Thursday, January 31, 2008

January's Top Scorer

At the beginning of the season, it is easy to tell who the hottest scorers in the NHL are. They are the players at the top of the NHL scoring leaders. However, as the season progresses, it is no longer as easy to identify the hottest scorers in the league. For example, in the month of January, the top scorer in the NHL has been Shane Doan of the Phoenix Coyotes. Doan scored 19 points this month to lead the league. This fact is one that is never discovered by most fans of the league. Only a few of the most astute poolies have noticed.

Had Doan led the league in scoring in October, everyone would have noticed. There would be some consideration of Doan as one of the better players in the league and the expectation that he should appear in the All Star Game. There would be fans wondering if his omission from The Hockey News Top 50 players list was justified. There would be some expectation that this might be the season where Doan winds up among the NHL's top scorers.

That is not the case when it happens in January. Sure people recognize Doan as a good player. After all, his 48 points leads the Phoenix Coyotes and he has had All Star Game and Olympic Team spots in the past, but the hyperbole of leading the NHL in scoring for a month is gone when that month is January and not earlier in the season.

Shane Doan is the highest scorer in the NHL in the month of January and that accomplishment deserves some notice. Most hockey fans will not notice it.

NOTE: I wrote this before the start of the January 31st games. And after they are over, it turns out that Shane doan did not lead the NHL in scoring in January (though he led Jan 1st-30th). Alexander Ovechkin led the NHL in scoring including the last day of the month. JP Dumont finished 2nd. This leaves Doan in 3rd. Still an oustanding month. Dumont is another guy that has had recent successes that most fans didn't notice.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

NHL's Best Power Play

Earlier this season, I wrote about the Montreal Canadiens NHL leading power play. In mid-November, they had a remarkable 29.5% success rate on the power play. The rate has since dropped. They now stand in second in the NHL with a 24.1% rate, which while still quite good shows a considerable drop off from their early season successes. This probably shows that teams have caught onto the fact that Montreal's power play is extremely dangerous and they are better prepared for it. Any drop off on the power play has not affected Montreal in the standings. Their 27-23 record (with 8 losses counted as regulation ties) has the Habs with the second best point total in the East Conference.

In the meantime, the Philadelphia Flyers have passed the Canadiens in the power play standings. Philadelphia has a league leading 24.9% success rate on their power play. This is the same team that only managed a 14.1% success rate in 2006/07. They have considerably improved their power play since last season and it is one of the reasons the team is doing much better. This season, their power play has been led by Daniel Briere, Mike Richards, Mike Knuble, Kimmo Timonen and Joffrey Lupul. Only Knuble and Richards are holdovers from last season (Knuble leads the Flyers in power play goals with 11). Last season, the top power play scorer of that bunch was Daniel Briere in Buffalo. He finished 56th in the league in power play scoring with 30 points on the power play. This year he should well exceed that. He already has 26 power play points and sits third in the league in power play scoring.

Frankly, I am surprised by the Flyers power play successes. I cannot easily explain them. Sure they have a group of good players on their power play. They have four of the top 30 power play scorers this season (Briere, Richards, Knuble and Timonen). None of these players had come close to this success last year. What is the secret to the Flyers power play? I cannot find it.

In fact, I am at a loss to predict which teams will have successful power plays based on the players they have on their rosters. In pre-season, I would have figured that Pittsburgh should have a league leading power play. They could play a first unit of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Petr Sykora (in pre-season I might have placed Mark Recchi here), Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney. I would have thought that this unit should be hard to stop. It wasn't an awful prediction. Gonchar currently leads the NHL with 32 power play points and the Penguins are the fifth best power play (with a 19.6% success rate). Still, the obvious question is what does the Flyers power play have that the Penguins do not? Is it a better system? If so would that be attributed to coach John Stevens or any of his assistants? If so, why couldn't the system work as well last year? Is it merely a lack of talented bodies? How are the Flyers talented bodies more dangerous on the power play than those of the Penguins anyway? Am I missing something?

Success in the NHL is often driven by success on the power play. This season, the Philadelphia Flyers are a much better power play team than they were last season. Although they have good players on their power play unit, I would argue that some other teams have better ones. What is the secret of their success?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Selanne Sabbatical Ending

Before this season began, I wrote about star players choosing to take longer time off between seasons than the NHL schedule allows. Scott Niedermayer, Peter Forsberg and Teemu Selanne were all doing that.

Niedermayer "contemplated retirement" after a long season where Anaheim won the Stanley Cup. He did this because it was the only way that he could get time off with his signed contract. I think the Ducks knew from day one he would eventually be coming back, but couldn't publically announce it. Scott Niedermayer ended his sabbatical and returned to the Ducks in December. The complex salary cap rules forced Anaheim to make a couple moves to accommodate his salary. First, they waived Ilya Bryzgalov and second they traded Andy McDonald to free up hypothetical salary room next season.

Peter Forsberg is without a contract. He is recovering from surgery on his foot. He is expected to sign with an NHL team soon and probably would have earlier were it not for the problems recurring earlier this season. Forsberg might be the biggest addition any team makes between now and the end of the season, if he is healthy.

Teemu Selanne also wanted a longer break from the NHL after playing into June to win the Stanley Cup with Anaheim. He has finally announced he is coming back. He signed a $1.5 million dollar contract for this season with Anaheim. Since it is a one year deal, there are no salary cap problems for the Ducks to fit Selanne into the lineup. Like Niedermayer, I think Anaheim had a pretty good idea Selanne would eventually return after he has his sabbatical.

We will see if it is possible to win the Stanley Cup despite two of your key players taking extended holidays into the regular season. Anaheim will try to repeat and must be considered a favorite. If Niedermayer and Selanne are in last year's form, they could be the favorite. Is it fair to the fan who has been paying to watch the season so far believing it was important, when a few star players (possibly enough to change the balance of power in the league) didn't consider it important enough to play?

Here is TSN's story on Teemu Selanne's return.

