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.

Dec 232011
 

Season’s Greetings, CHB readers!

In honour of the season, we got together and thought we’d give you a lump of coal …err, a festive edition of our Fantasy Hockey Pool update.

How did our rankings shape up as of Wednesday morning? Read on:

Goose is my Wingman (Chris) – 89.5 points (current rank: 1st)

If there is one thing that I’ve learned during my meteoric climb to the top of the standings, it’s definitely humility.  I’ve been called a drunken boater by Lizz, had my strategic draft process mocked by Ed, seen my definition of an A-list actor trashed by Tom, and pretty much been knocked at every corner by all the writers here at CHB.  So you probably would forgive me if I were to take pot-shots from the high ground, but I won’t sink to that level.  Instead, I’ll just bask in the warmth and glow that first place provides to a select few.

And seeing as it’s the holiday season, I want to share with you two holiday videos that not only share the warmth I’m enjoying but correlate to my journey in the pool so far.

Yes, good ol’ Billy Mack (as played by Bill Nighy – definitive A-list actor).  Just like Billy, I was disrespected early on but eventually found my way to the top of the charts.  And seriously, is there any better movie to watch at Christmas?

And while my super strategic draft mechanism has me in the position I am today, I have been accused of drinking a bit too much of the Egg Nog this holiday season.  But who might have spiked it?  Yes… who exactly spiked the Egg Nog?  My guess is Lizz.  I mean… she called me a drunken boater and I sense that she’s bitter I’m on the top of the pool standings.

But I’m beyond all that.  I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy Auto Draft… err… New Year!

2 Sedins 0 Cups (Tom) – 85.5 points (current rank: 2nd)

Just like another famous second-place finisher (George W. Bush), I’m demanding a recount. Losing to Chris in this pool would be like like losing a tennis match to a blindfolded Reba McEntire – shocking, yet strangely arousing. Hmm. Perhaps I’ve said too much.

For those have you who’ve been away, here’s a summary of all the NHL-related headlines through the first 2+ months of the season: concussions; concussions; concussions; concussions; concussions; Sidney Crosby; concussions; concussions; concussions; concussions; coach fired; concussions; coach fired; concussions; coach fired; concussions; coaches fired; concussions; concussions; concussions. There, now you’re up-to-date.

One final note – as a true gift to you: The perfect Rum and Egg Nog recipe (must be over legal drinking age to continue reading):

1. Get one clean glass (you’d be surprised at how many people get this wrong by going with a dirty glass or, in some cases, an old boot).

2. Inside the glass, toss in three ice cubes (they should clink in the glass. If they don’t, start over).

3. Put in the glass – 1 part rum (eyeball it. If you go over one part, might as well continue to two parts).

4. Two and a half parts egg nogg (eyeball it. Basically, if you pour egg nogg to the point your cup runneth over, well, first you’ve been watching too many episodes of The Borgias - who says “cup runneth over” anymore? Secondly, you’ve clearly been drinking too much. Call a cab. Even if you’re in your own house. Call a cab).

5. Nutmeg shavings (no, contrary to what your hairy roommate might tell you, shaver shavings are not a suitable substitute).

6. Stir

7. Drink

Welcome to flavour country.

Mr. Haiku (Clay) – 82 points (current rank: 3rd)

The recent rash of concussions has hit this team hard as both Jeff Skinner and Kris Letang have been out for quite a while now.  However, I’ve managed stay in the top 3 thanks to the stellar play of Daniel Sedin, Marian Hossa, and Tim Thomas. 

In the spirit of Christmas, I give full props to Chris “I Don’t Need to Show Up at the Draft” Golden who has taken over first place.  I wonder how the other poolsters feel that his auto-drafted team is way ahead of theirs.  And thanks and congrats to Tom, who is comfortably in second place and for putting these recaps together.  And to the other 5 poolies who continue to make me look good.

