Oct 062011
 

First, a confession.

I watched Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals with Tracy, my two sisters and their significant others. About halfway through the third period, I received a text message from a friend who was watching the game on the CBC screens that said fights were starting and things were getting out of hand. I had a sick feeling in my stomach, not because the Canucks are about to lose their best chance to finally lift Lord Stanley’s mug, but because I remember 1994 and the riots that happened then all too well. All of us left with about four minutes left in the game and hopped on the Sky Train just in time to hear a car explode from Georgia St.

I didn’t see the end of that game. I didn’t see Brad Marchand’s empty-net goal, amazingly, his 11th of the postseason. I didn’t see Gary Bettman hand the Stanley Cup to Zdeno Chara.

Until yesterday.

Yesterday, I finally mustered the strength to watch the rest of Game 7 from my PVR. Some may call it therapeutic. I say it’s ready to move on.

As disappointing as last year’s finish was, the fact is that the Canucks played perhaps their greatest season. They won the President’s Trophy, a first in franchise history. They finished at or near the top of every significant statistical category. Individuals won awards and the team made it to the Stanley Cup Finals for just the third time in their 40-year history.

Can the Canucks repeat the magical ride that was the 2010/2011 season?

History suggests that they can’t. Since the lockout, only two teams have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in consecutive years. (The Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins played each other both in 2008 and 2009; the Wings won in 2008 and the Penguins won in 2009.) In six years, ten different teams made it all the way to the big dance.

However, this season’s Canucks have most of the same faces in the lineup. The top-9 is largely intact with the exception of Raffi Torres. Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond are out to start the season, but the Canucks will have trade deadline day pickup, Chris Higgins, for an entire season, free agent signing, Marco Sturm, and Cody Hodgson looking ready for a full-time NHL gig. The fourth line is revamped and will be anchored by Maxim Lapierre, a huge upgrade over Alex Bolduc. (We’ll see how much better Aaron Volpatti and Dale Weise are over the dozen-ish guys the Canucks rolled out on the fourth line last year.) As well, the entire defense corps is back except for Christian Ehrhoff. Ehrhoff is a big loss, but will hopefully be offset by Alex Edler and Chris Tanev taking the next big step in their development and a full and healthy season from Keith Ballard.

It’s true that there are a lot of factors that have to fall into place to return to the Stanley Cup Finals. That said, I think the Canucks are in a good position to make this happen.

Sometime before their season opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight, the Canucks will raise the Western Conference Championship banner to celebrate their accomplishments of last season. Besides that, the team will move forward and focus on finishing their unfinished business from last year.

We should all do the same.

Oct 052011
 

After the Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley Cup Final, I stepped away from hockey for a while (in reality, it was about two weeks). I couldn’t watch anything hockey-related; every time TSN or Sportsnet would show clips of the Boston Bruins lifting the Stanley Cup in Vancouver’s own home, it was like that knife in my back twisted, and dug a little deeper.

I watched a lot of sports movies in that time. Some for the first time, others for the millionth time.

One movie which never seems to fail me is Friday Night Lights. For those who haven’t seen it, do yourself a favour and watch it. It’s about a young Texas highschool football team who are under the intense spotlight and expectations of winning (not all that dissimilar from Vancouver). Like hockey in Vancouver, football is life in Texas, and one quote from the team captain Mike Winchell to head coach Gary Gaines virtually summed up life for Canucks fans.

“You ever feel cursed, Coach? Like no matter what, inside your heart you know you’re going to lose, like something’s hanging over you. I feel like that all the time. Even when things are going good. When we’re winning, it’s there. When we’re losing, it’s there. It follows me like a witch.”

Now let’s be honest. Who else encountered that feeling at least once during the playoffs? Truthfully, it was there in the first round; even when the Canucks held that commanding 3-0 series lead against Chicago. And eventually, those doubts, those fears, they crept into our hearts and minds as that series dragged on. It made Alex Burrows’ eventual game winner all the more sweeter, but it wasn’t just elation that swept over fans in that moment … It was relief. Maybe that curse was being lifted.

Slowly, we began to believe. And the city began to as well. The Canucks beat the determined Predators in six and rolled over the Sharks in five en route to that coveted Stanley Cup Final berth. The curse was just four more wins away from being vanquished once and for all.

But as the Canucks squandered that 2-0 series lead, those same old doubts and fears barreled down on us like a freight train.

The story pretty much writes itself from there. The vaunted Canucks, the best team in the regular season bar none, lost four of the last five games. Losing four of five in the regular season was virtually unheard of, let alone doing it on the biggest stage of them all. And just like that, Canucks fans remain tethered to that curse, that 41-year curse, that weighs on us like a gigantic boulder.

Until the Canucks finally capture that Stanley Cup, all we’ll ever feel is cursed. The 2011/2012 season is a brand new chance at redemption, but as those years drag on, we can only feel that boulder getting heavier.

