Feb 282012
 

Let’s get this out of the way first.

I’m still not convinced Columbus’ interest in dealing Rick Nash wasn’t a creation of TSN and Sportsnet. The two networks needed a big name to speculate about to drive up ratings for their annual Trade Deadline TV marathons.

Sadly for those networks, Nash remains a Blue Jacket at least until the draft, where the hype will be built up all over again. I am giddy with anticipation (and by giddy I mean hitting my head with a shoe to make the idea of 24 hour coverage of “The Rick Nash Trade – Part Two” go away).

Nonetheless, the trade deadline did produce some moves – 15 trades involving 31 players, according to TSN. As per usual, the moves quickly revealed who’s serious about the Stanley Cup.

Based on team performance and moves they made, here now are the REAL contenders for the Stanley Cup.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Vancouver

The Canucks enter the final portion of the NHL season with the strongest group of forwards they’ve had in a long time, if not ever. The 2012 version of Sammy Pahlsson is a step-slower, slightly less-effective than the one who helped the Anaheim Ducks with the Cup in 2007. However he remains a strong shutdown centreman who can win faceoffs (he led the Blue Jackets in faceoffs prior to the trade, winning 51.1%).

In Zack Kassian, Vancouver effectively replaced Raffi Torres from last year’s playoff run with someone younger and with 20-30 goal potential. Kassian could even develop into the big, scoring winger the team hasn’t had since Todd Bertuzzi left town. Kassian models his game after Bruins bruiser Milan Lucic, which is probably music to the ears of most Canuck fans.

Marc-Andre Gragnani is an underrated puck-moving defenseman who is about to have the spotlight shine on him. There are folks who think he could flourish into a 40-50 point player, and there are certainly similarities between his game and ex-Canuck Christian Ehrhoff. Those similarities include some puzzling play in the defensive zone.

Bottom Line: This Canuck team looks primed for another long post-season run. Cody Hodgson is a big chip to play, but when you consider the team’s time is now (and Vancouver already has Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler in the top two centre positions), Gillis has made the team stronger than it was yesterday.

Potential weakness: The blueline.

2. San Jose

While there will be folks who scoff, let’s remember that the Sharks have made the Conference Finals in back-to-back seasons, and they will enter these playoffs with likely their deepest team ever. Like the Canucks, the Sharks have had some concerns regarding secondary scoring and forward depth, and the acquisitions of Daniel Winnik, T.J. Galiardi (and previously Dominic Moore) address this area.

Winnik was one of Colorado’s most important forwards, playing tough minutes and leading team forwards in ice time for much of the year. The improved play of Gabriel Landeskog and Winnik’s status as an impending UFA made him expendable. He’ll look very good alongside Michael Handzus on San Jose’s third line.

T.J. Galiardi has been an offensive tease so far in his career but he’s got the talent to be a fringe top-six player. Ray Fererro mentioned during Trade Deadline coverage today that Galiardi came to training camp having put on too much muscle, which hampered the player’s speed. Galiardi is an adequate replacement for Martin Havlat, allowing the injury-prone star to take his time to get back into the lineup.

Bottom Line: The Sharks improved their defense in the off-season, and now have improved their foward group. If Martin Havlat comes back healthy, and they get any kind of goaltending, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Sharks three-peat as Conference Finalists, perhaps even graduating to the Cup Final. A re-match with the Canucks would not surprise.

Potential weakness: Goaltending

3. Nashville

Why the Predators and not the Red Wings? Detroit only tinkered with their team (adding Kyle Quincey), and now enter the playoffs with pretty much the same group that’s been knocked out of the playoffs early the last two years.

Meanwhile, the Predators are showing Ryan Suter the money and  pushing their chips to the middle of the table. They were rumoured to have made a big push for Rick Nash, and when that didn’t materialize, they quickly added Andrei Kostitsyn from Montreal. He’s an enigmatic scorer, but he is a scorer, and a legitimate top-6 one at that. Playing with his brother Sergei could be problematic (one friend commented beer sales are about to go up in bars around Nashville), but it’s unlikely coach Barry Trotz will let any off-ice shenanigans impact the team on-ice.

Paul Gaustad is another effective grinder on a team full of them, and acquiring Hal Gill earlier in the week gives the Predators a premiere shutdown defenseman, perhaps one destined to matchup with Ryan Kesler this season.

Bottom Line: The Predators are one of the toughest teams to play against in the NHL, and they were a sniper-away from beating the Canucks in last year’s playoffs. Andrei Kostitsyn might not be Paul Kariya or Peter Forsberg, but he is someone who can create offense on his own. With a deep defense, strong goaltending and an upgraded forward group, Nashville has become the dark horse team to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup.

