Apr 162014
 

NHL_2014_StanleyCupPlayoffs

With the puck ready to drop for the 2014 NHL playoffs, a few of us at CHB make our predictions for the first round.

At least with the Canucks not making it, we can make our picks with our brains, rather than our hearts. Well, mostly our brains. We flipped coins, drew straws and other things too.

Western Conference

Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild

Victoria: Avalanche in 5. This prediction is based on the real fear that if Minnesota makes it too far in the playoffs we’ll all fall into a coma. Most boring hockey ever. So come on Avs, knock them out and save us all.

Matt: Avalanche in 5. This isn’t the same team that won the Nathan MacKinnon sweepstakes at this time last year. This is a ferocious, tenacious, deep team that has excelled under the marvelous coaching of Patrick Roy and is stable in goal thanks to the performance of Semyon Varlamov. Minnesota is good enough to perhaps steal a game, but a series? I’m not buying it.

Chris: Avalanche in 5. There is no reason to believe that Patrick Roy will tolerate the team losing to the Wild. Therefore, fear itself will propel the Avs through to the second round.

J.J.: Avalanche in 7. I’ve been waiting for the Avs to crash and burn all year, but they look like the real deal. Wild will give them some pushback, but I don’t think enough of one to take the series.

Clay: Avalanche in 5. Colorado is too young, too fast, and too skilled to lose to the Wild.

St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Victoria: Hawks in 6. As long as Toews and Kane are healthy, I see the Hawks rolling over the Blues fairly easily. They’re young, strong, talented and they’ve been here before and know how to win. Blues, not so much.

Matt: Hawks in 7. A first-round series that should really be worthy of a Conference Final, I’d hedge my bets on the defending champion over a team which – on paper – is built for the playoffs. This looks like it could be a physical series from start to finish, but again I believe the Blackhawks’ top guns will survive this war of attrition. How much they have left after this is another debate in itself.

Chris: Hawks in 7. I’ll be honest, I flipped a coin to determine who wins in 7 games. These two teams will beat the living daylights out of each other.

J.J.: Hawks in 6. The Blues are hurt and slumping; the Hawks are about to get Kane and Toews back. Unless Ryan Miller turns into a money goalie overnight – the eye test says he hasn’t had the impact the Blues had hoped for – Chicago gets this one.

Clay: Hawks in 7.  One of the most intriguing first-round series. It sounds like Chicago is healthy, while St. Louis is everything but.

Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars

Victoria: Ducks in 5. Teemu wants one last Cup and he’s gonna steamroll Seguin, Benn and the Stars to get there. I’m hoping, because I am not a Ducks fan at all, that eventually they run out of steam, but it won’t be in this round.

Matt: Ducks in 4. The Ducks, who finished first in the West, look like a team that has been in cruise control the last couple weeks. But they appear motivated by what I’d like to call the Teemu Factor. Selanne, who looks like he knows this will be his final season, wants another Stanley Cup ring and I like the Ducks to play hard for the best player the franchise has ever known. Dallas is a team just happy to be here.

Chris: Ducks in 5. May the power Wild Wing compel you. Seriously… is anyone taking Dallas?

J.J.: Ducks in 6. How the Ducks keep winning hockey games with one good line and a (relatively) no-name goalie baffles me.

Clay: Ducks in 5. The Stars might get one, but that’s it. Look for some of Anaheim’s younger players (Bonino, Fowler) to shine.

San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings

Victoria: Kings in 7. Because they can. With the addition of Gaborik to their already stacked scoring line-up – Carter, Kopitar, Doughty, etc. – they’ve got the advantage. Also, history dictates Sharks never win it all. This year will be no different and the Kings will put them out of their misery early.

Matt: Kings in 7. I know we say this almost every year, but the Sharks always look like a team that thrives in the regular season only to come up short in the playoffs. Los Angeles is a team that has struggled to find consistency on offense, but their club has a history of flipping the switch when it matters most. I’ll take SoCal over NorCal, yet again.

Chris: Kings in 6. Another series that will serve as a knock-down, drag-out brawl where only one team will survive. At least until round two.

J.J.: Sharks in 7. Jonathan Quick has been good, but the guys in front of him have had trouble scoring all year. This should be a familiar script for Canucks fans.

Clay: Sharks in 6. In this battle of teams that like to pound the Canucks, I like the Sharks’ firepower up front with Pavelski, Marleau, Thornton, Couture, Burns, and Hertl.

*****

Eastern Conference

Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings

Victoria: Wings in 7. Because the Wings are like the Goonies, they never say die. And because good should always triumph over evil.

Matt: Wings in 7. My upset special for the first round. Detroit has been ravaged by injuries all season, but their kids (Tatar, Nyquist, etc.) have helped fill in the holes quite admirably. With Henrik Zetterberg practicing and potentially nearing a return, things are looking up on the injury front. The same can’t be said for Boston, who’s already without some key bottom six forwards in Chris Kelly and Dan Paille, not to mention the questionable status of Patrice Bergeron.

Chris: I’m cheering for Motor City and wish them all the best in a long and glorious cup run. Bruins in 6.

J.J.: Wings in 6. I had a late pick in my playoff pool and lost out on all the Bruins who went early in the draft. I hope Datsyuk and Nyquist both have a big series.

