Oct 062011
 

After more than a month of review, analysis, and rankings, it’s time to predict what will actually happen in the upcoming NHL season.

If you take all things into consideration, one thing becomes abundantly clear – parity. No team is very strong at each position (coach, goalie, defence, forward), and most teams are only a shade better or worse than another.

It looks like all the same teams that made the playoffs last year have a good chance of making it again this year. As we’ve discussed though, it’s rare that there’s so little change in the standings from year-to-year. Injuries therefore will be the biggest factor in determining who plays on in April and who doesn’t.

This time last year I predicted Boston as the Stanley Cup champion. Read on to find out this year’s predicted winner:

 Western Conference

  1. Vancouver 110-115 points
  2. Anaheim 105-110
  3. Nashville 100-105
  4. Chicago 100-105
  5. San Jose 90-95
  6. Detroit 90-95
  7. St. Louis 90-95
  8. Los Angeles 90-95
  9. Calgary 80-85
  10. Edmonton 75-80
  11. Colorado 70-75
  12. Dallas 70-75
  13. Phoenix 70-75
  14. Minnesota 65-70
  15. Columbus 55-60

Notes on the above:

  • Surprisingly, I have the Predators rated the best team in the Conference (based on very strong goaltending, defence and coaching scores). Nashville plays in a brutally tough division though. Vancouver plays in the weakest division in the league, and that should lead them to another 1st place showing.
  • I have Chicago, LA and Vancouver rated roughly the same. I don’t have a non-playoff team rated anywhere near the top-8 teams in the West.
  • Could be significantly better than they’re ranked: San Jose (if Niemi plays a full season like his half-season last year); Colorado (if the kids are healthy and Varlamov is a legit goalie); St. Louis (if Halak is healthy and the youth take the next step).
  • Could be significantly worse than they’re ranked: Anaheim (if any of their core gets hurt they have very little depth); Detroit (if Jimmy Howard is only adequate and age catches up to the team); Phoenix (if their goaltending is as weak as expected).
  • Could miss the playoffs: Their division is so tough, a slow start or injury troubles could kill St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago or Nashville’s playoff chances.
  • Could make the playoffs with some luck: Calgary (if Mikka Kiprusof has some magic left, Iginla stays healthy and they incredibly find some secondary scoring).

 Eastern Conference

  1. Washington 110-115
  2. Boston 105-110
  3. Pittsburgh 105-110
  4. Philadelphia 100-105
  5. Buffalo 100-105
  6. Montreal 90-95
  7. NY Rangers 90-95
  8. Tampa Bay 85-90
  9. New Jersey 80-85
  10. Toronto 80-85
  11. Carolina 75-80
  12. NY Islanders 70-75
  13. Winnipeg 70-75
  14. Ottawa 60-65
  15. Florida 55-60

Notes on the above:

  • Pittsburgh is the highest rated team in the Conference, but its close between them, Boston and Washington. Given the weakness of Washington’s division, the Capitals are likely to take first place.
  • I think the travel schedule of teams in the Southeast Division will have a negative impact on how those teams compete in the standings.  
  • Could be significantly better than they’re ranked: New York Rangers (depends how the kids progress and if Brad Richards performs); New Jersey (depends on Martin Brodeur, Adam Larsson and Mattias Tedenby); New York Islanders (if they get any goaltending they could be in the playoff mix).
  • Could be significantly worse than they’re ranked: Toronto (Corporately, Brian Burke has to get his team into the playoffs this year. The team is awfully young and inexperienced though); Montreal (if Carey Price goes down look out); Tampa Bay (similar to Montreal, they cannot afford a Dwayne Roloson injury).
  • Could miss the playoffs if things don’t gel right: Philadelphia (Chris Pronger’s injury prone, no one really knows what Jaromir Jagr will do and the kids are still kids).
  • Could make the playoffs with some luck: Carolina (great goaltending, okay defence and Eric Staal is an elite player).

Other fearless predictions for the upcoming season:

  • Conference Finals: Washington over Pittsburgh in the East; Chicago over Nashville in the West
  • Stanley Cup Final: Chicago over Washington
  • Chicago plays Vancouver in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.
  • Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combine to play 120 games this year. Only one of them is available come playoff time.
  • With the Toronto Maple Leafs not making the playoffs, Brian Burke removes himself from the GM position and takes his place as President of the hockey club.
  • Phil Kessel is rumoured to be traded all year.
  • Jaromir Jagr is the most entertaining thing about the new season of HBO 24/7.
  • Lou Lamoriello retires at the end of the season. So does Martin Brodeur, Niklas Lidstrom, Teemu Selanne and Jaime Langenbrunner.
  • The Predators do not trade or re-sign Shea Weber, leaving him a UFARFA for 2012-13.
  • The NHL and NHLPA do not come to terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
  • The Philadelphia Phillies win the World Series over the New York Yankees. Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera promptly retire.
  • Teemu Selanne, Jaromir Jagr and Jarome Iginla fail to score 30 goals.
  • James Neal, Taylor Hall, John Tavares and Tyler Seguin each score 30 goals.
  • A year after her divorce, a Christina Aguilera sex tape is leaked online.
  • The War Horse marks the beginning of the end of Steven Speilberg’s career as a director. It’s awful.
  • Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith do divorce after all.
  • Slash does not appear on stage with Guns N’ Roses at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
  • The Toronto Blue Jays bid on Prince Fielder.
  • There is another recession.
  • Game of Thrones sets new viewing records for HBO.
  • Only Two Broke Girls, The New Girl and Prime Suspect earn a second TV season on a major US television network.
  • The Office without Steve Carrell is terrible.
  • Gabriel Landeskog is the highest scoring rookie. Nino Niederrater wins the Calder Trophy.
  • Alex Ovechkin wins the Art Ross and is the only player to crack 100 points.
  • Jonathan Toews wins the Hart.
  • Shea Weber wins the Norris.
  • Roberto Luongo wins the Vezina.
  • Tuukka Rask replaces Tim Thomas as Bruin starter at some point this season.
  • Shane Doan is traded from Phoenix at his request.
  • Jose Theodore is traded by Florida at the trade deadline.
  • It’s all but confirmed the Phoenix Coyotes will play in Quebec City starting in 2014.
  • The Blue Jackets’ Scott Arniel is the first coach fired. Ron Wilson is next, and whoever replaces Ron Wilson spurs the Leafs to a late-season playoff charge.
  • Coldplay’s new album is considered a disappointment.
  • Brendan Shanahan is forced (allegedly) to resign as NHL disciplinarian.
  • Teemu Selanne is hurt and can’t play in Winnipeg in December.
  • To the financial benefit of the NHL there is no NBA season.
Oct 042011
 

