Sep 062008
 

If there’s anything John Tortorella knows how to do, it’s to speak his mind. The former Tampa Bay coach had choice words for his former employers:

“You got a couple of cowboys in there as owners. You finish 30th in the National Hockey League, I was there for seven years, I know it’s coming as a coach, and it probably should come to a coach if you finish 30th. But how it all goes about and how you treat your people and run your business is very important in this league. I look at the club and how some things have been done and how they treated Danny Boyle and really lying to the kid, and some of the other things that have gone on there, it’s a total different team. Do I think the team needed to be blown up for it to get back to competing? No, I don’t.

There still are some good players there. But new owners come in and they try to reinvent the wheel. I’m anxious to see what happens. I don’t wish anything bad on them. I have a lot of loyalty to the players who are still there and people who work in the office. But as far as the two cowboys that went in there and bought that team, I have zero respect for them.”

Tortorella further elaborates on Dan Boyle:

“I knew that was going to happen… during the trading deadline where myself, Jay Feaster and all the administration of that team were locked in the room with owners that were still in the process of trying to buy the team. It turned ugly in there because of some of the thoughts they had, and they still hadn’t even dropped a penny on the club. I sat across from Lennie Barrie and Lennie Barrie started talking to me about Dan Boyle when he played with him seven, eight years ago in Florida, which makes no sense to me because I think after seven or eight years a guy may mature and improve his game. I begged them to sign Danny Boyle. If you’re going to trade Brad Richards at the deadline, which we shouldn’t have done at that point in time, and then let Danny Boyle just go, what do you think Vinny and Marty (St. Louis) are going to think about there the next year starts? They grudgingly decided to sign him but I knew once they signed all these forwards during the summer, during the free agency, (he) was going to go.”

It’s hard not to agree with Tortorella’s points. His departure left a sour taste in his mouth, as did former GM Jay Feaster, who realized that he was quickly being pushed aside, and Boyle, who was expecting to stay a Lightning for the next 5 years.

Len Barrie and Oren Koules‘ activity this summer has been perplexing, electing to grab as many free agent forwards as they could get their hands on, while neglecting a young defensive corps and big question marks in net. Management, led by former player agent Brian Lawton as head of hockey operations, created a severe logjam up front, and Jussi Jokinen and Michel Ouellet still haven’t been moved yet. The Bolts led the free agency charge but didn’t quite address all of their weaknesses.

Barrie was not one to back down from the war of words, and concluded with this:

“What were there, nine openings for coaches? That’s why he’s working for TV. I’ll be sure I wear my cowboy hat for the first game.”

Also, Barrie proudly stated that the Bolts would win the Southeast.

Aug 302008
 

So the Lightning were in fact seriously interested in Andrej Meszaros, and they got what they wanted, once again. The young blueliner was unable to come to terms on a contract with the Sens, after asking for roughly $1m/year higher than what Bryan Murray was willing to give. In exchange, the Sens will receive two blueliners, Filip Kuba and Alex Picard, as well as the first round pick acquired from San Jose in the Dan Boyle trade.

This is not a sign-and-trade deal, meaning that the Lightning will have to negotiate with Meszaros on a new contract, although that should not be a big stumbling block. Sources say that the Lightning will have a six-year, $24m offer on the table, an average of $4m against the cap per year. The Bolts, after shedding Kuba and Picard’s salaries, will be adding a paltry $0.2m to their salaries. The Sens take on $3.8m in the swap.

TSN’s poll shows that, at first glance, 63% of voters believed that the Sens walked away with the better deal, and I agree. Meszaros is a young defenseman with tons of upside, but so is Picard, and Kuba is no slouch either, averaging almost 25 minutes a game while posting 30+ points for the second straight year. Added to the Bolts’ package is a first round pick, which will undoubtedly be a late one, but in a deep draft year the Sens will happily take it. For roughly the same price, the Sens added some depth to their blueline without sacrificing their top two defensemen, any forwards, and/or youth. The Bolts, however, despite claims from Oren Koules that they’re looking to add more veterans and depth to their blueline, traded away one of their oldest players and a young prospect for a player who is coming off a difficult sophomore season, also shortening their depth chart by one player. Again, a bit of a perplexing move by the Bolts, who have still yet to address their problems at forward.

