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.

Mar 262011
 

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

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

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

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

Each of these teams has their strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s take a closer look.

Philadelphia Flyers

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

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

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

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

Boston Bruins

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

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

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

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

Washington Capitals

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

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

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

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

Vancouver Canucks

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

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

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

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

Detroit Red Wings

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

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

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

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

San Jose Sharks

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

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

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

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

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Damien Cox looked at the rebuilding jobs of eight NHL teams. Oiler fans won’t be happy.
  • Boston’s 7-0 win over Montreal was the highest-rated regular season game on NESN (New England Sports Channel) in 27-years. It’s also safe to say the Bruins have a pretty strong psychological advantage over the Canadiens right now.
  • With local talk that Canucks ownership is hoping to lure an NBA franchise to the Rogers Centre, interesting to read that Anaheim’s ownership is hoping to do the same thing.
  • Michael Grabner has scored more goals than any player acquired on waivers in the past 15 years. Between Grabner and Matt Moulson, the Islanders have their first pair of 30-goal scorers since 2001-02.
  • For those of you who missed it, here’s Ray Ferrero’s take on the Atlanta Thrashers situation.
  • With Justin Williams out of the Los Angeles lineup for the rest of the season, this could be the last, best chance for Oscar Moller to finally stick with the big club. His development has been a disappointment so far for the Kings.
  • Sad news out of Edmonton where anthem singer Paul Lorieau is retiring at the end of the season. Lorieau was the first anthem singer to invite the crowd to sing the national anthem, popularizing the move during the Oilers Cup run in 2006. He’s been the team’s anthem singer since 1981.
  • Too little, too late – Columbus players held a closed door meeting after the team’s loss to Phoenix earlier in the week. The Blue Jackets have only won two of their last 14 games.
  • The Ottawa Citizen takes a look at how their “departed” (Mike Fisher, Alex Kovalev, Chris Kelly etc) have fared since being traded.
  • From the department of weird stats: The Dallas Stars are 2-8-3 without Adam Burish in the lineup.
  • More evidence that Tomas Vokun won’t be a Florida Panther for much longer: he called out his teammates for a lack of effort this week.
  • With the playoffs out of reach, is it really that important for Zach Parise to return to the New Jersey lineup? Entering restricted free agency, perhaps Parise wants to prove he’s healthy. Much could be lost if his knee isn’t ready for NHL action.
  • The emergence of Brandon Prust for the New York Rangers makes one think Sean Avery is very expendable come this off-season.
  • Sidney Crosby is still progressing in his attempt to return to the Penguins lineup. As stated numerous times, expect him in the lineup during the first round of the playoffs.
  • Not a very bold prediction, but you have to expect Gary Bettman will announce the Coyotes are moving to Winnipeg the day after Phoenix is eliminated from the playoffs.
Mar 052011
 