Monday, January 28, 2008

If Only They Had A Goalie

With the All Star Game over, the next major event on the NHL calendar is the trading deadline. Although, more trades will likely occur between then and now then have happened so far this season, rarely do any of these trades significantly alter the balance of power in the league. The biggest potential for this to occur happens when an otherwise solid team with poor goaltending acquires a good goalie.

In fact, I have written posts similar to this one in both of the past two seasons. In 2005/06, I picked the Edmonton Oilers as the team that would most benefit by adding a goalie. At that point, it looked unclear whether or not the Oilers would make playoffs and they were struggling in goal with Ty Conklin, Jussi Markkanen and Mike Morrison sharing the load in goal. As it turned out, the Oilers acquired Dwayne Roloson at the trade deadline and proceeded to go to the Stanley Cup finals before losing to Carolina in seven games. That prediction worked out well.

Last season, I picked the Tampa Bay Lightning as the team that could most benefit from adding a goalie. They were struggling in net with Johan Holmqvist and Marc Denis as their goalies. As it turned out, Tampa did not acquire a goalie and lost in the first round of the playoffs, again a result consistent with my prediction.

This year, the team that looks like it could most benefit from adding a goalie is the Pittsburgh Penguins. Pittsburgh started the season with Marc-Andre Fleury and Dany Sabourin as their goalies. Neither was particularly good. Fleury has suffered a high ankle sprain and been out since early December. At that time, Pittsburgh called up Ty Conklin from the minors (the same goalie who was struggling in Edmonton two years earlier). Conklin has played very well so far, sporting a .941 saves percentage and a 1.97 goals against average. Conklin went on a nine game winning streak for the Penguins. That shows how well the team can do with good goaltending. The problem is Conklin is likely a fluke. There is nothing in his track record to suggest he can maintain his top level goaltending for much longer (let alone into the playoffs). He may already be showing signs of fading. He has only won one of his last five games.

Pittsburgh has a talented team that is built around Sidney Crosby (who is currently hurt), Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney. They can be very good with strong goaltending. This was shown in the short stretch where Ty Conklin played over his head. Conklin is unlikely to do that the rest of the season, so Pittsburgh will need to find another goaltender to help to carry them. If they do, Pittsburgh could be very dangerous come playoff time.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Can Detroit Win The Stanley Cup?

The All Star break is a natural time to look at the season so far and reflect on what has happened and look to the future. Right now, the Detroit Red Wings lead the NHL with a record of 37-14 (four losses count as regulation ties) and must be considered the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. How likely are they to be the eventual winners?

The Wings have a strong team, but there are several issues that they will have to address to actually win the cup. First is goaltending. Dominik Hasek is a very good goaltender who will eventually go to the Hall of Fame. However, he turns 43 in a few days and has injury problems. He must remain healthy for Detroit to have a serious run at the Stanley Cup. He is their elite level goalie when he is healthy. Sure, Chris Osgood has played well this year and is appearing in the All Star Game, but he doesn't have the recent track record to suggest he is likely to provide Stanley Cup level goaltending. I think goaltending is the most likely place where Detroit could break down if they fail to win the cup.

Detroit has a good forward unit led by Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Both might be on the early parts of Hall of Fame tracks in their careers. The question mark is that neither has ever led their team with very successful runs in the playoffs yet and thus it is unclear if they have that ability. Beyond them, Detroit has considerable depth with Tomas Holmstrom, Daniel Cleary, Mikael Samuelsson and Valtteri Filppula as well as checkers Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby. If things go well, this is a forward unit that could win the cup, but questions do exist.

Mike Babcock may be a solid coach, but he can be outcoached. It remains to be seen if he can provide the coaching for Detroit to win the cup.

I think their defence is the part of the roster that has the least questions. Detroit's defence is led by Nicklas Lidstrom the man who should win MVP and has several other playoff tested players including Brian Rafalski and Chris Chelios. They also have talented younger players in Niklas Kronwall and Brett Lebda playing significant minutes for the team. The Red Wings defence looks good enough to win the Stanley Cup.

The next question is: Are the Wings a good enough team to be considered among the historically elite teams that might be considered the best ever in NHL history? As necessary conditions (but not sufficient conditions) for this status, I claim such a team must have top level goaltending and several players who either are Hall of Famers (regardless of what happens in the rest of their careers) or are on Hall of Fame tracks (likely to get there if they continue their careers in the manner they are expected to). Detroit has Niklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios and Dominik Hasek. All of whom are players I think will make the Hall of Fame regardless of what happens in the rest of their careers. The problem is Chelios and Hasek are both well into their 40s and are no longer at the top of their games. They also have Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk who look like they could one day make it to that level. Will they? One significant answer to that question may come in this years playoffs if they are the leaders of a successful Stanley Cup run. As for goaltending, Hasek is capable of providing top level goaltending if he is healthy and on top of his game, but at his age both of those conditions are not givens. Detroit has the pieces to be an elite team, but it is not clear if they will put it all together.

There are other teams with good chances of winning the Stanley Cup as well. At the top of the list is the Ottawa Senators who have a good core in Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Wade Redden. The biggest question is goaltending. Neither Martin Gerber nor Ray Emery has ever proven they can be elite level goalies. The Anaheim Ducks could also win the cup. They are the defending champions and with the return of Scott Niedermayer and likely return of Teemu Selanne, they will have all their important pieces back from last season. The main question is will Niedermayer and Selanne get to the same level they were at last year with their extended layoffs. There are any number of other teams that could also be surprise winners, though none look as strong as those three.

I think Detroit is the team in the NHL with the best shot at winning this year's Stanley Cup. I do not think it is a 50% chance. Thus, if I had to bet, I would bet against Detroit winning (if I can get the rest of the league in my bet), but if I was forced to bet on only one team, Detroit is the safest bet.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Importance Of The Draft

When I wrote a post outlining the fact that the Toronto Maple Leafs recent failures are due largely to a lack of good draft picks and a pattern of trading away draft picks, I was surprised to learn the reaction of David Johnson from Hockey Analysis. He called it a myth that you must draft well to win.

