Monday, October 31, 2005

Mario Lemieux Shows Signs Of Decline

Mario Lemieux is one of the best know players in the NHL. He has twelve points in his eleven games played so far. He leads Pittsburgh's centremen in ice time. Yet, this season, he has not played at his career established levels.

If we subtract out his one best game (which is far above his other efforts this year) which came in Pittsburgh's only win this season versus Atlanta, where Lemieux scored five points, he only has seven points in ten games. That is rather average given his ice time. Mario's -6 +/- rating is tied for his team worst. This is yet another sign that he has not been dominating.

Mario Lemieux's ten power play points are tied for the league lead with Jaromir Jagr and Bryan McCabe. In fact, Lemiux only has two non-power play points. Lemieux seems to need the the man advantage to score. He is no longer fast enough to do it at even strength. This is yet another sign of decline.

One problem in Pittsburgh is Lemieux's reputation and ownership of the franchise. Coach Ed Olczyk seems unwilling to try playing Lemieux as a number two centerman (behind Sidney Crosby) which is more consistent with the way the two of them have played so far this year. Playing a centreman who is no longer able to score at even strength and is on the ice for many opposing even strength goals with first line minutes is a way to lose.

Pittsburgh needs a strong coach who is willing to sit Lemieux down in some important situations (although I cannot think of any available coaches they could hire who might do this). That might help the Penguins turn things around.

In the meantime, if Lemieux does not improve his standard of play, Team Canada in the Olympics should consider leaving Lemieux off the team. I have little faith in this occurring. In fact there is a report that Steve Yzerman will be allowed to make the decision as to whether or not he makes the team. Yzerman is even further into his decline then Lemieux. An Olympic team should be the best possible players and not have aging stars earn spots for legacy reasons.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Staal Best Player so Far This Year

A couple days ago, I noted that Eric Staal was off to a very good start. Since then, he has been even better. In his two games since then, Staal scored a hat trick versus Philadelphia and four assists versus Pittsburgh. Staal now has 22 points in his 11 games played. He is only nine points short of his point total in 2003-04. He leads the NHL in scoring by four points over Jaromir Jagr. I would be suprised if Staal keeps going at this rate (I am suprised already!), but I am ready to declare that Eric Staal has been the best player in the NHL so far this year. Earlier this year, I picked Simon Gagne as the best position player in the NHL. Staal has well surpassed him.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Alexander Semin: Russia vs. NHL

Much to the NHL's dismay, Russia has not signed the IIHF transfer agreement with the NHL. As a result, there is no formal agreement for player transfers between the Russian League and the NHL. There is no agreement that each league will respect each other's contracts. The NHL has tried several plays to try to force the Russians to sign - mostly by threatening Olympic participation. The latest NHL attempt to make life unpleasant for the Russians is the case of Alexander Semin of the Washington Capitals.

Alexander Semin was a Capitals first round pick in 2002. In 2003-04, he spent most of the year in the NHL with moderate success (he scored 22 points in 52 games). During the lockout year, he played in Russia for Lada Togliatti, despite the Caps having assigned him to play for the Portland Pirates (Washington's AHL affiliate). The Caps have fined him $1000 a day for failing to report (this now stands at a fine of over $350,000).

Washington wants to force him to honor his NHL contract and come play for them. He is staying in Russia and playing for Lada Togliatti instead. Semin claims that he has to honor Russian military commitments, so he must stay in Russia. This is a common tactic used by Russian players and the Russian Ice Hockey Federation in negoatiation.

The problem began with a still unresolved lockout issue. Exactly which players did the NHL lockout? Semin was clearly an NHLPA member (as were many people on two way contracts who were eligible to play in the AHL - and were thus assigned). Semin believed as a locked out player he could play wherever he wanted (and naturally he wanted to return to his homeland in Russia).

The Capitals are threatening to sue Semin to force him to honor his NHL contract. This lawsuit is bigger than this, they are trying to force the Russian league to honor all NHL contracts.

The best precedent in this case is Alexei Yashin. He held out on the Ottawa Senators (with a valid contract) in 1999-2000. It was ruled that if he played in the NHL in the future he would have to make up that year (and the rest of his contract) with Ottawa. Yashin was not fined in any way for his holdout. So should Semin play in the NHL, he will likely have to complete his contract with the Capitals with no fine.

Further, the NHL wants to threaten anyone else involved in the Semin case. He is being represented by agent Mark Gandler (the same guy who represented Yashin in his holdout). The Capitals are threatening to sue Gandler for Jeff Friesen's $2.28 million salary. They claim that when Semin did not show up this year, they had to acquire Friesen to take his place. This is a bogus claim. It is much more plausable that the Capitals had to acquire a player like Friesen so their payroll exceeds the salary floor. This is merely an attempt to threaten Gandler.

In the end, I think Russia has every right not to sign a transfer agreement with the NHL. The NHL should stop trying to strongarm them. If the NHL wanted to negotiate a serious agreement with Russia, they need to significantly increase player transfer fees. In the absence of an agreement, player contracts in one league will not be honored by the other league. This will lead to a few cases like Semin. Players on two way contracts will make far more money in Russia then they would in the AHL thanks to the $75,000 waiver rule. I see no reason that a player sent to the minors wont jump back to Russia. This is the bed the NHL made. They will have to live with its consequences. In the meantime, their bullying of Russia does nothing to bend bridges. It burns them instead.

TSN's story on this is here.

Curtis Joseph Gets 400th Win

Last night, Phoenix defeated Calgary 3-2. In this game, Curtis Joseph got the 400th win of his career. He is only the ninth goalie ever to acheive this feat. Yet, I do not consider him a Hockey Hall of Famer should his career end right now. Why is a feat like this not enough? What would CuJo have to accomplish to become a Hall of Famer?

There are thirteen currently acitve NHL players that I consider worthy of the Hall of Fame regardless of what they do (or do not do) for the rest of their careers. They are:

Dave Andreychuk
Ed Belfour
Martin Brodeur
Chris Chelios
Dominik Hasek
Jaromir Jagr
Brian Leetch
Mario Lemieux
Nicklas Lidstrom
Luc Robitaille
Joe Sakic
Brendan Shanahan
Steve Yzerman

Curtis Joseph is the winningest goalie of all time who is not either in the Hall of Fame (Sawchuk, Hall, Plante, Esposito,Fuhr), a still active player on this list (Belfour, Brodeur) or a retired player who was on this list in his career who has not yet been retired long enough for hall eligibility (Roy). Obviously somebody must be the winningest goalie of all time who is not a Hall of Famer and why not Joseph? He has never won a Vezina trophy (the closest he came was runner up in 1999). He has never won the Stanley Cup (or even made the finals) - although that is a team success and not an individual one. He has never once made the first or second team all star in the post season. He has twice played in the NHL all star game. He was a widely respected goalie for most of the 90's who was considered one of the best goalies of that era (although there always was somebody better in Roy or Hasek or Brodeur). He was consistently chosen as a goaltender for Canada in international play, although he did not have huge success in most of his international tournaments. Most of these stats make him a candidate for the hall, but none are clearly enough to put him in.

Joseph played the majority of his career in the goalie dominated low scoring latter half of the 1990's and early 2000's. It is reasonable to expect that more goalies would make the hall from this era then in most other eras. One would argue that a goalie like Joseph making the Hall when he was never the best goalie in the NHL would be like a Ron Francis type making the Hall when he was never the best centerman in the NHL (Gretzky, Lemieux, Messier and Yzerman were better) when Francis was a great player who played the best years of his career in a very high scoring NHL.