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

Brian Murray, Ottawa Senators

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Gotta give it to Bryan Murray – he’s an entertaining, horse-trading general manager in a league where many front offices are afraid to make deals. However, his off-season plans for the team, as expressed to local media this week, have to concern Sens fans. Quick fixes won’t get the job done, and players selected in the first round aren’t always ready to play in the NHL right away.
  • As a courtesy for Sens fans, here’s a taste of the type of “top-six forward” likely available through free agency this summer: Simon Gagne, Alexei Kovalev (been there, done that), Tim Connolly, Jason Arnott, Michael Ryder, Steve Sullivan, Cory Stillman, Marco Sturm, Alex Ponikarovsky, Radim Vrbata. Yikes.
  • James Mirtle had a great piece this week analyzing the success and future potential of Leafs goalie James Reimer.
  • Speaking of the Leafs, Phil Kessel and Remier are getting a ton of credit for getting the Leafs into the playoff race. Going unnoticed is the very strong play of Carl Gunnarsson. He’s been an upgrade on Tomas Kaberle defensively, and Gunnarsson’s outscored the former Leaf defenseman since the deal.
  • The sky really isn’t falling in Vancouver, but the Canucks’ secondary scoring issues are very real. Manny Malholtra and Maxime Lapierre are unlikely to contribute any offense in the post-season. Which means Vancouver’s second line (Mason Raymond-Ryan Kesler-Mikael Samuelsson) will have to produce, or it’ll be another early exit from the playoffs.
  • Speaking of the Canucks, their defense is reminiscent of the 05-06 Carolina Hurricanes blueline – a collection of good second and third pairing defensemen without a real strong #1. It worked for the Hurricanes, who won the Cup. Usually though, Cup winners have at least one top-end, puck-moving guy. The Canucks don’t have anyone like that, no matter how hard Christian Ehrhoff tries.
  • The Columbus Blue Jackets have spent almost ten years trying to find suitable linemates for Rick Nash. Jakub Voracek certainly looks like a strong offensive match for Nash, but he’s a mess in his own zone. Until he figures that part out, Voracek isn’t a first-line player.
  • Since the Buffalo Sabres are suddenly a “have” organization financially, it will be interesting to see if they can become a viable option for the best free agents. Players hailing from the Greater Toronto Area may like the fact that they can play “close to home” without the media frenzy that comes with playing for the Maple Leafs.
  • If the Atlanta Thrashers become the Winnipeg Jets, they’ll move to the Western Conference, with the Detroit Red Wings coming East. The Jets are an easy fit replacing Detroit in the Central Division. Yet finding a place in the East for the Red Wings could see a major reorganization of the Conference. There really isn’t a suitable replacement to slot into the Southeast Division.
  • It was foolish for Taylor Hall to get into a fight, but not unexpected – the Oilers are the softest team in the league, and Hall has been on the receiving end of punishment all year. At some point, even the most veteran of NHL players is going to lose their cool. That being said, Edmonton has to become a tougher team to play against for 2011-12. For three years now they’ve been pushovers, and that will only hinder their development into an NHL powerhouse.
  • Who knows how long it will last, but it should be noted right now the much-maligned Phil Kessel is outscoring Alex Ovechkin 27-25.
  • This is like a real-life Family Guy joke – enjoy some lewd telestrator-ing.
  • Boston coach Claude Julien says he wants a fourth line that gives the team “an identity.” Translation: Tyler Seguin can expect even less ice time in Boston.
  • One thing to watch in the Eastern Conference playoff race – given Martin Biron’s injury, it looks like Henrik Lundqvist will have to start every remaining game for the Rangers. Lundqvist has played in 70+ games for four straight seasons, and fatigue has affected his game before.
  • An interesting Toronto Star piece on the KHL.
  • One thing to consider after Nashville’s victory over Vancouver this week is the lack of success low-scoring teams have had in the playoffs since the lockout. The lowest-scoring team to make the playoffs in each Conference has never made it further than the second round. In fact, the lowest scoring team to make the playoffs in the Western Conference has yet to make it past the first round.
  • The three lowest scoring teams currently fighting for playoff spots in each Conference: Nashville (8th), Minnesota (10th), Dallas (9th) in the West, Toronto (10th), Montreal (6th), Washington (5th) in the East.
Feb 122011
 

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

Tyler Seguin, Boston Bruins

Call it the tale of two second overall draft picks.

When Bobby Ryan was selected by the Anaheim Ducks in 2005, he was already a dominant junior scorer.

With a terrific combination of size and skill, Ryan scored 89 points in 62 games for the Owen Sound Attack in his draft year, and may have won the OHL scoring title if not for an injury.

Touted as an elite offensive prospect, then-general manager Brian Burke took Ryan after the Penguins selected Sidney Crosby.

What followed was anything but smooth sailing.

Ryan played two more years in junior hockey, posting seasons of 95 and 102 points, before he got his professional feet wet with the Portland Pirates, the Ducks AHL affiliate in 2007. Ryan then spent the 2007-08 season on the bus between Portland and Anaheim, his “slowed” development a result of poor conditioning (reportedly 17% body fat) and foot speed that was not NHL-level.

Today, Bobby Ryan is a core member of the Ducks, on his way to his third-straight 30-goal season. The Ducks took their time with his development, and along the way Ryan learned what it took to compete and succeed at the game’s highest level.

Looking at how Tyler Seguin’s rookie season has gone (8 goals, 9 assists, 12:18 minutes a game. frequent healthy scratch), one can’t help but wonder if the Boston Bruins should have been more patient with him.

