Feb 082012
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ownership

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

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

Ownership Edge: Oilers

Front Office

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

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

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

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

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

Front Office Edge: Leafs

Coaching

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

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

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

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

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

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Does it really matter that Sam Gagner may have only had 7-points last week? I know I don’t care if the referees are extra generous with their assists.
  • One last Oilers thought – Jordan Eberle, at the time of his draft, projected favourably as another Dany Heatley. Just two years later, Eberle looks to have already eclipsed Heatley as a player. If he can get to 78-points (he has 54 now), he’ll become the highest scoring Oiler since Doug Weight in 2000-01.
  • The Red Wings can deny it all they want, but they desperately need one of Joey MacDonald or Ty Conklin to be solid in goal until Jimmy Howard gets back. The Central Division is a beast, and any prolonged slump could mean St. Louis, Nashville or Chicago leap past them in the standings. It’s hard to get four teams from the same division into the playoffs. The Red Wings can’t afford a set back.
  • If I’m an Eastern Conference team that thinks it can make a post-season run, I am calling Montreal about Hal Gill. Skating-aside, Gill remains one of the top defensive defensemen in the NHL. He would look great in a Rangers uniform.
  • Other trade matches “made in heaven”: Marek Zidlicky to Detroit (a great skating, puck-moving defenseman on a team that plays a puck possession game); Ales Hemsky to Nashville (Hemsky would immediately become the most offensively talented player the Predators have had since Peter Forsberg); Evgeni Nabokov to Tampa Bay (if the Lightning decide to go for the Division crown in a weak Southeast Division); Tuomo Ruutu to Chicago (Blackhawks are incredibly weak on the left-side); Vinny Prospal to Los Angeles (a nice complimentary scorer on a team that needs to find some quickly).
  • Naturally, none of the pairings above have any chance of actually happening, but it’s fun to speculate.
  • Former NHL owner Howard Baldwin talks NHL expansion and hockey in Hartford.
  • Speaking of expansion,more about Seattle as a possible destination for the Coyotes.
  • Here’s former Orca Bay President and CEO Stan McCammon on a possible NHL team in Seattle.
  • This is kind of neat – a breakdown of who sits where in the Avalanche locker room.
  • A nice piece on what Ilya Kovalchuk has become for the Devils.
  • Here’s Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts.
Jan 182012
 

Yesterday we took at look at the “real” Western Conference standings after 40 games.

Here now is a look at the East.

Remember, 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;
  • Shots-against (SHA) and goals against (GA) 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 ranked and then 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 12, once all teams had played at least 40 games.)

The Eastern Conference Standings After 40 Games

1. New York Rangers (58 points)
Games 21-40: 1st in Conference (31 points)
Games 1-20: 1st in Conference (27 points)
SVPCT: Great / SHA: Above Average / GF: Good / GA: Great / 5-on-5: Great / SHF: Awful

Notes: The Winter Classic and HBO 24/7 circus certainly didn’t phase the Rangers, who went 15-4-1 in the second quarter to once again stay atop the “real” NHL standings. Marian Gaborik scored at a 50-goal pace during games 21-40, while hard-working captain Ryan Callahan chipped in with 6 goals and 17 points. Meanwhile, Michael Del Zotto was Mike Green-esque, with 3 goals and 16 points from the blueline.

2. Boston Bruins (57 points)
Games 21-40: 2nd in Conference (31 points)
Games 1-20: 2nd in Conference (26 points)
SVPCT: Great / SHA: Poor / GF: Great / GA: Great / 5-on-5: Great / SHF: Great

Notes: Probably the deepest team in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire NHL. Their 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio was at 2.06 after 40 games, the best in the entire league and more than double the league average. Tuukka Rask (1.07 goals against, .964 save percentage) and Tim Thomas (2.17 goals against, .941 save percentage) are practically unbeatable. Making the Bruins even more dangerous: David Krejci has woken up (7 goals, 23 points during games 21-40).

3. Florida Panthers (48 points)
Games 21-40: 6th in Conference (23 points)
Games 1-20: 6th in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Good / SHA: Below Average / GF: Poor / GA: Above Average 5-on-5: Poor / SHF: Above Average

Notes: They’re in third by virtue of leading the Southeast Division after 40 games. Like the Minnesota Wild, the Panthers are starting to fall back to earth. Goal scoring was way down, from 2.95 goals per game in the first quarter to 2.2 goals per game in the second. Somehow Tomas Kopecky was -11 in games 21-40.