Any discussion of the New Jersey Devils chances this year is riddled with questions:

  • Is Peter DeBoer a good coach?
  •  Is the team going bankrupt or not?
  • Do Adam Lambert and Adam Larsson look anything alike?
  • Is this Zach Parise’s last year with the team?
  • When will Travis Zajac be back?

Yet the biggest question of them all is “what can Devils fans expect from Martin Brodeur.”

Brodeur, arguably the best goalie of his generation, enters the season as a 39-year old. Like the rest of his team, Brodeur’s pre- (2.84 GAA, .895 SVPT) and post- (1.84, .919) all-star game numbers demonstrate Jacques Lemaire’s positive impact behind the bench. However, Brodeur’s .903 save percentage for the entire season was his worst since 1994-95.

To know what Martin Brodeur may bring to the New Jersey Devils’ crease this year, let’s take a look at how some other 39-year old goalies have faired since the lockout:

SeasonNameTeamGames PlayedWinsGoals Against AverageSave Percentage
2005-06Sean BurkeTampa Bay35142.80.895
2006-07Curtis JosephPhoenix55183.190.893
2008-09Dwayne RolosonEdmonton63282.770.915

Burke and Joseph played on non-playoff teams and their numbers are an adequate reflection of their poor supporting cast and genuine decline due to age. The anomaly is Roloson, who was terrific for an otherwise weak Oiler team that also ended outside the playoff mix.  

Brodeur turns 40 in May, and Devils fans hope the team is still playing then. To broaden the sample size a bit, let’s take a quick look at how goalies at 40 have done since the lockout.

SeasonNameTeamGames PlayedWinsGoals Against AverageSave Percentage
2005-06Ed BelfourToronto49223.290.892
2006-07Sean BurkeLA2363.110.901
2007-08Curtis JosephCalgary932.550.906
2009-10Dwayne RolosonNYI502330.907

Once again, none of these goalies played on a playoff team.

If we average all these numbers out, what do they look like?

Well, they look like Steve Mason:

NameGames PlayedWinsGoals Against AverageSave Percentage
39-40 year old goalie avg.41163.010.902
Steve Mason 2011-1254243.030.901

Martin Brodeur may have a lot of records and some gas left in the tank, but given the evidence it seems more decline is in store for the Devils goalie.   

Let’s take a look now at the Eastern Conference goalie rankings for 2011-12:

A+ Grade

Philadelphia
Last Year (D+)

Talk about rectifying a long-standing weakness. Ilya Bryzgalov is an elite goalie playing behind the best team of his career. If he gets hurt, Sergei Bobrovsky is a young, talented backup who showed last year he can play extremely well in stretches. Together, they look like the best goalie tandem in the league, although each of Boston, Buffalo and the Rangers could challenge that standing.

A Grade

Boston
Last Year (B+)

How about one more Wiserclap for the season Tim Thomas had – arguably the best season by a goalie in the history of the NHL. A bit of a fall-back-to-earth for Thomas should be expected, but the Bruins have a very capable Tuukka Rask to pick up the slack.

Buffalo
Last Year (A+)

Ryan Miller had a bit of a down season but is a top-5 goalie in the NHL, if not the best. Jhonas Enroth looks like the best backup goalie the Sabres have had in some time.

New York Rangers
Last Year (A+)

A slight downgrade given Martin Biron’s age and collarbone injury last season, but otherwise this is another elite goaltending tandem in a Conference neck-deep in strong goalie depth. Is this the year Henrik Lundqvist finally earns a Vezina Trophy?

A- Grade

Washington
Last Year (C)

Just like the Flyers, the Capitals addressed their goaltending issues for the first time since Olaf Kolzig left town. Tomas Vokun has long been described as a great goalie playing for lousy teams. Now we’ll see how he does when wins are expected. Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby are youngsters with strong potential.

Carolina
Last Year (B+)

If the NHL plays in the next Olympics, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Cam Ward between the pipes for Canada – he’s that good. Off-season acquisition Brian Boucher is a huge upgrade as the backup.

B+ Grade

Montreal
Last Year (C-)

Okay, so Carey Price is a legitimate NHL goalie capable of elite play. However, Montreal’s a Price injury away from absolute disaster (aka Peter Budaj) in the crease.

Pittsburgh
Last Year (B-)

A Vezina-esque season from Marc-Andre Fleury last season should have silenced most of the critics. Brent Johnson is a solid backup who can get red hot.

B Grade

Tampa Bay
Last Year (C+)

Dwayne Roloson will turn 42 in October. He was very good for the Lightning after being traded from the Islanders, but he seemed to tire by the Conference Final against Boston. A Roloson injury shoots the Lightning toward the bottom of this list, as Mathieu Garon is only adequate as the backup.

B- Grade

New Jersey
Last Year (A-)

This is probably Martin Brodeur’s final season. Good thing the Devils have planned ahead and stocked the farm system with potential replacements right? Actually, they haven’t. Instead, they’re going to trot out 38-year old Johan Hedberg in the event Brodeur gets hurt, and then hope some free agent chooses New Jersey in the off-season. Good luck with that, Lou Lamoriello.

