Jul 192012
 

You can’t blame Canucks fans for obsessing over the possibility of Shea Weber coming to Vancouver. Besides being from BC and still holding strong ties here, he’s a legitimate no. 1 defenseman and a Norris Trophy candidate – basically, a defenseman the kind of which the Canucks have never had.

As an RFA this season and a UFA next season, Nashville’s options were limited. Presumably, the Predators had been trying to re-sign him, but from the looks of things, Weber didn’t seem too interested. He was free to sign an offer sheet with a team he liked, and if the Predators didn’t match, they would receive draft picks as compensation, hardly a suitable return for a player of his ilk. And if the offer sheet were for a one-year term, and if the Predators did match, they couldn’t trade him for the next year and Weber could walk away for nothing at the end of it. Like Dan Hamhuis did a couple of years ago and Ryan Suter did this year.

So I’m sure David Poile wasn’t pleased with last night’s bombshell the Philadelphia Flyers had signed him to a 14-year/$110 million offer sheet:


From Kyper, here’s the complete breakdown of the deal:

YearSalarySigning BonusTotal $Cap Hit
Year 1$1 mil$13 mil$14 mil$7.857 mil
Year 2$1 mil$13 mil$14 mil$7.857 mil
Year 3$1 mil$13 mil$14 mil$7.857 mil
Year 4$1 mil$13 mil$14 mil$7.857 mil
Year 5$4 mil$8 mil$12 mil$7.857 mil
Year 6$4 mil$8 mil$12 mil$7.857 mil
Year 7$6 mil$0$6 mil$7.857 mil
Year 8$6 mil$0$6 mil$7.857 mil
Year 9$6 mil$0$6 mil$7.857 mil
Year 10$6 mil$0$6 mil$7.857 mil
Year 11$3 mil$0$3 mil$7.857 mil
Year 12$1 mil$0$1 mil$7.857 mil
Year 13$1 mil$0$1 mil$7.857 mil
Year 14$1 mil$0$1 mil$7.857 mil
Total $$42 mil$68 mil$110 mil

To be frank, very few probably foresaw an offer sheet for big term and big bucks, if only because negotiating with Weber and getting him to sign on such terms would be akin to doing David Poile’s job for him. With the right to match, the 14-year term could guarantee Weber stays in Nashville for the rest of his career; with a reasonable cap hit, the only impediment would be whether or not they could come up with enough cash flow – $80 million in the first 6 years of the deal – to afford it. Really, if I’m David Poile, I don’t see any reason not to match the Flyers’ offer, except maybe if I could work out a trade with the Flyers in the next 7 days for several top-level players or prospects.

For those criticizing Mike Gillis or the Canucks for not being aggressive enough, consider these:

1) I doubt this is a money issue. Aquilini has shown time and again that he’s willing to buck up. Look at the big-money, long-term commitments he’s made to Luongo, the Sedins, Kesler, Hamhius, Bieksa, Ballard, Booth, Garrison, Schneider… the list goes on. Look at how much he’s willing to spend on depth NHL players while they’re playing in the AHL.

2) The Canucks could have thrown Weber a one-year offer sheet, but given the state of CBA negotiations, why would he sign on for one year and then have to negotiate a new contract under the new – and presumably more stringent – CBA next year?

3) The Canucks could have thrown Weber a multi-year offer sheet, but unlike the Flyers, the Canucks probably weren’t willing to risk that Nashville would simply match, and thus remove Weber from the market.

4) if the Predators were indeed shopping Weber’s rights, it’s hard to believe the Canucks would have been able to offer anywhere near the kind of return the Flyers, Rangers, Sharks (the other rumored suitors for Weber) are able to. The Canucks’ biggest trading chip would’ve been one of their goaltenders, which the Predators don’t need. After that, it’s probably Alex Edler, who is, like Weber would’ve been, a UFA next year. In comparison, the other teams could offer a package that potentially includes the likes of Taylor Hall, Sean Couturier, Braydon Coburn, Chris Kreider, Ryan McDonagh, Patrick Marleau or Joe Pavelski.

For the most optimistic of us, I suppose, given the Predators’ general financial environment and the Flyers’ willingness to trade even long-term deals, we could hope that Weber would someday be available via the trade market. In the meantime, the Canucks’ 42-year quest for a true no. 1 defenseman continues.

May 152012
 

New York Rangers (1) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)

Season Series:  Rangers (3-2-1)

What we learned about the Rangers in the Second Round: That Brad Richards, at least this year, is worth every penny New York is paying him. There is a lot of Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman in Richards game this post-season.  The Rangers need Richards (and for that matter, Marian Gaborik, who had a terrific Caps series) to continue playing like this, as without him the team clearly doesn’t have enough scoring to win a playoff series. For that matter, we also learned that Michael Del Zotto has come all the way back from a disasterous 2010-11 season. He helped the Rangers improve their powerplay in the second round. Finally, we learned that the Rangers had enough in the tank after a 7-game first round to go the distance again against Washington. The longer this Conference Final goes though, the worse it will be for the clearly battered-and-bruised Rangers.

What we learned about the Devils in the Second Round: That Peter DeBoer was a terrific hire as coach for the Devils, has he’s taken their traditional defensive excellence and added an up-tempo forecheck that drove Philadelphia’s blueliners crazy in the second round. This is as deep a Devils team upfront as they’ve had since the turn of the century. That Ilya Kovalchuk has overtaken Alex Ovechkin in the rankings of best Russian players, and has become a better leader than anyone expected. That their powerplay had some bite against the Flyers, with two solid offensive lines and Kurtis Foster bombing from the point.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Rangers. DeBoer has done a great job with the Devils but no one has gotten more from his players this year than John Tortorella.

