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).

Apr 102007
 

When writing up these first round matchups I realized that not one of them features a divisional rivalry. I am too lazy to check but I am not sure that has ever happened before. Anyway, here are my eastern conference predictions.

NY Islanders at Buffalo

NY Islanders (road) Buffalo (home)
Predicted Winner Buffalo (Good)
Fair Odds +137 -159
Overall Record 40-30-12 53-22-7
Home/Road Record 18-17-6 28-10-3
Last 10 Games 6-3-1 7-3-0
Past Games
  • 2006/10/26: Buffalo 3 at NY Islanders 0
  • 2007/01/01: NY Islanders 1 at Buffalo 3
  • 2007/01/27: Buffalo 3 at NY Islanders 5
  • 2007/03/30: NY Islanders 4 at Buffalo 6

Through some gritty play, some surprise goaltending and some luck the Islanders managed to find their way into the playoffs but unfortunately for them in the first round they are going to play the best team in the east just as they are getting healthy for the first time in a long time. In other words, it is going to be real tough for the Islanders to move on to the next round. That said, if Dubielewicz can provide quality goaltending like he has the past week I think the Islanders could steal a few games. The Islanders may not have any superstars on their team but they have some very good, hard working players like Blake, Smyth, Hunter, Witt, Hill, etc. and should make the Sabres work for their wins. But in the end, the Sabres have by far the better talent, depth and probably goaltending.
My Prediction: Sabres in 6

Tampa Bay at New Jersey

Tampa Bay (road) New Jersey (home)
Predicted Winner New Jersey (Good)
Fair Odds +129 -140
Overall Record 44-33-5 49-24-9
Home/Road Record 22-15-4 25-10-6
Last 10 Games 5-4-1 6-3-1
Past Games
  • 2007/01/18: Tampa Bay 3 at New Jersey 2 (SO)
  • 2007/01/26: New Jersey 2 at Tampa Bay 0
  • 2007/02/11: Tampa Bay 4 at New Jersey 1
  • 2007/03/22: New Jersey 1 at Tampa Bay 3

Those who read my blog will know that I do not think that Tampa is a very good team. Tampa is really just a 4 player team of Lecavalier, St. Louis, Richards and Boyle. Their goaltending is weak, they don’t have a lot of quality depth and if it werent for their shootout play they wouldn’t have been close to making the playoffs. All that said, Tampa has beaten the Devils 3 times this year including both games in New Jersey (one by a shootout) so who knows, maybe they have a chance. Plus, I am not completely sold on the Devils either. But even so, I think between Brodeur and their defensive oriented game the Devils play they will shut down Tampa’s big 3 forwards and New Jersey will get enough offense to put away the Lightning fairly easily.
My Prediction: New Jersey in 5

NY Rangers at Atlanta

NY Rangers (road) Atlanta (home)
Predicted Winner Atlanta (Some)
Fair Odds +121 -127
Overall Record 42-30-10 43-28-11
Home/Road Record 21-15-5 23-12-6
Last 10 Games 7-2-1 6-3-1
Past Games
  • 2006/11/10: NY Rangers 5 at Atlanta 2
  • 2006/11/28: Atlanta 5 at NY Rangers 4 (OT)
  • 2007/01/20: Atlanta 3 at NY Rangers 1
  • 2007/03/16: NY Rangers 1 at Atlanta 2 (OT)

This is a real interesting series between two fairly similar clubs. Both teams are using second year goalies (Lundqvist, Lehtonen) with real promising careers ahead of them. Both teams rely heavily on 4 forwards (Jagr, Straka, Nylander, Shanahan vs Hossa, Kozlov, Kovalchuk and Tkachuk) for offense with 3 of them being European and both teams have decent, though relatively anonymous group of defensemen. The Rangers have a super pest in Sean Avery and the Thrashers have gritty veteren forward Scott Mellanby. For the Rangers I really like that Lundqvist is going into the playoffs playing the best hockey of his season if not his young career and that might be the difference. But I also think that the Thrashers have a little more experience and leadership with guys like Mellanby, Holik, Rucchin, DeVries as well as coach Hartley and that bodes well for the Thrashers. This should be an exciting and long playoff series but in the end I’ll go with the team with home ice advantage.
My Prediction: Thrashers in 7

Pittsburgh at Ottawa

Pittsburgh (road) Ottawa (home)
Predicted Winner Ottawa (Good)
Fair Odds +129 -140
Overall Record 47-24-11 48-25-9
Home/Road Record 21-14-6 25-13-3
Last 10 Games 6-3-1 6-2-2
Past Games
  • 2006/11/10: Ottawa 6 at Pittsburgh 3
  • 2007/03/06: Pittsburgh 5 at Ottawa 4 (SO)
  • 2007/03/18: Ottawa 3 at Pittsburgh 4 (SO)
  • 2007/04/05: Pittsburgh 3 at Ottawa 2

In some ways this is kind of like the San Jose-Nashville series in the west where both teams are quality offensive teams but both teams have their question marks. For Nashville it was their small, soft players and for San Jose it was relying heavily on a couple of young defensemen. In this series it is lack of leadership and grit for the Senators along with carrying the heavy burden of numerous playoff failures in the past. For Pittsburgh it is depending heavily on 3 forwards aged 20 and under a 22 year old goalie and a second year defenseman in Ryan Whitney. I normally would not want to pick a team with that much youth but Crosby and Malkin are rare talents that might be the exception to the rule and Ottawa isn’t exactly a veteren laden, playoff hardened team. Ottawa has their own 21 year old defenseman, a 24 year old second year goalie, and a 23 year old number one center and most of the rest of their team just 25-26 years of age. But what I think will be the difference in this series is the veteren leadership that the Penguins have that the Senators don’t. Between Roberts and Recchi the Penguins might have the two best playoff experienced leaders in the game. Recchi has a pair of Stanley Cups and 135 games of playoff experience. Roberts has a Stanley Cup and 114 games of NHL experience. Ottawa doesn’t have an equivalent and if those two guys can keep Pittsburgh’s young players focused and confident I like Pittsburgh’s chances in this series. Before I make my prediction I will add that it will be critically important for both teams to stay out of the penalty box as both teams have the ability to be especially devastating on the power play.
My Prediction: Pittsburgh in 6

Jan 032007
 

One of my least favourite hockey announcers (Pierre McGuire) was on the Team 1200 radio station here in Ottawa this morning like he is every morning. Even though I don’t like him, I often listen to him to see what other rediculous thing he is going to say. Today the discussion turned to Sidney Crosby and McGuire inidicated he thought Crosby was the best player in the NHL because he makes the players around him better. You could certainly argue that Crosby is the most talented player in the NHL, but to claim he makes the players around him better is what I have a dispute with.

When I heard McGuire’s comment I immediately asked myself, who on the Penguins has Crosby made significantly better? Who on the Penguins is having a sigificantly better season this year than expected or than he has in the past? I am not sure there is anyone. Mark Recchi has 33 points in 38 games, but that is no better than he produced last year in Pittsburgh (57p in 63g), or the season before in Philadelphia (75p in 82g). Sergei Gonchar has 29 points in 38 games which is right on last years pace of 58 in 75 games which is on par with Gonchar’s pre-lockout numbers (a time when scoring was lower). The only other Penguin with more than 25 points is Evgeni Malkin. Now, one could argue that Crosby has significantly helped Malkin produce his 37 points in 34 games but is that the case? We don’t really know what we should have expected from Malkin because it is his first year in the NHL so maybe he is better than he would be if not for Crosby. But, Malkin was an elite prospect close to if not on the same level as Crosby and Ovechkin were last season so it probably was safe to assume that he could be a point per game player. On top of that, in the 3 games that Crosby missed, Malkin had 3 goals and an assist so Crosby wasn’t exactly missed.

Pierre McGuire often compares Crosby to Peter Forsberg, but Forsberg has a proven track record of making the players around him better. Prior to last year Simon Gagne had never scored more than 33 goals and 66 points but playing with Forsberg last season he totaled 47 goals, 79 points in just 72 games (7 fewer than his 33g, 66p season). When Forsberg wasn’t in the lineup last year, Gagne’s stats were very mediocre. Forsberg makes the players around him better. As does Jaromir Jagr (look what Straka and Nylander are doing this year), and Joe Thornton (look what he did for Cheechoo last year). This is what made Gretzky and Lemieux so great as well. Wayne Gretzky made Bernie Nicholls a 70 goal, 150 point player and just compare Alexei Kovalev’s numbers when he played with Lemieux and when he didn’t and you will see what greatness Lemieux brought to the game.

There is no doubt that Crosby is an exceptional talent but it is my opinion that he is not yet an elite player as he has not yet fully learned how to make the players around him better and his team a winner. And I do believe this to be a learned skill. Last night we saw the retirement of Steve Yzerman’s jersey in Detroit. Steve Yzerman will be remembered as an elite player in the NHL. He is 6th on the all-time points list, 7th on the all time assists list and 8th on the all time goal scoring list. He led his team to 3 Stanley Cups and Team Canada to an Olympic gold medal (on a wonky leg too). And only 2 other players (Gretzky and Lemieux) have total more points in a season than Yzerman’s 155 in 1988-89. But dispite all his point production and personal success there was some serious doubt in Detroit whether Yzerman was capable of leading the Red Wings to Stanley Cup success and there were often trade rumours surrounging him. But over time he learned to be a leader and learned how to make the players around him and his team as a whole better and last night when his Jersey was retired he was remembered as one of the great leaders the game has seen. Over the course of Yzerman’s career, he learned to become a leader and a true super star of the game.

So, while Crosby is a great talent, he has not yet learned to be a great leader. And because of that, he is not yet, in my mind, deserving of the league MVP (though I expect he’ll likely win it). More deserving are guys like Jaromir Jagr, Joe Thorton, Joe Sakic, Scott Niedermayer, and others who make the players they play with and their team better.

Jan 082006
 

There are a lot of reasons why Crosby should be considered a top rookie of the year candidate. And deservingly so. He is having a very good year. But in my mind there is one thing that he does that should automatically eliminate him from contention and it was seen once again in last nights game against the Atlanta Thrashers. I’m not talking about him losing his cool and taking a retaliation slashing penalty, I’m talking about him taking a diving penalty. In my mind, diving is as unsportsmanlike as you can get almost on par with straight out cheating. The worst thing that could ever happen in the NHL is to have it’s superstars become super divers. It would be disasterous for growing the game in the United States and would probably be disasterous for the game even in Canada. Last night may have been Crosby’s first diving penalty but it isn’t the first time he has been accused of diving. The Flyers have accused Crosby of diving as has Don Cherry and as have I. He’s a diver and Mario Lemieux needs to pull him to the side and tell him that diving is not acceptable in the NHL and especially on his team. Diving has to be stopped and if I were a voter I would not reward a diver with the rookie of the year trophy.

Oct 072005
 

The season started with a bang in New Jersey last night. Sidney Crosby got his first taste of NHL action, the new look Pittsburgh offense made it’s debut, and New Jersey’s new defense was showcased as well. Here’s what I thought of the game:

Pittsburgh:
This team can put some pressure on the net! The first half of the first period was spent on the Pittsburgh powerplay, and the puck rarely came out of the zone. Mario was his usual patient, all-seeing, brilliant self. Sidney, in his first NHL game, was surprisingly composed and alert. If any other goaltender in the world was in net, he would have had at least two goals. He did manage to finish the night with an assist on the Pens lone goal, but on this night his former high school teammate, Zach Parise of the Devils, would be the more impressive rookie.

Goaltending looked like an issue for Pittsburgh. Thibault was just average in net… he never seemed to settle down. Maybe it was opening night jitters, or maybe he was nervous because he was playing for a new team, but he didn’t look very good. His performance makes me wonder what Eddie Olzcyk plans on doing with Marc-Andre Fleury.

New Jersey:
This team definitely is not the Devils of old. The absense of Stevens and Niedermayer was glaringly obvious. Matvichuk struggled to finish hits… Crosby slithered away from him a few times. McGillis was absolutely atrocious on the point during powerplays. But the bright spots for this crew are their puck-movers. Rafalski looks like captain material out there… his presence is dominant, especially considering his diminutive stature (5’9″, 191 lbs.). Malakhov, although slow on his feet, looked better than ever with the puck. Paul Martin continues to grow in his game and will one day be a top defenseman.

To anyone who watched the game, the star was obvious. Marty Brodeur stood on his head and made the Penguins shake theirs on too many occasions to count. Also, with the two-line pass rule gone, he set up his teammates several times with tape-to-tape passes that some NHL defensemen aren’t even capable of making. If he continues to play like this, the Devils are a very legitimate threat for the Stanley Cup.

Finally, there was one more big difference between the new Devils and the old Devils… they didn’t sit on their lead. In seasons past, the Devs used to trap their way to victory whenever they’d get an early lead. This team, however, under Larry Robinson’s guidance was aggressive to the end. Their five-goal output was evidence of this.

I did get to see bits and pieces of other games, thanks to the Center Ice digital cable package. I remember turning on the Leafs-Senators game and being amazed by the flow. The teams seemed to go back and forth nonstop creating big plays and opportunities at every turn… very exciting game. The Rangers victory over the Flyers took a lot of people by surprise. It seemed to me that the Rangers were outworking the Flyers down low… something New York hasn’t been known for since the mid-90s. Forsberg was great, though, and as soon as Hatcher comes back Philly should be OK.

The general impression I got was that teams are still struggling with the new penalties. I hope referees start calling diving more often because I saw a lot of innocent players sent to the box as the result of Oscar-worthy acting performances. I also saw a lot of two-line passing. That one new rule is having a major impact on the game and I, for one, am happy to see it. The new goalie restrictions on where the puck can be played just seemed silly. Skilled goalies just retrieve the puck before it crosses the goal line, and stay-at-home netminders just continue to play the puck the way they always have. Hopefully this rule will have a shorter life span than the ill-fated crease rule.

 Posted by at 9:18 am
Sep 292005
 

Pittsburgh Penguins: The only direction they could really go was up, but they have gone up by quite a large margin. They haven’t really lost any significant players but have added Sergei Gonchar, Mark Recchi, John Leclair, Zigmund Palffy, Jocelyn Thibault and of course Sidney Crosby. Due to their weak defense I am still not convinced that they are a playoff team, especially if Lemieux can’t play a full season, but they are much improved and will no longer be pushovers. They will be dramatically better and could jump to the 80-90 point range.

Atlanta Thrashers: I like what the Atlanta Thrashers have done and I really see big things for this team in the next couple years, if not this year. Gone is Dany Heatley and some mostly ‘depth’ type players but coming to Atlanta is Marian Hossa, Bobby Holik, Niclas Havelid, Greg de Vries and Peter Bondra. But most importantly is rookie goalie Kari Lehtonen who should provide vastly improved goaltending over 2003-04 when Atlanta had one of the worst goaltending in the NHL. They need to get Ilya Kovalchuk signed though.

Chicago Blackhawks: Like the Penguins, there wasn’t really any direction other than up that they could go. The biggest move was adding Khabibulin in net which will be a big improvement over the sub-par goaltending they got in 2003-04. They also added Mathieu Barnaby, Cutis Brown, Martin Lapointe, Adrian Aucoin, Jaroslav Spacek and a few other role players. They will be much better but like the Penguins, a playoff spot playoff spot is still no guarantee but unlike the east, the west is wide open so they have a chance.

Los Angeles Kings: The only players of significance they lost is Zigmund Palffy and Martin Strake but they have added Pavol Demitra, Craig Conroy, Jeremy Roenick, Valeri Bure and goalie Mathieu Garon. Also rookie Mike Cammelleri is ready for prime time after an excellent AHL season in 2004-05 and Alexander Frolov should be ready for a 30+ goal season.

Edmonton Oilers: They added one of the top 3 defensemen in the league in Chris Pronger and that alone should improve them. They also added forward Michael Peca whose gritty physical play should be a welcome addition to the Oilers forwards who are generally more skilled than gritty. They will be better but due to questionable goaltending and a weak set of centermen a playoff spot is anything but guarateed.

Other improved teams: Calgary Flames, Florida Panthers. Possibly Philadelphia if they can stay healthy and the rookies play well. Possibly Ottawa (in the playoffs) if Hasek can be the Hasek of old.

 Posted by at 2:27 am
Sep 282005
 

(Also posted at The Devils Advocate)

What they lost: The stigma of being a losing team. The only players they lost are Kris Beech, Matt Bradley, Michal Roszival, and J.G. Aubin. Hardly the kind of players who would be considered monumental losses.

What they gained: Hope… and a ton of it. The most notable addition to this team is Sidney Crosby. While it remains to be seen just how much of an impact he will have on the ice, it is hard to imagine this kid being a flop. The future of the NHL is a Penguin. Aside from him, Pittsburgh has completely re-tooled their team. Adding firepower are Mark Recchi, John LeClair, and Ziggy Palffy. Recchi is a leader and a terrific playoff performer. LeClair’s physical brand of hockey has taken a toll on his body, but he will be influential nonetheless. Ziggy Palffy has always been among my favorite players, right from his days with the Islanders. On defense, Pitt has added the offensive-minded Sergei Gonchar and the defensive stalwart Lyle Odelein. Providing a veteran presence in net will be Jocelyn Thibault.

Staying at home: This is Mario’s team, and he’s lacing up the skates for one more run at the Cup. Most of the other players returning are top draft picks from years past. Ryan Malone and Marc-Andre Fleury headline this group. These guys have had to wait an additional year to make a bang in the NHL… look for them to explode.

Bottom line: The Penguins will win the Atlantic. They’ll be the Cinderella story of the year. With new rules that will only make Mario’s curtain call an easier one, he will be among the league leaders in all offensive categories. This season, Crosby may not be the dominant scorer that he will one day become, but he will be very good. I can’t think of a team in the entire NHL that has done as much to improve their roster as the Pens. If Fleury isn’t spectacular in net, Thibault is right behind him and more than capable of carrying the starting load. Their mix of stunningly promising young talent and grizzly seasoned vets make this team dangerous. A dynasty could be born, or at least conceived, this season.

 Posted by at 2:43 am