Sep 212008

It wasn’t too long ago when Kevin Lowe lamented about the poor financial situations the Oilers were in and as a result being unable to remain competitive because their best players annually headed for greener pastures. After the CBA, all of a sudden the Oilers were big-time players, landing Sheldon Souray for $5.4m/year, Dustin Penner for $4.25m/year and then fitting in Lubomir Visnovsky‘s $5.6m/year contract. All of a sudden the post-Gretzky era Oilers were no longer the stomping pad of the Northwest. The Oilers, in part because of their fantastic rookies, were big surprises in the West, no doubt helped by an incredible league-best 15-4 shootout record. It’s no surprise that no matter how weak on paper the Oilers look, Craig MacTavish has always managed to keep his teams in the race. This year, he’s got some pieces to play with.

There’s no shortage of offense up front, even though the Oil offense was ranked a abysmal 17th and 21st on the PP. A large part of that was due to injuries, in which Shawn Horcoff played only 53 games after averaging almost a point per game, and powerplay quarterback Souray was limited to only 26 games. Adding a big versatile winger in Erik Cole didn’t hurt either, and neither did the acquisition of Visnovsky, giving the Oilers two powerplay weapons from the point. Sophomores Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano are expected to improve on their noteworthy rookie seasons, and in any other year, had there not been as much rookie talent, both would’ve been given Calder nods. The Oilers are slick, no pun intended. They’re speedy and they know how to use it to burn you. They have more than enough weapons on defense to play a smooth and fast transition game. The only thing that may be of concern to the Oilers is their lack of size up-front. The three top point-getters for the Oilers last year, Ales Hemsky, Horcoff, and Gagner, don’t stand an inch over 6’0″ and combined for only 87 PIM.

Defense is where it starts to look rather bleak. The Oilers’ defense was ranked 26th in the league last year, despite Mathieu Garon‘s respectable 2.66 GAA and .913 SV%. A part of that is due to the injury bug, in which Souray and recent castaways Joni Pitkanen and Matt Greene missed significant time. Stay-at-homes Steve Staios and Ladislav Smid had subpar seasons as well, finishing -14 and -15 respectively. But theoretically speaking, even with all of Edmonton’s top 6 healthy, they wouldn’t rank near the top 10 in defense because their two best defensemen, Souray and Visnovsky, are known more for their blistering slapshots than their defensive prowess. Neither plays particularly big, and the top four hitters on the team were actually forwards, two of whom have left (Jarret Stoll and Curtis Glencross). The Oilers also had one of the worst turnover ratios in the league, highlighted by defensive specialist Staios’ 84-33 giveaway-takeaway ratio, although he was one of the league’s best with 187 blocked shots. The Oil defense has its holes, but hopefully they can move the puck up the ice fast enough to make sure they don’t get caught flat-footed in their own zone.

Heading into camp, and barring some sort of injury, Mathieu Garon is the number one starter. You can bet that Dwayne Roloson is not happy with that, who left Minnesota after being notified that the team would be going ahead with Manny Fernandez. Roloson, at 39, is still an effective starter, but as a backup with a $3.6m price tag he may be too much, and he’ll no doubt be subject to trade rumours throughout the year, especially if Garon can solidify his status as a legitimate NHL starter. Garon, at 30, needs to prove that he is starting material after being used as a 1B or backup throughout his NHL career.

One of the biggest reasons for the Oilers’ success is their incredible shootout record. Had the Oilers 15-4 record been something more human, the Oilers could’ve finished with a point total in the high-70s. There’s almost no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Oilers won’t be as successful or lucky, whichever term is preferred, in the shootout this year. There’s an element of luck involved, and when your winning percentage is off the charts (.789) you’re bound to come crashing down to Earth some day. The Oilers improved their roster offensively, and while that does mean that they’ll rely less on the shootout, there’s still defensive holes and question marks in net that new GM Steve Tambellini has to worry about.

The Oilers seem to have their team set now. They’re roughly $2.5m away from the cap ceiling and that’s about as close you’d want to be in case of emergencies or just having enough cap room to acquire another player. The Oilers only have Cole as a UFA next year, and depending on how well he and the Oilers play, he could be dangled as trade bait, but that is unlikely to happen since the mentally tough Oilers will be in contention until the last week of the season.

The key player to really watch this year is Gilbert Brule. The former first round pick is as talented as they come, and proved to be too talented for the WHL, but due to age restrictions in the AHL stumbled for 3 seasons in Columbus. He had a strong showing in the AHL last year (10 points in 16 games) and could start the season there, but he could get a call-up soon if the other Oiler youngsters can’t keep it together. Brule was slowly becoming a career checking line player under Ken Hitchcock, but perhaps MacTavish’s more free-flowing style will be better suited to his talents.

