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 072011
 

Some quick thoughts on two issues dominating NHL talk right now:

Derek Boogaard and Fighting in the NHL

For anyone who’s been living under a rock, here’s the original New York Times story about the study of Derek Boogaard’s brain.

The results of the study shouldn’t surprise anyone. If you’re a fighter, and you get punched in the head a lot, it’s logical the impact of these blows will have an effect on your brain and brain function.

The larger issue here is that, as scientists continue to show conclusive evidence that hockey fights endanger the health of those involved, it gives credence to the argument against fighting in the NHL.

See, it was easy before for the old guard to say that fighting has always been a part of the sport, and that those who want it removed don’t understand the game, or aren’t man enough or tough enough to understand.

Scientific evidence kind of robs these folks of their bully pulpit.

Look, there’s a simple solution here that should make both sides of the argument happy.

Don’t ban fighting in the NHL. Just kick anyone who fights out of the game.

Fight in the last five minutes of the game – you miss the next game. And then determine a suspension formula for players who fight multiple times in a year.

This way, the NHL can say they haven’t banned fighting but are going to great lengths to protect players.

Conversely, the reduction in NHL fights that would follow such a rule change would appease most of those who believe the game is better off without the pugilist sideshow.

Makes sense. So much sense that this is how it’s done for most amateur hockey leagues and beer leagues in Canada.

(Another option we’ve already discussed in this space – getting rid of the 4th liners who cause most of the NHL violence).

One more thought on this – I heard talk on Team 1040 today wondering if the NHL knows if its core audience is pro-fighting or fighting-opposed.

The NHL absolutely knows the answer to this question. It probably knows the answer to this question in Canada and the United States, if not for its fans in each NHL city.

Why? Because professional sports leagues do significant market research to protect and grow their brand.

Given this, if the NHL doesn’t move on fighting, then it says a lot about where their current fan base stands on the issue.

NHL Realignment

How would the NHL standings and playoffs have differed if the proposed NHL realignment had been in place since the lockout? Let’s have a look:

2005/2006

Standings:

Eastern ConferenceTeamPtsWestern ConferenceTeamPts
1Ottawa1131Detroit124
2Carolina1122Dallas112
3New Jersey1013Calgary103
4Buffalo1104Nashville106
5Philadelphia1015San Jose99
6NY Rangers1006Anaheim98
7Montreal937Colorado95
8Tampa Bay928Edmonton95
9Toronto909Vancouver92
10Winnipeg9010Los Angeles89
11Florida8511Minnesota84
12NY Islanders7812Phoenix81
13Boston7413Columbus74
14Washington7014Chicago65
15Pittsburgh5815St. Louis57

Playoff seeding under new format:

New Conference ANew Conference BNew Conference CNew Conference D
Carolina – 112Ottawa – 113Detroit – 124Calgary – 103
New Jersey – 101Buffalo – 110Dallas -112San Jose – 99
Philadelphia – 101Montreal – 93Nashville – 106Anaheim – 98
NY Rangers – 100Tampa Bay – 92Winnipeg – 90Colorado – 95

Some notes about 2005/2006:

  • Winnipeg makes the playoffs, while Edmonton, the Stanley Cup finalist that year, doesn’t.
  • Ottawa still plays Tampa Bay in the first round (Sens won the series 4-1). That’s the only series that stays the same.

2006/2007

Standings:

Eastern ConferenceTeamPtsWestern ConferenceTeamPts
1Buffalo1131Detroit113
2New Jersey1072Anaheim110
3Winnipeg973Vancouver105
4Ottawa1054Nashville110
5Pittsburgh1055San Jose107
6NY Rangers946Dallas107
7Tampa Bay937Minnesota104
8NY Islanders928Calgary96
9Toronto919Colorado95
10Montreal9010St. Louis81
11Carolina8811Columbus73
12Florida8612Edmonton71
13Boston7613Chicago71
14Washington7014Los Angeles68
15Philadelphia5615Phoenix67

Playoff seeding under new format:

New Conference ANew Conference BNew Conference CNew Conference D
New Jersey – 107Buffalo – 113Detroit – 113Anaheim – 110
Pittsburgh – 105Ottawa – 105Nashville  – 110San Jose – 107
New York Rangers – 94Tampa Bay – 93Dallas – 107Vancouver – 105
New York Islanders – 92Toronto – 91Minnesota – 104Calgary – 96

Some notes about 2006/2007:

  • Toronto makes the playoffs, while Winnipeg does not in their new Conference. All the teams in the “old West” make it.
  • Nashville plays Dallas for the second year in a row, as does Ottawa against Tampa Bay.

2007/2008

Standings:

Eastern ConferenceTeamPtsWestern ConferenceTeamPts
1Montreal1041Detroit115
2Pittsburgh1022San Jose108
3Washington943Minnesota98
4New Jersey994Anaheim102
5NY Rangers975Dallas97
6Philadelphia956Colorado95
7Ottawa947Calgary94
8Boston948Nashville91
9Carolina929Edmonton88
10Buffalo9010Chicago88
11Florida8511Vancouver88
12Toronto8312Phoenix83
13NY Islanders7913Columbus80
14Winnipeg7614St. Louis79
15Tampa Bay7115Los Angeles71

Playoff seeding under new format:

New Conference ANew Conference BNew Conference CNew Conference D
Pittsburgh – 102Montreal – 104Detroit – 115San Jose – 108
New Jersey – 99Ottawa – 94Minnesota – 98Anaheim – 102
New York Rangers – 97Boston – 94Dallas – 97Colorado – 95
Philadelphia – 95Buffalo – 90Nashville – 91Calgary – 94

Some notes about 2007/2008:

  • Washington doesn’t make the playoffs while Buffalo does. All the teams in the “old West” make it.
  • Detroit and Nashville still play each other in the first round (Detroit won the series 4-2), as do San Jose and Calgary (San Jose won the series 4-3).

2008/2009

Standings:

Eastern ConferenceTeamPtsWestern ConferenceTeamPts
1Boston1161San Jose117
2Washington1082Detroit112
3New Jersey1063Vancouver100
4Pittsburgh994Chicago104
5Philadelphia995Calgary98
6Carolina976St. Louis92
7NY Rangers957Columbus92
8Montreal938Anaheim91
9Florida939Minnesota89
10Buffalo9110Nashville88
11Ottawa8311Edmonton85
12Toronto8112Dallas83
13Winnipeg7613Phoenix79
14Tampa Bay6614Los Angeles79
15NY Islanders6115Colorado69

Playoff seeding under new format:

New Conference ANew Conference BNew Conference CNew Conference D
Washington – 108Boston – 116Detroit – 112San Jose – 117
New Jersey – 106Montreal – 93Chicago – 104Vancouver – 100
Pittsburgh – 99Florida – 93St. Louis – 92Calgary – 98
Philadelphia – 99Buffalo – 91Columbus – 92Anaheim – 91

Some notes about 2008/2009:

  • Both Carolina and the New York Rangers wouldn’t make the playoffs under the new format. Conversely, Florida (!?!?) and Buffalo do.
  • All the teams in the “old West,” again, make it under the new format.
  • San Jose and Anaheim would still play each other (Anaheim won the series 4-2), as would Detroit and Columbus (Detroit won the series 4-0).