And for those wondering, here is Coach Gaines’ response to curses:

“It took me a long time to realize that there ain’t much difference between winning and losing, except how the outside world treats you. But inside you, it’s about all the same. It really is. Fact of the matter is that our only curses are the ones self-imposed. We, all of us, we dig our own holes.”

Oct 052011
 

Yesterday it was the Eastern Conference goalies. Today, the Western Conference as we wrap up our positional previews.

A+ Grade

Nashville
Last Year (B-)

A stellar playoff performance proved Pekka Rinne is more than just a product of an elite defensive team. He’s the Conference’s best goaltender right now. If injured, Anders Lindback is a more-than-capable replacement.

A- Grade

Anaheim
Last Year (B)

Vertigo derailed what was shaping up to be a Vezina-worthy season for Jonas Hiller. Symptom-free, he’s an elite goaltender. Dan Ellis is an okay backup in the short-term, but any injury to Hiller and the Ducks are in trouble.

B+ Grade

Vancouver
Last Year (B+)

Despite two very inconsistent post-seasons, Roberto Luongo has been a great regular season goaltender. In fact, it could be argued Luongo has something to prove this year, which may mean trouble for opposing shooters. Cory Schneider is a strong backup and can fill in admirably for long stretches. He may be required to do so if Luongo falters again.

Calgary
Last Year (B)

Miika Kiprusoff is starting on the downside of his career, but he’s still capable of Vezina-worthy numbers. The team has high hopes for Henrik Karlsson, who might just be the most talented backup Kiprusoff’s ever had behind him on the depth chart. Then again, we are talking about a list that includes Curtis McElhinney, Vesa Toskala, an-end-of-his-career Curtis Joseph, Jamie McLennan, Phillppe Sauve, Brian Boucher, Roman Turek, Dany Sabourin, Goofy, Greg Goldberg, Lisa Simpson, Lanny McDonald’s moustache, Snidley Whiplash’s moustache and Paul Brandt.   

B Grade

St. Louis
Last Year (B+)

It was a mixed debut for Jaroslav Halak in St. Louis, as injuries and inconsistency dogged his first season with the Blues. There were enough good moments though to confirm he is no Habs one-season wonder (aka Steve Penney). Ben Bishop and Brian Elliott competed for the backup role in camp, with Elliott winning the role. Both are significant downgrades from Halak.

Los Angeles
Last Year (C+)

There is an embarrassment of riches at this position in Los Angeles, with Jonathan Quick playing extremely well last year, and Jonathan Bernier remaining one of the elite goalie prospects in the league. The Kings will move up this list as these two continue to develop.

B- Grade

Chicago Last Year (B-)

Marty Turco was a Christina Hendricks-sized bust last year, but the emergence of Corey Crawford effectively saved the Blackhawks season. Crawford was very good against the Canucks in the first round last year, and goes into this season as the defacto starter. The backup role is up for grabs, with former badboy Ray Emery competing with prospect Alexander Salak. Emery looked good with the Ducks down the stretch, while Salak toiled in Europe after a good North American showing in 2009-10. Neither were all that special during training camp. (Ed. note: The Blackhawks signed Ray Emery a couple of days ago, and sent Alexander Salak to Rockford in the AHL. – J.J.)

Dallas
Last Year (C-)

Kari Lehtonen brushed aside his injury past and was the Stars’ MVP, almost carrying the team into the playoffs. He’ll be asked to do even more on a weaker Dallas team this year. Andrew Raycroft is serviceable as the backup.

C+ Grade

Colorado
Last Year (C+)

Semyon Varlamov was a walking band-aid for the Capitals last year, and has yet to play 30 NHL games in a season. There’s no question he’s talented, but durability is a legitimate concern. The Capitals have been a good team as well, so it will be interesting to see what his numbers look like playing for a young Avalanche team. Jean-Sebastien Giguere is a swell guy who’s clearly reaching the end of his career performance-wise. His last two years in Toronto were pedestrian.

San Jose
Last Year (C)

After a horrible start to the season, Antti Niemi was sensational from January until the end of the season. He is unorthodox, and his playoff numbers were disappointing, but when hot he’s one of the better goalies in the league.  Antero Nittymaki is out for 12 weeks meaning Thomas Griess gets a chance to be the backup. Griess has #1 goalie potential.

C Grade

Detroit
Last Year (B)

Brilliant in his rookie season, Jimmy Howard was hit by the sophomore slump for much of last year. He picked up his game in the post-season though, and seems destined to be a Chris Osgood-level NHL starter. Ty Conklin is the journeyman backup.

Edmonton
Last Year (D+)

Devan Dubnyk was Ken Wregget-esque at times last year, giving an overmatched Oilers team a chance to win. His best days are ahead – the question remains how good of a goaltender he can be. Having completed his jail time, Nikolai Khabibulin enters the year looking to redeem his reputation.

Minnesota
Last Year (C)

Nicklas Backstrom had a bounce-back year between the pipes for a very pedestrian Wild team. He’s a second-tier NHL starter. Josh Harding missed all of last season due to injury, got hurt in training camp and at 27 sees his career at a crossroads. 

