Dec 212011
 

Next year is the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Canadiens-Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup Final.

Don’t expect a repeat appearence from either team.

Today, the Kings made it official, hiring Darryl Sutter as their new coach.

We talked last week about how hiring Sutter might just be the least imaginative, worst-thought-out decision GM Dean Lombardi could make for his team.

The Kings already defend well – it’s hard to see Sutter adding to this area.

The Kings already had a coach who demanded accountability – and it’s doubtful Darryl Sutter will do this in a way that’s more innovative than Terry Murray.  

Scoring is the Kings primary area of weakness, as it has been for the past couple of seasons.

Who knows – hatred of Sutter may rally players in the dressing room and get the team into the playoffs. There’s certainly enough talent on the roster for the Kings to be a playoff team.

But it’s doubtful the Kings make it, and blame should rest squarely on Lombardi’s shoulders.

He’s the one who’s had incredible difficulty acquiring the game-breaker Los Angeles has needed for the past three seasons (despite having a bevy of young talent to trade).

He’s the one who played hardball with Drew Doughty, resulting in a missed training camp, hurt feelings and a sub-par season to date.

He’s the one who traded for Dustin Penner last year, when anyone following the Oilers knew motivating the big guy was a challenge.

He’s the one who decided to give Justin Williams another $3.5+ million contract after his first 20-goal season in four years.

To his credit, Lombardi’s created a deep organization with strength on the blueline and in goal.  

But teams that win in the NHL can score. And most of Lombardi’s moves to help the attack have been like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

 *****

Speaking of the Titanic, sorry Canadiens fans, but the Habs have hit their iceberg, and it’s named Pierre Gauthier.  

While Jacques Martin may be the devil for creating hockey devoid of any offensive flourish, the fact remains that he got an incredible amount of success out of an (arguably) mediocre cast of players.

Firing coach Martin was clearly the act of a general manager (Gauthier) scrambling to keep blame off his shoulders.

You know, where it should be.

It’s Gauthier who completely botched the Andre Markov situation, giving him a long-term contract without first confirming the extent of the defenseman’s knee injury. Four months in, it would be a surprise to see Markov play this season.

Gauthier built the 2011-12 team with Markov penciled in on the blueline, and he has had to scramble (Chris Campoli, Tomas Kaberle) to fill the gap. Results of the scrambling have been mixed to say the least.

Meanwhile, the Habs continue to feature a pop-gun attack. Assistant coach Perry Pearn was the scapegoat earlier in the year. Now Jacques Martin’s fallen on the sword. In either case, it wasn’t their fault the team hasn’t drafted or traded for a 30-goal talent since Michael Cammalleri joined Montreal three years ago.

Even in the Cammalleri case, good goal-scorers need to play with centremen who can create space and opportunity on the ice. This describes something other than the corpse of Scott Gomez, who’s been given more rope by the Montreal front office than all the cowboys at the Calgary Stampede.

Now, St. Patrick himself, Patrick Roy, has let it be known he’d be interested in coaching the team… if they call him after this season. That’s nice of Patrick to give the Montreal media something to chew on over the holiday season, if not the rest of the NHL season.

In Gauthier’s hands, the 2011-12 Habs are devolving into a circus.

Expect a new ringmaster under the Habs big top next year.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • How about that ego on Patrick Roy? The NHL is an old boys club, and yet here’s Patrick, throwing Randy Cunneyworth and Joe Sacco under the bus. Coaching junior hockey is incredibly different than coaching in the NHL, and we’ve seen how other icons (cough Gretzky cough) have struggled reaching and motivating NHL-level players. It’s one thing to use your legend to push a team of kids; it’s another to get men to that. Roy will create headlines, but good luck to Montreal or Colorado if they hire him – they’ll need it.
  • It’s pretty easy to guess Patrick Roy’s future: successful QMHL coach/owner; failed NHL Coach; outstanding NHL studio analyst. Basically, it says here he becomes the new Jacques Demers or Mario Tremblay.
  • One more thing about the Habs – so their powerplay is miserable (12.3%), yet they just made the man responsible for the powerplay (Randy Cunneyworth) the head coach. That is a bigger red flag to me than a coach who can’t speak French. You can learn French – a coach either knows, or doesn’t know, how to make a powerplay excel.
  • Add Doug Maclean’s voice to those suggesting Mike Richards’ off-ice “issues” have continued in Los Angeles.
  • Interesting to hear Ken Hitchcock say during an interview on Prime Time Sports that his approach to coaching in the NHL today is the exact opposite to the one he used coaching in Dallas. Why did Hitchcock change? It’s a new generation of players (Generation X, Generation Y), who respond and are motivated differently. I wonder if Darryl Sutter is taking notes.
  • For being in a playoff race, there are few teams in the NHL softer in front of their own goal than Toronto. You can put a lawn chair down in the slot comfortably, especially on the powerplay.
  • Doesn’t Mark Messier have enough money? Saying the Canucks “owe” him, even if justified, just reopens old wounds locally. Make no mistake – Messier’s time in Vancouver contradicts the legend he built for himself in Edmonton and New York. It’s like the Canucks got Mark’s evil twin “Mike” Messier instead.
  • Love these Fenwick power rankings. Bottom line – Minnesota will be hard-pressed to keep their season up through 82-games, while these advanced stats are more evidence of the great job Kevin Dineen’s doing in Florida.
  • Here’s Puck Daddy’s 10-worst hockey decisions of 2011. It’s a great list, although I’d say Crosby playing back on January 5th should be #1.
  • Always enjoy reading about Mario Lemieux getting back on the ice, even if it’s just to practice. Probably the most physically-gifted player of all time.
  • Players with more points than Alex Ovechkin (who has 22): Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Bozak, P.A Parenteau, Rich Peverley and 78 others. Players with more goals (Ovechkin has 10): Ryan Jones, Jason Chimera, Chris Kelly, Jannik Hansen and 69 others.
  • Final Ovechkin pile-on: he’s got 5 points in 9 games under new coach Dale Hunter. It’s early, but the coaching change doesn’t seem to have altered much in Washington.
Dec 092011
 

Five possible ways the sale of the Toronto Maple Leafs to Rogers Communcations and Bell Canada Enterprises will affect hockey fans in Canada. 

5. Get ready to see a lot of Larry Tanenbaum. With rivals Rogers and Bell owning the same amount of the ownership pie (37.5% each) they’re effectively neutered in terms of power around the board table. They also have to try and sustain their relationship by playing nice with each other, which probably translates to focusing on turning their new content (Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC, Toronto Marlies) into greater technology sales. All of this is to say the two companies will look to Tanenbaum (25% owner) to take the visible, hands-on leadership role of the franchise. In many ways, Tennenbaum becomes the Leafs defacto owner, supported with Rogers and Bell money. He also becomes the scapegoat if things (aka profits, not championships) don’t go according to plan.

4. Get ready to see more Leafs content on Sportsnet and TSN. Although, given how much Leafs content there already is, this might not be as noticeable as you think.

3. Get ready to see a lot more Rogers/Bell advertising and products featuring Toronto Maple Leafs content. What will be interesting to watch is if a backlash is created by shoving the Leafs down the throats of people across the country.

2. Get ready to hear more about media wars with the Leafs in Toronto. With Rogers and Bell ownership, expect Sportsnet and TSN to get greater, privileged access to the Leafs. Expect breaking news to come through a Rogers or Bell platform, rather than, say The Toronto Sun. Covering the Leafs has officially become a two-class system. If you thought Brian Burke and Ron Wilson were difficult with the press before, think again. This should make for some entertaining viewing.

