Feb 092014
 

I supposed all good things eventually had to come to an end. Before last night’s game, the Canucks had won 11 consecutive games against the Toronto Maple Leafs, dating back to November 2003.

So much for that.

But you know what’s still going? The Canucks’ losing streak.

This two-week Olympic break couldn’t come soon enough.

Read more #TGATT goodness past the jump.

Feb 082014
 

186653201_slide
(Photo Credit: canucks.nhl.com)

Vancouver Canucks (27-23-9) at Toronto Maple Leafs (31-22-6)

First, the good. When the Vancouver Canucks face the Toronto Maple Leafs this afternoon, they’ll be going for their 12th straight victory against the team from the center of the universe; the Leafs haven’t beaten the Canucks since November 2003. In their last meeting earlier this season, the Canucks blanked Toronto 4-0 as Roberto Luongo stopped all 21 shots he faced. That night was also the night the Canucks retired Pavel Bure’s jersey and raised it up to the rafters.

However, now may be as good a time as any for the Leafs to break out of their misery against Vancouver. Quite simply, they’re on a roll right now. One of the hottest teams in the league, the Leafs are have won 10 of their last 13 games (10-2-1), and they’ve moved all the way up to 5th place in the Eastern Conference after sitting in 10th place before this streak began.

Decimated by injuries, the Canucks only wish right now to get back on the winning track, let alone start another lengthy win streak. After a 5-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night, the Canucks have lost 6 games in a row – their longest losing streak in 15 years. They’re struggling at both ends of the ice, averaging less than 2 goals a game over the last 23 games, but yet allowing more than 3 goals against per game in that same span. Even their penalty-kill, the best in the league for most of the season, has dipped, allowing at least a power play goal against in each of the last 3 games and in 9 of the last 12 games; including that 9-1 debacle in Anaheim, they’ve now allowed 15 power play goals against in the last 12 games.

This is the final game for both teams before the Olympic break. For the Canucks, it sure would be nice to at least head into it with a win. Especially against the Leafs.

Nov 032013
 
TGATT - The Game According to Twitter

Fittingly, on the night the Vancouver Canucks retired Pavel Bure’s number up to the rafters, they played perhaps their most exciting, most entertaining game of the season.

On a typical Saturday Fall afternoon in Vancouver, the Canucks took on the Leafs and slugged it out with them. All four lines scored and Roberto Luongo recorded his 64th shutout – yes, his 64th shutout, just 2 shutouts behind Patrick Roy, who had 66 shutouts in 269 more games, in the NHL’s all-time shutout leaders list – en route to a 4-0 dismantling of the Eastern Conference-leading Leafs.

It sure looked like it, eh?

Read more #TGATT goodness past the jump.

Nov 022013
 

vanleafs

(Photo credit: National Post)

Vancouver Canucks (9-5-1)
Toronto Maple Leafs (10-4-0)

On Pavel Bure night tonight, the Vancouver Canucks will attempt to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs for the 11th straight meeting. Meanwhile, the Leafs will attempt to complete a 3-game sweep as they close out their Western Conference road trip.

Because of the lockout last season, the two teams haven’t met since February 2012. In that game, the Sedins and Alex Burrows combined for 10 points (3 goals and 7 assists) as the Canucks won handily, by a 6-2 score.

The Leafs are definitely improved since that 2012 meeting. Last season, they broke a 7-season postseason drought, and took the Boston Bruins to Game 7 of the first round of the NHL playoffs. This season, they sit 1st in the Eastern Conference and 4th in the overall NHL standings with 20 points in 14 games (10-4-0). The Canucks, however, aren’t too far behind with 19 points in 15 games.

Who’s Hot

The newly-extended Daniel Sedin, who scored the Canucks’ lone goal in their last game against the Detroit Red Wings, extended his point streak to 5 games (5 goals, 3 assists and 8 points). Henrik Sedin, who, like his brother, was signed to a contract extension yesterday, has a 10-game point streak himself (3 goals, 9 assists and 12 points).

For the Leafs, James van Riemsdyk has 2 goals and 5 assists on his current 5-game point streak.

Who’s Out

The Vancouver Canucks will be playing without forwards David Booth (lower body), Jordan Schroeder (ankle), Jannik Hansen (upper body) and Dale Weise (lower body).

The Toronto Maple Leafs will be playing without defenseman Mark Fraser (knee), and forwards Nikolai Kulemin (ankle) and Tyler Bozak (lower body).

Sep 302013
 

On the eve of the start of the 2013/2014 NHL regular season, I preview the 30 teams, one division at a time.

Boston Bruins vs Buffalo Sabres

Photo credit: Sportsnet

Boston Bruins

The Good

It’s scary to think, but the Bruins, which made the Stanley Cup Finals last year, may have added some more pop to their offense. Not only is their core is largely intact, with David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron coming off healthy seasons, but the B’s also replaced the injury-prone, Nathan Horton, with 25+ goals winger, Loui Eriksson, and 41-year old Jaromir Jagr with a slightly-younger but extremely-motivated Jarome Iginla.

