Sep 132011
 

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

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

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

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

B+ Grade

Boston
Last Year (A)

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

Philadelphia
Last Year (A+)

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

Washington
Last Year (B)

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

B Grade

Pittsburgh
Last Year (B+)

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

Montreal
Last Year (B)

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

Winnipeg
Last Year (C+)

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

B- Grade

Buffalo
Last Year (B-)

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

Toronto
Last Year (B+)

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

C+ Grade

New York Rangers
Last Year (D+)

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

Tampa Bay
Last Year (D)

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

Carolina
Last Year (C-)

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

C Grade

New Jersey
Last Year (C+)

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

Florida
Last Year (C-)

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

New York Islanders
Last Year (D)

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

C- Grade

Ottawa
Last Year (C+)

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

Sep 062011
 

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

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

The question is – do these moves have any impact?

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

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

Here’s what was learned:

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

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

A Grade

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

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

Dan Blysma – Pittsburgh
Last Year (B)

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

B+ Grade

Claude Julien – Boston
Last Year (B)

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

Peter Laviolette – Philadelphia
Last Year (B+)

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

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

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

Guy Boucher – Tampa Bay
Last Year (C+)

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

B Grade

Jacques Martin – Montreal
Last Year (B-)

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

C+ Grade

Bruce Boudreau – Washington
Last Year (C+)

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

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

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

Kevin Dineen – Florida
Last Year (N/A)

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

C Grade

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claude Noel – Winnipeg
Last Year (N/A)

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

C- Grade

Paul Maurice – Carolina
Last Year (C-)

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

May 142011
 

Eastern Conference Final

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

What we learned in Round 2

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

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

Pertinent Questions

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

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

Key Injuries

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

Quick Decisions

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction

Boston in 6

*****

Western Conference Final

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

What we learned in round 2

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

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

Pertinent Questions

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

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

Key Injuries

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

Quick Decisions

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction

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

*****

Now a word for the dearly departed:

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

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

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

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

Mar 262011
 

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

With two weeks left until the end of the NHL regular season, it’s pretty easy for fans to get caught up in the race for the final playoff spots.

But those teams who scramble to the finish line rarely make it all the way to the Stanley Cup final.

Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose in the West, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington in the East – these are your Stanley Cup favourites heading into the Spring.

Each of these teams has their strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s take a closer look.

Philadelphia Flyers

Strengths: Offensive depth – five 20-goal scorers, soon-to-be five players with 50-or-more points. A strong two-way defense that features two solid puckmovers (Andrej Meszaros, Braydon Coburn), two good puck movers (Matt Carle, Kimmo Timonen) and one of the best of all-time (Chris Pronger). This is also an experienced team, similar in makeup to the roster that made it to the Finals last year. Peter Laviolette is a very good coach.

Weaknesses: For a team this offensively gifted, the powerplay has been awfully mediocre.

Question marks: The Flyers made the Stanley Cup Finals last year with questionable goaltending. Sergei Bobrovski enters the playoffs as the number one, but he’s unproven. Chris Pronger has had an injury-filled season. Healthy he’s their MVP, and has proven (as recently as last year) he can be a dominant player in the post-season.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 100-1

Boston Bruins

Strengths: Goaltending. Tim Thomas has had a wonderful season, and Tuukka Rask is a more-than-capable back-up. Like the Flyers, the Bruins also feature balanced scoring. They’re also the best team in the NHL at 5-on-5.

Weaknesses: It’s a good thing the Bruins have good goaltending, since they are second-worst in the league at giving up shots on goal. Without Zdeno Chara, this is a serviceable defense at best.

Question marks: None of the players the Bruins picked-up (Tomas Kaberle, Rich Peverley, Chris Kelly) have made much of an impact, although Kaberle has picked it up of late. The thing is the former Leaf blueliner’s post-season play has never earned rave reviews. This is also predominantly the same team that got upset by the Flyers last year.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 20-1

Washington Capitals

Strengths: With Crosby out, they have the most talented player in the game in Alex Ovechkin. They’ve played very well defensively in the regular season, and the blueline is much improved over the 2009-10 season. Their penalty killing is amongst the league’s best. Good team speed.

Weaknesses: Injuries have plagued the team’s best players (Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nik Backstrom, Alex Semin) for most of the season. This might be why scoring has been such a problem. Only the Los Angeles Kings and Montreal Canadiens are on pace to score fewer goals to reach the post-season than Washington. Low-scoring teams historically don’t do well in the playoffs.

Question marks: The Capitals might be the team with the most question marks on this list. Goaltending is a concern, with three youngsters (Michal Neuvirth, Sergei Varlamov, Braden Holtby) each looking like the answer for periods of time during the season. Perhaps the biggest question is the health of Alex Ovechkin. Without him dominating, this team won’t score enough. Finally, for a team that’s dedicated itself to the defensive side of the game, can this new approach translate into playoff victories, or is it true that a leopard can’t change its spots?