1. Say goodbye to Hockey Night in Canada. Whatever people outside of Ontario may think of the Toronto Maple Leafs, they remain the biggest television draw for CBC.  If you think Rogers and Bell are going to allow their rival, the CBC, to profit from Leaf games, think again. When the CBC hockey rights expire in 2014, watch for CTV (owned by Bell) to become Canada’s hockey destination on Saturday nights.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Addendum to the Leafs talk – the over/under on this new Leafs ownership arrangement remaining stable is probably five years. I can’t see Bell and Rogers co-existing long-term.
  • One more Leafs thought – this ownership change doesn’t bring the Leafs any closer to winning the Stanley Cup.
  • I don’t care what people are saying out of Montreal – the Canadiens don’t need Tomas Kaberle if Andrei Markov is 100%. Meanwhile, Jaroslav Spacek should help a Carolina team that has young puckmovers on the blueline, but could use someone who knows how to play in his own zone.
  • It’s a lot of fun watching Flyers games, but until they can figure out how to defend without Chris Pronger in the lineup, Philadelphia can’t be considered a post-season threat.
  • One thing Steve Yzerman has in common with most people – he doesn’t like Pierre Maguire, Keith Jones and Mike Milbury either.
  • Speaking of the Lightning, they’re 4-9 since that fateful game against the Flyers on November 9th. They’ve only scored more than three goals in three of those 13 games.
  • There is absolutely nothing wrong with Artem Anisimov’s goal celebration. Wish there was more of this in the NHL. The fact that Steve Downie left the bench though should warrant a suspension.
  • Rookie goalie Matt Hackett has looked good in his NHL debut so far for the Minnesota Wild. He’s the first goalie since the WHA/NHL merger to start his career with over 100+ shutout minutes. If Hackett continues to look NHL-capable, do the Wild deal one of their goalies (Josh Harding or Nik Backstrom) for some added scoring? New Jersey, Tampa Bay, Colorado could all use the goaltending help.
  • If the NHL Realignment was in place, here’s your current first round playoff matchups: Philadelphia-Washington; Pittsburgh-New York Rangers; Florida-Buffalo; Boston-Toronto; Minnesota-St. Louis; Chicago-Detroit; Phoenix-Los Angeles; Vancouver-San Jose.
  • Little known fact – fans who attend Columbus Blue Jacket home games can request through Twitter music to be played in the arena during stoppages in play. (Editor’s note: The Canucks do something like this too. Tweet a tune or something. – J.J.)
  • Speaking of Columbus, Ten Minute Misconduct takes coach Scott Arniel to the woodshed.
  • If you missed it, here’s Katie Baker’s weekly rundown of the NHL on Grantland.

Hey folks, we’re moving days. Find the Out of Town Notebook on Tuesdays now rather than Fridays.

Dec 092011
 

[Inspired by Arsenio Hall's "Things That Make You Go Hmmm…", Clayton Imoo talks about Canucks-related things that make him go hmmm… You can follow Clay on Twitter at (@canuckclay) or on his website, Clay's Canucks Commentary.]

Cody Hodgson, Vancouver Canucks

Photo credit: canucks.nhl.com

With their 4-3 shootout over the Montreal Canadiens last night, the Vancouver Canucks have won 3 straight games and 8 out of their last 9 contests.  With their make-shift forward lines and Luongo’s hyped return to Montreal, the table was set for an entertaining game.  We certainly weren’t disappointed, as always there are a few Things That Make Me Go Hmmm…

  1. Third Period Prowess. As the Canucks rack up wins, it’s hard not to compare them to last year’s team at this point in the season.  As I detailed in last week’s post, the Canucks went on a torrid 17-1-2 run (in games 21 through 40) from November 24, 2010 to January 7, 2011.  This season the Canucks are 7 and 1 in games 21 through 28.  Where the Canucks really seem to be distinguishing themselves is in the third period of games.  In their last 5 games, Vancouver has out-scored their opponents 11-2 in the final frame, compared to 8-3 in the second period.  Conversely, in the first period, the Canucks have been outscored 6-4.  The team has started off games slowly more often than not, but they’re proving once again that they have outstanding conditioning and poise.  In last night’s game, I never felt that a comeback was impossible, even with the Canucks down 3-0 early in the second.  They don’t seem to panic; rather they pick up their play as the game nears its conclusion and are relentless on the attack.  The numbers bear that out as well: in the last 5 games, the Canucks have out-shot their opponents 54-47 in the third period.  Take out the Columbus game (game #24) and the Canucks have out-shot their opponents 42-25 in the last four.  That’s pretty dominant.
  2. Lack of Forward Depth. The sudden injuries to second-line wingers Chris Higgins and David Booth exposed a lack of depth at the forward position.  With a healthy Higgins and Booth, the Canucks have balanced scoring throughout their top 9 forwards, especially with the return of Mason Raymond.  However, without them the Canucks had Billy Sweatt make his pro debut and defenceman Andrew Alberts playing as a forward on the fourth line.  Sweatt barely broke one, as he logged only 6:18 of ice time and Alberts had even less, playing a measly 5:36.  The defenceman-turned-forward-likely-turning-back-to-defenceman had a rough first period as he was caught down low on both of Montreal’s first-period goals.  I guess habits are indeed hard to break, as both times Alberts was below the faceoff dots chasing around Canadiens forwards leaving the point unmanned (his linemates Malhotra and Weise didn’t fare much better).  With Sweatt and Alberts combining for only 12 minutes, if left the other forwards to pick up the slack.  Due also in part to coach AV shortening the bench in a bid to catch up, Kesler (24:35), Henrik (23:17), Daniel (22:37) and Burrows (22:15) saw significantly higher ice time – 3 to 5 minutes higher than their season averages.  Even Mason Raymond, in only his third game back from his back injury, logged over 19 minutes of ice time. Strangely, Cody Hodgson played only 10 minutes despite having a decent outing and scoring a goal.  Good to see that the limited ice time didn’t affect him, as Hodgson was the only player to score in the shootout.  It will be interesting to see who plays on Saturday against Ottawa.
  3. Ballard vs. The World. Did you happen to catch Keith Ballard’s mesmerizing end-to-end rush half-way through the overtime period?  After picking the puck up in his own zone between the faceoff circles, he held the puck for a total of 11 straight seconds covering 160 feet: he rushed out of the defensive zone (avoiding Eric Cole), dashed past the Canucks bench (evading Lars Eller), cut across the middle (making Frederic St-Denis miss his check), bat the puck down with his glove (with Cole draped all over him), gained the blue line and skated into the corner (while fighting off Hal Gill), and then threw it behind the net to Daniel who centered it to Henrik.  Only a great pad save by Carey Price robbed Ballard of what would have been one of the most memorable second assists in recent memory.  It was somewhat appropriate that the Superman theme song was played during the next stoppage in play as Ballard’s effort was indeed super.
  4. Movin’ On Up…Not Really. Despite the Canucks’ strong play of late, they can’t make up any ground on division leader the Minnesota Wild.  The Wild have rattled off 6 straight wins (all on the road) and have won 11 of their last 13 games.  Thus, Vancouver sits 6 points back of Minnesota with one game in hand.  The Canucks can’t even break free from the pack to take sole possession of fourth place in the Western Conference, as both Detroit and St. Louis are also playing extremely well.  All three teams are deadlocked with 35 points, ahead of the Sharks who have 3 games in hand.  I just can’t get used to seeing Minnesota on top of the entire league.