4. Philadelphia Flyers (52 points)
Games 21-40: 3rd in Conference (27 points)
Games 1-20: 5th in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Poor / SHA: Good / GF: Great / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Good / SHF: Great

Notes: Sergei Bobrovsky (1.75 goals against, .941 save percentage) was much, much, much better than Ilya Bryzgalov (3.52, .876) in the second quarter. Meanwhile, Kimmo Timonen (1 goal, 13 points. +6) capably replaced Chris Pronger at least in the short-term as the team’s go-to defenseman. Jaromir Jagr slowed down a bit in games 21-40 (6 goals, 14 points vs 18 points in the first quarter), but some of that was due to injury. James Van Riemsdyk has disappointed (3 goals in the second quarter).

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (46 points)
Games 21-40: 9th in Conference (21 points)
Games 1-20: 4th in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Poor / SHA: Great / GF: Good / GA: Good / 5-on-5: Above Average / SHF: Great

Notes: For the second straight year, the Penguins are battling through injuries to keep a playoff spot, only this time Marc-Andre Fleury hasn’t played as well (.902 save percentage in the second quarter). Evgeni Malkin entered beast mode (30 points in games 21-40), and depending on how Pittsburgh finishes could be a Hart Trophy candidate.

6. New Jersey Devils (46 points)
Games 21-40: 7th in Conference (23 points)
Games 1-20: 9th in Conference (23 points)
SVPCT: Awful / SHA: Great / GF: Below Average / 5-on-5: Awful / SHF: Poor

Notes: The Devils cannot make the playoffs with Martin Brodeur as their number one goalie. His save percentage was just .878 in the second quarter. This despite the fact the Devils only gave up 30-or-more shots in three of his 14 starts, and two of the three being overtime games. Zach Parise (8 goals, 22 points) and Ilya Kovalchuk (10 goals, 21 points) awoke in games 21-40, and the Devils have two solid scoring lines for the first time in ages.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs (45 points)
Games 21-40: 10th in Conference (21 points)
Games 1-20: 7th in Conference (24 points)
SVPCT: Below Average / SHA: Poor / GF: Good / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Good / SHF: Poor

Notes: Leaf struggles in the second quarter are well documented already (thanks Toronto-centric hockey media!). The penalty kill was roughly 4% worse (down to 72.3%) and was the difference between a win and a loss most nights. Meanwhile, James Reimer wasn’t very good (3-4-3, 3.23 goals against, .893 save percentage since returning in December from injury).

8. Ottawa Senators (45 points)
Games 21-40: 4th in Conference (24 points)
Games 1-20: 10th in Conference (21 points)
SVPCT: Poor / SHA: Awful / GF: Good / GA: Below Average / 5-on-5: Above Average / SHF: Good

Notes: Ottawa has improved their five-on-five play and with that are rising up the standings. Eight times in the second quarter they played into overtime, garnering 13 of a possible 16 points in those games. Daniel Alfreddsson hit the rejuvenation machine (17 points in 15 December games, versus 10 points in his first 18 games of the year).

9. Washington Capitals (44 points)
Games 21-40: 11th in Conference (19 points)
Games 1-20: 3rd in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Poor / SHA: Above Average / GF: Good / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Below Average / SHF: Poor

Notes: One of the great “what could have beens” in NHL history is what the Capitals could have been if Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens hadn’t gotten into GM George McPhee’s head after one playoff series. Washington’s loss to Montreal effectively ended the “all offense, all the time” experiment that defined the Capitals and could have redefined how elite NHL teams are built. Nowadays, the Capitals are as ho-hum a franchise as can be. On the bright side, Alex Ovechkin (10 goals, 17 points) and Nik Backstrom (6 goals, 19 points) were decent in the second quarter. However, Mike Knuble entered retirement during games 21-40 (1 goal, 2 points), while other core players Brooks Laich (4 goals, 8 points), Alex Semin (5 goals, 11 points), Marcus Johansson (1 goal) struggled. Tomas Vokoun did find his old self (2.45 goals against, .919 save percentage).

10. Winnipeg Jets (43 points)
Games 21-40: 5th in Conference (24 points)
Games 1-20: 13th in Conference (19 points)
SVPCT: Below Average / SHA: Poor / GF: Below Average / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Below Average / SHF: Above Average

Notes: As you can probably guess from the number of times it appears above, the Jets are an average hockey club. Still, they’ve ridden a hot home record (10-3-1 during the second quarter) to position themselves for a run at a playoff spot. Evander Kane (10 goals), Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little (both with 7 goals) had nice second quarters. A Teemu Selanne deadline trade to Winnipeg would be magical.