The strongest argument for Joseph making the Hall is his wins total. The first question that needs to be asked is how important are wins? Wins are a poor goalie stat. This is largely a team statistic. Goalies on good teams tend to get lots of wins. Goalies on poor teams do not. One criticism of Joseph is that he hasn't ever won the Stanley Cup. This is largely because he never played on a team that could be legitimately called a serious Stanley Cup contender. In many years in St Louis, Edmonton and Toronto, the team advanced a few rounds in the playoffs for the most part because of Joseph's superb goaltending. One could argue that the best cup contender Joseph ever played on was the slightly over the hill 2003 and 2004 Detroit Red Wings. Joseph was a bit passed his prime on these teams as well, although still a better than average starting goalie. The fact that Joseph has a top career win total despite not playing on a great team is remarkable. It would certainly help his case.

Whether or not wins are a the best stat to determine how good a goalie is, they are a good measure of good goaltenders. And goalie who is among the all time wins leaders is a good one. However, not all the wins leaders are quite Hall of Fame calibre. The next several goalies after Joseph in the wins leaders are "not quite" Hall of Famers. The next goalies are Mike Vernon, John Vanbiesbrouck, Andy Moog, Tom Barrasso and Rogie Vachon. So it is quite reasonable for a goalie with Joseph's wins total to not be a Hall of Famer. If Joseph moves up the list a little bit further he would get to an elite group of goalies. If he were to (for example) catch up to Tony Esposito for fifth place in wins at 423 (it may be sixth place before Joseph gets there as Brodeur is likely to reach that point first), most likely, I would consider Joseph a Hall of Famer (assuming he doesn't hang on for several years as a mediocre goalie just to do it).

Curtis Joseph is not quite a Hall of Famer yet, but he is close. A very good season (or two) from him would get him so far up the career wins total that he would make it. I refuse to call a player a Hall of Famer based on a projection of his career. All too often, players fail to reach their projections. I can imagine Joseph making my Hall of Fame list someday, but he is not there yet.

Eric Staal Off To A Good Start

Its not uncommon for a young player in his second or third NHL season to take a big leap forward and become a star.

Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes appears to be one such player. He was the second overall pick in the 2003 draft and played in the NHL the entire 2003-04 season. In the lockout year, he led the AHL Lowell Lock Monsters in points. This year, he is off to a great start. He has 15 points in nine games so far. This puts him second in scoring in the NHL behind only Jaromir Jagr. He is scoring very well at even strength.

Although I doubt Staal will remain the second highest scorer in the NHL he is quite likely to have a very good season and a very good career. Anyone who shows this kind of ability early in their career is a very good hockey player. How good he becomes will be answered largely by this one question. Once it is clear that Staal is the go to guy on Carolina and teams set up their defence to prevent him from scoring, how will Staal adjust to the increased attention. It is much easier to be a suprising scorer then it is to be the one that a team is built around and the opposing team is keying in on stopping.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Even Strength Scoring

As I noted in my last post, scoring on the power play is significantly increased in the "new" NHL. Likely, as the season progresses, the number of penalty calls will decrease, so it may be useful to "poolies" to look at who is scoring at even strength (which is becoming a dying thing). My theory is that even strength scoring is more "safe" since it is not as dependant upon the referees calling an excessive amount of penalties. Also, in the short term it may be a way to identify players who are scoring well but in some cases have not yet earned a spot on their team's power play.

Here are the top ten even strength scorers so far this year
Name Team Games Played Even Strength Goals Even Strength Assists Even Strength Points Total Points
Vaclav ProspalTam10651112
Eric StaalCar9561115
PJ AxelssonBos1136910
Simon GagnePhi762811
Vincent LeCavalierTam1053812
Craig ConroyLA103589
Henrik ZetterbergDet1035813
Steve EmingerWas102689
Sidney CrosbyPit917812
Peter ForsbergPhi708812

This list is quite different from the current NHL top scorers list.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Best Defenceman In The NHL so Far This Season

The position of defence appears to be significantly changed due to the obstruction crackdown. Defensive play is significantly changed because defenders are no longer able to clear the front of the net with physical play. Defence has to be played positionally instead of physically or else it will lead to excessive penalty calls. As a result of this, the value of a good defensive defenceman has been significantly decreased. I have no doubt that given sufficient time, schemes will be developed to adjust to this, but they haven't yet. Most value among top defencemen so far this year has been offensive

The elite offensive defencemen are getting into their thirties and in many cases adjusting to new teams. They have been slow off the mark this year. This group includes Sergei Gonchar, Chris Pronger, Nicklas Lidstrom, Rob Blake and Scott Niedermayer. An opportunity has been created for a new group of younger defencemen to take over.

These new defencemen must be power play specialists. A player on the number one power play unit for a team can score record amounts of power play points under the obstruction crackdown. Tom Benjamin notes the increased power play numbers (for example the Toronto Maple Leafs are on pace to score 173 power play goals this year - the current record is 119 by the 1988-98 Pittsburgh Penguins). The top scorers this year are power play scorers (for example Jaromir Jagr).

The top power play scorer on defence is Bryan McCabe so far this year. He has three power play goals and seven power play assists among his 15 points which currently are tied for the league lead. I think McCabe has been the best defenceman so far this year under the "new" NHL rules. His skillset better fits them then it did the "old" NHL (and he wasn't too bad in it making second team all star in 2004).

The question is in an ideal hockey league, should a Bryan McCabe type be your ideal defenceman? I don't think he should be. I think that the obsturction crackdown will not last at this level and it will allow other players to surpass McCabe. Even if they keep calling penal,ties at the current too high rate, I don't expect to see McCabe making a run at the NHL scoring lead, but I would expect a good season from him.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The Obstruction Crackdown Debate

Last week, I posted about the obstruction crackdown and why I am skeptical but still undecided about its merits. The media on the other hand has been largely for all of the changes that Gary Bettman and his ilk. However, there are more and more voices of dissent being hearn in the press.

At first, I planned to show the difference between what was being written a couple of weeks ago with what is being written today, when Cam Cole wrote something today that is strongly positive toward the obstruction crackdown. That shows that the media as a whole are not changing their position - merely that certain members who have dissenting positions are being heard. For the most part Cam Cole's argument is that the NHL is better than ever because scoring is up (as though high scoring games are the most important way to measure if hockey is any good). He argues that the game is faster and lets the skilled players have more chance to succeed.

So now, speed is up, goals are up, third-period scoring is up, play is going back and forth in line rushes, scoring chances abound, and we are complaining about . . . what? Not enough hitting?

That is exactly the point. There is little physical play any more. The battle in front of the net, which was one of the most exciting parts of hockey (at least in my opinion), is no more. This significantly reduces the apparent intensity level of any games.

Tom Benjamin does a very good job is debunking Cole's article. Benjamin argues that the team that scores first in a game is no more likely to win in the "new" NHL thedn they were in the "old" one. When Cole argues that this change comes with short term pain, Benjamin complains about this short term pain is not worth the "results" that we are promised but at this point must take on faith.

I think this is the problem with Cole's argument. Cole assumes that the "new" NHL will turn out exactly as Gary Bettman promises and we must have faith that it will. Is there any evidence that Gary Bettman's changes have been good for hockey in the past? Is there any reason we should have faith in him? From early games, it is clear that we are trading off physical play for more speed. Hopefully, the extra speed will one day lead to better flow - as long as it isn't slowed down by excessive penalties (which it has been so far). It is argued that eventuially players will adjust to the new rules and the penalty rate will decline to give us consistent flow again. Although this claim is far fetched, they are already calling penalties when a player trips over another player's sitck or when a player follows through on his check a split second after the puch has changed hands. I do not think it is possible (with consistent refereeing) to make these kinds of penalties ever dissapear. Entire games are played with very little physical play (players are afraid to play physically as they will get penalized) and nevertheless penalties are way up from last year. I don't think we can have a return to the flow uninterupted by penalties with this set of rules. Players will adjust. We will see more smaller faster players and less big tough forwards and defencemen. We will see more 5'6" players who shun physical play and less 6'6" power forward types. Is this an improvement?

