Oct 042011
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, they look like Steve Mason:

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

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

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

A+ Grade

Philadelphia
Last Year (D+)

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

A Grade

Boston
Last Year (B+)

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

Buffalo
Last Year (A+)

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

New York Rangers
Last Year (A+)

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

A- Grade

Washington
Last Year (C)

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

Carolina
Last Year (B+)

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

B+ Grade

Montreal
Last Year (C-)

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

Pittsburgh
Last Year (B-)

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

B Grade

Tampa Bay
Last Year (C+)

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

B- Grade

New Jersey
Last Year (A-)

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

Ottawa
Last Year (C-)

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

C+ Grade

New York Islanders
Last Year (C)

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

Winnipeg
Last Year (C+)

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

C Grade

Toronto
Last Year (B-)

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

Florida
Last Year (B+)

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

Sep 272011
 

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

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

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

 A+ Grade

Pittsburgh
Last Year (A)

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

A Grade

Washington
Last Year (A+)

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

B+ Grade

New York Rangers
Last Year (B)

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

B Grade

New Jersey
Last Year (B+)

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

B- Grade

Boston
Last Year (A-)

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

Buffalo
Last Year (B)

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

New York Islanders
Last Year (C+)

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

C+ Grade

Tampa Bay
Last Year (B)

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

Montreal
Last Year (C)

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

Carolina
Last Year (C)

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

C Grade

Philadelphia
Last Year (A-)

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

Toronto
Last Year (D+)

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

C- Grade

Florida
Last Year (D+)

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

Winnipeg
Last Year (C)

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

D+ Grade

Ottawa
Last Year (B)

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

Sep 132011
 

There is no greater union in the NHL today than Brian Burke and Toronto Maple Leafs.

For all his bluster, and for all his previous on-ice success, Burke’s greatest strength is jousting with the media. And if there’s one thing media saturated Toronto needs is a Maple Leaf general manager with an aptitude for soundbytes.

During last week’s “state of the union”-type press scrum with Toronto media, Burke insisted the Leafs defence “stacks up really well against just about any other team in the East.”

Does it really? Let’s take a look at Eastern Conference defence rankings headed into the 2011-12 season.

B+ Grade

Boston
Last Year (A)

A slip in the rankings based entirely on two things: 1) As bad as Tomas Kaberle was for the Bruins (and make no mistake, he was this type of bad), Joe Corvo is worse and 2) Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference and Adam McQuaid are all defensive-first guys. Expect the Bruins to search for another elite puckmover (preferably one who doesn’t cause as many goals against as Corvo) at the trade deadline again this year. 

Philadelphia
Last Year (A+)

Rated as the best defence in the Eastern Conference last year, the Flyers drop a full grade thanks to Chris Pronger’s uncertain health and advancing age. On a related note, someone else who is also losing marks for uncertain health and advancing age: Christina Ricci.

Washington
Last Year (B)

Quietly, this has become a real area of strength for the Capitals. In fact this group could become the league’s best as early as this year. John Carlson and Karl Alzner are up-and-comers, and could prove to be a top-defensive pairing in the NHL for years to come. Mike Green had a very difficult 2010-11 season, but even a mild return-to-offensive form would help the Washington powerplay immensely. Dennis Wideman is another puck-mover for the second powerplay unit, while Roman Hamerlik is a veteran warrior.

B Grade

Pittsburgh
Last Year (B+)

One of the best top-two defence pairings in the league, with Kris Letang leading the blueline attack. The issue is depth, as Matt Niskanen stopped developing last year and Ben Lovejoy is more AHL’er than NHL’er.

Montreal
Last Year (B)

P.K. Subban is the real deal and should excite the Molson Centre crowd for years to come. On paper this is another strong two-way group, although Andrei Markov’s health remains a concern. if Alexei Yemelin is any good this group moves up a grade. It’s funny how Hal Gill has turned from the tallest pylon in the league as a Maple Leaf into arguably the league’s best shutdown defenceman.

