Feb 022012
 

With the NHL Trade deadline a little less than a month from now, speculation is heating up.

Actually, that is a bit of an understatement. Speculation isn’t just heating up, it’s already reached a good rolling boil. We’ve entered the silly season of trade rumours people, where Ryan Getzlaf could be traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, you know, just ‘cuz.

It’s not just fans or the media that can get swept up in the euphoria that is the trade talk. General Managers can too. With that in mind, here are the four worst trade decisions that could be made by a General Manager in the NHL today.

 4. Trade Jeff Carter from the Columbus Blue Jackets

Granted, Carter has had a difficult first season in Columbus. He’s looked lethargic when he’s been healthy (which hasn’t been nearly as much as the team had hoped).  

Carter remains a one-shot scorer though and a first-line centre talent. He’s the type of player you rarely find on the trade market (the last first line centre to be traded was Joe Thornton back in 2005-06).  

In Carter, Rick Nash and Ryan Johansen, there is a good offensive core in place in Columbus. God knows there are other teams trying to build around less up front (cough Phoenix, Florida, Winnipeg to name three cough cough).

Now it could be that the Blue Jackets just want to save themselves some money and get Carter’s $5.27 million off the books. This is incredibly short-sighted thinking. The Blue Jackets need wins to generate revenues. They need talent on the roster to produce wins. Eventually, that talent gets paid, and scoring talent of Carter’s ilk can get a lot more expensive than $5.27 million a season.

Moving Carter doesn’t get the Blue Jackets anywhere closer to wins in the short-term, and is not guaranteed to save them much money in the long-term.

In short – it would be a trade that doesn’t make much sense.  

3. Trade Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres

At one point, it could be argued he was the best goalie in the game, but these days Ryan Miller is pretty, pretty, pretty average . His performance and outspokenness has made him a lightning rod in Buffalo where pre-season optimism has turned into a season-long nightmare.

A great goaltender gives an NHL team a chance to win every night, and turns poor or mediocre teams in all other areas into playoff participants. Miller was once great – there’s no question he could be great again. The smart move in Buffalo would be to consider goaltending “secure” (Jhonas Enroth is a talented youngster who’s earned more time in the crease) and address other needs.

You know, like the Swiss Cheese defense of Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr that would have trouble defending against a minor bantam team some nights.  

2. Trade PK Subban from the Montreal Canadiens

PK Subban isn’t your typical NHL player – he’s colourful, opinionated and openly confident – and this has frequently contradicted with the conservative, conformist culture established by the Canadiens in the era of Bob Gainey, Jacques Martin and Pierre Gauthier.

There are few NHL defencemen that offer the same combination of physical gifts, offensive instincts and passion for the big moment as Subban does. He will be an NHL star, and will one day find himself in Norris consideration.

You can count the number of Stanley Cups won by teams without a strong offensive defenseman on one hand. Trading Subban would be akin to the Canadiens admitting they don’t have any plans to truly compete for a Stanley Cup in the near future.  

1. Trade Brendan Morrow from the Dallas Stars

For all the hulabaloo about trading Jarome Iginla from Calgary, the potential trade of Brendan Morrow from Dallas would be the bigger mistake.

Uncertain Stars ownership has wrecked havoc on the franchise’s off-ice fortunes. Now, with new owner Tom Gaglardi in the mix, the team needs to re-establish its relationship with the Dallas community.

Morrow is an obvious, important player around which to build this new relationship. He’s one of the few remaining links to the championship-calibre teams Dallas iced in the late 90s and early 2000s. Moreover, he is the type of character leader that can shape and inspire not only a locker room, but a fan base.

