Mar 052011
 

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

Brian Murray, Ottawa Senators

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Gotta give it to Bryan Murray – he’s an entertaining, horse-trading general manager in a league where many front offices are afraid to make deals. However, his off-season plans for the team, as expressed to local media this week, have to concern Sens fans. Quick fixes won’t get the job done, and players selected in the first round aren’t always ready to play in the NHL right away.
  • As a courtesy for Sens fans, here’s a taste of the type of “top-six forward” likely available through free agency this summer: Simon Gagne, Alexei Kovalev (been there, done that), Tim Connolly, Jason Arnott, Michael Ryder, Steve Sullivan, Cory Stillman, Marco Sturm, Alex Ponikarovsky, Radim Vrbata. Yikes.
  • James Mirtle had a great piece this week analyzing the success and future potential of Leafs goalie James Reimer.
  • Speaking of the Leafs, Phil Kessel and Remier are getting a ton of credit for getting the Leafs into the playoff race. Going unnoticed is the very strong play of Carl Gunnarsson. He’s been an upgrade on Tomas Kaberle defensively, and Gunnarsson’s outscored the former Leaf defenseman since the deal.
  • The sky really isn’t falling in Vancouver, but the Canucks’ secondary scoring issues are very real. Manny Malholtra and Maxime Lapierre are unlikely to contribute any offense in the post-season. Which means Vancouver’s second line (Mason Raymond-Ryan Kesler-Mikael Samuelsson) will have to produce, or it’ll be another early exit from the playoffs.
  • Speaking of the Canucks, their defense is reminiscent of the 05-06 Carolina Hurricanes blueline – a collection of good second and third pairing defensemen without a real strong #1. It worked for the Hurricanes, who won the Cup. Usually though, Cup winners have at least one top-end, puck-moving guy. The Canucks don’t have anyone like that, no matter how hard Christian Ehrhoff tries.
  • The Columbus Blue Jackets have spent almost ten years trying to find suitable linemates for Rick Nash. Jakub Voracek certainly looks like a strong offensive match for Nash, but he’s a mess in his own zone. Until he figures that part out, Voracek isn’t a first-line player.
  • Since the Buffalo Sabres are suddenly a “have” organization financially, it will be interesting to see if they can become a viable option for the best free agents. Players hailing from the Greater Toronto Area may like the fact that they can play “close to home” without the media frenzy that comes with playing for the Maple Leafs.
  • If the Atlanta Thrashers become the Winnipeg Jets, they’ll move to the Western Conference, with the Detroit Red Wings coming East. The Jets are an easy fit replacing Detroit in the Central Division. Yet finding a place in the East for the Red Wings could see a major reorganization of the Conference. There really isn’t a suitable replacement to slot into the Southeast Division.
  • It was foolish for Taylor Hall to get into a fight, but not unexpected – the Oilers are the softest team in the league, and Hall has been on the receiving end of punishment all year. At some point, even the most veteran of NHL players is going to lose their cool. That being said, Edmonton has to become a tougher team to play against for 2011-12. For three years now they’ve been pushovers, and that will only hinder their development into an NHL powerhouse.
  • Who knows how long it will last, but it should be noted right now the much-maligned Phil Kessel is outscoring Alex Ovechkin 27-25.
  • This is like a real-life Family Guy joke – enjoy some lewd telestrator-ing.
  • Boston coach Claude Julien says he wants a fourth line that gives the team “an identity.” Translation: Tyler Seguin can expect even less ice time in Boston.
  • One thing to watch in the Eastern Conference playoff race – given Martin Biron’s injury, it looks like Henrik Lundqvist will have to start every remaining game for the Rangers. Lundqvist has played in 70+ games for four straight seasons, and fatigue has affected his game before.
  • An interesting Toronto Star piece on the KHL.
  • One thing to consider after Nashville’s victory over Vancouver this week is the lack of success low-scoring teams have had in the playoffs since the lockout. The lowest-scoring team to make the playoffs in each Conference has never made it further than the second round. In fact, the lowest scoring team to make the playoffs in the Western Conference has yet to make it past the first round.
  • The three lowest scoring teams currently fighting for playoff spots in each Conference: Nashville (8th), Minnesota (10th), Dallas (9th) in the West, Toronto (10th), Montreal (6th), Washington (5th) in the East.
Feb 192011
 

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

Matt Martin, New York Islanders, Max Talbot, Pittsburgh Penguins

Photo credit: canada.com

They say you can teach a player to play defence, but you can never teach a player offense. Offense comes from within – from a player’s imagination, intellect and feel for the game they play.

Two professional sports leagues seem to understand this, and have changed their rules to cater to the offensive side of their game.

Over the last decade, the NFL has gone out of its way to protect the player on-field through which all offense is orchestrated: the quarterback.

As Bill Simmons wrote last fall, when it comes to the NFL today it is pretty much “glorified flag football with better plays.”

It’s also fair to say, given that football has replaced baseball as America’s sport, and given that the Super Bowl has just set record ratings, this change has been a good one for the NFL and its bottom-line.

Meanwhile the NBA, certainly since the launch of the Bird-Magic era, has marketed their entire product around the league’s best offensive players. Rule changes, specifically around the 2001-02 season, have favoured offense.

