Sunday, April 30, 2006

Even Strength Scoring

The playoffs have been filled by special teams play. An increasing percentage of scoring has been special teams scoring. The top scorer in the playoffs so far is Patrik Elias of the New Jersey Devils who has 11 points in only four games. Only four of his points have come at even strength. His seven power play points are more than the top scorer on some of the playoff teams has for his entire point total.

So who is scoring at even strength? I tend to view these points as more "dependable" for fantasy purposes as they will not reduce if the refereeing standards change over time and because players scoring at even strength may tend to get more power play time in the future. Its still early in the playoffs (4 or 5 games played per player), but the leaders in even strength scoring are Peter Forsberg of the Philadelphia Flyers and Brad Richards of the now eliminated Tampa Bay Lightning who have 6 even strength points each.

I think this means that Forsberg has been dangerous and will continue to be so for the Flyers. Unless Buffalo can stop him, they will have trouble with the Flyers. I think Tampa did not have a particularly good playoff, but none of that blame falls on Brad Richards. If a few more Lightning players could have played as well as he did, they would still be alive.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Defending Stanley Cup Champs On Verge of Implosion

When the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004, things looked great for this franchise. But the season lost to the lockout did a lot to derail any momentum that it created. One could make a strong argument that the team that lost the most in the lockout was Tampa. First they lost the marketing opportunities of a 2004/05 season that would have fully capitalized on their Stanley Cup victory and second the salary cap forced them to jettison a good deal of depth in Cory Stillman, Jassen Cullimore, Brad Lukowich, captain Dave Andreychuk and goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. Tampa (along with a couple other teams such as Vancouver) learned that you cannot win by parting with your depth to keep a couple big contracts.

Would Tampa have won in 2006 without a salary cap? Probably not. Largely because I think they would still have goaltending problems since Nikolai Khabibulin had an awful year in Chicago (and presumably would not have been any better in Tampa). However, had Khabibulin put up an all star calibre season in Tampa, with the rest of the current roster, they would likely be serious contenders.

Tampa came through the regular season unspectacularly. They clinched eighth seed in the east and got the right to play the powerful Ottawa Senators in the first round. Ottawa injuries (particularly to Dominik Hasek) have kept the series from being a total mismatch, but Ottawa currently leads 3 games to one and can close out the series tonight in Ottawa.

Worse, Tampa Bay is showing no unity. They are falling apart. Coach John Tortorella has taken the infighting public by publically berating goalie John Grahame. Grahame is a solid goalie who played on the US Olympic team. He played poorly so far in the playoffs. He has a .847 saves percentage and a 4.79 goals against average in the playoffs so far. He will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and likely will not be back in Tampa next year.

In hockey, you win as a team and lose as a team. You create problems by creating scapegoats like John Grahame and "throwing them under the bus". This was a poor choice by a desperate coach in John Tortorella. Likely Tampa will lose tonight and get eliminated. Serious thought about whether or not Tortorella is a suitable NHL coach should follow.

Tampa Bay was a very good team in 2004. The lockout killed their momentum. The salary cap cost them a lot of depth. Most likely they would not have repeated, but they would have done better than this without those problems. The fans in the Tampa area deserve better than this. They should be very upset with the direction of the "new NHL".

Friday, April 28, 2006

The Special Teams Playoffs

One of the bigger changes the NHL has seen this season is the obstruction crackdown. In an effort to open up the NHL and increase scoring, they have decided to stringently call all possible penalties (including some phantom penalties where a player falls down in a crowd). This has successfully increased scoring somewhat. The biggest reason scoring is up is increased power plays. Scoring has also increased in even strength situations, but it is a smaller increase then on special teams.

Gary Bettman has mandated that the refereeing will not let up in the playoffs. Any referee who does not continue to call penalties using the regular season standards will not call more playoff games. One reason for this is to ensure that the same type of hockey that won in the regular season will also win in the playoffs. Another potential reason might be to ensure that overtime games do not run too long for the networks that the NHL wants to carry their games.

As a result of the increased attention on officiating standards, penalty calls have gone up from the regular season standards. Scoring in special team situations has become a higher percentage of total scoring. In the regular season, 2863 of the 7443 goals score were special teams goals. This is 38.5% of the total goals over the season. So far in the playoffs, 80 of the 181 goals scored have been special team goals. This is 44.5% of the total playoff goals. Special teams have become more important in the playoffs then they were in the regular season. The NHL over-corrected a perceived problem and now the reverse of that problem exists. To be a successful playoff team, special teams scoring is more important than it is to a regular season team.

Is this the league Gary Bettman wants? Does he want a higher scoring game with less 5 on 5 play? Does he want a league where teams alternate power plays to increase scoring? That is the league he appears to be building.

I don't view the scoring rate as a meaningful variable to evaluate the quality of hockey. High scoring means worse defence. Is that an improvement? A good game is an exciting game. I have seen high scoring exciting games and low scoring exciting games (as well as high and low scoring less exciting games). I do think that for the most part, hockey should be a five on five game. Penalties are necessary, but there is no reason to call a penalty if there was no harm from the foul. If a player maintained possession of the puck why stop the play? There is no need to call a penalty every time the puck goes into a crowd and somebody falls down. Let the teams decide the games and not the referees.

Interpretation of hockey rules in always a problem. If we adopt the strictest possible interpretation of rules (above and beyond the current obstruction crackdown), a penalty could be called several times a minute, almost every time contact occurs between players. This is undesirable. Where is the happy medium? I believe that the NHL has passed that point with their obstruction crackdown.

