Mar 272012
 

As we wind down the 2011-12 NHL season, it’s only fitting to take a moment and pay our respects to the “dearly departed” – those teams we know will be golfing in a couple of weeks.

Here now is a quick look at each of the teams looking ahead to 2012-13 already,  in reverse order of today’s standings.

Columbus Blue Jackets

What went wrong: Pretty much everything. James Wisniewski’s 8-game suspension crippled the team out of the gate. Coach Scott Arniel tried switching his team’s approach from an aggressive to conservative style mid-season, but the results were too poor to save his job. Jeff Carter was injured for much of his time in Columbus, and looked like a pout on skates when he did play.  Oh, and Steve Mason is currently ranked 77th amongst NHL goalies in goals against average (3.43).

What went right: Unlike Jeff Carter, Jack Johnson has embraced being a Blue Jacket, and has 10 points in 15 Columbus games. He still has the potential to turn this difficult trade into a real win for the Blue Jackets. Derick Brassard has quietly led the team in scoring since the All-Star Game (20 pts in 27 games).

Off-Season Gameplan: Address the goaltending issues that have hampered the franchise for most of its existence and make peace with Rick Nash. Trading Nash would kill the franchise. If this means firing GM Scott Howson, so be it.

Montreal Canadiens

What went wrong: The front office went insane, firing assistant coaches within hours of game time and throwing Randy Cunneyworth under the bus for his unilingualism. Top veterans Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Mike Cammalleri struggled, rendering a pop-gun offense useless for most of the first-half. And while Carey Price played well, even his numbers were slightly off from last season.

What went right: The Canadiens have embraced their youth as the season’s moved on. Max Pacioretty looks like a top NHL power forward. David Desharnais is second in team scoring since the All-Star Game (22 points in 26 games) and will be Montreal’s defacto second line centre next season. The physical Alex Emelin could be an interesting compliment to Andrei Markov in a top pairing. Lars Eller continues to develop and will flirt with 20 goals this year. Of the veterans, Eric Cole reached the 30-goal plateau for the first time in five years.

Off-Season Gameplan: Draft a talented Russian, whether it’s Alex Galchenyuk or Mikhail Grigorenko, with their highest pick since selecting Mike Komisarek seventh overall in 2001. Alex Kovalev flourished in Montreal, where the fans embraced his offensive flair. There’s no reason to believe that magic can’t happen again.

Edmonton Oilers

What went wrong: Nothing really went wrong – this team is probably as bad as they should be, especially given the injuries they’ve accrued. Of those injuries, the one to Ryan Whitney was the most damaging, as it exposed a very shallow blueline group. Nik Khabibulin has played worse as the season’s gone on, and he may be moved in the off-season. Eric Belanger is having his worst season as a pro, but he has partially solved the team’s faceoff problems.

What went right: Jordan Eberle does look like a young Dany Heatley and should be a Lady Byng candidate this season. The other super kids, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall, both look like they have top-20 NHL player potential. Devyn Dubnyk has a .918 save percentage since the All-Star Game. Sam Gagner continues to show flashes of top-six talent, and leads the team with a +8 rating. Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry have had terrific second halves. The pieces on this team are really starting to come together.

Off-Season Gameplan: Not much needs to be done upfront, but it’s the defense that needs tinkering. Another top-4 defenseman, or a youngster (draft pick) with top-pairing talent should be a priority. Help for Dubnyk would be an asset as well.

Minnesota Wild

What went wrong: Minnesota’s lack of offensive depth was exposed by injuries to Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Mikko Koivu. As a result, just like the Habs, a slight weakening of the team’s defensive play was enough to sewer the Wild’s playoff chances. The Wild might not have a 25-goal scorer this season. Josh Harding has had a disappointing second half (2 wins in 10 games, a .904 save percentage).

What went right:  Despite some historically low numbers, Dany Heatley has been a more competitive player with the Wild than he was in San Jose or Ottawa. Jared Spurgeon has played well enough that the Wild could trade Nick Schultz. Nik Backstrom has been his usual solid self.