Goaltending: Rangers. Massive edge here. Brodeur has had moments in this post-season but was just “good enough” against the Flyers. Lundqvist is all world.

Defense: Rangers. No team remaining in the playoffs is as disciplined defensively as the Rangers. Their blueline is heads-and-tails better than New Jersey’s, especially with the emergence of Del Zotto in the second round.

Offense: Devils. New Jersey’s tied with Los Angeles for highest scoring team remaining in the playoffs, and they can roll three lines that can contribute offensively. The key to the series for the Devils will be containing Richards and Gaborik. If they can, the Rangers offense is lifeless.

Special Teams: Even. Devils have had a stronger powerplay in the post-season, but their penalty kill has been a sore point through two rounds. Rangers have been mediocre in both areas, although their pp improved against Washington.

Prediction: Rangers in 6.

*****

A word now for the dearly departed:

Philadelphia Flyers

Cause of Death: Poor defensive play.

Prescription: First the Flyers have to figure out what’s going on with Chris Pronger. If Pronger is really headed for retirement, it would make a lot of sense for the team to try and find some cap room to go after Ryan Suter. The Flyers can certainly score, but adding some other veteran, character guys who can improve the penalty kill and help clean up the defensive zone (and not leave Ilya Bryzgalov out to dry like he was left at times in these playoffs) would be a huge boost. This is probably “as bad” as the Flyers are going to be for some time – they’re a powerhouse on the rise.

*****

Washington Capitals

Cause of Death: Self-inflicted Offensive Asphyxiation.

Prescription: Let’s get this out of the way first – this team got no more done under Dale Hunter’s “defensive” system than they did playing Bruce Boudreau’s original “run and gun” hockey. As evidenced as recently as this spring by the Kings and Devils, teams that can score (averaging 3 goals per game) AND defend well are enjoying success. Doing just one, or the other, is not good enough. The Caps have an emerging blueline, some solid character and defensive depth throughout the lineup and hopes are high for goaltender Holtby – what Washington needs to invest in (and have needed to invest in for a long-time now) is secondary scoring. A good, second-line centre who could take the heat off of Alex Ovechkin and Nik Backstrom (who face every team’s top defensive players) would be a huge step in the right direction for the Caps. It would never happen, but man this is a team that could use Jordan Staal (reportedly on the market) or a player of that calibre to anchor the second line.

Apr 282012
 
New York Rangers vs Washington Capitals

Photo credit: New York Times

Yesterday we looked at the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference now, shall we?

New York Rangers (1) vs. Washington Capitals (7)

Season Series: Tied 2-2

What we Learned About the Rangers: 

It was more about what we were able to confirm than what we learned. Even with the addition of Brad Richards (who led the team in scoring in round one), this is a New York team built to keep goals out, not score them in bushels. Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin could add that offense in time, but right now their biggest contribution seems to be speed. Derek Stepan was arguably the team’s best forward in the first round. Henrik Lundqvist got out of the first round for the first time in four years and cemented his status as the game’s best. With the Bruins out of the playoffs the Rangers are now the best defensive team remaining in the East. Given they’re the top seed; given that defensive excellence; given Henrik Lundqvist; these Blueshirts enter this series as prohibitive favourites.

What we Learned about the Capitals: 

A heck of a lot. For starters, we learned that coach Dale Hunter will play whoever he feels is going, meaning that stars Alex Ovechkin, Nik Backstrom and Alex Semin all saw reduced minutes at different times in the last series. We learned that the Capitals blueline is starting to really come of age, with Karl Alzner especially making a difference defensively. We learned that the Caps have become a patient team – they’ll wait for their opponent to make mistakes rather than push the tempo themselves. Oh, and we learned that the Caps have a pretty good third string goalie, especially when the entire team is going to great lengths to protect him. Look, this isn’t the Capitals team that captured our hearts years ago. But their round one performance certainly revealed this is a hockey club that, after years of disappointment, has improved character on its roster. Boston – the more talented, deeper team – trapped and passively played their way to a series loss. It’s quite possible the Rangers, with their similar style, who’ve lost to Washington in the last two playoffs, could do the same.

Quick Decisions: 

Coaching: Rangers. Tortorella has won a Cup and, well, I’ve got segments of 24/7 cued for whenever I need an inspirational speech. Hunter’s won a round but the jury is still out on him being a capable NHL bench boss.

Goaltending: Rangers. Yes Braden Holtby looked like Ken Dryden in round one. But Lundqvist is the best in the game. Best Washington can hope for here is a draw.

Defense: Rangers. It’s closer than expected based on Washington’s excellent performance against the Bruins. Both teams have strong defense cores, with the Caps a bit more dynamic along the blueline (Mike Green had a nice series against the Bruins). Ranger forwards execute the defensive system in their sleep, while the Caps still have a few players who freelance from time to time.

Offense: Even. Washington has more talented players but they don’t have much beyond their big three scorers. The Rangers have slightly more scoring on their second and third lines but Marian Gaborik – their strongest sniper – had a pedestrian first round. Expect a low scoring series.