The Canucks have a great opportunity to continue racking up the points as their next games are against Ottawa, Columbus and Carolina.  While the defense and the goaltending seem to have solidified, all the questions are up front.  Will Higgins return soon?  Will Billy Sweatt make like Victor Oreskovich and return to the farm after just one game?  And will Andrew Alberts ever play on the fourth line again?  There are a few things that make me go hmmm.

Dec 072011
 

Some quick thoughts on two issues dominating NHL talk right now:

Derek Boogaard and Fighting in the NHL

For anyone who’s been living under a rock, here’s the original New York Times story about the study of Derek Boogaard’s brain.

The results of the study shouldn’t surprise anyone. If you’re a fighter, and you get punched in the head a lot, it’s logical the impact of these blows will have an effect on your brain and brain function.

The larger issue here is that, as scientists continue to show conclusive evidence that hockey fights endanger the health of those involved, it gives credence to the argument against fighting in the NHL.

See, it was easy before for the old guard to say that fighting has always been a part of the sport, and that those who want it removed don’t understand the game, or aren’t man enough or tough enough to understand.

Scientific evidence kind of robs these folks of their bully pulpit.

Look, there’s a simple solution here that should make both sides of the argument happy.

Don’t ban fighting in the NHL. Just kick anyone who fights out of the game.

Fight in the last five minutes of the game – you miss the next game. And then determine a suspension formula for players who fight multiple times in a year.

This way, the NHL can say they haven’t banned fighting but are going to great lengths to protect players.

Conversely, the reduction in NHL fights that would follow such a rule change would appease most of those who believe the game is better off without the pugilist sideshow.

Makes sense. So much sense that this is how it’s done for most amateur hockey leagues and beer leagues in Canada.

(Another option we’ve already discussed in this space – getting rid of the 4th liners who cause most of the NHL violence).

One more thought on this – I heard talk on Team 1040 today wondering if the NHL knows if its core audience is pro-fighting or fighting-opposed.

The NHL absolutely knows the answer to this question. It probably knows the answer to this question in Canada and the United States, if not for its fans in each NHL city.

Why? Because professional sports leagues do significant market research to protect and grow their brand.

Given this, if the NHL doesn’t move on fighting, then it says a lot about where their current fan base stands on the issue.

NHL Realignment

How would the NHL standings and playoffs have differed if the proposed NHL realignment had been in place since the lockout? Let’s have a look:

2005/2006

Standings:

Eastern ConferenceTeamPtsWestern ConferenceTeamPts
1Ottawa1131Detroit124
2Carolina1122Dallas112
3New Jersey1013Calgary103
4Buffalo1104Nashville106
5Philadelphia1015San Jose99
6NY Rangers1006Anaheim98
7Montreal937Colorado95
8Tampa Bay928Edmonton95
9Toronto909Vancouver92
10Winnipeg9010Los Angeles89
11Florida8511Minnesota84
12NY Islanders7812Phoenix81
13Boston7413Columbus74
14Washington7014Chicago65
15Pittsburgh5815St. Louis57

Playoff seeding under new format:

New Conference ANew Conference BNew Conference CNew Conference D
Carolina – 112Ottawa – 113Detroit – 124Calgary – 103
New Jersey – 101Buffalo – 110Dallas -112San Jose – 99
Philadelphia – 101Montreal – 93Nashville – 106Anaheim – 98
NY Rangers – 100Tampa Bay – 92Winnipeg – 90Colorado – 95

Some notes about 2005/2006:

  • Winnipeg makes the playoffs, while Edmonton, the Stanley Cup finalist that year, doesn’t.
  • Ottawa still plays Tampa Bay in the first round (Sens won the series 4-1). That’s the only series that stays the same.

2006/2007

Standings:

Eastern ConferenceTeamPtsWestern ConferenceTeamPts
1Buffalo1131Detroit113
2New Jersey1072Anaheim110
3Winnipeg973Vancouver105
4Ottawa1054Nashville110
5Pittsburgh1055San Jose107
6NY Rangers946Dallas107
7Tampa Bay937Minnesota104
8NY Islanders928Calgary96
9Toronto919Colorado95
10Montreal9010St. Louis81
11Carolina8811Columbus73
12Florida8612Edmonton71
13Boston7613Chicago71
14Washington7014Los Angeles68
15Philadelphia5615Phoenix67

Playoff seeding under new format:

New Conference ANew Conference BNew Conference CNew Conference D
New Jersey – 107Buffalo – 113Detroit – 113Anaheim – 110
Pittsburgh – 105Ottawa – 105Nashville  – 110San Jose – 107
New York Rangers – 94Tampa Bay – 93Dallas – 107Vancouver – 105
New York Islanders – 92Toronto – 91Minnesota – 104Calgary – 96

Some notes about 2006/2007:

  • Toronto makes the playoffs, while Winnipeg does not in their new Conference. All the teams in the “old West” make it.
  • Nashville plays Dallas for the second year in a row, as does Ottawa against Tampa Bay.

2007/2008

Standings:

Eastern ConferenceTeamPtsWestern ConferenceTeamPts
1Montreal1041Detroit115
2Pittsburgh1022San Jose108
3Washington943Minnesota98
4New Jersey994Anaheim102
5NY Rangers975Dallas97
6Philadelphia956Colorado95
7Ottawa947Calgary94
8Boston948Nashville91
9Carolina929Edmonton88
10Buffalo9010Chicago88
11Florida8511Vancouver88
12Toronto8312Phoenix83
13NY Islanders7913Columbus80
14Winnipeg7614St. Louis79
15Tampa Bay7115Los Angeles71

Playoff seeding under new format:

New Conference ANew Conference BNew Conference CNew Conference D
Pittsburgh – 102Montreal – 104Detroit – 115San Jose – 108
New Jersey – 99Ottawa – 94Minnesota – 98Anaheim – 102
New York Rangers – 97Boston – 94Dallas – 97Colorado – 95
Philadelphia – 95Buffalo – 90Nashville – 91Calgary – 94

Some notes about 2007/2008:

  • Washington doesn’t make the playoffs while Buffalo does. All the teams in the “old West” make it.
  • Detroit and Nashville still play each other in the first round (Detroit won the series 4-2), as do San Jose and Calgary (San Jose won the series 4-3).

2008/2009

Standings:

Eastern ConferenceTeamPtsWestern ConferenceTeamPts
1Boston1161San Jose117
2Washington1082Detroit112
3New Jersey1063Vancouver100
4Pittsburgh994Chicago104
5Philadelphia995Calgary98
6Carolina976St. Louis92
7NY Rangers957Columbus92
8Montreal938Anaheim91
9Florida939Minnesota89
10Buffalo9110Nashville88
11Ottawa8311Edmonton85
12Toronto8112Dallas83
13Winnipeg7613Phoenix79
14Tampa Bay6614Los Angeles79
15NY Islanders6115Colorado69

Playoff seeding under new format:

New Conference ANew Conference BNew Conference CNew Conference D
Washington – 108Boston – 116Detroit – 112San Jose – 117
New Jersey – 106Montreal – 93Chicago – 104Vancouver – 100
Pittsburgh – 99Florida – 93St. Louis – 92Calgary – 98
Philadelphia – 99Buffalo – 91Columbus – 92Anaheim – 91

Some notes about 2008/2009:

  • Both Carolina and the New York Rangers wouldn’t make the playoffs under the new format. Conversely, Florida (!?!?) and Buffalo do.
  • All the teams in the “old West,” again, make it under the new format.
  • San Jose and Anaheim would still play each other (Anaheim won the series 4-2), as would Detroit and Columbus (Detroit won the series 4-0).