Instead of dominating junior hockey and being the go-to guy on his junior team (and most likely a leader on Team Canada at the World Juniors this past winter), Seguin’s an afterthought in the Bruin line-up.

Time will tell if his development has been truly stunted.

Meanwhile, Leaf fans everywhere keep their finger’s crossed Seguin’s career is a bust.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • For comparison’s sake, two other rookie seasons from forwards picked second overall picks: Jordan Staal (29 goals, 42 points, 14:56 minutes per game), James van Riemsdyk (15 goals, 35 points, 12:58 minutes per game).
  • Lots of different, positive ways to spin the Mike Fisher to Nashville deal. Perhaps his biggest impact will be off-ice, with the Predators taking full advantage of the Carrie Underwood association. On-ice though, Mike Fisher is now the team’s first line centre. Despite the heroics of Barry Trotz and Pekke Renne, it’s hard to see this team winning its first-ever playoff round without some additional scoring help.
  • Prediction: In a few years any NHL general manager would happily trade 10 Jack Skille’s for one Michael Frolik.
  • Interesting argument from Cam Cole regarding Sidney Crosby’s concussion situation. What again is the argument against outlawing hits to the head? At the very least, couldn’t the NHL also outlaw hits where guys leave their feet to make contact?
  • Speaking of the Penguins, with 26 wins, a 2.20 goals against average and a .923 save percentage, surprisingly little is being said about Marc-Andre Fleury’s Vezina Trophy chances. Expect that to change if the Penguins, without Evgeni Malkin and Crosby, continue to win thanks to terrific defensive play.
  • That being said, the Vezina Trophy may be Tim Thomas’s to lose. He’s on pace to record the highest save percentage of all-time (.942).
  • Personal over/under on Peter Forsberg’s comeback: 15 games, 13 points. Surprised they’re giving him first line ice-time between Milan Hejduk and Matt Duchesne. Eventually Forsberg might be better served in a secondary scoring role. Biggest hockey comeback since Mario’s.
  • With bonds relating to the Phoenix Coyotes going on sale next week, we may know definitively, finally, if the sale to Matthew Hulsizer will happen at all. Prediction: the NHL owns the Coyotes in the 2011-12 season.
  • Would the Edmonton Oilers consider buying out Nikolai Khabibulin? Devan Dubnyk is clearly the best option in goal, now and in the future.
  • First waffles, now Wanted posters in Toronto
  • Speaking of Toronto, interesting decision facing the front office regarding Tyler Bozak, whose play this year hasn’t been worth his salary ($3.75 million). A restricted free agent after the year, the Leafs could walk away, looking to negotiate a lower salary, longer-term deal. Thing is, if they’re successful getting a first line centre in the off-season, Bozak would be third, if not fourth (behind Nazem Kadri) on the depth chart.
  • A little math for Canuck fans as their team makes a run at the league’s best record. Since the introduction of the President’s Trophy in 1985, times its winner has made the Conference Final (14/25); Stanley Cup final (9/25).
  • With NBC/Versus merging, it’s less likely the NHL moves its product to ESPN. Which is too bad. When was the last time you heard an athlete say they can’t wait to see highlights on Versus?
  • Have to wonder if New York Islanders forward Michael Grabner would be a 25- to 30-goal scorer if he had stayed with the Panthers or the Canucks, the two teams that gave up on him this year. He also leads the Islanders in plus/minus (+6).
  • Leading his team in goals, looks like Milan Lucic is on his way to his first 30-goal season, fulfilling his Boston promise as the next Cam Neely a little bit more.
  • Don’t be surprised if the Ottawa Senators end up with the first overall pick in this year’s entry draft. It would be hard for the Oilers or Islanders to play worse than they are. The Senators could be much, much worse after the trade deadline.
Feb 082011
 

[I Watched This Game is a recurring feature at Pass it to Bulis -- the hockey blog that knows who needs the puck. It chronicles the insights and observations of two guys who watched a hockey game.]