With one of the lowest payrolls in the league, the Stars don’t need to jettison salary. They should move other pieces before moving their captain.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • According to John Shannon on Prime Time Sports last week, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise are best of friends. Does anyone else smell another Teemu Selanne-Paul Kariya-esque situation developing for these two future UFAs?
  • The Sidney Crosby “fracture-no fracture-concussions-no concussion” story sounds more and more like the Eric Lindros situation in Philadelphia every day. There’s no reason to think relationships are poisoned between Crosby and the Penguins, but this certainly makes one wonder how the next contract negotiations between the team and its star player will go in 2013.
  • Let’s all give Alex Radulov the benefit of the doubt here – we all see the bug on his coach’s neck, right? (Editor’s note: Note that the coach behind Radulov was not his head coach, but the goalie coach.)
  • Given that the Winter Classic is also a huge event for league sponsors, the NHL All-Star Game should move to the start of the season. This would give the Winter Classic even more prominence mid-season, and would create a special “kick-off” event for the NHL to start its year. I’d even be in favour of returning to a Stanley Cup champions versus NHL All-Stars format in a neutral site (say Europe).
  • Does Mikhail Grabovski look like a $5 million player? Because that’s what the UFA market is likely to pay him. This is also why it would be of no surprise to see the Leafs either trade their second-line centre at the deadline, or walk away from him on July 1st. He is too inconsistent to be paid like a top-four player.
  • Speaking of the Maple Leafs, the more you watch Nazem Kadri play, the more it seems his best work at the NHL level will come playing for a team other than Toronto. Kadri needs consistent top-six ice time to grow his game, and he won’t get that playing for a team competing for a playoff spot right now.
  • The New York Rangers pass around a fedora to the team’s best player post-game. The St. Louis Blues? A weiner hat. Classic.
  • Sorry Blackhawks fans, but Brendan Morrison isn’t the answer to your second-line centre dilemma. He adds some nice depth as a complimentary, offensive player, but a regular contribution in a top-six role is asking far too much.
  • Finally, I cannot recommend Behind the Moves enough for anyone who loves the business of hockey. Here’s a nice review from over at dobberhockey.
Jan 172012
 

At the end of the 20-game mark, I took a look at the “real” NHL standings in the East and West.

Now that every team has played their 40th game, it’s time to even the playing field once again and see what’s really been going on in the NHL.

Last time, I made special mention of a team’s special teams, goals for and goals against performance for the season.

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

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

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

(* – Stats were taken as of Thursday, January 12th, once all teams had played their 40th game.)

The Western Conference After 40 Games:

1. San Jose Sharks (53 points)
Games 21-40: 3rd in Conference (26 points)
Games 1-20: 1st in Conference (27 points)
SVPCT: Good / SHA: Great / GF: Above Average / GA: Good / 5-on-5: Great / SHF: Great

Notes: One of the most complete teams in the NHL and one of the toughest teams at 5-on-5 (tied with St. Louis for 3rd overall). Surprisingly, Michal Handzus (1 goal, 10 assists) had almost as many points as Joe Thornton (3 goals, 11 assists) in the second quarter. Martin Havlat, who found a way to hurt himself hopping the boards onto the ice, has been a bust.

2. Chicago Blackhawks (52 points)
Games 21-40: 5th in Conference (25 points)
Games 1-20: 3rd in Conference (27 points)
SVPCT: Poor / SHA: Above Average / GF: Great / GA: Below Average / 5-on-5: Good / SHF: Good

Notes: This is a team getting it done with offense, as the penalty kill and goaltending have been inconsistent all season. Marian Hossa (20 pts in the second quarter) looks like he’s five-years younger. Secondary scoring was absent in games 21-40. Dave Bolland (3 goals), Viktor Stalberg (4 goals) and Michael Frolik (2 goals) struggled.

3. Vancouver Canucks (51 points)
Games 21-40: 1st in Conference (30 points)
Games 1-20: 11th in Conference (21 points)
SVPCT: Good / SHA: Above Average / GF: Great / GA: Good / 5-on-5: Good / SHF: Good

Notes: A dominant second quarter revealed the Canucks look ready again for a long playoff run. Ryan Kesler was almost a point-per-game player in December (14 points in 15 games). For all the fan criticism, Keith Ballard was +10 in the second quarter.

4. Detroit Red Wings (51 points)
Games 21-40: 4th in Conference (26 points)
Games 1-20: 5th in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Good / SHA: Great / GF: Great / GA: Good / 5-on-5: Great / SHF: Great

Notes: Those of us waiting for the Red Wings to collapse into a rebuild will probably wait forever, as it looks like Valtteri Filppula (9 goals, 18 points in the second quarter) and Jiri Hudler (9 goals, 16 points) have finally established themselves as scoring threats. Meanwhile, Pavel Datsyuk (24 points) and Henrik Zetterberg (just 4 goals but 20 points) keep rolling. Interestingly, Nicklas Lidstrom had a pedestrian games 21-40 (2 goals, 7 points).