This much is clear, the Stanley Cup will be won by a team with very good special teams. It is impossible to win it without them.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

More St Louis Sale Problems

The lockout has reduced the total revenue of the NHL (despite claims of record attendance). In bottom feeding markets there does not remain a high demand to own a hockey team. Previous owners, Bill and Nancy Laurie quit on the team during the lockout. They have twice announced the sale to a group lead by former Madison Square Gardens President Dave Checketts. The first announcement was in September. Checketts backed out in November. He negotiated a new sales price and the sale was reannounced in March.

His March purchase group included three groups of investors called Sports Capital Partners, Towerbrook Capital Partners and Echo Star Communications Corp (these complicated ownership groups only make definitive statements about earnings of hockey teams - and exactly who owns them more complex). St Louis Today is reporting that Echo Star Communications has pulled out. This is not expected to stop Checketts group from buying the Blues.

The business of hockey is all too complicated, with corporations and capital partnership groups with often unnamed people in charge. It makes it hard to know exactly who is in charge and whether or not they have been successful financially with their ownership. The NHL wants it that way. They can feed you whatever financial numbers they want and you have no way of verifying them. One thing is clear, there is no big demand to buy the Blues because of all the time this purchase has taken. Nobody else seems to want them except for Checketts group and they are not finding it particularly easy to put it together. These time delays in the purchase are not a problem to Checketts group because nobody else seems tobe trying to purchase the team.

OLN Reinventing Itself

After a subpar regular season of hockey coverage, OLN has done a good job with their playoff coverage. After long legal wranglings, they have settled their disputes with the Dish Network, Cablevision in New York and the National Cable Television Cooperative. Hopefully, with legal problems finally solved, they can provide much more consistent coverage across the country.

They are now announcing that their network will now be known as Versus starting in September. Will this rebranding make much difference? Time will tell. The big test will be the 2006/07 regular season. Will it be as well produced as the current playoffs or will it be as lacking as the 2005/06 regular season?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Brodeur Dominant In Early Playoffs

The various first round playoff series are only two and three agems old so far and there is plenty of room for significant showings from teams and players that have so far not been very dominant. So far, the best team in the playoffs has been the New Jersey Devils. They have outplayed the New York Rangers by a large margin. Given that Jaromir Jagr is hurt, it will be very hard for the Rangers to come back from their 0-2 deficit. I have already written about the huge game one that Patrik Elias had where he scored six points. As good as he played, he hasn't been the most dominant player in the playoffs so far. That honor goes to New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur. Brodeur has a fabulous 1.01 goals against average and a .964 saves percentage. Both are playoff leading numbers. Brodeur has played several dominant playoffs in the past winning three Stanley Cups so far in his career. If he can continue to play at this level, he may be on the verge of another.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

OLN Playoff Coverage Is Improved

When OLN won the NHL TV rights I think they were a bit suprised. They expected that eventually the TV rights would return to ESPN and they had no serious shot at obtaining them. They were not ready for good telecasts. The early TV broadcasts had horrible production values. Most local hockey broadcasts have significantly better production values then OLN did. Further, OLN didn't seem to embrace the hockey coverage as the highlight of their programming package. They only showed games on slow nights (Monday and Tuesday). They did not do a good job of updating other games throughout the league that they were not airing. OLN had a pretty poor schedule of programming with second rate shows like Survivor reruns in prime time on non-hockey days. Thedy could have improved their programming by showing more nights of hockey. This would have gone a long way to establishing OLN as the hockey network in the United States. I do not know why they did not do that.

In the playoffs it has been another story. OLN is finally embracing hockey. They show multiple games a night. They show games essentially every night. They keep fans updated with the other games they are not broadcasting. They show classic games when there is no game underway. They have hockey postgame shows. The production values are improving. They use other feeds, such as CBC for "bonus coverage" when the game they are showing has concluded and other games are still underway. This is starting to look like the OLN I hoped we would see. I hoped that it would be a channel that could totally devote itself to hockey because it lacked other big time programming.

Of course there are still problems. The biggest one is that OLN games are still not shown on the Dish Network. People who have the Dish Network with full Center Ice hockey packages still cannot see OLN games. This creates a stupid scenario, where certain games of a series (which are not shown on OLN) are available to watch and the other games in the series (which are OLN games are not).

The quality of the OLN broadcasts have significantly improved for the playoffs. I hope they keep that up next season in the regular season. They still have stupid political and business arangements that alienate fans (where it appears neither the Dish Network nor OLN can win) and that needs to be fixed (it should have been fixed months ago - actually it should never have happened in the first place). I think over the longer term NHL games on OLN could work out very well if OLN allows itself to become the NHL network and centers their programming all winter around NHL games like they have in the playoffs. I don't know why this wasn't the plan from the beginning of this season.

NOTE: The day I wrote this, the NHL announced that OLN and the Dish Network finally have a settlement. OLN games will be shown on the Dish Network after being blocked for the regular season and the very early playoffs. Thanks to David Singer at the Ice Block for the pointer. This is a good thing for hockey. Shame it took so long. The real test for OLN will be during next season's regular season. Will coverage more resemble the 2005/06 regular season or the playoffs?

