, which is always a bloodbath, and we never know what to expect from the freestyle sideburns guys…those dudes are crazy.

Controversy surrounds the full beard group after the performance enhancing drugs scandal that shocked the world in 2012 but the bans allow for new stars to emerge. Personally, I predict that Elmar Weisser will take Best in Show all over again although no word yet on what his beard will be shaped like for 2013. He hasn’t yet responded to my repeated suggestion do one inspired by The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song, complete with dice in the taxi’s mirror and guys up to no good spinning Will Smith around their heads.

No word on whether there will be an NHL season in 2013 but who needs it when there’s all this competitive bearding going on?

May 292012
 

Everything that has a beginning has an end.

It seems fitting the New Jersey Devils are facing the Los Angeles Kings in this year’s Stanley Cup. There are several parallels to the Edmonton Oilers – Carolina Hurricanes final that ended the first post-lockout season (2005-06). Both series feature:

  • a team Wayne Gretzky played for (Kings now; Oilers then)
  • an over-the-hill goaltender taking his team on an improbable run (40-year old Martin Brodeur now; 36-year old Dwayne Roloson* then)
  • a team trying to buck the traditional formula and win the Cup without a legitimate number #1 defenseman (Devils now; Hurricanes then)
  • surprising contributions from 21-year old rookies (Adam Henrique now; Carolina goalie Cam Ward then)
  • one team reaching the final thanks to Collective Bargaining Agreement-related roster moves (thanks to the new salary cap and floor system, the Oilers went out and acquired Chris Pronger; thanks to a loophole in the CBA, the Devils offered and retained Ilya Kovalchuk’s services for the next 983248932498 years)

Perhaps the most striking difference between the two series is what they represent. The Oilers/Hurricanes final was the riveting first chapter on a post-lockout era of exciting hockey and parity, where any team could afford a contender and a winner. It was a Stanley Cup Final representing hope. Meanwhile, with another lockout staring the NHL in the face, this year’s Devils/Kings final serves as a referendum on the game since 2004-05. It’s a Stanley Cup Final representing reality.

The question is, are we in a better place with the game today then we were in 2005/06?

Financially yes – the NHL is more successful now as a business than ever before. It will be even more successful once it eliminates (unlikely), finds deep-pocketed owners for (unlikely), or moves franchises (Phoenix, Florida, potentially New Jersey, Columbus) to locations (Canada) where off-ice success is easier to achieve. (Remember, the most profitable franchises in the league are all located in Canada, and prop up to varying degrees the 23 teams south of the border. If the Canadian dollar ever falls below US$0.80 again, league financial health will become a very different story.)

As for the on-ice product, the answer is no. Advances in goal-scoring and flow to the game have largely been negated by smart coaches. As the salary cap has gone up, we’ve seen the big spending = big winning formula return, which was allegedly the reason for the salary cap to begin with. It’s a faster game than it was, but also more intense – just like the NFL, injuries are now a common determining factor in the success or failure of an NHL team’s season.

Unlike the last lockout, and despite on-ice evidence to the contrary, there isn’t a sense around league circles that the product is in trouble. So while the NHL is about to go through big CBA changes –  whether it’s no salary cap floor, a cap on the length of player contracts or eliminating the loophole that allows teams to bury contracts in the minors – real innovations to improve the game are years away.

This means the style of hockey that’s been showcased around the league in 2012 – fast but structured, nasty, defensively-disciplined, tactical and expected to be played mistake-free by its players – is here for awhile.

And its a style of hockey that seems miles away from the promise of the game showcased in the 2005-06 Stanley Cup Final.

Both the Devils and the Kings play the current style of hockey very, very well. Part 2 of this preview will break down both teams, and offer a Stanley Cup prediction.

Postscript:

* – On behalf of Oiler fans I’m obligated to note that if Dwayne Roloson doesn’t get injured the Oilers probably win the Stanley Cup. A healthy Roloson means a rusty Ty Conklin doesn’t come in cold during the third period and give the puck away behind the net to lose Game 1. It also means a rusty Jussi Markkanen (remember, Edmonton ridiculously rotated backups all playoff, with Conklin and Markkanen splitting practice time) doesn’t let the Oilers get blown out in Game 2. Edmonton won three of the remaining 5 games of the series anyways, so it’s no stretch to think a healthy Roloson gives them a split in the first two games, rather than an 0-2 deficit. Having been reminded of all this, Oiler fans have permission to throw up in their mouths a bit.

Apr 142012
 
Cory Schneider, Vancouver Canucks

Cory Schneider: taking on the media one mic at a time.

What? Cory Schneider defended himself and his team from ANOTHER media-related attack on the Canucks?