2009/2010

Standings:

Eastern ConferenceTeamPtsWestern ConferenceTeamPts
1Washington1211San Jose113
2New Jersey1032Chicago112
3Buffalo1003Vancouver103
4Pittsburgh1014Phoenix107
5Ottawa945Detroit102
6Boston916Los Angeles101
7Philadelphia887Nashville100
8Montreal888Colorado95
9NY Rangers879St. Louis90
10Winnipeg8310Calgary90
11Carolina8011Anaheim89
12Tampa Bay8012Dallas88
13NY Islanders7913Minnesota84
14Florida7714Columbus79
15Toronto7415Edmonton62

Playoff seeding under new format:

New Conference ANew Conference BNew Conference CNew Conference D
Washington – 121Buffalo – 100Chicago – 112San Jose – 113
New Jersey – 103Ottawa – 94Detroit – 102Phoenix – 107
Pittsburgh – 101Boston – 91Nashville – 100Vancouver – 103
Philadelphia – 88Montreal – 88St. Louis – 90Los Angeles – 101

Some notes about 2009/2010:

  • All the teams in the “old East” make it under the new format. St. Louis qualifies under the new format; Colorado doesn’t.
  • Washington/Philadelphia, New Jersey/Pittsburgh and Chicago/St. Louis play each other in the first round for the second year in a row.

2010/2011

Standings:

Eastern ConferenceTeamPtsWestern ConferenceTeamPts
1Washington1071Vancouver117
2Philadelphia1062San Jose105
3Boston1033Detroit104
4Pittsburgh1064Anaheim99
5Tampa Bay1035Nashville99
6Montreal966Phoenix99
7Buffalo967Los Angeles98
8NY Rangers938Chicago97
9Carolina919Dallas95
10Toronto8510Calgary94
11New Jersey8111St. Louis87
12Winnipeg8012Minnesota86
13Ottawa7413Columbus81
14NY Islanders7314Colorado68
15Florida7215Edmonton62

Playoff seeding under new format:

New Conference ANew Conference BNew Conference CNew Conference D
Washington – 107Boston – 103Detroit – 104Vancouver – 117
Philadelphia – 106Tampa Bay – 103Nashville – 99San Jose – 105
Pittsburgh – 106Montreal – 96Chicago – 97Anaheim – 99
New York Rangers – 93Buffalo – 96Dallas – 95Phoenix – 99

Some notes about 2010/2011:

  • All the teams in the “old East” make it under the new format. Dallas qualifies this time around; the Los Angeles Kings don’t.
  • Vancouver and Phoenix play each other for the second year in a row.
  • Washington and the New York Rangers still play each other in the first round (Washington won 4-1 originally).

Final note on the new realignment, and how it impacts playoff matchups/qualifying:

Old AlignmentNew Alignment
# of different playoff teams, 2005-201028 (only Toronto and Florida fail to make the playoffs)# of different playoff teams, 2005-1029 (only Edmonton fails to make the playoffs)
# of different first round matchups, 2005-201039# of different first round matchups, 2005-1034
Dec 052011
 

[Every week Caylie King looks at the Canucks week that was and the Canucks week ahead.  You can follow Caylie on Twitter (@CayKing.)]

This past week saw the Canucks’ five-game win streak end after a see-saw battle against the Nashville Predators. While everyone was preparing for a defensive battle, instead the game was an entertaining 6-5 loss. The Canucks then finished off the week by beating the Calgary Flames 5-1 for the second time this season.

Canucks Record

26 GP, 15-10-1, 31 points (2nd in Northwest Division, 5th in Western Conference)

Who’s Hot

The Canucks signed Dan Hamhuis mainly because he is a great shutdown defenseman who plays against the other teams top lines night in and night out. Somewhat surprisingly, he’s started to chip in on offense more consistently this season too.

Hamhuis is currently on a 4-game point streak in which he has recorded an assist in each game; he is also a plus-3 in that span. After recording just 1 point in his first 10 games (an assist in the second game of the season), Hammer has 12 points in his last 16 games. The longest he’s gone without recording a point is 2 games.

The fact that he’s been contributing offensively is an added bonus to his defensive repertoire; an added bonus Canucks Nation openly welcomes.

Who’s Not

Although the Canucks didn’t pluck Dale Weise off the waiver wire for his offensive talent, it would be nice if he were able to chip in once in a while.

Weise hasn’t scored in 19 games (unless you count Twitter) and his physical presence has been hit and miss recently. With the season-ending shoulder injury suffered by Aaron Volpatti, now is the time for Weise to step up and boost the physical factor that would help boost our bottom 6.

Who’s Next

Tuesday December 6, 2011 vs. Colorado Avalanche (7:00 PM start, home)

The Canucks and Avalanche met just under two weeks ago – a 3-0 win for the good guys. Since that loss, the Avs have won 3 of their last 4 games, helping them to get back to .500 while sitting only 2 points out of 8th place in the Western Conference.

Ryan O’Reilly, in just his 3rd NHL season, is leading the Avs with 21 points (6G-15). He has been one of their best players recently, putting up 4 goals and 5 assists in his last 5 games; he is also a plus-7 in that same stretch. Needless to say, O’Reilly, whose career-high is 26 points in a season (achieved in each of the last two seasons), is on pace to have a career year. He should set new highs this season unless some crazy happens.

Thursday December 8, 2011 vs. Montreal Canadiens (4:30 PM start, away)

The Habs have had a lackluster start to the season and are currently sitting in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, though they are tied in points (27) with the 8th place Capitals and 9th place Senators. The Habs have gone 2-3-2 in their last 7 games.

The good news for the Canucks is that Montreal has yet to win a game against a Northwest Division opponent this season; they’re 0-2-1. The bad news is that the Habs won both meetings against the Canucks last year and were led by their star goalie, Carey Price.

The Habs are without one of their best defensemen, Andrei Markov, who has been suffering from knee problems. The club just announced that he will undergo arthroscopic knee surgery to clean up leftover debris and will be out for at least 3 more weeks.

Tomas Plekanec is leading the team with 22 points (6G-16A) while Max Pacioretty is leading the team with 10 goals.

Saturday December 10, 2011 vs. Ottawa Senators (4:00 PM start, away)

Chris Higgins was the overtime hero when the Senators visited Rogers Arena last month. Ottawa is another team in the East battling for playoff position and currently sit in 9th place; they are one game above .500.

The Sens have been decent against Western Conference opponents this season. So far, they are 4-3-1 against Western Conference foes, including a 3-1-1 against the Northwest Division.

Milan Michalek has had a good start to the season and leads the team with 16 goals. He is 3rd in team scoring with 22 points in 26 games and is currently on a 3-game point streak which had him scoring 4 goals.

The Special Special Teams

The powerplay and penalty kill were crucial to the Canucks’ success last season and they are relying on it again this season. Vancouver currently has the league’s best PP with a 26.1% efficiency (the second-ranked Toronto Maple Leafs PP has a 22.4% efficiency). They are also ranked 7th overall on the penalty kill with a 85.3% PK rate.

We saw last year how the Canucks’ special teams were key to winning close games. It’s just as important this season for them to maintain their smart and efficient play to keep pace with the close Western Conference race.

Nov 282011
 

In part one we looked at the first quarter for teams in the Western Conference. Now let’s take a look at the East.