C- Grade

Phoenix
Last Year (A)

Coyotes fans are about to learn how just how hard it is to win in the NHL without elite goaltending. Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera are solid backup goalies at best.

Columbus
Last Year (C+)

Chin up Blue Jackets fans – whereas the Steve Mason era has been a nightmare, the Mark Derkanich era, whenever it starts, has some promise. In the meantime, Curtis Sanford (not this Sanford, the other one) is also in the mix.

Oct 042011
 

Any discussion of the New Jersey Devils chances this year is riddled with questions:

  • Is Peter DeBoer a good coach?
  •  Is the team going bankrupt or not?
  • Do Adam Lambert and Adam Larsson look anything alike?
  • Is this Zach Parise’s last year with the team?
  • When will Travis Zajac be back?

Yet the biggest question of them all is “what can Devils fans expect from Martin Brodeur.”

Brodeur, arguably the best goalie of his generation, enters the season as a 39-year old. Like the rest of his team, Brodeur’s pre- (2.84 GAA, .895 SVPT) and post- (1.84, .919) all-star game numbers demonstrate Jacques Lemaire’s positive impact behind the bench. However, Brodeur’s .903 save percentage for the entire season was his worst since 1994-95.

To know what Martin Brodeur may bring to the New Jersey Devils’ crease this year, let’s take a look at how some other 39-year old goalies have faired since the lockout:

SeasonNameTeamGames PlayedWinsGoals Against AverageSave Percentage
2005-06Sean BurkeTampa Bay35142.80.895
2006-07Curtis JosephPhoenix55183.190.893
2008-09Dwayne RolosonEdmonton63282.770.915

Burke and Joseph played on non-playoff teams and their numbers are an adequate reflection of their poor supporting cast and genuine decline due to age. The anomaly is Roloson, who was terrific for an otherwise weak Oiler team that also ended outside the playoff mix.  

Brodeur turns 40 in May, and Devils fans hope the team is still playing then. To broaden the sample size a bit, let’s take a quick look at how goalies at 40 have done since the lockout.

SeasonNameTeamGames PlayedWinsGoals Against AverageSave Percentage
2005-06Ed BelfourToronto49223.290.892
2006-07Sean BurkeLA2363.110.901
2007-08Curtis JosephCalgary932.550.906
2009-10Dwayne RolosonNYI502330.907

Once again, none of these goalies played on a playoff team.

If we average all these numbers out, what do they look like?

Well, they look like Steve Mason:

NameGames PlayedWinsGoals Against AverageSave Percentage
39-40 year old goalie avg.41163.010.902
Steve Mason 2011-1254243.030.901

Martin Brodeur may have a lot of records and some gas left in the tank, but given the evidence it seems more decline is in store for the Devils goalie.   

Let’s take a look now at the Eastern Conference goalie rankings for 2011-12:

A+ Grade

Philadelphia
Last Year (D+)

Talk about rectifying a long-standing weakness. Ilya Bryzgalov is an elite goalie playing behind the best team of his career. If he gets hurt, Sergei Bobrovsky is a young, talented backup who showed last year he can play extremely well in stretches. Together, they look like the best goalie tandem in the league, although each of Boston, Buffalo and the Rangers could challenge that standing.

A Grade

Boston
Last Year (B+)

How about one more Wiserclap for the season Tim Thomas had – arguably the best season by a goalie in the history of the NHL. A bit of a fall-back-to-earth for Thomas should be expected, but the Bruins have a very capable Tuukka Rask to pick up the slack.

Buffalo
Last Year (A+)

Ryan Miller had a bit of a down season but is a top-5 goalie in the NHL, if not the best. Jhonas Enroth looks like the best backup goalie the Sabres have had in some time.

New York Rangers
Last Year (A+)

A slight downgrade given Martin Biron’s age and collarbone injury last season, but otherwise this is another elite goaltending tandem in a Conference neck-deep in strong goalie depth. Is this the year Henrik Lundqvist finally earns a Vezina Trophy?

A- Grade

Washington
Last Year (C)

Just like the Flyers, the Capitals addressed their goaltending issues for the first time since Olaf Kolzig left town. Tomas Vokun has long been described as a great goalie playing for lousy teams. Now we’ll see how he does when wins are expected. Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby are youngsters with strong potential.

Carolina
Last Year (B+)

If the NHL plays in the next Olympics, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Cam Ward between the pipes for Canada – he’s that good. Off-season acquisition Brian Boucher is a huge upgrade as the backup.

B+ Grade

Montreal
Last Year (C-)

Okay, so Carey Price is a legitimate NHL goalie capable of elite play. However, Montreal’s a Price injury away from absolute disaster (aka Peter Budaj) in the crease.

Pittsburgh
Last Year (B-)

A Vezina-esque season from Marc-Andre Fleury last season should have silenced most of the critics. Brent Johnson is a solid backup who can get red hot.