Clay: Bruins in 6. They are hungry and right now the class of the East. Can’t believe I used the word class in describing these goofballs.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Montreal Canadiens

Victoria: Habs in 6. Sure they’ve got Steven Stamkos, but Habs have Pacioretty and most importantly Price. If he can channel his Olympic mojo, Bolts don’t stand a chance.

Matt: Habs in 7. My early nomination for the toughest series to call. The Bolts have been bolstered with the return of Steven Stamkos (11 goals in 20 games since his return), and provided goaltender Ben Bishop and forwards Valtteri Filppula and Ondrej Palat return for Game 1, should make for a tough test. Montreal is always a motivated club in the postseason, and Carey Price should have extra incentive after claiming the gold in Sochi.

Chris: Habs in 7. Il faut battre le fer pendant qu’il est chaud.

J.J.: Habs in 6. Ca-rey, Ca-rey, Ca-rey! PK and the Vanek-Desharnais-Pacioretty line aren’t bad either.

Clay: Habs in 7. The longer Bishop stays out, the better for Montreal of course. Intrigued by the young Palat and Johnson on Tampa Bay, but I think Montreal is deeper throughout the line-up.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

Victoria: Penguins in 4. Fleury has learned his lesson and won’t meltdown… at least not this soon. And Crosby, Neal, Kuntiz and Malkin will make quick work of….of…. whoever plays on Lumbus.

Matt: Penguins in 6. Every NHL postseason, there seems to be that one scrappy, annoying team that defies all odds and just doesn’t seem to go down without a big fight. The Blue Jackets reek of a team that is – perhaps foolishly – motivated to show the rest of the NHL that they’re worth being called a playoff team. The franchise hasn’t won a playoff game before, and the feisty Jackets should be able to embarrass Marc-Andre Fleury for at least a game or two.

Chris: Penguins in 4. Have to feel good for the Blue Jackets for givin’ ‘er a good effort. Pens already have the brooms.

J.J.: Penguins in 5. The Blue Jackets couldn’t beat the Penguins in the regular season; unless playoff-mode Fleury makes an appearance, I really don’t think they’ll beat them in the playoffs either.

Clay: Penguins in 5. Too much firepower up front for Pittsburgh. Plus that Crosby guy.

New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers

Victoria: Flyers in 7. This, kids, will be the series to watch. It will be long and scrappy in my opinion. AV has the ability to guide a team through the playoffs, but the Rangers have the history of failing early. Flyers have something to prove after a really crappy start to the season. If Giroux can stop with the stupid hits he’s got a history of in playoffs, then Philly will scrape through.

Matt: Rangers in 7. Long live the King. Henrik Lundqvist has been sensational down the stretch, scraping together a .949 save percentage in his final five games and looking as good as he’s ever been. The Rangers’ success hinges largely on his shoulders, but something should be said about New York’s 25 road wins, which are best in the Eastern Conference. It’s hard to see the Rangers not stealing a game on the road.

Chris: Rangers in 6. Because you know the darkest timeline has AV leading the Rangers to the Cup, right?

J.J.: Rangers in 7. Only because it would be so Canuck-y for AV’s new team to have some post-season success immediately after being fired by the Canucks.

Clay: Rangers in 7. Better goaltending. ‘Nuff said.

Dec 312013
 

On one end of the rink was Steve Mason, whose career the entire NHL, save the Philadelphia Flyers, had left for dead. Much was made about his past poor performances, especially against the Canucks, seemingly forgetting that he’s actually been pretty damn good during the Flyers’ 15-6-4 surge prior to last night’s game.

On the other end was Tom Sestito, who was waived by those very same Flyers last season and then claimed by the Canucks, and has served as some sort of a whipping boy to Canucks fans ever since.

Both Mason and Sestito had lots to prove. And both delivered.

Mason stopped 41 of 44 shots, plus another 3 in the shootout, to keep his team in the game. Sestito scored a goal and was a pain in Philly’s side for most of the 5:45 minutes he was on the ice.

Guilty as charged.

Read more #TGATT goodness past the jump.

Dec 302013
 
Philadelphia Cream Cheese is great, as are Philly Cheesesteaks but the Canucks will have to play with their heads not their stomachs to take on the 17-10-0 Philadelphia Flyers. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Philadelphia Cream Cheese is great, as are Philly Cheesesteaks but the Canucks will have to play with their heads not their stomachs to take on the streaking Philadelphia Flyers.
(Photo Credit Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Already with a 10-1-1 record this month, it’s shaping out to be a December to remember for the Vancouver Canucks. They have a chance to add to that as they meet the Philadelphia Flyers tonight at Rogers Arena, where the Canucks have won all 6 home games this month. This is the Flyers’ first visit to Vancouver in three years.

Tonight will be the second and final regular season meeting for the Canucks and Flyers. In their first game back on October 15th at the Wells Fargo Center, the Canucks rallied back from a 2-1 third period deficit to win by a 3-2 score. Chris Higgins tied the game early in the third period, and Ryan Kesler scored the game-winning goal with only 2:25 left in the game.

