Sep 162011
 

Continuing our series on previewing the 2011/2012 Vancouver Canucks, today we present Ryan Kesler.

What we remember:

Prior to this season, Ryan Kesler, like most Canucks, was criticized for his uneven play in the postseason. With only 3 goals and 14 points in 22 previous playoff games, it’s hard to argue the point. Except this criticism didn’t take into account that he was playing injured through pretty much all of those games.

This past postseason, for the first time in his NHL career, Kesler started the playoffs uninjured and proved to be a big-game player at the time of year when big plays were needed the most. Who can forget him donning his Superman cape and almost single-handedly willing the Canucks past the Nashville Predators in the second round of the playoffs? Who can forget him leaving game 5 of the Western Conference Finals against the Sharks and then returning to tie the game with 13 seconds remaining in the third period?

This after being just the 9th player in Canucks history to score 40 goals in a season. This while finally winning the Selke Trophy for the first time in his career.

What we expect:

It seems like forever ago now since our expectations of Kesler was to be a good, defensive third-line center. Early in his Canucks career, scoring 20 goals and shutting down the opposing teams’ top players would have constituted a successful season.

This is obviously no longer the case.

41 goals in the regular season (plus another 7 goals in the postseason) and back-to-back 70-point seasons says Kesler is a legitimate top-line forward. A Selke Trophy says we expect him to score and be the best defensive player in the game.

With his combination of size, speed, skill and grit, Kesler is perhaps the most complete player to put on a Canucks jersey since Trevor Linden.

Reality check:

After undergoing hip surgery in late July, the Canucks announced this morning that Kesler will not be skating in training camp and will be out indefinitely, and how he performs when he returns will remain a big question mark.

While guys like Cody Hodgson and Marco Sturm are chomping at the bit to step up into top-six roles, losing Kesler is a big blow to the team’s lineup. With him in the lineup, the Canucks have two legitimate scoring lines; without him, opposing teams can unleash Duncan Keith, Shea Weber and all the other top defensemen on the Sedins with little concern for the rest of the lineup. Let’s be honest – as optimistic as we can be, it’s unfair to expect Hodgson, Sturm, or even Samuelsson for that matter to replace everything that Kesler brings to this team, not just his 70 points but his net presence and stellar defensive play as well.

He said it:

“I think our group, especially our core group, we’re motivated. We’re not going to have that hangover. We didn’t win anything. We played that same amount of games [as Cup champion Boston] but we didn’t win anything. We’ve been there but we haven’t done it. We’re a mature enough group. We’re focused. I think that run made us a closer group. We’re going to be fine.”

- Ryan Kesler on being motivated for the upcoming season

Sep 152011
 

The other day, we looked at the Eastern Conference bluelines. Today, let’s look at the Western Conference defence rankings.

A Grade

Chicago
Last Year (A+)

A slip in the ratings heading into 2011-12, as neither Duncan Keith nor Brent Seabrook were quite as good last year as they were the season before. Meanwhile, Nick Hjalmarsson also disappointed. However, Nick Leddy looks like a future top-4 stalwart, and there’s some veteran depth now with the signings of Steve Montador, Sean O’Donnell and Sami Lepisto.

Los Angeles
Last Year (A-)

This is assuming Drew Doughty signs. Otherwise they drop a grade. Doughty struggled with some injuries last year, but he remains a perennial Norris Trophy candidate. Jack Johnson’s plus/minus was awful (-21), but he played well in Doughty’s absence and looks like a legitimate first pairing guy. The rest of the group is an average mix of youth and experience, with Matt Green being the best defensive guy on the team.

Nashville
Last Year (B+)

It should come as no surprise that the three teams with two top-level defencemen on the roster are all ranked at the top of this list. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter round out the trifecta of excellence, and quite easily could be the best twosome of the lot. Jonathon Blum and Ryan Ellis offer some young offensive promise, with Blum in particular looking ready to play 18 minutes a night. Kevin Klein (not this Kevin Kline) and Francis Bouillon are serviceable.

B+ Grade

Phoenix
Last Year (B-)

The Coyote blueline is a veteran heavy group that represents the only real strength the team has heading into the season. Keith Yandle was an offensive force last year, and it will be interesting to see if he can repeat his Norris-worthy campaign. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the future and will be given more minutes this season.

B Grade

San Jose
Last Year (B+)

Listening to some people, you’d think Brent Burns was the second coming of Scott Niedermayer. He isn’t. Instead, he’s a solid, 40+-point defenceman who can take pressure off Dan Boyle and give the team one of the league’s better top-fours (Boyle/Murray, Burns/Vlasic). Speaking of which, put me down in favour of Picklesnake.

Detroit
Last Year (A-)

Sorry, but Ian White isn’t Brian Rafalski, and the Red Wing defence is weaker due to the latter’s retirement. Niklas Kronwall played the best hockey of his career last year, but the franchise could really use one of Jonathan Ericsson and Jakub Kindl to emerge. Is Nick Lidstrom the greatest defenseman of all time? Discuss.

