Mar 272012
 

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

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

Columbus Blue Jackets

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

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

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

Montreal Canadiens

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

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

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

Edmonton Oilers

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

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

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

Minnesota Wild

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

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

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

New York Islanders

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

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

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

Toronto Maple Leafs

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

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

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

Anaheim Ducks

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

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

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

Carolina Hurricanes:

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

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

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

Tampa Bay Lightning

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

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

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

Feb 082012
 

James Mirtle in the Globe and Mail asked an interesting question Monday – which rebuild is better, the Leafs approach or the Oilers approach?

Ultimately, the answer to this question can only come years from now, when the young promise on each roster has been fulfilled (or not fulfilled, for that matter).

However, as the continued success of the Detroit Red Wings (and continued failure of the Columbus Blue Jackets) suggests, there are franchise factors that can have a major impact on the development of a successful team.

Good ownership is one of these factors. Every fan wishes their team had an owner not only with deep pockets but an ego that demands on-ice success.

A strong front office is another factor. Management that can create an organizational culture that breeds success, dedication and trust. One that can analyze the on-ice product, adapt to new innovations around the league and make difficult decisions when the time comes. A strong front office includes a talented scouting staff that can find NHL-level talent beyond the first round on a consistent basis.

An excellent coaching and training staff is another factor. Staff who can execute management’s vision, communicate with the modern player, know their hockey Xs and Os and can make sure each player is ready to compete on a nightly basis.

Given these factors, the more relevant question to ask right now is which franchise, Toronto or Edmonton, has the people in place to execute its rebuild most effectively?

Ownership

Toronto’s ownership, even with Rogers Communications and Bell Canada taking over controlling interest, seems like it will be entirely focused on the bottom line for the conceivable future.

Meanwhile, in Oilers owner Daryl Katz, Edmonton has a passionate, deep pocketed owner who cares about the success of the hockey club. His communication skills leave something to be desired, but most fans will take an engaged owner over a faceless board of governors any day.

Ownership Edge: Oilers

Front Office

Say what you will about Brian Burke, but he’s won a Cup; helped build the Canucks on- and off-ice into the juggernaut they are today; and has a league reputation as an honest, straight-shooter who takes care of his players.

Sure, speeding-up the Leaf rebuild process by targeting young, established NHL players didn’t exactly pan out. However it did bring the Leafs Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, two B+ level talents.

What Burke has done well though is surround himself with the deepest (and most expensive) front office in the league, and used what draft picks and money (for college players) he’s had to rebuild the Leafs prospect pool (currently ranked 8th by Hockey’s Future).

Meanwhile, Steve Tambellini has had a puzzling start to his career as an NHL General Manager. Hiring Pat Quinn and Tom Renney to serve as co-coaches was the first head-scratcher. Giving Corey Potter a 2-year contract extension after less than a season’s worth of experience is another. The Oilers front office has been slow to address team weaknesses of size and defense as well.

The Colin Fraser trade dispute was a reputational hit, and something that will add to the Oilers’ struggles to attract free agents. At least Hockey’s Future ranks their organization 4th in terms of prospects, so it looks like the team is drafting well. That seems about the only edge it has on Toronto though.

Front Office Edge: Leafs

Coaching

Neither Toronto’s Ron Wilson nor Edmonton’s Tom Renney should be considered an elite coach. Both have had limited success doing what their respective GMs have asked of them. Wilson’s implemented an up-tempo style, even when his roster was littered with players who couldn’t play that style very well. Renney is teaching the young Oilers how to become better professionals, but the team has been among the league’s worst for three years running.

There are things to like about both team’s assistant coaches. Toronto’s Scott Gordon has had the powerplay among the league’s best all year, while Greg Cronin seems to have fixed the penalty kill (no goals against in 15 games). Edmonton’s Associate Coach Ralph Krueger is an international coaching legend, with strong communication and motivational skills.

The biggest difference between the two teams in this area is the training staff. The Oilers have been cursed in recent seasons by the injury bug, punishing a team with little-to-no depth. Injuries haven’t had the same impact on Toronto’s improving roster.

Coaching Edge: Leafs
  
Any discussion of which rebuild is better has to take into consideration who is executing that rebuild.

Both the Leafs and Oilers are flawed organizations with young, talented rosters. But while Edmonton may have higher-end talent on-ice, right now Toronto has stronger people off-ice. As a result, the Leafs seem like the better bet to realize their potential.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Does it really matter that Sam Gagner may have only had 7-points last week? I know I don’t care if the referees are extra generous with their assists.
  • One last Oilers thought – Jordan Eberle, at the time of his draft, projected favourably as another Dany Heatley. Just two years later, Eberle looks to have already eclipsed Heatley as a player. If he can get to 78-points (he has 54 now), he’ll become the highest scoring Oiler since Doug Weight in 2000-01.
  • The Red Wings can deny it all they want, but they desperately need one of Joey MacDonald or Ty Conklin to be solid in goal until Jimmy Howard gets back. The Central Division is a beast, and any prolonged slump could mean St. Louis, Nashville or Chicago leap past them in the standings. It’s hard to get four teams from the same division into the playoffs. The Red Wings can’t afford a set back.
  • If I’m an Eastern Conference team that thinks it can make a post-season run, I am calling Montreal about Hal Gill. Skating-aside, Gill remains one of the top defensive defensemen in the NHL. He would look great in a Rangers uniform.
  • Other trade matches “made in heaven”: Marek Zidlicky to Detroit (a great skating, puck-moving defenseman on a team that plays a puck possession game); Ales Hemsky to Nashville (Hemsky would immediately become the most offensively talented player the Predators have had since Peter Forsberg); Evgeni Nabokov to Tampa Bay (if the Lightning decide to go for the Division crown in a weak Southeast Division); Tuomo Ruutu to Chicago (Blackhawks are incredibly weak on the left-side); Vinny Prospal to Los Angeles (a nice complimentary scorer on a team that needs to find some quickly).
  • Naturally, none of the pairings above have any chance of actually happening, but it’s fun to speculate.
  • Former NHL owner Howard Baldwin talks NHL expansion and hockey in Hartford.
  • Speaking of expansion,more about Seattle as a possible destination for the Coyotes.
  • Here’s former Orca Bay President and CEO Stan McCammon on a possible NHL team in Seattle.
  • This is kind of neat – a breakdown of who sits where in the Avalanche locker room.
  • A nice piece on what Ilya Kovalchuk has become for the Devils.
  • Here’s Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts.
Jan 232011
 