Ottawa
Last Year (C-)

There’s a lot riding on Craig Anderson this year, as the Senators firmly believe he is the type of goalie you can rebuild around. Injuries remain a concern though. Alex Auld is an okay backup who barely played last year in Montreal.

C+ Grade

New York Islanders
Last Year (C)

Not satisfied with having Rick DiPietro, Al Montoya, Evgeni Nabokov, Kevin Poulin and MIkko Koskinen on the goalie depth chart, former goalie-turned-GM Garth Snow reportedly invited Darren Puppa, Dan Cloutier, Dominik Hasek, Johnny Bower, Ken Dryden, Steve Penney, Glenn Healy, Ron Tugnutt and Jean-Claude VanDamme to camp in an effort to start the season with an all-goalie starting lineup. Happily for Islander fans they all declined. Unhappily, the lot that remains is a rather average one, with Montoya showing the most promise last year.

Winnipeg
Last Year (C+)

Ondreji Pavelec has a 3.33 GAA and .883 save % after the all-star break. He’s young and talented, but the Jets need him to find consistency. Chris Mason is an experienced backup who was one of the worst goalies in the league statistically last season.

C Grade

Toronto
Last Year (B-)

Last year I was too optimistic about the tandem of Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson. That’s why you find the Maple Leafs down here now, as James Reimer, despite a glacier glove hand, was terrific down the stretch. A half-season does not prove anything and it’s up to Reimer to show he’s a quality NHL starter.

Florida
Last Year (B+)

Lets be honest – Jose Theodore is just keeping the crease warm for super-prospect Jacob Markstrom. Until the rookie takes the reins though, the Panthers are going to lose a lot of games. Theodore is a shadow of his former self, and backup Scott Clemmensen may actually be the better goalie at this stage of their respective careers.

Sep 272011
 

Yesterday I talked about the Western Conference (and Two and a Half Men..which I will never talk about again willingly). 

Let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference rankings today.

A quick note on all of these rankings. Each likely starting player and coach was given a letter grade (in a player’s case based on their likely contribution, previous performance and ability). Each letter grade had a numerical value, and a team’s ranking is a result of a team’s total score in that particular area (coaching, defence, forwards, and goaltenders).

 A+ Grade

Pittsburgh
Last Year (A)

If Sidney Crosby’s healthy, this is the best group of forwards the Penguins have had in a long time, maybe even better than their Cup winning roster. It can skate, play both ways and compete physically. James Neal has 30-goal potential, while Steve Sullivan, if healthy, will be a powerplay asset. If Malkin lines up in the middle, this is the deepest team at centre in the Conference. There’s some young talent on the farm as well, meaning we likely haven’t seen the last of long playoff runs for the Penguins. Still, if Crosby misses any time they slide down this ranking.

A Grade

Washington
Last Year (A+)

Skill and grit found on every line. With a year of defensive focus under their belt, a more balanced approach is expected this year. If executed, that means a return to offensive form for Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Semin. Jeff Halpern in particular gives the Capitals a strong defensive centre who can take key faceoffs. That being said, neither Brooks Laich nor Marcus Johansson look like a strong second line centre.

B+ Grade

New York Rangers
Last Year (B)

Marian Gaborik’s health permitting, this might just be the deepest forward group in the Eastern Conference. It’s young, fast, and has room to grow offensively, especially if Derek Stepan continues to develop. The wild card here is Wojtek Wolski, who might get to line up with Richards. He’s got all the tools to be an NHL scorer – it’s his toolbox that drove the Coyotes and Avalanche to deal him.

B Grade

New Jersey
Last Year (B+)

Not everything was lost last year in the Garden State. Ilya Kovalchuk’s second-half demonstrated he remains an elite NHL sniper, and the team was able to ease talented youngsters Jacob Josefson and Mattias Tedenby into the lineup. Each will play a more important role this year, with Josefson potentially lining up with Kovy. Travis Zajac’s Achilles injury is off-set by the return of Zach Parise, one of the better players in the league. This might be a sneaky-good offensive group, although the bottom-six depth could use work.

B- Grade

Boston
Last Year (A-)

Very similar to the Rangers in terms of quality depth, the Stanley Cup winners feature three forward lines of strong two-way play. What’s missing? The elite end of the offensive spectrum, especially with Marc Savard likely to retire due to concussion. Tyler Seguin had a tough first year. Given more opportunity he could blossom a la Steven Stamkos. If he does, the Bruins shoot up this list, fast.  

Buffalo
Last Year (B)

Maybe the smallest group of forwards in the Eastern Conference (like the Smurfs, Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe are also three apples tall), the Sabres are otherwise skilled, young and talented. Behind Derek Roy at centre though there’s very little to choose from, especially if Brad Boyes continues his regression. That’s why they’re trying Ville Leino in the middle, and it will be interesting to see if he can produce at the level his contract demands. Zach Kassian will help in the size department, but he’s still a year or two away from making an impact.

New York Islanders
Last Year (C+)

With less fanfare than the Edmonton Oilers, the Islanders are also amassing a strong cast of young forwards. Michael Grabner and Frans Nielsen broke out last year, with the former becoming perhaps the most exciting skater the franchise has had since Ziggy Palffy. Marty Reasoner and Brian Rolston should fill important leadership and defensive roles, although Rolston looked like he belonged on The Walking Dead most of last season. As this team develops so to will John Tavares’ star across the league.

C+ Grade

Tampa Bay
Last Year (B)

Similar to Chicago, in that the team’s core group (Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier) is good enough to sit atop this list, but depth drags their rating down. Teddy Purcell looks like he’s ready to join that core group, although there are still worries about his physical play. Ryan Malone and Steve Downie provide good toughness, but neither is a consistent impact forward offensively. Not many options on the left wing, and this may be the worst fourth line in the Conference.    