B- Grade

Anaheim
Last Year (C)

A solid mix of veterans and youth, although the bottom pairing looks quite weak. Taking nothing away from Nick Lidstrom’s historic year as a 40-year old, veteran Lubomir Visnovsky also found himself hooked up to the rejuvenation machine last season. At 35, Visnovsky was deserving of Norris consideration. Toni Lydman is the stabilizing presence, as the Ducks play a lot better with him in the lineup. No one likes to predict a sophomore slump, but it wouldn’t surprise if Cam Fowler regressed a bit in year two.

St. Louis
Last Year (B)

To be honest, who knows exactly what to expect from the Blues defence this year. It’s awfully young and full of promise, kind of like Lindsay Lohan once was (side note: how creepy is it that someone sat down and made that video?). Anyways, we all know how LiLo turned out. That being said, Alex Pietrangelo seems ready to become a top-10 NHL defenceman, and Roman Polak is one of the better defensive players in the league. If Kevin Shattenkirk and Nikita Nikitin can find consistency, this can become an elite group.

Vancouver
Last Year (B+)

They may have only lost Christian Ehroff, but Vancouver’s defence doesn’t seem as deep heading into this season. For one, it’s hard to believe Kevin Bieksa will repeat his career-best performance last year. Similarly, Keith Ballard is a shadow of the player he once was, and would probably benefit from playing on a different team, under a new coach. The Canucks are excited about Chris Tanev and the coach loves Aaron Rome, but neither are ready or capable of playing big minutes. No, the only way Vancouver’s defence moves up these rankings this year is if Alex Edler takes the next step in his development.

C+ Grade

Calgary
Last Year (B)

Let’s just all admit that Jay Bouwmeester is the new Brett Hedican – a beautiful skating defenceman who is average in all other aspects of the game. Anton Babchuk and Chris Butler have puck-moving talent, and add some speed to what was a statuesque Flames blueline. Speaking of statues, Scott Hannan replaces Robyn Regehr as the “Calgary Flame most likely to be passed by an opponent on the way to a scoring chance.”

C Grade

Minnesota
Last Year (C)

I’d be surprised if Wild employees, let alone fans or hockey followers, could name the starting six defenceman who will suit up for the team opening night. With Minnesota moving towards a more offensive approach, Marek Zidlicky could see a jump in production. The philosophical change should also cement roster spots for Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon – two decent skating players with puck-moving potential. Nick Schultz is a warrior and underrated.

Dallas
Last Year (D)

Make no mistake, if two of Sheldon Souray, Brad Lukowich, Adam Pardy or Mark Fistric play together at any point in the NHL this year, that pairing will be the worst in the entire league. That the franchise decided to give Sheldon Souray a shot should tell you this will be a rebuilding year in Dallas. Souray wasn’t very good in the AHL last year, and his last regular NHL action was roughly two years ago. The top-two pairings are okay, with Alex Goligoski the most creative, Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley the most reliable, and Nick Grossman the best defender.

Columbus
Last Year (C+)

They added James Wisniewski, you say. The rest of the top-six is arguably league-worst, I say.

Colorado
Last Year (B-)

They could move back up the standings based on two developments: One, Erik Johnson figures it out and takes the next step (and the scuttlebutt is he’s been a horse preparing in the off-season). Two, Jan Hejda proves it wasn’t a Blue Jacket mirage and he really is one of the better defensive defencemen in the league. We’ll see. Sadly, the rest of the Colorado defence is young and questionable.

C- Grade

Edmonton
Last Year (C-)

There’s nothing wrong with loading up on talented offensive players through the draft. At some point though, the Oilers are going to have to figure out that preventing goals is another way to win games. Ryan Whitney was putting in a team MVP-esque performance last year before he got hurt, and talk is he’s hurt himself again in the off-season. Without Whitney, the Oiler blueline is the worst in the NHL. Theo Peckham is a beast though.

Sep 132011
 

It’s taken me a while to look back at last year’s season and start to think about how the team can take that step forward after a near perfect campaign last year. That’s one of the biggest challenges – it was near perfect. It could have been perfect when you look back at all the records that were set, but it wasn’t because of one game which went wrong – Game 7 – and as such the season wont be defined by its records and wins but rather by one loss.

*****

I tweeted at the start of the playoffs (and hoped it wasn’t going to truly be a deciding factor) that the Canucks didn’t have that journeyman or veteran NHL player hungry for a Cup (or in other cases his last Cup). The Red Wings seem to have one every year. Gary Roberts helped Pittsburgh to the Cup Finals (although they didn’t win that year). We’ve seen Teemu Selanne give the Ducks a boost, Dave Andreychuk the Lightning, Ray Bourque the Avs, and the list goes on. Most recently, we were privileged to see the Mark Recchi and how he seemed to carry the Bruins on his back at the most important time of the season. One could argue that Samuelsson was that player, but we won’t know because he was injured and it seemed all the talent in the world wasn’t enough to handle the sheer will of Recchi.