The Bad

Trading Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley to the Dallas Stars – to acquire Eriksson – really cuts into their forward depth.

The Outlook

It’ll be interesting to see how they fare with the Detroit Red Wings now in the Atlantic Division, but expect the Bruins to still be a Stanley Cup favorite.

*****

Buffalo Sabres

The Good

The good news for the Sabres is, this is a contract year for leading scorer, Thomas Vanek, and no. 1 goaltender, Ryan Miller, so both should be motivated to perform well.

The Bad

Even if Vanek and Miller have a good season, it may very well be their last one in Buffalo. Neither seem to want to re-sign with the Sabres, and it was rumored that the Sabres were entertaining trade discussions for both.

The Outlook

Like it or not, the Sabres are rebuilding and will rely more on youngsters like Cody Hodgson, Tyler Ennis, Mikhail Grigorenko, and even 25-year old goaltender, Jhonas Enroth.

*****

Detroit Red Wings

The Good

The Red Wings finally got their wish and got their move to the Eastern Conference. The lesser travel and generally wider open style of play in the East should work well for a skilled, albeit aging, core. Should.

The Bad

The Wings continue to build their lineup around Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, who are 35 and 32 years old, respectively. And this off-season, they surrounded them with a 40-year old Daniel Alfredsson and a 30-year old Stephen Weiss; both Alfredsson and Weiss will combine to make $10.4 million.

The Outlook

Old Central Division teams like the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators loved to suffocate the Wings. The Wings will definitely have a bit more room now, but so will their opponents. As long as the Wings can keep up and stay healthy, they should make the playoffs.

*****

Florida Panthers

The Good

The Panthers have some nice, young players playing key roles – Jonathan Huberdeau, Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov and Jakob Markstrom to name a few – and have surrounded them with good vets like Brian Campbell, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky, Brad Boyes, Ryan Whitney and Tim Thomas.

The Bad

The Panthers should be a team on the rise, but unfortunately, are in a tough division with the Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators favored to come out of the Atlantic.

The Outlook

The Panthers must be hoping the kids are ready to take another step and the vets can take some pressure off them so as not to repeat last season’s last place finish.

*****

Montreal Canadiens

The Good

PK Subban won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman last season and is now entering the final year of the contract that’s paying him just $2.875 million. Alex Galyenchuk and Brendan Gallagher are coming off solid rookie campaigns and look to be much better.

The Bad

George Parros was the only size addition to a pretty undersized lineup.

The Outlook

The Habs are looking up. But that’s only because they’ll likely to regularly ice a lineup including 7 players standing less than 6 feet.

*****

Ottawa Senators

The Good

The Senators lost long-time captain, Daniel Alfredsson, to free agency, but promptly replaced him with power winger, Bobby Ryan. He should mesh nicely with an offense that already includes top-liners, Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek, improving Kyle Turris and Mike Zibanejad, and a healthy Erik Karlsson.

The Bad

Operating with an internal salary cap of only around $50 million, there’s little room for improvement in the lineup.

The Outlook

The Sens are a balanced team throughout the lineup. If they stay healthy, they should be considered a contender in the Eastern Conference.

*****

Tampa Bay Lightning

The Good

Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis will continue to pace the offense, while vesatile Teddy Purcell and newcomer Valterri Filpulla will help provide some support.

The Bad

Everything else. Not only does the loss of Vincent Lecavalier (bought out) hurt the league’s 3rd-ranked offense, the Bolts also don’t have much in the back end or in goal. On d, there’s litle depth after Victor Hedman, Matt Carle, and 39-year old, Sami Salo. In goal, neither Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback have played a full NHL season as a starter.

The Outlook

It looks like it’s going to be another long season for Bolts fans.

*****

Toronto Maple Leafs

The Good

The Leafs may be in cap hell right now, but you can’t argue they didn’t at least improve themselves from last season’s team that almost beat the Boston Bruins in the first round of the NHL playoffs. David Clarkson (when he comes off suspension), Dave Bolland (when he gets healthy), Mason Raymond and Paul Ranger will provide some welcome veteran depth and grit to an already potent offense.

The Bad

Dave Nonis, Randy Carlyle and company don’t have a heck of a lot of roster flexibility.

The Outlook

The Leafs will push for a playoff spot. Which, for us Canucks fans, sucks.

Apr 302013
 

Vancouver Canucks beat the Chicago Blackhawks in 2011 NHL playoffs

Photo credit: CBC.ca

As we await the first drop of the puck in the 2013 NHL playoffs, we at CHB put our reputations on the line and make our predictions for the first round. Like last year, we’ll keep a running tally of who makes the most correct predictions. And also like last year, the winner gets nothing but bragging rights.