You’d have thought, from the tone of the media coverage leading up to this game, that Ottawa was coming in with a bag over their collective heads, while the Canucks had been spotted a guillotine, a French audience, and a death warrant personally signed by Maximilien Robespierre. From the outset, this one looked like a routine execution, the league’s best team up against, arguably, the league’s worst team. Of course, that’s not how it went. Rather than crush the Senators like the Crushinator might have crushed them, the Canucks jumped out to an early lead, indicating a crushing, then nearly lost it with some sloppy play in the second. As a result, this one was a lot closer than anybody had expected, myself included. My official prediction was a Canuck victory by the score of 50 million billion to 1. I wound up being off by one goal. I watched this game:

  • The big story was the play of the Canucks’ second line of Raymond, Kesler, and Samuelsson, which appears to be coming to life like the denizens of Stephen King’s Pet Sematery. They led the way last night, with 3 goals and 8 points between them. Kesler played the way he usually played, capable of giving straight men pause, and Raymond and Samuelsson finally looked like suitable linemates, using their respective speed and shootiness to great effect. The game-winning goal (above) was an excellent display of their reignited chemistry. Kesler fought the puck through the neutral zone before Raymond gained some room in the offensive zone with his speed. MayRay then fed it back to Kesler, who found Samuelsson in front. It was very cute, like Animaniac sister Dot.
  • Also worth mentioning is that Kesler made that pass with Jannik Hansen’s stick, given to him after his own lumber snapped in the neutral zone. I wondered what Hansen was thinking while Kesler was using it to dazzle. I suspect the following: 1) Why doesn’t it do that when I’m holding it? and 2) Maybe now they’ll finally let me join their study group.
  • Not featured in this clip of the Kesler goal is the post he hit seconds prior. His shot really is something else. Not literally, of course–it’s remains a shot. Kesler has become a remarkable player. I’m downright salivating at the thought of what he could fetch us in a trade. I’m thinking a top-line, two-way, power forward center and a late draft pick.
  • On the heels of being named one of the NHL’s three stars for the week, Mikael Samuelsson potted another two goals tonight. His empty-netter to seal the win was a reassertion that yes, he will shoot from anywhere (joke credit: @MFitz24). Thanks for reminding us, buddy, but next time, gain the red line. Samuelsson is like that member of the sniper team that picks off the bank robber right at the moment the cop on the inside is beginning to get through to the guy, and the audience is beginning to sympathize with him. Then bam! He’s dead. Not in Mikael’s bank!
  • If you’re not sure whether or not you’re the squeamish sort, have a look at Keith Ballard’s knee. Are you vomiting? You’re squeamish. I’ve eaten licorice that wouldn’t bend like that. Anyway, Ballard left the game with an undisclosed injury (early bet: knee) early in the first. The good news: this hardly disrupted Alain Vigneault’s perma-gameplan of giving all Ballard’s minutes to Aaron Rome.
  • Rome then exacerbated the Canucks’ lack of playable defencemen when he took 1140 seconds in penalties for fighting with Chris Neil, and I have to give a ton of credit to Neil on this one. When the Senators went down by two, Neil tried to start something with Rome, and Rome smartly declined. But here’s the thing: the Canucks have been playing with the lead so much this season, they almost always decline, and Neil was the first one to force the issue. The first chance he got, he took a run at Henrik Sedin. For those complaining it was in any way dirty (I’m looking at you, Garry “I only own paisley ties” Valk), it looked nearly identical to every Raffi Torres hit. It was fine. And, it necessitated a response, which was the point. Then, Neil smartly looked off Daniel Sedin, who was first on the scene for some reason (and took a Burrows-esque stab at Neil’s genitals) before pummeling Aaron Rome. That is how you get what you want. The fact that it put the Canucks down to 4 defenseman for much of the entire second period (during which Ottawa scored twice) was a bonus. You may hate Chris Neil, but his was an absolutely perfect piece of agitation.
  • It’s a small beef, but let’s talk about Aaron Rome’s delay of game penalty: really? Rome was lying on his belly when he swept the puck away. Can he really be blamed for the fact that it took off like a hornuss? I say no. If the Bible’s creation story has taught us anything, it’s that, once on its belly, a creature goes from treacherous to harmless pretty quickly. How can the referees not read this situation? In the third period, Roberto Luongo briefly lost his stick. Had it met the puck in the corner, would he have received a delay of game penalty too? The order to call this penalty by the letter of the law has only made the referees look like fools. In a parallel universe, they’re the guys ticketing motorists for turning right at a red light.
  • Andrew Alberts probably wasn’t expecting to play 17:10 (that’s Aaron Rome icetime) tonight, but he was pretty great in his first game back in the lineup. Alberts used his body to great effect (like Willa Ford), finishing with a game-high seven hits, two blocked shots, and a plus-2.
  • When Alex Burrows is playing with confidence, he becomes more than a Sedin linemate–he’s his own weapon. On his goal, he looks off Daniel Sedin to take the puck to the net himself. The power move completely surprises Chris Phillips, who cuts behind the goal, thinking he’s going to shrewdly take the puck away. Instead, Burrows finds himself alone in front, and shows a great bit of patience to put it past Elliott. There was an article in the Province only yesterday about Burrows working with Glenn Carnegie to take that extra second with the puck after missing four open chances versus Chicago. The extra work appears to have paid off instantly.
  • How about that 3-on-0 rush the Senators got? Granted, it doesn’t happen if the puck doesn’t jump over Daniel Sedin’s stick, but the rest of the team picked a poor time to have a tea party at the bench. I was surprised Luongo was even in the net.
  • Dan “Community Man” Hamhuis was the big-minute guy tonight, logging over 30 minutes in the absence of Ballard and Rome. He’s such a good guy he didn’t mind the extra work. He had plenty of energy left over, too. During the intermission, he freed Tibet.
  • I always wonder about the player that serves the bench minors. Is he aware he’s in there because he’s the least important? Coach says I’m the best at breakaways, that’s why I’m in here.
  • And finally, you had to feel bad for the snake-bitten Senators, who hit three posts in about a two-minute span when a goal would have tied the game. Not since the cast of Canada’s Worst Driver has a group hit so many consecutive posts.
Feb 072011
 

