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.

Nov 212010
 

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

Pat Burns

Photo credit: Toronto Star

My father’s only experience playing hockey was on outdoor rinks around Toronto, with Sears catalogues for shin pads. Yet, his lack of experience never stopped him from loving the game.

Or specifically, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

By the time I came around, it had been a long time since the Leafs had reciprocated his love. In fact, the first decade of my life (the 1980s) was spent suffering through one of the worst eras of team futility in NHL history.

My childhood is filled with memories of Saturday nights that began in hope but ended with my dad, a curse on his breath and a drink in his hand, shutting the TV off in frustration.

I thought of my father today as I learned of Pat Burns’ passing from a long-term battle with cancer.

While Cliff Fletcher gets a lot of credit for resurrecting the Leafs franchise in the 1990s (rightly deserved), it was Pat Burns who turned those personnel moves into wins on the ice.

Those 1992-93 and 93-94 Maple Leafs were a gritty, lunch-pail crew that worked their way to two Conference Finals.

For my dad, the success of these teams was a reminder of what it used to mean to be a Maple Leaf fan. To watch a team of hard-working, overachievers find their way to victory over more talented opposition.

And to have the team led by a hard-nosed, no-nonsense coach of the old-school variety.

Eventually, the window closed for Pat Burns and the Maple Leafs. He went onto success elsewhere, winning a Stanley Cup with New Jersey. If not for Hockey Hall of Fame voting shenanigans, Burns would have been enshrined a few weeks ago.

My dad never really did move on though. Despite success during the Pat Quinn era, those Pat Burns teams were the ones that held a special place in his heart, right up until he passed away in the summer of 2008.

I’d like to think there’s a chance the fan and the coach cross paths hanging out at the great big rink in the sky.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Kudos to Dave Shoalts, who calls for the creation of guidelines for supplemental discipline. He’s absolutely right.
  • Not to be cheeky, but do we really think Nikolai Khabibulin and Martin Brodeur are significantly hurt, or are these two veteran goalies just tired of what their teams aren’t accomplishing in front of them? In Khabby’s case, he’s definitely been overworked by Coach Tom Renney.
  • Speaking of Edmonton, the Oilers’ defense may just be the worst NHL defense in a long time. They aren’t physical, can’t make a first pass, and aren’t especially quick.
  • There are some nice young pieces playing for the Islanders, but that front office is such a mess, it’s hard to imagine this team ever putting it together. They need a real coach, a real GM, and a real owner first. All this to say? John Tavares could pull a Phil Kessel and leave at the end of his first contract.
  • He’s still as brittle as chinaware, but as goes Marian Gaborik so goes the New York Rangers. If he can stay healthy he should be in the MVP mix, because the Rangers really are a different team with him in the lineup.
  • Don’t forget, HBO previews their Penguins/Capitals documentary this weekend.
  • It’s nice that the Flyers want to play Sergei Bobrovsky as much as possible, but he’s clearly tired.
  • Marc Savard has just started non-contact practicing again, and might be in the Bruins’ lineup before Christmas. It will be interesting to see, once he returns, what effect that has on Tyler Seguin.
  • Hard to believe Todd Bertuzzi is in the best shape of his career, and playing a leadership role in the Red Wings offense. He looked completely washed up when he joined Detroit.
Oct 152010
 

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

Lou Lamoriello, New Jersey Devils

Photo credit: nj.com

Steve Simmons wrote earlier this week that the salary cap was hurting the league’s best players by forcing them play with AHL-level grinders.

Noting how the cap has forced the New Jersey Devils to play with 15, 16 players, Dave Hodge argues in his latest Hodgemail that the salary cap should be abolished.

Even before the season started, hockey writers were using the salary cap to suggest dynasties aren’t possible in today’s era.

Just so we’re clear, this salary cap criticism? It’s pure hogwash.

The problem isn’t the salary cap. The problem is the league’s General Managers.

Since almost the beginning of its existence, NHL front offices have been littered with ex-players who “understood the code” or “had respect for the game’s institutions.” These were individuals who could identify talent and knew what it took to play professional hockey. It’s been an old boys club – a fraternity – of likeminded, proud men for a long time.

These men also generally share the following traits: little education, business background or financial experience. Up until the 1980s, the absence of these qualities really didn’t matter, since the NHLPA was powerless, and NHL salaries were controlled. But the salary escalation of the 1990s, and now the salary cap, has made managing the “money game” an increasingly vital part of the GMs portfolio.

Today’s GMs have to be smart. They have to creatively work the salary numbers, follow two-, three- and five-year salary plans, and identify players who can provide greater value than they’re being compensated for.

Thanks to the cap, any mistakes are magnified. (Granted, teams have “capologists,” but with all due respect, they’re not the ones making the final say on any player transaction or contract signings.) The days of trading Player A straight up for Player B have passed. And this is why, in the modern NHL, former “horse-traders” like Darryl Sutter and Glen Sather seem so out-to-lunch. It’s why Lou Lamoriello didn’t address his cap situation through trade or waivers (because, most accurately, it would weaken his club on-ice). It’s also why Kevin Lowe and Bobby Clarke moved up the corporate ladders. The job had passed them by.

There’s a new breed of GM required to navigate NHL waters. Unfortunately, for fans of some teams, league culture is not one that so easily embraces change.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Three games into the season, and Oiler Coach Tom Renney and Captain Shawn Horcoff have both already publicly criticized the length of Taylor Hall’s 50-second shifts. You know what other young star averaged 50-second shifts last year? Patrick Kane. If you’ve got the horses, you’ve got to let them run a bit. Just ask those who coached Gretzky, Lemieux, Crosby, and a host of other extremely talented offensive players. And what does it say about Taylor Hall that both his coach and captain felt the need to talk about this to the press so early in the season?
  • The loss of John Tavares had most people burying the New York Islanders mere days into the regular season. However, Blake Comeau and Josh Bailey have picked up the slack, with Bailey in particular looking at times like a younger version of captain Doug Weight. The Islanders may not be very good, but they’re building something there.
  • All props to John Tortorella for stressing an up-tempo, pressure style for the Rangers. However, the Rangers can’t be taken seriously in the East until their young defense stops playing giveaway with the opposition.
  • Why should Flames and Wild fans worry just three games into the season? Because each team has only scored one goal at even-strength. Remember, teams that can’t score rarely play meaningful games in April and May.
  • Speaking of worried fan bases, there are troubling signs in Ottawa. There’s an APB out for pointless Alex Kovalev, Pascal Leclaire left his last game – surprise, surprise – hurt, and none of their young players have made any sort of impact yet. Corey Clouston is a solid coach, but this team looks more and more in need of a rebuild.
  • Why is Pittsburgh winless at home? It might have something to do with terrible ice. It looks like Crosby and Malkin are stick handling with a tennis ball on grass out there. Shouldn’t the NHL, in efforts to improve its on-ice product, be investing more into technology that keeps ice firm and hard? Call it the Cialis project.
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