David attempted to cite the Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils as examples of this. These are two teams that have done quite well in recent history, both winning multiple Stanley Cups. While Detroit remains atop the NHL standings, New Jersey is falling, but remains a playoff team. He showed that if we restrict ourselves to the first three rounds of the draft and the years 1993 to 2001, neither team have produced many stars via draft. New Jersey has the best pick in that period of Scott Gomez. Of course, there is no reason to restrict ourselves to that limited set of draft rounds and years. Among players still in the NHL, Detroit drafted Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Chris Osgood and others. That is an impressive list of players. All have appeared in All Star Games. Some will wind up in the Hockey Hall of Fame. New Jersey has drafted Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer (with a draft pick that originally belonged to Toronto but was traded), Scott Gomez, Zach Parise and Brian Gionta. That is another list of good players with a couple Hall of Famers. All players on that list could appear in All Star Games in their careers (though Parise and Gionta have yet to do so). During that time, the players who contributed the most to Toronto that the Leafs drafted are likely Tomas Kaberle, Nik Antropov, Alexander Steen, Kyle Wellwood and Fredrik Modin. The only player on that list who is an All Star for the Leafs is Kaberle. The others are unlikely to ever appear in an All Star Game (Modin did in 2001 but after he was long gone from Toronto). This is no way proves that you must draft well to be successful, but it does show that the successful teams David selected as counterexamples have drafted much better than the Leafs.

In the comments of that post, David tried round two. Calgary is a pretty good team and only six players on their team were acquired via draft. Of those six, only Dion Phaneuf can be considered a star.

It is true that Calgary is pretty good, but they are not great. They currently sit in 11th place in the NHL and aside from 2004 have not won a single playoff series since 1989. That said Calgary is a much better team than Toronto is. Calgary shows that you do not have to draft your young core to win, but you do need to acquire a young core somehow. Calgary traded for Jarome Iginla and Robyn Regehr before either had played a single NHL game. They traded for Miikka Kiprusoff and Kristian Huselius before either had become NHL stars. They got a good young core, largely through trades.

To win in the NHL you need to produce good young players (through any method - draft is usually most convenient but not the only one). These players must grow up together and breakout to be stars together. If your team ever is ready to win the Stanley Cup, your good young core will have reached maturity. They may not all be young anymore, many will be in the primes of their careers. Toronto does not have this core of young players. Not only have they not drafted well, they also haven't acquired good young players through other methods. Usually they find players by recycling older free agents onto their roster. This is no way to build a winner in the future and if you are not winning now it is a path to nowhere.

Toronto has an opportunity now. They are expected to make some rebuilding trades under Cliff Fletcher before the trade deadline. They have players like Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker and Pavel Kubina who they might be able to move for some good young talent. It's unlikely that the team can be successfully transformed in one month of trading, but a step in the right direction might be possible. The Leafs will also have one of the early picks in the draft and might be able to grab a future talent there.

David Johnson goes on to list all the players who have made an impact this season who were drafted by their current team. It is an interesting list showing Buffalo has drafted the largest percentage of their roster and Anaheim the lowest percentage. It makes no attempt to gage the quality of the roster players only their quantity. It makes no attempt to look for drafted players who were traded for good young talent. It doesn't add much to this discussion other than showing the team building philosophy of different teams. Brian Burke likes to trade in Anaheim. Darcy Regier has had no luck attracting free agents to Buffalo and thus has drafted most of his team. However, Anaheim successfully drafted Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry (both in the All Star Game) and Joffrey Lupul and Ladislav Smid (who they traded for Chris Pronger who is also in the All Star Game). That alone goes a long way toward building the current Anaheim team.

To win in the NHL today you must acquire a good core of players. The younger you acquire them the better, because old players are in decline and tend to get injured more often. Young players will have more good seasons in the future and give you a longer time window to build a winner. The most convenient way to obtain young players is through the draft - although other methods exist. If your group of young players are good enough and mature to stars together, you will have a winning team. The problem in Toronto is that they have not obtained these young players. They have not put enough emphasis on the draft. They have always been trying to win now and chase that elusive missing piece. It has cost pieces of the future each time and that traded away future is now affecting them in the standings.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Kovalchuk's Suspension

Suspensions in the NHL are often inconsistent. If a player is seen as an embarrassment to the league, who they would like to have go away, (such as Chris Simon) a player can expect to have the book thrown at them for any offense. If a player is a star who will make a difference in games that are important to NHL marketing (such as Chris Pronger in either of his playoff suspensions last season) he can expect a much more lenient suspension.

This problem was showcased again in Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers suspension. On Tuesday night, Kovalchuk viciously hit Michal Rozsival of the New York Rangers from behind. The hit drew a five minute boarding major and a game misconduct for Kovalchuk. If the NHL remained consistent with its current punishment standards, it would also have drawn a few game suspension (maybe 3-5 games) for Kovalchuk.

The problem is the Kovalchuk will be appearing in the NHL All Star Game this weekend. This is a game that will have several stars (Sidney Crosby, Henrik Zetterberg for example) missing due to injuries. Kovalchuk is one of the biggest talents who will be in the game. Until recently, he was leading the NHL in goals (he has recently been passed by Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals). He is the star of the All Star Game host Atlanta Thrashers and the NHL could not afford to keep him out of the game. Their only choice was to limit his suspension to one game (last night's return match with the Rangers). So the NHL did that. Kovalchuk received a lighter than usual punishment in order for him to remain eligible for the All Star Game.

My only question is what would have happened if the Kovalchuk incident happened last night? The NHL could not have turned around and suspended him for the All Star Game, but there were no further games in which to sit him out of. My cynical side believes that there would have been no announcement of a Kovalchuk suspension until after the game was over, thus allowing him to play in it and be suspended later. I think this Kovalchuk incident is an example of the way the NHL treats justice. Long suspensions are fine, unless they keep important players out of games that will be heavily marketed.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

All Star Game Injury Replacements

The All Star Game rosters will be a bit different from those first announced a couple weeks ago. Several players announced will not be playing because of injury or other issues. Of the players voted in as starters, Roberto Luongo, Martin Brodeur, Sidney Crosby and Henrik Zetterberg will not be there. Of those announced on the rest of the roster, Paul Stastny, Sergei Zubov and Dany Heatley will not be there. Luongo's absence was known when the All Star Teams were first announced and another Vancouver player (Henrik Sedin) was added to the team and an extra goalie was selected. The other players who are missing the game have had replacements announced more recently. Added to the game will be Tim Thomas (who was a glaring omission since he leads the NHL in saves percentage), Evgeni Malkin, Corey Perry, Mike Ribiero, Scott Niedermayer and Marc Savard. It is no longer true that each team must have a representative. Both New Jersey and Colorado will not have anybody in the All Star Game.