Winnipeg
Last Year (C+)

The Jets would have ranked higher on this list if Dustin Byfuglien weighed less than roughly 300 lbs. Modify your expectations appropriately, ladies and gentlemen. Otherwise, a new coach should breathe life into Zach Bogosian’s development, and Tobias Enstrom has firmly established himself as a better-defending version of Tomas Kaberle. Too bad about those new uniforms though – talk about bland. They look like a rejected Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment logo. 

B- Grade

Buffalo
Last Year (B-)

The sophomore slump hit Tyler Myers like a pie-in-the-face, but he recovered with a strong second-half. The additions of Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehroff are steps in the right direction, although both players have already experienced their best days in the league. Regehr has looked slow for a few seasons in Calgary, while Ehroff will be hard-pressed to post 50-points again. The Sabres just don’t activate their defence like the Canucks do.

Toronto
Last Year (B+)

Sorry, but Brian Burke’s fudging the truth a little when it comes to his defence core. Either that or he’s incredibly optimistic. This is one of the youngest bluelines in the NHL, and inconsistency should be expected. Continued improvements from Luke Schenn and Keith Aulie would move this group up a few spots, especially if Dion Phaneuf plays as well as he did in the second half of last year. However, it’s just as easy to see this group of youngsters struggle, bringing down the team with it.

C+ Grade

New York Rangers
Last Year (D+)

This is a blueline headed in the right direction. Marc Staal and especially Dan Girardi took big steps toward becoming impact defenceman. Like the Maple Leafs though this is a very young group, and inconsistency will be a nightly threat. There’s a lot of hype about Tim Erixon, who was arguably Calgary’s top prospect before being dealt to New York. But it’s not like the Flames need defencemen, or youth, or you know, the promise of a better tomorrow.

Tampa Bay
Last Year (D)

The Lightning are moving up these standings based on the continued improvement of Victor Hedman and the acquisition of Eric Brewer, one of the most underrated defenceman in the entire league. Pavel Kubina and Marc-Andre Bergeron are liabilities though. 

Carolina
Last Year (C-)

There’s some solid offensive promise here, with veterans Joni Pitkanen and Tomas Kaberle supported by future powerplay specialist Jaime McBain and hard-shooting Derek Joslin. It’s the defensive side of the game where this group is lacking, although Tim Gleason is underrated. Bryan Allen and Jay Harrison are borderline starters on a contending team – here they’ll play key minutes.

C Grade

New Jersey
Last Year (C+)

Other than Gabriel Landeskog there may not be another 2011 draftee with an easier time making the NHL than Adam Larsson. The Devils are that desperate to inject some offense into their blueline. If Larsson can have a Cam Fowler-esque impact, this group moves up the standings, as Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov are two of the best defensive defenceman in the league. Otherwise it’s an average group with below average skill playing for a franchise that might not be able to pay its bills. Tell me again why putting multiple teams in Southern Ontario isn’t a good idea? They’re certainly struggling to make it work in New York.

Florida
Last Year (C-)

It’s an eclectic mix on the Panther blueline, with a rock-solid rookie (Erik Gudbranson), a “ready-to-retire-to-Miami” veteran (Ed Jovanovski), a reclamation project (Brian Campbell) and swashbuckling Russian (Dmitry Kulikov) anchoring the top-two defensive pairings. And yes it is as much fun to type the term “swashbuckling Russian” as it is to say “swashbuckling Russian.”  It wouldn’t surprise if Brian Campbell has his best year in a long time in Florida. It would surprise if Ed Jovanovski was healthy enough to play 40 games and doesn’t quit to take up shuffleboard.

New York Islanders
Last Year (D)

While few people were noticing, Andrew MacDonald had a heck of the year playing well at both ends of the ice. A healthy return to the NHL by Mark Streit would give the Islanders two defenceman to build around. The rest of the blueline looks like AHL scrap though.

