Friday, June 30, 2006

Why Dick Duff Is A Poor Hall of Fame Choice

On Wednesday, the NHL announced its 2006 Hall of Fame inductions. Included in the list was Dick Duff. To many of the younger fans he is a name they had never heard. The older fans remember him, probably the way todays fans would remember Kris Draper. He was a hard working forward with defensive skill who won some Stanley Cups and was good enough to be viewed as an all star a few times. Possibly they remember him a little more strongly because some of those cups were won with the Toronto Maple Leafs. I don't think most fans remember him as a Hall of Fame talent, because he wasn't one.

Duff was a Toronto area prospect who first starred with the St Michael's Majors in junior. He led the team to the 1955 Memorial Cup. That alone put him on the radar screen of the Toronto diehard hockey fans. After the Memorial Cup, he mad his NHL debut playing three games for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but scoring no points. He was a hard working checker with 20 goal offensive talent (this was back in the days when a 20 goal season made you a solid player). In his rookie season, he made the NHL all star game. This was as a 37 point scoring rookie. In those days, the all star game was Stanley Cup champions versus the all stars from the other five teams in the league. Montreal was the Stanley Cup champ and an extremely dominant team. The all star game was a competitive battle and the all star team was chosen for such (it was not just the top scorers in the NHL with no chemistry). They had bangers and checkers as depth players in the all star team. As such, Dick Duff fit in well. In fact, he played in the all star game on the all star side in his first three NHL seasons. A player with three all star games in three NHL seasons may sound like a hall of fame track, but when you consider he had (at that point) a career best of 49 points and was there as a checking line guy its not so clear. He was a member of the Leafs for their 1962 and 1963 Stanley Cup wins. He was a solid contributor in each. In 1962, he put up 13 points in 12 playoff games. He got to play in two more all star games, now as a member of the Stanley Cup champions. In the 1964 season, the Leafs were well on their way to their third cup in three years when they traded Duff to the New York Rangers.

The rebuilding Rangers wanted to move out aging star Andy Bathgate, so they sent him and Don McKenney to the Leafs for five players. Dick Duff, Arnie Brown, Bob Nevin, Bill Collins and Rod Seiling became Rangers. Dick Duff was the biggest name in the bunch of future Rangers. Duff never really fit in as a Ranger. He was traded in the next season to the Montreal Canadiens with Dave McComb for Bill Hicke and Jean-Guy Morissette. The trade was mostly seen as addition by subtraction for the Rangers. Sure they didn't get anyone as talented as Duff back, but at least the unhappy winger was back in Canada.

The Montreal team Duff joined won four Stanley Cups in their next five years. Duff was an important second line player for these wins. He played in two more all star games as a Stanley Cup winner in 1965 and 1967 (this was for the 1966 cup win, the NHL moved the all star game to mid season this year, so rosters were set almost a year before the game), before the all star game format changed. Ín 1969, the Habs decided to trade Duff to Los Angeles for the younger Dennis Hextall (former Philadelphia goalie Ron Hextall's uncle).

Duff spent nearly a year in Los Angeles without fitting in well and then was traded to the Buffalo Sabres with Eddie Shack for Mike McMahon Jr and cash. This was an attempt by Los Angeles to ship out the unhappy veterans for a fresh start. It moved Duff back to Buffalo, which was close enough to Canada that he might be happy.

Duff lasted in Buffalo one more year before announcing retirement. All told, Duff had 1030 NHL games played with 283 goals and 572 points. In 114 more playoff games, he had 30 goals and 79 points.

Duff was a popular figure in the Toronto area and was eventually hired on to the Maple Leaf scouting staff. He also served as an assistant coach and for a short time, coach of the team.

Why is Duff in the Hall of Fame? He was a popular Toronto figure. He won six Stanley Cups in two cities (one of which is Toronto). He was a very good checking forward. He was good enough for inclusion on seven all star teams (although one can make a very solid case that under today's all star format, he would not have played in a single all star game). Duff is a friendly popular guy who is well liked by the media and a good friend to many of the Hall of Fame committee members. He never fit in when he was on a weaker (in this case American) team. I think it may have been partially because on a weak team he had to play first line minutes and this was not a role that he was capable of playing. He was a very good checker, but a failure as a frontline star. He has done charity work in the Toronto area and is respected for this.

Lets take a look at my hall of fame standards and specifically at the Bill James hall of fame questions (which are in a baseball context - but I will try to adapt to hockey).

1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?

No. Definitely not the best player by anyone's standards.

2. Was he the best player on his team?

No. Not even when he played on a weak team.

3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?

Again the answer is a clear no.

4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

Definitely. Yes.

5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?

I would say yes. When Duff retired in 1972, there were few players who had played 1000 games in their career (Duff played 1030) - today there are several more. This probably would not have happened had he not aged right as the NHL was expanding, so its not quite as big an achievement as it seems.

6. Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

No way.

7. Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?

No. But Duff's game did not show up in statistics well as he was a checking forward.

8. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?

Again no. Except possibly number of Stanley Cups won. Again I should state that his game did not translate well to statistics.

9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

Yes he was definitely better than his statistics show. His inclusion on three all star games as an "all star" despite not being a top scorer is strong evidence. His game did not translate well statistically.

10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?


11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?

Never had an MVP-type season or even came close to one.

12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go into the Hall of Fame?

Seven all star games. But it was a different format from that of today. Most players with seven career all star games probably make the hall of fame, although there are at least a handful of contemporaries of Duff who made several all star games for winning Stanley Cups who have never been given serious hall consideration.

13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?

They would have no chance at winning the league or their division. They would probably be last place or at least close.

14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?

Not much impact. That is why many younger fans never even heard of him before his hall of fame induction

15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?

Dick Duff does very well by this standard. It is probably a main reason he got inducted.

I think its pretty clear that he shouldn't be in the hall of fame. Duff was a solid player, similar to Kris Draper (would it shock you if in the 2040's they induct Draper to the hall? It would shock me). He was a player (though not a frontline player) for six Stanely Cup winners. He appeared in seven all star games, although all seven of those appearances might not have happened in today's all star game format. His a popular friendly man. He is well liked in the Toronto area. He is a friend and contemporary of several hall of fame committe members. This is not a reason for induction.

When a player is eligible but not inducted for 30 years (as Duff was) there is usually a good reason for it. Nothing significant changed in the 31st year to make him a better player. There are ex-NHL players I support for the hall of fame who have been eligible but not inducted for a few years now (Mark Howe for example). The longer time passes since his retirement without his induction the weaker his case becomes. New retirements push him back. A compelling reason should exist when a player is inducted after several years of failed eligibility. That reason should be far more compelling than friendship with the hall of fame committee.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Hall of Fame Inductions

The 2006 Hockey Hall of Fame iductions have been announced. Here are the players I would have supported had I been on the Hall of Fame committee. Inducted are Patrick Roy, Dick Duff, Harley Hotchkiss and Herb Brooks.

Patrick Roy was an obvious choice as the winningest goalie of all time. I support that choice.

