Feb 282012
 

Let’s get this out of the way first.

I’m still not convinced Columbus’ interest in dealing Rick Nash wasn’t a creation of TSN and Sportsnet. The two networks needed a big name to speculate about to drive up ratings for their annual Trade Deadline TV marathons.

Sadly for those networks, Nash remains a Blue Jacket at least until the draft, where the hype will be built up all over again. I am giddy with anticipation (and by giddy I mean hitting my head with a shoe to make the idea of 24 hour coverage of “The Rick Nash Trade – Part Two” go away).

Nonetheless, the trade deadline did produce some moves – 15 trades involving 31 players, according to TSN. As per usual, the moves quickly revealed who’s serious about the Stanley Cup.

Based on team performance and moves they made, here now are the REAL contenders for the Stanley Cup.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Vancouver

The Canucks enter the final portion of the NHL season with the strongest group of forwards they’ve had in a long time, if not ever. The 2012 version of Sammy Pahlsson is a step-slower, slightly less-effective than the one who helped the Anaheim Ducks with the Cup in 2007. However he remains a strong shutdown centreman who can win faceoffs (he led the Blue Jackets in faceoffs prior to the trade, winning 51.1%).

In Zack Kassian, Vancouver effectively replaced Raffi Torres from last year’s playoff run with someone younger and with 20-30 goal potential. Kassian could even develop into the big, scoring winger the team hasn’t had since Todd Bertuzzi left town. Kassian models his game after Bruins bruiser Milan Lucic, which is probably music to the ears of most Canuck fans.

Marc-Andre Gragnani is an underrated puck-moving defenseman who is about to have the spotlight shine on him. There are folks who think he could flourish into a 40-50 point player, and there are certainly similarities between his game and ex-Canuck Christian Ehrhoff. Those similarities include some puzzling play in the defensive zone.

Bottom Line: This Canuck team looks primed for another long post-season run. Cody Hodgson is a big chip to play, but when you consider the team’s time is now (and Vancouver already has Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler in the top two centre positions), Gillis has made the team stronger than it was yesterday.

Potential weakness: The blueline.

2. San Jose

While there will be folks who scoff, let’s remember that the Sharks have made the Conference Finals in back-to-back seasons, and they will enter these playoffs with likely their deepest team ever. Like the Canucks, the Sharks have had some concerns regarding secondary scoring and forward depth, and the acquisitions of Daniel Winnik, T.J. Galiardi (and previously Dominic Moore) address this area.

Winnik was one of Colorado’s most important forwards, playing tough minutes and leading team forwards in ice time for much of the year. The improved play of Gabriel Landeskog and Winnik’s status as an impending UFA made him expendable. He’ll look very good alongside Michael Handzus on San Jose’s third line.

T.J. Galiardi has been an offensive tease so far in his career but he’s got the talent to be a fringe top-six player. Ray Fererro mentioned during Trade Deadline coverage today that Galiardi came to training camp having put on too much muscle, which hampered the player’s speed. Galiardi is an adequate replacement for Martin Havlat, allowing the injury-prone star to take his time to get back into the lineup.

Bottom Line: The Sharks improved their defense in the off-season, and now have improved their foward group. If Martin Havlat comes back healthy, and they get any kind of goaltending, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Sharks three-peat as Conference Finalists, perhaps even graduating to the Cup Final. A re-match with the Canucks would not surprise.

Potential weakness: Goaltending

3. Nashville

Why the Predators and not the Red Wings? Detroit only tinkered with their team (adding Kyle Quincey), and now enter the playoffs with pretty much the same group that’s been knocked out of the playoffs early the last two years.

Meanwhile, the Predators are showing Ryan Suter the money and  pushing their chips to the middle of the table. They were rumoured to have made a big push for Rick Nash, and when that didn’t materialize, they quickly added Andrei Kostitsyn from Montreal. He’s an enigmatic scorer, but he is a scorer, and a legitimate top-6 one at that. Playing with his brother Sergei could be problematic (one friend commented beer sales are about to go up in bars around Nashville), but it’s unlikely coach Barry Trotz will let any off-ice shenanigans impact the team on-ice.

Paul Gaustad is another effective grinder on a team full of them, and acquiring Hal Gill earlier in the week gives the Predators a premiere shutdown defenseman, perhaps one destined to matchup with Ryan Kesler this season.

Bottom Line: The Predators are one of the toughest teams to play against in the NHL, and they were a sniper-away from beating the Canucks in last year’s playoffs. Andrei Kostitsyn might not be Paul Kariya or Peter Forsberg, but he is someone who can create offense on his own. With a deep defense, strong goaltending and an upgraded forward group, Nashville has become the dark horse team to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup.

Potential weakness: Scoring

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Boston

Remember, these are the defending Stanley Cup champions, who have retained much of the team from last year. The addition of Brian Rolston effectively replaces the departed Mark Recchi, although the emergence of Tyler Seguin means less is expected of Rolston in an offensive role. He might become a key part of the second powerplay unit, shooting darts from the point. Otherwise he’ll play a bottom-six role.