B Grade

Tampa Bay
Last Year (C+)

Dwayne Roloson will turn 42 in October. He was very good for the Lightning after being traded from the Islanders, but he seemed to tire by the Conference Final against Boston. A Roloson injury shoots the Lightning toward the bottom of this list, as Mathieu Garon is only adequate as the backup.

B- Grade

New Jersey
Last Year (A-)

This is probably Martin Brodeur’s final season. Good thing the Devils have planned ahead and stocked the farm system with potential replacements right? Actually, they haven’t. Instead, they’re going to trot out 38-year old Johan Hedberg in the event Brodeur gets hurt, and then hope some free agent chooses New Jersey in the off-season. Good luck with that, Lou Lamoriello.

Ottawa
Last Year (C-)

There’s a lot riding on Craig Anderson this year, as the Senators firmly believe he is the type of goalie you can rebuild around. Injuries remain a concern though. Alex Auld is an okay backup who barely played last year in Montreal.

C+ Grade

New York Islanders
Last Year (C)

Not satisfied with having Rick DiPietro, Al Montoya, Evgeni Nabokov, Kevin Poulin and MIkko Koskinen on the goalie depth chart, former goalie-turned-GM Garth Snow reportedly invited Darren Puppa, Dan Cloutier, Dominik Hasek, Johnny Bower, Ken Dryden, Steve Penney, Glenn Healy, Ron Tugnutt and Jean-Claude VanDamme to camp in an effort to start the season with an all-goalie starting lineup. Happily for Islander fans they all declined. Unhappily, the lot that remains is a rather average one, with Montoya showing the most promise last year.

Winnipeg
Last Year (C+)

Ondreji Pavelec has a 3.33 GAA and .883 save % after the all-star break. He’s young and talented, but the Jets need him to find consistency. Chris Mason is an experienced backup who was one of the worst goalies in the league statistically last season.

C Grade

Toronto
Last Year (B-)

Last year I was too optimistic about the tandem of Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson. That’s why you find the Maple Leafs down here now, as James Reimer, despite a glacier glove hand, was terrific down the stretch. A half-season does not prove anything and it’s up to Reimer to show he’s a quality NHL starter.

Florida
Last Year (B+)

Lets be honest – Jose Theodore is just keeping the crease warm for super-prospect Jacob Markstrom. Until the rookie takes the reins though, the Panthers are going to lose a lot of games. Theodore is a shadow of his former self, and backup Scott Clemmensen may actually be the better goalie at this stage of their respective careers.

Sep 272011
 

As we approach the 2011/2012 season, here now is a preview piece on Canucks defenseman, Dan Hamhuis.

What we remember:

A native of Smithers, BC, Dan Hamhuis gave up $6.5 million per year from the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators to sign with the hometown Canucks. It didn’t take long before he endeared himself to Canucks fans.

Hamhuis’ effect on the Canucks’ defense corps was undeniable. He was a calming influence on Kevin Bieksa, and together, they formed the team’s top shutdown duo. While not known for his offensive skills, he showed good mobility with the puck and put up 23 points in 64 games, the 0.36 points per game average his highest since scoring 38 points in 82 games (0.46 points per game) for the Nashville Predators in 2005/2006. In fact, the trickle-down effect from his injury in game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals was obvious; the Canucks’ defense wasn’t quite as fluid or as together after he left.

What we expect:

The hope is 2010/2011 was an aberration injury-wise and that Hamhius can return to playing a full, healthy season again. In 6 previous seasons with the Predators, he missed a grand total of 9 games due to injury. In his first season as a Canuck, he missed 18 regular season games and another 6 in the Stanley Cup Finals. Especially now that Christian Ehrhoff – and his 24 minutes TOI/game – has gone to Buffalo, the Canucks will expect Hamhuis to eat up some of those minutes.

Reality check:

After undergoing sports hernia surgery in the off-season, Hamhuis is optimistic that he’ll be ready for the start of the regular season. How soon he gets back to form is another question all together.

He said it:

“We’ve talked about that already. If you look back to last season, you see all the hard work it took to get to the playoffs. We don’t get a free pass to get back there. It starts now in training camp, getting ready for exhibition games. And then in exhibitions, we get ready for the season. We can’t look by those as just boring regular-season games. It takes a lot of work to get to the Stanley Cup finals and we want to get back there.”

- Dan Hamhuis on what it will take for the Canucks to return to the Stanley Cup Finals again

Sep 272011
 

Our season preview series continues today with some thoughts on forward Mikael Samuelsson.

What we remember:

After a career-high 30 goals in 2009/2010, Mikael Samuelsson lit the red lamp just 18 times in 2010/2011 as he tried to play through a leg injury for much of the regular season. The only current Canucks player to ever get his name on the Stanley Cup, Samuelsson’s postseason was also cut short – he didn’t play again after game 5 of the Canucks second round series against the Nashville Predators – and he underwent sports hernia surgery.