2009/2010

Standings:

Eastern ConferenceTeamPtsWestern ConferenceTeamPts
1Washington1211San Jose113
2New Jersey1032Chicago112
3Buffalo1003Vancouver103
4Pittsburgh1014Phoenix107
5Ottawa945Detroit102
6Boston916Los Angeles101
7Philadelphia887Nashville100
8Montreal888Colorado95
9NY Rangers879St. Louis90
10Winnipeg8310Calgary90
11Carolina8011Anaheim89
12Tampa Bay8012Dallas88
13NY Islanders7913Minnesota84
14Florida7714Columbus79
15Toronto7415Edmonton62

Playoff seeding under new format:

New Conference ANew Conference BNew Conference CNew Conference D
Washington – 121Buffalo – 100Chicago – 112San Jose – 113
New Jersey – 103Ottawa – 94Detroit – 102Phoenix – 107
Pittsburgh – 101Boston – 91Nashville – 100Vancouver – 103
Philadelphia – 88Montreal – 88St. Louis – 90Los Angeles – 101

Some notes about 2009/2010:

  • All the teams in the “old East” make it under the new format. St. Louis qualifies under the new format; Colorado doesn’t.
  • Washington/Philadelphia, New Jersey/Pittsburgh and Chicago/St. Louis play each other in the first round for the second year in a row.

2010/2011

Standings:

Eastern ConferenceTeamPtsWestern ConferenceTeamPts
1Washington1071Vancouver117
2Philadelphia1062San Jose105
3Boston1033Detroit104
4Pittsburgh1064Anaheim99
5Tampa Bay1035Nashville99
6Montreal966Phoenix99
7Buffalo967Los Angeles98
8NY Rangers938Chicago97
9Carolina919Dallas95
10Toronto8510Calgary94
11New Jersey8111St. Louis87
12Winnipeg8012Minnesota86
13Ottawa7413Columbus81
14NY Islanders7314Colorado68
15Florida7215Edmonton62

Playoff seeding under new format:

New Conference ANew Conference BNew Conference CNew Conference D
Washington – 107Boston – 103Detroit – 104Vancouver – 117
Philadelphia – 106Tampa Bay – 103Nashville – 99San Jose – 105
Pittsburgh – 106Montreal – 96Chicago – 97Anaheim – 99
New York Rangers – 93Buffalo – 96Dallas – 95Phoenix – 99

Some notes about 2010/2011:

  • All the teams in the “old East” make it under the new format. Dallas qualifies this time around; the Los Angeles Kings don’t.
  • Vancouver and Phoenix play each other for the second year in a row.
  • Washington and the New York Rangers still play each other in the first round (Washington won 4-1 originally).

Final note on the new realignment, and how it impacts playoff matchups/qualifying:

Old AlignmentNew Alignment
# of different playoff teams, 2005-201028 (only Toronto and Florida fail to make the playoffs)# of different playoff teams, 2005-1029 (only Edmonton fails to make the playoffs)
# of different first round matchups, 2005-201039# of different first round matchups, 2005-1034
Nov 282011
 

NHL standings are a lie.

Well, for the most part they’re a lie. You see, there are only two days in the schedule where all 30 teams will have played the same number of a games: the first day of the regular season and the last day of the regular season.

In between these two days, 30 different NHL team schedules create standings that reward or punish teams that have played more or fewer games than their opponents.

Now as usual around these parts, you’re probably wondering why this is relevant. Well, the week of U.S. Thanksgiving is usually the time of the year when most NHL teams have played 20 games or a quarter of their season.

It’s the time of the year when navel-gazing (for those who can see their navels) is ramped up for fans, and general managers start making decisions about their clubs.

As a public service, here now are the real, unvarnished NHL standings after a quarter of the season. They reflect each team’s results through their first 20 games of the year.

Western Conference

1. San Jose – 27 points

Powerplay: 4 / Penalty Kill: 29 / Goals For: 7 / Goals Against: 5

What’s working: The top-two lines have carried the offensive load and continue to demonstrate they’re among the league’s best. With Martin Havlat and Brent Burns, this is a quicker team than Sharks teams of yore – one that’s capable of an even stronger counter attack. The “Hot Pickle,” Marc-Edouard Vlasic, is playing the best hockey of his career. Both goalies Antti Niemi and Thomas Griess have played well.

What’s not: Havlat, while bringing speed and creativity to the attack, only has one goal. Colin White is a team worst -4. The penalty kill has been frustratingly bad.

2. Minnesota – 27 points

Powerplay: 26 / Penalty Kill:12 / Goals For: 28 / Goals Against: 1

What’s working: Mike Yeo, in his first year behind the Wild bench, has instilled a work-ethic, discipline and resiliency that’s helped the Wild reclaim its tight-checking identity and lead the Northwest Division. Let’s not forget Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, who combined have been the best goaltending tandem in the league so far. Minnesota’s blueline, while lacking name-recognition, is very mobile and sound positionally. They’re exhibit A when it comes to “greater than the sum of its parts.”

What’s not: Consistent with their franchise history, the Wild still can’t score. Dany Heatley is playing the best defensive hockey of his career, but he doesn’t look like a 40-goal threat anymore. Coach Mike Yeo hasn’t found a line-“fit” for Devin Setoguchi either. The powerplay is crying out for a real quarterback: Marek Zidlicky has fewer powerplay points (2) than Chicago’s “swash-buckling” Steve Montador (5).

3. Chicago – 27 points

Powerplay: 18 / Penalty Kill: 26 / Goals For: 2 / Goals Against: 16

What’s working: The Patrick Kane experiment at centre is going very well. Together with linemates Patrick Sharp and Dan Carcillo, Chicago’s second-line is a nice combination of grit, speed and two-way play. Nick Leddy has looked very good when paired with Nick Hjarlmalsson and has settled into a role on the first powerplay unit. Ray Emery, despite a no-show against Edmonton, has given the Blackhawks better goaltending in a back-up role then the team got from Marty Turco last year. Marian Hossa is back as a top-performer.

What’s not: Inconsistency in three areas: The penalty kill, Corey Crawford and Duncan Keith. Keith at times looks like he’s trying to do too much on the ice, while Crawford has ricocheted between spectacular and pedestrian all season.

4. Phoenix – 25 points

Powerplay: 27 / Penalty Kill: 5 / Goals For: 12 / Goals Against: 12

What’s working: Mike Smith is doing an incredible Ilya Bryzgalov impression, and fulfilling some of the promise that originally had him pegged as Dallas’s future #1 goalie after Marty Turco. The Coyotes feature two-way depth at centre as well, with Martin Hanzal, Daymond Langkow and Boyd Gordon all contributing. Phoenix is also taking the fewest penalties in the league, which speaks to team discipline. Radim Vrbata’s been hot and is on a 40-goal pace.