C- Grade

Ottawa
Last Year (C+)

While Erik Karlsson, Sergei Gonchar and rookie David Rundblad are talented offensive players, I wouldn’t expect them to defend a snow fort well, let alone an NHL goaltender. Chris Phillips can’t solve all the team’s defensive problems, and Brian Lee and Filip Kuba are two of the worst defenceman in the league. Goaltender Craig Anderson better be healthy, because he’s going to face a lot of shots this year.

Sep 062011
 

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

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

The question is – do these moves have any impact?

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

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

Here’s what was learned:

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

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

A Grade

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

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

Dan Blysma – Pittsburgh
Last Year (B)

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

B+ Grade

Claude Julien – Boston
Last Year (B)

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

Peter Laviolette – Philadelphia
Last Year (B+)

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

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

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

Guy Boucher – Tampa Bay
Last Year (C+)

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

B Grade

Jacques Martin – Montreal
Last Year (B-)

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

C+ Grade

Bruce Boudreau – Washington
Last Year (C+)

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

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

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

Kevin Dineen – Florida
Last Year (N/A)

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

C Grade

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claude Noel – Winnipeg
Last Year (N/A)

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

C- Grade

Paul Maurice – Carolina
Last Year (C-)

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

May 142011
 

Eastern Conference Final

Boston (2) vs Tampa Bay (5)
Season Series: Boston (3-1)

What we learned in Round 2

Boston: There is offense to be found in the Bruin attack. It’s name is David Krejci. Also, that Boston remains an incredibly difficult opponent to generate offense against. Tim Thomas is lurking in the Conn Smyth Trophy weeds.

Tampa Bay: That the team’s 1-3-1 style has effectively neutralized their greatest weakness – a lack of defensive mobility. This Lightning team is playing as well as Montreal defensively right now, but they have the game-breakers the Habs lack to take advantage offensively. Tampa Bay was the most impressive team in the second round.

Pertinent Questions

Boston: Can this team get to the Cup final without their most important forward, Patrice Bergeron? A concussion has knocked him out of the lineup, meaning the Bruins head into the Conference Finals with little skill at centre beyond Krejci. Bergeron will be replaced by Tyler Seguin, and Boston will need him to make a powerplay impact. Success for the rookie is by no means guaranteed.

Tampa Bay: Has all momentum been lost after a 10-day layoff? This team hasn’t played since May 4th. At the time, the Lightning were firing on all cylinders. Dwayne Roloson had turned himself into Johnny Bower 2.0; the defense was holding together and offensively the team was getting contributions from three lines. It will be interesting to see if Tampa Bay can find their game again quickly.

Key Injuries

It’s unclear if Boston’s Bergeron will return at all from his concussion. Tampa expects Simon Gagne (concussion) to start Game 1.

Quick Decisions

Coaching: Tampa Bay. (Guy Boucher put on a clinic on and off-ice against the Capitals in round 2. His post-game comments (specifically portraying the Lightning as underdogs) were masterful, while his gameplay completely neutralized Washington’s attack.)

Goaltending: Boston. (Close thanks to Roloson’s terrific play this post-season. However, the Tampa goalie is a mess when he plays the puck.)

Defense: Boston. (Both teams rely a lot on their top-two pairings. Chara rebounded with an excellent second round against Philly. He’s the best defensemen in the series. However, Eric Brewer is playing the best hockey of his life right now. Again it’s close.)

Scoring: Tampa Bay. (Even if the clock strikes midnight on the scoring exploits of Sean Bergenheim, Steve Downie and Teddy Purcell, the likes of Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Steve Stamkos are better than anything Boston can counter with.)

Special Teams: Tampa Bay. (The Lightning have had excellent special teams all year. While Boston’s powerplay scored twice against the Flyers, it’s still painful to watch.)

Prediction

Boston in 6

*****

Western Conference Final

Vancouver (1) vs. San Jose (2)
Season Series: Vancouver (3-1)

What we learned in round 2

Vancouver: That the argument that Ryan Kesler should be a Hart Trophy candidate holds water and that pre-season talk of him being the team captain was also pretty astute. Two rounds into the post-season, he’s the most important skater on the team. While this was learned long ago, Roberto Luongo’s still prone to crippling mental lapses.