Montreal
Last Year (C)

Erik Cole adds even more speed, but more importantly size, to a group of forwards in desperate need of more physical players. The question with this group will always be about the offense and where it will come from. More scoring consistency from Michael Cammalleri or Andrei Kostitsyn would improve Montreal’s place on this list. I’m not sure who had a worse season last year – Scott Gomez or Mel Gibson.

Carolina
Last Year (C)

There may not be a more important forward to his team than the role Eric Staal plays for Carolina. He is the team’s best offensive and defensive player by a country mile. This year’s Jeff Skinner could be Zac Dalpe, as the Hurricanes need an offensive second-line player, and Brandon Sutter might be a better fit centring a checking line. Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu add some scoring, but would be complimentary players on a better team. The right wing is a desert of scoring ability.

C Grade

Philadelphia
Last Year (A-)

This is the lowest Flyers forwards will be ranked as a group for years to come. The main reason they find themselves down here is youth, and the lack of consistency that comes with that. James van Riemsdyk looked like John LeClair 2.0 in the playoffs, but he’s yet to show that performance across an 80-game schedule. The same could be said for Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek and Brayden Schenn, who in all fairness hasn’t even played 10 games in the NHL. Each of these players could become B-level forwards or higher, but they haven’t shown this so far in their careers. Beyond the youth there is a nice level of tenacity throughout all four lines, and Claude Giroux could be a top-10 scorer this year. As for Jaromir Jagr? I want him to succeed, but the new NHL is a skating league, and that isn’t Jagr’s strength. He’s four years removed from the NHL grind, and his last year in North America was a 71 point season. At this stage of his career, the best Flyer fans should hope for is Ville Leino production (53 points). But there is a chance Jagr could also be Jiri Dopita 2.0.

Toronto
Last Year (D+)

This is a fast, gritty group that lacks scoring, although they have a legitimate sniper in Phil Kessel and a good second line centre in Mikhail Grabovski. Actually, Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi give the team good centre-ice depth, but each of them is a walking health risk and can’t really be counted on. It would surprise if Clarke MacArthur and Joffrey Lupul play as well as they did last year for the Leafs. It would not surprise to see Nikolai Kulemin continue to assert himself as Toronto’s most complete player.

C- Grade

Florida
Last Year (D+)

This is a collection of forwards that wouldn’t be out of place on a first year expansion team. There’s some experience and grit here, and Tomas Fleischmann is a top-six scoring talent. But it would be a shock to see more than a couple of these players on the team when it next makes the playoffs.

Winnipeg
Last Year (C)

A physical group that’s light on skill, which is why there’s talk of the team keeping centre Mark Scheifele to start the season. The former Thrashers kept 18-year old Alex Burmistrov on the roster last season, but the results were mixed. Evander Kane may eventually replace Jarome Iginla as Canada’s best power forward.

D+ Grade

Ottawa
Last Year (B)

It’s hard times in the nation’s capital, as the Senators will enter the season with their weakest group of forwards since the mid-90s. Like those early days of the franchise, this year’s group will be fairly young, with the front office praying to JoBu at least one of Nikita Filatov, Bobby Butler or Mika Zibanejad can become a regular offensive contributor. Daniel Aldredsson has probably already played his last playoff game as a Senator.

Sep 132011
 

There is no greater union in the NHL today than Brian Burke and Toronto Maple Leafs.

For all his bluster, and for all his previous on-ice success, Burke’s greatest strength is jousting with the media. And if there’s one thing media saturated Toronto needs is a Maple Leaf general manager with an aptitude for soundbytes.

During last week’s “state of the union”-type press scrum with Toronto media, Burke insisted the Leafs defence “stacks up really well against just about any other team in the East.”

Does it really? Let’s take a look at Eastern Conference defence rankings headed into the 2011-12 season.

B+ Grade

Boston
Last Year (A)

A slip in the rankings based entirely on two things: 1) As bad as Tomas Kaberle was for the Bruins (and make no mistake, he was this type of bad), Joe Corvo is worse and 2) Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference and Adam McQuaid are all defensive-first guys. Expect the Bruins to search for another elite puckmover (preferably one who doesn’t cause as many goals against as Corvo) at the trade deadline again this year. 

Philadelphia
Last Year (A+)

Rated as the best defence in the Eastern Conference last year, the Flyers drop a full grade thanks to Chris Pronger’s uncertain health and advancing age. On a related note, someone else who is also losing marks for uncertain health and advancing age: Christina Ricci.

Washington
Last Year (B)

Quietly, this has become a real area of strength for the Capitals. In fact this group could become the league’s best as early as this year. John Carlson and Karl Alzner are up-and-comers, and could prove to be a top-defensive pairing in the NHL for years to come. Mike Green had a very difficult 2010-11 season, but even a mild return-to-offensive form would help the Washington powerplay immensely. Dennis Wideman is another puck-mover for the second powerplay unit, while Roman Hamerlik is a veteran warrior.

B Grade

Pittsburgh
Last Year (B+)

One of the best top-two defence pairings in the league, with Kris Letang leading the blueline attack. The issue is depth, as Matt Niskanen stopped developing last year and Ben Lovejoy is more AHL’er than NHL’er.

Montreal
Last Year (B)

P.K. Subban is the real deal and should excite the Molson Centre crowd for years to come. On paper this is another strong two-way group, although Andrei Markov’s health remains a concern. if Alexei Yemelin is any good this group moves up a grade. It’s funny how Hal Gill has turned from the tallest pylon in the league as a Maple Leaf into arguably the league’s best shutdown defenceman.

Winnipeg
Last Year (C+)

The Jets would have ranked higher on this list if Dustin Byfuglien weighed less than roughly 300 lbs. Modify your expectations appropriately, ladies and gentlemen. Otherwise, a new coach should breathe life into Zach Bogosian’s development, and Tobias Enstrom has firmly established himself as a better-defending version of Tomas Kaberle. Too bad about those new uniforms though – talk about bland. They look like a rejected Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment logo. 