What we expect:

Samuelsson is one of the players the Canucks will count on the most to provide some secondary scoring while Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond recover from their respective injuries. He’ll most likely start in a top-six role as well as replace Christian Ehrhoff’s spot playing point on the powerplay. In a nutshell, he’ll be expected to produce and be given every opportunity to do so. It won’t hurt that he’s entering his contract year.

Reality check:

Does Samuelsson have another 30-goal season in him? The reality is, his 18 goals last year is closer to his four-year average while playing with Detroit (17 goals per season).

He said it:

“The biggest thing is being in it again mentally. Start now because it’s going to be a long season. We have the pieces to do some damage again, but that being said it’s not a guarantee. Anything can happen. We should make the playoffs and go from there.”

- Mikael Samuelsson on the Canucks’ chances to get to the Stanley Cup Finals again

Sep 272011
 

Yesterday I talked about the Western Conference (and Two and a Half Men..which I will never talk about again willingly). 

Let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference rankings today.

A quick note on all of these rankings. Each likely starting player and coach was given a letter grade (in a player’s case based on their likely contribution, previous performance and ability). Each letter grade had a numerical value, and a team’s ranking is a result of a team’s total score in that particular area (coaching, defence, forwards, and goaltenders).

 A+ Grade

Pittsburgh
Last Year (A)

If Sidney Crosby’s healthy, this is the best group of forwards the Penguins have had in a long time, maybe even better than their Cup winning roster. It can skate, play both ways and compete physically. James Neal has 30-goal potential, while Steve Sullivan, if healthy, will be a powerplay asset. If Malkin lines up in the middle, this is the deepest team at centre in the Conference. There’s some young talent on the farm as well, meaning we likely haven’t seen the last of long playoff runs for the Penguins. Still, if Crosby misses any time they slide down this ranking.

A Grade

Washington
Last Year (A+)

Skill and grit found on every line. With a year of defensive focus under their belt, a more balanced approach is expected this year. If executed, that means a return to offensive form for Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Semin. Jeff Halpern in particular gives the Capitals a strong defensive centre who can take key faceoffs. That being said, neither Brooks Laich nor Marcus Johansson look like a strong second line centre.

B+ Grade

New York Rangers
Last Year (B)

Marian Gaborik’s health permitting, this might just be the deepest forward group in the Eastern Conference. It’s young, fast, and has room to grow offensively, especially if Derek Stepan continues to develop. The wild card here is Wojtek Wolski, who might get to line up with Richards. He’s got all the tools to be an NHL scorer – it’s his toolbox that drove the Coyotes and Avalanche to deal him.

B Grade

New Jersey
Last Year (B+)

Not everything was lost last year in the Garden State. Ilya Kovalchuk’s second-half demonstrated he remains an elite NHL sniper, and the team was able to ease talented youngsters Jacob Josefson and Mattias Tedenby into the lineup. Each will play a more important role this year, with Josefson potentially lining up with Kovy. Travis Zajac’s Achilles injury is off-set by the return of Zach Parise, one of the better players in the league. This might be a sneaky-good offensive group, although the bottom-six depth could use work.

B- Grade

Boston
Last Year (A-)

Very similar to the Rangers in terms of quality depth, the Stanley Cup winners feature three forward lines of strong two-way play. What’s missing? The elite end of the offensive spectrum, especially with Marc Savard likely to retire due to concussion. Tyler Seguin had a tough first year. Given more opportunity he could blossom a la Steven Stamkos. If he does, the Bruins shoot up this list, fast.  

Buffalo
Last Year (B)

Maybe the smallest group of forwards in the Eastern Conference (like the Smurfs, Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe are also three apples tall), the Sabres are otherwise skilled, young and talented. Behind Derek Roy at centre though there’s very little to choose from, especially if Brad Boyes continues his regression. That’s why they’re trying Ville Leino in the middle, and it will be interesting to see if he can produce at the level his contract demands. Zach Kassian will help in the size department, but he’s still a year or two away from making an impact.

New York Islanders
Last Year (C+)

With less fanfare than the Edmonton Oilers, the Islanders are also amassing a strong cast of young forwards. Michael Grabner and Frans Nielsen broke out last year, with the former becoming perhaps the most exciting skater the franchise has had since Ziggy Palffy. Marty Reasoner and Brian Rolston should fill important leadership and defensive roles, although Rolston looked like he belonged on The Walking Dead most of last season. As this team develops so to will John Tavares’ star across the league.

C+ Grade

Tampa Bay
Last Year (B)

Similar to Chicago, in that the team’s core group (Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier) is good enough to sit atop this list, but depth drags their rating down. Teddy Purcell looks like he’s ready to join that core group, although there are still worries about his physical play. Ryan Malone and Steve Downie provide good toughness, but neither is a consistent impact forward offensively. Not many options on the left wing, and this may be the worst fourth line in the Conference.    

Montreal
Last Year (C)

Erik Cole adds even more speed, but more importantly size, to a group of forwards in desperate need of more physical players. The question with this group will always be about the offense and where it will come from. More scoring consistency from Michael Cammalleri or Andrei Kostitsyn would improve Montreal’s place on this list. I’m not sure who had a worse season last year – Scott Gomez or Mel Gibson.