What’s not: Despite having some nice pieces, the Coyotes powerplay is struggling. While Dave Tippett’s style is to keep three-alarm scoring chances against to a minimum, Phoenix is still routinely out-shot.

5. Detroit – 25 points

Powerplay: 9 / Penalty Kill: 22 / Goals For: 8 / Goals Against: 6

What’s working: The retirement of Brian Rafalski has had a negligible impact on Detroit’s defense thanks to strong performances from Ian White, Mark Stuart and Niklas Kronvall. Meanwhile, Jimmy Howard is giving the Red Wings some of the best goaltending they’ve seen in a long time. He’s been Vezina-calibre through the first quarter. The powerplay remains a weapon, with Johan Franzen and Valtteri Filppula playing well.

What’s not: Todd Bertuzzi, Daniel Cleary and especially Henrik Zetterberg have all struggled to score through the first 20 games, while hopes of Jiri Hudler’s resurgence have faded. Surprisingly, for a veteran team, consistency on a nightly-basis has been a real struggle.

6. Nashville – 24 points

Powerplay: 17 / Penalty Kill: 11 / Goals For: 16 / Goals Against: 14

What’s working: This has been the best stretch of David Legwand’s career, and he’s quietly become one of the better two-way forwards in the league. Craig Smith, plucked from college hockey, is the surprise team leader in goals (7) and points (16). Despite the weight of expectations that come with a gigantic new contract, Pekka Rinne has played up to his high standards.

What’s not: As debate over the futures of Ryan Suter and Shea Weber continues, it should be noted that the rest of the Predators blueline hasn’t exactly been lights out. Jonathan Blum’s playoff performance hasn’t carried over into the regular season, while Kevin Klein is somehow a -11. The Big Two are carrying the defense.

7. Dallas – 24 points

Powerplay: 15 / Penalty Kill: 15 / Goals For: 20 / Goals Against: 17

What’s working: Similar to Minnesota, new coach Glen Gulutzan has got the Dallas Stars strongly executing a defensive system that’s frustrating opponents. This team is much stronger 5-on-5 than they were last season. Jaime Benn looks like a potential top-10 NHL scorer, and has helped the team overcome the loss of Brad Richards. The third line of Vern Fiddler, Radek Dvorak and Eric Nystrom has been one of the more effective checking lines in the league so far. Goalie Kari Lehtonen is playing his heart out.

What’s not: For a team that’s not exactly an offensive juggernaut, it’s taken too many penalties so far. Brendan Morrow’s on a 12-goal pace. The special teams remain average.

8. Los Angeles – 23 points

Powerplay: 10 / Penalty Kill: 16 / Goals For: 24 / Goals Against: 7

What’s working: This may be the strongest defensive team the Kings have had in quite some time, backstopped by a stellar Jonathan Quick. Rookie Slava Voynov has shown real offensive flair on the blueline, taking heat off of Drew Doughty (who hasn’t brought his A-game many nights). Mike Richards is well on his way to becoming as big a fan favourite in Los Angeles as he was in Philadelphia. Simon Gagne is playing like his old self, while Anze Kopitar is currently the best player you’re not paying any attention to.

What’s not: Well, for starters putting Ethan Moreau on the powerplay recently. That’s like giving your opponent an extra penalty killer. It was a strange coaching decision, but one that probably underscores just how poorly Dustin Penner has played. Jarrett Stoll has disappointed in a third line role and could become trade bait, especially with the team looking to give more ice-time to centre Andrei Loktionov. Overall, the team needs to score more.

9. St. Louis – 22 points

Powerplay: 30 / Penalty Kill: 25 / Goals For: 21 / Goals Against: 4

What’s working: Ken Hitchcock, another example of what usually happens when you replace a coach mid-season. The Blues are as tight as a drum defensively these days. Kevin Shattenkirk has carried on from last season and it looks like the Blues stole him from Colorado. Alex Steen is the team’s most valuable forward and is on a 30-goal pace. Brian Elliott has resurrected his career in goal and has outplayed Jaroslav Halak at times.

What’s not: The offense, particularly the powerplay, has been awful. Patrik Berglund has slept through most of the first quarter-season, as has Chris Stewart. Barret Jackman, an important veteran looked to be a shutdown presence on defense, has had too many brain cramps.

10. Edmonton – 22 points

Powerplay: 5 / Penalty Kill: 7 / Goals For: 22 / Goals Against: 9

What’s working: Some of the kids – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle – have been good-to-great offensively, and compete hard on a nightly basis. Ryan Smyth is playing his best hockey since leaving Edmonton the first time, and has partnered with Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Jones to form an effective second/shutdown line. Nikolai Khabibulin has surprised everyone with strong goaltending, while Corey Potter has come out of nowhere to play important minutes on a decimated Oilers blueline.

What’s not: The other kids – Magnus Paajarvi and Linus Omark – haven’t competed well in their sophomore seasons, with the latter playing his way into the AHL. Their struggles have left the team with little scoring depth. The Oilers are still learning how to play 5-on-5, with injuries to the defense really hampering the team’s own-zone play. Sam Gagner doesn’t seem to have a role right now, and could be moved for a defenseman. Impending UFA Ales Hemsky has been off and on the IR. When healthy he’s looked like the point-per-game performer he can be. The front office will have to make a tough decision on his future shortly.

11. Vancouver – 21 points

Powerplay: 1 / Penalty Kill: 8 / Goals For: 9 / Goals Against: 18

What’s working: The Sedins, who remain among the league’s elite. Cory Schneider has played like a first-string goalie. Jannik Hansen has proven sometimes his hands can keep up with his feet. Maxim Lapierre and Chris Higgins have played like they were born to wear Canuck sweaters. The special teams are good. Schneider has been better than good.

What’s not: The blueline hasn’t played up to its potential, with Kevin Bieksa regressing and Keith Ballard playing as if he wished he was anywhere but on the ice. Alex Edler has picked up the offensive slack from the departed Christian Erhoff, but he still has room to grow in his own zone. In fact, on too many nights the team’s best defensemen has been Sami Salo. Meanwhile, secondary scoring – Vancouver’s hidden achilles heal (not-named Roberto Luongo’s psyche) – is MIA. David Booth has the talent to be a solution, but there are whiffs of Alain Vigneault/Keith Ballard 2.0 coming from his doghouse.

12. Colorado – 19 points

Powerplay: 2 / Penalty Kill: 27 / Goals For: 19 / Goals Against: 23

What’s working: The team’s getting chances, regularly out-shooting its opponents. Shane O’Brien and Ryan Wilson have surprised, playing above expectations. Gabriel Landeskog is quietly putting together a solid rookie season. The powerplay has been lights out. J.S. Giguere has outplayed expected starting goalie Semyon Varlamov badly.