The Oilers play in a tough division in a tough conference. The Oilers are slowly inching their way towards the playoffs, but there’s still some holes to plug, mainly on defense, and if either Garon or Roloson falters, who’s next? Devan Dubnyk, once hailed as the next great goalie for the Oil, has hit some bumps in his development and is not ready for NHL duty yet. However, with young guns Gagner and Cogliano providing the spark, things are finally looking real bright in the City of Champions.

Predicted lineup:
Erik Cole – Shawn Horcoff – Ales Hemsky
Dustin Penner – Andrew Cogliano – Sam Gagner
Ethan Moreau – Kyle Brodziak – Fernando Pisani
Robert Nilsson – Ryan Potulny – Marc-Antoine Pouliot

Steve Staios – Lubomir Visnovsky
Tom Gilbert – Sheldon Souray
Ladislav Smid – Denis Grebeshkov

Mathieu Garon – Dwayne Roloson

scratches: Jean-Francois Jacques, Zack Stortini, Gilbert Brule

Coach: Craig MacTavish
GM: Steve Tambellini

Predicted finish: 3rd Northwest, 9th West

Devils, Pens, Caps Update

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Sep 212008

Brent Sutter talks about his lines of:
Elias – Rolston – Gionta
Parise – Zajac – Langenbrunner
Pandolfo – Madden – Clarkson
Rupp – Holik – Zubrus

White – Mottau
Salvador – Martin
Greene – Oduya

Evgeni Malkin
‘s in line to be an assistant captain this year. Sidney Crosby likes the move and would like to see it.

OFB has a nice article about the Caps. It always gave me chuckle to see Simeon Varlamov‘s name, since when he first broke into the league his name was translated as “Semen Varlamov.” I guess he caught on to the jokes after a couple years.

Sep 202008

The Thrashers were interested in Mathieu Schneider, but felt that given the veteran’s price tag and current skill set it was just too expensive. Don Waddell claims that Schneider’s age was not a factor in the decision.

Nikolai Khabibulin is looking forward to the start of the season, but admits he was surprised when the Hawks signed Cristobal Huet to a multi-year deal. He also admits that even though he hasn’t been at his best, he didn’t have a “championship calibre” team in front of him either. Not exactly the words management wants to hear, but Khabibulin has to make do with what he’s got in front of him (and it’s not bad) and hope to land another fat contract. Meanwhile, veteran Keith Carney has been invited to camp.

The Jackets are prepared to possibly enter the season with rookie Derick Brassard as their new number one centre. Ken Hitchcock reportedly liked Brassard and Kristian Huselius on the top line with Rick Nash, while the second line consisted of rookie Jakub Voracek, RJ Umberger, and Fredrik Modin.

The Stars have also tinkered with their lineup, with Mike Modano lining up to the left of Brad Richards and Sean Avery. It gives Modano some playing time in the top six and getting him away from the checking line role that’s better suited for someone else.

Marian Gaborik certainly isn’t helping his own case after being listed as day-to-day with a pulled right quad. The sniping winger is expected to land a lucrative contract this summer – whether it’s with the Wild or someone else remains to be seen. The injury-prone winger has to have another healthy season if he wants to cash in big time.

It’s obvious, so don’t expect Martin Brodeur to play 77 games like he did last year. Both Brodeur and Brent Sutter admitted that the games took a toll on the veteran goalie, and that Avery didn’t help in that department either. Look for Kevin Weekes to do a little more than usual last year to collect his six-figure paycheque.

Tom Renney and the Rangers remain mum on Brendan Shanahan, and says that his focus is now on training camp.

Derian Hatcher‘s career seems to be in jeopardy due to a bum knee, and Wayne Fish believes that it’ll really hurt the team’s chances this year (I beg to differ), but claims that with the addition of Ossi Vaananen and camp invite Bryan Berard it should lessen the pain (Fish is comparing the “irreplaceable” Hatcher to two journeymen? Okay.)

The Sharks are ready to open up their camp with the following lines:
Marleau – Thornton – Clowe
Michalek – Pavelski – Cheechoo
Goc – Mitchell – Grier
Plihal – Roenick – Setoguchi
Ron Wilson also had Patrick Marleau on Joe Thornton‘s wing in order to get his game going last year, but it didn’t last.

The Blues kicked off their training camp with a snooze, and I daresay that the rest of the season wouldn’t be too different. Coach Andy Murray suggested that the Blues could start the season with rookie Patrick Berglund on the top line with Paul Kariya. Murray also acknowledged that the losses of Ryan Johnson, Jamal Mayers, and Bryce Salvador, all three great locker room guys, means that veterans Kariya and Keith Tkachuk, neither been known as vocal captains, will need to step up.