San Jose: That there remains a lot of misinformation about this group being chokers out there. This makes it back-to-back final four appearances for San Jose. Joe Thornton seems to have gone to the Steve Yzerman school of leadership, as his career and reputation mirrors that of the former Red Wings captain before Detroit’s 1997 Cup victory. Thornton was the best player on the ice for most of Game 7 against Detroit.

Pertinent Questions

Vancouver: It’s been the pertinent question the entire post-season – where will the secondary scoring come from? Kesler was in on 11 of the 14 goals Vancouver scored in the second round. If that happens again, the Canucks likely lose this series. The Sedins especially have to find their way on the scoresheet.

San Jose: How much longer can AnttiNiemi backstop his team’s to victory? The win versus Detroit makes it six straight playoff round victories for the unorthodox goalie. Incredibly out of position at times, he’s earning himself a Fuhr-esque reputation for letting in soft goals, but shutting the door when it counts. On paper though the Canucks are the most talented offensive team he has faced in this post-season.

Key Injuries

Vancouver’s Mikael Samuelsson hasn’t had a great post-season, and he’s questionable for Game 1 with a leg injury. Ryan Clowe got his bell rung in the Detroit series, and will play the Conference Final injured for the Sharks. That’s a break for the Canucks.

Quick Decisions

Coaching: San Jose. (That’s two straight playoff victories against Mike Babcock for the Sharks’ Todd Mclellan. Hard to credit Vigneault for winning the Nashville series, since Barry Trotz and the Predators dictated how the games were played.)

Goaltending: Even. (Both goalies are frustratingly inconsistent. Luongo has the higher ceiling of ability but Niemi has previous post-season success in his favour.)

Defense: Vancouver. (Dan Boyle is the best defenseman in the series but the Canucks blueline is a lot deeper. This might be the biggest advantage Vancouver has in the series.)

Scoring: San Jose. (This should be even, but the Canucks really struggled on the attack against Nashvile. San Jose’s three lines can really forecheck and create scoring chances.)

Special Teams: Vancouver. (San Jose’s penalty kill was good for most of the series against Detroit, great in Game 7. Their powerplay however has disappointed all spring. Vancouver’s been solid in both areas, however they’ve struggled with the man advantage at home, scoring just a single goal so far.)

Prediction

San Jose in 6 (Editor’s note: Anyone want to bet Tom on this? – J.J.)

*****

Now a word for the dearly departed:

Detroit Red Wings: Injuries to the team’s best players seemed to catch up to the Red Wings, especially when the team’s “young guns,” particularly Jiri Hudler and Valtteri Filppula, struggled with consistency. Most of the talk this off-season will revolve around Nick Lidstrom’s future, but after the season he had, it’s tough to see him walk away at this point. Injecting some youth into the defense will probably be the team’s priority. However, the team’s offensive stars aren’t getting any younger either. The heart was willing against San Jose, but the ability of the Red Wings franchise these days seems to be in slow decline.

Nashville Predators: It’s quite simple – if the Predators had had just one consistent, B-level offensive player in their lineup, the Canucks series would have gone seven games. In fact, the series result itself may have been different. That’s how well Nashville played against Vancouver. If the Music City team can find a scoring forward, this team could be top-4 in the Conference next year. Resigning Shea Weber is also a must.

Philadelphia Flyers: LIke the Red Wings, injuries, particularly the loss of Chris Pronger, handicapped the Flyers in round two. Yes, team goaltending is the hot-button issue, but without Pronger the Flyers defense was nothing but average. Expect the Flyers to tinker on the back-end, and roll into 2011-12 committed to Sergei Bobrovsky as their number one goalie.

