1) The Sharks only went 1-2 this week, but I was still really impressed with the play of Joe Thornton. He put up 3 points and showed a lot of leadership in the process. The Sharks have been in a tailspin ever since starting the season 7-0, but Thornton is doing his best to rally the troops. Last week he dropped the gloves with Jonathan Toews, this week it was Jamie Benn’s turn. These kind of fights can swing momentum and set an example for the disheartened players on the bench. (As opposed to the side show fights between players who have no business playing pro hockey.) The Sharks are too talented for this slump to continue much longer.
-The biggest news of the last couple weeks was undoubtedly the return of Sidney Crosby. Like his brief return in December, Crosby made an immediate impact, scoring 1 goal and adding 10 assists in his last 6 games. With skill like this, Crosby has elevated the game of everyone around him. Case in point: Matt Cooke has 7 goals and 2 assists in 6 games playing alongside Crosby.
-Evgeni Malkin scored a natural hat-trick en route to 6-3 Penguins win over the Lightning earlier this week. He had 10 points in 4 games this week, all Penguins’ wins.
-If Crosby returns in time for the playoffs, the Eastern Conference better watch out. When healthy this Penguins squad can beat anybody in a 7 game series.
Happy new year! And what a start to the new year it was. The NHL finally got it right by putting the Winter Classic on the 2nd, allowing us to nurse hangovers without trying to focus on a bright, white ice surface. The game also delivered in more ways then its predecessors. There was drama, some physicality, unlikely heroes, and even a penalty shot. It was easily the most enjoyable Winter Classic yet. Oh yeah, there were some other hockey games this week too… Here are some points to consider from the NHL’s thirteenth week.
This week is going to be a little different. Due to a crazy schedule involving Grad school applications, several overtime shifts at work, and my birthday, I will condense the musings into one article for this week. However week nine will see a return to normalcy.
With that said, week eight had no shortage of good and bad story lines to follow. The NHL saw a rash of injuries to top tier players while three struggling coaches were also canned. The Bruins also handed out a significant contract extension to a struggling player. On the flip side a talented youngster continued to show that his hot start was no fluke and a couple perennial Cup contenders began to separate themselves from the pack. Here are some points to consider from the NHL’s eighth week.
Another week in the books, another week chalk full of surprises. Montreal decided to shake things up by firing an assistant coach while a slumping contender made a (somewhat) major move to acquire some scoring depth. And surprise! Edmonton is still surging. Here are some points to consider from the third week of the 2011 NHL regular season.
Week 2 is in the books and there was certainly no shortage of story lines. Some surprising teams continued their early season surges while others finally came back down to earth. Brendan Shanahan also continued to channel his inner Peter Gabriel, dropping his sledgehammer of discipline with not-so surprising regularity. Here are some points to consider from the last week of the NHL season.
I must profess that I’m by all accounts a complete hockey nerd.
If it’s something about hockey, I’m interested. It doesn’t have to be something at the NHL level – I’m equally interested in pieces about advanced stats, hockey sabremetrics, the juniors, overseas, and minor leagues, from the pitiful LNAH to the IHL to AHL to NHL. Of course my two main interests remain the NHL and Canadian junior hockey, in part because it’s practically forced down our throats every goddamn day (a word on media coverage shall be reserved for another day).
But anyway, this year’s draft kinda stunk because there wasn’t really any drama at all. Heading into the weekend, no matter how good the betting odds were that Gabriel Landeskog or Jonathan Huberdeau or Adam Larsson could leap-frog Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and get picked first overall by the Oilers, you just couldn’t make that bet. At least last year with the Tyler Seguin–Taylor Hall debate, there was still some intrigue when Steve Tambellini walked up to the podium (I stand by my belief that both teams would’ve been better off if the picks were flip-flopped but whatever – with those two it’s more like picking either the hot blonde or the hot brunette). I’m gonna guess that the 2012 Draft will be more 2011 than 2010.
I usually keep a top 5 list in my head every year just so I have an idea of what’s coming up. The 5 may not be the BEST prospects (usually 3-4 are though), but guys I like to keep an eye on for one reason or another. For my 2012 list, I have (in no particular order): Nail Yakupov (Sarnia, OHL), Alex Galchenyuk (Sarnia, OHL), Morgan Rielly (Moose Jaw, WHL), Martin Frk (Halifax, QMJHL), and Ryan Murray (Everett, WHL). (My 2011 list was Landeskog, Bartschi, R. Murphy, Musil, and Saad. 2010: Seguin, Granlund, Campbell, Forbort, and Kabanov.)