Special Teams: Even. Both teams have the resources to be better in this area. Washington’s special teams were average in the regular season and slightly better in the first round. The Rangers powerplay has been frustrating for most of the year, but surprisingly their strong penalty kill was lit up a bit by the Senators.

Prediction: Capitals in 7.

*****

Philadelphia Flyers (5) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)

Season Series: Philadelphia (3-2-1)

What we Learned About Philadelphia:

That they have probably the most offensive depth in the Eastern Conference. We also learned that their willingness to take risks often leaves goalie Ilya Bryzgalov hung out to dry. We learned that Braydon Coburn has taken another step and is a legitimate top-pairing defenseman. We learned that Danny Briere can still raise his game in the post-season and that Claude Giroux might be the best player in the league right now. We learned that Max Talbot has gotten better since leaving Pittsburgh.

What we Learned About New Jersey:

We learned maybe the biggest lesson of the first round – that Ilya Kovalchuk has become a more complete player and has grown into a leadership role. We learned that Martin Brodeur has some magic left (very solid in Game 7) but that his game can leave him at any given moment. The Devils also showed some weak defensive play that’s unlike the great Devils team of old. This is certainly the weakest blueline left in the playoffs and arguably the weakest goaltending left in the playoffs.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Philadelphia (Peter DeBoer has done a very good job bringing speed and a more dynamic approach to the Devils. The Flyers Peter Laviolette though is an elite coach)

Goaltending: Flyers. Slight edge here. Bryzgalov isn’t as bad as his first round stats against the Penguins and Brodeur isn’t as good as his against the pop-gun Panthers. Bryzgalov’s numbers were slightly stronger in the regular season and have been stronger over the last few years.

Defense: Flyers. Another slight edge attributable to a stronger Flyers blueline. Nick Grossman has been a nice addition, while Matt Carle and Kimmo Timmonen are stronger than anything the Devils have on defense.

Offense: Flyers. It’s the Flyers top three lines versus the Devils’ top-two. That depth, and the ability of coach Laviolette to mix and match 10 forwards with offensive skill (list includes youngsters Matt Read, Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn), give Philadelphia a definitive advantage here. The Devils still can’t get any offense from their blueline on a consistant basis.

Prediction: Flyers in 5.

*****

And finally, a final word for the dearly departed:

Boston Bruins

Cause of Death: Self-asphyxiation – injuries robbed the team of offensive depth, and Claude Julien’s passive system didn’t generate enough opportunities for the team to score.

Prescription: Continue to search for a creative blueline to quarterback the powerplay. Explore another top-six forward to potentially replace Nathan Horton, whose future is cloudy due to concussion.

*****

Florida Panthers

Cause of Death: Lack of talent

Prescription: Stay the course. This Panthers team as constructed is an interim measure while the team’s best young players develop at their own pace. Adding a Jonathan Huberdeau next year will only help this club.

*****

Pittsburgh Penguins

Cause of Death: A lack of defense and goaltending.

Prescription: Find a stronger back-up goaltender to spell Marc-Andre Fleury when his game escapes him. Upgrade defensive depth, as Paul Martin struggled in the post-season and the third-pairing barely played.

*****

Ottawa Senators

Cause of Death: Lack of composure in Game 6.

Prescription: Stay the course. Composure comes with experience. The Senators shuffled all their young players into the lineup to get them playoff exposure. That should pay dividends next year.

Apr 272012
 
Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues

Photo credit: The Checking Line

Let’s just get this out of the way first, shall we?

This first round was a bloody disappointment.

Welcome to the deadpuck era 2.0 – to a style of play that see goal prevention more successful than goal creation.

Where goaltenders dominate, and the flow of the game – much improved since the lockout – has returned to slogging through muck.

It’s an game filled with interference and Wild West justice, where league’s least skilled players may attack, hurt and render obsolete its most talented.

Look, playoff hockey is supposed to be many things – faster, more physical, more passionate. But what it shouldn’t be is more boring.

But that’s what it’s been.

The league has become stronger defensively in general, and the playoffs have only amplified that. This is shaping up to be the lowest scoring first-round of the last five years, if not longer. 

First Round Goals Per Game:

Western ConferenceYearEastern Conference
4.4320125.64*
5.9620115.83
6.4320105.08
5.3020095.00
5.0820085.65

God bless that Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series, which on its own has saved the league from having the lack of goals be a bigger negative story. The Battle of Pennsylvania averaged 9.33 (!!!) goals per game. The rest of the Eastern Conference games have been snore-fests (4.47).

Skilled teams are falling by the wayside in these playoffs, which, unless Philadelphia or Nashville win the Stanley Cup, reverses the historic trend that shows scoring teams persevere.

The only question is if this is a one-year anomaly or not.

The decline in scoring league-wide in recent years; the rise in shot-blocking; the reduction in penalty calls this season and power play goals (only the Sharks scored at a rate higher than 10% on the powerplay after the All-Star Game!); the defensive collapse in front of the net and other strategies lead me to believe things are only going to get worse unless rules are changed.

With that cheery thought in mind, let’s take a look at the Second Round match-ups in the Western Conference.

 St. Louis Blues (2) vs.Los Angeles Kings (8)

Season Series: Los Angeles Kings (3-1)

What we have learned about St. Louis:

They have come of age. When the Blues hired Ken Hitchcock, they did so to determine once and for all whether the young players they’d assembled on their roster were good enough to win together. Manhandling the Sharks in the first round answered that question. Winning in five games also gives them some rest ahead of another round of significant travel against a gruelling West Coast team. The Blues have four lines that can contribute, although in reality only the top-two lines are a threat to score.