And, whether it’s real or imagined, being an NBA superstar means getting the benefit of a referee’s call. Sneeze on the game’s best players and you’re likely to be called for a foul.

Like the NFL, the NBA understands that it’s the offensive side of the game that brings and keeps fans around the sport.

This brings us to the NHL, and discussions this week about the return of 70’s-style “goon” hockey.

Of the “big three” North American sports that feature player-on-player contact (hockey, football, basketball), only the NHL doesn’t go out of its way to protect its star offensive players.

Perhaps this is because a certain element of hockey culture has a grip on every nook and cranny of the NHL operation.

From analysts in the media to NHL headquarters to various general managers and coaches throughout the league, professional hockey is overrun with former “tough guys.”

We’re talking the types of players who would fill the bottom of an NHL roster. Players who, when active, exhibited characteristics of sacrifice, toughness and intimidation. Players who more often used their stick as a weapon than a creative tool.

In short – we’re talking about an entire culture created and enforced by former players who could never play the game at the same level of teammates who exhibited the very best the sport has to offer.

This culture recently went to work taking Mario Lemieux to task for his comments about the state the NHL game. They were quick to point out that the Penguins are themselves one of the league’s most penalized teams, employing a player like Matt Cooke, whose job on-ice is based purely on intimidation and intent-to-injure.

Yet despite these unfortunate truths, the fact of the matter is that the NHL is better off when its greatest players contribute their voice to the direction of the sport.

It is a shame another part of the hockey culture is to defer to the status quo, and not “rock the boat.”

Because as it stands, the game’s being left to the Neanderthals.

And that’s not a good thing for the future of the game.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Stephen Brunt hammered away at the same nail in a column earlier this week.
  • For what it’s worth, the NHL’s hiring of Brendan Shanahan and Rob Blake – two skilled players now contributing to the league’s hockey operations – is a step in the right direction.
  • Four random solutions to NHL “gooning:” 1) designate an instigator for every fight, resulting in a powerplay for one team 2) hand out suspensions of increasing seriousness based on the number of instigators (5, 10, 15) a player earns in a year 3) adopt the NBA approach and call more penalties when the league’s best players are infracted upon 4) Adopt Pierre Maguire’s suggestion and reduce the NHL roster by one player.
  • This pretty much sums up the season Nik Antropov’s having in Atlanta: USA Today talks about how adding Blake Wheeler will address the Thrasher’s lack of size up the middle. Antropov’s only 6’6 and plays centre.
  • Nice touch having both the Flyers and the Hurricanes wear #17 jerseys pre-game in honour of Rod Brind’Amour’s banner raising. Speaking of Brind’Amour, I wonder if there are any Oiler fans left in Edmonton willing to argue the similarities between Shawn Horcoff and the former Carolina captain.
  • Brian Burke is already looking to leverage his two new first-round draft picks in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft into an earlier selection. The thing is, the 2011 draft is reportedly a weak one beyond the first few selections. Two late-round picks might not move the Leafs up quite as far as they’d like…
  • …which means plan B may just be dangling those two first-round draft picks in front of cash-strapped teams with young restricted free agents seeking pay raises. Zach Parise (NJ), Shea Weber (NSH), Brent Seabrook (CHI), Zach Bogosian (ATL), Kyle Okposo (NYI) all fit that description, even if their respective teams may not want to move them.
  • As a pending UFA, not sure if Craig Anderson will want to stick around Ottawa for the next few years as they rebuild. That being said, it may be the best chance he has next year of starting the year as a #1 goalie.
  • Meanwhile, in Brian Elliott the Avalanche get a goalie of (at least this year) equal ability, who is also younger, cheaper and may yet improve.
  • Injuries and a low-profile have robbed him of some of the lustre he had as a younger defenceman in Edmonton, but make-no-mistake Tampa Bay got a good one in Eric Brewer. His offense has never truly materialized, but he’s very sound in his own zone, and can play an effective physical game.
Feb 122011
 

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

Tyler Seguin, Boston Bruins

Call it the tale of two second overall draft picks.

When Bobby Ryan was selected by the Anaheim Ducks in 2005, he was already a dominant junior scorer.

With a terrific combination of size and skill, Ryan scored 89 points in 62 games for the Owen Sound Attack in his draft year, and may have won the OHL scoring title if not for an injury.

Touted as an elite offensive prospect, then-general manager Brian Burke took Ryan after the Penguins selected Sidney Crosby.

What followed was anything but smooth sailing.

Ryan played two more years in junior hockey, posting seasons of 95 and 102 points, before he got his professional feet wet with the Portland Pirates, the Ducks AHL affiliate in 2007. Ryan then spent the 2007-08 season on the bus between Portland and Anaheim, his “slowed” development a result of poor conditioning (reportedly 17% body fat) and foot speed that was not NHL-level.

Today, Bobby Ryan is a core member of the Ducks, on his way to his third-straight 30-goal season. The Ducks took their time with his development, and along the way Ryan learned what it took to compete and succeed at the game’s highest level.