As for the teams I picked there are eight players to replace. The seven replaced in the NHL and Mats Sundin who pre-declined an invitation. Since I do not have to add a player to make sure each team is represented, I can add the best available remaining player not on my team. Here are my additions:

Chris Osgood - The Detroit goalie leads the NHL in goals against average and will replace Luongo. Likely he made the NHL team to replace Luongo as well.

Ed Jovanovski - He is the highest scoring defenceman I did not add to my teams (in the NHL Brian Rafalski holds that position but I did not snub him). He joins Ilya Bryzgalov to give Phoenix two reps.

Mike Ribiero - I add him as an injury replacement, just like the NHL does. He keeps Dallas with a player since Zubov will miss the game.

Kristian Huselius - The Calgary forward takes my other empty slot. He joins Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr to give the Flames four players on my teams. Only Iginla and Phaneuf will be in the NHL game.

Martin Biron - I select him as Brodeur's replacement. I think he is the best of the remaining goalies. He gives two Flyers on my teams joining Mike Richards. He is not in the NHL game, but Kimmo Timonen is there as a second Flyer.

Martin St Louis - He was selected on the NHL All Star roster and makes mine as a replacement. He joins Vincent LeCavalier as a second Lightning player.

Evgeni Malkin - Like the NHL, I add him as an injury replacement. He is the second Pittsburgh player who will be there, joining Sergei Gonchar and replaces teammate Sidney Crosby.

Marc Savard - Another player who was added as an injury replacement by the NHL who I am also adding. He joins Zdeno Chara and Tim Thomas to put three Bruins in the game.

My game will not have any members of the New Jersey Devils, Colorado avalanche or Vancouver Canucks.

Had it been necessary to keep the tradition of one player per team active in the All Star Game, I had made other choices, which are a bit hamstrung a bit in order to keep that restriction.

In the West, I had four open positions. One goalie, one defenceman and two forwards and three of the players have prescribed teams - Colorado, Dallas and Vancouver. In this case, my selections were Marty Turco in goal (filling the Dallas requirement), Henrik Sedin (Vancouver requirement) and Milan Hejduk (Colorado requirement). The player who is free to be selected from any team would have been Ed Jovanovski from Phoenix.

In the East, I also had four open positions. One goalie and three forwards. The only team requirement is that one had to be a New Jersey Devil. In that case I would pick Zach Parise as my Devil and fill the remaining spots with Martin St Louis, Evgeni Malkin and Martin Biron.

Picking All Star Teams is fun. I wish the game was as much fun, unfortunately it often isn't. Expect players to have some fun, not sweat too hard, not check much and score a lot.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Ferguson Out, Fletcher In

Yesterday, the Toronto Maple Leafs made their long anticipated move in firing GM John Ferguson Jr and replacing him with interim GM Cliff Fletcher. Although replacing Ferguson was an obvious move, it does little to solve the Leaf problems. The Leafs have suffered from meddlesome ownership that have undermined the franchise and from a continued belief in the missing piece myth that the team is on the verge of competing as soon as they get their "final piece", mortgaging the future to do so. The Leafs have not appeared in the Stanley Cup finals since their 1967 cup victory. They have not had a significant run in the playoffs since a 2002 trip to the semi-finals. However, they have always acted as though they were on the verge of contention and can afford to give up their future to attempt to win now.

John Ferguson Jr did nothing to stop this situation and is thus the fall guy. He was left twisting in the wind for far too long because of the cheapness of the Ontario Teacher's Pension Plan who are their owners. Ferguson was hired, instead of a bigger name GM, because he would work cheaply and his firing was delayed because he was under contract and would be paid anyway, thus forcing the Leafs to have two GMs under contract at the same time.

Cliff Fletcher, his replacement, was a solid General Manager. His biggest success was as the Atlanta/Calgary Flames long running GM. He was the team's original GM hired when they expanded in 1972 and remained with the team until 1991. He is the architect who built the 1989 Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames. He left for his first run as the Toronto GM in 1991 and gave the team their most successful run in recent history. He brought in Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk and made the team a contender. He was willing to begin the process of mortgaging the Leafs future to try to win now. This was a calculated risk that ultimately failed and led to his dismissal in 1997 after the Leafs failed to qualify for playoffs in two successive seasons. From there, he moved into a more advisory role with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Phoenix Coyotes. This seemed to be his way to slip into retirement, though out of necessity he served as Phoenix GM for about a season in between Bobby Smith and Mike Barnett. He returns to the Leafs on a 19 month contract, where he will be GM for the first six months before a permanent replacement is found.

Cliff Fletcher was a very good General Manager and is in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The problem is that he is 72 years old and will not be around for the longterm. Rebuilding the Leafs will not be a simple task. It will take a few years of struggle. Fletcher cannot offer this to the team. He will start on a rebuilding plan and very quickly give up the reigns to somebody else. Somebody else will have to live with the moves Fletcher made, though they likely would have rather had the chance to make their own moves. Worse, Fletcher will be still around in the organization to be involved in its management and thus the new GM won't fully be given the reigns.

The only way to build a winner in the NHL is to hire a very good hockey man as GM and leave him alone to let him build your team. Offer him the resources, but do not have ownership or upper management interfering. In the Leafs situation, ownership is still there to interfere. Another figure is brought in to upper management to interfere in Cliff Fletcher. A disjointed rebuilding plan will have at least two architects, since Fletcher is not staying around to finish what he will start. I am not optimistic that this plan will work out well for the Leafs, but it is par for the course from recent ownership.