11. Buffalo Sabres (40 points)
Games 21-40: 14th in Conference (16 points)
Games 1-20: 8th in Conference (24 points)
SVPCT: Above Average / SHA: Awful / GF: Poor / GA: Below Average / 5-on-5: Above Average / SHF: Below Average

Notes: A lot has been made of Ryan Miller’s performance this season, and his second quarter numbers certainly support the criticism (3.21 goals against, .894 save percentage). However, a greater factor in the Sabres decline has been the errors the team made prior to the season. Robyn Regehr (-10 in the second quarter) and Christian Ehrhoff (2 goals, 7 points, -7 in games 21-40) were supposed to improve the defense and haven’t. Ville Leino was supposed to augment the offense, and he clearly hasn’t worked out (1 goal, 5 points in the second quarter). Look for Derek Roy (2 goals, 10 points in games 21-40) to be possibly moved at the trade deadline.

12. Montreal Canadiens (37 Points)
Games 21-40: 15th in Conference (16 points)
Games 1-20: 11th in Conference (21 points)
SVPCT: Below Average / SHA: Good / GF: Below Average / GA: Above Average / 5-on-5: Above Average / SHF: Below Average

Notes: It’s clear the Habs are going in the wrong direction. A notoriously strong defensive team under former coach Jacques Martin, this part of Montreal’s game regressed in the second quarter, with the team giving up more shots and more goals per game. The recent acquisition of Tomas Kaberle did help the powerplay (18.1% with Kaberle in the lineup during the second quarter; 10.4% before his arrival).

13. Tampa Bay Lightning (37 points)
Games 21-40: 12th in Conference (17 points)
Games 1-20: 12th in Conference (20 points)
SVPCT: Awful / SHA: Below Average / GF: Above Average / GA: Awful / 5-on-5: Below Average / SHF: Poor

Notes: There’s nothing wrong in Tampa Bay a decent goaltender couldn’t cure. Dwayne Roloson has become the worst goalie in the league (4.63 goals against, .866 save percentage in the second quarter) while Mathieu Garon has been below average (2.84 goals against, .901 save percentage during games 21-40). Could Martin St. Louis be dealt for a young goalie? Or do they go to the well one more time for a veteran Islanders goaltender (Evgeni Nabokov)? Marc-Andre Bergeron has cooled off since his hot start (1 goal, 6 points in the second quarter).

14. New York Islanders (36 points)
Games 21-40: 8th in Conference (22 points)
Games 1-20: 15th in the Conference (14 points)
SVPCT: Below Average / SHA: Above Average / GF: Poor / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Poor / SHF: Below Average

Notes: The Islanders turned it around in the second quarter, particularly on the attack. They went from 1.90 goals per game in the first quarter to 2.55 during games 21-40. The powerplay was a big part of this increase, scoring at a 25.8% clip, almost an 11% improvement over the first 20 games of the year. John Tavares has arrived (6 goals, 23 points in the second quarter).

15. Carolina Hurricanes (32 points)
Games 21-40: 13th in Conference (17 points)
Games 1-20: 14th in the Conference (15 points)
SVPCT: Awful / SHA: Awful / GF: Below Average / GA: Above Average / 5-on-5: Awful / SHF: Above Average

Notes: If you can believe it, Cam Ward’s play has gotten worse statistically as the season has gone along. His save percentage was .890 in November, .878 in December. The ‘Canes scored more in the second quarter, while reducing their shots against slightly under new coach Kirk Muller. Muller also gave the young talent on the team a chance (Drayson Bowman from around 7 minutes of ice-time to 15+; Zac Dalpe from around 5 minutes of ice time to 13+). Quietly, Eric Staal’s game returned (13 points in 14 December games).

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 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 092011
 

Five possible ways the sale of the Toronto Maple Leafs to Rogers Communcations and Bell Canada Enterprises will affect hockey fans in Canada. 

5. Get ready to see a lot of Larry Tanenbaum. With rivals Rogers and Bell owning the same amount of the ownership pie (37.5% each) they’re effectively neutered in terms of power around the board table. They also have to try and sustain their relationship by playing nice with each other, which probably translates to focusing on turning their new content (Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC, Toronto Marlies) into greater technology sales. All of this is to say the two companies will look to Tanenbaum (25% owner) to take the visible, hands-on leadership role of the franchise. In many ways, Tennenbaum becomes the Leafs defacto owner, supported with Rogers and Bell money. He also becomes the scapegoat if things (aka profits, not championships) don’t go according to plan.