Washington Capitals: Surprising to see how gleeful some folks were to see the Capitals knocked out of the second round. The Capitals are a team at the crossroads, and it’s clear their core group of players aren’t good enough to get the franchise to the next level. Nick Backstrom was awful this post-season, while Alex Semin has been bad two playoffs in a row. Alex Ovechkin has not made any adjustments to his game to
make himself more difficult to defend against. Mike Green has been the team’s worst defender in back-to-back playoffs. One of these players wont be back. Expect Green to be dealt, since there’s more demand for offensive defensemen than one-shot scoring wingers (Semin).

Jan 092011
 

[Every weekend, Canucks Hockey Blog goes out of town as Tom Wakefield (@tomwakefield88) posts his thoughts on what's happening around the NHL.]

Team Russia wins gold at 2011 World Junior Hockey Championships

The National Hockey League (NHL) is the world’s best hockey league.

The question is, how much longer will it be the only destination for the world’s best players?

The European invasion of the late 1970s, followed by the fall of Russian Communism in the late 1980s, opened the door for the world’s best to earn a substantial income playing NHL hockey.

The Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) certainly didn’t look like it would threaten this fact when it launched in 2008. Sure, the oil money that backed the league was significant, but a generation of Russian players were raised to look West for money and hockey fame.

Malkin. Ovechkin. Kovalchuk. These players were exposed to the NHL through scouts, agents and their national heroes, who all played overseas. There was no way they would abandon their NHL dreams to play in the new KHL.

Thus, the KHL launched as a league featuring well-paid players that were too old, too slow, or too borderline for the NHL.

However, two-plus years since the KHL launched, Commissioner Alexander Medvedev and the Russian Hockey Federation have put a plan in place to ensure the KHL can evolve into a true NHL competitor.

That plan? Shutdown the Russian hockey pipeline to North America, and play politics with the national team.

First, by refusing to sign a transfer agreement with the NHL, North American interest in the best young Russian hockey players has cooled. Young talent is an investment, and without a transfer agreement in place there’s no guarentee an NHL team will see their investment ever pay off.

Secondly, Russians are leveraging international competition – the type of hockey most of their youngsters dream of playing – to promote and reward KHL players.

Our first glimpse of this as North Americans was during the 2010 Winter Games. The 2010 Russian Olympic Hockey team had nine KHL’ers on it. Anyone who watched the tournament saw that those players received some favourable ice-time from coach Viacheslav Bykov, with rather mixed results.

The 2011 Russian Junior team invited seven Canadian Junior Hockey League players to camp, but only kept one for the tournament – goalie Igor Bobkov. Every other player on the roster was from the KHL. The result? A shocking gold medal victory.

It’s pretty easy to see that this type of protectionism could eventually lead a new generation of Russian hockey players to choose the KHL over the NHL.

Which means the day will soon come that all of the world’s best players aren’t playing in the NHL.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Interesting spreadsheet by the Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle about the average age, height and weight of NHL teams. Biggest surprise? Perhaps that Florida is the 7th oldest team.
  • One reason why the Blue Jackets have fallen on hard times of late – their defence, which played so well through the first quarter of the season, has really fallen back to earth.
  • A lot of talk in Toronto about how Mikhail Grabovski has come into his own this year. The biggest difference? He’s hitting the net more than he ever has before with his laser shot.
  • A 9-3 loss to Toronto is a reminder that Thrashers goaltender Ondrej Pavelec was once considered too inconsistent to be a number one goalie.
  • The acquisitions of both Dwayne Roloson and Jamie Langenbrunner confirm that, despite financial issues for each franchise, both the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars are gunning for the playoffs Of the two players, expect Roloson to have the biggest immediate impact. The Lightning don’t give up nearly as many shots as the Islanders did, and Roloson, despite his age, has fewer miles on him than most 41-year old goalies.
  • All discussion that Lagenbrunner could replace Brad Richards if he bolts the Stars as a UFA is ridiculous. Langenbrunner at this stage is a complimentary, veteran presence. He’s not a top-six guy.
  • Word out of Edmonton is Shawn Horcoff is ahead of schedule to return from his knee injury.
Oct 222010
 

[Every weekend, Canucks Hockey Blog goes out of town as Tom Wakefield (@tomwakefield88) posts his thoughts on what's happening around the NHL.]