Eastern Conference

1. New York Rangers – 27 Points

Powerplay: 25 / Penalty Kill: 9 / Goals For: 15 / Goals Against: 2

What’s working: Henrik Lundquist for starters. He’s the biggest reason why the team is among the league leaders in goals against. In the absence of Marc Staal (concussion), Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi have capably stepped up on the blueline, while defenseman Michael Del Zotto has re-found his game. Marian Gaborik has gotten hot in November, and suddenly the Rangers have two lines that can score. Interestingly, Brad Richards and Gaborik aren’t regular linemates.

What’s not: The Wojtek Wolski experiment looks like a bust. Brandon Dubinsky only has one goal, although he’s contributing in other areas of the game. The team is taking too many penalties. Also worrisome is the shots for/against ratio is roughly -5. The powerplay hasn’t found its groove yet.

2. Boston – 26 Points

Powerplay: 14 / Penalty Kill: 10 / Goals For: 3 / Goals Against: 3

What’s working: Boston continues to take advantage of its depth, rolling four lines, three of them capable of offense. Tyler Seguin has taken a Steven Stamkos-esque leap in his second year, which has offset the departures of Mark Recchi and Michael Ryder. The Bruins have found their intimidating, rough style again after a slow start, and rode it to a franchise record winning streak. Joe Corvo has already made a bigger positive impact on the team than the defenseman he replaced, Tomas Kaberle, ever did. Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask have played like the elite goaltending tandem they are.

What’s not: Benoit Pouliot has been prone to mental lapses and taken dumb penalties, and isn’t anything more than a fourth-liner at this point. David Krejci has the worst plus/minus on the team and has struggled to find his offensive game.

3. Washington – 25 Points

Powerplay: 16 / Penalty Kill: 20 / Goals For: 4 / Goals Against: 22

What’s working: This remains a team that can score, even if they aren’t the run-and-gun Caps that fans fell in love with years ago. Jason Chimera has had the best start to a season of his career, while Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward have been immediate, physical contributors.

What’s not: Bruce Boudreau, since he’s now been replaced by Dale Hunter. Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin are struggling, with both players regularly taking shifts off. Semin, of all people, leads the team in penalties. Quite honestly, their performances to date place each of them on any current NHL list of “most-overpaid players.” Starter Tomas Vokoun has been better but not exactly a world-beater. Back-up goalie Michael Neuvirth has been awful. The special teams have started slow, likely due to the fact that Mike Green is once again battling the injury bug.

4. Pittsburgh – 25 Points

Powerplay: 12 / Penalty Kill: 4 / Goals For: 11 / Goals Against: 11

What’s working: Sidney Crosby’s head for starters. Getting him back in the lineup vaults the team from contender status to Stanley Cup favourites. Jordan Staal has also taken another step in his development and is on a 40-goal pace. Steve Sullivan has brought imagination, if not consistent results, to the Penguins powerplay. James Neal leads the team in scoring.

What’s not: Very little, although the team’s lack of blueline depth has been exposed at times, particularly when Brooks Orpik or Zbynek Michalek has been out of the lineup.

5. Philadelphia – 25 Points

Powerplay: 13 / Penalty Kill: 13 / Goals For: 1 / Goals Against: 21

What’s working: The offense, big-time. The top three lines are creative and physical. Claude Giroux is an early season MVP candidate. The Jaromir Jagr experiment has been a success, although he’s been bothered by groin issues of late. Rookie Sean Couturier is the team’s top penalty killer while another rookie, Matt Read, has looked like a 10-year veteran on the ice.

What’s not: Three other young forwards, James van Riemsdyk, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek, have been inconsistent. Highly-touted Brayden Schenn has been a non-factor at the NHL-level and is a team-worst -5. The Flyers remain undisciplined, although a solid penalty kill has helped in that area. Team speed, particularly from the defense, seems lacking.

6. Florida – 25 Points

Powerplay: 7 / Penalty Kill: 14 / Goals For: 5 / Goals Against: 10

What’s working: The Sawgrass Express line (Kris Versteeg, Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann) has been one of the top lines in the NHL. The defense has really gelled. Brian Campbell is rejuvenated, and along with second-year man Dmitry Kulikov they represent two of the better puck-moving defenseman in the league to-date. Jason Garrison has been a primary beneficiary, with his cannon of a shot becoming the focal point on the team’s improved powerplay. Quietly, Jose Theodore is playing his best hockey in years. Much like in Dallas, rookie coach Kevin Dineen has this “group of castoffs” playing each night to prove their detractors were wrong about them.

What’s not: As bad as David Booth is playing for the Canucks, at least he’s playing. Mikael Samuelsson, acquired in the trade, has yet to suit up for Florida and is still recovering from sports hernia issues. Meanwhile, Marco Sturm, the other player in the deal, looks washed up. Free agent Scottie Upshall has been a bust.

7. Toronto – 24 Points

Powerplay: 6 / Penalty Kill: 28 / Goals For: 6 / Goals Against: 25

What’s working: Toronto’s best players have been just that for the first time in a few seasons. Both Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul came into the year in the best shape of their lives, and they’ve taken their offensive game to the next level. Dion Phaneuf remains a risk-taker, but on most nights his gambles have paid off and contributed to Leaf victories. He’s the stir that mixes the Leafs drink. Before getting hurt James Reimer had continued his strong play from last season. The powerplay is greatly improved under assistant coach (and notorious xs and os man) Scott Gordon. Tim Connolly, when healthy, has been the team’s best centreman at both ends of the ice. Finally, Toronto is getting strong contributions from its AHL call-ups. In fact, an improved-skating Joe Colborne has probably leapt Nazem Kadri as the team’s most promising prospect.

What’s not: The penalty kill remains a huge weakness. Luke Schenn played the worst hockey of his NHL career earlier in the year. The second line (Clarke MacArthur-Mikhail Grabovski- Nik Kulemin) has been wildly inconsistent.

8. Buffalo – 24 Points

Powerplay: 11 / Penalty Kill: 2 / Goals For: 14 / Goals Against: 13

What’s working: Ryan Miller and Johnas Enroth have given the Sabres solid goaltending, with Enroth actually outplaying his partner so far. Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville have played like All-Stars and are carrying the team offensively. Rookie Luke Adam rocketed out of the gate and has remained a contributor.

What’s not: The defense, supposedly improved with the additions of Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff, has been a massive disappointment. In fact, there’s a lot of Wade Redden-ish smell coming off Ehrhoff’s first 20 games with the Sabres. Tyler Myers hasn’t shaken the inconsistency of last season either. Meanwhile the other off-season free agent splash, Ville Leino, looks lost and is on pace for a ~20 point season. Finally, the smallish Sabres have been pushed around a bit, and team toughness has become a question mark.

9. New Jersey – 23 Points

Powerplay: 28 / Penalty Kill: 1 / Goals For: 23 / Goals Against: 15

What’s working: Patrick Elias has found the fountain of youth and looks four years younger on the ice. Backup Johan Hedberg has given the team strong goaltending and has played much more than expected. New coach Peter DeBoer has tweaked the system he had in Florida and the Devils are using their speed to play a good team defense. Rookie Adam Henrique has come out of nowhere to give the Devils a second line scoring threat they haven’t had in some time. The penalty kill has been formidable.

What’s not: Someone tell Ilya Kovalchuk the season has started. He remains an enigma and the worst contract in the NHL. Zach Parise has had a slow start after missing most of last year with injury. Together, the struggles of these two players have crippled the team’s attack. The Devils still aren’t getting any offense from the blueline either, which is killing their powerplay. Finally, nothing Martin Brodeur has shown signifies he’s a top-15 goalie in the league anymore.