Meanwhile, there is a common belief today that you need 8 NHL-ready defenseman to go far in the playoffs. Greg Zanon and Mike Mottau fit that bill, the former one of the better shot blockers in the league, while the latter is a good skater and marginal puck-mover.

Bottom Line: Boston looks like a team ready to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.

Potential weakness: Nathan Horton’s health

2. New York Rangers

Why the Rangers, when they didn’t make a single move of significance (apologies to John Scott) at the Trade Deadline? Sometimes, the best move a team can make is no move. The 2012 New York Rangers are greater than the sum of their parts, and messing with that chemistry in a significant way could upset everything the team has been building towards.

Rick Nash would have been sexy, but there’s no telling how his arrival would have worked in the locker room. GM Glen Sather was smart to let this team prove what it can do in the playoffs, and then tinker as necessary in the off-season.

Bottom Line: Thanks to Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, the Rangers are Nashville-East with more scoring. That makes them a Cup contender.

Potential weakness: Scoring

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Couldn’t put Pittsburgh on the list for one reason – there’s no guarantee Sidney Crosby is coming back. If he does, and he’s healthy, they’re added to the contender mix. The thing is, with how aggressive play is in the playoffs, does anyone think Sidney Crosby would survive a long playoff run without another injury?
  • The Flyers aren’t a contender, and really, haven’t been one all season. They’re fun to watch but there are too many holes on defense or in goal to be considered among the elite. Could be a different story in a few years though.
  • Puzzling move #1: The Toronto Maple Leafs trading Keith Aulie, who remains a legit defensive prospect - one who could become Hal Gill 2.0. Yes Toronto has depth on the blueline, but acquiring Carter Ashton for Aulie seems like acquiring 50 cents on the dollar. Ashton projects as a 3rd line guy at best. Burke is living and dying by his current roster in Toronto. It’s likely not enough to get the team into the playoffs.
  • Puzzling move #2: The Edmonton Oilers trading Tom Gilbert to their division rivals the Minnesota Wild for Nick Schultz. I think this sums it up nicely. Perhaps all this really means is that Edmonton intends to draft an offensive defenseman in the first round this year, and pair him with Schultz immediately.
  • Talked a lot about the Vancouver – Buffalo trade above, but one more thing: there’s no question Cody Hodgson is the most talented player in the deal, but from a Canucks standpoint they’re looking to win now. Long-term, it could be a trade the Canucks regret, although it does seem the franchise never warmed to the guy. Biggest immediate concern - what happens if one of Kesler or Sedin gets hurt?
  • Johnny Oduya is a nice complimentary pickup by the Blackhawks, but they needed more (another d-man, another scoring forward) for their playoff chances to truly improve. Right now, the ‘Hawks look like a second round team at best.
  • It’s rare you see the Flames apologize to the Oilers.
  • It would not surprise me if Ben Bishop eventually forced Craig Anderson out of town in Ottawa. Bishop is a very good goalie prospect, and the team already has Robin Lehner on the farm. It could be Anderson becomes the known asset the Senators eventually move for needed pieces.
Feb 162012
 

Ken Hitchcock has more than 500 wins, a .590 career winning percentange and a Stanley Cup to his credit.

But he’s never won the Jack Adams Award for NHL Coach of the Year.

With all due respect to the great work John Tortorella, Dan Bylsma, Kevin Dineen and Mike Babcock are doing with their respective teams, Hitchcock should win his first Jack Adams Award this year.

The impact he’s had on the St. Louis Blues has been incredible. To illustrate this, let’s take a look at how each of this season’s coaching changes have played out.

TeamGoals ForGoals AgainstShots ForShots AgainstPowerplayPenalty Kill
STL+0.06-0.98+1.56+0.82+8.60%+9.20%
LA-0.04-0.77-0.76-2.13+0.60%+3.00%
ANA+0.63-0.42+0.63-2.56+0.50%-6.30%
WAS-0.61-0.77-4.84+1.30+3.30%+0.10%
CAR+0.32+0.51+1.02+0.42+7.23%-5.22%
MTL+0.11+0.05-2.51-0.23+3.90%-0.50%
CBJ-0.25-0.24-3.27+2.32+7.10%-1.70%

Ken Hitchcock

Pre-hiring: St. Louis was 6-7 (.461 points %)
Post-hiring (as of February 14): St. Louis is 28-8-7 (.733 points %)

Under Hitchcock, the Blues have shaved almost a goal-a-game off their defense, while improving their special teams astronomically. The powerplay, penalty kill and winning percentage improvements are the biggest gains amongst any of the new coaches. Carried over an 82-game season, the Blues under Hitchcock are playing 120-point hockey.

