By Ryan Wagman
Posts Tagged ‘Campbell’
– By Ryan Wagman
I’ll admit it once more; I stumbled in the first round. The Western Conference was straight-forward enough, but the East threw me (and not just me) for a few loops, knocking out the top three seeds before anyone really knew what was going on. But I recovered. Understanding what I missed in the first round, I looked again, and nailed the second round, correctly seeing the Sharks true top line (Thornton, Marleau and Heatley) waking up to contribute to Little Joe Pavelski’s line and knocking off the Red Wings. I saw Luongo’s propensity for fallibility and the world-class, playoff-level grit and class of Jonathan Toews and a rock-solid blue line allowing the Blackhawks to knock off the Vancouver Canucks. That gives us 1 and 2 from the West. Somehow, someway, I saw the Canadiens knocking off the defending champs of Pittsburgh in a seven game set. More amazing that they did so without Andrei Markov after the first game. For the most part, I was even correct about it being a generally low scoring affair, with four games of five or fewer goals, and only once more than seven. I did think it would be easier for the Flyers to knock off the Bruins, while they instead gave us history. While most of Canada was watching the Habs defeat the Penguins, riveted by Mike Cammalleri and Jaroslav Halak, we largely ignored the one series of this year’s playoffs that will likely have the longest lasting impact on history. For only the third time in NHL history, a playoff team has come back from a 3 games to nothing deficit and win a series. The Flyers did it even as they lost another goalie to injury, Boucher going down just in time for Michael Leighton, their star of earlier in the year, to return with a glorious two and a half games. Not only did the Flyers return from a 3-0 hole in games, but in game 7, they also trailed 3-0 in the first period, slowly chipping away at the lead until Simon Gagne reminded us that he, too, had returned from his injury woes and scored the winning goal. The 2010 Boston Bruins will now forever stand in ignominy beside the Pittsburgh Penguins of 1975 and the Detroit red Wings of 1942 as the biggest chokers in the history of the game, team category.
So there are now four teams left. On with it, then:
Campbell (Western) Conference
San Jose Sharks vs Chicago Blackhawks
To start with, both teams are pretty healthy, remarkable for this time of the year. The Sharks can play their optimal roster, and it looks like Kim Johnsson, the Hawks big mid-season addition will be ready to play early in the series, if not right away. We have here two marvellous hockey teams, possibly the two best teams overall this season. And they are both at the tops of their respective games. The Sharks did not any exploitable weaknesses in demolishing the Red Wings, other than one really bad period against the Mule. The Sharks have been resting since the 8th, enough time for rust to take hold of their previously finely oiled machine. Then again, the Hawks are also very well rested, completing their series against Vancouver on the 11th. Five days is also enough time to grow a little stiff without game action.
Reports came out that Blawkhawks coach Joel Quennville will play his top defensive pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook against the Thornton-Marleau-Heatley line, putting the onus back on Pavelski, Clowe and Setoguchi to repeat their exploits from their first round conquest of Colorado, when they combined for 22 points over the six-game series. Another great series from goalie Evgeni Nabokov would also go along way towards putting the Sharks in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history. He has quietly had a stellar playoffs, besting even Jaroslav Halak in 5-on-5 GAA (1.84 for Nabby, compared to 2.07 for Halak). Niemi has the worst 5-on-5 GAA among remaining goaltenders, at 2.47. The key here may be the power play. Bearing in mind that there really is no such thing as momentum in the playoffs, Niemi has the best shorthanded GAA of all remaining goalies at 3.72 (a phenomenal stat) while Nabokov came in at 7.94 – middle of the pack. A key to the series for the Hawks would be for Kane and Toews to continue drawing penalties (they have 6 and 5 respectively, so far) from the Sharks blueline. The more time they spend on the power play, the greater their chances of winning the series.
In taking all three games in Vancouver in the last round, the Blackhawks have shown that they can play as well, if not better, on the road, than they do at home at the United Center. They are not infallible. As I stated last time, Niemi is not the most convincing goalie out there. If the Sharks can crash the crease, Niemi will probably provide them with a few tasty rebounds to feast on. He will need his defense-corp to clear those pucks for him to minimize second chance shots. Beyond Keith and Seabrook, Campbell will need to continue his strong comeback from a broken clavicle suffered late in the regular season, and Niklas Hjalarsson will need to continue to play strong, quiet hockey. If Johnsson comes back soon and allows the Hawks to bench Jordan Hendry, they will be that much stronger for the change.
This has the makings of a remarkable, memorable series, something to think about during a long summer without hockey. I’m sticking with my earlier assertion. The Blackhawks appear in their first Stanley Cup Final since 1992.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 7.
Wales (Eastern) Conference
Philadelphia Flyers vs Montreal Canadiens
7 and 8. In so many ways, the opposite of the Western finals. Beyond the seeding, these are both teams missing key players with injuries, Andrei Markov still out with a knee injury and Flyers winger Jeff Carter still recovering from foot surgery and Brian Boucher shelved with a sprained MCL.
So far in these playoffs, besides bucking the odds, both the Flyers and the Habs have had very strong play on special teams, both among the most efficient penalty killers in the league and both around average on the power play. Montreal has had a number of players really step up so far, including the goal-scoring exploits of Mike Cammalleri, the Drew Doughty-level (seriously, it’s close) of P.K. Subban and of course, Jaroslav Halak. Hal Gill and Josh Gorges have been absolute rocks on the backline. The Flyers have succeeded through a team-wide effort, without any real leaders rising above the rest. The two forwards most conspicuous in their absence, James van Riemsdyk and Scott Hartnell woke up recently, Hartnell with 4 points during the Flyers’ historic comeback after amassing two in their first 8 playoff games and van Riemsdyk scoring his first career playoff goal to get the Flyers on the board in game 7, when they trailed 3-0. Chris Pronger has had a solid playoffs, with 11 points in his 12 games while generally matched up against the best his opponents had to offer. The top four defensemen consisting of Pronger, Matt Carle, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn have helped ensure the Flyers were strong defensively, regardless of the man between the pipes. First, it was Brian Boucher, coming off of a lousy season, but responding to being pressed into emergency action, stonewalling the Rangers in a do-or-die shootout to end the regular season and then outplaying Martin Brodeur over 5 games in the first round. After he went down, Michael Leighton returned from his long-term injury to put up numbers reminiscent of his out-of-nowhere midseason arrival in Philadelphia after a decade in hockey purgatory. Another good series or two could pave the way for a Tim Thomas-like late-career renaissance.
More than perhaps any other series this year, this one is geared for an unsung hero to step up and create a new reputation. If I have to pick one guy from each team, I will go with Dominic Moore to show why two years in a row, a team has given up a second-round pick to rent his services for month and more. A good series could see Moore, a very good, generally unsung player reap a multi-year deal this summer, when or before his current contract expires. For Philadelphia, I am picking Braydon Coburn. He’s had a quiet playoffs thus far, playing well in his own end, but not providing much up the ice, with only a single assist to his credit. He’s shown the ability to score in the NHL before, and I can easily see him scoring two important goals for his team, beefing up his resume as he becomes an RFA in July.
Last June, during the first round of last year’s Entry Draft, Flyers GM Paul Holgren acquired Chris Pronger and AHL-fodder Ryan Dingle from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for D Luca Sbisa, a 19-year-old former 1st round pick who had already played 39 games in the NHL, Joffrey Lupul, another former first rounder who had matured into a decent 2nd-line winger, the 21st overall pick in last year’s draft (which was then traded to Columbus), a 1st round pick in the 2010 draft and another conditional pick this year or in 2011. Chris Pronger has been a king-maker since the lockout, taking unheralded teams much further into the postseason than anybody could have reasonably expected going in, including leading the Oilers to the Finals in 2006, winning the Cup with the Ducks in 2007 and taking the Ducks past top-seed San Jose last Spring. If he does it again, we can unequivocally state that Holgren won the trade, regardless of how Sbisa and the first rounders pan out.
I think Paul Holmgren made a great trade.
Prediction: Flyers in 7.
-By Bill Duke
Now that the pesky regular season is over, it’s time for the NHL to finally get down to business. The playoffs start tomorrow night, so without further ado, here are some predictions for what to expect this spring.
1 San Jose vs 8 Colorado:
I’ve said it before, this just feels like San Jose’s year. In much the same way Steve Yzerman’s Red Wings flopped repeatedly in the playoffs until finally breaking through and hoisting the Cup, this Sharks squad has paid their dues and should now have the necessary experience to finally get over the hump. So long as Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle step up their games (as they’ve both done in playoffs past) the Sharks should breeze past Colorado without breaking a sweat.
If you’re one of those people who put a lot of stock into how a team ends the regular season, then you have to feel good about San Jose’s 8-1-1 record down the stretch. But if the Sharks have an Achilles’ heel, it might be the fact that Evgeni Nabokov has choked both in last year’s playoffs (.890 save percentage) and at this year’s Olympics (.853 Sv %). It’s a concern, but Nabby hasn’t always been a big-game choker. The good news is that San Jose, and Nabokov, may have finally timed their late -season slump so as to allow it to pass prior to the first round.
PICK: SHARKS IN 4
2 Chicago vs 7 Nashville
I still don’t know how Nashville does it. This team should, by all accounts, suck. And yet, here they are, back in the playoffs once again at the expense of teams with real top shelf talent such as Calgary, Anaheim and Dallas. Perhaps the Predators’ greatest asset is their discipline; they finished the regular season with by far the fewest penalty minutes against (710 mins, compared with the Lightning, who finished at the other end of the spectrum with 1377). Some of that advantage is mitigated by the fact that the Preds’ powerplay finished 24th in the league at 16.4 %. But enough about Nashville…the Blackhawks are a deep, talented team and are a real threat to not only win the conference, but to be the last team standing this June. Their only red flag? Once again, it’s between the pipes.
Youngster Annti Niemi was fine in the regular season (and perhaps even great down the stretch) but his lack of experience might be the Hawks’ undoing, though not in the first round.
PICK: BLACKHAWKS IN 5
3 Vancouver vs 6 Los Angeles
Make no mistake, the Canucks are Canada’s best chance to bring the Cup north of the 49th. That said, their blue line is banged up and their first round draw is a frisky, young team capable of blitzkrieg-ing even the best team to death. I’m already starting to sound like a broken record, but goaltending is, once again, a concern.
Roberto Luongo has been terrible down the stretch, and despite the fact he has come up big in playoffs past, he has also been prone to mental lapses. He has been known to follow up a fantastic playoff performance with a total airhead special.
The Canucks are the ultimate wild card in this year’s playoffs. They could win it all, or they could go down with a nary a whimper.
PICK: CANUCKS IN 7
4 Phoenix vs 5 Detroit
Poor Phoenix. They tally more than 100 regular season points, give San Jose all they can handle in the race for the division title, and their reward is a date with last year’s conference champions. Detroit has been one of the best teams in hockey since Christmas, posting a 23-10-8 record in the second half and an 8-1-1 mark in their last 10. They are peaking at the right time and have no obvious weakness. Phoenix is a nice team, and they might even be able to steal a series or two if Ilya Bryzgalov stands on his head (which he’s done consistently this year). But their work is certainly cut out for them.
The only argument against the Wings making noise in the playoffs this time around is the fact that they are an older team that has gone to back-to-back Cup finals. Those extra games, plus the Olympics, have to be taking a toll on guys like Nick Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Brian Rafalski. Still, the tired legs likely won’t show up in round 1.
PICK: RED WINGS IN 6
Conference Championship: 1 San Jose vs 2 Chicago
It may be a tad bit convenient to choose the top two seeds to meet in the Conference Championship, but that is exactly what I’m going to do. Give the nod to San Jose, whose leaders gained invaluable experience at the Olympics this February. Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Dan Boyle and, to a lesser extent, Joe Thornton all played integral roles in Canada’s gold medal run. This is the year San Jose finally wins the West.