What we have learned about Los Angeles:

That they look like another Darryl Sutter team – the 2004 Calgary Flames that went on a Cup run. Jonathan Quick remains a brick wall in goal (Miikka Kiprusoff-esque) and Dustin Brown did a pretty terrific Jarome Iginla impression against the Canucks. Having said that, the absence of Daniel Sedin for three games (all losses) and the poor play of Ryan Kesler were significant factors in L.A.’s win. They’re a good team – better than your usual eighth place team – but the stars were aligned a bit for them in round one. Oh, and the fourth line barely plays.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Blues. Slight edge to Hitchcock because he’s won a Cup but both coaches have their teams playing about as well as possible.

Goaltending: Kings. Both teams have put up microscopic goals against totals but if I had to pick one goalie from this series to win a seventh game right now it would be Jonathan Quick, not Brian Elliott or Jaroslav Halak.

Defense: Even. Alex Pieterangelo is playing better than Drew Doughty these days, but Willie Mitchell had the series of his life against the Canucks. Both teams execute their defensive systems flawlessly.

Offense: Blues. A slight edge here to the Blues, as Andy McDonald and Patrick Berglund had impressive first rounds. Can they continue? Meanwhile, the potential is there for L.A.’s offense to explode, but a strict commitment to Darryl Sutter’s system could mean on-going sporadic production from Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. If the Kings are to win this series, they need one of their big guns to get hot.

Special Teams: Blues. The Blues powerplay was third-best in the league post the All-Star Game, and lit-up the Sharks at a rate of 33%. Both teams have very good penalty kills.

Prediction: Blues in 6.

*****

Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs Nashville Predators (4)

Season Series: Tied 2-2

What we have learned about Nashville:

They are who we thought they were – arguably the most talented, deepest Predators team in franchise history. They proved they can skate and out-play the Red Wings five-on-five as their powerplay (league best in the regular season) failed them in the first round. At over 20-minutes a game, rookie defenseman Roman Josi was leaned on and played a sound series against Detroit.

What we have learned about Phoenix:

That Mike Smith has pretty much transformed himself into goaltending coach Sean Burke, who at his best was among the league’s elite netminders. This is a Phoenix team that found surprising scoring depth in round one – no remaining Western Conference team had as many different round one goal scorers as Phoenix did (11). Otherwise, this is a Coyotes team that won a playoff series by taking advantage of the counter-attack and being opportunistic. Territorially, thanks to their bend-don’t-break defensive scheme, the Coyotes were outplayed much of round one by the Blackhawks.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Even. Two of the best coaches in the game.

Goaltending: Even. Pekka Rinne has a bit longer resume, but Mike Smith was all-world for Phoenix in round one.

Defense: Predators. It’s an underrated blueline in Phoenix, but Ryan Suter and Shea Weber were dominant against the Red Wings. The Predators should get Hal Gill back as well, which should give them a boost on the penalty kill and an additional match-up advantage. Forwards on both teams are expected to play both-ways, but the Predators don’t give up nearly as many shots as the Coyotes do.

Offense: Predators. The Coyotes surprising scoring in the first round could be attributable to poor play from Chicago’s Corey Crawford. Ray Whitney is an elite, intelligent attacker but the rough style of play found in these playoffs limits his effectiveness at even strength. Let’s not forget Nashville was one of the highest scoring teams in the league during the regular season. Alex Radulov is probably the player in this series most capable of dominating play.

Special Teams: Predators. Phoenix’s special teams were very good against a Chicago team that struggled in this area during the regular season. Expect a bit of a drop-off. Nashville’s powerplay struggled against Detroit. They’ll need a better second round performance if they hope to beat the Coyotes.

Prediction: Predators in 5.

*****

Finally, a quick word on the departed:

Vancouver Canucks

Cause of death: A lack of secondary scoring and Duncan Keith’s elbow.

Prescription: Stay-the-course, get what you can for Luongo, and try and find a 25-goal scorer or strong playmaker who can mesh with Ryan Kesler.

*****

Chicago Blackhawks

Cause of death: Poor goaltending and a massive concussion to Marian Hossa, care of Raffi Torres.

Prescription: Upgrade in net. Otherwise there’s still much to like about this Chicago team.

*****

Detroit Red Wings

Cause of death: Age. This team is just not as deep or capable on defense or up front.

Prescription: Use their cap space on Zach Parise and/or Ryan Suter. A Rick Nash trade would be worth exploring too. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Jaromir Jagr end up here either as a PP specialist (if he doesn’t resign in Philly).

*****

San Jose Sharks

Cause of death: Age. See the Red Wings above.

Prescription: Shake up the core. It would not be a surprise to see Patrick Marleau and/or Danny Boyle moved to bring fresh pieces into the fold. The Sharks will try to take a quick step back to take a giant leap forward before Joe Thornton is completely washed up.

Apr 112012
 
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers

Photo credit: canada.com

New York Rangers (1) vs. Ottawa Senators (8)

Season Series: Ottawa (3-1)

It’s been a rather Cinderella season for the New York Rangers, who rode their improving young core, particularly on defense, to their most successful season since they won the Stanley Cup in 1993-94. Marion Gaborik eclipsed 40-goals for the third time and is the most dangerous Rangers forward. Ryan Callahan (29 goals) is the most complete player on the team and is a Selke Candidate this year. Brad Richards scored some key goals during the season, but his 66 points and -1 were somewhat disappointing. For all the hype over Henrik Lundquist’s performance this year, since March he’s been rather pedestrian (2.60 goals against; .895 save percentage). Nonetheless, this is the strongest blueline (highlighted by career years from Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonough and Michael Del Zotto) Lundquist’s ever played behind.