However, that Flyers team in October was on the verge of the worst losing streak in franchise history. They started the season winning just 3 of their first 12 games (3-9-0), but since then, they’ve gone 15-6-4, including a 5-1-1 record in their last 7 games. The Flyers are coming off a couple of consecutive wins: a come-from-behind, 4-3 shootout win against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night, and a 4-1 win versus the Minnesota Wild before the Christmas break.

Similarly, the Canucks are coming off a big win in Calgary last night in their first game after the Christmas break. With Roberto Luongo still nursing a sore groin, Eddie Lack made 18 saves and posted his 2nd shutout of the season to give the Canucks the 2-0 win.

This is the Canucks’ 5th set of back-to-backs in December alone. Perhaps surprisingly, they’ve won the back half of the first 4 sets so far. (They were 2-2 in the back half of back-to-backs earlier in the season.) Coach John Tortorella had been rotating Luongo and Lack during back-to-backs, but with Luongo’s injury and after Lack’s relatively easy night last night, I’d expect the Canucks to go back to him than go to back-up rookie, Joacim Eriksson.

Who’s Hot

Including his pinch-hit performances against the Dallas Stars and Winnipeg Jets, Lack has stopped 124 of 129 shots he’s faced in December – a 0.961 save percentage. He’s won 5 straight games, including 2 this month at Rogers Arena in front of a friendly Vancity crowd.

With his game-winning goal last night, Jannik Hansen now has 3 goals in his last 6 games.

Coinciding with the Flyers’ slow start, Claude Giroux only had 6 assists in his first 13 games this season. He’s busted out since though with 29 points in his last 25 games, including 15 points (5 goals and 10 assists) in an active 8-game point streak.

Wayne Simmonds has also been quietly putting together another good season. He has 9 points (7 goals and 2 assists) in an active 5-game point streak, and has potted 2 goals in each of his last 3 games.

The Flyers scored 3 PP goals against the Oilers on Saturday so expect Torts to really drill into the Canucks the importance of staying out of the box.

Who’s Out

The Canucks keep winning, but last night, they lost yet another player to injury last night. Following a Brian McGrattan hit, Andrew Alberts left with a suspected concussion and did not return. He joins Roberto Luongo, Alex Edler, Ryan Stanton, Alex Burrows and Jordan Schroeder on the sidelines.

The Flyers are without Erik Gustafsson, who is on injured reserve with a knee injury.

Oct 152013
 

Vancouver Canucks vs. Philadelphia Flyers

Photo credit: canucks.com

On paper, the Philadelphia Flyers should be one of the league’s better teams. I mean, a team with Claude Giroux, Vinny Lecavalier and Sean Couturier down the middle, and Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and Scott Hartnell on the wings seems like a pretty damn, deep team. But as we enter week 3 of the 2013/2014 NHL regular season, the Flyers have scored just 8 goals in 6 games (1.33 goals per game) and sit in 15th place in the Easter Conference – their 2 points in 6 games is only 1 point better than the last place Buffalo Sabres.

After losing back-to-back games for the first time this season, restlessness is again building in Canucks Nation. As impressive as the Vancouver Canucks were in 3 come-from-behind wins in the first week of the season, they looked just as lacklustre in back-to-back 4-1 home losses to the San Jose Sharks and Montreal Canadiens. Perhaps most alarmingly, they looked slow and tired against the deeper Sharks and younger Habs. They generated few, quality scoring chances and looked disorganized on defense. Much like how they looked at the end of last season.

What to watch

Tonight’s game marks the start of the Canucks’ 7-game road trip, which will see them play in Philadelphia, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Long Island, New Jersey and St. Louis over the next 11 nights. If they look tired now, I’d hate to think how tired they’ll be in a couple of weeks.

Who to watch

Despite the Flyers’ slow start, goaltender Steve Mason has a 0.935 save percentage (0.942 on even-strength). Surprisingly, he’s been decent – certainly more decent than he was in his last several seasons in Columbus.

Dan Hamhuis is going through what is easily his worst stretch of games in a Canucks jersey. And on Saturday against the Habs, he played possibly his worst game as a Vancouver Canuck, punctuated by his misplay of the puck that led to an Steve Smith-esque own goal – the eventual Habs’ game-winning goal. He’s been the Canucks’ best defenseman since signing with the team 3 seasons ago; it’s hard to imagine that he won’t eventually bounce back.

Who’s out

Alex Edler will be serving game 2 of his 3-game suspension. Alex Burrows and Jordan Schroeder remain injured, though Schroeder is travelling with the team and already took part in the Canucks’ morning skate last Saturday.

For the Flyers, Lecavalier, Hartnell, and defenseman, Andrej Meszaros, are all out with injuries.

Oct 122013
 

NHLWheel of Judgment

The season is still in diapers and I’m already confused. Here are some insights, speculation and just plain old rants about events around the league.

The Canucks Eastern Doppelgänger

Has anyone else noticed that for that last few years the Philadelphia Flyers have been the Vancouver Canucks’ Eastern Doppelganger? In recent years, a lot of people pick them as favorites (like Canucks) but despite their obvious talent they tend to implode (like the Canucks). They’ve signed goalies to ridiculously large contracts (like the Canucks). They’ve regretted it (like you-know-who). They always fall short in the playoffs (sadly, Canuck-esque). And just like Vancouver did, they blame the coach instead of the GM. The firing of Peter Laviolette was not unexpected because of these similarities, but their timing was crappy. Why give this guy a shot at all this season? Now he’s unemployed with no available NHL team to throw his skates onto the ice for. And let’s be honest I think that if Laviolette had been let go at the end of last season, he would have been a good choice for the Canucks. Yes, yes, Torts isn’t doing horribly (yet) but… I think Laviolette would have been a solid choice if the option was there. And I can’t help but wonder with blow-out loses like 9-2  and 6-0 if the Rangers are thinking the same thing.

Mike Fisher’s is the new Zdeno Chara

Shame on you, Mr. Carrie Underwood. The hit on Cpdy Franson was completely in-the-numbers illegal but he gets no supplemental discipline. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since Zdeno Chara got nothing for the same hit as well.

But seriously, Alex Edler collides with Tomas Hertl, who has his head down, and gets suspended 3 games. Brendan Shanahan continues to baffle. I continue to have no idea what is considered a suspendable hit, definitively… unless it’s something the Bruins did, then it’s never a suspension. That much I get. I think Shanahan has a wheel, like the Wheel of Fortune wheel, and he just spins it and wherever it lands, boom! Judgement!

And About Edler

All this said, I am not an Edler fan. I used to be… before his last contract negotiation when I thought he, you know, knew how to play. But for the last couple of years he’s made a series of bad passes, questionable plays and careless hits.

And those plays aren’t just in the NHL. That hit on Eric Staal in the World Championships was totally reckless and Staal is still dealing with knee issues. I really wish the Canucks had traded Edler for someone useful (and Alberts too while we’re at it). Hopefully Torts can scream some sense back into Edler or has the common sense to bench him. At $30 million over 6 years with a no-trade clause, the Canucks need better from him.

Sep 302013
 

On the eve of the start of the 2013/2014 NHL regular season, I preview the 30 teams, one division at a time.

Rangers vs Islanders

Photo credit: MLB

Carolina Hurricanes

The Good

The top-line of Eric Staal, Alex Semin and Jiri Tlusty was one of the highest-scoring lines in the NHL last season, but the Canes have little scoring depth after that. Adding Jordan Staal last season helped address this, but at this point, Tuomo Ruutu and Jeff Skinner can’t reliably be counted on to stay healthy.

The Bad

I think it says enough when the addition of Mike Komisarek on defense is considered an upgrade.

The Outlook

Things won’t be rocking like a Hurricane in Carolina this season.

*****

Columbus Blue Jackets

The Good

If Marion Gaborik, Nathan Horton, Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky can ever stay healthy, the Blue Jackets may actually boast some scoring punch on its top two lines. They still do have a lot of ifs, but there’s no denying GM John Davidson has the team moving along the right path.

The Bad

Like the Canes, the Blue Jackets don’t have a lot of team depth.

The Outlook

Columbus was built to bump and grind it out with the best of them, which, playing in the old Central Division, almost won them a playoff spot last season. The East is a different beast, however, and being in the same division as the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders will force them to play a more wide-open game than they’d like.

*****

New Jersey Devils

The Good

With Hall of Famer, Martin Brodeur, already in the lineup, goaltending was never an issue in Newark. But now, they also have ex-Canuck, Cory Schneider, to take over when Brodeur decides to hang them up.

The Bad

After losing Zach Parise, the Devils finished 28th in goals per game in 2012/2013. Now, they’ve also lost their leading goal scorer, David Clarkson (Toronto), and 2nd-leading scorer, Ilya Kovalchuk (KHL).

The Outlook

While Brodeur and Schneider can keep the Devils close in games, regardless of how the team is playing in front of them, I’m not convinced UFA signings, Michael Ryder, Jaromir Jagr and Ryane Clowe can adequately replace the loss of Parise, Kovalchuk and Clarkson.

*****

New York Islanders

The Good

With John Tavares and Matt Moulson leading the way, the Islanders finished the 2012/2013 season with the 7th-ranked offense in the NHL. Now, it looks like Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo are poised to take another step in their development and help out. Ex-Canuck, Michael Grabner, can also be counted on to score about 20+ goals.

The Bad

The Isles don’t have much back on d. Yes, they’ll score a lot. But they’ll also let in a lot of goals.

The Outlook

If another youngster or two – maybe a Griffin Reinhart – then the Isles may very well compete for one of the last playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

*****

New York Rangers

The Good

The Rangers may very well benefit from a gentler, calmer, kinder (sometimes too kind) voice behind the bench in former Canucks coach, Alain Vigneault. But also, AV will also benefit from having an elite goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist, a deep group down the middle (Brad Richards, Derek Stepan, Derrick Brassard and Brian Boyle), some solid players on the wings (Rick Nash, Ryan Callahan), and some good, young players stepping in (Carl Hagelin, Mats Zucarello and JT Miller).

The Bad

The Rangers’ special teams weren’t exactly special last season – their PP was in the bottom-third of the league and their PK was merely average – and they didn’t add anyone specifically to address them.

The Outlook

After the Penguins and the Capitals, the Rangers should take one of the divisional playoff spots. How far they go will depend largely on how AV can motivate a group that seemed to get stale last season.

*****

Philadelphia Flyers

The Good

On paper, the Flyers seem to always boast one of the strongest, most balanced teams in the league, and this season is no different. Up front, they already had Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, Scott Hartnell, Sean Couturier and Matt Read in their top-nine. And then they added Vincent Lecavalier during free agency. In the back, they added offensive defenseman, Mark Streit, to a group that already included Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Nicklas Grossman and Luke Schenn.

The Bad

The Flyers’ playoff hopes hang on Ray Emery, who hasn’t been a no. 1 goalie since the 2006/2007 season, and Steve Mason, whose last good year as a no. 1 goalie was his rookie year in the 2008/2009 season.

The Outlook

As their goaltending go, the Flyers will go. But hey, it wouldn’t be Philadelphia-like any other way.

*****

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Good

Where to start? Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, James Neal and Chris Kunitz highlight the attack, and Pascal Dupuis, Brandon Sutter and Jussi Jokinen provide more than adequate support. 21-year old Beau Bennett looks good too.

The Bad

Marc-Andre Fleury is still the Pens’ starting goaltender while Tomas Vokoun is out indefinitely.

The Outlook

The Pens should make the playoffs on the strength of their lineup alone. After that, all bets are off.

*****

Washington Capitals

The Good

Simply, the Caps’ offense. Alex Ovechkin is back. And so is Mike Green. Nicklas Backstrom scored at a point-a-game pace. Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer also improved. And while the league’s 5th-ranked offense and top-ranked power play lost second-line center, Mike Ribeiro, the Caps did replace him with Mikhail Grabovski.

The Bad

The defense is razor-thin. Green, fellow offensive defenseman, John Carlson, and defensive defenseman, Karl Alzner, head the group, but after that consists of some guys I’ve never heard of.

The Outlook

The Caps will make the playoffs, but will need some help in the back end to make any sort of an extended playoff run.

Feb 072013
 

You Wanna Go?

This season has had more than it’s fair share of fights. As of February 5, the Vancouver Canucks have had 7 fights. Same with the Habs, but I preface the date because as I’m writing this, they’re about to play the Boston Bruins. Their fight count could be 20 by the end of that game.

A fight gets a crowd going, gets a team going, and fuels a good rivalry, but no one wants a player to sustain serious injury.  Two fights in the last couple of weeks have me going hmmm… because they involve the same team and show the right and wrong sides of fighting in the NHL.

First, we have the right: During a fight between the Philadelphia Flyers’ Max Talbot and the New York Rangers’ Ryan Callahan, all the shirt-tugging, pushing and pulling injured Callahan’s shoulder. Sensing that something was wrong, Talbot stopped and waved over a training, calling for medical help.

Now, the wrong: On Tuesday, the Flyers’ Zack Rinaldo fought the Tampa Bay Lightning’s BJ Crombeen. After Crombeen slipped to the ice, Rinaldo continued to pound him.

Rinaldo is a notorious fighter in the league, but that doesn’t mean he has to be a jerkoff. Would Kevin Bieksa keep throwing punches once a guy is down? I don’t think so.

To me, fighting is part of the game, but what makes it tolerable is the code – the etiquette – and Rinaldo broke it just days after his teammate, Talbot, was a poster child for it. Hmmm… I never thought I would say this but Rinaldo needs to take a lesson from Talbot.

Freaky Friday

Disney came out with a movie in the 1970s called Freaky Friday in a mom and daughter switch bodies. Every time I watch a Vancouver Canucks game this season, I can’t help but wonder if this has happened to Henrik Sedin and Zach Kassian.

First, Zack started scoring goals, and at one point, he was among the league leaders in goals scored. Then, Zack’s leading the Canucks in scoring, and as of today, he’s still tied for 3rd with Henrik in team scoring.

As if that wasn’t weird enough, our demure Swedish Captain is turning into a goon taking roughing penalties and throwing checks like he’s… well, Zack Kassian. The Edmonton Oilers’ Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is actually sidelined – missing the Oilers’ game last night against the Dallas Stars – due to an injury resulting from a Henrik Sedin hit. It’s a total head scratcher. If Henrik drops his gloves next, I may just lose my mind.

The Mysterious Coin

The Canucks announced that Cory Schneider will get the start against the Minnesota Wild. Sure, Roberto Luongo is on a hot streak, but this isn’t about what makes sense. This is about what the coin says. Coach Alain Vigneault once again flipped his coin, and this time it came up Cory.

I am honestly starting to believe that AV soaks his chewing gum in vodka. He’s enjoying this too much, especially considering the media, the fans, and Schneider’s agent are all taking the goalie controversy very seriously.

I want to see this coin. Is it a loonie? A twoonie? A quarter? Does it have pictures of Cory and Bobby Lu on either side? Where does AV keep this coin? Is it always in his pocket? Does he lock it away somewhere with his crystal ball, voodoo dolls and a pack of vodka-infused chewing gun? If the media doesn’t insist on filming a coin toss before the end of the season, they’re not doing their job.

Jan 232013
 

Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks

Photo credit: National Post

With less than a week of games under the NHL’s belt in this shortened 2013 season, I’m shocked at how many things made me go hmmm…

Here are a few of the biggest head scratchers:

Goalie Drama. Again. Sigh.

The Vancouver Canucks have not traded Roberto Luongo. Despite claiming Cory Schneider is their number one, they pulled Schneider in game 1 and didn’t give him a chance in game 2. Alain Vigneault’s talk doesn’t match his walk. If Schneider is the Canucks’ number 1, he would get the start, even after being pulled. In the last few seasons, Luongo would get the start even after being pulled or a poor showing. Between Vigneault’s refusal to stick with his supposed number 1, and his further refusal to even announce his starter until minutes before a game, the goalie controversy is gaining life instead of losing it. It doesn’t matter how professional an organization is, that kind of extended drama is going to make an impact in a bad way. It has with the fan base. Luongo homers are openly tweeting hopefully for Cory’s failure.

Reality check: Schneider isn’t the only number one to struggle. The New York Rangers pulled Henrik Lundqvist in the second period against the Pittsburgh Penguins after he stopped just 14 of 18 shots. Why aren’t Rangers fans screaming for Marty Biron to take over the number 1 spot? Because Rangers management isn’t wishy-washy on their faith in Lundqvist.

Does a Short Season Mean it’s a Free-For-All?

If you look at the results throughout the league over the first few days of the season, it’s glaringly obvious the favourites aren’t doing so well. A lot of sportscasters tagged the Rangers to be the team most likely to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup this year; they’ve yet to win a game. Same with the Philadelphia Flyers, who the pundits always predict some noise in the playoffs. And as we all know, same with the Canucks.

In fact the only favourite doing really well are the Penguins. The Chicago Blackhawks, much to my personal chagrin, are also starting strong. In a shortened season, getting a fast start out of the gate and winning from the get-go is important. Sure the Canucks (and Rangers and Flyers) have only lost 2 or 3 games, but with less time to catch up, it’s worrisome. I have a feeling we may be even more surprised by this year’s Cup winner than last year’s.

Jersey Off Our Backs Make Me Go Hmmm… and Mmmm

After watching the Jersey Off Our Backs presentation on Saturday, I’m left with a few questions. Bear with me as I have never played hockey.

How come the Canucks don’t all wear the same pads? I assumed they would all wear similar, if not the same pads, but Lapierre is wearing red ones that make him look like he’s still a Hab. Yes I actually looked at his pads, not just his pretty face. It was hard but I did it. Mostly everyone else on the team had white pads, or in David Booth’s case, a really bad checkered shirt. 

And does Higgins not wear anything under his pads just so he can hear the squeals of delight as he pulls his shirt off?  This is the second Jersey off Our Backs that I’ve witnessed live and in-person and once again Higgy wasn’t wearing Under Armour – he’s the only hockey player I’ve seen that goes bare under the pads. Why does he do it? Why doesn’t anyone else? Not that I’m complaining; it does make me go Hmmm… and Mmmm.

 

Jan 172013
 

The Bruins and the Rangers are ranked at the top of the Eastern Conference to start the 2012/2013 season.

Photo credit: CBC.ca

Another year, another season preview.

As usual, we’ve ranked each team’s goaltending, defense, forwards and coaches based on expectations and past performance.

However, given the shortened season, we’ve also taken a few other things into consideration when ranking teams overall, including:

  • Whether key players were active during the lockout in competitive leagues. Suffice to say, if someone was playing in the AHL or KHL they’re likely to be better out of the gate than an NHL player who toiled in Britain or Italy or sat on the couch.
  • How old or young the team’s key players are. With a schedule filled with games almost every-other night, veteran players may be more susceptible to critical injury than younger ones.
  • Goaltending. In what many expect to be lower-scoring rush to the playoffs, teams with the best goaltending may have a slight edge.

A couple of other things to remember based on the previous short season (94-95):

  • Veterans as a group seemed to struggle.
  • The top-5 scorers in the league were all under 26, and Eric Lindros (22) won the Hart Trophy.
  • 94-95 was the year the Nordiques exploded out of the league’s basement. The following year, in Colorado, they won the Stanley Cup/

Alright – let’s get to it. Here now are the Out of Town Notebook’s Eastern Conference rankings for the 2012/2013 NHL season:

1. Boston Bruins – 61 points

Status: Cup Contender
Goaltending: C+
Defense: A
Forwards: B
Coaching: B-

Why: The Bruins are ranked first because the majority of their core are either young (Tyler Seguin, Milan Lucic, Tuukka Rask, Dougie Hamilton) or in their prime (Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara), and most of them (save Lucic) played somewhere during the lockout. Seguin might make a real leap this season, bumping up the forward grade even higher. Expect that goaltender mark to rise as well, as Rask gets comfortable as the team’s defacto number one. Anton Khudobin will serve as the backup and has potential.

2. New York Rangers – 59 points

Status: Cup Contender
Goaltending: A
Defense: B-
Forwards: A-
Coaching: B

Why: On paper, the Rangers look like they have it all – a nice mix of youth and experience; superior goaltending; an emerging, deep blueline; and, with the addition of Rick Nash, a strong top-six with finish. The issue here is that only a handful of Rangers played during the lockout, leading to concerns about a slow start. Come playoff time though, New York should be ready for a long post-season run. On paper, they look like the best team in the Conference.

