May 302012
 
New Jersey Devils vs Los Angeles Kings

Having lamented the current state of the NHL in part 1 of my Stanley Cup Finals preview, let’s at least acknowledge the fact that both the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles kings aren’t exactly passive, defensive teams.

In fact, it could be argued that both teams have made it this far because they have, more than any other teams in the postseason, been able to combine their strong defensive systems with excellent forechecks. These are two teams that like to apply pressure in the offensive zone (thank god).

Now, onto breaking down the actual match-up between the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings.

Goaltending:

Kings

What I said pre-season: B (“There is an embarrassment of riches at this position in Los Angeles […]. The Kings move up this list as (Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier) continue to develop”)

Now: A. Jonathan Quick has been the best goaltender in the playoffs so far and was neck-and-neck with Henrik Lundqvist for best goalie in the league this year. He plays the position aggressively, and it will be interesting to see if a strong Devils attack can exploit this and get Quick caught out of position.

Devils

What I said pre-season: B- (“This is probably Martin Brodeur’s final season.”)

Now: B. I wonder, if the Devils win the Cup, does Brodeur retire? Or does he come back to defend? While his play has dropped off the last few seasons, he was a steady performer this year, helped by a Devils approach that protected him from having to face many Grade A scoring chances. Brodeur’s numbers  (2.04 goals against, .923 save percentage) have been good in the post-season, but he’s had soft moments in each series. He’ll need to raise his game against the Kings.

Bottom Line: Some would have you believe that Brodeur’s experience is a positive factor over Quick. However, since the lockout only the Red Wings in 2007-08 have won the Cup using a goalie who’d won one before (Chris Osgood). It’s hard to believe, at this point in the playoffs, previous experience is much of a factor. Which means the Kings get a big nod at this position.

*****

Forwards:

Kings

What I said pre-season: B+ (“If Dustin Penner can demonstrate any kind of scoring consistency, this could be the Conference’s best group of forwards”)

Now: B+. It took 82-games for Kings forwards to live up to their potential, as they struggled immensely during the regular season. The first line – Dustin Brown – Anze Kopitar – Justin Williams – has dominated the post-season, with Brown in particular playing the best hockey of his career. But these playoffs have been a “return to glory” for Dustin Penner (10 points), Mike Richards (11 points) and Jeff Carter (9 points). Together, they represent one of the tougher, better second lines in the entire NHL, and have helped the Kings go from second last in league scoring (2.29 goals per game) in the regular season to third in the playoffs (2.93). Dwight King (5 goals) has provided the third line with much needed offense. This is a physical group that, while not exactly fast, anticipate the play very well.

Devils

What I said pre-season: B (“This might be a sneaky-good offensive group, although the bottom-six could use work”)

Now: B+. Despite the bounce-back season from Patrick Elias and the terrific rookie season of Adam Henrique, the Devils were middle-of-the-pack (15th) in league scoring during the regular season. However, over the course of the year they added Alexei Ponikarovsky and Steve Bernier to the roster, and promoted Steven Gionta. Each of those moves has improved the team’s third and fourth lines, turning the Devils into a four-line squad capable of pinning opponents in the defensive zone. This depth compliments the offensive talents of Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, who enter this Final as the most talented offensive players on either roster. This is a very good group, although Patrick Elias hasn’t produced much this spring (18 games, 4 goals, 6 points).

Bottom Line: The Devils have the better talent and the stronger fourth line, but no line is playing better than the Kopitar line right now. Consider this match-up even.

*****

Defense:

Kings

What I Said pre-season: A (Drew Doughty […] remains a Norris Trophy candidate. Jack Johnson […] looks like a legitimate first pairing guy. The rest of the group is an average mix of youth and experience”)

Now: A. Despite trading Jack Johnson to Columbus for Jeff Carter during the season, the Kings retain their A-grade thanks to the emergence of Viatcheslav Voynov and the stellar season from Willie Mitchell. Mitchell and Matt Greene give the Kings two terrific, physical shut-down defenseman. Meanwhile, Voynov and youngster Alec Martinez can skate and provide excellent first passes out of the zone. In fact, the Kings compensate for a lack of speed from their forwards by transitioning the puck from defense to forwards  quicker than most other teams in the league. Finally, after roughly 12-20 months of mediocre play, Drew Doughty has rediscovered his elite game this post-season, and is the best defenseman in the series by a country mile. Finally, this is a blueline that has the green light to join the attack, helping the Kings generate more odd-man rushes than most.