Speaking of Cinderella seasons, the Senators were destined for a lottery pick according to most pre-season prognostications. Coach Paul Maurice brought the offense from his stint in Detroit, but more importantly the emergence of Erik Karlsson transformed Ottawa into one of the most dangerous teams in the league. Leading the attack upfront was Jason Spezza, who played 80 games for the first time in three years and was among the league-leaders in scoring. Craig Anderson actually improved as the season went along, helping the team almost shave half-a-goal against per game off their record post All-Star Game. This is a very young team though, and Anderson will have to come up huge if the Sens are to have a chance in the series.

Key Player, Rangers: Marian Gaborik

The Rangers will need their best offensive player to have a terrific post-season if the team has any chance of a Cup run. Gaborik’s compete-level will be tested by anOttawateam that will punish him physically every time he touches the puck.

Key Player, Senators: Erik Karlsson

Similar to Gaborik, Karlsson is the straw the stirs the Senators offensive drink.  The Rangers are going to go after Ottawa’s young quarterback defenseman and make him pay the price every time he goes back for the puck in his own zone. If Rangers such as Brandon Dubinsky are successful limiting Karlsson, they’ll neutralize Ottawa’s attack.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Rangers. John Tortorella’s won a Stanley Cup and should get the match-ups he wants with home-ice advantage.

Goaltending: Rangers. As strong as Anderson played this season few goalies are in Lundquist’s league.

Defense: Rangers. Despite improved play from Filip Kuba and Karlsson’s excellence, New York’s blueline has greater depth and is augmented by a strong two-way forward group.

Scoring: Senators. Top-4 in the league scoring-wise, and only one of three teams to average more than three goals-per-game after the All-Star break.

Special Teams: Even. Ottawa’s stronger on the powerplay, while the Rangers were among the league’s best on the penalty kill.

Prediction: Rangers in 6

*****

Boston Bruins (2) vs. Washington Capitals (7)

Season Series: Washington (3-1)

The defending champion Boston Bruins were tied with Ottawa for the second-fewest points among playoff teams in their last 41 games (45 points). Poor goaltending was a major factor, as while the Bruins reduced their shots against after the All-Star Game, their goalies could only muster a .899 save percentage. Nonetheless, this is a team that’s arguably as deep as the Cup winners last year, with Tyler Seguin (team-leading 67-points) having replaced Mark Recchi; Brian Rolston playing the Rich Peverley role (15 points in 21 Bruins games) and Joe Corvo filling the Tomas Kaberle position as “offensive defenseman who needs his ice-time well-managed.” Nathan Horton’s injury has been somewhat off-set by improved play by Benoit Pouliot. A repeat is not out of the question.

If there is a playoff team that would like to forget its regular season it’s the Washington Capitals, who went from pre-season favourites to run away with the Southeast Division to coming this close to finishing outside the playoffs.  The firing of Bruce Boudreau brought Dale Hunter back to the Washington franchise, but the team really didn’t improve their play. The Caps were 30-23-7 under the new coach and, for the first time in years, struggled to find any offense. Hunter’s system (or lack thereof) was criticized by his own players, and a war-of-words between Roman Hamrlik and his coach added to speculation Hunter was in-over-his-head at the NHL level. Tomas Vokoun (currently suffering from a groin injury) was roughly league-average in goal, which didn’t help matters. In reality though, part of Washington’s problem was directly tied to their lack of offensive depth, particularly in the wake of Niklas Backstrom’s absence due to concussion. With Backstrom back, this is a Caps team that enters the playoffs with a few gamebreakers (Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Backstrom), a strong commitment to defense and an improved blueline (Mike Green’s play has fallen off a cliff, but John Carlson and Dmitri Orlov have stepped up). The pieces are there for this team to surprise… or leave the post-season after four-straight losses.

Key Player, Boston: Tim Thomas

Boston’s veteran goalie has been rather average in 2012. If he can’t find his game now, the Capitals will stick around longer than many people think.  

Key Player, Washington: Alex Ovechkin

He is the most talented player in this series and a match-up against Zdeno Chara should be incredibly challenging. But Ovechkin, rather quietly, has been terrific down the stretch (12 goals in 19 games) and has Backstrom back as his centre. A special effort by Ovechkin could re-write this Capitals season and give the Bruins fits.

Quick Decisions

Coaching: Bruins. This is Hunter’s first trip to the NHL post-season; Boston’s Claude Julien is among the league’s best.

Goaltending: Bruins. Closer than you might think given Tim Thomas’s struggles. Who knows how Vokoun will play – and if he’ll play – meaning it’ll be up to Michael Neuvrith or Braden Holtby to shock the world.

Defense: Bruins. Washington potentially has more blueline talent but the Bruins are a more complete and effective group, both forwards and defense.

Scoring:  Bruins. Dale Hunter hasn’t been able to get Washington’s offense firing, while the Bruins can roll four scoring lines.

Special Teams: Bruins. Slight edge due to stronger penalty killing.

