Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Quick Look At The Trade Deadline

Using the idea that the trade deadline is not just one day, but consists of several days of season ending deals, this year dating back to the Brad Stuart trade, here is a quick analysis of the deals:

Team that made the biggest shortterm gain - New York Islanders. They added the best player who changed teams who is clearly healthy in Ryan Smyth. Todd Bertuzzi and Peter Forsberg may be better players if healthy, but there are strong reasons to believe neither are healthy. To do this, they didn't give up anybody on their roster.

Team that has the biggest short term drop - St Louis Blues. They moved Keith Tkachuk and Bill Guerin bringing only Ville Nieminen and Glen Metropolit to their roster. They also added Brad Boyes for Dennis Wideman in a lateral move. They will likely be rewarded with extra draft picks that turn into NHL players, b ut for now, the loss of Guerin and Tkachuk make the blues a worse team.

Team that made the biggest longterm gain - Edmonton Oilers. They gave up a rental Ryan Smyth and they pick up three first round draft picks from the Islanders. Two in Robert Nilsson and Ryan O'Marra have already been used. The 2007 one should be near the middle of the first round. This should help the Oilers build some future talent.

Team that had the biggest longterm drop - New York Islanders. This is a team that will likely barely qualify for the playoffs. They added a rental Ryan Smyth for the cost of three first round picks (Nilsson, O'Marra and 2007). That's far too much even if they were a serious contender.

NOTE: I am currently away with limited internet access. I will likely not be able to continue my usual posting frequency until mid-March. I may write a few posts between then and now, but the frequency (and length) my be greatly reduced.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Atlanta Desperate For A Run

With the trade deadline only a couple of days away, the Atlanta Thrashers have shown that they are willing to mortgage their future to make a run now. In the last couple days they have made two trades with this theme. First they traded Braydon Coburn to Philadelphia for Alexei Zhitnik. Then they traded a first and 3rd round pick in 2007, a 2nd round pick in 2008 and Glen Metropolit to St Louis for Keith Tkachuk (they give up a further first round pick in 2008 should they resign Tkachuk).

Coburn was an early draft pick in 2003 (8th overall), who has thus far failed to make any impact at the NHL level. Likely he will develop into a solid depth defenceman, but he has some possibility of either exceeding or failing to meet that level. Zhitnik is a solid NHL defenceman. His 24 points so far make him the top scoring defenceman this season currently on the Atlanta blueline. He does not create a strength as a puckmoving defenceman. He is merely slightly better than the previous weakness Atlanta had at this position. Zhitnik is signed through to the end of 2008 so this is not a rental. I see this as a trade that Atlanta can win, if Coburn fails. And given the liberalized free agency in the new CBA, even if Coburn succeeds, it likely will be around the time he is ready to leave as a fee agent. This move is not nearly as bad as the second move.

Keith Tkachuk is a rental. He is a good winger who can play center. He is starting to show signs of decline. His 43 points in 61 games so far is his worst points per game since his sophomore season in 1992/93. He is a useful piece that will go well in their offence, but his cost is a large part of the future. Several draft picks are sent to St Louis - and these picks will not be as late in the draft as so of the other teams making rentals (like Nashville). Glen Metropolit is a useful player, but hardly going to create any strength in St Louis or Atlanta. Atlanta is giving up an awful lot of draft picks to obtain Keith Tkachuk for the rest of the season.

Sometimes, rentals can make sense if the team is on the verge of winning the cup and wants to acquire that something extra to give them a better shot. The Atlanta Thrashers do not appear to be such a team. They have never made the playoffs in the history of the franchise. They do have some pieces in place to build a future around Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa. As they add some depth to the franchise, a better defence and let goalie Kari Lehtonen mature, this team could be dangerous, but they are not there yet. Currently they hold the 6th seed in the east - but are only 2 points ahead of ninth place and missing the playoffs. This doesn't look like a team on the verge of winning the Stanley Cup. It looks like a team on the verge of their first ever trip to the playoffs (which would most likely only last one round).

Don Waddell their GM feels pressure to make the playoffs. Last season he "guaranteed" a playoff berth and then saw his Thrasher team miss the playoffs. If the Thrashers do not have some playoff success this year it may cost him his job. Thus, he feels he can mortgage the future, since he likely won't be around in that future without doing so.