Carolina
Last Year (C)

There may not be a more important forward to his team than the role Eric Staal plays for Carolina. He is the team’s best offensive and defensive player by a country mile. This year’s Jeff Skinner could be Zac Dalpe, as the Hurricanes need an offensive second-line player, and Brandon Sutter might be a better fit centring a checking line. Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu add some scoring, but would be complimentary players on a better team. The right wing is a desert of scoring ability.

C Grade

Philadelphia
Last Year (A-)

This is the lowest Flyers forwards will be ranked as a group for years to come. The main reason they find themselves down here is youth, and the lack of consistency that comes with that. James van Riemsdyk looked like John LeClair 2.0 in the playoffs, but he’s yet to show that performance across an 80-game schedule. The same could be said for Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek and Brayden Schenn, who in all fairness hasn’t even played 10 games in the NHL. Each of these players could become B-level forwards or higher, but they haven’t shown this so far in their careers. Beyond the youth there is a nice level of tenacity throughout all four lines, and Claude Giroux could be a top-10 scorer this year. As for Jaromir Jagr? I want him to succeed, but the new NHL is a skating league, and that isn’t Jagr’s strength. He’s four years removed from the NHL grind, and his last year in North America was a 71 point season. At this stage of his career, the best Flyer fans should hope for is Ville Leino production (53 points). But there is a chance Jagr could also be Jiri Dopita 2.0.

Toronto
Last Year (D+)

This is a fast, gritty group that lacks scoring, although they have a legitimate sniper in Phil Kessel and a good second line centre in Mikhail Grabovski. Actually, Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi give the team good centre-ice depth, but each of them is a walking health risk and can’t really be counted on. It would surprise if Clarke MacArthur and Joffrey Lupul play as well as they did last year for the Leafs. It would not surprise to see Nikolai Kulemin continue to assert himself as Toronto’s most complete player.

C- Grade

Florida
Last Year (D+)

This is a collection of forwards that wouldn’t be out of place on a first year expansion team. There’s some experience and grit here, and Tomas Fleischmann is a top-six scoring talent. But it would be a shock to see more than a couple of these players on the team when it next makes the playoffs.

Winnipeg
Last Year (C)

A physical group that’s light on skill, which is why there’s talk of the team keeping centre Mark Scheifele to start the season. The former Thrashers kept 18-year old Alex Burmistrov on the roster last season, but the results were mixed. Evander Kane may eventually replace Jarome Iginla as Canada’s best power forward.

D+ Grade

Ottawa
Last Year (B)

It’s hard times in the nation’s capital, as the Senators will enter the season with their weakest group of forwards since the mid-90s. Like those early days of the franchise, this year’s group will be fairly young, with the front office praying to JoBu at least one of Nikita Filatov, Bobby Butler or Mika Zibanejad can become a regular offensive contributor. Daniel Aldredsson has probably already played his last playoff game as a Senator.

Sep 262011
 

What do Michael Ryder and Ashton Kutcher have in common?

Both have previously enjoyed success in supporting roles, and now both are being asked to replace bigger stars that left town after difficult contract negotiations.

It’s doubtful either will make anyone forget who they’re replacing anytime soon.

Last Monday, more than 27 million viewers tuned in to see how Two and a Half Men would replace Charlie Sheen with Ashton Kutcher.

For those that missed it but wondered how it went, allow me to summarize: blandly juvenile.

Granted, juvenile jokes and innuendo are a big reason why Two and a Half Men is the most popular sitcom on television.

But there’s no question the show’s charm had a lot to do with Charlie Sheen playing off his real-life reputation.

Ashton Kutcher brought a different energy to the season premiere. He was Kelso 2.0 – written to be smarter but just as much the same boy-man character who stole laughs and struggled to keep a straight face on That 70’s Show.

Yep, like Sheen, Kutcher is essentially playing himself. That, however, doesn’t make him interesting. Without the sub-text Sheen’s real-life exploits brought to the sitcom, Kutcher isn’t a strong enough actor to create an interesting character on his own. And he’s struggled throughout his career when given opportunities to play a lead role.

Meanwhile, Michael Ryder is essentially the only off-season acquisition the Dallas Stars made to replace Brad Richards. He’s also struggled when asked to play a lead role (see Montreal career), and enjoyed great, Stanley Cup success as a top-nine forward in Boston.

How are he and the rest of the Stars forwards shaping up for the 2011-12 season?

Let’s get to ranking the Western Conference forward groups:

A- Grade

Anaheim
Last Year (B+)

For the second year in a row we have a surprise on top of the list. This result is almost entirely due to three things: Corey Perry’s emergence as the Hart Trophy winner; Bobby Ryan’s development into a near-elite player; and Teemu Selanne’s incredible season as a 287-year old (matched only historically by the 2000 year old man ). The first line of Ryan-Ryan Getzlaf-Perry is the best in the league. Like last year though there are real depth issues beyond the top two lines, with Andrew Cogliano skating like Todd Marchant, but in no way capable of replacing the latter’s defensive abilities. If Selanne plays like his age, and none of the youth (Kyle Palmieri in particular) step up into supporting roles, they move down this list quickly.