As I stated earlier, not all the media is sold on the obsturction crackdown. Ken Fidlin has a good article that is daring to speak out against the obstruction crackdown. It is refreshing to see some diversity of opinion in the mainstream media - this didn't exist during the lockout. Fidlin writes:

As a hockey fan, close your eyes and imagine some of the tong wars between the Flyers and Leafs in Stanley Cup playoffs past. Now try to imagine the same kind of physical intensity in today's environment. It doesn't compute. Hockey fans accustomed to seeing players ratchet up their physical intensity in the playoffs will have to make do with something a bit more sanitized, a bit less passionate.

I think the discrepancy is between the Gary Bettman position (which has been echoed by much of the mainstream media) and your own eyes. Who would you believe? Your eyes must be lying to you if you don't see that the lack of physical play and constant stream olf penalties is an improvement. This is obvious to enough professional hockey writers that some are reporting what their eyes are seeing even if it doesn't agree with what the story the NHL wants to see printed.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Explain This Stat

Going into last night's games the two worst teams in the NHL in terms of power play percentages were Tampa Bay and Calgary. These were the teams who played in the 2004 Stanley Cup finals. Last night, Tampa Bay improved their standing, they are now the third worst power play team having passed Columbus (the kind of team that I would expect to have the worst power play record). Why on earth do Calgary and Tampa Bay have such poor power play records this year. They clearly have good teams. They should have good power plays. I expect that they will sort this out and both teams will get their power plays going and both will see improvements in their standings as a result.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Canucks vs. Avs

Tonight, the Colorado Avalanche meet the Vancouver Canucks. This is the first time Todd Bertuzzi plays against Colorado since his attack on Steve Moore that may have ended Moore's career. Much of the media have jumped on this game and written about how it is a big deal (for example Robert Tychkowski). It is just another hockey game. Its also becoming a media circus. I bet the best game tonight is some other game that is going to fly under the radar because the media spotlight is shining in a different direction. I find it interesting how the media can fixate on one (non-)story. I am jumping on the bandwagon writing about it too.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Can Jagr Keep Up His Fast Start?

Thursday night, the New York Islanders won the Battle of New York by defeating the Rangers 5-4. Jaromir Jagr scored a hat trick in the game making him the clear leader in points so far this season. Jagr has has ten goals and 14 points, which gives him a three point lead over anyone else in the NHL. Is this scoring rate sustainable?

The first thing to point out about Jagr's scoring is he has played in nine games, whereas Simon Gagne who I still argue has been the best position player so far this year (though by a smaller margin then when I wrote that post) has only played five games. Jagr may be the top scorer in the NHL but several players have scored more points per game due to uneven games played in the early schedule.

There is another reason why I doubt Jagr can keep up his scoring lead. He leads the NHL with eight power play goals (an one power play assist). In fact he has only scored two goals NOT on the power play. The group of players who are second in power play goals have only three power play goals. Jagr has been the most dominant power play man so far this year. He has benefitted from the extra power play time that has been granted to him by the obstruction crackdown. Since there have been more penalties called, there has been more power play time fore a Jagr-type player to thrive. I do not think this situation will last. There are already signs that the obstruction crackdown is slowing down. Referees are not calling things as tightly as they first were at the beginning of the year. Even if that conjecture is wrong, players are starting to adapt to the new refereeing standards (in as much as they can to an inconsistgent standard) and they will commit less penalties. At any rate, there will be less and less penalties as the season progresses and that will reduce Jagr's power play scoring.

Jagr is still a very good player and should be one of the top scorers this season, but I doubt he will be able to lead the league. Jagr last led the NHL in scoring in 2001. He is now 33 years old (and turns 34 during this season). Probably his best days are gone. I expect Jagr has a few more good years left, but they will not be as successful as he once was.

I expect that when the season is complete, Jagr will be outscored by several of Jarome Iginla, Markus Naslund, Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, Peter Forsberg and Martin St Louis (plus maybe a player or two I do not expect). He may be the best power play player in the NHL today, but he will get progressively less power play chances as the season progresses.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

OLN Problems

The national US TV deal was won by Comcast who is showing NHL games on OLN. This was supposed to be an important step forward, but as OLN is trying to position themselves as a new major sports network, there were expected to be some growing pains. The growing pains so far have been worse than expected.

Probably the most important growing pain is in the New York market. This is an important market to the NHL because it is the most populous one in the United States.

Comcast wants to position OLN as a major sports channel. Comcast wants to be shown on the basic tier on the different cable systems. At the same time, Comcast wants a larger fee from cable companies that show their "new" OLN network. In New York, Cablevision shows OLN on a sports tier that is additional to its basic package. Comcast is unhappy with this. As long as OLN is not in the basic tier, they are not permitting Cablevision to show their NHL hockey games. Since OLN has exclusive rights to the games that they show, no Cablevision subscribers in the New York market can see these games at all. The NHL (meaning Gary Bettman's office) appears to be onboard with Comcast. Comcast owns the Philadelphia Flyers and Cablevision owns the New York Rangers. Therefore, all should be trying to see the NHL succeed. One important part to NHL success is the national TV package -- right?

The NHL owners are fighting amongst themselves and doing things that are bad for the NHL as a whole (although may benefit their other business interests). This shows the NHL's problems. Many of their owners have little interest in hockey - aside from the money it produces. Obviously, better hockey decisions will be made by people who actually care about hockey.

It also shows how divided the NHL owners are. And these were the same owners who "stood together" to win the lockout? If anything it shows just how badly divided the NHLPA is since they bowed to almost every demand of this divided group.

Hockeybird has a good article on the New York situation.

New York is not the only market where fans are not getting a chance to see OLN. Echo Star Communications who run the Dish Network (satellite TV) has announced that they will no longer carry OLN. This is reported by Kukla's Korner.

The main idea of getting the NHL on OLN was to have national exposure. If it turns out they don't get it on OLN then this TV deal is a mistake. ESPN would likely be better for less money because at least it would get shown nationally.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Worst NHL Regular so Far This Season

So far this season I have made picks at the best player in the NHL and best position player in the NHL so far this season. Now I will turn my attention to another interesting question - one which is less of an honor for the chosen player. Which NHL regular has been the worst player in the league so far this year? I restrict the question to NHL regulars because the worst player in the NHL this year is likely one of many bit players who has hardly had any ice time. Its hard to figure out who get this dishonor unless we see the player in action for a regular shift for a few games.

In order to get enough playing time while playing poorly, a player must have some kind of expectations that he will produce. A marginal player who plays poorly soon finds himself a healthy scratch or in the minor leagues.

Since it has been 18 months since the last NHL games, the player who has been the worst NHL regular is likely somebody who has aged poorly during the lockout. He must be somebody with a bit of a track record as a decent NHL player.

My choice fror this dishonor is Shawn McEachern of the Boston Bruins. In seven games this year so far, McEachern has averaged a little over fifteen minutes of play per game. This is roughly equivalent to being rolled out regularly on one of four lines. In this playing time, McEachern has not produced offensively. He has no points whatsoever. He has also been a defensive liability for the Bruins. This lack of defence is partially shown by his NHL worst +/- rating. McEachern is an NHL worst -7. Boston has not been a poor enough team where its players should have that poor +/- ratings. The team has only three wins in seven games which is unspectacular, but nowhere near the league worst.

McEachern may get himself into better shape and start to play better. After the lockout, some older players are finding the NHL a bit too fast for them and even retiring.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Best Position Player in the NHL So Far 2005-06

The 2005-06 season is an opportunity for a changing of the guard in the NHL. Its about 18 months since the last NHL games. This leads to aging players who were beginning to show signs of decline in 2004 no longer being among the NHL's top scorers. Younger players who have shown potential and are now entering their mid to late twenties will take their place. The obstruction crackdown is providing a bit more open ice for some smaller players to excel.