Potential weakness: Scoring

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Boston

Remember, these are the defending Stanley Cup champions, who have retained much of the team from last year. The addition of Brian Rolston effectively replaces the departed Mark Recchi, although the emergence of Tyler Seguin means less is expected of Rolston in an offensive role. He might become a key part of the second powerplay unit, shooting darts from the point. Otherwise he’ll play a bottom-six role.

Meanwhile, there is a common belief today that you need 8 NHL-ready defenseman to go far in the playoffs. Greg Zanon and Mike Mottau fit that bill, the former one of the better shot blockers in the league, while the latter is a good skater and marginal puck-mover.

Bottom Line: Boston looks like a team ready to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.

Potential weakness: Nathan Horton’s health

2. New York Rangers

Why the Rangers, when they didn’t make a single move of significance (apologies to John Scott) at the Trade Deadline? Sometimes, the best move a team can make is no move. The 2012 New York Rangers are greater than the sum of their parts, and messing with that chemistry in a significant way could upset everything the team has been building towards.

Rick Nash would have been sexy, but there’s no telling how his arrival would have worked in the locker room. GM Glen Sather was smart to let this team prove what it can do in the playoffs, and then tinker as necessary in the off-season.

Bottom Line: Thanks to Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, the Rangers are Nashville-East with more scoring. That makes them a Cup contender.

Potential weakness: Scoring

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Couldn’t put Pittsburgh on the list for one reason – there’s no guarantee Sidney Crosby is coming back. If he does, and he’s healthy, they’re added to the contender mix. The thing is, with how aggressive play is in the playoffs, does anyone think Sidney Crosby would survive a long playoff run without another injury?
  • The Flyers aren’t a contender, and really, haven’t been one all season. They’re fun to watch but there are too many holes on defense or in goal to be considered among the elite. Could be a different story in a few years though.
  • Puzzling move #1: The Toronto Maple Leafs trading Keith Aulie, who remains a legit defensive prospect - one who could become Hal Gill 2.0. Yes Toronto has depth on the blueline, but acquiring Carter Ashton for Aulie seems like acquiring 50 cents on the dollar. Ashton projects as a 3rd line guy at best. Burke is living and dying by his current roster in Toronto. It’s likely not enough to get the team into the playoffs.
  • Puzzling move #2: The Edmonton Oilers trading Tom Gilbert to their division rivals the Minnesota Wild for Nick Schultz. I think this sums it up nicely. Perhaps all this really means is that Edmonton intends to draft an offensive defenseman in the first round this year, and pair him with Schultz immediately.
  • Talked a lot about the Vancouver – Buffalo trade above, but one more thing: there’s no question Cody Hodgson is the most talented player in the deal, but from a Canucks standpoint they’re looking to win now. Long-term, it could be a trade the Canucks regret, although it does seem the franchise never warmed to the guy. Biggest immediate concern - what happens if one of Kesler or Sedin gets hurt?
  • Johnny Oduya is a nice complimentary pickup by the Blackhawks, but they needed more (another d-man, another scoring forward) for their playoff chances to truly improve. Right now, the ‘Hawks look like a second round team at best.
  • It’s rare you see the Flames apologize to the Oilers.
  • It would not surprise me if Ben Bishop eventually forced Craig Anderson out of town in Ottawa. Bishop is a very good goalie prospect, and the team already has Robin Lehner on the farm. It could be Anderson becomes the known asset the Senators eventually move for needed pieces.
Mar 022010
 

Not too long ago, in fact about 2 and a half weeks ago, in the ramp up to the “first deadline” before the roster freeze everyone had marked Demitra as on their trade block. Then came the Olympics and Canucks fans are already excited to have him back on the team. I knew from the beginning that Demitra was only going to get better during the Olympics and he showed that from game to game. Heck if Halak and the rest of the Slovak team hadn’t imploded in the 3rd period of their bronze medal game it would be Pavol not Sami coming home with the medal.

Demitra was playing some inspired hockey and it’s clear that he’s found his stride. I don’t doubt when he returns to the lineup tonight in the NHL he’s going to be better than he was before the Olympics but when playing with linemates like Wellwood and Bernier, I fully expect his level of play to regress a little. He’s slated to start on the 2nd line tonight but I doubt playing alongside silver medalist Ryan Kesler can spark him the way Hossa and Gaborik did.

Demitra’s play at the Olympics made his value spike, but that being said trading him isn’t going to give us all that much more cap room. While he has a 4 million salary cap hit over 82 games, it’s pro-rated over the games he’s played and the games he has remaining, so really his cap hit is more in the area of 1.2 million. Right now with a struggling set of bottom six forwards, Demitra’s play isn’t going to thrive. That being said the Canucks can never have too much scoring so it makes sense to keep him around. So what do you do?