Western Conference

(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (8) Minnesota Wild

Clay: Chicago in 5. Chicago is simply too strong for Minnesota. There’s a reason why one team won the Presidents’ Trophy and the other got in on the last weekend of the regular season. Chicago has too much high-end talent – this won’t even be close.

Victoria: Chicago in 5. I hate to admit it but Chicago has been a force this short season and I don’t see the Wild taking any of the flame from their fire.

@cherry_grant: Chicago in 5. I hate saying this because I, as a good Canucks fan, hate the ‘Hawks. That said, I feel pretty certain that Minnesota will be decimated by them and I will be sad, but somewhat pleased to be basking in my correctness.

J.J.: Chicago in 4. Maybe I like the Hawks that much. Or maybe I just want to jinx them.

Matt: Chicago in 5. This comes down to simple physics: The Blackhawks are a team with firepower up front, adequate defense, and decent goaltending, while the Wild have a popgun offense that barely got them into the postseason. What happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object?

(2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (7) Detroit Red Wings

Clay: Anaheim in 7. While Detroit has more momentum heading into the playoffs, Anaheim had a better regular season including an amazing February when they won 11 out of 13 games. They’ve faltered a bit since then but I still think they’re a better team.

Victoria: Detroit in 7. If any team can pull off a come-from-behind and out-of-nowhere unexpected victory or 7, it’s Detroit. And as the Capitals have proven time and time again, if any team can perform an epic playoff meltdown, it’s a team coached by Bruce Boudreau.

@cherry_grant: Anaheim in 6. Mainly because they have Reverend Lovejoy on their team. (Note: I don’t actually care if his first name is Reverend or not, it will be to me either way.)

J.J.: Anaheim in 7. Given their roster turnover, both teams probably overachieved this season. Datsyuk and Zetterberg elevated their games at the end of the season, and Jimmy Howard has been tremendous, but Getzlaf, Perry, Bobby Ryan and company aren’t slouches either. Plus, I like the Ducks’ kids (Bonino, Fowler) a tiny bit more than the Wings’ kids (Brunner, DeKeyser).

Matt: Anaheim in 7. To answer the question a lot of people are asking, yes, the Ducks are for real. The team doesn’t have to rely solely on Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Teemu Selanne because their young kids are getting the job done too. But don’t expect the Detroit old boys to go down quietly.

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) San Jose Sharks

Clay: Canucks in 7. Very similar teams: strong goaltending and deep down the middle. Two main differences to me: the Canucks have a deeper blue line and the Sharks are horrible on the road. Game 7 at Rogers Arena may be the difference – stanchion or not.

Victoria: Canucks in 7. To be honest, other than a game against Chicago, the Canucks play hasn’t given me a ton of confidence. But they’ve beaten the Sharks in their sleep before so hopefully they can do it again, even if they’re scoring and defence are sleeping through games.

@cherry_grant: I’m going to say Vancouver, in 6. San Jose’s playoff hockey has been pretty weak in past years. Then there’s the whole “being a staunch fan” thing, which makes me want to say “VANCOUVER IN 4, SUCKAS!”

J.J.: Canucks in 7. If the Canucks team that played the Chicago Blackhawks last Monday shows up, they can beat any team in the league. If the Canucks team that didn’t show up for about 40 of the other games this season suit up against the Sharks, it’s going to be a quick exit and a long summer in Vancouver. I have to believe the Canucks can flip the proverbial switch.

Matt: Canucks in 7. What happens when two teams who have a reputation of being playoff “choke artists” meet in the first round? Both teams find a way to make it hard for themselves. With home ice and a healthy-ish lineup, the Canucks should normally get this done in five or six, but they’ll find a way to mess up a game or two.

(4) St. Louis Blues vs. (5) Los Angeles Kings

Clay: LA in 7. I’m looking forward to these two big teams try to run each other through the boards. I believe that the Kings will prevail in the end: they hammered the Blues on the way to the Stanley Cup last year. It will be closer this year but with the same result.

Victoria: LA in 5. Kings don’t seem to have much of a Stanley Cup hangover, so I’m thinking they’ll at least get through the Blues without a meltdown.

@cherry_grant: Ewwww. St. Louis is my pick for this, in 7. Though really, nobody does as well against St. Louis as Gino Odjick.

J.J.: St. Louis in 7. The Kings have won 8 straight regular season and playoff games against the Blues. So of course, I’m putting my money on St. Loo.

Matt: St. Louis in 7. The last two teams to represent the West in the finals have been bounced in the first round? Coincidence? Probably, but why not keep the trend going? These two teams are strong defensively and physically and will beat the crap out of each other, but the Blues have more incentive to do it.

Eastern Conference

(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (8) New York Islanders

Clay: Pittsburgh in 5. Crosby or not, the Penguins will over-match the Islanders. While New York might be a feel a good story, there’s a reason why the Penguins loaded up at the trade deadline. Fleury won’t have to be awesome for the Penguins to win this series; he just has to be good.