Looking at how Tyler Seguin’s rookie season has gone (8 goals, 9 assists, 12:18 minutes a game. frequent healthy scratch), one can’t help but wonder if the Boston Bruins should have been more patient with him.

Instead of dominating junior hockey and being the go-to guy on his junior team (and most likely a leader on Team Canada at the World Juniors this past winter), Seguin’s an afterthought in the Bruin line-up.

Time will tell if his development has been truly stunted.

Meanwhile, Leaf fans everywhere keep their finger’s crossed Seguin’s career is a bust.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • For comparison’s sake, two other rookie seasons from forwards picked second overall picks: Jordan Staal (29 goals, 42 points, 14:56 minutes per game), James van Riemsdyk (15 goals, 35 points, 12:58 minutes per game).
  • Lots of different, positive ways to spin the Mike Fisher to Nashville deal. Perhaps his biggest impact will be off-ice, with the Predators taking full advantage of the Carrie Underwood association. On-ice though, Mike Fisher is now the team’s first line centre. Despite the heroics of Barry Trotz and Pekke Renne, it’s hard to see this team winning its first-ever playoff round without some additional scoring help.
  • Prediction: In a few years any NHL general manager would happily trade 10 Jack Skille’s for one Michael Frolik.
  • Interesting argument from Cam Cole regarding Sidney Crosby’s concussion situation. What again is the argument against outlawing hits to the head? At the very least, couldn’t the NHL also outlaw hits where guys leave their feet to make contact?
  • Speaking of the Penguins, with 26 wins, a 2.20 goals against average and a .923 save percentage, surprisingly little is being said about Marc-Andre Fleury’s Vezina Trophy chances. Expect that to change if the Penguins, without Evgeni Malkin and Crosby, continue to win thanks to terrific defensive play.
  • That being said, the Vezina Trophy may be Tim Thomas’s to lose. He’s on pace to record the highest save percentage of all-time (.942).
  • Personal over/under on Peter Forsberg’s comeback: 15 games, 13 points. Surprised they’re giving him first line ice-time between Milan Hejduk and Matt Duchesne. Eventually Forsberg might be better served in a secondary scoring role. Biggest hockey comeback since Mario’s.
  • With bonds relating to the Phoenix Coyotes going on sale next week, we may know definitively, finally, if the sale to Matthew Hulsizer will happen at all. Prediction: the NHL owns the Coyotes in the 2011-12 season.
  • Would the Edmonton Oilers consider buying out Nikolai Khabibulin? Devan Dubnyk is clearly the best option in goal, now and in the future.
  • First waffles, now Wanted posters in Toronto
  • Speaking of Toronto, interesting decision facing the front office regarding Tyler Bozak, whose play this year hasn’t been worth his salary ($3.75 million). A restricted free agent after the year, the Leafs could walk away, looking to negotiate a lower salary, longer-term deal. Thing is, if they’re successful getting a first line centre in the off-season, Bozak would be third, if not fourth (behind Nazem Kadri) on the depth chart.
  • A little math for Canuck fans as their team makes a run at the league’s best record. Since the introduction of the President’s Trophy in 1985, times its winner has made the Conference Final (14/25); Stanley Cup final (9/25).
  • With NBC/Versus merging, it’s less likely the NHL moves its product to ESPN. Which is too bad. When was the last time you heard an athlete say they can’t wait to see highlights on Versus?
  • Have to wonder if New York Islanders forward Michael Grabner would be a 25- to 30-goal scorer if he had stayed with the Panthers or the Canucks, the two teams that gave up on him this year. He also leads the Islanders in plus/minus (+6).
  • Leading his team in goals, looks like Milan Lucic is on his way to his first 30-goal season, fulfilling his Boston promise as the next Cam Neely a little bit more.
  • Don’t be surprised if the Ottawa Senators end up with the first overall pick in this year’s entry draft. It would be hard for the Oilers or Islanders to play worse than they are. The Senators could be much, much worse after the trade deadline.
Jan 152011
 

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

Doug Wilson, San Jose Sharks

Photo credit: Forbes

As the NHL All-Star Game approaches (yawn), so too does the trade deadline and the final stretch towards the Stanley Cup playoffs.

While there is some significant separation between playoff and non-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference, the Western Conference is a dogfight.

With this in mind, here now are five GMs facing important decisions at this stage of the season.

Doug Wilson, San Jose Sharks

The Challenge: Some questionable moves and a weakened backend has turned the perennially contending San Jose Sharks into a team that might miss the playoffs.

His Choice: Does he make a move now to save the season, or does he ride it out and make major changes in the off-season?

One Opinion: Ride it out. Outside of Danny Boyle, it’s obvious the Sharks defence struggles moving the puck. Granted, Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have been miserable, but together they take up so much salary cap room that it is impossible to make significant roster changes during the year. Expect the Sharks to try and upgrade their defence in a minor way, while hoping their “Big 3” can turn it on in time to make the post-season.

Crazy Thought: If this was the NBA, where sign-and-trades are common, you could almost rationalize a Tomas Kaberle for Patrick Marleau type of move. The Leafs need more top-end forward talent, consider themselves deep on defence, and have some salary cap room. Alas, this isn’t the NBA, and Kaberle is a pending UFA after this year.