Heading into training camp, we come out of a 2011 offseason that doesn’t look anything like the 2010 offseason. 2010 was rife with big-name signings and the bolstering of a line up that boasted many stars. 2011 was Gillis’ quiet confidence in the team he has and the acknowledgement that they are merely a step away. It’s something we all knew, but it’s also something he reaffirmed by inviting Owen Nolan to camp.

If there was one thing missing from the Canucks team it was heart. Mind you, it’s not the kind of heart that the entire team showed in order to beat the Blackhawks in the first round or the heart that Kesler showed by singlehandedly leading the Canucks over Nashville in the 2nd round. Rather, it’s the kind of heart you see from players like Selanne, Andreychuk and Bourque who know that they may never get another chance. It’s not easy to find that player. It’s even harder given the demands of such a high-caliber team, the restraints of the cap versus players’ egos, and the need for depth on a roster that is so susceptible to injury as a result of one of the NHL’s toughest travel schedules. While Nolan hasn’t gone past the second round in his career, he, as a veteran, brings something to the table that the Canucks don’t have. It’s a hunger and desire to sip from Lord Stanley’s Cup in a way that only a player fighting against time can demonstrate.

Is Owen Nolan the answer? Only time will tell.

Sep 122011
 

At the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton, we had an opportunity to ask some of them some questions. Today, we present a one-on-one with former Saint John Sea Dog and Memorial Cup champion, Steven Anthony.

Steven Anthony

Photo credit: canucks.nhl.com

CHB: Describe how you felt after winning the Memorial Cup.

Steven Anthony: It was exciting. It’s what every junior player in Canada play for the whole year. For us to be able to put a team together, and have an incredible group of guys on one team, it was something we knew was possible throughout the year and to get it was pretty amazing. A lot of guys up here who played junior said congratulations to me so it definitely means a lot and something I’ll have for the rest of my life.

CHB: You played with a lot of talented players last year – a lot of 1st, 2nd and 3rd round NHL draft picks. What did you learn from them?

Steven Anthony: Everyone on our team was so down-to-earth and so focused on the team. We knew we had some special players like Huberdeau, Beaulieu and Phillips, who were going to be high NHL draft picks, but we had a core of everybody together and (playing) as one team. I think, over the course of the year, everyone learned different things from one another. It was the closest team I’ve ever played on my life in terms of personalities.

CHB: What would you attribute that closeness to?

Steven Anthony: I think it was a big help to have two incredible coaches. They emphasized a lot of fun team activities and everyone getting together. They had everyone on the same page together and liking each other. It was a big reason why we were so successful throughout the year.

CHB: And that obviously translated on the ice.

Steven Anthony: Everyone was on the same page. Everyone knew the goal. Some teams are talented teams, but there are players who want to get points, there are players who want to go home early or something. This team was all about winning and that’s why were so successful.

CHB: What area of your game do you feel you improved on the most?

Steven Anthony: The area I improved the most was all areas, if that makes any sense. I tried to improve a lot (in terms) of completing my game. I’ve been told that I have a good skill set in terms of skating and size and puck mobility. I’ve tried to add a lot more to it and put it together, and work on the defensive side, faceoffs, penalty-killing, hitting guys more – just playing a complete game. Watching a lot of the guys on the Canucks like Kesler, Burrows and Malhotra – these guys are complete players who can do everything and I learned a lot from watching them in training camp and throughout the year.

CHB: What are your expectations this seasons?

Steven Anthony: I focus on what I can control. I can set a goal and say I want to play 3 exhibition games this year, but that’s all up to the coaches. I want to be able to play my way in to be able to play 3 exhibition games and see where that takes me. I’m coming into camp as focused as I can be, be as ready as I can be, and I think that’s going to translate into camp.

CHB: What about your expectations from this tournament?

Steven Anthony: After the last couple of years in Saint John – with us winning so much and having so much success as a team – I don’t want to get back to the feeling of losing again. I think everyone’s going to sit out a game because we have so many players, but I want us to be able to win every game and soak in the team atmosphere. It’s fun seeing other teams’ prospects, especially having the young guy Hopkins, the first overall pick. We had Hall here last year too. It’s gonna exciting, a lot of people are going to watch him, and you want to beat him.

CHB: Tell us about some of the guys you played with last year that are also in this tournament.

Steven Anthony: I’ve played with Yann Sauve for 3 years. We know each other. Ian Saab, he played in Lewiston last year, but he’s in Saint John this year so we know a lot of the same players. But another player, Michael Kirkpatrick, one of my closest friends in Saint John, he’s playing for the Winnipeg Jets team. Someone said that Winnipeg is rooming in the same hotel as us this week so I’ll have to give him a shout and see. He’s one of my good buddies for four years in Saint John so it’ll be cool to finally play against him.

CHB: And we have to ask you this… Which player would you compare yourself to?

Steven Anthony: Style-wise, I want to create my own game for myself, but there are a lot of players that I try to take things from. With my skating ability and size – and he’s a lot better than me – but the guy who I watched and tried to emulate in the Quebec league is Ryan Kesler. He’s one of my favorite players. In terms of the overall game that he brings, whether it’s his skating, his defense, or his offense, that’s something that I’ve tried to bring back this year.