Darryl Sutter

Pre-hiring: Los Angeles was 15-14-4 (.515 points %)
Post-hiring: Los Angeles is 12-5-7 (.646 points %)

Sutter has done exactly what many expected of him when he was hired – he’s ignored calls for more offense and tightened the screws defensively to an even greater extent than Terry Murray. Unexpectedly, this approach is working quite well, as the Kings have gone from playoff question mark to an almost certainty… especially if they can add some offense at the deadline.

Bruce Boudreau

Pre-hiring: Anaheim was 6-14-4 (.333 points %)
Post-hiring: Anaheim is 16-11-5 (.578 points %)

Under Boudreau Anaheim’s top offensive players have woken up, improving Anaheim’s offence by more than half-a-goal per game. Meanwhile, “Gabby’s” also tightened up the defence (roughly two-and-a-half less shots per game). The penalty kill hasn’t been as good though.

It’s interesting – the three coaches who have (arguably) had prior success at the NHL level have had the biggest winning percentage improvement amongst all teams that changed coaches.

Dale Hunter

Pre-hiring: Washington was 12-9-1 (.568 points %)
Post-hiring: Washington is 16-14-4 (.529 points %)

Hunter’s clamped down even more on the Capitals offense than Boudreau had prior to his firing. While this has led to a better goals against average, Washington is giving up more shots, and is taking fewer shots than before. The powerplay’s improved, but it certainly looks like the Capitals under Hunter are a borderline playoff team at best.

Kirk Muller

Pre-hiring: Carolina was 8-13-4 (.400 points %)
Post-hiring: Carolina is 13-12-7 (.516 points %)

Muller’s helped the offense get going, although one could argue the improved play of Eric Staal has been the major difference maker here. Goals against and shots against are slightly worse, while the penalty kill is much poorer.

Randy Cunneyworth

Pre-hiring: Montreal was 13-12-7 (.516 points %)
Post-hiring: Montreal is 10-13-2 (.440 points %)

The coaches may have changed, but according to these numbers players aren’t playing all that differently for Cunneyworth than they were with Jacques Martin.  The sad fact for Cunneyworth supporters is that Martin won with this team and the new coach isn’t. Montreal is taking fewer shots but their powerplay is improved. Honestly there is nothing here to suggest Cunneyworth will be a head coach beyond this season.

Todd Richards

Pre-hiring: Columbus was 12-24-5 (.356 points %)
Post-hiring: Columbus is 6-9-1 (.406 points %)

In fairness to Richards, the Blue Jackets season was lost well before he took over the reigns as coach. Nonetheless, it does look like the team is playing worse for Richards then they did Scott Arniel. The powerplay improvement could be inflated due to the small sample size (Richards has coached just 16 games for the team).

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • The fact that Ron Wilson sits 7th on the list of NHL all-time coaching wins (currently at 619 and counting) is a testament to mediocrity. Wilson teams haven’t always lived up to expectations, but they’ve also never been horrendous either. They’re like lukewarm porridge. Good enough to eat but nothing to savour.
  • Rick Nash might now be “on the market,” but only one of three rumoured destinations makes sense. Contrary to what Canucks fans would have you believe, shedding enough salary to fit Nash under the cap would be incredibly problematic. Meanwhile, GM Mike Gillis has made it clear he believes you need two goalies to succeed in the playoffs, so Cory Schneider isn’t going anywhere right now. Conversely, the New York Rangers have the cap space, but their team chemistry is so good it’s hard to see them gutting their roster for Nash. Besides, what they could really use is greater depth on the blueline. This leaves the Kings, who have the pieces (Jonathan Bernier), salary they could move to give them cap space (Dustin Penner) and the need (scoring) as the best bet for Nash.
  • Having said all that, if the Blue Jackets trade Rick Nash you might as well fold that franchise in Columbus.
  • Absolutely infuriating: obstruction is up, scoring is down, and the NHL is calling fewer penalties according to this story from Pittsburgh.
  • Could we see the U.S. adopt the Saturday night hockey tradition? It seems like it worked like gangbusters in Buffalo recently.
  • In case you missed it, Puck Daddy’s calling this the goal of the year already.
  • If I’m Ales Hemsky, I’m getting out of Edmonton as fast as I can. Clearly they don’t realize what they have, and how secondary scoring makes a difference in a long playoff run. He’s injury prone and inconsistent, but he’s also only 28 years old and has shown himself capable of dominating games in this post-lockout era. Letting his contract situation twist in the wind over the course of this entire season, ultimately to trade him for 25 cents on the dollar at the deadline, is poor asset management on the part of the Oilers front office.
  • Elliotte Friedman’s latest 30 Thoughts.
Feb 082012
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ownership