Aug 282008
 

A month ago both sides seem to be optimistic about a new deal. Now that training camp is fast approaching and Joe Sakic has re-signed (rejoice, hockey fans), Andrej Meszaros and the Sens seem to be drifting further and further apart. Despite claims from both sides in earlier months that a contract extension was near, it seems as though that may be quite contrary to the truth. The young rearguard, who is coming off a rather disappointing sophomore campaign after a marvelous rookie one, is asking for around $4.5m/year, while the Sens remain adamant that $3.5m/year is a much fairer number.

Should the Sens give in to Meszaros’ asking price, it would make him the Sens’ highest paid defenseman – fellow teammates Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov are playing for at least half their open market value. The length of the deal is apparently not a concern to Meszaros, but money is. Bryan Murray claims that he has offered the Meszaros camp contract offers ranging from one to five years, but has not heard much feedback, possibly because Meszaros is refusing to take into consideration any offer that isn’t near his asking price.

Meszaros is still currently a RFA and subject to offer sheets. While Murray won’t pony up $4.5m/year, you can bet that there are teams out there that will pay up for the former WHL standout, and force Murray’s hand. Should Murray lose Meszaros, he has stated that he will not be replacing him via trade of free agency, but will instead promote from within, which is great news for Lawrence Nycholat, Matt Kinch, and Matt Carkner, all three coming off good seasons with Binghamton, Ottawa’s AHL affiliate.

Either way, expect a flurry of moves after Mats Sundin makes his decision and Mathieu Schneider (which Murray claims he has little interest in) is moved.

EDIT: THN reports that a rival team has made an offer sheet to Meszaros for $5m/year, but Murray has denied any knowledge of such a thing and the Ottawa Sun claims that two league sources have denied it as well. The rumoured offer sheet was apparently made by Tampa, but that’s impossible. If the Lightning did make the offer sheet, they’d be subject to be give up their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round picks. Under the CBA, all picks must be the team’s original picks – meaning that Tampa cannot substitute any of those picks with picks they’ve acquired from other teams. The Lightning’s original 3rd round pick is owned by Pittsburgh, who acquired it in the Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts trade.

Aug 212008
 

Bryan McCabe‘s move to the sunshine state is generating a lot of buzz lately, and the Palm Beach Post has suggested that McCabe’s acquisition is Jacques Martin‘s way of saying “we’re serious about winning” in the hopes that Jay Bouwmeester would bite.

I say that’s wishful thinking, Jacques. I say the only way they can get Bouwmeester to stay is if they reach the playoffs and put up a fight in the first round, but the former seems unlikely already. While McCabe is a huge step up over Mike Van Ryn, who is rumoured to be going the other way, he’s not exactly a guy that can just turn around the fortunes of an underachieving team. The Panthers still have a shoddy offense and have yet to replace Olli Jokinen, and even with McCabe’s offensive abilities they’re still lacking bite.

On a semi-related topic, the Panthers are one of 8 teams who still have not named a captain, and James Mirtle has brought up some names.

For the record, I don’t think anyone on the Thrashers, Panthers, Kings, Leafs, or Canucks roster is captain material, but if I had to pick it’d be Ilya Kovalchuk, Nathan Horton, Dustin Brown, Tomas Kaberle, and Willie Mitchell, respectively. But my picks were Chris Drury for the Rangers, Mike Richards for Philadelphia, and Vincent Lecavalier for Tampa.

Aug 172008
 

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

Again, I’m going to have to disagree with THN over this. If the Pens had managed to keep Ryan Malone and/or Marian Hossa I’d be inclined to agree that they would finish atop their division, but they won’t. When you potentially have Miroslav Satan as your top scoring winger you’re not going to go anywhere fast. The rest of the team remains largely the same.

I have a hard time believing the Sens will finish ahead of the Rangers and Devils. Despite the fact that Wade Redden‘s game is in decline, losing him will hurt because they didn’t replace him. The Sens are still looking for ways to fill out the rest of their roster, but like so many other teams in the East, goaltending is their primary concern. If Martin Gerber doesn’t hold up, they’re slightly above average at best by virtue of their incredible top line.

The Bruins are going to make some noise this year, especially with a completely healed Patrice Bergeron. Michael Ryder will head into camp as the favourite to land the first line right winger slot, and considering the success Claude Julien had with Ryder, along with an elite playmaking centre in Marc Savard, he could be a very nice surprise. Once again, however, they head into training camp with a 1A-1B tandem of fan favourite Tim Thomas and the disgruntled Manny Fernandez.

The East is much more clear cut than the West because so many teams have holes. The Habs, arguably the best team in the East, also has a shaky goaltending situation considering how Carey Price fell apart last year. These goaltending problems also plague at least 3 of the playoff teams listed. It’ll be interesting to see how this season plays out – a lot of teams have areas to improve, and considering the mass exodus of players from the East heading West, this year could be rather different.

Aug 132008
 

Despite the fact that the Lightning defense still seems a little suspect, boasting little veteran presence or even a big name, Oren Koules maintains that he is satisfied with his current defensive corps. The Lightning still have to get under the cap enough to ensure that they can accommodate Steven Stamkos‘ cap hit, which would be 3.75 should he reach all performance bonuses. Remember that this upcoming season is the last year of the current CBA agreement, and that there will be no performance cushions. Nashville, as noted in the article, remains a very enticing trading partner, with 13 draft picks in 2009 and a plethora of young talent on their blueline. A trade makes sense for both teams, as JP Dumont has voiced his opinion that the Preds need more bite. Jussi Jokinen, who will be replaced by Vaclav Prospal on the top line, Michel Ouellet, and Jason Ward remain their biggest trading chips. The Lightning enter next season as a Southeast Division contender once again, although it remains to be seen if a young defensive corps and Mike Smith will hold up. David has a more in-depth look at the Lightning’s roster here.

Mark Parrish apparently is the Canucks’ answer should they fail to land Mats Sundin. Folks at TSN are calling it Mike Gillis‘ “Plan B,” although it should be more like “Plan D,” considering the discrepancy between Parrish and Sundin. As the Sundin saga dragged along (it’s now rumoured that he is leaning towards retirement, if only anyone knows what means nowadays), it was clear that the Canucks had no answer should Sundin not sign. Gillis maintains that he has been talking trade with several teams regarding one or two defenseman on his team, but I would think that he would like to keep his defense intact. When Parrish was bought out, he was immediately linked to Vancouver and Nashville, two western teams that have had plenty of looks at the big forward. Both teams were in similar situations and needed to get bigger and better offensively. A lot of fans in Vancouver aren’t very happy with how things have gone this summer, after all, Gillis had promised sweeping changes and a drastically different team with offense as its number one priority. So far, the only sweeping changes have come upstairs and the team remains arguably as potent offensively as it was last year, which is to say, still not very potent. Should Parrish find himself in Vancouver he will get looks on the top line with Henrik and Daniel Sedin, but for now Steve Bernier seems to be the favourite going into camp. It’s tough to gauge what sort of money Parrish will get, but I would be very surprised if it is anything over a year.

Aug 132008
 

Last season the Tampa Bay Lightning fell apart at the seams and had a downright awful year which led to the trading of two of their top players and a significant overhaul of their roster. At the trade deadline Brad Richards was traded to the Dallas Stars for Mike Smith, Jeff Halpern and Jussi Jokinen. This summer, under a new ownership group, we saw top defenseman Dan Boyle traded to the San Jose Sharks with Brad Lukowich for Matt Carle, a prospect and a couple draft picks. The Lightning also managed to sign a number of free agents including Ryan Malone, Radim Vrbata, Vaclav Prospal, Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts, Evgeny Artyukin, Adam Hall and Olaf Kolzig. Maybe their biggest addition of the summer is the drafting of Steve Stamkos who they hope will be a star in the NHL for the next 15+ years.

The goal of all these moves is to become this years version of last years Philadelphia Flyers who made a major jump from last in the NHL to a conference finals appearance. There is no doubt that the Lightning have made some bold moves, but are they ready to contend for an Eastern Conference Championship? I am not so sure.

Let’s take a look at a projected Lightning lineup.

Forwards
Prospal-Lecavalier-St. Louis
Malone-Stamkos-Vrbata
Jokinen-Gratton-Ouellet
Roberts-Craig-Recchi
Extras: Hall,Tarnasky,Artyukhin

Defense
Ranger-Carle
O’Brien-Kuba
Lundin-Picard
Extras: Hutchinson, Smaby, Wishart

Goal
Mike Smith, Olaf Kolzig, Kari Ramo

The top line of Prospal, Lecavalier and St. Louis stays intact from last season (before Prospal was traded at the deadline) and has proven itself to be one of the better top lines in the league. The second line is a mix of a couple of free agent signings and first overall draft pick Steve Stamkos. It is really difficult to figure out how well this line might come together but they have the ability to be a very solid second line as well. But as good as the top 2 lines are offensively, one might question whether they have the defensive awareness of other top lines (particularly Detroit’s top line of Zetterberg-Datsyuk-Holmstrom). Beyond the top 2 lines they have some good depth with a mix of skill, experience and leadership. All things considered the Lightning have assembled what could be (if they come together in the right way) one of the better groups of forwards in the league.

But that brings us to two potential sore spots. Defense and goaltending. With the departure of Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich, Filip Kuba and Andrew Hutchinson (who played all of last year in the AHL) are their only defensemen over the age of 25. That is going to put a lot of pressure on Paul Ranger, Matt Carle and Shane O’Brien. All three of those guys have a variety of positive attributes but one has to wonder if any of the three are ready to lead a team to a long playoff run.

Often the best counter to a young defense is to offset it with top tier goaltending. Problem is, I don’t think the Lightning have that either. Key to their hopes is Mike Smith, acquired from Dallas as the key component in the Brad Richards trade. Unfortunately Mike Smith has just 57 games of NHL experience with decent but certainly not near the top of the league .905 save %. Management brought in veteran Olaf Kolzig to help Smith out but in 54 games with the Capitals last year Kolzig looked mediocre at best with a 0.892 save %. One has to wonder if Kolzig has another year left in him or whether he would have been better off retiring.

To summarize, the Lightning should be able to score a lot of goals, particularly if Stamkos can have a solid rookie season. Unfortunately they will also likely give up a lot of goals which will limit how much success they will have. Poor defensive teams sometimes make the playoffs but rarely go deep into the playoffs. In a weak southeast division the Lightning are almost a lock to make the playoffs but I would be surprised if they managed to make much of a playoff run. Their defense and goaltending just aren’t ready for that yet.

Aug 122008
 

The NHL just recently released their preseason schedule, and you can see the entire list here. A couple things that are sticking points…

- I like the fact that instead of having regular season games in Europe they’re playing preseason games, and against European clubs, no less. The games mean less to them and their jetlag will be overcome by Opening Night. Following in David Stern‘s footsteps (surprise), Gary Bettman has decided to try and market the NHL game globally, even though a large number of current NHLers are not from North America, unlike the NBA, which averages about 1-2 Europeans per team. Some even have none. While I think playing preseason games elsewhere in the world is a great idea which will perhaps build popularity and overseas interest (much like basketball and baseball), I sincerely hope Bettman doesn’t even remotely consider establishing franchises in Europe as Paul Godfrey once idiotically suggested on OTR.

- This will perhaps be the first time we get a better sense of how good the other European clubs are, playing against NHL teams. Back when the all-star game featured NHL all-stars against the Russian national teams, it wasn’t pretty. The KHL (formerly RSL) has always contended that their teams were as good, if not better, than some teams in the NHL. We will know soon enough on October 1 when the Rangers face Metallurg Magnitogorsk in Bern. The Lightning will face the DEL’s Eisbaren Berlin, the reigning league champs, while the Sens will face off against the SEL’s Vastra Frolunda and the Pens against the FNL’s Jokerit Helsinki.

- A lot of games will be played in cities that do not feature a NHL team, but perhaps future potential franchise expansion or re-location destinations, including Halifax, Kansas City, Winnipeg, London, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas at the storied MGM Grand. There’s little doubt in anyone’s minds that the Halifax, Winnipeg, and London games will be jam-packed, but what of Salt Lake, Kansas and Vegas? You can bet that Bettman will be on hand to personally oversee the games, as it features three very real destinations for expansion or re-location. Should the games create a lot of buzz and sell-out well in advance (I don’t think it will), you can bet that Bettman will bring up expansion once more. It’s very interesting to note that no games will be played in Hamilton. A shot at Jim Balsillie? Maybe.

- The most idiotic game? The Kings against the Sharks in Utah on a Sunday. If Bettman has forgotten, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (more commonly known as Mormons), is the predominant religion of Utah, and its followers account for roughly 60% of the state’s population. The ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies averages a little under 4000 fans per game in a 10 100 seat capacity arena. Taking a quick peek at their upcoming schedule, the Grizzlies don’t have a single Sunday home game until March. I think they’ll have quite a hard time filling the stands.

Aug 102008
 

For Garth Snow and the Islanders, their search for a new head coach to replace Ted Nolan has come down to three candidates: Bob Hartley, Paul Maurice, or the AHL’s Scott Gordon.

Hartley’s NHL coaching career started in 1998 in Colorado, whose strong QMJHL and AHL records had caught the eye of then-GM Pierre Lacroix. He enjoyed 4 very successful years in Denver, including a 52-16-10-4 record and a Stanley Cup win in 2001. He was fired the following season in 2002 after a slow start, and joined the Thrashers a month later. Although he had gone from a perennial contender to a basement dweller, it didn’t stop Hartley from winning. In 2007, the Thrashers set a franchise record with 41 wins and their first ever playoff birth. But once again, despite his success the previous season, his Thrashers were off to a cold start and he was fired by Don Waddell after going pointless in six straight games. Despite all this success, depending on who you ask, Hartley isn’t exactly an angel. In 2005, against the Lightning, Thrasher Eric Boulton elbowed Paul Ranger in the head, resulting in a concussion and a fractured jaw. Boulton was subsequently suspended for six games, but it didn’t stop John Tortorella from lambasting the enforcer, saying that “no one wants to see him on the ice.” After the suspension, Boulton pleaded innocence, and claimed that he was only doing what he was told to do, implying that a frustrated Hartley had told him to get out there and headhunt. After all, Boulton is an enforcer and that’s what he’s employed by NHL teams to do. It was never definite whether or not Hartley asked Boulton to headhunt, but Hartley was under fire for a short while and since then the Thrashers and Lightning have enjoyed quite the rivalry.

To be honest, I never liked Maurice. He did a great job in Carolina, but I thought from the beginning that he was a terrible choice for the Leafs. Despite his successes, it’s always been overlooked that he is a poor special teams tactician. Throughout his coaching career, Maurice’s teams have traditionally never been good at killing penalties. In 2001, the Hurricanes had the second-best PK% in the league, but it all went downhill from there. When the Hurricanes made the finals in 2002, they were tied with the Devils with the worst PK% for playoff-bound teams in the East, with 83.7%. In his next full years, Carolina would rank 24th on the PK. In his first season with the Leafs, they had a 17.7% PP (17th) and 78.5% PK (27th). This year, their PP was 17.8% (15th) and PK 78.1% (29th). It can be argued that Maurice didn’t have the right players to work with (Peter Laviolette hasn’t exactly gotten the Canes’ PK out of the basement yet either), but I don’t think it’s a valid excuse for a playoff contender to finish near dead last in the league. He was under a lot of scrutiny in Toronto, and perhaps a move to a less hockey-crazed city would be a good change of scenery and hopefully be able to repeat the successes he had while in Carolina.

Gordon is the least well-known of the three, but is apparently well-respected in hockey circles. The former netminder enjoyed three successful years at Boston College, and started his coaching career in the IHL before moving onto the ECHL then head coach for Providence in the AHL in 2003. The 45-year old was the winner of the Louis Pieri Memorial Award, annually given to the best coach in the AHL. Considering the recent success of promoting AHL coaches (ie. Bruce Boudreau), it could be a good idea to take Gordon over the other two.

Feb 112008
 

Today we saw the first significant trade leading up to this years trade deadline as the Ottawa Senators traded Patrick Eaves and Joe Corvo to Carolina for Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore. Although this trade should help the Sens this season, a word of caution has to be put out concerning the trading for players from the southeast division.

The southeast division is one horrible division and it could be argued that 5 of the worst 10 teams in the league play in the southeast division. A big reason for this is bad defenses and outright horrible goaltending (Tomas Vokoun aside). The three worst teams in terms of team save percentage are Tampa (.881), Washington (.889) and Carolina (.891) while Atlanta (.904) is a marginally more respectable 12th worst. Because of this weak goaltending offensive players who play in the southeast division often look better than they probably are. Cory Stillman is a perfect example.

Cory Stillman vs SE division: 18GP, 11G, 11A, 22PTS
Cory Stillman vs rest of league: 37GP, 10G, 14A, 25PTS

In double the games he has fewer goals and only slightly more points.

And it isn’t just Stillman. Here are a few other big name trade acquisition possibilities.

Marian Hossa vs SE: 19GP, 11G, 10A, 21PTS
Marian Hossa vs Others: 36GP, 13G, 14A, 27PTS

Olli Jokinen vs SE: 20GP, 9g, 15a, 24pts
Olli Jokinen vs others: 38GP, 20g, 14a, 34pts

Jokinen has actually done well in terms of scoring goals against the rest of the league but his overall point totals are still lower.

Vaclav Prospal vs SE: 22GP, 12g, 15a, 27pts
Vaclav Prospal vs others: 34GP, 11g, 13a, 24pts

When it comes to acquiring offensive players from the southeast division it is definitely a case of buyer beware. They may not be everything you hoped they would be.