Prediction: Bruins in 7

*****

Florida Panthers (3) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)

Season Series: Florida (2-1-1)

The Florida Panthers enter these playoffs as the lowest scoring team in the Eastern Conference. Historically, teams with the fewest goals to reach the playoffs usually make quick first-round exits. Furthermore, the Panthers enter the post-season with the worst goal differential remaining – another ominous omen. Having said that, there are a few reasons why Florida won the Southeast Division. For starters, the Panthers have received solid goaltending from both Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen. More importantly, Brian Campbell (52 points) had a renaissance and Jason Garrison (16 goals) had a career year, helping to turn a below-average blueline into a decent group. Florida also got great mileage from its top line of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg, although they tailed off as the season wore on (Versteeg had just 4 goals after the All-Star Game).

Coached by former Panthers bench boss Peter DeBoer, the Devils implemented a more aggressive system this season to strong results. Nowhere was this more impressive than on the penalty kill, where New Jersey led the league with 15 shorthanded goals. Ilya Kovalchuk had his best season from a complete player perspective, leading the team in goals, points, ice-time and playing a penalty killing role. David Clarkson (30 goals), a healthy Zack Parise (31 goals), Patrick Elias (78 points) Petr Sykora (21 goals) and rookie Adam Henrique (51 points) have given New Jersey more scoring depth than they’ve had in years. This depth upfront hasn’t translated to the defense however, as the Devils blueline is much like Easter Island (aka a bunch of statues). Rookie Adam Larsson led defenseman in scoring with 18 points but has found himself a healthy scratch down the stretch. There’s a lot of pressure on Marek Zidlicky to be a powerplay quarterback in the post-season.

Key Player, Panthers: Brian Campbell

Not only is Campbell likely to play more minutes than anyone else in the series (outside of the goalies), but he’ll be asked to contribute at both ends of the ice. If Florida wins the series the powerplay – on which Campbell is the quarterback – will have to be a factor. Similarly, it would not be a surprise to see the smooth-skating Campbell matched-up against Ilya Kovalchuk, in the hopes that speed can counteract speed.

Key Player, Devils: Martin Brodeur

Brodeur isn’t the goalie we all remember, but his numbers and play did improve as the season went along (.921 save percentage after the break). And yet, he hasn’t won a playoff series in five years. Poor play from Brodeur is probably the only way the Panthers can win this series.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Even. Both teams are led by coaches in the playoffs for the first time. Both did good jobs in the regular season.

Goaltending: Even. Brodeur and the Devils goaltending were much improved in the second-half, but Florida’s Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmenson were just as strong all year for the Panthers.

Defense: Even. The Panthers blueline is stronger than that of the Devils, but New Jersey’s system and team approach to defending the goal remains elite.

Scoring: Devils. Florida scored only 2.29 goals-per-game after the All-Star break, worst among playoff teams.

Special Teams: Devils. Florida was 7th on the powerplay but 25th on the penalty kill. New Jersey was 1st overall on the penalty kill and 14th on the powerplay.

Prediction: Devils in 5

*****

Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (5)

Season Series: Philadelphia (4-2)

There’s a lot of hype about the Penguins as they enter the playoffs, and the buzz is legitimate. Pittsburgh played at a 60-win, 315-goal pace in the second half of the season, and enter the playoffs relatively healthy. There may not be another team in the league more equipped to transition from an attack-focused approach to a defensive one than the Penguins. Evgeni Malkin (109 points) is this year’s likely Hart Trophy winner, and there were times he simply dominated opponents in the offensive zone. His chemistry with James Neal (40 goals) might be the best in the league. Given reduced ice-time upon his return from a concussion, Sidney Crosby also dazzled, putting up 37 points in 22 games this season. When you add Jordan Staal (25 goals) to the mix, this is the deepest team at centre in the league. It’s also the most fragile, as each of Staal, Crosby and Malkin have battled injuries in the past. An injury to Malkin or Crosby especially could change the fate of any playoff series. On defense, Kris Letang battled injuries all season but when healthy looked like a Norris candidate. Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek are a strong shutdown pairing. 

Despite major changes in the off-season, it was really business as usual for the Flyers, who reached 100 points for the second-straight year. Team success was predicated on offense, as Philadelphia was one of just three teams to average more than three goals-per-game. Claude Giroux was a major reason for the team’s offense, establishing himself among the league’s elite scorers with 93 points. Having said that, a strong rookie campaign from Matt Read (24 goals) and a breakout season for Scott Hartnell (37 goals) helped give the Flyers three solid scoring lines. Rookie Sean Couturier played the shutdown centre role all season, and it will be interesting to see how he fares in that role during the playoffs. On defense, the addition of Nicklas Grossman gave the Flyers the capable defensive-defenseman they didn’t have once Chris Pronger was lost for the year (career?) due to injury. Kimmo Timonen (43 points) also took on a greater role after Pronger’s injury, and played some of the best hockey of his career. In goal, Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky were the subject of criticism all season, but their play improved substantially after the All-Star Game.

Key Player, Pittsburgh: Matt Cooke

There’s every reason to expect this Penguins and Flyers series will get ugly. Cooke (19 goals) has had a terrific year, introducing self-control into his game and becoming an effective checking line player. If Cooke can play like Esa Tikkanen, acting as a defensive pest but staying above the expected Flyers shenanigans, he could drive Philadelhpia crazy and into a march to the penalty box. 