And Merry Christmas to all of you loyal CHB readers.  You must be loyal indeed if you’re even reading this hockey pool post! 

Church’s Chiggins (Ed) – 75 points (current rank: 4th)

I’ve got the Washington Capitals of the CHB hockey pool. Wildly inconsistent with subpar goaltending. While my boys might be terrible one week, they could put up 15 points in a day and shoot up 7 points in the standings but one way or another, they’re not living up to expectations. 

 …I guess it was no coincidence I started the year with three actual Washington Capitals on my roster.

But then maybe we’re all just doing this wrong. I mean, Chris doesn’t even have a 4th defenseman and he’s in top spot. Auto-draft to victory!

The Hamhuis Ballards (J.J.) – 73 points (current rank: 5th)

Just like Batman has The Joker and Jenn has Angelina, Santa has the Grinch.

And on my CHBWFHP team, I have a couple of grinches.

Henrik Zetterberg has 23 points in 33 games, which puts him on pace to finish with 57 points – or roughly the same pace Kyle Wellwood is on.

After 34 games, Christian Ehrhoff has 16 points and one less goal than Aaron Rome. He’s also a minus-11 – only seven defensemen in the entire league have a worse plus/minus rating.

Oh the Who-manity.

Burrows Buddy (Liz) – 54 points (current rank: 7th)

Looks like I’m still second to last, which is keeping with my “just finish not last” mantra.

I think part of my problem is that I really need to pay better attention to injuries. When my players get hurt I seem to clue in about a week later that maybe I should bench them, so I should work on that. I also made some changes to my line up for the first time, dropping Brandon Sutter and Michael Grabner, while picking up Alex Steen and Ilya Kovalchuk.

I think my team’s leading in penalty minutes, which means they’re either dirty or scrappy, but I’ll take it either way, since it’s also the only stat I’m leading in. By the way guys, I’m still not sure I understand how scoring works. I’m fairly certain I’d have been better off letting a computer make my picks like Chris did.

Mar 262011
 

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

With two weeks left until the end of the NHL regular season, it’s pretty easy for fans to get caught up in the race for the final playoff spots.

But those teams who scramble to the finish line rarely make it all the way to the Stanley Cup final.

Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose in the West, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington in the East – these are your Stanley Cup favourites heading into the Spring.

Each of these teams has their strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s take a closer look.

Philadelphia Flyers

Strengths: Offensive depth – five 20-goal scorers, soon-to-be five players with 50-or-more points. A strong two-way defense that features two solid puckmovers (Andrej Meszaros, Braydon Coburn), two good puck movers (Matt Carle, Kimmo Timonen) and one of the best of all-time (Chris Pronger). This is also an experienced team, similar in makeup to the roster that made it to the Finals last year. Peter Laviolette is a very good coach.

Weaknesses: For a team this offensively gifted, the powerplay has been awfully mediocre.

Question marks: The Flyers made the Stanley Cup Finals last year with questionable goaltending. Sergei Bobrovski enters the playoffs as the number one, but he’s unproven. Chris Pronger has had an injury-filled season. Healthy he’s their MVP, and has proven (as recently as last year) he can be a dominant player in the post-season.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 100-1

Boston Bruins

Strengths: Goaltending. Tim Thomas has had a wonderful season, and Tuukka Rask is a more-than-capable back-up. Like the Flyers, the Bruins also feature balanced scoring. They’re also the best team in the NHL at 5-on-5.

Weaknesses: It’s a good thing the Bruins have good goaltending, since they are second-worst in the league at giving up shots on goal. Without Zdeno Chara, this is a serviceable defense at best.

Question marks: None of the players the Bruins picked-up (Tomas Kaberle, Rich Peverley, Chris Kelly) have made much of an impact, although Kaberle has picked it up of late. The thing is the former Leaf blueliner’s post-season play has never earned rave reviews. This is also predominantly the same team that got upset by the Flyers last year.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 20-1

Washington Capitals

Strengths: With Crosby out, they have the most talented player in the game in Alex Ovechkin. They’ve played very well defensively in the regular season, and the blueline is much improved over the 2009-10 season. Their penalty killing is amongst the league’s best. Good team speed.