3. Washington Capitals – 51 points

Status: Wild Card
Goaltending: C-
Defense: B+
Forwards: B
Coaching: D+

Why: The Caps enter the season with serious question marks. Can Brandon Holtby be the starting goalie they’ve lacked in the past? He’s followed up a great post-season with a solid AHL campaign, but he could also become Jon Casey. What about coach Adam Oates? A shortened season for a first-time bench boss, when every game will be a battle, is a significant challenge. The guess here is that both Holtby and Oates raise their pre-season ratings, and the Capitals, backed by a strong blueline and a return-to-form from Alex Ovechkin, eek out another division title. Having said that, no team was shuffled in and out of the playoffs more in these rankings than the Caps. The Southeast Division is the worst in the NHL, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see all five teams battling for the division crown.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins – 54 points

Status: Contender
Goaltending: B
Defense: B-
Forwards: A
Coaching: A

Why: While a lot of focus will be placed on Sidney Crosby’s health, the fact remains that the Penguins were bounced early in last year’s playoffs because their defense and goaltending were atrocious. The talent is there in both positions to rebound, especially if Kris Letang can stay healthy. Tomas Vokoun is a more than capable backup goalie and could supplant Marc-Andre Fleury as the team’s top-goalie. Evgeni Malkin dominated the KHL and was the best player in the world in 2012.

5. Philadelphia Flyers – 54 points

Status: Darkhorse
Goaltending: C+
Defense: B
Forwards: B-
Coaching: A

Why: It’s just a question of timing for when the Flyers become a legitimate Cup threat. Given no other NHL team had more players playing in the AHL or KHL than the Flyers during the lockout, the betting here is the Flyers take another step forward this year. Their young core of forwards, including Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Claude Giroux, Jakob Voracek and Wayne Simmons – rivals that of the more heralded Oilers (and Giroux is a top-5 NHL player already). While it’s unlikely Chris Pronger will ever suit up again, the blueline is still solid, with Kimmo Timonen forever underrated. The concern here centers around the crease, where the kooky Ilya Bryzgalov tries to find his Coyotes form. He wasn’t very good in the KHL during the lockout either.

6. Buffalo Sabres – 51 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: A
Defense: C+
Forwards: C-
Coaching: B-

Why: The Sabres will go as far as their goaltending takes them. Ryan Miller had a strong second half last year, and Jhonas Enroth is capable of carrying the team for short stretches. Up front, it’s a transition year for the Sabres with Cody Hodgson (point-per-game in the AHL during the lockout) and Tyler Ennis carrying the load down the middle. Tyler Myers’ development stagnated in 2011-12. Buffalo needs him to continue developing to carry an average blueline.

7. Ottawa: 50 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: C
Defense: C+
Forwards: C
Coaching: C

Why: Ottawa made the playoffs last year riding on the back of exceptional play from defenseman Erik Karlsson and centre Jason Spezza. They could easily repeat their 2011-12 seasons, and Karlsson’s youth means it’s possible he could even exceed his Norris Trophy performance. The key for the Senators will be the supporting cast – whether youngsters Mika Zibanejad (poor AHL season to date) and Jakob Silfverberg (strong AHL play) can contribute secondary scoring; whether someone will step up to fill Jared Cowen’s shoes on defense (he’ll miss the season with an injury); and whether Daniel Alfredsson has anything left. Craig Anderson is slightly-overrated, but the goalies behind him (Robin Lehner, Ben Bishop) are very promising and have played extremely well in the AHL.

8. Tampa Bay Lightning – 49 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: C-
Defense: C-
Forwards: B-
Coaching: C+

Why: There remains a talented top-six playing hockey on the beach in Tampa Bay – the problem is winners are built from the back-end out. Matt Carle brings a new, puck moving dynamic to Tampa’s blueline, but the Lightning defense won’t get better until Viktor Hedman takes the next step. Anders Lindback is the wild card here – if his performance for the Predators in limited action was legit, he’ll solve the team’s defensive issues on his own. That would vault the Lightning into a fight for the division crown. If Lindback is only average, this team is likely on the outside of the playoff picture.

9. Carolina: 49 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: B+
Defense: C-
Forwards: B-
Coaching: C-

Why: Quietly, the Hurricanes are putting together a team with promise, but they’re not there yet. The additions of Jordan Staal and Alex Semin give the Hurricanes a potent second line, although an injury to Tuomo Ruuttu hurts. The strength of Carolina’s defensive game will dictate how far up the standings they go. The blueline is a mixed bag of youth, toughness, and incompetence (looking at you Joe Corvo), putting a lot of pressure on Cam Ward to keep them in games.

10. Montreal Canadiens – 49 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: A
Defense: C+
Forwards: C
Coaching: C-

Why: Similar to the Sabres, the key for the Canadiens this season is how well Carey Price plays. He has the ability to carry the team. An extended P.K. Subban absence could also kill Montreal’s season, as Andrei Markov can’t be counted on to carry the defense anymore. Rookie Alex Galchenyuk has looked good in camp and will enter the year either as the team’s second line centre or lining up on the wing with Tomas Plekanec.

