Nov 122008
 

Brian Burke will not be returning as the Ducks’ GM next year, says ESPN. A press conference this afternoon will reveal the nature of his resignation and officially move Bob Murray, who is still at the moment the GM of the Iowa Chops, into Burke’s position. Under NHL rules a GM cannot take over another team in the same year without the former team’s blessing, and it’s been reported that Anaheim has been quite reluctant to do so.

Burke has publicly stated that family is one of the major factors in his decision, with children on the east coast from his previous marriage. Burke’s wife, reporter Jennifer Mather, was reportedly having difficulties finding work in California. A move to Toronto, as any other destination would come as a surprise, allows Burke to be closer to his children and provide new opportunities for his wife to find work.

The Ducks have the ability to prevent Burke from taking the Leafs’ GM position, but only until the summer.

More to follow.

FOLLOW UP: It seems as though Burke will stay on, and it’s not a sure fire deal that he will end up with the Leafs. There’s been speculation that Burke will stay as a consultant to Murray for the time being and then take over the Rangers after Glen Sather departs. Burke does have ties to New York, as his children from a previous marriage still reside in New England, and also previously worked for the NHL’s head office. It has also been revealed that Jim Rutherford was actually offered the Leafs job a year ago, but turned it down to stay in Carolina

With the transfer of power to Murray, you have to wonder where Dave Nonis, whom Burke hired shortly after he was fired in Vancouver, fits into the master plan. Nonis was groomed by Burke to be his successor after his departure in Vancouver, and it’s a little odd that Nonis wasn’t handed the reigns in Anaheim. Of course Murray is the more experienced of the two, but this non-move has also fueled speculation that Nonis will follow Burke to his next destination, wherever that may be.

Oct 142008
 

I think David did a great job summing up the Leafs. Read it here.

Lineup:
Jason Blake – Nik Antropov – Alexei Ponikarovsky
Jiri Tlusty – Mikhail Grabovski – Niklas Hagman
Nikolai Kulemin – Dominic Moore – Alex Steen
John Mitchell – Matt Stajan – Jamal Mayers

Tomas Kaberle – Luke Schenn
Carlo Colaiacovo – Pavel Kubina
Jonas Frogren – Mike Van Ryn

Vesa Toskala – Curtis Joseph

Predicted finish: 5th Northeast, 12th East

Oct 062008
 

Today the Leafs placed Mark Bell on waivers and also announced that rookie defenseman Luke Schenn will start the season with the Leafs and will be reevaluated around the end of October to determine whether they want to keep him around for the full season or send him back to Junior. The decision is likely to be a tough one made tougher by the fact that the Leafs are deep on defense.

Mark Bell came to the Leafs as a part of the Vesa Toskala trade and did relatively little in his time with the Leafs last season and seemingly managed to do even less this preseason. With the additions of Jamal Mayers and Ryan Hollweg, Mark Bell and his $2 million salary just aren’t necessary.

Predicting what the Leafs will do and where in the standings they will end up is exceptionally difficult because it is highly likely that several of the players currently on the team won’t finish the season with the Leafs and with all the new players and a new coach you just don’t know how the players will mesh together. Generally forecasters believe the Leafs will be more sound defensively this season with Ron Wilson as coach but will struggle mightily to score goals without very much top end talent among the group of forwards. The forecasters may be right in the Leafs not having much top end talent but that doesn’t mean they will automatically be among the worst offensive teams in the league. Nor does not scoring necessarily mean they will be a bad team.

The Leafs were 11th in scoring last season with their top 10 point producers being Sundin, Antropov, Kaberle, Blake, Steen, Kubina, Ponikarovsky, Tucker, Stajan and McCabe. Of those 10 players, 7 are retuning this season. Sundin, Tucker and McCabe are not. Tucker’s 18 goals and 34 points will be more than made up by Niklas Hagman who had 27 goals and 41 points last year and has looked very good in the pre-season. McCabe only played 54 games last year and generally didn’t play that well compared to previous seasons scoring only 5 goals and 23 points. There is no reason not to believe that Jeff Finger (8 goals, 19 points) and/or a healthy Colaiacovo can make up much of that difference.

The big loss is Mats Sundin so unless Grabovsky can really exceed expectations you can assume that the Leafs offensive performance will drop. If the Leafs score 10% fewer goals this year they will end up with 205 goals, equal to that of the NY Rangers last year and ahead of the Devils and Ducks, all three of whom were playoff teams.