What’s not: Varlamov, who has looked Andrew Raycroft-esque. Erik Johnson, who continues to play like Jay Boumeester’s less physical cousin. In fact, Johnson (-12) and partner Jan Hejda (-15) have really struggled together. Peter Mueller’s injury issues have robbed the team of a dynamic top-six forward. Finally, Joe Sacco looks like a coach that’s running out of time and ideas.

13. Calgary – 17 points

Powerplay: 24 / Penalty Kill: 24 / Goals For: 27 / Goals Against: 19

What’s working: Well, Miikka Kiprusoff’s the same-old, same-old, keeping the Flames in games whenever he can. The rookies, particularly Roman Horak, have given Calgary a bit of speed and fans a bit of hope. Curtis Glencross hasn’t turned into a pumpkin after signing his contract. In fact, he’s on pace for 25-goals.

What’s not: How about Jay Feaster’s decision to pretty much stay-the-course since he became the team’s general manager? This team was crying out for a rebuild last season. Henrik Karlsson hasn’t played well-enough in goal to warrant giving Kiprusoff greater rest than in previous seasons. Jarome Iginla’s slow start has lasted longer than usual, which makes sense for a player who’s carried the team on his back for almost two decades. Mikael Backlund, touted as having potential first-line centre talent, has been ineffective when in the lineup. The special teams have been special in a “special bus” kind of way.

14. Anaheim – 16 points

Powerplay: 21 / Penalty Kill:  6 / Goals For: 29 / Goals Against: 20

What’s working: Teemu Selanne remains an elite contributor despite being as old as Moses. The penalty kill continues to get the job done.

What’s not: Pretty much everything else. The top-line of Corey Perry-Ryan Getzlaf-Bobby Ryan hasn’t dominated by any stretch of the imagination. Sophomore Cam Fowler remains an adventure in his own zone, while Lubomir Visnovsky’s offense has dried up (4 points in 16 games) as the powerplay has strugged. Jonas Hiller, a Vezina-worthy goalie last season, has been pedestrian. The Ducks take too many penalties, and are among the league’s worst at 5-on-5. Last season the talk was Randy Carlyle had lost the room, but the Ducks turned it around a few months in. It’ll be interesting to see if that happens again.

15. Columbus – 12 points

Powerplay: 23 / Penalty Kill: 30 / Goals For: 25 / Goals Against: 30

What’s working: Vinny Prospal has been terrific, and created a spark of offense with whomever he’s played with. Blue Jackets fans have had to consult the internet to find out what Curtis Sanford has given them. It’s called decent goaltending folks.

What’s not: It’s easy to pick on the Blue Jackets since they’ve obviously been the worst team in the league through 20 games. Injuries and James Wisniewski’s suspension really put the team behind the eight-ball right out of the gate. GM Scott Howsen is remaining patient, as it’s hard to evaluate a roster when it’s missing key players. That being said, the team’s best players certainly haven’t played very well, with Rick Nash and Derrick Brassard in particular going through the motions at times. Scott Arniel has already changed the team’s system to a more defensive approach to compensate for the absence of scoring they expected to have. Bigger changes aren’t that far off.

Nov 252011
 

We’re back! Did you miss us? (Don’t answer that question.)

Let’s check in on where we stand in the inaugural Canucks Hockey Blog Writers Fantasy Hockey Pool (or as it shall be dubbed this week, the “Can Someone Please Tell Wayne Gretzky His Daughter is Blowing Up Twitter Invitational”).

Remember, you can check out our pool here.

Onto the standings:  

1. 2 Sedins, 0 Cups (Tom) – 95 points

As 2 Sedins, 0 Cups continues its historic run towards the first CHBWFHP championship, I would just like to make it known that this win is all the more sweet because it’s taking place in a world where The Muppets matter again. Welcome back Kermit. Call me, Miss Piggy.

Taking this one step further, if winning this pool meant I could have one wish, I would wish for the world to be rid of the following: The Kardashians; anyone who’s chosen to spend quality time with the Kardashians; anyone who’s bought an item of Kardashian merchandise; snakes (they’re evil); Jay Leno (he’s evil); downtown Vancouver bike lanes; Blake Price, Shia Labeouf; George Lucas (but the Star Wars franchise can stay); the Phoenix Coyotes, Florida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jackets (who would miss them?); soybean oil in movie theatre popcorn butter (it makes me and thousands of others sick); Iran (not quite sure how its existence benefits me); the instigator rule in hockey; NHL 4th lines; Howie Mandel; passwords that expire; the sound styrofoam makes when it rubs something (1:13 into the annoying video); the texture of Styrofoam; okay, all styrofoam; one-piece hockey sticks; Shawn Horcoff; this week’s episode of Parenthood; every episode of Desperate Housewives; bandwidth limits; TapouT, Affliction and all MMA-related clothing lines; VIP lines and seating areas; insincerity and shyness; foreign home-ownership/purchases in the Lower Mainland.  

I mean, yeah, I guess I could have asked for world peace and an end to all disease, but those seem like really big asks. This stuff all seems like low-hanging fruit.

2. Mr. Haiku (Clay) – 88 points

It’s amazing how just one move can spark a team.  By the end of October, I was dangerously close to slipping into 3rd place so I decided to make a move.  By dropping Buffalo’s Tyler Ennis (who is still injured) for Zack Smith of the Senators, I solidified my hold on 2nd place with leader, 2 Sedins, 0 Cups, still within my sights.  Smith has helped me in particular with PIMs and faceoff wins, although I’m already so far behind in faceoff wins that I’ve given up on that category already.  I have balanced scoring led by Anze Kopitar, Daniel Sedin, Marian Hossa and Jeff Skinner and a decent back-end with Kris Letang and Ryan Suter.  Tim Thomas has regained his goaltending form… too bad his real-life teammate took out my other goalie, Ryan Miller.

3a. Goose is my Wingman (Chris) – 72.5 points

Much like the disrespected characters Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and Nick “Goose” Bradshaw in Top Gun, I don’t often get the respect I’m due here at Canucks Hockey Blog.  First it was all the writers laughing at my picks and telling me I’d finish last. (Well, guess who’s in third place today, hosers!)  Or Lizz Moffatt telling me that I was a fat drunk boater (call me fat, call me drunk, but don’t call me a boater).  And then in our last update, it was the diabolical Tom “I Love Red Light Racicot” Wakefield calling out Parminder Nagra.

Well, this writer has had enough.  Moving forward, this writer’s ego is going to start writing cheques that his body WILL cash.  And yes, he’s dangerous and you know how everyone likes bloggers who are dangerous.  There is no bloody way I’ll let a bully like Tom pick on the winner of the 2004 Movieline Young Hollywood Awards Breakthrough Performance by a Female.  That’s right.  You’ve picked on the wrong actress, sir.