Sep 112011
 

As the Canucks prospects assemble in Penticton, BC for the Young Stars Tournament, we had an opportunity to ask some of them some questions. Today, we present a one-on-one with Twitter star and forward prospect, Bill Sweatt.

Bill Sweatt

Photo credit: canucks.nhl.com

CHB: Give us your thoughts on how you felt last year went for you, personally and professionally.

Bill Sweatt: I think it went pretty well. I got sent down in the exhibition games part of the preseason. And then I just developed, went down there in the AHL, developed my game. Realistically, I knew I was probably going to have to play down there for a year or a little bit just to get used to the pro game because I came from college. And I went down there and did that. We had a great coaching staff. They taught us a lot of things. They really helped me develop my game, both in the offensive zone and the defensive zone.

CHB: What made you sign in Vancouver last year?

Bill Sweatt: When we were starting to look at all the different teams – the interest level, the prospect line, see where I could possibly fit in the future – and that was one of the big reasons I signed the deal. It wasn’t so much for the first year, it was for the second and third year, you know when some of these guys’ contracts are coming up, do they stay or not stay, and then you step into some of those roles that become available. It wasn’t so much salary. It was more like when guys become unrestricted free agents, you know, they can sign there, they can not sign there. Basically, just look in the future, not just the first year but down the line as well.

CHB: You’re quite active on Twitter, and more specifically, #MMDM. Tell us a little bit about this initiative.

Bill Sweatt: It’s a thing my agent started. It’s called “Make My Day Monday”. You go out, and on Mondays, you do a good deed. I usually to do a charitable donation to a different charity every week. It’s just a nice thing to do. Be a professional, be giving and caring to others kinda thing.

CHB: And is it just you and a couple of people?

Bill Sweatt: It started out with just my agent and his players, and now it’s grown so that other people just do it. It’s actually gotten pretty big. It’s actually kinda exciting.

CHB: What was the best thing that you did?

Bill Sweatt: There was a time last year when every week I would ask my followers what charity, what means a lot to you and they would say this charity and why. And I would just pick the best one I would thought for that. I think they’re all equally as good. As long as you’re helping out and doing something for everybody else.

CHB: What part of your game do you feel you improved on the most last year?

Bill Sweatt: Learning the pro game. Because where I came from in college, I came from (playing on) an Olympic-sized rink. Learning how quicker everything is and how it happens faster on a smaller sheet, playing better and possessing the puck down low, getting a lot better on the boards and by the defensive zone where you’re catching the puck fully in the middle of passing it or chipping it past the ‘d’.

CHB: What goals have you set for yourself this season?

Bill Sweatt: My goal is to at least get a couple of games in the NHL. I feel like, last year, I was new to everything and I didn’t know what to expect. I had a good tournament here last year and then a decent main camp, but you can see that it just wasn’t quite there. Got sent down to the A, started off slow, and then really started to get going after 5 or 10 games. And then became a pretty good player on that team and a top-end player. And so that’s why I think that this year it’s realistic now to… I could, I’m shooting to play a couple of games in the NHL. That’s my goal.

CHB: And finally, the best nickname on the team?

Bill Sweatt: I usually call Schroeder either “Smalls” or “Tum Tum” from 3 Ninjas.

Sep 082011
 

Today, we start a series looking at the 2011/2012 edition of the Vancouver Canucks. First up: Henrik and Daniel Sedin.

What we remember:

Henrik and Daniel Sedin continued to respond to their critics in 2010/2011. Henrik followed up his 112-point, Hart and Art Ross-winning season with a strong 94-point one. Daniel, after scoring 85 points in 63 games the season before, scored 104 points and wrestled the Art Ross away from Henrik; he won the Ted Lindsay Award too. Both were just as proficient in the postseason; Henrik and Daniel finished 2nd and 3rd in playoff scoring, respectively.

Unfortunately, the sting of losing game 7 to the Boston Bruins took away from the highlights, awards and accolades. We’ll remember Henrik’s dive against Zdeno Chara as much as his 12 points in 5 games against San Jose in the Western Conference Finals. We’ll remember Daniel being used as a punching bag by Brad Marchand as much as we’ll remember his 5 goals and 7 points in 7 games against the Chicago Blackhawks.

What we expect:

With Mason Raymond out until at least November, Ryan Kesler questionable to start the season, and Mikael Samuelsson coming off an abdominal injury, the Canucks may need to lean on the Sedins even more offensively than they have in the last couple of years.

But perhaps more important than the numbers, more will be expected of the twins’ leadership – and specifically, Henrik’s captaincy – to erase the perception that the Canucks are nothing more than a bunch of hair-pulling, finger-biting, cheap-hitting divers. The team did well to play the game “the right way” in the regular season. The Sedins will need to play a big role in making sure the entire team plays the game “the right way” throughout the playoffs as well.