Sometimes, a team that looks to be one of the weaker playoff teams can win with some luck and a few trades. It happened to Edmonton last year but hasn't contributed to any longterm success for the Oilers. In a best case for Waddell it might happen in Atlanta this year, but that is unlikely. Most likely, Atlanta made some poor moves that will stall their rise in the NHL standings in the future. This will likely be a problem for the next Thrasher GM.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Forgotten MVP

More and more people are concluding that the Hart Trophy race is one between Sidney Crosby and Martin Brodeur (for example here). Many other names are being bandied around for the third nominee including Roberto Luongo, Vincent LeCavalier and even Henrik Zetterberg but one name I am not hearing very often is that of the player I consider MVP.

Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit leads the NHL in +/- and all defencemen in points. He is the rock that keeps the Detroit defence strong (they have allowed less shots then anyone else). He has been clearly the best defenceman this season and is the one player who has the biggest impact on his team's success. What more must he do to get the MVP consideration he deserves?

The problem is that he doesn't have league leading offensive totals (he only leads every player in his position, while playing in the lower scoring west). Lidstrom is the best player in the NHL. He is its MVP and nobody seems to notice.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Missing Piece Myth

As the NHL trade deadline approaches, we have several trades to report, including Peter Forsberg to Nashville and Brad Stuart to Calgary. We even have a non-trade. Along with all of this comes a lot of silly rumormongering and some crazy expectations about what the hometown team should do.

One of the craziest ideas we hear about at this time is the "missing piece of the puzzle". If only our team got a puck-moving defenceman or a 2nd line centreman etc that would be the missing piece and then we could win the cup. That idea is patently false, but it doesn't stop Mike Zeisberger from saying that Gary Roberts is the missing piece of the Ottawa Senators.

Can anybody seriously believe that if only Ottawa had Gary Roberts then they would win the cup (but without him they won't)? Gary Roberts is a good (although aging) forward who would give Ottawa another option and increase their depth, but he wouldn't really make a team a champion.

Team win the Stanley Cup because of many reasons. They win because they are the best group of players who play the best hockey. They win because they are lucky. It always takes luck to be the last team standing after the Stanley Cup playoffs. They win because they are strong and have strengths (though maybe not as many strengths as in the past under the regime of enforced parity). They can win despite some weaknesses, as long as the strengths are sufficient. Carolina is the defending cup champs despite a lack of any above average defencemen. Teams have won the cup despite a lack of offensive power - for example the New Jersey Devils most prominently in their 1995 victory. Teams have even won the cup despite a lack of a great goalie. Chris Osgood is among the goalies who have won the cup. What all of these teams had was strengths. You win with strength. The strongest team (at playing hockey) usually wins. The team that has the best players who play the best win. Sure Gary Roberts could be that player, but more than likely he wouldn't be. Ottawa's offence has several weapons and is a strength. It's not much stronger with Gary Roberts than without.

Every year, it seems that about four teams add the "missing piece" and a fifth wins the cup. That is not to say that deadline deals cannot make a difference. Sometimes they do, but usually they do not. The easiest way to make a big impact on deadline day is to trade for a good goalie when your current goalies have not been good. This is because a goalie is the only guy who plays every minute of the game. This position is the one that has the single contribution to your final outcome (be it good or bad).

There are no final pieces. Teams cannot do anything to guarantee a cup victory. A team can increase their chances of winning by increasing their strengths. This is different from trying to cover up all weaknesses. Every team has weaknesses. There is no need to pay a lot in a trade to grab a player if he is merely covering up a weakness without creating a strength. Teams that do this usually fail.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Korolyuk Non-Trade

As the trade deadline approaches on Tuesday, fans are holding their breath waiting for deals to occur. So far, a few have happened such as Brad Stuart to Calgary and Peter Forsberg to Nashville, but there is currently a lull between deals.

One of the most recent deals turned out to be a non-trade and it is an interesting scenario. Alex Korolyuk was traded to New Jersey this fall in a deal to get the Devils under the salary cap. New Jersey had traded Korolyuk back to San Jose for a conditional third round pick. Some of the conditions were that Korolyuk returned to the NHL from Russia and passed a physical. Korolyuk has opted to stay in Russia instead, so there is no deal.