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

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

Ownership Edge: Oilers

Front Office

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

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

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

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

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

Front Office Edge: Leafs

Coaching

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

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

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

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

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

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Does it really matter that Sam Gagner may have only had 7-points last week? I know I don’t care if the referees are extra generous with their assists.
  • One last Oilers thought – Jordan Eberle, at the time of his draft, projected favourably as another Dany Heatley. Just two years later, Eberle looks to have already eclipsed Heatley as a player. If he can get to 78-points (he has 54 now), he’ll become the highest scoring Oiler since Doug Weight in 2000-01.
  • The Red Wings can deny it all they want, but they desperately need one of Joey MacDonald or Ty Conklin to be solid in goal until Jimmy Howard gets back. The Central Division is a beast, and any prolonged slump could mean St. Louis, Nashville or Chicago leap past them in the standings. It’s hard to get four teams from the same division into the playoffs. The Red Wings can’t afford a set back.
  • If I’m an Eastern Conference team that thinks it can make a post-season run, I am calling Montreal about Hal Gill. Skating-aside, Gill remains one of the top defensive defensemen in the NHL. He would look great in a Rangers uniform.
  • Other trade matches “made in heaven”: Marek Zidlicky to Detroit (a great skating, puck-moving defenseman on a team that plays a puck possession game); Ales Hemsky to Nashville (Hemsky would immediately become the most offensively talented player the Predators have had since Peter Forsberg); Evgeni Nabokov to Tampa Bay (if the Lightning decide to go for the Division crown in a weak Southeast Division); Tuomo Ruutu to Chicago (Blackhawks are incredibly weak on the left-side); Vinny Prospal to Los Angeles (a nice complimentary scorer on a team that needs to find some quickly).
  • Naturally, none of the pairings above have any chance of actually happening, but it’s fun to speculate.
  • Former NHL owner Howard Baldwin talks NHL expansion and hockey in Hartford.
  • Speaking of expansion,more about Seattle as a possible destination for the Coyotes.
  • Here’s former Orca Bay President and CEO Stan McCammon on a possible NHL team in Seattle.
  • This is kind of neat – a breakdown of who sits where in the Avalanche locker room.
  • A nice piece on what Ilya Kovalchuk has become for the Devils.
  • Here’s Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts.
Jan 182012
 

Yesterday we took at look at the “real” Western Conference standings after 40 games.

Here now is a look at the East.

Remember, to learn a bit more about an individual team’s strengths and weaknesses, each squad was ranked in six categories*:

  • Goals for (GF) and shots-for (SHF) were chosen to evaluate a team’s offense;
  • Shots-against (SHA) and goals against (GA) were chosen to evaluate a team’s defensive play;
  • Five-on-five (5-on-5) was chosen to evaluate a team’s even-strength/system play;
  • Save percentage (SVPCT) was chosen to evaluate the team’s goaltending performance.

Teams were ranked and then put into groups of five, with those ranking 1-5 in each category designated “great,” 6-10 “good,” 11-15 “above average,” 16-20 “below average,” 21-25 “poor,” 26-30 “awful.”

(* – Stats were taken as of Thursday January 12, once all teams had played at least 40 games.)

The Eastern Conference Standings After 40 Games

1. New York Rangers (58 points)
Games 21-40: 1st in Conference (31 points)
Games 1-20: 1st in Conference (27 points)
SVPCT: Great / SHA: Above Average / GF: Good / GA: Great / 5-on-5: Great / SHF: Awful

Notes: The Winter Classic and HBO 24/7 circus certainly didn’t phase the Rangers, who went 15-4-1 in the second quarter to once again stay atop the “real” NHL standings. Marian Gaborik scored at a 50-goal pace during games 21-40, while hard-working captain Ryan Callahan chipped in with 6 goals and 17 points. Meanwhile, Michael Del Zotto was Mike Green-esque, with 3 goals and 16 points from the blueline.

2. Boston Bruins (57 points)
Games 21-40: 2nd in Conference (31 points)
Games 1-20: 2nd in Conference (26 points)
SVPCT: Great / SHA: Poor / GF: Great / GA: Great / 5-on-5: Great / SHF: Great

Notes: Probably the deepest team in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire NHL. Their 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio was at 2.06 after 40 games, the best in the entire league and more than double the league average. Tuukka Rask (1.07 goals against, .964 save percentage) and Tim Thomas (2.17 goals against, .941 save percentage) are practically unbeatable. Making the Bruins even more dangerous: David Krejci has woken up (7 goals, 23 points during games 21-40).

3. Florida Panthers (48 points)
Games 21-40: 6th in Conference (23 points)
Games 1-20: 6th in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Good / SHA: Below Average / GF: Poor / GA: Above Average 5-on-5: Poor / SHF: Above Average

Notes: They’re in third by virtue of leading the Southeast Division after 40 games. Like the Minnesota Wild, the Panthers are starting to fall back to earth. Goal scoring was way down, from 2.95 goals per game in the first quarter to 2.2 goals per game in the second. Somehow Tomas Kopecky was -11 in games 21-40.