Off-Season Gameplan: Bring on the kids. Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle could both see top-six roles in the NHL next season, bringing much needed offensive talent to the Wild roster. The Wild should also be in the running for a lottery pick in a draft that is loaded with quality defenseman. Beyond the influx of youth, Zach Parise should be targetted if he hits unrestricted free agency. It’s the type of move that would not only help the team, but would satiate restless Wild fans who feel the franchise has been spinning its wheels.

New York Islanders

What went wrong: For the Islanders to take the next step they need to work on their 5-on-5 play. They’ve ranked near the bottom of this category all year. Michael Grabner suffered from the sophomore slump (16 goals). One has to ask whether his skating talents can continue to flourish in a league where hooking and holding has crept back into play. Heralded rookie Nino Niederreiter has suffered through a lost season on the Island, with just one assist in 49 games. He’s averaged fourth-line minutes to boot.

What went right: John Tavares took another step towards greatness, improving his strength and speed and looking on many nights like a future Art Ross candidate. As Tavares has blossomed he’s lifted his linemates to new heights – Matt Moulson may reach 40 goals this year and P.A. Parenteau will have more than 50 assists. Together they have given the Islanders a dynamic first line, which is usually enough to fight for a playoff spot. New York’s powerplay has also been good all year, and Evgeni Nabokov has given the Islanders good goaltending on a nightly basis.

Off-Season Gameplan: GM Garth Snow should make resigning P.A. Parenteau a priority. Given the misuse of Nino Niederreiter this season, one wonders if the Islanders still see him as a top-six talent. If not, moving him could net a solid return. Continuing to build offensive depth, and acquiring a solid, stay-at-home top-four defenseman, should also be on New York’s shopping list. A few tweaks and this team will fight for a playoff spot next year.

Toronto Maple Leafs

What went wrong: The Leafs gambled on James Reimer and it came up snake eyes. As a result, the run-and-gun Leafs have given up goals by the bushel, eventually costing coach Ron Wilson his job. The defensive depth hasn’t materialized, with Mike Komisarek looking AHL-bound, John-Michael Liles frequently swimming out of position in his own zone and Luke Schenn regressing in his fourth season. In a broader sense, GM Brian Burke’s rebuild hasn’t gone well either – compared to the team he inherited, the Leafs are only better in a few areas (top-line wingers; top-two defensemen; more prospects). Otherwise this team looks a lot like the 2008-09 team that was jettisoned out of town. None of the replacements, particularly those acquired through free agency, have been actual upgrades.

What went right: All due respect to Tyler Seguin, but Phil Kessel remains the better player in that trade and will likely finish top-5 in league scoring. He is Mike Gartner 2.0. Healthy for the first time and stronger than ever before, Joffrey Lupul established himself as a top-line winger and compliment to Kessel, playing in the All-Star Game before getting hurt. Jake Gardiner and Carl Gunnarson have emerged as potential top-four defenseman, with Gardiner in particular showing flashes of offensive prowess.

Off-Season Gameplan: It’s a make-or-break off-season for GM Brian Burke. New coach Randy Carlyle demands a conservative style of play this roster wasn’t built for, which means major changes could be afoot. A lottery pick would be beneficial, as the Leafs could use a top-line talent to go with the complimentary-type players drafted in previous seasons. However, the most important move the team could make this summer is to solidify their goaltending position. Whether it’s taking Roberto Luongo off of Vancouver’s hands (I know, NTC), grabbing one of the “elite” young goaltenders (Josh Harding, Corey Schneider, Jonathan Bernier), or making a play for Jaroslav Halak. The Leafs won’t make the playoffs next year without a solution in net.

Anaheim Ducks

What went wrong: The Ducks just dug themselves too deep a hole. Whereas last year the team found its game amidst rumours the players had turned on coach Randy Carlyle, Anaheim couldn’t do the same this season, eventually leading to Carlyle’s firing. In particular, Jonas Hiller struggled early, and captain Ryan Getzlaf has had a nightmare season (one goal since the All Star Game).  Sophomore Cam Fowler has also struggled (-24 on the year).