Weaknesses: Injuries have plagued the team’s best players (Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nik Backstrom, Alex Semin) for most of the season. This might be why scoring has been such a problem. Only the Los Angeles Kings and Montreal Canadiens are on pace to score fewer goals to reach the post-season than Washington. Low-scoring teams historically don’t do well in the playoffs.

Question marks: The Capitals might be the team with the most question marks on this list. Goaltending is a concern, with three youngsters (Michal Neuvirth, Sergei Varlamov, Braden Holtby) each looking like the answer for periods of time during the season. Perhaps the biggest question is the health of Alex Ovechkin. Without him dominating, this team won’t score enough. Finally, for a team that’s dedicated itself to the defensive side of the game, can this new approach translate into playoff victories, or is it true that a leopard can’t change its spots?

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 4-1

Vancouver Canucks

Strengths: The team’s top line. In fact, for two seasons now the Sedin line (the brothers and whomever they lineup with) has been probably the best line in the NHL. Canucks special teams have been truly special – there might not be another team that moves the puck on the powerplay as well as Vancouver. Roberto Luongo has had another strong season, and should enter the playoffs rested. The defense is incredibly deep, featuring a group that’s good, but not great, in all areas.

Weaknesses: This team is top-heavy. For all their success scoring, the Canucks might finish the season with only three 20-goal scorers on the roster (Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows). That’s the same number as the offensively challenged Capitals this season. Vancouver has also been home and cooled out as the top seed in the Western Conference for almost two months now, which rarely bodes well for playoff success.

Question marks: Can Vancouver’s secondary scoring step up if other teams take liberties with the Sedin line and find a way to render it ineffective? Rightly or wrongly, Roberto Luongo still has a reputation for not being mentally tough enough to go far in the post-season. With Manny Malholtra out, there is a lot more pressure on Ryan Kesler to dominate the faceoff circle and play a shut-down role.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: (Given it could mean facing Chicago or Anaheim) 5-1

Detroit Red Wings

Strengths: This is an experienced, well-rounded team that rarely takes penalties nor loses focus. They have the best defenseman in the game (Nik Lidstrom) and probably the two best two-way players in the game (Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk), all having terrific seasons. This is another team with solid puck moving options on defense. They have arguably the league’s best coach (Mike Babcock) behind the bench.

Weaknesses: Jimmy Howard might have a new contract, but his rebound control isn’t very good. He’s definitely the weakest link on the team.

Question marks: For all the skill and speed the Red Wings have, they will have to prove they can win the trench battles required to go deep in the playoffs. Secondary scoring, particularly in a physical playoff series, is also something to wonder about.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 10-1

San Jose Sharks

Strengths: Maybe the strongest top-six offensively in the NHL, and certainly one of the best teams in the centre position. No team takes more shots than San Jose. Other than Vancouver no team is better in the faceoff circle.

Weaknesses: The defense has been a concern for most of the year, although it has improved steadily over the second half. While the team’s bottom-six forwards are full of grit and sandpaper, goals are hard to come by.

Question marks: Antti Niemi has been terrific for a few months, and has already won a Stanley Cup. Still, there are those who believe his unorthodox approach render him a liability. This post-season is his chance to prove he’s not a one-playoff wonder. Like Washington, the Sharks, particularly their top three players (Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley), face questions about being mentally tough enough for playoff success. Heatley in particular has lacked edge since putting on a Sharks uniform.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 20-1