4. Get ready to see more Leafs content on Sportsnet and TSN. Although, given how much Leafs content there already is, this might not be as noticeable as you think.

3. Get ready to see a lot more Rogers/Bell advertising and products featuring Toronto Maple Leafs content. What will be interesting to watch is if a backlash is created by shoving the Leafs down the throats of people across the country.

2. Get ready to hear more about media wars with the Leafs in Toronto. With Rogers and Bell ownership, expect Sportsnet and TSN to get greater, privileged access to the Leafs. Expect breaking news to come through a Rogers or Bell platform, rather than, say The Toronto Sun. Covering the Leafs has officially become a two-class system. If you thought Brian Burke and Ron Wilson were difficult with the press before, think again. This should make for some entertaining viewing.

1. Say goodbye to Hockey Night in Canada. Whatever people outside of Ontario may think of the Toronto Maple Leafs, they remain the biggest television draw for CBC.  If you think Rogers and Bell are going to allow their rival, the CBC, to profit from Leaf games, think again. When the CBC hockey rights expire in 2014, watch for CTV (owned by Bell) to become Canada’s hockey destination on Saturday nights.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Addendum to the Leafs talk – the over/under on this new Leafs ownership arrangement remaining stable is probably five years. I can’t see Bell and Rogers co-existing long-term.
  • One more Leafs thought – this ownership change doesn’t bring the Leafs any closer to winning the Stanley Cup.
  • I don’t care what people are saying out of Montreal – the Canadiens don’t need Tomas Kaberle if Andrei Markov is 100%. Meanwhile, Jaroslav Spacek should help a Carolina team that has young puckmovers on the blueline, but could use someone who knows how to play in his own zone.
  • It’s a lot of fun watching Flyers games, but until they can figure out how to defend without Chris Pronger in the lineup, Philadelphia can’t be considered a post-season threat.
  • One thing Steve Yzerman has in common with most people – he doesn’t like Pierre Maguire, Keith Jones and Mike Milbury either.
  • Speaking of the Lightning, they’re 4-9 since that fateful game against the Flyers on November 9th. They’ve only scored more than three goals in three of those 13 games.
  • There is absolutely nothing wrong with Artem Anisimov’s goal celebration. Wish there was more of this in the NHL. The fact that Steve Downie left the bench though should warrant a suspension.
  • Rookie goalie Matt Hackett has looked good in his NHL debut so far for the Minnesota Wild. He’s the first goalie since the WHA/NHL merger to start his career with over 100+ shutout minutes. If Hackett continues to look NHL-capable, do the Wild deal one of their goalies (Josh Harding or Nik Backstrom) for some added scoring? New Jersey, Tampa Bay, Colorado could all use the goaltending help.
  • If the NHL Realignment was in place, here’s your current first round playoff matchups: Philadelphia-Washington; Pittsburgh-New York Rangers; Florida-Buffalo; Boston-Toronto; Minnesota-St. Louis; Chicago-Detroit; Phoenix-Los Angeles; Vancouver-San Jose.
  • Little known fact – fans who attend Columbus Blue Jacket home games can request through Twitter music to be played in the arena during stoppages in play. (Editor’s note: The Canucks do something like this too. Tweet a tune or something. – J.J.)
  • Speaking of Columbus, Ten Minute Misconduct takes coach Scott Arniel to the woodshed.
  • If you missed it, here’s Katie Baker’s weekly rundown of the NHL on Grantland.

Hey folks, we’re moving days. Find the Out of Town Notebook on Tuesdays now rather than Fridays.

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
Dec 032011
 

When the Tampa Bay Lightning signed Victor Hedman to a 5-year, $20 million deal earlier in the week, there weren’t too many people complaining.

The online community, particularly Tampa Bay fans, applauded Steve Yzerman for keeping Hedman’s cost relatively low. According to the consensus, $4 million a year for 5 years is a great price for an improving, future franchise defenseman.

There’s no question Hedman is an improving player, particularly on the defensive side of the game.

But franchise cornerstone? Someone who dominates at both ends of the ice?

I’m not so sure Hedman has that in him.

I decided to compare eight under-24 blueliners to Hedman. I averaged each player’s career totals (up to December 1st) out over an 82-game schedule to create a fair comparison.