I’ve seen a bit of Frk when I was living in Nova Scotia and the kid’s good – good speed, great hands, a NHL-calibre top-six winger (represented by Allan Walsh, @walsha, who frequently uses hashtags like #frktastic and #pavelectric to pump up his clients) – but in any draft I’m not sure I’d take him in the top 5 (or even top 15). Murray’s not a guy I compare to Carolina’s Ryan Murphy, a small, more skill-oriented style, but more two-way. (If you’re confused, don’t worry, I was for awhile too. First, there’s the aforementioned Ryan MURPHY, then there’s Everett’s Ryan MURRAY, while there’s a Connor MURPHY, also a defenseman, taken by Phoenix this year.)
The two guys you REALLY want to keep track of in 2012 are on the same team (Sarnia, which produced Steven Stamkos) and they’re both Russian – except they couldn’t be more different. Yakupov (#10) hails from Nizhnekamsk, a city in northern Russia whose KHL team features PAVEL friggin’ BRENDL (!!!) and Alexander Bumagin (the only name that is funny whether you pronounce it right or wrong) and nicknamed the “Petrochemists” (I shit you not). The basic principle with Russian prospects is this: they can all skate like the wind, handle the puck, and score goals like crazy. Yakupov’s cut from the same cloth.
The other kid’s Galchenyuk (#94), but other than having a Russian last name that’s about all the two share. His dad’s a former hockey player who came overseas at a time not many Russians did, and toiled in the minors for quite a while. THN’s Ryan Kennedy did a good article on him but the general idea you need to form is that he’s a hometown boy with hockey genes, great connections (Igor Larionov‘s a family friend), and wanted to play in the OHL after seeing the kind of reception John Tavares received. Yakupov might have the higher-end skill set but I think mid-way through the year Galchenyuk’s intangibles will shine through and he’ll be the consensus first pick.
OKAY, done. Sorry for going on FOREVER, but that’s the way I am when you get me talking hockey.
Anyway, the guy you REALLY should be keeping an eye on is Nathan MacKinnon, a 2013 draft eligible. He was most recently picked by Baie-Comeau first overall in the QMJHL bantam draft (isn’t it crazy how the junior hockey system works? Kids get projected a value on them at a really young age) and traded to Halifax (which features Frk and produced Jakub Voracek and Brad Marchand). The Mooseheads DESPERATELY wanted MacKinnon because they missed out on Sidney Crosby (I’d love to see Rimouski merchandise sales from ’03-’05). Cole Harbour’s a Halifax suburb and the Mooseheads would benefit greatly (mostly economically) from having the QMJHL darling play in front of his hometown crowd and the Q’s biggest Maritime market. The Moose were the worst team in their division last year and their 20 wins were a 3-year high. Considering the number of players junior teams go through each year, they’re far removed from their Voracek-led 42-win, division title-winning campaign in 2008. Two years of MacKinnon, at least one with Frk, could change that.
(If you’re wondering what sort of haul Baie-Comeau got in return, I wouldn’t sweat it. Trades in junior hockey aren’t like trades in the pros, where it’s often made to plug lineup holes or address locker room issues. You’ll never ever see a team swap superstars like in the NHL because there’s no point in upsetting a loyal fanbase for a chance that you MIGHT be better off with Player A than Player B because Player A is a better penalty killer. The only trades that happen are the ones where a Memorial Cup-bound team wants to beef up their lineup (the London Knights were notorious for doing this) or because a team wants to market a player for financial profit, as is, so far, the case with MacKinnon. Trades in junior hockey can often be even colder than the ones in the pros because there’s little inherent loyalty in 16-18 year old players who play only a couple of years before moving on.)
Exactly how good is MacKinnon? I’m not sure, exactly, but there sure is a lot of hype. While he may have been the first pick of the QMJHL draft, he still has to compete with players from two other CHL leagues, not to mention Swedes and Russians from overseas. There’s ZERO DOUBT in my mind that he’s NOT the next Sidney Crosby, even if he is the number one rated prospect. His career may mirror Crosby’s very closely so far, but if you’re from the same small community, and seeing the kind of image Crosby has crafted, wouldn’t you want to follow the exact same blueprint?
That MacKinnon’s trade, however unsurprising, made TSN’s front page headline is pretty noteworthy in itself. Some players love feeding off the kind of energy hockey-mania can bring (like Galchenyuk) while others tend to stay far from it (most recently Mike Richards). Again, playing hockey in Canada means living under constant media scrutiny.