It was clear that the Leafs needed to do something, but it is not clear this is the correct something. The best case would have been to get a competent GM in place last summer. The next best case is to replace Ferguson now with somebody competent who will stick around long enough to complete a rebuilding plan. Having Fletcher act as a middle man who starts the process then stick around to advise the person who eventually takes control likely will lead to the length of the process being increased. After all, Fletcher's interim role as GM in Phoenix did nothing to speed up that team becoming respectable.

Here is the TSN story on the Toronto moves.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

CHL Prospects Game

It is All Star Game season. I have already posted rosters for the NHL All Star Game and the AHL All Star Game. There is one more significant game I am following. The CHL Top Prospects Game is played between 40 players who are eligible for the 2008 draft and playing in the CHL leagues (Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League). The game is played at Rexall Place in Edmonton this year. The skills competition is today and the game is tomorrow. Here are the rosters:

Team Red


Mikkel Boedker, Kitchener Rangers
Philippe Cornet, Rimouski Oceanic
Patrice Cornier, Rimouski Oceanic
Jordan Eberle, Regina Pats
A.J. Jenks, Plymouth Whalers
James Livingston, S.S. Marie Greyhounds
Phil McRae, London Knights
Steven Stamkos, Sarnia Sting
Mikhail Stefanovich, Quebec Remparts
Kelsey Tessier, Quebec Remparts
James Wright, Vancouver Giants
Geordie Wudrick, Swift Current Broncos

Michael Del Zotto, Oshawa Generals
Drew Doughty, Guelph Storm
Jyri Niemi, Saskatoon Blades
Alex Pietrangelo, Niagara IceDogs
Luca Sbisa, Lethbridge Hurricanes
Colten Teubert, Regina Pats

Robert Mayer, St John Sea Dogs
Chet Pickard, Tri City Americans
Kevin Poulin, Victoriaville Tigres (Injured)

Team White


Jamie Arniel, Sarnia Sting
Josh Bailey, Windsor Spitfires
Kyle Beach, Everett Silvertips (Injured)
Zack Boychuk, Lethbridge Hurricanes
Joel Champagne, Chicoutimi Sagueneens
Nicolas Deschamps, Chicoutimi Sagueneens
Chris Doyle, PEI Rocket
Tyler Ennis, Medicine Hat Tigers
Cody Hodgson, Brampton Battalion
Greg Nemisz, Windsor Spitfires
Maxime Sauve, Val-d’Or Foreurs
Jared Staal, Sudbury Wolves
Mitch Wahl, Spokane Chiefs

Zach Bogosian, Peterborough Petes
Tyler Cuma, Ottawa 67’s
Tyler Myers, Kelowna Rockets
Colby Robak, Brandon Wheat Kings
Yann Sauve, Saint John Sea Dogs
Luke Schenn, Kelowna Rockets

Peter Delmas, Lewiston MAINEiacs
Thomas McCollum, Guelph Storm

For many of us this will be our first chance to see many of these players play. Unlike most All Star Games, players in this one are actively trying to get noticed by the NHL and have something to play for and that makes this game very competitive.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Uneven NHL Divisions

The NHL schedule does three things that significantly distort the successes of the teams. First by offering a point to teams that lose - but remain tied through regulation, they give teams more points than they deserve and distort the meaning of .500 (can a team that loses more than they win truly be called a .500 team?). Second, by offering a point for winning the skills competition that is a shootout, they allow teams that have shootout success but are not good hockey teams (most notably Edmonton who has a league leading 11 shootout victories) look better than they actually are. Third, they play an unbalanced schedule where teams in weaker divisions will play more games against other teams in their weak division. Thus winning more games then they would have in a balanced schedule look better than they are.

There is significant unbalance between divisions and conferences in the NHL today. The West Conference as a whole has a record of 55-36 (with 7 losses counted as regulation ties) when playing the East Conference. Of the 15 West Conference teams, all having won more games then they have lost against the east except Chicago, Minnesota (only 3 games played), San Jose (only 3 games played) and Calgary (who sport a 4-1-3 record). Conversely in the East Conference, the only teams who have won more than they have lost against the west are New Jersey, Pittsburgh and Boston. It is quite clear that the west is better than the east from their head-to-head record. Interestingly, the east is the higher scoring conference and thus has more of the top scorers. This is because the west is a far better defensive conference. In general, lower scoring leagues tend to be better leagues than higher scoring ones (the NHL is always lower scoring than the AHL, which is lower scoring than the ECHL). The west is better and its lower scoring game results are a symptom of that. Thus, East Conference teams look better than they are because they play more games against themselves and the West Conference teams look worse than they are because they play more games against themselves. This helps create an illusion of parity.

Not all divisions are created equally either. The Southeast Division in the East Conference is by far the worst division in hockey. This is quite easily seen merely by looking at the East Conference standings. Carolina has the 9th best record in the east, Atlanta the 10th, Washington the 11th, Florida the 13th and Tampa Bay the 15th. None of them would qualify for playoffs if the season ended right now, except that the division champ is guaranteed one of the top three seeds in the east. Because the Southeast Division plays so many games against itself (and somebody must win those games), just how bad the Southeast Division is gets distorted. It is even worse than the raw standings would show. James Mirtle published a study today showing just how historically poor the Southeast Division has been. This year is worse than the last few. This year, the Southeast Division has a record of 61-91 (with 15 losses counted as regulation ties) outside there division. Not one team has a winning record outside the division. When the schedule is made a bit more balanced next year, unless the Southeast Division significantly improves, they will look even worse in the league standings.

One method to show this (that possibly overrates the conference/divisional inequities) is David Johnson's power rankings. His most recent rankings show that 13 of the 14r best teams in the NHL are West Conference teams. Only Ottawa (who he ranks sixth) make the top fourteen from the East Conference. The only two West Conference teams that are not rates in the top fourteen are Edmonton (23rd) and Los Angeles (24th). The entire Southeast Division fills five of the six worst spots. Only Toronto (29th) is doing is badly from outside the southeast.