5. St. Louis Blues (51 points)
Games 21-40: 2nd in Conference (29 points)
Games 1-20: 9th in Conference (22 points)
SVPCT: Great / SHA: Great / GF: Below Average / GA: Great / 5-on-5: Great / SHF: Good

Notes: It didn’t take long for the Blues to play Hitchcock hockey did it? Sure, St. Louis still has trouble scoring, but the powerplay’s improving (9.2% in the first quarter, 18% during the second quarter). Meanwhile, the Blues goalie tandem was dynamite in games 21-40. Both Brian Elliott (7-4, 1.91 goals against, .931 save percentage) and Jaroslav Halak (6-0-3, 1.95 goals against, .929 save percentage) played like all-stars.

6. Minnesota Wild (48 points)
Games 21-40: 11th in Conference (21 points)
Games 1-20: 2nd in Conference (27 points)
SVPCT: Great / SHA: Awful / GF: Awful / GA: Great / 5-on-5: Below Average / SHF: Awful

Notes: It seems pretty clear that amazing start to the season was built on a house of cards – there’s a lot not working in Minnesota. After a hot start, Niklas Backstrom has been average lately (.908 save percentage in December), while the team’s goals against in the second quarter was almost a full goal higher than the first quarter (from 1.98 to 2.75).

7. Dallas Stars (47 points)
Games 21-40: 8th in Conference (23 points)
Games 1-20: 7th in Conference (24 points)
SVPCT: Above Average / SHA: Awful / GF: Above Average / GA: Below Average / 5-on-5: Good / SHF: Below Average

Notes: The Stars will be one of the teams in the Western Conference fighting tooth-and-nail for a final playoff spot. After a great start, Sheldon Souray was cooling off in the second quarter prior to his injury (3 assists, -1 in 14 games). Meanwhile, Stephane Robidas was a -6 during games 21-40. In Kari Lehtonen’s absence, Richard Bachman was solid (2.56 goals against, .917 save percentage) while Andrew Raycroft was not (3.49 goals against since November 23rd).

8. Nashville Predators (46 points)
Games 21-40: 10th in Conference (22 points)
Games 1-20: 6th in Conference (24 points)
SVPCT: Above Average / SHA: Poor / GF: Above Average / GA: Above Average / 5-on-5: Below Average / SHF: Awful

Notes: Another team trending downward thanks to disappointing goaltending play. Pekke Renne was rather human for games 21-40 (2.95 goals against, .904 save percentage). Rookie Craig Smith had just 1 goal in the second quarter, while Patric Hornqvist had 2.

9. Los Angeles Kings (45 points)
Games 21-40: 9th in Conference (22 points)
Games 1-20: 8th in Conference (23 points)
SVPCT: Great / SHA: Good / GF: Awful / GA: Great / 5-on-5: Poor / SHF: Good

Notes: During the second quarter, the Kings only scored three or more goals four times. Stats like that are why coaches get fired. Simon Gagne went goalless for December (2 assist in 12 games), while Jack Johnson was -6 during games 21-40. The team desperately needs a sniper – do they have enough to put into a package for Zach Parise? Goaltender Jonathan Bernier would have to be in the mix.

10. Colorado Avalanche (43 points)
Games 21-40:6th in Conference (24 points)
Games 1-20: 12th in Conference (19 points)
SVPCT: Below Average / SHA: Good / GF: Poor / GA: Below Average / 5-on-5: Awful / SHF: Above Average

Notes: For being a young, skating team, the Avalanche sure have a tough time scoring. Youngsters Matt Duchene (3 goals, 8 points), Paul Stastny (5 goals, 8 points) and David Jones (2 assists) all struggled in the second quarter.

11. Phoenix Coyotes (42 points)
Games 21-40: 12th in Conference (17 points)
Games 1-20: 4th in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Good / SHA: Poor / GF: Poor / GA: Good / 5-on-5: Above Average / SHF: Below Average

Notes: Pretty easy to see why they fell so far in the second quarter – Mike Smith returned back to earth (13 games, 5 wins, 3.38 goals against, .894 save percentage). Key forwards Shane Doan (3 goals, -7) and Martin Hanzel (2 goals) were MIA during games 21-40.