Monday, April 24, 2006

Islanders Owner Pleads Guilty

The NHL is not without ethical problems among their ownership. Some owners make no effort to improve their teams while taking every possible dollar they can in profits. These include Boston and Chicago. Other owners try to extort new rinks from local government, such as Pittsburgh. In the past, some have gone to jail for various transgressions. These include Bruce McNall in Los Angeles and John Rigas in Buffalo. Another name has joined this growing group of dishonor. New York Islanders co-owner Sanjay Kumar, the former CEO of software company Computer Associates has plead guilty in an accounting scandal.

Here is a TSN story on this.

Elias: The Early Playoff Star

Patrik Elias missed the first half of the season as he recovered from a case of hepatitis that he contracted during the lockout year. He made a great comeback and must be considered a front runner for the Masterton trophy for perseverence and dedication to hockey. His story is getting even better. He had a brilliant game in Saturday's 6-1 Devils win in game one versus the Rangers. He scored two goals and goat 4 assists and currently leads the NHL in points despite the fact that half the NHL players have two games played and he only has one. If somebody manages a game like Elias had in the Stanley Cup finals, it would be a historic event that would be retold for years to come in the future. It would be a game that would go a long way to cement the legend of Patrik Elias the superstar.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

First Round Playoff Predictions

Before I make my first round playoff predictions, I need to not that I have made poor predictions in the past (see the Olympic predictions I made for example).

Detroit Red Wings defeat Edmonton Oilers Detroit was one of the better teams in the NHL this year. Edmonton backed into a playoff spot when Vancouver imploded. Detroit has Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Schneider who all had better seasons then any Edmonton Oiler this year.

Colorado Avalanche defeat Dallas Stars Colorado's record was kept down by playing in the tough Northwest Division. Dallas's record was slightly better than it looked due to shootout success - which will have no value come playoff time. I think Colorado has more good players in Sakic, Blake, Tanguay, Hejduk. It will be interesting to see how Jose Theodore plays in the playoffs.

Calgary Flames defeat Anaheim Mighty Ducks Calgary won the tough Northwest Division, but it kept their record below where it should have been. Calgary has the better goalie in Kiprusoff. They have the best forward in Iginla and they have the best team defence in the NHL.

San Jose Sharks defeat Nashville Predators With Tomas Vokoun hurt, Nashville will be hard pressed to get the goaltending they need to win in the playoffs. San Jose was one of the hottest teams down the stretch with outstanding play from Thornton and Cheechoo.

Ottawa Senators defeat Tampa Bay Lightning Ottawa has the deepest team in the NHL. They have the most good players. Still, it will not be easy with Dominik Hasek hurt. Tampa may be the defending Stanley Cup champions, but they don't have the talent to match Ottawa. Tampa doesn't really have a goaltending advantage with Jon Grahame in net. Neither he nor Ray Emery or Mike Morrison in Ottawa are likely to steal many games. Should Ottawa get through the first round, if Hasek is ready for the second, then Ottawa should be dangerous.

Carolina Hurricanes defeat Montreal Canadiens Carolina has more offensive depth with Staal, Weight, Brind'Amour, Recchi, Stillman. Cristobal Huet played very well down the stretch and could keep Montreal close (unless they chose to play Aebischer), but Martin Gerber will also provide the Hurricanes with solid goaltending.

New Jersey Devils defeat New York Rangers The Rangers really cooled off in the stretch and can be beaten. New Jersey has a deeper team. They have many battle ready proven playoff players. Martin Brodeur is hard to beat come playoff time.

Philadelphia Flyers defeat Buffalo Sabres Philadelphia has been hard to beat when they have Peter Forsberg in the lineup. Forsberg is back and looks to be healthy. Buffalo was a suprise team, but Philadelphia is a deeper one.

NOTE: This will probably be my last post for a few days due to some family commitments.

If I Had An Award Ballot

Since the NHL season is over, it is time to think about the regular season awards. If I had a ballot here is who I would vote for as the top three candidates for the awards (note this is a different question from who I think will win the awards).

Selke Trophy - 1. Rod Brind'Amour Carolina Hurricanes 2. Brian Rolston Minnesota Wild 3. Martin Gelinas Florida Panthers

The Selke is the trophy whose nominees are the least likely to be NHL superstars. Being one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL - while valuable - often does not make you the best forward on your own team. Here is why I support Brind'Amour and here is an explanation of why Rolston is an excellent candidate.

Lady Byng Trophy - 1. Pavel Datsyuk Detroit Red Wings 2. Brad Richards Tampa Bay Lightning 3. Jason Spezza Ottawa Senators

Like the Selke, being a sportmanlike player often does not make you the best player on your team. Here is why I support Datsyuk.

Adams Trophy - 1. Jacques Lemaire Minnesota Wild 2. Tom Renney New York Rangers 3. Ken Hitchcock Philadelphia Flyers

I strongly disagree with the common method of picking coach of the year as coach of the most improved team. Here is why I support Jacques Lemaire for this award.

Calder Trophy - 1. Alexander Ovechkin Washington Capitals 2. Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penguins 3. Henrik Lundqvist New York Rangers

There was a rookie crop this year. In a weaker season any of these nominees as well as a couple others (Phaneuf for example) could win this award. Here is why I support Ovechkin.

Norris Trophy - 1. Nicklas Lidstrom Detroit Red Wings 2. Sergei Zubov Dallas Stars 3. Scott Niedermayer Anaheim Mighty Ducks

Here is why I support Lidstrom.