Bryan Murray, Ottawa Senators

The Challenge: Starting to rebuild the Ottawa Senators franchise before he is fired.

His Choice: There are a ton of choices, but perhaps the most interesting is to trade Daniel Alfredsson for prospects and draft picks.

One Opinion: Trade Alfie. If he’s open to being dealt, Alfredsson would be a very attractive piece around the NHL. In addition to his on-ice contributions (currently leading the Sens team in points), Alfredsson is a bit of a bargain. During the last two years of his contract, his cap hit is $4.875 per year. However, he’ll be paid just $5.5 million ($4.5 million + $1 million) over the same period. That’s intriguing math to a budget-conscious contending team that could use an experienced, top-six forward. At the same time, dealing Alfredsson to a contender would be a symbolic “turning of the page” for the Senators franchise.

Crazy Thought: It’s not really that crazy. Everyone knows the Los Angeles Kings have cap space and are looking for a top-6 scoring forward. They’re a natural fit. It’d be more fun to see Alfie in Colorado though – a young team that loves to run-and-gun and has some cap space as well.

Dale Tallon, Florida Panthers

The Challenge: Tallon was very adamant his plan was to rebuild the Florida Panthers using the same scorched earth approach he used to rebuild the Chicago Blackhawks. And yet there have been enough on-ice positives this year that the playoffs are still a possibility.

His Choice: Stick to the long-term plan or make a post-season run.

One Opinion: Stick to the plan. Under Peter DeBoer and back-stopped by Tomas Vokun, the Panthers have been one of the elite defensive teams in the NHL this year. If they were able to generate any kind of offense, they’d be even closer to the playoffs than they are now (nine points back). However, trading for offense is usually costly, and young offense is rarely dealt around the NHL. Let’s not forget, this is one of the older teams in the NHL. While they’ve kept things interesting, it’s in the team’s best interest to move some pieces at the trade deadline and keep getting younger.

Crazy Thought: Trades between teams in the same division are rarely made. It’s too bad, since Niclas Bergfors is young, can score and is lodged in the Atlanta Thrashers doghouse. It would be interesting to see what he could add to the Panthers offense down the stretch.

Brian Burke, Toronto Maple Leafs

The Challenge: The Toronto Maple Leafs were supposed to be better than 25th in the NHL by this stage of team’s rebuilding plan.

His Choice: Fire Ron Wilson or keep him for another year.

One Opinion: Keep Wilson. Wilson is a decent, detail-oriented coach that insists on having his team play a puck-pursuit, aggressive style of hockey. Sadly, there just isn’t enough talent on the team to execute this style effectively. It’s not his fault either that the team hasn’t had a good goaltender during his entire Leafs coaching career.

Crazy Thought: One rumour out of Toronto is that Brian Burke is set to replace Rich Peddie as President of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Ltd. If that’s the case, Dave Nonis would become the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. General Manager’s usually want their “own guy” behind the bench, meaning that if Burke moves “up,” Wilson’s probably “out.”

Don Maloney, Phoenix Coyotes

The Challenge: The Phoenix Coyotes are proving last year’s playoff appearance wasn’t a fluke, and impending free agent goalie Ilya Bryzgalov remains the biggest reason for the team’s success.

His Choice: Sign Bryzgalov or lose him to free agency in the off-season.

One Opinion: Sign him. Like all things with the Coyotes, this one’s complicated by their dicey ownership situation. There is no question that the team would like to re-sign Bryzgalov, but first they want an owner in place to sign the cheques. That’s a fine argument, except when you consider that Bryzgalov may be one of, if not the, most valuable player in the NHL. Without him this Coyotes team goes back to looking like a lottery-pick, bottom-dwelling mess. As the current owners of the franchise, the NHL should do what’s necessary to solidify the franchise’s existence, while protecting the team as an investment, and get Bryzgalov signed.

Crazy Thought: Damien Cox already mentioned it, but the Toronto Maple Leafs would have a big interest if Ilya Bryzgalov became a free agent. Remember, Brian Burke is Bryzgalov’s former GM and did him a favour by placing him on waivers three years ago. That being said, there would be a number of teams eager to bid on an elite NHL goalie. Bryzgalov’s return to Phoenix would be doubtful if he became a UFA.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • While they’re struggling of late, the Los Angeles Kings are still a +16 in the goals for/goals against department. That’s fourth in the Conference, behind Chicago, Detroit and Vancouver.
  • Not sure what exactly it means in the big picture of things, but Pierre LeBrun ranks each NHL Division.
  • James Mirtle looks at the NHL’s best defensive forwards and defensive defencemen at the half-way mark. While not the most foolproof analysis, it serves as another reminder that Tomas Plekanec has become quite the player for Montreal.
  • Statistically, the worst team 5-on-5 but in the playoffs? The Tampa Bay Lightning. Those numbers should really improve if Dwayne Roloson can keep up his play in goal.
  • Statistically, the best team 5-on-5 but outside the playoff picture? Florida. They’re knocking on the door of being a top-10 team in this area.
  • With the success of the Winter Classic, both financially, critically and schmooze-festly, there’s no need for an All-Star Game anymore. NHL should just name a mid-season All-Star team and be done with it.
  • Remember when Simon Gagne was considered the defensive presence on an Olympic line with Joe Sakic and Jarome Iginla? Well he’s a -20 in 26 games this year.
  • NHL ice-time leaders amongst forwards: 1. Ilya Kovalchuk 2. Eric Staal 3. Sidney Crosby 4. Corey Perry 5. Brad Richards. 6. Alex Ovechkin. The most interesting name appears at #25: former Leafs castaway Alex Steen is playing 20 minutes a night in St. Louis.
Dec 312010
 

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

Jay Feaster, Calgary Flames

Photo credit: Calgary Herald

So just how big a project is rebuilding the Calgary Flames?