12. Calgary Flames (41 points)
Games 21-40: 7th in Conference (24 points)
Games 1-20: 13th in Conference (17 points)
SVPCT: Above Average / SHA: Below Average / GF: Awful / GA: Above Average / 5-on-5: Poor / SHF: Poor

Notes: It hasn’t been a great season in Calgary, but the Flames were a playoff team during the second quarter. One of the reasons was an improved powerplay, which helped the team score enough to win games. Naturally, Jarome Iginla was at the centre of this improvement (9 goals, 21 points, +7 in 20 games), although Olli Jokinen was right behind (7 goals, 19 points, +2). In the absence of Mark Giordano, Derek Smith stepped up (9 points), leading all Flames defensemen in scoring in the second quarter.

13. Edmonton Oilers (35 points)
Games 21-40: 15th in Conference (13 points)
Games 1-20: 10th in Conference (22 points)
SVPCT: Above Average / SHA: Below Average / GF: Above Average / GA: Above Average / 5-on-5: Poor / SHF: Awful

Notes: Introducing the worst team in the Western Conference during the second quarter. Yes, their defense is AHL-caliber, but some blame on the Oilers’ collapse should fall on the shoulders of the team’s veterans. Shawn Horcoff (4 goals, -8) and Ales Hemsky (2 goals, -4) underperformed, while Ryan Smyth (4 goals, 12 points, +2) was only marginally better.

14. Anaheim Ducks (30 points)
Games 21-40: 14th in Conference (14 points)
Games 1-20: 14th in Conference (16 points)
SVPCT: Awful / SHA: Below Average / GF: Poor / GA: Awful / 5-on-5: Awful / SHF: Awful

Notes: The fabulous core of the Ducks got rolling in the second quarter. Teemu Selanne (7 goals, 20 points), Corey Perry (11 goals, 21 points), Bobby Ryan (10 goals, 16 points) and Ryan Getzlaf (3 goals, 15 points) sparked the offense. However, a lack of depth and poor goaltending (Jonas Hiller had a 3.32 goals against and .892 save percentage in games 21-40) has kept Anaheim near the bottom of the Western Conference.

15. Columbus Blue Jackets (27 points)
Games 21-40: 13th in Conference (15 points)
Games 1-20: 15th in Conference (12 points)
SVPCT: Awful / SHA: Good / GF: Awful / GA: Awful / 5-on-5: Awful / SHF: Above Average

Notes: At the time of this study, Columbus was one of only six teams with a team save percentage under .900 (they were at .894). For what it’s worth, league average at the time was .912. Players playing their way out of town: Antoine Vermette (3 goals, 2 assists in the second quarter); Derick Brassard (2 goals, 5 assists); and Vinny Prospel (2 goals, 10 points). Could someone explain how keeping Ryan Johansen in the NHL (2 goals, 4 assists during games 21-40) is helping him develop into a top-six NHL forward?

Jan 102012
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Their attendance woes are greatly exaggerated.

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

Well hold on a minute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • One final Blue Jacket thought - the time to fire coach Scott Arniel was two months ago, when the season was still somewhat salvagable. Letting Arniel try to change the team’s on-ice philosophy on the fly during the season only further muddled the direction of the team. As stated above, the future could be rosy in Columbus if the right moves are made right now. Howson’s handling of Arniel though creates more doubt he’s the GM to right-the-ship.
  • Can’t stop laughing at the headlines involving Dustin Penner’s injury while eating pancakes. With only four goals and 15 points in 50 career games now with Los Angeles, he could be moved at the trade deadline. The question is – who would want him? Love these unasked follow-up questions to Penner about his injury too.
  • This is why expansion is coming soon to the NHL – it would address the “unbalanced” conference issue the NHLPA has with the league’s proposed realignment. Adding two teams to the proposed “East” (say Metro Toronto and Quebec City) would give every conference eight teams. Such a move would also add a lot of profits to the league, which in turn benefits both owners and players.
  • If the NHL does expand let’s hope they reduce the roster size. There’s not enough talent for 30 teams, let alone 32.
  • Here are ESPN’s first-half grades.
  • The Emperor has no clothes Part #1 – Here’s why the Washington Capitals do not make the playoffs this year: Dale Hunter is in over his head as coach; beyond Alex Ovechkin and Niklas Backstrom, the team is overrated offensively; the team lacks the discipline to commit to a defensive scheme; GM George McPhee has made the critical mistake of overvaluing players on his own roster.
  • The Emperor has no clothes Part #2 – It sure looks like the Edmonton Oilers, despite all their high draft picks, are on the fast-track to nowhere. They’re likely the worst team in the league right now. Sure that can happen when your team’s best players get hurt. It’s more likely to happen when you ice an AHL-level defense and feature only adequate goaltending.
  • “We’re in the people business too, and I would look like an idiot not to put him in” says Ken Hitchcock about giving Jaroslav Halak the start in Montreal. Funny how this comment made me think about how the Canucks chose to start Cory Schneider against Boston over the weekend. Sure Vancouver won, but it was probably bad people business for Roberto Luongo.
  • One last Canucks thought: Sami Salo had been playing some of the best hockey of his career before getting hurt against the Bruins. Vancouver’s rolling right now, but defensive depth must remain a trade priority if this team intends to make a long Stanley Cup run.
Jan 092012
 

[Every week, Caylie King looks at the Canucks week that was and the Canucks week ahead.  You can follow Caylie on Twitter (@cayking).]

The Canucks started the week with a shootout loss to the San Jose Sharks and followed it up with a dominating 3-0 win over division rivals, the Minnesota Wild. Then came the most anticipated game of the season – a rematch against the defending Stanley Cup Champions, Boston Bruins. And it didn’t disappoint. Despite being hyped up all week long, it lived up to its expectations and more. It felt like we were right back in the Stanley Cup Finals, and though while the Canucks prevailed, the end result was just another two points in the standings. There were big fights, huge saves and controversial hits. It doesn’t matter what team you cheered for, this was a game for the ages.

Canucks Record

42 GP, 26-13-3, 55 points (1st in Northwest Division, 1st in Western Conference)

Who’s Hot

Now in his 5th season with the Canucks, Jannik Hansen has really come into his own. He does the small things and wins the little battles, and his speed, grit and determination is evident in every shift. The Honey Badger is already having a career year with 12 goals and is just 6 points from tying his career-high of 29 points.

Who’s Not

Manny Malholtra has seemed to have lost some of his edge this season after overcoming a horrendous eye injury last season. Although he sits 3rd in the NHL in faceoffs (58.0%), other parts of Manny’s game have deteriorated. He doesn’t seem to be as aggressive or has often struggled to win the one-on-one battles. He only has 3 goals and 7 assists in 42 games – a pace of about 20 points, which would be his worse season statistically since the 2002-2003 season. That said, it’s worth noting that Uncle Manny’s faceoff skills and work on the penalty kill are still critical to the Canucks.

Who’s Next

Monday, January 9, 2012 vs. Florida Panthers (4:30 PM start, away)

The Canucks recalled Mike Duco on Sunday, and it’s perhaps fitting that he will make his Canucks debut against his former team, the Florida Panthers.

Leading the Southeast Division and sitting in 3rd place in the Eastern Conference, it’s safe to say that the Panthers have been one of the biggest surprises in the first half of the season. Much of their success is due to big off-season acquisitions like Kris Versteeg (38 points in 40 games), Tomas Fleischmann (34 points in 41 games) and Brian Campbell (33 points, 2nd among all NHL defensemen), just to name a few. These are not the same Panthers from previous seasons; they have built a whole new identity and look to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999-2000 season.

In last season’s meeting, the Canucks came out on top with a 2-1 victory. Daniel Sedin scored both goals and Roberto Luongo made 41 saves for the win against his former club.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (4:30 PM start, away)

The Lightning are currently on a 3-game losing skid and have not had the success that most expected after making it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. They currently sit in 13th place in the conference.

In last season’s meeting in Vancouver, Steven Stamkos scored 3 points (2G-1A), including the overtime winner.

Despite his teams’ struggles, superstar Steven Stamkos is having another good season, averaging over a point a game. He leads the team in goals (28 – also tops in the NHL) points (45). In his last 6 games, he has 8 goals, including 2 game-winning goals.

Thursday, January 12, 2012 vs. St. Louis Blues (5:00 PM start, away)

If the Panthers are the early surprise in the East, the St. Louis Blues are definitely one of the surprise teams in the Western Conference. Currently, they’re sitting in 4th place in the tough Western Conference. They have won their last 3 games, outscoring their opponents 12-4.

The Blues have won both meetings this season against the Canucks. T.J. Oshie leads the team with 2 goals, 2 assists and a plus-4 rating in those matchups. Brian Elliott recorded both wins for the Blues.

David Backes is tied for the team lead in goals (13) with T.J. Oshie and Alex Steen. He also leads the team in points (29). Backes has an active 3-game point streak (2G-2A-4P).

Sunday, January 15, 2012 vs. Anaheim Ducks (6:00 PM start, away)

Considering their firepower up front, it’s shocking how badly the Ducks are doing this season. Despite changing their coach, the results haven’t changed much and they currently sit in 14th place in the Western Conference.

The Ducks and Canucks have already played each other twice this season – both in Anaheim – with both teams winning one game each. Bobby Ryan and Andrew Cogliano both have a goal and assist against the Canucks this season; Daniel Sedin leads the Canucks with 2 goals, 2 assists and a plus-5 rating.

Corey Perry, the league’s reigning MVP, is tied with Bobby Ryan for the team lead with 15 goals and is second in scoring with 32 points.

Dec 212011
 

Next year is the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Canadiens-Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup Final.

Don’t expect a repeat appearence from either team.

Today, the Kings made it official, hiring Darryl Sutter as their new coach.

We talked last week about how hiring Sutter might just be the least imaginative, worst-thought-out decision GM Dean Lombardi could make for his team.

The Kings already defend well – it’s hard to see Sutter adding to this area.

The Kings already had a coach who demanded accountability – and it’s doubtful Darryl Sutter will do this in a way that’s more innovative than Terry Murray.  

Scoring is the Kings primary area of weakness, as it has been for the past couple of seasons.

Who knows – hatred of Sutter may rally players in the dressing room and get the team into the playoffs. There’s certainly enough talent on the roster for the Kings to be a playoff team.

But it’s doubtful the Kings make it, and blame should rest squarely on Lombardi’s shoulders.

He’s the one who’s had incredible difficulty acquiring the game-breaker Los Angeles has needed for the past three seasons (despite having a bevy of young talent to trade).

He’s the one who played hardball with Drew Doughty, resulting in a missed training camp, hurt feelings and a sub-par season to date.

He’s the one who traded for Dustin Penner last year, when anyone following the Oilers knew motivating the big guy was a challenge.

He’s the one who decided to give Justin Williams another $3.5+ million contract after his first 20-goal season in four years.

To his credit, Lombardi’s created a deep organization with strength on the blueline and in goal.  

But teams that win in the NHL can score. And most of Lombardi’s moves to help the attack have been like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

 *****

Speaking of the Titanic, sorry Canadiens fans, but the Habs have hit their iceberg, and it’s named Pierre Gauthier.  

While Jacques Martin may be the devil for creating hockey devoid of any offensive flourish, the fact remains that he got an incredible amount of success out of an (arguably) mediocre cast of players.

Firing coach Martin was clearly the act of a general manager (Gauthier) scrambling to keep blame off his shoulders.

You know, where it should be.

It’s Gauthier who completely botched the Andre Markov situation, giving him a long-term contract without first confirming the extent of the defenseman’s knee injury. Four months in, it would be a surprise to see Markov play this season.

Gauthier built the 2011-12 team with Markov penciled in on the blueline, and he has had to scramble (Chris Campoli, Tomas Kaberle) to fill the gap. Results of the scrambling have been mixed to say the least.

Meanwhile, the Habs continue to feature a pop-gun attack. Assistant coach Perry Pearn was the scapegoat earlier in the year. Now Jacques Martin’s fallen on the sword. In either case, it wasn’t their fault the team hasn’t drafted or traded for a 30-goal talent since Michael Cammalleri joined Montreal three years ago.

Even in the Cammalleri case, good goal-scorers need to play with centremen who can create space and opportunity on the ice. This describes something other than the corpse of Scott Gomez, who’s been given more rope by the Montreal front office than all the cowboys at the Calgary Stampede.

Now, St. Patrick himself, Patrick Roy, has let it be known he’d be interested in coaching the team… if they call him after this season. That’s nice of Patrick to give the Montreal media something to chew on over the holiday season, if not the rest of the NHL season.

In Gauthier’s hands, the 2011-12 Habs are devolving into a circus.

Expect a new ringmaster under the Habs big top next year.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • How about that ego on Patrick Roy? The NHL is an old boys club, and yet here’s Patrick, throwing Randy Cunneyworth and Joe Sacco under the bus. Coaching junior hockey is incredibly different than coaching in the NHL, and we’ve seen how other icons (cough Gretzky cough) have struggled reaching and motivating NHL-level players. It’s one thing to use your legend to push a team of kids; it’s another to get men to that. Roy will create headlines, but good luck to Montreal or Colorado if they hire him – they’ll need it.
  • It’s pretty easy to guess Patrick Roy’s future: successful QMHL coach/owner; failed NHL Coach; outstanding NHL studio analyst. Basically, it says here he becomes the new Jacques Demers or Mario Tremblay.
  • One more thing about the Habs – so their powerplay is miserable (12.3%), yet they just made the man responsible for the powerplay (Randy Cunneyworth) the head coach. That is a bigger red flag to me than a coach who can’t speak French. You can learn French – a coach either knows, or doesn’t know, how to make a powerplay excel.
  • Add Doug Maclean’s voice to those suggesting Mike Richards’ off-ice “issues” have continued in Los Angeles.
  • Interesting to hear Ken Hitchcock say during an interview on Prime Time Sports that his approach to coaching in the NHL today is the exact opposite to the one he used coaching in Dallas. Why did Hitchcock change? It’s a new generation of players (Generation X, Generation Y), who respond and are motivated differently. I wonder if Darryl Sutter is taking notes.
  • For being in a playoff race, there are few teams in the NHL softer in front of their own goal than Toronto. You can put a lawn chair down in the slot comfortably, especially on the powerplay.
  • Doesn’t Mark Messier have enough money? Saying the Canucks “owe” him, even if justified, just reopens old wounds locally. Make no mistake – Messier’s time in Vancouver contradicts the legend he built for himself in Edmonton and New York. It’s like the Canucks got Mark’s evil twin “Mike” Messier instead.
  • Love these Fenwick power rankings. Bottom line – Minnesota will be hard-pressed to keep their season up through 82-games, while these advanced stats are more evidence of the great job Kevin Dineen’s doing in Florida.
  • Here’s Puck Daddy’s 10-worst hockey decisions of 2011. It’s a great list, although I’d say Crosby playing back on January 5th should be #1.
  • Always enjoy reading about Mario Lemieux getting back on the ice, even if it’s just to practice. Probably the most physically-gifted player of all time.
  • Players with more points than Alex Ovechkin (who has 22): Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Bozak, P.A Parenteau, Rich Peverley and 78 others. Players with more goals (Ovechkin has 10): Ryan Jones, Jason Chimera, Chris Kelly, Jannik Hansen and 69 others.
  • Final Ovechkin pile-on: he’s got 5 points in 9 games under new coach Dale Hunter. It’s early, but the coaching change doesn’t seem to have altered much in Washington.
Dec 132011
 

Things that make one wonder on a Tuesday: 

The Kings are in Trouble 

Has Dean Lombardi lost his mind? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NHL Concussions 

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, it’s not a Sidney Crosby retirement. 

It’s another Bill Masterton moment.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Hey look, The Hockey News agrees about Darryl Sutter.
  • According to this timeline, does Sidney Crosby only have 400-odd games left in his career?:
Name PPG before concussion First “serious” concussion Age at first “serious” concussion GP post first concussion PPG post first concussion # of concussions Retired at 
Pat LaFontaine 1.06 April 6, 1990 – hit by James Patrick 25 410 (7 seasons) 1.30 32 
Eric Lindros 1.41 March 7, 1998 – hit by Darius Kasparaitus 25 400 (7 seasons) 0.895 34 
Sidney Crosby 1.39 January 1, 2011 – hit by David Steckel 23 ????????????
  • Speaking of concussions, a nice wrap up by Sports Illustrated of 16 NHL’ers whose careers ended due to concussion-related injury.  Some of the names may surprise you.
  • Final concussion note – speculation is Jeff Skinner suffered one last week against Edmonton’s Andy Sutton.
  • One more note on the Kings firing Terry Murray – nice guy, overrated coach. Not sure if he coaches again in the NHL.
  • If you think about it, the approach Dale Tallon is taking to rebuilding the Panthers (invest in veterans while filling up the farm system with prospects) is similar to what Dean Lombardi did in San Jose originally. Despite the lack of championships, the Sharks truly have become the model expansion franchise in the NHL.
  • Dear New Jersey Devils – if Kurtis Foster is the answer, you’ve been asking the wrong question.
  • Speaking of the Devils, their penalty kill is an absolute joy to watch. Opponents have very little time to set-up in the offensive zone.
  • Last Devils thought – they really made Tampa’s defense look slow on Monday night. Particularly Brett Clark, who was caught flat-footed at the blueline on two New Jersey goals.
  • Lots of kudos to go around for the way the New York Rangers are playing right now, but here’s two things to note: 1) their young defense, particularly Dan Girardi, has improved over last year. Girardi has played like an All-Star so far this season. 2) Marian Gaborik is healthy, returning to game-breaking form he had two seasons ago.  The Rangers have a balanced attack for the first time in a long time.
  • Since Washington’s Mike Green has been hurt, John Carlson has 14 points in 14 games.
  • Don’t look now, but the Hurricanes are 1-5 under Kirk Muller. Meanwhile, Dale Hunter has the Capitals at 3-3 after six games, while Bruce Boudreau is 1-3-1 in Anaheim, and Ken Hitchcock is 11-2-3 in St. Louis.
  • Steven Stamkos may sit fourth in league scoring, but he hasn’t had much luck on the powerplay. He’s on pace for just 8 powerplay goals, down from 17 last year.
  • Some interesting time-on-ice stats: Brooks Laich leads Capitals forwards in ice-time (although Alex Ovechkin’s ice-time has gone up under Dale Hunter); Daniel Winnik leads all Avalanche forwards (interesting, given he essentially plays a checking role); Ryan Suter (not Shea Weber) leads Nashville in ice-time; Jeff Carter (not Rick Nash) leads all Blue Jackets forwards.
Dec 072011
 

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

Derek Boogaard and Fighting in the NHL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NHL Realignment

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

2005/2006

Standings:

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

Playoff seeding under new format:

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

Some notes about 2005/2006:

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

2006/2007

Standings:

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

Playoff seeding under new format:

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

Some notes about 2006/2007:

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

2007/2008

Standings:

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

Playoff seeding under new format:

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

Some notes about 2007/2008:

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

2008/2009

Standings:

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

Playoff seeding under new format:

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

Some notes about 2008/2009:

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

2009/2010

Standings:

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

Playoff seeding under new format:

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

Some notes about 2009/2010:

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

2010/2011

Standings:

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

Playoff seeding under new format:

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

Some notes about 2010/2011:

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

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

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

NHL standings are a lie.

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

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

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

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

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

Western Conference

1. San Jose – 27 points

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

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

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

2. Minnesota – 27 points

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

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

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

3. Chicago – 27 points

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

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

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

4. Phoenix – 25 points

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

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

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

5. Detroit – 25 points

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

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

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

6. Nashville – 24 points

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

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

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

7. Dallas – 24 points

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

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

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

8. Los Angeles – 23 points

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

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

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

9. St. Louis – 22 points

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

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

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

10. Edmonton – 22 points

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

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

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

11. Vancouver – 21 points

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

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

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

12. Colorado – 19 points

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

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

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

13. Calgary – 17 points

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

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

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

14. Anaheim – 16 points

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

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

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

15. Columbus – 12 points

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

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

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

Nov 042011
 

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

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

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

Personally, I like what you’ve reportedly done:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tweak #1 – Level the playing field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Tweak #2 – Let Teams Pick Their Playoff Opponent 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re welcome.

 THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

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