4. Philadelphia Flyers (52 points)
Games 21-40: 3rd in Conference (27 points)
Games 1-20: 5th in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Poor / SHA: Good / GF: Great / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Good / SHF: Great

Notes: Sergei Bobrovsky (1.75 goals against, .941 save percentage) was much, much, much better than Ilya Bryzgalov (3.52, .876) in the second quarter. Meanwhile, Kimmo Timonen (1 goal, 13 points. +6) capably replaced Chris Pronger at least in the short-term as the team’s go-to defenseman. Jaromir Jagr slowed down a bit in games 21-40 (6 goals, 14 points vs 18 points in the first quarter), but some of that was due to injury. James Van Riemsdyk has disappointed (3 goals in the second quarter).

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (46 points)
Games 21-40: 9th in Conference (21 points)
Games 1-20: 4th in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Poor / SHA: Great / GF: Good / GA: Good / 5-on-5: Above Average / SHF: Great

Notes: For the second straight year, the Penguins are battling through injuries to keep a playoff spot, only this time Marc-Andre Fleury hasn’t played as well (.902 save percentage in the second quarter). Evgeni Malkin entered beast mode (30 points in games 21-40), and depending on how Pittsburgh finishes could be a Hart Trophy candidate.

6. New Jersey Devils (46 points)
Games 21-40: 7th in Conference (23 points)
Games 1-20: 9th in Conference (23 points)
SVPCT: Awful / SHA: Great / GF: Below Average / 5-on-5: Awful / SHF: Poor

Notes: The Devils cannot make the playoffs with Martin Brodeur as their number one goalie. His save percentage was just .878 in the second quarter. This despite the fact the Devils only gave up 30-or-more shots in three of his 14 starts, and two of the three being overtime games. Zach Parise (8 goals, 22 points) and Ilya Kovalchuk (10 goals, 21 points) awoke in games 21-40, and the Devils have two solid scoring lines for the first time in ages.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs (45 points)
Games 21-40: 10th in Conference (21 points)
Games 1-20: 7th in Conference (24 points)
SVPCT: Below Average / SHA: Poor / GF: Good / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Good / SHF: Poor

Notes: Leaf struggles in the second quarter are well documented already (thanks Toronto-centric hockey media!). The penalty kill was roughly 4% worse (down to 72.3%) and was the difference between a win and a loss most nights. Meanwhile, James Reimer wasn’t very good (3-4-3, 3.23 goals against, .893 save percentage since returning in December from injury).

8. Ottawa Senators (45 points)
Games 21-40: 4th in Conference (24 points)
Games 1-20: 10th in Conference (21 points)
SVPCT: Poor / SHA: Awful / GF: Good / GA: Below Average / 5-on-5: Above Average / SHF: Good

Notes: Ottawa has improved their five-on-five play and with that are rising up the standings. Eight times in the second quarter they played into overtime, garnering 13 of a possible 16 points in those games. Daniel Alfreddsson hit the rejuvenation machine (17 points in 15 December games, versus 10 points in his first 18 games of the year).

9. Washington Capitals (44 points)
Games 21-40: 11th in Conference (19 points)
Games 1-20: 3rd in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Poor / SHA: Above Average / GF: Good / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Below Average / SHF: Poor

Notes: One of the great “what could have beens” in NHL history is what the Capitals could have been if Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens hadn’t gotten into GM George McPhee’s head after one playoff series. Washington’s loss to Montreal effectively ended the “all offense, all the time” experiment that defined the Capitals and could have redefined how elite NHL teams are built. Nowadays, the Capitals are as ho-hum a franchise as can be. On the bright side, Alex Ovechkin (10 goals, 17 points) and Nik Backstrom (6 goals, 19 points) were decent in the second quarter. However, Mike Knuble entered retirement during games 21-40 (1 goal, 2 points), while other core players Brooks Laich (4 goals, 8 points), Alex Semin (5 goals, 11 points), Marcus Johansson (1 goal) struggled. Tomas Vokoun did find his old self (2.45 goals against, .919 save percentage).

10. Winnipeg Jets (43 points)
Games 21-40: 5th in Conference (24 points)
Games 1-20: 13th in Conference (19 points)
SVPCT: Below Average / SHA: Poor / GF: Below Average / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Below Average / SHF: Above Average

Notes: As you can probably guess from the number of times it appears above, the Jets are an average hockey club. Still, they’ve ridden a hot home record (10-3-1 during the second quarter) to position themselves for a run at a playoff spot. Evander Kane (10 goals), Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little (both with 7 goals) had nice second quarters. A Teemu Selanne deadline trade to Winnipeg would be magical.

11. Buffalo Sabres (40 points)
Games 21-40: 14th in Conference (16 points)
Games 1-20: 8th in Conference (24 points)
SVPCT: Above Average / SHA: Awful / GF: Poor / GA: Below Average / 5-on-5: Above Average / SHF: Below Average

Notes: A lot has been made of Ryan Miller’s performance this season, and his second quarter numbers certainly support the criticism (3.21 goals against, .894 save percentage). However, a greater factor in the Sabres decline has been the errors the team made prior to the season. Robyn Regehr (-10 in the second quarter) and Christian Ehrhoff (2 goals, 7 points, -7 in games 21-40) were supposed to improve the defense and haven’t. Ville Leino was supposed to augment the offense, and he clearly hasn’t worked out (1 goal, 5 points in the second quarter). Look for Derek Roy (2 goals, 10 points in games 21-40) to be possibly moved at the trade deadline.