Devils

What I said pre-season: C (“[…] Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov are two of the best defensive defencemen in the league. Otherwise it’s an average group with below average skill”)

Now: C+. As expected, the lack of skill hampered the Devils blueline for much of the season, as New Jersey’s group struggled to move the puck up to its forwards effectively. However, the late season addition of Marek Zidlicky and the promotion of Peter Harrold from Albany brought much-needed speed and passing skill to the Devils defense. This has paid off in the post-season, with both players getting the majority of powerplay time and leading New Jersey to the fourth-best powerplay in the post-season (18.2%). Meanwhile, Bryce Salvador is playing his best hockey in years, leading the defense with 11 points (9 at even-strength) and tied with Anton Volchenkov for most hits by a Devils defenseman (37). This is a lunch pail, no-name group that is very reminiscent of the Cup-winning Hurricanes blueline of 2005-06.

Bottom Line: The offensive gap between the two teams has closed a bit, but the Kings remain the more dynamic blueline. When you add that Los Angeles gets to play Drew Doughty 25+ minutes a night, this category is a mismatch for the Kings.

*****

Coaching

Kings

What I said pre-season: C+ (“Let’s make it two years in a row for Murray to find his name on the “Fired Watch.”)

Now: B. The best thing that could have happened to the Kings was firing Terry Murray, who hadn’t been past the first round of the playoffs in some 15 years. Full disclosure though – I thought the hiring of Darryl Sutter was going to be a disaster, and I was wrong. Sutter was example B to Ken Hitchcock’s example A in the whole “mid-season coaching replacements do better” hypothesis. Sutter’s pushed the right buttons and demonstrated that, for all his failings as a general manager, he remains a quality head coach.

Devils

What I said pre-season: C+ (“[Peter] DeBoer’s preferred puck possession style never really fit with the Panter’s mix of inexperience and grinders.”)

Now: B. Finally graced with a solid nucleus, DeBoer has finally delivered on the promise he showed while having great success in the junior ranks. He’s taken the Devils disciplined defensive approach and grafted his own philosophies onto the team, delivering the most dynamic New Jersey squad since the early 2000s. DeBoer plays hunches and isn’t afraid to mix up his lines or lineup to get the matchups he needs. He’s the real deal.

Bottom Line: A very even matchup. Sutter has a slight edge given his Stanley Cup experience but DeBoer is the more flexible coach. Let’s call this a wash.

*****

Special Teams:

Kings: The Kings have dominated this post-season despite a pretty terrible powerplay. There is a distinct lack of creativity to their approach. Having said that, L.A.’s penalty kill has been superlative, with Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar dangerous shorthanded (2 goals each).

Devils: The Devils over-aggressive penalty kill, which was the league’s best in the regular season, has been exploited in the playoffs. The powerplay, on the other hand, has been surprisingly strong.

Bottom Line: It’s this simple: Kings wretched powerplay versus Devils’ awful post-season penalty kill. The team that wins this matchup wins the special teams category. Given the likely poor ice conditions in both arenas, the penalty kill will have a slight edge. Which means this category goes to the Devils by a whisker.

*****

Intangibles and Random Thoughts:

  • It’s the rare a team without a dominant top-line defenseman wins the Stanley Cup. Advantage: Kings
  • Despite having a lot of offensive talent on the Kings roster, it’s rare a team wins the Stanley Cup having scored so few goals in the regular season. Advantage: Devils
  • The Kings haven’t had to do a lot of travel this post-season, but it’s still been more than the Devils. It will be interesting to see how New Jersey travels West (given the Kings, with all their off-days, were able to get to the New York area and acclimatize well in advance of Game 1). Advantage: Kings
  • Anton Volchenkov will probably get the match-up against Anze Kopitar, but Kopitar is so strong it’s hard to see the “A-Train” earning much more than a draw in this battle. Advantage: Kings
  • Both teams will probably match their top-lines against one-another, with the Kings wanting the Kopitar line up against the Zajac line, and the Richards line against the Henrique line. Even if Kopitar/Zajac is a wash, it wouldn’t surprise to see the Richards line more productive than the Henrique line. Advantage: Kings
  • Since 1980, there have been six “coastal” Stanley Cup Finals, featuring a West Coast team versus an East Coast team. Only the Anaheim Ducks have won it on behalf of the Western Conference. Advantage: Devils
  • The Kings have gotten to the Stanley Cup Final so quickly and easily that they’ve had a lot of time off. It means they’re healthy, but also means they haven’t had to face much adversity. The Devils have had a tougher road, which could mean they’re more battle-hardened. Advantage: Devils
  • Even though the Kings’ fourth line had a pretty good series against the Coyotes, they in no way have had the impact of New Jersey’s Bernier-Gionta-Carter line. The Devils have had terrific fourth lines in their Cup-winning seasons, and through three rounds they’ve had one again. Advantage: Devils

*****

Stanley Cup Prediction: Kings in 6

Bottom Line: This could be a surprisingly entertaining series featuring two teams that play physical, aggressive styles. The Devils might have the most talented forwards, but the Kings have the stronger goalie and blueline. Pre-season I said I had “Chicago, LA and Vancouver rated roughly the same” as the Western Conference’s best teams. The firing of Terry Murray took the Kings’ greatest impediment to success out of the equation. With Wayne Gretzky watching, expect Dustin Brown to raise the Stanley Cup over his head, completing one of the most unexpected championship runs in NHL history.