What went right: The team has responded to coach Bruce Boudreau, and a full season under his direction should see the Ducks return to the post-season. Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne and Bobby Ryan have performed well for coach “Gabby.” Sheldon Brookbank has done a good job as the sixth defenseman, while Toni Lydman remains one of the better defensive defenseman in the league.

Off-Season Gameplan: Signs point to Selanne returning, which means the Ducks core remains as good as any in the NHL. Devante Smith-Pelley will likely have a top-six role to lose in training camp, but the Ducks could really use an upgrade at second-line centre. Impending free agent Saku Koivu can’t adequately fill that role anymore. Some veteran grit to the third and fourth lines would help as well.

Carolina Hurricanes:

What went wrong: Terrible starts to the season from Cam Ward and Eric Staal effectively put the Hurricanes behind the eight-ball. An injury to Joni Pitkanen – the team’s best offensive defenseman – didn’t help either. Carolina’s special teams, particularly the penalty kill, have been among the league’s weakest. No team gives up more shots-per-game than Carolina. Jeff Skinner hasn’t been the same player since returning from injury.

What went right: Surprisingly, Jiri Tlusty has had a strong second-half, placing second in team scoring (18 points in 22 games). Tim Gleason has been a beast defensively and remains one of the most underrated blueliners in the game. Chad LaRose will flirt with 20 goals this year. Staal’s been terrific since about December.

Off-Season Gameplan: With some solid youngsters up-front in the pipeline (Zac Dalpe, Zach Boychuk), what Carolina could really use is a veteran defenseman. Rumours that the Hurricanes are interested in Ryan Suter if he becomes a free agent underscore this belief. With the offense essentially living-or-dying on the Eric Staal’s back (shades of the 1990s Toronto Maple Leafs and Mats Sundin), Carolina has to hope Jeff Skinner rebounds next year.   

Tampa Bay Lightning

What went wrong: The clock struck midnight on the pumpkin named Dwayne Roloson, as the veteran netminder has been arguably the NHL’s worst goalie all year. The team’s blueline hasn’t played as well as last season either, with Eric Brewer in particular not living up to his playoff performance. With only four goals and averaging just 11-odd minutes of ice-time, one wonders if Brett Connolly’s development has been hurt playing in the NHL this season. Marc-Andre Bergeron’s injury meant the Lightning went most of the year without a true poweplay threat from the point. The penalty killing has struggled.

What went right: Steven Stamkos remains the league’s elite sniper, and should pick up the Richard Trophy for his 50+ goal efforts this season. Victor Hedman has had a strong second-half (+4, 10 points in 22 games), as has Teddy Purcell (33 points in 27 games). The latter is noteworthy, since it’s been done in Vincent Lecavalier’s absence.

Off-Season Gameplan: Goaltending. Tampa Bay doesn’t really have any, and needs to find it in the off-season. Beyond that a solid defenseman in the draft would go a long way to shoring up the blueline for the future. Offensive depth would be the third priority, particularly given that Martin St. Louis will be 37 next year.

Mar 062012
 

It seems these days not a day goes by that there isn’t something about the mediocre Toronto Maple Leafs that’s making the headlines. 

At first blush, the signing of Mikhail Grabovski to a five year, $27.5 million contract seems rather ludicrous. We’re talking about high-end salary for a streaky scorer that’s never put up 30-goals or 60 points.

 But is the contract really that far out of whack? Let’s do this arbitration-style, and look at some comparables.

Comparable #1: The 2004 NHL Entry Draft – Part 1

Grabovski was drafted 150th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. There were 30 centres selected prior to that, although only 19 have made the NHL, and only nine have played 240+ games (the rough equivalent of three NHL seasons):

PlayerDraftedSalary Cap HitGPPPPG+/-PIM
Evgeni Malkin2nd$8.7 M4104991.2237406
David Krejci63rd$5.25 M3592600.7258128
Mikhail Grabovski150th$5.5 M3041950.6410188
Travis Zajac20th$3.89 M4162520.6137126
Brandon Dubinsky60th$4.2 M3772050.5422446
Dave Bolland32nd$3.375 M2841480.5232181
Tyler Kennedy99th$2 M3091460.4730162
Rostislav Olesz7th$3.125 M3551320.37-10118
Torrey Mitchell126th$1.367 M263700.2713137

Clearly Malkin remains the best centre taken in the draft. Grabovski though is in the running for second-best (with Krejci, Zajac and Dubinsky).