What will I do you ask?  Well I’m going to call in Parminder’s best friend, Keira Knightley (another A-list actor), who in turn is going to send an email to her BFF, Johnny Depp, who played Captain Jack Sparrow.  And well, Captain Jack then knocks on Michael Bolton’s door.

And then it’s on like donkey kong.  DON. KEY. KONG!

Uhh… what was that?  I was supposed to be talking about the CHB Writers Fantasy Hockey Pool?  Aw crap.

3b. Church’s Chiggins (Ed) – 72.5 points

I don’t think anyone’s surprised that Sidney Crosby is still Sidney Crosby, but wow, four points in his first game in almost a year? I don’t think there’s any question he’s the best hockey player in the world. The only guy even in the same conversation would be Alex Ovechkin and maybe if you counted both Sedins as one player. However, if I was a NHL GM and we could draft all over again, there’s no way I’d pick anyone but Crosby to build a team around. 

That assist on the Letang (or “The Tang” for those of you who don’t speak French) goal where he shook Jason Spezza out of his jock strap was just stunning. Hopefully he gets Malkin going as well. Malkin isn’t doing terrible but he isn’t setting the twine on fire.

My best move so far this season is picking up Tyler Seguin on the wire at the beginning. As much as I dislike the Bruins, they’ve been on fire winning 10 straight with Seguin as one of the team’s best offensive threat. I must have the most hated team in the pool now with another guy Canucks fans love to hate, Patrick Kane, leading in scoring… and I don’t have any Canucks on my team.

I’m not fired, am I?

5. The Hamhuis Ballards (JJ) – 69.5 points

Like the rest of the hockey world, I was excited at the news that Sidney Crosby had recovered a serious concussion and that he was returning after missing 11 months of action.  It goes without saying that Sid the Kid’s a helluva hockey player – probably the best damn hockey player in the world. 

On Monday, I cheered alongside Penguins fans when he stepped on the ice against the Islanders.  After he made Andrew Macdonald look like the second coming of Dana Murzyn and scored a beaut of a goal on his first shot – just 5:31 into the game – I yelled out the same two words Sid did on the ice.  By the time it was all said and done, he had 2 goals and 2 assists, and I, like every other hockey fan out there, couldn’t be happier for him.

At least I was until I realized that Tom, who was already leading the inaugural CHBWFHP by a large margin, had Crosby still stashed on his bench.

It’s like the President’s Trophy-winning, 2000/2001 Colorado Avalanche adding all-star Rob Blake.  Or the NHL record, 62-win Detroit Red Wings adding 40-goal scorer, Brendan Shanahan, and 60-point defenseman, Larry Murphy.  Or adding Taylor to The OC.

Dammit, Wakefield.

6. Kesler is my homeboy (Caylie) – 63.5 points

It was just a few weeks ago I was in 2nd place in the CHB pool. I was anxiously awaiting for Tom to email us about our thoughts on the pool. I was ready to brag about how I was leading in overall points (by players) and how I had jumped from last place to 2nd place in just a few short weeks. But he never emailed us. Fast forward to today, and I am once again in 6th place and have NOTHING to brag about. 

I’m heading to Vegas and was debating making a few sports bets while I am there. All I know is that I won’t be betting on about half of my team. Rick Nash, are you seriously a minus-10? And how about that Tomas Kaberle guy? I thought he would be somewhat decent in Carolina, but boy was I wrong!

If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that if I’m ever in the top-3 again, I will immediately email Tom and encourage him to do a post on the pool, just so I can have my few minutes of glory.

7. Burrows Buddy (Lizz) – 61.5 points

Since she has nothing nice to say about this pool or where she is in the standings, Lizz didn’t submit her thoughts this week.

8. Hossa’s Samosas (Matt) – 53.5 points

Likewise, since submitting his thoughts would mean accepting that his pool team stinks, Matt chose to abstain from this week’s discussion.

Nov 222011
 

[Every week, Caylie King looks at the Canucks week that was and the Canucks week ahead.]

Last week, the Canucks continued their inconsistent play, which resulted in a brutal showing against the Chicago Blackhawks. Trailing by a goal going into the third period, they let the game get out of reach, eventually losing 5-1. Then, the Ottawa Senators came into town on Sunday. The game had some end-to-end rushes and excellent goaltending by Cory Schneider and ex-Canuck Alex Auld; and the Canucks came away with a 2-1 victory. Winning streaks have to start with one win, let’s hope we can string together a few more to try and better our position in the Western Conference.

Canucks Record

20 GP, 10-9-1, 21 points (3rd in Northwest Division, 11th in Western Conference)

Who’s Hot

Sami “Balls of Steel” Salo has been one of the Canucks’ most consistent defensemen all year long. Although he may be made out of glass, Sami has proved that he still a strong asset and that he can make things happen on both ends of the ice. Last season, Sami was limited to only 27 games last season and scored just 7 points (3G-4A); this season, he already has 11 points (4G-7A) in only 17 games this season. He is also the only plus-player among the defensive core with a plus-4 rating.

Who’s Not

Ryan Kesler had off-season hip surgery this past summer so it’s understandable that he didn’t start the new season off with a bang. I think it was fair to give him a 10-game cushion which would account for his training camp and exhibition games that he missed. But through 15 games, Kes only has 8 points and has been visibly frustrated on the ice. His even-strength play has been mediocre, to say the least, though his presence on the powerplay has been evident and is much of the reason why the Canucks have been so successful lately. He’s beginning to skate well but he just hasn’t found that finesse and confidence that makes him so successful. In his case, less is more he needs to stop holding the stick so tight and just get back to his Selke-award winning ways. I’m not worried about his play but I am anxiously awaiting his resurgence.

Who’s Next

Wednesday November 23, 2011 vs. Colorado Avalanche (6:30 PM start, away)

The Avalanche started off the 2011/2012 campaign winning 5 of their first 6 games; however, they have been struggling lately and are now sitting beneath the Canucks in the Western Conference standings, having played one more game than Vancouver.

This is the first meeting between the two teams this season. Last season, the Canucks went 5-0-1 against the Avs.

Young gun Matt Duchene has become a main staple in Colorado’s offensive charge and is currently leading his team in points with 9 goals and 7 assists. He’s put up points in 7 of his last 9 games (7 goals and 3 assists). Needless to say, it will be important for the Canucks to try and shut down Duchene, as well as noted “Canuck-killer” Milan Hejduk, who seems to be on the score sheet every time he plays against Vancouver.

Friday November 25, 2011 vs. Phoenix Coyotes (6:00 PM start, away)

The Canucks roll into Phoenix for their first match up this season against the Desert Dogs. Last season, the two clubs split their 4-game series; each team won their two games on the road with Roberto Luongo backstopping in all 4 games. Eric Belanger and Daniel Sedin led their respective teams with 5 points.

The Coyotes have points in 6 of their last 8 games and are being led by Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata; both have 15 points and a plus-rating.