Countless articles and endless minutes of media coverage in Canada over the holidays talked about how Darryl Sutter left this team without the young or tradeable assets necessary to build hope for a better future.

The bar is being set incredibly low for Jay Feaster. Basically, if he makes a couple of trades for draft picks at the deadline, columnists will award him a Bronze Star for valour.

The thing is, the Flames situation is desperate only if you believe they should be competitive right now. In short, if you drank from the Sutter kool-aid, you’re a very unhappy person right now.

Yet most Flames fans stopped drinking this Kool-Aid long ago. Similar to up the road in Edmonton, Flames fans are just hungry for a period of sustained success. They are tired of mediocrity. And mediocrity is all that Darryl Sutter has been able to muster since the lockout.

Which is why it was most alarming to hear Jay Feaster say in his first press conference how the playoffs were a goal for the team.

Perhaps it was an empty promise. However, the post-lockout NHL has proven itself to be an incredibly difficult place to remain competitive and rebuild at the same time.

These days, the best talent is locked in contract-wise, which means there aren’t the same rebuilding options as there used to be on the UFA market each summer. Similarily, good young talent is also the cheapest, and therefore greatest, asset a team can have in the NHL. So you see less of it on the trade market. Finally, with the league’s salary cap structure, and most teams either maxed out or at their own internal budget, you just don’t see big contracts moved very often.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are one team that have tried to have it both ways – rebuild and remain competitive. And while they’ve been successful acquiring a few strong young pieces (Phaneuf, Kessel in particular), their efforts have neither been good enough to turn the franchise into a playoff team, nor bad enough to give the team a collection of top-end draft picks. It’s a tweener franchise, and looks like it could be that way for years to come.

No, if you have a strong front office (and let’s not forget Jay Feaster’s won a Cup already), the best way to build a Cup contender in the post-lockout NHL is to, basically, tank it for a couple of years. It let’s you accumulate assets, cap space and build hope amongst the fan base.

The best thing Jay Feaster and the Calgary Flames can do is copy a move from Toronto Blue Jays’ GM Alex Anthopoulos – communicate that 2013-14 is the year you plan to be ready for a Cup run, and build everything the organization does towards that goal.

Anything else is short-sighted.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • For whatever reason, whether it’s Gord Miller going crazy over goals against Norway, or Pierre Maguire’s usual blind homerism, or the fact that Canada has dominated the tournament for so long, the TSN broadcast of the World Juniors this year seems rather smug and self-congratulatory. Then again, there are a lot of folks who’d say that’s TSN’s approach in a nutshell.
  • One wish for the Flames rebuild: bring back the puck pursuit, offensive hockey the team was known for in its glory years.
  • One team that’s always pointed to as a team that’s “rebuilt” and stayed competitive is the Detroit Red Wings. Well, no team has scouted Europe better, particularly from 1989-2000. Remember, even in the early 1990s there were NHL teams that weren’t interested in drafting Europeans. However, since the hey-day of drafting players like Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Franzen, it’s been a long time since the Red Wings hit the bulls-eye at the draft. Jonathan Ericsson was supposed to be that player, and he just hasn’t performed up to expectations. The Red Wings are the oldest team in the NHL this season, and have been one of the older teams for years now. It’s hard to believe sure, but the sun has started to set on this dynasty.
  • Remember Jason Smith, the former Oilers captain? If you look closely enough, there’s a lot of Jason Smith in Theo Peckham’s evolving game.
  • Daniel Winnick and Ian Laperriere look like twins.
  • One more Calgary note, it would make sense for Pierre Gauthier to at least kick the tires on bringing Jarome Iginla to Montreal. He’s exactly what that team is missing in a lot of ways, and has played enough defensive-first hockey to fit well into Jacques Martin’s system.
  • Puzzling way to treat Nazem Kadri by the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ron Wilson. Bench him for three games. Tell him he added too much muscle in the off-season and has lost a step. Then, send him down to the AHL and, while the door hits him on the way out, hold a media scrum where you mention he needs to get stronger. The best place for Kadri is definitely in the AHL – at least it gets him away from the mixed-messages of Ron Wilson.
  • So Bryan Murray this week complains that there are two-tiers of justice in the NHL. How is this news to an NHL GM?
  • Since Derek Roy’s injury effectively kills the Sabres chances this year of making the playoffs, does this mean we’re watching Lindy Ruff coach out the string? Or does the injury buy him another season?
  • Speaking of injuries, the Oilers’ loss of Ryan Whitney assures that team of a top-5 draft pick at the very least. He was enjoying a breakout, All-Star calibre season before his ankle injury.
  • The development of Logan Couture probably means another disappointing playoff performance could make one of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton or Joe Pavelski available.
  • Michael Farber has five theories on what’s wrong with Alex Ovechkin. Here’s another – that OV has always played on instinct – from the heart, not the head. When other teams figured out how to defend against him, it’s forced him to think and analyze – to go against his instincts – which has slowed his explosiveness right down.
Dec 192010
 