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Damien Cox looked at the rebuilding jobs of eight NHL teams. Oiler fans won’t be happy.
  • Boston’s 7-0 win over Montreal was the highest-rated regular season game on NESN (New England Sports Channel) in 27-years. It’s also safe to say the Bruins have a pretty strong psychological advantage over the Canadiens right now.
  • With local talk that Canucks ownership is hoping to lure an NBA franchise to the Rogers Centre, interesting to read that Anaheim’s ownership is hoping to do the same thing.
  • Michael Grabner has scored more goals than any player acquired on waivers in the past 15 years. Between Grabner and Matt Moulson, the Islanders have their first pair of 30-goal scorers since 2001-02.
  • For those of you who missed it, here’s Ray Ferrero’s take on the Atlanta Thrashers situation.
  • With Justin Williams out of the Los Angeles lineup for the rest of the season, this could be the last, best chance for Oscar Moller to finally stick with the big club. His development has been a disappointment so far for the Kings.
  • Sad news out of Edmonton where anthem singer Paul Lorieau is retiring at the end of the season. Lorieau was the first anthem singer to invite the crowd to sing the national anthem, popularizing the move during the Oilers Cup run in 2006. He’s been the team’s anthem singer since 1981.
  • Too little, too late – Columbus players held a closed door meeting after the team’s loss to Phoenix earlier in the week. The Blue Jackets have only won two of their last 14 games.
  • The Ottawa Citizen takes a look at how their “departed” (Mike Fisher, Alex Kovalev, Chris Kelly etc) have fared since being traded.
  • From the department of weird stats: The Dallas Stars are 2-8-3 without Adam Burish in the lineup.
  • More evidence that Tomas Vokun won’t be a Florida Panther for much longer: he called out his teammates for a lack of effort this week.
  • With the playoffs out of reach, is it really that important for Zach Parise to return to the New Jersey lineup? Entering restricted free agency, perhaps Parise wants to prove he’s healthy. Much could be lost if his knee isn’t ready for NHL action.
  • The emergence of Brandon Prust for the New York Rangers makes one think Sean Avery is very expendable come this off-season.
  • Sidney Crosby is still progressing in his attempt to return to the Penguins lineup. As stated numerous times, expect him in the lineup during the first round of the playoffs.
  • Not a very bold prediction, but you have to expect Gary Bettman will announce the Coyotes are moving to Winnipeg the day after Phoenix is eliminated from the playoffs.
Feb 142011
 

Let’s pause for a minute before we call Michael Grabner the next great Canucks prospect that got away.

With his hat trick yesterday, Grabner now has 24 goals for the season, including 15 goals in his last 14 games. Today, he was named the NHL’s 1st Star of the Week.

So did the Canucks give up on him too early?

Maybe. Maybe not.

To be honest, Grabner wasn’t on the Canucks’ long-term plans. It was clear they valued Mason Raymond more than they valued the former first-round draft pick when they worked out a two-year contract extension with Raymond just hours before he was slated to go to arbitration. It was clear they valued a deeper defense more than they valued the speedy and skilled winger when they packaged him with Steve Bernier and a first-round draft pick in trade to acquire Keith Ballard.

In hindsight, I still maintain that the Canucks made the right call.

Mason Raymond may be having an off-year – an injury-plagued year – but a quick look at the standings show the Canucks still at the top of the NHL in goals. After 56 games, they lead the league with 188 total goals scored. They also lead the league with an average of 3.36 goals per game, which, believe it or not, is actually higher than their G/game average last season (3.27).

In the meantime, Ballard, at least before Milan Michalek turned him into his own personal pretzel, has provided the Canucks with some much-needed depth on defense. Not many teams can afford to play a Keith Ballard as their no. 5 defenseman, and there’s little doubt it’s helped the Canucks withstand their injuries. To date, their 128 total goals against and 2.29 goals against per game is the fewest in the NHL. Despite the amount of injuries to their defense, the Canucks are actually allowing less goals per game this season than they allowed last season (2.66 GA/game).

It’s shrewd asset management, really. As good as Grabner has played this season, the Canucks haven’t missed him as much. Instead, they turned him into another asset they needed more.

And that’s just as good.

