Mid-summer hockey thoughts

We are approaching mid-summer, though the weather seems to indicate it is still late spring with below average temperatures and lots of rain. That said, the NHL draft is over as is the prime free agent season and while several teams have new looks and have pretty much set rosters, other teams still have moves to make. Here are a few mid-summer hockey thoughts.

Are the Philadelphia Flyers a better

The Philadelphia Flyers made one of the boldest moves of the summer trading away Joffrey Lupul, Luca Sbisa, and a couple of first round picks for Chris Pronger. As good as Pronger is though, are the Flyers a better team? In addition to losing Lupul they have also lost Mike Knuble to the Capitals via free agency and between Lupul and Knuble that is a loss of 52 goals. That is a big hit to the Flyers offense that they will have to make up. A healthy Briere and the development of Claude Giroux or James Van Riemsdyk could offset some of that loss. On defence Pronger definitely makes the Flyers a better team. With Pronger, Timonen, Coburn, Jones, Carle and Parent they will have one of the better defences in the NHL but there isn’t a lot of depth beyond those top six so staying healthy will be important. But the real problem for the Flyers has been their problem for the past 15 odd years. Goaltending. Last year the Flyers had the 6th best team save percentage as Biron had a .912 save percentage and Niittymaki had a .912 save percentage but both goalies suffered from inconsistent play from time to time. While Biron and Niittymaki are far from elite level goalies, both played fairly well in goal last year but neither of them were welcomed back to the Flyers. Replacing them will be Ray Emery returning from the KHL and Brian Boucher who had a good year in San Jose last year but over his career he hasn’t proven to be anything more than a decent backup. It may not be a stretch to say that Ray Emery will be a key to how good the Flyers will be in 2009-10. Is Emery capable of playing 60 games of quality goaltending? It is certainly possible as he played 58 games for Ottawa in 2006-07 posting a 33-16-6 record with a .918 save percentage. Problem is, he followed that up with a dismal 2007-08 season going 12-13-4 with a very weak .890 save percentage. It seems he had a good year in the KHL last year so maybe his 2007-08 season was an off year but it seems clear to me that for the Flyers to be a better team Ray Emery has to be pretty solid in goal and that is a big question mark. Without decent to good goaltending the Flyers can’t be considered among the top Stanley Cup contenders.

Are the Calgary Flames better

The Flames made a similar move to the Flyers in acquiring Jay Bouwmeester but are they really a better team? To make room for Bouwmeester the Flames had to part with Jordan Leopold, Adrian Aucoin and most importantly Mike Cammalleri. Last season the Flames finished 8th in the NHL in goals but Cammalleri scored 39 goals for the Flames and was a big part of the Flames offense. A full season of Olli Jokinen will pick up some of the slack but the Flames offense will be centered around Jokinen and Iginla and not a lot more. Additionally Rene Bourque scored 21 goals (in just 58 games) last year which was a career high and it might be a stretch to expect him to repeat. It is difficult to imagine the Flames offense next year being as good as last years. The defense is in many way comparable to the Flyers with an excellent top four of Bouwmeester, Phaneuf, Regehr and Sarich and a couple of decent guys to fill out the depth charts but not much beyond that if there many significant long term injuries. But like the Flyers, the problem I see with the Flames is in goal. That may surprise some but Kiprusoff has been relatively average the past few seasons. His save percentage has dropped from .933 in 2003-04 to .923, .917, .906 and down to .903 last season. That is not a trend that a Flames fan would enjoy seeing continue but is there really any reason to believe it won’t? One of the problems has been that the Flames have never brought in a good enough backup to give Kiprusoff any rest time and another off season seems to be passing by where they have chosen not to address that issue. I don’t see the Flames being any better this upcoming season and may in fact take a step back.

Should the Leafs keep Kaberle

There have been a number of rumours this summer about the Leafs trading Tomas Kaberle. The biggest rumour was Kaberle to the Bruins for Phil Kessel but in recent weeks the rumours have died down and the other day Burke came out and stated that he believes that Kaberle will start the season with the Leafs. For Leaf fans, I think this is good news as I believe that keeping Kaberle is in the Leafs best interest. Going into next season the Leafs could have a top 4 defence grouping of Kaberle-Beauchemin-Schenn-Komisarek. That is a pretty good group with a nice mix of offense and defense and physical play and when you round it out with two of White, Van Ryn, Finger, Exelby, Frogren and Stralman and you have one of the better top 6 in the league.

Over the past few seasons the Leafs defense has been misbalanced having too many offensive defensemen (Kaberle, Kubina, McCabe, etc.) and not enough shutdown type guys. With the drafting of Schenn and signing of Komisarek and Beauchemin the Leafs have addressed the shutdown defenseman roles but in the process have traded away McCabe and Kubina. Losing Kaberle now would leave the Leafs without a top offensive defenseman and few teams succeed in the NHL without one of them. Kaberle is still relatively young (32), has a couple years left on a very affordable contract and seems to really enjoy playing in Toronto so is probably very signable to a contract extension when they are able to next July. There is no reason to trade Kaberle and a number of reasons to keep him. I know the argument for trading him is that you can get yourself a much needed offensive forward (like Kessel) but I counter that by pointing out that even though the Leafs didn’t have an elite level forward last year they still scored the 10th most goals in the NHL last year, only 14 fewer than the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Good offenses are often anchored by top offensive defensemen so swapping Kaberle for even a 35 goal forward like Kessel might not be much more than a lateral move offensively. Barring a blow me out of the water trade offer, keeping Kaberle is the right move.

Are the Thrashers good enough to make the Playoffs

The Atlanta Thrashers were a bad team last year finishing with just 76 points but there is reason for optimism in Atlanta. We all know how good Kovalchuk is but last season saw RW Bryan Little have a breakout season scoring 31 goals and 51 points and looks to have a promising career ahead of him. Todd White and Slava Kozlov are solid two-way players both finishing with 70+ points last year and Colby Armstrong is a feisty 20+ goal player that every team would love to have. To that group the Thrashers have added Nik Antropov who is a capable 25 goal, 60+ point guy. Kovalchuk-Little-Antropov-White-Kozlov-Armstrong have the potential to be a more than respectable top 6 with a star in Kovalchuk and a 5 more guys capable of scoring 20-30 goals. Over the past two summers the Thrashers have added Ron Hainsey and Pavel Kubina to their defense and while neither are star calibre defensemen both are decent #2/3 guys. The guy with #1 potential is Zach Bogosian who despite suffering a broken leg had a very respectable rookie season ending up with 9 goals, 19 points and an impressive +11 in 47 games. Add to those three the offensive specialist Tobias Enstrom and you have a pretty decent top four. The key for the Thrashers will be Kari Lehtonen in goal (seems to be a theme in this post especially considering the same can be said for the Leafs and Toskala). Throughout Lehtonen’s career he has shown the potential to be a very good starting goalie but injuries have keep him from actually becoming one. If he can stay healthy and play 65 or so games there is no reason why the Thrashers can’t compete for a playoff spot. There will likely be at least two playoff teams from the southeast division, one will go to the Capitals but I could easily envision the Thrashers being every bit as good or better than the Hurricanes, Panthers and Lightning to grab that second southeast playoff spot. It is an important year for the Thrashers as they will need to have some success and show some positive growth if they want any chance of re-signing Ilya Kovalchuk to a contract extension. Additionally it might be the last opportunity for GM Don Waddell to prove he is worthy of keeping his job but at this point I see some signs of hope for the Thrashers.