Vezina Trophy - 1. Miikka Kiprusoff Calgary Flames 2. Tomas Vokoun Nashville Predators 3. Henrik Lundqvist New York Rangers

Here is why I support Kiprusoff.

Hart Trophy - 1. Jaromir Jagr New York Rangers 2. Joe Thornton San Jose Sharks 3. Nicklas Lidstrom Detroit Red Wings

Here is my forecasting of the MVP race. It has gotten even tighter since I wrote that with Thornton winning the scoring title. I support Jagr largely because he has a much higher goal total. I think Thornton gets some support for the wrong reasons.

All Star Teams First Team - Alexander Ovechkin Washington Capitals, Joe Thornton San Jose Sharks, Jaromir Jagr New York Rangers, Nicklas Lidstrom Detroit Red Wings, Sergei Zubov Dallas Stars, Miikka Kiprusoff Calgary Flames
Second Team - Dany Heatley Ottawa Senators, Eric Staal Carolina Hurricanes, Daniel Alfredsson Ottawa Senators, Scott Niedermayer Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Wade Redden Ottawa Senators, Tomas Vokoun Nashville Predators
Third Team - Ilya Kovalchuk Atlanta Thrashers, Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penguins, Jonathan Cheechoo San Jose Sharks, Zdeno Chara Ottawa Senators, Mathieu Schneider Detroit Red Wings, Henrik Lundqvist New York Rangers

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Future Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille Retires

Last night, future hall of fame left winger Luc Robitaille played his final NHL game. He is the first hall of fame worthy player to retire since Mario Lemieux.

Here are my hall of fame criteria.

Luc Robitaille was born on February 17th, 1966 in Montreal, Quebec. He rose through the Montreal minor hockey system culminating in a 93 point season in 48 games as a 17 year old for Bourassa in northern Montreal. He moved to the QMJHL where he played with the Hull Olympiques. His first season was a very respectable 85 points in 70 games. Robitaille was seen a a tall skinny kid who played in the offense only QMJHL who lacked in defensive skills. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings late in the draft. He was chosen in the nineth round, 171st overall. Robitaille took a big step forward the next season. He scored 149 points and made the QMJHL second team all star. In his final junior year, Robitaille scored 191 points and made the first team all star in the QMJHL and was named Canadian Major Junior Player of the Year and made the Memorial Cup all star team. In 1986/87 Robitaille made the Los Angeles Kings. He scored 84 points in his rookie year and made the NHL all rookie team, second team all star and won the Calder trophy as the rookie of the year. He stepped forward to 111 points in his next year. He played in his first of eight NHL all star games and made the first team all star for the first of four consecutive seasons. He followed that up with three more very good years with 98, 101 and 91 points respectively. In 1991, he was selected to play for Canada in the Canada Cup. He had another big offensive year in the NHL that season with a 107 point season and made the second team all star. In 1992/93 he had the best offensive season of his career with 125 points and earned another first team all star berth. Robitaille played one more year in Los Angeles in 1993/94 before being traded to Pittsburgh for Rick Tocchet and a second round draft pick (LA chose Pavel Rosa).

Robitalle stayed in Pittsburgh for one season before he was traded to the New York Rangers with Ulf Samuelsson for Petr Nedved and Sergei Zubov.

Robitaille spent two years in New York but was unable to reach the heights he had reached in Los Angeles. He was traded back to the Kings for Kevin Stevens.

Back in Los Angeles, Robitaille appeared to be at home again and his game improved again. In 2000/01 he scored 88 points and again made the second team all star. After that success, Robitaille left again and joined the Detroit Red Wings as a free agent.

In his first year in Detroit (2002), Robitaille won the Stanley Cup. He stayed in Detroit one more season before returning to Los Angeles as a free agent.

Back in Los Angeles in 2003/04, Robitaille again experienced an increase in his offensive production. He stayed for one year after the lockout, but was a healthy scratch on a few occassions so Robitaille retired at the the conclusion of the season.

Robitaille retires as the tenth highest goal scorer ever with 668 goals and 1394 points (for 19th overall). He is the highest scoring left winger of all time. He has played the 16th most games ever in NHL history with 1431 games played.

Robitaille's retirement leaves the NHL with one less current player who I think is Hall of Fame worthy regardless of what happens for the rest of his career.

Here are the currently active players who are Hall of Fame worthy.

Dave Andreychuk
Ed Belfour
Rob Blake
Martin Brodeur
Chris Chelios
Peter Forsberg
Dominik Hasek
Jaromir Jagr
Brian Leetch
Nicklas Lidstrom
Joe Nieuwendyk
Joe Sakic
Brendan Shanahan
Steve Yzerman

The end of the season will likely bring on another couple retirements. The playoffs may bring another player or two forward onto this list.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Bob McKenzie Floats A Bad Trial Balloon

The media and the NHL are deeply interconnected. Both need each other to survive. Both know they need each other to survive. As a result, the NHL plants stories in the media that the media happily and uncritically report and the media rarely report on the "seedy" underside of hockey that the NHL does not want spread.

One example of this is TSN's hockey insider Bob McKenzie. McKenzie has sources inside the NHL. When the NHL wants to float a story as a "trial balloon" that might have a bad responce from the general public, they often send the story to Bob McKenzie. McKenzie now has a "scoop" that he is happy to report and he keeps his sources happy. The NHL got their story spread, but they did it in a way that they have plausable deniability. They were never seriously considering that bad idea, afterall it was reported by Bob McKenzie with no named sources from inside the NHL.

One example of this comes from Bob McKenzie last night. He writes that the NHL is considering changes to playoff overtime. He writes that playoff sudden death overtime might be played four on four in the future - as the current regular season overtime is played.

The NHL should work on a principle of "if it isn't broken don't fix it". Sudden death playoff overtime has lead to some great excitement. Some of my fondest memories come from watching long overtime contests that took five, six and seven periods to decide. So naturally, the NHL should not change it. Its not that simple. The NHL is willing to radically change the game (to "sell its soul") to get a national American network TV deal. The American networks are likely uncertain about covering playoff hockey if any given game might run into four overtimes and disrupt their prime time schedule. This is an awful tradeoff for the diehard hockey fan, but in the NHL's pursuit of the all mighty dollar it might be necessary. So they had Bob McKenzie float this idea as a trial balloon.

Bob McKenzie also dutifully spread the idea that the shootout has been a success. I disagree with this idea as well. Hockey is a team game and it is awful to decide it with an idividual competition (why not decide the game with a relay where players skate around pylons?). Evidence that he lacks an argument to show that the shootout has been a success is that he immediately tries to discredit the counterargument that the shootout has been a success - without offering any evidence of its success.

Bob McKenzie offers an outlet for the NHL to air certain opinions without directly attaching their names to those opinions. That makes him valuable to the NHL. Bob McKenzie gets scoops from the NHL so he dutifully reports them. The scoops make Bob McKenzie a "hockey insider". This relationship is completely contradictory to the idea of a free and independant press. Hockey does not have one in the mainstream of the media.

NOTE: Another NHL insider is making subtle comments about the NHL's campaign against long overtime games. In tonights OLN game Detroit playing against Dallas, Davidson said that he didn't think there would be long overtime games this year because referees will be instructed to continue to call penalties in overtime "as well they should". So the NHL will try to end overtimes quickly using the power play. If that doesn't work, they may be willing to try something more dramatic. All in search of the almighty US network TV deal.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

A Top Season Most People Missed

Who has third highest points per game in the NHL this season (after Joe Thornton and Jaromir Jagr)? Most fans probably have no idea. The answer (with a few more days of NHL play left) is Jason Spezza of the Ottawa Senators. I think that fact would suprise most people. Spezza has 89 points in 67 games and is a big part of the league leading Ottawa offence. Jason Spezza had a breakout season this year, but many people didn't notice because he missed some time due to injury and played on a deep team where there were other standout players. Watch Spezza in a hockey pool draft next season, he could be a very good pick.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

More AHL Awards

The AHL has the strange practise of naming its award winners in the final days of the season before the season is actually complete. This is a strange practise because it makes performances at the end of the season completely meaningless for award votes (since the awards have already been given out). I have already reported upon the AHL All Star teams.

Here are the rest of the awards:

Dany Sabourin of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton won the Baz Bastien Award as the best goaltending in the AHL.

Andy Delmore of Syracuse won the Eddie Shore Award as the best defenceman in the AHL.

Patrick O'Sullivan of Houston won the Red Garrett Award as best rookie in the AHL.

Don MacLean of Grand Rapids won the Les Cunningham Award as AHL MVP.

With the exception of O'Sullivan, the award winners are career minor leaguers with little future NHL value.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The False Reason To Support Thornton For MVP

The MVP race this season has come down to a two man race. Jaromir Jagr of the New York Rangers and Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks. It is a tight race. In fact, last night they tied in points so far this season with 122. I support Jagr in part because he is the far better goal scorer of the two.

There is a poor reason to support Thornton that has increasingly been made. James Mirtle comes close to hitting this poor argument among his reasons to support Joe Thornton for MVP. The story is that San Jose was a listless non-playoff team that was well on its way to writing off this season before they traded for Joe Thornton and then the season turned around and now San Jose is a playoff team. But that scenario isn't exactly true. In 2003/04 San Jose won their division and went to the semi-finals. They had a good young rising team before ever acquiring Thornton. In pre-season predictions San Jose was picked as one of the top teams in the West Conference by all. Then they got off to a slow start in 2005/06. At the beginning of the season, both of their goalies (Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala) had missed time to injury and were off to extremely slow starts. I predicted they would turn things around even before San Jose acquired Thornton. San Jose was a very good team off to a slow start that added Joe Thornton and then they played like a very good team. Creditting this all to Joe Thornton is false and simplistic.

Jaromir Jagr is the other serious MVP candidate. He plays on the New York Rangers who were predicted by most to be bottom feeders. However, the Rangers had a good year and will be a playoff team. There are many reasons for this turnaround. Jagr is one. Henrik Lundqvist is another key reason. Again, hockey is a team game. Team turnarounds are always too complicated to credit to one player. Trying to pick MVPs by this method will lead to mistakes (its like picking coach of the year as the coach of the most improved team).

How should one pick MVPs? Watch the players in question play. Compare the numbers they put up. And as Jes Golbez argues, do not get stuck up in the useless "outstanding vs. valuable" argument.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Sundin Has A Good Finish To The Year

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a team that is nearly eliminated from the playoffs and has very little left to play for. So now might be a time for the team to shut itself down for the season. Thats not what is happening. Lead by captain Mats Sundin the leafs are still fighting hard in their games, probably in a spoiler role. Since March began, Sundin is tied (with Jonathan Cheechoo) for the NHL goal lead with 16. He has fought back to the Maple Leafs lead in points - a title he has won in nine of the last ten NHL seasons. For much of the season, he was behind Bryan McCabe in the leafs scoring race, but Sundin is back on top for the end of the year. Mats Sundin is a veteran who is playing like he still has a lot left in his career.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

On New NHL Markets

While discussing the Penguins threats to move that they are making to try to get a new arena, the topic of potential new NHL franchises (specifically an NHL return to Winnipeg) came up. I think that this idea, though popular to some Canadian fans, is highly unlikely.

In an NHL, with even minor levels of revenue sharing, owners have no desire to add new markets that will potentially get their dollars through revenue sharing. Why would New York or Toronto want to add Winnipeg when they will likely have to pay revenue sharing dollars to Winnipeg? Any market that gets added to the NHL will be one that is appears almost certain to be well above the average revenue levels that currently exist in the NHL. I see two possible teams that could satisfy this requirement in North America. One would be a Houston team (with appropriate ownership and venue). Houston is the fourth largest city in the US - and gaining on Chicago for third. This is a large market that remains untapped by the NHL. The second is Southern Ontario. Toronto and area is hockey mad. If another team was put into Toronto, Mississauga or possibly Hamilton this team would likely be a huge success. Of course the Toronto Maple Leafs would have to okay a reduction in their territorial rights - which seems unlikely. In the case of Hamilton, the Buffalo Sabres would also have to okay a reduction in their territorial rights. This makes these possibilities remote, despite their revenue potential.

The NHL is not in a strong position to expand right now. They are still reeling from the lockout. Despite propaganda, NHL revenues are down from the pre-lockout numbers. In fact, the lockout was in part caused because of failing southern expansion under Gary Bettman. Expansion as a whole is unlikely.

Could franchises re-locate? Afterall Pittsburgh is threatening this. The likelihood of this actually happening is low. This is in part because Pittsburgh is a viable market that currently lacks a good arena. They have had historic success including two Stanley Cup victories. Gary Bettman marketed the lockout in part claiming that it was necessary to ensure that existing markets would not lose their NHL teams. If Pittsburgh then loses their NHL team a couple years after the lockout, it blows a hole in the idea that the lockout succeeded in accomplishing this goal (which of course was never truly a goal of the lockout). It would be bad publicity for the NHL if teams started moving.

In a case of a seriously jeopardized market that does not have a fanbase or finances, the NHL may be forced to move to contract that team, but Pittsburgh is not such a case. They have a fan base. The problem right now is that ownership is trying to extort a new arena from local government.

Eventually, I think the future of the NHL includes expansion to Europe. It would be the first major sports league in two continents. Hockey is huge in many big European markets. This could be successfully done. Of course travel would be an issue, but that could be addressed by severely limiting inter-contintental travel. It would be a bold move for the NHL to move into Europe, but in the meantime, they are still trying to shore up the markets they already have. It is unlikely that we will see expansions or relocations for several years.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Semin Signs With Washington

One significant story that received little media fare in North America is that of Alexander Semin. Semin is a Washington first round draft pick who played in the NHL in 2003/04. During the lockout, he decided to go back to Russia to play. Since he was eligible for demotion to the minors, Washington demoted him to the AHL. Semin didn't report since he claimed he had been locked out. Washington responded by trying to impose fines and with legal action. The courts did not force Semin to report to Washington (which they clearly could not have done - an American court couldn't force a player to pursue employment in USA instead of Russia) suggesting that maybe arbitration would be a more suitable method to come to resolution. The Russian Ice Hockey Federation, which has been without a player transfer deal with the NHL all season fought back by trying to demand that Alexander Ovechkin should be returned to Russia but this trumped up case failed.

This case appears to be concluded now. Alexander Semin has signed a new two year contract with Washington. He will report to training camp next season. He is a talented young player who may be helpful to that Capitals rebuilding plans. The previous contract and fines appear to have all been forgotten.

Here is TSN's pro-NHL version of this story.

Is Ottawa Limping Into The Playoffs?

The Ottawa Senators when healthy are the best team in the NHL this year. If they can get themselves healthy, they should be considered the Stanley Cup favorites. However, they are far from healthy. Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara, Dominik Hasek, Chris Phillips and Martin Havlat were all unavailable. Without that group of talent, Ottawa is far from the Stanley Cup favorite. As the season winds down, these players are starting to come back. Wade Redden returns from his personal leave tonight. Zdeno Chara is a game time decision and might be back from his hand injury. Martin Havlat is cleared to return from his shoulder surgery this weekend. Hasek and Phillips might also be back before too long (although when the playoffs approach, reliable injury information becomes harder and harder to come by). If these players come back and hit their stride, Ottawa still has a very good shot at winning their Stanley Cup. They may need an easy time of the first round of the playoffs to fully heal - but that might be a possible scenario.

Ottawa's Stanley Cup hopes will be largely determined by the health and return of their injured stars. They are not the only team in the position that injured players will go a long way to determine their playoff success. The Philadelphia Flyers playoff success will be greatly influenced by whether or not Peter Forsberg can make a healthy return. The Colorado Avalanche may have a successful playoff run if goalie Jose Theodore can make a successful return from his injuries. The Nashville Predators playoff chances have now been all but dashed when it was learned that goalie Tomas Vokoun will miss the playoffs due to blood clots from a rare disease.

I think this is the way of a salary capped NHL. No longer can teams afford to have a plan B if their stars get hurt. They cannot keep it under the salary cap. It opens up a scenario that the healthiest of the good teams will likely win the cup. There is no way to have a deep enough team to make a run if you suffer injuries at the wrong time. It does open up a scenario where it is unclear who will win the cup, but it is clear that the team that wins the cup will not be able to be an all time great NHL team. There will be no more all time great NHL teams. They cannot stay under salary caps. Whichever team does win the Stanley Cup will lose some talented players next year, as they cannot give all their successful players the raises they deserve for their cup success. That team will not be as strong next year. Great teams are gone. Dynasties are gone. Teams that win because they managed to be healthy and lucky at the right time are in. Then that winning team gets gutted and we start all over again. Is this the NHL that you want? Its not my ideal league.

Monday, April 10, 2006

I NOW consider Rob Blake a Hall of Famer

Earlier this season, I have added Peter Forsberg and Joe Nieuwendyk to the list of players who should make the Hockey Hall of Fame regardless of what happens for the rest of their careers. Today, I add Rob Blake. Here is a rough explanation of my hall of fame standards.

Blake has been a top defenceman since he broke into the NHL. He was chosen to the NHL's all rookie team in his 1990/91 rookie season. He quickly matured into a very good hitter and a solid offensive defenceman. He has appeared in seven NHL all star games. He won the Norris trophy as best defenceman in the NHL in 1998. Three other times, he has been chosen to the second team all star. He was an important member of the 2001 Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche. He has been chosen as a member of the Canadian Olympic team in 1998, 2002 and 2006. In the 1998 Olympics he was selected as the best defenceman in the Olympic tournament. He has clearly been on a Hall of Fame track for a while.

I induct him today, because it is clear the Blake has had another good season. He has 50 points so far this year and is one of the better defenceman in the game (though he is not a serious player in the Norris trophy race). This season pushes Blake to 980 career games so far (consider that he lost a season and a half of his career to lockouts) with 636 career points so far. These are hall of fame numbers for a defenceman. The fact that he played well after losing last season to the lockout effectively appears to add two good seasons to his career. It is very logical to assume that had he been able to play in the NHL in 2004/05, then he would have put up another season similar to his 2003/04 or 2005/06 season. Had he tailed off this season (as Jeremy Roenick, for example) has, then there would be no reason to assume he would have been able to have succeeded in 2004/05.

There are other defencemen who appear to be on hall of fame tracks, such as Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer (and debatably others including Adam Foote, Mathieu Schneider etc.), but they have not gathered as many hall of fame credentials as Blake has. Given time maybe they will, but I think it is still possible (maybe not particularly likely) that the remainder of their careers could be dissapointing and they could fail in acheiving a hall of fame spot.

My list of currently active hockey players who deserve hall of fame induction regardless of what happens for the rest of their careers now has the following players:

Dave Andreychuk
Ed Belfour
Rob Blake
Martin Brodeur
Chris Chelios
Peter Forsberg
Dominik Hasek
Jaromir Jagr
Brian Leetch
Nicklas Lidstrom
Joe Nieuwendyk
Luc Robitaille
Joe Sakic
Brendan Shanahan
Steve Yzerman

This summer may lead to the retirement of a few players on this list. At the same time, the rest of the season and the playoffs offer plenty of time for another player to emerge as a hall of famer if he plays well enough.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Penguins Trying To Establish Plan B

The most successful way to "blackmail" a new arena from local government is with leverage. A team must establish that they have legitimate other options that would hurt the local region if they do not get the arena that they want.

The Pittsburgh Penguins play in Mellon Arena which is one of the smallest, oldest NHL arenas in existance. Pittsburgh Penguin ownership has been pushing for local government to buy them a new arena. The local governments have offered development rights to the Mellon Arena grounds if the Pens come up with the roughly $300 million it will take to build a new arena. Pittsburgh Penguins ownership would much rather have local government money spent on building a new arena (as the Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL and the Pittsburgh Pirates of MLB have had). The best offer that Pittsburgh's current ownership has is to get a casino licence to finance the new arena. Due to other pressures like the Rick Tocchet gambling scandal, the NHL would like to not be further tied up in the gambling industries. This plan is not what the Penguins really want. They want local government to provide (or at least significantly finance) a new arena.

The trick is to show that there is a legitimate interest and a viable plan to move the Penguins from Pittsburgh. One of the first attempts at this is Kansas City where they are building a new arena. I don't think anyone seriously argues that Kansas City is a better hockey market than Pittsburgh is. I think the only argument for Kansas City over Pittsburgh is that a stadium exists there. While Kansas City may want the Penguins, they cannot and will not make media appearances on the side of the current Penguins ownership trying to extort a better arena deal for the Penguins.

Pittsburgh ownership seems to have found that group now. Lawrence Gottsdiener, a Conneticut property owner, claims he is willing to buy the Penguins and either keep the team in Pittsburgh if he can get an arena deal or move it to Hartford. Hartford was home to the Hartford Whalers until they moved to Carolina in 1997. There is no reason to believe that Hartford is a better market now then it was when it failed previously. Is the Hartford threat enough to get a better arena deal from local politicians? I see no reason to believe that Hartford would be a better NHL market then Pittsburgh already is. But it might be a legitimate threat to obtain arena concessions.

Pittsburgh does not appear to have any markets that are as good hockey markets as Pittsburgh that are available for a move. They do have a few markets that have better stadiums but a less proven group of hockey fans. I think Hartford and Kansas City are empty threats designed to scare the local governments. However, there is a point coming soon where it appears the Penguins will either have to sink more money than they want into a new stadium in Pittsburgh or they will have to move to a worse market with a better available stadium.

For a different look (much more inline with the NHL's media view) look to TSN.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Wisconsin Wins NCAA Championship

The University of Wisconsin Badgers won the NCAA men's hockey title defeating Boston College 2-1. Pat Gannon opened the scoring for Boston College in the first period. Wisconsin answered with goals by Toronto Maple Leaf draftee Robbie Earl and Edmonton Oiler draftee Tom Gilbert. The American college title was won by Wisconsin. The Canadian university title was won by Alberta. Now that the NCAA season is over we may see a few NCAA players jump to the NHL.

Re-Entry Waivers Change

One of the problems with the CBA this season has been the $75,000 waiver problem where any player in the minors needs to clear re-entry waivers to get called up from the minors. The intent was to prevent teams from hiding salary in the minors, but it lead to some stupid results. Effectively, $75,000 became the individual salary cap for many AHL players (since they hoped to play in the NHL). The Professional Hockey Players Association (the union of AHL and ECHL players) sued the NHL since the NHL CBA effectively set salaries in the minor leagues (who are not covered by the NHL CBA). This lead to a significant number of players who were likely to be minor leaguers to go to Europe thus reducing the NHL talent pool. This lead to players who were good enough to play in the NHL to remain in the AHL all season instead of risk re-entry waivers (some made the AHL all star teams - such as Wade Flaherty).

Gary Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press reports on a solution. Any player who has played over 320 NHL, AHL or ECHL games (180 if he is a goalie) will not have to face re-entry waivers. I suppose this solution makes sense. It allows for the best players available to play in the NHL. I still think a salary cap is bad for the NHL, but at least they fixed one problem with it.

NOTE: This was a suggestion that was not implemented by the NHL. It was incorrectly reported by the Winnipeg Free Press that it had been adopted (and I believed them at the time). It turns out the only change the NHL made to reentry waivers was upping the salary cutoff to $95,000 (from $75,000). Apparantly, this was good enough for the PHPA to stop pursuing any legal action.

Friday, April 07, 2006

AHL All Star Teams

Yesterday, the AHL announced its first and second all star teams for the 2005/06 season.

The first team is:
G: Dany Sabourin Wilkes-Barre/Scranton
D: Andy Delmore Syracuse
D: Curtis Murphy Houston
LW: Donald MacLean Grand Rapids
C: Erik Westrum Houston
RW: Kirby Law Houston

The second team:
G: Wade Flaherty Manitoba
D: Bryan Helmer Grand Rapids
D: Thomas Pock Hartford
LW: Jiri Hudler Grand Rapids
C: Keith Aucoin Lowell
RW: Dustin Penner Portland

I don't think it is logical to announce all star teams or other awards when the season is not quite done. Some things may still change in the remaining games that will not be represented in the awards.

A few of these players may have good NHL careers in their future. Many are career AHLers kept in the minors due to the $75,000 waiver problem. No matter how well they played, they were unlikely to get called up because they would have to clear re-entry waivers and their team did not want to chance this.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Scoring Leaders Since Olympic Break

The Olympics caused NHL play to stop for a couple weeks in February. Since play has returned, the top scorers in the NHL have been different players from those who lead the season's scoring race. Since Olympic break, the top scorers are Daniel Briere of the Buffalo Sabres and Teemu Selanne of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Both have 30 points since Olympic break.

Briere has had a very good season, although he missed 24 games with a sports hernia and 8 more with a previous abdominal injury. He has scored 53 points in his 42 games so far this year. This puts him in the top 10 in the NHL in points per game. He has done this "under the radar" in a smallish market without much fanfare. Briere is likely a good pick for future hockey pools if he can keep this scoring rate up and stay injury free. Briere could emerge as the star leader of the rising Buffalo Sabres. His trade from Phoenix for Chris Gratton and an exchange of draft picks is starting to look like a great trade for the Sabres (and an awful one for Phoenix).

Teemu Selanne had a great playoff where he was the top scorer in the Olympic tournament. In fact, Selanne is the highest scoring active player all time in Olympic play (he is beaten by some Soviet stars in the Central Red Army days on the all time list). His Olympic success coupled with his NHL record are starting to make a case that I should consider him a player who belongs in the hall of fame regardless of what happens in the rest of his career. I am not quite there yet, but a strong end to the season where he maybe makes second team all star or leads Anaheim into a playoff upset or two might do it. Selanne's signing is one of the main reasons Anaheim is a playoff team.

Briere and Selanne have been some of the hottest players in the NHL in the past little while. They should remain dangerous into the playoffs and if their teams have playoff success, it will likely be because of their strong play.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Back To The Vezina Race

After a week or so off and a trip to Europe, I return to the blogging world. In the past, I have picked Tomas Vokoun of the Nashville Predators as the Vezina trophy leader. Vokoun hasn't had the best couple weeks. His numbers are slowly beginning to get worse. He currently has a back injury and is doubtful for tonight's game. So it is time to pick the choice that may have been more popular when I picked Vokoun. I am picking Miikka Kiprusoff of the Calgary Flames as the Vezina leader. In 68 games played, he has a .920 saves percentage and a 2.15 GAA. He's been the best goaltender in the league in a tight race. Other contenders are Vokoun, Henrik Lundqvist, Roberto Luongo and Dominik Hasek.

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