Reality check:

Henrik and Daniel have both won individual awards. They’ve won gold at the Olympics. There’s only one trophy left for them to win, and it’s the one trophy every Canucks fan has been waiting for. At this point, anything less is irrelevant.

He said it:

“We didn’t produce the way we wanted to produce. Our only chance is to produce. If we don’t do that, we’re losers. That’s the way it is.”

- Daniel Sedin reflecting on the Stanley Cup Finals loss to the Boston Bruins

Sep 072011
 

As discussed in yesterday’s post, changing a coach at mid-season, rather than in the off-season, seems to have a greater positive impact on team performance.

Examining all the coaching moves since the start of the 2005-06 season reveals some other interesting tidbits:

  1. Only four coaches hired at mid-season led their teams to a worse performance than the coach they replaced:
    • 2009-10 Philadelphia: Peter Laviolette (.535) replaced John Stevens (.540). One could argue these are almost equal results.
    • 2008-09 Tampa Bay: Rick Tocchet (.397 winning percentage) replaced Barry Melrose (.438). Funny how Melrose was ridiculed for his performance returning to the bench, while Rick Tocchet demonstrated himself to be just as incompetent.
    • 2008-09 Montreal: Bob Gainey (.500) replaced Guy Carbonneau (.583)
    • 2005-06 Los Angeles: John Torchetti (.417) replaced Andy Murray (.564)

  2. The best improvement by a coach hired in the off-season:
    • 2009-10 Phoenix: Dave Tippett (+28 points after replacing Wayne Gretzky)
    • 2009-10 Colorado: Joe Sacco (+27 points after replacing Tony Granato)
    • 2010-11 Tampa Bay: Guy Boucher (+23 points after replacing Rick Tocchet)
    • 2007-08 Boston: Claude Julien (+18 points after replacing Dave Lewis). You’re not likely to see any of the four names replaced on this list named as NHL head coaches ever again.

  3. The worst performance by teams after hiring a coach in the off-season:
    • 2008-09 Colorado: Tony Granato (-27 points after replacing Joel Quennville)
    • 2010-11 New Jersey: John Maclean + Jacques Lemaire (-24 points after replacing Jacques Lemaire)
    • 2009-10 Edmonton: Pat Quinn (-23 points after replacing Craig MacTavish)
    • 2006-07 Los Angeles: Marc Crawford (-21 points after replacing Andy Murray + John Torchetti)

One final note – for all the talk that Pat Quinn’s coaching time had passed after that brutal 62-point performance for the Oilers, it’s worth noting Tom Renney led an stronger Edmonton team to exactly the same number of points the following season.

Here now are the coaching rankings for the Western Conference:

 A Grade

Mike Babcock – Detroit
Last Year (A)

The best coach in the game? Probably. The demise of the Red Wings has been increasingly predicted over the last few years, and yet it never seems to actually happen. Credit the coach, who knows exactly the right buttons to push to motivate each player.

Barry Trotz – Nashville
Last Year (B+)

Nashville fell a sniper short of upsetting Vancouver in the second round. That’s not Trotz’s fault, who clearly outcoached Alain Vigneault during the series. He’s among the best in the league.

B+ Grade

Joel Quenneville – Chicago
Last Year (B+)

Getting the Blackhawks – a team gutted by so many moves in the offseason that the players probably needed name tags in training camp – into the playoffs last year was an underrated coaching accomplishment.

Alain Vigneault – Vancouver
Last Year (B-)

You coach a team into the Cup Final you get to move up these rankings. Yet, he still has an inexplicable man-crush on Aaron Rome; has turned once-promising Keith Ballard into an ECHL’er; and is at least partially to blame for the unsportsmanlike attitude that permeates Canuck culture. Last year was likely the pinnacle of Vigneault’s coaching career.

B Grade

Randy Carlyle – Anaheim
Last Year (B)

Carlyle headed into last season at a crossroads, with whispers of his having lost the room heard around the league. Instead, the coach and team rallied to a playoff spot. He did a great job not only integrating Cam Fowler into the lineup, but protecting him and his confidence.

Dave Tippet – Phoenix
Last Year (B)

Performed another coaching miracle getting the Coyotes into the playoffs last year, but faces his greatest challenge trying to do that without Ilya Bryzgalov in 2011-12.

B- Grade

Tom Renney – Edmonton
Last Year (B-)

The Oilers featured stronger systems play and a better dressing room atmosphere last year, but failed to improve in the standings. A terrific coaching “teacher,” at some point Edmonton brass will have to ask themselves if Renney has the chops to take a team far into the playoffs. That’s a question that’s still a few seasons off though.

C+ Grade

Terry Murray – Los Angeles (FIRED WATCH)
Last Year (C+)

Let’s make it two years in a row for Murray to find his name on the “Fired Watch.” Expectations haven’t been this high for the Kings since Gretzky was in town. An adequate bench boss, he hasn’t coached a team out of the first round since the Flyers made the Stanley Cup in 1997.