B- Grade

Buffalo
Last Year (B-)

The sophomore slump hit Tyler Myers like a pie-in-the-face, but he recovered with a strong second-half. The additions of Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehroff are steps in the right direction, although both players have already experienced their best days in the league. Regehr has looked slow for a few seasons in Calgary, while Ehroff will be hard-pressed to post 50-points again. The Sabres just don’t activate their defence like the Canucks do.

Toronto
Last Year (B+)

Sorry, but Brian Burke’s fudging the truth a little when it comes to his defence core. Either that or he’s incredibly optimistic. This is one of the youngest bluelines in the NHL, and inconsistency should be expected. Continued improvements from Luke Schenn and Keith Aulie would move this group up a few spots, especially if Dion Phaneuf plays as well as he did in the second half of last year. However, it’s just as easy to see this group of youngsters struggle, bringing down the team with it.

C+ Grade

New York Rangers
Last Year (D+)

This is a blueline headed in the right direction. Marc Staal and especially Dan Girardi took big steps toward becoming impact defenceman. Like the Maple Leafs though this is a very young group, and inconsistency will be a nightly threat. There’s a lot of hype about Tim Erixon, who was arguably Calgary’s top prospect before being dealt to New York. But it’s not like the Flames need defencemen, or youth, or you know, the promise of a better tomorrow.

Tampa Bay
Last Year (D)

The Lightning are moving up these standings based on the continued improvement of Victor Hedman and the acquisition of Eric Brewer, one of the most underrated defenceman in the entire league. Pavel Kubina and Marc-Andre Bergeron are liabilities though. 

Carolina
Last Year (C-)

There’s some solid offensive promise here, with veterans Joni Pitkanen and Tomas Kaberle supported by future powerplay specialist Jaime McBain and hard-shooting Derek Joslin. It’s the defensive side of the game where this group is lacking, although Tim Gleason is underrated. Bryan Allen and Jay Harrison are borderline starters on a contending team – here they’ll play key minutes.

C Grade

New Jersey
Last Year (C+)

Other than Gabriel Landeskog there may not be another 2011 draftee with an easier time making the NHL than Adam Larsson. The Devils are that desperate to inject some offense into their blueline. If Larsson can have a Cam Fowler-esque impact, this group moves up the standings, as Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov are two of the best defensive defenceman in the league. Otherwise it’s an average group with below average skill playing for a franchise that might not be able to pay its bills. Tell me again why putting multiple teams in Southern Ontario isn’t a good idea? They’re certainly struggling to make it work in New York.

Florida
Last Year (C-)

It’s an eclectic mix on the Panther blueline, with a rock-solid rookie (Erik Gudbranson), a “ready-to-retire-to-Miami” veteran (Ed Jovanovski), a reclamation project (Brian Campbell) and swashbuckling Russian (Dmitry Kulikov) anchoring the top-two defensive pairings. And yes it is as much fun to type the term “swashbuckling Russian” as it is to say “swashbuckling Russian.”  It wouldn’t surprise if Brian Campbell has his best year in a long time in Florida. It would surprise if Ed Jovanovski was healthy enough to play 40 games and doesn’t quit to take up shuffleboard.

New York Islanders
Last Year (D)

While few people were noticing, Andrew MacDonald had a heck of the year playing well at both ends of the ice. A healthy return to the NHL by Mark Streit would give the Islanders two defenceman to build around. The rest of the blueline looks like AHL scrap though.

C- Grade

Ottawa
Last Year (C+)

While Erik Karlsson, Sergei Gonchar and rookie David Rundblad are talented offensive players, I wouldn’t expect them to defend a snow fort well, let alone an NHL goaltender. Chris Phillips can’t solve all the team’s defensive problems, and Brian Lee and Filip Kuba are two of the worst defenceman in the league. Goaltender Craig Anderson better be healthy, because he’s going to face a lot of shots this year.

Sep 062011
 

Another September, another new coach for the New Jersey Devils.

Peter DeBoer becomes the seventh coach the Devils have had since the NHL lockout, following Jacques Lemaire, John Maclean, Brent Sutter, Claude Julien, Lou Lamoriello and Larry Robinson.

The question is – do these moves have any impact?

I took a look at NHL coaching changes since 2005 and grouped them into three categories:

  • Off-season change (one coach replaces another in the off-season)
  • Mid-season change (one coach replaces another and finishes the season)
  • Mid-season change-turned-permanent (mid-season coaching replacement sticks around, leading the team into the next season)

Here’s what was learned:

  1. Hiring a coach in the off-season has little-to-no impact on a team’s performance the following season. The 33 coaches hired in the off-season since the lockout have averaged a +0.5 point improvement over their team’s previous season.
  2. Mid-season replacements almost always have a positive impact on the club. The 24 coaches hired mid-season improved their team’s winning percentage by +0.126, or roughly +10 wins over the course of a full season.
  3. It’s not a bad idea to keep mid-season replacement coaches around. Coaches hired at mid-season, and made permanent in the off-season, improve their team’s performance over the previous season by +4 wins. This is +7.5 points more on average than a new coach hired in the off-season.

More on these findings in my next post. In the meantime, it’s time for the annual ranking of Eastern Conference coaches.

A Grade

Lindy Ruff – Buffalo
Last Year’s Rating (A)

Still the longest-tenured NHL coach. Generally the low-budget Sabres have overachieved under Ruff. However, a new, deep-pocketed owner has raised the stakes. Just making the playoffs is no longer good enough in Buffalo.

Dan Blysma – Pittsburgh
Last Year (B)

Performed miracles in Pittsburgh last year without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Jordon Staal to generate any offense. In doing so, he won the Jack Adams Award and lifted his status among the coaching elite.