BornNameGAP+/-PIMShotsHitsBlocked ShotsGiveawaysTakeaways
1988E. Johnson82936-1156167931034937
1989D. Doughty113142460140134977525
1989L. Schenn41620-5581152251437135
1990V. Hedman41923-380105681065834
1990Z. Bogosian91625-13611631561105141
1990T. Myers1031414371151011217936
1990A. Pieterangelo1127381223161561123445
1990E. Karlsson103848-194619149707754

Then, I ranked each player 1 to 8 in each category (1 if they ranked first in the category and 8 if they ranked last) and added up their scores.

RankNameSalary after 2011/2012GAP+/-PIMShotsHitsBlocked ShotsGiveawaysTakeawaysTotal
1Pieterangelo$3.16 M154114731229
2Myers$5.5 M323226428537
3KarlssonRFA311831887141
4Doughty$7.0 M122265376842
5E. JohnsonRFA645642562444
6Bogosian$2.5 M576773243347
7Schenn$3.6 M778556115651
8Hedman$4.0 M767488654762

Yikes, Hedman-fans.

According to this list, Hedman actually comes in last, behind the much-maligned Erik Johnson, Zach Bogosian and Luke Schenn.

Granted, this isn’t exactly the most scientific method. For example, Alex Pieterangelo is probably helped from having played only one full season’s worth of games. However, I think the exercise fairly highlights the biggest flaw in Hedman’s game – his offense.

When Hedman was drafted, he was described as a shifty and creative offensive prospect.

That just hasn’t materialized.

Will it?

Let’s take a quick look at the point production of some of the league’s better offensive defensemen after their first three years in the NHL.

RankNameSalary after 2011/2012GAP+/-PIMShotsHitsBlocked ShotsGiveawaysTakeawaysTotal
1Pieterangelo$3.16 M154114731229
2Myers$5.5 M323226428537
3KarlssonRFA311831887141
4Doughty$7.0 M122265376842
5E. JohnsonRFA645642562444
6Bogosian$2.5 M576773243347
7Schenn$3.6 M778556115651
8Hedman$4.0 M767488654762

Ouch again.

Look, Hedman is young enough that there is still considerable room for him to grow as an NHL player.

But it’s fair to say there are already signs that he may never become the offensive player he was expected to be.

Hedman looks like another Zbynek Michalek (0.28 points/game), Marc Staal (0.25 pts/gm) or Eric Brewer (0.28 pts/gm).

That’s not a bad career path, but it’s not exactly the one he was hyped to have when drafted.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Even after a 6-5 loss to Nashville, and some weak defensive play lately, I’d still pick the Canucks right now to win the Northwest Division.
  • Just one man’s opinion, but here’s betting Paul Maurice’s career as an NHL head coach is over.
  • One of the definitions of madness is repeating something over and over with the expectation of a different result. That’s why it’s crazy the Washington Capitals replaced Bruce Boudreau with Dale Hunter. The Caps front-office wanted Boudreau to be tougher on his players, and he was this year. It didn’t work. What makes anyone think Hunter, who it seems is being asked to coach the same way (limited minutes so far for Ovechkin, for example), will have any more success? Sure, Hunter was a former NHL player, but many of his players were toddlers when he had his best days in the league. And remember – junior coaches don’t exactly have the best track record jumping straight into the NHL.
  • Meanwhile, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Bruce Boudreau get a lot out of the Ducks. Randy Carlyle was hard on his players; Boudreau is a player’s coach.
  • Is it too soon to anoint Jhonas Enroth an NHL starting goalie? The Sabres have 3 wins in 10 games since Ryan Miller’s injury. Enroth’s five-hole at times during this stretch has been Allan Bester-esque.
  • Beware Western Conference – the Red Wings are heating up.  They hit an estimated 569 posts against Buffalo, moving the puck around like they had a 60-minute powerplay.
  • Here’s Forbes’ report on NHL franchises. My favourite stat – teams are worth 47% more than they were before the lockout. Also: the Jets are worth 21% more playing in Winnipeg than they were in Atlanta.
  • Speaking of franchise values, hard to disagree with the common sentiment right now that the league’s headed for another work stoppage. NHL owners must be looking at the NFL and NBA deals and licking their lips.
  • A quiet milestone – the NHL has reached its 1000th shootout. Most goals – Jussi Jokinen. Most attempts – Brad Richards.
  • Before Friday night’s game, Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was on an 89-point pace over a full season. That’s the most rookie points since Sidney Crosby (102) and Alex Ovechkin (106) in 2005-06.
  • For those counting the hours until there are changes in Columbus, it should be noted the team is 5-3-2 (not including their result against Edmonton) since Jeff Carter returned to the lineup November 12th.
Nov 282011
 

In part one we looked at the first quarter for teams in the Western Conference. Now let’s take a look at the East.