Speaking of Grabovsky, I think Leaf fans should be cautiously optimistic knowing that he scored 5 goals in the preseason and looked better and better every game out. He and Hagman looked to be developing some good chemistry as training camp went on. I am also encouraged by how well Jason Blake performed on a line with Antropov and Ponikarovsky and believe that he might improve on his 15 goals of a season ago and get back to the 25 goal guy he has been much of his career.

In short, I am cautiously optimistic that the Leafs offense, while unspectacular, will be decent enough. What Leaf fans need to watch for is their goaltending and defense. Most hockey analysts seem to believe that Vesa Toskala is a top tier goalie and that goaltending will be the least of the Leafs problems. I am not so sure. While Toskala looked good last year his numbers were still fairly unspectacular. His .904 save percentage was only good for 32nd in the league just behind Cam Ward and just ahead of Peter Budaj. Neither of those two goalies are anything to get excited about either. Beyond Toskala we have Curtis Joseph who was just OK in 9 games, just 5 starts, with Calgary last year after being pretty awful in Phoenix the year before. In his pre-season appearances he showed nothing to indicate that he has anything left in his tank or that he will be all that much better than the downright horrible Andrew Raycroft (.876 save percentage) last year.

On defense I am more optimistic that the Leafs will be an improved team not only because I think Ron Wilson is a better coach than Paul Maurice and will get the Leafs to play a smarter team game and defensive style, but because I think the Leafs will have a better mix of offensive and defensive minded defensemen. Added to the Leafs defense crew are defense first players such as Jeff Finger and Jonas Frogren as well as Luke Schenn should he stick around for the season. Van Ryn isn’t too bad defensively either. All these factors, plus guys like Hagman and Mayers, should mean the Leafs should have a much improved penalty kill which was dead last in the NHL last year.

All things considered, there are definitely some positives for Leafs fans this upcoming season and I think the Leafs could surprise many of the doom and gloom forecasters. The keys to watch for are whether Toskala can pick up his game a bit more, whether forwards like Grabovsky, Steen and others can provide consistent offense, and most importantly, do the Leafs buy into Wilson’s defensive game and does that in turn improve their penalty kill measurably.

The other person to watch this season is Cliff Fletcher as I believe that several of the current Leafs will not be on this team come next summer. Likely candidates for trade are Mike Van Ryn, Nik Antropov, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Vesa Toskala, Ian White, and possibly Tomas Kaberle if the deal is right and Kaberle waives his no trade clause. If and when those trades are made will have a dramatic effect on where the Leafs might end up in the standings.

Oct 022008
 

Much ado has been made about the Canucks making Roberto Luongo their captain. The move was very surprising, considering goalies are not allowed to wear the traditional ‘C’ on their jersey and there hasn’t been a goalie captain since Bill Durnan in the 1940s. One of the reasons it became illegal was because of the inefficiency of being both a captain and a goalie. Captains are designated by their respective teams to provide an on-ice voice for the team with the refs, and because the game is so fluid and the refs are constantly moving, it made it very difficult for goalies to talk to them, in part because of the very small area on the ice the goalie patrols. They can’t wander the length of the ice as most players do, and if the referee was at the other end of the rink it would be impossible to talk to them, since goalies cannot cross the red line.

I can’t help but think this move by the Canucks is a ploy to show Luongo that this is his team. Willie Mitchell has been named as the guy who would talk to the refs on a nightly basis, but the Canucks still elected to give Mitchell an ‘A’, even though he would be fulfilling the traditional duties of a player wearing the ‘C’. It goes without question that this is Luongo’s team – no one else in the league is as crucial to their team’s success as Luongo. By officially naming him captain is a mere formality that really doesn’t carry much substance, other than re-affirm the fact that Vancouver wants Luongo to stay, and will do anything to please him and accomodate his needs. But it also means that no one in the Vancouver locker room has really stepped into the captain’s void left by Markus Naslund, which has led to a committee of three players wearing A’s on a nightly basis: Mitchell, Ryan Kesler, and Mattias Ohlund.

Perhaps at the end of the day the letters don’t quite mean anything – Mitchell will talk to the refs and Luongo continues to stop the pucks. The world keeps spinning.

EDIT: The Lightning have named Martin St. Louis and, surprisingly, Andrej Meszaros as their alternate captains for this year. The Rangers have yet to name a captain, although all signs point towards Chris Drury and Mike Richards is the front-runner in Philadelphia. The Wild and Sabres are expected to continue their rotating captaincy. The Panthers, Kings, Thrashers, and Leafs have yet to name their captains for the upcoming season.

EDIT #2: The Rangers have officially named Drury their captain, while Markus Naslund and Scott Gomez will serve as the alternates. May I also add that all three players may potentially play on the same line?

Sep 222008
 

Training camp’s all about establishing chemistry and figuring out which players go where. ESPN’s Sean Allen provides some insight and here are the highlights:

Zach Bogosian seems to be penciled in to make the team, and Allen figures him to hit the 40-point mark, but I highly doubt it. I think their top powerplay quarterbacks are going to be Ron Hainsey and Tobias Enstrom.

With Justin Williams out for most of the season it means a spot has opened up beside Eric Staal. The likely candidate is Patrick Eaves, although Sergei Samsonov, who has rejuvenated his career in Carolina, may get a call too. I also think that perhaps Tuomo Ruutu or AHL standout Ryan Bayda may get some looks.

Even with Joe Sakic‘s return, the Avs are pegging Paul Stastny as their number one centre, who will most likely have Milan Hejduk and Wojtek Wolski on his wings. Sakic will get Ryan Smyth and Marek Svatos, although given Hejduk and Sakic’s chemistry together I would think they would stay on the same line, with Smyth and Wolski switching spots.

The Wings want balance and they have publicly stated that Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk will start on different lines. This means that Marian Hossa is definitely getting first-line minutes. Allen notes that Valtteri Filppula may drop to the number three centre slot, but I think that spot is still Kris Draper‘s and Filppula may just end up on Zetterberg’s left wing. Dan Cleary was Allen’s choice as Zetterberg’s left wing but I think he’s better suited for the bottom two lines.

With the addition of Robert Lang, it looks like Saku Koivu will be starting the season on the third line, potentially with Guillaume Latendresse and Chris Higgins, giving them one of the most talented third lines in the league. Andrei Kostitsyn and Sergei Kostitsyn may find themselves on the same line with top centre Tomas Plekanec, allowing the enigmatic Alexei Kovalev to lineup with former Penguins teammate Lang.

Craig Hartsburg wants to break up the Big Three (again) and see where it takes them (again). John Paddock tried that last year with mediocre results and with no significant changes up front it remains to be seen what Hartsburg will do, but it’s almost a sure bet that captain Daniel Alfredsson will start on a separate line. The coveted spot beside Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley will be up for grabs, but it looks like the leading contender is little-known Jesse Winchester. Allen notes that Alfredsson may get Nick Foligno and Chris Kelly as linemates, but I would think the speedy Antoine Vermette and/or Mike Fisher would be better fits.

The Leafs may experiment with former Hab Mikhail Grabovski on the top line, but I would think that a combination of Jason Blake and Nik Antropov, along with either Alex Steen or Alexei Ponikarovsky would be it.

Sep 182008
 

If the Leafs are serious about rebuilding for the future, the Leafs should acquire Mathieu Schneider from the Anaheim Ducks. Ok, that sounds quite odd considering Schneider is old and expensive and set to be a UFA next summer. But after you read this it will make total sense.

The Anaheim Ducks are desperate to shed salary so they can get under the cap and sign Teemu Selanne. They have some forwards that they could possibly get rid of but non would free up all that much salary. Schneider is the guy they really want to get rid of. A few years ago the New Jersey Devils were desperate to shed salary to get under the cap as well. To do so the Devils traded Malakhov and a first round pick for a couple of fringe players. So, what the Leafs should do is offer Ian White to the Ducks for Schneider and a first round pick. Fletcher doesn’t seem all that interested in White long term, but is more than capable of playing on the third defense pair for the Ducks. The Ducks free up Schneider’s salary and the Leafs get a good pick to use in next summers draft.

But it doesn’t end there. Schneider is still a good defenseman and come trade deadline there will be teams looking for a defenseman with his skills and experience. At that time the Leafs could trade Schneider again for another good draft pick.

In the end the Leafs could end up with a couple of very good draft picks at a cost of Ian White, who may not make the team anyway, and the $4-4.5 million they would have to pay Schneider between now and the trade deadline. But as you know, the Leafs have ample money and ample cap room so that isn’t really an issue if they are truly serious about rebuilding. They are one of the few teams that could make such a move. The Canucks and Kings could probably do this as well but the Canucks seem intent on holding out for Sundin or would prefer a forward and the Kings are Anaheim’s cross city rival so Anaheim may prefer not to deal with them if they didn’t have to. The Leafs, if they were smart, could be Anaheim’s answer to their problem.

Oh, and Burke will be helping the team he will soon be GM of (if you listen to the media) so it works out perfectly.

Sep 172008
 

Brian Burke has become the Toronto hockey media’s favourite pick for the next GM of the Leafs and for the most part he has been heralded by the Toronto media as one of the best GMs in hockey and the kind of GM the Leafs desperately need. But what if Burke was GM of the Leafs. Would Burke get the same recognition?

If hypothetical Leafs GM Burke signed Todd Bertuzzi to a two year $8 million deal, only to buy him out the following off season, would the Toronto media herald Burke as one of the greatest GMs in hockey?

If hypothetical Leafs GM Burke signed Mathieu Schneider to a two year $11.25 million deal and just to put him on waivers the following summer hoping someone would claim him, would the Toronto media herald Burke as one of the greatest GMs in hockey?

Of course not. The deals to Bertuzzi and Schneider are actually far worse than the monetary cost to the team. These deals essentially cost the Ducks team a talented player in Andy McDonald because Burke was forced to trade McDonald to clear salary space. If Burke made such moves while GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs he would be criticized beyond belief. But he isn’t GM of the Leafs so the Toronto hockey media are still in love with him.

If you then factor in that Burke chose to sign Bertuzzi instead of signing a young power forward capable of scoring 25 goals while playing a solid two-way physical game named Dustin Penner and you have to ask yourself, why does everyone think Burke is such a great GM.

If you go back to his Vancouver days he never was able to acquire the goaltender the team desperately needed to seriously challenge for the Stanley Cup and his draft record was mixed at best.

He did win the Stanley Cup in 2007 in large part by his bold move to sign Niedermayer and trade for Pronger but the core of the forward crew was there before Burke arrived.

If Burke were the GM of the Leafs having put Schneider on waivers desperately hoping someone will claim him, my guess is that there would be more than a few in the Toronto media calling for Burke’s firing.

It is always greener on the other side of the fence.

Sep 062008
 

- Asides from Florida, Bryan McCabe‘s other preferred destination was Manhattan. When the Rangers landed Wade Redden, Florida remained the only city McCabe was willing to waive his no-movement clause for.

– With Dan Boyle and Rob Blake stepping in, and San Jose’s talented young blueline a year older, Kyle McLaren may be the odd man out, and he knows it too. McLaren has made it known that he would like to remain in San Jose, but understands if he is traded.

Jarret Stoll‘s extension has not been formally announced yet because there are still a few kinks to work out. While it has been confirmed that the annual cap hit will be $3.6m over 4 years, the Kings would like the deal to be front-loaded. By doing so, the Kings will have ample room to re-sign Anze Kopitar and Jack Johnson to lucrative, long-term contracts. It will also make buying out Stoll’s contract (should that event ever arise) easier.

– The KHL-NHL drama continues, as the Kings signed prospects Vjateslav Voinov (Chelyabinsk) and Andrei Loktionov (Yaroslavl) last week on August 27. The KHL contends that the two youngsters were still under contract when the Kings signed them, but Bill Daly has denied such allegations and Alexander Medvedev is expected to meet with IIHF officials next week about the matter. Neither Daly nor any other NHL representative will be in attendance.

Aug 242008
 

Rather slow news day, but a couple quick rumours:

Andrej Meszaros has yet to sign, and could still be given an offer sheet. Meszaros reportedly has a standing offer from the KHL for $4m/year, but is still willing to negotiate with the Sens, in the hopes of reaching an agreement before camp. It’s a little odd that he hasn’t signed already, considering how “close” both sides said they were. I’m not expecting to see Meszaros in anything but a Sens uniform, however.

Vitaly Vishnevksi has been placed on waivers by the Devils to clear some cap room. The Devils have only roughly $1m in cap space and will need at least triple that for emergency purposes to open the season. However, it remains to be seen is Vishnevski, who has two years remaining (including this year), will be bought out, or simply demoted.

Josef Boumedienne makes his return to the NHL as a Leaf on a two-way contract. He is signed purely for depth purposes, and is not necessarily a sign that Bryan McCabe is moving for sure.

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.