Dick Duff finally makes it on his 31st year of eligibility. I think he makes it for the wrong reasons. If he was denied 30 times, there is probably a reason for it that didn't change on the 31st attempt. He is a friend and contemporary of many members of the Hall of Fame committee, so they may tend to favor him a bit. He won 6 Stanley Cups, which is impressive, but he was never considereded the best player on his team. He was lucky to be part of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens in their glory years. I will write in the future a piece about why I dislike this kind of choice.

Harley Hotchkiss undoubtedly played a significant role in NHL history as the Calgary Flames owner is the chairman of the NHL's board of governors and guided them through the lockout. He clearly had a big part in the history of the NHL, but I hate that chapter in the NHL story. As a leader of it, I despise him as well. It allows the NHL press to create a documentary about how Hotchkiss and others "saved" the NHL with their brilliant foresight to cancel an NHL season and create a CBA where ultimately the big markets should prevail. I don't like to speculate on builders in the Hall of Fame because of cases like this. Hotchkiss is extremely important for his role in the lockout, but he should live in infamy and not in the Hall of Fame.

Herb Brooks is in the Hall of Fame for a two week period in 1980 when he guided the US Olympic Team to an improbable gold medal in hockey. He is a mostly unsuccessful NHL coach, who had stints with the New York Rangers, Minnesota North Stars, New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins. I don't see him as a great coach. He was the right man in the right place at the right time. Despite his Olympic gold, the Hall of Fame committee never saw fit to induct him duiring his lifetime. Brooks died in a 2003 car crash. I think the press from the movie Miracle has as much to do with the Brooks induction as anything he did in his lifetime.

All in all interesting picks. Mostly the lack of players selected is interesting. Doug Gilmour and Phil Housley were snubbed. Dino Ciccarelli once again snubbed. After the 2005 Valeri Kharlamov, induction I thought they might begin to add more Europeans from the days before they could come to the NHL. That appears to be wrong.

Here is TSN's story on the inductions.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

$44 Million

The official salary cap announcement for the 2006/07 season has been made. The salary cap will rise to $44 million. This announcement comes only 4 days before free agency begins. Although the approximate value of the salary cap had been clear for a while, it is nice that the game of CalvinBall is ending (fo this year).

This salary cap rise is less than the CBA would have called for. The NHLPA had been trying to reduce the salary cap for next season in an effort to keep escrow payments down and keep Ted Saskin's job.

The salary floor also rises from $21.5 million to $28 million. This will force bottom feeding teams to add higher priced aging veterans to their lineup that do little to advance the causes of the team. We will see some more significant moves that will be this year's version of Adrian Aucoin and Nikolai Khabibulin to Chicago or Adam Foote and Sergei Fedorov to Columbus, where bad teams add payroll without actually improving. I'm sure some will view this as a "success" of the salary cap, since even the bad teams get some big money free agents (even if it would be in their best interests to abstain from buying and develop from within). Looking a bit longer term, the most important change this season is that the salary cap is already increasing to a level that teams like Carolina and Edmonton will not be able to match. Fewer and fewer teams will be able to afford to spend to the salary cap in coming years.

Given the precident of negotiating a new method of calculating the salary cap (instead of using the CBA method) it is unclear exactly how future salary caps will be determined or when we will know the method.

Here is the TSN story on the announcement, that fails to mention the fact that this salary cap announcement is not being done using the CBA rules or why there was any interest in changing these rules. TSN seems to want to hide the business of hockey as much as possible and only let the fan see the pieces that the NHL wants them to see. This is why we need an independent sporting media (that the blogosphere provides to some degree). The commercial sporting media is in the pockets of the major sports leagues.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

What Chris Pronger Teaches Us About The "New NHL"

Even if we assume that the current NHL CBA was not designed to put star players into the biggest markets, but instead to give us a level playing field where every team can afford to spend the salary cap on their roster (and we merely have incompetence to blame for any inadequacies), it has little chance of working that way. The problem is player movement. This CBA increases it significantly. With increased player movement comes players choosing not to move to certain markets that they do not like and preferentially choosing to move to other markets that they like. Not every player will have this luxory. There will be some players who will be forced to take a one year contract with any team that offers, but the important fact is the best, most talented players have a choice. The more talented the player, the more choice he has. Even with a salary cap that all 30 teams can afford, the most talented players will be able to get to the markets they consider the best ones. Liberalized free agency nearly guarantees that. It does this not only through increased free agency. It does it through increased "big" trades. If no team can hold a player's rights for very long, then it is much easier to consider trading the best players in the game. And since the team trading for the best players in the game will want to sign them up longterm, the best players in the game have another avenue to force themselves into the markets that they consider the best ones. And of course when all that fails, like Pronger, a player can demand a trade (to only certain markets).

Chris Pronger is one of the better players in hockey. He is coming off a year when he should have won the Conn Smythe trophy for his part in the Edmonton Oilers trip to the Stanley Cup finals. He is coming off a year where he has solidified himself as a Hockey Hall of Famer (regardless of what happens for the rest of his career). He is clearly one of the ten best players in the NHL. And he has requested a trade from the Oilers. Although Pronger has not spoke on the matter, it is widely assumed that his wife was unhappy in Edmonton and wanted to live closer to her St Louis family. There may be other issues such as climate, culture and taxation involved, that is nt clear at this point. (NOTE added later. For a good piece on the Pronger situation go to Battle of Alberta) What we learn is that Edmonton is not one of the preferred markets in the NHL. Even if the Oiler team is good enough to come within one game of winning the Stanley Cup, it is not a place that many players would chose to live (as long as they can chose). In fact, the majority of the NHL probably are not the first choice markets in which to live. The best, most talented players will systematically move from them. And they will move to those markets they prefer (I assume Toronto, New York etc. will be among the beneficiaries).

Most players will not be as open about their choice of market (or lack of interest in a market) as Chris Pronger has been, but it will be there. When Alexander Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby become unrestricted free agents do you think they would look upon Edmonton as a potential place to play even if it offers them as much money as the New York Rangers would (and they couldn't as New York offers far more advertising opportunities)? In a league of high player movement, where the best players have the choice of where they will play, the markets they like will start to accumulate them. The markets that they don't like won't have a chance.

All of this depends upon players being able to choose the market in which they will play when they are young enough to be superstars. If the players are in decline (31 or older as in the last CBA) it is a far smaller consideration. In this CBA, Sidney Crosby could be a UFA at age 25. Any player could be a UFA at age 27. Free agents will have much more hockey left in them when they are available on the open market. It will become possible to successfully buy a winning team.

Now this CBA does not give all markets the same chance at buying these free agents. It will have a high enough salary cap that only the bigger markets will be able to afford to spend up to the cap. If only the big markets can afford to buy a team, then only the big markets will buy teams. If certain markets will preferentially attract elite players (and they are the same bg markets), those teams will more than likely be the more dominant teams in the new CBA and win the vast majority of the Stanley Cups. I think the CBA is designed to do this. It is designed to get the best players into the biggest markets in order to attract the NHL its national network TV deal. I think that in a league driven by marketing experts, believing that they fluked upon a CBA that would deliver this benefit (as opposed to deliberately creating one) is terribly naive. The NHL wants the best players in the biggest markets. It is trying to tilt the playing field in order to deliver them there.