Move aside “Seen Stamkos.” It’s time for “WWGRD?” in Tampa. Now that wunderkind Steve Stamkos is officially signed the focus moves to training camp. For the Lightning, who had a major overhaul in its front office staff and approach to the new season, it’s a chance to capitalize on a resurgence of interest in Lightning hockey. Just ask yourself, What Would Gary Roberts Do?

The Caps are excited and raring to go. So much so that they had to ask sophomore Nicklas Backstrom, who was early and the first on the ice, to get off after half an hour for precautionary reasons. When your rookies are that excited, you know your team is in good spirits, and for the Caps, why shouldn’t they?

Detroit Red Wings

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Sep 202008

Where to begin? The defending Cup champs are so well-balanced and talented from top to bottom that the fact they managed to land Marian Hossa means they’re the heavy favourites to repeat again, which hasn’t happened since 1997 and 1998 when, you guessed it, Steve Yzerman and the Wings did it. It almost came as a shock to some that the Wings won the Cup, in part because 1) they had an European captain, and 2) their best centre had been labeled as a playoff “choker” the last couple of years. They were labeled as a team that didn’t scare anybody with their physical play, which is partly true, but when the Ducks won the Cup the year before it the in-your-face type of hockey the Ducks played almost became a standard for Cup-contending teams. Instead the Wings stuck to their gameplan and proved everyone wrong.

It’s always a blessing that your best offensive players are also your best defensive players. For Mike Babcock, he’s been blessed with their Big Three of Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Pavel Datsyuk. The Euro Trio is by far the most committed, talented, and well-rounded core in the league. When your best players are in the running for the Art Ross, Selke, and Norris trophies, you know you’ve got something special. This is what differentiates the Wings from all the other teams in the league – unlike about 3/4 of the league, they can send out their best players in any situation of the game. The three carried the team throughout the season and the playoffs, and in the process showed to the world that Europeans know how to play playoff hockey too. Not only that, their supporting cast, once again carefully put together by Ken Holland, came through and responded well when they were asked upon. Just ask anybody about Johan Franzen, whose 13 playoff goals had him being mentioned as a potential Conn Smythe candidate. The Wings are just blessed with talent through all 12 forwards, almost a little unfair, considering the speedy and surprising Darren Helm may be the odd man out this year despite having the ability to become at least a 4th liner on any other team. The Wings could boast as many as 8 20+ goal scorers this coming year.

On defense you can’t start with anyone else other than Lidstrom, who is the most valuable player to his position, and potentially the best defenseman of his generation. Lidstrom doesn’t do anything that will make you stand up or cheer, but he has the ability to just glue your eyes to the screen and watch him do difficult things with a incredible ease. He rarely makes any mistakes, and that’s how defensemen should play their game. His hockey smarts are completely off the charts, and when paired with Brian Rafalski, one of the most underrated puck-movers in the game, they form the most dangerous PP duo in the league. Rafalski played a major role in their Cup win, despite the fact that he was often overshadowed by the Euro Trio’s defensive games. In fact, it was very surprising that Datsyuk had led the team in hits, with Zetterberg following close behind. Brad Stuart re-vitalized his career and seems to be enjoying his time in Detroit. The most feel-good story though, is Niklas Kronwall (brother Staffan plays for Toronto), who led the team’s defensemen in points with 15 and played every single game, despite never playing in more than 70 during the season. Along with Jonathan Ericsson, who was drafted as a forward, “Nick, Jr.” could be the future anchor of this team’s defense when Lidstrom retires.

The Wings proved that you don’t need a $6m goalie to win. Chris Osgood posted some of the best stats of his career last year in part because of a new hybrid style and the defense in front of him. Osgood’s $1.4m cap hit is amongst the lowest in the league for goalies, but at that price he’s probably the best bang for your buck in the league. Should he falter, and even if he does with the personnel in front of him will keep Detroit at least in the top 10 in defense, Ty Conklin is more than capable, after making a string of spectacular starts in the place of the injured Marc-Andre Fleury.

There’s almost no weaknesses on this squad. An already potent offense added the best sniper on the market this summer in Hossa, and a stable defense will have Stuart for a full season and a more experienced Kronwall. Osgood is the de facto starter and won’t have to fight to regain his starting role. The coaching staff remains one of the league’s best despite losing Todd McLellan to the Sharks. The only thing that’s stopping the Wings are themselves, who will no doubt have to motivate themselves for 82 games and more. It’s been ten years since the last Cup repeats, and the Wings have set themselves up to break that trend.

Cap wise, the Wings are very close to the ceiling, but that shouldn’t be a problem considering that there will quite a bit of player movements in the first couple months of the season. The most pressing matter for the Wings, however, is Zetterberg’s extension. His contract expires this summer, and don’t worry Wings fans, he won’t be going anywhere. However, Hossa is also in the same boat and it remains to be seen what will be done should both have outstanding seasons. Neither will make more than Lidstrom’s $7.45m, but nothing less than Datsyuk’s $6.7m as well. Zetterberg has priority over Hossa, who may head for greener pastures or even perhaps return to Pittsburgh should he win a Cup this year.

Projected lineup:
Pavel Datsyuk – Henrik Zetterberg – Tomas Holmstrom
Johan Franzen – Valtteri Filppula – Marian Hossa
Kirk Maltby – Kris Draper – Mikael Samuelsson
Dan Cleary – Tomas Kopecky – Jiri Hudler

Niklas Lidstrom – Brian Rafalski
Brad Stuart – Niklas Kronwall
Andreas Lilja – Brett Lebda

Chris Osgood – Ty Conklin

scratches: Darren Helm, Chris Chelios, Jonathan Ericsson

Coach: Mike Babcock
GM: Ken Holland

Predicted finish: 1st Central, 1st West

Sep 192008

While browsing through each teams salary cap commitments I decided to take a look at which teams have locked up which players long term. Below is a list of all players on each team that are under contract for 4 or more years (i.e. at least through the 2011-12 season). In terms of dollars committed, the New York Rangers top the list by committing 32.8 million to 5 players. Several other teams have locked up six players for four or more years but none have spent more than the Rangers have on 5. One has to wonder if the Rangers money is well spent on Gomez, Drury, Lundqvist, Redden and Rozsival. Two teams, the Canadiens and Canucks, have no one signed for more than 3 seasons while Atlanta and Boston have just one players signed each.

(Numbers are millions of dollars rounded to the nearest $100,000)

32.8 NY Rangers
7.4 Scott Gomez
7.1 Chris Drury
6.9 Henrik Lundqvist
6.5 Wade Redden
5.0 Michal Rozsival

31.4 Calgary
7.0 Jarome Iginla
6.5 Dion Phaneuf
5.8 Miikka Kiprusoff
4.5 Daymond Langkow
4.0 Robyn Regehr
3.6 Cory Sarich

30.2 Pittsburgh
8.7 Sidney Crosby
8.7 Evgeni Malkin
5.0 Marc-Andre Fleury
4.0 Ryan Whitney
3.8 Brooks Orpik

28.9 Edmonton
5.7 Lubomir Visnovsky
5.5 Shawn Horcoff
5.4 Sheldon Souray
4.3 Dustin Penner
4.1 Ales Hemsky
4.0 Tom Gilbert

28.5 Buffalo
7.1 Thomas Vanek
6.3 Ryan Miller
5.3 Jason Pominville
4.0 Derek Roy
3.5 Jochen Hecht
2.3 Paul Gaustad

27.0 Philadelphia
6.5 Daniel Briere
6.3 Kimmo Timonen
5.8 Mike Richards
4.3 Joffrey Lupul
4.2 Scott Hartnell

25.6 New Jersey
6.0 Patrik Elias
5.2 Martin Brodeur
5.1 Brian Rolston
3.4 Dainius Zubrus
3.0 Colin White
2.9 Bryce Salvador

25.3 Detroit
6.7 Pavel Datsyuk
6.0 Brian Rafalski
3.8 Brad Stuart
3.0 Niklas Kronwall
3.0 Valtteri Flippula
2.8 Dan Cleary