Eastern Conference

1. New York Rangers – 27 Points

Powerplay: 25 / Penalty Kill: 9 / Goals For: 15 / Goals Against: 2

What’s working: Henrik Lundquist for starters. He’s the biggest reason why the team is among the league leaders in goals against. In the absence of Marc Staal (concussion), Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi have capably stepped up on the blueline, while defenseman Michael Del Zotto has re-found his game. Marian Gaborik has gotten hot in November, and suddenly the Rangers have two lines that can score. Interestingly, Brad Richards and Gaborik aren’t regular linemates.

What’s not: The Wojtek Wolski experiment looks like a bust. Brandon Dubinsky only has one goal, although he’s contributing in other areas of the game. The team is taking too many penalties. Also worrisome is the shots for/against ratio is roughly -5. The powerplay hasn’t found its groove yet.

2. Boston – 26 Points

Powerplay: 14 / Penalty Kill: 10 / Goals For: 3 / Goals Against: 3

What’s working: Boston continues to take advantage of its depth, rolling four lines, three of them capable of offense. Tyler Seguin has taken a Steven Stamkos-esque leap in his second year, which has offset the departures of Mark Recchi and Michael Ryder. The Bruins have found their intimidating, rough style again after a slow start, and rode it to a franchise record winning streak. Joe Corvo has already made a bigger positive impact on the team than the defenseman he replaced, Tomas Kaberle, ever did. Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask have played like the elite goaltending tandem they are.

What’s not: Benoit Pouliot has been prone to mental lapses and taken dumb penalties, and isn’t anything more than a fourth-liner at this point. David Krejci has the worst plus/minus on the team and has struggled to find his offensive game.

3. Washington – 25 Points

Powerplay: 16 / Penalty Kill: 20 / Goals For: 4 / Goals Against: 22

What’s working: This remains a team that can score, even if they aren’t the run-and-gun Caps that fans fell in love with years ago. Jason Chimera has had the best start to a season of his career, while Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward have been immediate, physical contributors.

What’s not: Bruce Boudreau, since he’s now been replaced by Dale Hunter. Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin are struggling, with both players regularly taking shifts off. Semin, of all people, leads the team in penalties. Quite honestly, their performances to date place each of them on any current NHL list of “most-overpaid players.” Starter Tomas Vokoun has been better but not exactly a world-beater. Back-up goalie Michael Neuvirth has been awful. The special teams have started slow, likely due to the fact that Mike Green is once again battling the injury bug.

4. Pittsburgh – 25 Points

Powerplay: 12 / Penalty Kill: 4 / Goals For: 11 / Goals Against: 11

What’s working: Sidney Crosby’s head for starters. Getting him back in the lineup vaults the team from contender status to Stanley Cup favourites. Jordan Staal has also taken another step in his development and is on a 40-goal pace. Steve Sullivan has brought imagination, if not consistent results, to the Penguins powerplay. James Neal leads the team in scoring.

What’s not: Very little, although the team’s lack of blueline depth has been exposed at times, particularly when Brooks Orpik or Zbynek Michalek has been out of the lineup.

5. Philadelphia – 25 Points

Powerplay: 13 / Penalty Kill: 13 / Goals For: 1 / Goals Against: 21

What’s working: The offense, big-time. The top three lines are creative and physical. Claude Giroux is an early season MVP candidate. The Jaromir Jagr experiment has been a success, although he’s been bothered by groin issues of late. Rookie Sean Couturier is the team’s top penalty killer while another rookie, Matt Read, has looked like a 10-year veteran on the ice.

What’s not: Three other young forwards, James van Riemsdyk, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek, have been inconsistent. Highly-touted Brayden Schenn has been a non-factor at the NHL-level and is a team-worst -5. The Flyers remain undisciplined, although a solid penalty kill has helped in that area. Team speed, particularly from the defense, seems lacking.

6. Florida – 25 Points

Powerplay: 7 / Penalty Kill: 14 / Goals For: 5 / Goals Against: 10

What’s working: The Sawgrass Express line (Kris Versteeg, Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann) has been one of the top lines in the NHL. The defense has really gelled. Brian Campbell is rejuvenated, and along with second-year man Dmitry Kulikov they represent two of the better puck-moving defenseman in the league to-date. Jason Garrison has been a primary beneficiary, with his cannon of a shot becoming the focal point on the team’s improved powerplay. Quietly, Jose Theodore is playing his best hockey in years. Much like in Dallas, rookie coach Kevin Dineen has this “group of castoffs” playing each night to prove their detractors were wrong about them.