[I Watched This Game is a recurring feature at Pass it to Bulis, the hockey blog that knows who needs the puck. It chronicles the insights and observations of two guys who watched a hockey game. To view all the other wonderful stuff PITB does, visit Pass It To Bulis.]


Leading up to this game, the 4pm start time was a bone of contention among Canucks fans. Ever afraid of The Eastern Bias, an elusive swamp monster (pictured) that feeds on national inequality, many claimed the afternoon puck drop gave the Maple Leafs an unfair advantage. But thankfully, the Canucks reasserted their own advantage: having better players. I’d rather that.

It’s always a chippy game when the Leafs come to town, perhaps because Burke’s boys are armed with truculence in place of hockey ability. Unfortunately, the Canucks played down to the Maple Leafs at times, and the game stayed closer a little longer than it should have. But, when the final whistle blew, all was right with the world, as Vancouver skated away with yet another decisive victory the hapless Leafs. And I watched this game:

  • Lost in a very physical contest was the fact that it didn’t have a single fight, and very little in the way of post-whistle pugilism. In fact, despite all the slashing and chirping during play, it never even looked like the rough stuff was on the horizon. Considering that Aaron Volpatti was in the lineup (and you know he was looking to make an impression), I’m going to go out on a limb and surmise the team asked him and everyone else not to drop the gloves. Why? The Canucks had no reason to fight; most of the night, they played with the momentum. The Leafs are a team built on toughness and they were playing in front of an away crowd littered with supporters. A fight would have given them life. Instead, the Canucks saw that their opponents were playing frustrated (Kris Versteeg, especially), and instead of supplying an outlet for that frustration, they simply let the Leafs come apart. If someone ever complains the Canucks don’t fight enough, point to this game as an example of why they might refrain.
  • Speaking of Aaron Volpatti and Toronto fans, I found it a little classless for the jackanape sitting next to his parents to be shouting “Go Leafs Go” while Elliotte Friedman tried to interview his proud parents, down from Revelstoke to attend their son’s first ever NHL game. But, for a fanbase known for booing the home team, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by new evidence that they’re dumber than the saliva on a postage stamp.
  • Am I the only one who thinks that Colby Armstrong looks like a young Monty Burns? What a beak on that guy. Shades of Cyril Sneer.
  • On the empty-net goal: I recognize that Alain Vigneault put Henrik out for the last shift as faceoff insurance, what with Kesler taking the shift before, but part of me wonders if his experience as a parent coloured his decision. Daniel had already gotten a point–Henrik hadn’t, and it’s important to have equality between siblings. The last thing you want is Daniel teasing Henrik on the plane. I find it adorable that Henrik wanted to pass this puck and the Maple Leafs forced him to score. If you wonder why Toronto’s fans are so grumpy all the time, it’s because these are their minor victories.
  • Big props to the Green Men for their props, the waffle-throwing especially. It was a thrilling return to form for them after some concerns that their time in the very lime limelight was nearly over. That said, I have to wonder what happens when these guys go through security. You could see them finding their seats early in the telecast, carrying a backpack. Now I’m not allowed to keep the lid from my water bottle, but the masked vigilantes can carry a sack full of projectiles? I have questions.
  • If we were ever unclear what makes Christian Ehrhoff invaluable to this team, his return to the lineup tonight was a pretty indicative of his regular contributions. In twenty minutes of icetime, Ehrhoff scored the crucial insurance goal, added a threat to the powerplay, (although it still went 0-for-5), and directed 10 shots on goal. He’s got this hockey thing down cold.
  • You’ve gotta feel for Luke Schenn on the second goal (above). First, Jeff Tambellini gets around him. Then, he overplays Tambellini and uselessly puts himself behind the trapezoid for when the puck hits Kesler, the trailer. You could hear him calling for the puck before he even came into the frame. At this point, Francois Beauchemin’s been hung out to dry. He knows Kesler’s a shooter, so he leaves his man (Hansen) and goes down to block the shot. Kesler steps around him and finds Hansen instead. It’s a brilliant bit of playmaking from a guy who might have earned the label “superstar veteran,” but ladies and gentlemen: Luke Schenn is your goat.
  • We watched last night’s game with a Maple Leafs fan. He began the night hurling expletives at John Mitchell. By the evening’s end, he had cried himself to sleep.
  • While I agree our star pests have indeed matured somewhat, I like that Alex Burrows, like the OMG Cat, remains incapable of keeping his mouth shut. He’s the Joe Biden of the Canucks–prone to nonsense, but always smiling. I hope he never changes. I also like the way he crashes a crease.
  • Some other guys who played well: Tanner Glass and Jannik Hansen, who have become fantastic defensive players. Hansen is most definitely the team’s best forechecker, and Glass has become an expert shot-blocker and penalty-killer. For obvious reasons, I think my next purchase will be a Tanner Glass jersey. Kevin Bieksa also had another great night, finishing with two assists, a game-high plus-3 rating, and third star honours. Secret shame: I’ve come around completely. I like Kevin Bieksa.
  • And finally: In Edmonton, Roberto Luongo was robbed of a much-deserved shutout because the guys in front of him quit playing ten seconds early. Last night, the goal that broke the goose egg was his fault. When shots come up at him, Luongo can get a little overeager, and when he does, he gets stabby, like Norman Bates or Patrick Bateman. He stabs at the puck when he doesn’t need to. The Blackhawks have exploited this flaw in the past, putting shots glove side and then attacking the crease if Luongo knocks it down instead of making a clean catch. Against Grabovski, he should have been able to catch the puck, but an impatient jab puts his glove out of position and it finds a way past him. Like a stray dog, this is something that needs to be caught and fixed.
Dec 182010
 