Key Player, Philadelphia: Jaromir Jagr

As much pressure as there will be on Ilya Bryzgalov’s shoulders, Jaromir Jagr is the key veteran presence in this young Flyers dressing room. Jagr battled groin injuries during the second-half of the season but demonstrated at times he can still dominate play, particularly down low in the offensive zone. The Flyers can’t win this series if Jagr is a passenger – they need him to be a catalyst.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Even. Both are Stanley Cup winners; both are among the best in the game.

Goaltending: Even. Statistically, Philadelphia received better goaltending from its netminders than Pittsburgh did this year. The Penguins’ Marc-Andre Fleury has become somewhat of a modern day Grant Fuhr – a big game goalie whose statistics otherwise seem unremarkable.

Defense: Penguins. The Penguins have proven without Crosby or Malkin they can be an elite defensive team in the NHL. The Flyers would rather trade chances with their opponent, and their blueline isn’t nearly as deep.

Offense: Penguins. Despite some impressive scoring depth on the Flyers roster the Penguins, with Crosby and Malkin, offer a Lemieux-Francis, Gretzky-Messier, Forsberg-Sakic –like twosome. Containing both of them will be impossible.

Special Teams: Penguins. The Penguins are top ten on both the powerplay and penalty kill, while Philadelphia’s penalty kill has been bottom-third of the league.

Prediction: Penguins in 7

Feb 282012
 

Let’s get this out of the way first.

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

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

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

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

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Vancouver

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

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

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

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

Potential weakness: The blueline.

2. San Jose

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

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

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

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

Potential weakness: Goaltending

3. Nashville

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

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

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

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

Potential weakness: Scoring

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Boston

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

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

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

Potential weakness: Nathan Horton’s health

2. New York Rangers

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

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

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

Potential weakness: Scoring

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Couldn’t put Pittsburgh on the list for one reason – there’s no guarantee Sidney Crosby is coming back. If he does, and he’s healthy, they’re added to the contender mix. The thing is, with how aggressive play is in the playoffs, does anyone think Sidney Crosby would survive a long playoff run without another injury?
  • The Flyers aren’t a contender, and really, haven’t been one all season. They’re fun to watch but there are too many holes on defense or in goal to be considered among the elite. Could be a different story in a few years though.
  • Puzzling move #1: The Toronto Maple Leafs trading Keith Aulie, who remains a legit defensive prospect - one who could become Hal Gill 2.0. Yes Toronto has depth on the blueline, but acquiring Carter Ashton for Aulie seems like acquiring 50 cents on the dollar. Ashton projects as a 3rd line guy at best. Burke is living and dying by his current roster in Toronto. It’s likely not enough to get the team into the playoffs.
  • Puzzling move #2: The Edmonton Oilers trading Tom Gilbert to their division rivals the Minnesota Wild for Nick Schultz. I think this sums it up nicely. Perhaps all this really means is that Edmonton intends to draft an offensive defenseman in the first round this year, and pair him with Schultz immediately.
  • Talked a lot about the Vancouver – Buffalo trade above, but one more thing: there’s no question Cody Hodgson is the most talented player in the deal, but from a Canucks standpoint they’re looking to win now. Long-term, it could be a trade the Canucks regret, although it does seem the franchise never warmed to the guy. Biggest immediate concern - what happens if one of Kesler or Sedin gets hurt?
  • Johnny Oduya is a nice complimentary pickup by the Blackhawks, but they needed more (another d-man, another scoring forward) for their playoff chances to truly improve. Right now, the ‘Hawks look like a second round team at best.
  • It’s rare you see the Flames apologize to the Oilers.
  • It would not surprise me if Ben Bishop eventually forced Craig Anderson out of town in Ottawa. Bishop is a very good goalie prospect, and the team already has Robin Lehner on the farm. It could be Anderson becomes the known asset the Senators eventually move for needed pieces.
Jan 182012
 

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

Here now is a look at the East.

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

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

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

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

The Eastern Conference Standings After 40 Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jan 102012
 

If someone you know is in a car crash, the first thing you want to know is how badly hurt they are.

The 2011-12 season of the Columbus Blue Jackets has been an epic car crash.

But in the grand scheme of things, they’re not too badly hurt.

Why? Just like someone struggling with addiction, sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to start your way back to the top.

For the Blue Jackets, this year has been rock bottom – and the path to the top is pretty clear.

Here’s why the future isn’t all that dark in Columbus:

1. The first overall pick this year is a dandy.

Nail Yakupov has been heralded as the best Russian prospect since Alex Ovechkin and has drawn comparisons to Pavel Bure. Unlike many of the Russian forwards that come to play in the NHL, Yakupov has strong on-ice vision and knows how to use his teammates (witness the 4-assist game against Canada in the World Juniors). A torn meniscus shouldn’t dampen his NHL future, and he’s already stated he doesn’t want to play in the KHL. If the Blue Jackets remain as the worst team in the NHL and don’t lose their first overall pick in the draft lottery, Yakupov could have the same impact as Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have had on their respective teams.

2. They already have a veteran superstar to build and market the team around.

Rick Nash has never had an elite centre to play with, and for the most part has been almost a lone-gunman his team’s attack, making it easy for the opposition to defend against him. However, he remains an elite talent, with great speed for a power forward and terrific goal-scoring hands. In many ways, he could become what Jarome Iginla came to mean to the Calgary Flames, both on the ice and in the community. The Blue Jackets would be fools to move him. Besides, teams when trading a superstar of Nash’s standing rarely get equal value back in a trade (witness the Joe Thornton deal from Boston years ago).

