Feb 072007
 

The Ottawa Senators have to have one of the streakiest offenses in the NHL in recent years.

First 6 games: 10 goals, 1.67 goals/game
Next 3 games: 21 goals, 7.00 goals/game
Next 4 games: 8 goals, 2.00 goals/game
Next 15 games: 60 goals, 4.00 goals/game
Next 13 games: 29 goals, 2.23 goals/game
Next 7 games: 38 goals, 5.42 goals/game
Next 7 games: 15 goals, 2.14 goals per game (2 of these goals were empty net goals)

That is up and down offense if I ever saw it and that is one thing Ottawa is going to need to straighten out if they want to make a serious playoff run. Scoring ~2 goals/game for significant stretches of time is not going to cut it. It cost them last year when they stopped scoring against Buffalo and it has cost them in previous playoffs as well. That is putting way too much pressure on your goalie even if Emery continues to play great.

Feb 052007
 

If you had asked me a month ago whether the Leafs should be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline I would have said sellers. But since then a lot has changed and now I believe they have the potential to put together a playoff run not unlike the Oilers last season. Why the change you ask? Well, let me explain.

First off, let me start by saying that I believe that any kind of playoff success absolutely requires top tier goaltending. Last year Cam Ward had a .920 save % and Roloso was at .927. Both excellent numbers. In 2003-04 Tampa won the cup with Khabibulin at .933 save % and Calgary was the western conference representative with Kipprusoff at .928. In 2002-03 we saw Brodeur at .934 and Giguere at .945 in the finals. Up until mid-January I didn’t think Raycroft was good enough to win the Stanley Cup. He just couldn’t put together more than a game or two of quality goaltending in a row. But in his last 7 games he has posted a .934 save percentage and gave up more than 2 goals in just one game (5 goals in an 8-2 loss to Pittsburgh). That is the kind of goaltending Raycroft produced in his rookie year and that is the kind of goaltending it takes to win the Stanley Cup.

So, if this play by Raycroft become the norm and not just an anomoly then one has to ask if the rest of the Leafs have what it takes to be Stanley Cup contenders. Well, the Leafs have a lot of good things going for them.

First, the Leafs, depsite what many have predicted, are a good offensive team. They currently sit 6th in the NHL in goals per game and that is with Wellwood and Tucker, two of their better offensive players, having missed 18 and 14 games respectively.

Second, the Leafs have a lot of depth. Depth is important in the playoffs because often the NHL playoffs become a war of attrition. Injuries take their toll on teams, but the Leafs have a lot of depth. There aren’t many teams in the NHL with their 5th/6th defensemen being as good as Gill/White. For that matter there are only a handful of teams with their top pairing being as good as Kaberle/McCabe or Kaberle/Kubina as has recently been the case. In the east Buffalo and Ottawa would be the only comparables. Offensively the Leafs have 13 players with 8 or more goals. To put that into perspective, no other team has more than 10. What is important about depth is that teams cannot focus on a single line or a small number of players. It also means that you can withstand injuries much better. That bodes well for the Leafs come playoff time.

Finally, the Leafs have a lot of players with playoff experience and success. Sundin, McCabe, Kaberle, Tucker, Peca and Green all have 50+ playoff games under their belts. Kubina and Devereaux are cup winners while Peca (twice), O’Neill, and Battaglia have also been in the Stanley Cup finals. The Leafs also have a coach that has successfully taken a team to the Stanley Cup finals. All of that playoff experience and success bode well for the Leafs.

Too many people believe that having a lot of top end talent is what wins but that is not the case. If it was, Ottawa wouldn’t have had all the playoff failures they have had. Goaltending, depth and experience win in the playoffs. If Raycroft can provide top tier goaltending, as he has done since mid-January, then there is no reason why the Leafs cannot go on a lengthy playoff run. I know many will scoff at that idea, but it is reality. And honestly, are the Leafs any worse of a team this year than the Oilers were last year? I don’t think so.

Feb 022007
 

If you ever wonder why blogging has taken off, just read the mainstream media every now and again and you’ll realize why. Some of the stuff they write is amateurish. Today’s target: Lance Hornby. Mr. Hornby wrote an article today titles “Maple Leafs do the math” which is all about what the Leafs current position in the standings and looks at what the Leafs might have to do to make the playoffs. Since the whole basis of the article is about math, is it too much to expect that one might be able to take an accurate and objective look at the numbers? Apparently not. Clearly the focus is on downplaying the Leafs chances at making the playoffs and not at taking an accurate look at the facts.

First, Mr. Hornby projects that the Leafs would need to go 18-12 over their last 30 games to reach 92 points and a playoff spot. Now, it may take 92 points to make the playoffs in the east, but the current math does not suggest that. As it stands now, the current 7th place Tampa Bay lightning project to just 90 points if they keep their current pace over the remainder of the season and the 8th place Carolina project to 88 points. Maybe it will take 92 points, but there is a reasonably good chance it won’t and that 89 or 90 points will earn a playoff spot in the east.

Second, Mr. Hornby says the Leafs are outside of the top eight and “waiting nervously for teams to make up their games in hand.” Well, that may be true but a) even if the teams behind them with games in hand (Rangers, Islanders, Bruins) win all their games in hand, the best any of those teams could do is tie the Leafs and b) The Leafs have games in hand on 7th place Tampa (one) and 8th place Carolina (two) which Mr. Hornby conveniently overlooked that. In fact, if Toronto wins their games in hand they would tie Tampa and pass Carolina.

I know some of you are going to think that I am an apologist for the Leafs but I am not really. I am just annoyed that most of the mainstream media see the Leafs as a horrible team destined to miss the playoffs. Far too many of them take the pessimistic view and not the realist view because the reality is that as of today the Leafs are the 8th best team in the east based on winning percentage. The other reality is that if the Leafs beat Ottawa on Saturday and win their game in hand they have on Ottawa they will only be a measly 2 points behind Ottawa. Will that happen? I have no idea, but that is just an indication of how close the standings are in the east and it is irresponsible by the main stream media to only focus on worst case scenarios. I am not looking for optimism or homerism, just realism. And that is why I blog: to present a realists view to the equation.

Jan 312007
 

Yahoo has a story today that the NHL is very seriously considering bringing bigger nets to the NHL and the process of doing so is further along that most people think. This scares me in a big way because it would once again prove to me that the NHL is clueless. Only simple minded people would think that bringing in bigger nets would solve all of the NHL’s woes. If just scoring a bunch of goals is what people really wanted no one would watch soccer and yet it is the biggest sport everywhere else in the world. If just scoring a bunch of goals is what people really wanted, people would love the NHL All-star game, but people don’t. I have said this a million times. What people want is intensity, passion and fierce competition. People want fancy plays and even great saves, not easy goals. The proper way to have more goals scored is to allow more battles in front of the net. Make the goal crease a little smaller so it make it more difficult for the goalie to come out and cut down all the angles. And most of all, reduce the goalie equipment size even more. I realize the NHL has reduced the size of goalie equipment some but why can’t it be reduced more? Take a look at Billy Smith back in the early 1980′s with the Islanders and Martin Gerber this season with teh Senators.

gerber.jpg

billysmith.jpg

I chose Martin Gerber (6’0″, 185lbs) because he is one of the smaller goalies in the NHL today and fairly close to the size that Billy Smith (5’10″, 185lbs) was. Gerber’s goalie pads are an inch or two wider and go all the way up to his waste and aren’t tightly tied to his legs so he can better cover the ice when he drops to his knees. Plus, Gerber’s shoulder pads probably rise 3″ above his actual shoulders. The NHL needs to implement a rule that goalie pads are primarily for safty and not for stopping pucks and that they should be no bigger than is absolutely necessary to protect the goalie from the puck and that the be securely tied to the legs. Let’s give that a try before messing with bigger nets, especially those ugly rounded nets.

The NHL has one of the richest histories of any sport. Lets not mess with it too much.

Jan 312007
 

Yesterday I posted my power rankings which had the top 8 teams all from the western conference. The best eastern conference team was Buffalo sititng in 9th spot. That led Greg Ballentine of The Puck Stops Here to comment “top 8 from the west. I’m not sure I buy that the west is THAT much better.” I must admit that it is a little hard to believe, at least until you dig a little deeper.

This is almost unbelievable but the combined record of those top 8 western conference teams vs the east is an outstanding 37-13-8. I had to put that in bold because it is that good. That is equivalent to a team on pace for a 116 point season, a point total which only 1 team reached last year, and Detroit did that playing 24 games against 3 of the worst teams in the NHL (Chicago, Columbus and St. Louis). It is hard to believe that those 8 teams could dominate a conference so dramatically. Of those 8 teams, only Dallas has a losing record vs the East at 2-4-1 and only the Stars, Wild, Blue Jackets and Blackhawks have a losing record against the east. Even St. Louis is a 4-0-0 against the east and Phoenix is 5-2-0.

Conversely, the record of Buffalo, Atlanta, New Jersey and Ottawa, who I believe make up the eastern conferences best teams, have a combined record of 9-15-4 against the west and that is largely due to Buffalo’s 4-1-1 record. Buffalo, until their recent slump, was consistently in the top 5 and frequently in the top 2 in the power rankings.

It appears to me that the west is in fact that much better than the east.

Jan 302007
 

There are two challenges that I have on occassion put out to my readers. The first is to name one positive thing that Bettman has done for the NHL in the past 15 years. The second is, can you point me to an article in which Steve Simmons has anything good to say about the Leafs. Both things are somewhere between very rare to completely non-existent.

Today Steve Simmons has the gaul to suggest that the Philadelphia Flyers are better off than the Leafs. Steve Simmons premise for the arguement is that:

a) The Flyers suck so bad they will get a prime prospect in this June’s draft.
b) The Flyers have sniper Simon Gagne.
c) The Flyers young players like Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Joni Pitkanen are better.

Point a) is pretty much true but I would like to mention the names of Patrick Stefan and Alexandre Daigle both first overall flops. Drafting first by no means nets you a superstar player.

On point b) let me say that almost everyone over rates Simon Gagne. He is a good player and a good guy to have as a first line winger with a play making center but he is not a bonafide franchise player in any way. His offensive skills aren’t really that much better than Darcy Tucker. He’s got a good shot but needs someone to get him the puck.

On point c) Pitkanen is good, but is he better than Kaberle? And Jeff Carter and Mike Richards haven’t proven squat in the NHL and appear to be no better than second line NHLers. In 110 NHL games Carter has just 59 points. In 112 games Richards has 44 points. On the Leafs side, Steen has 66 points in 125 games and Wellwood has 76 points in 117 games. Would I trade Wellwood and Steen for Richards and Carter? Not a chance.

The Leafs also have Stajan who appears to be a very nice defensively sound player with a bit of offensive ability as well. Colaiacovo if he can stay healthy should be a solid defenseman for years to come and Ian White is looking to have some good upside as well.

Salary cap wise,Toronto and Philly are in similar situations. Toronto has ~$24 million commited to 11 players next season (not including Sundin’s option) while the Flyers have about the same committed to 9 players. Now tell me, which group of players would you rather have locked up for $24 million.

Flyers: Gagne, Hatcher, Rathje, Gauthier, Knuble, Zhitnik, Umberger, Carter, Richards
or
Leafs: McCabe, Kubina, Kaberle, Gill, Raycroft, Kilger, Wellwood, Steen, Ondrus, Pohl, Stajan

My vote would be for the Leafs easily.

So, aside from the potential of a first overall draft pick (and mid-first round draft picks have also been known to net a star player) there really isn’t anything that is better about the Flyers situation than the Leafs. Now, if this was Sidney Crosby’s draft year the story might be different, but there are no Sidney Crosby’s in this years draft. Or even an Alexander Ovechkin.

Jan 282007
 

The NHL all-star break is over and it is now time for teams to put up or shut up when it comes to making their push for the playoffs because about a month from now they will have to decide once and for all whether to be buyers or sellers in the trade deadline market. So, I figure this is a good time to take another look at where each team stands when it comes to playoff positioning.

The predicted standings below are utilize our knowledge of past performance and past schedule of strength and develop an estimated future schedule of strength and ultimately a prediction on the final point totals for each teams. Lets take a look at what they show.

Eastern Conference Predicted Standings

Pos Team GP Pts Schedule Strength Future GP Future SchedStr Pred Pts Total Pts
1 Buffalo 51 70 0.463 31 0.469 41 111
2 New Jersey 50 65 0.452 32 0.428 44 109
3 Atlanta 51 64 0.455 30 0.482 35 99
4 Montreal 50 59 0.472 32 0.468 38 97
5 Ottawa 51 60 0.473 31 0.463 37 97
6 Carolina 52 58 0.463 30 0.456 33 91
7 Pittsburgh 48 54 0.447 34 0.462 37 91
8 NY Rangers 49 52 0.457 33 0.450 35 87
9 NY Islanders 49 51 0.460 33 0.445 35 86
10 Tampa Bay 51 54 0.468 31 0.468 32 86
11 Toronto 50 52 0.485 32 0.462 34 86
12 Boston 47 48 0.483 35 0.464 37 85
13 Washington 50 49 0.472 32 0.464 31 80
14 Florida 51 48 0.475 31 0.458 30 78
15 Philadelphia 48 27 0.466 33 0.480 17 44

Wow. Talk about a tight playoff race. In my opinion Buffalo, New Jersey, Atlanta and Ottawa are all but locks to make the playoffs. Montreal should make the playoffs based on their excellent start to the season but I can’t call them a lock because I believe their mediocre play of the last month and a half is more indicitave of their talent level than their first 30 or so games. But, they should be able to hold on to a playoff spot. Carolina should make the playoffs as well because I expect them to improve a bit as their defense gets healthy again. At the other end of the spectrum you can certainly count the Flyers out of a playoff spot and Florida and Washington don’t appear to have any reasonable chance to make the playoffs either.

And that leaves us with the amazing race for the final couple of playoff spots. Pittsburgh’s 2 wins post all-star break has given them a slight edge but with all the youth on that team they are likely to suffer from inconsistant play and that will stop them from separating from the pack. After that we have the pack including Rangers, Islanders, Lightning, Maple Leafs and Boston all predicted to be within 2 points of each other. And honestly, it is all but impossible to predict who will make the playoffs from that group. Probably the team that can avoid those lengthy slumps (i.e. losing 8 of 10 games) will make the playoffs but it is wide open.

Western Conference Predicted Standings

Pos Team GP Pts Schedule Strength Future GP Future SchedStr Pred Pts TotalPts
1 Nashville 51 75 0.503 31 0.552 41 116
2 Anaheim 50 68 0.517 31 0.529 41 109
3 Detroit 50 66 0.525 31 0.508 42 108
4 San Jose 49 66 0.516 32 0.533 41 107
5 Dallas 49 60 0.525 32 0.535 38 98
6 Calgary 48 57 0.542 33 0.531 39 96
7 Vancouver 49 57 0.546 32 0.525 38 95
8 Minnesota 51 56 0.551 31 0.538 34 90
9 Edmonton 50 52 0.556 32 0.522 35 87
10 Colorado 48 52 0.537 33 0.559 34 86
11 St. Louis 50 48 0.541 32 0.540 30 78
12 Phoenix 50 48 0.535 32 0.556 29 77
13 Columbus 50 45 0.533 32 0.545 28 73
14 Chicago 49 41 0.534 32 0.548 26 67
15 Los Angeles 52 40 0.556 30 0.536 23 63

The western conference playoff race isn’t near as tight as the eastern conference race. Teams that I believe are all but sure bets to make the playoffs are Nashville, Anaheim, Detroit, San Jose, Dallas and Calgary. I am not quite ready to put Vancouver in that group but their hot streak of late has them in a relatively comfortable position as well. Despite the recent surges by Phoenix and St. Louis I don’t feel either of them really have a chance at the playoffs. They just got too far behind early on and have too many teams to catch and pass to make the playoffs. So, those two teams along with Columbus, Chicago and Los Angeles are likely to be early golfers this spring.

That really leaves just 3 teams, Minnesota, Edmonton and Colorado, (4 if we include Vancouver) fighting for the final playoff spot (or two). Of those three teams I would have to give the edge to Minnesota right now. They seem to have the least number of holes in their lineup and Gaborik is now back and playing well. I am a bit surprised at how well Colorado has done this year but their success has largely been a result of Sakic’s excellent play (improved play from last season) and the play of rookies Stastny and Wolski. Peter Budaj has played well in goal and is slowly being given more games. If those 4 players continue their excellent play Colorado should stay int he playoff hunt. For me, Edmonton’s playoff chances are the most precarious of the three. I believe the Oilers are in tough to make a playoff spot with their current roster. They are really missing the steady force (both offensively and defensively) that Pronger provided on the blue line and none of their other defensemen have adequitely stepped up their play. They really need another top pairing type defenseman as well as a bit more consistency from their forwards if they really want to make a strong push for that final playoff spot.

Jan 102007
 

This morning on the Team 1200 Pierre McGuire commented that the Colorado-Detroit game last night was an entertaining game. He was then asked if that rivalry was still there and his immediate comment, almost before the question was finished being asked, was and emphatic no, not like before and that none of the players or personalites are there anymore. That got me to thinking, are any rivalries as good now as before? I can tell you that the rivalry hatred between the Senators and Leafs isn’t what it used to be pre-lockout. Sure, Sens fans still love to boo the Leafs, but it doesn’t seem the same. They don’t have the hatred for the team or the players like they did in the past. The Leafs-Habs still have a rivalry going but I am not sure it is quite the same either. Toronto has played 7 games with division rival Boston so far this season and I have a hard time saying any of the games were played with much passion or with any sense of rivalry hatred towards each other. Same for Ottawa-Boston last night. It was a complete yawner for 2 periods. Ottawa-New Jersey on Sunday wasn’t all that great either and they have had a bit of a rivalry in the past too. Detroit-Colorado, Colorado-Vancouver, Edmonton-Dallas, have all developed rivalries to some extent in the past but I can’t say any of them are really considered rivals anymore. Is the Flames-Oilers rivalry as good now as it was in the past? Have any new rivalries developed in the past year and a half?

So, I have to ask you all, is the new NHL killing rivalries? Do the teams you follow now have as big of rivalries now as they did pre-lockout? Has the strict (overly in some cases) calling of penalties caused so much of the physical play to be eliminated from the game reduce the sense of rivalry? Does not having guys like Tie Domi in the NHL crashing and banging reduce the sense of rivalry? Even Darcy Tucker is a shell of his former pesty self. Has the salary cap promoted so much mediocrity that every team is so much like every other team? Are there are no more big spenders to hate (Toronto) or small market underdog teams to cheer for (Ottawa)? Is all this killing the NHL? I have always contended that the New York Yankees are good for baseball because it gives a team for everyone to hate (if they don’t love them). Has the NHL eliminated this and is it going to hurt the league?

That’s a lot of questions, but I am curious as to what you all think. My opinion is skill and fancy goals are fun and all, but intensity and passion (for your team or against another team) in my mind is really what sells sports and what entertainment is all about and to some extent I think that is gone in this new NHL.

On a related note, Ottawa had a 40% discount night last night and didn’t sell out and still have 2000 tickets available for next weeks 40% discount night against Washington and one of the most skilled players in the game today in Ovechkin. Ticket sales are down across the NHL. The buzz from last season seems to have worn off. Is this a sign of things to come? Is this a result of the lack of intensity and passion in most NHL games now?

Dec 072006
 

So the NHL govenors met this week to discuss making changes to the NHL schedule but came up with no solution so for now we are stuck with what we have got. Some teams want more interconference play, some teams want none at all. My problem with the schedule is that the teams who are competing with each other to make the playoffs play significantly different schedules. The northeast division may have 5 of the top 8 teams in the eastern conference but because they play each other 8 times, it is unlikely that they will all make the playoffs while a lesser team from the Atlantic or Southeast divisions would make the playoffs. If you are a fan of having the best teams in the playoffs then this is not an ideal solution.

One method to fix this problem was to have 10 teams from each conference make the playoffs with a 3 game series of seed #7 vs #10 and #8 vs #9 with the winners making the round of 8 in each conference. I have mixed feelings on this because I think enough teams already make the playoffs but it does allow for teams punished by a tougher schedule to prove themselves in this short series.

Tom Benjamin has offered up some ideas himself but I’d like to take a different tact in fixing the schedule. Why do we need a 100% fixed, set in stone schedule? Why not allow teams to set a portion of their schedule themselves? Here is what I am proposing:

Each conference plays every other team in their conference 4 times. With 14 other teams in the conference this would equate to 56 conference games. Each team would then play every team in the other conference once per season. By playing every other team once per season and alternating home vs road games every other year, every team will play in every city in the other conference at least every other year. Not every year will Sidney Crosby visit Calgary but every year he will play Calgary and every other year he will play in Calgary. Adding the 15 interconferene games to the 56 conference games we now have a total of 71 games. Now to get the schedule up to 82 games like we currently have, the teams will be allowed to schedule the other 11 games however they see fit with the condition that no more than 2 games can be played against the same team (i.e. The Rangers won’t be able to play the Islanders all 11 games). So, for example, Toronto could play those 11 games using a 3 game road trip to Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, 2 extra games againt Ottawa, Montreal and Buffalo and maybe a couple of original 6 games against Detroit and Chicago. I know as a Leaf fan I’d rather see a few more games against teams like Detroit than 8 games against Boston (5 in one month is rediculous). Los Angeles could play Anaheim and San Jose a couple of extra games or maybe start a cross country big city rivalry with the New York Rangers by playing an extra couple of games each season. The 4 teams in the southeast (Tampa, Florida, Atlanta and Carolina) could focus on playing each other and developing those rivalries further and could even bring Nashville into the mix. Teams could choose to have playoff re-matches whether they face a team they met in the playoffs the previous years playoffs to renew hostilities. With 11 free games teams would have a ton of options on how to develop rivalries and promote their team.

At the end of the season all teams will have played 82 games and the top 8 teams in each conference make the playoffs and the playoffs get played just as they do now.

What does everyone think?