PICK: SHARKS IN 7
1 Washington vs 8 Montreal
By every measure, Washington is the best team in hockey. They won the President’s Trophy by 8 points, were the only sqaud to top 300 goals, led the league in goal differential (+1.05 per game), had the top power play in the NHL and took the 8th fewest penalties. They boast two 100-point scorers and the league’s top scoring defenseman.
The only problem? C’mon, you know what it is…I’ll give you one guess…it rhymes with “shmoalbending.”
Word is the Caps are going with Jose Theodore as their game one goaltender. That’s a mistake. Semyone Varlamov was by far the better goalie in lats year’s playoffs and was the slightly better goaltender (5.3 GVT to Theodore’s 5.2) in this regular season. He deserved the chance to open the postseason between the pipes. Factor in that the Caps will be playing at least two games in Montreal Bell Centre, a virtual house of horrors for Theodore, and Bruce Boudreau’s decision becomes a real head-scratcher.
PICK: CAPITALS IN 5
2 New Jersey vs 7 Philadelphia
I don’t care that Philly won the season series 5-1. I really don’t. New Jersey finished with the second-best goal differential in the East and boast one of the most decorated netminders in the history of the game. They may not be the highest scoring team in the world, but they do have two bona fide gamebreakers in Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. They also were the only team in the league to surrender fewer than 200 goals this season (191).
After two straight first round losses (and an Olympic benching) Martin Brodeur has something to prove for the first time in a long time. I’m certainly not going to bet against a future Hall of Famer with a chip on his shoulder.
PICK: DEVILS IN 6
3 Buffalo vs 6 Boston
The Sabres are a tough team to figure out; they look like world-beaters on one night and shrinking violets the next. While the Sabres don’t really wow you in any way, they also don’t have any glaring weaknesses. Their blue line was though to be thin this year, but the emergence of likely Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers made that concern an afterthought.
Buffalo also happens to boast a man who may just be the most indispensable player in the entire league.
Despite the fact he looks somewhat like a heroin addict, goaltender Ryan Miller should capture the Vezina trophy this season and single-handedly led Team U.S.A. to the brink of a gold medal at the Olympics. It’s Miller time in Buffalo, and if Ryan is on, the Sabres will be a tough out.
PICK: SABRES IN 7
4 Pittsburgh vs 5 Ottawa
This has all the makings of a close series. Like Detroit, the Pens have not only been to back-to-back Cup Finals but sent a bunch of key players to the Olympics. Their legs may wear out after a series or two. As for the Senators, it’s nice they’ve returned to the big dance this season, but they are ultimately a mediocre club that would have failed to qualify had they spent the season in the Western Conference. A negative goal differential, terrible powerplay and rather porous defense means Ottawa’s return to glory will be short-lived.
PICK: PENGUINS IN 6
Conference Championship: 1 Washington vs 2 New Jersey
Oops, I did it again – I went chalk in my Conference Championship pick. But really, when every Tom, Dick and Harry out there is picking Detroit and Pittsburgh, I think my selections are totally justifiable. I expect that the Capitals’ firepower will be enough to solve the Devils’ outstanding defense. As for the Capitals’ goaltending situation? Expect Theodore to bomb out and be replaced by the superior Varlamov after a couple starts in round 1.
PICK: CAPITALS IN 6
Stanley Cup Final: 1 San Jose over 1 Washington
Sharks over Caps is the same prediction I made way back in January, and I see no reason to change my mind now. Washington’s run-and-gun style will play just fine against Eastern foes, but the West was a superior conference that played more physical hockey all year long. The Capitals won’t be able to take a full series of Western-style banging.
San Jose has paid their dues, but the Caps need a little more seasoning before they will be able to break through the glass ceiling.
PICK: SHARKS IN 6
-You can read more of Bill’s work at DukingItOut.com
The Olympics are now over and the sprint to the finish line begins. In true Campbell and Wales style, Duke (West) and Wagman (East) are here to lay it out for you. Without further ado, here are our takes on what to expect in the NHL’s stretch run.
Wales Conference – by Ryan Wagman
With one team already guaranteed a spot (and a top-three seed) and three teams seeing their slim mathematical hopes dwindling every day, there is relatively little to project in the Eastern Conference down the stretch. That said, there is nothing guaranteed in this game and each team still has games to play, and with those games, keys to that organization’s success, either now, or in the future. Rankings are through games of March 14.
1) Washington Capitals (101 pts, 13 games remaining) – With 101 points, the Capitals have already sewn up the Southeast Division, a top three seed and home ice advantage through the first round of the playoffs – at least. With a 14-point lead on the 2nd ranked team (each with only 13 games to play), they are also odds-on favourites to end the regular season as the top seed in the Wales. As today’s incident reminds us, the key for the Caps may be to keep Alex Ovechkin in check so he is ready for the second season. The other key thing to watch during the Caps’ remaining games is who they play in net. According to GVT, Semyon Varlamov has been the better goalie this year (5.9 GVT in 19.5 games, while Theodore has trailed with 4.4 GVT in 34.7 games. Each tender played two of the Caps last four games, Theodore winning both of his and Varlamov losing his starts. Pay attention to how Boudreau allocates his stars the rest of the way. If either goalie starts to see more than half the ice time, it may be the sign that he will be the man (at least initially) for the playoffs.
2) Pittsburgh Penguins (87 pts, 13 games remaining) – Although 4 points in front of the 4th seed Devils, Jersey has two games in hand and it would not be a shock for them to win those and force Pittsburgh’s hand. If the Penguins can get a good result in New Jersey this Wednesday, they should be able to control their own destiny. Outside of Washington, the Penguins are the best scoring team in the East, and with stars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar and Jordan Staal in the lineup, it is to be expected. The Pens’ accomplishments this season have been felt throughout the roster, as only three even semi-regular players (Craig Adams, Eric Godard and Maxime Talbot) have put up cumulative GVT’s below 0. Going forward, it should be interesting to see how new top-6 forward Alexei Ponikarovsky continues to mesh with his new linemates before the playoffs begin. With six of their last seven games against teams that are currently on the outside looking in, I expect the Penguins to finish the regular season with the Atlantic Division title and the number 2 seed for the playoffs, setting us up for another series pitting Crosby and Ovechkin. Hockey fans win again.
3) Buffalo Sabres (82 pts, 15 games remaining) – The Sabres have a three point lead on the Ottawa Senators for the Northeast Division with two games in hand as a bonus. Considering a large part of the Senators’ current position comes from their earlier 11-game winning streak, it is fair to say that the Sabres have been the better team this year, game-in, game-out. One factor that may test this team before the playoffs is that 10 of their remaining 15 games are on the road, including the next four against the underbelly of the southeast (Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Florida and Carolina). The Sabres have only been 15-12-4 on the road this season, so they will have to play at least a little bit better than that to close the season to ensure themselves of home ice and the third seed for the 1st round. Also look for Patrick Lalime to spell Ryan Miller at least four more times (they have four more back-to-back sets), if not more, as the Sabres need Miller to be fresh to advance in the playoffs. The Sabres will win the Northeast
4) New Jersey Devils (83 pts, 15 games remaining) – After a slow start to his life as a Devil, Ilya Kovalchuk has stepped up his game with two goals and two assists in his last two games. In his only career playoff experience, Kovalchuk has two points in four games as the Thrashers were swept back in 2007. Four points behind the Penguins for the division lead, the Devils are also four points ahead of the Senators in fifth and I expect them to maintain their hold of home ice in the first round. Like with the Sabres above, the Devils will want to try to give Martin Brodeur a few more nights off before the playoffs. Allowing four goals to the Islanders on Saturday will not make Jacques Lemaire any more confident in his abilities to produce going forward.
5) Ottawa Senators (79 pts, 13 games remaining) – Since winning 14 of 16 prior to the Olympic Break, the Senators have fallen a little bit flat since returning to action, picking up only 3 points in six games while being outscored 18-8. Like their division rivals from Buffalo, the Senators play most of their remaining schedule on the road (8 of 13 games), where they have been sub-par this season (14-18-1). Their 8 point cushion should keep them in the playoffs, but unless they turn things around quickly, they may be primed to drop a few spots in the seedings and end up with a first round matchup against Pittsburgh. And it says right here that that is what they will do. Ottawa will finish in 7th in the Wales.
6) Philadelphia Flyers (76 pts, 14 games remaining) – If Ottawa falters, Philadelphia is primed to replace them. Michael Leighton will continue his Cinderella run at establishing himself as a bona-fide NHL goalie and play ten of the Flyers` 14 remaining games. His traditional and advanced statistics have been phenomenal since joining Philadelphia, with a .922 save percentage and 2.39 GAA. With only one shutout in 25 games, we can also see that he is consistent, not balancing perfection with blow-outs. According to GVT, Leighton has put up an otherworldly 11.1 GVT in 23 games, putting him ahead of US Olympians Tim Thomas and Jonathan Quick. Speaking of Tim Thomas, there are some similarities in their narratives. Both were late draftees who took circuitous routes to starting jobs when they were already all but written off as NHLers. It’s hard not to root for guys like Michael Leighton. At least for one year. The Flyers will finish in 5th place in the East to play New Jersey in the first round.
7) Montreal Canadiens (76 pts, 12 games remaining) – Only 12 games to go, but unlike some of the preceding teams, the Habs get an even split between the Bell Centre and the rest of the league. Their travels will also be made lighter by playing four games against teams not currently holding a playoff spot. With six wins in their seven games since the Olympic break the Canadiens know that there is little time for finding their feet if they want to play past the middle of April. If they can maintain the power play efficiency, ranked second in the NHL as of the Break (1 goal per 392.188 power play seconds – behind only Washington), they should be able to hold their spot. With Ottawa stumbling, I think they can go one better, and will finish the regular season ranked 6th in the conference, opening the playoffs against Buffalo.
8) Boston Bruins (72 pts, 15 games remaining) – Matt Cooke’s shoulder may end the Bruins season early. Their offense was already the worst in the conference, having scored only 167 goals so far, 7 less than anyone else in the East. Savard, leading the Bruins in offensive GVT (4.7 – not really that special, which says alot about this team), will be missed dearly, especially if he will miss the rest of the season, which seems more likely each day. They will need a few more games like that against the Flyers on the 11th if they are to make the playoffs. I don’t think they have it in them. Bruins fans can take some solace in owning two picks in or around the top ten in this summer’s draft. The Bruins will finish 9th, just out of the playoffs.
9) New York Rangers (71 pts, 13 games remaining) – While the Rangers are in the best position to take advantage of a Bruins’ slump, I don’t think they are the team for that measure of decisiveness. Henrik Lundqvist has been fallible this season and Marian Gaborik, has little offensive support, his 36 goals currently doubling that of runner-up Ryan Callahan’s 18 tallies. Their remaining schedule includes a six-game road trip, a number of games against other teams still jockeying for playoff position and ends up with a home and away against the Flyers. The Rangers will finish 10th in the East and miss the playoffs.
10) Tampa Bay Lightning (68 pts, 14 games remaining) – They have done themselves no favours picking up only 4 points in 7 games since returning from the Olympics, the Lightning are my dark-horse team to make a late run and finish the season in a playoff position. Between Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St.Louis, Steve Downie and Alex Tanguay, they should have two lines of proven scorers (some performing better than others this year). They have a big and talented blueline featuring veteran Mattias Ohlund, phenom Victor Hedman and the emerging two-way threat of Kurtis Foster (leading Lightning D-men in GVT with 8.8 – tied with Lecavalier). To help with their stretch run, the Lightning need to commit to Antero Niittymaki, who has vastly outplayed Mike Smith this year. They have played a near-equal amount, but Antero’s GAA is better by 0.37, his save percentage is better by .012 and his GVT is 11.9 higher. Assuming Niittymaki is given the reins, the Lightning will begin their rise to the playoffs. Mind you, as the 8th seed, it should be a short ride against the Capitals, but a worthy one nonetheless. Pay attention to their game on the 25th in Boston. A poor result there may negate the aforementioned prediction.
