Thursday, November 30, 2006

Enver Lisin Returns To Russia

The NHL and the Russian Ice Hockey Federation are fighting. The problem is that there is no player transfer deal between these leagues. The Russians want more significant transfer fees when the NHL signs their talent. Right now, the NHL pays a few hundred thousand dollars per player when theny sign a player under contract in a European league that is covered by a transfer deal.

As a result, the NHL had to go through some extraordinary lengths to sign Russian talent this summer. Evgeni Malkin had to defect to get to the NHL and Alexei Mikhnov and Andrei Taratukhin exploited a questionable legal loophole to get to the NHL. Other players came slightly more peacefully. Alexei Kaigorodov's release was negotiated, but it was under the condition that if he got sent to the minors he could return to Russia. Despite this, the Ottawa Senators suspended Kaigorodov when he returned to Russia after being sent to the minors.

Another player Evenr Lisin left Russia on more friendly terms. He initiated and paid for his transfer from Ak Bars Kazan so he could play with the Phoenix Coyotes. It was included in his contract that he could return to Russia if he was sent to the minors.

Lisin has not looked ready for the NHL. Lisin has an NHL worst +/- at -18. He put up two points in 17 games. So Phoenix sent him to the minors and he returned to Russia instead. Phoenix turned around and suspended him for acting on a clause negotiated into his contract.

The problem is that Russia is making legal challenges to try to force the NHL to pay transfer fees. One NHL strategy appears to be to argue that we have some Russian players (Malkin, Mikhnov, Taratukhin) and Russia has some NHL players (Kaigorodov, Lisin) so maybe some judge or arbitrator will call it a draw and say that nobody owes anyone anything. Of course that is entirely false. Russia has players that the NHL picked over and decided they didn't really want. The NHL has the best of the bunch in Evgeni Malkin. Malkin is a unique talent and the early Calder trophy favorite. If Ottawa got Kaigorodov back and Phoenix got Lisin back, they wouldn't have any spot for them in the short term. They would merely place them in the minors.

The NHL gets the best of the disputed talent. The Russians get players the NHL couldn't use. Thats hardly even.

The best solution is for the NHL to agree to pay reasonable transfer fees to the Russians, but instead they have chose to go to war. This war does not benefit hockey fans who want to see the best talent in one league. It sets up a barrier to prevent top Russian talent from the NHL.

Here is the TSN story on Lisin's suspension.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

How Good Was Carolina In 2006?

The Carolina Hurricanes won the 2006 Stanley Cup. They did this in a playoff where I contend there were no elite teams. Just how good a team were they?

If this season ended right now, they would hold down sixth seed in the east. That is solid but unspectacular. Of course, there are plenty of explanations for this such as "Stanley Cup hangover" and roster changes. Afterall, the NHL CBA os set-up so that it is impossible to keep successful teams together. Carolina lost Mark Recchi to Pittsburgh, Doug Weight to St Louis, Aaron Ward and Matt Cullen to the NY Rangers and Martin Gerber to Ottawa as free agents. Injuries have kept Cory Stillman and Frantisek Kaberle from playing so far this year. This current team is a weaker version than the Stanley Cup winners.

It amazed me that Carolina could win the Cup with as weak a defence core as they had. Aaron Ward, Fratisek Kaberle, Bret Hedican, Glen Wesley. They may all be NHL regulars but none are particularly oustanding players at this point in their career. In fact, I think its the weakest defence to win the cup in recent memory.

Their goaltending must have been strong. Cam Ward won the Conn Smythe trophy (though he was a poor choice). Martin Gerber was the starter throughout most of the regular season. Ward certainly got hot. He played the best hockey of his career so far (by a large margin). He put up a good saves percentage of .920 (though he was beaten in saves percentage in the playoffs by Cristobal Huet, Ilya Bryzgalov, Dwayne Roloson, Martin Brodeur and Miikka Kiprusoff). His GAA of 2.14 was only beaten by Bryzgalov. He certainly played well, but how good a goalie is Cam Ward? His regular season in 2005/06 was awful. His .882 saves percentage was among the worst in the NHL. This year, he doesn't look much better. He has improved to a .894 saves percentage, but this is still among the league's worst. Martin Gerber has moved onto Ottawa where he sports a .896 saves percentage which is hardly any better. In fact, he has played so badly in Ottawa that for the time being, he has lost the starting job to Ray Emery. Gerber's career appears to be one of ever dropping saves percentages. He peaked as a rookie in Anaheim with a .929 and has dropped steadily ever since. It appears as though teams have caught onto Gerber's style and have learned how to beat him and he is unable to adapt. I think neither goalie is too spectacular. I would argue that this is quite likely the weakest goaltending tandem to win the Stanley Cup in recent memory. Unless Cam Ward turns his career around, he could go down as the weakest player ever to win the Conn Smythe. Two of the worst goalies in the NHL so far this season were the Stanley Cup winners last season.

Carolina's strength was their offence. It was quite good. Rod Brind'Amour, Erik Staal, Cory Stillman, Ray Whitney, Mark Recchi, Doug Weight, Justin Williams and Matt Cullen form a very good core. Eric Cole, another talented player was out injured. This is the kind of offence that can win Stanley Cups, but its not good enough to do it alone. An offence of this quality would need defence and goaltending to win (at least prior to this CBA). The defence never existed. A young goaltender who has so far been a poor regular season keeper got hot and provided goaltending. That is what it takes to win a cup today. That is less than it took in years past.