B+ Grade

San Jose
Last Year (A-)

Will battle with Los Angeles all year for the title of strongest team down the middle. Martin Havlat also represents a speed upgrade over Dany Heatley, although he’s injury prone and beyond him the right side is fairly punchless.  In fact, like Anaheim this is a team with scoring issues in the bottom six, particularly on the wings. It’s a gritty bunch though, and one that looks tailored for the post-season.

Vancouver
Last Year (A-)

Yet another team at the top of this list with an elite core of scoring talent but some questionable depth. Recently, a James Mirtle piece argued how the Toronto Maple Leafs needed more balanced scoring, as their top four forwards provided 53% of forward goals last season. For the Canucks, the Sedins, Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows provided 58.7% of Vancouver’s forward goals last year. That’s a lot of pressure on a few players. With Kesler and Mason Raymond’s injuries clouding their potential impact this season, Marco Sturm and Mikael Samuelsson will have to pick up some of the offensive slack. The third line (Chris Higgins, Manny Malholtra, Jannik Hansen) has the makings of one of the better shutdown lines in the league.

Detroit
Last Year (B+)

Strong down the middle with Pavel Datsyuk (maybe the best player in the game), Henrik Zetterberg, Valterri Filppula and Darren Helm. They could really use some help on the wings though, as Dan Cleary and Johan Franzen (despite his playoff scoring reputation) are more appropriate options for a strong second line. The wildcard is Jiri Hudler, who was a George-Lucas-messing-with-the-original-Star-Wars-trilogy-again scale disappointment last season. This is a quick, intelligent group of forwards.

Los Angeles
Last Year (A-)

As discussed above, Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Jarrett Stoll give the Kings arguably the strongest set of centremen in the league. The acquisition of Simon Gagne was a wonderful under-the-radar move. His play improved exponentially as the season went on last year in Tampa Bay and he’s shown previous chemistry playing alongside Richards. Kyle Clifford and Brad Richardson are youngsters providing grit on the third line, while Ethan Moreau will try to extend his career as a veteran 4th line presence. Really, if Dustin Penner can demonstrate any kind of scoring consistency, this could be the Conference’s best group of forwards.

B Grade

St. Louis
Last Year (C+)

On paper this a solid, still improving two-way group that might have greater depth than some of the teams ranked higher. While they lack an elite point producer, they could legitimately see seven 20-goal scorers this year (Patrik Berglund, David Backes, Andy McDonald, T.J. Oshie, David Perron, Alex Steen and Chris Stewart). Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner bring Stanley Cup experience.

Chicago
Last Year (A+)

Make no mistake – the core of the Blackhawks forward brigade (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, David Bolland, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa) is good enough to sit atop this ranking. It’s the complimentary players that are still very much a work in progress. Andrew Brunette is a good addition to help the powerplay, but at this point zambonis move faster. Meanwhile, none of Michael Frolik, Viktor Stalberg or Rostislav Olesz has shown any sort of consistency in their young careers. If one of them finds “it” offensively, the ‘Hawks move up this list.

Columbus
Last Year (C-)

Things are looking up in Ohio as Rick Nash finally has some talent to partner with. Jeff Carter and Vaclav Prospal bring much needed scoring depth to the Blue Jacket attack and Ryan Johansen is an elite prospect (although he may be brought along slowly).  The third and fourth lines are inexperienced but play hard. R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette are decent second-line talents.

B- Grade

Edmonton
Last Year (C+)

The future is very bright in Edmonton, but it’s not here quite yet. Taylor Hall looks like a future Maurice Richard candidate and Jordan Eberle looks like a future 30-goal scorer. Alex Hemsky is in his contract year, and seems poised for a career year. Then again, that’s said every year, and he always finds a way to get hurt. Adding Ryan Smyth and Eric Belanger addressed two weaknesses (leadership and face-off prowess), but it’s Ben Eager who represents the most important off-season move. Together with Darcy Hordichuk, the Oilers have size that can contribute at the NHL level for the first time in at least two seasons. This group could surprise.

C+ Grade

Minnesota
Last Year (C)

It’s a career crossroads for Dany Heatley. Granted, he played hurt last March and throughout the Sharks playoff run, but a lack of effort has been associated with the former 50-goal scorer for a few seasons now. (You know who else you could say that about? Everyone involved in HBO’s Entourage.) Meanwhile, a healthy Pierre-Marc Bouchard and greater opportunity for Devin Setoguchi give the Wild their best top-six forwards in franchise history.