What’s not: As bad as David Booth is playing for the Canucks, at least he’s playing. Mikael Samuelsson, acquired in the trade, has yet to suit up for Florida and is still recovering from sports hernia issues. Meanwhile, Marco Sturm, the other player in the deal, looks washed up. Free agent Scottie Upshall has been a bust.

7. Toronto – 24 Points

Powerplay: 6 / Penalty Kill: 28 / Goals For: 6 / Goals Against: 25

What’s working: Toronto’s best players have been just that for the first time in a few seasons. Both Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul came into the year in the best shape of their lives, and they’ve taken their offensive game to the next level. Dion Phaneuf remains a risk-taker, but on most nights his gambles have paid off and contributed to Leaf victories. He’s the stir that mixes the Leafs drink. Before getting hurt James Reimer had continued his strong play from last season. The powerplay is greatly improved under assistant coach (and notorious xs and os man) Scott Gordon. Tim Connolly, when healthy, has been the team’s best centreman at both ends of the ice. Finally, Toronto is getting strong contributions from its AHL call-ups. In fact, an improved-skating Joe Colborne has probably leapt Nazem Kadri as the team’s most promising prospect.

What’s not: The penalty kill remains a huge weakness. Luke Schenn played the worst hockey of his NHL career earlier in the year. The second line (Clarke MacArthur-Mikhail Grabovski- Nik Kulemin) has been wildly inconsistent.

8. Buffalo – 24 Points

Powerplay: 11 / Penalty Kill: 2 / Goals For: 14 / Goals Against: 13

What’s working: Ryan Miller and Johnas Enroth have given the Sabres solid goaltending, with Enroth actually outplaying his partner so far. Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville have played like All-Stars and are carrying the team offensively. Rookie Luke Adam rocketed out of the gate and has remained a contributor.

What’s not: The defense, supposedly improved with the additions of Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff, has been a massive disappointment. In fact, there’s a lot of Wade Redden-ish smell coming off Ehrhoff’s first 20 games with the Sabres. Tyler Myers hasn’t shaken the inconsistency of last season either. Meanwhile the other off-season free agent splash, Ville Leino, looks lost and is on pace for a ~20 point season. Finally, the smallish Sabres have been pushed around a bit, and team toughness has become a question mark.

9. New Jersey – 23 Points

Powerplay: 28 / Penalty Kill: 1 / Goals For: 23 / Goals Against: 15

What’s working: Patrick Elias has found the fountain of youth and looks four years younger on the ice. Backup Johan Hedberg has given the team strong goaltending and has played much more than expected. New coach Peter DeBoer has tweaked the system he had in Florida and the Devils are using their speed to play a good team defense. Rookie Adam Henrique has come out of nowhere to give the Devils a second line scoring threat they haven’t had in some time. The penalty kill has been formidable.

What’s not: Someone tell Ilya Kovalchuk the season has started. He remains an enigma and the worst contract in the NHL. Zach Parise has had a slow start after missing most of last year with injury. Together, the struggles of these two players have crippled the team’s attack. The Devils still aren’t getting any offense from the blueline either, which is killing their powerplay. Finally, nothing Martin Brodeur has shown signifies he’s a top-15 goalie in the league anymore.

10. Ottawa – 21 Points

Powerplay: 3 / Penalty Kill: 21 / Goals For: 10 / Goals Against: 28

What’s working: Coach Paul Maclean is getting a lot out of the most skilled players in his lineup. Jason Spezza is arguably playing the best hockey of his career, while Erik Karlsson looks like the new Mike Green. Even Sergei Gonchar has shown a heartbeat and a pulse. Along with Milan Michaluk, these four have got the Senators powerplay humming.

What’s not: Pretty much anything associated with the defensive side of the game outside of Zach Smith (who’s become a strong 3rd line player). Goalie Craig Anderson hasn’t come up with enough key saves, and both Karlsson and Gonchar continue to struggle in their own zone. None of the team’s forward prospects have run with the opportunity to play important minutes either, leaving Ottawa without much secondary scoring.

