Nov 112011
 

One of the silliest debates to be waged across the NHL some time is Philadelphia’s “outrage” and in-game protest of Tampa’s 1-3-1 system.

From Mike Milbury walking off the air to a quickie TSN poll of league GMs siding with the Flyers, the Lightning are taking a lot of heat for their passive forecheck.

Here’s the thing.

1) The passive forecheck is employed all over the league, and has been for decades. Roughly half of all NHL teams use a 1-3-1 forecheck in their gameplan. The 70s Canadiens, the 80s Oilers, the 90s Red Wings – they all used a version of this system when necessary to win Stanley Cups.

2) The Lightning, for all the hoopla for employing a defensive system that’s ruining the game, sat 23rd this morning in the league in goals against per game; 24th in the league in shots against per game. We’re not exactly talking about a New Jersey Devils-esque juggernault when it comes to squeezing scoring opportunities out of the game.

Let’s remember, the NHL culture doesn’t exactly embrace innovation comfortably.

Lightning coach Guy Boucher, with his approach to the 1-3-1 system, his degree in sports psychology and his willingness to think differently about practices, off-days etc, is seen as a bit of an outsider. He’s made himself and his team a target for being different.

But he’s also doing what it takes for the Lightning to win games.

There are ways to beat the trap – by exiting the defensive zone with speed, or by moving the puck horizontally across the ice rather than vertically. That the Flyers chose to do neither, and simply stand around, was certainly a statement.

It was also absolutely ineffective, as Philadelphia lost the game 2-1.

Any debate that leads to more goals and more excitement in the NHL game is a positive thing.

But the Lightning shouldn’t be vilainized for their approach to the game.

The Flyers are just as much at fault, by basically refusing to compete.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Loved this “how to beat the trap” diagram. Works great if, you know, everyone defending stands still.
  • So players on the Florida Panthers were tweeting about how cold it was in Winnipeg before their game against the Jets? It’s only November guys. There are still folks at the corner of Portage and Main in t-shirts. Can’t wait to read to read the tweets before their next visit to Manitoba January 21st.
  • One pro scout’s assessment of the Taylor Hall vs. Tyler Seguin debate:  ”For me, Seguin is more creative with the puck. I actually wrote in one of my reports that Seguin, if he doesn’t have a shot, he’s got enough poise to make a play to a teammate. I don’t know if Hall has that ability. Hall is going to beat you north-south with his speed and quickness down low. Seguin’s got a little more dimension to his game from a creativity standpoint.”
  • Magnus Paajarvi has become a healthy scratch in Edmonton. Other sophomores struggling: Buffalo’s Tyler Ennis (0 points), Anaheim’s Cam Fowler (-6 despite a greater focus on the defensive side of the game), New Jersey’s Mattias Tedenby (0 goals, 3 assists).
  • Weird seeing Senator John McCain in a Coyotes jersey talking hockey strategy, 9/11 and the World Series, among other things, between periods on the Coyotes-Habs broadcast. As nice as it is to see him vocally supportive of the hometown team, couldn’t he solve the Phoenix ownership mess with a couple of strategic phone calls to well-off friends?
  • Add HP Pavillion in San Jose to the list of NHL arenas where fans boo Dany Heatley. For what it’s worth, Devin Setoguchi was cheered when he and Heatley returned as members of the Wild on Thursday.
  • Nice piece on former teammates Brent Burns and Nick Schultz.
  • So tired of the “will he or won’t he play” coverage of Sidney Crosby.
  • Things that don’t make sense in the NHL #2589: Teams that keep rookie players past the 9-game mark (thus burning through the first year of their NHL contract) and then send the player to the press box. The Panthers have done this with Erik Gudbranson, and the Blue Jackets did this recently with Ryan Johansen.
  • Speaking of the Blue Jackets, their worst start in franchise history has led coach Scott Arniel to change the team’s approach mid-season from a puck-pursuit, up-tempo style to a conservative trap approach. The team’s loss to Chicago shows this is still very much a work in progress.
  • Two ways to fix the Toronto Maple Leafs penalty kill – improve communication between forwards and defensemen on the kill, and find some quicker players to perform it. Leafs penalty killers aren’t elite skaters,  so they don’t pressure the puck carrier like most teams. Instead, they end up in their box formation, which other teams continue to pick apart.
  • Colorado’s win against the Islanders may have saved Joe Sacco’s job. Interestingly, the team was down 3-0 until the Avs called a timeout and defenseman Shane O’Brien let his teammates have it. J.S. Giguere, who called the game a “must-win”, also made a huge save off of Michael Grabner with one second left in regulation.
  • Speaking of Colorado defenseman, their best right now might just be Ryan Wilson, who’s been very effective physically and is on a 45-point pace.
  • Final note on the Avalanche – in contrast to the Maple Leafs, Colorado’s too aggressive on the penalty kill. It’s why they’re 27th in the league in this category.
  • The Islanders and Blue Jackets are the only teams left in the NHL without a road victory. One reason for the Islanders struggles – they lack team toughness, particularly in the top-six. And this includes Kyle Okposo, who could play a Brendan Morrow-style game, but has instead struggled out-of-the-gate (0 goals in 13 games).
  • Katie Baker’s latest Grantland column includes a link to Paulina Gretzky’s best Twitter pics that most adult males will appreciate.
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.
Oct 282011
 