B+ Grade

Claude Julien – Boston
Last Year (B)

Julien still doesn’t trust offensively-gifted players (the shackles on Tyler Seguin last year may have permanently harmed his development), and he stubbornly sticks to his game plan longer than most coaches. But if you win a Stanley Cup you get to move up in these standings.

Peter Laviolette – Philadelphia
Last Year (B+)

A top-level coach, although his handling of the team’s goaltending situation in the playoffs was Keenan-esque. The “Dry Island” escapade clearly shows he is well aware of the outside dangers that threaten a team’s on-ice chances.

John Tortorella – New York Rangers
Last Year (B+)

His mouth distracts you from the fact that he has developed a young Rangers squad into a darkhorse contender for the Eastern Conference crown.

Guy Boucher – Tampa Bay
Last Year (C+)

A coaching innovator, his hyped 1-3-1 approach lifted the Lightning into the Eastern Conference Final. Interestingly, he also took a creative approach to team practices, off-days and downtime, which was warmly received by Lightning players. He’s a real asset to the franchise going forward.

B Grade

Jacques Martin – Montreal
Last Year (B-)

I still consider him the devil for his defensive system, but kudos to Martin for the way he managed P.K. Subban and eased youngsters David Desharnais and Lars Eller into the Montreal lineup.

C+ Grade

Bruce Boudreau – Washington
Last Year (C+)

The Caps have clearly tied their wagon to Boudreau, who became a minor sports sensation for his creative, colourful language on HBO’s NHL 24/7. He got the Capitals to commit to defensive hockey last year, but in doing so took most of the bullets out of the team’s offense. Consistent playoff failures also makes you wonder if Boudreau, a good motivator, has the technical Xs and Os skills to take a team to the Finals.

Peter DeBoer – New Jersey (FIRED WATCH)
Last Year (C+)

While coaching the Panthers, DeBoer had a reputation for keeping his teams competitive in the standings. However, over the course of three seasons the team’s play actually regressed. DeBoer’s preferred puck possession style never really fit with the Panther’s mix of inexperience and grinders. Given we’re talking about the Devils, DeBoer’s job isn’t very secure.

Kevin Dineen – Florida
Last Year (N/A)

Last year it was Tampa Bay’s Boucher, this year it’s their cross-state rivals the Panthers who go into the season with the new, hot-shot coaching hire. A former NHL’er, Dineen’s brings to the bench a strong reputation as a communicator, a focus on preparation and a desire to give players as much information as possible. He’ll need to rely on all these skills to get the most out of a very weak Panthers team.

C Grade

Ron Wilson – Toronto (FIRED WATCH)
Last Year (C+)

It’s been a frustrating term behind the bench of the Maple Leafs, who’ve yet to put together a consistent 82 games (let alone reached the playoffs) under Wilson. A slow start in October likely means his termination. Leaf special teams are a nightmare.

Jack Capuano – New York Islanders
Last Year (N/A)

Islander players felt Scott Gordon’s systems were confusing and difficult. Enter Capuano, New York’s version of Bruce Boudream – a motivator first, tactician second. Capuano did inspire improved play from the Islanders in the second-half of the season. It will be interesting to see how the team does with a full season of him behind the bench.

Paul Maclean – Ottawa Senators
Last Year (N/A)

Has there ever been a successful NHL head coach with a moustache like Maclean’s? He’s got the pedigree as a long-time assistant with Mike Babcock in Anaheim and Detroit. The Senators have a few young, skating defenseman who could excel in a Red Wings-esque transition game. Not sure the team has the offensive pieces though to succeed playing the high-tempo style Maclean promises.

Claude Noel – Winnipeg
Last Year (N/A)

You’ve got to love a coach “who’s called his players “stallions” before. He was a beloved, fun assistant in Columbus before he took over for a partial season after Ken Hitchcock’s firing. He’s toned that side of himself down coaching the Moose in Manitoba. The Jets aren’t very good though, and his hiring by True North has a bit of a nepotism smell to it.

C- Grade

Paul Maurice – Carolina
Last Year (C-)

Still hasn’t coached a team to more than 91 points. You get the feeling he’ll be long gone by the time the Hurricanes are ready to compete for a championship. Probably safe this year though.

Feb 202011
 

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

Canucks Record

60 GP, 38-13-9, 85 points (1st in Northwest Division, 1st in Western Conference)

Who’s Hot

After going 7 games without recording a point, Raffi Torres has 2 goals and 1 assist in his last 4 games. Baby Beluga hasn’t been consistent this year, but he is showing signs of life in his last few games. Although he doesn’t put up huge numbers, he works hard every shift and gets the team going, when needed, with bruising hits on the opposition. Raffi’s two big goals on Saturday night helped the Canucks get the W against the Stars.

Who’s Not

After being recalled from the Manitoba Moose, late last year, Jeff Tambellini had a lot of offensive success. Unfortunately Jeff has been struggling as of late. He has just 2 assists in his last 23 games played and he hasn’t played more than 8 minutes per game in his last 4 games. AV has noticeably been benching Tamby in the 3rd period these last few games, stating that he wanted more “defensive” players on the ice. This is definitely not what any player wants to hear, especially someone who has not been playing well and is low in confidence.

Who’s Next

Tuesday, February 22, 2011 vs. Montreal Canadiens (7:00 PM start, home)

Carey Price and Les Habs shutout the Canucks 2-0 in their first meeting of the season in Montreal.

Despite winning only 1 of their last 7 games, the Canadiens are still in the thick of the playoff race and currently sit 6th in the Eastern Conference.

Tomas Plekanec has 14 points (7G-7A) in his last 17 games. He’s been one of the most consistent forwards this season for the Habs and leads the team with 19 goals and 46 points, He is also a plus-10 for the season, which is tops on the team.