So far this season, I argue that the best player has been Roberto Luongo. He was extremely dominant in his first couple games where he had shutouts. Even when he allows a few goals, he still has a saves percentage of .943 which is the best among goalies with more than a couple games played. Among position players, so far this season, I argue that the best player has been Simon Gagne of the Philadelphia Flyers. After five games played (which is less than most players in the NHL) he leads the NHL with seven goals, ten points and a +8 +/- rating. He has clicked with centerman Peter Forsberg immediately.

Gagne has always had potential. Although he has never had a point per game season, he has appeared in an NHL all star game and represented Canada in the Olympics. This is likely going to be his breakthrough season where he truly becomes an NHL star.

Do I think Gagne will lead the NHL in scoring this year? No

Do I think the obstruction crackdown that has helped Gagne will continue all season? No

Do I think Forsberg will get injured at some point which will reduce the number of Gagne goals he sets up? Yes, most likely.

However, I do think that Gagne will be an all star who is likely going to be one of the better players in the NHL this year. Barring some kind of injury, I think this will be his best season to date.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Obstruction Crackdown

One of the biggest changes to the NHL this season is the NHL's obstruction crackdown. Thus far, I have been yet to comment on it because I am still undecided as to whether or not it is a good thing. Nevertheless, I feel it is time to comment because the in the comments on my Goaltenders, Bad Ice and Atlanta post of a couple days ago Jes Golbez made some comments that indirectly relate to it and I feel are worth some discussion and because, as Tom Benjamin notes, the NHL appears to be already letting up on this crackdown.

The NHL has maintained, since the mid-1990's or so, that the reduction in scoring in the NHL is a bad thing. They have claimed that this is largely due to the "clutch and grab" techniques used by some of the lesser talent NHL teams trying to slow down the faster better teams so that they can compete with them. I do not buy into this theory exactly, but it has been sold well to many of the fans. The logical conclusion of this theory is that if they just crack down on the "clutching and grabbing" with an obstruction crackdown, scoring will go up and everything in the NHL will be better.

There have been several attempts to crack down on obstruction which have failed. This one is the most serious attempt so far. It has successfully increased the number of goals per game this season.

The first thing that I reject is the idea that higher scoring hockey is better hockey. I am definitely not sold on that. I have seen some very good low scoring games and some very bad high scoring games (and vice versa). I'm also not sold that the average NHL fan will find higher scoring hockey to be better in the longterm - and for the most part I do not care what the average fan thinks. The average fan believes a lot of things that I disagree with - many of which are clearly myth. Raising the scoring level in the NHL is not necessarily a good thing from my point of view.

I also reject that the reason the scoring rate in the NHL has decreased in years past is due to "clutch and grab" obstruction. It has many causes. The most important cause is better hockey players. Bigger, better, faster players are finding it harder to find open ice. Successful defensive schemes have been developed to remove open ice. These defensive schemes are disrupted by the obstruction crackdown and thus scoring rises - at least temporarily.

The majority of the extra penalty calls made by referees are occurring in are right in front of the net. If players cannot defend their net physically, they will have to do it by playing a better positional game. Of course it takes time to learn to play this different game. Hockey is a game played at high speed and much of what players do is drilled in through repeated practise as they do not have time to think out their actions at the speed of the games. It takes time to learn to play a game differently - even with players of NHL talent. In time, better defensive schemes will be developed by coaches and learned by players. In time, players will adjust to the changes. How they adjust is yet to be determined. What kind of hockey will be played after these adjustments are made? That is not at all clear. Most likely, the results will be dramatically different from what is intended.

My best guess is that there will become less of a premium of big tough players who can survive the battles in the slot. Smaller more mobile players will replace bigger tougher players. This would occur both offensively and defensively. Power forwards and tough stay at home defencemen will be less important. Many of them will be lost. If this makes the NHL a faster, more talented game, this could be a good thing. However, it would make the NHL a less physical league. I do not think that is a good thing? I miss the good physical play in some of the games that I have seen this year. I am not sure yet if this will turn out to be a positive change or not.

When I watch games this season, there are a few complaints that I have. When I watch games and see offensive players in the slot who are not fighting off defencemen it looks wrong to me. They should have to fight to be in that real estate. I think that is largely a state of mind. I think it can be unlearned. I am not sure if it is better to not have a scrum going on in the slot or not. I have found the battles there exciting, but what replaces them might also be exiciting. I also dislike the increased number of penalties. I do not like the fact that a large part of most games are played on special teams. It disrupts the flow of games to have constant whistles and it takes away from the normal five on five play which I find the most exiciting part of games. My biggest complaint is also a state of mind complaint. Because more goals are scored this year, I find myself asking if every goal I see is a "cheap goal" that would not have been scored in years past that only exists because of the obstruction crackdown. More goals reduces the novelty of goal scoring and I find myself wondering if each goal is an "extra" one that would not have been seen in years past.

There is one clear unintended consequence that has already developed. There are more players in front of the net able to "run" the goalie at full speed. This is in addition to the goalie groin injuries that I have seen that are attributed largely to bad ice and still out of shape goalies who missed last season. An example of a goalie injury this has caused is Rick DiPietro of the New York Islanders concussion. Goalies need some more protection under this new scheme. Something will have to be done to fix this quite quickly unless we are willing to sacrifice many NHL goalies to needless injury.

This may all be a moot point because the NHL may not follow through with their obstruction crackdown. Higer scoring means more blowouts. Bad teams will lose be even larger margins. It will make bad teams more obvious. If fans do not support these bad teams, maybe the NHL would rather have then in more closer, lower scoring games. The NHL appears to be unwilling to gamble on this if they change the obstruction crackdown early in the season.

The best course of action for the NHL is to not make radical changes. Radical changes should not be made in between seasons - but it is too late for this. Radical changes should definitely not be made during a season - such as making a significant difference in obstruction calls during a season. That said, something must be changed to better protect goalies because that is despirately neeeded. This is a problem with radical change. Sometimes, it forces other change in mid-season because an unintended consequence from the radical change reveals a needed further change. Hockey is best when there is continuity from one year to the next. Fans should not have to learn a new system every year. Fans will lose their patience and be lost. Players should not have to learn a new system each year. It reduces the quality of play and removes any team's ability to do any longterm planning. Radical changes were made this summer. The NHL is best to follow through with these changes. If they do not work out they can be removed next year and it will be clearer what their effects were so they will not be tried again in the future producing the same results. It would have been better not to make any changes at all if the NHL is not willing to follow through with them.

I'm uncertain whether or not the obstruction crackdown will make the NHL any better. I have reservations but it may work out. If the NHL "chickens out" on the obstruction crackdown in mid-season that could be the worst possible move they have under the current circumstances. It is beginning to look like maybe the obstruction crackdown will not last.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Future Hall of Famer Brett Hull Retires

Last night, future Hall of Famer Brett Hull announced his retirement. TSN's story is here. He joins four other players that I consider future Hall of Famers who retired in the off season: Ron Francis, Mark Messier, Al MacInnis and Scott Stevens.