11) Atlanta Thrashers (67 pts, 14 games remaining) – As Don Waddell promised after dealing Ilya Kovalchuk to the Devils, the Thrashers were not sellers at the deadline. With their big move being a trade for Clarke MacArthur from the Sabres, I wouldn’t exactly call them buyers either. If a top team is willing to trade a guy, it is a pretty good sign, he wasn’t highly thought of. After a great start to the season, the comeback story named Johan Hedberg has come to an end. The Thrashers are leaking goals, allowing more than everyone in the Wales, but the basement-dwelling Maple Leafs. At some point soon, John Anderson will turn to Ondrej Pavelec and preview their goaltender for next year.
12) Florida Panthers (66 pts, 15 games remaining) – Tomas Vokoun kept the Panthers in the hunt for most of the season, but there was no one on hand to consistently put pucks past the opposition goalies scoring more than only the Bruins. After their upcoming three game homestand against high-flying Washington, Phoenix and Buffalo, the Panthers would be well served by looking to the future over the last 10-12 games. Look to see youngsters Keaton Ellerby, Dmitry Kulikov, Kenndal McArdle and Shawn Matthias get more ice time from here on out.
13) New York Islanders (65 pts, 13 games remaining) – With four points in two nights against the Devils and the Maple Leafs, the Islanders want us to believe. We shouldn’t. Rick DiPietro may or may not return to play this year. It doesn’t really matter. The Isles will need him for next year, when Martin Biron will be playing somewhere else. Next year Matt Moulson will have to answer questions about whether this year was a fluke. John Tavares will have to show more consistency and a more well-rounded game. Rob Schremp will get more chances to finally show that he belongs in the NHL. Josh Bailey will continue to develop into a top-six forward (sleeper pick for fantasy next year), as will Kyle Okposo. Another good draft this summer will push the Islanders much closer to being a team to be reckoned with seriously going forward. But not this year.
14) Carolina Hurricanes (64 pts, 14 games remaining) – With a five game winning streak heading to the Olympic break and 8 points in 7 games since returning, the Hurricans are certainly making things interesting, even after selling off most of the roster (excluding the Abominable Snowman, Ray Whitney). Next year Cam Ward and Eric Staal will presumably be healthier. Brandon Sutter will continue to stake his claim to a top line spot. Zach Boychuk will get an extended run. And with less than $42 million tied up in salary for next season, there is plenty of room to bring in reinforcements, particularly on the blue-line, where only Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen are signed for 2010-2011. As I expect them to be picking in the top five in this summer’s draft, their newest member stands a good chance to jump right up into the NHL as more and more first year draftees are now wont to do.
15) Toronto Maple Leafs (58 pts, 13 games remaining) – Without a first round pick this summer, the Leafs have no reason to lose, but no chance to win. The remainder of this season will be about measuring what the young guys have. Jonas Gustavsson will be a restricted free agent and he should get around half of the remaining starts to give GM Brian Burke an idea of what kind of contract to offer him. Youngsters including Luca Caputi, Tyler Bozak, Viktor Stalberg and Carl Gunnarsson will vie to create expectations for themselves going into camp next year. The core of a future winner may be here, but it’s hard to say just when that future will start.
Campbell Conference – by Bill Duke
-All stats and standings as of Tuesday, March 16
The Campbell (nee Western) Conference playoff picture is slightly less muddled at this point in the season than it has been in year’s past, but there should still be plenty of drama between now and the beginning of the postseason.
San Jose and Chicago are the clear cut class of the conference, ranking in the top 3 in terms of goals for and the top 5 in goals against. They are virtual shoo-ins for the conference’s top 2 seeds.
Positions 3 through 10, on the other hand, are going to see a lot more action. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Campbell Conference playoff picture as it currently stands with slightly less than a month remaining in the regular season. I’ve listed the teams in order of their current standings and included my prediction for their final seeding.
1) San Jose Sharks (96 points, 14 games remaining): I’ve written in the past that San Jose is my pick to win the Stanley Cup this year, and I have no reason to waiver from that assertion. Well, maybe one little, teensy-weensy reason: the sub par play of Evgeni Nabokov of late, including the Olympic tournament. He wasn’t just bad at the Olympics, he was terrible in Russia’s quarterfinal loss to Canada. However, forwards Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley were terrific in helping Canada to the gold medal (Joe Thornton and Dan Boyle were serviceable). Such a confidence boost might be just what the doctor ordered for Marleau and Heatley, who will need to equal their Olympic performance if San Jose is to hoist the Cup this June.
Final playoff seeding: 1
2) Chicago Blackhawks (94 points, 14 games remaining): The ‘Hawks suffered a very disheartening loss to the Flyers on Saturday when Chris Pronger scored the game winner with just more than 2 seconds remaining in the third. It was the kind of game that exposed the subtle flaws in what many consider to be a bulletproof team: Huet, while not terrible, failed to come up with the big saves when needed; the defense suffered two breakdowns that directly led to Philadelphia goals; Patrick Kane was terrific between his own blue line and the top of the circles in the Flyers’ end while ordinary everywhere else; and finally, the ‘Hawks seemed to take their foot off the gas once they went up by a goal.
But surely they followed that downer with an inspired performance at home to the Captials on Sunday, right? Not exactly. They coughed up 3-0 lead and lost in OT. Am I nitpicking here? Maybe a little. The ‘Hawks did play a back-to-back in which they traveled from Philly to Chicago, and they did lose blueliner Brian Campbell to an injury in the first period of Sunday’s game (granted, Alex Ovechkin was given a game misconduct on the play, thus taking the best position player in hockey out of the game), but the goaltending concerns are real, as is the fact that the ‘Hawks are young and may be prone to similar mental breakdowns in the playoffs. It says here that the Blackhawks will live to regret the fact they didn’t make a move for a goaltender (Martin Biron? Dwayne Roloson? Tomas Vokoun? Marty Turco?) at the trade deadline. I just don’t trust either Cristobal Huet or Annti Niemi to come up big when the games matter most. They also could be without Campbell and his 11.6 overall GVT for the balance of the season.
Final seeding: 2
3) Vancouver Canucks (89 points, 13 games remaining): The Canucks look to be peaking at just the right time. A case can be made that Vancouver should be lumped in with Chicago and San Jose as the top teams in the conference. In fact, Puck Prospectus’ Tom Awad has them ranked a smidge above the Sharks and Hawks in his latest power rankings. They have fantastic goaltending, plenty of skill at forward, a great powerplay and just enough grit to go toe-to-toe with anyone.
One thing they lack is great depth. An injury to either Sedin would sink their Stanley Cup hopes, as would seeing Willie Mitchell (who is currently hurt) or Kevin Bieksa miss significant time. Bieksa in particular has been prone to injury the last few seasons, so much so that one must wonder if he drinks enough milk, gets enough sleep and takes his vitamins.
With Calgary underperforming this year and Colorado having plateaued, the Northwest Division is Vancouver’s for the taking. And take it they will. Eight of Vancouver’s remaining games are on home ice. They play some tough teams (San Jose x3, Detroit, Colorado, L.A.) but are 5-1-1 since the Olympic break and boast the gold medal-winning netminder.
Final seeding: 3
4) Phoenix Coyotes (89 points, 13 games remaining): The ‘Yotes were as aggressive as anyone in improving their team at the deadline, mortgaging their future (at least to some degree) in order to acquire playmaking forward Wojtek Wolski and veteran defenseman Derek Morris. They have been a real surprise this year, thanks primarily to the stellar play of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, and are a lock to qualify for their first postseason since 2002. However, their remaining schedule is as difficult as it gets – of their 13 remaining games, only 3 come against opponents currently at .500 or below.
Final seeding: 5
5) Los Angeles Kings (85 points, 14 games remaining): L.A.’s success this year is a surprise only to those who weren’t aware of the fantastic young talent GM Dean Lombardi has been stockpiling over the past handful of years. Anze Kopitar is rapidly blossoming into a superstar (12.1 offensive GVT, 17.1 overall) and netminder Jonathon Quick has been a revelation between the pipes. But the real heart and soul of the Kings is Drew Doughty, who is a +16 with 52 points in 68 games. Not too shabby for a 20-year-old defenseman. Thanks to a much easier remaining schedule (7 games against non playoff teams) the Kings should jump up and claim home ice in what promises to be a very close first round series with the Coyotes.
Final seeding: 4
6) Colorado Avalance (84 points, 14 games remaining): As much as the Wolski deal made sense for the surging Coyotes, Avs fans were left to wonder why their front office would deal away their fourth best forward (according to overall GVT) during a season in which they have a real shot to win a playoff round. However, after 6 games in an Avalanche uniform, budding forward Peter Mueller has 8 points and looks as though he may really benefit from the change of scenery. The real key to Colorado’s success has been the excellent season turned in by goaltender Craig Anderson. When Colorado got off to their hot start (10-2-2 in October), it was largely due to Anderson’s stellar .939 save percentage and 2.0f GAA. He suffered through a mini-lull shortly thereafter, but has rebounded nicely and the Avs are a lock for the postseason.
Final seeding: 6
7) Nashville Predators (81 points, 13 games remaining): As of Tuesday, the Predators have given up 198 goals this season, the most by far of the top 10 teams in the conference. That, coupled with their inability to score (only 193 goals on the season) make them ripe to collapse down the stretch and relinquish the playoff position they’ve held for most of the season. Nashville’s strength is their defense corps, as Shea Weber (10.1 GVT) and Ryan Suter (7.3 GVT) are the type of young studs that any team would be happy to have. However, any time a team’s top scorer is Martin Erat (43 points, 7.6 GVT), their validity must seriously be questioned. Goaltender Dan Ellis has been merely okay this year, posting a .908 save percentage and a 2.72 GAA to go along with his middling 3.6 GVT. Add it all up and you get a 9th-place team.
Final seeding: 9
8 ) Detroit Red Wings (80 points, 13 games remaining): It’s been shocking to see Detroit hover around the middle of the Conference this season after their dynasty-like run of excellence. However, they do seem to be putting it all together just in time to earn a postseason berth. With super-rookie Jimmy Howard between the pipes, Detroit may actually be in better shape at the goaltender position than they have been the last few seasons. It looks like the Wings are destined for a 7th or 8th-place finish, which would set up a dandy of a first round series with either the Sharks or the Blackhawks, neither of which would be very happy with the prospect of turning in an excellent season only to face the defending Conference champs right off the bat.
Final seeding: 7
9) Calgary Flames (77 points, 13 games remaining): While it’s a tough task to make up 4 points on any team in only 13 games, the Flames should be able to turn the trick and overtake Nashville. Calgary is a better team with the likes of Matt Stajan (whom they have resigned long-term), Niklas Hagman, Ian White, Jamal Mayers and Christopher Higgins in the lineup than they were with Dion Phaneuf, Freddie Sjostrom and Olli Jokinen. The new Flames’ GVT numbers may not be as good as the departed players’ (the highest rating of the new acquisitions belongs to Ian White and his 2.0 overall) but the team has been more consistent and better at doing the little things since their wheeling and dealing. More importantly, Calgary has been getting much better production out of Jarome Iginla since the deals.
So far the only duds have been Steve Staios (-0.4 GVT) and Ales Kotalik (-0.4), the latter of which may find himself out of the starting lineup sooner than later. Their remaining schedule is tough, but given that they play Washington, San Jose and Chicago late in the season (once they will have clinched their division titles), they are unlikely to get those teams’ best shots. Expect the Flames to see a lot of backup goalied down the stretch. With continued brilliance from Miika Kiprusoff, Iginla and Mark Giordano, the Flames will be play just well enough to be bounced in round one for the fifth straight year.