Todd McLellan – San Jose
Last Year (C)

Won a classic series against the Detroit Red Wings (and coach Mike Babcock) and got his team to the Conference Final for the second year in a row. And yet, he still hasn’t really helped the team shed its underachieving label.

C Grade

Davis Payne – St. Louis (FIRED WATCH)
Last Year (C)

With the Blues expected to rise in the standings this year the heat is on Payne, who is also in the final year of his contract. Injuries crippled the team last year, but St. Louis was also inconsistent and prone to weak first period efforts.

Brent Sutter – Calgary (FIRED WATCH)
Last Year (C)

Still looking for the same success in the NHL that he had coaching junior hockey. He seemed a bit more flexible handling his roster once brother Darryl was out of the mix. Still, with a veteran-laden squad like the Flames, it’s playoffs or bust.

Joe Sacco – Colorado
Last Year (C+)

Sacco, heralded as a great communicator after his first year as coach, had a tough second season. The team looked unprepared at times and Sacco’s seemingly random benching of players was odd (Chris Stewart was a healthy scratch before being dealt).

Scott Arniel – Columbus (FIRED WATCH)
Last Year (C)

You know what the definition of a square-peg and round-hole problem is? Meshing Arniel’s puck possession gameplan with the Blue Jackets roster last year. It didn’t work. The personnel is stronger this year in Columbus, so now it’s up to Arniel to deliver some results.

Glen Gulutzan – Dallas
Last Year (N/A)

Another rookie head coach, this time taking over from “The Hair” (aka Marc Crawford). Despite team assurances, it does look like Gulutzan’s price-tag (ie. cheap) played a part in his being hired over other coaching options (Craig MacTavish, Ken Hitchcock, etc). Gulutzan has had an impressive minor league coaching career, particularly in the ECHL. You know who else had a pretty impressive ECHL coaching career? John Brophy, who’s actually in the ECHL Hall of Fame. Just sayin’…

Mike Yeo – Minnesota
Last Year (N/A)

Yeo takes over from Todd Richards, promising to bring offensive hockey to the Wild. The former Penguins powerplay coach is young (39) and, well, eager, as his visit to Finland to meet with Mikko Koivu can attest. He only has one season of head coaching experience though, and the ditches along the NHL highway are full of wannabe assistants who couldn’t make it as head coaches.

Sep 062011
 

Another September, another new coach for the New Jersey Devils.

Peter DeBoer becomes the seventh coach the Devils have had since the NHL lockout, following Jacques Lemaire, John Maclean, Brent Sutter, Claude Julien, Lou Lamoriello and Larry Robinson.

The question is – do these moves have any impact?

I took a look at NHL coaching changes since 2005 and grouped them into three categories:

  • Off-season change (one coach replaces another in the off-season)
  • Mid-season change (one coach replaces another and finishes the season)
  • Mid-season change-turned-permanent (mid-season coaching replacement sticks around, leading the team into the next season)

Here’s what was learned:

  1. Hiring a coach in the off-season has little-to-no impact on a team’s performance the following season. The 33 coaches hired in the off-season since the lockout have averaged a +0.5 point improvement over their team’s previous season.
  2. Mid-season replacements almost always have a positive impact on the club. The 24 coaches hired mid-season improved their team’s winning percentage by +0.126, or roughly +10 wins over the course of a full season.
  3. It’s not a bad idea to keep mid-season replacement coaches around. Coaches hired at mid-season, and made permanent in the off-season, improve their team’s performance over the previous season by +4 wins. This is +7.5 points more on average than a new coach hired in the off-season.

More on these findings in my next post. In the meantime, it’s time for the annual ranking of Eastern Conference coaches.

A Grade

Lindy Ruff – Buffalo
Last Year’s Rating (A)

Still the longest-tenured NHL coach. Generally the low-budget Sabres have overachieved under Ruff. However, a new, deep-pocketed owner has raised the stakes. Just making the playoffs is no longer good enough in Buffalo.

Dan Blysma – Pittsburgh
Last Year (B)

Performed miracles in Pittsburgh last year without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Jordon Staal to generate any offense. In doing so, he won the Jack Adams Award and lifted his status among the coaching elite.

B+ Grade

Claude Julien – Boston
Last Year (B)

Julien still doesn’t trust offensively-gifted players (the shackles on Tyler Seguin last year may have permanently harmed his development), and he stubbornly sticks to his game plan longer than most coaches. But if you win a Stanley Cup you get to move up in these standings.

Peter Laviolette – Philadelphia
Last Year (B+)

A top-level coach, although his handling of the team’s goaltending situation in the playoffs was Keenan-esque. The “Dry Island” escapade clearly shows he is well aware of the outside dangers that threaten a team’s on-ice chances.

John Tortorella – New York Rangers
Last Year (B+)

His mouth distracts you from the fact that he has developed a young Rangers squad into a darkhorse contender for the Eastern Conference crown.

Guy Boucher – Tampa Bay
Last Year (C+)

A coaching innovator, his hyped 1-3-1 approach lifted the Lightning into the Eastern Conference Final. Interestingly, he also took a creative approach to team practices, off-days and downtime, which was warmly received by Lightning players. He’s a real asset to the franchise going forward.

B Grade

Jacques Martin – Montreal
Last Year (B-)

I still consider him the devil for his defensive system, but kudos to Martin for the way he managed P.K. Subban and eased youngsters David Desharnais and Lars Eller into the Montreal lineup.

C+ Grade

Bruce Boudreau – Washington
Last Year (C+)

The Caps have clearly tied their wagon to Boudreau, who became a minor sports sensation for his creative, colourful language on HBO’s NHL 24/7. He got the Capitals to commit to defensive hockey last year, but in doing so took most of the bullets out of the team’s offense. Consistent playoff failures also makes you wonder if Boudreau, a good motivator, has the technical Xs and Os skills to take a team to the Finals.

Peter DeBoer – New Jersey (FIRED WATCH)
Last Year (C+)

While coaching the Panthers, DeBoer had a reputation for keeping his teams competitive in the standings. However, over the course of three seasons the team’s play actually regressed. DeBoer’s preferred puck possession style never really fit with the Panther’s mix of inexperience and grinders. Given we’re talking about the Devils, DeBoer’s job isn’t very secure.

Kevin Dineen – Florida
Last Year (N/A)

Last year it was Tampa Bay’s Boucher, this year it’s their cross-state rivals the Panthers who go into the season with the new, hot-shot coaching hire. A former NHL’er, Dineen’s brings to the bench a strong reputation as a communicator, a focus on preparation and a desire to give players as much information as possible. He’ll need to rely on all these skills to get the most out of a very weak Panthers team.

C Grade

Ron Wilson – Toronto (FIRED WATCH)
Last Year (C+)

It’s been a frustrating term behind the bench of the Maple Leafs, who’ve yet to put together a consistent 82 games (let alone reached the playoffs) under Wilson. A slow start in October likely means his termination. Leaf special teams are a nightmare.

Jack Capuano – New York Islanders
Last Year (N/A)

Islander players felt Scott Gordon’s systems were confusing and difficult. Enter Capuano, New York’s version of Bruce Boudream – a motivator first, tactician second. Capuano did inspire improved play from the Islanders in the second-half of the season. It will be interesting to see how the team does with a full season of him behind the bench.

Paul Maclean – Ottawa Senators
Last Year (N/A)

Has there ever been a successful NHL head coach with a moustache like Maclean’s? He’s got the pedigree as a long-time assistant with Mike Babcock in Anaheim and Detroit. The Senators have a few young, skating defenseman who could excel in a Red Wings-esque transition game. Not sure the team has the offensive pieces though to succeed playing the high-tempo style Maclean promises.

Claude Noel – Winnipeg
Last Year (N/A)

You’ve got to love a coach “who’s called his players “stallions” before. He was a beloved, fun assistant in Columbus before he took over for a partial season after Ken Hitchcock’s firing. He’s toned that side of himself down coaching the Moose in Manitoba. The Jets aren’t very good though, and his hiring by True North has a bit of a nepotism smell to it.

C- Grade

Paul Maurice – Carolina
Last Year (C-)

Still hasn’t coached a team to more than 91 points. You get the feeling he’ll be long gone by the time the Hurricanes are ready to compete for a championship. Probably safe this year though.

Aug 312011
 

Slowly but surely, Cody Hodgson is picking up the pieces again.

His back injuries of a year ago are a thing of the past and he recently told The Province that he’s as strong as he’s ever been, which is a breath of fresh air for those who have heralded Hodgson as the future of the Vancouver Canucks organization.

Truth be told, the Canucks will need a youthful and energetic presence come October. Still rallying from the bitterness of losing the Stanley Cup at home, it’s safe to say that some of the players are still a little physically weary and will come out of the shoot stumbling. Hodgson, who played little to no minutes during the postseason, will need to be a catalyst for the team’s early regular season success.

And Hodgson’s importance to the club in the short-term is only magnified now that it’s clear two-thirds of Vancouver’s second line will be out of the lineup. Ryan Kesler has stated he’d like to be completely healthy and fit by the start of the regular season, but major hip surgery has a habit of hampering even the bullish Kesler from being a bronco in the NHL rodeo. Mason Raymond’s back won’t allow him back until at least November, and with the aging Mikael Samuelsson and injury-riddled Marco Sturm in tow, there’s a brass ring waiting to be seized for Hodgson.

Truth be told, this is a crucial year in the development of Cody Hodgson. Ever since he was drafted in the summer of 2008 and claimed gold with Canada at the World Juniors (where he finished as the leading scorer), he has (perhaps unfairly) been held in the same stratosphere as Steven Stamkos, who has since become part of the NHL’s elite class of players. Remember that it was three years ago when they were drafted that TSN analyst Bob McKenzie said all that separated Hodgson from Stamkos was the initial burst of speed.

It’s highly unlikely Hodgson will ever get to Stamkos’ level of play, but three years have since passed since his draft and Hodgson will hardly get a better chance to make and stick with the Vancouver Canucks roster than right now, when the organization needs him the most.