Victoria: Pittsburgh in 6. The last couple of seasons the Penguins have had a way of melting down in the playoffs against teams that they should easily beat. I think it’s time that trend stops. I think they think it too.

@cherry_grant: Pens in 7. Iginla will totally win it for them, single handedly! Right?!

J.J.: Pens in 5. You just know the Islanders will promote Evgeni Nabokov to the front office and bring back Alexei Yashin for some playoff punch, and cause a kerfuffle in what has been a relatively worry-free season in Long Island.

Matt: Pittsburgh in 5. The Penguins are this year’s “sexy” pick to win it all, but the fact the Islanders are in the playoffs for the first time in a gazillion years should provide them a little pep to steal a game. Otherwise, this isn’t a matchup that’s even close.

(2) Montreal Canadiens vs. (7) Ottawa Senators

Clay: Montreal in 7. This is going to be an entertaining season to watch. The Senators will get a lift from the early return of Erik Karlsson but they’ll miss Jason Spezza. Look for Carey Price to find his game just in time to help his team squeak out a narrow victory.

Victoria: Montreal in 7. Ottawa is definitely on it’s way back from near disaster but Montreal is hungry after missing the playoffs last year. Habs want it more and they’re generally better at playoff battles.

@cherry_grant: Ottawa in 7. No reason for this choice at all.

J.J.: Ottawa in 6. Carey Price has owned the Sens recently. But Carey Price also has an 0.871 save percentage and has allowed 32 goals in his last 10 games.

Matt: Ottawa in 7. Montreal started the year on fire but have been mediocre down the stretch, while the Sens have been given a lift with Erik Karlsson — and potentially Jason Spezza’s — return. The Sens have been underdogs all season but won’t go away, why should the first round be any different?

(3) Washington Capitals vs. (6) New York Rangers

Clay: Washington in 6. Washington and New York enter the playoffs as two of the hottest teams in the East and they were separated by only one point in the final standings. Ovechkin is on an amazing run right now and I don’t see it stopping anytime soon.

Victoria: Rangers in 7. Both these teams always seem to struggle to get in and stay in the playoffs. But the Rangers have more fight in them and I predict Ovie will fall into his regularly scheduled playoff coma nap.

@cherry_grant: Washington in 6, which is a purely arbitrary decision because I have unreasonable, baseless dislike of the Rangers.

J.J.: Washington in 7. The Caps are peaking at the right time, losing just twice in April and posting an 11-1-1 record. Ovie is back in beast mode, and Ribeiro, Backstrom, Brouwer and Johansson have played great in support. Defenseman Mike Green is back too, which gives the Caps’ back end a different dynamic.

Matt: Rangers in 6. This might be a bold pick given the Caps were rolling in the second half, but I’ll take a stingy defense and all-world netminder over a vaunted offense. The Rangers have a core group that’s more battle-tested and playoff-ready (Callahan, Stepan, Richards over Ovechkin, Backstrom, Ribeiro).

(4) Boston Bruins vs. (5) Toronto Maple Leafs

Clay: Boston in 6. As much as I dislike both of these teams, I must admit that I’m very interested in seeing how this series pans out. While Toronto is much improved, the Bruins are much more seasoned and playoff-tested. Jagr and Redden add to their experience.

Victoria: Leafs in 7. There is no rational thought process involved in this pick. If Leafs manage to pull this off then pigs really will fly. But I’d rather see pigs fly than Boston win so, oink! oink! Watch out for that jet, Wilbur!

@cherry_grant: Leafs in 7. I’m SHOCKED (and feel more than a little dirty) to say this, but GO LEAFS GO. I like the Bruins even less than the Blackhawks, so the Leafs had better continue being GOOD, for once.

J.J.: Boston in 5. It’s hard enough to tolerate the early media coverage now that the Leafs have made it back to the postseason for the first time in 9 years. I can’t imagine how insufferable things would be if the Leafs won a playoff game, never mind a playoff series.

Matt: Boston in 6. If there was an option to have both teams eliminate each other, I’d be picking it, just for sheer reasons fraught with anger and dislike. But there can only be one winner, and it’ll be the Bruins. The hard-nosed B’s will keep Nazem Kadri and Phil Kessel under wraps, and Patrice Bergeron has established himself as a playoff force.