Congratulations to the Green Bay Packers for winning Super Bowl XLV. As well, congratulations to Christina Aguilera for joining Bryan Adams in national anthem infamy and looking like a younger Cyndi Lauper in the process.

As we turn our attention back to the Canucks and wait for puck drop in tonight’s game against the Ottawa Senators, here are some reads to help pass the time:

Feb 062011
 

[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

53 GP, 34-10-9, 77 points (1st in Northwest Division, 1st in Western Conference)

Who’s Hot

Daniel Sedin is currently on a 8-game point streak. He has 11 points in that stretch, though surprisingly, he only has 1 goal and seems somewhat content to leave the scoring to his teammates. Daniel has easily been one of the most consistent Canucks this season. He leads the team in scoring with 28 goals and 41 assists. He’s in the top-four in the NHL in goals and assists. He briefly took over the league scoring lead after Friday night’s game and now sits second (to Steven Stamkos) with 69 points.

Who’s Not

Although the Canucks rely mostly on Manny Malholtra for faceoff and penalty-kill duties, it’s still worth noting that he hasn’t recorded a single point in 17 games and is a minus-4 in that stretch. Fortunately the Canucks are winning games, and that’s the most important thing, but the team’s depth – specifically, the third line – will be counted on to be a very important factor come playoff time. Hopefully, Manny can also start to contribute more offensively.

Who’s Next

Monday, February 7, 2011 vs. Ottawa Senators (7:00 PM start, home)

I think it’s safe to say that Ottawa has been one of the biggest disappointments this season. The Senators have gone 1-10-3 in their last 14 games and have not won a game since January 13, 2011.

The Canucks are 3-1-1 against Northeast Division teams this year and have a winning record of 9-3-2 against Eastern Conference opponents.

Captain Daniel Alfredsson and rookie Erik Karlsson lead the team with 30 points each, but are a dreadful minus-18 and minus-30, respectively, for the season.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011 vs. Anaheim Ducks (7:00 PM start, home)

The Ducks come into town with a 7-3-0 record in their last 10 games. Both the Canucks and the Ducks have won a game apiece in the season series so far, with the Canucks winning their latest meeting on December 8th, 2010.

Corey Perry is on pace to have a career year in points. He has been on a hot streak, as of late; he has 14 points (8 goals – 6 assists) in 14 games since the Ducks lost Ryan Getzlaf to injury. He had a hat-trick in their last game against the Avalanche.