3. Their attendance woes are greatly exaggerated.

One of the great myths propagated by hockey media (particularly Toronto hockey media) is that Columbus is just another failed NHL expansion team destined to move.

Well hold on a minute.

From 2000-2004 Columbus was actually a top-15 market attendance-wise in the NHL, peaking at 8th overall in the league in 2001-02. Granted, years of on-ice incompetence eventually wore the lustre off of going to Blue Jackets games. But if you look at the history of the franchise (2000-present), they’re actually only 21st in league attendance:

RankTeamAverage Attendance (2000-present)
1Montreal Canadiens20,837
2Detroit Red Wings18, 859
.........
21Columbus Blue Jackets16,168
22Boston Bruins16,083
23Florida Panthers15,625
24Carolina Hurricanes15, 441
25New Jersey Devils15, 157
26Anaheim Ducks14, 988
27Nashville Predators14, 935
28Atlanta/Winnipeg14, 714
29Phoenix Coyotes13, 823
30New York Islanders13, 090

The success or failure of a hockey market can only truly be measured once the local team has experienced both sustained success and failure.

Columbus has only known failure. It’s not a stretch to think the team will fill their building again once the team enjoys some success.

4. It doesn’t take a rocket science to see where this team needs to improve.

Let’s get this out of the way first. Scott Howson has been at best mediocre, at worst a failure, as Blue Jackets general manager. The remainder of this season, and what he can accomplish in the off-season, will decide if he remains the team’s architect in 2013.

Howson has already stated Columbus is open-for-business. There’s a nice breakdown of who could be moved here. Who the team ships out though is almost secondary to the importance of what it brings back.

In this case, the only acceptable return is a goalie who can make a difference night in, night out at the NHL level.

The Steve Mason era has to end. Other than during Mason’s rookie season, the team’s goaltending has been among the league worst. A great team can win with average goaltending. A rebuilding team can only win with great goaltending.

The Blue Jackets need to find that goaltending – that is priority no. 1. Maybe it’s Jonathan Bernier in Los Angeles; Cory Schneider in Vancouver; Thomas Griess in San Jose; Anders Lindback in Nashville; or Sergei Bobrovsky in Philadelphia. Maybe it’s 2012 unrestricted free agents Tomas Vokun in Washington or Ray Emery in Chicago. Maybe it’s a a draft pick like Andrei Vasilevski. Maybe it’s prospect Mark Dekanich, who has been knocking on the door in Columbus for awhile but can’t seem to stay healthy.

Whoever it is, the Blue Jackets must turn that perennial weakness into a position of strength for the team to turn around.

The most consistently successful teams in NHL history are those that build from the goaltender out. It’s time Columbus followed the blueprint.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • One final Blue Jacket thought - the time to fire coach Scott Arniel was two months ago, when the season was still somewhat salvagable. Letting Arniel try to change the team’s on-ice philosophy on the fly during the season only further muddled the direction of the team. As stated above, the future could be rosy in Columbus if the right moves are made right now. Howson’s handling of Arniel though creates more doubt he’s the GM to right-the-ship.
  • Can’t stop laughing at the headlines involving Dustin Penner’s injury while eating pancakes. With only four goals and 15 points in 50 career games now with Los Angeles, he could be moved at the trade deadline. The question is – who would want him? Love these unasked follow-up questions to Penner about his injury too.
  • This is why expansion is coming soon to the NHL – it would address the “unbalanced” conference issue the NHLPA has with the league’s proposed realignment. Adding two teams to the proposed “East” (say Metro Toronto and Quebec City) would give every conference eight teams. Such a move would also add a lot of profits to the league, which in turn benefits both owners and players.
  • If the NHL does expand let’s hope they reduce the roster size. There’s not enough talent for 30 teams, let alone 32.
  • Here are ESPN’s first-half grades.
  • The Emperor has no clothes Part #1 – Here’s why the Washington Capitals do not make the playoffs this year: Dale Hunter is in over his head as coach; beyond Alex Ovechkin and Niklas Backstrom, the team is overrated offensively; the team lacks the discipline to commit to a defensive scheme; GM George McPhee has made the critical mistake of overvaluing players on his own roster.
  • The Emperor has no clothes Part #2 – It sure looks like the Edmonton Oilers, despite all their high draft picks, are on the fast-track to nowhere. They’re likely the worst team in the league right now. Sure that can happen when your team’s best players get hurt. It’s more likely to happen when you ice an AHL-level defense and feature only adequate goaltending.
  • “We’re in the people business too, and I would look like an idiot not to put him in” says Ken Hitchcock about giving Jaroslav Halak the start in Montreal. Funny how this comment made me think about how the Canucks chose to start Cory Schneider against Boston over the weekend. Sure Vancouver won, but it was probably bad people business for Roberto Luongo.
  • One last Canucks thought: Sami Salo had been playing some of the best hockey of his career before getting hurt against the Bruins. Vancouver’s rolling right now, but defensive depth must remain a trade priority if this team intends to make a long Stanley Cup run.
Jan 042012
 

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

1. Abandon the “game is too fast” narrative

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

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

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

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

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

No thank you.

2. Change overtime

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

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

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

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

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

3. Put the Winter Classic in Detroit

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

4. Move the Phoenix Coyotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

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

Things that make one wonder on a Tuesday: 

The Kings are in Trouble 

Has Dean Lombardi lost his mind? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NHL Concussions 

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, it’s not a Sidney Crosby retirement. 

It’s another Bill Masterton moment.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

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