It’s no secret that I don’t like the Leafs. Every season, when the NHL schedule comes out, I immediately circle the nights of the Leafs games.

I’m not sure when my irrational hate for them started. Maybe it was after the Canucks beat them in 1994 en route to the Stanley Cup Finals. Maybe it was the year before that when I considered myself as much a Habs fan as a Canucks fan. Or maybe the hate came after being force fed Leafs games every freaking Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada.

I’ll admit though that I haven’t minded the Leafs on HNIC as much this season. Mostly, because the Leafs have looked lousy on Saturday nights. After beating the Habs on October 9th, they have a dismal 2-5-1 record on Saturdays; those 5 losses include 3 shutouts. I don’t blame them – I’m usually hungover on Saturdays myself.

At 12-15-4, the Leafs sit in 13th in the Eastern Conference and 28th overall in the NHL. Lottery, here they come again. I mean, Tyler Seguin and Sean Couturier would be a nice foundation down the middle.

Oh wait.

Mind you, the Canucks haven’t been much better on Saturdays this season. At 2-2-1, they’ve lost more games than they’ve won. One of those losses was the thoroughly embarrassing 7-1 spanking at Rogers Arena at the hands of Corey Crawford and the Chicago Blackhawks. But then again, one of their wins was against the Leafs in Toronto.

The Canucks have designated tonight’s game – which, incidentally, starts at 4 PM because Leafs fans apparently can’t watch their beloved team after dinner – as Fan Appreciation Night. After the game, the Canucks will be giving the jerseys off the players’ backs and giving out a small gift to fans on their way home.

You know what would make me feel really appreciated though?

If the Canucks beat the Leafs. Bad.

Dec 112010
 

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

Bob Gainey, Montreal Canadiens

It’s hard to imagine Bob Gainey laughing.

A Google image search confirms even smiles are hard-fought, often-lost battles in the corners of his mouth.

Yet Bob Gainey has a lot to smile and laugh about.

This Montreal Canadiens team – a team he essentially re-built in the summer of 2009, then handed off to current GM Pierre Gauthier – is a pretty good one.

Making things all-the-more sweet is that Gainey essentially built this team in the face of constant criticism. Critics said his team was too small; that it wasn’t French enough; that Jacques Martin couldn’t coach offense; and that Carey Price could never find permanent success. Gainey said thank you very much, weathered the media storm and built a quick, counter-attack team full of character.

Today, this is a team that believes in each other, its system, and its coaching staff. They honour the great teams of Montreal’s past through their sacrifice, resilience and tempo of play. Mike Cammalleri’s Cup contender assertion is simply another indication that there’s a confidence amongst Habs players that hasn’t existed in some time.

Whether Cammy’s right or not remains to be seen. The team could use another game-breaker, and the loss of Andrei Markov is a significant one.

But there are some championship qualities to be found here if one looks closely enough.