The new addition of Mike Smith has paid off for the Coyotes. He has helped his team get points in 12 of the 15 games he’s started; he’s lost just 3 times in regulation.

Saturday November 26, 2011 vs. San Jose Sharks (7:00 PM start, away)

By this time, the Canucks would have gone almost a month without playing on Saturday night Hockey Night in Canada – their last HNIC game was on October 29th against the Washington Capitals. It will also be the first meeting between the Canucks and Sharks since the stanchion Kevin Bieksa eliminated the Sharks in double-overtime in the Western Conference Finals last year.

The Sharks have won both of their games against Northwest Division teams this season and have outscored them 7-2. It’s no surprise, but they are being led by their captain Joe Thornton, who has 20 points (5G-15A). While Jumbo Joe is leading the team in points, little Joe (Pavelski) is leading the team with 11 goals. San Jose is also getting great goaltending from Antti Niemi, who has gone 8-2-1 and has a 0.915 save percentage.

Déjà vu?

When the Canucks were struggling in October, the fans and media – well, at least some of them – defended the team by pointing out that they are notoriously slow starters. Everyone was hoping that November would see a more consistent team; however, we are obviously still waiting for this to happen. At the quarter mark of the season, it’s not the .500 record that is worrisome, it is the fact that the team is still having major breakdowns on the back-end, having trouble scoring goals and have yet to play the cliche, a full-60 minute game.

No need to stress Canucks Nation, I have the answer.

Last season, the Canucks went 10-7-3 in their first 20 games, but it was on game 19, when the Blackhawks embarrassed the Canucks 7-1, that things started to turn around. After that, they went 17-1-2 in their next 20 games.

Fast forward to this year. In game 19, the Blackhawks won 5-1 at Rogers Arena. Again, the Canucks struggled to score and the defence was mesmerized by the speed and skill of Marian Hossa and company. Could history repeat itself? Was the blowout loss to the Blackhawks followed by the less-than-exciting win against the Senators the turning point of the season? Can the Canucks mirror what they did last season and finally start putting together more than a win at a time?

Nov 182011
 

Sometimes in life you gotta play hurt. While fighting the flu bug, here now are this week’s thoughts on the fly:

  • Just in case Canucks fans have been living under a rock, here’s what Mark Recchi said about the most arrogant team he’s ever played against.
  • The great Terry Jones articulates what the current Edmonton Oilers freefall feels like.
  • If a goalie is going to roam outside the crease, they make themselves vulnerable to contact. Ryan Miller wasn’t trying to make a save in traffic at the edges of his crease – he was skating 10-15 feet away from the net. The only thing wrong with what Boston’s Milan Lucic did by bodychecking Miller was giving the contact a “little extra” with his arms/shoulders. Let’s protect goalies from the contact they can’t avoid, and remind them they’re fair game otherwise.
  • Grantland’s Katie Baker with her weekly round-up – some great links this week.
  • With the Washington Capitals visiting Winnipeg and Toronto, coverage of Alex Ovechkin’s pedestrian season has ramped up. With Sidney Crosby still out and Ovechkin less-than-dominant, the best player in the league right now just might be Jonathan Toews.
  • Meanwhile, Jaromir Jagr thinks Claude Giroux is knocking-on-the-door of the league’s best.
  • One reason why the Pittsburgh Penguins are amongst the best teams in the league? They control the neutral zone with speed, pressuring puck carriers so well defensively that opponents are forced to dump the puck in before they would like to. The Penguins then have an easy time recovering the puck and breaking out of their own zone.
  • If there’s one thing Mike Milbury knows, it’s how to kill a franchise. Not surprising then he thinks the Columbus Blue Jackets should trade Rick Nash.
  • All good teams have winning streaks. Championship teams find ways to win despite their poorest efforts. So goes the Boston Bruins, who have now won 7 straight games, and played what was arguably their worst game of the year against Columbus on Thursday.
  • Credit where credit is due – Matt Cooke’s transformation as a player is pretty impressive.
  • The demise of Ilya Bryzgalov has been greatly exaggerated. Since getting shelled and having a bit of a media meltdown against the Winnipeg Jets back on October 27th, Bryzgalov is 5-0-1, with a 1.65 goals against average and a .944 save percentage.
  • Meanwhile, Brygalov’s former teammates are ripping him for being a negative presence in the Coyotes locker room. You know what’s also a negative factor on team chemistry? Losing. And that’s something the Coyotes didn’t do very much when Ilya Bryzgalov was their goaltender. Things could have been much, much worse for Phoenix players than simply dealing with an difficult personality.
  • Final note on Bryzgalov’s current team, the Philadelphia Flyers – not sure their team speed is good enough, which makes them more vulnerable to trapping teams or teams with great speed and counter-attack.
  • Forwards still looking for their first goal of the season: Ales Hemsky (7 games); Jeff Carter (8 games); Scott Gomez (10 games); Sam Gagner (11 games); Kyle Okposo (14 games); Dustin Penner (14 games); Blake Comeau (0 points in 14 games); Marty Reasoner (16 games); Mattias Tedenby (16 games).
  • Loved this from the Leafs-Predators game.
  • Nikita Filatov, or “Filly,” probably doesn’t play in the NHL again either.
  • Paul Maurice is a nice guy but a bad coach. As the Hurricanes struggle, here’s a nice recap of potential coaching replacements if Carolina decides to fire their coach. Given how GM Jim Rutherford likes to keep things in-house, it wouldn’t surprise to see Jeff Daniels eventually take over the reigns.
  • The Toronto Maple Leafs are looking for goaltending. What if they had the solution but chose not to re-sign him? Cast-off J-S. Giguere is playing well for the struggling Colorado Avalanche, with a 1.98 goals against average to-date.
  • Speaking of the Maple Leafs, lots of talk about Wayne Gretzky fronting a U.S. bid for the franchise. While it’s a romantic notion, let’s remember that Gretzky is still owed $8 million by the NHL. Hard to imagine him returning to the league in any capacity until someone writes him a cheque.
  • From the department of weird stats – right now the Capitals have a better winning percentage when they give up the first goal of the game (.778%) than when they score the first goal (.375%).
Nov 112011
 

One of the silliest debates to be waged across the NHL some time is Philadelphia’s “outrage” and in-game protest of Tampa’s 1-3-1 system.

From Mike Milbury walking off the air to a quickie TSN poll of league GMs siding with the Flyers, the Lightning are taking a lot of heat for their passive forecheck.

Here’s the thing.

1) The passive forecheck is employed all over the league, and has been for decades. Roughly half of all NHL teams use a 1-3-1 forecheck in their gameplan. The 70s Canadiens, the 80s Oilers, the 90s Red Wings – they all used a version of this system when necessary to win Stanley Cups.

2) The Lightning, for all the hoopla for employing a defensive system that’s ruining the game, sat 23rd this morning in the league in goals against per game; 24th in the league in shots against per game. We’re not exactly talking about a New Jersey Devils-esque juggernault when it comes to squeezing scoring opportunities out of the game.