23.2 Tampa
7.7 Vincent Lecavalier
4.5 Ryan Malone
4.0 Andrej Meszaros
3.5 Vaclav Prospal
3.4 Matt Carle

20.8 Ottawa
7.5 Dany Heatley
7.0 Jason Spezza
4.2 Mike Fisher
2.1 Chris Kelly

17.3 Florida
4.2 Keith Ballard
4.0 Nathan Horton
3.1 Rostislav Olesz
3.1 Stephen Weiss
2.9 Bryan Allen

17.0 Columbus
4.8 Kristian Huselius
3.8 Mike Commodore
3.8 R.J. Umberger
2.8 Fedor Tyutin
1.9 Jason Chimera

16.5 Nashville
4.5 David Legwand
4.5 Martin Erat
4.0 Jean-Pierre Dumont
3.5 Ryan Suter

15.2 Chicago
7.1 Brian Campbell
4.2 Cristobal Huet
3.9 Patrick Sharp

14.8 Washington
9.5 Alex Ovechkin
5.3 Mike Green

14.4 Anaheim
5.3 Ryan Getzlaf
5.3 Corey Perry
3.7 Chris Kunitz

14.1 San Jose
6.7 Dan Boyle
4.3 Milan Michalek
3.1 Marc-Edourd Vlasic

13.0 Dallas
5.0 Mike Ribiero
4.1 Brendan Morrow
3.9 Sean Avery

11.2 New York Islanders
4.5 Rick DiPietro
4.1 Mark Streit
2.0 Trent Hunter
0.5 Frans Nielson

11.1 Minnesota
4.1 Pierre-Marc Bouchard
3.6 Brent Burns
3.5 Nick Shultz

11.0 Carolina
8.3 Eric Staal
2.8 Tim Gleason

10.3 Colorado
6.3 Ryan Smyth
4.0 John-Michael Liles

10.5 Toronto
4.0 Jason Blake
3.5 Jeff Finger
3.0 Niklas Hagman

7.6 St. Louis
4.0 Brad Boyes
3.6 Barret Jackman

6.7 Los Angeles
3.5 Jarret Stoll
3.2 Dustin Brown

6.3 Phoenix
4.5 Shane Doan
1.8 Kurt Sauer

4.5 Atlanta
4.5 Ron Hainsey

4.0 Boston
4.0 Dennis Wideman

0 Montreal
0 Vancouver

(Note: If you find any mistakes let me know)

Sep 182008

This year, for the first time in a long time, Mike Modano and Sergei Zubov will not be synonymous with the Stars. While the two aging veterans do strike a soft spot in the fans’ hearts, Brenden Morrow showed the world last year that this was his team. It wasn’t too long ago that the traditional ‘C’ was taken off Modano’s sweater and given to a very surprised Morrow, of course amidst a cloud of controversy. That is, of course, all in the past now. What’s most important to the Stars right now is the present, spearheaded by the league’s only GM partnership in Brett Hull and Les Jackson. The two men could not be more opposite, but they have managed to co-exist and more importantly, put one of the most competitive teams on the ice. The Stars opted to tinker with their roster this year and once again head into the season as a darkhorse Cup contender.

The Stars don’t have an offensive game-breaker but they do have a balanced attack, led by the all-rounded Morrow. Despite losing 27-goal scorer Niklas Hagman (Toronto) and 15-goal scorer Antti Miettinen (Minnesota) to free agency, the Stars landed one of the most valuable players in Sean Avery and netted Europe’s hottest prospect in Fabian Brunnstrom. Say what you want about Avery and his antics, but the fact of the matter is, the Rangers lacked oomph without him in the lineup and he plays the game with an edge and a respectable amount of skill. The Stars were bumped from the playoffs by a more physical Detroit team and Avery will certainly help in that department. The biggest surprise for the Stars was Mike Ribeiro, who became the team’s number one centre after posting an impressive 83-point campaign. Along with Brad Richards and Modano, the Stars have arguably the most dependable two-way centres in the league. Sergei Zubov is also healthy to start the season after and injury-plagued, 46-game campaign, and when healthy he is certainly on the shortlist for Norris candidates. That’s the good. Here’s the bad. It remains to be seen if Brunnstrom’s a media hype of if he really is the real deal. He exploded onto the hockey radar in Christmas and took his time weighing his options, and both sides hope they have made the right decision. Ribeiro’s 27 goals raised a lot of eyebrows because of his other-worldly shooting percentage of 25.2%. The league’s best snipers average only around 15-18%, and for a guy that doesn’t shoot much (his 107 shots were ranked 9th on the team) that’s a just mind-boggling, and it certainly makes a strong case for a regression in goal totals this year. Then there’s Richards. The Stars had been lacking in scoring oomph for quite some time, and at the time it was believed that Richards would be that guy, after failed experiments with Ladislav Nagy and Eric Lindros. Richards put up the stats (11 points in 12 games), but in that span the Stars only managed to win 3 regular season games. Of course, the Stars did advance to the Conference Finals, but you can’t reach the playoffs if you can’t win during the season. However, even without Richards the Stars ranked 13th on the PP and 2nd offensively in the West, and with a healthy Zubov that should give them reason enough to improve.

Dallas has always traditionally been a defensively-responsible team, and that’s in part due to their forwards’ ability to backcheck. Jere Lehtinen is a perennial Selke contender, and although he has lost a step over the years Modano has also developed into a strong two-way player, and the gritty Steve Ott is no slouch either, ranking among the league’s best with a 58.8% face-off winning percentage. Richards will also no doubt help in that department, and don’t expect him to post another -25 season again. In the back end, the Stars don’t have the same headline-grabbing defensemen as the division rival Ducks, but Stephane Robidas had a break-out season and averaged almost 26 minutes of ice-time per game. Philippe Boucher is also another stabilizing presence and that’s perfect for youngsters Trevor Daley (age 25), Matt Niskanen (21), Niklas Grossman (23), and Marc Fistric (22). The coaching staff, led by Dave Tippett, have done an amazing job with their kids and unlike many other teams, the Stars have taught their young defensemen how to properly play defense at the NHL level from day one.

When the Stars reached the playoffs last year and were bounced in the first round yet again, for the first time the blame wasn’t directed towards Marty Turco. The regular season brick wall turned into a sieve come playoff time, and it has been a long-awaited coming out party for the 33-year old netminder. He proved last year that he could perform as well, if not better, in the playoffs, and it paid off with a trip to the Conference Finals after a lengthy absence. Tobias Stephan is penciled in to be the backup and won’t see much playing time, perhaps 15 games or so, but he is capable and Tippett shouldn’t lose any sleep over the thought of starting him the next day. This is one of the biggest strengths for a close-knit Stars squad and a big reason for their 2nd ranked PK and 6th ranked defense.

The Stars have spent as close to the cap as they’d like to and won’t figure into any major season transactions, in part because as many as seven players have no-trade clauses. It should not be a major concern, because the Stars, despite traditionally being slow starters, will be competitive all season long. The Stars could challenge for the division title, but their offense raises question marks and it’s a wonder how they’re going to score their goals should Ribeiro fail to keep up his 25% shooting mark. No one on the Stars’ current roster is a noted goal-scorer, and while that does have its advantages, the Stars may have to rely on defense and goaltending yet again to win games.

Richards will be counted on to return to his Conn Smythe form and perhaps all he needed was a change of scenery. It remains to be seen what kind of antics Avery would get into, but with a very grounded Stars squad and Morrow as its leader it shouldn’t be that big of a problem. Avery will definitely be in the mix when the Stars resume their rivalries against the Ducks, Sharks, and Wings.

Projected lineup:
Brenden Morrow – Mike Ribeiro – Jere Lehtinen
Sean Avery – Brad Richards – Loui Eriksson
Joel Lundqvist – Mike Modano – BJ Crombeen
Fabian Brunnstrom – Steve Ott – Krys Barch

Stephane Robidas – Sergei Zubov
Philippe Boucher – Trevor Daley
Niklas Grossman – Matt Niskanen

Marty Turco – Tobias Stephan

scratches: Toby Petersen, Marc Fistric, Chris Conner

GM: Les Jackson/Brett Hull
Coach: Dave Tippett

Predicted finish: 3rd Pacific, 5th West

Sep 182008

If the Leafs are serious about rebuilding for the future, the Leafs should acquire Mathieu Schneider from the Anaheim Ducks. Ok, that sounds quite odd considering Schneider is old and expensive and set to be a UFA next summer. But after you read this it will make total sense.

The Anaheim Ducks are desperate to shed salary so they can get under the cap and sign Teemu Selanne. They have some forwards that they could possibly get rid of but non would free up all that much salary. Schneider is the guy they really want to get rid of. A few years ago the New Jersey Devils were desperate to shed salary to get under the cap as well. To do so the Devils traded Malakhov and a first round pick for a couple of fringe players. So, what the Leafs should do is offer Ian White to the Ducks for Schneider and a first round pick. Fletcher doesn’t seem all that interested in White long term, but is more than capable of playing on the third defense pair for the Ducks. The Ducks free up Schneider’s salary and the Leafs get a good pick to use in next summers draft.

But it doesn’t end there. Schneider is still a good defenseman and come trade deadline there will be teams looking for a defenseman with his skills and experience. At that time the Leafs could trade Schneider again for another good draft pick.

In the end the Leafs could end up with a couple of very good draft picks at a cost of Ian White, who may not make the team anyway, and the $4-4.5 million they would have to pay Schneider between now and the trade deadline. But as you know, the Leafs have ample money and ample cap room so that isn’t really an issue if they are truly serious about rebuilding. They are one of the few teams that could make such a move. The Canucks and Kings could probably do this as well but the Canucks seem intent on holding out for Sundin or would prefer a forward and the Kings are Anaheim’s cross city rival so Anaheim may prefer not to deal with them if they didn’t have to. The Leafs, if they were smart, could be Anaheim’s answer to their problem.

Oh, and Burke will be helping the team he will soon be GM of (if you listen to the media) so it works out perfectly.

Sep 172008

Brian Burke has become the Toronto hockey media’s favourite pick for the next GM of the Leafs and for the most part he has been heralded by the Toronto media as one of the best GMs in hockey and the kind of GM the Leafs desperately need. But what if Burke was GM of the Leafs. Would Burke get the same recognition?

If hypothetical Leafs GM Burke signed Todd Bertuzzi to a two year $8 million deal, only to buy him out the following off season, would the Toronto media herald Burke as one of the greatest GMs in hockey?

If hypothetical Leafs GM Burke signed Mathieu Schneider to a two year $11.25 million deal and just to put him on waivers the following summer hoping someone would claim him, would the Toronto media herald Burke as one of the greatest GMs in hockey?

Of course not. The deals to Bertuzzi and Schneider are actually far worse than the monetary cost to the team. These deals essentially cost the Ducks team a talented player in Andy McDonald because Burke was forced to trade McDonald to clear salary space. If Burke made such moves while GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs he would be criticized beyond belief. But he isn’t GM of the Leafs so the Toronto hockey media are still in love with him.

If you then factor in that Burke chose to sign Bertuzzi instead of signing a young power forward capable of scoring 25 goals while playing a solid two-way physical game named Dustin Penner and you have to ask yourself, why does everyone think Burke is such a great GM.

If you go back to his Vancouver days he never was able to acquire the goaltender the team desperately needed to seriously challenge for the Stanley Cup and his draft record was mixed at best.

He did win the Stanley Cup in 2007 in large part by his bold move to sign Niedermayer and trade for Pronger but the core of the forward crew was there before Burke arrived.

If Burke were the GM of the Leafs having put Schneider on waivers desperately hoping someone will claim him, my guess is that there would be more than a few in the Toronto media calling for Burke’s firing.

It is always greener on the other side of the fence.

Sep 162008

There’s a right time to rebuild and there’s a wrong time to rebuild. For the Jackets, the time just never seems to be right for either or. Blessed with one of the best snipers of his generation in Rick Nash, the Jackets just seem to float around in obscurity, having zero playoff appearances in its short history. The biggest problem for the Jackets was always trying to find the right players, and even when they thought they did, they saddled themselves with undesirable contracts (Sergei Federov) that they had trouble getting rid of. They’ve stayed in purgatory for most of its time, and this season is no different.

First, hiring Ken Hitchcock was a great move for the Jackets. Having no other real scoring threat other than Nash, a defensive system was the way to go (at least for now), and Hitchcock is one of the best coaches at doing that. His players buy into his system, and as a result the Jackets’ defense ranks 8th and penalty kill ranks 9th (also a well-deserved nod to Pascal Leclaire‘s breakout season). A testament to the team’s dedication to defense considering that their two best defensive defenseman last year were the relatively unknown Jan Hejda and Rostislav Klesla. However, offense is where it starts to get ugly, real ugly. With Nikolai Zherdev‘s departure, along with his 26 goals, the next highest total from a returning player is Jason Chimera‘s 14. That’s 24 goals less than Nash’s total, who accounted for 20% of Columbus’ goal total. That’s staggering, so it’s no surprise that Columbus’ offense was ranked second-worst in the league. Scott Howson stepped up and attempted to solve this problem by acquiring RJ Umberger, Raffi Torres, and Kristian Huselius, but this summer was not the summer to splurge on free agents – there wasn’t any forward that was worth throwing big money at. While the three new players definitely bring some more offensive punch to the Jackets, Nash is still without a bona fide set-up man. Umberger had an incredible hot streak in the playoffs and it is unlikely that he can keep scoring at that pace. As a centre, he’s not quite the complimentary player Nash needs, but without a doubt he’s penciled in as the new number one pivot. Torres was bothered by injury and will be looking to bounce back, as will Huselius, who toiled under Mike Keenan in Calgary. You have to wonder how Huselius, who had trouble adjusting to Calgary’s tougher game, will figure into Hitchcock’s plans, who expects his players to give it all on their ice without doing anything too flashy. The players to watch for this year are rookies Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek, who may have a shot at centering Nash should Umberger falter. The two junior standouts are expected to chip in here and there, but not make any significant contributions offensively. Don’t expect the Jackets to open any eyes with their offense, that’s for sure.

Ron Hainsey was their biggest weapon on defense. Now, that spot’s up for grabs. None of the Jackets’ top six are considered powerplay quarterbacks, and that’s fine if Hitchcock wants to play a tough game, but you can’t win if you can’t score. Fedor Tyutin and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen bring more than enough sandpaper, and the Jackets seriously lack a good puck-mover. Kris Russell could develop into that player, but not this year. The lanky defenseman needs more experience and bulk up on his 5’10”, 165 lbs. frame before that happens. That could cause problems when they’re breaking out of the offensive zone, but I’m sure that for Hitchcock a good hard-and-out off the boards strategy will do just fine. The problem with that is, Nash won’t be seeing any breakaways anytime soon.

Leclaire has proved himself to be an able number one, although he did miss some time due to injury. Jackets fans were in for a little scare this summer when talks seem to have stalled, but at $3.8m/year that’s a great bargain. The Jackets don’t have anything to worry about here, especially with an able backup in Fredrik Norrena and some youngster named Steve Mason waiting in the wings. This is one area in which the Jackets’ patience has paid off, and they’re reaping the dividends.

The Jackets declared this summer that they have a “win now” policy, after realizing that Ohioans weren’t paying to see a mediocre product (Jackets attendance was ranked 28th). It’s nice to see that a team that has slowly inched towards the right direction made a couple big moves over the summer, but it doesn’t seem to be the right ones. There’s a lot of question marks surrounding the new players, as well as producing offense from the blueline. Unfortunately for management and Jackets fans, the Jackets won’t figure into the playoff picture. The Jackets have some valuable pieces they can move at the deadline to stock up picks and prospects in Mike Peca, Manny Malhotra, and Christian Backman, but also have some cap room ($10m) to make some serious noise at the deadline, should the need arise.

Predicted lineup:
Rick Nash – RJ Umberger – Kristian Huselius
Fredrik Modin – Mike Peca – Raffi Torres
Jason Chimera – Manny Malhotra – Jared Boll
Mike York – Alexander Svitov – Jiri Novotny

Jan Hejda – Mike Commodore
Fedor Tyutin – Rostislav Klesla
Ole-Kristian Tollefsen – Christian Backman

Pascal Leclaire – Fredrik Norrena

scratches: Kris Russell, Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek

GM: Scott Howson
Coach: Ken Hitchcock

Predicted finish: 4th Central, 13th West

Here to Stay

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Sep 162008

“What I said was it varies from market to market. The one thing that would not be sensible to do is lower your ticket prices to enrich scalpers. That doesn’t make any sense. But the fact of the matter is, more than a majority of our teams would use the opportunity of economic stability to lower their ticket prices.”

I guess to Gary Bettman and his “cost certainty,” enriching scalpers is at the top of his worry list.

Terry Frei at ESPN argues that despite Bettman’s claims that he’s fighting for the fans and that by linking revenues to player salaries it would stop the increase in ticket prices, it’s still happening, and at an alarming rate at that too. Frei argues that if ticket prices continue to rise, the NHL could face a mass exodus of fans who either can’t or won’t pay for the tickets. He also thinks that “the cap [won’t] be $56.7 million. The benchmarks for everything, from extensions to UFA deals, would be lower. The owners wouldn’t be getting as much revenue, but they wouldn’t be paying as much in salaries.”

I’m assuming that when Frei thinks that the cap won’t be at $56.7m next year, he means he expects it to go up. Yet, if I understood his article correctly, he thinks the benchmarks will be lower. Funny, I always thought that an increase in cap always meant more money being thrown around – after all, isn’t that why some hockey pundits are arguing that the new cap hasn’t done anything for the league and that the lockout was all for naught? After the first season under the new CBA we saw a ton of money being thrown around, highlighted by the Rangers’ splurge on Scott Gomez and Chris Drury. This year we saw the likes of Jeff Finger and Wade Redden and Ryan Malone get paid much more than “market value.” If the cap is expected to go up, what makes Frei think that there would be lower benchmarks? In every single summer since the implementation of the salary cap we’ve seen more precedents (Mike Richards‘ lifetime contract) and loopholes (Lou Lamouriello) than ever.

Frei uses the Kings, Canucks, Flames, Jackets, Ducks, and Hurricanes as examples of increasing ticket prices. Yet he fails to mention that even with the new ticket prices, both Canadian teams still play to sell-out crowds every single night. The attendance for the other teams he’s mentioned have been mediocre or average at best: Kings (21st), Jackets (28th), Ducks (15th), and Hurricanes (20th). Of those 4 teams, only the Ducks have on averaged played out to sold-out crowds. What separates the Ducks from the rest of them? They’re only one season removed from being Stanley Cup champs. The Canes and Lightning enjoyed such success after their Cup-winning seasons, but without continually winning their attendance dropped, especially for Carolina, who managed to miss the playoffs.

I don’t think that ticket price is the main factor that’s driving fans away, and Frei doesn’t explicitly say so either, but the fact of the matter is, winning matters. Unless a team is in Canada or Minnesota, teams that win are always going to the be ones that post good attendance numbers, regardless of where they are. Bettman and Bill Daly have always tried to sell the game to the American public. I think it’s time that they let the game sell itself. This season could be the season that Hockeytown becomes Hockeytown once again, or the season that we see Washington become for the first time, a viable hockey market.

Read more about the rising ticket prices courtesy of Frei.