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 4-1

Vancouver Canucks

Strengths: The team’s top line. In fact, for two seasons now the Sedin line (the brothers and whomever they lineup with) has been probably the best line in the NHL. Canucks special teams have been truly special – there might not be another team that moves the puck on the powerplay as well as Vancouver. Roberto Luongo has had another strong season, and should enter the playoffs rested. The defense is incredibly deep, featuring a group that’s good, but not great, in all areas.

Weaknesses: This team is top-heavy. For all their success scoring, the Canucks might finish the season with only three 20-goal scorers on the roster (Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows). That’s the same number as the offensively challenged Capitals this season. Vancouver has also been home and cooled out as the top seed in the Western Conference for almost two months now, which rarely bodes well for playoff success.

Question marks: Can Vancouver’s secondary scoring step up if other teams take liberties with the Sedin line and find a way to render it ineffective? Rightly or wrongly, Roberto Luongo still has a reputation for not being mentally tough enough to go far in the post-season. With Manny Malholtra out, there is a lot more pressure on Ryan Kesler to dominate the faceoff circle and play a shut-down role.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: (Given it could mean facing Chicago or Anaheim) 5-1

Detroit Red Wings

Strengths: This is an experienced, well-rounded team that rarely takes penalties nor loses focus. They have the best defenseman in the game (Nik Lidstrom) and probably the two best two-way players in the game (Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk), all having terrific seasons. This is another team with solid puck moving options on defense. They have arguably the league’s best coach (Mike Babcock) behind the bench.

Weaknesses: Jimmy Howard might have a new contract, but his rebound control isn’t very good. He’s definitely the weakest link on the team.

Question marks: For all the skill and speed the Red Wings have, they will have to prove they can win the trench battles required to go deep in the playoffs. Secondary scoring, particularly in a physical playoff series, is also something to wonder about.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 10-1

San Jose Sharks

Strengths: Maybe the strongest top-six offensively in the NHL, and certainly one of the best teams in the centre position. No team takes more shots than San Jose. Other than Vancouver no team is better in the faceoff circle.

Weaknesses: The defense has been a concern for most of the year, although it has improved steadily over the second half. While the team’s bottom-six forwards are full of grit and sandpaper, goals are hard to come by.

Question marks: Antti Niemi has been terrific for a few months, and has already won a Stanley Cup. Still, there are those who believe his unorthodox approach render him a liability. This post-season is his chance to prove he’s not a one-playoff wonder. Like Washington, the Sharks, particularly their top three players (Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley), face questions about being mentally tough enough for playoff success. Heatley in particular has lacked edge since putting on a Sharks uniform.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 20-1

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Damien Cox looked at the rebuilding jobs of eight NHL teams. Oiler fans won’t be happy.
  • Boston’s 7-0 win over Montreal was the highest-rated regular season game on NESN (New England Sports Channel) in 27-years. It’s also safe to say the Bruins have a pretty strong psychological advantage over the Canadiens right now.
  • With local talk that Canucks ownership is hoping to lure an NBA franchise to the Rogers Centre, interesting to read that Anaheim’s ownership is hoping to do the same thing.
  • Michael Grabner has scored more goals than any player acquired on waivers in the past 15 years. Between Grabner and Matt Moulson, the Islanders have their first pair of 30-goal scorers since 2001-02.
  • For those of you who missed it, here’s Ray Ferrero’s take on the Atlanta Thrashers situation.
  • With Justin Williams out of the Los Angeles lineup for the rest of the season, this could be the last, best chance for Oscar Moller to finally stick with the big club. His development has been a disappointment so far for the Kings.
  • Sad news out of Edmonton where anthem singer Paul Lorieau is retiring at the end of the season. Lorieau was the first anthem singer to invite the crowd to sing the national anthem, popularizing the move during the Oilers Cup run in 2006. He’s been the team’s anthem singer since 1981.
  • Too little, too late – Columbus players held a closed door meeting after the team’s loss to Phoenix earlier in the week. The Blue Jackets have only won two of their last 14 games.
  • The Ottawa Citizen takes a look at how their “departed” (Mike Fisher, Alex Kovalev, Chris Kelly etc) have fared since being traded.
  • From the department of weird stats: The Dallas Stars are 2-8-3 without Adam Burish in the lineup.
  • More evidence that Tomas Vokun won’t be a Florida Panther for much longer: he called out his teammates for a lack of effort this week.
  • With the playoffs out of reach, is it really that important for Zach Parise to return to the New Jersey lineup? Entering restricted free agency, perhaps Parise wants to prove he’s healthy. Much could be lost if his knee isn’t ready for NHL action.
  • The emergence of Brandon Prust for the New York Rangers makes one think Sean Avery is very expendable come this off-season.
  • Sidney Crosby is still progressing in his attempt to return to the Penguins lineup. As stated numerous times, expect him in the lineup during the first round of the playoffs.
  • Not a very bold prediction, but you have to expect Gary Bettman will announce the Coyotes are moving to Winnipeg the day after Phoenix is eliminated from the playoffs.
Dec 192010
 

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

Oilers Octane Cheerleaders

Photo credit: oilers.nhl.com

I never knew Santa was a hockey fan.