Oct 082010
 

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

Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux

Photo credit: Pesonen and the Pens

Growing up in the `80s there were two camps: Wayne Gretzky vs. Mario Lemieux. The Great One vs. Mario “Le Magnifique.”

To idolize one was to idolize a “great Canadian” – a small-town Ontario boy who grew up playing on a backyard rink. Wayne? He was humble, hardworking and personified brains over brawn.

To idolize the other was, at least in my neighbourhood, almost traitorous. Mario? He was arrogant and aloof. He didn’t love the game. Yeah he scored that great goal in ’87, but he rarely played for Team Canada. For Pete’s sake, he was a smoker!

Funny how time changes things.

While Mario was saving the franchise that made him an icon, Wayne invested money into the Phoenix Coyotes, a team he had no previous allegiance to.

Today, Mario is a positive force and influential member of the Pittsburgh community. His Mario Lemieux Foundation has raised millions of dollars for medical and cancer research. He’s an active NHL owner, with a seat-at-the-table on decisions that impact professional hockey.

Meanwhile, Wayne has become a bit of a huckster, all activities seemingly weighed against their impact on his brand and bottom line. He’s currently ‘taking time away from the game” in an argument over
money owed by the NHL. Maybe this time away will help him manage his winery or his restaurant.

Yes, as I watched Mario christen CONSOL Energy Centre with water from the old Mellon Arena, I couldn’t help but think how, these days, I wish #99 was a bit more like #66.

******

In the post-lockout NHL, where the game is played at unparalleled speeds and teams have to manage the salary cap, young (cheap) talent is an important commodity.

Opening night rosters around the league are dotted with 18-, 19- and 20-year olds.

But one youngster whose name you won’t see in any lineup is Erik Gudbranson.

And this is not a bad thing.

Big and nasty, Gudbranson was arguably one of the best players at Florida Panther’s training camp.

But there is a big jump between pre-season and regular season hockey. Learning defense at the NHL level is extremely difficult, especially when this is so clearly a rebuilding year for the Panthers.

Returning Gudbranson to juniors gives him a chance to dominate, to work on his offensive game, and to take a leadership role on Team Canada at the World Juniors.

Meanwhile, the Panthers give themselves an extra year before Gudbranson starts the clock toward NHL free agency.

Contrast this to how the Toronto Maple Leafs handled the development Luke Schenn.

Schenn’s first training camp in Toronto was an impressive one. The stay-at-home defenseman made the team as an 18-year old, despite the fact that he couldn’t execute a slapshot consistently.

Two up-and-down seasons later, Schenn enters this year with reduced career expectations.

And at 21, he’s also just four years away from free agency.

The jury is still out on both Gudbranson on and Schenn, but their careers will serve as an interesting comparison to watch over the coming years.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Speaking of the Panthers, Michael Grabner’s work ethic at camp was one reason why the Panthers waived the former Canuck. But don’t rule out the play of Mike Santorelli as a contributing factor either. Also gifted with great speed and above-average hands, the former Predator prospect earned a top-6 role, bumping Grabner to the Islanders and Steven Reinprecht to the fourth line.
  • Boy did Edmonton look fast against Calgary. One game does not a season make, but those fears about Calgary’s footspeed may be justified.
  • The Leafs and Nazem Kadri are saying all the right things, but the fact remains he projects, at best, to a Derek Roy-type player at the NHL level. Is that good enough to win a Stanley Cup?
  • Cam Fowler will become the third youngest player to ever play for the Anaheim Ducks. Other notable teens to play for the Ducks: Oleg Tverdovsky, Stanislav Chistov, Luca Sbisa, Vitaly Vishnevski, Chad
    Kilger. That’s a lot of teenage mediocrity.
  • That was nice of Marty Turco to honour Antti Niemi by stinking up the place for Chicago in the first game of the season.
  • Still rather surprised the Oilers gave Shawn Horcoff the Captaincy. There was a strained relationship between veterans and youngsters in the Oiler dressing room last year, and Horcoff’s name was always included in the mix of vets (along with Ethan Moreau and Sheldon Souray) who were part of the problem. Even if he’s turned over a new leaf attitude-wise, Horcoff was also arguably the team’s worst player last year.
  • I still don’t understand how Rick Nash is the 14th best player in the NHL, according to TSN. On the one hand, he may be the most talented big-man in the game today. On the other, he’s never hit 80 points in a season and is a career minus-54.
  • Nigel Dawes – yes, that Nigel Dawes – is reportedly starting the season on Atlanta’s top line with Nik Antropov and Fred Modin. Good luck with that, Thrashers fans.
  • RJ Umberger starts the season on the third-line in Columbus so Nikita Filatov can play with fellow first-round picks Derrick Brassard and Jakub Voracek. Filatov’s had a good camp and might have 20 goals in his hands this year.
Jun 262010
 