Comparable #2: The 2004 NHL Entry Draft – Part 2

When you take all players from this entry draft into consideration, there are a group of players who have played a similar number of games to Grabovski: 

PlayerDraftedSalary Cap HitGPPPPG+/-PIM
Blake Wheeler5th$2.55 M3091810.5954188
Blake Comeau47th$2.5 M3061320.43-49159
Tyler Kennedy99th$2 M3091460.4730162
Kris Versteeg134th$3.083 M3091960.6315185
Mikhail Grabovski150th$5.5 M3041950.6410188
Troy Brouwer214th$2.35 M3031320.44-1214

Clearly from the above table Kris Versteeg’s career production is the most similar to Grabovski’s. Furthermore, just like Grabovski, Versteeg’s career-to-date is without a 30-goal or 60-point season.

Comparable #3: What Does Cap Geek Say?

A search function on Cap Geek  gives the user the chance to find comparable salary cap hits for any player. These are the centres Cap Geek selects as Mikhail Grabovski’s salary comparables:

PlayerAgeSalary Cap HitGPPPPG+/-PIM
Ryan Getzlaf26$5.325 M4974600.9364481
John Tavares21$5.5 M2271840.81-3397
Jason Pominville29$5.3 M5254170.7941155
Mike Richards26$5.75 M5103830.7543458
Jeff Carter27$5.27 M5043700.7341302
Patrick Sharp30$5.9 M5523710.6759375
Tomas Plekanec29$5 M5353530.6613322
Mikhail Grabovski28$5.5 M3041950.6410188
Ryan Kesler27$5 M5453320.6152487
Shawn Horcoff33$5.5 M7494330.58-43479

It’s an interesting list. The Horcoff contract is widely regarded as a huge albatross for the Oilers. He’s also the oldest centre on this list, with the most experience (and least production).  Kesler has fewer points per game than Grabovski, although he plays a far more well-rounded style (physical, defensive-minded, good on faceoffs) than the Leafs player. In fact, many of the players on this list bring “more to the table” than Grabovski does on a nightly basis.

With his new contract, Grabovski is effectively being paid to produce the type of offense consistent with a first-line player. Yet most of the comparable centres on this list produce more offense than he does.

The majority of players on this list have also played around 500 games, or roughly two more seasons than Grabovski has. While it seems logical to pay a player like Tavares this kind of salary early in his career (he’s an elite talent that the Islanders have locked-up long term), Grabovski is 28-years old. The player he will be is the player he is right now.

And the player he is right now looks like a player who doesn’t necessarily fit in with this group.

Looking at all these lists, it’s clear Grabovski will be overpaid at $5.5 million per season.