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

If the 2011-12 season was the Pacific Ocean, we’ve barely dipped our toe into the cold waters.

Nonetheless, there’s been almost a month of NHL hockey, and it’s not too early to start evaluating what’s happening around the league.

Here now are a handful of teams better than, or worse than, their record-to-date.

Significantly Worse Than Their Record (aka the Ron Washington is a Lousy Coach Division)

Toronto: The Leafs enter Friday with a 6-2-1 record and a .722 winning percentage, good for 5th overall in the league. Phil Kessel is leading the league in scoring, which a Toronto player hasn’t done since exposed ankles were considered risqué. It’s time to start planning the parade right? Wrong. For starters the Leafs are near the bottom of the league in goals against (24th) and shots for/shots against differential.  Other than Dion Phaneuf, Toronto’s defense has also been wildly inconsistent and surprisingly soft. Finally, as in previous seasons there’s still nothing special about the team’s special teams (powerplay is 21st, penaltykill is 25th). Despite some strong 5-on-5 play, the Leafs look primed for a losing stretch.

New Jersey: Despite a rash of injuries, the Devils enter Friday with a 4-3-1 record, and their .563 winning percentage has them seated 13th in the league. The biggest factor in their early season success has been the play of Johan Hedberg, whose taken over for the injured Martin Brodeur and posted terrific numbers (2.31 goals against average, .926 save percentage). If you look closely though, you notice that once again this is a New Jersey team that can’t score. They are 25th in goals per game, 26th on the powerplay and 25th in shots for/against differential. They’re still not getting any production from their defense (just two goals so far this season), At 38 and as a career backup, Hedberg can carry a team for only so long. These Devils look a lot like the team that stunk up the first half of last season.   

Dallas: With a record of 7 wins and 3 losses, the Stars enter Friday sitting atop the Western Conference standings. Like New Jersey, the Stars have been carried through October on the shoulders of incredible goaltending. Kari Lehtonen is sporting a miniscule 1.84 goals against average and a .945 save percentage, and remains the defacto team MVP. However, the rest of the team’s peripheral numbers aren’t very good. The Stars are 22nd in goals for and on the powerplay, and their shots for/against differential is nearly -6. In fact, the Stars currently give up the fourth-most shots in the entire NHL. Granted, this may be the result of coach Glen Gulutzan’s conservative gameplan, but these Stars look identical to the team they were last year – decent, but not good enough for the post-season.  

Significantly Better Than Their Record (aka the Tony LaRussa’s St. Louis Cardinals Are Surprising Baseball Again Division)

Montreal: Wait a minute, aren’t the Canadiens struggles being debated in Quebec’s National Assembly as we speak? Isn’t the Molson family about to not only fire coach Jacques Martin, but get his family and friends fired from their jobs too? Aren’t we about to see Patrick Roy’s triumphant return behind the bench of the Habs? Well, hang on a second. Yes, the Canadiens’ record of 3-5-2 places them 27th overall. However, they’re sixth in the league at 5-on-5 play, and their shots for/against differential is almost +8, placing them 3rd overall. This is a quintessential Jacques Martin team – one that will live and die by the success of its defense and goaltending. As Carey Price rounds into form (his save percentage right now is 28 points below his career norm), the Canadiens will rise back up to where they should be – fighting for a playoff spot. 