Final seeding: 8
10) St. Louis Blues (73 points, 14 games remaining): After shocking the hockey world last season by sneaking into the playoffs, the Blues have proven that with youth comes inconsistency. The Blues are still a team on the right track, however, and this blip should be considered only a minor setback rather than the beginning of a trend. Surprisingly, St. Louis’ struggles this season have come on home ice, where they’ve posted a record of 12-16-5. Compare that to their stellar road mark of 20-11-4 and it becomes obvious that, had the Blues taken care of business on home ice, they would have been well on their way to back-to-back playoff appearances.
Final seeding: 10
11) Minnesota Wild (72 points, 14 games remaining): With a new coach and a new, offensive style of play, the Wild should be at least a little pleased with their modest success in this transition season. Mikko Koivu (62 points in 68 games) is well on his way to being a star, while backstop Nicklas Backstrom, despite a disappointing season, looks to be a reliable starter for years to come.
Final seeding: 11
12 and 13) Dallas Stars (71 points, 14 games remaining), Anaheim Ducks (70 points, 14 games remaining): Given their level of talent, both these veteran teams must be very disappointed with their play this season. They have given up the third and fourth most goals in the conference, respectively, and have only the draft to look forward to at this point. In the case of the Stars, it will surely be a relief to see Marty Turco’s $5.7 million cap hit come off the books this offseason, however their summer mission will be to find a suitable replacement as backup Kari Lehtonen has proven he cannot be trusted. Anaheim already made a move to shed their biggest goalie expense when they dealt the underperforming Jean-Sebastian Giguere to Toronto just prior to the Olympics. Both teams have a lot of upside, but sufficient tinkering with each roster will be a necessity to ensure success next season.
Final seedings: Dallas 12, Anaheim 13
14 and 15) Columbus Blue Jackets (67 points, 12 games remaining), Edmonton Oilers (49 points, 13 games remaining): There are disappointing seasons, and then there are abject disasters. File 2009/2010 in the latter category for both these clubs. The only upside is that Columbus and Edmonton will likely be picking in the first five picks of a top-heavy draft. It will take a lot more than a single player to turn either of these franchises around, however, as both clubs have many glaring holes.
Final seedings: Columbus 14, Edmonton 15
After a thrilling Olympic tournament (not just the hockey), a packed schedule forces us all right back into the swing of things in the NHL. A few players are already back in action tonight as Mike Babcock’s Detroit Red Wings take on Paul Stastny and the Avalanche in Denver.
The NHL trade freeze also lifts, for around 72 hours. In light of this abbreviated window, a few GMs got their deadline day shopping done early, with Lou Lamoriello picking up Ilya Kovalchuk from the Thrashers along with Anssi Salmela and a 2nd-round pick for a package consisting of Niclas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya, Elbows Cormier, and 1st and 2nd rounders. Similarly, Brian Burke got a head start in re-building the Leafs, shipping Vesa Toskala and Jason Blake to Anaheim for JS Giguere, and sending Matt Stajan (now re-signed long-term), Niklas Hagman, Ian White and Jamal Mayers to Calgary for Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom and touted prospect Keith Aulie. The Sutters continued their makeover by shipping Olli Jokinen and Brandon Prust to the Rangers in exchange for Chris Higgins and Ales Kotalik. Of somewhat less immediate significance, the Thrashers dealt the disappointing Kari Lehtonen to the Stars, where he will likely be seen as the goalie of the future in exchange for young offensive blueliner, Ivan Vishnevsky. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes have began their anticipated dismantling, shipping Matt Cullen to Ottawa and Nic Wallin to the Sharks. The Panthers also put one leg into the seller’s pool by dealing Dominic Moore to the Habs for a 2011 2nd rounder.
So what’s left to be moved? In true Campbell and Wales style, we will be breaking up the action by conference, with Bill “Campbell” Duke handling the Western events and Ryan “Wales” Wagman with his eyes on the East.
The Campbell/Western Conference
-Edmonton trades D Denis Grebeshkov to Nashville for a 2010 2nd round pick: You have to think that this is just the beginning of the Oilers’ housecleaning. Had Sheldon Souray not hurt himself in a fight (again!) against Calgary’s Jarome Iginla on Jan. 30 he likely would have been the first Oiler defensemen dealt.
Alas, Souray proved again he is made out of porcelain and scotch tape, making it difficult to deal him. So Grebeshk0v, set to become an RFA after the season, was shipped to the Preds. Grebeshkov is an offensive defenseman, sort of, with a penchant for playmaking, sort of. His numbers are less than overwhelming: 6 goals and 13 assist in 47 games played. He is -16 and has but one lone PP goal. According to GVT, Grebeshkov has a decent rating of 3.2, but what has to be concerning is his defensive GVT rating of 0.6, which is terribly low for a blueliner.
That modest number is likely due to Grebeshkov’s penchant for giveaways in his own zone.
So why would Nashville make a trade for an “offensive” defenseman with a low point total and a Phaneufian track record when it comes to play in his own zone? That’s tough to say, especially since the Preds already boasted Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Dan Hamhuis and…oh wait, I guess that’s why they traded for him. Anytime Cody Franson, Francis Bouillon and Kevin Klein are regulars in your roster, Grebeshkov is a welcome addition. To put it in perspective, Bouillon has a GVT of 1.1 and Klein has a very meager rating of o.1.
As for the Oilers, they might as well stockpile draft picks since this season very quickly turned into an unmitigated disaster and Grebeshkov is an upcoming RFA. The Oilers have a lot of young talent in the pipeline, and still could very well be a Cup contender in the not so distant future.
-Calgary trades G Curtis McElhinney to Anaheim for G Vesa Toskala: In his never-ending quest to find a suitable backup to overworked starter Miika Kiprusoff, Darryl Sutter has once again looked to an ex-Shark tender to round out his roster. It’s a curious move, considering that Toskala has had a rather abysmal season (3.66 GAA, .874 SV %, -15.4 GVT). But Toskala is a UFA at the end of the year, so this move allows the Flames some flexibilty when it comes to the summer’s free agent market.
As for the Ducks, they get a 26-year-old goalie who never really got a chance to excel in Cowtown. C-Mac was played so sparingly that it was impossible for him to get into a groove. Still, his 3.22 GAA and .885 SV % aren’t great indicators that he deserved more playing time. McElhinney is also a UFA at season’s end.
-Phoenix trades F Peter Mueller and F Kevin Porter to Colorado for F Wojtek Wolski: Seldom does one see two playoff-bound teams make a deal such as this at the deadline. Mueller, a former WHL stand-out and first round pick of the ‘Yotes, was suffering through a down season in the desert. With only 16 points, it’s been a very disappointing campaign for the former Everett Silvertip, who registered 22 goals and 54 points his rookie season before regressing slightly to 13 goals and 26 points last year. According to GVT, Mueller has been performing slightly below replacement level this season, as has Porter in his limited opportunities. Both men have a GVT of -0.1.
Still, at 21 years of age it is somewhat surprising that the Phoenix brass have given up on Mueller.
Not that they’re trading him away for nothing. Wolski is a 23-year-old forward who is gifted offensively and having the best year of his young career: 17 goals, 30 asisists, +15 in 62 games. He should immediately improve a Phoenix powerplay that is currently operating at 14.9%, second-last in the entire NHL. Wolski’s GVT of 6.9 suggests he is a bona fide top-6 forward on any NHL team.
-Phoenix trades D Sean Zimmerman and a conditional 6th round pick to Vancouver for D Mathieu Schneider: Looks like the Coyotes are going fot it this year, doesn’t it? The strategy makes sense, given that the franchise needs to do everything in its power to win back its fans and keep itself from being shipped to Kansas City or Las Vegas. Schneider, who has been playing with the Canucks’ AHL afilliate in Manitoba since December, registered 5 points in 17 games. If he brings a better attitude to the desert than he did to Vancouver, Schneider may provide some valuable veteran leadership for a Phoenix theam that has precious little playoff experience on the roster.
-Edmonton trades D Lubomir Visnovsky to Anaheim for D Ryan Whitney and a 2010 6th round pick: Everyone knew the Oilers would be moving a high-priced defenseman before the deadline, but I bet hockey fans in Edmonton hoped it would be Sheldonn Souray. However, it makes perfect sense for this team to deal away Visnovsky, primarily because he is a 33-year-old defenseman with a $5.6 million price tag that runs through the 2012/2013 season. He has 32 points in 57 games this season and is a rather impressive -4 on what has been a terrible Oiler team. Visnovsky has tallied a GVT rating of 8.9 this season, good for top spot on the Edmonton blueline.
Whitney, on the other hand, just turned 27 in February and has arguably more offensive upside that Visnovsky. In 62 games this season Whitney has 28 points, but notched a career-high 59 in his sophomore season of 2006/2007 with Pittsburgh. He comes with a $4 million salary that runs through the 2012/2013 season. Whitney’s GVT so far this season is 4.0.
So why would the Oilers trade for a more expensive player who has slightly better numbers but undoubtedly less upside over the course of his contract?
Well, Visnovsky has slightly more points on the PP than does Whitney (17 to 13) and is considered a better breakout defenseman with more passing skill. And Whitney was perhaps overrated when he came to Anaheim, which has likey tampered the Anaheim front office’s enthusiasm for him. One interesting note – Whitney has notched 71 hits this season to Visnovsky’s 32.
-Calgary trades F Dustin Boyd to Nashville for a 4th round pick (TBD): The Calgary dressing room just got a little less curly. Dustin Boyd and his infamous mini-fro have been shipped to Nashville for a draft pick. This is little more than a move by the Preds to acqurie some depth while Calgary ships off a forward for whom they have little use. Since acquiring Niklas Hagman, Matt Stajan, Chris Higgins and Ales Kotalik before the Olympic break, the Flames have really reduced Boyd’s ice time. In fact, Boyd has played less than 11 minutes in each of his last 5 games. With 19 points in 60 games, Boyd doesn’t exaclty light up the scoresheet, but he is an energy player who should be an effective third or fourth liner with the Preds. He has a GVT of 3.4 so far this season.
-Edmonton trades D Steve Staios to Calgary for Aaron Johnson and a 2010 third round pick: Can you say Adrian Aucoin part deux? The Flames pick up a 36-year-old defenseman with 0 goals and 7 assist who, for some reason, is still regarded as a guy with some playmaking ability. Staios is a character player who may or may not provide leadership in the Calgary room (were the Flames really lacking in that department?) but his GVT of -1.0 would indicate his best days of on-ice performance are long gone. And it’s not like Staios is cheap – he is due $2.7 million in salary next season.
The Oilers reasons for making this deal are obvious (save money, get younger) but the Flames’ motivations are beyond me.
As an aside, TSN is reporting that this is the first ever deal made between the Oilers and Flames. So there’s that.
The Wales/Eastern Conference
- Florida trades D Jordan Leopold to Pittsburgh for a 2010 2nd round pick: aka Florida trades the rights to Jay Bouwmeester for 61 games of marginally above average 4th defensemen play and the Penguins 2nd round pick in this summer’s draft (should be between 50-55 overall). According to Puck Prospectus’ GVT stat, Leopold has been a little bit above replacement level on both the offensive and defensive components of his game this year with the bub-par Panthers, but his relative plus/minus (+/- while focused on who he’s been playing with and against) has been poor at -6.2, the lowest-ranked d-man in Miami. As per a few more proprietary metrics from Gabriel Desjardins’ Behindthenet.ca, we can see that Leopold has been lined up against slightly better-than-average players, while playing with teammates similarly below the line of demarcation. Florida has called up big Luke Beaverton to make an early impression in his place, but I expect former 1st rounder Keaton Ellerby to get an extended look down the stretch.