It’s no secret that the Canucks’ biggest need this off-season was to beef up their defense. UFA-to-be Willie Mitchell’s return was uncertain and defensive prospects Kevin Connauton and Yann Sauve were at least one, maybe two or more, years away from making the big club. So yesterday, on NHL Draft Day, GM Mike Gillis sent the Canucks’ 1st round (25th overall) draft pick, Steve Bernier and Michael Grabner to the Florida Panthers and acquired Keith Ballard and prospect Victor Oreskovich.

Keith Ballard hip checks Patrick Kane

The Canucks filled a need by acquiring Ballard. He is a legitimate top-4 defenseman with the ability to play big minutes. Among all NHL defensemen in 2009/2010, he ranked 55th in average TOI , 30th in total ES TOI and 32nd in total SH TOI. Those weren’t easy minutes either; according to Behind The Net, he had the 8th highest “quality of competition” among all defensemen who played at least 60 games.

Ballard adds a physical component in the Canucks’ back end. He finished last season with 201 blocked shots – 3rd among all NHL players – and 156 hits – 26th among NHL defensemen and 44 more hits than Canucks team leader Shane O’Brien.

He also has history with Canucks assistant coach, Rick Bowness (assuming he is re-signed), from their Phoenix days and should fit in nicely with a defensive core that already includes Alex Edler, Christian Ehrhoff and Sami Salo. (Yes, I know Kevin Bieksa is still a Canuck.)

In a nutshell, Ballard is the kind of defenseman the Canucks were looking to add to their lineup. He is the kind of defenseman Jarred Tinordi and Dylan McIlrath, if the Canucks had selected them with their 25th pick, could be, and the kind of defenseman potential free agent targets, Dan Hamhuis and Anton Volchenkov, are. But as highly-touted Tinordi and McIlrath are, it would’ve been a stretch to expect either one to step into the lineup and help the team immediately. And of course, there’s no guarantee that Gillis would’ve been able to sign Hamuis, Volchenkov or any other top-4 defenseman in the open market.

In fact, Ballard may be quite comparable to Hamhuis – both are 27 years old and both are good skaters who play a solid two-way game – though Ballard probably plays a bit more physically and has historically averaged more points. At last report Hamhuis was looking at a multi-year contract in the $4.5 million per year range and his rights have been traded twice in the last week; on the other hand, Ballard is signed for 5 more years at $4.2 million per year.

There will be Canucks fans out there who won’t like this trade because of who Mike Gillis gave up. Some feel that Gillis could’ve simply waited a week and then signed a top-4 defenseman without giving up Bernier, Grabner and a first-round pick who could turn out to be a real player. Jason Botchford (Vancouver Province) has a good analysis of this trade in response to that perspective:

Let’s look at what the Canucks gave up for Ballard — their 2010 first-round pick, Bernier and Michael Grabner.