And those are qualities Bob Gainey brought to the team before he stepped away.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • You would think the return of Mario Lemieux to the ice, even if it’s for an alumni game, would be exciting. But does anyone else remember how boring the Oilers-Habs alumni game was in the original Heritage Classic? After the initial player introductions and the magic of playing outdoors subsided, all we were left with was rusty retirees scrimmaging duly. Anyways, the Penguins and Capitals alumni are squaring off the day before the 2011 NHL Winter Classic. With Paul Coffey, Bill Guerin, Ron Francis and Bryan Trottier all playing, put your money on the Pittsburgh home team.
  • Puck Daddy reports 23 busloads of “Nordiques Nation” fans are making the trip from Quebec to New York to see the Islanders host the Atlanta Thrashers.
  • It will be interesting to see how losing Mark Stuart for 4-6 weeks will impact the Boston Bruins. He’s an underrated blueliner.
  • Yet another reason why the Leafs are struggling. Tomas Kaberle’s next goal will be his first of the year. If he’s not contributing offense, he’s not contributing anything.
  • The Buffalo Sabres are alive and well after a slow start to the year. One reason: Thomas Vanek’s found his A-game.
  • Speaking of the Sabres, Shaone Morrisonn is out for awhile with concussion symptoms. This is another opportunity for Chris Butler to show he belongs.
  • Word in Chicago is that injured players Marian Hossa, Fernando Pisani and Patrick Kane could all be back sooner than expected. To possibly fill the void until they return, the Blackhawks have signed former Canuck Ryan Johnson to a tryout contract.
  • Speaking of the ‘Hawks, why did they sign Marty Turco again? Corey Crawford is two wins away from tying the team record for most consecutive wins by a goaltender.
  • Slowly but surely, David Booth is coming around for the Florida Panthers. The thing is, for a team dedicated to rebuilding, is it smart to make a player with a history of concussions a franchise centerpiece?
  • No surprises here: the oft-injured Kari Lehtonen is having back trouble in Dallas. Good thing for them Andrew Raycroft has played pretty well this year.
  • Matt Duchene has created a Twitter account to generate interest in the team. Not to be cynical, but there’s a 50% chance that’s code for “meeting girls on road trips.”
  • Quietly, Jeff Woywitka has been a solid, defensive presence for the Dallas Stars.
  • If ever there was a time for Edmonton’s Sam Gagner to take the next step forward and demonstrate he can be an elite player in the NHL, it’s now, with Shawn Horcoff out for an extended period.
  • Excuse me, Part 1: What type of goal was that again, Craig Laughlin?
  • Excuse me, Part 2: Remember, you can’t actually buy waffles at the Air Canada Centre. You have to smuggle them in. Please let this become a tradition.
  • In honour of CBC’s 3D coverage this weekend, Down Goes Brown provides a technology guide for hockey fans.
  • Why the Ottawa Senators are a mess, reason #346: Tough to move under-performing, over-priced veterans in today’s salary cap era. Even if the team can find a buyer for Alexei Kovalev, Sergei Gonchar isn’t going anywhere soon.
  • The loss of Andy McDonald (concussion) probably kills the St. Louis Blues chances of making the playoffs. Reports suggest the team is looking to salvage the season through a trade, with Travis Zajac, Stephen Weiss and Matt Moulson the potential targets.
Dec 042010
 

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

Daryl Katz, Edmonton Oilers and Gary Bettman

Photo credit: rds.ca

The more things change, the more they stay the same for the Edmonton Oilers.

After almost two decades of uncertain ownership, Daryl Katz’s purchase of the team in 2008 was supposed to solidify their roots for a generation, if not longer.

In Katz, Oiler fans saw the embodiment of their dream owner – a life-long fan with the deep pockets to keep the team in Edmonton, and with the desire to ice a perennial winner. Katz, to his credit, said all the things Oiler fans wanted to hear. So invested in Edmonton was Katz that he was willing to put up $100 million of his own money into a new $450 million downtown area.

Yet, two years later, rumours of the Oilers moving have already sprung up twice – once in the summer (to Hamilton), and then this week (to Quebec City).

In each case, the threat seems to have originated from the inner circle around Katz himself.

Granted, negotiations with the City of Edmonton to build a new arena are not going as planned. The team’s 2014 deadline for a new arena is unlikely to be met. And granted, the relocation talk in each instance was quickly quashed by Oilers brass. But Katz’s cavalier willingness to drop the “relocation” word is an insult to Oiler fans who have already been through so much.

One also has to wonder, if this bully negotiating tactic does not work, what Oilers ownership has in mind for a Plan B.

Just a guess, but given that Quebec City officials met with Oilers ownership this week, perhaps coordinated East-West lobbying at the federal level is that intended next step.

*****

Forbes magazine came out this week with their list of NHL franchise values.

While the research methods and findings are certainly being questioned by NHL owners, it remains a fascinating read.

According to Forbes, 14 of 30 NHL teams have decreased in value over last year. Furthermore, the magazine claims seven NHL franchises (Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks) are propping up the rest of the league financially.

All this does is raise questions once again about the league’s direction.

Hand in hand with that should be questions about Gary Bettman, and specifically his future.

Gary Bettman was hired with to sell the game in the U.S., end labour unrest, expand and modernize the league. Whether he has succeeded or failed at each of these objectives is a topic for another day. What is certain though is that the NHL is poised to sign a new, lucrative US television deal at the end of this season.

The league’s collective bargaining agreement ends after the 2011-12 season. Owners, having instituted a salary cap last time around, are eager to gain even further concessions from the players this time. No-trade clauses, a cap on contract lengths and even the notion of guaranteed contracts are rumoured owner targets.

Finally, with Canadian franchises fuelling NHL profits like never-before, there is at least one legitimate opportunity to strengthen the league’s bottom line by returning a team to Canada.

Bettman isn’t quite a greybeard, but he’ll turn 50 in 2012. The following season, 2013, would be Bettman’s 20th year in the thankless role of Commissioner. Only Clarence Campbell (1946-77) and Frank Calder (1917-43) would have led the league longer. If Bettman can secure a good TV deal, “win” the next CBA for the owners and return a team to Canada – all of which seem possible, if not likely, in the near future – it’s easy to see him hanging up his skates before 2015.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

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