Boston: Not since the 1967-68 Toronto Maple Leafs has a defending Stanley Cup Champion been this low in the standings so far into the season. The Bruins currently sit last in the Eastern Conference, 29th overall.  Boston’s biggest problem has been scoring – they’re 26th overall in goals per game, 25th at 5-on-5 play and 24th on the powerplay. Otherwise, they’re still playing the extremely strong defensive game coach Claude Julien demands. Tyler Seguin looks primed for an All-Star season, and David Krejci is too good to struggle for long (only one point, a goal, so far). If Boston can muster even league-average scoring, the Bruins will find themselves comfortably in the playoffs.

Philadelphia: Let’s acknowledge they’ve given up 14-goals in two games and that their star goalie has a crisis of confidence. They look lost defensively without Chris Pronger, and currently sit 17th overall in the league (.550 winning percentage). These Flyers, however, can flat out score. They’re 2nd  in goals for per game, 4th on the powerplay and their shots for/shots against differential is +6.3 (5th overall). They have three dangerous lines, and for every disappointment so far (James Van Riemsdyk, Scott Hartnell), there’s been a revelation (Wayne Simmonds has far more puck skill than expected; Sean Couturier is the team’s best defensive player). Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky aren’t this bad, and neither are the Flyers.

Thoughts on the Fly

-          Vancouver’s trade last weekend led me to this collection of Mike Gillis’ moves as general manager of the Canucks. A few things stand out on this list.

  • First, the trade for Christian Ehrhoff was a legitimate home run, and the trade for David Booth (acquiring the most talented player in the trade and a 3rd round draft pick) looks like it could be another.
  • Beyond these two moves it’s a very mixed record, with two notable trade mistakes: acquiring Keith Ballard for a first round pick AND Michael Grabner; and trading 3rd and 2nd round picks for Steve Bernier.
  • It’s too early to make any conclusions, but the Gillis drafts don’t look very dynamic. Last May, Hockey’s Future ranked the Canucks 27th in the NHL in terms of its farm system talent. This month the website released its 50 top-prospects, with only Cody Hodgson making the list (26th).
  • Finally, there are a number of moves on this list that made little-to-no impact on the team whatsoever. Maybe that’s a good thing though – better no impact than a negative one.

-          Damien Cox speculates Sidney Crosby might play on November 11th.

-          For all the angst coming out of Montreal, the expectations surrounding Erik Cole are the most unfair. Cole had success in Carolina because he played wing with an elite centreman (Eric Staal). He’s struggled in Edmonton, and now in Montreal, because he’s a strong complimentary player, not a go-to scoring presence. Without Staal, he’s a useful, industrious, 15-22 goal scorer. Hab fans expecting more will be disappointed.

-          Speaking of Montreal, this is what happens when you build a team entirely around defence and goaltending. If those areas falter even a little bit the team can’t score enough goals to compensate. The Habs will right the ship, but it’s a tight-rope low-scoring teams walk. Nashville’s struggling in the same fashion right now (last in the league in shots for/shots against at -11.4).

-          Final Habs note: Firing Perry Pearn 90 minutes before game time was the most ridiculous NHL firing in years, and is a black mark on the Montreal front office. He deserved better, and will land on his feet elsewhere.  

-          For all the accolades Duncan Keith has earned in Chicago, he could be ranked third behind Brent Seabrook and Nick Leddy in terms of performance this year. Seabrook is taking less physical risks, and as a result his positional play has improved. Meanwhile, Leddy has seamlessly filled Brian Campbell’s role.

-          The best part of any talk about a Philadelphia Flyers alumni team? Thinking of Eric Lindros and Bobby Clarke on the same bench.

-          He probably can’t keep it up, but every one of Kings defenseman Jack Johnson’s goals this year has been a game-winner.

-          Sorry Oiler fans, Nik Khabibulin won’t have a 0.97 goals against average all year. Enjoy the ride while it lasts, and full marks for squeaking out a win against the Capitals. Having said that, the Capitals were dominant 5-on-5, and Ovechkin hit the crossbar with less than a minute to play.  

-          Only three forwards are in the top-50 in the NHL in terms of ice-time: Ilya Kovalchuk, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

-          There’s 12 teams on pace to score fewer than 200 goals this year. Even with the Winnipeg-Flyers game, it certainly feels like scoring is down in the NHL.

-          TSN’s Darren Dreger takes a look at who could be next coaching behind an NHL bench.

