Sep 052007
 

Ok, it’s time to get back in hockey mode and start looking to the upcoming season which is less than a month away. But first, let me look at a handful of good and bad off season moves.

The Good

Ryan Whitney: While Whitney doesn’t get the media attention of his teammate forwards Crosby, Malkin and Staal, he is one of the best young defensemen in the NHL and had an excelleny year last year with 14 goals, 59 points and a +9. The Penguins made a very smart move locking up Whitney for the next 6 years at a respectable $4 million per season. In a few years they could have a Norris contender in Whitney for about half of what other top defensemen will be making.

Tomas Vokoun: For a price of a couple of draft picks the Florida Panthers went out and picked up one of the best goalies in the NHL. Florida had mediocre goaltending last year and missed the playoffs by 6 points. With Vokoun in net and with some improvement from some of their other young players I expect the Panthers will have an excellent shot at a playoff spot this season and will contend for the division title.

Smyth/Hannan: The Avalanche are a team that made a big splash in the free agent pool but aren’t getting a lot of recognition for doing so. Not only did they sign two excellent players, but they may have signed the most valuable of the top free agents. Ryan Smyth and Joe Sakic will provide the Avalanche the best leadership both on and off the ice than any other pair in the NHL and Hannan is a nice defensive defenseman that should help out the Avalanche in their own end. If Budaj continues his improvement in goal, the Avalanche could be cup contenders once again.

Toskala: The price was fairly high but the Leafs addressed their most pressing need with the acquisition of Vesa Toskala. While Toskala is still unproven as an NHL starting goalie, he will most certainly be better than Aubin and will give coach Maurice with a pair of goalies (with Raycroft) so that he can go with the hot hand. The Leafs missed the playoffs by a single point and adding Toskala should easily make up that point and get them into the playoffs.

Keenan: The Calgary Flames big spash of the summer was bringing in an experienced, hard nosed coach in Mike Keenan. Keenan will have the team playing harder, tougher and better defensively which is what took them to the Stanley Cup finals a few years back. Keenan will coach more like how Sutter did and I expect the Flames will be an improved team this upcoming season because of it.

Preissing/Handzus/Nagy/Calder/Stuart – There were rumours that the Kings were going to get into the fight for the high priced free agents (Drury, Briere, Gomez, Smyth) but instead they probably went the smarter route and signed a number of cheaper second tier players. The Kings have some quality talent in Cammaleri, Frolov, Kopitar and others so didn’t really need more talent. What they really needed was some depth and experience to mentor that young talent and take some pressure off them and that is exactly what they added.

Todd White – I don’t know why, but I just really like this move by the Atlanta Thrashers. White is a good two-way player who has enough skill to skate with the talented players that the Thrashers have (he has played with Hossa in Ottawa too) and because he is smart defensively he complements those offensive players perfectly. The Thrashers didn’t have a lot of money to spend but made a smart move in signing White to a $2.375 million/year four year deal.

The Bad Moves

Drury – I like Chris Drury. He is a good, solid, 2-way player with good leadership skills. Problem is, he is a second line player now being paid like a first line star. He might score the Rangers 30 goals and get 65 points, but that isn’t the kind of output I would expect from a $7 million player. For that money they could have signed Peca for the leadership and defensive ability, kept Nylander to keep the successfull Jagr-Nylander-Straka trio in tact (and be certain to keep Jagr happy), plus had some money left over to bring in a quality defenseman.

Hartnell – Hartnell will certainly bring some toughness to the Flyers who have converted themselves to a softer team recently but $4.2 million for a guy who will get you 20-25 goals and 40-45 points? That’s a bit much

Lang – There are some teams out there that can just never seem to make a smart move or the mvoes they make never work out. One of those teams is the Blackhawks. They made a splash a few years ago signing Khabibulin but he has been a flop. Last year they made a splash trading for and signing Havlat and while he started off great, he got injured as he always does. This year they didn’t make quite the same sized splash signing Lang to a 2 year $8 million contract but the return on investment will be just as bad. Lang’s production has fallen from 79 points in 2003-04 to 62 points in 2005-06 to 52 points last year and at 36 years of age, that is more likely an irreversable trend than not and Lang has never brought much else to the game than his offensive abilities. Lang is done as an effective player in the NHL and the Blackhawks just made another bad move.

Toskala – Trading for Toskala was a smart move by the Leafs, giving an unproven goalie (as a starter) an extension at $4 million per year was not a smart move. I just don’t see the benefit to signing Toskala now to that large contract rather than waiting to see how he does as a starter. Even if Toskala came in played excellent and took over the starting role from Raycroft (as the Leafs hope he will do), it is unlikely that he would command much more than $4 million if they signed him in January but the risk would be dramatically lowered. It just smells Gerberesk.

Hamrlik – It is questionable whether Hamrlik will be worth his $5.5 million salary cap hit next season, but I am almost certain he will not be worth anywhere near that $5.5 million salary cap hit 4 years from now at age 36. From Kovalev to Samsonov and now to Hamrlik, Montreal seems to be good for one bad signing every summer.

LA Kings goaltending – While I think the Kings made some good moves at forward and defense, they failed to address their most pressing need of a top goalie. Until they do so, they will be a mediocre team at best and all but certain to miss the playoffs.

Other questioinable moves: Briere ($$, length of contract). Timonen ($$, length of contract). Sarich ($$). Penner (cost of compensation). Rafalski (length of contrtact), Nylander ($$, length of contract).

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.

Apr 202006
 

Here are my eastern conference predictions. I really hate taking all the favourites but aside from an outside chance of Montreal upsetting Carolina I just can’t see any of the other underdogs winning barring unexpected key injuries.

Just a note: The predictions are my predictions, not my algorithms. I am retiring the algorithm for the season as I don’t think it makes sense to use in the playoffs. I also likely won’t be making predictions on every game since it is really the series that matters. I may post some comments each day on the previous nights results and that nights games but it will depend on how busy I am with other stuff.

Ottawa vs Tampa

Season Series:
October 21: Ottawa 4 at Tampa 1
November 3: Tampa 2 at Ottawa 4
March 6: Ottawa 4 at Tampa 0
March 14: Tampa 3 at Ottawa 4

Ottawa swept the season series and that might be a good indication of what might happen in this playoff series. This is the dream match up for Ottawa as I think Montreal would have given them a much bigger challenge. For both teams the key to the series is goaltending. If Tampa wants any change of winning they need to have Grahame or Burke come up with a several excellent games. Unfortunately for Tampa that hasn’t happened with a whole lot of consistency this year. Grahame has 5 shut outs this year which shows he can be a good goalie but while he can shut out a team one night he can give up 6 goals the next. The key for Ottawa is getting good goaltending from Ray Emery. In March they got excellent goaltending from Emery but in April he was mostly horrible. He apparently has a bit of a hip injury that might be taking away some of this quickness so if I am Tampa I pepper him with as many shots as I can. That will be their only hope to win this series. Prediction: Ottawa in 5.

Carolina vs Montreal

Season Series:
December 31: Montreal 3 at Carolina 5
January 23: Montreal 3 at Carolina 7
January 31: Carolina 8 at Montreal 2
March 15: Carolina 5 at Montreal 1

This is one of those series which I think could definitely end up in an upset despite the fact that Carolina went completely nuts vs Montreal in the regular season out scoring the Canadiens by a 25-9 score in their 4 games. The first 3 of those games has the departed and struggling Jose Theodore in net and the last had David Aebischer. Huet has been the much better goalie and should be the Habs main goalie in the playoffs so that should help. Huet’s outstanding goaltending got the Canadiens into the playoffs and they will only go as far as Huet takes them in the playoffs. For the Hurricanes they key their success will be how Doug Weight and Mark Recchi play. These two guys were traded for to add some depth to the Hurricanes offense, particularly after Erik Cole went down, but they haven’t produced a whole lot up until now. These two veterans need to take some pressure off of Eric Staal to produce all the offense. If they can do that the Hurricanes could go deep into the playoffs. Prediction: Hurricanes in 7

New Jersey vs New York Rangers

Season Series:
October 8: NY Rangers 2 at New Jersey 3 (OT)
October 13: New Jersey 1 at NY Rangers 4
November 3: NY Rangers 4 at New Jersey 2
November 5: New Jersey 2 at NY Rangers 3 (OT)
December 20: New Jersey 3 at NY Rangers 1
January 22: New Jersey 1 at NY Rangers 3
March 4: NY Rangers 1 at New Jersey 2
April 9: NY Rangers 2 at New Jersey 3

This is the only battle amongst division rivals in the first round of the playoffs and it should be fun series to watch. Both teams have good goalies. Both teams have pretty good defences despite not having a bunch of big name players. And both teams have a top line that can score in bunches. In my mind the key to this series will be who can shut down the opposing teams top line the best. Can the Devils keep Jagr to no more than a point a game? Can the Rangers shut down the trio of Gionta, Gomez and Elias all of whom have been awesome in the push for the playoffs? Those are the keys to this series. Prediction: Devils in 6

Buffalo Sabres vs Philadelphia Flyers

Season Series:
December 19: Buffalo 2 at Philadelphia 1 (SO)
February 2: Philadelphia 2 at Buffalo 4
March 11: Buffalo 6 at Philadelphia 5
April 7: Philadelphia 4 at Buffalo 2

I really like Buffalo to win this series. I just think they are a better all round team and I think Buffalo’s speed will give the Flyers defence fits. The only concern one might have for the Sabres is goaltending. Generally Ryan Miller has had a very good rookie season but he struggled a bit in late March and early April. He picked his game up in his last 3 starts of the season so he should have his confidence back. If Miller can give they Sabres good goaltending Buffalo will be a very tough team to beat in the playoffs. There are two keys to the Flyers success. The first is Forsberg’s health. If Forsberg isn’t healthy and playing at his top level the Flyers will struggle to get the offence needed to win. The other key to the Flyers is goaltending. Of course this is nothing new as the Flyers haven’t had top quality goaltending for years and it has never been adequately addressed by GM Bobby Clarke. Goaltending is key in the NHL and if you don’t have it you won’t win and I just don’t think Esche and Niittymaki are good enough to take a team deep into the playoffs though anyone can get hot for a short period of time and win a series.. Prediciton: Buffalo in 6.

Jan 202006
 

I have watched a fair number of Ottawa Senators games this year and I have to say that this is one of the hardest teams to figure out. They started the year out dominating everyone winning most of their games. But since early December they have been much closer to average than dominating.

The image below show the number of points Ottawa (blue) has gained in running 10 game segments (i.e. point 1 is points in games 1-10, point 2 is for 2-11, 3 is 3-12, etc.). For the first half of their schedule up to now they floated around the 16 points in 10 games mark but then quickly dropped to the 12 points in 10 games mark. So which is the real Senators? The 16 point team or the 12 point team? Also shown on the chart is the trend line which is clearly a strong downward trend (and statistically significant).

I’ve also included 2 other top eastern conference teams, Carolina and Philadelphia for comparison sake. Carolina started off very good, then slumped to as low as 9 points in 10 games but has returned to being very good again. Philadelphia has been much more consistent but has struggled significantly in last week or two.

OttawaCarolinaPhiladelphia 10 Game Comparison

Sep 222005
 

With all the player movement since the NHL last played we can’t be sure if all of these lines will be used by the coaches of the teams but here is my list of the best possible first lines teams could use if desired. Be sure to also vote for your top line in the poll in the menu to the left. (poll should be up for several days)

Vancouver Canucks – Markus Naslund-Brendan Morrison-Todd Bertuzzi
While Brendan Morrison is a good player he isn’t really an elite center in the NHL but his wingers are so good and have that perfect mix of talent (Naslund) and toughness (Bertuzzi) that this has to be considered the best line in the NHL.

Atlanta Thrashers – Ilya Kovalchuk-Marc Savard-Marian Hossa
This line is probably the most talented line in the NHL. Kovalchuk might be the most talented young players in the NHL and Hossa is an established big time goal scorer. In the middle is under-appreciated Marc Savard who has found a home in Atlanta. In 2003-04 Savard scored 19 goals and 52 points in just 45 games and should be a more than adequate playmaker for his two big time goal scoring wingers. In terms of pure offensive talent, this line is probably better than Vancouver’s but Bertuzzi’s toughness gives the Canucks line an added dimension and thus the top spot.

Boston Bruins – Sergei Samsonov-Joe Thornton-Glen Murray
Another good mix of skill and size. Joe Thornton is one of the top centers in the league and provides a good mix of size and skill. Glen Murray is a big, strong, goal scoring winger and Samsonov is a flashy and highly skilled skater who should do well under the new rules. This is definitely a line to be feared.

Colorado Avalanche – Alex Tanguay –Joe Sakic-Milan Hejduk
The best line in 2003-04 had to be Tanguay-Forsberg-Hejduk, although that line did suffer some injury problems, particularly with Forsberg. Now that Forsberg has departed Sakic quite likely will step up to play between Tanguay and Hejduk and if he does this line will once again be one of the best in the NHL.

Ottawa Senators – Dany Heatley-Jason Spezza-Daniel Alfredsson
We don’t quite know how new coach Brian Murray will set up his line combinations but this is one possibility. This line has the potential to be ranked higher but as of yet Jason Spezza is a somewhat unproven talent at the NHL level and we don’t quite know if Heatley has or will make a full recovery from his injuries.

Philadelphia Flyers – Simon Gagne-Peter Forsberg-Sami Kapanen
Any line centered by a healthy Peter Forsberg is going to be a good one. Unfortunately Gagne and Kapanen aren’t quite the wingers Forsberg had in Colorado with Hejduk and Tanguay. But they aren’t bad either as Gagne will be the lines goal scorer while Kapanen will provide some solid 2-way play.

Tampa Bay Lightning – Vaclav Prospal-Vincent Lecavalier-Martin St. Louis
Vaclav Prospal returns to Tampa and replaces outgoing Cory Stillman. Tampa has a number of talented forward and a number of different line combinations could be used with Modin and/or Richards also seeing time on the top line. Whatever the combination used Tampa will put out a quality top line. The big question mark is whether St. Louis can repeat his 2003-04 season.

Calgary Flames – Tony Amonte-Daymond Langkow-Jarome Iginla
Clearly the main reason this line makes the list is Iginla. Langkow should be a bit of an improvement over Craig Conroy as Iginla’s centerman. Tony Amonte is an older player who has lost a lot from his 40+ goal days in Chicago but still has good speed and scored 20 goals in Philadelphia in 2003-04. He might do well under the new rules and could score 20-25 goals this season.

After those 8 lines there is a lot to choose from. The Kings potential line of Frolov-Roenick-Demitra looks good and with a healthy Lemieux the Penguins should be able to put out a very good line with Mario and two of Pallfy, Recchi, Leclair and Crosby. Although the Leafs are a little weak at wing either Sundin’s or Allison’s line could potentially provide a nice combination of grit and skill with O’Neill, Tucker or Czerkawski on the wing. If Modano can recover from an off year Dallas could have a strong first line with Guerin and Morrow on the wings and certainly Montreal has some good talent in Koivu, Kovalev, Ribiero and Ryder. Who knows, maybe even Columbus’s potential line of Nash, Marchant and young Zherdev could surprise. There is a lot to choose from.

 Posted by at 7:04 pm
Sep 222005
 

(Also posted at The Devils Advocate)

What they lost: The heart of their offense. Gone are LeClair, Recchi, Amonte, Roenick, and Zhamnov. That’s four future-Hall of Famers gone in one extended offseason. Four of their top five scorers, and five of their top ten are gone. No team in the division was harder hit on offense than the Flyers.

What they gained: Peter Forsberg, one of the all-time great talents in the game, has come back to Philly. Unfortunately for the Flyers, he isn’t the same player he was when they originally gave him up for Eric Lindros. Forsberg still has the talent to win the Hart trophy, but he averages less games played than the Big E over the past five years. Mike Knuble will be a great fit in Philly with size and a scoring touch, and Turner Stevenson will toughen up the offense. Philly also picked up a huge trio on defense… Chris Therien, Mike Rathje, and Derian Hatcher. This is a gamble on GM Bobby Clarke’s part. With added emphasis on speed and puck-movement in this new NHL, big guys like these could get left behind and prove to be a weakness. We’ll have to wait and see if size-over-skill pays off on D for Philly. One way or another, Hatcher is a great pickup for the team. He was captain for coach Ken Hitchcock when they won the Cup together in Dallas in ’99, and you can’t underestimate player/coach chemistry like that.

Staying at home: Captain Keith Primeau is still there, and that is great news for Philly. With Mark Messier and Scott Stevens retiring, that leaves Primeau as the most tenacious captain in the division. Simon Gagne will be expected to step up his offensive game this season big time. Robert Esche and Antero Nittymaki will probably end up in the middle of a goalie controversy at some point this season, and I believe Nittymaki is the better of the two. Jeff Carter and Mike Richards are stepping up from the AHL champ Phantoms and right into important roles in the Flyers offense. Michael Handzus is the only remaining player from the Flyers top five scorers from last season.

Bottom line: The Flyers lost 99 of the 229 goals they scored last season by letting their big four forwards go, and are replacing them with two rookies and three forwards who combined for 53 goals last season. Philadelphia’s hockey team has been cursed in two areas for the past decade: injuries and goaltending, and those fortunes don’t seem to be changing just yet. They go into training camp without Forsberg, Hatcher, and Kapanen because of injuries. Esche won’t last the whole season as starter and Nittymaki will take over around the Olympic break. Lack of consistency up front, speed on the blue line, and steadiness in net will leave them in 3rd in the division. If they are healthy come playoff time, they will be a legitimate threat for the Cup.

 Posted by at 7:21 am