For Pittsburgh, Leopold will likely get second-pair minutes, while potentially paving the way for the Pens to deal Kris Letang, a restricted free agent this summer, or Mark Eaton, an upcoming UFA. Leopold gives Pittsburgh an upgrade on Martin Skoula and provides more offensive punch than Jay McKee, both of whom may be relegated to the press box barring another trade. Assuming that the Pens move another D-man, I will reserve judgment on this deal, but I think the Panthers got a good return on a relatively marginal player, and some hope that the Bouwmeester era will come to some lasting good.
Atlanta trades AHL D Nathan Oystrick and a conditional 2011 draft pick to Anaheim for RW Evgeny Artyukhin: While I won;’t be making a habit out of commenting on trades between AHL depth guys, this does strike me as a little odd. While Oystrick has spent his entire season with Atlanta’s AHL affiliate in Chicago(41GP-7G-16A-23Pts-+6-74PIM), he was Atlanta’s #5 defenseman last year, but found himself out of a job this year with Atlanta’s additions of Pavel Kubina and Mark Popovic. Given a shot with Anaheim, Oystrick may be able to fill a similar role, as Puck Prospectus’ Vukota system had him pegged for 2.7 GVT (above zero is a contribution) this year in limited duty. So what do the Thrashers plan to do with Artyukhin? He’s off his usual pace of 3 PIM per game this year and provides something (willingness to use his size) that the Thrashers seemingly are already getting in spades with the likes of Eric Boulton, Chris Thorburn and Christoph Schubert getting regular ice time. Artyukhin has been scarcely above replacement level with the Ducks so far, even playing 4th line minutes against other 4th liners. I wonder what the conditional pick rides on.
NY Islanders trade D Andy Sutton to Ottawa for 2010 2nd round pick previously belonging to San Jose: We already have an overwhelming trend with these late trades. Top four defensemen in exchange for 2nd rounders. It is de rigueur for all so-called contenders. Sutton was a classic late bloomer, a huge man who took his time learning how to use his big body. Never drafted, Sutton was signed by the Sharks as an undrafted free agent out of Michigan Tech after a senior season that saw him raise his scoring high from 9 to 40 points. Four years later, he was a regular NHL blueliner, although one prone to miss 15-55 games a year due to some injury or other. He has been healthy so far this year and somewhat useful for the Isle, playing 2.7 goals above threshold (3rd among Islander d-men) with more than 60% of his value coming from his defensive play. He’ll be the 6th defenseman for Ottawa, and post-trade rumours say that this may be a pre-cursor to the Sens dealing Anton Volchenkov by 3pm Wednesday. Both Sutton and Volchenkov will be UFAs this summer.
Toronto trades RW Alexei the Poni to Pittsburgh in exchange for D Martin Skoula and AHL LW Luca Caputi: Ponikarovsky is an impending UFA and his departure from Toronto has been speculated upon for most of this season. In spite of his shortcomings as a player (he looks like he should be better, but inconsistency has prevented him from ever being more than a 2nd line winger), he represents great value as a late 3rd-round pick out of the Ukraine back in 1998. His 61 points last year are his career high (he has averaged just over 0.5 points-per-game over his NHL career) and he may yet approach that number again with 20 games playing alongside Evgeni Malkin (his new presumed Centre) in Pittsburgh. In fact, Ponikarovsky may now be Pittsburgh’s best winger. Ponikarovsky shows a willingness to throw his body around near the opponent’s goal-crease (in front and behind the net) and this should allow Malkin more space to create. Poni was Toronto’s second most productive forward this year according to GVT, at 8.1, with far-and-away the best relative plus minus (14.3). If Malkin sparks, and the Pens can get back to Conference Finals, this deal will have paid off for Pittsburgh.
From the Leafs’ end, this is about Luca Caputi. Skoula was a make-weight, allowing Pittsburgh to afford Poni’s salary over the remainder of the season. TSN’s Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) tweeted that the Leafs will try to flip Skoula off tomorrow. If that doesn’t work (or if Burke doesn’t unload a Finger or an Exelby), there’s always the AHL. Luca Caputi is the third top prospect acquired via trade by Burke this year, joining earlier trades for Philippe Paradis and Keith Aulie. All three feature in The Hockey News’ recent Future Watch issue. In a roundabout way, these three mitigate the gamble taken by Burke when he dealt away this year’s lottery pick (plus a 2nd rounder) and next year’s first rounder in exchange for Phil Kessel in September. Further judgment on the Maple Leafs will have to be reserved until the deadline passes and we will be able to see what Brian Burke has come away with. The price (the aforementioned draft picks and the waste of a season) has already been paid.
Update: Skoula dealt to New Jersey for a 2010 5th round pick: That makes the full deal Ponikarovsky for Caputi and a 5th rounder. How does Caputi compare to a 2nd rounder? Not bad at all. He is scoring in the AHL at roughly the same pace (approx. 0.7 points-per-game) as Ponikarovsky did at the turn of the century. He may be as little bit smaller than Poni, but has a reputation as a guy who sets up shop behind the net, making him look like a player who will be able to do the same things, maybe starting next season.
Montreal trades RW Matt D’Agostini to St. Louis for AHL RW Aaron Palushaj: I’m not sure why St.Louis wanted D’Agostini (the worst Canadien this year according to GVT at -2.3 and ahead of only Paul Mara in relative +/- at -13.9). I can guess that Montreal management did not see him as a valuable member of their push to make this year’s playoffs, and based on the aforementioned metrics, they could expect to receive significantly better production from a number of their minor leaguers. If not Palushaj himself, maybe Ryan White can make himself useful as the 5th RW. Or Georges Laraque might get to finish the year with the big club.
Boston trades D Derek Morris to Phoenix for a 2011 4th round pick: Didn’t Chiarelli get the memo? Top-four defencemen are worth current 2nd rounders this year. It’s easy to see why Phoenix would want Morris, as he gives them a very solid veteran top-four blueline core of Keith Yandle, Ed Jovanovski, Adrian Aucion and now Morris. So is Boston giving up on this season? Rumours abound that Tim Thomas may be dealt. I can’t understand why Chiarelli accepted so little for Morris. Lesser d-men like Andy Sutton and Jordan Leopold brought back 2010 2nd rounders, so why only a 4th rounder for Morris? And why only a 2011 4th-rounder? Morris has been Boston’s 2nd best defensemen this year, behind only Zdeno Chara. His output this year (0.43 points-per-game) matches exactly his career scoring output. He’s 30 and has played over 850 NHL regular season games, and only 14 postseason games. Morris is no stranger to Phoenix and that mostly explains his lack of playoff experience. Until this year, the Coyotes have been a fairly rancid franchise, on and off the ice. So Morris looks good to add to his personal playoff resume, while Boston gets next to nothing. Strange times.
Florida trades D Dennis Seidenberg and prospect D Matthew Bartkowski to Boston in exchange for AHL RW Criag Weller, RW Bryon Bitz and (surprise!) a 2010 2nd round pick previously belonging to Tampa Bay: Let’s start with Florida’s haul. Weller is just a guy, a 3rd-line AHL grinder at best. He’s already 28 and underwhelmed in the 95 NHL games with Phoenix and Minnesota. Bitz has struggled this year after a promising debut last year. A number of injuries may be to blame, but at 25, he may be to the NHL what Weller is in the AHL. Florida clears more space, now having traded both late off-season signings for futures with both Seidenberg and Moore now gone. Keaton Ellerby will be the beneficiary of the trade, and reports have surfaced that he’s already been called up to the Panthers. The remainder of this season will be about Florida testing its youngsters and jockeying for draft position in June.
The Bruins get Bartkowski, a marginal blueline prospect currently in his second season with Ohio State. He’s a few years away from AHL action. Seidenberg essentially replaces Morris’ role on the team. While Morris has been having the better season thus far, Seidenberg may be the better bet moving forward. He’s two years younger, and indications are that the Bruins would prefer to re-sign hm over Morris. Seidenberg has more playoff experience from last year’s Cinderalla-run by Carolina alone than Morris has in his career. How much did Seidenberg’s play in that series prompt this trade? Considering his availability on the free agent market last summer, probably not much. While this does not excuse the poor return for Morris, this looks like a good pickup by Boston at an eminently reasonable price. They still have a load of high draft picks over the next two years and are not likely to miss any of the pieces sent to Florida.
Carolina trades D Aaron Ward to Anaheim for AHL G Justin Pogge and a conditional 4th round pick: A very small part of the Hurricane bake sale, Ward has been marginalized (and marginal) most of the year with Carolina. Not much on the return, though. Pogge, once seen as the goalie of the future in Toronto (to the extent that they traded away Tuukka Rask) has since proven to be less than “all that” and failed to hold off Vesa Toskala in two NHL franchises. That says something. His new challenge will be for a place in the pecking order behind Cam Ward, fighting Justin Peters and 1st-year pro Mike Murphy. Further proof that it isn’t only the mighty who can fall from grace.
Carolina bake sale continues with RW Scott Walker moving to Washington for a 7th round pick: For a study on the expected value of late picks, check out Richard Pollock’s article from Puck Prospectus. It probably won’t amount to much. Much like Scott Walker will be able to provide the Caps. In limited playing time this year (a December shoulder injury cost him 21 games), he has been below replacement level and his contract will come off the books this summer. Walker may allow for the odd night off for Knuble, Fehr or Bradley, but his biggest contribution to his new team will most likely come off the ice.
Toronto trades AHL G Joey MacDonald to Anaheim for a 2010 7th round draft pick and LW/RW Lee Stempniak to Phoenix for AHL D Matt Jones, and 4th and 7th round draft picks in 2010. D Martin Skoula, acquired last night is forwarded to New Jersey for a 5th rounder, while a 2010 6th rounder is shipped back to Pittsburgh (handshake agreement kind of thing) in exchange for NCAA D Chris Peluso: The Leafs clear up a few more loose ends with this trio of trades. Stempniak has been a clear failure of the short-lived Cliff Fletcher comeback tour prior to Brian Burke’s hiring. While he showed occasional bursts of tremendous energy, he has more often been just a guy. The return for him is commensurate with his value as a 20-game rental. Joey MacDonald was the Leafs’ 3rd string goalie playing mostly in the AHL. As the Ducks don’t have their own AHL franchise (the only team thus handicapped), he may be able to remain with the Marlies while Curtis McElhinney backs up Jonas Hiller. As presumed, Skoula was acquired simply to be moved on. In an interview with Bob McCown today, Burke admitted that he had a provisional agreement with Penguins GM that if he would be able to peddle Skoula for a draft pick, Burke would send a pick one round lower to Pittsburgh in exchange for Peluso, an unsigned player the Pens have since given up on. The Leafs will scout him over the remainder of the summer and decide if they want to sign him in the next few months. Now the Leafs have plenty of draft picks for this summer’s draft, but nothing in the first two rounds.
In Skoula, the Devils get a guy who can slot in their third pair until Paul Martin returns from his broken arm and try to state his claim for continued action afterwards.
Buffalo sends F Clarke MacArthur to Atlanta for 2010 3rd and 4th round picks: MacArthur has been performing just barely above the minimal replacement level this year with Buffalo (1.1 GVT, team-low -14.7 relative +/-) and he will be a restricted free agent on July 1. I think one of those picks should have been enough, so kudos to Darcy Regier on getting the pair. MacArthur looks like a 4th line winger who doesn’t provide enough offense to be in the top-6, nor is he big enough for 3rd-line duties. Buffalo also had to get rid of him to make room for their big dead-line day acquisition.
Buffalo receives LW Raffi Torres from Columbus in exchange for D Nathan Paetsch and a 2010 2nd round draft choice: There was word floating around that the Jackets were seeking a first round pick for Torres which seemed a bit big. Paetsch (unless I missed a big injury) was an extra blue-liner on Buffalo, appearing in only 11 games so far this season. Torres is a rich man’s MacArthur. Big enough to play on the 3rd line, and provides enough offense to play on the second line. Torres contributed 5.2 GVT with Columbus, put up while often playing with lesser linemates, as shown by his below average “Quality Teammates” metric at Behind the Net. While Torres will be a UFA after the season, at the price paid by Buffalo, I expect them to make a run at re-signing him.
Carolina trades D Joe Corvo to Washington and receives in return D Brain Pothier, LW Oskar Osala and a 2nd round pick in 2011: This may have been the biggest deal of the day for Carolina as they were unable to deal Ray Whitney. Corvo, while he missed some time with injury has made a career as a solid #3 defenseman, able to man the point on the power play (12 PPG since the start of last season) and take care of his own end as well. His two long playoff runs in the last three seasons portend well for Washington’s hopes this spring.
In Pothier, the Caps gave up a body who, like Corvo, has an expiring contract. Pothier plays a solid two-way game, but has an injury-ravaged history and they weren’t counting on him for too much going forward. Osala is young enough, big enough and talented enough to turn into a Torres-type of player down the road. Maybe even next season. And you know how I feel about 2nd-round picks.
There were other trades. The Hurricanes bake sale also point the door for Stephane Yelle (along with a prospect to Colorado for another prospect and a 6th rounder), Andrew Alberts (to Vancouver for a 3rd rounder), Florida picking up some beef in D Mathieu Roy from Columbus for collegian Matt Rust, Tampa dealing veterany-goodness in Jeff Halpern to the playoff-bound Kings in exchange for a 3rd round pick and a 4th-line prospect (Teddy Purcell). The Rangers got blue-line depth in Anders Eriksson from Phoenix in exchange for an ECHL goalie. Finally, Washington solidified its team for a long playoff run by acquiring solid role players in the return of Milan Jurcina from Columbus (they must have missed him) and Eric Belanger (having a solid season with 35 points and a 7.1 GVT) from Minnesota for a 2nd round pick. The Caps are happy to trade a shorter draft for a longer playoff run. Let the stretch begin!
Forget, for a moment, the San Jose Sharks’ unfettered record of playoff futility. Set aside the fact that they bowed out rather meekly in the first round last year after dominating the regular season en route to the President’s Trophy. Erase from your memory the image of Joe Thornton during that fateful series, wearing a look on his face like that of a man who just had his cereal peed in.
If you can ignore all those factors, you’d be hard-pressed not to consider the San Jose Sharks as the odds on favourites to hoist the Cup this June.
They have the NHL’s second-ranked offense (3.28 goals for/game), fourth-ranked defense (2.33 goals against/game), second-best goal differential (+0.96 goals/game), second-best save percentage (.925) fifth-ranked powerplay (21.7 %) and number one penalty kill (88 %).
Oh, they also have the league’s best record (35-10-9) and are red hot as of late (7-1-2 in their last 10 games, as of Saturday afternoon).
So why don’t more people believe in them? Well, there’s the playoff history, for one, but there also seems to be a fundamental lack of faith that the team’s veterans can provide the type of leadership necessary to make a deep playoff run.
It’s odd, because the Sharks are a squad filled with character players and grizzled Cup veterans.
To wit, captain Rob Blake has been to two Cup finals, winning one (Colorado, 2001), Dan Boyle was a key contributor to the Lightning’s cup win a few seasons ago, and let’s not forget that Dany Heatley notched 22 points in 20 games when Ottawa made the Cup finals in 2007.
This team should be feared by the rest of the league. They should be a blueprint for success in today’s NHL. They should be held in the highest regard by fans and media alike.
Instead they have become the Rodney Dangerfield of the NHL. Or, more accurately, they are to hockey what the Cleveland Indians were to baseball for much of the 90’s and early 00’s.
Over a seven-year stretch from 1995-2001, the Indians won their division and made the playoffs six times. They averaged 93 wins, posting the best record in baseball twice. Yet their record in playoff series over that time was a middling 5-5. They made it to the World Series twice, but were bested both times (thank YOU, Jose Mesa!).
The thing was, as good as those Indian teams were, the pundits rarely tabbed them as a World Series favourite come playoff time. They were perceived to have been lacking that certain je ne sai quois required of the truly elite franchises.
It’s getting to be a similar situation with these Sharks. They have won back-to-back division titles (49-23-10 in ’08, 53-18-11 last season) yet are 1-2 in postseason series.
So, will this year be any different than San Jose’s recent past?
Probably…for a multitude of reasons.
Firstly, this year’s Sharks squad has more scoring than they’ve ever had before. The addition of Dany Heatley coupled with the coming-of-age of Devin Setoguchi and Joe Pavelski have made San Jose downright frightening when they cross the red line. People generally only think of the big three (Thornton, Heatley and Patrick Marleau) when they think of San Jose’s offense, but the truth is they actually have a rather balanced offense. The second line of Pavelski, Setoguchi and Clowe have combined for 89 points and fourth-liner Manny Malhotra has chipped in with a rather robust 22 points.
About the only department that fails to tally their share of goals is the blueliners, who have combined for only 21 goals, 10 of them by Boyle. But that is a relatively small gripe.
The second reason that San Jose is likely to realize their potential this spring is the sudden fall of the Detroit Red Wings. For the first time in a long while, the Wings find themselves mired in the middle of the Campbell Conference standings. After the first-place Sharks and second-place Blackhawks, there is a rather precipitous drop-off in quality to the third-place Vancouver Canucks. Furthermore, the bottom third of the West’s playoff teams don’t appear to be the kinds of teams that have a huge upset in them (like last year’s Ducks, for example). Nashville? Colorado? Dallas? Los Angeles? Calgary? Does anyone think these teams could hold a candle to last year’s Ducks? I don’t. Sure, it could happen, but last year’s Anaheim squad was one of the best 8 seeds in recent memory.
Finally, the Sharks should get over the playoff hump this year precisely BECAUSE they’ve had their hearts ripped out in the past. No one can deny that the Sharks have paid their dues, and that heartbreak should serve to galvanize the squad this time around. They should be fearless, because nothing they can do this year will match the disappointment of ‘09’s first round roster.
San Jose’s veterans have been through this before and won’t be surprised this time if they get a proverbial pop on the chin from a team that just sneaked into the playoffs. Sometimes the best teams need to suffer a little heartbreak before they reach the Holy Land. Remember the Red Wings of the early 90’s? The team that suffered two heartbreaking first round losses following 100+ point seasons?
Didn’t think so. Four Stanley Cups in a 12-season stretch will erase a lot of bad memories.
With the stellar goaltending of Evgeni Nabokov, the gritty two-way skills of Patrick Marleau, the playmaking prowess of Joe Thornton and the leadership of Rob Blake, the Sharks have a great opportunity to hoist Lord Stanley’s mug in June.
Sure, an injury or two could derail them (they’re sending no fewer than 8 players to the Olympics and could suffer from collateral damage) and they might get knocked out by a goalie standing on his head (Roberto Luongo, for example). And playoff success is never a guarantee, even to a team with so few weaknesses as the Sharks.
But I certainly won’t be betting against them this season, so long as no one pees in Joe Thornton’s Cheerios.
1) Cujo’s Pads
On January 12, 2010, the 4th winningest goaltender in NHL history – and the goalie with the most wins never to have lifted the Stanley Cup – Curtis Joseph, formally announced his retirement in front of a crowded room of reporters in the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. Inspired by his career, later that evening, the Leafs went on to lose 4-2 to the bottom-feeding Carolina Hurricanes on home ice. As his post-lockout career never approached the heights of his prime, many may have forgotten how good Cujo was. Returning from his enforced absence as the starting goalie for the Phoenix Coyotes in 2005-06, between the ages of 38 and 41, Joseph appeared in 145 games, which gave him an addition 58 wins (moving him from 10th all time to 4th), and raised his career GAA from 2.75 to 2.79 and dropped his career save percentage from .908 to .906.
Of course, it wasn’t all negative. He got to retire as a Toronto Maple Leaf, the scene of four of his greatest seasons both from a statistical point of view as well as team-wide, as they included his only two career appearances in the Conference Finals, losing in five to the Buffalo Sabres in 1998-99, and lasting six games against the Carolina Hurricanes in 2001-02. While that last season with the Leafs was less than stellar, he managed to leave fans of the Leafs and the game in general with fond memories through his performance in relief of the ejected Martin Gerber against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals last March 24. In a short period of time, Joseph found the zone.
Joseph’s retirement has culled forth a lot of debate about his Hall of Fame chances, as pundits conceded his career accomplishments, but deride his chances for the lack of viable peak and post-season accomplishments. As far as the latter point is concerned, I don’t think it would be fair to blame Cujo for not getting his name emblazoned on the Cup, as his career playoff stats are even better than those of the regular season (won-loss record notwithstanding). Playing against only the better teams in the postseason, over a sample of 133 games, Joseph has a playoff save percentage of .917, an incredible 11 points better than his regular season accomplishments, and his playoff GAA is 2.42, compared to 2.79 (+0.37) over is regular season record. The difference between his playoff and regular season record compares favourably to other top peers (with Cups), such as Martin Brodeur, (GAA 0.23 lower, save% .06 higher), Chris Osgood (GAA +0.39, SV % 0.11 better) and Tom Barrasso (GAA +0.23, SV% 0.1 better).
As far as peak seasons are concerned, Joseph never led the NHL in wins or GAA, and only topped the leader-board in save percentage once (.911 as a St. Louis Blue in 1992-93). Joseph only made two All-Star Games (1994 and 2000). But he was always near the top, with 10 top-10 finishes in wins, seven top-10’s in shutouts, two top-10’s in GAA and five for save percentage. That last stat may be more telling, as Joseph tended to see a lot of vulcanized rubber, leading the league twice in shots against, and six more season in the league’s top 10. Looking at the advanced stats, Cujo sat at 66th all time in Goals versus Threshold (GVT – measuring a player’s relative contributions against an expected replacement-level player, such an AHL veteran) as of last season with 251.3. He is 13th all-time in GVT among goalies, behind historical luminaries as Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek, Jacques Plante, Tony Esposito, Glenn Hall, Martin Brodeur, Ed Belfour, Ken Dryden, Bernie Parent, Billy Smith, John Vanbiesbrouck and Johnny Bower. Of the aforementioned who are Hall of Fame eligible, only Vanbiesbrouck is not yet in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Finally, to give a little bit of perspective to his career accomplishments, Curtis Joseph made his mark as an NHL’er after not even being drafted as an amateur. In Joseph’s draft eligible year (1985), the NHL draft ran for 12 rounds, with 252 players hearing their names called. The three most successful goalies drafted that year were Mike Richter, Sean Burke and Bill Ranford. None had the impact on game that Joseph did, Richter’s place in the hearts of Rangers fans notwithstanding. All the above taken into consideration, I think Curtis Joseph will have to write another speech of gratitude about his career in the next five-seven years as he accepts his place among Hockey’s all-time greats.
2) Playing the Role
Competent 3rd-line forwards are necessary for any successful hockey team, but the men filling those roles rarely see the limelight, outside the Frank J. Selke, dedicated to the League’s best defensive forward. Although with past winners including Steve Yzerman, Bobby Clarke, doug Gilmour, Sergei Fedorov and Pavel Datsyuk (each of the past two years), even here, the 2rd-liner does not always get his due. So I will show a little love now to one of the best at this role in the past generation, Michael Peca, who formally announced his retirement from the game as an active player this past Tuesday (January 19, 2010). With a career line of 176 goals and 465 points over 14 seasons split between six teams (Canucks, Sabres, Islanders, Oilers, Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets), there will not be any argument about Peca’s place among the all-time greats. He never won a Stanley Cup, never scored 30 goals in a season, nor did he ever top 60 points (his high with the Islanders in 2001-02). Yet Michael Peca must rank among the all-time leaders for forwards who value was tied in with his defensive abilities. Back to Goals-versus-Threshold (GVT), which also separates offensive from defensive contributions, we can see that of Peca’s career score of +88.7 (nestled between Manny Fernandez and Bill Mosienko), 36.6 was for his defensive play, or 41.3% of his on-ice worth.
I must admit to having followed his career with interest from his time as a junior. A second round selection of the Canucks in 1992, after a solid OHL season split between the Sudbury Wolves and the Ottawa 67’s, Peca, a Toronto native, entered my consciousness when he purchased a van from my Father and gave him a signed OHL hockey card to show his kids. When Peca won his first Selke Trophy after the 1996-97 season, his second full season as a member of the Buffalo Sabres, I, an 18-year old who had only rarely seen him play, applauded the award as just and proper. After all, Peca led the league in shorthanded (SHG) goals that year with six (the only time he would ever lead the league in anything), and he drove a car bought from my Father. When he won his second Selke, after the best offensive season of his career (25 goals, 60 points and a +19, with 6 more SHG), I was more jaded, but no less delighted. When he finally signed on to play with his hometown team for the 2006-07 season, as a 32-year-old veteran, I had high hopes, but we were both dashed, as Peca broke his leg and only managed to appear in 35 games, as the Leafs missed the playoffs once again.
Once we throw in the Gold Medal he received (as a teammate of Curtis Joseph’s no less…ironic?) as a member of Canada’s entry at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Peca had a nice career for himself.
3) Notes on the CHL All-Star Game
Even though my Toronto Maple Leafs currently have no shot at drafting any of the bigger CHL names this year, as they do not hold picks for the 1st, 2nd or 4th rounds, it is still enjoyable to see the next wave as they build up steam for this summer’s draft. Three players caught my eye at the game this week.
- Calvin Pickard – G – Team Red/Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL) – The younger brother of former Nashville Predator’s 1st round pick Chet (also a goalie), Calvin had a few great poke checks to break up some spicy chances by the opposing team. Currently the top ranked North American goalie by the CSS, Calvin may not be selected as highly as his brother, but his level of awareness, athleticism, pro size and bloodlines leave him as one to keep an eye on. IF only just to see a few more poke-checks.
- Jordan Weal – C – Team Red/Regina Pats (WHL) – Jordan Weal is small. The ISS lists him as 5’-8.5” and 156lbs. That’s slightly taller, and much leaner than Theoren Fleury was. Only three current NHLers (Sergei Samsonov, Francis Bouillon and Brian Gionta) are smaller. Watchig Weal reminded me of when I played rep-league football when I was 15. Although I was taller than, than Weal is now, I was also thinner. I was a 3rd-string cornerback. One day at practice, we were working on our extra-point conversion. The kicker protection unit was out against a random sample of 11 other kids, of whom I was one. One the first attempt, I squirted between two much bigger linemen (line-teens?) and jumped in front of the kicker, blocking the football with my stomach. I was proud and the linemen were embarrassed. On the 2nd attempt, the two guys I had slipped between wanted to make an example of me. They pancaked me. With that, they assumed that I had learned my lesson and focused on their positioning for the 3rd attempt. So once again, I snuck through them and blocked a second kick with my stomach. With that, the coaches were disgusted enough to end the drill. So why does this remind me of little Jordan Weal? Because every time I saw him, he was either being horribly outmuscled on the boards, losing every physical battle, or he w3as sneaking up on people in the middle of the rink, at one point completely pick-pocketing an opposing skater, creating a great goal-scoring chance. Ranked 45th among North American skaters by the CSS, I don’t think he’ll be drafted in the top two rounds, but with another 20lbs of muscle, and sticking to the middle of the rink, he could make waves across the league.
- Nino “Night Rider” Niederreiter – RW – Team White/Portland Winterhawks (WHL) – I don’t know if that’s his nickname, but it does suggest itself, doesn’t it? I saw a bit of him at the recent WJC, where he was the star player for the Swiss side that upset the Russians and made it to the Bronze medal match. A chippy, forward who plays the full 200’ of ice, Niederreiter seemed to be in the middle of every solid chance for team White in the first half of the game, scoring the team’s first goal. It was an impressive goal, too. He got the puck in the slot, but not so as he could immediately control it. Many players, with such an opportunity, would rush their shot and flub the chance. Not Night Rider. He created a few extra inches for himself by bringing the puck in, before firing it home, hard and accurate, through the aforementioned Pickard. As impressive as that was, Nino gained more attention before the game, with his jaw-dropping goal in the shoot out competition. If haven’t seen it yet, here it is. Style and substance. I don’t know that he needs to add much to his game before being ready for the big time. He is currently ranked 14th among North American skaters (although he is Swiss, the CSS groups players by where they play, not where they are from) in the CSS’ midterm list, don’t be surprised if he slips into the top ten on draft day.
- Ryan Wagman
Generally speaking, Oilers fans are a curious bunch. They aren’t quite as cynical and jaded as Leafs fans (ahem, Ryan Wagman) nor are they as supportive and optimistic as Flames or Senators fans. Indeed, the Oiler faithful seem to vacilate rather regularly between neurosis and fanaticism.
Back when I was a freshman at the University of Calgary I knew four Oilers fans who shared an apartment together. There were very few “rules” of that apartment, as evidenced by the pot of cold soup that remained on their counter for approximately 3 weeks or the fact that no one cleaned a sink, shower or toilet for over a year. However, they did have one house law: whenever the Oilers were on, all four were required to put on their jerseys and watch the game. Two of them went so far as to wear giant foam puckheads adorned with the Oilers logo. It was quite a sight to see all four of them jammed onto a severely overmatched couch, drinking Lucky Lager, looking like matching buffoons. In a related note, none of them got laid very often.
But I digress…
My point is that Oilers fans are unique for their ability to consistently pump themselves up and drink the kool-aid management continues to serve ($5.5 million a year for Shawn Horcoff? Sounds great!), yet can turn cruel and unforgiving at the drop of a hat (like the time Kevin Lowe traded Ryan Smyth and they mercilessly booed him ON MARK MESSIER NIGHT!) Of course, it doesn’t help that the team has been incredibly inept at attracting top talent or even getting their own players to stay happy in E-town (think Chris Pronger, Dany Heatley, Marian Hossa, etc) nor has it been good for morale that no fewer than three local boys are currently starring for the rival Flames (Jay Bouwmeester, Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf).
With that in mind, I’m surprised there haven’t been mass suicides in Edmonton this winter. Not only is the the hockey team in last place in the Campbell Conference, but they have exactly zero star players, zero quality goaltenders, and one grumpy old coach.
The Mighty Oil is 16-24-5, good for 37 points and a .411 point percentage. They have been outscored by their opponents to the tune of 2.67 goals for per game to 3.29 goals against per game. Their save percentage is .896. Their penalty kill is third-worst in the league. They have but one skater with more than 30 points (Dustin Penner, 41). Their chances of making the playoffs are nil. The Oilers are a mess and they may not be fixable for another year or two.
Edmonton management has committed more than $13 million a year (cap hit) to Shawn Horcoff (19 points, -21), Dustin Penner (finally producing after two abysmal years) and the injury-prone Ales Hemsky (out for the season). Sadly, Horcoff’s deal runs until 2013/2014. Yikes!
They badly overpaid for 37-year-old goalie Nikolai Khabibulin this summer after Dwayne Roloson left for Long Island. GM Steve Tambellini signed the ‘Bulin Wall to a 4-year, $15 million deal on July 1, hoping that the aging backstop would lead them to the playoffs. Much to the contrary, Khabibulin appeared in only 18 games this season before being placed on the injured reserve. News broke earlier today that the ‘tender will undergo surgery to repair a herniated disc and is now out indefinitely. Double Yikes!
Furthermore, the Oil have been absolutely terrible against their provincial rival this season. In 5 games versus the Flames, Edmonton has gone a woeful 0-4-1. To put that in perspective, out of a possible 10 points, the Flames snatched exactly 1 from Calgary while handing the Flames 10. Triple Yikes!
One has to wonder if Pat Quinn will last the season as head coach. I thought that the cotton-topped Irishman would serve as a great motivator for the young club, especially with Tom Renney in charge of x’s and o’s. Boy was I wrong. Quinn’s press conferences have devolved into the gripings of a crotchety senior citizen – he is often openly critical of his players and seems to have lost all patience with his guys. One can only assume that his tone and demeanor in the dressing room has been similar. It’s not exactly a message that this young generation responds to.
So how can Edmonton turn things around?
Step 1: Wait for Jordan Eberle.
The young sniper has become a World Junior legend with his perpetual late game heroics. By all accounts he is the real deal and his skills will translate well to the pro game.
Step 2: Find a goaltender.
One has to think the Oilers would have been far better off investing their money in a young, inexpensive goaltender like Craig Anderson ($1.81 million cap hit) or even Jason Labarbera ($1 million cap hit) this offseason instead of handing the keys over to a chain-smoking 37-year-old. But what’s done is done. What is clear is that the Oilers can’t count on Khabibulin, nor can they cont on Devan Dubnyk or Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers (at least for the near future). So what can be done about it? Well, with Rick DiPietro coming back, perhaps the Islanders would be interested in trading one of their plethora of goaltenders for a young defenseman like Ladislav Smid. Perhaps they could part with Martin Biron. Or….wait for it…Dwayne Roloson.
Step 3: Toughen up the pups.
The Oilers’ young forwards, like Sam Gagner, Patrick O’Sullivan, Gilbert Brule, Robert Nilsson and Andrew Cogliano have promise, and by no means should the club give up on them. But they are all small or smallish and all play a little soft (except for Nilsson, who plays physically but is a defensive liability). O’Sullivan and Gagner in particular would benefit greatly from getting stronger and becoming more difficult to knock of the puck. The shine is off this group, but they can still be the core of a successful team. Interestingly enough, Gagner, Brule and Cogliano are all restricted free agents this offseason. If they can be locked up at low cap figures, Tambellini will have plenty of space to go out and beg some free agents to come to Northern Alberta.
Step 4: Think long and hard about giving Renney the head job.
I’m never a big fan of replacing a coach after one season, but by golly, Quinn has been a mega-disappointment. If they don’t finish strong, it will be hard to believe that the rebuilding effort is really in full swing with such an old-school coach at the helm.
So, while things may look grim right now, don’t fret, Oilers fans. With some competent netminding, a little luck and some maturation in your forward ranks, you should be back to finishing 8th in the conference within a couple years.
If I’m not mistaken, we hit the exact midpoint of the 2009/2010 NHL season with one of the games played on Saturday. Therefore, my midseason NHL awards are a few days overdue. I apologize.
I’m confident you will forgive me when you see the airtight and hyperlogical cases I make for each of my selections. I’ve included my picks for the first half of the season as well as a prediction of who will be named the real winners this summer.
Norris Trophy (best defenseman)
Top 3 candidates: Dan Boyle (SJ), Mike Green (Was), Duncan Keith (Chi)
Midseason winner: Keith
Predicted real winner: Keith
It seems odd to be discussing the Norris trophy without mentioning 6-time winner Nicklas Lidstrom…so…there, now we’ve mentioned him. This is a particularly deep category this season and the midseason honour could have gone to any one of my three candidates (as well as Drew Doughty, Chris Pronger or Zdeno Chara). I chose Keith because he is third in scoring by defensemen (37 points), eighth in +/- (+13), sixth in shots (106) and third in TOI (26:38). He is Mr. Everything for the Blackhawks, who just so happen to be the best team in hockey.
Vezina Trophy (best goaltender)
Top 3 candidates: Ryan Miller (Buf), Miika Kiprusoff (Cal), Ilya Bryzgalov (Pho)
Midseason winner: Miller
Predicted real winner: Kiprusoff
It’s hard to keep Martin Brodeur out of the top 3, but the fact is that Miller, Kipper and Ilya have all seen more rubber than Brodeur has this season and still managed to put up at least slightly better Save percentages and Goals Against Averages. Miller gets the nod for the midseason honour because his 2.05 GAA and .934 SV% lead all goalies with more than 30 starts. He is the heart and soul of the Sabres and his consistency this season has been remarkable; he has allowed four or more goals in a game exactly three times this season. THREE! He gives the Sabres a chance to win every single night.
That said, I think that Kipper will snatch the award away from Miller by season’s end, whether he deserves it or not. Voters still get too caught up in win totals, and since Kipper plays for a better team he will likely catch and pass MillerTime in that category. Also, if Miller comes back to earth at all, he and Kipper’s peripheral stats will be almost identical.
Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)
Top 3 candidates: Ryan Kesler (Van), Patrick Marleau (SJ), Jordan Staal (Pit)
Midseason winner: Marleau
Predicted real winner: Staal
I’ll bet you are more than a little surprised to see Marleau’s name there, aren’t you? Allow me to make the case for a man who I believe is the single most underrated player in hockey.
Statistically, Marleau belongs because he is a robust +17 (fourth in NHL), plays more than 39 % of San Jose’s 3rd-overall penalty kill, is 53 % on faceoffs and is still managing more than a point per game (44 points in 43 games). Aside from statistics, he makes four or five hustle plays to prevent opposing scoring chances every single time I watch the Sharks. Nobody backchecks harder and nobody is better at picking up a man in the neutral zone on a backcheck.
Sadly, Marleau is never mentioned as a candidate for this award. Guys like Staal, Kesler, Mike Fisher and Patrice Bergeron get all the pub as far as defensive forwards. And to be fair, Staal does play 49 % of Pittsburgh’s 7th-ranked PK, but he is only a +8 and not nearly the overall force that Marleau is.
Calder Trophy (best rookie)
Top 3 candidates: Tyler Myers (Buf), John Tavares (NYI), Jimmy Howard (Det)
Midseason winner: Myers
Predicted real winner: Myers
No rookie has had more responsibility thrust upon him than the 19-year-old Myers. He is a +9 with 23 points while playing more than 23 minutes a game. The physical force is almost sure to be a Norris winner someday.
Howard is flying under the radar this year, but in 24 starts for the Wings the youngster is 14-9-2 with a .923 SV% and 2.23 GAA. He’s added one shutout for good measure.
Jack Adams Award (best coach)
Top 3 candidates: Joel Quenneville (Chi), Lindy Ruff (Buf), Dave Tippett (Pho)
Midseason winner: Quenneville
Predicted real winner: Quenneville
Let me just say that I think the Adams award is a waste of time. Of the last 12 winners, only 4 (the most recent 4) are still with the team they coached to the award. Two winners (Bill Barber 00/01 and Bob Francis 01/02) are no longer head coaches in the NHL. Frankly, I don’t know what happened to them. So what is the criteria for this award exactly? If it were simply awarded to the league’s best coach, either Ruff, Mike Babcock or Todd McLellan would win every year. But it’s no fun to give the award to a coach with a stacked roster, so the winner usually ends up being someone who is perceived to have gotten a roster to overachieve. That would lead one to vote for Tippett. However, the Hawks have been the best team in hockey this year and are well ahead of last year’s 104-point pace, so Quenneville is my pick.
Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP of the league)
Top 3 candidates: Henrik Sedin (Van), Alex Ovechkin (Was), Ryan Miller (Buf)
Midseason winner: Sedin
Predicted real winner: Sidney Crosby (Pit)
With his brother Daniel out of Vancouver’s lineup for 18 games Henrik more than picked up the slack. He leads the NHL in points (58), is a +16 and plays nearly 20 minutes per game. Moreover, he has carried an undermanned and undertalented Canucks squad to a 26-16-1 record, good for 6th in the very tough Western Conference. In comparing him to fellow forwards Ovechkin and Crosby, Henrik stands out in a few key stats.
Sedin has turned the puck over a mere 25 times (compared to 38 for Ovie and a whopping 52 for Sid the Kid), he has more multi-point games than either Sid or Ovie (18 to 13 and 16, respectively) and is a much more efficient scorer (22.2 shooting percentage compared to Sid’s 15.09 and Ovie’s 14.92). Most importantly, he plays with much less talent than either of the other two forwards, especially when Daniel was missing.
I gave Miller the third nomination over Crosby because no one has been more important to their team so far this season than the Buffalo netminder. As for the real winner this summer, I expect Sedin’s numbers to level out a bit as Daniel continues to shake the rust off. I also expect the voters will be slightly bored of voting for Ovie and will perpetuate the incessant slurp-fest of Sidney Crosby that has overwhelmed Canadian hockey broadcasts since the Nova Scotian entered the league.
Lastly, my predictions for the playoffs are as follows:
2. San Jose
7. Los Angeles
1. New Jersey
8. New York Rangers
Conference Finals: San Jose over Chicago; Washington over Boston
Finals: San Jose over Washington
1) Special Teams through the 1st Half
The Blackhawks and Sharks, who were both in the top three through the end of November, consolidate their positions with another month of efficient work on the power play as well as the penalty kill. You want impressive? The Blackhawks were down a man for over 81 minutes over 15 games last month – they allowed a meager three goals! Two of them were in the same game, when they lost in Dallas on the 29th. That ended a streak of 8 full games with perfect penalty killing. A combined 44:18 in those games.
Atlanta, the other team previously in the top three tumbled primarily due to a new-found inability to kill penalties. Over the month, they allowed 15 goals in just over 80 minutes for a penalty kill GAA of 10.53. Remember, the NHL average GAA when down 4-5 is 6.71, according to Puck Prospectus’ Philip Myrland. Their power play efficiency also dwindled, but not by much (441.143 down to 489.833).
The biggest change comes out of Montreal. Predictably, the return to health of #1 defenseman, Andrei Markov, gave the Habs a power play worth writing about. Through November, the Habs’ power play was just 23rd in the NHL, at 1 PP goal every 592.214 (nearly 10 minutes on the man advantage between power play goals. December started off well enough, with 7 power play markers in 2089 advantageous seconds, essentially halving their previous average. And on the 19th, on Long Island, Markov returned.
The Canadiens beat the Islanders, by a score of 3-0, with all three goals coming on the power play. Two were scored by the fresh stick of Markov. By New Years’ Eve, the Markov-led Habs scored 11 more power play goals in a mere 1829 seconds, 2:44 per power play goal. This titanic run has bumped the Habs all the way to the 1st half ranking as the most efficient power play in the NHL at 1 goal per 6:21.5. The runner-up Capitals were more than a half-minute behind, hitting the twine once every 6:58 in the power play.
Compare them to the eight bottom feeders, all requiring over 10 minutes with the man advantage to score (with the last three topping 11 minutes): Buffalo Sabres (10:18), Minnesota Wild (10:31), Pittsburgh Penguins (10:38 – a full minute improvement over their through-November numbers), Carolina Hurricanes (10:39), St. Louis Blues (10:41), New York Islanders (11:02), Ottawa Senators (11:07), and finally, the Nashville Predators (11:27).
We’ve already mentioned the stellar penalty killing of the Blackhawks, and we would be remiss to neglect the Bruins, currently second in the NHL in penalty kill efficiency. Look back on the league average 4-on-5 GAA. The Boston Bruins, led by the dual #1 goalies (Thomas and Rask), allowed on two opposition power play goals last month in nearly 72 minutes, for a 4-on-5 GAA of 1.67. If their scoring wakes up, they are well positioned for a big second half.
Meanwhile, holding on to last place (it may be all they have), is the Toronto Maple Leafs. They allow power play goals every 5:30. Combined with a slumping power play of their own, and their combined score dropped from 92.01 to 207.726 (remember – negative numbers are good here). Watching the Leafs, as I am wont to do, constantly reiterates the fact that Vesa Toskala is the biggest culprit of this downfall. He is a small goaltender (5-10″, 195), who plays smaller, deep in his crease and low to the ground. Earlier this year, Leafs’ GM Brian Burke had mentioned his willingness and intention to demote poorly performing salaries to the AHL. The line starts with Toskala. James Reimer, in his first AHL season, is performing admirably, albeit in a small sample size of 9 games. If he is healthy, and as he has not played in December, I am assuming he is currently injured, he might represent the best option the Leafs have to backup Gustavsson, the Polar Bear from Central Park.
Another team worth watching in the special teams standings is the Jimmy Howard Detroit Red Wings. It looks like the patience of GM Holland and coach Babcock has paid off. After allowing 15 goals in his first 5 appearances (one as a mid-game replacement), Howard seems to have taken over from Chris Osgood, ranking in the top ten in the league in both GAA (2.25, 8th) and save percentage (.921, 9th). His play has helped the Wings add 2 full minutes to their penalty kill efficiency, going from 6:59 (27th) at the end of November, to 8:59 (14th). If they can get more forwards (Zetterberg, Franzen, etc.) back from injuries, look for their power play efficiency to improve, and ultimately, their position in the standings, as well.
Finally, as proof that great special teams play does not guarantee greatness, look at St. Louis Blues. Their 5th-ranked efficiency score of -111.640 is held up by great penalty killing, but prevented from really taking off by a correspondingly poor power play. Playing down to the score (is it possible?), they are currently 9 points out of 8th place in the West. Their reverse image is supplied by the Nashville Predators, with an NHL-worst special teams score of 284.978. With the least efficient power play in the game, and ahead of only the woeful Toronto penalty kill, Nashville seems to be winning its games at full strength. Eyeballing the numbers, they seem to be among the least penalized teams in the game (mitigating their struggles on the penalty kill). From Gabriel Desjardins’ Behind the Net, the Predators are 4th in the league in average time spent playing 5-on-5, at 47.8/60 minutes.
2) The US Olympic Team
I nailed 22 out of their 23 selections, missing out only on David Backes (I had Burke selecting young Islander Kyle Okposo in his stead. I might not have said it before, but I’ll say it now: Mike Komisarek is only on the team to justify the outlay Burke made in signing him last offseason. For 5 years and $22.5 million, he must be one of the 7 best defensemen with a US passport, right? Not quite. According to the Puck Prospectus Goals-versus-threshold stat, measuring a player’s overall on-ice contributions, Komisarek is by far the worst among the 23 proud Americans, at -0.7. He has been playing error-prone hockey. I suppose he does block a mean shot. Rob Scuderi may have been a better pick. And, as already predicted, if Paul Martin is not able to play, Scuderi (or Ryan Whitney) may yet get a chance to wear the Red, White and Blue.
3) Fenway Park
Watching the game from the comfort of the new couches in my living room, the visuals were great. Ice hockey with shadows is a treat. The game itself was not the most exciting game of the year (or the week – did any of you watch the Canada-US World Juniors game on New Years’ Eve?), but it ended with a flourish. The Flyers, while they put up a good fight (and I’m not referring to Daniel Carcillo’s KO of Shawn Thornton), did not particularly impress. Michael Leighton may yet steal the #2 job from the generally disappointing Brian Boucher once Ray Emery returns from his abdominal surgery. James van Riemsdyk was pretty much invisible on the ice. Jeff Carter seemed involved in almost each one of the Flyers’ threatening moments. With 6 more shots on goal giving him 180, Carter takes over the league lead from American Olympian Zach Parise.
From the Bruins, I was particularly impressed by the play of Tim Thomas. Yes, he was at fault for the Flyers’ goal, but he also prevented several others with his ballsy and acrobatic play. Not much bigger than Vesa Toskala, he plays much bigger. When he puts his pads down, his back stays straight and tall, giving Thomas more net coverage. When Toskala puts his shin pads down, he also hunches over slightly, opening up valuable inches at the top of the net. Also impressing were the creators of the two Bruins goals, Derek Morris, whose shot from the point began many Bruins flurries, and surprise Canadian Olympian, Patrice Bergeron – great hesitation to get in position to put the puck on Marco Sturm’s stick in the goal crease to win the game.
The only real blight on the game, was the fans’ booing some of the Olympic announcements. I hope the kids representing each player didn’t feel that they were being booed.
Happy New Years, everyone!