Toronto’s desperate for a number one centre. Now they’ve got a player who can’t play like one, but certainly gets paid like one.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Speaking of the Leafs, Grabovski’s now paid more than Phil Kessel, the Leafs top scorer. That can’t sit well with Kessel, who’s carried the team’s offense this season. It also gets the Spidey-senses tingling – maybe there could be a Rick Nash for Phil Kessel trade in the off-season after all.
  • From a few weeks ago, here’s the Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle on what Grabovski is worth.
  • Final Leafs note – Randy Carlyle will bring necessary structure to the Toronto Maple Leafs. But let’s not forget Ducks players grew to hate their coach, and dressing room issues were a large part of the last two years in Anaheim. It would not be a surprise to see, at the end of the day, that Ron Wilson will have coached more Leaf games than Randy Carlyle.
  • I lied about it being the final Leafs note. This happened today on Toronto radio. Must bring back warm memories for Vancouver sports radio listeners.
  • Rumoured complaints by the Senators, Canucks and Maple Leafs about Ron Maclean and Don Cherry are just another reason why it’s easy to believe the CBC is getting out of the hockey business after their contract runs out.
  • So Sidney Crosby’s head is clear and it looks like he might be ready to go for the playoffs. Except that the playoffs are played at a faster, more physical pace than the regular season. In everyone’s rush to get Crosby back on the ice, isn’t it in his best interests to take as much time off as possible and start fresh for the 2012-13 season?
  • The Globe and Mail selects the 2014 Men’s Olympic Hockey Team so Steve Yzerman doesn’t have to.
  • Interesting news that Canada currently sits fourth in the world hockey rankings. Here are the top-10 rankings in descending order: Russia; Finland; Sweden; Canada; Czech Republic; United States; Switzerland; Germany; Norway; Slovakia.
  • Dobber writes a personal note to George McPhee and Ted Leonsis that sounds similar to what was said in this space a few weeks ago.
  • Not making too big a deal about this, but Tim Thomas’s numbers in 2012 aren’t at their usual level of excellence (11-9, 2.66 goals against, .909 save percentage). With Tuukka Rask out and Marty Turco signed, the Bruins have to hope that Thomas finds his old form in time for the playoffs.
  • Grant Clitsome on playing in Winnipeg: “The hardest thing to adjust to was having to shout at your teammates as you can’t hear them with how loud the crowd is.”
  • In case you missed it, a breakdown of each team’s height, weight and age post-trade deadline.
  • A nice analysis on Fear the Fin about the San Jose Sharks recent slide.
  • Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts.
Feb 162012
 

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Hitchcock

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

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

Darryl Sutter

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

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

Bruce Boudreau

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

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

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

Dale Hunter

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

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

Kirk Muller

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

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

Randy Cunneyworth

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

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

Todd Richards

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

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

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ownership

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

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

Ownership Edge: Oilers

Front Office

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

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

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

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

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

Front Office Edge: Leafs

Coaching

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

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

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

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

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

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Does it really matter that Sam Gagner may have only had 7-points last week? I know I don’t care if the referees are extra generous with their assists.
  • One last Oilers thought – Jordan Eberle, at the time of his draft, projected favourably as another Dany Heatley. Just two years later, Eberle looks to have already eclipsed Heatley as a player. If he can get to 78-points (he has 54 now), he’ll become the highest scoring Oiler since Doug Weight in 2000-01.
  • The Red Wings can deny it all they want, but they desperately need one of Joey MacDonald or Ty Conklin to be solid in goal until Jimmy Howard gets back. The Central Division is a beast, and any prolonged slump could mean St. Louis, Nashville or Chicago leap past them in the standings. It’s hard to get four teams from the same division into the playoffs. The Red Wings can’t afford a set back.
  • If I’m an Eastern Conference team that thinks it can make a post-season run, I am calling Montreal about Hal Gill. Skating-aside, Gill remains one of the top defensive defensemen in the NHL. He would look great in a Rangers uniform.
  • Other trade matches “made in heaven”: Marek Zidlicky to Detroit (a great skating, puck-moving defenseman on a team that plays a puck possession game); Ales Hemsky to Nashville (Hemsky would immediately become the most offensively talented player the Predators have had since Peter Forsberg); Evgeni Nabokov to Tampa Bay (if the Lightning decide to go for the Division crown in a weak Southeast Division); Tuomo Ruutu to Chicago (Blackhawks are incredibly weak on the left-side); Vinny Prospal to Los Angeles (a nice complimentary scorer on a team that needs to find some quickly).
  • Naturally, none of the pairings above have any chance of actually happening, but it’s fun to speculate.
  • Former NHL owner Howard Baldwin talks NHL expansion and hockey in Hartford.
  • Speaking of expansion,more about Seattle as a possible destination for the Coyotes.
  • Here’s former Orca Bay President and CEO Stan McCammon on a possible NHL team in Seattle.
  • This is kind of neat – a breakdown of who sits where in the Avalanche locker room.
  • A nice piece on what Ilya Kovalchuk has become for the Devils.
  • Here’s Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts.
Dec 312010
 

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

Jay Feaster, Calgary Flames

Photo credit: Calgary Herald

So just how big a project is rebuilding the Calgary Flames?