Speaking of Getzlaf, he’s targeted this game as his return from nasal fractures; he’s been out since December 28, 2010.

Saturday, February 12, 2011 vs. Calgary Flames (7:00 PM start, home)

The Flames come to Rogers Arena on the end of back-to-back situation. They have been one of the hottest teams since they fired Darryl Sutter stepped down as GM. They are currently on an 8-1-2 run and have clawed themselves to within one point out of a playoff position.

The Canucks hold a 2-0-1 edge in the season series against the Flames, though the Flames did win their last meeting on January 22, 2011 in a shootout.

Alex Tanguay has been a big part of the resurging Flames. He is currently on a 3-game point streak (2 goals – 3 assists). His 42 points (14 goals – 28 assists) on the year is second on the Flames to Jarome Iginla’s 49.

Most Deserving of a Shoutout: Christopher Tanev

Since being called up from the Manitoba Moose on January 16th, Chris Tanev has fit nicely into the lineup. Although he has only recorded 1 assist, he has been averaging just over 13 minutes of ice time per game, and is a plus-1. Tanev seems to get better and more confident with each game, his first pass out of the zone has been one of his best qualities. With the injuries on the back end, Tanev has been exactly what the Canucks needed. With Aaron Rome regressing a bit and Sami Salo close to returning, Tanev’s play will force Mike Gillis and Alain Vigneault to make an interesting roster decision.

Jan 152011
 

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

Doug Wilson, San Jose Sharks

Photo credit: Forbes

As the NHL All-Star Game approaches (yawn), so too does the trade deadline and the final stretch towards the Stanley Cup playoffs.

While there is some significant separation between playoff and non-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference, the Western Conference is a dogfight.

With this in mind, here now are five GMs facing important decisions at this stage of the season.

Doug Wilson, San Jose Sharks

The Challenge: Some questionable moves and a weakened backend has turned the perennially contending San Jose Sharks into a team that might miss the playoffs.

His Choice: Does he make a move now to save the season, or does he ride it out and make major changes in the off-season?

One Opinion: Ride it out. Outside of Danny Boyle, it’s obvious the Sharks defence struggles moving the puck. Granted, Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have been miserable, but together they take up so much salary cap room that it is impossible to make significant roster changes during the year. Expect the Sharks to try and upgrade their defence in a minor way, while hoping their “Big 3” can turn it on in time to make the post-season.

Crazy Thought: If this was the NBA, where sign-and-trades are common, you could almost rationalize a Tomas Kaberle for Patrick Marleau type of move. The Leafs need more top-end forward talent, consider themselves deep on defence, and have some salary cap room. Alas, this isn’t the NBA, and Kaberle is a pending UFA after this year.

Bryan Murray, Ottawa Senators

The Challenge: Starting to rebuild the Ottawa Senators franchise before he is fired.

His Choice: There are a ton of choices, but perhaps the most interesting is to trade Daniel Alfredsson for prospects and draft picks.

One Opinion: Trade Alfie. If he’s open to being dealt, Alfredsson would be a very attractive piece around the NHL. In addition to his on-ice contributions (currently leading the Sens team in points), Alfredsson is a bit of a bargain. During the last two years of his contract, his cap hit is $4.875 per year. However, he’ll be paid just $5.5 million ($4.5 million + $1 million) over the same period. That’s intriguing math to a budget-conscious contending team that could use an experienced, top-six forward. At the same time, dealing Alfredsson to a contender would be a symbolic “turning of the page” for the Senators franchise.

Crazy Thought: It’s not really that crazy. Everyone knows the Los Angeles Kings have cap space and are looking for a top-6 scoring forward. They’re a natural fit. It’d be more fun to see Alfie in Colorado though – a young team that loves to run-and-gun and has some cap space as well.

Dale Tallon, Florida Panthers

The Challenge: Tallon was very adamant his plan was to rebuild the Florida Panthers using the same scorched earth approach he used to rebuild the Chicago Blackhawks. And yet there have been enough on-ice positives this year that the playoffs are still a possibility.

His Choice: Stick to the long-term plan or make a post-season run.