10. Ottawa – 21 Points

Powerplay: 3 / Penalty Kill: 21 / Goals For: 10 / Goals Against: 28

What’s working: Coach Paul Maclean is getting a lot out of the most skilled players in his lineup. Jason Spezza is arguably playing the best hockey of his career, while Erik Karlsson looks like the new Mike Green. Even Sergei Gonchar has shown a heartbeat and a pulse. Along with Milan Michaluk, these four have got the Senators powerplay humming.

What’s not: Pretty much anything associated with the defensive side of the game outside of Zach Smith (who’s become a strong 3rd line player). Goalie Craig Anderson hasn’t come up with enough key saves, and both Karlsson and Gonchar continue to struggle in their own zone. None of the team’s forward prospects have run with the opportunity to play important minutes either, leaving Ottawa without much secondary scoring.

11. Montreal – 21 Points

Powerplay: 20 / Penalty Kill: 3 / Goals For: 18 / Goals Against: 8

What’s working: Carey Price has given Montreal great goaltending on most nights. Max Paccioretty has lived up to pre-season billing as a breakout scoring candidate. Lars Eller has played well enough to warrant more ice-time, perhaps even a top-six role. The penalty kill has been excellent. Tomas Plekanec remains the team’s most important forward.

What’s not: With Andrei Markov delayed in his return to the lineup, Montreal’s young defense has struggled. P. K. Subban has had a taste of the sophomore slump, although his play recently has picked up. With the team failing to score much, the lack of production from Scott Gomez is becoming a bigger and bigger distraction.

12. Tampa Bay – 20 Points

Powerplay: 19 / Penalty Kill: 17 / Goals For: 17 / Goals Against: 26

What’s working: Vincent Lecavalier is having a bit of a bounce-back season and is on pace for 40-goals. Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis remain dangerous scoring threats whenever they’re on the ice. Matt Gilroy has been a pleasent surprise on defense, leading blueliners with a +5 rating. Marc-Andre Bergeron has entered beast mode as a powerplay threat.

What’s not: Outside Lecavalier, Stamkos and St. Louis, the forwards aren’t scoring. Teddy Purcell, Ryan Malone and Steve Downie are not contributing as expected. Meanwhile, Brett Connolley doesn’t look ready for a top-six forward role. Dwayne Roloson’s goaltending has been problematic to the point that Mathieu Garon should probably be the starter. Defensively, Eric Brewer and Victor Hedman have had quarter season’s they’d probably like to forget. Consistency has been another issue, with the team no-showing a few games (7-1 loss to Toronto; 5-1 loss to the Islanders) and periods more than at any stretch last season.

13. Winnipeg – 19 Points

Powerplay: 8 / Penalty Kill: 19 / Goals For: 13 / Goals Against: 24

What’s working: They’re selling a lot of merchandise. That’s something, right? In all seriousness, Kyle Wellwood has been surprisingly effective and leads the team in points. Jim Slater and Tanner Glass have combined to give the Jets a pretty good third line. Evander Kane looks like a 30-goal scorer, while Alex Burmistrov has shown glimpses of becoming a modern Igor Larionov.

What’s not: Remember the problems the Atlanta Thrashers had? Poor defense and bad goaltending? Nothing’s really changed, although part of the blueline problem has been due to injury. Zach Bogosian and Dustin Byfuglien have remained inconsistent, although Byfuglien has picked up his play of late. Ondrej Pavelec is running out of time to prove he can be a starting NHL goalie, and has been outplayed by Chris Mason.

14. Carolina – 15 Points

Powerplay: 29 / Penalty Kill: 18 / Goals For: 26 / Goals Against: 29

What’s working: Cam Ward is giving the team a chance to win every night. Jeff Skinner has avoided the sophomore slump. Jay Harrison is playing too many minutes but brings a physical presence to the Hurricanes blueline. And that’s pretty much it. Sorry Hurricanes fans.

What’s not: The strategy of re-creating the post-lockout Maple Leafs isn’t working (Harrison, Paul Maurice, Alex Ponikarovsky, Jiri Tlusty, Tim Brent, Tomas Kaberle). Kaberle is goalless and proving his struggles with the Bruins last year weren’t a mirage. Paul Maurice, who arguably mishandled some of the young talent available (not named Jeff Skinner), and who’s record of mediocrity as an NHL head coach has finally caught up with him. Kirk Muller is a great hire by the ‘Canes. Clearly something’s up with Eric Staal, who’s playing the worst hockey of his career, and is a big reason why Carolina is a cellar-dweller. The team just doesn’t score enough.

15. New York Islanders – 14 Points

Powerplay: 22 / Penalty Kill: 23 / Goals For: 30 / Goals Against: 27

What’s working: John Tavares, Matt Moulson and Michael Grabner haven’t taken steps back offensively. When he’s played Al Montoya has been excellent. Frans Nielsen remains an underrated defensive player, and leads the team at +1.

What’s not: Everything else. This looks an awful lot like a team that’s abandoned its coach. Veterans Steve Staios, Marty Reasoner and Brian Rolston have been mediocre-to-terrible, while many of the team’s other young forwards (including Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey) aren’t competing on a nightly basis. Nino Niederreitter isn’t even getting a chance to compete – he’s been a healthy scratch over the last week amongst rumours of another injury. Evgeni Nabokov has been average; Rick DiPietro has been bad. Outside of Calgary, this is the other NHL team in most need of a roster tear-down.

Nov 112011
 

One of the silliest debates to be waged across the NHL some time is Philadelphia’s “outrage” and in-game protest of Tampa’s 1-3-1 system.

From Mike Milbury walking off the air to a quickie TSN poll of league GMs siding with the Flyers, the Lightning are taking a lot of heat for their passive forecheck.

Here’s the thing.

1) The passive forecheck is employed all over the league, and has been for decades. Roughly half of all NHL teams use a 1-3-1 forecheck in their gameplan. The 70s Canadiens, the 80s Oilers, the 90s Red Wings – they all used a version of this system when necessary to win Stanley Cups.

2) The Lightning, for all the hoopla for employing a defensive system that’s ruining the game, sat 23rd this morning in the league in goals against per game; 24th in the league in shots against per game. We’re not exactly talking about a New Jersey Devils-esque juggernault when it comes to squeezing scoring opportunities out of the game.

Let’s remember, the NHL culture doesn’t exactly embrace innovation comfortably.

Lightning coach Guy Boucher, with his approach to the 1-3-1 system, his degree in sports psychology and his willingness to think differently about practices, off-days etc, is seen as a bit of an outsider. He’s made himself and his team a target for being different.

But he’s also doing what it takes for the Lightning to win games.

There are ways to beat the trap – by exiting the defensive zone with speed, or by moving the puck horizontally across the ice rather than vertically. That the Flyers chose to do neither, and simply stand around, was certainly a statement.

It was also absolutely ineffective, as Philadelphia lost the game 2-1.

Any debate that leads to more goals and more excitement in the NHL game is a positive thing.

But the Lightning shouldn’t be vilainized for their approach to the game.