Jun 262010
 

It’s no secret that the Canucks’ biggest need this off-season was to beef up their defense. UFA-to-be Willie Mitchell’s return was uncertain and defensive prospects Kevin Connauton and Yann Sauve were at least one, maybe two or more, years away from making the big club. So yesterday, on NHL Draft Day, GM Mike Gillis sent the Canucks’ 1st round (25th overall) draft pick, Steve Bernier and Michael Grabner to the Florida Panthers and acquired Keith Ballard and prospect Victor Oreskovich.

Keith Ballard hip checks Patrick Kane

The Canucks filled a need by acquiring Ballard. He is a legitimate top-4 defenseman with the ability to play big minutes. Among all NHL defensemen in 2009/2010, he ranked 55th in average TOI , 30th in total ES TOI and 32nd in total SH TOI. Those weren’t easy minutes either; according to Behind The Net, he had the 8th highest “quality of competition” among all defensemen who played at least 60 games.

Ballard adds a physical component in the Canucks’ back end. He finished last season with 201 blocked shots – 3rd among all NHL players – and 156 hits – 26th among NHL defensemen and 44 more hits than Canucks team leader Shane O’Brien.

He also has history with Canucks assistant coach, Rick Bowness (assuming he is re-signed), from their Phoenix days and should fit in nicely with a defensive core that already includes Alex Edler, Christian Ehrhoff and Sami Salo. (Yes, I know Kevin Bieksa is still a Canuck.)

In a nutshell, Ballard is the kind of defenseman the Canucks were looking to add to their lineup. He is the kind of defenseman Jarred Tinordi and Dylan McIlrath, if the Canucks had selected them with their 25th pick, could be, and the kind of defenseman potential free agent targets, Dan Hamhuis and Anton Volchenkov, are. But as highly-touted Tinordi and McIlrath are, it would’ve been a stretch to expect either one to step into the lineup and help the team immediately. And of course, there’s no guarantee that Gillis would’ve been able to sign Hamuis, Volchenkov or any other top-4 defenseman in the open market.

In fact, Ballard may be quite comparable to Hamhuis – both are 27 years old and both are good skaters who play a solid two-way game – though Ballard probably plays a bit more physically and has historically averaged more points. At last report Hamhuis was looking at a multi-year contract in the $4.5 million per year range and his rights have been traded twice in the last week; on the other hand, Ballard is signed for 5 more years at $4.2 million per year.

There will be Canucks fans out there who won’t like this trade because of who Mike Gillis gave up. Some feel that Gillis could’ve simply waited a week and then signed a top-4 defenseman without giving up Bernier, Grabner and a first-round pick who could turn out to be a real player. Jason Botchford (Vancouver Province) has a good analysis of this trade in response to that perspective:

Let’s look at what the Canucks gave up for Ballard — their 2010 first-round pick, Bernier and Michael Grabner.

The easiest decision was unloading Bernier. Despite a career of opportunity, including chances to play with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek and the Sedin twins, he hasn’t made it work with any of them. Maybe if he was healthy, which he wasn’t last year, he could have found a home on the Canucks’ third line. But he doesn’t have the speed to be an impact player. He’s a tweener who doesn’t fit on a decent team. Dumping his $2 million is a benefit for the Canucks. A big one.

Next is the first-round pick. Gillis said his scouts were disappointed when they learned he was sending his only pick in the first three rounds to Florida. It must have felt like the scouts wasted a season of pavement pounding, number crunching and skill analysis. But, if they did their job, it makes this trade much, much better.

Heading into the draft, Gillis revealed he wasn’t bullish on this draft class, especially at defence.

(skip)

The key component of the deal is Grabner, a flashy prospect who has speed, scoring touch and promise. But let’s be real. He’s a defensive mess, can’t kill penalties and is consistently reluctant to go to the net. He’s soft. He wasn’t going to play this year. The Canucks didn’t want him on their third line and had no room for him in their top six.

So there you have it. To acquire Ballard, the Canucks gave up some forward depth, one they can afford with Cody Hodgson, Jordan Schroeder and Anton Rodin ready to move their way up the depth chart, and a late first round pick which (most likely) wasn’t going to help them win the Stanley Cup next year. They may have paid a steep price to address a need, but you know, you have to give to get.

Apr 252010
 
Henrik Sedin and Mikael Samuelsson celebrate another goal.

Photo credit: canucks.nhl.com

The Canucks can close off their Western Conference Quarterfinal Series against the LA Kings tonight. Can they go for the jugular? Or do they allow the Kings a chance at Game 7 on Tuesday? Can the Kings stop the ‘S-Train’? And if they do, can they also stop the Canucks’ secondary scorers?