If we put aside the issues of player's rights for a minute, the fairest league from a competitive balance standpoint, is one without free agency. Like most keeper fantasy leagues, if you draft a player and you chose to keep him you own his rights for life. It doesn't matter if your market is big or small. The concept of market size doesn't even exist in fantasy hockey. The NHL hasn't had that league for years, but it had one where (for the most part) free agency was irrelevant. Sure big name older players became free agents. Sure some teams paid a fortune to acquire them. It didn't help them to win. The New York Rangers spent the most on free agents and they couldn't make the playoffs for years on end. Strangely, it is the "unfair" nature of what the Rangers were doing that many fans cite as a reason the lockout was needed. How is it unfair for a team to spend a lot of money and still suck? It basically proved that you could not buy a team. Not if you couldn't buy a player until he was 31 or older. The teams that won were teams that drafted well. They may sign a key free agent or two, but they would not have been Stanley Cup contenders without the core of players they drafted. All that has changed. With the drop in free agency ages, teams can buy a winner. Teams will buy a winner. The markets that star players prefer will have an advantage in buying their winner. If these are the big markets that can afford to spend to the cap, likely they will buy winners. That is exactly what the NHL wants.

When it comes to free agency and player movement, reducing their impact is good for competitive balance. When their impact is large, the biggest and most attractive markets will have the best chance of winning. The NHL let the genie out of the bottle on plyer movement in this CBA. Likely they will never get it back in. They don't want it back in. It is their tool to get the best players into the biggest markets. In a high profile way, Chris Pronger's situation is teaching us this.

Monday, June 26, 2006

I NOW Consider Scott Niedermayer A Hall of Famer

Before we completely put the season to bed, there is one final player that I think cemented his Hall of Fame berth this year regardless of what happens for the rest of his career. He is Scott Niedermayer. Today I add him to my Hall of Fame list. He is the fifth addition this season joining Peter Forsberg, Joe Nieuwendyk, Rob Blake and Chris Pronger. Under normal circumstances, the NHL can only induct four players in a season and I am adding five. Does this bother me? Not really. I am inducting players at the point in their career where I think they are worthy regardless of what happens the rest of their career, while the NHL inducts after retirement, so there isn't any one-to-one mapping of players in a season that I induct to those the NHL inducts. There are many seasons (an obvious example is the lockout year)in which less than four are picked in both schemes. Here are my hall of fame standards.

I induct Scott Niedermayer because his career compares very well to Rob Blake and Chris Pronger's and I inducted both of them earlier this year. Niedermayer currently has 974 games played with 539 career points. These are higher numbers than Pronger (although roughly the same per game scoring rate) and slightly lower than Blake. He has won three Stanley Cups during his New Jersey Devils tenure. In 1998, he made the second team all star. In 2004 he made first team and won the Norris trophy. In 2006, he repeated his first team all star berth. That is more first team all star berths than either of Pronger or Blake. Like Pronger and Blake, Niedermayer is a regular choice on Canadian Olympic teams.

I waited until after the NHL awards to induct Niedermayer because I thought he needed a strong showing in the Norris trophy voting and a first team all star berth to solidify his hall of fame credentials. It was possible those were not going to occur, depending upon the will of the voters. Niedermayer is now a two time in a row first all star team defenceman. It is quite likely that had there not been a lockout, he could have had a third year in a row. The lockout cost Niedermayer a year in his prime, yet he still shows great hall of fame credentials. He has close to 1000 games played with a solid offensive contribution for a defenceman. He has several individual awards and multiple years of team success including several Stanley Cup wins. That leaves my list of hall of famers regardless of what happens in the rest of their careers at sixteen as the 2005/06 season ends. Here it is:

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

Likely, this list will shorten over the summer due to some retirements.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

2006 Draft

The draft came and went while my internet connection was conked out. If it was a typical year, three of the players selected will go on to have hall of fame careers. The only question is who are they? At this point we have little more than wild guesses.

Continuing the trend in the 2005 draft few European trained players were selected. Only six went in the first round this year, led by Niklas Backstrom who went fourth overall to Washington. This change is partly due to CBA, since teams must sign any Europeans they draft within two years or they re-enter the draft (when previously they held their rights until age 31). Also this is partly because of transfer fees. When a player under contract with a European league leaves to play in the NL, the NHL must pay transfer fees to his previous team. As a result of a yearlong fight with the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, these fees will rise (in the tentative agreement they have reached). So it will cost NHL teams more money to bring a European to the NHL and they don't have as long a time window to do so. This creates a situation where it is quite possible that one of the Hall of Famers in this draft might be a European who slipped a couple rounds. If less players are beng drafted from a given group, it becomes more likely that a talented member of that group was available later in the draft.

The draft was not without trades, which in the short term have more impact in the NHL. In fact, it is quite likely that no players drafted in 2006 will hold down an NHL job this season. Last year, only Sidney Crosby jumped to a full season in the NHL from the 2005 draft and scouts universally claim there is no Crosby available this year.

The trades began with Luongo for Bertuzzi. Atlanta traded talented but injury prone Patrik Stefan and defenceman Jaroslav Modry to Dallas for Niko Kapanen and a 7th round pick. Los Angeles traded Pavol Demitra to Minnesota for prospect Patrick O'Sullivan and their first round pick. Colorado traded Alex Tanguay to Calgary for Jordan Leopold, their second round pick and a conditional second rounder in a future draft. Boston traded Andrew Raycroft to Toronto for goaltender prospect Tuukka Rask.

When all was said and done, I think Calgary made the biggest short term gain adding Tanguay for Leopold and draft picks. The biggest long term gain is very hard to assess given the number of drafted players that I have never seen play. It's the team that grabbed a future hall of famer in the second or third round (or beyond). At this point your guess is as good as mine as to who that might be.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Luongo For Bertuzzi

On the eve of the draft a blockbuster trade was announced. Superstar goalie Roberto Luongo, young defenceman Lukas Krajicek and a 6th round pick have been traded by Florida to Vancouver for power forward Todd Bertuzzi, defenceman Bryan Allen and goaltender Alex Auld.

Vancouver gets the best player in the deal in Roberto Luongo. He is a player I have wondered in the past if he is best player in the NHL. Vancouver coming out best in this trade depeds upon them signing Luongo longterm as he could be an unrestricted free agent in 2007. It was clear that he didn't want to stay in Florida, so they sold him for as much as they could. Todd Bertuzzi has the ability to be one of the best players in the NHL, but he doesn't seem to have mentally recovered from the Steve Moore incident. Allen is a solid defenceman. Auld had a good season in goal for Vancouver, but I am not sold on him as a longterm solution to any team's goalie problems. Krajicek should be a solid NHL player (and he has some potential to do better than that).

The trade all comes down to contracts. Vancouver wins if they can sign Luongo. Otherwise Florida probably wins. Remember the days when the trade was between players instead of contracts?

Friday, June 23, 2006

NHL Awards

The NHL award winners have been announced. Here were the players I would have voted for and here were my comments when the award nominees were announced.

Adams Trophy - Lindy Buff Buffalo Sabres . I knew my pick of Jacques Lemaire had no chance to win, because this award goes to the coach of the most improved team. I expected it would go to Peter Laviolette of Carolina, because his team won its division and the other nominees teams did not, but Ruff is as deserving a choice as any of the nominees considering the method used by voters to pick a winner.

Calder Trophy - Alexander Ovechkin Washington Capitals . No suprise here. He and Sidney Crosby should go on to great careers, but Ovechkin's rookie season was the better (probably in part because he was older).

Selke Trophy - Rod Brind'Amour Carolina Hurricanes . Rod Brind'Amour´winning didn't suprise anyone either.

Lady Byng Trophy - Pavel Datsyuk Detroit Red Wings . Again, I picked him and expected he would win, though it was less of an obvious pick as Brind'Amour or Ovechkin.

Norris Trophy - Nicklas Lidstrom Detroit Red Wings . His fourth and well deserved. He should have been a Hart trophy nominee as well.

Vezina Trophy - Miikka Kiprusoff Calgary Flames . Not a suprising pick since he was a Hart nominee.

Pearson Award - Jaromir Jagr New York Rangers .

Hart Trophy - Joe Thornton San Jose Sharks . I picked Jagr as the player deserving these two awards, however I expected that his better finish would make Joe Thornton the actual winner. The players picked Jagr as their MVP, the writers picked Thornton. Who was more correct? Off the top of my head, I would think the players should have a better feel for who is their MVP if they played the opposing teams enough, but with the unbalanced schedule there are some players who never even played against one of these two players this season.

Masterton Trophy - Teemu Selanne Anaheim Mighty Ducks . This trophy was basically used as a comeback of the year award, which wasn't its intended purpose. Selanne did have the comeback of the year, but I think Patrik Elias should have won, however he failed to even receive the New jersey Devils nomination.

Clancy Trophy - Olaf Kolzig Washington Capitals . I have never spent much time checking into NHL players charity work, so I really cannot voice much of an opinion

First All Star Team - Miikka Kiprusoff Calgary Flames, Nickals Lidstrom Detroit Red Wings, Scott Niedermayer Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Joe Thornton San Jose Sharks, Jaromir Jagr New York Rangers, Alexander Ovechkin Washington Capitals I would have picked Sergei Zubov over Niedermayer for the second defnesive spot, but aside from that I agree.

Second All Star Team - Martin Brodeur New Jersey Devils, Zdeno Chara Ottawa Senators, Sergei Zubov Dallas Stars, Eric Staal Carolina Hurricanes, Daniel Alfredsson Ottawa Senators, Dany Heatley Ottawa Senators. I think Martin Brodeur was picked for his legacy as a great goalie and not what he did this season. Tomas Vokoun of Nashville would have been a better pick. On defence I had Scott Niedermayer here instead of Sergei Zubov and I had the other Sens defenceman Wade Redden in place of Zdeno Chara.

All Rookie Team - Henrik Lundqvist New York Rangers, Andrei Meszaros Ottawa Senators, Dion Phaneuf Calgary Flames, Brad Boyes Boston Bruins, Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penguins, Alexander Ovechkin Washington Capitals I never posted my picks for an all rookie team, but this looks like the players I probably would have chosen.

All in all, the awards went approximately as expected. I think the biggest injustice, given the nominations, might be Martin Brodeur's spot on the second team all star. If the biggest quibble is with a second team all star spot, they did pretty well in their selections.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

On Keeping Successful Teams Together

Today, Al Strachan wrote an interesting piece that shows at least one member of the mainstream media is starting to come around to my line of thinking. Strachan wris that "Great Teams Don't Last In Today's NHL". I go a step further and argue that great teams don't exist in todays NHL (at least not in the 2006 playoffs).

Strachan notes that Carolina and Edmonton both have lots of unrestricted free agents to attempt to sign in the off season. Carolina has Matt Cullen, Frantisek Kaberle, Mark Recchi, Niclas Wallin, Aaron Ward and Doug Weight who will be UFAs. Edmonton has Fernando Pisani, Mike Peca, Dwayne Roloson, Sergei Samsonov and Jaroslav Spacek. Given the way they played in the playoffs, most (if not all of them) will be looking for a pay raise. In a salary capped environent, this will likely not be possible. Even without a salary cap, these two smallish markets would find it hard to give all these players raises. This is a direct result of the new CBA. The most important change it makes to competitive balance is that free agency is liberalized. Players become free agents at younger ages. That forces teams to pay a higher market value to some of these younger free agents then they would have if the were restricted free agents (as some would have been in the old CBA). This also forces teams to invest more money in other talented players who are approaching the lowered unrestricted free agency ages, in order to attempt to keep them beyondthe first chance they could have left. That leaves less money to go around for the current UFAs. Likely both Carolina and Edmonton will have some of these core players depart as free agents this summer leaving them weaker teams as a result. It is also likely that the raises given to the players they keep will prevent either teams from making any big splashes on the free agent market to replace them. Likely, Carolina and Edmonton will both be weaker next year, thanks to this CBA.

This problem will change in the future. As the salary cap rises, only the big market teams will be able to take advantage of it. The big market teams might be able to keep their cores together, while small markets cannot. I think this is by design. This is to attempt to put the best teams in the biggest markets in search of the elusive US network TV deal. If enough interest is generated in places like New York and Los Angeles it might happen (they hope). Interest will come if these teams win. These teams are more likely to win if they can use their financial muscle to buy players in their prime, instead of the players in decline in the last CBA.

What Al Strachan does not realize is that neither Carolina nor Edmonton haveat teams right now. CBA imposed parity has kept there from being any this year.

Al Strachan goes on to make ridiclous predictions that maybe Edmonton will trade Chris Pronger to help solve any salary woes. This prediction is a rather poor one. It would kill the marketing of the team and it is likely that the return would not be able to perform on Chris Pronger's level.

One further prediction that is far more likely is made by Sisu hockey I don't think I would be going out on a limb if I were to predict that at least one of these two teams will not make the playoffs next year. That isn't that wacky a prediction. Let' see what the off season holds, but I think he might be right.

The CBA has prevented us from seeing any elite teams this year. Those that did rise to the top of the mediocre world will get broken up for next year. It’s not that good teams don't last long. It’s that good teams cannot even get built. The exception to this rule will be in the few chosen big markets that this CBA favors.

NOTE: I think I was too quick to dismiss Al Strachan's claim that Edmonton may trade Chris Pronger. Pronger has asked for a trade. Here is the TSN story.

I NOW Consider Chris Pronger A Hall of Famer

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

Chris Pronger was a highly rated junior picked second overall in 1993 by the Hartford Whalers. He was projected from the beginning as a player who had a very good chance of becoming a star and made the all rookie team in his first NHL season. He matured into a superstar after being traded to St Louis. There he won the 2000 Norris Trophy and Hart Trophy as NHL MVP (only the third defenceman along with Bobby Orr and Eddie Shore to win MVP). He twice led the NHL in +/-. He made first team all star in 2000 and has twice made the second team all star. He has been a regular representative for Team Canada in World Cups and Olympic hockey tournaments. Thus far, he has four NHL all star game appearances.

I induct him today after he played a great playoff leading his Edmonton Oiler team to within one game of the finals. I believe he deserved the Conn Smythe trophy instead of Cam Ward. I think he was a more valuable player and far more instrumental to his team's playoff success. I think it is very likely, that in the future we will remember the 2006 playoffs more for Pronger's play in bring the Oilers to within one game of the cup than for Cam Ward being the winning goalie. At any rate, Pronger had an outstanding playoff. He was the top defensive player in the playoffs. His presence kept the biggest stars on the Oilers opposition from scoring. In fact, I would argue that Eric Staal did not win Conn Smythe because of Pronger's defence shutting him down in much of the finals. Not only was Pronger valuable defensively. He also led the Oilers in points and +/-. I don't see how that is not a playoff MVP. This capped off a bit of a comeback for Pronger. A wrist injury had limited him to five games played in 2002/03. His 2004 return season was good enough for second team all star and his 2006 season should have been good enough for Conn Smythe. He has clearly shown that he has recovered from his injuries and is still among the best players in the game. This gives him several seasons as one of the better players in the game, one as MVP. That is enough to secure a hall of fame position regardless of what happens for the rest of his career.

Interestingly, Chris Pronger is the only player who is currently active that I consider a hall of famer who has never won the Stanley Cup. The last time there were players in that position, it was 2004. Adam Oates retired and Dave Andreychuk finally won his cup, leaving a list that had all won the Stanley Cup at least once.

Here are the currently active NHL players who belong in the hockey hall of fame regardless of what happens for the rest of their careers:

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

The NHL awards are still to come. It is possible that they may cement a player's legacy as a Hall of Famer. If that does not happen, most likely we will see a couple retirements shorten this list this summer.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Carolina Wins The Stanley Cup

After a tough seven game battle with Edmonton, the Carolina Hurricanes have won the Stanley Cup. Congratulations to Carolina and their fans. They are the Stanley Cup champions and they worked hard and deserve it (though they are a rather lacklustre champion).

Cam Ward wins the Conn Smythe, despite the fact I think he is a poor choice. Yes Ward played well, but do you actually think he was the best goalie in the playoffs? If he wasn't the best goalie in the playoffs how can he be MVP? I think that Dwayne Roloson and Ilya Bryzgalov both played better in the playoffs, although neither was around to raise the Stanley Cup. Ward was the surviving goalie. When everything was over, he was the only one left standing. He played well, but he wasn't the best in his position. If it was up to me, the Conn Smythe would have gone to Chris Pronger even in a losing cause.

Ward's Conn Smythe win is a fitting choice in some ways. While Carolina may have won the cup, they are not an elite team. While Ward may have won MVP, he wasn't the best goalie throughout the playoffs. That honor goes to Dwayne Roloson.

In the end, a small market southeastern team beat a small market Alberta team in the Stanley Cup finals. If we are to believe the NHL brass, we have the new CBA to thank for that. A final like that would have been impossible without it. In fact a final like that hadn't occurred since last time. I would argue that the CBA has not changed the type of market that makes the finals this year, but it has changed how good the team is. The teams are not as good.

In the end, I think the 2005/06 season will go down as a year of transition. It is the first year back from lockout. It is a year when the CBA imposed parity and is a year or two before the big market advantages of the CBA become significant. It is a transitional year when the NHL tried a bunch of new rules and new enforcement standards. In time, some of it will survive, but other parts will be thrown away and new changes will be brought in. It is also a transitional year in terms of the NHL's players. We saw retirements of many all time greats including Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier and Brett Hull. We saw a great rookie crop emerge. Some of them are likely to be hall of famers of tomorrow. Some are likely to fade away. I think hockey is lucky to have the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Hernik Lundqvist et al. While there were great individual season efforts by Jaromir Jagr, Joe Thornton, Nicklas Lidstrom. Miikka Kiprusoff and others, I think none will go down as all time great seasons. In the end, this season was not so much spectacular because of what happened on the ice as it is interesting because of what transitions the NHL is making. While I wish the NHL well, I am very skeptical on their changes. I hope it turns out for the best, but I have strong doubts. I think this process cost the NHL any great teams this year. When great teams start to emerge again, most likely they will be only in the biggest markets. I am uncertain if that will be as soon as next year or if it will be a longer wait. The NHL got back on the ice this year, but the biggest stories still took place in the boardroom off the ice.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Stanley Cup Finals Going To Game Seven

If you cannot have great teams in the finals, you can at least have a great series. These finals have had more twists and turns than a soap opera (or maybe a Rocky movie). Edmonton was down and nearly out after losing game one and goalie Dwayne Roloson. They struggled to get back into the series, but still fell down 3 games to one. Now they have evened it all up at three games a piece. Carolina was shut out 4-0 in game six, with Jussi Markkanen (who had pretty much been left for dead earlier this season) getting the shutout. Carolina appears to be down, but they are not out. They return home for a winner take all game seven. It should be exciting.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Hershey Bears Win Calder Cup

With a four games to two victory over the Milwaukee Admirals, the Hershey Bears have won the 2006 Calder Cup. Semi-final results are here, quarterfinals here and the first round here.

Hershey is the Washington Capitals affiliate and Milwaukee is the Nashville Predators affiliate. Look for some of the stars of the playoffs to find their way onto those NHL teams.

Hershey was lead by strong goaltending from Frederik Cassivi, who was named playoff MVP for his .931 playoff saves percentage and his 2.10 GAA. Top Hershey scorers included Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Beech. Milwaukee was led by Darren Haydar (who led the playoffs with 35 points) and Simon Gamache.

Congratulations to the Hershey Bears and their fans.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Will Change Do You Good?

Recently I have attacked current parity in the NHL as it has created a playoff with no elite teams. I think it has robbed the fan this year. Not everyone agrees.

Goal10der (one of the more common commenters in this blog) disagrees. I think he takes issue to his favorite sport hockey being attacked. I think we disagree on who is attacking hockey. I think that he thinks that when I blog about how I dislike the direction the NHL is taking, that I am attacking hockey. However, I feel that I am standing up for hockey when I do this and standing against the NHL's attack on it.

The NHL under Gary Bettman has been on a constant search for that major US television deal. This is a search that has so far failed. In this search, we have seen rapid expansion of the NHL mostly into southern markets that have no traditional link toward the game of hockey. While some of these markets can do well when they are winning, they have not been able to produce consistent revenues or attendance. These problems were the root of what caused the lockout (as I wrote in one of my first posts).

The NHL is run by a bunch of marketing wizards with little interest in hockey. They want to sell the hope that each team might be good. So they produce a system with lots of player movement (even if my team sucked last year maybe the new guys will make it good this year). Of course it is impossible for every team to be a contender every year. Some teams must win and others must lose (unless we give a point for losing). Still some teams cannot contend. How do fans that are sold false hope that their team will contend react when it doesn't? They stop coming.

On top of this, there is a second interest. In order to get the media in the largest markets to notice hockey, there must be winning teams in those markets. So the CBA was brought in to do that. In the future, we will have very liberalized free agency and high enough "salary caps" that only the rich can afford to spend near the cap. This is designed so that the rich in the small markets get a chance to buy some of the best players in hockey before they are too old to matter (as in the old CBA). This CBA has imposed parity over the league this season. Are the Stanley Cup finalists in Edmonton and Carolina really that much better than the non-playoff teams in Vancouver or Atlanta? As time goes on, it will add significant advantage to the larger markets in an effort to let them win. They won't win every year, but they will win more often then they have recently. The Rangers, Leafs, Blackhawks and Kings are the four biggest market hockey teams. Since the 1967 expansion they have combined for one cup win (New York Rangers in 1994). That must change.

The problem with the NHL comes from the way it is marketed. It is not marketed as hockey. It is marketed in commercials with actors and bimbos suiting up for a war. It is marketed a false hope that your team will win. It's not marketed as "take me out to the hockey game". It is marketed as "our hockey team is good this year". In the end, if you cannot sell hockey as hockey then it is bound to fail. Maybe in some of the NHL's markets, hockey cannot be sold, so they must sell something else to get fans to come out. If so those markets will fail. I think hockey is a great product. Sell it. The fans have come for decades. It never mattered to me if it wasn't on the US networks or not. Why should it?

We have change in the NHL. Change is the only constant in life. We have always had change in the NHL, although with the lockout, new CBA and "new NHL" this change rate has increased. It is time to ask if these changes are good. I argue that in many cases they are not. They are being done to try to reach goals that I do not care about (why should I a fan care how much money the NHL makes or what its TV ratings are or if it has a major US network deal?) and they are being done at the expense of hockey. The NHL will significantly change the game it presents if they think it might get closer to these goals that I don't value. We have marketing managers who don't even like hockey running the show. They are willing to alienate the old fan base because they believe there is a bigger one to be had. There isn't. Even if hockey becomes a short term fad, it is the current loyal fan base that will remain when the fad passes.

Goal10der writes

Hockey too has evolved; it’s changed. We had Gordie Howe. We had Wayne Gretzky. We had Boom Boom Geoffrion. We had Rocket Richard. We had Mark Messier. We had Patrick Roy. Now we have new superstars and maybe we’re in the same sort of “hangover” that basketball had after Jordan. But, we have some fresh, young talented players who will take the league to new heights in the next decade. Crosby, Staal, Ovechkin, Malkin, Miller. I don’t care that in the meantime, there is, as you have put it, mediocrity. To me, the game is still entertaining; maybe not as it once was, but if you watch the game for what it is - a game - it can be pretty good!**

I am not addressing the particular stars in hockey in my rant. There are many great players in the NHL. Some are stars of tomorrow, some are stars of today, some were stars of yesterday. The names change, but high calibre hockey players continue to be produced. With the increase in hockey players coming to the NHL from Europe and USA and the "echo generation" starting to come of age in Canada, there is no shortage of good players. What there is, is a shortage of good teams. This is a consequence of the CBA.

In 2004, we were in a situation where it was possible that markets like Tampa Bay and Ottawa might dominate the next 10 years the way Colorado, Detroit and New Jersey had dominated the 10 before that. That had to change. There was no way to sell hockey to major US networks if the best teams were in places nobody cared about. Get the best players to New York and Los Angeles. That was what the NHL had to do.

Hockey has always been a game where a team that has an elite core of players that emerge as stars together will dominate for years (until that core becomes too old). That situation has to be changed. Step one: Break up the cores in the small markets. Step Two: Move some of the stars to the big ones. Step one is mostly done. Step two will not begin until the free agency age drops and the salary cap rises. It will be much more evident in 2 or 3 more years.

How certain am I that this will happen? Obviously it is my best guess based on the facts. It seems to be the clear intent of the CBA as it was written. Can I be wrong? Of course I can.

Goal10der further writes:

Here is my point. If you don’t like where the game is headed; if you don’t like having to wallow watching “mediocre” hockey – THEN STOP WACTHING IT and STOP BLOGGING ABOUT IT. I used to enjoy reading your blog because it would get me fired up about things, but recently I realized after re-reading all of your particular comments on the “elite teams” post, that you’re not going to change unless in a few years you’re proven wrong somehow, probably with some metric system that someone will invent. If you’re not going to change, and it's your right not to, I can't keep reading, because I have better things to do than get all fired up about some guy who craps on the game I love.

It’s too bad it has come to this because I certainly don’t like pissing people off and I never intended to write this sort of post on here, but the passion I feel for hockey brings me to this level of anger after reading your blog.

I love hockey. I don't like what the NHL is doing with hockey. I intend to do my best to point out why I don't like the NHL's direction as long as I continue not to like it. If this angers a reader GOOD. I think the problem in this case is that the anger is misplaced. Instead of being angry at the NHL for its attack on hockey, the anger is at the blogger for attacking the NHL.

I think the reason for it in this case is because goal10der is a Buffalo Sabre fan. It is hard to accept the fact that the Sabres (who had a really good season) are not an elite team. Look at their point total. Look at how close they came to the Stanley Cup finals - were it not for some defensive injuries they might be the Stanley Cup winner. At the same time look over their roster. Do you see any truly elite player on it? Me neither. How did the NHL get to this point that a team can come that close to the Stanley Cup without any elite players? Is this a good thing? I argue that it isn't. Sure Buffalo plays very well together. Shouldn't there be a team with some elite hall of fame type players that also plays well together? In every year in my memory except 2006 there has been one with several of these players. It is just this year that fans do not get one and that is the indirect result of the NHL's marketing wizards running the league without much hockey knowledge.

I will not stop blogging about the NHL's assault on hockey. I may wind up watching less hockey in the process. That would be a shame because I truly love hockey. I hope the NHL can continue to provide good hockey. I think its quality has been down in these playoffs because of the lack of truly elite teams. And that is the big shame.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Jason Grimsley And The NHL

One story the NHL is putting out in the media for public relations purposes is that the NHL administered 1406 drug tests this season and found zero violations. They want to show this as evidence that the NHL is drug free. I think it is more likely evidence that the NHL drug testing is not very strong.

In pre-Olympic drug tests, Bryan Berard tested positive for steroids and Jose Theodore tested positive for the steroid masking agents in Propecia (a hair restoration drug). It is almost certain that Theodore was using Propecia to mask his baldness and not any steroid use. Since these tests were not tests administered by the NHL, the NHL CBA says there is nothing that can be done to punish these players. These tests do not count among the 0 for 1406 record the NHL has. Yet they draw a lot of questions about the NHL mark. It appears that there were players in the NHL who were taking substances that could be found with a better drug testing system, the NHL failed to find any.

There are several problems with the NHL drug testing system. First it tests for a very limited number of drugs (steroids). It does not test for stimulants that are banned by the Olympic Committee, and are believed to be a much bigger problem in the NHL (ie Sudafed). It does not test for steroid masking agents. Thus it is very possible that there are players taking steroids and masking them. It does not test outside of competition. Thus a player can take steroids while training in the off season as long as they stop for the regular season. If there is overwhelming evidence that a player took steroids, but the evidence does not come in the form of an NHL administered drug test, nothing can be done about it. See for example the case of Bryan Berard.

As a case in point, let’s look at baseball player Jason Grimsley. Grimsley was a pitcher with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Grimsley has been involved in an American federal investigation on steroids. His house was searched for six hours Tuesday. Grimsley had a package containing two kits of human growth hormone intercepted by authorities that was sent to his home in April. He has admitted to steroid use and claims it is a rampant problem in baseball. He is cooperating with US agents in their steroid investigation. He has NOT failed a baseball drug test. He has been released by the Arizona Diamondbacks and suspended for 50 games by major league baseball. According the NHL's drug testing rules, unless he failed an NHL administered drug test, there is nothing they could do to him. There is nothing the NHL could do if they had a case like that of Jason Grimsley.

Here is a TSN story on Jason Grimsley's situation.

The fact the NHL has found zero drug users in its testing and other agencies have found some positive tests among NHL players implies that there are some performance enhancing drug users to be found but the weak drug testing is not finding them. I do not believe hockey has the same level of drug use as baseball, but I do not believe that it is entirely non-existent either. It would raise the credibility of the NHL’s claims that the league is relatively clean and they are actively trying to keep it that way if we had an occasional positive drug test reported. 0 for 1046 is not a plausible scenario. There are gaping holes in the NHL drug testing system and likely some players are taking advantage of them.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Cam Ward Is A Poor Conn Smythe Choice

Right now, I support Chris Pronger as Conn Smythe favorite, though could be convinced that Rod Brind'Amour, Eric Staal or Cory Stillman are deserving depending upon how the rest of the playoffs go. One name I do not support is Cam Ward, though goal10der asked about him. Typically, the goaltender on the Stanley Cup winning team is a very good candidate for the Conn Smythe, though not this year (assuming of course Carolina wins). The Conn Smythe should go to the MVP of the playoffs. The MVP should, at the very least, have been the player in his position who played the best during the playoffs. The best defenceman in the playoffs has been Chris Pronger. The best forward has been one of the Canes three (Brind'Amour, Staal and Stillman) though it is a very close race. The best goaltender hasn't been Cam Ward. I don't see how that position can even be argued. Dwayne Roloson and Ilya Bryzgalov have better saves percentages while facing more shots in Roloson's case and roughly the same in Bryzgalov's case per minute. I would also argue that Ryan Miller of Buffalo outplayed Ward in their semifinal series, though I cannot make a statistical argument to show Miller has been superior. How can you be playoff MVP and not the best goalie in the playoffs? It doesn't make sense. I do not support Cam Ward for Conn Smythe. I suppose it might be still possible for him to win my support. Maybe it would take two more shutout wins in his next two games that include lots of overtime, but its unlikely.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Tentative Russian NHL Deal

After a year with no Russia- NHL player transfer deal, a tentative deal has been struck. During this year, there was no legal framework for player transfers between the leagues. This lead to lawsuits over Alexander Semin and Alexander Ovechkin. This was expected to lead to problems with the transfer of Evgeni Malkin to Pittsburgh.

The deal is expected to have increased transfer fees when players leave the Russian league to join the NHL. Exactly how much the increase will be is still unknown. The individual Russian teams must sign on to this deal, so it is not a given that this story is complete.

Here is TSN's story on this subject.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

NHL Plays CalvinBall

Do you know the game CalvinBall? Its an invention of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. It's a game where Calvin makes up the rules as he goes along to suit himself. That seems to be the way the NHL is run. They are constantly changing rules on the fly.

The NHL CBA had a signing moratorium for the last two weeks of June. Any team was not allowed to negotiate contracts with their own free agents from June 15th until the free agency date of July 1st. I'm not exactly sure what the purpose of this rule is. One could argue it would prevent a resigned player from taking the hockey news lead against the Stanley Cup playoffs, except that the finals would have to go six games to even make the June 15th deadline. Most likely, the rule was designed to increase player movement. Anything that makes it harder to resign your own players makes it easier for them to move to new markets. At any rate, the rule is stupid. So the NHL has announced that this year the rule is not going to be enforced (though it might be in future seasons). Here is TSN's story on this announcement.

When free agency does open up in July, there are still rules to be decided. Namely, what will the salary cap be? In an almost inexplicable admission that they are useless, the NHLPA is trying to have next year's salary cap lowered. The players will likely pay high escrow payments to the owners unless NHL revenue keeps up with payroll increases - a very unlikely prospect given that this year's revenue exceeded projections in part because the projections were lowball figures following the lockout and in part because the Canadian dollar has risen against the American dollar creating apparent increases in revenue from Canadian markets (which do not exist when calculated in Canadian currency). Tom Benjamin explains this in detail. In fact, if revenues were measured in Canadian dollars instead of American ones, the NHL failed to reach its revenue goals this year. These reasons for "revenue success" are highly unlikely to repeat themselves, so players are looking at large escrow payments next year.

It's less than a month before free agent signings begin and the NHL has not set a salary cap. Some teams are laready making signings of their own players based upon cap figures that they assume may exist (for example Tampa Bay's signing of Brad Richards). How can you plan a budget when you do not even know the salary cap - or the mechanism for its calculation at the time you must plan your summer's signings? This NHL disorganization makes it very hard for a general manager. Planning for July must include contingencies for several different salary caps.

How do you play a game when the rules are made up as you go along? Thirty general managers are asking that question right now.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

If The Canes Win The Cup Easily

I have picked Chris Pronger as the Conn Smythe favorite. Others picked Dwayne Roloson, but in light of his playoff ending injury that now looks unlikely.

The possibilty now exists for a quick series won by Carolina. In light of that should we be picking some Carolina chices? Maybe. I could still imagine Pronger being playoff MVP with a Cane sweep. However should that change, I think the leading candidate from the Canes is Rod Brind'Amour who has contributed defensively and offensively (just like in the regualr season). He currently leads the playoffs in goals. The other close choice is playoff point leader Eric Staal and possibly Cory Stillman. Thus far, Carolina has had a very deep offence in the playoffs.

Edmonton too has received scoring from several players, but they have been far more dependant upon two key players (and one is gone).

Sunday, June 04, 2006

There Are No Elite Teams In The 2006 Playoffs

My post the problem with parity was discussed by many in the blogosphere including Tom Benjamin, Sisu hockey and Red and Black Hockey. It seems that it was taken as a controversial post and sometimes misunderstood when it was discussed, so I will try to restate my opinions.

In the 2006 playoffs, there were no elite teams. Period. Not any of the sixteen playoff teams are what I consider elite. This is not meant as sour grapes because it is an Edmonton vs. Carolina final. This is merely a statement of unfortunate fact. This is not because the teams that some thought were good didn't make the finals. Many have tried to argue that I make this statement because I am upset that Detroit or Ottawa (or fill in another team) lost early. That is not true. Detroit is not an elite team. A team with Manny Legace as their number one goaltender is hardly elite. The Ottawa team we saw in the playoffs was not elite. They had Ray Emery guarding their nets. We had a field of sixteen mediocre choices. One of the mediocre teams will get hot (and lucky) and win the cup. It will be quite an achievement for their players, but it won't make them an elite team.

OK what is an elite team?

There is no simple answer for this. Through my years of hockey watching, I have learned that an elite team has lots of good players. This can be stated in many ways. If we wrote out a list of the best players in hockey, an elite team should be one of the leaders in the number of their players that made this list (if not the leader). How long a list should we make? I cannot give a clear answer to this, other than it doesn't really matter. If we list the 50 best players in hockey, an elite team should have several on the list. If we make a list of the 100 best, they should have several more on that list. I like to place the cutoff as those players who appear to be on a hall of fame track (players who should make the hall of fame someday based on a logical projection of their careers). That sets a high cutoff. It prevents people from listing Mike Peca or Ryan Miller on this list of players. It prevents somebody from making a top 100 player list where they give a bunch of players who may or may not deserve a spot near the bottom of this list the benefit of the doubt at list them on the bottom part of their top 100 player list to show their team has lots of good players. The truly great players tend to be the ones who form the cores of elite teams. They need some from the next tier too, but without the truly great the team cannot be considered an elite one.

That isn't enough to guarantee a team is elite. An elite team needs a very good goaltender. Even with several star players it is very hard to win in the playoffs without one. So I specifically state that a team needs a top goalie to be considered elite - even if they have some stars. Obviously, the more great players a team has the more likely they can get away with having a less then superstar goalie, but even the weakest goalie in recent memory to win the cup (Chris Osgood) played in three all star games and once made the NHL second team all star.

Merely having a group of all stars does not make a team elite. These players have to work well together. There certainly are cases of all star teams that never rose to an elite level.

To keep things simple, I have stuck to the first two conditions. An elite team must have several players on hall of fame tracks and a top goalie. These are necessary (but not sufficient) conditions to be elite.

So who is an elite team?

In the course of history we have seen several. We can all immediately quote the 80's Edmonton Oilers, the 70's Montreal Canadiens, the 50's Montreal Canadiens, the 80's New York Islanders etc. It depends exactly where we draw the bar for how many elite teams there are. For the sake of this argument, I will set the bar at the approximate level to say that during the time of the old NHL CBA, Colorado, Detroit and New Jersey were elite teams almost every season. They each won multiple Stanley Cups. For a period of time in the middle, Dallas was also an elite team. Maybe one could argue that Philadelphia was an elite team for a while despite their failure to win a cup. Tampa Bay was by 2004. Possibly Ottawa was by the end of the period.

With the line drawn at that level, I think it is safe to say we didn't see any playoff teams in 2006 that were elite teams. Not one. The Ottawa Senators with a healthy Dominek Hasek make the cut. The Senators with Ray Emery in net do not. I don't think its too much of a controversial statement to argue that almost every NHL team has a better starting goalie then Ray Emery in 2006. It may be that Emery improves given some time in the NHL, but he is not in any all star consideration today.

So what? What does it matter if the best team in the NHL is not good enough by these standards?

It affects the quality of the hockey we see. Elite teams play elite hockey. Battles between two elite teams can be wonderful series. The fan loses out by not having elite teams to watch. That isn't to say that an Edmonton vs. Carolina Stanley Cup final series cannot be exciting to watch. It can be. I hope it is. It won't be as good as it could have been if it had better teams in it. Every Stanley Cup final series in recent memory has had at least one team in it (and often two) that I think were better than either of these teams. Teams that were it possible to recreate right now at the level they were at during their elite period who would defeat either of these Stanley Cup finalists, if we could correct for differences in the rules and eras that may exist.

I am always trying to put what I see right now into the appropriate perspective it will have in the future. Sometimes I get it wrong. Sometimes what are the seeds of an important trend may not be seen without some hindsight. However, I think I have done pretty well. For example, I try to announce the point I think a current NHL player has accomplished enough to be a hall of fame player. I think we will look back on the Stanley Cup playoffs of 2006 as a year when there wasn't any great team. Obviously somebody will win, but it will quickly become a forgotten cup winner. When they list the best 20 or even 50 cup winners nobody will even consider the 2006 winners.

Whether this is a trend for the future is an open question. Will the CBA prevent us from seeing any more elite teams? I don't think it will. I think it has this year because the relatively low salary cap prevented any from being built. The salary cap will rise - and it may rise very quickly (not if the impotent NHLPA has their way). It will quickly get to the point where only the big markets can afford to spend up to it. With the liberalized free agent rules, they will be able to buy some elite players. A salary cap prevents them from buying all the elite players, but a good GM will figure out how to grab a few. Free agent signing will be key to making an elite team. It is necessary to sign good free agents to win. Drafting will not get it done. Drafted players will probably have left as free agents when they are ready to play the best seasons of their careers. Sure some teams will keep players they drafted, but it will be common for the stars to move to the brightest market. Why should a player like Eric Staal stay in Carolina or Sidney Crosby stay in Pittsburgh unless their team is a perennial Stanley Cup contender? In a league where parity rules, with definite big market advantages this is unlikely. Crosby never chose Pittsburgh. When he has a choice of where to play, I bet he chooses somewhere else. The NHL would want Crosby in Toronto or New York for marketing purposes and they set up a CBA to allow that possibility and many superstars will take it.

So what? Should I care?

If you enjoy seeing elite teams win the Stanley Cup you should feel cheated this year. There aren't any. There are prospects for that to change, but most likely in the chosen markets. If that doesn't seem fair, again you should feel cheated.

What can I do in the meantime?

Watch the Stanley Cup finals. Hope they are good. Two mediocre teams can play a good series. Its already happened in these playoffs. But it is highly unlikely to be one of the great series that gets remembered forever as classic hockey.

I suppose if you are unhappy enough, you can vote with your chequebook and not watch the NHL. Tune it out until they can give us better teams. I won't. I will be watching the games when I can. I suppose that is what Gary Bettman is counting on. Will they win any new fans with this final? Maybe in Carolina. Especially if they can keep a run going into the next few years (is that possible under this CBA?). Is this what the NHL really wants? A new Cinderella team each year that gets tossed into the scrap heap when they cannot afford their team in the following summer? Right now it’s what they have got. I don't believe it’s the final goal. It’s just an intermediate state.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

AHL Playoff SemiFinals

I am a bit late updating the semi-finals in the AHL playoffs. Game one of the finals has been played. Here are the results of the first round and second round.

In the semifinals we saw:

Hershey defeat Portland 4 games to 3 . This was an extremely close fought series with three games, including game seven going to overtime. In the end, the Mighty Ducks affiliate's offence from Zenon Konopka, Ryan Shannon, Shane O'Brien and Pierre Parenteau was not enough to eliminate the Capitals affiliate in Hershey, who benefitted from strong goaltending from Frederic Cassivi and the offense of Tomas Fleishmann, Graham Mink and Kris Beech.

Milwaukee swept Grand Rapids in four straight . Darren Haydar and Simon Gamache of the Predators affiliates provided too much for Detroit farmhands Jimmy Howard and Jiri Hudler to stand up against.

Now Milwaukee and Hershey will meet in the Calder Cup finals.

Friday, June 02, 2006

One Last (Awful?) Prediction

In this playoff year of parity (or is it mediocrity) , my predictions have had essentially the same success as a coin toss. Here are my first round, second round and third round predictions. They have a wonderful 6-8 record so far. So even if I get the final correct, a fair coin (or a monkey) would likely beat me.

In the finals, I will predict Carolina defeats Edmonton . Edmonton has momentum with a hockey crazy city behind them, but momentum can be fleeting. I think Carolina has looked like the better team this season. Eric Staal and Rod Brind'Amour give them an incredible one two punch at center.

As we have seen, anything can happen in one round. Whichever team wins will not go down in history as a strong champion. If we cannot see any great teams can we at least see some good exciting games? Here's hoping.

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