-          Brad Richards is really struggling in New York. He isn’t skating very well or controlling the play at all.

-          In case you missed it – Jonas Hiller’s new mask.

-          Here’s a report on Defense Independent Goalie Rankings for last season. Oiler fans might be surprised to see Devyn Dubnyk in the top-10.

-          Katie Baker’s weekly recap on Grantland.

Oct 212011
 

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

If you live in a wooden house, and you have someone obsessed with fire over to visit, you don’t give them matches.   

If you’re a party planner hosting a VIP party you aren’t inviting the guy who streaks naked when he drinks.

If you own a bank, and a known bank robber applies to work as a teller, you don’t give him the job.

These are all (terrible) metaphors for why the NHL, in the next round of collective bargaining talks, should tell the NHLPA that fourth-line players are no longer welcome in the league.  

Reducing NHL roster size would eliminate many of the penalties, suspensions and violent acts that create public relations nightmares for the league.  

During the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, 67 NHL suspensions were handed down. The majority of players suspended were forwards. 

Position# of suspensionsAverage ice-time per player suspendedAverage length of suspension
Defense1620:34 minutes per game2.5 games
Forward519:55 minutes per game2.85 games

Taking a closer look at those suspended forwards shows it’s a particular kind of player getting suspended most of the time.  

Ice-time rank amongst team forwards# of suspensions# of gamesAverage length of suspension
1st-3rd (First line)8182.25 games
4th-6th (Second line)6122 games
7th-9th( Third line)*6223.67** games
10th-or lower (Fourth line or marginal player)311133.64 games

That’s right. Almost half (46%) of all suspensions were given to forwards who ranked 10th or lower (aka fourth-line minutes) in ice-time on their team.  

This same trend appears when you look at penalty minute leaders or players with the most 5-minute majors.

Position# of players among the top-30 PIM leaders (2009-10, 2010-11)# of players among the top-30 leaders in 5-minute major penalties (2009-10, 2010-11)
Defensemen54
Forwards5556

Ice-time rank amongst team forwards# of players among top-30 PIM leaders# of players among top-30 5-minute major penalty leaders
1st-3rd (First line)00
4th-6th (Second line)61
7th-9th (Third line)61
10th or lower (Fourth line)4353
 

Reducing the number of starting forwards a team can dress from 12 to 11 (or even 10) would mean more ice-time for the game’s best, most creative players.

It would also mean no ice-time for the league’s worst players, who cause most of the drama anyways.

If the NHL really wanted to get serious about violence in the game, getting rid of fourth-liners is where they should start.

** It should be noted 10 of the 22 games handed out in suspension to third line players is the result of Matt Cooke’s elbow to Ryan McDonough’s head. Otherwise the average length of suspension is roughly equal to that of a top-six forward.