Apr 042013
 

Roberto Luongo remained a Vancouver Canuck after the NHL trade deadline

Photo credit: CBC

Sometimes, life gets in the away. So my trade deadline thoughts are a bit belated. Here they are:

  • I don’t think Roberto Luongo is “unwanted”. If you believe GM Mike Gillis after yesterday’s trade deadline, it appears 5 teams were interested in Lu’s services. And if you think about it, the fact that Gillis didn’t trade the star netminder says that he’d much rather have him in his lineup – as a backup and a security blanket – than trade him for a second round draft pick. Teams want him. They may not necessarily want the contract, but he’s far from “unwanted”.
  • I don’t blame Gillis for not trading Luongo yesterday. Partly, I’ve always thought that he wouldn’t be traded until after the season anyway, most likely at the draft. But also, the expectation has always been that a return for Luongo in any mid-season deal would have to help the team at this year’s playoffs. A second round draft pick doesn’t do that. And if it’s true that the Leafs were only willing to surrender draft picks because the Canucks wouldn’t retain some of Lu’s salary, it does not give the Canucks someone to back-up Cory Schneider for the rest of the season. If the market for Luongo was truly just in draft picks – or even if the Canucks were willing to just give him away for a bag of pucks – why wouldn’t Gillis just keep him for one more postseason run and move him in the summer? Now, if both Luongo and Schneider are both still in the Canucks’ crease when next season starts, well, that’s a different story all together.
  • Gillis’ big gamble, of course, is where he gauges the market for Luongo to be in the summer. On the one hand, the cap is going down to $64.3 million, which, as we’ve seen, has made teams hesitant to take on big contracts. On the other hand, teams will also be able to better assess their needs and have the option of using their two compliance buyouts to rid themselves of undesirable contracts and acquire someone who is still one of the top goaltenders in the league. (I’m looking at you, Philly.)
  • Much was made of the cap benefit recapture penalty teams could potentially incur should Luongo retire before the end of his contract so I went to CapGeek and played around with their calculator. Assuming Luongo gets traded this offseason, here are the results:
    Luongo retires in:Penalty to CanucksPenalty to other teamPenalty duration
    2018 (age 39)$1,857,500$1,725,8334 seasons (2018-19 to 2021-22)
    2019 (age 40)$2,476,667$2,301,1113 seasons (2019-20 to 2021-22)
    2020 (age 41)$3,715,000$3,451,6672 seasons (2020-21 to 2021-22)

    Luongo’s contract starts diving after the 2017-18 season. If he retires after that (he turns 39 in 2018), the Canucks will incur a cap penalty of $1,857,500 in each of the 4 seasons left in his contract (2018-19 to 2021-22); the team that acquires him will incur a cap penalty of $1,725,833 in each of those same 4 seasons. IMHO, these are fairly insignificant amounts, and even more insignificant when you consider the salary cap may well be in the mid-to-upper $70 million (if not more) by then.

  • Count me among those who were hopeful the Canucks would make a bigger splash at the deadline, but ultimately not surprised that they didn’t. The fact is, I don’t believe they’re in a position to go “all-in” this season and try to keep up with the moves the Penguins, Rangers and Bruins made. In other words, I don’t think they’re in a position to give up prospects like Nicklas Jensen, Frankie Corrado and Brendan Gaunce for short-term help.
  • But also, how many Western Conference teams got significantly better yesterday? Certainly, the Blues did by adding Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold to their blueline and the Blue Jackets did by adding Marian Gaborik up front, but neither are locks to make the playoffs. (Neither are the Canucks, mind you, but I digress.) Perhaps the Wild improved by acquiring Jason Pomminville, but I’d argue the Canucks acquiring Derek Roy counters that. Other than that, the Blackhawks and Red Wings stood pat, and the Ducks, Kings Sharks and Oilers simply added depth pieces. My point is, even after the trade deadline, I don’t see the Canucks chances of competing to get out of the Western Conference to be any different from they were a couple of days ago.
Jan 172013
 

The Bruins and the Rangers are ranked at the top of the Eastern Conference to start the 2012/2013 season.

Photo credit: CBC.ca

Another year, another season preview.

As usual, we’ve ranked each team’s goaltending, defense, forwards and coaches based on expectations and past performance.

However, given the shortened season, we’ve also taken a few other things into consideration when ranking teams overall, including:

  • Whether key players were active during the lockout in competitive leagues. Suffice to say, if someone was playing in the AHL or KHL they’re likely to be better out of the gate than an NHL player who toiled in Britain or Italy or sat on the couch.
  • How old or young the team’s key players are. With a schedule filled with games almost every-other night, veteran players may be more susceptible to critical injury than younger ones.
  • Goaltending. In what many expect to be lower-scoring rush to the playoffs, teams with the best goaltending may have a slight edge.

A couple of other things to remember based on the previous short season (94-95):

  • Veterans as a group seemed to struggle.
  • The top-5 scorers in the league were all under 26, and Eric Lindros (22) won the Hart Trophy.
  • 94-95 was the year the Nordiques exploded out of the league’s basement. The following year, in Colorado, they won the Stanley Cup/

Alright – let’s get to it. Here now are the Out of Town Notebook’s Eastern Conference rankings for the 2012/2013 NHL season:

1. Boston Bruins – 61 points

Status: Cup Contender
Goaltending: C+
Defense: A
Forwards: B
Coaching: B-

Why: The Bruins are ranked first because the majority of their core are either young (Tyler Seguin, Milan Lucic, Tuukka Rask, Dougie Hamilton) or in their prime (Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara), and most of them (save Lucic) played somewhere during the lockout. Seguin might make a real leap this season, bumping up the forward grade even higher. Expect that goaltender mark to rise as well, as Rask gets comfortable as the team’s defacto number one. Anton Khudobin will serve as the backup and has potential.