In honour of Katy Perry’s recent “cleavage-gate” on Sesame Street, let’s play a game of “One of These Things Just Doesn’t Belong Here.”

The Chicago Blackhawks. The New York Islanders. The Dallas Stars. The Pittsburgh Penguins.

Behold the top four teams in NHL standings.

Which one doesn’t belong?

If you guessed the New York Islanders, you’d be wrong.

Sure they’re probably not a playoff team, but their youngsters have taken a step forward and coach Scott Gordon has them executing a fast, aggressive, puck-pursuit style.

Also, let’s not forget that the Eastern Conference is kinda like the Solange Knowles to the Western Conference’s Beyonce.

No, the team that doesn’t belong is the Dallas Stars.

Sure, the Stars have started the season at 5-1.

Yet they’re 23rd on the powerplay, and 30th on the penalty kill.

They’re also 30th in the league in shots-on-goal per game (averaging roughly 23), and 28th in the league in shots-on-goal against (averaging roughly 36).

So how are they winning games?

Two reasons.

First, Kari Lehtonen has been nothing short of incredible, starting all six games and sporting a .927 save percentage. He’s single-handedly keeping the team in games.

Second, the Stars are having ridiculous success playing 5-on-5.

Historically, the ratio of goals-for to goals-against when playing 5-on-5 is usually around 1:1. The best teams score at a rate of 1.5:1, the worst at a rate of 0.5:1.

The Dallas Stars are outscoring their opposition at close to a 3-to-1 rate.

This just isn’t sustainable.

Unless Kari Lehtonen is this year’s Ilya Bryzgalov, the Dallas Stars are probably enjoying the only success they’ll know this year.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Speaking of the Stars, The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell wrote this week that their ownership situation is starting to look a lot like that of the Coyotes.
  • They say Tampa coach Guy Boucher is an innovator. One thing he’s brought to the NHL: hard game day skates for his players. It’ll be interesting to see if this continues over the course of an entire season. The team looked gassed against Florida earlier this week.
  • They’re sitting at 4-3 but there are concerns in Denver. Kyle Quincey has seemingly regressed, they’re having trouble finding wingers for Matt Duchene and Milan Hejduk looks like he’s skating with a piano on his back.
  • Three pieces of free advice to the NHL to prevent another Rick Rypien situation. First, mandate that home teams have to provide tunneling over access to the visiting team’s bench. Second, implement the “eye-in-the-sky”, 3rd referee system they tested at the Molson Hockey Summit, and have that ref call violent act-related penalties (i.e. no tripping, icing or offside calls). Third, current NHL suspensions and fines hardly act as a deterrent. It’s time to work with the NHLPA to increase their severity.
  • Ken Holland’s “3-on-3” overtime idea is an intriguing one, but it reinforces the notion that games are decided by a team’s best players. Does a fourth line really matter anymore? Which fan pays to watch a 4th line play anyways? If you got rid of fourth liners all together, how much of the game’s worst violence would be eliminated?
  • Tyler Myers has been Buffalo’s worst defenseman so far. Coach Lindy Ruff thinks teams have scouted Myers offensively, and it’s up to him to mix his game up a bit.
  • They’re raving about Willie Mitchell in Los Angeles, especially the communication between him and Drew Doughty. Doughty’s also been more physical this year than in previous years.
  • Coach John Maclean is still trying to find the right fit with Ilya Kovalchuk. Zack Parise isn’t working out, as both he and Kovalchuk like to carry the puck. The latest player to get a chance to centre Kovalchuk is youngster Jacob Josefson.
  • If a lack of toughness on the Sens’ blueline is their biggest issue (it isn’t, but that’s a topic for another day), how long before the Sheldon Souray rumours start picking up steam?
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