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

NHL All-Star Game

Photo credit: Puck Daddy

It really is a crapshoot which has undergone more cosmetic change – Heidi Montag’s body or the NHL All-Star Game.

Next Friday, the NHL will again try to create interest for this event by broadcasting a live player draft to determine each team’s roster.

Interestingly, looking back through the years on Hockey-Reference.com, the average NHL All-Star Game has featured roughly 17 Hall of Famers*. By decade:

40s: 18 Hall of Famers per All-Star game
50s: 17 Hall of Famers per game
60s: 19 Hall of Famers per game
70s: 15 Hall of Famers per game
80s: 16 Hall of Famers per game
90s: 20 Hall of Famers per game
2000s**: 13 Hall of Famers per game

Keeping these numbers in mind, who are the Hall of Famers that are playing in the upcoming 58th NHL All-Star Game?

An educated guess suggests:

Jarome Iginla – he’ll end up with well more than 500 goals, and has been a First Team NHL All-Star three times.

Nik Lidstrom – a top-three defenceman in the league’s history, and the best Swedish player of all-time.

Sidney Crosby – youngest NHL captain to win the Stanley Cup will probably be the highest scoring player of his era.

Evgeni Malkin – might not score the points he would as a first-line centre on another team, but he’s well positioned to have a Messier-in-Edmonton type run behind Crosby. That’s pretty good.

Steven Stamkos – yea it’s early, but he’s got that shot, and looks like a permanent Maurice Richard scoring threat.

Alex Ovechkin – history will show whether this is the season he sacrificed personal success for team glory, or whether it was the beginning of slight decline after a dominant early start to his career.

Eric Staal – seems like a stretch for now, except he’s already won a Cup and, barring injury, might play 1400 NHL games before he’s done. If he does the points will be there to help his consideration.

Zdeno Chara – borderline, but he’s a four-time post-season All-Star and a Norris Trophy winner.

Henrik Lundqvist – Goalies are tough to predict, but quietly 400+ career wins seems within reach, and his goals-against average and career save percentage are as good, if not better, than Roberto Luongo’s.

That’s nine Hall-of-Famers. No NHL All-Star Game has had less than 10 (2007, 2009).

Which means there are probably a few more Hall-of-Famers playing January 30th than anyone currently realizes.

* = Numbers have been rounded, and guesses have been applied to recent NHL All-Star Games that feature players that are either still active or yet-to-be-inducted in the Hall of Fame.

** = Recent players considered Hall of Famers for the purposes of research: The aforementioned nine, along with Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, Joe Thornton, Mike Modano, Teemu Selanne, Mark Recchi, Martin Brodeur, Chris Pronger, Chris Chelios, Jeremy Roenick, Mats Sundin, Scott Niedermayre, Igor Larionov, Mike Richter, Ed Belfour, Joe Niewendyk, Joe Sakic, Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan, Dominik Hasek.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • According to research, the greatest collection of hockey players for an NHL All-Star Game was 1996 (24 Hall of Famers): Ray Bourque, Martin Brodeur, Ron Francis, Dominik Hasek, Jaromir Jagr, Brian Leetch, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, Cam Neely, Brendan Shanahan, Scott Stevens, Mats Sundin, Teemu Selanne, Denis Savard, Joe Sakic, Al MacInnis, Nik Lidstrom, Brett Hull, Wayne Gretzky, Mike Gartner, Sergei Fedorov, Paul Coffey, Chris Chelios, Ed Belfour.
  • The NHL can try and ban hits-to-the-head however they’d like, but change will only happen when a generation of players have been raised playing with new rules and the bullying culture of hockey is marginalized even more than it is now.
  • Really wish someone would suggest that, while players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before, they’re also wearing suits of armour under their jerseys. Elbow pads and shoulder pads have never been harder.
  • There’s lots of cynicism and laughter about Peter Forsberg’s last ditch effort to play in the NHL. The fact remains that Forsberg’s hockey IQ and experience could be a huge benefit to the Avalanche. His injury issues over the last decade have almost been entirely related to a unique foot injury that made it impossible for him to skate comfortably.
  • Is Terry Murray in danger? With only two wins in their past 10 games, the Los Angeles Kings’ season is slowly slipping away.
  • If Evgeni Nabokov does end up in Detroit, what happens to Chris Osgood when he returns from his groin injury? It seems like his playing days may be over. (Editor’s note: Nabokov was, of course, claimed off waivers by the Islanders yesterday, but apparently won’t report to them.)
  • The talk was that Jacques Lemaire stepped aside from coaching the New Jersey Devils after last season because he was burnt out and tired of the NHL grind. But with each successive game, it’s becoming clear he is still one of the best coaching minds in the game. It makes you wonder where New Jersey would have been if he’d coached the team all year.
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