The NHL standings distort reality because of points given for regulation ties, shootout victories and most importantly divisional and conference inequities hidden by the unbalanced schedule. As the schedule becomes a bit more balanced next season, these inequities might be magnified. The best teams in the NHL standings are not necessarily the best teams in the league. There are too many distortions in the standings to ensure that.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Selke Trophy Leader

I like to write posts that list who I think is the leader for all the major NHL awards, as soon as that leader emerges during the season. One award I have not written about so far this season is the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward. It has not bee easy to identify a frontrunning candidate throughout most of the season.

Lat season, the Selke was given to Rod Brind'Amour of the Carolina Hurricanes. It was his second in a row. I believe he deserved the award, although many argued that the other nominees last year Sami Pahlsson of the Anaheim Ducks and Jay Pandolfo of the New Jersey Devils did. This is because of a fundamental lack of definition behind what is a defensive forward. Brind'Amour had more ice time than just about any forward in the NHL last year. He was used in both defensive and offensive situations by the Hurricanes. While he excelled in the defensive situations, his use in offensive situations as well dropped his average defensive stats (such as quality of opposition or goals against per minute when he was on the ice) from the levels of Pahlsson or Pandolfo. Pahlsson and Pandolfo had much more limited offensive value to their teams and were used in almost exclusively defensive situations. All three of these forwards were the primary defensive forward on their team and were on the ice as much as possible in important defensive situations.

In a new season, none of these three have emerged as legitimate Selke frontrunners. Brind'Amour is possibly starting to show his age. At 37, his ice time is starting to drop and he is no longer giving as goos a showing in his defensive stats.

After a great playoff last year, many fans were all but ready to give Pahlsson this year's Selke Trophy before the season began. However, injuries have limited Pahlsson to 33 of his team's 50 games so far and have limited his effectiveness at times while he is in the lineup.

Would that make Jay Pandolfo the obvious leader? It might if he hadn't been hit by injuries as well. Pandolfo has only played in 24 games so far this year.

So we must look in a new direction for a best defensive forward in the league. The man who has emerged as the leader is Patrick Sharp of the Chicago Blackhawks. Sharp has the best +/- among forwards on his Chicago team (with +11). He leads the NHL in short handed goals and points (with 7 and 9 respectively). He plays as tough minutes as anyone in Chicago does and plays them well. He has played so well that some have suggested he should be in the All Star Game.

It is a bit of a surprise that Sharp is doing as well as he is. He was stuck in the Philadelphia Flyers system until he was almost 25, getting limited NHL ice time and frequently shuttled between the NHL and AHL. Chicago traded for him in 2005 and gave him NHL ice time for the first time in his career. He has adapted well and has been the best defensive forward in the league so far this season (and has contributed offensively too). Patrick Sharp is my pick for the Selke Trophy at this point in the season.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The All Star Game By Nationality

It is always interesting to look at which countries are producing NHL players and how those rates are changing with time. David Lee at Red and Black Hockey has a good study. His study shows the number of players in the entire NHL from various countries. It is interesting to look at these numbers for top players only and see if they mirror the overall trends or if they reveal anything new. For this study, I will assume that the top players in the NHL are those that will appear in the All Star Game. I am including in this study, any players selected to the game who will not participate.

Here is the breakdown of 44 All Star Game players by nationality:

Canada 23: Jason Arnott, Martin Brodeur, Brian Campbell, Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, Dany Heatley, Shawn Horcoff, Jarome Iginla, Ed Jovanovski, Duncan Keith, Vincent LeCavalier, Manny Legace, Roberto Luongo, Rick Nash, Chris Osgood, Dion Phaneuf, Chris Pronger, Mike Richards, Martin St Louis, Marc Savard, Jason Spezza, Eric Staal, Joe Thornton

Russia 7: Pavel Datsyuk, Sergei Gonchar, Ilya Kovalchuk, Andrei Markov, Evgeni Nabokov, Alexander Ovechkin, Sergei Zubov

Sweden 4: Daniel Alfredsson, Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Sedin, Henrik Zetterberg

Slovakia 3: Zdeno Chara, Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa

USA 3: Rick DiPietro, Scott Gomez, Paul Stastny

Czech Republic 2: Tomas Kaberle, Tomas Vokoun

Finland 1: Kimmo Timonen

Slovenia 1: Anze Kopitar

Canada is the overwhelming hockey superpower. Slightly more than half of the all star players are Canadian. That is in line with the number of Canadian players in the overall league.

The fact Russia is second is a surprise. The number of Russian players in the NHL is in decline due to a lack of a player transfer agreement. There have been 31 players from Russia who have played one or more NHL game this season (I am counting Nabokov as a Russian - even though he was born in Kazakhstan because he competes internationally for Russia. It's phenomenal that almost one quarter of all Russians in the NHL for one or more games this year will appear in the All Star Game. Russia has produced top level NHL players, but if the pipeline of players from their country getting cut off, we will stop seeing some of these players who become all stars.

Sweden is next with a strong showing of four players.

Slovakia is next with three of their 22 NHLers in the All Star Game. That is a good showing and is one player better than rivals Czech Republic (with less NHL players).

It is interesting that USA only placed 3 players in the All Star Game (and one Paul Stastny was born in Canada, though he competes internationally for USA). USA is the country with the second most NHL players and is growing at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world, but they have not produced a proportionate number of all star level players.

The Czech Republic is next with two players, which is a bit of a disappointment for them, but with the low numbers here falls within statistical variation.

Finland has one player, which is a reasonable showing for them.

Slovenia has only produced one NHL player ever in Anze Kopitar and he is in the All Star Game. Are there any further Slovenian players with NHL potential?

The nationality of the players in the All Star Game roughly follows the nationalities of players in the NHL as a whole. There are two obvious exceptions. Russia produces far more all stars than would be expected for the number of players they have and USA has far less than would be expected.

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Hockey-Related Reason For Toronto's Problems

The Toronto Maple Leafs are not doing very well this season. They have a record of 18-29 (with eight losses counted as regulation ties), which has them third from last in the NHL. It is well known that GM John Ferguson Jr is on the outs with ownership. Richard Peddie, the Leafs President was on record that hiring of John Ferguson Jr as GM was a mistake. He said this in November. It is now passed the middle of January and Ferguson remains GM. The Leafs have been openly looking for a candidate to replace Ferguson on an interim basis, but Ferguson remains GM. In a dysfunctional environment like that, it is clear that building a winning hockey team is nearly impossible.