Here is Lyle Richardson (Spector) reporting this odd non-trade.

I am sure some more deals will occur by deadline time (they always do), but I would not be surprised if the biggest deals have already occurred (ie. Forsberg).

NOTE: The official version of the story (from TSN) is that Korolyuk changed his mind about coming back to the NHL. I wonder if any of the Russian mafia types who run many of the Russian Elite League teams helped to convince him that changing his mind was a good idea.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Hottest Player In 2007

Since 2007 has began, the top scorer in the NHL is Henrik Zetterberg of the Detroit Red Wings. He has 34 points in his 21 games so far this year (this places him 2 points ahead of second place Sidney Crosby). Zetterberg is a talented young player who has become very hot in time for the stretch run. Should Detroit go deep in the playoffs, Zetterberg will likely be a big part of the run.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Nashville Trades For Biggest Name At Trade Deadline

Now that Nashville has acquired future Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg for Scott Upshall, Ryan Parent, a first round pick and a third round pick, what is left for the actual trade deadline day? Most likely, Forsberg is the biggest name that will be traded this year. Most likely, the best defenceman available Brad Stuart has already been traded to Calgary. Does that mean that the biggest trades have already occurred? What impact players are left that might be traded? Todd Bertuzzi? Ryan Smyth? Bill Guerin? A surprise?

Does this make Nashville the prohibitive cup favorites? I once called Peter Forsberg the best player in the NHL when healthy. That caveat of when healthy is a big one. More than likely, Forsberg isn't healthy and will not be 100% healthy this season. How valuable will an unhealthy Forsberg be to Nashville? It certainly helps the team, but it doesn't guarantee them the cup. More than likely, I bet the Predators do not go to the finals.

As for the players they gave up to Philadelphia. Four young guys. Two to be determined in the draft (not super early picks, the best will be in the late 20's). Upshall and Parent may become solid NHL players, but neither is projected to be a star. Probably it is more than Forsberg will be worth to Nashville (unless the Predators win the cup).

What is disturbing is the way the teams load up at the trade deadline under a salary cap. Effectively, teams can subvert the salary cap by obtaining a player for a small portion of the season and only have his salary on the books for a small period of time (but have a total payroll well over the cap). That means that next year there is no way the team can keep the player. He is definitely a rental. In the old CBA, many players obtained as "rentals" were actually resigned by their acquiring team (Rob Blake in Colorado and Chris Chelios in Detroit are two prime examples). Teams would acquire a player approaching UFA status and if he worked out shorterm, they would have first chance to lock him up longerterm. They paid for the chance to sign him as well as for the rental. In a salary capped environment, a team that wins cannot be kept together as the players who succeeded deserve raises bigger than the salary cap allows. When you start out already over the cap due to "rentals" it is impossible to keep them. No longer do we get dynasties. The team that wins the cup gets built in February and broken up in July. There is no chance to repeat. They are not even the same team we saw play at Christmas time in their cup winning year. What is more memorable? A good team that wins (or at least has a good chance to win) several cups in a row or a team that stayed together for about 4 months? We will start to see more and more teams that win cups being forgettable teams that don't last long enough to repeat and were not even together for one season. Carolina did it last year with Mark Recchi and Doug Weight. Who is next?

Tom Benjamin makes similar points on his blog.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Worst NHL Regular This Season

I try to keep track of the player, who has a regular spot in his team's lineup, who is contributing the least in the NHL. In a typical season, "name" players lead this category at the beginning of the year, because an unknown playing poorly would typically not be able to stay in the lineup. As time passes, marginal players who have regular fourth line roles tend to take over.

This season began with Petr Nedved and Derian Hatcher whop had been the worst NHL regular. Both are name players, so both have been given second chances, and though neither have been superstars this season, neither are playing as poorly has they did at the beginning of the year.

As time passes in the season, it is possible for a marginal player to be the worst regular (early in the year a marginal player playing poorly tends to lose his job). For a while, I think the worst NHL regular was Ryan Hollweg of the New York Rangers. Recently, Hollweg has not been a star, but at least he scored a goal for the Rangers (Feb 9th vs Tampa), so I am making a new pick as the worst NHL regular. I pick Jody Shelley of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He is a fourth line "energy" player (or possibly just a goon). So far this year in Columbus he has 51 games played. He is yet to record a single point. He doesn't even get a shot on goal every other game (he only has 20 so far). The only number of note in his statline is his 73 penalty minutes. Columbus only gives him five minutes of ice time a game, but given how little he does for the team, why give him any ice time at all?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Semenov Called Up From Russia

Since there is no NHL/Russia IIHF transfer agreement to set the rules of the game, any transaction that transfers a player between the two leagues is big news because of the precedent it starts. The two leagues are still fighting over the Evgeni Malkin transfer to the NHL, but there have been signs that relations may be thawing lately (such as Alexei Mikhnov's peacefully negotiated return to Russia. This latest move is a curveball with ramifications I am having trouble predicting.

The Florida Panthers called up defenceman Alexei Semenov, who had been playing with Ufa Salavat Yulayev in the Russian League. Semenov attended training camp with Florida and did not make the team. He is on a two-way contract, paying no more than $95,000 in the minors (thus he does not have to worry about re-entry waivers to get back to the NHL. They sent him to Rochester in the AHL where he played four games and then left to Russia. Since he walked out on their AHL squad, Semenov was suspended. In Russia, Semenov was paid well over $95,000, but that does not count since it's not an NHL contract. Thus there is a way for some players to get around the $95,000 minor league effective salary cap. Florida contacted Semenov and promised him an NHL job so he'd came back.

This move helps to better explain the suspensions of Alexei Kaigorodov and Enver Lisin. Their teams were keeping options open in event that they could convince the player to return to the NHL this year and not suspending him in punishment for exercizing a valid clause in his contract (though they could spin the punishment angle to fans upset that he is leaving to Russia).

I am yet to find any Russian response to this move, but they cannot be happy with being used as an NHL minor league and losing a player to the NHL in time for their stretch drive.

Here is the TSN story on the call-up, with no explanation of the back story to it. I think the fact they wrote an article about this and opened it up to "your call" comments shows that they understand the potential importance of this move, but hesitate to spell it out to keep in the NHL's good graces. The fact only one person bothered to respond with a comment (and one that misses the mark about the potential ramifications of the story) shows that the Russia/NHL story has been effectively swept under the rug this year by mainstream media.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Why Michel Therrien Is A Poor Coach Of The Year Pick

A few days ago, I wrote that I think Jacques Lemaire of the Minnesota Wild is the coach of the year so far. I had two comments (one from RC Robert L of Eyes on The Prize and one from earthlypowers) that were pushing Michel Therrien as coach of the year. I think the idea of Therrien as coach of the year is a common, but poor one.

I think the best definition of coach of the year is the coach who's coaching creates the most wins for his club (as opposed to those wins created by the players). It is not easy to evaluate how many wins a coach produces (it's not even easy to evaluate how many wins a star player produces), so this leads to a relatively wide range of opinions.

Far too often, in order to incorrectly simplify the problem, the coach of the year goes to the coach of the most improved team. The improvement may come from coaching (a much better argument if this is the coach's first year with the club), but more often than not it comes from the improvement of the players on the team. There is no better way to make an average coach look great then to give him a young, talented, improving core of players. There is no team in the NHL that has a better core of young, talented, improving players than Pittsburgh. Given a competent (but not spectacular) coach this team would improve by leaps and bounds.

Earthlypowers writes in my comments section (in support of Therrien):

Michel Therrien is defenitely the coach of the year right now. Granted the Pens have a talented young group but all of them are just learning. Malkin-rookie, Staal-rookie, Crosby 2nd year, Fleury, Whitney, Malone etc. Not much experience there. Who is instilling the discipline, the work ethic and teaching all these kids the NHL level game? Of course they improved, they couldnt be any worse than they were last year, but Therrien has taught them a system and given them belief in the system and themselves. Give him the respect he deserves, the Pens are not only improved but look for them to go deep into the playoffs.

He lays out a very talented group of young players and then asks where the experience is. The experience comes from players such as Mark Recchi and Sergei Gonchar. However, I dispute that a team needs experience to win. There are several examples throughout history of young cores with little experience that won. For example, when Ottawa jumped from a last place 41 points to 77 points and a playoff spot (no overtime loss points in those days) in 1996/97 who provided the experience (I suppose the best answer is Randy Cunneyworth and Steve Duchesne - two players of lesser impact than Recchi and Gonchar). Teams with talented, young, improving cores make large leaps forward regularly and they often do it with a limited level of experience on the roster. There is no need for experience to significantly improve, if you have the talent. Thus, there is no need to explain a lack of it.

He goes on to ask Who is instilling the discipline, the work ethic and teaching all these kids the NHL level game? To some degree, the coach is. That is his job. If he is a competent, unspectacular coach he should be able to do this. However, players do not get as good as Crosby, Malkin etc. without usually having already learned discipline, work ethic and having a good idea how to play hockey at a high level.

Want a much more damning review of Therrien the coach? As recently as January 12th NBC Sports was writing that Michel Therrien should be fired. If somebody really is coach of the year, there should be no calls for his firing at mid-season. What has happened since then is a winning streak, but coach of the year should not be one winning streak away from calls for his firing.

The whole idea of picking a coach of the year as coach of the most improved team only makes sense if the coach didn't coach the team last year. Therrien did coach Pittsburgh for a large portion of last season (51 games). The improvement we see is from a team coached by Therrien most of the year to one coached by him all of the year. It doesn't seem like Therrien is the best explanation for the differences.

All that said, I think the poor method of picking coach of the year as coach of the most improved team will likely lead to Michel Therrien getting an Adams nomination. I will predict the nominees as Ted Nolan, Michel Therrien and whichever coach finishes first overall. Should the Islanders fade down the stretch and Pittsburgh continue to get hot, Therrien may actually win the coach of the year. That doesn't make him a good choice. He is lucky to be in a situation where an average coaching performance will lead to a remarkable improvement in his team. Replace Therrien with another average level NHL coach and you will see the same results. It is not coaching that is leading to the Penguins improvement. The Penguins improvement should not lead to the coach getting the credit as coach of the year.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Calgary Trades For Best Dman Available

The Calgary Flames have traded for Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau, sending Chuck Kobasew and Andrew Ference to Boston. Brad Stuart was thought to be the best defenceman who was available at the trade deadline this year. This would show that no truly great defencemen are available this year. Stuart is definitely not one of the ten best defencemen in hockey. He was definitely not the best defender on Boston (that is Zdeno Chara). He won't be the best defender on Calgary (Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr and maybe Roman Hamrlik rank ahead of him). That is not to say that Stuart is not a good defender. There do exist some bad teams (for example Columbus) who would immediately consider him their top defenceman if they acquired him. However, there is still plenty of room for a bigger impact defender to get traded this year.

Interestingly, Boston is moving two of the three players who they got in return for Joe Thornton. Now the Thornton trade is for Marco Sturm, Chuck Kobasew and Andrew Ference. That looks awful for Boston.

Calgary's strong defence gets a little stronger. Will that make a big impact on the playoffs? It is possible, but it probably won't be a deal that changes the entire playoffs this year. There is still plenty of time for a much bigger impact trade to occur this year. If Peter Forsberg or Todd Bertuzzi can be healthy, they would likely make a much bigger impact. A top goalie to a market in need of one would likely be a bigger impact deal.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Masterton Trophy Pick

The Bill Masterton Trophy is awarded annually to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey. In some way, it is a lifetime achievement award to a player who has overcome hardship to carry out or continue a successful career.

This year, I would award this trophy to Owen Nolan of the Phoenix Coyotes. Nolan has had an injury plagued career. In fact, it looked like it would be over when he had knee surgery in 2005. His knee was not sufficiently healed to play in the NHL last season. The Phoenix Coyotes took a chance on him this year, despite the fact that he had not played a hockey game since 2004. After two injury plagued seasons, where most people would have announced retirement, Nolan is back. He is making a solid contribution to the Coyotes and currently is fourth in team scoring with 31 points.

The other player worthy of mention is Phil Kessel of the Boston Bruins. He is a rookie who missed a month of play due to testicular cancer surgery. While cancer is serious, his was caught early enough to not be life threatening and he hasn't had a long enough career to display the perseverance and dedication that Nolan has - fighting through various injuries and two years on the sidelines to come back and make a positive impact to his team.

Owen Nolan has worked very hard to get back to the NHL and play at a high level, thus he is the best pick for the Masterton Trophy this season.

Friday, February 09, 2007

New Coach of the Year Pick

Frequently, my choice for coach of the year is out of touch with the mainstream hockey media (who tend to choose the coach of the most improved team as coach of the year). This is incorrect because teams improve for many reasons. Sometimes they improve because of coaching, but often it is for other reasons. Usually, they improve because their players are better than they were the year before.

I had been picking Ted Nolan of the New York Islanders as coach of the year. He has done a very good job keeping the Islanders focussed and in the playoff race despite off season distractions that looked to make the team into a laughing stock. The Islanders hired and fired two GMs last summer and the latter hire was a backup goalie with no management experience in Garth Snow. The Islanders signed goalie Rick DiPietro to a ridiculously long contract. It didn't look like things would go very well for them. They have managed to stay in the playoff race (though more than likely they will be one of the top east teams that miss the playoffs). Nolan was given a lot of credit for making Alexei Yashin regain interest in playing well, though with Yashin fighting injuries and having only scored one goal since December 20th that credit may no longer be as valid. Nolan is definitely a coach of the year candidate, but he is no longer my choice.

I pick Jacques Lemaire of the Minnesota Wild as my coach of the year so far. There is no coach in hockey that has as much influence over the style of play his team exhibits and no coach who's team's success if more dependent on the style of play the coach teaches. Minnesota is currently holding down the eighth and final playoff spot in the far superior West Conference. They are in the toughest division in hockey (the Northwest Division). This is the division of the largest travel (I have driven from Vancouver through Edmonton and to Minnesota once. It took about four days. No other division has that kind of distance). This is also the only division in the tougher West Conference that lacks any weak sister teams to beat up on. A team just barely slipping into the playoffs in the west is a far better team than one would be that just barely slipped into the playoffs in the east.

Minnesota's improvement from last season was predictable with the addition of Kim Johnsson and Pavol Demitra; however improvement is a poor way to assign value to a coach. Lemaire was coaching in Minnesota last year (in fact he has been coaching there since the team expanded in 2000). His coaching this year is likely no better than last (where he deserved the Adams Trophy), so why should he be scored on his team's improvement? That method only has some merit when a coach is new to a team. Likely, however the best coaches in hockey stay with teams for long periods of time. Why would you fire the best? So it is a poor method to evaluate the best coaches in hockey to look for single season improvement.

When I pictured the Wild this year, I pictured an improved team led by Marian Gaborik (their best player). If it was suggested that injuries would have limited him to 22 games so far this season, I would not have imagined the Wild to have been as successful as they have so far. The Wild have kept on going while their best player was hurt. Jacques Lemaire teams succeed despite adversity.

There is an interesting (but rather stupid) issue that will likely be brought up this season. Ted Nolan is clearly a mainstream coach of the year candidate (arguably the favorite at this point). At the same time, the New York Islanders will likely miss the playoffs (though not by much). This will lead to a debate about if Nolan can be a good coach on a team that missed the playoffs. This debate is stupid. How many points do you think coaching is worth to a team in a season? Is it enough that a bad team would make playoffs merely by adding a good coach? If so does that mean you seriously think Columbus will make playoffs with Ken Hitchcock coaching? Coaching is an important part of a team, but not as important as the star players. It is very clear that a coach could have a great year (be responsible for more wins than any other coach in hockey) and also miss the playoffs.

I think the mainstream method of coach evaluation is bunk. I think that coaching is much harder to rate than by looking at single season improvements. It is something that must be determined by a much more complex analysis. This year, I think the two best coaches have been Jacques Lemaire and Ted Nolan. I think Lemaire has been moderately better and thus deserves coach of the year. At the same time, I would be surprised if he gets as much as a nomination.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Whitney Comes Of Age

In 2007 so far, the top scoring defenceman in hockey has been Ryan Whitney of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has 5 goals and 12 assists for 17 points so far this year. He is one point ahead of MVP Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit and three ahead of teammate Sergei Gonchar (who sit second and third in defenceman scoring this season).

Pittsburgh is "undefeated" in their last 11 games (they lost two of the games in their undefeated streak - one in overtime and one by shootout). This streak dates back to early January. It is no coincidence that Pittsburgh has played very well when they have had big performances from their top two defencemen. You can say all you want about Sidney Crosby, who has been the best forward in the NHL this year being the reason for Pittsburgh's improvement, but they are clearly not a one man team. The mere fact their winning streak comes when the defence starts to contribute offensively shows how important Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar are to the Pens. I argue that Nicklas Lidstrom is a more vital part of Detroit that Crosby is of Pittsburgh.

Ryan Whitney is the forgotten top draft pick for Pittsburgh. He was chosen 5th overall in 2002 (in the next four years they picked either first or second and picked Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal). When many people talk of Pittsburgh's young core they only include the latter four, but Whitney is just as integral a part of it.

It is a shame that liberalized free agency and a salary cap will probably keep us from seeing how good this group could have been if they all hit their primes together. Pittsburgh was locked into the rebuilding method of drafting early for several years in a row (by virtue of being a really bad team) and thus getting a core of talented players before the lockout changed the rules on them. I don't think it will work out nearly as well as it had in the past because they won't be able to keep these players together much longer. When these players begin to exit their entry level contracts, Pittsburgh will be squeezed under the salary cap. I think a "rebuilding" plan like Anaheim's is the way to go.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Marc Savard Gets No Respect

Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins is having another very good season. His 68 points currently have him 5th in scoring in the NHL. Last season, he put up 97 points which was good for 9th overall in scoring. Anybody who can put up those numbers is clearly a star.

However, Savard was not chosen to the All Star Game (in fact he has never made an All Star Game). He was not listed among Hockey News top 50 players list. The way he is playing this year, those look like oversights.

The problem is that Savard is only now showing he is a true star. When he first entered the NHL (as a two time OHL top scorer), he looked like an exceptional prospect. He scored moderately well (nothing rivalling his recent pace) and was a defensive liability who often looked unmotivated on the ice. He played seven NHL seasons where he was viewed as a solid depth scorer, but nothing to build a team around. Suddenly, last season he became one of the better scorers in the NHL. Many believed it was because he was a very good assist man who was playing with elite linemates (Ilya Kovlachuk and Marian Hossa). It was the linemates making Savard look better than he was. This summer, he signed as a free agent in Boston. How would he do with the lesser calibre linemates that he would be forced to skate with in Boston? I imagined that he would revert back to his earlier ways and make the Bruins look crazy for signing him up for 5 years at $4 million a year. That hasn't happened. He has exceeded expectations. Marc Savard has become a star player in the NHL. Right now, he is the kind of talent you can build a team around.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Tampa's Goalie Woes

Perhaps the easiest way for a team to significantly improve in trade deadline deals is for a team with good scoring, a defence that allows a low number of shots and weak goaltending to add a good goalie.

Last year, Edmonton was that team. I wrote about poor goaltending last season when Jussi Markkanen, Ty Conklin and Mike Morrison were sharing the duties. At trade deadline time last year, they added Dwayne Roloson and with a bit of luck on their side, went to game seven of the Stanley Cup finals.

This year, the team in that position is the Tampa Bay Lightning. They have a good offence, which is led by Martin St Louis, Vincent LeCavelier and Brad Richards (perhaps the best threeway offensive punch in the NHL). They have a solid defence, which has allowed only 26.8 shots per game (fourth in the NHL). However, their goaltending has not been so good. Their 3.06 goals against average has them in 20th place in the NHL.

This season, their goaltending has been split between Johan Holmqvist and Marc Denis. Neither has been outstanding. Holmqvist has a 2.65 GAA with a .901 saves percentage. Denis has been worse. He has a 3.16 GAA and a .880 saves percentage. Tampa has not had good goaltending since Nikolai Khabibulin led them to the Stanley Cup.

If this team could add a top goalie in time for the stretch drive and the playoffs they could be very dangerous. Let's watch them as the trade deadline approaches to see if this can happen.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Anaheim's One Year Rebuild

Earlier, I have written that Anaheim is the team that has the best chance of being elite this year. That comes only about a year after I wrote that they were rebuilding.

The team that last season was dumping high-priced talent like Sergei Fedorov and Petr Sykora is now one of the best teams in the NHL (arguably the best when they are healthy). How did this happen?

The post-lockout Anaheim Mighty Ducks were an average club. They might have made the playoffs or they might have missed them. Brian Burke was the new GM and he was intent on improving on that status. He began a rebuild by dumping the players who were under-productive in the new salary capped NHL. He acquired new frontline talent via free agency and trade in Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne and Chris Pronger. He was careful that the expensive players he added would be significant contributors worthy of their large costs. He promoted to the NHL several young players waiting in the Ducks farm system including Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Dustin Penner, Ilya Bryzgalov and Joffrey Lupul (later traded to Edmonton for Pronger). He found Francois Beauchemin in the Fedorov trade. He gave much bigger roles to previously under-utilized players like Andy McDonald and Chris Kunitz. In short, he managed to acquire a new core of elite players in their primes, while shipping out the old under-performing members of the old core and he had a good group of young cheap talent around to provide depth. Thus, although Burke's rebuild was done in about a year, it took more than a year of planning for the Ducks. They had to have the young talent that was ready to step into NHL roles in their system.

We can learn a few guidelines from this success. First, one must be able to find talent that others have missed (Kunitz was a waiver pickup, Penner went undrafted, Beauchemin was a throw-in in a trade). This talent has to provide cheap depth. This talent cannot be counted on to be the core of your team. By them time they might be ready to take over that role, they will be able to leave via free agency. Thus, you must use free agency (and trades for free agency aged players who are already signed) to bring in that core. Those players brought in must be the elite players needed to give you a strong core. You cannot afford to spend a few million dollars a year on a handful of depth players. Only buy the truly elite - again an ability to scout talent is important here. If you have any players who are paid like core stars, but not producing as such, they are liabilities and should be moved. This is an ongoing process. If you can trade away a Keith Carney and acquire a Sean O'Donnell (similar players) on the trade deadline last year and save about half a million dollars in salary it is a good idea. With the increase in salaries that will be needed to satisfy successful depth players in future seasons and the aging of your core and losses to free agency, this is never complete.

This teaches us that a team with a good farm system and a good eye for talent can rebuild in a year. Without the good farm system, I am not sure how it can be done. In previous CBA's a team would remain bad for several years and have great draft positions. After several years of this, they would have a talented young core from their drafts that would mature together (much as Pittsburgh does now). However, when this core is ready to dominate, they will be disassembled due to salary cap and free agency constraints. The CBA is designed to create parity by breaking up good teams. I do not think this is a winning strategy. If I was a bad team with little in the farm system, I am not sure how to proceed. I don't know if there is a reasonable plan to become an elite team in this CBA. However, as an average team with a good farm system, Anaheim has shown that a one year rebuild is quite possible.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Malkin Case Dismissed

The Pittsburgh Penguins are reporting that the legal cases filed by Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Russian Elite League regarding the transfer of Evgeni Malkin to the Penguins have been thrown out.

Because there is no NHL/Russia IIHF player transfer deal the legal standing of players who are under contract in Russia and jump to the NHL (or vice versa) is in question. The NHL teams pay $200,000 for each player they sign from the elite leagues in Europe, who is still under contract in that league. Russia has refused this claiming it is not enough compensation. As a result, the pipeline of Russian players coming to the NHL is in jeopardy. Last summer, Evgeni Malkin had to defect to leave his Russian team. Since there is no transfer agreement, the NHL position is that they do not owe anything at all to the Russians for Malkin. The Russians are suing to get transfer payments. Courts have thrown out these lawsuits filed on the case of Evgeni Malkin.

Although the NHL seems to have won in this case, the Russians are not going to be allowing the NHL to dictate conditions to them. The battle will continue. This comes after what had looked like a potential thawing of relations, after Alexei Mikhnov's return to Russia had been peacefully negotiated and Russian Ice Hockey President Vladislav Tretiak had suggested a new Summit Series.

A new Summit Series might be the vehicle for Russian issues to be addressed. This is a potentially lucrative event that they will suggest, if the NHL can come to terms with them on a player transfer agreement.

Right now, the future of young Russians coming to the NHL is unclear. Likely, some will still come to North America to play, but it will be a battle to bring them. I would be a bit leery to draft Alexei Cherepanov this summer, because he may be the next person around whom this battle is fought.

Here is the TSN story on this legal ruling.

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