Let’s remember, the NHL culture doesn’t exactly embrace innovation comfortably.

Lightning coach Guy Boucher, with his approach to the 1-3-1 system, his degree in sports psychology and his willingness to think differently about practices, off-days etc, is seen as a bit of an outsider. He’s made himself and his team a target for being different.

But he’s also doing what it takes for the Lightning to win games.

There are ways to beat the trap – by exiting the defensive zone with speed, or by moving the puck horizontally across the ice rather than vertically. That the Flyers chose to do neither, and simply stand around, was certainly a statement.

It was also absolutely ineffective, as Philadelphia lost the game 2-1.

Any debate that leads to more goals and more excitement in the NHL game is a positive thing.

But the Lightning shouldn’t be vilainized for their approach to the game.

The Flyers are just as much at fault, by basically refusing to compete.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Loved this “how to beat the trap” diagram. Works great if, you know, everyone defending stands still.
  • So players on the Florida Panthers were tweeting about how cold it was in Winnipeg before their game against the Jets? It’s only November guys. There are still folks at the corner of Portage and Main in t-shirts. Can’t wait to read to read the tweets before their next visit to Manitoba January 21st.
  • One pro scout’s assessment of the Taylor Hall vs. Tyler Seguin debate:  ”For me, Seguin is more creative with the puck. I actually wrote in one of my reports that Seguin, if he doesn’t have a shot, he’s got enough poise to make a play to a teammate. I don’t know if Hall has that ability. Hall is going to beat you north-south with his speed and quickness down low. Seguin’s got a little more dimension to his game from a creativity standpoint.”
  • Magnus Paajarvi has become a healthy scratch in Edmonton. Other sophomores struggling: Buffalo’s Tyler Ennis (0 points), Anaheim’s Cam Fowler (-6 despite a greater focus on the defensive side of the game), New Jersey’s Mattias Tedenby (0 goals, 3 assists).
  • Weird seeing Senator John McCain in a Coyotes jersey talking hockey strategy, 9/11 and the World Series, among other things, between periods on the Coyotes-Habs broadcast. As nice as it is to see him vocally supportive of the hometown team, couldn’t he solve the Phoenix ownership mess with a couple of strategic phone calls to well-off friends?
  • Add HP Pavillion in San Jose to the list of NHL arenas where fans boo Dany Heatley. For what it’s worth, Devin Setoguchi was cheered when he and Heatley returned as members of the Wild on Thursday.
  • Nice piece on former teammates Brent Burns and Nick Schultz.
  • So tired of the “will he or won’t he play” coverage of Sidney Crosby.
  • Things that don’t make sense in the NHL #2589: Teams that keep rookie players past the 9-game mark (thus burning through the first year of their NHL contract) and then send the player to the press box. The Panthers have done this with Erik Gudbranson, and the Blue Jackets did this recently with Ryan Johansen.
  • Speaking of the Blue Jackets, their worst start in franchise history has led coach Scott Arniel to change the team’s approach mid-season from a puck-pursuit, up-tempo style to a conservative trap approach. The team’s loss to Chicago shows this is still very much a work in progress.
  • Two ways to fix the Toronto Maple Leafs penalty kill – improve communication between forwards and defensemen on the kill, and find some quicker players to perform it. Leafs penalty killers aren’t elite skaters,  so they don’t pressure the puck carrier like most teams. Instead, they end up in their box formation, which other teams continue to pick apart.
  • Colorado’s win against the Islanders may have saved Joe Sacco’s job. Interestingly, the team was down 3-0 until the Avs called a timeout and defenseman Shane O’Brien let his teammates have it. J.S. Giguere, who called the game a “must-win”, also made a huge save off of Michael Grabner with one second left in regulation.
  • Speaking of Colorado defenseman, their best right now might just be Ryan Wilson, who’s been very effective physically and is on a 45-point pace.
  • Final note on the Avalanche – in contrast to the Maple Leafs, Colorado’s too aggressive on the penalty kill. It’s why they’re 27th in the league in this category.
  • The Islanders and Blue Jackets are the only teams left in the NHL without a road victory. One reason for the Islanders struggles – they lack team toughness, particularly in the top-six. And this includes Kyle Okposo, who could play a Brendan Morrow-style game, but has instead struggled out-of-the-gate (0 goals in 13 games).
  • Katie Baker’s latest Grantland column includes a link to Paulina Gretzky’s best Twitter pics that most adult males will appreciate.
Nov 042011
 

Dear Gary (aka Bettman-in-da-house, aka Mr. Commish, aka Saviour-of-Winnipeg),

Not to go all Peaches and Herb (or Jeremy Roenick), but “realignment and it feels so good!”

NHL realignment is the hot talk around the league right now, and I know reviews are mixed concerning your latest plan to re-shape the NHL.

Personally, I like what you’ve reportedly done:

Eastern Conference
Division 1Division 2
PhiladelphiaDet/CBJ
WashingtonMontreal
New York RangersOttawa
New York IslandersBoston
New JerseyBuffalo
CarolinaToronto
Tampa BayPittsburgh
Florida
Western Conference
Division 1Division 2
Det/CBJVancouver
WinnipegEdmonton
ChicagoCalgary
DallasColorado
NashvillePhoenix
St. LouisLos Angeles
MinnesotaAnaheim
San Jose

The first round of the playoffs features divisional play (1 vs 4, 2 vs 3).

After the first round, the remaining teams are seeded 1-4, with 1 playing 4, 2 vs 3, etc.

Now, the Penguins and Flyers hate this proposal, because they’ve got a good rivalry going that fills their rinks, and playing in different divisions will hurt that.  

Teams in the proposed eight-team divisions also have a gripe, because mathematically they have a smaller chance of making the playoffs than teams in a seven-team division.

But you know what Gar (can I call you Gar, as in Danny Gare?), I think you should tell these complainers to stuff it. Your proposed plan reduces travel, solves most (but not all) of the league’s geographic issues, and doesn’t do too much to upset most of the NHL’s current/historic rivalries.

Listen. I’m in a charitable mood. I like what you’ve done for hockey in Edmonton and Winnipeg. I like the salary cap era.

Here are two tweaks that take your plan to the next level.

Tweak #1 – Level the playing field

The biggest gripe I’ve seen outside of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia involves the notion of 8-team divisions and 7-team divisions competing for the same number of playoff spots (4).

That’s easy to fix: make both divisions in each conference the same size. The Eastern Conference gets 16 teams, the Western Conference 14 teams: 

Eastern Conference
Division 1Division 2
PhiladelphiaDetroit
WashingtonMontreal
New York RangersOttawa
New York IslandersBoston
New JerseyBuffalo
CarolinaToronto
Tampa BayPittsburgh
FloridaColumbus
Western Conference
Division 1Division 2
ColoradoVancouver
WinnipegEdmonton
ChicagoCalgary
DallasPhoenix
NashvilleLos Angeles
St. LouisAnaheim
MinnesotaSan Jose

The first round of the playoffs still features divisional play (1 vs 4, 2 vs 3). After the first round, the remaining teams are seeded 1-4, with 1 playing 4, 2 vs 3, etc.