Thoughts on the Fly

  • While Mark Scheifele got all the pre-season press, it’s 20-year old Alexander Burmistrov who looks like the real deal. He’s been the team’s best forward so far, and looks looks Igor Larionov-esque.
  • Staying with the Jets, their top line right now consists of Burmistrov, Nik Antropov and Kyle Wellwood. That’s like a sitcom that casts David Spade as the lead and expects a ratings bonanza. Blake Wheeler and especially Evander Kane have to get going. (Sidenote – god that’s an ironically titled, dreadfully awful, Rules of Engagement link).
  • You read a story like this and it’s awfully hard to root against Jaromir Jagr.
  • For those keeping score, that’s two closed-door meetings in Canada already: one in Ottawa and one in Calgary.
  • I’m sure Columbus fans are feeling good about Mike Modano’s recent tweet: “Rick Nash please ask for a trade.”
  • Speaking of the Blue Jackets, Scott Arniel’s term as coach in Columbus can be measured in games right now. Fox Sports Ohio caught Arniel getting into it with a fan after the Dallas game, which ironically is the same thing that Gerard Gallant did before he was fired as Blue Jackets coach. Shouldn’t general manager Scott Howson also be on the chopping block? This franchise hasn’t improved since he took over the GM position from Doug Maclean, and they’re tight to the salary cap (only $850,000 under).
  • Final Blue Jackets note: Yes they’ve been losing without James Wisniewski, but it also looks like they miss Jan Hejda.
  • Speaking of defense, the hope had been that Minnesota’s unheralded blueline would be good enough to sneak the team into a playoff spot. So far so bad. Only Clayton Stoner’s stood out – leading the team with a +3 to date.
  • Edmonton Oilers fans are learning what Wild and Blackhawk fans already knew – Cam Barker looks like a lost cause.
  • Some thoughts over at thegoalieguild.com on Jaroslav Halak’s early season struggles.
  • Braydon Schenn may have been a -3 in his first game for the Flyers, but he played pretty well. Sean Couturier, who had been anchoring the 3rd line, was bumped to the 4th line and scored a goal. It will be interesting to see if the Flyers keep both players around. It certainly looks like the team is comfortable using the youngsters in defensive roles, giving them time to grow into more offensive responsibility.
  • Speaking of the Flyers, Scott Hartnell isn’t feeling the love these days. One imagines Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke has already left messages on Paul Holmgren’s phone.
  • This week’s excellent roundup over at Grantland by Katie Baker.
  • One of the reasons the San Jose Sharks are off to a 1-3 start? Marty Havlat hasn’t played a game yet. Without him, the Sharks attack isn’t the most fleet of foot or dynamic. The defense hasn’t exactly been consistent either.
  • Wayne Scanlan writes 10 reasons why an Ottawa Senators rebuild can’t happen soon enough.
  • The more you think about it; doesn’t some sort of trade involving a Predators defenseman for an offensive forward from the Oilers make sense?
  • In their continuing effort to kick Atlanta hockey fans in the balls, the NHL started the year blacking out games by geographic neighbours Nashville and Carolina on the local Centre Ice package. The blackout was lifted this week.
  • Teams that have a lot of cap space and could probably use the reportedly available Rene Bourque: Phoenix, Nashville, Dallas, Ottawa, Carolina, Winnipeg, Anaheim, Minnesota. Thing is, Bourque isn’t exactly a world-beater. He’s a slightly better version of Michael Ryder.
  • Still not convinced Ryan Kesler wasn’t rushed back into the Canuck lineup too soon.
Oct 142011
 

A collection of hockey thoughts and observations as one settles into a new NHL hockey season:

  • It should be clear to anyone who has watched the Senators play that Paul Maclean hasn’t had any more luck than Cory Clouston at motivating Sergei Gonchar. No one gives up on puck battles quicker than he does.
  • One week doesn’t make an NHL season, but as of today the Senators look an awful lot like the worst team in the NHL.
  • Speaking of NHL defensemen, Sheldon Souray’s big shot has already helped the Dallas Stars. However, Souray also looks a step slower than he did back in his Oiler and Hab days. At some point in the season the Stars will have to manage his minutes at even strength.
  • Staying in Dallas, it’s clear early on that Kari Lehtonen is auditioning for the Ilya Bryzgalov role as “goaltender who single-handedly keeps his team in the playoff hunt.” The Stars are not very good, but Lehtonen has been sensational out of the gate.
  • One more Dallas thought – let’s settle down about their attendance issues. It’s only October (American NHL teams normally struggle at the gate at the start of the season), the Texas Rangers are legitimate World Series contenders (and they’ve played both nights when Stars had woeful home crowds) and they’re finally getting an owner soon.  Texas is blossoming as a hockey state, but the Stars have been on life support as a franchise for the last couple of years. A new owner, with a clear business plan for the community, should rectify the issue.
  • One early season trend: more and more teams on the powerplay are attacking the blueline with speed, only to drop the puck to a trailing player before entering the zone. Since the penalty killers have collapsed on the puck carrier, the trailer usually gains easy entry into the offensive zone.
  • Speaking of early season impressions, despite his -2 rating Nikita Nikitin has had a solid start in St. Louis and may be ready for top-pairing minutes. On the downside, Jaroslav Halak has had a tough time controlling his rebounds and hasn’t looked great in net.
  • Question: Did Aaron Asham take it upon himself to apologize for his post-fight antics or did the Penguins leadership group (Dan Blysma, Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz) encourage him to be regretful post-game? Personally I think it was the latter, in hopes of minimizing any potential suspension.
  • Interesting to see how some teams are dolling out the ice time to start the year. Through Friday, Brian Campbell is getting close to 30-minutes a game in Florida. Surprisingly, Jason Garrison is getting the second-most ice time among Panthers defensemen.
  • Other ice time observations:
  • Most ice-time among Panthers forwards: Kris Versteeg. Probably wishing he’d signed elsewhere: Scottie Upshall, who is only seeing 10-minutes a game in Florida.
  • In Colorado, Daniel Winnick is the surprising ice-time leader among forwards. Actually the Avalanche are taking an offense-by-committee approach to the start of the season. No forward is averaging more than 18-minutes a game, and nine forwards (including Chuck Kobasew !?!!?) are getting at least a minute of powerplay time per game.
  • In St. Louis,  Jason Arnott is seeing only 13-minutes a game in St. Louis, and is seeing less powerplay time than Matt D’Agostini.
  • Speaking of not seeing any powerplay time, Shawn Horcoff looks like the odd-man out in Edmonton. He’s averaged 46 seconds of powerplay time thus far. Adding insult to injury – it took all of two games for the Sportsnet panel (Jeff Marek, John Shannon and Marty McSorley (?!?!)) to speculate that the Oilers may trade Horcoff at some point this year.
  • Don’t look now, but Edmonton’s Ales Hemsky left Thursday’s game against Minnesota early with an an injury to the same shoulder he had surgery on.
  • One last Oiler note: Linus Omark, he of the nifty shootout attempts, is reportedly in Tom Renney’s doghouse.
  • Yes Don Cherry’s days as a relevant commentator are probably over. His recent comments about fighting even have some people calling for his job.  But the CBC owns NHL hockey rights until 2014, and Coach’s Corner remains a ratings goldmine. Whatever the current fallout, expect Cherry to stick it out until the end of the current CBC deal. After that? Says here he retires from regular TV duty.
  • The parade route is already being planned in Toronto where the Maple Leafs are 2-0. Most impressive thing about their start? Phil Kessel, who seems quicker, stronger and more determined than ever before. Heck, he’s even joined Twitter, although it looks like we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for him to post something interesting.
  • A nice recap of the first week by Katie Baker over at Grantland.
  • Sadly, some players still don’t seem to realize the danger of concussions.
  • The top-10 immoveable contracts in the NHL, according to The Hockey News.
  • The New York Islanders 3rd jersey has been leaked.
  • Oct 062011
     