2. New York Rangers – 59 points

Status: Cup Contender
Goaltending: A
Defense: B-
Forwards: A-
Coaching: B

Why: On paper, the Rangers look like they have it all – a nice mix of youth and experience; superior goaltending; an emerging, deep blueline; and, with the addition of Rick Nash, a strong top-six with finish. The issue here is that only a handful of Rangers played during the lockout, leading to concerns about a slow start. Come playoff time though, New York should be ready for a long post-season run. On paper, they look like the best team in the Conference.

3. Washington Capitals – 51 points

Status: Wild Card
Goaltending: C-
Defense: B+
Forwards: B
Coaching: D+

Why: The Caps enter the season with serious question marks. Can Brandon Holtby be the starting goalie they’ve lacked in the past? He’s followed up a great post-season with a solid AHL campaign, but he could also become Jon Casey. What about coach Adam Oates? A shortened season for a first-time bench boss, when every game will be a battle, is a significant challenge. The guess here is that both Holtby and Oates raise their pre-season ratings, and the Capitals, backed by a strong blueline and a return-to-form from Alex Ovechkin, eek out another division title. Having said that, no team was shuffled in and out of the playoffs more in these rankings than the Caps. The Southeast Division is the worst in the NHL, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see all five teams battling for the division crown.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins – 54 points

Status: Contender
Goaltending: B
Defense: B-
Forwards: A
Coaching: A

Why: While a lot of focus will be placed on Sidney Crosby’s health, the fact remains that the Penguins were bounced early in last year’s playoffs because their defense and goaltending were atrocious. The talent is there in both positions to rebound, especially if Kris Letang can stay healthy. Tomas Vokoun is a more than capable backup goalie and could supplant Marc-Andre Fleury as the team’s top-goalie. Evgeni Malkin dominated the KHL and was the best player in the world in 2012.

5. Philadelphia Flyers – 54 points

Status: Darkhorse
Goaltending: C+
Defense: B
Forwards: B-
Coaching: A

Why: It’s just a question of timing for when the Flyers become a legitimate Cup threat. Given no other NHL team had more players playing in the AHL or KHL than the Flyers during the lockout, the betting here is the Flyers take another step forward this year. Their young core of forwards, including Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Claude Giroux, Jakob Voracek and Wayne Simmons – rivals that of the more heralded Oilers (and Giroux is a top-5 NHL player already). While it’s unlikely Chris Pronger will ever suit up again, the blueline is still solid, with Kimmo Timonen forever underrated. The concern here centers around the crease, where the kooky Ilya Bryzgalov tries to find his Coyotes form. He wasn’t very good in the KHL during the lockout either.

6. Buffalo Sabres – 51 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: A
Defense: C+
Forwards: C-
Coaching: B-

Why: The Sabres will go as far as their goaltending takes them. Ryan Miller had a strong second half last year, and Jhonas Enroth is capable of carrying the team for short stretches. Up front, it’s a transition year for the Sabres with Cody Hodgson (point-per-game in the AHL during the lockout) and Tyler Ennis carrying the load down the middle. Tyler Myers’ development stagnated in 2011-12. Buffalo needs him to continue developing to carry an average blueline.

7. Ottawa: 50 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: C
Defense: C+
Forwards: C
Coaching: C

Why: Ottawa made the playoffs last year riding on the back of exceptional play from defenseman Erik Karlsson and centre Jason Spezza. They could easily repeat their 2011-12 seasons, and Karlsson’s youth means it’s possible he could even exceed his Norris Trophy performance. The key for the Senators will be the supporting cast – whether youngsters Mika Zibanejad (poor AHL season to date) and Jakob Silfverberg (strong AHL play) can contribute secondary scoring; whether someone will step up to fill Jared Cowen’s shoes on defense (he’ll miss the season with an injury); and whether Daniel Alfredsson has anything left. Craig Anderson is slightly-overrated, but the goalies behind him (Robin Lehner, Ben Bishop) are very promising and have played extremely well in the AHL.

8. Tampa Bay Lightning – 49 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: C-
Defense: C-
Forwards: B-
Coaching: C+

Why: There remains a talented top-six playing hockey on the beach in Tampa Bay – the problem is winners are built from the back-end out. Matt Carle brings a new, puck moving dynamic to Tampa’s blueline, but the Lightning defense won’t get better until Viktor Hedman takes the next step. Anders Lindback is the wild card here – if his performance for the Predators in limited action was legit, he’ll solve the team’s defensive issues on his own. That would vault the Lightning into a fight for the division crown. If Lindback is only average, this team is likely on the outside of the playoff picture.