Putting aside the ridiculous situation in management of the Toronto Maple Leafs, there is a simple hockey-related reason the team is doing poorly. That reason is the draft. Toronto has not drafted well. In fact the only players who Toronto drafted who have made an impact (for the sake of argument we will define playing 25 games so far this year as making an impact) in the NHL on any team (not only Toronto) so far this season are Tomas Kaberle (1996 pick 204), Nik Antropov (1998 pick 10), Alexei Ponikarovsky (1998 pick 87), Brad Boyes (2000 pick 24 a St Louis Blue), Kyle Wellwood (2001 pick 134), Alex Steen (2002 pick 24), Matt Stajan (2002 pick 57) and Ian White (2002 pick 191). There are eight Toronto draft picks who have made an impact anywhere in the NHL this season. Only eight! One of them is not Leaf property (Brad Boyes). He was traded in part of a package to obtain Owen Nolan from San Jose. Nolan is also not Leaf property anymore.

A good team would have picked at least twice as many impact NHL players. The problems are that the Leafs have been constantly in search of the "final piece of the puzzle" to complete their winning team. This myth is a poor way to build any team. The Leafs have acquired many final pieces but have not made it close to the Stanley Cup in years. The pieces they traded away to obtain these final pieces have usually been futures. Draft picks who might have been able to make an impact if the Leafs kept them. This has been a problem that is independent of GM. It happened under Cliff Fletcher, Ken Dryden, Pat Quinn and John Ferguson Jr. After years of chasing a mythical final piece and paying in the future, the lack of a future has become the present.

Toronto needs to rebuild. They need to have some patience and forward thinking when they do it. Obviously the team won't be winning right now. There is no way to change that. Find a good hockey man. Put him in place as president and GM and leave him alone to right the ship. Until that happens Toronto will remain an also ran.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Minor Agreement In NHL/IIHF Talks

The last NHL/IIHF player transfer deal expired on January 1st, 2008. The European nations were upset at the low player transfer fees ($200,000 US per player). They saw how the lack of a player transfer deal with Russia was benefitting Russian hockey in that the number of Russian players in the NHL was declining and decided they could opt out of the deal as well.

Talks have been underway to create a new process. These talks are likely doomed to limited success unless the NHL agrees to pay much larger transfer fees or agrees to negotiate player transfers individually on a player by player basis. Nevertheless, a minor agreement has been reached. All junior aged (under 20) players with contracts in IIHF leagues will not be allowed to enter North American contracts in the future unless they are first round draft picks by the NHL or their Europeans team has given the OK. From the NHL's point of view, this is basically an agreement to the status quo. It is very rare that any such player would sign a North American deal. It makes it look as though there was a negotiation success, but nothing significant has changed.

From the European standpoint, this is likely the best they can get. So they took it. The hope from some of the European nations (such as Russia) is that in the near future a player who is not an NHL first round draft pick will establish himself as a top prospect (say by being MVP of the World Junior Championships) and his NHL team will decide they want him now. This could be arranged. That team would have to individually negotiate a transfer that would likely cost much more than the old $200,000 US transfer fee. This would set a precedent for much larger transfer fees and/or individually negotiated transfers which would eventually become the new law of international hockey.

Here is the TSN story on this minor agreement, which will likely be the most significant result of these talks.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Young Stars

Yesterday, the NHL announced the Young Star participants for the All Star Game. Here they are:

West Conference


Sam Gagner Edmonton
Patrick Kane Chicago
Peter Mueller Phoenix
David Perron St Louis

Alexander Edler Vancouver
Erik Johnson St Louis
Jack Johnson Los Angeles
Matt Niskanen Dallas

East Conference


Niklas Backstrom Washington
Brandon Dubinsky NY Rangers
Tyler Kennedy Pittsburgh
Milan Lucic Boston

Tobias Enstrom Atlanta
Kris Letang Pittsburgh
Mike Lundin Tampa Bay
Marc Staal NY Rangers

The teams have a different format from last year's game where teams had eleven men rosters with 6-7 forwards 3-4 defencemen and a goalie each. This year teams have four forwards, four defencemen and no goalies.

Teams will play a three on three contest shooting on the goalies selected to the All Star Game. This does not seem to be an improved format. First the young stars game will not showcase any young goalies and this is a mistake. They could have easily selected Josh Harding of Minnesota and Carey Price of Montreal (Price is the top rookie goalie in the NHL so far this year despite the fact he is currently in the AHL - if it's unacceptable to have a young star in the AHL he could be replaced by Ondrej Pavelec from hometown Atlanta) as young star goalies. There is no good reason for them to be absent.

Further, there are too many defenders and not enough forwards selected. In a three on three game, it is most logical to play two forwards and a defenceman at most times. Thus, it would be most logical to have twice as many forwards as defenders on the roster (as in last year's game). The lack of forwards selected has kept players like Martin Hanzal of Phoenix and Kyle Chipchura of Montreal from selection.

It also seems that the definition of a young star has changed. Last year, any player on his entry level contract who had never appeared in a previous young star or all star game was eligible. This year the selections are all rookies.

When this many changes are made to the format without any compelling hockey reason for it, it seems likely that there is a desperate retooling underway to make the game more popular to the viewing audience. It is unlikely for such a move to work because the event is the all star weekend. The young stars will be at most a diversion. They cannot be the main event. In this year's game, the vast majority of the roster are players who are unknown to the average fan. That is a situation that is not possible to be fixed without significant changes to what a young star is.

In my opinion, the best young star in the NHL is Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He is only 20 years old and younger than some of the players on the young stars roster. He is not part of the young stars game because he will be a starter in the regular game. Even if he wasn't on the regular game roster, he would not be a young star because he is in his third NHL season and played in last year's All Star Game.