12. Montreal Canadiens (37 Points)
Games 21-40: 15th in Conference (16 points)
Games 1-20: 11th in Conference (21 points)
SVPCT: Below Average / SHA: Good / GF: Below Average / GA: Above Average / 5-on-5: Above Average / SHF: Below Average

Notes: It’s clear the Habs are going in the wrong direction. A notoriously strong defensive team under former coach Jacques Martin, this part of Montreal’s game regressed in the second quarter, with the team giving up more shots and more goals per game. The recent acquisition of Tomas Kaberle did help the powerplay (18.1% with Kaberle in the lineup during the second quarter; 10.4% before his arrival).

13. Tampa Bay Lightning (37 points)
Games 21-40: 12th in Conference (17 points)
Games 1-20: 12th in Conference (20 points)
SVPCT: Awful / SHA: Below Average / GF: Above Average / GA: Awful / 5-on-5: Below Average / SHF: Poor

Notes: There’s nothing wrong in Tampa Bay a decent goaltender couldn’t cure. Dwayne Roloson has become the worst goalie in the league (4.63 goals against, .866 save percentage in the second quarter) while Mathieu Garon has been below average (2.84 goals against, .901 save percentage during games 21-40). Could Martin St. Louis be dealt for a young goalie? Or do they go to the well one more time for a veteran Islanders goaltender (Evgeni Nabokov)? Marc-Andre Bergeron has cooled off since his hot start (1 goal, 6 points in the second quarter).

14. New York Islanders (36 points)
Games 21-40: 8th in Conference (22 points)
Games 1-20: 15th in the Conference (14 points)
SVPCT: Below Average / SHA: Above Average / GF: Poor / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Poor / SHF: Below Average

Notes: The Islanders turned it around in the second quarter, particularly on the attack. They went from 1.90 goals per game in the first quarter to 2.55 during games 21-40. The powerplay was a big part of this increase, scoring at a 25.8% clip, almost an 11% improvement over the first 20 games of the year. John Tavares has arrived (6 goals, 23 points in the second quarter).

15. Carolina Hurricanes (32 points)
Games 21-40: 13th in Conference (17 points)
Games 1-20: 14th in the Conference (15 points)
SVPCT: Awful / SHA: Awful / GF: Below Average / GA: Above Average / 5-on-5: Awful / SHF: Above Average

Notes: If you can believe it, Cam Ward’s play has gotten worse statistically as the season has gone along. His save percentage was .890 in November, .878 in December. The ‘Canes scored more in the second quarter, while reducing their shots against slightly under new coach Kirk Muller. Muller also gave the young talent on the team a chance (Drayson Bowman from around 7 minutes of ice-time to 15+; Zac Dalpe from around 5 minutes of ice time to 13+). Quietly, Eric Staal’s game returned (13 points in 14 December games).

Jan 042012
 

In the spirit of the New Year, here are five resolutions the NHL should make for 2012:

1. Abandon the “game is too fast” narrative

As the NHL concussion issue has grown, so too has the argument that the game is currently too fast. According to Ex-NHL’ers (most recently Eric Lindros) and several general managers (Carolina’s Jim Rutherford is the most vocal at the moment), putting the red line back in would slow the game down and reduce the number of concussions taking place on ice.

This, naturally, is complete poppycock and a classic case of conservative, backward NHL thinking.

If someone were to study this issue (and you have to assume someone with the NHL and NHLPA is studying this), the numbers would prove the majority of concussions occur away from the middle of the ice, along the boards, whether the puck is part of the play or not. The numbers would also suggest fighting contributes a significant number of concussions to the league’s totals.

The flow of NHL hockey – the quickness with which teams’ transition from offense to defense and back again – has never been greater. As a result the games, even with scoring trending downward, remain exciting.

Putting the red line back in would reduce this flow and give us an NHL product not unlike the dead puck era of the late 1990s early 2000s.  

No thank you.

2. Change overtime

Are shootouts exciting? Yes. Have we exhausted the premise? Absolutely. Shootouts are a nightly occurrence. Also, when was the last time you talked about a shootout goal around the water cooler the next day?(Probably after this one?)

Let’s presume the NHL’s reasons behind the current 4-on-4 overtime and shootout format were a) to guarantee a game result and eliminate ties; b) to keep teams in playoff races longer by offering up extra points; c) to give games a consistent length of play for easier television network scheduling.  

These issues would all still be addressed if the NHL adopted the 3-on-3 overtime proposition they’ve been studying.