With this small tweak, every team in each Conference has the same odds of making the playoffs. Columbus joins Detroit moving to the East, where both teams geographically should be and want to be. Colorado moves to the “Central-esque” division, where it probably could be if you ever looked at a map of all NHL teams.

Sure, someone may suggest that there’s a greater chance of making the playoffs in the Western Conference than the Eastern Conference. You know what I say to them, Gar? That’s the price you pay for saving thousands of dollars on travel costs, you cheap bastards.

Actually, there’s only one issue with this tweak.

What the heck happens if you have to move the Coyotes out of Phoenix?

Yes Gar, I know that will never happen. I know you’ve been spending the last few years trying to decide which of the 100s of potential owners you want to give the Coyotes to so that the team can stay in Phoenix.

But if, god forbid, you have to move Phoenix, you’ll probably have to move them East (to say, Quebec City? Quelle surprise!). This means you have to, right now, keep Columbus in the West. (Why Columbus? Because they’re still one of the newbie franchises around the board table.)

So, here’s how you solve the 8-team/7-team disparity, while revolutionizing your sport.

 Tweak #2 – Let Teams Pick Their Playoff Opponent 

Eastern Conference
Division 1Division 2
PhiladelphiaDetroit
WashingtonMontreal
New York RangersOttawa
New York IslandersBoston
New JerseyBuffalo
CarolinaToronto
Tampa BayPittsburgh
Florida
Western Conference
Division 1Division 2
ColumbusVancouver
WinnipegEdmonton
ChicagoCalgary
DallasColorado
NashvillePhoenix
St. LouisLos Angeles
MinnesotaAnaheim
San Jose

The four Conference teams with the next best records get the final four playoff spots and the top four teams select their first round opponent. Division winner with the best record picks first. Then the other Division winner. Then the second-place team with the best record. Then the other second-place team gets whoever’s left.  

In the second round, teams are reseeded 1-4 based on regular season performance, with 1 vs 4, 2 vs 3.

Think about the possibilities that result from having teams choose their playoff opponent.

First of all, winning a division or conference would suddenly matter quite a bit. The NHL would reward the best regular season teams by giving them some control – whether it be reduced travel or a weaker opponent. The 11 remaining conference teams would also have equal odds of becoming one of the final four playoff teams – eliminating the eight-team, seven-team divisional bias.

There would be added buzz in April and March as fans talk about potential matchups and seeding races. Instantly, rivalries would be created or renewed once selections are made. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are mad because they don’t play each other as often? Well, problem solved – one can choose to play the other in the first round if they have a good regular season.

Gar, you could take this idea and create another television event, one that would be unique to the North American team sporting market. It would be a professional sports version of the NCAA’s Selection Sunday event. It would be just like the MMA or WWE, where opponents choose one another all the time because it always delivers a compelling storyline.

Mr. Commish, I offer this idea free of charge…although I wouldn’t mind having a division named after me. Or maybe I’ll just take a lifetime invite to the Winter Classic. It’s something we can negotiate later.

You’re welcome.

 THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Isn’t this about the time that the Oilers start falling back to earth? And yet, they played a terrific road game against the Kings, giving up only 19 shots.
  • Same thing can be said about the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are amazingly in first place in the Eastern Conference right now. Then again, it’s been a long time since the Maple Leafs had two scoring lines going like they do right now (Joffrey Lupul-Tim Connolly-Phil Kessel; Clarke MacArthur-Mikael Grabovski-Nik Kulemin).
  • Watching the Blue Jackets-Leafs game, it looked like Leaf shooters were targeting Steve Mason’s blocker-side with great success (4 goals on 11 shots).
  • Speaking of Columbus, this is the earliest they’ve ever gotten to 10 losses. A coaching change is on the way, but Ken Hitchcock isn’t the solution. The Blue Jackets are not strong enough in goal or on defense to play the conservative style Hitchcock demands. At the same time, he hasn’t shown much success coaching younger players, and future of this team is in its prospects.
  • At the same time, anyone who is suggesting Craig Button is a viable candidate for the Blue Jackets front office should give their head a shake. He was a league-worst level GM in Calgary. Lest we forget the trading of J-S Giguere and Marc Savard for bags of pucks, the release of Martin St. Louis and the signing of Roman Turek to a mega-contract.
  • I wonder how folks are feeling about the Erik Johnson for Chris Stewart/Kevin Shattenkirk trade these days? Johnson looks a lot like Bryan McCabe – a big shooter, decent skater with poor defensive instincts. At least McCabe was physical – Johnson plays a Jay Boumeester-like soft defense. Things aren’t puppy dogs and ice cream in St. Louis though either where Chris Stewart has gotten off to a very slow start (2 goals and 3 points in 11 games). In fact, right now the best player might just be Kevin Shattenkirk, who has taken another step, evolving into an intelligent, two-way defenseman playing alongside Alex Pieterangelo.
  • CBC is counting suspensions and concussions this year so you don’t have to.
  • Colorado’s Paul Stastny has yet to score a point at home this year.
  • Mike Smith has been very good for the Coyotes thus far. Makes you wonder what went wrong in Tampa?
  • Speaking of Phoenix, another factor in their early season success is the play of defensemen David Schlemko and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Ekman-Larsson is becoming a factor at both ends of the ice, and looks more and more like a player you build a team around. Schlemko is strong skater who doesn’t make mistakes with the puck.
  • Kudos to the Predators for inking Pekka Rinne to a 7-year/$49-million contract. Rinne is an elite goaltender, and having him signed long-term means Nashville has an important cornerstone in place. This probably means that one of Shea Weber or Ryan Suter is gone, especially since the Predators have some young depth at defense. It also wouldn’t surprise if Rinne’s $7 million annual salary becomes the defacto ceiling for Predator player contracts.
  • One last Predators note – while the media (particularly in Canada) portray Nashville as hockey backwater, it’s nice to see the team showing it’s willing to spend to build a contender. Predator fans have more trust in the franchise today than they did yesterday.
  • Chicago may just be the best team in the league right now. They’re scoring goals despite a terrible powerplay (8.7%, second-last in the league).
  • Yes, the Minnesota Wild are getting strong goaltending. No, they are not getting the production they’d like out of Marek Zidlicky. Zidlicky wasn’t very good last year either, and certainly doesn’t seem like a top-line defenseman anymore. That no-movement, modified no-trade clause in his last contract is starting to look like a big, heavy anchor around GM Chuck Fletcher’s neck.
Oct 062011
 

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

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

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

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

 Western Conference

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

Notes on the above:

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

 Eastern Conference

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

Notes on the above:

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

Other fearless predictions for the upcoming season:

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