The Flyers are just as much at fault, by basically refusing to compete.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Loved this “how to beat the trap” diagram. Works great if, you know, everyone defending stands still.
  • So players on the Florida Panthers were tweeting about how cold it was in Winnipeg before their game against the Jets? It’s only November guys. There are still folks at the corner of Portage and Main in t-shirts. Can’t wait to read to read the tweets before their next visit to Manitoba January 21st.
  • One pro scout’s assessment of the Taylor Hall vs. Tyler Seguin debate:  ”For me, Seguin is more creative with the puck. I actually wrote in one of my reports that Seguin, if he doesn’t have a shot, he’s got enough poise to make a play to a teammate. I don’t know if Hall has that ability. Hall is going to beat you north-south with his speed and quickness down low. Seguin’s got a little more dimension to his game from a creativity standpoint.”
  • Magnus Paajarvi has become a healthy scratch in Edmonton. Other sophomores struggling: Buffalo’s Tyler Ennis (0 points), Anaheim’s Cam Fowler (-6 despite a greater focus on the defensive side of the game), New Jersey’s Mattias Tedenby (0 goals, 3 assists).
  • Weird seeing Senator John McCain in a Coyotes jersey talking hockey strategy, 9/11 and the World Series, among other things, between periods on the Coyotes-Habs broadcast. As nice as it is to see him vocally supportive of the hometown team, couldn’t he solve the Phoenix ownership mess with a couple of strategic phone calls to well-off friends?
  • Add HP Pavillion in San Jose to the list of NHL arenas where fans boo Dany Heatley. For what it’s worth, Devin Setoguchi was cheered when he and Heatley returned as members of the Wild on Thursday.
  • Nice piece on former teammates Brent Burns and Nick Schultz.
  • So tired of the “will he or won’t he play” coverage of Sidney Crosby.
  • Things that don’t make sense in the NHL #2589: Teams that keep rookie players past the 9-game mark (thus burning through the first year of their NHL contract) and then send the player to the press box. The Panthers have done this with Erik Gudbranson, and the Blue Jackets did this recently with Ryan Johansen.
  • Speaking of the Blue Jackets, their worst start in franchise history has led coach Scott Arniel to change the team’s approach mid-season from a puck-pursuit, up-tempo style to a conservative trap approach. The team’s loss to Chicago shows this is still very much a work in progress.
  • Two ways to fix the Toronto Maple Leafs penalty kill – improve communication between forwards and defensemen on the kill, and find some quicker players to perform it. Leafs penalty killers aren’t elite skaters,  so they don’t pressure the puck carrier like most teams. Instead, they end up in their box formation, which other teams continue to pick apart.
  • Colorado’s win against the Islanders may have saved Joe Sacco’s job. Interestingly, the team was down 3-0 until the Avs called a timeout and defenseman Shane O’Brien let his teammates have it. J.S. Giguere, who called the game a “must-win”, also made a huge save off of Michael Grabner with one second left in regulation.
  • Speaking of Colorado defenseman, their best right now might just be Ryan Wilson, who’s been very effective physically and is on a 45-point pace.
  • Final note on the Avalanche – in contrast to the Maple Leafs, Colorado’s too aggressive on the penalty kill. It’s why they’re 27th in the league in this category.
  • The Islanders and Blue Jackets are the only teams left in the NHL without a road victory. One reason for the Islanders struggles – they lack team toughness, particularly in the top-six. And this includes Kyle Okposo, who could play a Brendan Morrow-style game, but has instead struggled out-of-the-gate (0 goals in 13 games).
  • Katie Baker’s latest Grantland column includes a link to Paulina Gretzky’s best Twitter pics that most adult males will appreciate.
Nov 042011
 

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

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

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

Personally, I like what you’ve reportedly done:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tweak #1 – Level the playing field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Tweak #2 – Let Teams Pick Their Playoff Opponent 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re welcome.

 THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Isn’t this about the time that the Oilers start falling back to earth? And yet, they played a terrific road game against the Kings, giving up only 19 shots.
  • Same thing can be said about the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are amazingly in first place in the Eastern Conference right now. Then again, it’s been a long time since the Maple Leafs had two scoring lines going like they do right now (Joffrey Lupul-Tim Connolly-Phil Kessel; Clarke MacArthur-Mikael Grabovski-Nik Kulemin).
  • Watching the Blue Jackets-Leafs game, it looked like Leaf shooters were targeting Steve Mason’s blocker-side with great success (4 goals on 11 shots).
  • Speaking of Columbus, this is the earliest they’ve ever gotten to 10 losses. A coaching change is on the way, but Ken Hitchcock isn’t the solution. The Blue Jackets are not strong enough in goal or on defense to play the conservative style Hitchcock demands. At the same time, he hasn’t shown much success coaching younger players, and future of this team is in its prospects.
  • At the same time, anyone who is suggesting Craig Button is a viable candidate for the Blue Jackets front office should give their head a shake. He was a league-worst level GM in Calgary. Lest we forget the trading of J-S Giguere and Marc Savard for bags of pucks, the release of Martin St. Louis and the signing of Roman Turek to a mega-contract.
  • I wonder how folks are feeling about the Erik Johnson for Chris Stewart/Kevin Shattenkirk trade these days? Johnson looks a lot like Bryan McCabe – a big shooter, decent skater with poor defensive instincts. At least McCabe was physical – Johnson plays a Jay Boumeester-like soft defense. Things aren’t puppy dogs and ice cream in St. Louis though either where Chris Stewart has gotten off to a very slow start (2 goals and 3 points in 11 games). In fact, right now the best player might just be Kevin Shattenkirk, who has taken another step, evolving into an intelligent, two-way defenseman playing alongside Alex Pieterangelo.
  • CBC is counting suspensions and concussions this year so you don’t have to.
  • Colorado’s Paul Stastny has yet to score a point at home this year.
  • Mike Smith has been very good for the Coyotes thus far. Makes you wonder what went wrong in Tampa?
  • Speaking of Phoenix, another factor in their early season success is the play of defensemen David Schlemko and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Ekman-Larsson is becoming a factor at both ends of the ice, and looks more and more like a player you build a team around. Schlemko is strong skater who doesn’t make mistakes with the puck.
  • Kudos to the Predators for inking Pekka Rinne to a 7-year/$49-million contract. Rinne is an elite goaltender, and having him signed long-term means Nashville has an important cornerstone in place. This probably means that one of Shea Weber or Ryan Suter is gone, especially since the Predators have some young depth at defense. It also wouldn’t surprise if Rinne’s $7 million annual salary becomes the defacto ceiling for Predator player contracts.
  • One last Predators note – while the media (particularly in Canada) portray Nashville as hockey backwater, it’s nice to see the team showing it’s willing to spend to build a contender. Predator fans have more trust in the franchise today than they did yesterday.
  • Chicago may just be the best team in the league right now. They’re scoring goals despite a terrible powerplay (8.7%, second-last in the league).
  • Yes, the Minnesota Wild are getting strong goaltending. No, they are not getting the production they’d like out of Marek Zidlicky. Zidlicky wasn’t very good last year either, and certainly doesn’t seem like a top-line defenseman anymore. That no-movement, modified no-trade clause in his last contract is starting to look like a big, heavy anchor around GM Chuck Fletcher’s neck.
Oct 282011
 

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

If the 2011-12 season was the Pacific Ocean, we’ve barely dipped our toe into the cold waters.

Nonetheless, there’s been almost a month of NHL hockey, and it’s not too early to start evaluating what’s happening around the league.

Here now are a handful of teams better than, or worse than, their record-to-date.