Think about it. Everyone loves 4-on-4 overtime hockey and 3-on-3 would bring even more offense and drama to the sport. There would be more mistakes, more scoring chances and naturally more goals because it’s tougher to defend 3-on-3 than 4-on-4. 

 The NHL should adopt 3-on-3 overtime. It can keep the shootouts if it wants to, but they’ll rightfully be the rarity rather than the norm they’ve become.

3. Put the Winter Classic in Detroit

This one feels like it might actually happen, and the arguments are nicely summarized here. Besides, Detroit didn’t insist on moving to the Eastern Conference in realignment after all, so the NHL may owe the team a favour. The Red Wings have been the NHL’s marquee U.S. team – not to mention the league’s elite franchise – for almost two decades. They deserve a chance to host the Winter Classic, preferably against the rival Chicago Blackhawks. What an alumni game that would be.

4. Move the Phoenix Coyotes

Let’s put everyone out of their misery, shall we? The most logical place to move the team is Quebec City, but they’ve still got arena and ownership issues to address. Besides, as Elliotte Friedman points out, the NHL might want to leverage interest in Quebec City and Metro Toronto to reap an expansion fee windfall down the road. If this means the Coyotes have to therefore move to Kansas City, Seattle or (god forbid) Las Vegas, at least there’s hope those markets could one day love hockey. None of that hope exists in Phoenix anymore.

Sadly, the NHL probably can’t sell the team until after a new collective bargaining agreement offers a new ownership group some cost-certainty. This means 2012-13 could feature another year of lame-duck, desert dog hockey.

5. Negotiate a new Collective Bargaining Agreement for September 1st, 2012

Forget the details of potential negotiations for a second – here’s why the NHL and NHLPA should only come to an agreement in September 2012.

Other than the NHL draft and the start of free agency on July 1st, the NHL off-season is a snooze fest, confined to the margins of the sporting landscape. Many fans are okay with this, having been exhausted from an NHL post-season that drags on until June. In general, fans are happy to forget about hockey until training camp in September.

Both the NFL and NBA generated huge buzz and sent their fans into frenzy by forcing their off-seasons into a compressed amount of time. The NHL could also benefit from this, using the first two weeks of September as the off-season, and the last two weeks as a compressed training camp schedule. Then they can drop the puck as planned, without having lost a single game to a work stoppage but having created a month-long extravaganza for fans.

No one wants to miss a game of NHL hockey due to collective bargaining. But it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if the NHL and NHLPA waited until August to start serious talks.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • In case you missed it, here’s the story that says the six Canadian teams account for 33% of the league’s profits.
  • One more Toronto Star link – this time about the hometown team’s terrible December. That’s what happens when you’ve got some historically bad penalty killing by the Maple Leafs.
  • Hard to believe, but the Montreal Canadiens have lost 15 games in which they’ve held a lead so far this year.
  • Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury. He had already started to come back to earth performance-wise. His December numbers: 2 goals, 6 assists in 12 games.
  • Having said that, Edmonton’s Jordan Eberle started this morning 8th overall in the league scoring race (16 goals, 25 assists, 41 points).
  • The Colorado Avalanche are 18-1 in their past 19 shootouts. They’re still not the best shootout team of all-time though. That’s the New Jersey Devils (50 wins, 26 losses). The Devils are 8-1 in the shootout this season.
  • Four favourite things about this year’s 24/7 Flyers vs. Rangers: New York’s Christmas Sweater party; the Broadway fedora Rangers players give to their player of the game; Brad Richards telling Tom Sestito “One day in the NHL for you. It’s fantasy camp for you”; everything involving John Tortorella. Hard to watch the series and not think there’s something special brewing in The Big Apple this season.
  • Loved the Winter Classic alumni game, and hope it continues to grow in prominence. It was nice to see John LeClair and Eric Lindros combine for the game’s first goal. Lindros was by far the most dominating junior player I’ve ever seen play.
  • Also interesting to see how, even in retirement, Mark Messier can’t stand losing. His interviews during the game were surprisingly intense.
  • Disappointing to see this year’s Winter Classic was the lowest-rated of all-time. That’s what happens when you a) move it to January 2nd, a workday for many people and b) move the start time around.
  • The actual Winter Classic game was a lot of fun, but I wish the audio was mixed differently. Everyone keeps talking about the incredible atmosphere at the ballpark, but the ambient/crowd noise is mixed to a minimum for broadcast.
Dec 132011
 

Things that make one wonder on a Tuesday: 

The Kings are in Trouble 

Has Dean Lombardi lost his mind? 

According to reports, the Los Angeles Kings are looking at Darryl Sutter as their next coach. 

Because the Lombardi-Sutter connection won championships in San Jose, right? 

Look, it’s not like the problem with the Kings isn’t well-known. They aren’t scoring enough goals (last in the league). Their point-producers, outside of Anze Kopitar, are all under-performing. 

How Sutter – a notorious “defense-first, -second and –third” coach – could be seen as the right person to create scoring is a mystery.   