The Canucks’ top-ranked powerplay (25.0% PP) will get tested by Montreal’s penalty kill, which is ranked 3rd on the road (85.3% road PK rate) and 6th overall (84.8% PK rate).

Thursday, February 24, 2011 vs. St. Louis (7:00 PM start, home)

Although the Canucks and Blues met just five nights ago, they are a completely different team. The Blues were busy on Friday, trading away captain Eric Brewer, franchise defenseman Erik Johnson and forward Jay McClement. In return, Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk came over from the Avalanche. The changes didn’t seem to effect the Blues considering they won decisively, 9-3 against the Ducks on Saturday night, and are now on a 3-game win streak.

Alex Pietrangelo is on fire; he has 7 assists in his last 5 games, including 2 against the Canucks last week. So far, in his first full NHL season, he has 6 goals, 25 assists and is a plus-14.

Saturday, February 26, 2011 vs Boston Bruins (7:00 PM start, home)

The Boston Bruins roll into Rogers Arena for their first and only meeting with the Canucks, this season. The Bruins are 6-4-0 in their last 10 games and sit 3rd in the Eastern Conference.

Boston was also busy on Friday, acquiring Tomas Kaberle from the Leafs, as well as Rich Peverly and Boris Valabik from the Atlanta Thrashers.

Milan Lucic, who played junior hockey for the Vancouver Giants, is having a productive season. Not only can he drop the mitts, provide a game changing hit he can also put up big points. He has 8 points (5G-3A) in his last 10 games. He is 4th in team scoring (40 points) and his 24 goals is already a career-high. He is also an impressive plus-16 this season.

Most Deserving of a Shoutout: Manitoba Moose

It’s no secret that the Canucks have suffered major injuries on the defensive end. With that being said, I can only commend the Moose coaching staff, for the work they are doing down in Manitoba. Chris Tanev, Yann Sauve and Evan Oberg have come up to the big club and fit in seamlessly. That is no coincidence. These 3 young defensemen have shown how important a farm team is to a NHL club. Although we would all love to see #2, #3, #4 and #23 back in blue, for now #18, #47 and #64 are doing a good job of fitting in and not being noticed in a negative light.

Dec 312010
 

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

Jay Feaster, Calgary Flames

Photo credit: Calgary Herald

So just how big a project is rebuilding the Calgary Flames?

Countless articles and endless minutes of media coverage in Canada over the holidays talked about how Darryl Sutter left this team without the young or tradeable assets necessary to build hope for a better future.

The bar is being set incredibly low for Jay Feaster. Basically, if he makes a couple of trades for draft picks at the deadline, columnists will award him a Bronze Star for valour.

The thing is, the Flames situation is desperate only if you believe they should be competitive right now. In short, if you drank from the Sutter kool-aid, you’re a very unhappy person right now.

Yet most Flames fans stopped drinking this Kool-Aid long ago. Similar to up the road in Edmonton, Flames fans are just hungry for a period of sustained success. They are tired of mediocrity. And mediocrity is all that Darryl Sutter has been able to muster since the lockout.

Which is why it was most alarming to hear Jay Feaster say in his first press conference how the playoffs were a goal for the team.

Perhaps it was an empty promise. However, the post-lockout NHL has proven itself to be an incredibly difficult place to remain competitive and rebuild at the same time.

These days, the best talent is locked in contract-wise, which means there aren’t the same rebuilding options as there used to be on the UFA market each summer. Similarily, good young talent is also the cheapest, and therefore greatest, asset a team can have in the NHL. So you see less of it on the trade market. Finally, with the league’s salary cap structure, and most teams either maxed out or at their own internal budget, you just don’t see big contracts moved very often.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are one team that have tried to have it both ways – rebuild and remain competitive. And while they’ve been successful acquiring a few strong young pieces (Phaneuf, Kessel in particular), their efforts have neither been good enough to turn the franchise into a playoff team, nor bad enough to give the team a collection of top-end draft picks. It’s a tweener franchise, and looks like it could be that way for years to come.

No, if you have a strong front office (and let’s not forget Jay Feaster’s won a Cup already), the best way to build a Cup contender in the post-lockout NHL is to, basically, tank it for a couple of years. It let’s you accumulate assets, cap space and build hope amongst the fan base.

The best thing Jay Feaster and the Calgary Flames can do is copy a move from Toronto Blue Jays’ GM Alex Anthopoulos – communicate that 2013-14 is the year you plan to be ready for a Cup run, and build everything the organization does towards that goal.

Anything else is short-sighted.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • For whatever reason, whether it’s Gord Miller going crazy over goals against Norway, or Pierre Maguire’s usual blind homerism, or the fact that Canada has dominated the tournament for so long, the TSN broadcast of the World Juniors this year seems rather smug and self-congratulatory. Then again, there are a lot of folks who’d say that’s TSN’s approach in a nutshell.
  • One wish for the Flames rebuild: bring back the puck pursuit, offensive hockey the team was known for in its glory years.
  • One team that’s always pointed to as a team that’s “rebuilt” and stayed competitive is the Detroit Red Wings. Well, no team has scouted Europe better, particularly from 1989-2000. Remember, even in the early 1990s there were NHL teams that weren’t interested in drafting Europeans. However, since the hey-day of drafting players like Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Franzen, it’s been a long time since the Red Wings hit the bulls-eye at the draft. Jonathan Ericsson was supposed to be that player, and he just hasn’t performed up to expectations. The Red Wings are the oldest team in the NHL this season, and have been one of the older teams for years now. It’s hard to believe sure, but the sun has started to set on this dynasty.
  • Remember Jason Smith, the former Oilers captain? If you look closely enough, there’s a lot of Jason Smith in Theo Peckham’s evolving game.
  • Daniel Winnick and Ian Laperriere look like twins.
  • One more Calgary note, it would make sense for Pierre Gauthier to at least kick the tires on bringing Jarome Iginla to Montreal. He’s exactly what that team is missing in a lot of ways, and has played enough defensive-first hockey to fit well into Jacques Martin’s system.
  • Puzzling way to treat Nazem Kadri by the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ron Wilson. Bench him for three games. Tell him he added too much muscle in the off-season and has lost a step. Then, send him down to the AHL and, while the door hits him on the way out, hold a media scrum where you mention he needs to get stronger. The best place for Kadri is definitely in the AHL – at least it gets him away from the mixed-messages of Ron Wilson.
  • So Bryan Murray this week complains that there are two-tiers of justice in the NHL. How is this news to an NHL GM?
  • Since Derek Roy’s injury effectively kills the Sabres chances this year of making the playoffs, does this mean we’re watching Lindy Ruff coach out the string? Or does the injury buy him another season?
  • Speaking of injuries, the Oilers’ loss of Ryan Whitney assures that team of a top-5 draft pick at the very least. He was enjoying a breakout, All-Star calibre season before his ankle injury.
  • The development of Logan Couture probably means another disappointing playoff performance could make one of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton or Joe Pavelski available.
  • Michael Farber has five theories on what’s wrong with Alex Ovechkin. Here’s another – that OV has always played on instinct – from the heart, not the head. When other teams figured out how to defend against him, it’s forced him to think and analyze – to go against his instincts – which has slowed his explosiveness right down.
Dec 112010
 

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

Bob Gainey, Montreal Canadiens

It’s hard to imagine Bob Gainey laughing.

A Google image search confirms even smiles are hard-fought, often-lost battles in the corners of his mouth.

Yet Bob Gainey has a lot to smile and laugh about.

This Montreal Canadiens team – a team he essentially re-built in the summer of 2009, then handed off to current GM Pierre Gauthier – is a pretty good one.

Making things all-the-more sweet is that Gainey essentially built this team in the face of constant criticism. Critics said his team was too small; that it wasn’t French enough; that Jacques Martin couldn’t coach offense; and that Carey Price could never find permanent success. Gainey said thank you very much, weathered the media storm and built a quick, counter-attack team full of character.

Today, this is a team that believes in each other, its system, and its coaching staff. They honour the great teams of Montreal’s past through their sacrifice, resilience and tempo of play. Mike Cammalleri’s Cup contender assertion is simply another indication that there’s a confidence amongst Habs players that hasn’t existed in some time.

Whether Cammy’s right or not remains to be seen. The team could use another game-breaker, and the loss of Andrei Markov is a significant one.

But there are some championship qualities to be found here if one looks closely enough.

And those are qualities Bob Gainey brought to the team before he stepped away.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • You would think the return of Mario Lemieux to the ice, even if it’s for an alumni game, would be exciting. But does anyone else remember how boring the Oilers-Habs alumni game was in the original Heritage Classic? After the initial player introductions and the magic of playing outdoors subsided, all we were left with was rusty retirees scrimmaging duly. Anyways, the Penguins and Capitals alumni are squaring off the day before the 2011 NHL Winter Classic. With Paul Coffey, Bill Guerin, Ron Francis and Bryan Trottier all playing, put your money on the Pittsburgh home team.
  • Puck Daddy reports 23 busloads of “Nordiques Nation” fans are making the trip from Quebec to New York to see the Islanders host the Atlanta Thrashers.
  • It will be interesting to see how losing Mark Stuart for 4-6 weeks will impact the Boston Bruins. He’s an underrated blueliner.
  • Yet another reason why the Leafs are struggling. Tomas Kaberle’s next goal will be his first of the year. If he’s not contributing offense, he’s not contributing anything.
  • The Buffalo Sabres are alive and well after a slow start to the year. One reason: Thomas Vanek’s found his A-game.
  • Speaking of the Sabres, Shaone Morrisonn is out for awhile with concussion symptoms. This is another opportunity for Chris Butler to show he belongs.
  • Word in Chicago is that injured players Marian Hossa, Fernando Pisani and Patrick Kane could all be back sooner than expected. To possibly fill the void until they return, the Blackhawks have signed former Canuck Ryan Johnson to a tryout contract.
  • Speaking of the ‘Hawks, why did they sign Marty Turco again? Corey Crawford is two wins away from tying the team record for most consecutive wins by a goaltender.
  • Slowly but surely, David Booth is coming around for the Florida Panthers. The thing is, for a team dedicated to rebuilding, is it smart to make a player with a history of concussions a franchise centerpiece?
  • No surprises here: the oft-injured Kari Lehtonen is having back trouble in Dallas. Good thing for them Andrew Raycroft has played pretty well this year.
  • Matt Duchene has created a Twitter account to generate interest in the team. Not to be cynical, but there’s a 50% chance that’s code for “meeting girls on road trips.”
  • Quietly, Jeff Woywitka has been a solid, defensive presence for the Dallas Stars.
  • If ever there was a time for Edmonton’s Sam Gagner to take the next step forward and demonstrate he can be an elite player in the NHL, it’s now, with Shawn Horcoff out for an extended period.
  • Excuse me, Part 1: What type of goal was that again, Craig Laughlin?
  • Excuse me, Part 2: Remember, you can’t actually buy waffles at the Air Canada Centre. You have to smuggle them in. Please let this become a tradition.
  • In honour of CBC’s 3D coverage this weekend, Down Goes Brown provides a technology guide for hockey fans.
  • Why the Ottawa Senators are a mess, reason #346: Tough to move under-performing, over-priced veterans in today’s salary cap era. Even if the team can find a buyer for Alexei Kovalev, Sergei Gonchar isn’t going anywhere soon.
  • The loss of Andy McDonald (concussion) probably kills the St. Louis Blues chances of making the playoffs. Reports suggest the team is looking to salvage the season through a trade, with Travis Zajac, Stephen Weiss and Matt Moulson the potential targets.
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