Countless articles and endless minutes of media coverage in Canada over the holidays talked about how Darryl Sutter left this team without the young or tradeable assets necessary to build hope for a better future.

The bar is being set incredibly low for Jay Feaster. Basically, if he makes a couple of trades for draft picks at the deadline, columnists will award him a Bronze Star for valour.

The thing is, the Flames situation is desperate only if you believe they should be competitive right now. In short, if you drank from the Sutter kool-aid, you’re a very unhappy person right now.

Yet most Flames fans stopped drinking this Kool-Aid long ago. Similar to up the road in Edmonton, Flames fans are just hungry for a period of sustained success. They are tired of mediocrity. And mediocrity is all that Darryl Sutter has been able to muster since the lockout.

Which is why it was most alarming to hear Jay Feaster say in his first press conference how the playoffs were a goal for the team.

Perhaps it was an empty promise. However, the post-lockout NHL has proven itself to be an incredibly difficult place to remain competitive and rebuild at the same time.

These days, the best talent is locked in contract-wise, which means there aren’t the same rebuilding options as there used to be on the UFA market each summer. Similarily, good young talent is also the cheapest, and therefore greatest, asset a team can have in the NHL. So you see less of it on the trade market. Finally, with the league’s salary cap structure, and most teams either maxed out or at their own internal budget, you just don’t see big contracts moved very often.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are one team that have tried to have it both ways – rebuild and remain competitive. And while they’ve been successful acquiring a few strong young pieces (Phaneuf, Kessel in particular), their efforts have neither been good enough to turn the franchise into a playoff team, nor bad enough to give the team a collection of top-end draft picks. It’s a tweener franchise, and looks like it could be that way for years to come.

No, if you have a strong front office (and let’s not forget Jay Feaster’s won a Cup already), the best way to build a Cup contender in the post-lockout NHL is to, basically, tank it for a couple of years. It let’s you accumulate assets, cap space and build hope amongst the fan base.

The best thing Jay Feaster and the Calgary Flames can do is copy a move from Toronto Blue Jays’ GM Alex Anthopoulos – communicate that 2013-14 is the year you plan to be ready for a Cup run, and build everything the organization does towards that goal.

Anything else is short-sighted.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • For whatever reason, whether it’s Gord Miller going crazy over goals against Norway, or Pierre Maguire’s usual blind homerism, or the fact that Canada has dominated the tournament for so long, the TSN broadcast of the World Juniors this year seems rather smug and self-congratulatory. Then again, there are a lot of folks who’d say that’s TSN’s approach in a nutshell.
  • One wish for the Flames rebuild: bring back the puck pursuit, offensive hockey the team was known for in its glory years.
  • One team that’s always pointed to as a team that’s “rebuilt” and stayed competitive is the Detroit Red Wings. Well, no team has scouted Europe better, particularly from 1989-2000. Remember, even in the early 1990s there were NHL teams that weren’t interested in drafting Europeans. However, since the hey-day of drafting players like Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Franzen, it’s been a long time since the Red Wings hit the bulls-eye at the draft. Jonathan Ericsson was supposed to be that player, and he just hasn’t performed up to expectations. The Red Wings are the oldest team in the NHL this season, and have been one of the older teams for years now. It’s hard to believe sure, but the sun has started to set on this dynasty.
  • Remember Jason Smith, the former Oilers captain? If you look closely enough, there’s a lot of Jason Smith in Theo Peckham’s evolving game.
  • Daniel Winnick and Ian Laperriere look like twins.
  • One more Calgary note, it would make sense for Pierre Gauthier to at least kick the tires on bringing Jarome Iginla to Montreal. He’s exactly what that team is missing in a lot of ways, and has played enough defensive-first hockey to fit well into Jacques Martin’s system.
  • Puzzling way to treat Nazem Kadri by the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ron Wilson. Bench him for three games. Tell him he added too much muscle in the off-season and has lost a step. Then, send him down to the AHL and, while the door hits him on the way out, hold a media scrum where you mention he needs to get stronger. The best place for Kadri is definitely in the AHL – at least it gets him away from the mixed-messages of Ron Wilson.
  • So Bryan Murray this week complains that there are two-tiers of justice in the NHL. How is this news to an NHL GM?
  • Since Derek Roy’s injury effectively kills the Sabres chances this year of making the playoffs, does this mean we’re watching Lindy Ruff coach out the string? Or does the injury buy him another season?
  • Speaking of injuries, the Oilers’ loss of Ryan Whitney assures that team of a top-5 draft pick at the very least. He was enjoying a breakout, All-Star calibre season before his ankle injury.
  • The development of Logan Couture probably means another disappointing playoff performance could make one of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton or Joe Pavelski available.
  • Michael Farber has five theories on what’s wrong with Alex Ovechkin. Here’s another – that OV has always played on instinct – from the heart, not the head. When other teams figured out how to defend against him, it’s forced him to think and analyze – to go against his instincts – which has slowed his explosiveness right down.
Dec 042010
 