The original rumours of Demitra to the Rangers look better than ever. Especially if he got to play with fellow Slovak Gaborik and re-spark what they had at the Olympics here in Vancouver. If that were the case the Canucks would likely have to throw a couple other players in and swing some sort of package deal but in moving a big name like Demitra, you’re going to want something back. The Canucks are not in the business of selling at this deadline.

Bottom line is while Demitra’s value has gone way up because of his play at the Olympics the Canucks aren’t likely to get what they need at this deadline in return for him. Right now they need a defenseman and the list of teams that would want Demitra aren’t the same list of teams that have a top 6 blue-liner capable of filling our needs. At the end of the day Demitra’s value to this team keeps interesting. Demitra gets to slot back into the PP taking that point shot away from Raymond/Samuelsson, and he has the potential to really ignite that 3rd line and give the Canucks another offensive weapon. With the playoffs coming up we’ll need a guy like Demitra on the team and unless Gillis gets offered some sort of no-brainer in return for Demitra I don’t see him moving at this deadline

Jan 192010
 

Off the bat if it’s not clear yet I’ll let it out, I’m one of the biggest proponents to getting Kovalchuk at the deadline as a rental for this team. Heck I’d be over the moon if we could trade for him and get something of it, but there are several complications that come up and over the past week in talking to The Opiated Sherpa and my friend @MechanixFetch I think there are somethings that need to be laid down as far as ground work for the Kovalchuk Pipe Dream as far as a long term stay for the Russian goes.

The Cap

It’s no secret that Kovalchuk wants a gajillion dollars. Okay, he wants something in the area of 10 million a year. The Canucks are already locked up for 6 million per Sedin, and 5 million for Luongo, and that’s before even considering re-signing Kesler or do you let him walk? Even still, barring Kovalchuk signing a 30 year contract that was front loaded just so that his seasonal cap hit was low enough there’s no way we could sign him at the price he wanted. Even if he took less, we’re still talking enough money that it doesn’t look feasible.

Team Chemistry

One of the biggest issues with bringing in Kovalchuk is where do you slot him. He’s a shoot first winger and the first instinct is to put him with the pass first Sedins. But why mess with Burrows? So do you put him on the second line? Kesler, Raymond and Kovalchuk sure would be a sweet line, but then you have Demitra and Samuelsson to deal with and after being snubbed by the Swedish Olympic team I hardly think Samuelsson will take being relegated to the 3rd line.

The other important thing which might tinker with the locker room is how do you tell your franchise players, the ones you couldn’t afford to pay more, or the ones you pay 10 million dollars in a single year (Luongo), that you’re going to bring in a player that warrants more money? How do you tell the Sedins they’re only worth 6 million and then throw 10 at Kovalchuk?

The Vigneault Project

The bottom line is Kovalchuk isn’t a Vigneault player. He’s not defensive minded, he’s shoot first (something this team needs, but still) and he’s a lone ranger. He doesn’t fit AV’s style of play and mould and while his offense is a thing of beauty he’s your typical Russian (nothing racial or derrogatory meant here) hockey player and he’s in many ways exactly like Ovechkin (minus the physical play). He’s just not exactly the kind of guy that’s going to back check as hard as AV wants him to. With that in mind that’s not to say it wont change. We have to remember that he has played on a team where there haven’t been many other stars and if he was brought to an environment with other players that can actually play we might see a change. His play on the Olympic team this year will be a really good eye opener as to what Kovalchuk looks like when he’s on a team with other stars.

The Gillis Era

Gillis has preached a system of speed, youth, and built a team around players that buy into his system. This ties in to the Vigneault system of play and if Kovalchuk doesn’t fit one mould, he’s not going to fit the other. Gillis goes out after players who serve multiple facets of the game and players that aren’t one dimensional. Kovalchuk is a pure goal scorer and unfortunately on a team run by Mike Gillis that might not fly. There’s no doubt Kovalchuk is a talented player and I would love to see him on this team, but there are so many things that would have to change in order for him to work on this team it just doesn’t look probable.

If you put aside all that we’d have to trade to get Kovalchuk, as a long term stay it just doesn’t look like it would be a good idea. As a rental, if the price was right, I’d say go for Kovalchuk in a heart beat. On the power play, skating with Kesler and Raymond, that could be a thing of beauty. The deadline’s still a ways away so we have time to see how things unfold. I doubt that we’ll see any significant injury, but this season we’ve been hit by injuries no one saw coming and maybe there just might be a way to fit the Russian sniper in.

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