Not to mention the fact that Sutter hasn’t coached in five years and, towards the end of his time in Calgary, seemed to have an “out-of-touch-with-today’s-players” smell about him. 

Meanwhile, just down the road Randy Carlyle sits, waiting for his phone to ring. Carlyle has won a Stanley Cup (something the Kings never have), is a butt-kicking coach (something the Kings players need), and his Ducks team could score (five times in the top-15, including three top-10 finishes, over seven years).   

Hiring Darryl Sutter would reek of a kind of nepotism and backward, nostalgia-thinking that brings into question Lombardi’s actual ability to build a Stanley Cup champion. 

Let’s face it: Lombardi teams have historically been in the “good, but not good enough” category. 

Here’s hoping for Kings fans Lombardi’s interest in Darryl Sutter is nothing more than a courtesy call to an old friend. 

Otherwise, this would be a move in the absolute wrong direction for the franchise. 

NHL Concussions 

So now we can add Claude Giroux to the list of prominent NHL scorers felled by concussion. 

To be honest, this discussion has become incredibly tiresome. It’s clear neither the NHL nor the NHLPA view these head injuries as a major issue, or else greater steps would have already been taken to improve player safety. 

You know, steps like eliminating fourth line goons, increasing suspensions and fines, investing in new helmet and neck guard research or getting rid of high-density polyethylene shoulder pads, elbow pads and shin guards.

That’s right, the same stuff used for ballistic plates, folding chairs, riverbank enforcements and natural gas pipes can be found in NHL equipment. 

As has been said in this space before, the NHL decision-making culture isn’t exactly a progressive one. It’s a league run by people who value toughness over skill, and equate truculence for heart and passion. 

At this point, it’s fairly obvious what needs to happen before the NHL gets its house in order on the concussion and player safety issue. 

No, it’s not a Sidney Crosby retirement. 

It’s another Bill Masterton moment.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Hey look, The Hockey News agrees about Darryl Sutter.
  • According to this timeline, does Sidney Crosby only have 400-odd games left in his career?:
Name PPG before concussion First “serious” concussion Age at first “serious” concussion GP post first concussion PPG post first concussion # of concussions Retired at 
Pat LaFontaine 1.06 April 6, 1990 – hit by James Patrick 25 410 (7 seasons) 1.30 32 
Eric Lindros 1.41 March 7, 1998 – hit by Darius Kasparaitus 25 400 (7 seasons) 0.895 34 
Sidney Crosby 1.39 January 1, 2011 – hit by David Steckel 23 ????????????
  • Speaking of concussions, a nice wrap up by Sports Illustrated of 16 NHL’ers whose careers ended due to concussion-related injury.  Some of the names may surprise you.
  • Final concussion note – speculation is Jeff Skinner suffered one last week against Edmonton’s Andy Sutton.
  • One more note on the Kings firing Terry Murray – nice guy, overrated coach. Not sure if he coaches again in the NHL.
  • If you think about it, the approach Dale Tallon is taking to rebuilding the Panthers (invest in veterans while filling up the farm system with prospects) is similar to what Dean Lombardi did in San Jose originally. Despite the lack of championships, the Sharks truly have become the model expansion franchise in the NHL.
  • Dear New Jersey Devils – if Kurtis Foster is the answer, you’ve been asking the wrong question.
  • Speaking of the Devils, their penalty kill is an absolute joy to watch. Opponents have very little time to set-up in the offensive zone.
  • Last Devils thought – they really made Tampa’s defense look slow on Monday night. Particularly Brett Clark, who was caught flat-footed at the blueline on two New Jersey goals.
  • Lots of kudos to go around for the way the New York Rangers are playing right now, but here’s two things to note: 1) their young defense, particularly Dan Girardi, has improved over last year. Girardi has played like an All-Star so far this season. 2) Marian Gaborik is healthy, returning to game-breaking form he had two seasons ago.  The Rangers have a balanced attack for the first time in a long time.
  • Since Washington’s Mike Green has been hurt, John Carlson has 14 points in 14 games.
  • Don’t look now, but the Hurricanes are 1-5 under Kirk Muller. Meanwhile, Dale Hunter has the Capitals at 3-3 after six games, while Bruce Boudreau is 1-3-1 in Anaheim, and Ken Hitchcock is 11-2-3 in St. Louis.
  • Steven Stamkos may sit fourth in league scoring, but he hasn’t had much luck on the powerplay. He’s on pace for just 8 powerplay goals, down from 17 last year.
  • Some interesting time-on-ice stats: Brooks Laich leads Capitals forwards in ice-time (although Alex Ovechkin’s ice-time has gone up under Dale Hunter); Daniel Winnik leads all Avalanche forwards (interesting, given he essentially plays a checking role); Ryan Suter (not Shea Weber) leads Nashville in ice-time; Jeff Carter (not Rick Nash) leads all Blue Jackets forwards.
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 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
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 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.
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