C Grade

Colorado
Last Year (B+)

Last year’s rankings warned of a potential sophomore slump for this group, and boy did they deliver in that regard. There’s still some real promise here though. Gabriel Landeskog was a terrific draft pick, adding some Brendan Morrow-esque qualities to a young, finesse-based lineup. The question is health as Milan Hejduk is older than some countries; Peter Mueller missed much of last season; and David Jones is a band-aid player. If this group can stay healthy they climb these rankings. 

Dallas
Last Year (C+)

What was a solid top-six is now weaker thanks to Richard’s departure. Jamie Benn will likely shift into the centre ice position, and Ryder will be given every chance to cement himself as a go-to goal scorer on the club. He’s streaky though, which leaves Loui Eriksson the only natural goal-scorer on the roster. Vernon Fiddler and Adam Burish are decent third-line grinders, but there’s very little offense in the bottom-six.

Calgary
Last Year (C+)

The Flames may slip another grade before the start of the season if Jarome Iginla continues to have back troubles. Those back troubles are really no surprise though – he’s been carrying this team for a long time. There’s some nice grit here, and they’ll remain a tough team to play against. But scoring is going to be a struggle. That’s why there’s a lot of pressure on Mikael Backlund to evolve into an impact offensive player this year.

Nashville
Last Year (C-)

With all due respect to Martin Erat, there really isn’t a legitimate first line player on the Predators roster. That being said, this is a team filled with forwards who do the “little things” right, and they may just be the best defensive group collectively in the NHL. In many ways Predators forwards are similar to Calgary as a group, although younger and without an Iginla to build around. Keeping the comparison in mind, Colin Wilson is Nashville’s Mikael Backlund. 

C- Grade

Phoenix
Last Year (C)

You know you’re in trouble when Ray Whitney is the most dangerous forward on the roster. The Coyotes may have the worst group of centres in the NHL, and that’s counting Kyle Turris, who is (inexplicably) holding out. I imagine Turris asking for more money has gone about as well as this. How much longer does Shane Doan really have to play in the desert?

Sep 202011
 

Next stop in our Canucks season preview series, defenseman Alex Edler.

What we remember:

Only 25 years old and having just finished his fourth full year in the NHL, Alex Edler just keeps getting better. In 2010/2011, he missed almost half the season due to a back injury, but still put up 8 goals and 33 points – a pace that would’ve seen him score more than 10 goals and 50 points had he played in all 82 games.

Edler’s play before and after his injury drew praise from his teammates. After all, he’s big and physical and skilled and poised – a fine skill set especially for a young defenseman. Some even compared him to another great Swedish defenseman, Nicklas Lidstrom. That’s some high praise.

What we expect:

Edler will be expected to fill some of the offensive void left by the departure of Christian Ehrhoff and his 50 points. He’ll also undoubtedly get more powerplay time and hope to improve on what was a career-high 5 powerplay goals last year.

Reality check:

It remains to be seen whether or not Edler can quarterback the powerplay. While he logged regular powerplay time, he rarely quarterbacked the powerplay. This was one of the traits that Ehrhoff brought to the table and a skill set the Canucks are looking for Edler to replace.

He said it:

“I don’t really feel much right now. This is absolutely the worst feeling of my career. It just feels terrible. I don’t really have anything good to say about it.”

- Alex Edler immediately after losing game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals

Sep 202011
 

Continuing our Canucks season preview series, today we look at Alex Burrows.

What we remember:

Burrows emerged as a big-game player during the 2011 playoffs, where he racked up 9 goals and 17 points as compared to a total of 7 goals and 11 points in three previous postseasons. Included in his 9 goals were 2 game-winners: the now infamous “slay the dragon goal” in OT in game 7 against the Chicago Blackhawks, and the goal he scored only 11 seconds into OT in game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Boston Bruins.

The goal against the Blackhawks, especially, will forever be part of Canucks’ lore. It was said that, during the intermission between the third period and overtime, Burrows said, “This is what legends are made of.” True enough, he redeemed himself after a bad penalty early in the extra frame and scored the goal that sits, in terms of magnitude in franchise history, perhaps next to Pavel Bure’s game 7, double OT, breakaway goal against the Calgary Flames in 1994.

What we expect:

It’s hard to believe that the former agitator (okay, he’s still one) has scored 89 goals in the last 3 seasons, but as long as he continues to ride shotgun with the Sedins he’ll be expected to continue this sort of production.

Reality check:

Unfortunately, Burrows’ after-the-whistle antics continue to define him as a player and overshadows his other, more noteworthy accomplishments. Dealing with the hair-pulling and finger-biting gets a bit tiresome, but it’s at least somewhat tolerable when he’s scoring almost 30 goals a year and playing gritty hockey every time he steps on the ice.

He said it:

“We just have to continue to put team first and the personal stuff aside and keep or redevelop the same feeling we had last season. We have a good group here, we’ve had great chemistry before and we know that’s what it’s going to take for us to keep this thing going. It’s not guaranteed you have that same chemistry every year, you have to know the things that make it up.”

- Alex Burrows on what it will take to repeat last season’s success (but with a better ending)

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