Brett Hull was born in Belleville, Ontario on August 9th, 1964. He was immediately born into hockey as the son of Bobby Hull. Hull didn't make a commitment to a hockey career until a bit later than most NHL players. At age 18, he joined the Penticton Knights of the BCJHL (which is a tier II Canadian league). He was out of shape, but showed incredible talent. He scored 104 points in only 50 games and made the BCJHL Interior Division first team all star. The next year in Penticton, Hull made significant improvement on those numbers. He scored 105 goals and 188 points (in 56 games). Both of those numbers led the league. Again, he made the Interior Division first all star team. Those numbers made him a big fish in a small pond in the NHL draft (which he had not been selected in as an 18 or 19 year old). He had huge success in a lesser league and was a couple years older than most players, but nevertheless, Calgary took a chance on him and drafted him as their sixth pick, 117th in the draft. Having graduated from juniors, Hull chose to play at the University of Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA. In his first year there, he was the named the freshman of the year in his conference (the WCHA). The following year, he continued to improve and made the WCHA First Team All Star. Calgary was interested in him as an NHL player. They signed him to a contract following his second NCAA season.

Calgary brought Brett Hull to the NHL for their playoff run in 1986 (the Flames made it to the finals). Along the way, Hull played in two largely uneventful games. Hull, who was Canadian born, played for the United States in the World Championships that year (his mother was American and he had dual citizenship - he was not yet geood enough to make the Canadian team). This established hull as an American for international play for his career. The next year, Hull spent most of his time playing for the Flames AHL affiliate in Moncton. He won the Red Garrett Trophy as the AHL rookie of the year and made the first team all star. He also played five NHL games that year plus four more in the playoffs. In his four playoff games, he managed three points. That showing was enough to earn him a regular NHL job in 1987-88. Hull got regular playing time, and scored at almost point per game rate. At trade deadline time, Calgary was gearing up for playoffs and traded some of their youth in Brett Hull and Steve Bozek to the St Louis Blues for veterans Rob Ramage and Rick Walmsley.

In his first season in St Louis, Hull established himself as a star. He appeared in his first of eight career all star games. The following year, he led the NHL in goals scoring 72 goals. He made the first team all star and won the Lady Byng trophy as most sportsmanlike player. In 1990-91, Hull scored 86 goals, again leading the NHL. He won the Hart trophy as NHL MVP. The players voted him their MVP - the Lester Pearson Award. Again he made the first all star team. The next year, Hull led the NHL in goals for a third straight year with 70 goals. He made the first all star team for the third straight year. Hull remained in St Louis until 1998. He was a consistent star for the Blues who scored at least forty goals a year in all (non-lockout) seasons. In 1998, he signed as a free agent with the Dallas Stars.

In his first year in Dallas, Hull was instumental in Dallas's Stanley Cup victory. Hull scored the Stanley Cup winning goal (which was a disputed goal). In 1999-2000, he helped Dallas back to the Stanley Cup finals. Although they did not win the cup, Hull lef the playoffs in goals, assists and points. In 2001, Hull signed as a free agent with the Detroit Red Wings.

In his first year in Detroit, Hull helped the Wings to a Stanley Cup victory. He led the playoffs in goals. Hull remained in Detroit for two more years as one of the team's better scorers. In 2004, he signed as a free agent with the Phoenix Coyotes.

Hull lost his first season in Phoenix to the lockout. This season, he tried to comeback to the NHL. After five relatively unsuccessful games, Hull decided to retire.

Hull represented the United States internationally many times. He played in two Olympics, one Canada Cup and two World Cups. In the 1996 World Cup, he made the tournament all star team.

Hull is one of the best goal scorers of all time. He retires with 741 career NHL goals which is good for third best all time. His 1391 career points is good for 18th all time.

Hull wanted to play this season, but when he wasn't having the success he expected he announced retirement, rather than play poorly. Hull said

There's an old expression, and I don't know who said it - `The mind is willing but the body isn't. I wish no one had to do this because it's so hard, it's hard because you never think you're going to grow older and be unable to live up to the expectations you set for yourself.


I realized I wasn't who I thought I was. I wasn't Brett Hull at 30 or 35 even. I was 41 years old and after a year and a half layoff, I didn't have what it took to play in the new game that was so exciting.

I think he is legitimately sad to be leaving the NHL, but would rather retire then make a fool of himself. He has three children and a fiancee that he will be able to spend more time with.

With Brett Hull's retirement, there are thirteen players left in the NHL that I think should make the Hall of Fame regardless of what they accomplish (or do not accomplish) for the rest of their careers. They are:

Dave Andreychuk
Ed Belfour
Martin Brodeur
Chris Chelios
Dominik Hasek
Jaromir Jagr
Brian Leetch
Mario Lemieux
Nicklas Lidstrom
Luc Robitaille
Joe Sakic
Brendan Shanahan
Steve Yzerman

Likely, as hockey is played this year, there will be some additions to this list.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Goaltenders, Bad Ice and Atlanta

One of the more serious NHL problems that has not been addressed in the NHL relaunch is that of bad ice. With expansion into warmer southern US markets and with multi-use arenas where the hockey ice is constantly taken in and out, this has become a serious problem. It was one of the causes of the decrease in scoring leaguewide - which seems to be reversing due to rule changes without addressing the ice issue. Bad ice reduces the flow in hockey games. Bad ice can also lead to injury. One common bad ice injury is a groin injury.

Early this season there has been a rash of groin injuries among goalies (ironically preferentially injuring goalies would increase scoring - though likely not enough to offset any scoring loss from bad ice). Goalies suffering groin injuries include Chris Osgood of Detroit, Brian Boucher of Phoenix, Kevin Weekes of the New York Rangers, Curtis Joseph of Phoenix and both Atlanta goalies Kari Lehtonen and Mike Dunham.

The Atlanta situation is the worst in the league. By simultaneously losing both of their NHL level goalies, they have been forced to use Michael Garnett (an AHL backup in 2004-05) and Adam Berkhoel (who was in the ECHL in 2004-05) as their goalie tandem and its not working.

Last night, Toronto defeated Atlanta 9-1 with goaltender Michael Garnett victimized for all nine goals in a very penalty filled game. Atlanta is suffering because of their goalie injuries which were indirectly caused by the bad ice in Phillips Arena.

The likely outcome is that Atlanta will be forced to make a deal to acquire an emergency NHL level goaltender. Now that Buffalo has acquired Michael Leighton they have four NHL capable goalies (the others are Ryan Miller, Mika Noronen and Martin Biron) they are the most likely team to deal with the Thrashers.

I would like to see the quality of of ice improve in the NHL. It has led to some interesting symptoms early this season.

Friday, October 14, 2005

This Should Be An Interesting Year For Martin Brodeur

Martin Brodeur is a very good goaltender. He is the defending Vezina trophy winner and well into a Hall of Fame career. However, he has always had critics who point out that he has always played behind a very good defence. Although he has always been a league leader in wins, goals against average and shutouts, but rarely is his saves percentage among the league leaders. This has caused some pundits to wonder just how good Brodeur is. How much of Martin Brodeur's success can be attributed to playing behind one of the best defences in the NHL?

This year, we may get a hint at the answer to this question. Scott Stevens has retired. Scott Niedermayer left New Jersey to sign as a free agent in Anaheim. This will be a significant hit to New Jersey's defence. New Jersey will still have a solid defence with Brian Rafalski, Paul Martin, Vladimir Malakhov, Richard Matvichuk, Dan McGillis and Colin White. They also have some very good defensive forwards led by John Madden and play a very good defensive system. There are several new faces on their defence and people filling new roles, so it will likely take a while for everything to start clicking in mid-season form. Prior to Friday night's games, New Jersey stands 7th in the most shots allowed per game. I imagine that this standing will get better as the season progresses. Probably New Jersey will be somewhere around or slightly above the middle of the pack in shots allowed. This is a step down from previous New Jersey defences. We will get to see how Martin Brodeur performs with a closer to average defence in front of him.

Martin Brodeur has not been the most impressive goalie in the NHL yet this year. He has only played four games so far, but his numbers are somewhat average. He has a 2.98 GAA and a .906 saves percentage. These numbers are hardly league leading. Of course, Brodeur is 33 years old and coming off a year off. It is quite reasonable to expect a slow start. It is also reasonable to expect that maybe his best seasons of his career may have passed in his late twenties or so.

Brodeur certainly hasn't been as good a goalie as Roberto Luongo this season. Luongo looks to have replaced him as the best goalie in the NHL. When one considers that Luongo is seven years younger than Brodeur, it is quite reasonable to expect he would overtake him as the best goalie in hockey.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Minor Leaguers May Sue the NHL

One of the clauses in the new CBA that is causing problems is the $75,000 waiver clause. It says that any player who is called up from the minors who is making more than $75,000 will need to clear waivers to be called up. Should he fail to clear, half his salary will be charged to the salary cap and payroll of the team that attempted to call him up. It is intended to prevent NHL teams from hiding salary in the minors, but has many unintended consequences. It makes for a defacto salary cap in the AHL and the ECHL. Why should we pay a career minor leaguer more than an NHL wannabe on a two-way contract? It has led to an exodus of career minor leaguers to the European leagues where they can get higher pay. This reduces the quality of the minor leagues since they lose talent. It reduces the development possibility for prospects in these leagues because prospects will not be playing against as high competition and thus not forced to learn to play at as high a level.

This is a clause that minor league hockey players and minor league hockey fans should be angry about. They had their leagues sold out by the NHL. The NHL has no right to do this. They have no right to significantly reduce the talent that fans will see in games. They have no right to effectively set a maximum salary for these leagues.

The Professional Hockey Players Association, the union for AHL and ECHL players, agrees and is threatening to sue the NHL according to the Toronto Star. Moreover, they are arguing that some players with existing contracts had their salary rolled back by 24% on the basis of the new CBA.

I think they have a very strong case. These minor league players were not members of the NHLPA and were not eleigble to vote on the new CBA. The NHLPA has no right to collectively bargain for players who are not among their members. This looks like a clear breach of anti-trust law.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Racial Slurs in Hockey Games

I'm sure this opinion will be unpopular.

Today, TSN reports that the NHL investigated Sean Avery of the Los Angeles Kings (a man who is already on record saying stupid things this season) for making a racial slur against Georges Laraque of the Edmonton Oilers (Laracque is both black and French-Canadian) in their game in Tuesday night's game (Los Angeles won 3-1). Because there is no proof of a slur, the NHL will take no disciplinary action against Avery.

I think the NHL has no place investigating racial slurs that happen in hockey games. I think the NHL has no place discipling players for them. A part of sports is trash talk. Say whatever you have to say to throw your opponent off his game. If you can get into his head and make him spend his effort trying to attack you, then he is not spending his effort trying to beat you in the hockey game. That is a valid technique which can be an intelligent way to win hockey games. It is something that has gone on for years at all levels of hockey (and in many other sports). Trash talk is just that - TRASH. The NHL has no place regulating it during games. If a player wants to say something to taunt another player, then let him. Its merely an attempt to make the NHL overly politically correct.

Ironically, if the NHL didn't bother investigating this stuff, it wouldn't be in the news and it wouldn't be an issue. Trash talk isn't something that should be regulated in the name of political correctness.

I am in no way defending Sean Avery. Its clear that he says stupid things. If the stupid things he says throw Laraque or anyone else on the opposing team off his game, then more power to Avery. What you can say in a trash talk situation in a hockey game is different from what you can say in the media after the game (thats clearly true even in the current politically correct NHL - players don't swear in interviews and they clearly do in trash talk situations in a game). I think the NHL should stop regulating trash talk during games.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Canucks Defence Will Crumble This Year

In 2003/04, the Vancouver Canucks had one of the best group of defencemen in the NHL. Mattais Ohlund, Ed Jovanovski, Marek Malik, Sami Salo and Brent Sopel played most of the ice time. This summer, their depth was significantly reduced when Malik was signed as a free agent by the New York Rangers and Brent Sopel was traded to the New York Islanders (in a deal likely motivated by the salary cap). This season, it is hoped that Bryan Allen and newcomer Steve McCarthy will step up to be able to take over the minutes that Malik and Sopel played in 03/04. At least that is the theory.

The Canucks have only played two games so far this year, but that theory is not working. Canucks coach Marc Crawford has only shown faith in the remaining big three defencemen from 03/04. A quick look at the stats at (note that these stats will change as games are played so they may have changed when you click the link) shows that the three leaders in shifts per game in the NHL are: 1) Sami Salo 2) Ed Jovanovski 3) Mattais Ohlund. That level of overwork will lead these players tiring and slowing down before the stretch drive (if not earlier). That is unless it leads to injury first.

The Canucks lack of depth at defence is already showing itself. It will likely lead to some serious problems before the season is complete.

NOTE: After the Canucks third game of the season, Salo and Jovanovski are still placed first and second in shifts per game. Ohlund has slipped to fifth falling behind Niclas Havelid of Atlanta and Rob Blake of Colorado. The top two and three of the top five in shifts per game is still dangerously overworked.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Is Roberto Luongo the Best Player in the NHL?

Whenever pundits name the best player in the NHL, rarely is the name Roberto Luongo mentioned. I think it should be.

Luongo has blossomed into a franchise goalie with the Florida Panthers. In the 2003/04 season, I would argue that Luongo was the best player in the NHL. He put up a spectacular league leading saves percentage of .931 despite playing behind the weak Florida defence that forced him to face lots of very good shots. I think he was the most vauluable player in the NHL that season. He didn't even get nominated for the Hart Trophy. The nominations went to Martin St Louis (the eventual winner), Jarome Iginla and Martin Brodeur. Voters have a bias toward players who are on better teams then Florida. If a team cannot make the playoffs, then their players lose a lot of consideration for the Hart trophy. They can be incredibly valuable to their team (where would Florida have been in 03/04 without Luongo?) but not happen to be on a team that is good enough to make the playoffs. Hockey is a team game. No one player can make a team a contender by himself - so it is unreasonable to say that he is not valuable without his team making playoffs. In 03/04, Luongo didn't even win the Vezina trophy as best goalie. Martin Brodeur won the Vezina. Brodeur faced far less shots then Luongo. He faced less quality shots then Luongo. Of course Brodeur had more wins and a better goals against average, these are consequences of playing on a better team. Luongo was the better goaltender.

This season is no different. Luongo has played three games so far for Florida. He has two shutouts so far. He has only allowed two goals all season. Luongo's GAA is 0.68. His saves percentage is .979. These numbers are incredible. They are unsustainable - of course they will drop somewhat over the season. Still, most likely, Luongo will have dominant numbers when the season is completed.

I think Roberto Luongo is the best player in the NHL today. I think the media has been slow to recognize this because he is in a non-traditional hockey market that has had limited success. If Luongo keeps it up, the media will be forced to acknowledge this, but it has been going on for a while now.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Free Agent Signings And Trades for the Last Few Days

In my Thursday free agent post, I concluded that move might wind down now that the season is here. That is not so. Teams are still making their final tweaks to their rosters.

Atlanta finally resigned Ilya Kovalchuk, which is an extremely important thing for their franchise. TSN's story is here.

Columbus traded Geoff Sanderson and Tim Jackman to Phoenix for Cale Hulse, Mike Rupp and Jason Chimera. TSN's story is here. Trades like this will be few and far between. They are hard to do in the salary capped environment. Geoff Sanderson is the biggest name in this deal, but how much does he have left? I think he will be a 3rd line forward at best. Mike Rupp or Jason Chimera in a best case scenario will do as well as Sanderson. I think this deal will have little significance. Phoenix hopes Sanderson still has something left, if he doesn't Columbus gets the best in this deal.

Detroit resigns Jason Woolley. TSN's story is here.

In another minor trade, Vancouver traded Fedor Fedorov to the New York Rangers for Josef Balej and a 2006 5th round draft pick. TSN's story is here. Both players have been enigmatic, in that they have been unable to translate their skills into NHL success. It wouldn't suprise me if in a year or two both have given up on their NHL chances and returned to Europe for good.

Edmonton signed Robbie Schremp to an entry level contract. TSN's story is here.

I think the final roster tweaks are mostly done. When they are completed, teams will play a few games with the rosters they have before attempting future moves. The salary cap limits many teams options, thus there will be few trades of any significance.

Friday, October 07, 2005


The new NHL was supposed to be better than before. The old problems were supposed to be solved right?

Not so fast. The Toronto Maple Leafs have played only one game and the tired issue of visors has come back. In Toronto's 3-2 shootout loss to Ottawa, Mats Sundin was hit by a puck in the face and it broke his left orbital bone (surrounding his eye). Sundin will be out for 4 to 6 weeks (and possibly longer should they detirmine it requires surgery). This is hardly the first time a Toronto player has suffered a serious eye injury. In 2000, Bryan Berard nearly lost his eye. He missed over a season recovering and his career appeared to be in jeopardy. This isn't even the first time Sundin has had an injury in his eye area. Owen Nolan and Darcy Tucker have both also had close calls with their eyes. Every team has a list of a few players who have had injuries in their eye area. How many times does it have to happen before the NHL says enough is enough? How many times does it have to happen before the players decide enough is enough?

The NHL has made several changes since the last time they played hockey. There now is a salary cap, shootouts, escrow etc. During the long CBA negotiation, the issue of visors never even came up. If the owners thought that there was money to be made in manditory visors we would have them. The NHLPA eventually gave in to all the owner demands in the negotiations. If the NHL demanded visors there would be visors.

The players don't seem to want visors either. Mostly its an outdated idea that is ingrained in the psyche of NHL players. Anyone who wears a visor is a chicken. A few days ago, Sean Avery said:

I think it was typical of most French guys in our league with a visor on, running around and playing tough and not back anything up.

He was referring to Denis Gauthier who hit his teammate in a pre-season game Jeremy Roenick resulting in a concussion. Notice how he sees wearing a visor as being a sign a player is a "chicken".

The NHL sees players as a disposable resource in the new CBA. If the players get injured they can be discarded for new healthy players. The players are too "macho" to wear anymore protective equipment then is mandated.

The NHL should grandfather in visors, in the same way they did helmuts. Every player who is drafted in the future would have to wear a visor. In a few years, everyone would have visors. How many more eye injuries will it take?

TSN's story on Sundin's issue is titled Sundin considers visor full time. Thats right, he is thinking about it. Two eye injuries isn't enough for him to decide he definitely needs to wear a visor.

NOTE: Bruce Garrioch reports that the NHLPA will vote on Tuesday about whether or not it supports making visors manditory.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Waiver Claims and Trades for the Last Few Days

Hockey season is underway. Last night, there were too many games to keep up with all of them, but also not enough games to show any meaningful trends yet this season. Teams have been making the final tweaks to their rosters since my last free agent post there have been no free agent signings of note, but several waiver claims and minor trades.

Ottawa acquired Filip Novak from Florida for future considerations. TSN's story is here. Novak is still a young defenceman who will provide depth in Ottawa. Initially, he was sent to the minors, but he could be a useful part this year. In Florida, Mike Keenan likes to trade players that he doesn't like for minimal return. Ottawa has the chance to potentially benefit from this deal.

Washington claims Brent Johnson on waivers from Vancouver. TSN's story is here. Johnson should be a good backup goalie in Washington. I think this move means Maxime Ouellet is no longer considered a serious prospect goalie for the Caps.

Minnesota claims Randy Robitaille on waivers from Nashville. TSN's story is here. Robitaille is a hard working forechecker who should fit in well as a depth forward in the Minnesota Wild system.

Chicago traded Milan Bartovic to Buffalo for Michael Leighton. TSN's story is here. Both of these players should begin their seasons in the AHL. Buffalo has too many goalies with Ryan Miller, Martin Biron and Mika Noronen ahead of Leighton. I think Chicago comes out ahead in this trade merely because there is a better chance that Bartovic will get some NHL play this year, though likely he won't have much of an impact.

Columbus claims Andy Delmore on waivers from Detroit. TSN's story is here. Delmore has been an awful defender recently, but a few years ago was quite a valuable player for Nashville. Columbus hopes he can recover his career.

Likely, there will not be many trades during this season, because the salary cap is one more constraint to make trades even harder to complete. If there are lots of moves, I will write about them. If they rarely happen, then I will write about other things.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

How Good Was Lester Patrick?

In my posts about sabermetrics and hockey, I have written about a comparison of the top 10 defencemen of all time according to Daryl Shilling's hockey project rating system and Pnep's hall of fame monitor. I have written several posts about interesting sabermetric questions regarding various defencemen in these rankings. There are posts about Bobby Orr, Doug Harvey, Ray Bourque, Eddie Shore and Didre Pitre. I think there is one more interesting player to highlight in Lester Patrick.

Most people know Lester Patrick as a builder. He was a long time New York Ranger coach and general manager. He is the person the old Patrick Division was named after. The Lester Patrick trophy for outstanding service to hockey in the United States is also named after him. Before his career as an NHL builder, he was a successful hockey player.

Patrick played all seven positions at one point in his career (including rover which was a mid-field type position in hockey's early days). He is best known as an offensive defenceman. Patrick's first major league play was in 1903/04 playing for Brandon in the North Western Hockey League. He played well enough to get himself a spot in the more major leagues in eastern Canada. He went to Montreal and played a year for a Westmount team. The next year 1905/06, he jumped to the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association Montreal Wanderers. They won the Stanley Cup and Patrick was one of their key players scoring 17 goals from (primarily) defence. Montreal repeated as Stanley Cup champs again in 1907 with Patrick in their lineup again. Patrick would much rather live in Western Canada and jumped there the next year. He played for the Nelson (B.C) Senior team. He split his next season between Nelson and an Edmonton Pro team. In 1909/10 he went back to Eastern Canada (upset that the Western Canada hockey scene was not as developed). He played for the Renfrew (Ontario) Creamery Kings. The next year, he jumped back to Nelson B.C. giving the west another try.

Then, in 1911, Lester Patrick did something significant to change the hockey scene in Western Canada. He and his brother Frank started up the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. They were financed by their father Joseph Patrick, who was a millionaire lumberman. Patrick played with the Victoria Aristocrats in his new league. He preceeded to make the PCHA First team all star in four of the first five PCHA season (missing in 1913/14 when injuries limited him to only 9 games - or half the short season). In 1916, Patrick moved onto the Spokane team in his league and in 1917 he moved again to Seattle. In 1918, he returned to Victoria where he finished out his active playing career. In 1918 and 1920, Patrick made the PCHA second team all star. He retired in 1922 to coach his Victoria team (now called the Victoria Cougars). Patrick attempted a comeback in the 1925/26 season with Victoria when the league was failing financially. Much like Mario Lemieux's return, it was hoped that his star power would raise attendance in the league. The PCHA folded at the conclusion of the season.

The Patrick brothers decided that instead of selling their players directly to the NHL, they would sell them to American teams that soon expanded in to the league (at the time these teams also considered starting their own league). Patrick was hired to coach the expansion New York Rangers. Patrick played one game as a Ranger that season before retiring again. In the 1928 Stanley Cup playoffs, Ranger goalie Lorne Chabot was injured. Patrick the general manager, now 44 years old donned the pads as the Ranger goalie as an injury replacement. The Rangers won the playoff game 2-1 and Lester Patrick was the winning goalie.

So how good was Lester Patrick? Clearly, he was one of the better defencemen of his time. He was dominant in the PCHA, the league in which he founded. For the most part, he lost the first several years in his twenties trying to play in Western Canada before there were legitimate teams. Daryl Shilling ranks Patrick as the 9th best defender of all time. Since Pnep does not rank pre-NHL players, he does not rank Patrick at all.

Patrick is exactly the kind of player that will benefit the most from Shilling's rating system. He was an offensive defenceman who played a bit of forward, but is ranked as a defenceman. He played short seasons and will gain a significant number of goals when his points are adjusted. It is much easier to score at (for example) point per game rates win an 18 game season that Patrick played then it is in a modern day 82 game season. Since Patrick lost a lot of his career trying to find a place to play in Western Canada, he has a large amount of undocumented time - which Shilling credits him for at the average rate he played in his career. Most of the success in the documented portion of Patrick's career came in the early years of the PCHA. This was an expansion league and took a few years to get established. The league competed for the Stanley Cup against the best Eastern Canada had to offer. It took three years of failure before the Vancouver Millionares won the Stanley Cup in 1915 - I would consider this the point where it becomes logicla to assume the PCHA is roughly the equal of the eastern leagues. Patrick's highest goal scoring season in the PCHA occurred in 1912-13 before this happened. There are questions about how good his calibre of opposition was. That is one major missing feature in these sabermetric systems. They need an adjustment for the calibre of opposition. Likely, players who dominated lesser opposition, as Patrick does will benefit significantly.

In the end, the question of how good was Lester Patrick is hard to answer. When he left the Montreal Wanderers at age 23, he bounced around until age 27 playing for the most part in lesser Western Canadian leagues. Quite possibly the best season of his career was lost in this time frame. It is hard to evaluate him since he played against very qeustionable opposition. Even at age 27, when he started the PCHA, he was playing in an expansion league that grew quickly. By age 30, it was probably as good as any league in the world. However, Patrick's career in his prime years were either undocumented or against lesser opposition in an expansion league. I am not convinced that he definitely belongs in any top ten ranking. Probably he does not, although the undocumented nature pf his career makes this rating defensable - mostly by assuming he would have been truly outstanding in these missing years. I don't agree with this technique. I believe players should be judged based on what it is documented that they accomplished and not by what we assume they might have accomplished. I do agree that players should get some credit for losing key years of their career for reasons outside their control, but I don't think that they should make a top 10 defenceman list based largely on this credit for undocumented time. I think the choice of Lester Patrick in this top 10 list is a poor one, but it is possible to defend.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

NHL Brainstorm

One very good new blog is Battle of Alberta a blog that highlights the two Alberta teams Calgary and Edmonton. I added it to my bloglist today.

They have had a very good series of posts called the NHL Brainstorm. They can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.

They asked several Canadian bloggers (and not necessarily hockey bloggers) a series of questions. Participants were Andrew Anderson, Colby Cash, Ginna Dowler, Andy Grabia, The Hack, Jay Jardine, Chris Selley and the Battle of Alberta hosts Sacamano (who is the Edmonton fan) and Matt (who is Calgary fan). I really love the hot stove league feel off these posts.

They asked the following questions (which I would like to attempt to answer and then possibly comment upon their answers):

Question 1: Name one thing that's widely expected (or bit of conventional wisdom) about the upcoming NHL season that you doubt will happen.

I do not think that the obstruction crackdown will last and I do not think that the rule changes will make any significant difference in the NHL's scoring rate. This is a common response in some form from their pundits, another common response was that the Calgary Flames will not do as well as expected.

Question 2: What is the biggest unknown for you in the upcoming season, or what will you be most curious to see?

How will the markets respond that were sold false hope in the off-season. Some markets have been convinced that they are significantly improved due to their off season moves, but will turn out to be no better than they were in 2004 (or possibly even worse then they were in 2004). Will this kill any momentum at the box office? Both Hack and Selley made similar points. Another question was about how long the obstruction crackdown would last and if it would affect fighting.

Question 3: A) Pick one player who you think will break through, and B) pick one player whose performance will drop off considerably, relative to what we're used to

My breakthrough pick is Jason Spezza. He has tons of potential and had a great year in the AHL last year. he looks ready to take a big step forwards. Declining player will be somebody who is getting up in years like Ed Belfour or Mike Modano. Spezza was a common choice picked five times. The decling choices had less consensus, the only player named twice was Joe Sakic (who I think still has a few years left in him). I think the worst choice was Paul Kariya (chosen by Matt). I think he will have a big year leading Nashville in points.

Question 4: A) Pick one team who you think will break through, and B) pick one team who has been good recently who you think will be bad this year

I think San Jose will become an "elite" team this year. I'm not sure you call it a breakthrough if you are coming off a trip to the semi-finals, but nevertheless, I think they will jump further forwards. The previously good team that will do badly is St Louis. The Laurie ownership gave up Chris Pronger and Pavol Demitra before selling the team. It will be a while before things turn around. Florida and Ottawa were the only teams picked twice to improve. Matt picks the New York Rangers - which I think is a poor choice - they will likely have a bad year. St Louis was the most common choice for a team to drop off.

Question 5: A) What will the results of the Stanley Cup Finals be, and B) how is *your* team going to do.

First, I have to say that it is impossible to predict something like this with reliability, but if I follow my predictions I made earlier I should pick an Ottawa vs. San Jose final, which Ottawa would likely win if Hasek is healthy. How will "my team" do? For the purpose of this question, I will call the Vancouver Canucks my team. I grew up in Vancouver, but have not lived there in over a decade - old habits die hard. I think I am atypical fan in that I watch a good game and get a real buzz from it but do not necessarily notice or even care who won. Going back to my predictions, I would have Vancouver doing well and winning the Northwest Division and then likely losing to San Jose in the semi-finals. Of course, with some luck they could have a good shot at the Stanley Cup. Three different pundits picked a San Jose vs. Ottawa final. This is the most popular pick.

To the people running the Battle of Alberta, keep up the good work. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Free Agent Signings And Trades for the Last Several Days

My last free agent post was almost two weeks ago. Teams started to evaluate their own talent instead of making moves to sign new talent. Now that the season is almost here, it is time to sign the people who won contracts and make a few minor trades to finalize rosters.

Yanic Perreault leaves Montreal to sign in Nashville. TSN's story is here. Perreault will be a useful utility forward in Nashville, who should take his share of faceoffs.

Gilbert Brule signed an entry level contract with Columbus. TSN's story is here.

Ken Belanger resigned with Los Angeles. TSN's story is here.

As I mentioned in this post about Guillaume Latendresse, Montreal traded Marcel Hossa to the New York Rangers for Garth Murray. This trade is a win for the Rangers as Hossa is the better player and may play on the 3rd or possibly even 2nd line. Presumably, the trade was made because Montreal had too many bodies trying to make their team and were worried about losing one on waivers and Garth Murray could be sent to the minors without waivers. Murray may play a role with Montreal, but he is more likely to remain in the minors most of this season.

Carolina signed Andrew Ladd to an entry level contract. TSN's story is here.

There may be a few more final signings before the season opens up.

Pre-Season Final Scoring

Last week, I discussed pre-season scoring. Now that the pre-season has just ended, I think its a good idea to revisit this topic.

The best site for pre-season stats is CBS Sportsline.

The pre-season top scorers are largely people who have something to prove and thus were given longer looks in pre-season play.

The top scorer was Jason Spezza of Ottawa. He was the top scorer in the AHL last year. He is a talented young player who has yet to establish himself as a frontline NHL player (its expected he will this year).

Next came another Senator, newcomer Dany Heatley. He was acquired in the off-season from Atlanta.

The third highest scorer is Philadelphia's Jon Sim, who is an NHL journeyman at best, but has likely won an NHL job.

In the end, the pre-season does not mean much. The players who dominate the regular season may not have much of a pre-season at all.

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