I think Carolina was a good team in 2005/06. I think they were not a great team. When compared to other Stanley Cup winners in recent memory, I think they are the worst one. There was no better team in the 2006 playoffs. The CBA managed to get rid of the truly elite hockey teams that would have won the cup in the past. It left several teams that were about as good as Carolina and one had to win it. It turned out Carolina was the one.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Chicago Fires Trent Yawney

The Chicago Blackhawks are not a particularly good team. I predicted a minor improvement this year with them finishing 12th in the west. That was with key players like Martin Havlat and Michal Handzus staying healthy. When Havlat had a fast start, I began to think they might suprise, but he was soon lost to injury.

No coach would be able to turn this team around without more talent (and the talent they have staying healthy). With all their injuries, Chicago is about par for the course tied for 13th place (with Phoenix) in the west. Nevertheless, they decided that doing something was necessary to improve things (instead of doing something intelligent). So they fired their coach.

Denis Savard takes over as Chicago coach. He has zero lifetime head coaching experience. It doesn't sound like a good move. It sounds like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

What is wrong with Chicago is ownership. Bill Wirtz is a notoriously cheap owner. He knows how to make a profit with minimal investment in his team. So why change things and try to win if it risks the profit? Hiring an unproven coach, while keeping the same ownership won't change anything. It may make things worse.

Trent Yawney is far from being a proven successful NHL coach, but he is likely closer to it then Savard is.

Look for Chicago to see minor shortterm improvement when their players get healthy, but don't expect anything significant.

Here is TSN's story on Yawney's firing and Savard's hiring.

Monday, November 27, 2006

I NOW Consider Mike Modano a Hall of Famer

I like to keep track of which players currently in the NHL have had Hall of Fame careers regardless of anything they can do in the future. When they have reached a point where, without projecting their success into the future, they have accomplished enough that no injury, retirement, slump, quitting on a team etc. would keep them from the Hall of Fame. The last player I thought was worthy for this honor was Scott Niedermayer.

Today, I think Mike Modano has joined that elite group. On Saturday, he scored his 1200th career point. That is a remarkable number, though in and of itself not hall of fame worthy. In fact, two active players that I don't consider hall of famers have more points. They are Pierre Turgeon and Mark Recchi. Modano is the 42nd highest scorer of all time. That is very good for somebody who lost a year and a half to lockouts (I figure it may have cost him 100 points or so). He played through both a highly scoring era and the "dead puck" era, so any attempt to normalize his scoring for the scoring rate doesn't change his totals much.

Mike Modano was a very good centreman, but he was never considered the best center in the NHL. In fact, he only once made the second team all star (in 2000). He appeared in six NHL all star games and was regularly called upon to play a frontline role for Team USA in international play. That along with his growing career totals cement his hall of fame position.

But what about the people who have more career points then Modano? What makes Modano more worthy? Mike Modano was considered the key player on his franchise for most of his career. I picked him as the best player in Minnesota North Star/ Dallas Star history during the lockout. Turgeon and Recchi would not have that honor with any franchise. Of course if they can continue playing well and increase their career point totals, I would have to eventually consider them as well.

Modano was also a very good defensive center for the last half of his career (after he played under Ken Hitchcock). This makes him more valuable than merely his offensive contribution.

Because of very good career totals and a career that is the best in his franchise's history, I consider Mike Modano a Hall of Famer.

Here are all the currently active players I consider Hall of Famers (regardless of what happens in the rest of their careers):

Ed Belfour
Rob Blake
Martin Brodeur
Chris Chelios
Peter Forsberg
Dominik Hasek
Jaromir Jagr
Brian Leetch
Nicklas Lidstrom
Mike Modano
Scott Niedermayer
Joe Nieuwendyk
Chris Pronger
Joe Sakic
Brendan Shanahan

As hockey is continued to be played this season, there will likely be further additions. There may also be some subtractions - particularly if Brian Leetch choses to retire instead of find a team to play with.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Best Forward So Far This Year

I have been picking Sidney Crosby as the best forward so far this season. He has never been the top scoring forward, due to a scheduling fluke that has Pittsburgh with less games played so far then some teams. However, Crosby has missed a couple games due to a groin injury. So its time to pick a new top forward this season. One who has been healthy. I am picking Jaromir Jagr. He leads the NHL in scoring with 36 points in 23 games. He sports a +12 +/- rating. Perhaps most impressively, he has done this while getting over shoulder problems. Anyone looking over the Rangers top scorers will notice that Brendan Shanahan and Michael Nylander are exceeding their expectations. They owe a large part of their success to playing with Jagr.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Selke Trophy Leader

Usually, the Selke trophy goes to a forward who does not make a significant offensive contribution to his team but is a defensive power of strength. That is not true so far this year. So far defending Selke trophy winner Rod Brind'Amour of the Carolina Hurricanes is bucking that trend. He continues his valuable defensive play and leads the NHL in faceoff wins by a significant margin (he has 421, while Chris Drury in second place has 298). He is seond among fcorward in ice time per game (behind Martin St Louis). He continues to be a tower of strength defensively for the Hurricanes. He has also contributed offensively. His 33 points make him second to Jaromir Jagr in scoring. Brind'Amour is doing it all for the Hurricanes and is a serious MVP candidate (though I would give the MVP to Nicklas Lidstrom).

Brind'Amour's resurgence is a suprise. He is currently on pace for 108 points. This would be a career best for him. Most 36 year old players don't have career best offensive seasons. His current best is 97 points and he got it 13 years ago in 1993/94. This resurgence gives Brind'Amour a shot at the hall of fame. He is picking up some awards in what is usually the twilight of a career. His 1013 career points place him 68th all time in career points. He will have to improve that ranking a bit for serious Hall for Fame consideration, but at the current rate he is scoring, it looks quite possible. This is surprising for a player who was coming off 38 and 37 point years in the two years before the lockout occurred.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Adjusted Point Scoring: Career

I have written a series of posts that look at the sabermetrics and hockey problem of adjusting scoring from different eras. These posts have used the normalization method of the hockey outsider (Peter Albert). I have written posts on the best single season goal, assist and point scoring efforts and the career leaders in adjusted goals and adjusted assists. These lists have given us some very good players, but they are not without problems. The single season assist and point lists are overly dominated by 1920's players who falsely benefit from a false normalization problem. Basically, there were so few assists in that era that those who were the leaders at that time are normalized to look like they had tremendous assist totals (despite often having single digit totals in reality). This problem goes away on career lists (for the most part) because careers in that era were not as long as they are today. There is also a problem that the original six era is underrepresented. This lead to a discussion of strength of competition adjustments.

Today, I will look at the top 10 career adjusted point leaders. Here they are:

Top 10 Adjusted Point Scoring Careers of All Time
Name Teams Seasons Adjusted Points Actual Points
Wayne GretzkyInd(WHA) Edm(WHA) Edm LA StL NYR2126092967
Gordie HoweDet Hou(WHA) NE(WHA) Har3125602358
Mark MessierCin(WHA) Edm NYR Van2617781898
Bobby HullChi Win(WHA) Win Har2317711808
Ron FrancisHar Pit Car Tor2517381798
Steve YzermanDet2216851755
Mario LemieuxPit2215771723
Joe SakicQue Col1715551489
Jaromir JagrPit Was NYR1515551432
Phil EspositoChi Bos NYR1815171590

Points from this season are not included in the totals. This affects both Joe Sakic and Jaromir Jagr (who are tied going into this year with 1555 career adjusted points).

Its no surprise that Wayne Gretzky leads this list by a significant margin. He is the best scorer in hockey history. It is suspicious that few original six players are represented on this list (in fact every player that made it had a career that lasted until the 1980's at least). This does correspond to the time when careers began to grow in length, however I think is partially an artifact of the way this normalization method undervalues the high competition in the original six era.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Hardest Team To Outshoot

On Tuesday I called the Washington Capitals the most overrated team in part because they are often getting ranked as an average team when I think they are not very good. One reason I think they are a bad team is that they have only twice outshot their opponents this season - and not once in over a month.

It prompted me to look for the least frequently outshot team. They are the Detroit Red Wings. They have only been outshot twice all season (by Anaheim on Oct 18th and by St Louis on Oct 28th - they also tied Vancouver in shots last night). Detroit has done this with the best defence in the NHL. Detroit has the least shot allowed per game (they lead second place Dallas by better than 4 shots per game). Their goaltending has had some spectacular moments from Domink Hasek, but has for the most part been nothing too special (which prompted me to write if only they could get some goaltending - which they might get if Hasek can be healthy and play like Hasek of old).

The most frequently outshot team allows the most shots per game and the least frequently outshot team allows the least shots per game. It is that simple in the NHL (right now...). Detroit is a good team this year - contrary to some predictions. They will be hard to beat come playoff time.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Most Overrated Team

I have written a few times that I am skeptical the Buffalo is not as good as they have looked in their start. I accept that they are a good team, but not the best team in the NHL. They are far from the Stanley Cup favorites. However, I dont think they are the most overrated team in the NHL.

The most overrated team is a bad team that so far this season people are rating as average. That team is the Washington Capitals. In his most recent power rankings, David Johnson rates Washington in 14th. They will not finish nearly that high this season and they have not played well enough to merit that ranking. This conclusion is obvious when you look a bit past the numbers Johnson uses.

The simplest thing to notice (which is factored into Johnson's rankings) is that Washington leads the NHL in overtime and shootout losses. Washington has 6 of them in only 20 games. They have a record of 8-12 but with six overtime losses they appear to be above .500. These points for losing serve to distort the standings. They make weaker teams look better than they are, thus giving fans in that city false hope (and hope tends to lead to ticket sales).

Another more serious realization about the Capitals is that they have only outshot their oppontents twice all season. They have not outshot a team since October 14th (an overtime loss against Atlanta). They have gone over a month since outshooting anybody. This is largely because nobody allows more shots than Washington in the NHL. They have the most shots allowed per game in the league. This hasn't been a disaster because of good goaltending. Both Olaf Kolzig and Brent Johnson have played very well in their nets.

Their offence has not been very good either. They have the 23rd worst shots per game (27.4) - and that is with the NHL's shot leader Alexander Ovechkin in their lineup. They have managed some goals from high shooting percentages from some members of the supporting cast in Dainius Zubrus, Matt Pettinger and Alexander Semin. Its optimistic to imagine that can continue all season.

Teams that consitently get outshot do not do well. No team gets consistently outshot as often as Washington. That will catch up with them.

We all predicted a poor season for Washington. This is a bottom feeding team who added a third line defenceman in Ottawa in Brian Pothier (who has performed admirably given his first line minutes) and enforcer Donald Brashear this summer. Even if Ovechkin continues to emerge as a superstar and Semin shows he is a pretty good player too, this team is unlikely to go anywhere. Nevertheless, some people have bought into the false hope from their start. Eric McErlain is speculating about which players the Caps should add to compete for the Stanley Cup. Thats just crazy. This team probably wont be in the race for a playoff berth come January or February. Thats not the right kind of thinking for this team. They are not good enough to give up young players for a run now. The Washington Capitals are a poor team that has so far been considered average and that makes them the most overrated team in the league right now.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Best Defence In The League

Earlier this season, I commented how Detroit had a great shots against and would dominate given top goaltending. Recently, Dominik Hasek has provided the top level goaltending one would expect from him. He has won 8 of his last 9 starts allowing only 13 goals in that stretch.

Detroit now leads the league with a 2.05 goals against average (this is a small lead over Dallas at 2.10). Should Hasek stay healthy (and that is a big if), Detroit should allow the least goals in the NHL this season and that will go a long way toward helping them repeat as Central Division champions.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Best Goalie So Far This Season - New Selection

Earlier this season, I selected Manny Fernandez of the Minnesota Wild as the best goalie in the league so far this year. While Fernandez continues to play well, there is another goalie who has had a strong series of games and takes over the position of best goaltender in the league so far this season. He is Miikka Kiprusoff of the Calgary Flames. The defending Vezina winner and sports a .928 saves percentage and a 2.19 GAA in 17 games played. Kiprusoff is one of the main reasons Calgary is currently on a six game winning streak, during those six games he has only allowed six goals and has had two shutouts. Should Kiprusoff succeed in defending his Vezina (a big if at this point) how long until the Hall of Fame talk begins for him?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Early Rookie of the Year

It probably is no suprise to anyone that I pick Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins as my leader for the rookie of the year. It has been pretty clear since his NHL debut that he is a wonderful talent. He set a record by scoring goals in his first six NHL games 8and this is a real record unlike the Anaheim undefeated streak which only exists due to Gary Bettman's rule changes). I have wanted to err on the side of caution and wait until he had a few games under his belt before declaring that he was my rookie of the year pick (instead of Anze Kopitar of Los Angeles or Matt Carle of San Jose - who have more games played). Now that Malkin has 15 points in only 13 games and is gaining quickly on Kopitar it becomes a safer call.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Talented Players Go To Europe (Thanks CBA)

It is best for the fan if there is one league where all of the most talented players in the world are plying their trade. The NHL CBA is slowly eroding this situation. So far there are no MVP candidates who are not playing because the owners have chosen a restrictive system that alienates some good players, but there are players who are good enough to be core players on most teams who are missing. There are talented players such as Jason Allison, Brian Leetch and Oleg Kvasha sitting on the sidelines because teams do not have enough salary cap room to offer them the monex they are worth. There is another group of players who chose to play in Europe because they may have better financial prospects starring on a European team then they would on the lower rungs of the NHL salary structure (these tend to be young potential laden players) or players who are fed up with waiting for their deal who return to their home country.

George Malik of Kukla's Korner provides a good list of potential laden NHLers in Europe this year: Sean Bergenheim of the New York Islanders, Pavol Vorobiev of the Chicago Blackhawks, Mika Noronen of the Vancouver Canucks,Timofei Shishkanov of the St Louis Blues, Denis Grebeshkov of the New York Islanders, Niklas Nordgren of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Evgeni Artyukin of the Tampa Bay Lightning. All of these players are young NHL players who have the potential to develop into stars. Like most young players, some of them will not mature, but one or two might have become outstanding players. These players are not likely to be play in the NHL this season. In fact, if they are not signed by December 1st, the CBA says they cannot sign all season. Most (if not all) have probably realized that they will be better paid in Europe than in the NHL this season. A salary cap provides only so much money to sign an entire team. If a few stars get big contracts, then the rest of the players on the team must be signed cheaply. That leaves young players who may have lots of potential, but not much track record yet, stuck in smaller contracts. It is a good economic move for major European teams to offer these guys more than they could get in the NHL. They will likely be stars in Europe and increase the values of their European teams and leagues. The NHL loses these players since they cannot offer enough money to keep them.

This group of players is not the only one that the NHL has lost to Europe. There are others who left in 2005 such as Roman Cechmanek and Artem Chubarov who may never be back. The top goal scorer in the Swedish league this year is Pavel Brendl. Aleksey Morozov lead the Russian league in scoring last year. In the previous CBA, likely all these guys would be in the NHL still.

In the old days, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were some very good players in Communist Eastern Europe (such as Valeri Kharlamov) who were not in the NHL, but the NHL benefitted greatly with the influx of European players in the 1990's. Sure a few players with NHL talent spent large portions of their careers in Europe (such as Jiri Dopita and Ville Peltonen) but it was not on the scale that we are seeing in the first couple years of the new CBA.

Any artificial reduction on how much money a player can earn will lead to the player looking for other possible ways to make money. Some are finding it in Europe. The stronger the European leagues become with these players the better they become able to take on the NHL to bid for top talent. The Russian Ice Hockey Federation is already fighting with the NHL and would love to steal a top talent from the NHL. One of these days, I bet it happens, unless our current path changes quickly.

The fan is the loser here. This is probably a more serious loss of talented players from the NHL. This is probably a larger loss of talented players from the viewing pleasure of NHL fans. The loss of talented young players to Europe allows the possibility of future stars playing in the European leagues and not the NHL that spurned them. It allows the European leagues a chance to be strengthened so they can further compete with the NHL. The days where the NHL was the unquestioned best league in the world will come to an end and this CBA will be one of the main reasons because it pushed some players to other leagues in Europe.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Russians First Legal Challenge Fails

Three Russian players, Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Alexei Mikhnov in the Edmonton Oilers systen and Andrei Taratukhin in the Calgary Flames system are playing in North America despite valid contracts in Russia. This is due in part to the lack of a player transfer deal between the NHL and Russia. The Russians refused to sign the deal that would allow their players to come to North America for a few hundred thousand dollars each and wanted to negotiate transfer fees individually. The NHL took matters into their own hands. Evgeni Malkin left his Metallurg Magnitogorsk team during its training camp in Finland in something reminscent of the 1980's defections while Mikhnov and Taratukhin made questionable legal plays to try to get out of their contracts. A fourth player Alexei Kaigorodov was allowed out with the agreement that he would be returned to Russia if he was sent to the minors. This has caused some contreversy when Ottawa attempted to send him to the minors and keep him in North America.

The Russians are using the legal system to try to get a solution to this situation. What they really want is much larger transfer fees than the NHL wishes to pay. Their first longshot attempt has failed. The attempt to get an injuction to prevent these Russian players from playing in North America has been rejected. Although the NHL wants to play this off as a success on their part, this was never the goal of the Russian officials. The Russians want adequate compensation for producing players for the NHL. They will continue to pursue legal options to try to obtain it.

Here is the TSN story on the legal ruling.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Best Offence In The NHL

I have been quite skeptical about Buffalo's start. Sure they are in first place with 15 wins in their 17 games (one loss was not in regulation so they got a point for losing). I just don't think they have as good a group of players as some other teams in the NHL. I feel that with the NHL's enforced parity there is no team that is as good as Buffalo's record makes them look.

However, I must give credit where credit is due. They have had a great balanced offence so far this season. They have scored 4.47 goals per game. That is almost a goal per game better than the second place team the Toronto Maple Leafs (who have a 3.53 goals per game). That is an astounding lead they hold over the rest of the league.

Buffalo has not done this with a couple superstars. So far, they have had a very balanced attack. They currently have 8 players with 14 or more points (Briere, Vanek, Afinogenov, Drury, Pominville, Hecht, Roy and Campbell). No other team has more than six. If they can maintain this balanced attack, they will have no trouble maintaining the best offence in the league, but I am uncertain if that will happen. All of their eight top scorers are currently on pace to post career best seasons. That seems too perfect. I cannot remember any time ever when something like this has happened. It just doesn't happen that all your best players post career years simultaneously. This is a fluke that likely will not last all season. Nevertheless, Buffalo deserves congratulations for the wonderful start their offence has had.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Blue Jackets Make Easy Changes Instead Of Fixing Problem

One of the most poorly run franchises in hockey in the last few years has been the Columbus Blue Jackets. They expanded in 2000 and as of yet have never made the playoffs. They have never really had a stretch drive where they almost made the playoffs. The only constant with the Blue Jackets is GM Doug MacLean. MacLean talks very well and has most of the Columbus hockey fans quite loyal to him despite the fact he hasn't produced any results. Again this season, Columbus is not off to a good start. They currently sit 14th (second last) in the West Conference. Again, they look to miss the playoffs and not even be in the race in the last few weeks. So naturally, the move they announced is the firing of coach Gerard Gallant and hiring of Gary Agnew as his replacement. Agnew will be the fourth coach in the Blue Jackets history (Dave King, MacLean himself and Gallant preceeded him). None have been able to coach this team to success. Could that be because they have never had very good players and they have never had a coherent plan to obtain these players? Wouldn't that be the GM's fault? Shouldn't they fire Doug MacLean instead?

I expect to ask that question again next year when Gary Agnew gets relieved of the coaching duties and Doug MacLean hires somebody else.

Here is TSN's story about the Gallant firing and here is their story about Agnew's hiring.

NOTE: Looks like Gary Agnew really is an interim coach (I was expecting it was a situation where temporary quickly becomes permanent). Columbus is interviewing Ken Hitchcock about their coaching position. Here is TSN's account. This goes to show how shortsighted Philadelphia was with his firing. You don't fire somebody if he suddenly becomes the top candidate to fill a coaching vacancy - it means he is the best coach available and you let him go for nothing.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Talented Players Left On The Sideline (Thanks CBA)

As teams are starting to hit the 20 game point in the season, we still see some talented players who are sitting at home with no place to play. Last season, Jason Allison put up 60 points in 66 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He is a guy who is only 31 who once scored 95 points in a season. You would think there would be a place for somebody like that in any rational NHL. Brian Leetch is a hall of fame defenceman who last year was second in ice time per game with the Boston Bruins. He put up a solid 32 points in 61 games from defence last year, but so far this season he cannot get an NHL job. Oleg Kvasha is a big winger who is 28 years old and seemed to be finally coming into his own when he scored 11 points in his 15 games with Phoenix after the trade deadline. These three are the best players on the new class of player created by the CBA. They are the out of work veterans who are clearly better players than several people who are holding down NHL jobs on several different teams.

A salary cap is bad for the hockey fan. Not only does it remove all the good teams with enforced parity, it also keeps good players with NHL value out of the league. Teams apportion their salary cap money over the summer to certain players and inevitably some get left out. These guys sit around waiting for a contract offer that may never come. While the NHL brings back retreads like Glen Metropolit and Andy Hilbert, the teams cannot find room for these much more valuable players. More technically, they cannot find room for the player's contracts. Don't you think a team off to a slow start like Philadelphia would love to try any of Allison, Leetch or Kvasha? It might be what is needed to jumpstart this team that is off to a horrid start. They cannot find salary cap room.

As a fan, we do not get to see all of the best available players in the NHL. Some are missing. And for what? So the owners can make an extra buck? I want to see all the best players in the world in one league.

Sure none of these three players are likely to have MVP type seasons, but they are talented players who can make a significant contribution to their team. They would improve many teams in the NHL. Right now they wait until a longterm injury or something frees up the cap space required to sign them. And how does this situation improve the hockey a fan views?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

MVP Pick

The NHL season is still in its early parts, so any award picks are clearly premature. Nevertheless, they are fun to make in order to see how things change throughout the year. I have picked Sidney Crosby as the best forward so far this season, though he has strong challenges from Marian Hossa and Jaromir Jagr. I have picked Manny Fernandez as the best goalie so far this season, though he has competition from Marty Turco and Jean-Sebasatien Giguere. On defence, the best player has been Nicklas Lidstrom, although he faces his strongest challenge to that position from Chris Pronger, his lead is larger than in the other positions. Nicklas Lidstrom leads the NHL in +/- with a +17 rating. He has 14 points in 16 games and has been a power on the Red Wings blueline for almost 26 minutes a game. That is why I pick Nicklas Lidstrom as the MVP of the season to date. Interestingly, when James Mirtle made 10 early picks for the Hart he entirely missed Lidstrom.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Anaheim's Streak Is Over

The Anahaim Ducks "record breaking" undefeated streak at the beginning of a season is now over. They didn't lose until their 17th game of the season (3-0 to Calgary) - despite the fact that they suffered four losses in their 16 game streak - the losses were not in regulation. In the NHL record book, this streak breaks the record set by the Edmonton Oilers in 1984/84 who began the season with a 12-0-3 record. In those days, there was no shootout. Overtime did exist, although there was no sissy point for losing in overtime. During the Anaheim streak, they lost once in overtime on November 1st to the New York Rangers (making it a 12 game streak by the best approximation of the 1984/85 rules - which is not record breaking at all). Nevertheless, Anaheim finds their name in the record book now.

Is Anaheim the best team in the NHL? I have been skeptical of Buffalo's fast start, but I am more sold that Anaheim might be for real. They do have an extremely talented pair of defenders in Pronger and Niedermayer. They have strong goaltending in both Giguere and Bryzgalov. They have some good offensive players in Teemu Selanne and Andy McDonald and they have some more young talent in Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf hopefully joining them. If the chips fall right, this could be an elite team. I am uncertain that they have enough offence or enough depth on defence (they are too reliant on three men on defence and this could break down by the stretch or playoffs). They do have a "spare" goaltender that could be traded for reinforcements at one of these positions.

In the era of enforced parity, there are few if any elite teams (there were none last year), but Anaheim might with some luck be one this year. If that happens (thats a big if) could they possibly keep it together for more than one season?

Friday, November 10, 2006

Hossa Off To A Good Start

When it is this early in the NHL season, the top scorer changes frequently. Some players who have led the league in scoring so far this year are Martin Havlat, Maxim Afinogenov and Jaromir Jagr. The current top scorer is Marian Hossa of the Atlanta Thrashers. His 27 points leads the NHL scoring race by 3 points. His 13 goals are also tied for the league lead.

His Atlanta teammates are off to a fast start. Three of the four top scorers in the league play for Atlanta. The other two are Ilya Kovalchuk and Slava Kozlov. Only Jaromir Jagr is a non-Thrasher in the top four scorers. Atlanta's offence as a whole is the second best in goals per game in the league (behind Buffalo - who has had better depth).

However, I would still call Sidney Crosby the best forward in the league so far trhis season. He has less games played in Pittsburgh. His team has played 13 times (compared to the 18 games for Atlanta). With equal games played his point total would likely lead the league. He has a better points per game.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Vancouver Canucks Sold

The Aquilini group, headed by Francesco Aquilini has purchased 100% of the Vancouver Canucks pending approval from the NHL. He had earlier become a 50% partner to Orca Bay Sports Entertainment, which was headed by John McCaw. It was announced that he has purchased the other half of the team. Probably this means the end of the Orca jerseys and a new Canuck jersey that actually relates to the Vancouver Canucks. Although numbers were not officially discussed, it is expected that Aquillini paid about $150 million for the final 50% of the Canucks and GM Place. That would put their total value around $300 million. That is a great return on investment for John McCaw.

This shows that the value of a hockey franchise is higher in Canada then it is in most US markets. Recently, the Pittsburgh Penguins sale was announced for $175 million (although this does not include a state of the art arena) and the St Louis Blues were sold for around $150 million. This mirrors the NHL revenues which are strongest in Canda and lagging in many US markets.

Here is the Globe and Mail article on this sale. Usually, I routinely quote TSN articles but I feel the Globe article is much better today.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Worst Starting Goalie This Season

I like to keep track of the NHL regular who has been having the worst season to date. This year, that "award" goes to Derian Hatcher. Rarely is it very clear that there is a starting goalie who is rivalling for this "honor". However, this season in Phoenix Curtis Joseph has been providing the level of goaltending that gets most quickly shuttled to the AHL. He has, by far, the worst saves percentage of any goalie who has seen regular work at .859 as well as the worst goals against average at 4.40. Despite thses flaws, he has appeared in 11 games. Though Phoenix has no other proven starting goalies, they have David LeNeveu sporting a .902 saves percentage in 4 games work Assuming these stats can hold up in the longer term (and likely they would regress toward each other a bit with LeNeveu's numbers dropping and Joseph's improving) merely by playing LeNeveu in place of CuJo, the Phoenix Coyotes save 1.4 goals per game (assuming they maintain their 32.4 shots against per game). Rarely is this significant an improvement for a team so obvious.

Phoenix has shown remarkable faith in Joseph who started fast last year before having a very poor second half. Mudcrutch hockey (check out his Phoenix preview) forecasted this, but he would not have predicted THIS poor a start. Wayne Gretzky is loyal to a fault. He has had success with Joseph in the past (they have been international teammates as well) so he will stick with CuJo long after it becomes obvious to everyone else that he doesn't have anything left.

Last season, when Joseph was off to his good start, I speculated about his Hall of Fame chances. I figured if he continued to play this well, it was only a matter of time before he moved so far up the all time goalie wins totals that his Hall of Fame case could not be ignored, but even if he sticks around long enough to do that, while playing this poorly, his wins total would not be enough to get Hall consideration. Joseph is currently sixth all time in career wins (behind Patrick Roy, Ed Belfour, Martin Brodeur, Terry Sawchuk and Jacques Plante), but his days are numbered unless Wayne Gretzky maintains his faith that Joseph is still the man he was 10 years ago.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Adjusted Assist Scoring: Career

Over the summer, I have been looking at the sabremetrics and hockey problem of adjusting scoring from different eras. I have been using the normalization formalism of the hockey outsider (Peter Albert). I have posted the single season goals, assists and points leaders, as well as the career goals leaders. These lists are all quite interesting.

The single season assist leaders list is filled with players from the 1920's and Wayne Gretzky's best seasons. The 1920's players dominance is from a mathematical false normalization of the low assist totals from that era. This lead to a discussion of strength of competition adjustments as an effort to set up a formalism that that will not have this problem.

Since the 1920's player had much shorter careers than the more recent ones, this problem is somewhat solved by looking at career numbers.

Here are the top 10 adjusted career assist totals:

Top 10 Adjusted Assist Scoring Careers of All Time
Name Teams Seasons Adjusted Assists Actual Assists
Wayne GretzkyInd(WHA) Edm(WHA) Edm LA StL NYR2117652027
Gordie HoweDet Hou(WHA) NE(WHA) Har3114701383
Ron FrancisHar Pit Car Tor2511871249
Mark MessierCin(WHA) Edm NYR Van2611061203
Adam OatesDet StL Bos Was Phi Ana Edm1910621079
Ray BourqueBos Col2210551169
Paul CoffeyEdm Pit LA Det Har Phi Chi Car Bos2110061135
Steve YzermanDet2210001063
Joe SakicQue Col17930915
Frank BoucherOtt Van(PCHA) Van(WHL) NYR19926294

Assists from this season are not included in the calculation, so Joe Sakic's 9 assists to date are not included (he is the only active player on the list).

It is no surprise that Wayne Gretzky leads by a significant margin. He is the only player who is not from the 1920's who was able to make the single season list and he did it four times. He is by far the best player in NHL history when evaluated by assists. This list is biased toward the 1980's and 1990's and biased against the original six era when there was a higher calibre of opposition (with only six teams) and thus high scoring was much rarer. The only original six player on the list is Gordie Howe, but given the record length of his career, that is no suprise. The only holdover from the 1920's era is Frank Boucher. He is a rare example of a player from that era who had a long enough career to crack this list. I think he is overrated here due to the false assist normalization from that time. Each career assist Boucher had was worth 3.15 adjusted assists whereas for the other players on the list, each assist was worth roughly one adjusted assist (usually slightly less than this). This list is much more successful than the single season list for assists because the 1920's players who are given unreasonably high ratings on the single season list rarely had long enough careers to make a career list.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Jagr Off To A Fast Start

Jaromir Jagr is the top scorer in the NHL right now with 23 points in his 14 games. He has had some great chemistry with Brendan Shanahan so far this year. Scary thing is Jagr may not be playing at 100% yet with his shoulder problems. In last night's game against Buffalo, he appeared to reinjure it. Lets hope its not too serious. While I don't think Jagr has been the best forward so far this year (that is Sidney Crosby), he has been very good. This is yet another great season for Jagr, last year I thought he should have won the Hart Trophy.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Isn't Ottawa Breaking The Agreement?

Because of the lack of a transfer agreement between Russia and the NHL, there is contreversy regarding several Russian players who left Russian contracts this summer to come to North America. There were some very unusual defections and other legal ploys used to get Russian players to the NHL. The player who had the most uneventful trip out of Russia this summer was Alexei Kaigorodov of the Ottawa Senators. There was an agreement between Ottawa and Metallurg Magnitogorsk that if Kaigorodov didn't make the NHL team he would go back to Russia. After six games with limited ice time, Ottawa sent Kaigorodov to the minors. Today, it is announced they are suspending him for refusing that assignment and planning to return to Russia instead. Wasn't that the agreement from day one? Isn't Ottawa in the wrong for suspending a player for upholding an agreement they made? Or was the plan that the Senators would doublecross the Russians and they are angry that Kaigorodov is too honest to be involved in this doublecross?

Here is the TSN story on the suspension by the Senators.

Why Are They Using A Two Goalie System?

When you have two goalies of roughly equal ability it can make sense to share the starts equally between both of them. It keeps both goalies from being overplayed but also keeps them both active in the game. When one goalie significantly outplays the other, it is clear that the better goalie should be the starter and the weaker goalie the backup - at least for the short term until their playing levels become more equal.

One team that has been using the two goalie system so far this year despite a large difference in the play of their two goalies is the Los Angeles Kings. Mathieu Garon has been one of the top goalies in the NHL so far this year. In seven games, he sports a .941 saves percentage and and league leading 1.72 GAA. His counterpart is Dan Cloutier. In 9 games, he has a .874 saves percentage and a 3.48 GAA. Yet coach Marc Crawford has been rotating the two as part of a two goalie system.

Likely over the long haul of a full season, Garon won't look as wonderful as he does right now and Cloutier wont look as awful, but right now it makes sense to play the hot hand and Mathieu Garon is the hot hand.

Teams often find it hard to leave their higher paid goalie on the bench even when he is outplayed by the other goalie(s) in the system. Dan Cloutier gets paid more than twice what Mathieu Garon gets and that may be why Cloutier is getting a few extra chances to be the Kings starter. Los Angeles is not the only team in a situation where the bigger name, bigger priced goalie is being outplayed by his backup, the New York Islanders have a similar situation.

As long as Garon continues to play this well and Cloutier continues to struggle, the Kings would be advised to use Mathieu Garon as their starter.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Best Forward So Far This Season

I have already named my picks for best defenceman so far this season: Nicklas Lidstrom and the best goalie so far this season: Manny Fernandez, so now I will look at the forwards.

I think the top forward so far this year has been Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins. This sophomore star has 18 points in 10 games so far with a +8 +/- rating. He has scored at a better point per game than those players ahead of him in scoring (Jaromir Jagr and Maxim Afinogenov), but Pittsburgh has had less games played than their teams.

I am not prepared yet to declare the most valuable player of the season so far (a strong case can be made for Crosby, Lidstrom or Fernandez), but seeing Crosby as the top forward in the league might become a regular occurance. He has all the potential to be one of the all time greats in NHL history.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

If Only They Could Get Some Goaltending

The best team defence so far this year has been that of the Detroit Red Wings. They have allowed only 21.3 shots per game. This is more than 4 shots better than the second place team (Tampa) and more than 6 shots better than the third place team (Vancouver). So far it has given them a decent 7-5 record (with one overtime loss) , but the haven't been able to capitalize on their super defensive play due to mediocre goaltending which leaves Detroit with a 2.33 GAA (good enough for sixth in the NHL).

Their defence is led by Nicklas Lidstrom who has been the best defender of the season so far and has had significant contribution from veterans Mathieu Schneider, Chris Chelios and Danny Markov as well as youngster Brent Lebda. The forward unit is defensively responsible as well and has Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby on their checking line (two guys who have been able to play internationally for Canada as checking forwards). It is very hard tp generate offensive chances against this group.

The problem is the goaltending has not been particularly wonderful. Dominik Hasek is back in Detroit after some time in Ottawa. He sports a .890 saves percentage so far and may still be getting back into the games (since he had been out since last February). He is backed up by Chris Osgood who has a 2.69 GAA and a .900 saves percentage in three games. In order to rest Hasek as his potential groin injury, Detroit is carrying a third goalie in Joey MacDonald, who has been overmatched in his one game (he came on in relief of Osgood) and sports a .867 saves percentage.

Last season, Hasek was playing at Vezina level before injuries ended his season. If Hasek can approach that level again, watch out for Detroit, they could emerge as the President's trophy winner again.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

New Worst Player So Far This Season

Its pretty easy to kick the Philadelphia Flyers when they are down. I already picked Petr Nedved as the player who is playing the worst in the NHL so far this season. It looks like Philadelphia management agreed and sent him to the minors. Not too long after that, the Flyers replaced their GM and coach. That doesn't mean that the problems in Philly are over. Its time to pick a new worst player so far this season and again I look to the Flyer organization. As Mike at Flyers Fan Central already commented in the Nedved thread, Derian Hatcher is a good pick for this dishonor. He's been slow and easily beaten so far this year. He has no points in 11 games and a -14 +/- (its always impressive to have a bigger minus than your games played total). Many look at Hatcher and see him as one of the reasons the Flyers are tied for last place in the East Conference.

I don't think Hatcher's career is done. I think he has some more good years. He hasn't had a good start, but he has had a very good career despite a lack of speed. He made second team all star as recently as 2003. At age 34, he is not done yet. He is a veteran who can be a very solid defenceman. I think we will see consistent solid play from him most of this season. I think the Flyers are too good a team to remain at the bottom of the league. This is largely an early season fluke.

Hatcher has not done well so far, but if the Flyers are patient with him I think he will make a positive contribution. Of course they could also waive him and send him to the minors in an effort to make the Philadelphia Phantoms the highest paid AHL club ever.

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