9. Carolina: 49 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: B+
Defense: C-
Forwards: B-
Coaching: C-

Why: Quietly, the Hurricanes are putting together a team with promise, but they’re not there yet. The additions of Jordan Staal and Alex Semin give the Hurricanes a potent second line, although an injury to Tuomo Ruuttu hurts. The strength of Carolina’s defensive game will dictate how far up the standings they go. The blueline is a mixed bag of youth, toughness, and incompetence (looking at you Joe Corvo), putting a lot of pressure on Cam Ward to keep them in games.

10. Montreal Canadiens – 49 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: A
Defense: C+
Forwards: C
Coaching: C-

Why: Similar to the Sabres, the key for the Canadiens this season is how well Carey Price plays. He has the ability to carry the team. An extended P.K. Subban absence could also kill Montreal’s season, as Andrei Markov can’t be counted on to carry the defense anymore. Rookie Alex Galchenyuk has looked good in camp and will enter the year either as the team’s second line centre or lining up on the wing with Tomas Plekanec.

11. Winnipeg Jets – 44 points

Status: Also-rans
Goaltending: C
Defense: B-
Forwards: C+
Coaching: C

Why: Three reasons why the Jets are unlikely to make the post-season this year: 1) Zach Bogosian’s wrist injury significantly hampers Winnipeg’s blueline. If he’s healthy, there’s an interesting mix on defense. 2) Ondrej Pavelec has only been an average NHL goalie to date, and the Jets will need him to be elite to catch the teams ahead of them in the standings. Not sure Pavelec has that in him. 3) The travel. The league is already looking at 48-games in roughly 100 days. When you add the schedule the mis-conferenced Jets will have to face, it’s an enormous disadvantage.

12. New Jersey Devils – 41 points

Status: Decline
Goaltending: C
Defense: D+
Forwards: C+
Coach: B-

Why: Simply put – it’s hard to believe, after sitting out the lockout and another year older, veteran Martin Brodeur can find the level of play required to push New Jersey into the post-season. Losing Zach Parise to the Wild hurts the attack, and puts more pressure on Adam Henrique (poor AHL performance during the lockout) and Ilya Kovalchuk (sulking to play in North America) to score. The defense is hard-working, but not very talented beyond second-year man Adam Larsson. If Peter DeBoer gets the Devils back into the playoffs he should be considered an Adams Trophy nominee.

13. Florida Panthers – 40 points

Status: Rebuilding
Goaltending: D
Defense: C+
Forwards: D+
Coaching: C

Why: Last year’s surprising Panthers team was a bridge squad – a veteran team of placeholders using a strong defensive system to mitigate the risk of losing, while buying the franchise a year of development. This season marks the beginning of a youth influx into the Florida roster, with Jonathan Huberdeau the most prominent youngster likely in the starting lineup. Generally speaking, this type of transition usually means a fall in the standings. The future in net is Jacob Markstrom, but he got off to a slow start in the AHL this year and may be given another season to establish himself. That leaves the underwhelming Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen trying to duplicate last year’s success. Only a few Panthers played in the AHL or KHL during the lockout, and none of those players were part of the team’s core. That could mean a slow start is in the offering.

14. New York Islanders – 39 points

Status: Rebuilding
Goaltending: D+
Defense: C-
Forwards: C-
Coaching: D+

Why: This is likely the lowest the Islanders will rate on this list for the next few years. They have potential impact prospects on forward and defense, and as they develop, they’ll also rise up the standings. John Tavares has an Art Ross trophy in him. The talk is Rick DiPietro is the healthiest he’s been in years, which would have a positive impact on their goaltending situation. However, we’ll believe it when we see it. This is a development season – watch for the Islanders to push for a playoff spot next year.

15. Toronto Maple Leafs – 38 points

Status: Lost
Goaltending: D-
Defense: C-
Forwards: C
Coach: C+

Why: Quite simply, this is a team with the worst goaltending in the NHL; whose best defenseman (Jake Gardiner) is suffering from concussion issues; that’s without a legitimate number one centre; whose most important players (Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul) barely played during the lockout. The ownership wants this Leaf squad to make the playoffs, which means an upgrade in goal (Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo) is a possibility. But it’s likely not enough. The best thing for this franchise might just be bottoming out with a top-2 draft pick.

Jan 102013
 
Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks

Photo credit: Vancouver Sun

Contrary to popular belief, there apparently is a market for a top-flight, 55-60-plus games per season, Olympic gold medal-winning, one win short of winning the Stanley Cup kind of goaltender.