I hope MacKinnon didn’t agree to play at Shattuck-St. Mary’s just because “Crosby did it.” I hope he doesn’t think he’s going to be the next Crosby. Sure, it’s high praise, but it’s one with really lofty expectations. Undoubtedly the comparisons will always be there. It will always come with the territory for any player to ever come out of Cole Harbour, or even Nova Scotia, for that matter. And the truth is, very few of those kids ever make it to the NHL, much less as stars. I’m not rooting against MacKinnon or saying he won’t succeed, but I am saying beware the hype machine.
Sidenote #1: Crosby will come back to start the season. I’m pretty sure of it and he’ll still be the best player in the game. But if he misses any more time, if there’s any more setbacks to his recovery from his concussion, there’s going to be even more MacKinnon stories.
Sidenote #2: If MacKinnon’s career ends up resembling nothing like Crosby’s, 1) he should still be really happy about how far he’s gotten, and 2) I’m raising my future kids in Cole Harbour.
Going into this season, defense was Anaheim’s biggest question (18-year old Cam Fowler had surprisingly made the squad) and it was answered pretty emphatically. (2.84 GA/G was 20th worst). Going into next year, defense remains Anaheim’s biggest question (asides from Jonas Hiller‘s increasingly strange injury history – back spasms, fatigue, vertigo) but thankfully it’s to a much smaller extent. Francois Beauchemin is back and Luca Sbisa has arrived. Should Teemu Selanne elect to retire (I doubt it) the Ducks have a huge top-six void to fill but they’ll be quite fiscally responsible until 2014 when Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Lubomir Visnovsky become UFAs. Don’t expect much from the Ducks – they like what they have (as would I) and they have some good stuff in the pipeline (Emerson Etem, Mark Mitera, Peter Holland, and Igor Bobkov, the Russian backup who won the title game at the 2011 WJC in which Dave Cameron‘s Canadian squad notoriously blew a 3-0 lead.)
I think getting rid of Darryl Sutter was HUGE for the Flames. When family and business mix together the results are usually anything but smooth. Jay Feaster now takes over (no surprises there) the team he defeated for a Cup in 2004. I think Feaster’s going to be good although I can’t say I didn’t scratch my head when he gave Curtis Glencross a four-year contract with a no-movement clause. With 9 other roster players with some form of no-trade clause, it doesn’t give Feaster a heck of a lot of flexibility, which is unfortunately what Calgary needs most if they want to compete. It’s rather unfortunate that arguably their best player this year, Alex Tanguay, will be looking for a well-deserved raise that he won’t get with the Flames, who already struck out once by letting Mike Cammalleri walk. The Flames have the players to be a playoff team, the only question is whether or not they can perform. I’ll say this though: as long as Jay Bouwmeester is a Flame, they’ll never win. Too much money tied up in a second-/third-tier defenseman (yes, I would rather have “Neon” Dion Phaneuf). The Flames need just about everything: a first-line centre, fleet-footed defensemen, a backup goalie, and most importantly, prospects. Unfortunately, there’s just little of anything with value in that organization (no, Jarome Iginla isn’t going anywhere, unless he wants to).
Okay, now they have a goalie Joel Quenneville actually trusts in Corey Crawford, and he looks like a keeper. Unfortunately, thanks to Dale Tallon, this team’s cap structure is still a complete mess, mostly thanks to Brian Campbell. The Blackhawks won’t get equal value for Campbell – he’s overpaid and everyone knows it. It’s one of the only ways the team can keep the core intact but I imagine the Hawks would be reluctant to trade him because he was one of the better defensemen for them this year. Campbell value’s trending up, which makes it an optimal time to trade him, but not many teams want that ugly contract. The Hawks aren’t in a position to do much over the summer and I don’t imagine they will (had they beaten Vancouver, they would’ve gone deep as well). With still a bunch of good prospects in the system and no cap room, look for Stan Bowman to simply be patient and wait.
Where to begin? Saying the Erik Johnson trade totally screwed this team is a huge understatement as the Avs stumbled and fell to the bottom of the pile immediately following the trade. Nordique legend Peter Stastny ripped the management on air while Johnson and Chris Stewart took a few parting shots at their old GMs. When all those involved in the trade come off as irritated and bitter, you know that’s not a good thing. Stastny was right – the entire trade threw both teams off kilt. There’s been lots of rumblings that the organization is also really regretting the extension they gave Paul Stastny and if you look at the cap structure you can see why: He’s the only Avs regular signed beyond 2012 at a pretty hefty $6.6 million price tag. I had so much confidence in Sherman and Joe Sacco after what they pulled off last year (Craig Anderson was a coup, but also a fluke it seems) but that trade shattered it. If Tomas Vokoun does sign with the Avs, as rumoured, then he’s clearly going there for a paycheque. This team’s not even remotely close to being a contender and quite frankly, I don’t like what Sherman’s done so far at all.
As always with the Jackets, they’ve become stagnant once again. If Scott Howson does get Jeff Carter, that could be one of the biggest deals in franchise history. If Carter can regain his scoring touch and focus, the Jackets become playoff contenders again. But as you can clearly see, that’s about two if’s too many. Columbus’ top prospects may be talented, but most aren’t panning out, from Gilbert Brule to Nikita Filatov to Derick Brassard. Jakub Voracek was the only player to have really took leaps forward but he might be on his way to Philadelphia. The big piece the Jackets want to hurry is Ryan Johansen, who is probably going to make the team next year considering their lack of depth up front and could take some pressure off Antoine Vermette, who is sorely miscast as a first line player. What can’t the Jackets use? Steve Mason was shaky, the defense has no standout (Fedor Tyutin comes closest), and still no sidekick for Rick Nash. The jury’s still out on Howson but he’s dangerously close to being more Doug MacLean than not (in terms of accomplishments, anyway).
Brad Richards or no Brad Richards, this team wasn’t going to be winning a Cup anytime soon, so for an ownership situation that is anything but stable, you might as well save the $7 million or so you might give Richards for the next five years. As with most teams that have owners unwilling to spend money on an asset they’re ready to get rid of, Joe Nieuwendyk doesn’t have a lot of money to play around with, but it’s not like any of Dallas’ players are worth forking big cash over. Asides from re-signing Jamie Langenbrunner for sentimental reasons, there’s no reason to bring any of their UFAs back, except the problem with that is the Stars don’t really have anybody in the pipeline ready for a regular shift in the NHL. When Mike Ribeiro is your number one centre and Stephane Robidas is your best defenseman, you’re just not expected to win a lot of games. I thought the Trevor Daley extension was fair but a tad too long, but didn’t like the James Neal trade one bit. It’s Nieuwendyk’s first significant summer so we’ll wait and see.
Everyone’s high on Brendan Smith, the former Wisconsin Badger who averaged over a point per game as a defenseman in his junior year. I’ve never seen him play so I can’t pass judgement, but the general feeling is that Ken Holland might issue the 22-year old a ‘pass’ and inject him right into the lineup, an even more plausible notion with Brian Rafalski abruptly retiring and Nicklas Lidstrom‘s future TBD. But that’s great for Holland because now he has tons of money to play with to beef up their blueline, clearly their number one concern, through offer sheets and whatnot. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg aren’t getting any younger, so I expect the Red Wings to start moving their youngsters up the ladder, starting with Tomas Tatar and Cory Emmerton.
The youth movement continues and for Steve Tambellini, braving the storm will be his biggest challenge. The worst thing to do is to make rash decisions, so that means even thinking about high-demand UFAs or trading Ales Hemsky is a big no-no. I strongly believe the Oilers should take Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a slight but natural centre to set up their high-scoring wingers. They missed out on a potential franchise centre last time (Tyler Seguin), opting for winger Taylor Hall, and they won’t be making the same decision this time. Since Nikolai Khabibulin is signed for another two years (good grief!), the smart thing to do is to shore up that atrocious blueline. And do something about Sheldon Souray, goddammit.
Dean Lombardi is in the same boat as Tambellini, in that both GMs will have to be patient with their players, except the Kings are about five years ahead of the Oilers, and that’s with the league’s best prospect, Brayden Schenn, still waiting in the wings. There’s lots of great, young, affordable talent already (Dustin Brown at $3.2 million, Jack Johnson at $4.4 million, and Jonathan Quick at $1.8 million) and more pieces coming in: Canada’s WJC captain Thomas Hickey and high-scoring junior forwards Tyler Toffoli (108 points), Linden Vey (116), and Jordan Weal (96). What’s not to like? Lombardi’s biggest challenge? Getting Drew Doughty to ink a lengthy extension, bringing back Michal Handzus at a discount, and driving Alexei Ponikarovsky to LAX. It’s a job any GM would love to have.
As my friend Steve asks me, “doesn’t it amaze you how the Minnesota Wild are a cap team?” Yes, it does, Steve. (I’ll wait while you fact-check. Here, I’ll even help). Now you’re asking yourself: “what the… how?!?!” Well, it’s what happens when you commit big money for a second-line whiner ($5 million for Martin Havlat), a piece of glass ($4.1 million for Pierre-Marc Bouchard), and vastly overrate the value of your own player ($6.75 million for Mikko Koivu). I think GM Chuck Fletcher‘s done an OK job so far but two things raised question marks in my mind: 1, asking Todd Richards to employ an aggressive style with an offense that doesn’t feature high-end talent and a blueline that routinely turns over the puck and 2, overrating and overpaying his franchise player’s market value even though everyone knew Koivu was going to stay for a salary anything above $5 million. (I think the Wild panicked and didn’t want to risk losing Koivu like they did with Marian Gaborik, so they just threw money at him and hoped for the best). The good news is that Fletcher has some money to play around to boost his top six, the bad news is that I’m not sure what he’s going to do with it.
With the playoffs finished, the West team that generated the most interest were probably the Preds. Barry Trotz‘s teams have routinely proved that you only need one ingredient to win: heart. You’d have to be from another world if you didn’t think the Preds give it their all every shift. It’s also easy for the rest of the team to fall in line when your three key players (Shea Weber, Mike Fisher, and Pekka Rinne) are born leaders and also your hardest working players. If the Preds want to win in the playoffs, the stars have to align. There’s no way for the Preds to compete against teams with high-quality talent but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a chance. The Preds rarely dip into the FA pool and with such a successful season (first ever series win in franchise history and a loyal fanbase) they really won’t need to. Other pressing matters are at hand, like extending impending UFA Joel Ward and impending RFA Weber, who I think will stay. The Preds have taken him to arbitration, which means teams can’t make offer sheets and makes it all the more likely that Weber stays. The Preds rarely break the bank for ANY player, but if there’s anyone they should throw money at, it’s Weber.
Arizona Phoenix Coyotes are in ownership limbo like Dallas, except much worse. We know this team is going to be a cap floor than cap ceiling team, in part because they’ve already dealt away their most expensive player. Technically, Shane Doan, Ed Jovanovski, and Michal Rozsival (I’m positive he was acquired to help the team hit the cap floor next year) earn more but you get the idea – Ilya Bryzgalov‘s asking price was higher than all three (although it’d be lower for Philadelphia because they’re in a cap bind and a much better team). Who knows where this franchise will end up (my 3 guesses: Hamilton, Kansas City, Quebec) and until then, ownership won’t OK any long-term deals. No starting goalie, no good value defensemen, no marquee forward, and Keith Yandle probably won’t be getting the raise he deserves (both length and dollars).
If you want to win in the playoffs, your best players have to perform. Vancouver and San Jose both lost for the same reasons. At $7.5 million a season, 3 goals in 18 playoff games from Dany Heatley just won’t cut it. Joe Thornton nearly doubled his total (17 to 9). FYI, Heatley has just 5 goals in 32 playoff games with the Sharks, and just 15 in 66 games for his career. Patrick Marleau may get criticized a lot but his 7 goals were tied for the team lead. Other than upgrading that blueline (a big must), Doug Wilson has to decide what he wants to do. Devin Setoguchi is a RFA this year and Logan Couture is up next year and I would take both over Heatley. If you’re earning $7.5 million on my team, you have to at least be a player I can count on to produce, and not just on the second unit powerplay (and sometimes not even).
Things were looking good for the Blues, and as much as I don’t understand the Avs’ decision to deal Chris Stewart, I totally understand the Blues’ reasons for doing so. (Losing Erik Johnson, whose development has somewhat stalled, was okay because Alex Pietrangelo was emerging into a can’t-miss and Kevin Shattenkirk is a very capable sidekick, and the team needed more size and jam up front to help out David Backes.) The thing with the Blues, however, is that they don’t have that one marquee forward to tie everything together. Instead, we got a hodgepodge of second-tier forwards miscast as first-line players. There have been flashes in which guys have been willing and able to step up their game to carry the team (TJ Oshie came close), but no one has been consistent. The still injured David Perron and the recently extended Patrik Berglund are still your best bets, though.
Did the playoff run answer some important organizational questions? Definitely. I think in both Alain Vigneault and Mike Gillis‘s post-season pressers, they voiced a certain amount of dissatisfaction and disappointment, although to their credit they didn’t name anybody. They don’t have to say anything but we do know this: Roberto Luongo is mentally soft, the Sedins clearly still can’t figure out what it takes to win in this league, a killer instinct-type edge is still missing, and Ryan Kesler is clearly the heart and soul. There won’t be much to improve on for the defending West champs, and it won’t be possible to make changes with the core locked up long-term already. The big homework assignment for the Canucks is keeping everyone together (priority: Kevin Bieksa) and finding players with a little more heart, jam, and grit (read: Canadians).
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