One Opinion: Stick to the plan. Under Peter DeBoer and back-stopped by Tomas Vokun, the Panthers have been one of the elite defensive teams in the NHL this year. If they were able to generate any kind of offense, they’d be even closer to the playoffs than they are now (nine points back). However, trading for offense is usually costly, and young offense is rarely dealt around the NHL. Let’s not forget, this is one of the older teams in the NHL. While they’ve kept things interesting, it’s in the team’s best interest to move some pieces at the trade deadline and keep getting younger.

Crazy Thought: Trades between teams in the same division are rarely made. It’s too bad, since Niclas Bergfors is young, can score and is lodged in the Atlanta Thrashers doghouse. It would be interesting to see what he could add to the Panthers offense down the stretch.

Brian Burke, Toronto Maple Leafs

The Challenge: The Toronto Maple Leafs were supposed to be better than 25th in the NHL by this stage of team’s rebuilding plan.

His Choice: Fire Ron Wilson or keep him for another year.

One Opinion: Keep Wilson. Wilson is a decent, detail-oriented coach that insists on having his team play a puck-pursuit, aggressive style of hockey. Sadly, there just isn’t enough talent on the team to execute this style effectively. It’s not his fault either that the team hasn’t had a good goaltender during his entire Leafs coaching career.

Crazy Thought: One rumour out of Toronto is that Brian Burke is set to replace Rich Peddie as President of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Ltd. If that’s the case, Dave Nonis would become the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. General Manager’s usually want their “own guy” behind the bench, meaning that if Burke moves “up,” Wilson’s probably “out.”

Don Maloney, Phoenix Coyotes

The Challenge: The Phoenix Coyotes are proving last year’s playoff appearance wasn’t a fluke, and impending free agent goalie Ilya Bryzgalov remains the biggest reason for the team’s success.

His Choice: Sign Bryzgalov or lose him to free agency in the off-season.

One Opinion: Sign him. Like all things with the Coyotes, this one’s complicated by their dicey ownership situation. There is no question that the team would like to re-sign Bryzgalov, but first they want an owner in place to sign the cheques. That’s a fine argument, except when you consider that Bryzgalov may be one of, if not the, most valuable player in the NHL. Without him this Coyotes team goes back to looking like a lottery-pick, bottom-dwelling mess. As the current owners of the franchise, the NHL should do what’s necessary to solidify the franchise’s existence, while protecting the team as an investment, and get Bryzgalov signed.

Crazy Thought: Damien Cox already mentioned it, but the Toronto Maple Leafs would have a big interest if Ilya Bryzgalov became a free agent. Remember, Brian Burke is Bryzgalov’s former GM and did him a favour by placing him on waivers three years ago. That being said, there would be a number of teams eager to bid on an elite NHL goalie. Bryzgalov’s return to Phoenix would be doubtful if he became a UFA.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • While they’re struggling of late, the Los Angeles Kings are still a +16 in the goals for/goals against department. That’s fourth in the Conference, behind Chicago, Detroit and Vancouver.
  • Not sure what exactly it means in the big picture of things, but Pierre LeBrun ranks each NHL Division.
  • James Mirtle looks at the NHL’s best defensive forwards and defensive defencemen at the half-way mark. While not the most foolproof analysis, it serves as another reminder that Tomas Plekanec has become quite the player for Montreal.
  • Statistically, the worst team 5-on-5 but in the playoffs? The Tampa Bay Lightning. Those numbers should really improve if Dwayne Roloson can keep up his play in goal.
  • Statistically, the best team 5-on-5 but outside the playoff picture? Florida. They’re knocking on the door of being a top-10 team in this area.
  • With the success of the Winter Classic, both financially, critically and schmooze-festly, there’s no need for an All-Star Game anymore. NHL should just name a mid-season All-Star team and be done with it.
  • Remember when Simon Gagne was considered the defensive presence on an Olympic line with Joe Sakic and Jarome Iginla? Well he’s a -20 in 26 games this year.
  • NHL ice-time leaders amongst forwards: 1. Ilya Kovalchuk 2. Eric Staal 3. Sidney Crosby 4. Corey Perry 5. Brad Richards. 6. Alex Ovechkin. The most interesting name appears at #25: former Leafs castaway Alex Steen is playing 20 minutes a night in St. Louis.
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