    After more than a month of review, analysis, and rankings, it’s time to predict what will actually happen in the upcoming NHL season.

    If you take all things into consideration, one thing becomes abundantly clear – parity. No team is very strong at each position (coach, goalie, defence, forward), and most teams are only a shade better or worse than another.

    It looks like all the same teams that made the playoffs last year have a good chance of making it again this year. As we’ve discussed though, it’s rare that there’s so little change in the standings from year-to-year. Injuries therefore will be the biggest factor in determining who plays on in April and who doesn’t.

    This time last year I predicted Boston as the Stanley Cup champion. Read on to find out this year’s predicted winner:

     Western Conference

    1. Vancouver 110-115 points
    2. Anaheim 105-110
    3. Nashville 100-105
    4. Chicago 100-105
    5. San Jose 90-95
    6. Detroit 90-95
    7. St. Louis 90-95
    8. Los Angeles 90-95
    9. Calgary 80-85
    10. Edmonton 75-80
    11. Colorado 70-75
    12. Dallas 70-75
    13. Phoenix 70-75
    14. Minnesota 65-70
    15. Columbus 55-60

    Notes on the above:

    • Surprisingly, I have the Predators rated the best team in the Conference (based on very strong goaltending, defence and coaching scores). Nashville plays in a brutally tough division though. Vancouver plays in the weakest division in the league, and that should lead them to another 1st place showing.
    • I have Chicago, LA and Vancouver rated roughly the same. I don’t have a non-playoff team rated anywhere near the top-8 teams in the West.
    • Could be significantly better than they’re ranked: San Jose (if Niemi plays a full season like his half-season last year); Colorado (if the kids are healthy and Varlamov is a legit goalie); St. Louis (if Halak is healthy and the youth take the next step).
    • Could be significantly worse than they’re ranked: Anaheim (if any of their core gets hurt they have very little depth); Detroit (if Jimmy Howard is only adequate and age catches up to the team); Phoenix (if their goaltending is as weak as expected).
    • Could miss the playoffs: Their division is so tough, a slow start or injury troubles could kill St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago or Nashville’s playoff chances.
    • Could make the playoffs with some luck: Calgary (if Mikka Kiprusof has some magic left, Iginla stays healthy and they incredibly find some secondary scoring).

     Eastern Conference

    1. Washington 110-115
    2. Boston 105-110
    3. Pittsburgh 105-110
    4. Philadelphia 100-105
    5. Buffalo 100-105
    6. Montreal 90-95
    7. NY Rangers 90-95
    8. Tampa Bay 85-90
    9. New Jersey 80-85
    10. Toronto 80-85
    11. Carolina 75-80
    12. NY Islanders 70-75
    13. Winnipeg 70-75
    14. Ottawa 60-65
    15. Florida 55-60

    Notes on the above:

    • Pittsburgh is the highest rated team in the Conference, but its close between them, Boston and Washington. Given the weakness of Washington’s division, the Capitals are likely to take first place.
    • I think the travel schedule of teams in the Southeast Division will have a negative impact on how those teams compete in the standings.  
    • Could be significantly better than they’re ranked: New York Rangers (depends how the kids progress and if Brad Richards performs); New Jersey (depends on Martin Brodeur, Adam Larsson and Mattias Tedenby); New York Islanders (if they get any goaltending they could be in the playoff mix).
    • Could be significantly worse than they’re ranked: Toronto (Corporately, Brian Burke has to get his team into the playoffs this year. The team is awfully young and inexperienced though); Montreal (if Carey Price goes down look out); Tampa Bay (similar to Montreal, they cannot afford a Dwayne Roloson injury).
    • Could miss the playoffs if things don’t gel right: Philadelphia (Chris Pronger’s injury prone, no one really knows what Jaromir Jagr will do and the kids are still kids).
    • Could make the playoffs with some luck: Carolina (great goaltending, okay defence and Eric Staal is an elite player).

    Other fearless predictions for the upcoming season:

    • Conference Finals: Washington over Pittsburgh in the East; Chicago over Nashville in the West
    • Stanley Cup Final: Chicago over Washington
    • Chicago plays Vancouver in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.
    • Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combine to play 120 games this year. Only one of them is available come playoff time.
    • With the Toronto Maple Leafs not making the playoffs, Brian Burke removes himself from the GM position and takes his place as President of the hockey club.
    • Phil Kessel is rumoured to be traded all year.
    • Jaromir Jagr is the most entertaining thing about the new season of HBO 24/7.
    • Lou Lamoriello retires at the end of the season. So does Martin Brodeur, Niklas Lidstrom, Teemu Selanne and Jaime Langenbrunner.
    • The Predators do not trade or re-sign Shea Weber, leaving him a UFARFA for 2012-13.
    • The NHL and NHLPA do not come to terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
    • The Philadelphia Phillies win the World Series over the New York Yankees. Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera promptly retire.
    • Teemu Selanne, Jaromir Jagr and Jarome Iginla fail to score 30 goals.
    • James Neal, Taylor Hall, John Tavares and Tyler Seguin each score 30 goals.
    • A year after her divorce, a Christina Aguilera sex tape is leaked online.
    • The War Horse marks the beginning of the end of Steven Speilberg’s career as a director. It’s awful.
    • Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith do divorce after all.
    • Slash does not appear on stage with Guns N’ Roses at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
    • The Toronto Blue Jays bid on Prince Fielder.
    • There is another recession.
    • Game of Thrones sets new viewing records for HBO.
    • Only Two Broke Girls, The New Girl and Prime Suspect earn a second TV season on a major US television network.
    • The Office without Steve Carrell is terrible.
    • Gabriel Landeskog is the highest scoring rookie. Nino Niederrater wins the Calder Trophy.
    • Alex Ovechkin wins the Art Ross and is the only player to crack 100 points.
    • Jonathan Toews wins the Hart.
    • Shea Weber wins the Norris.
    • Roberto Luongo wins the Vezina.
    • Tuukka Rask replaces Tim Thomas as Bruin starter at some point this season.
    • Shane Doan is traded from Phoenix at his request.
    • Jose Theodore is traded by Florida at the trade deadline.
    • It’s all but confirmed the Phoenix Coyotes will play in Quebec City starting in 2014.
    • The Blue Jackets’ Scott Arniel is the first coach fired. Ron Wilson is next, and whoever replaces Ron Wilson spurs the Leafs to a late-season playoff charge.
    • Coldplay’s new album is considered a disappointment.
    • Brendan Shanahan is forced (allegedly) to resign as NHL disciplinarian.
    • Teemu Selanne is hurt and can’t play in Winnipeg in December.
    • To the financial benefit of the NHL there is no NBA season.
    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.

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