Aug 262011
 

Sure the NHL schedule officially begins in October, and training camps start in September. But for hockey fans, the season truly begins in August.

August is when hockey season preview magazines hit the store racks. This is a fan’s first indication of what the experts think is in store for the coming season.

If you’re a lucky fan, your franchise is predicted to make the playoffs. If you are truly lucky, your team is considered Stanley Cup contenders.

Which brings us to this year’s Sports Forecaster Hockey Yearbook.

The yearbook predicts the following standings for the 2011-12 season:

EastWest
1. Washington Capitals1. Chicago Blackhawks
2. Boston Bruins2. San Jose Sharks
3. Philadelphia Flyers3. Vancouver Canucks
4. Pittsburgh Penguins4. Nashville Predators
5. New York Rangers5. St. Louis Blues
6. Montreal Canadiens6. Detroit Red Wings
7. Buffalo Sabres7. Los Angeles Kings
8. Tampa Bay Lightning8. Anaheim Ducks
9. New York Islanders9. Calgary Flames
10. New Jersey Devils10. Edmonton Oilers
11. Toronto Maple Leafs11. Columbus Blue Jackets
12. Carolina Hurricanes12. Colorado Avalanche
13. Winnipeg Jets13. Minnesota Wild
14. Ottawa Senators14. Phoenix Coyotes
15. Florida Panthers15. Dallas Stars

What’s striking about the above list is how little has changed from last year. According to the magazine, the only new team to make the playoffs in 2011-12 will be the St. Louis Blues.

Huh?

This rather boring news led me to look at NHL standings since the league adopted a conference approach in 2000-01. Had the playoff teams, from year-to-year, been rather stable?

The answer, quite emphatically, was no.

Year2010-112009-102008-092007-082006-052003-042002-032001-022000-01
New playoff teams from the previous season – East22143123Start of Conference Standings
New playoff teams from the previous season – West14412342

Conclusion: unless we’re about to head into the most boring regular season of the past ten years, it looks like The Sports Forecaster’s standings are way out of whack.

***

This research did raise another question though – what is the predictability of year-to-year standings?

Using the 2000-01 season as a starting point, I examined how each team, based on their seeding the previous year, did in the standings the following year. Here’s the breakdown (and if rows of numbers scare you, there are highlights written beneath the charts):

Finished1st2nd3rd4th5th6th7th8th9th10th11th12th13th14th15th
1st540122120100000
2nd401422110020100
3rd231110113110021
4th123421221000000
5th132110311201101
6th023031102121011
7th121120202211012
8th101201231212200
9th101104031021211
10th202100200332030
11th011110114212201
12th000024003022122
13th001101220213113
14th011002000002723
15th000021010221243

So what’s the conclusion?

FinishedPlayoffsNon-PlayoffImprovedWorse offRepeated Position
1st94.44%5.56%0.00%72.22%27.78%
2nd83.33%16.67%22.22%77.78%0.00%
3rd55.56%44.44%27.78%66.67%5.56%
4th94.44%5.56%33.33%44.44%22.22%
5th66.67%33.33%38.89%55.56%5.56%
6th55.56%44.44%44.44%50.00%5.56%
7th50.00%50.00%38.89%50.00%11.11%
8th55.56%44.44%38.89%44.44%16.67%
9th55.56%44.44%55.56%38.89%5.56%
10th38.89%61.11%38.89%44.44%16.67%
11th33.33%66.67%66.67%27.78%5.56%
12th33.33%66.67%61.11%27.78%11.11%
13th38.89%61.11%72.22%22.22%5.56%
14th22.22%77.78%72.22%16.67%11.11%
15th22.22%77.78%83.33%0.00%16.67%

Even though the league promotes parity, there are certain trends year-to-year as to which seeds do and do not make the playoffs.

Using last year’s standings, how do these trends apply to the upcoming 2011-12 season?

  • In terms of making the playoffs the following season, the safest best are those teams that placed first or fourth in their respective conferences (2010-11 examples: Washington, Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Anaheim). They not only make the playoffs (again) the most, but they are the teams most likely to repeat their seeding the following season.
  • The second seed in each conference has never repeated as the second seed the following year. Good luck San Jose and Philadelphia.
  • The most likely playoff team from the previous season to improve its position the following season is the sixth seed (2010-11 examples: Montreal, Phoenix). Hard to believe the Coyotes will continue this trend this year.
  • Purely based on history, Carolina and Dallas (as the 9th seeds last year) have a better chance of making the playoffs than Buffalo and Los Angeles (as the 7th seeds last year). This trend looks sure to be broken in 2011-12, with Dallas having lost Brad Richards and Carolina likely icing a very young team. However, if you’re fans of Buffalo or Los Angeles, permission granted to throw up in your mouth a bit.
  • Sadly for Toronto Maple Leaf fans (or fans of any team that was the 10th-15th seed in their respective conference standings), while non-playoff teams usually improve their records from year-to-year, they’re still looking at less than a 40% chance of making the playoffs.
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