On the same day the Toronto Maple Leafs fired GM Brian Burke for, among other reasons I’m sure, not pursuing Luongo as aggressively as some in the organization wanted, and replaced him with Dave Nonis, who, incidentally, was rumored to have been fired from the Canucks for not pursuing Brad Richards as aggressively as some in the organization wanted, the rumor mill started churning.

The Philadelphia Flyers, who probably don’t mind Ilya Bryzgalov’s worldly views but moreso his 0.887 save percentage and 3.46 GAA in last year’s playoffs, are now rumored to be interested in Bobby Luo.

Add them to the list with the Leafs, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Florida Panthers, and perhaps, even the Edmonton Oilers.

The belief out there is that Luongo’s contract is too big a risk to take on, especially with the new CBA penalties for teams with backdiving contracts – my good friend Tom here calls it a millstone – and it could hamper any trade leverage the Canucks have. But the new CBA may actually be helping the Canucks in this situation. More specifically, now that teams are allowed up to 2 compliance buyouts over the next two off-seasons, and these buyout amounts won’t count towards the salary cap, it may very well be creating some additional suitors for Luongo’s services.

Take the Flyers, for instance. In any normal season, Bryzgalov’s 9-year contract would, in all likelihood, remove them from the running for any Luongo deal. But what now if they can buy him out and not have the buyout amount charged against the cap? A Bryzgalov buyout could cost the team upwards of $17 million. But how much do the Flyers really want the somewhat flaky goaltender in front of an otherwise young and very good group of players for another 8 seasons? Like a lot of teams, they want to win now and I’d dare say wouldn’t care much about a $2 million cap hit penalty 7 years – several years – from now when the cap will most likely be in the $80-$90 million range anyway.

Is this enough to improve what the Canucks receive in return for the winningest goaltender in its franchise history? Can the additional market turn a return of Cody Franson to Jake Gardiner, or Matt Read to Sean Couturier, or Stephen Weiss to Jonathan Huberdeau? Maybe not quite. But it certainly won’t hurt.

Jan 102013
 
Brian Burke was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs

Photo credit: Vancouver Sun

The full story won’t be told today or tomorrow. But at some point the full story on Brian Burke’s swift exodus from the Toronto Maple Leafs will be known.

However, it’s pretty clear the decision ultimately came down to two things: Burke’s personality and plan.

As Damien Cox wrote in his piece on the firing, Leafs ownership, particularly the Bell faction, felt Burke was “bad for the brand.”

The arguments with Don Cherry; the proclamations about the team’s chances and league business; the interview style that constantly bordered on antagonistic – these are not the kind of public interactions that endears oneself to a corporate enterprise traded on the stock exchange.

Corporations don’t want controversy. Brian Burke in Toronto couldn’t help but court it.

Meanwhile, Leafs ownership made it clear introducing Dave Nonis that the team’s struggles to make the playoffs were a factor in their decision.

Well, duh, screams the Twitter-verse.

But there’s something a little bit more sinister lurking in the comment.

Bell and Rogers bought the Toronto Maple Leafs for $1.07 BILLION dollars over the summer. That’s a lot of money to recoup, and there are share prices to protect.

Return on investment has to start now.

Which means there’s never been more pressure on the Leafs to make the playoffs….

Which means there’s never been more pressure on the Leafs to address their biggest weakness – goaltending.

Burke stated earlier this week he was “90 percent” set on going with James Reimer and Ben Scrivens in goal this year. The stance fit with his most recent rebuilding approach – a patient one.

Over the last two seasons, Toronto had changed from trying to fast-track their way to success (see Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf trades) to the more traditional approach of accumulating assets and building slowly.

But there was no time for Burke’s new, patient approach in ownership’s eyes.

It’s winning time, baby.

And we all know how often that franchise philosophy – usually born out of desperation and delusion – works out in sports.

*****

Anyways, enter Roberto Luongo, who through no fault of his own ended up being rolled up into coverage of Burke’s firing.

Speculation is rampant that Leaf ownership wanted a Luongo deal, Burke did not, and that disagreement led to today’s leadership change.

The thing is, from hockey perspective, NOT trading for Luongo now is the most logical thing to do.

As currently constituted, Luongo’s contract under the new CBA will be a millstone around the necks of whatever team that employs him.

If you’re an NHL opponent, why would you help the Canucks rid themselves of this headache now?

Especially when you can wait out the season, wait for the Canuck’s to buy-out their goalie, and draft a new, “CBA friendly” deal with the player.

Essentially, the Canucks have little leverage in trade talks for Luongo. He has a no-trade clause, which means he has control over where he wants to play. His salary is high, meaning most teams don’t have enough cap room to add him. Weaker performances in high-profile situations have hurt his reputation. His contract is absolutely toxic under the new CBA. Which is why, at the end of the day, even if the Leafs are motivated buyers and the Canucks are motivated sellars, Vancouver’s return is likely to be less significant than most expect.

%d bloggers like this: