May 302012
 
New Jersey Devils vs Los Angeles Kings

Having lamented the current state of the NHL in part 1 of my Stanley Cup Finals preview, let’s at least acknowledge the fact that both the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles kings aren’t exactly passive, defensive teams.

In fact, it could be argued that both teams have made it this far because they have, more than any other teams in the postseason, been able to combine their strong defensive systems with excellent forechecks. These are two teams that like to apply pressure in the offensive zone (thank god).

Now, onto breaking down the actual match-up between the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings.

Goaltending:

Kings

What I said pre-season: B (“There is an embarrassment of riches at this position in Los Angeles […]. The Kings move up this list as (Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier) continue to develop”)

Now: A. Jonathan Quick has been the best goaltender in the playoffs so far and was neck-and-neck with Henrik Lundqvist for best goalie in the league this year. He plays the position aggressively, and it will be interesting to see if a strong Devils attack can exploit this and get Quick caught out of position.

Devils

What I said pre-season: B- (“This is probably Martin Brodeur’s final season.”)

Now: B. I wonder, if the Devils win the Cup, does Brodeur retire? Or does he come back to defend? While his play has dropped off the last few seasons, he was a steady performer this year, helped by a Devils approach that protected him from having to face many Grade A scoring chances. Brodeur’s numbers  (2.04 goals against, .923 save percentage) have been good in the post-season, but he’s had soft moments in each series. He’ll need to raise his game against the Kings.

Bottom Line: Some would have you believe that Brodeur’s experience is a positive factor over Quick. However, since the lockout only the Red Wings in 2007-08 have won the Cup using a goalie who’d won one before (Chris Osgood). It’s hard to believe, at this point in the playoffs, previous experience is much of a factor. Which means the Kings get a big nod at this position.

*****

Forwards:

Kings

What I said pre-season: B+ (“If Dustin Penner can demonstrate any kind of scoring consistency, this could be the Conference’s best group of forwards”)

Now: B+. It took 82-games for Kings forwards to live up to their potential, as they struggled immensely during the regular season. The first line – Dustin Brown – Anze Kopitar – Justin Williams – has dominated the post-season, with Brown in particular playing the best hockey of his career. But these playoffs have been a “return to glory” for Dustin Penner (10 points), Mike Richards (11 points) and Jeff Carter (9 points). Together, they represent one of the tougher, better second lines in the entire NHL, and have helped the Kings go from second last in league scoring (2.29 goals per game) in the regular season to third in the playoffs (2.93). Dwight King (5 goals) has provided the third line with much needed offense. This is a physical group that, while not exactly fast, anticipate the play very well.

Devils

What I said pre-season: B (“This might be a sneaky-good offensive group, although the bottom-six could use work”)

Now: B+. Despite the bounce-back season from Patrick Elias and the terrific rookie season of Adam Henrique, the Devils were middle-of-the-pack (15th) in league scoring during the regular season. However, over the course of the year they added Alexei Ponikarovsky and Steve Bernier to the roster, and promoted Steven Gionta. Each of those moves has improved the team’s third and fourth lines, turning the Devils into a four-line squad capable of pinning opponents in the defensive zone. This depth compliments the offensive talents of Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, who enter this Final as the most talented offensive players on either roster. This is a very good group, although Patrick Elias hasn’t produced much this spring (18 games, 4 goals, 6 points).

Bottom Line: The Devils have the better talent and the stronger fourth line, but no line is playing better than the Kopitar line right now. Consider this match-up even.

*****

Defense:

Kings

What I Said pre-season: A (Drew Doughty […] remains a Norris Trophy candidate. Jack Johnson […] looks like a legitimate first pairing guy. The rest of the group is an average mix of youth and experience”)

Now: A. Despite trading Jack Johnson to Columbus for Jeff Carter during the season, the Kings retain their A-grade thanks to the emergence of Viatcheslav Voynov and the stellar season from Willie Mitchell. Mitchell and Matt Greene give the Kings two terrific, physical shut-down defenseman. Meanwhile, Voynov and youngster Alec Martinez can skate and provide excellent first passes out of the zone. In fact, the Kings compensate for a lack of speed from their forwards by transitioning the puck from defense to forwards  quicker than most other teams in the league. Finally, after roughly 12-20 months of mediocre play, Drew Doughty has rediscovered his elite game this post-season, and is the best defenseman in the series by a country mile. Finally, this is a blueline that has the green light to join the attack, helping the Kings generate more odd-man rushes than most.

Devils

What I said pre-season: C (“[…] Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov are two of the best defensive defencemen in the league. Otherwise it’s an average group with below average skill”)

Now: C+. As expected, the lack of skill hampered the Devils blueline for much of the season, as New Jersey’s group struggled to move the puck up to its forwards effectively. However, the late season addition of Marek Zidlicky and the promotion of Peter Harrold from Albany brought much-needed speed and passing skill to the Devils defense. This has paid off in the post-season, with both players getting the majority of powerplay time and leading New Jersey to the fourth-best powerplay in the post-season (18.2%). Meanwhile, Bryce Salvador is playing his best hockey in years, leading the defense with 11 points (9 at even-strength) and tied with Anton Volchenkov for most hits by a Devils defenseman (37). This is a lunch pail, no-name group that is very reminiscent of the Cup-winning Hurricanes blueline of 2005-06.

Bottom Line: The offensive gap between the two teams has closed a bit, but the Kings remain the more dynamic blueline. When you add that Los Angeles gets to play Drew Doughty 25+ minutes a night, this category is a mismatch for the Kings.

*****

Coaching

Kings

What I said pre-season: C+ (“Let’s make it two years in a row for Murray to find his name on the “Fired Watch.”)

Now: B. The best thing that could have happened to the Kings was firing Terry Murray, who hadn’t been past the first round of the playoffs in some 15 years. Full disclosure though – I thought the hiring of Darryl Sutter was going to be a disaster, and I was wrong. Sutter was example B to Ken Hitchcock’s example A in the whole “mid-season coaching replacements do better” hypothesis. Sutter’s pushed the right buttons and demonstrated that, for all his failings as a general manager, he remains a quality head coach.

Devils

What I said pre-season: C+ (“[Peter] DeBoer’s preferred puck possession style never really fit with the Panter’s mix of inexperience and grinders.”)

Now: B. Finally graced with a solid nucleus, DeBoer has finally delivered on the promise he showed while having great success in the junior ranks. He’s taken the Devils disciplined defensive approach and grafted his own philosophies onto the team, delivering the most dynamic New Jersey squad since the early 2000s. DeBoer plays hunches and isn’t afraid to mix up his lines or lineup to get the matchups he needs. He’s the real deal.

Bottom Line: A very even matchup. Sutter has a slight edge given his Stanley Cup experience but DeBoer is the more flexible coach. Let’s call this a wash.

*****

Special Teams:

Kings: The Kings have dominated this post-season despite a pretty terrible powerplay. There is a distinct lack of creativity to their approach. Having said that, L.A.’s penalty kill has been superlative, with Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar dangerous shorthanded (2 goals each).

Devils: The Devils over-aggressive penalty kill, which was the league’s best in the regular season, has been exploited in the playoffs. The powerplay, on the other hand, has been surprisingly strong.

Bottom Line: It’s this simple: Kings wretched powerplay versus Devils’ awful post-season penalty kill. The team that wins this matchup wins the special teams category. Given the likely poor ice conditions in both arenas, the penalty kill will have a slight edge. Which means this category goes to the Devils by a whisker.

*****

Intangibles and Random Thoughts:

  • It’s the rare a team without a dominant top-line defenseman wins the Stanley Cup. Advantage: Kings
  • Despite having a lot of offensive talent on the Kings roster, it’s rare a team wins the Stanley Cup having scored so few goals in the regular season. Advantage: Devils
  • The Kings haven’t had to do a lot of travel this post-season, but it’s still been more than the Devils. It will be interesting to see how New Jersey travels West (given the Kings, with all their off-days, were able to get to the New York area and acclimatize well in advance of Game 1). Advantage: Kings
  • Anton Volchenkov will probably get the match-up against Anze Kopitar, but Kopitar is so strong it’s hard to see the “A-Train” earning much more than a draw in this battle. Advantage: Kings
  • Both teams will probably match their top-lines against one-another, with the Kings wanting the Kopitar line up against the Zajac line, and the Richards line against the Henrique line. Even if Kopitar/Zajac is a wash, it wouldn’t surprise to see the Richards line more productive than the Henrique line. Advantage: Kings
  • Since 1980, there have been six “coastal” Stanley Cup Finals, featuring a West Coast team versus an East Coast team. Only the Anaheim Ducks have won it on behalf of the Western Conference. Advantage: Devils
  • The Kings have gotten to the Stanley Cup Final so quickly and easily that they’ve had a lot of time off. It means they’re healthy, but also means they haven’t had to face much adversity. The Devils have had a tougher road, which could mean they’re more battle-hardened. Advantage: Devils
  • Even though the Kings’ fourth line had a pretty good series against the Coyotes, they in no way have had the impact of New Jersey’s Bernier-Gionta-Carter line. The Devils have had terrific fourth lines in their Cup-winning seasons, and through three rounds they’ve had one again. Advantage: Devils

*****

Stanley Cup Prediction: Kings in 6

Bottom Line: This could be a surprisingly entertaining series featuring two teams that play physical, aggressive styles. The Devils might have the most talented forwards, but the Kings have the stronger goalie and blueline. Pre-season I said I had “Chicago, LA and Vancouver rated roughly the same” as the Western Conference’s best teams. The firing of Terry Murray took the Kings’ greatest impediment to success out of the equation. With Wayne Gretzky watching, expect Dustin Brown to raise the Stanley Cup over his head, completing one of the most unexpected championship runs in NHL history.

Apr 042012
 

With 98% of the NHL season behind us, it’s time to fill in an imaginary awards ballot.

But before we get to that, let’s take a moment to consider two more dead teams:

Calgary Flames

What went wrong: No team had an easier stretch drive schedule among teams fighting for the last Western Conference playoff spots than the Flames did. They failed to reach the post season because they couldn’t score. The Flames as a team are currently 25th in shots on goal per game. They’re 3-9 in shootouts, rivalling Montreal (5-11) and Carolina (0-6) for the league’s worst record in the skills competition. Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen and Curtis Glencross will finish the year as the team’s lone 20-goal scorers. None of them are consistent (Iginla’s slow starts have become legendary). Calgary sits last in the league in faceoff performance.

What went right: Mikka Kiprusoff carried the team all season with stellar play between the pipes. When finally healthy for the second-half Mark Giordano played well. He has 16 points after the All-Star break and has helped Calgary reach 11th in the NHL on the powerplay. Mike Cammalleri has struggled to stay healthy with the Flames but when dressed has scored at a 30-goal pace.

Off-Season Gameplan: It’s been said in this space more than once, but this aging Calgary team desperately needs a rebuild. After three years of missing the playoffs there’s clearly not enough talent in the lineup to reach the post-season. There isn’t enough organizational depth right now either to create hope for better days in the future. This may the last chance Calgary gets to shop Jarome Iginla before seeing his value depreciate completely on the marketplace.

Winnipeg Jets

What went wrong: There was lots of talk pre-season about what the travel schedule would do to not only the Jets, but other teams in the Southeast Division. Clearly it was a factor for the Manitoba team, as Winnipeg has put together a terrible road record (13-21-5). The penalty kill is below 80%, which hurts a team that’s short-handed a lot (25th worst). As well as Ondrej Pavelec has been at times this season, he tired down the stretch (3.13 goals against in March) and currently ranks 57th in the league in save percentage (.906). Alex Burmistrov was improved this season, but his offensive progression has been slow (just 28 points in year two). Eric Fehr (3 points, 35 games) was a bust, while Tanner Glass (-12) was asked to do too much.

What went right: Blake Wheeler (61 points) and Evander Kane (29 goals) have taken steps forward as top-six, even top-line players. Dustin Byfuglien has had a strong second-half. Off the scrap-heap, Kyle Wellwood has been an effective offensive player (47 points despite just 14:57 per game in ice-time). The MTS Centre has proven to be one of the few home-ice advantages left in the NHL.

Off-Season Gameplan: Continue to build around a very solid core. Veteran depth, particularly the type that could improve the defensive side of Winnipeg’s game, would be helpful. Mark Scheifele will get the Burmistrov treatment next year. If Scheifele’s ready, he could supply enough offense to bring the playoffs back to Manitoba.

***

Now with that little bit of ugly business out of the way, let’s take a quick look at who deserves award recognition for the 2011-2012 NHL season.

Hart Trophy – Evgeni Malkin

Runners-up: Jason Spezza; Henrik Lundqvist

Malkin has been arguably the league’s best player this year. Lundqvist is probably the most valuable, but goalies rarely win this award. A Hart nomination is the feather-in-the-cap to a marvellous season from Jason Spezza.

Norris Trophy – Zdeno Chara

Runners-up: Alex Pieterangelo; Erik Karlsson

Chara wins because he’s put forth his strongest offensive season while retaining defensive dominance (+33 leads all d-men). Karlsson’s had a magical season but his defensive play remains average. Under Ken Hitchcock, Alex Pieterangelo has arrived, breaking the 50-point barrier but more importantly playing extremely well defensively night in, night out.

Vezina Trophy – Henrik Lundqvist

Runners-up: Jonathan Quick; Mike Smith

The Rangers success gives Lundqvist the nod over Quick, whose Los Angeles Kings team have been in a playoff dogfight all season. Mike Smith’s career rejuvenation in Phoenix gives him a slight edge over the two St. Louis Blues goalies (Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott) who’ve split too much playing time to be considered.

Selke Trophy – Patrice Bergeron

Runners-up: David Backes; Anze Kopitar

Bergeron wins almost 60% of his draws and is one of the league’s premiere penalty killers. Backes has flourished under Ken Hitchcock, leading Blues forwards in goals, points, hits and blocked shots. Kopitar deserves greater recognition, is leading the Kings in points once again but, more importantly to this category, has been Los Angeles best defensive player as well.

Calder Trophy – Gabriel Landeskog

Runners-up: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins; Matt Read

Not only is Landeskog tied for the rookie points lead, but he’s an incredible +23 and has played in all situations for the Avs down the stretch. He’s a future captain. Nugent-Hopkins is the most offensively-gifted rookie, but injuries have prevented him from running away with the freshman scoring crown. Matt Read leads all rookies in goals and has become an important player in the Flyers lineup.

Adams Trophy – Ken Hitchcock

Runners-up: Paul Maclean; John Tortorella

Hitchcock’s turned a middle-of-the-pack team into arguably the best team in the Western Conference. Paul Maclean has done wonders in Ottawa, taking a Sens team destined for a lottery pick into the playoffs. Tortorella’s nomination is a reward for guiding a team that’s out-performed its roster’s talent level all season.

 THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Another take on possible NHL awards, this one from ESPN.
  • Let’s just get this out of the way: Mike Milbury was a joke as a general manager and he’s a joke as a commentator. His take on league affairs is almost always neanderthal and ultra-traditionalist. Attacking Sidney Crosby gets your name in the paper though.
  • This definitely should be on any list of craziest goals of the year. It also epitomizes the difference in heart between the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs.
  • At this point, wouldn’t it be for the best for everyone if the Washington Capitals missed the playoffs, fired their coach, and re-built their approach around Ovechkin’s offense than see the gutsy Sabres (one of the best teams in the NHL since the All-Star Game) come up short?
  • Quietly, Willie Mitchell’s having one of the best defensive defenseman seasons in the NHL this year. Granted, the ultra-conservative Kings gameplay helps in that regard.
  • Still without a contract, you have to expect the Edmonton Oilers are ready to walk away from Tom Renney. The talk is Todd Nelson, coach of Edmonton’s AHL farm team, will get a long look. Hard to believe he’s the guy who can take this young team to the next level.
  • It’s a small sample size, but the Nashville Predators are 4-3 in Alex Radulov’s seven games. The big Russian has 3 goals, 6 points in that span and has fit extremely well into the lineup.
  • For all of those people ready to anoint the Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh, let’s acknowledge the fact that the Penguins are actually 25th in the NHL in team save percentage. Marc-Andre Fleury, not Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby, will have the biggest say in how far the Penguins go in the playoffs.
  • Speaking of which, the Chicago Blackhawks, for what it’s worth, are 27th in the NHL in team save percentage. Numbers-wise, Chicago’s entering the post-season with the worst goaltending amongst remaining teams.
  • Some other interesting Pre/Post-All-Star Game numbers: Winnipeg was 22nd in league scoring during the first half; 3rd so far in the second half. Buffalo was 25th in the first-half; 5th in the second half. Going the other way, Vancouver was 3rd in the first half scoring-wise; 15th in the second half. Washington was 9th in the first half; 26th in the second half.
  • Defensively, the Bruins have gone from 4th in the first half to 22nd in the second half. Minnesota from 8th in the first half to 25th and Pittsburgh from 10th to 23rd. Improving their defensive play in the second half were teams like Buffalo (26th to 7th), Anaheim (23rd to 8th), Colorado (21st to 5th) and Ottawa (27th to 13th).
Mar 132011
 

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

Gary Bettman, NHL

Photo credit: Barry Melrose Rocks

Between the Zdeno Chara hit, the Phoenix Coyotes drama and the ongoing hits-to-the-head debate, it’s been a bad week for the NHL.

Might as well pile on:

  • Scoring is down from last year, to 5.6 goals per game. The first season after the lockout, the average goals per game was 6.17.
  • This season will likely feature the fewest number of 100-point scorers, and fewest number of 50-goal scorers, since the lockout.
  • Analyzing numbers available on ESPN, it looks like attendance is down slightly. Let’s assume the NHL and teams fudge attendance figures. The fact that the figures show a loss probably means attendance is down far more than anyone’s willing to admit.
  • Like jilted lovers, the game’s greatest ambassador, Wayne Gretzky, and the NHL are currently not speaking to each other.
  • The game’s current ambassador, Sidney Crosby, seems to be in hiding, thanks to a severe concussion received during the NHL’s marquee regular season game (the Winter Classic).

Oh, and Gary Bettman has quietly signed a 5-year contract extension.

So where do we go from here?

Bob McKenzie has done some yeoman’s work asking the league’s GMs what was on their minds heading into their meetings next week in Florida.

The thing is, as a conservative enterprise, change will not come quickly to the NHL. Especially when the kinds of change necessary, and most effective, are unclear.

A smart place to start would be examining the boards and other structures that surround the playing surface.

Smartly (albeit too quietly), the NHLPA has indicated this is their focus.

We’ve clearly reached a point where the NHL product needs to evolve.

This could be a watershed moment for the NHL – a moment that clearly defines how a generation plays this game at its highest level.

If only there was a history of innovation and dynamic, progressive thinking to give one confidence the game is in good hands.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

It’s not like there aren’t positive developments in the NHL.

  • The Sedin Twins are giving the NHL the rarest of storylines: a brother act competing not only for the league’s scoring title, but a place amongst the game’s best players.
  • Alex Ovechkin’s play has really improved, to the point that he was either: a) hurt earlier in the year, or b) saving himself for the stretch run. Or, with Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm back, the Capitals have a legitimate second line to take the heat of OV and company.
  • If the playoffs started today the NHL would be pretty happy with the footprint. Toronto would be the only Original Six team not in the playoffs. Minnesota the only major US hockey-watching market not represented.
  • Oh, by the way, intriguing first-round matchups as of this (Saturday) morning: Philly-New York Rangers (Flyers knocked New York from playoffs on final day of the regular season last year), Montreal-Boston (they may need police on each blueline for every game, the way this rivalry’s peaked this year), Vancouver-Los Angeles (repeat of last year’s first-round matchup), San Jose-Calgary (fourth time they’ve played against each other in the playoffs).
  • That being said, it’s looking more and more like the final day of the regular season will decide who does, and does not, make the playoffs.
  • Ilya Kovalchuk is showing he might be the best player (outside of Martin Brodeur) to play in the New York area since the hay days of Mark Messier and Brian Leetch.
  • If he keeps scoring at his current pace (12 points in his past 14 games) and keeps making plays like this, it won’t be long before David Desharnais is a fan favourite in Montreal. Wonder if he has to stand to see over the boards?
  • Kudos to Willie Mitchell for donating his brain to science.
  • Hey look, a Scotty Bowman sighting behind Barack Obama!
  • An interesting Abbotsford Times piece on the Canucks AHL affiliate potentially coming home to the Lower Mainland.
  • Record-watch – Tim Thomas’s save-percentage: .938. The record: Dominik Hasek’s .937 in 1998-99.
Oct 222010
 

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

In honour of Katy Perry’s recent “cleavage-gate” on Sesame Street, let’s play a game of “One of These Things Just Doesn’t Belong Here.”

The Chicago Blackhawks. The New York Islanders. The Dallas Stars. The Pittsburgh Penguins.

Behold the top four teams in NHL standings.

Which one doesn’t belong?

If you guessed the New York Islanders, you’d be wrong.

Sure they’re probably not a playoff team, but their youngsters have taken a step forward and coach Scott Gordon has them executing a fast, aggressive, puck-pursuit style.

Also, let’s not forget that the Eastern Conference is kinda like the Solange Knowles to the Western Conference’s Beyonce.

No, the team that doesn’t belong is the Dallas Stars.

Sure, the Stars have started the season at 5-1.

Yet they’re 23rd on the powerplay, and 30th on the penalty kill.

They’re also 30th in the league in shots-on-goal per game (averaging roughly 23), and 28th in the league in shots-on-goal against (averaging roughly 36).

So how are they winning games?

Two reasons.

First, Kari Lehtonen has been nothing short of incredible, starting all six games and sporting a .927 save percentage. He’s single-handedly keeping the team in games.

Second, the Stars are having ridiculous success playing 5-on-5.

Historically, the ratio of goals-for to goals-against when playing 5-on-5 is usually around 1:1. The best teams score at a rate of 1.5:1, the worst at a rate of 0.5:1.

The Dallas Stars are outscoring their opposition at close to a 3-to-1 rate.

This just isn’t sustainable.

Unless Kari Lehtonen is this year’s Ilya Bryzgalov, the Dallas Stars are probably enjoying the only success they’ll know this year.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Speaking of the Stars, The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell wrote this week that their ownership situation is starting to look a lot like that of the Coyotes.
  • They say Tampa coach Guy Boucher is an innovator. One thing he’s brought to the NHL: hard game day skates for his players. It’ll be interesting to see if this continues over the course of an entire season. The team looked gassed against Florida earlier this week.
  • They’re sitting at 4-3 but there are concerns in Denver. Kyle Quincey has seemingly regressed, they’re having trouble finding wingers for Matt Duchene and Milan Hejduk looks like he’s skating with a piano on his back.
  • Three pieces of free advice to the NHL to prevent another Rick Rypien situation. First, mandate that home teams have to provide tunneling over access to the visiting team’s bench. Second, implement the “eye-in-the-sky”, 3rd referee system they tested at the Molson Hockey Summit, and have that ref call violent act-related penalties (i.e. no tripping, icing or offside calls). Third, current NHL suspensions and fines hardly act as a deterrent. It’s time to work with the NHLPA to increase their severity.
  • Ken Holland’s “3-on-3” overtime idea is an intriguing one, but it reinforces the notion that games are decided by a team’s best players. Does a fourth line really matter anymore? Which fan pays to watch a 4th line play anyways? If you got rid of fourth liners all together, how much of the game’s worst violence would be eliminated?
  • Tyler Myers has been Buffalo’s worst defenseman so far. Coach Lindy Ruff thinks teams have scouted Myers offensively, and it’s up to him to mix his game up a bit.
  • They’re raving about Willie Mitchell in Los Angeles, especially the communication between him and Drew Doughty. Doughty’s also been more physical this year than in previous years.
  • Coach John Maclean is still trying to find the right fit with Ilya Kovalchuk. Zack Parise isn’t working out, as both he and Kovalchuk like to carry the puck. The latest player to get a chance to centre Kovalchuk is youngster Jacob Josefson.
  • If a lack of toughness on the Sens’ blueline is their biggest issue (it isn’t, but that’s a topic for another day), how long before the Sheldon Souray rumours start picking up steam?
Aug 262010
 
Willie Mitchell and Kevin Bieksa

Photo credit: Vancouver Sun

It’s probably not a coincidence that, on the same day Willie Mitchell signed with the Los Angeles Kings, Jason Botchford (Vancouver Province) had a piece on the increasing possibility of Kevin Bieksa staying with the Vancouver Canucks (more on that thought in a separate post later). On some level, I think most of us knew (and Mike Gillis as well) that there was a market for Mitchell – concussion history be damned – and unless he was willing to leave a lot of money on the table, the chance of him re-signing with the Canucks was extremely slim. $7 million over two years is a lot of money, and given their cap situation, there was simply no way for the Canucks to offer him anything remotely close to that.

I’m going to miss Willie. As those of you who’ve followed this blog for a while will know, I have a soft spot for players from BC and Willie is no exception. I’ve loved him since his Minnesota days – even when he was going head-to-head with Todd Bertuzzi – and I got his jersey almost as soon as he signed here.

More importantly, the Canucks are going to miss Willie. In him, the Canucks had a true shutdown defenseman would could log 25-plus minutes against the likes of Crosby, Ovechkin, Iginla, Thornton, etc. – in the last four years, no one else on this team played tougher minutes against the opposing teams’ best players and did so on a nightly basis. They had a veteran leader who was a calming influence on the ice and a positive influence off it. He was good with the media and active in the community. The Canucks really couldn’t have asked more from him as a player and it’ll be interesting to see who among the new core of defensemen – Hamhuis, Ballard, Edler and Ehrhoff – can step in (or step up) to that role.

Good on the Kings for ponying up for Willie. As much as I hate to admit it, adding Willie to a group that already includes Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson, Rob Scuderi and a healthy Matt Greene gives them a damn deep defense. Certainly, having Willie back there rather than Randy Jones makes them a much harder group to play against.

Good luck in LA, Willie. And PS – tell that Doughty kid you want his #8.

Aug 262010
 
Willie Mitchell Vancouver Canucks

Photo credit: Vancouver Sun

Mitchell’s off to the LA Kings and I can honestly say the first thing I thought when I read about that was “I hope he has a long career and plays out longer than the two years the LA Kings gave him”. When looking at him after the Malkin hit and seeing the state he was in when he first emerged to the media in the post season I felt sorry for him. Not because he looked terrible, not so much because I was worried he’d never play in the NHL again, but more so because the head injury he sustained playing for a living looked like it had the potential to affect his day to day life for the rest of it on top of ending his hockey career.

Mitchell got offered $3.5 million per year for two years and I’m happy for him. I’m not sure what convinced the LA Kings to make that deal but at the end of the day Mike Gillis wasn’t going to pay that price. Realistically I’m sure his talks with Mitchell were a formality more than anything else. I truly felt that Mitchell would take a pay cut and sign with the Canucks to stay in Vancouver but I can also see why such a good deal would be so attractive. He’ll get a chance to impact the development of a sure to be (even more than he already is) studly Doughty and the weather down there isn’t half bad either.

Why am I not crushed we lost Mitchell? The Canucks run into enough injury problem come different points in the season as it is, do they really need to start with a handicap and the uncertainty of Mitchell’s head? There’s nothing that has been seen to convince us or the Kings for that matter that Mitchell’s head is 100% okay. In fact, I don’t think his head will ever be 100%. I think he’ll reach 99%, but after sustaining an injury as devastating as the one he did after his hit from Malkin on January 16th, it’s safe to say it changed his life. Gambling $7 million on a player that could have his career end on day one of his new contract as easily as he could play out it’s two years is simply not something that I’d do when I’m already over the cap and have a plethora of defenseman on one-way contracts.

If Mitchell was to sign cheaply with an incentive laden contract, there was also the possibility of Bieksa getting dealt. That said, I firmly believe a large part of our collapse last year (amongst other issues) was a hole on defence we had in part due to Mitchell being out but also because our intended replacements were out as well. Schneider cried his way out of Vancouver and Lukowich opted for season ending surgery. I’m just not convinced Willie would last on the ice, especially in the hard hitting Western Conference. With Salo out till December, I think Bieksa’s job is safe. With the solid additions of Hamhuis and Ballard, the Canucks have nothing to worry about after losing Willie Mitchell.

Happy trails Willie Mitchell. You bled, played and sacrificed as much as many other Canucks and you will be remembered only for good. I will always remember you for the first thing you said to Vancouver media when you were signed. I paraphrase, but the important part is there, you’ll see:

Reporter: “Willie, what is it that you bring to the team?”
Willie: “I’m a 30 goal scorer”
Reporter has a puzzled look
Willie: “I’m like a 30 goal scorer. I don’t score 30 goals in a season but I can prevent 30 goals from being scored”

Aug 172010
 

There are reports out there that Willie Mitchell, who is still looking for a contract for the upcoming season, has already worked out for the Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings, and is supposed to be working out with the Washington Capitals as we speak. There are also reports that the Kings are ready to offer (or have already offered) him a two-year deal, but Willie, a good ol’ BC boy, is hoping to stay in Vancouver and is waiting to see Mike Gillis’ offer first.

The rumored two-year term may be the key to Willie’s future. The fact is, Willie is one bad hit away from a career-ending concussion and a two-year deal – or any multi-year deal for that matter – gives him and his family some additional security. It’s also a term I’m not sure the Canucks are willing to commit.

Given the Canucks’ current cap situation, I would imagine their preference is to sign Willie to a one-year contract with a relatively-lower base salary (and thus cap hit) and performance bonuses (the cap hit of which they can defer to the following season); they can’t structure the contract similarly on a multi-year deal. If Willie re-signs with the Canucks, he will have most likely foregone more dollars and/or more term from another team.

Also, while it’s clear that having a Willie Mitchell on this year’s roster will do nothing but help this team contend, I’m not sure his roster spot will be available next year. Contractually, the Canucks have three of their top-four defensemen (Hamhuis, Ballard and Edler) signed for the 2011/2012 season, and I’m sure Gillis will make every effort to extend a fourth (Ehrhoff). Rome is also signed; Salo, Bieksa (if he somehow finishes this season with the team) and SOB are UFAs. That’s potentially five defensemen signed for next season. Does Gillis see Willie as part of this group next season or does he want to save a roster spot for a Kevin Connauton, Yann Sauve or Chris Tanev? Or if the kids aren’t ready for full-time NHL duty, does Gillis bide time with another year with Willie or does he make a pitch for a Zdeno Chara, Andrei Markov, Tomas Kaberle or Mark Giordano, all of whom are scheduled to be UFAs?

I don’t think it’s any secret that Willie wants to stay in Vancouver and I think Gillis has at least indicated to him that the Canucks are interested in re-signing him. The question is whether the lure of playing at home and helping to bring a first Stanley Cup to his home province outweighs the financial benefits of doing the same somewhere else.

Jul 282010
 

Hidey ho folks! It’s bee a long, long time since you last saw me grace these pages. Much has happened since. The Blackhawks apparently won the Stanley Cup – I refuse to believe it happened. And I noticed that the design changed some – apparently we all like Shane O’Brien (it’s not like, but love with me.. love to hate him). Anyhoo, lets talk about what I stopped by for – Willie Mitchell’s role with the Canucks.

Now before you run me out of town, I completely understand that he’s an unrestricted free agent who is (depending on which reports you believe) still answering imaginary doorbells. I also understand that the Canucks blueline is so deep that many of you probably think that the best Willie could hope for (assuming he is re-signed) is to be the stick guy so he could get close to the bench. But I have a reasonable theory and I want you to hear me out.

Currently the Canucks have nine defensemen under contract – Dan Hamhuis ($4.5M), Keith Ballard ($4.2M), Kevin Bieksa ($3.75M), Sami Salo ($3.5M), Alex Edler ($3.25M), Christian Ehrhoff ($3.1M), Shane O’Brien ($1.6M), Andrew Alberts ($1.05M), and Aaron Rome ($750k). Right away, we can likely assume that Alberts is either going to need to find a good real estate agent in Winnipeg or make sure his passport is up-to-date. I’m also thinking that Bieksa is trade bait (even with Salo’s injury) as his dollars don’t make sense for someone who plays with dangerously sharp things. And with Salo gone, the Canucks lose what has been their veteran stalwart.

So where does Mitchell fit in?

If he is healthy (and that’s still a might big IF), I’d find it hard to believe that Mitchell wouldn’t want a shot to return to a cup contender. Furthermore, Willie would likely understand that he’d need a one year term to prove he’s still NHL-worthy and therefore carries low risk. Lastly, the fact he is an unknown entity means his dollar value will likely be significantly more affordable than his previous contract demanded. All-in-all, I figure Mitchell could easily be had for Alberts dollars on a “proving that I still have it” style contract.

In fact, I figure that Willie will be what the Canucks thought Mathieu Schneider was going to be last season – a reliable veteran defenseman who will do whatever it takes for the good of the team and bring added depth when the going gets tough. Someone you know you can count on. A good ol’ boy.

So there you have it. Am I crazy? Or should I be expecting a call from Gillis to discuss my ideas further?

(Editor’s note: Because Mitchell has appeared in more than 400 NHL games and spent more than 100 days on injured reserve last season, he is eligible to sign a contract containing performance bonuses, as long as it is only a one-year contract. – J.J.)

May 152010
 

- Smorgasbords are Swedish! Some Canucks are Swedish. Alix was having trouble thinking of a title.

- Well, I had my normal 24 hours of hating every single member of the Canucks on ice and off ice organization after Tuesday’s loss. I called them words my ma would wash my mouth out with soap for using. But I moved on pretty quick. I’m becoming an old grizzled Canucks fan, ya know? Sure, I’m still madly in love but this ousting did not shock me. Expect the worst hope for the best? I will eventually have that tattooed on my person along with “There’s always next year”.

- I really admire Willie Mitchell for speaking up for himself and his fellow players and calling out the NHL’s discipline system. And for waiting until the Canucks were done playing so he wouldn’t be a distraction. Maybe if more players give their opinions candidly the NHL will be forced to make changes. It totally saddens me that he is still having head troubles all these months later. Malkin is dead to me. I’m a champion grudge holder when it comes to my hockey boys.

- Personally, If I were Mike Gillis, I would fire Vigneault. That’s two years in a row now the team has lost to the same team in the same way.

- My patience with Luongo is extremely low. While I’m sure no one will force him to do anything I would prefer if he opted out of being captain and played fewer games next year.

- My loathing for Chicago has completely eclipsed my Flames hate.

- The defence DEFINITELY needs some help. I have no specific ideas in mind. I just know it frightens me as is. It’s a strange phenomenon. On paper it looks pretty decent but in practice it’s the complete opposite.

- I think the Jays light blue jersey colour might be the most perfect colour in existence. I want to sleep in one of those jerseys.

- I recently tried playing Katamari Damacy and it is so incredibly enchanting. If you like being a tiny prince and rolling things into a ball I highly recommend it!

May 132010
 

Willie Mitchell talked to the media today, the first time he has done so since Evgeni Malkin rammed him into the boards, gave him a concussion and finished his season.

You’ll notice just after the six-minute mark, Willie starts ripping into Colin Campbell:

I’m not happy with the hit I took. We’re taught from a young age that you don’t hit from behind and I had my numbers facing a player and in a dangerous zone, in a dangerous spot, and he hit me.

More than that, I’m disappointed in the league. I’m disappointed in Colin Campbell. Disappointed that he didn’t rule down anything on the play. That’s his job. As we’ve seen, he’s been very inconsistent with how he’s handled himself in those situations. I think a lot of times he hands down suspensions and fines on the result and I totally think that’s the wrong thing to do. You rob a bank and there’s $50 million dollars in there, you rob a bank and there’s $5 bucks in there, you’re going to jail for the same amount of time. And, you know, he saw me get up off the ice and so he didn’t make a ruling on it.

I want to make this very clear too. I’m not saying this for me. What’s this going to do for me right now? It’s not going to do a thing for me. No one’s going to take back the last four-and-a-half months that I’ve endured and my family’s endured. No one’s going to take that back. Why I’m saying this right now is because my friends in the league and my peers in the league… I don’t want anyone to go through what I just did.

Like I said, the league needs to, along with our player’s union, needs to take a look at how we run discipline in the league. I know Colin Campbell has a lot of relationships with general managers and ownership and stuff like that. Very tough to hand down decisions on matters like this when you’re friends with people. It’s like saying that I’ve got to discipline my teammates. It’s too emotional. You can’t make the right decision all the time. So I think it’s something the league and the players need to look at is to have an outside party handle the discipline in the league, and therefore it’s consistent. As we’ve all seen it hasn’t been very consistent.

Back in the day, players regulated that. That’s changed. We all know that’s changed. Society doesn’t want it, players don’t want it, and it’s not just going to happen anymore. So who has to regulate it? Well, it’s Colin Campbell and he has to regulate it. If he doesn’t do a good job, it’s going to be where the hell it’s been.

I’m glad Willie Mitchell spoke out on this issue. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you already know what I think of the NHL’s standards on officiating and discipline – that is, I don’t believe that there any standards. If more players speak out – remember Mark Recchi also made it pretty obvious after the Matt Cooke/Marc Savard fiasco that he didn’t care much for Colin Campbell – then perhaps the league will start paying more attention. But then again, they could also just keep burying their heads in the sand like they always do.

%d bloggers like this: