Nov 102008
 

The NHL once again proves to the world that it’s a joke. Tom Kostopoulos was suspended 3 games starting from today for his hit on Mike Van Ryn. Van Ryn, acquired from the Panthers this year in exchange for Bryan McCabe, suffered facial lacerations, a broken nose and bone, and a concussion.

A year ago, Randy Jones hit Patrice Bergeron from behind along the end boards and Bergeron ended up missing the entire season with a concussion. The suspension? 2 games. I’ve seen the replays, and to me the hits look practically identical. A race to the puck at the end of the ice with 2 players going ahead full speed doesn’t usually end up looking too good. Mike Brophey certainly agrees and calls for harsher punishments because the lack of respect players have for each other these days. Brophey’s not directly pointing any fingers, but I think we all know where this is going.

Colin Campbell and the discipline office are a joke. If the length of a suspension is dependent on the act itself, this doesn’t make sense. If it’s dependent on the resulting injury, it makes even less sense. The fact that it’s only a one game difference makes it even more confusing. Had Kostopoulos not been suspended, or even been suspended longer than 3 games, it might’ve made more sense. There has been a complete lack of consistency when handing out suspensions, and I agree with Brophey – don’t be scared to hand out harsher punishments. A 3 game suspension is nothing over the course of an 82-game season and $900k salary (Kostopoulos loses roughly $33k).

OTR put Gary Bettman on the spot on the topic, and he had this to say:

“You know, it’s interesting to me that when we came back from the work stoppage a lot of our fans complained that we had taken the physicality out of the game by opening up the speed and skill. We didn’t do that – hitting is actually up. There are more body checks in the game than we had before the work stoppage. But if you say you can’t have contact with the head, you are going to reduce the amount of checking in the game and you are going to change the way the game is played. We don’t like any concussions. We don’t like any hits to the head, but before we run down this road, think about what the consequences to the game are going to be.”

And what are those consequences, Gary? More importantly, what are you doing to protect the players? Obviously there’s a certain amount of responsibility the players hold, but it seems like the league is preaching negligence. Bettman claims he’s opposed to change, but I guess the lockout was all for naught and NHL hockey hasn’t changed post-lockout. But then, of course, I realized the answer:

” …it’s not a question of logic.”

EDIT Nov. 12: Looks like the league is making noise already, dropping Brenden Morrow‘s suspension (and rightfully so) for instigating against the Kings and reviewing Jarkko Ruutu‘s high hit against the Habs.

Oct 312008
 

Toronto Maple Leaf fans across the blogosphere are responding to a recent Howard Berger post in which he called Leaf fans ‘losers’. In a coordinated response several Leaf related blogs have responded with the following post:

Dear Most Valuable Losers

Yesterday, continuing a long-standing trend, another Toronto reporter took his shot at Leaf fans. This time it was Howard Berger calling us “losers” but we’ve seem the same cookie-cutter article before from virtually everyone who covers the team.

Quite frankly, we’ve had enough.

As fans, we believe that those most deserving of our praise and our scorn are directly inolved in the game, whether it’s on the ice, in the press box or in the executive corridors. Fans don’t pencil in the starting five, make bad trades, or write the headlines of the day and shouldn’t be blamed (or praised) for the totals in the wins and loss column.

Hockey may be just a game but it’s also a passion. If you’re looking for passionate hockey coverage that offers insight and humour and you’re sick of being blamed for supporting a team you’re passionate about, you have a better option.

It’s time to leave the media superstars behind. There’s compelling, timely, wide-ranging content waiting just for you online in the Barilkosphere.

Many have found this better way of following the Leafs, but not every Leafs fan has been so lucky. Please send this message to your fellow Leaf fans via e-mail or postings on message boards and let them know that they do have a choice.

We hope you’ll join us here in the Barilkosphere and become regular readers.

I have been very critical of the media from time to time in the past but this is one of the first real coordinated responses to the media. It’ll be interesting to see how it develops and whether Howard Berger posts a counter response.

Oct 262008
 

For those of you who don’t know already, one of the world’s most popular blogs, “Covered in Oil,” will be inactive for an indefinite amount of time. Known as “DMFB,” on his site, Dave Berry was employed to cover the Oilers and get a quote or two after the games. He was given a pass into the press box, and to break up the monotony of the game, he does live web-blog coverages, until he was informed by an Oilers official that he was not allowed to do so and will have his press pass revoked. You can read the entire (ridiculous) account here.

I think what the Oilers did to Berry was complete bull. I don’t think I can sum it up any better than that. If the mainstream media (the papers, magazines, radio, and TV) continues to be so fearful of change and evolving technology I don’t think this will be the last incident until some rules are made clear. Tom Benjamin and Matt Fenwick think the Oilers do have grounds to ask Berry to leave, but only because the Luddite Oilers, as a business, are protecting their interests.

As bloggers we’re separate from the influence of corporate and commercial identities, which makes our writings as good, if not better, than some of the mainstream media out there. Bloggers have been regularly criticized for their (un)accountability, but as long as we have readers and users who leave comments that will never be the case. I don’t think it’s completely a stretch to even say that perhaps we’re more accountable than mainstream media, if only because we don’t have ties to any corporate sponsors or employers. The bias in our blogs is inherently different than those who are officially employed by a team or the NHL to cover games (have you ever noticed how boring NHL.com blogs are?).

Going back to Berry, I think it’s quite universal that everyone feels bad for him (except, perhaps, the Oilers). I alo think it is completely unfair that his pass was revoked because he didn’t let the Oilers know that he was doing a live blog. What’s stopping a guy from bringing his laptop to games and doing a live blog in the stands? What are the paranoid Oilers so afraid of? I think in an increasingly integrating society, especially technologically, any blow to the blogosphere is a blow to the fans.

Berry leaves us with this final thought…

“At the same time, though, it would be disingenuous for me to say that this was the sole reason why I’m taking an extended hiatus. Truthfully, there’s a lot about the professional sports world that bothers me that really came into focus during this whole thing. I could list examples, but basically it all boils down to the fact that I’m uncomfortable with the amount of attention paid to what are basically games, and I no longer want to be a part of it. I don’t want to tell anyone how to spend their free time, but the fact simple entertainment has grown to this level of import bothers me too much to continue with it.”

It seems to me that the Oilers are more interested in other things than their fanbase.

Oct 242008
 

Darren Dreger on TSN yesterday said that Bob Gainey had proposed a new rule to increase offense: players will not be allowed to block shots lying down on the ice. Ridiculous? Yes. But, okay, I’ll bite.

Let’s say the NHL goes through with this. The first question is, what’s the penalty? Because it’s absolutely ridiculous to penalize a player for making a good defensive play, let’s say the “downside” is an offensive zone face-off for the shooting team. It’s the only viable solution I can think of, but even then it doesn’t necessarily promote offensive play. I can just as easily put a Henrik Zetterberg to take the face-off and win it, and totally negate what could’ve been a set offensive play. Gainey’s solution doesn’t fly – I think there are more ways to make the more exciting (that also doesn’t necessarily mean more offense) – in part because it really stops the evolution of the game. 30 years ago, shot-blocking wasn’t a big part of the game, but players like Mike Komisarek have made it into an art form, and today defensemen at the peewee levels are being taught how to block shots properly. That’s not even mentioning the fact that with the amount of blocked shots these days, there would be too many whistles to get the game going. As a side note, I’ve never understood why some defenseman don’t take the extra step and step around the player lying down on the ice and instead choosing to shoot right at the player. Chicago’s Brent Sopel is notorious for this.

I don’t know where Gainey is coming from with this suggestion, but it all really ties back to Gary Bettman‘s obsession with trying to make the game more appealing to the US fanbase. However, Bettman’s approach is narrow-minded, and he believes that the only way to generate an American fanbase (and more importantly, revenue) is to make the game more exciting by allowing for more offense. While I do admit that watching players score goals is somewhat satisfying, I’m just as happy, perhaps more, watching a 2-1 nail-biter than a 6-2 blowout.

Bettman has refused to believe that the NHL is not the NBA, and it can’t be marketed as such. Basketball is one of the few sports that have very few barriers of entry, which is why it has such a large global fanbase in Asia and Europe. The NBA also thrives on the personality of its players, both negative and positive (Ron Artest, anyone?). This was also a sticking point when Brian Burke was on OTR, where he said hockey is doing fine in the States, considering it’s relative obscurity and many barriers of entry. The NHL has to sell itself, like the Detroit-Pittsburgh series. It can’t be sold through marketing ads, music, or highlight reels, but as long as Bettman refuses to believe this, the NHL will continue to sit on a carousel of rule changes and its subsequent marketing flops.

EDIT: Neal on the Leafs section of the site and puremetal33 have also had discussion on this point. Read it here.

“The NHL doesn’t need to to increase scoring, what they NEED to do is stop trying to sell the game to the same idiots who watch the NBA. The NHL is a niche sport for intelligent observers. It can’t and won’t be sold to the lowest common denominator.” – puremetal33

EDIT #2: You’re telling me that Jordan Staal should be penalized for this? (scroll to 0:38) Give me a break.

Oct 172008
 

Bruce Garrioch, Tim Baines, Don Brennan and Chris Stevenson of the Ottawa Sun wrote a ‘discussion style’ article today that brings up an interesting point about the importance of offense from the defensemen.

Don Brennan: Waiting for you guys to say something smart is like waiting for snow to melt … The Senators’ defence last season was a collection of Orrs, Harveys and Coffeys compared to this group. Each year, the Stanley Cup champions get 200-plus points from their blueline. The Senators will be lucky to get 130 from theirs this season. Case closed.

I decided to look into this a little more. Last years Stanley Cup winner, the Detroit Red Wings, had 204 points from their defensemen in the regular season. That was good for best in the NHL. Here are how the rest of the teams defenses stacked up last year including whether they made the playoffs or not.

Eastern Conference

Rank Team DefPts Playoffs
1 Montreal 198 Y
2 Pittsburgh 160 Y
3 Toronto 160 N
4 Buffalo 154 N
5 Washington 148 Y
6 Florida 146 N
7 Ottawa 146 Y
8 Philadelphia 143 Y
9 Boston 136 Y
10 NY Rangers 134 Y
11 Tampa 131 N
12 Carolina 128 N
13 New Jersey 123 Y
14 NY Islanders 120 N
15 Atlanta 91 N

Western Conference

Rank Team DefPts Playoffs
1 Detroit 204 Y
2 Anaheim 165 Y
3 Nashville 160 Y
4 Chicago 151 N
5 Dallas 150 Y
6 Calgary 148 Y
7 Los Angeles 146 N
8 San Jose 146 Y
9 Minnesota 144 Y
10 Phoenix 140 N
11 Colorado 129 Y
12 St. Louis 120 N
13 Vancouver 116 N
14 Edmonton 114 N
15 Columbus 109 N

In the eastern conference, if offense from the defense was the sole factor in making the playoffs Toronto, Buffalo and Florida would have made it and in the west Chicago and Los Angeles would have. But clearly there is some kind of correlation (direct or indirect) between offense from the defense and a teams success. The bottom four teams in the west and four of the bottom 5 in the east missed the playoffs. Simply put, if your defense aren’t producing much offense you will struggle to make the playoffs.

Going a step further, if we look at each playoff matchup we will find the majority of the matchups had the team with the most regular season points from defensemen winning the playoff series. The only exceptions to this are Dallas (150 points) defeating Anaheim (165 points), Colorado (129) defeating Minnesota (144), San Jose (146) defeating Calgary (148) and Philadelphia (143) defeating Washington (148) in the first round and Philadelphia (143) defeating Montreal (198) in the second round.

Of those 5 exceptions, the San Jose-Calgary and Philadelphia-Washington series very similar point production from their defense (within 5 points of each other) so really they aren’t exceptions. They were also both 7 game series so the closeness of the series matched the closeness of their offense from defensemen totals. Plus San Jose added Brian Campbell to their defense which probably gave them the edge over Calgary in regards to offense from their defense.

That really just leaved three series where the team with the lower scoring defensemen defeated teams with higher scoring defensemen and in the case of Dallas, it isn’t like that are lacking in the offense from defense department anyway. Going back one season we saw two teams with high scoring defenses play in the Stanley Cup finals as the Anaheim Ducks (209) defeat the Ottawa Senators (191).

There are certainly a lot of other factors that go into what makes a successful team but based on the past couple seasons, being able to produce offense from your defense seems to be a fairly important factor. Some highly offensive defensemen switched teams this past summer (Boyle to San Jose, Campbell to Chicago, Visnovsky to Edmonton, Redden to NY Rangers, Streit to NY Islanders, McCabe to Florida, etc) so lets see if this really makes an impact on the success of those teams. So far it is a mixed bag with San Jose (4-0-0), the Rangers (5-1-0) and Edmonton (2-0-0) looking like winners while Chicago (1-2-1) and the Islanders (2-2-0) having mixed results.

As for the Senators, they sit at 1-1-1 with 6 points (on 8 goals) from defensemen with newcomer Filip Kuba leading the team with 4 assists.

Oct 082008
 

I believe we are in for some serious surprises in both conferences as I don’t think there are many teams that are sure bets to make the playoffs and in both conferences, particularly the west, there are several younger teams ready to make a push for a playoff spot. All that means that some teams expecting to make the playoffs won’t.

Eastern Conference

1. New Jersey Devils
2. Montreal Canadiens
3. Washington Capitals
4. New York Rangers
5. Pittsburgh Penguins
6. Buffalo Sabres
7. Ottawa Senators
8. Boston Bruins
9. Philadelphia Flyers
10. Tampa Bay Lightning
11. Carolina Hurricanes
12. Florida Panthers
13. Toronto Maple Leafs
14. Atlanta Thrashers
15. New York Islanders

I think the Devils may have made the best off season acquisition by bringing in Brian Rolston from the Minnesota Wild. Rolston is a perfect fit for the Devils and will bring them some much needed offensive balance which I believe will push them into top spot in the eastern conference.

The Montreal Canadiens had a breakout season last year and will once again challenge for top spot in the eastern conference but I don’t believe Kovalev will have as good of a season and that will drop the Canadiens back a spot or two.

The Washington Capitals are the class of the southeast division and should get the third seed and I believe the Rangers and Penguins are good enough for fourth and fifth seeds. The Penguins would easily be ranked higher if it weren’t for the two long term injuries to Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney.

This is where things get interesting. If the Ottawa Senators found a way to add a top 4 defenseman to the mix and get consistent solid goaltending they would easily compete for the top several spots in the eastern conference. But as it stands now I think the Senators will once again struggle for consistency in goal and I don’t like any team that has an aging Jason Smith as their #4 defenseman and Lee and Picard as the third defense pair with a combined 98 games experience. If one of Phillips, Volchenkov or Kuba gets injured for a lengthy period of time this team could miss the playoffs.

I believe the Buffalo Sabres will be a surprise team this year. They have an excellent young set of forwards that learned a lot last year having to take over leadership roles with the losses of Briere and Drury. They are now ready to step up their games and take the Sabres to the playoffs once again.

The Bruins, Flyers, Lightning and maybe the Hurricanes will all struggle at times this year and any of them could miss the playoffs. I am just not sold on any of those teams having the defense and goaltending to really be a top team in the NHL. Some of you may be surprised that I include the Flyers in this group but I am still not sold on Biron being a top level goalie and I think they could use some help on defense as well with the loss of Derien Hatcher. Problem is, they don’t have much cap space to add such a defenseman. The surprise in the east could be the Flyers missing the playoffs.

The final four probably won’t get many disputes. The Panthers, having traded Jokinen, probably don’t have the offense to compete though their defense and goaltending is more than solid. Toronto could probably end up a bit higher in the standings, but I don’t think that is a goal of theirs and are likely to continue trading away players and playing youngsters over veterans, even if the veterans are better right now. The Thrashers and Islanders are just plain bad with little or no signs of life this year or in the future.

Western Conference

1. Detroit Red Wings
2. Anaheim Ducks
3. Minnesota Wild
4. San Jose Sharks
5. Dallas Stars
6. Edmonton Oilers
7. Calgary Flames
8. Chicago Blackhawks
9. Phoenix Coyotes
10. Vancouver Canucks
11. Colorado Avalanche
12. Nashville Predators
13. Columbus Blue Jackets
14. St. Louis Blues
15. Los Angeles Kings

No surprises at the top of this list as the Detroit Red Wings are the class of the league. They only question is whether they will suffer the Stanley Cup hangover that so many teams do. Being a veteran team who have gone through this before I don’t think they will and should easily be the best team in the western conference and the league.

Next up are the pacific division trio of Anaheim, San Jose and Dallas. All look to be very solid teams but I think Anaheim’s defense should allow them to take top spot followed closely by San Jose and Dallas not too far behind.

The Northwest division is real tough to predict because they all seem to have holes in their lineups. The Wild have lost Demitra and Rolston and I am not convinced bringing in Brunette and Nolan is enough to offset that loss. Calgary looks solid but only if Kiprusoff rebounds from an off season. In fact, Kuprusoff’s career is in a downward trend as his save percentages have dropped 4 seasons in a row from .933 to .923 to .917 to .906 last year. If he drops any more, the Flames could drop out of the playoffs. The Vancouver Canucks seem to be in a bit of a holding pattern as well not looking any better than last year. The Colorado Avalanche didn’t do much to excite me this off season and I am not at all sold on a goaltending tandem of Budaj and Raycroft, which has the potential to be among the worst in the league. The aging avalanche are also injury prone and that combination will likely see them drop out of the playoffs. The only team definitively on the rise are the Edmonton Oilers who look to make a jump to the playoffs.

The other two young teams looking to make their jumps into the playoffs are the Phoenix Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks. Both will challenge for a playoff spot but probably only one will get in. I am putting the Blackhawks in because I believe the Coyotes need another year or two to develop their young players and they Phoenix is in a much tougher division.

In the playoffs, I am predicting San Jose will face New Jersey in the finals with New Jersey winning the cup. Regular Season MVP will be Alex Ovechkin, Norris Trophy will go to Dion Phaneuf, Vezina will go to Martin Brodeur and coach of the year will be Brent Sutter of the Devils. The top rookie will be Derick Brassard of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Oct 022008
 

The first season of the new CBA saw the once high-spending Rangers build their team from within, and for once the new Rangers squad, under the meticulous Tom Renney, were bringing them back to respectability. Little did everyone know that this strategy would be shortlived, as the Rangers splurged on the market the following year, signing Scott Gomez and Chris Drury to multi-million, multi-year deals that saw both players take up a total of $14.5m combined. It remains to be seen if the Rangers’ two centres can build on their disappointing Blueshirt debut, and if the Rangers’ big spending this year, Wade Redden, will find more success than his last couple of seasons in Ottawa.

Say what you want about Jaromir Jagr, but even in some of his worst games it’s hard to replace his production. Now that Jagr is gone, there is no one on the Rangers’ squad that brings quite the same scoring pedigree as Jagr. Nikolai Zherdev comes close, but the enigmatic winger has a tendency to disappear for stretches and Markus Naslund hasn’t had the same wrist shot after wrist surgery. Gomez and Drury will have to return to their pre-Ranger forms and earn their paycheques, or face the wrath of a fickle Manhattan crowd. Perhaps the two forwards that can make the most difference in the Ranger lineup this year are second years Nigel Dawes and Brandon Dubinsky. Dawes, a marginal player on the fabled North Dakota Canadian World Junior squad, slowly played himself onto the team and has become one of the Rangers’ fastest weapons, while Dubinsky, who really clicked with Jagr near the end of the season, is looking to build on his 40-point rookie season in which he appeared in all 82 games, itself an already impressive feat. Perhaps another body that the Rangers will miss is Sean Avery‘s. The no-holds barred player whose antics caused multiple frustrations for the other team, but when Glen Sather didn’t budge, even though the Rangers had a much better record with Avery in the lineup than without. Aaron Voros and Pat Rissmiller were signed to vacate his spot, but neither players brings as much agitating or scoring ability to the team. Petr Prucha is also expected to rebound, after posing a paltry 17 points after back to back 40+ point seasons. The Rangers offense is talented, there’s no question about that, but the Rangers are banking an awful lot of their core offense (Drury, Gomez, Naslund, and Zherdev) on 4 players that have had disappointing seasons of sorts last year. It’s a little risky, but perhaps a change of scenery and new wingers might ignite a latent offense (25th overall, 22nd PP last year).

The biggest name coming out of New York these days is Redden. The former Senator hasn’t been the same since Zdeno Chara left, and there was some talk about them re-uniting in Boston, but it was the Rangers, to one’s surprise, that were able to cough up big money ($6.5m) to land him. Time will tell if Redden is really worth the money, after the Sens made it clear he wasn’t going to get a cent over what Chris Phillips ($3.5m) was making. The talent is there, but Redden needs to be more consistent and be more careful with the puck if the Rangers are to be successful. Michal Rozsival returns once again after testing the free agent waters, and both sides are glad to be re-united. With Redden, they could potentially combine to be the best pair in the East, rounded up by the ever-emerging Marc Staal and the steady yet underrated Dmitri Kalinin. Dan Girardi and Paul Mara round out a very good defensive corps (4th overall, 6th PK).

No goalie since Mike Richter has captured the hearts of Rangers fans, but Henrik Lundqvist has just done that. “King Henrik,” as the fans call him, exploded onto the hockey radar and has since then transplanted himself as one of the best goalies in the East. If it wasn’t for Martin Brodeur, the East would be completely under King Henrik’s reign. This is one part of this talented team that Renney doesn’t have to worry about consistency issues. It was the emergence of Lundqvist that allowed the Rangers to cut loose long forgotten prospect Al Montoya, which means that Stephen Valiquette will be back to backup Lundqvist, although it is safe to say Valiquette won’t be seeing much game time.

The Rangers have only about $2m cap room left, but it hasn’t stopped the rumour mill from churning. After the Drury, Gomez, and Redden signings, it looks like the Rangers are back to their free-spending ways, and had been heavily linked to Mats Sundin, which would have culminated in them trading away Gomez. While that rumour has died down, the focus now shifts to Brendan Shanahan, who has been in talks with the Rangers over the summer about a contract, but he has not been invited to training camp yet and with the Rangers’ tight cap they have little room for him, and signing him would mean that an extra body would have to be moved. So far management has shown confidence in Zherdev and Naslund, but still are legitimate question marks and it would not be surprising if Sather starts looking for help if the Rangers have a poor October.

The Rangers are well-rounded in all aspects of the game. They have two solid two-way centres with good playmaking abilities, wingers that can really shoot the puck, a strong PK unit, a well-rounded defense, and an elite goalie. The problem for the Rangers is putting it all together into a winning team.

Projected lineup:
Markus Naslund – Scott Gomez – Chris Drury
Nigel Dawes – Brandon Dubinsky – Nikolai Zherdev
Patrick Rissmiller – Dan Fritsche – Petr Prucha
Aaron Voros – Blair Betts – Ryan Callahan

Michal Rozsival – Wade Redden
Paul Mara – Marc Staal
Dmitri Kalinin – Daniel Girardi

Henrik Lundqvist – Stephen Valiquette

scratches: Colton Orr, Lauri Korpikoski, Fredrik Sjostrom

Coach: Tom Renney
GM: Glen Sather

Predicted finish: 3rd Atlantic, 5th East

Sep 302008
 

The Devils, under Lou Lamoriello, will always be contenders. Despite losing Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, and Brian Rafalski over the years, the Devils have always had someone to step up and keep them competitive. They tend not to go after the young free agents, but opted for seasoned veterans to fill in the holes. For the most part, they find affordable contracts and through clever maneuverings from “Loophole Lou” the Devils have always managed to shed the bad ones.

Scoring has always been a bit of the defense-first Devils. It’s not so much the Devils lack the talent, having 4 20+ goalscorers including 32-goal man Zach Parise, 5 if underrated captain Jamie Langenbrunner played more than 64 games. Parise, only 24 years old and in his third season with the Devils, has taken over the mantle as the Devils’ go-to offensive player, after posting a second straight 30+ goal season and improving his point total year after year. After being slowly groomed by the Devils, including spending a full year in Albany, this is now Parise’s team. The Devils refuse to play any other strategy other than the trap, which is why they have a tendency to reacquire their former players (case in point, Mike Rupp) when the new players don’t buy into the system. This summer was no different as Lou brought back two former Devil stars, face-off specialist Bobby Holik and 31-goal man Brian Rolston. While Holik’s offensive game is limited to that of a fourth liner, his face-off (58.4%) and checking abilities are still tops in the league. Rolston has managed to get better with age, and after failing to re-sign with the Wild he packed his bags and his shooter’s touch back to Jersey. The two veterans will figure very much into the Devils’ plans. Rolston will take some load off Patrik Elias‘ shoulders, perhaps re-ignite the shifty Brian Gionta‘s touch, or be a veteran presence over Parise and Travis Zajac. David Clarkson will provide some sandpaper and jam for the Devils, who otherwise lack an enforcer. With Rolston shooting the puck and Langenbrunner healthy to start, the Devils may find themselves improving drastically from last year’s 27th ranked offense and 25th ranked powerplay.

Defensively, the Devils just haven’t been the same since the last of their Big Three left. Now they’re highlighted by the much lesser known yet still effective Colin White and Paul Martin. While the Devils’ defense won’t excite anybody anymore, they’re still one of the best in the league because they play clean, simple, defensive hockey. It’s a simple enough system for any decent defenseman in the league to understand, and for that reason the Devils, since Niedermayer and Rafalski’s departures, they never felt compelled to replace either defenseman via a big free agency signing. Instead they’ve made respectable defensemen from Mike Mottau and Johnny Oduya, both who slowly creeped onto the hockey radar. The Devils’ defense is low on talent, but high on dedication, and of course, there’s always the forwards. John Madden and Jay Pandolfo both made their names in a Devils uniform, unsurprisingly, as bona fide third-liner checkers. The two have been examples league-wide of what third-line checkers need to be, and it was a healthy surprise last year as well when Madden potted 20 goals. They have been so good defensively that the Devils don’t even have to send out their shut-down pair as long as Madden and Pandolfo are on the ice. It goes without saying that the two are annual Selke candidates, and as long as Brent Sutter pays attention to matching line-ups they’ll do just fine.

The last line of defense is the Devils’ strongest area, and it has been for quite some time. Martin Brodeur will not play 77 games this year, and may not even come close to that total, but Kevin Weekes is a capable goalie and will be itching for action this year. Even though Brodeur is getting old at 36, he’s still the best in the game. No one else in the league comes close in pedigree and reputation. Helped by a defensive system and the best checking line in the East, Brodeur posts great numbers year-in and year-out.

The Devils just aren’t anything special. They stick to a clean and simple game play and take advantage of the other team’s mistakes. It doesn’t set attendance records, but it does win games, and as long as the Devils win games, fans will come. The Devils finished 5th last year in GA/G with 2.35, and didn’t sacrifice any of their key defensive weapons to add offense – in fact, it can be argued that Rolston and Holik may the Devils even better defensively.

Projected lineup:
Patrik Elias – Brian Rolston – Brian Gionta
Zach Parise – Travis Zajac – Jamie Langenbrunner
Jay Pandolfo – John Madden – David Clarkson
Mike Rupp – Bobby Holik – Dainius Zubrus

Colin White – Mike Mottau
Bryce Salvador – Paul Martin
Andy Green – Johnny Oduya

Martin Brodeur – Kevin Weekes

scratches: Rod Pelley, Fedor Fedorov, Nicklas Bergors

coach: Brent Sutter
GM: Lou Lamoriello

Predicted finish: 4th Atlantic, 6th East

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

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.