Here are today’s game day links:

Feb 092010
 

There have been a handful of players on the Canucks bottom six this year who have been questionable selections for the roster and it seem as each game goes by some of those spots are put even more-so into question because of extremely sub par play. Now it’s no secret I’m a huge Jannik Hansen fan, so naturally I’m upset when he gets unnecessarily scratched, or sent down on a conditioning stint, no matter how voluntary it was. With that in mind though, there’s got to be something else at play here that we’re not hearing about.

I know he has a two way contract and that works against him, but when I look at the play of players like Bernier you have to wonder what static there is between Hansen and Vigneault that keeps resulting in Hansen being put on the back burner. Hansen’s play has been solid, his work on the penalty kill as good as any of his equals (Bolduc, Bernier, Wellwood etc). He’s played his role to the T and as it goes he’s making the small plays to turn up ice, and the smart plays to get the puck out of the defensive zone.

His play hasn’t been outstanding, but it’s been well above average and it’s for this reason I can’t understand why he gets scratched in favour of a player like Bolduc. Hansen on any other team would be a staple 3rd liner. The fact that this team’s depth when combined with his two way contract works against him is unfortunate, but when you look at the absolutely awful play from the bottom six, Hansen seems like the necessary choice. His skating’s been better this year, and on nights when Hordichuk isn’t needed it would only make sense that Hansen slots in and yet it takes Demitra’s absence and Ryan Johnson’s lack of presence for Hansen to slot back in.

Hansen took a two way contract he was reluctant to sign just to stay with the Canucks, but I have a feeling the Dane, who will be a free agent this summer, is in his last season with the team. While I’d love to see him return, he’s as expendable at the deadline as any one of the other bottom six players and if he’s still a Canucks member at the end of the year I have a feeling he’s going to do the smart thing and head to another team.

Hansen slots in tonight for the Canucks and it’ll be nice to have a fresh set of legs on the team. Who knows how many more games he’ll get. While he deserves a spot over players like Wellwood, Bernier, and Hordichuk, I think there’s something greater at play that we’re just not hearing about. It just doesn’t make sense to sit a healthy forward like Hansen when Bernier and Wellwood have been in the ruts they have. There’s going through a slump, and there’s poor play. Wellwood’s days are numbered and if the Canucks want to turn their road play around, as well as make a serious run in the playoffs, they are going to have to ship out certain players from that bottom six, but one of those players that needs to remain is Hansen.

May 152009
 
May 142009
 

Big Bear

They’re working with him in the off season by getting him a nutritionist and helping him to improve his skating. He’s still quite young. Bernier seems to love Vancouver and from what you hear is a good teammate. I think it’s a good move. Now how about getting those Swedins and Welly signed, hmmm?

May 062009
 
Apr 242009
 

I’ll admit over the course of the season I’ve been really harsh towards Taylor so I guess now I have to take it easy on him. Pyatt’s back in town and according to the team has resumed his full duties as a Canucks player. Again, my condolences go out to him and to the Bragnalo family, I can only imagine what it’s like for Taylor to have lost his high school sweetheart of 11 years.

That being said, it’s playoff time, we’re right in the thick of things and the question now is “Who/what/where/when/why to do with Pyatt”. Pyatt was at the end of the season finally skating a lot better, he’d managed to get a few points and it looked like he was settling in on the third line and finally clicking with his line mates. Then tragedy struck and off he goes and the bottom lines fill up nicely and form a cohesion that has wowed us all.

If Pyatt comes back and takes up his role on the third line we’re going to see that third line that has been fantastic split up. So is that third line playing so brilliantly because the players are playing well, or because they’ve got some sort of chemistry there? Either way, I’d be hesitant to split up Wellwood, Bernier and Raymond with the way they’ve been playing. They’ve been that energy line that’s been missing since Burrows got his 1st line promotion and Kesler locked up a spot alongside Sundin and Demitra.

Putting Pyatt on the 4th line might work well (even though my boy Hansen then gets the scratch) because with the way Johnson’s been playing with Rypien, the third man seems interchangeable. But is Pyatt really ready?

Here’s my issue, I feel for Pyatt, I really do. However, when you look at the team from a neutral perspective, Pyatt’s coming in as an emotional wreck. We know he’s close to the team, we know his fiance was close to the team, and I don’t want that flood of emotions to be brought into the locker room. We saw how the original shock of the event hit the players and the last thing this team needs is emotional instability to hit the team again. If Pyatt is ready to play (my criticism of him aside) I welcome him back with open arms. But here is a team that is at the top of it’s game. It’s got a new found chemistry that’s more like alchemy the way they’ve been cashing in lately, and I just want to see them do whatever is necessary to go all the way, whether or not that includes Pyatt.

Apr 212009
 
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