11. Montreal – 21 Points

Powerplay: 20 / Penalty Kill: 3 / Goals For: 18 / Goals Against: 8

What’s working: Carey Price has given Montreal great goaltending on most nights. Max Paccioretty has lived up to pre-season billing as a breakout scoring candidate. Lars Eller has played well enough to warrant more ice-time, perhaps even a top-six role. The penalty kill has been excellent. Tomas Plekanec remains the team’s most important forward.

What’s not: With Andrei Markov delayed in his return to the lineup, Montreal’s young defense has struggled. P. K. Subban has had a taste of the sophomore slump, although his play recently has picked up. With the team failing to score much, the lack of production from Scott Gomez is becoming a bigger and bigger distraction.

12. Tampa Bay – 20 Points

Powerplay: 19 / Penalty Kill: 17 / Goals For: 17 / Goals Against: 26

What’s working: Vincent Lecavalier is having a bit of a bounce-back season and is on pace for 40-goals. Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis remain dangerous scoring threats whenever they’re on the ice. Matt Gilroy has been a pleasent surprise on defense, leading blueliners with a +5 rating. Marc-Andre Bergeron has entered beast mode as a powerplay threat.

What’s not: Outside Lecavalier, Stamkos and St. Louis, the forwards aren’t scoring. Teddy Purcell, Ryan Malone and Steve Downie are not contributing as expected. Meanwhile, Brett Connolley doesn’t look ready for a top-six forward role. Dwayne Roloson’s goaltending has been problematic to the point that Mathieu Garon should probably be the starter. Defensively, Eric Brewer and Victor Hedman have had quarter season’s they’d probably like to forget. Consistency has been another issue, with the team no-showing a few games (7-1 loss to Toronto; 5-1 loss to the Islanders) and periods more than at any stretch last season.

13. Winnipeg – 19 Points

Powerplay: 8 / Penalty Kill: 19 / Goals For: 13 / Goals Against: 24

What’s working: They’re selling a lot of merchandise. That’s something, right? In all seriousness, Kyle Wellwood has been surprisingly effective and leads the team in points. Jim Slater and Tanner Glass have combined to give the Jets a pretty good third line. Evander Kane looks like a 30-goal scorer, while Alex Burmistrov has shown glimpses of becoming a modern Igor Larionov.

What’s not: Remember the problems the Atlanta Thrashers had? Poor defense and bad goaltending? Nothing’s really changed, although part of the blueline problem has been due to injury. Zach Bogosian and Dustin Byfuglien have remained inconsistent, although Byfuglien has picked up his play of late. Ondrej Pavelec is running out of time to prove he can be a starting NHL goalie, and has been outplayed by Chris Mason.

14. Carolina – 15 Points

Powerplay: 29 / Penalty Kill: 18 / Goals For: 26 / Goals Against: 29

What’s working: Cam Ward is giving the team a chance to win every night. Jeff Skinner has avoided the sophomore slump. Jay Harrison is playing too many minutes but brings a physical presence to the Hurricanes blueline. And that’s pretty much it. Sorry Hurricanes fans.

What’s not: The strategy of re-creating the post-lockout Maple Leafs isn’t working (Harrison, Paul Maurice, Alex Ponikarovsky, Jiri Tlusty, Tim Brent, Tomas Kaberle). Kaberle is goalless and proving his struggles with the Bruins last year weren’t a mirage. Paul Maurice, who arguably mishandled some of the young talent available (not named Jeff Skinner), and who’s record of mediocrity as an NHL head coach has finally caught up with him. Kirk Muller is a great hire by the ‘Canes. Clearly something’s up with Eric Staal, who’s playing the worst hockey of his career, and is a big reason why Carolina is a cellar-dweller. The team just doesn’t score enough.

15. New York Islanders – 14 Points

Powerplay: 22 / Penalty Kill: 23 / Goals For: 30 / Goals Against: 27

What’s working: John Tavares, Matt Moulson and Michael Grabner haven’t taken steps back offensively. When he’s played Al Montoya has been excellent. Frans Nielsen remains an underrated defensive player, and leads the team at +1.

What’s not: Everything else. This looks an awful lot like a team that’s abandoned its coach. Veterans Steve Staios, Marty Reasoner and Brian Rolston have been mediocre-to-terrible, while many of the team’s other young forwards (including Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey) aren’t competing on a nightly basis. Nino Niederreitter isn’t even getting a chance to compete – he’s been a healthy scratch over the last week amongst rumours of another injury. Evgeni Nabokov has been average; Rick DiPietro has been bad. Outside of Calgary, this is the other NHL team in most need of a roster tear-down.

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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