11. Winnipeg Jets – 44 points

Status: Also-rans
Goaltending: C
Defense: B-
Forwards: C+
Coaching: C

Why: Three reasons why the Jets are unlikely to make the post-season this year: 1) Zach Bogosian’s wrist injury significantly hampers Winnipeg’s blueline. If he’s healthy, there’s an interesting mix on defense. 2) Ondrej Pavelec has only been an average NHL goalie to date, and the Jets will need him to be elite to catch the teams ahead of them in the standings. Not sure Pavelec has that in him. 3) The travel. The league is already looking at 48-games in roughly 100 days. When you add the schedule the mis-conferenced Jets will have to face, it’s an enormous disadvantage.

12. New Jersey Devils – 41 points

Status: Decline
Goaltending: C
Defense: D+
Forwards: C+
Coach: B-

Why: Simply put – it’s hard to believe, after sitting out the lockout and another year older, veteran Martin Brodeur can find the level of play required to push New Jersey into the post-season. Losing Zach Parise to the Wild hurts the attack, and puts more pressure on Adam Henrique (poor AHL performance during the lockout) and Ilya Kovalchuk (sulking to play in North America) to score. The defense is hard-working, but not very talented beyond second-year man Adam Larsson. If Peter DeBoer gets the Devils back into the playoffs he should be considered an Adams Trophy nominee.

13. Florida Panthers – 40 points

Status: Rebuilding
Goaltending: D
Defense: C+
Forwards: D+
Coaching: C

Why: Last year’s surprising Panthers team was a bridge squad – a veteran team of placeholders using a strong defensive system to mitigate the risk of losing, while buying the franchise a year of development. This season marks the beginning of a youth influx into the Florida roster, with Jonathan Huberdeau the most prominent youngster likely in the starting lineup. Generally speaking, this type of transition usually means a fall in the standings. The future in net is Jacob Markstrom, but he got off to a slow start in the AHL this year and may be given another season to establish himself. That leaves the underwhelming Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen trying to duplicate last year’s success. Only a few Panthers played in the AHL or KHL during the lockout, and none of those players were part of the team’s core. That could mean a slow start is in the offering.

14. New York Islanders – 39 points

Status: Rebuilding
Goaltending: D+
Defense: C-
Forwards: C-
Coaching: D+

Why: This is likely the lowest the Islanders will rate on this list for the next few years. They have potential impact prospects on forward and defense, and as they develop, they’ll also rise up the standings. John Tavares has an Art Ross trophy in him. The talk is Rick DiPietro is the healthiest he’s been in years, which would have a positive impact on their goaltending situation. However, we’ll believe it when we see it. This is a development season – watch for the Islanders to push for a playoff spot next year.

15. Toronto Maple Leafs – 38 points

Status: Lost
Goaltending: D-
Defense: C-
Forwards: C
Coach: C+

Why: Quite simply, this is a team with the worst goaltending in the NHL; whose best defenseman (Jake Gardiner) is suffering from concussion issues; that’s without a legitimate number one centre; whose most important players (Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul) barely played during the lockout. The ownership wants this Leaf squad to make the playoffs, which means an upgrade in goal (Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo) is a possibility. But it’s likely not enough. The best thing for this franchise might just be bottoming out with a top-2 draft pick.

Jan 102013
 
Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks

Photo credit: Vancouver Sun

Contrary to popular belief, there apparently is a market for a top-flight, 55-60-plus games per season, Olympic gold medal-winning, one win short of winning the Stanley Cup kind of goaltender.

On the same day the Toronto Maple Leafs fired GM Brian Burke for, among other reasons I’m sure, not pursuing Luongo as aggressively as some in the organization wanted, and replaced him with Dave Nonis, who, incidentally, was rumored to have been fired from the Canucks for not pursuing Brad Richards as aggressively as some in the organization wanted, the rumor mill started churning.

The Philadelphia Flyers, who probably don’t mind Ilya Bryzgalov’s worldly views but moreso his 0.887 save percentage and 3.46 GAA in last year’s playoffs, are now rumored to be interested in Bobby Luo.

Add them to the list with the Leafs, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Florida Panthers, and perhaps, even the Edmonton Oilers.

The belief out there is that Luongo’s contract is too big a risk to take on, especially with the new CBA penalties for teams with backdiving contracts – my good friend Tom here calls it a millstone – and it could hamper any trade leverage the Canucks have. But the new CBA may actually be helping the Canucks in this situation. More specifically, now that teams are allowed up to 2 compliance buyouts over the next two off-seasons, and these buyout amounts won’t count towards the salary cap, it may very well be creating some additional suitors for Luongo’s services.

Take the Flyers, for instance. In any normal season, Bryzgalov’s 9-year contract would, in all likelihood, remove them from the running for any Luongo deal. But what now if they can buy him out and not have the buyout amount charged against the cap? A Bryzgalov buyout could cost the team upwards of $17 million. But how much do the Flyers really want the somewhat flaky goaltender in front of an otherwise young and very good group of players for another 8 seasons? Like a lot of teams, they want to win now and I’d dare say wouldn’t care much about a $2 million cap hit penalty 7 years – several years – from now when the cap will most likely be in the $80-$90 million range anyway.

Is this enough to improve what the Canucks receive in return for the winningest goaltender in its franchise history? Can the additional market turn a return of Cody Franson to Jake Gardiner, or Matt Read to Sean Couturier, or Stephen Weiss to Jonathan Huberdeau? Maybe not quite. But it certainly won’t hurt.

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