The easiest decision was unloading Bernier. Despite a career of opportunity, including chances to play with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek and the Sedin twins, he hasn’t made it work with any of them. Maybe if he was healthy, which he wasn’t last year, he could have found a home on the Canucks’ third line. But he doesn’t have the speed to be an impact player. He’s a tweener who doesn’t fit on a decent team. Dumping his $2 million is a benefit for the Canucks. A big one.

Next is the first-round pick. Gillis said his scouts were disappointed when they learned he was sending his only pick in the first three rounds to Florida. It must have felt like the scouts wasted a season of pavement pounding, number crunching and skill analysis. But, if they did their job, it makes this trade much, much better.

Heading into the draft, Gillis revealed he wasn’t bullish on this draft class, especially at defence.

(skip)

The key component of the deal is Grabner, a flashy prospect who has speed, scoring touch and promise. But let’s be real. He’s a defensive mess, can’t kill penalties and is consistently reluctant to go to the net. He’s soft. He wasn’t going to play this year. The Canucks didn’t want him on their third line and had no room for him in their top six.

So there you have it. To acquire Ballard, the Canucks gave up some forward depth, one they can afford with Cody Hodgson, Jordan Schroeder and Anton Rodin ready to move their way up the depth chart, and a late first round pick which (most likely) wasn’t going to help them win the Stanley Cup next year. They may have paid a steep price to address a need, but you know, you have to give to get.

Apr 192010
 

The Canucks take their show on the road with the series tied at 1-1. Can they play better than their 19-20-2 regular season road record indicates? Without the benefit of last change, how can the Canucks contain Drew Doughty? Can Demitra prove that he’s no Justin Williams? Can the Canucks stop taking stupid penalties?

Apr 212009
 
Sep 252008
 
Sep 242008
 

The Crazy Canucks podcast crew were guests of the Vancouver Canucks in suite 519 last night. Needless to say, it was an excellent experience and it gave John, Rebecca, Dave, Alanah and I all an opportunity to meet the team’s marketing group and brainstorm on potential partnerships this season. (Plus, the popcorn was damn good.)

It also gave me a chance to form some first impressions on the Canucks.

  • I don’t know if it’s the players or their system, but the Canucks looked faster in their first two preseason games. They made a lot of plays off the rush – quite impressive really.
  • Jannik Hansen should make this team. A lot of the hype has been on Cody Hodgson and Michael Grabner thus far this preseason, but after a couple of seasons with the Moose, Hansen looks like he’s ready for full-time NHL duty. Good speed, good two-way play, decent hands and very versatile. If you remember his brief appearance in the 2007 playoffs, he did fine on a checking line with Ryan Kesler. Last night, he was on a scoring line with Henrik Sedin and Michael Grabner and didn’t look out of place. He also made a helluva move to get the puck to Grabner on Grabner’s game-winning goal.
  • Michael Grabner showed a lot of top-flight upside. He has speeds, he has hands and great offensive instincts. Really, the only question mark on Grabner is if he can showcase those, not only on a game-by-game basis but on a shift-by-shift one.
  • It’s easy to see Cody Hodgson’s upside. He sees the ice well and has very good poise for an 18-year old. I’m sure I’ll have more on him as the preseason goes on.
  • Yann Sauve reminds me of where Luc Bourdon (RIP) was in 2006. He obviously has some upside but just has to learn to put it together. He was regularly out of position tonight and would benefit from going back to junior plus a couple of years in the minors.
  • I was really impressed with the Alex Burrows-Ryan Johnson-Darcy Hordichuk line. Not just because of Hordichuk’s goal but also because they did well as a checking line. This bodes well for the Canucks if Ryan Kesler somehow manages to work his way to one of the top two scoring lines.
  • Steve Bernier put in a Pierre McGuire monster performance. If he plays big and aggresive every night like he did last night, the Canucks may have the power forward they’ve been looking for for the last two years.
  • I liked Lukas Krajicek’s play. Very solid kinda like before his injury last year. If he keeps this up, the Canucks will have some big decisions to make on defense.
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