Significantly Worse Than Their Record (aka the Ron Washington is a Lousy Coach Division)

Toronto: The Leafs enter Friday with a 6-2-1 record and a .722 winning percentage, good for 5th overall in the league. Phil Kessel is leading the league in scoring, which a Toronto player hasn’t done since exposed ankles were considered risqué. It’s time to start planning the parade right? Wrong. For starters the Leafs are near the bottom of the league in goals against (24th) and shots for/shots against differential.  Other than Dion Phaneuf, Toronto’s defense has also been wildly inconsistent and surprisingly soft. Finally, as in previous seasons there’s still nothing special about the team’s special teams (powerplay is 21st, penaltykill is 25th). Despite some strong 5-on-5 play, the Leafs look primed for a losing stretch.

New Jersey: Despite a rash of injuries, the Devils enter Friday with a 4-3-1 record, and their .563 winning percentage has them seated 13th in the league. The biggest factor in their early season success has been the play of Johan Hedberg, whose taken over for the injured Martin Brodeur and posted terrific numbers (2.31 goals against average, .926 save percentage). If you look closely though, you notice that once again this is a New Jersey team that can’t score. They are 25th in goals per game, 26th on the powerplay and 25th in shots for/against differential. They’re still not getting any production from their defense (just two goals so far this season), At 38 and as a career backup, Hedberg can carry a team for only so long. These Devils look a lot like the team that stunk up the first half of last season.   

Dallas: With a record of 7 wins and 3 losses, the Stars enter Friday sitting atop the Western Conference standings. Like New Jersey, the Stars have been carried through October on the shoulders of incredible goaltending. Kari Lehtonen is sporting a miniscule 1.84 goals against average and a .945 save percentage, and remains the defacto team MVP. However, the rest of the team’s peripheral numbers aren’t very good. The Stars are 22nd in goals for and on the powerplay, and their shots for/against differential is nearly -6. In fact, the Stars currently give up the fourth-most shots in the entire NHL. Granted, this may be the result of coach Glen Gulutzan’s conservative gameplan, but these Stars look identical to the team they were last year – decent, but not good enough for the post-season.  

Significantly Better Than Their Record (aka the Tony LaRussa’s St. Louis Cardinals Are Surprising Baseball Again Division)

Montreal: Wait a minute, aren’t the Canadiens struggles being debated in Quebec’s National Assembly as we speak? Isn’t the Molson family about to not only fire coach Jacques Martin, but get his family and friends fired from their jobs too? Aren’t we about to see Patrick Roy’s triumphant return behind the bench of the Habs? Well, hang on a second. Yes, the Canadiens’ record of 3-5-2 places them 27th overall. However, they’re sixth in the league at 5-on-5 play, and their shots for/against differential is almost +8, placing them 3rd overall. This is a quintessential Jacques Martin team – one that will live and die by the success of its defense and goaltending. As Carey Price rounds into form (his save percentage right now is 28 points below his career norm), the Canadiens will rise back up to where they should be – fighting for a playoff spot. 

Boston: Not since the 1967-68 Toronto Maple Leafs has a defending Stanley Cup Champion been this low in the standings so far into the season. The Bruins currently sit last in the Eastern Conference, 29th overall.  Boston’s biggest problem has been scoring – they’re 26th overall in goals per game, 25th at 5-on-5 play and 24th on the powerplay. Otherwise, they’re still playing the extremely strong defensive game coach Claude Julien demands. Tyler Seguin looks primed for an All-Star season, and David Krejci is too good to struggle for long (only one point, a goal, so far). If Boston can muster even league-average scoring, the Bruins will find themselves comfortably in the playoffs.

Philadelphia: Let’s acknowledge they’ve given up 14-goals in two games and that their star goalie has a crisis of confidence. They look lost defensively without Chris Pronger, and currently sit 17th overall in the league (.550 winning percentage). These Flyers, however, can flat out score. They’re 2nd  in goals for per game, 4th on the powerplay and their shots for/shots against differential is +6.3 (5th overall). They have three dangerous lines, and for every disappointment so far (James Van Riemsdyk, Scott Hartnell), there’s been a revelation (Wayne Simmonds has far more puck skill than expected; Sean Couturier is the team’s best defensive player). Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky aren’t this bad, and neither are the Flyers.

Thoughts on the Fly

-          Vancouver’s trade last weekend led me to this collection of Mike Gillis’ moves as general manager of the Canucks. A few things stand out on this list.

  • First, the trade for Christian Ehrhoff was a legitimate home run, and the trade for David Booth (acquiring the most talented player in the trade and a 3rd round draft pick) looks like it could be another.
  • Beyond these two moves it’s a very mixed record, with two notable trade mistakes: acquiring Keith Ballard for a first round pick AND Michael Grabner; and trading 3rd and 2nd round picks for Steve Bernier.
  • It’s too early to make any conclusions, but the Gillis drafts don’t look very dynamic. Last May, Hockey’s Future ranked the Canucks 27th in the NHL in terms of its farm system talent. This month the website released its 50 top-prospects, with only Cody Hodgson making the list (26th).
  • Finally, there are a number of moves on this list that made little-to-no impact on the team whatsoever. Maybe that’s a good thing though – better no impact than a negative one.

-          Damien Cox speculates Sidney Crosby might play on November 11th.

-          For all the angst coming out of Montreal, the expectations surrounding Erik Cole are the most unfair. Cole had success in Carolina because he played wing with an elite centreman (Eric Staal). He’s struggled in Edmonton, and now in Montreal, because he’s a strong complimentary player, not a go-to scoring presence. Without Staal, he’s a useful, industrious, 15-22 goal scorer. Hab fans expecting more will be disappointed.

-          Speaking of Montreal, this is what happens when you build a team entirely around defence and goaltending. If those areas falter even a little bit the team can’t score enough goals to compensate. The Habs will right the ship, but it’s a tight-rope low-scoring teams walk. Nashville’s struggling in the same fashion right now (last in the league in shots for/shots against at -11.4).

-          Final Habs note: Firing Perry Pearn 90 minutes before game time was the most ridiculous NHL firing in years, and is a black mark on the Montreal front office. He deserved better, and will land on his feet elsewhere.  

-          For all the accolades Duncan Keith has earned in Chicago, he could be ranked third behind Brent Seabrook and Nick Leddy in terms of performance this year. Seabrook is taking less physical risks, and as a result his positional play has improved. Meanwhile, Leddy has seamlessly filled Brian Campbell’s role.

-          The best part of any talk about a Philadelphia Flyers alumni team? Thinking of Eric Lindros and Bobby Clarke on the same bench.

-          He probably can’t keep it up, but every one of Kings defenseman Jack Johnson’s goals this year has been a game-winner.

-          Sorry Oiler fans, Nik Khabibulin won’t have a 0.97 goals against average all year. Enjoy the ride while it lasts, and full marks for squeaking out a win against the Capitals. Having said that, the Capitals were dominant 5-on-5, and Ovechkin hit the crossbar with less than a minute to play.  

-          Only three forwards are in the top-50 in the NHL in terms of ice-time: Ilya Kovalchuk, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

-          There’s 12 teams on pace to score fewer than 200 goals this year. Even with the Winnipeg-Flyers game, it certainly feels like scoring is down in the NHL.

-          TSN’s Darren Dreger takes a look at who could be next coaching behind an NHL bench.

-          Brad Richards is really struggling in New York. He isn’t skating very well or controlling the play at all.

-          In case you missed it – Jonas Hiller’s new mask.

-          Here’s a report on Defense Independent Goalie Rankings for last season. Oiler fans might be surprised to see Devyn Dubnyk in the top-10.

-          Katie Baker’s weekly recap on Grantland.

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