And yet, when I sat on his lap at the mall this week, and asked him who he thought had been naughty and nice this year, he was quick to hand me the following list.

Surprisingly, I agree with everything he wrote.

Naughty – That Charles Wang continues to own and operate the New York Islanders franchise like it’s the Cleveland Indians from the film “Major League”. It’s a travesty a team with this kind of history, in the biggest media market in North America, seems doomed.

Nice – HBO’s 24/7 Penguins-Capitals series. So it’s aired one episode. So what? It’s the most interesting idea to come from the NHL since the shoot-out, and might be the best TV show ever produced about NHL hockey. It is the antithesis of bland, and would never come from Canada, where everyone wants to be an NHL players’ best pal. Right Pierre Maguire?

Naughty – Vancouver’s downtown bike lanes and City Hall in general. Let’s see. Winters on the West Coast feature roughly 700 days of cold, windy rainstorms and the Lower Mainland’s public transportation system is about as convenient as a gas station that’s only open during an eclipse. So naturally, it makes sense to punish people for driving by turning downtown car lanes into bike lanes. What’s next, passing a law that let’s us all keep chickens in our backyards? Wait a minute…

Nice – Colorado Avalanche hockey. Sure the names are no longer Sakic or Forsberg, but Avs hockey remains up-tempo, high-scoring and fun-to-watch. Pretty much exactly what Bruce Boudreau is trying to stop the Washington Capitals from playing these days.

Naughty – The Edmonton Oiler cheerleaders. Because it’s probably more fun than thinking they’re “nice.”

Nice – That the Steven Stamkos hype has quieted down. Is he an elite shooter? Yes. Is Martin St. Louis a better and more valuable player right now? Yes.

Naughty – That some games are still being decided by goals that result from plays involving a broken one-piece hockey stick.

Nice – The Rangers team Glen Sather’s put together this year.

Naughty – Lou Lamoriello’s fiddling while the Devils continue to burn. He’s either retiring at the end of the year, or choosing to tank the season to score a high draft pick. Either way, it’s not really John Maclean’s fault the team’s this bad.

Nice – The entire Larry Sanders Show has finally come to DVD. Hey now!

Naughty – Natalie Portman in The Black Swan. Go see it, if for no other reason than to watch her exorcize those crappy Star Wars prequels from her body.

Nice – Opposing teams on the Buffalo Sabres. They’ve faced 15 backup goalies so far this year. Their record in these match-ups? 10-3-2.

Naughty – Eugene Melnyk, for not facing up to reality, and seeing the door has closed on this core of Senators.

Nice – Ryan Whitney, who has become the best Edmonton Oilers defenceman since Chris Pronger left town.

Naughty – That “Little Fockers” even exists.

Nice – Ryan Clowe at even strength. Quietly he sits third in the league at 5-on-5 scoring, behind only Sidney Crosby and Pavel Datsyuk.

Naughty – Cam Neely, for blaming the Bruins struggles recently on Claude Julien’s defensive-first system. Way to stir up trouble Cam. That being said, it does seem like this has been a bit of a wasted year in Tyler Seguin’s development, doesn’t it?

Nice – That Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro are teaming up for a crime flick called “The Irishman”.

Naughty – Steve Mason, whose play in goal for the Columbus Blue Jackets this year seems to confirm his Calder Trophy season was a fluke.

Nice – Chris Pronger’s foot surgery. It saves the Flyers from some cap issues in the short-term, and in the long-term should ensure Pronger’s rested for a long post-season run.

Naughty – VANOC, not for failing to host a carbon neutral 2010 Olympics, but for blaming this failure on “sponsors and suppliers”.

Nice – Linus Omark, for reminding us that playing hockey, even professional hockey, should involve a little imagination.

Naughty – The alleged “real ending” to Yogi Bear.

Nice – Canadians I guess, according to the Family Guy’s “Road to the North Pole” Christmas special.

Naughty – Sean Avery. Because you can’t call the league’s penalty minute leader “nice”.

Nice – Gotta love that the nickname “Neon Dion” Phaneuf found its way into the mainstream media this week. Sadly, it’s the flashiest thing about him these days.

Naughty – Only learning after the fact that a condition of marriage includes writing personal messages in a seemingly infinite number of Christmas Cards.

Nice – Secretariat. Because it’s the best laugh in Late Night television right now.

Naughty – Wives who cut back on their husbands’ Egg Nog intake to prevent seasonal weight gain. Is nothing sacred?

Happy Holidays!

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