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

Daryl Katz, Edmonton Oilers and Gary Bettman

Photo credit: rds.ca

The more things change, the more they stay the same for the Edmonton Oilers.

After almost two decades of uncertain ownership, Daryl Katz’s purchase of the team in 2008 was supposed to solidify their roots for a generation, if not longer.

In Katz, Oiler fans saw the embodiment of their dream owner – a life-long fan with the deep pockets to keep the team in Edmonton, and with the desire to ice a perennial winner. Katz, to his credit, said all the things Oiler fans wanted to hear. So invested in Edmonton was Katz that he was willing to put up $100 million of his own money into a new $450 million downtown area.

Yet, two years later, rumours of the Oilers moving have already sprung up twice – once in the summer (to Hamilton), and then this week (to Quebec City).

In each case, the threat seems to have originated from the inner circle around Katz himself.

Granted, negotiations with the City of Edmonton to build a new arena are not going as planned. The team’s 2014 deadline for a new arena is unlikely to be met. And granted, the relocation talk in each instance was quickly quashed by Oilers brass. But Katz’s cavalier willingness to drop the “relocation” word is an insult to Oiler fans who have already been through so much.

One also has to wonder, if this bully negotiating tactic does not work, what Oilers ownership has in mind for a Plan B.

Just a guess, but given that Quebec City officials met with Oilers ownership this week, perhaps coordinated East-West lobbying at the federal level is that intended next step.

*****

Forbes magazine came out this week with their list of NHL franchise values.

While the research methods and findings are certainly being questioned by NHL owners, it remains a fascinating read.

According to Forbes, 14 of 30 NHL teams have decreased in value over last year. Furthermore, the magazine claims seven NHL franchises (Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks) are propping up the rest of the league financially.

All this does is raise questions once again about the league’s direction.

Hand in hand with that should be questions about Gary Bettman, and specifically his future.

Gary Bettman was hired with to sell the game in the U.S., end labour unrest, expand and modernize the league. Whether he has succeeded or failed at each of these objectives is a topic for another day. What is certain though is that the NHL is poised to sign a new, lucrative US television deal at the end of this season.

The league’s collective bargaining agreement ends after the 2011-12 season. Owners, having instituted a salary cap last time around, are eager to gain even further concessions from the players this time. No-trade clauses, a cap on contract lengths and even the notion of guaranteed contracts are rumoured owner targets.

Finally, with Canadian franchises fuelling NHL profits like never-before, there is at least one legitimate opportunity to strengthen the league’s bottom line by returning a team to Canada.

Bettman isn’t quite a greybeard, but he’ll turn 50 in 2012. The following season, 2013, would be Bettman’s 20th year in the thankless role of Commissioner. Only Clarence Campbell (1946-77) and Frank Calder (1917-43) would have led the league longer. If Bettman can secure a good TV deal, “win” the next CBA for the owners and return a team to Canada – all of which seem possible, if not likely, in the near future – it’s easy to see him hanging up his skates before 2015.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

%d bloggers like this: