Saturday, December 29, 2007

Brad Richards Failing His Jump To Superstardom

In 2003/04, it looked like Brad Richards of the Tampa Bay Lightning was well on his way to a Hall of Fame hockey career. He turned 24 late in the season in which he won the Lady Byng Trophy and the Conn Smythe Trophy as he won the Stanley Cup with the Lightning. After the lockout year, he followed it up with another season where he scored a career best (to date) 91 points. Since that point, things have begun to slowly turn sour.

Richards fell to 70 points last season and has 33 points in 38 games so far this year. His offense is slowly dropping off. Worse, he has done very poorly defensively. Currently, Richards has the worst +/- rating in the entire NHL at -20.

Tampa Bay plays their "big three" offensive players excessively. Vincent LeCavalier, Martin St Louis and Brad Richards are all among the top five in the NHL in total ice time among forwards in the the league (Richards ranks first). Tampa usually plays LeCavalier and St Louis together leaving Richards and whomever are his wingers of the day as the other line. Brad Richards has not been good enough to carry that line by himself. Maybe the problem is too much ice time and not enough high quality linemates. For the ice time Richards has had, he should be more productive offensively and not allow as many goals by his opposition.

Tampa Bay would be better off without overplaying Brad Richards. Tampa needs to give some of his ice time up to their other forwards like Chris Gratton, Michel Ouellet, Vaclav Prospal and Jan Hlavac. They are capable depth players who can handle more ice time and be successful. Brad Richards seems incapable of successfully handling all the ice time he has been given. He has done very well in the past, but since John Tortorella has begun to overplay him, his productivity has dropped. It would be best for Tampa if they could give him a chance to play in the situations that made him a star and not in all situations including those where he is not so well able to succeed.

When the Lightning overplay their big three forwards as much as they do it is likely that one will break down. It isn't Vincent LeCavalier that is breaking down, he is the MVP so far this year. It isn't Martin St Louis who is playing very well also. It is Brad Richards who is showing the signs of breaking down. He is no longer on track to be a likely Hall of Famer. His production is not worth the ice time he is given. Given less ice time, Richards might find the game that he is slowly losing.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Top Goalie This Season

I have been picking Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins as the best goalie in the NHL this season. Thomas remains the saves percentage leader in the league with a .932 saves percentage, but he has not been able to play nearly as many games as some of the league leaders because a groin injury kept him out for about half of December. Thomas was also not heavily played early in the season because he was not expected to be the Bruins number one goalie (early plans were for Manny Fernandez to do that). So far this year, Thomas has 22 games played. Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks has played 31 games and has a .928 saves percentage and 2.06 GAA. This makes Luongo the best in the league. He had played very well and has been more heavily relied upon by the Canucks to play almost every day than Thomas has been by Boston. This summer, I picked Luongo as the best goalie in the NHL, so his performance is not a surprise.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Worst NHL Player - Christmas Edition

I like to keep track of the player that I think is player playing the worst in the NHL who holds down a regular job. A couple weeks ago, I picked Craig Adams of the Carolina Hurricanes as that player. He is typical for a player who "earns" this honor in that he is a hard working energy player who is not one of the more highly skilled players in the NHL. He is atypical because Adams has been an NHL regular for several years and was a useful player throughout most of his past. Adams started a hot streak almost immediately after I singled him out. He scored three points in three games beyond that point. He also served a two game suspension for a high stick on Alex Steen of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Adams has had an eventful couple of weeks since I picked him as the worst player in the NHL. His successes clearly make him no longer a good choice.

My newest selection is Colton Orr of the New York Rangers. Orr is a goon who plays some rather soft minutes for the Rangers. He only averages 7:22 of ice time per game, but nevertheless the Rangers have played him in all 36 games so far. For that ice time, Orr has contributed one goal and no assists. He is -11, which is the worst on the Rangers. His only significant number is 60 penalty minutes, which leads the Rangers. Is there really a need for such a player in the NHL? He contributes little except for fights - and isn't even in the argument to be the best fighter in the NHL today - yet he is dressed every game.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Why Are The LA Kings Last?

I think it is a bit of a surprise that the Los Angeles Kings are currently the last place team in the NHL. I didn't predict they would be great this year, but I did pick them for ninth in the West Conference. Instead, Los Angeles has a record of 12-23 (with two losses counted as regulation ties) and sits in last pace. They are three points behind anyone else.

Los Angeles has a pretty good young core of offensive players. They have Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Mike Cammalleri and Alexander Frolov who are all scoring at or near point per game paces. They have some other good forward in Ladislav Nagy, Patrick O'Sullivan, Michal Handzus and Kyle Calder who provide some depth. This offense has been middle of the road in the NHL (they are currently 16th with 2.66 goals per game) and has the potential to really catch fire if their young players all can break out together.

Their defence also has several proven NHL talents including Lubomir Visnovsky, Rob Blake, Brad Stuart and Tom Pressing. They should be able to have a better goals against than the 3.34 goals against per game they have put up (second worst in the league), but haven't been able to do it.

In goal, Jason LaBarbera has been good. He has put up a .911 saves percentage in twenty games. Those are respectable numbers for a number one goalie. However, their remaining goalies, Jean-Sebastien Aubin, Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier have all played poorly. When LaBarbera missed the first half of December with a rib injury, the Los Angeles goaltending was really bad.

Looking at their roster, Los Angeles should not be a last place team. They should not allow as many goals as they have given their veteran defence. Their system has not worked. The blame for that should fall upon head coach Marc Crawford. Crawford has not had success coaching in LA. It would not surprise me to see him the next be the next coach fired in the NHL. Would that be enough of a boost to bring the Kings from last place?

Looking at the Kings roster, they have more talent than some of the teams in front of them (Washington, Atlanta, Phoenix and Edmonton are examples). They haven't been able to put that together to show any results. They have only won two of their last ten games (no team has a worse record over the last ten games). Right now things are bad in Los Angeles. I think they will get a bit better when LaBarbera finds his game again after his injury and when their good young offence begins to take flight. It seems likely that this might happen without Marc Crawford as coach. He hasn't been able to do anything to solve their problems.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Montreal's Holiday Plans And The CBA

The Montreal Canadiens typically are scheduled to have a road trip over Christmas time. This is because Cirque du Soleil comes to town in Montreal and occupies the Bell Centre. This year is no different from normal as Montreal is on the road for six straight games from December 20th to December 31st. They played in Washington yesterday (winning 5-2). They play in Atlanta tomorrow, Dallas on Sunday, Tampa Bay on the 27th, Florida the 28th and they play the New York Rangers on December 31st. Since they play Sunday night they must travel back to Montreal on the day before Christmas and then fly out again on Boxing Day to be ready for their game in Tampa Bay.

Montreal management thought it would reduce travel and be a fun team-building activity to fly families and girlfriends from Montreal to Florida to have a Christmas vacation in Florida. Unfortunately, the NHL has nixed this idea. The CBA, with its salary cap, calls for all compensation to players to be spelled out in advance in their contracts. The idea being that if some teams chose to send their players on vacations while others do not, this might be a way for teams to subvert the salary cap to sign extra talent. The idea is a laughable one that a player would sign a multi-million dollar contract based on a vacation that might cost a couple thousand dollars. Thus, Montreal players will have to spend extra time travelling to have a short stay home at Christmas.

The NHL has already made exceptions to this rule allowing teams to bring along player's fathers and mothers on special road trips, but for some reason will not budge in this case. The CBA, in this case is forcing unnecessary travel on the Montreal Canadiens.

The general problem with the CBA is that it was written by lawyers to attempt to solve perceived problems by over-regulation without regard for real work situations. Could Montreal draw free agents because they might take a Christmas vacation as a team when the schedule makes it seem like a sensible option? Perhaps. Montreal could also lose potential free agents because the media presence in Montreal is larger than in most cities or because players would rather not be in a French speaking city. Definitely. The CBA regulates to the point of idiocy that which they can control, while not acknowledging that there are bigger issues that they cannot control.

At the very least, the CBA should be amended to allow Christmas (or All Star Break or any other logical time in the schedule) team vacations that reduce team travel during the season.

Here is the Globe and Mail article on the latest CBA stupidity.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Chris Simon: Gooning Himself Out Of The NHL

Chris Simon of the New York Islanders has been suspended for 30 games for his attempted stomp on Jarkko Ruutu of the Pittsburgh Penguins ankle. It was a cheap uncalled for move on Simon's part, but if it got the longest suspension in NHL history, one would think it would be at least arguably the worst piece of gratuitous violence in NHL history. The Simon stomp is not the worst violence in NHL history by any reasonable measure. The mitigating circumstance is that Chris Simon is a repeat offender. This is Simon's eighth NHL suspension.

Simon was suspended five pre-season games in 1994 for a stick swinging incident with Dennis Vial of the Ottawa Senators. Simon was suspended for three games in 1997 for a racial slur against Mike Grier, then of the Edmonton Oilers. Simon was suspended two games in 2000 for a cross check to the throat of Pittsburgh Penguins defender Peter Popovic. Simon was suspended two games for an elbow to Anders Eriksson, then a Florida Panther. In 2004, he had two different two game suspensions. One for a cross check and punch to Ruslan Fedotenko of the Tampa Bay Lightning and one for kneeing Sergei Zubov of the Dallas Stars. Last season, he was suspended 25 games for stick swinging incident with Ryan Hollweg of the New York Rangers. That is a long list of offenses.

Simon has become an embarrassment to the NHL with his repeated goonery. Normal goonery is encouraged my many NHL coaches, but there is a thin line a player should not cross and Simon crosses it repeatedly. The NHL hopes that with this suspension, Simon will basically go away. Simon is 35 years old (turns 36 in January) and has only scored three points in 26 games this year. He is barely hanging onto his NHL career. When not suspended he has minimal value to the Islanders. When suspended he has none.

The NHL is cracking down on players with longer suspensions. This is true of your average player in the relatively meaningless regular season. It's not true of a superstar player in the Stanley Cup playoffs. In last years playoffs, Chris Pronger of the Anaheim Ducks was suspended for an elbow to Tomas Holmstrom of the Detroit Red Wings and again for an elbow to Dean McAmmond of the Ottawa Senators. Pronger missed a game for each suspension. Pronger was clearly a repeat offender. Twice within less than a month's time he was suspended for roughly the same play. But since a prolonged absence of Pronger might have determined who won the Stanley Cup, his suspensions were short. So the moral of this story is you can expect a much more lengthy suspension today than in the past (especially if you are a repeat offender) unless you are a superstar in a really important game.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Short Term Boost From A Firing

So far this season, three teams have fired a coach or GM. The Atlanta Thrashers fired coach Bob Hartley, the Washington Capitals have fired coach Glen Hanlon and the Dallas Stars have fired GM Doug Armstrong. Each team experienced a short term lift from the move.

Teams tend to have this short term boost because they only fire coaches or GMs when things are not going well and more than likely if they wait things will get better. They also have a short term boost because of the upheaval on the system. Players must impress the new coach or GM to maintain their roster spot and ice time (this effect and hence this boost is larger when it is a coach firing because the coach has more day to day interaction with the team). This pushes players to perform beyond normal levels for a short but unsustainable period of time. Fans often view this short term boost as evidence that the firing was a good move, but after it is over, the team is usually right back where they were before the firing.

In Atlanta, the sporting news was so impressed by their short term boost that they wrote this irresponsible article about how well Don Waddell was doing as coach. Only a few weeks later, Atlanta finds themselves in 13th place in the East Conference once again struggling. The Thrashers 3.42 goals against per game is the worst in the NHL. Their few bright spots are Ilya Kovalchuk, whose 27 goals lead the NHL and Marian Hossa who is also scoring at point per game rate. Their weaknesses of a porous defence led by Tobias Enstrom, Niclas Havelid and Garnet Exelby and poor goaltending from Johan Hedberg, Kari Lehtonen and Ondrej Pavelec keep them from being a contender of any sort.

Dallas merely fired their GM, so their boost was smaller and they were a good team before the firing. Their position atop the Pacific Division is not a sign of a good change at GM, but rather a sign they always had a solid team and that other contenders San Jose and Anaheim have not played consistently solid hockey.

Washington is currently experiencing their boost from their coaching change. They still sit in last place in the East Conference, but they have done better lately. This short term boost has made a believer out of Washington blogger Japer's Rink, but it won't last. Washington still has the fundamental problem that only Alexander Ovechkin is capable of scoring at point per game pace. Their defence is still weak. It is built around Tom Poti, Mike Green and Shaonne Morrisonn and that does not scare opposing teams. Neither of Olaf Kolzig nor Brent Johnson has played particularly well in goal. Washington is a weak team and no coaching change can fix that.

Coach and GM firings can get short term boosts in the NHL, but these boosts rarely last. It isn't long before the team fails again for the same reasons that led to the firing in the first place. Atlanta has fallen into that rut again and Washington will soon. That doesn't mean that the firings were not deserved (in some cases they are), it means that the problems are far deeper than just replacing a coach.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Anaheim Playing Undisciplined Hockey

The Anaheim Ducks are the defending Stanley Cup champions, but things have not gone so well for them this season. Currently, they have a 15-20 record (with five losses counted as regulation ties). This would give them eighth seed in the West Conference and a playoff berth, but they are only one point ahead of missing the playoffs. I have written in the past about what is wrong with Anaheim this season and there are some significant reasons. The largest are the losses of Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer (who is back but has only one game played so far), the shortened summer that came from a successful playoff run and an early start to the season in England and a general Stanley Cup hangover. There is one more quantifiable reason that Anaheim is not off to a great start.

The Anaheim Ducks are playing undisciplined hockey. The Anaheim Ducks have taken a lot of undisciplined penalties. Anaheim leads the NHL in times shorthanded with 201 (second place is Detroit with 164 - the difference being more than a short handed chance per game). While Detroit has been able to get away with this since they have an 86.8% penalty kill success rate, this has hurt Anaheim significantly. Anaheim only kills 79.6% of their penalties. Unless Anaheim has a better penalty kill, they can not afford to take undisciplined penalties.

Anaheim has a reputation as a big tough team, but last year they did it without taking undisciplined penalties. Last year, Anaheim gave up 410 man advantages, which was a middle of the road 16th overall in the NHL. Anaheim can play tough without taking undisciplined penalties. They have to in order to succeed in the NHL. I blame coach Randy Carlyle for letting the Ducks play their undisciplined game which is likely a remaining part of a Stanley Cup hangover.

Anaheim has a good team that could have another Stanley Cup run, particularly if Teemu Selanne returns, but they must play a more disciplined game in order to do that.

Monday, December 17, 2007

How Good A Coach Is Dave Tippett?

When I write about my coach of the year pick Jacques Lemaire of the Minnesota Wild, David Johnson writes in that he would pick Dave Tippett of the Dallas Stars. The same situation occurred last year. Although I think of Tippett as a competent NHL coach, I don't see him as a candidate I would pick for the coach of the year, so I want to take a closer look at Tippett and his credentials.

Dave Tippett was hired by the Dallas Stars in 2002. His team has always been a playoff team, but has never had any real playoff success. He comes at the end of the run of the Dallas Stars who won the Stanley Cup in 1999. They still have Mike Modano, but he is not nearly as prolific an offensive player anymore. Gone from the Stanley Cup champion team are Ed Belfour, Brett Hull, Joe Nieuwendyk, Jamie Langenbrunner (traded for Jason Arnott who is also gone) and captain Derian Hatcher. This team has turned over a large portion of their roster. They still have a talented goaltender in Marty Turco. They have kept a very talented defenceman in Sergei Zubov and he is complemented by other defensive stalwarts such as Philippe Boucher and Mattias Norstrom, as well as defensively responsible forwards such as Jere Lehtinen, Brendan Morrow, Jeff Halpern, Stu Barnes and Mike Modano. They are a defensively strong team. When he argues for Tippett as coach of the year, David Johnson likes to argue that they have a weak offence as Mike Ribiero is their top scorer. Ribiero is playing quite well this season and has 33 points in 30 games. Though he is not a player traditionally thought of as a game breaking scorer who would lead his team, he has more points than the top scorer on several other teams. Brendan Morrow and Sergei Zubov currently are only one point behind Ribiero. Dallas is currently the tenth best offensive team in the NHL (with 2.91 goals per game) and also the tenth best defensive team (with 2.54 goals per game). This is why they are doing well in the standings.

How much of Dallas's success should be credited to Dave Tippett? It's always hard to properly assess questions like that in any statistical way. There is no sabermetric way to assess that for players let alone coaches in hockey. Subjectively, I don't see anything that suggests Tippett is nearly as valuable to his team as Jacques Lemaire is to Minnesota, or Ted Nolan is to the New York Islanders or Ken Hitchcock is to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Thus I cannot see any reason to call him one of the three best coaches in the NHL and nominate him for coach of the year.

The NHL has not done a good job of picking coaches of the year. Most of the time, they pick the coach of the most improved team. That metric does not flatter Tippett either. This season people like Andy Murray of the St Louis Blues, Claude Julien of the Boston Bruins, John Stevens of the Philadelphia Flyers and Ken Hitchcock of the Columbus Blue Jackets stand out. It is unlikely Tippett will be nominated for coach of the year by the NHL's standard.

It is worth noting that picking the coach of the most improved team is a very poor method. Last year, Alain Vigneault of the Vancouver Canucks was chosen as coach of the year. This year, Vancouver is tied for the Northwest division lead with 38 points (tied with Minnesota) and Vignealt is not on the radar screen for coach of the year. Does that mean he is not coaching nearly as well this year as he was last year?

Dallas has gone through the upheaval of the firing of GM Doug Armstrong this season. Many people figured that Dave Tippett could have been fired as well or instead of Armstrong. Though neither firings were merited, the new GM tandem of Brett Hull and Les Jackson may want to pick a new coach. This puts Dave Tippett on the hot seat. If Dallas finishes poorly or loses quickly in the playoffs, Tippett could be replaced as a coach. Should Tippett come available as an unemployed coach, how certain am I that another team would immediately hire him? It is possible but far from a certainty. This is not a sign of the top coach in hockey. Were Tippett the top coach in hockey, hid firing would seem unlikely and if it happened, there would be no shortage of teams lining up to hire him.

Dave Tippett is a solid competent coach. He neither deserves to be considered for coach of the year nor for firing. I see no reason to consider the best coach in hockey (or even one of the top handful). I think David Johnson overrates him.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Lady Byng Leader

Earlier this season, I picked Daniel Alfredsson of the Ottawa Senators as the Lady Byng leader. Though Alfredsson continues to have a good season, he is no longer the leader. The new leader is Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings. Datsyuk has half the penalty minutes Alfredsson has (four vs. eight) and nearly as many points (Datsyuk has 38 points and Alfredsson has 43). Datsyuk is playing in the lower scoring conference and that explains some of the scoring difference.

Pavel Datsyuk has had a lock on the Lady Byng Trophy lately. He won it in 2006 and 2007. Should he win it again in 2008, that will go a long way toward cementing Hall of Fame credentials. Datsyuk will still have to establish high career scoring totals (he currently has 364 career points in 394 career games). Datsyuk has a quite good chance at having a Hall of Fame career.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Trades In The Current NHL

In the current CBA it is extremely hard to make a trade. A trade must make hockey sense, contractual sense and salary cap sense all at the same time and that is very hard to do. There are two periods which are exceptions to that rule. In the summer, when rosters are not complete, it is often possible to make a trade as teams have not already commit their salary cap room and at the trade deadline when teams add as small as possible an increment to their payroll to add a player. However, during the rest of the season, there are almost no trades. One need only look at this season to see confirmation. Before last night, the two biggest roster moves were made via waivers and not trade. Ilya Bryzgalov was placed on waivers by Anaheim and claimed by Phoenix and Mark Recchi was placed on waivers by Pittsburgh and claimed by Atlanta. There had been a few minor trades, but nothing of significance. The biggest deal was Phoenix, who had too many goalies after acquiring Bryzgalov trading Alex Auld to Boston in exchange for Nate DiCasmirro, a 29 year old career AHL player and a 2009 fifth round draft pick. The return to Phoenix for Auld was not much better than what they would have received if they gave him up on waivers.

This changed last night when Anaheim was forced to make a trade to bring back Scott Niedermayer. Niedermayer was going to push Anaheim's payroll over the salary cap next season (if we ignore for a second that we don't know next season's salary cap or Anaheim's roster). Thus, Anaheim had to make a move to reduce payroll next season. They traded Andy McDonald to the St Louis Blues for Doug Weight, Michal Birner and a 2008 seventh round draft pick. This is clearly a good trade for St Louis and the best Anaheim could do under the circumstances.

Andy McDonald is coming off of 85 and 78 point seasons. He struggled a bit this season, having 16 points in 33 games, but there is no reason to believe that he cannot score into the future. He is under contract through the end of the 2008/09 season and moving him reduces the Ducks payroll next year. Doug Weight was a very good hockey player. He scored 104 points in the 1995/96 season, but currently only has 11 points in 29 games. He is 36 years old (37 in January) and is nearing the end of the line. His contract ends at the end of this season and there is reason to believe he might retire at that point. Michal Birner is a 21 year old AHL player who shows little signs of being much of an NHL prospect and a seventh round draft pick is even less likely to ever make an impact.

St Louis gets a usable forward who will likely make a big impact playing frontline ice time. Anaheim gets a forward who will provide some depth for the rest of the season, but clearly lacks much upside at this point in his career. St Louis wins this trade in all likelihood. I suppose that is the kind of trade teams love to make; one where their partner is dealing from a position of weakness. St Louis GM Larry Pleau did a good job getting into the right place at the right time to make a deal. St Louis expects to win this deal. Anaheim hopes to not lose it very badly.

It is quite likely that this is the most significant deal the NHL will see until the trade deadline rolls around. That will not stop some of the less mature or honest bloggers from floating all kinds of ridiculous trade rumors in the meantime. The only legitimate rumors site on the internet today is that of Spector (Lyle Richardson) and lately he spends more time shooting down the crazy rumors than actually endorsing them.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Most Surprising Team

I don't think most experts expected much from the Boston Bruins this season. I picked them to pick 13th overall in the East Conference and I don't think my prediction was too out of line with the rest of the hockey world. However, so far this season their 17-14 (with three losses counted as regulation ties) has them tied for fifth in the NHL. They are the team that has most exceeded expectation. How have they done it?

It is not too surprising that Marc Savard leads the team with 37 points. He has been a top scorer in the NHL for the last couple years (having posted 97 and 96 point seasons). This is expected. However, he has not had any support from any other game breaking offensive players. Marco Sturm, Glen Murray and Phil Kessel are their next best offensive players this season, but none of them have more than 20 points. Patrice Bergeron has been limited to only ten games due to a concussion and this has hurt the team, but even with him in the lineup the Bruins lack a top offence.

On defence, Zdeno Chara is a star and is posting another good season, but he has little support. The other key Bruin defencemen, Dennis Wideman, Aaron Ward and Andrew Ference are journeymen. Boston has a couple good players, but not enough depth to make a run.

The surprise has come in goal. I was not expecting that Manny Fernandez would be the answer for the Bruins and he hasn't been. He played rather poorly in four games and with his recent knee surgery may not be back this season. The surprise is Tim Thomas, who is the Vezina leader at this point. Thomas was expected to be the Boston backup goalie this season, but currently has been their best player. He leads the NHL with a .936 saves percentage. He has posted those numbers despite facing a lot of high quality shots. Thomas would be one of the nominees for the Hart Trophy at this point if I could vote.

Tim Thomas shows how important goaltending is in the NHL. A top goalie can make a poor team look like a contender. On the other hand, poor goaltending can make an otherwise good team miss the playoffs ( see Calgary this season). The easiest way to change the fortunes of a team is to find a top goalie. One man is all that it takes to make a contender out of an also ran.

Boston has been a surprise this year. They were not expected to be in the playoff race, but they currently sit in a tie for fifth place in the league. The reason for this surprise is quite simple. Tim Thomas is having an outstanding season so far in goal and he was not expected to be much of a factor by most experts when they made their predictions before the season began.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Coach Of The Year Pick

It's time for me to state once again that Jacques Lemaire of the Minnesota Wild is the best coach in the NHL. I picked him as coach of the year last year and the year before. He is the coach with the biggest impact on his team. His Minnesota Wild team has a 16-14 record (with 2 losses counted as regulation ties) that would hold down sixth place in the West Conference.

A huge part of Minnesota's success comes from the disciplined way they play Lemaire's system with fast aggressive forechecking and great defence. He is by far the coach who is most important to his team's success. Of course in the NHL, they tend to give the coach of the year to the coach of the most improved team. By that meaningless award distribution method, Lemaire is likely an afterthought for the Adams Trophy. He has coach Minnesota since the team expanded in 2000. There is no reason for a big season over season improvement anymore due to his coaching. His coaching was wonderful last year and remains wonderful. If any other coach was brought into the Minnesota Wild, likely their position in the standings would get worse. Lemaire is the most important coach to his team's success and thus should be coach of the year.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Overworked Goalies

One method to survive in a salary capped environment is to have one number one goaltender and a bargain basement backup, who is seldom played. There are more and more teams that are playing their number one goalie more and more games and very seldomly playing their number two goalie at all. Is this strategy one that leads to overwork of your starter and you eventual downfall when this occurs?

Last season, five goalies appeared in 70 or more games. They were Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils (78 games), Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks (76 games), Miikka Kiprusoff of the Calgary Flames (74 games), Andrew Raycroft of the Toronto Maple Leafs (72 games) and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers (70 games). These were the four best goalies in the league (the 2007 Vezina nominees) and Andrew Raycroft, who was not as successful in goal.

Any goalie on pace to play 70 or more games this season would have missed at most four of his team's games. This list this season includes: Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks (appeared in every game so far), Miikka Kiprusoff (missed one game), Rick DiPietro of the New York Islanders (missed two games), Henrik Lundqvist and Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres (missed three games), Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Johan Holmqvist of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Tomas Vokoun of the Florida Panthers (missed four games). That is a full nine goalies on pace for 70 or more games played. That is up from the five who did it last season (although the number may drop between now and the end of the season). Four of the goalies on the list were there last year as well as this year.

The question is do goalies burn out? Is this counter-productive to play a goalie this much? It is hard to say. There are still relatively few cases of modern day goalies getting this many games played. Should any of these goalies have successful Stanley Cup playoff runs, they could have over 100 games played all season. That would be an unprecedented total. The most games played by a Stanley Cup winning goalie to date is Martin Brodeur in 2002/03 who played in 97 games (73 regular season and 24 playoffs).

Is it meaningful that of the five goalies that were heavily played last season, none made it beyond the second round of the playoffs? Jean-Sebastien Giguere won the Stanley Cup with 74 total games played. That is approximately the regular season workload of one of these goalies and it includes playoffs.

Here are the games played totals for Stanley Cup winning goalies since 1980 (when the playoffs became four rounds long):

Games Played For Stanley Cup Winning Goalies
Season GoalieTeamGames Played TotalReg Season Playoffs
1979/80Billy SmithNYI583820
1980/81Billy SmithNYI584117
1981/82Billy SmithNYI644618
1982/83Billy SmithNYI584117
1983/84Grant FuhrEdm614516
1984/85Grant FuhrEdm644618
1985/86Patrick RoyMon664620
1986/87Grant FuhrEdm534419
1987/88Grant FuhrEdm947519
1988/89Mike VernonCgy745222
1989/90Bill RanfordEdm785622
1990/91Tom BarrassoPit684820
1991/92Tom BarrassoPit785721
1992/93Patrick RoyMon826220
1993/94Mike RichterNYR916823
1994/95Martin BrodeurNJD604020
1995/96Patrick RoyCol836122
1996/97Mike VernonDet533320
1997/98Chris OsgoodDet866422
1998/99Ed BelfourDal846123
1999/2000Martin BrodeurNJD957223
2000/01Patrick RoyCol856223
2001/02Dominik HasekDet886523
2002/03Martin BrodeurNJD977324
2003/04Nikolai KhabibulinTBL785523
2005/06Cam WardCar512823
2006/07Jean-Sebastien GiguereAna745618

This table tells us only that we could be getting into unprecedented workload for the Stanley Cup winning goalie, if it is one of the most worked goalies so far this season. Of course, a goalie who has had some time off like Giguere of Anaheim or Hasek of Detroit could win the cup also. More teams are working their number one goalie in more games than before. This is a trend that might lead to goalies burning out. If it was up to me, I would rather have a more rested goalie for the playoff run.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Canadian Leaves For Russia

Since there is no player transfer agreement between the NHL and Russia, players can jump back and forth between Russia and North America without any regard for their contract status in the other country. Because of the AHL's effective salary cap of $100,000 per player caused by re-entry waiver system most minor league players would be better paid if they were in Russia. This has lead to a declining Russian presence in the NHL which has reduced the talent pool from which the NHL draws.

With few exceptions, departing players for Russia have been Russians, but there is no reason that they cannot come from other countries. Recently, Fred Brathwaite of the Atlanta Thrashers, a Canadian left his AHL job with the Chicago Wolves to play in Russia. Brathwaite is buried behind Kari Lehtonen, Johan Hedberg and Ondrej Pavelec in the Atlanta system and had little chance of winding up in the NHL this season, though he is an NHL veteran with 254 NHL games played (but none since 2004). He has experience playing in Russia, having spent the lockout year of 2004/05 and the year after it 2005/06 in Russia playing for Ak Bars Kazan. He has jumped back to Russia to rejoin Ak Bars Kazan.

The loss of North American players to Russia is not limited to Russians. As salaries go up in Russia, which is accomplished merely by the value of the US dollar going down, more and more players will be recruited from all nationalities to play there. With the decision that more countries will opt out of the player transfer deal, this problem will likely get worse for the NHL. Players in the AHL might jump to any of several European leagues if they can receive pay raises in them. This will further eat away at the NHL's talent pool

Monday, December 10, 2007

Worst NHL Regular This Season

I think it is an informative question to ask who the worst player who plays regularly in the NHL in a given season and why is he still being played. I have found that by the end of the season, the answer to that question is usually a hard working forward who lacks the skills to play at the NHL level, but because he is on a weak team and because his hard working style has impressed his coach, he continues to play a fourth line role on his club. Over the last two years, this "honor" has gone to Steven Goertzen of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2005/06 and Jean-Francois Jacques of the Edmonton Oilers last season. Both of these players saw their ice time drop considerably in the following year, with the majority of their play in the AHL.

While it is possible for the worst regular in the league to be a defender in the early going of the season (this year I picked Kevin Bieksa of the Vancouver Canucks and then Steve McCarthy of the Atlanta Thrashers), it is less likely that a defender can hold the position at season's end. This is likely because team usually dress four lines of forwards and only three lines of defenders so there is less room for a bad defender on the roster than a bad forward.

While McCarthy has played poorly this season, he has been a bit better lately. He has an assist and his +/- rating is no longer in freefall. Thus it is time to pick another worst NHL regular. As expected, we are far enough into the season that the choice is a forward. However, it is not a player who has had no NHL success in the past. It is Craig Adams of the Carolina Hurricanes. Craig Adams has been playing in the NHL since 2000/2001. Adams is a hard working fourth line checking forward, who has never scored well in the NHL (his career best is 21 points in 2005/06) but he has scored. He just hasn't scored recently. Adams has no points yet this season in 26 games played. He hasn't scored a goal in almost a year. His last goal came on January 11th, 2007. He has a team worst -7 +/- rating. This number may not be among the league worst, but that is largely because Carolina is a division leading team where most of its players are plus players. I am not sure why Craig Adams seems to have suddenly lost his ability to be a useful NHL hockey player, but if he doesn't get it back; his NHL career may soon be over.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Devils Awaken

I think Jamie Fitzpatrick has a very good interpretation of the current NHL season. In a parity filled league, every team has a shot at winning the Stanley Cup, but they are also all on the verge of missing the playoffs. It merely takes a hot or cold spell to determine which group a team is currently in. Those teams that looked like world beaters last week cool off and look to be in serious trouble this week and those teams that looked like they were in serious trouble last week may get hot and look like the top teams in the NHL this week.

The latest team to look like a world beater is the New Jersey Devils. The Devils are currently in the midst of a nine game winning streak and sit in second place in the East Conference with a 16-12 record (with two losses counted as regulation ties). This streak has happened largely because Martin Brodeur's game has gotten on track. After a slow start, Brodeur has looked very good recently. Over his last ten games he has a .943 saves percentage. As Brodeur goes, so goes New Jersey.

James Mirtle has another theory for the Devils recent success. He sees it as corresponding with the return of Jamie Langenbrunner from a hernia surgery. While Langenbrunner has been valuable with 12 points in his 11 games played so far, his contribution is less important than that of Martin Brodeur.

A hot goalie is what it takes to make a team have a hot streak. Martin Brodeur is a very hot goalie and New Jersey is a very hot team. How long this lasts is anyone's guess. In the parity filled NHL, it is just a matter of time before another team becomes the hottest team in the NHL and looks like the new world beater.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Why The Declining Russian Presence In The NHL Is Bad

I have written in the past about the declining Russian presence in the NHL which has been brought on by the lack of a player transfer deal with Russia, increasing salaries in the Russian league and reduction in North American salaries under the re-entry waiver system. This is a problem that will be made worse in the future as the player transfer deal with other European countries is likely almost dead.

The number of Russian players in the NHL is in decline and has dropped by about half during the period where no transfer deal has existed. This is a loss of talent to the NHL. This is a situation where the NHL is no longer the league where all the best players in the world come to play. However, not all people all alarmed by this change.

One anonymous commenter writes:

Good riddance to these over-hyped overpaid slackers. The players that have gone back are marginal NHL players at best. The league has been full of these guys that supposedly have all kinds of talent and promise but never seeme to deliver. For every Ovechkin, there are 6 Russian bums that thought they could come here, make the odd great rush, float around, and collect a big paycheck. It started with Krutov and has continued every year. And then they all use Mark Gandler for an agent to demand a ridiculous salary and actually threaten to go to Russia if they don't get their demands met. The GM's are finally smartening up and telling these guys - "don't let the door hit you on your lazy ass on the way out". Look how few were drafted this year. The Russians have been here for 20 years. Where are the stats to back up the hype? Scoring champs - zero, MVP's - zero, Conn Smythe - Zero. Team Leaders - Zero. Grit & Character players (i.e. playoff leaders) - less than zero. The jig is up. Stop the rhetoric about this supposed loss.

This is the opinion that the NHL hopes fans hold. Russian players are being replaced largely with North Americans. These are lesser players who would not be in the NHL except for the current circumstance. That some fans may xenophobically dismiss all Russian players as floaters who do not have what it takes to play in the NHL is good for the league. Of course, all Russian players are not the same. They are not even close to the same. Ottawa would be surprised to learn that Anton Volchenkov is the same as Alexei Yashin. Many Russian players have made big impacts in the NHL, as this commenter even notices citing Alexander Ovechkin. Of course not all Russians can be Alexander Ovechkin. He is a unique talent who is one of the best players in the world.

Let's look at his "complaints". There have been no Russian scoring champs. True, but players such as Alexander Ovechkin, Pavel Bure, Sergei Fedorov and Alexei Zhamnov have all finished in the top three scorers in various seasons and have made huge impacts in scoring races. He incorrectly claims there have been no Russian MVPs when Sergei Fedorov was the 1994 MVP and Pavel Bure and Alexei Yashin have been Hart Trophy nominees. There have been zero Russian Conn Smythe Trophy winners, but Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Mogilny, Pavel Bure, Igor Larionov, Nikolai Khabibulin, Vladimir Konstantinov, Sergei Zubov and Slava Fetisov have all made significant impact on their team's trips to the finals over the years. They have all been significant playoff leaders, while this commenter claims incorrectly that no Russians have. He also claims there have been no team leaders from Russia. Taking team leader to mean captain (which seems like a reasonable interpretation) Pavel Bure, Alexei Yashin and Alexei Zhamnov have all served as captain in the NHL and there is no question that somebody like Igor Larionov would also have made a fine captain. In short, his argument that Russian players have not been good enough to make an impact in the NHL is false.

We could just as easily say that in the last 20 years, when there has been a Russian presence in the NHL, there have been no scoring champions, MVPs, Conn Smythe winners etc. from Saskatchewan (this would actually be true unlike the Russian claim that overlooked Sergei Fedorov), therefore it wouldn't matter if suddenly half the NHL talent from Saskatchewan started to play in another league instead of the NHL.

Russians have made a significant impact in the NHL. A few Russian NHLers will wind up in the Hall of Fame. The league is better off for having their talent. It is losing out when they are no longer coming.

What is most alarming is those Russian players who are leaving are often young prospects such as Igor Grigorenko and Roman Voloshenko. These are players who might be the next NHL stars, but we will never know because they will likely never have NHL careers. The loss of young players is alarming because the loss of potential star careers in near certainty.

The NHL, unless it changes the player transfer situation, is likely to face a significant drop among European players. This will lead to a drop in the average talent level in the league. It will, however, lead to more homegrown North American boys in the league (because somebody will have to take the vacated jobs). If this makes the xenophobic short sighted hockey fans like this commenter happy, I hope he enjoys his weakened NHL. Russians have had a positive impact on the NHL in the last 20 years. It has been a bigger impact than players from Saskatchewan (for example). Their loss hurts the quality of the NHL.

Friday, December 07, 2007

IIHF Player Transfer Deal Likely Dying

The NHL has a deal negotiated through the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) that governs the co-existence of international leagues. Its most significant point is that leagues will honor each other's contracts. If the NHL signs a player who is under contract to another league (this can only be done during a prescribed period in the summer), then transfer fees are paid to the country that developed the player. The European Leagues have complained that these transfer fees are far too low and they lose their best players without adequate compensation. The NHL has always negotiated this deal in a "take it or leave it" fashion and Russia has chosen to leave it.

This decision has worked well for Russia. They still lose some top players (such as Evgeni Malkin) with no compensation, but they have managed to reduce the number of Russians in the NHL and thus increase the number of Russians who play in Russia. This is because players in the North America who are unhappy with their situation can jump back to Russia at any time during the season. This is particularly likely when a player in on a two-way contract playing in the AHL. Any player in the AHL must clear re-entry waivers to get called up if they are making more than $100,000 in the minors. Thus any player who is ever going to get called up from the AHL has a de facto salary cap of $100,000, which is a salary they will easily exceed in the Russian Elite League. Thus a player in the North American minors is losing money by not playing in Russia. This means that many good NHL prospects such as Igor Grigorenko or Roman Voloshenko who could likely have significant NHL careers never get started because they return home while they are still in the minors.

Seeing the Russian success without a transfer deal, Sweden has announced that they will opt out of the current deal on January 1st, 2008. It is expected that Finland and the Czech Republic will join them. In the future, there could very likely be a large reduction in players from Europe in the NHL (and not just Russia) because of this. The NHL will be weaker because of the reduction of their talent pool.

Possible solutions exist for the NHL including much higher player transfer fees in a new deal. Possibly fees could be negotiated on a player by player basis (which would be well upwards of a million dollars for top players). It is also possible that the remaining parts of the IIHF deal, which govern other points of international play, could be used as bargaining chips to secure a deal. For example, the NHL might offer a World Cup tournament with the best players in the world to be played in Europe with revenue going to the European nations (whether top NHL players would take part during their "summer holiday" is an open question). It is not clear that the other European nations would be able to offer the same level of salaries that Russia offers to their players, thus reducing the number of NHL calibre players they draw, but some of the players who would otherwise be in the NHL will be lost.

The NHL talent pool will weaken significantly with the cancel of the IIHF player transfer deal. Hockey in Europe will be strengthened. No longer will there be one league where all the best players in the world come to play. That is a sad development for fans who have become accustomed to seeing the NHL as the world's elite hockey league.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Niedermayer Sabbatical Ending

Before the season began, I wrote about Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne and Peter Forsberg all taking sabbaticals from the NHL. The NHL season is a long draining one and players (especially those who have playoff success) have little time to recover in the shortened off-season. Niedermayer and Selanne had both been members of the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks and Peter Forsberg was recovering from an injury plagued season. Selanne and Forsberg were unrestricted free agents and merely have held off signing new deals to achieve their sabbaticals from the game. Scott Niedermayer is under contract to the Ducks for two more years. In order to get his break he had to "contemplate retirement" and get suspended by the Ducks for not reporting to the team. It is now being reported that Niedermayer will return to the Ducks. Peter Forsberg has suffered further foot problems, thus slowing his recovery and Teemu Selanne's future remains unclear at this point.

It seems clear that after Scott Niedermayer completed a tough 2006/07 season where he played extremely well winning the Conn Smythe Trophy and getting nominated for the Norris. Merely looking at Niedermayer near the end of the playoffs was enough to make it obvious that the season had taken a lot out of him. He didn't look like he had anything else left to offer. Niedermayer needed a break. I think he went to Brian Burke and said that he would not be ready to go in September. Niedermayer left Burke with two options. Either Scott Niedermayer would retire or he would take a longer off-season and join the Anaheim Ducks later on in the season. Some Niedermayer is better than none, so Burke agreed. The only way to do this under the CBA was for Niedermayer to "contemplate retirement" until he was ready to rejoin the Ducks.

Meanwhile, Brian Burke prepared for life after Scott Niedermayer. He signed Mathieu Schneider as a replacement. When Niedermayer (and possibly Selanne) returned, Burke figured he would have time to make a trade or two to reduce payroll. These trades never happened. In fact, desperation forced the Ducks to place Ilya Bryzgalov on waivers. It turns out that isn't quite good enough for the Anaheim Ducks to add Niedermayer to their roster. Even though his remaining pay this season will keep the team below the salary cap, the CBA has further complicated restrictions. Any player added to a roster after December 1st who is on a contract longer than one season must have his remaining years on the contract fit under the salary cap in future seasons (with the incorrect assumption of zero cap growth from one season to the next). Next season, the Ducks payroll is set to grow. Ryan Getzlaf and Chris Kunitz have new contracts with pay increases that are larger than the losses of payroll of any UFAs (Shane Hnidy being the most prominent Duck who will become a UFA). This would put the Ducks over the salary cap next year, assuming the salary cap does not increase for next year (almost certainly wrong), they do not make any roster moves to reduce payroll by next year (also almost certainly wrong) and Scott Niedermayer returns to the team next year for the final year of his contract (possibly also wrong). Making sure the Ducks do not exceed the salary cap next year with an incorrect salary cap and an unclear actual roster seems like a ridiculous theoretical exercise, but the overly restrictive CBA actually demands it. Thus before welcoming Niedermayer back into the fold, the Ducks must make a move to reduce payroll next season. Most likely that means either Mathieu Schneider or Todd Marchant will be moved.

I am happy to see the best possible players in the NHL at all times. Thus it will be good to see Scott Niedermayer playing again. It would be nice for the NHL to work out a schedule which was more player friendly to prevent such things happening in the future and a CBA that doesn't put obscure restrictions on such moves.

Here is TSN's story on Niedermayer's return.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

What's Wrong With Calgary?

Before the season, I picked the Calgary Flames to win the West Conference. This prediction does not look very good with Calgary currently sitting in 13th place in the West Conference with an 11-17 record (with 4 losses counted as regulation ties). They have an even worse record than their battle of Alberta rival the Edmonton Oilers (who I called the worst team in hockey). Why has Calgary not lived up to my prediction? In part, I must admit my prediction was likely incorrect. It is far too common to blame the team (i.e. they don't have enough heart) for their not living up to your incorrect predictions.

Calgary has a good offence that is led by Jarome Iginla, who is one of the best players in the NHL. They have other talented players to go with Iginla in Alex Tanguay, Daymond Langkow, Kristian Huselius and Matthew Lombardi, but beyond those few players lack depth. This is common in the salary capped era. Teams with frontline talent cannot afford depth as well.

Their defence is very good. Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr and Adrian Aucoin may be the best threesome of defencemen in the NHL right now. Rhett Warrener, Cory Sarich and Anders Eriksson provide some good depth. This team has allowed the third least shots of goal in the league, with 25.4 shots allowed per game.

The weakness has surprisingly been in goal. Miikka Kiprusoff won the 2006 Vezina Trophy and was nominated again in 2007 and thus should be expected to provide top notch goaltending. So far he hasn't. Among goalies with a significant amount of ice time, Kiprusoff has the third worst saves percentage in the NHL at a .886 mark. Only Andrew Raycroft of Toronto and Dominik Hasek of Detroit have been worse. Kiprusoff's last two saves percentages were .917 and .923 and a mark on that level would be much more expected. Merely by seeing Kiprusoff improve his saves percentage to expectation, Calgary would be one of the top teams in the league in goals against and that alone should be enough to make them the first place team in the Northwest Division.

The problem in Calgary is that Kiprusoff recently signed a six year $35 million contract. Calgary has committed a large portion of their salary cap money to a goalie who is not playing well. It is rare for a goalie who has had Kiprusoff's success suddenly lose the ability to play well in goal (although precedent exists is for example Jose Theodore). Should that happen, Calgary would likely be in a bad position for the remainder of this contract or until they can trade it.

Kiprusoff is the only legitimate goaltending option in Calgary. Curtis McElhinney and Matt Keetley have played parts of four games between them, but they have never done anything to prove they might be NHL regulars. In the short term, Calgary needs to find a qualified goalie who can push Kiprusoff for playing time. The competition may help to get his game going.

It is rare to find a situation where an underachieving team can be blamed almost entirely upon one player, but this is the case in Calgary. If Miikka Kiprusoff was playing at established levels, Calgary would be one of the better teams in the league. Because Kiprusoff has been one of the worst goalies in the league, Calgary is one of the worse teams in the standings. They depend upon a low goals against to win and their defence has provided a low number of shots against. So far that has not translated to a low goals against.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

An Interesting Rookie

Every year, several rookies enter the NHL. Most never mature into top player, but some do. There are some rookies, who may not be the best rookie out there, but are interesting because they have an unusual skill set. Last year, Jordan Staal of the Pittsburgh Penguins had the most unique skill set of the NHL's rookies. As an 18 year old, he had enough poise to not only play regularly in short handed situations for the Penguins, he led the league in short handed goals. This earned him a nomination for the Calder Trophy (which teammate Evgeni Malkin won). So far this season, Staal has run into some problems as a sophomore and has only six points in 26 games (with no short handed goals at all).

This , Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks has been the best rookie in the NHL, but the most interesting skill set comes from Daniel Carcillo of the Phoenix Coyotes. Carcillo has 11 points in 25 games (which ties him for sixth in points among rookies). What is interesting is that he also leads the NHL in penalty minutes with 130 (a 31 point lead over Eric Godard of the Calgary Flames who holds down second place). It is rare for a forward with as much skill as Carcillo to be such as successful agitator on the ice. In fact, the first forward who has more points than Carcillo in the penalty minute race is Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks. Perry has 48 penalty minutes (which is slightly over a third of Carcillo's total) and currently is tied for 18th in penalty minutes leaguewide.

A player like Carcillo is valuable because he can play a regular shift and play it well. He is capable of attracting the attention of his opponents and keep it on himself, instead of where it should be on winning the game. These players can be catalysts towards their team's success. In a best case, Carcillo projects to be a modern day Ted Lindsay and more likely a Bob Probert, Ken Linseman, Chris Nilan style agitator who was always the center of his team's attack (at least in their primes) despite not being the top scorer on his team.

Carcillo is a bit of a surprise to be doing as well as he is in the NHL. He was a third round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2003 and traded (along with a 3rd round draft pick) to Phoenix for Georges Laraque. He was a good junior, but he was hardly a junior superstar. So far, his game has translated very well to the NHL. He looks like he should be a very interesting player to watch because it is rare for a player to have his skill set and especially rare for a player to display it while still an NHL rookie.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Mentioned On Hockey Night In Canada

Two weeks ago, in the post-game show on Hockey Night in Canada, Ron MacLean referenced my post on the declining Russian presence in the NHL. It was nice to get mentioned on the air, although at that time he did not mention me or my blog by name. This week, during the pre-game show Scotiabank Hockey Tonight, they had a section on blogs and bloggers. They specifically mentioned several blogs including my own. I am proud to get my name mentioned on Hockey Night In Canada, although when I was a kid I would have hoped I would have been named as a player.

Below is the Hockey Night In Canada clip.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?