How dare he or any other player grow tired of all the negative hatred spewing forth against the Canucks from the majority of North America!

What a jerk to go and say something that’s kind of (totally) true!

Alright, enough being facetious, Katie. Less intelligent people might start taking this sarcasm as reality.

Schneider had every right to speak his mind, and I don’t agree with him feeling the need to apologize and retract what he said, although it was predictably classy of him to do so (for those of you who don’t know and are blinded by your Canucks-hatred, Schneider is actually a really nice guy and his gut-reaction bashing of Edmonton is something the likes of us have never seen from our red-headed back up).

That being said, it somewhat indicates that even Schneider is getting fed up with the constant negativity being fired towards his team.

Lately he spoke out against Canucks fans who were being too hard on Luongo, and now he’s defending his team from a bad PR decision out of the LA Kings’ marketing department.

The Background:

After winning Game 1 against the Canucks, the LA Kings account tweeted: “To everyone in Canada outside of B.C., you’re welcome.”

Yeah real original there, random American guy who suddenly knows everything about Canada. I tip my invisible Mountie hat to you, sir.

Later, when asked about their thoughts on this rather dumb tweet and the overall perception of this nation-wide “hatred” of Vancouver, most Canucks shrugged and said it didn’t really bother them, water off their backs so to speak.

Aside from a Sedin, I think Schneider is one of the last players who Canucks fan would have expected to create a bit of a media maelstrom with his thoughts on it:

“You look around the league and people don’t like us and Pittsburgh and we’re two of the better teams,” Schneider said. “You saw Darcy Hordichuk and Ben Eager in Edmonton. Nobody cares about Edmonton so nobody hates them. It’s that simple.”

Yeah, that part didn’t sit well with Edmonton fans, or with everyone else in the world who jumps on any reason to attack the Canucks.

Then on Friday, Schneider was well aware of the social media storm that occurred after his statement, and he apologized with this:

“It probably wasn’t the best choice of words and I apologize for it. I didn’t mean to create a distraction and hopefully it won’t affect us in any other way going forward.”

He added a bunch of other apologetic sentences tweeted belligerently soon after by Edmonton media, which just made me a little disappointed in Schneider.

Yeah, I understand why he’d want to apologize; he most likely didn’t mean to insult anyone – that’s not Schneider’s way.

But at the same time, I think Canucks Nation was proud of Schneider for defending his team and saying what everyone else is thinking: The better team you are, the more enemies you’re going to make. It really is as simple as he said it is.

There’s the “Embrace the Hate” motto some Canucks fans are trying to live by, but I admit, the undeserved and over-emphasized hatred against the Canucks gets really, really tiring. Not to mention it’s only Game 2 of Round 1 and it’s already gotten to a ridiculous extreme that took at least three rounds to develop last season.

Of course Schneider and the rest of the Canucks are also going to get sick of it. Who wouldn’t? They can say to the media that it doesn’t bother them all they want, and I’m sure a few of them like Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa just feed off it, but there are others who probably don’t like being the target of so much random, overhyped loathing.

I know I wouldn’t.

For someone as polite as Schneider to finally react to something says a lot in my opinion, and he had every right to speak his mind.

After all, everyone else in the NHL and related media seems to have free range to say awful things about Vancouver without repercussions, so why can’t a Canuck say something back?

I for one am glad the Canucks aren’t a bunch of floor mats who’ll just take all this crap from supposed professionals.

Like this guy, Damien Cox from Rogers Sportsnet:

“And now Luongo joins the early playoff fakery. Same ol’ Canucks. Divers and fakers. Why rest of country hates ’em.”

If this so-called journalist is allowed to publicly attack a sports team like that, then that team has every right to react to this kind of ignorance.

It’s a free country isn’t it? Freedom of speech? Anyone? Bueller?

In the meantime, it looks like the Canucks and their fans better grow even thicker skin than they needed last year because the stupidity going around the NHL (and affiliated sport networks) at the moment isn’t going to slow down any time soon.

Apr 042012
 

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

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

Calgary Flames

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

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

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

Winnipeg Jets

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

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

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

***

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

Hart Trophy – Evgeni Malkin

Runners-up: Jason Spezza; Henrik Lundqvist

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

Norris Trophy – Zdeno Chara

Runners-up: Alex Pieterangelo; Erik Karlsson

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

Vezina Trophy – Henrik Lundqvist

Runners-up: Jonathan Quick; Mike Smith

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

Selke Trophy – Patrice Bergeron

Runners-up: David Backes; Anze Kopitar

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

Calder Trophy – Gabriel Landeskog

Runners-up: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins; Matt Read

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

Adams Trophy – Ken Hitchcock

Runners-up: Paul Maclean; John Tortorella

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

 THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

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