The idea of showcasing the NHL's younger stars is a good one, as long as the young stars really are showcased by the event. The problem is the event is a short game played by a handful of NHL rookies (few if any are household names) and it won't even have young star goaltenders.

I think there are a few solutions to make the event more viable. Make it open to all NHL players under a given age (for example a 24 year old cut off). This would allow some of the NHL's real young stars (Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin etc.) to be showcased. There is no reason that a player cannot be both a member of the all star and young stars roster.

Another idea, if the NHL wants to try to highlight their young talent, is to change the All Star Game format to be young stars vs. veterans in the All Star Game. The potential drawback is that the veterans could win, thus showing the young stars are not yet ready for prime time.

I think a young stars game with only rookies, no goalies, too many defencemen and not enough forwards is a poor move for the NHL. I hope that they go back to the previous format in the future - either that or scrap this part of the all star weekend. This current format does not look like a winner.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Extra Longterm Contracts

One recent development under this CBA is the signing of young players to very longterm contracts. It started when the New York Islanders signed Rick DiPietro to a 15 year $67.5 million contract. This year the Philadelphia Flyers signed Mike Richards to a 12 year $69 million contract and the Washington Capitals signed Alexander Ovechkin to a 13 year $124 million contract. The lengths of these contracts are unprecedented in the NHL.

It was expected that the new CBA would lead to more player movement. So far it has. The addition of a salary cap and liberalized free agency rules has led to more player movement. This player movement has happened at younger ages in a player's career. It was not possible to buy a player as a free agent for the best years of his career (he didn't reach UFA status until age 31) under the old CBA. Under this one, a player can reach UFA status by age 26 and can be signed as a restricted free agent more easily since the compensation for such players has been reduced. This has forced teams into a situation where they risk losing their young stars before they play the best years of their career. Obviously teams do not want this and will do anything within reason to prevent this.

It was expected by many that this CBA would allow the big markets a chance to buy the best players in the NHL while they are still at the top of their game. If the best players were in the flagship markets, that would help to sell the game. Rick Westhead of the Toronto Star is arguing that keeping Ovechkin in Washington is bad for the overall NHL marketing and he is correct. At the same time it's not a relevant issue. It is best for the hockey fan if there are 30 markets that all have a chance of winning. It is best if there is no systematic reason why your team cannot win. Of course, the reality is there will always be some of these reasons, but the CBA should not add more by trying to shepherd the stars to the elite markets.

Of course the less than elite markets want to keep their stars. Under the CBA there is only so much they can do. They can offer them large amounts of money (up to 20% of the salary cap), but any team can do that. A truly elite player would command significantly more money in advertising and other promotion in a large market even given the same salary as he would otherwise get to stay in his smaller market. The only thing a non-elite market can offer that likely won't be matched by an elite market is the security of a longterm deal. The security comes from a ridiculously longterm deal that basically covers the player through his entire career.

From the standpoint of a GM, what does George McPhee have to lose in signing Alexander Ovechkin to a thirteen year deal? McPhee's job is in jeopardy now. He could very possibly be fired this season or this summer. If he loses Ovechkin, the likelihood of that is increased. Ovechkin is one of the top players in the game and will in all likelihood be worth a huge salary - at least as long as he can stay healthy. If the time comes that Ovechkin is no longer worth his salary cap hit or is no longer healthy, George McPhee knows he will likely be long gone from the Washington organization. It is somebody else's problem. There is little downside to him personally.

To the Washington organization, Ovechkin may be underpaid in the latter part of his contract if the salary cap continues to rise (which it most likely will) and if he continues to be an elite player. The question is how likely will he hold up that long? James Mirtle attempts to answer this question. Although it's possible that Ovechkin could last as an elite player his entire contract, it seems more likely that he won't. Most 50 goal scorers have shown significant signs of decline (and often even retired) before hitting age 35, when the Ovechkin contract ends. It is a risk that Washington is willing to make. It is a risk that they may have to make in order to attempt to compete in the NHL. Should Ovechkin falter, this is a problem that can be solved with even more money. Ovechkin could be bought out. He could be put on a longterm injury list (and paid to not play). He could be sent to the minors and paid at his NHL rate but not count against the salary cap. This contract, should it go badly, will likely keep Washington from competing for years. It would significantly reduce the resale value of the team, should Ted Leonsis decide to sell. It is a risk, but one Washington feels they need to make. It may be the only way to ensure that Ovechkin has the best years of his career playing for Washington.

The Mike Richards contract in Philadelphia is not so cut and dry. Richards is not an elite player in the NHL. He does not have the track record Ovechkin has. Before this season, his career best was 34 points (a total he has already exceeded this season). Richards is off to a very good start this season. He has been the best player on the Flyers. He is going to the All Star Game. He is living up to his potential as a 2003 first round draft choice. For this, Philadelphia signed him up for twelve years. It is quite possible that this is a career best season. If it is, this contract will go on to hurt the Flyers. They are a big enough market team that they have the financial resources to buy themselves out of trouble, but it would be better off not to risk getting into it in the first place. I don't think they needed a twelve year deal to keep Richards. It was a move made by an over-exuberant inexperienced GM in Paul Holmgren to keep his young emerging talent. If Richards stays injury-free and continues to develop, this contract could look good in the future, but those are big ifs. Again, Holmgren sees little downside on the deal. If it fails, he won't be around to pick up the pieces.

The Islanders signing Rick DiPietro to a fifteen year deal was not pushed by a GM trying to save himself in the shortterm and pushing any potential problems onto his successor. It was pushed by Islanders owner Charles Wang. I think at the time, Wang overrated DiPietro thinking he was a star because he had been the 2006 US Olympic Team starting goalie. The reality was that the US Olympic Team had no goalie stars at the time to choose from. DiPietro was the best of a mediocre bunch. Lucky for Wang, DiPietro continued to develop. I think hew was the most improved goalie in the NHL last season by a significant margin and this made him worth his contract ... at least for now. Who knows how DiPietro will age? Who knows if he can remain injury free? If DiPietro does not age well or he runs into injury problems, he will be a significant financial problem for the New York Islanders. This is all the more likely because his contract runs until he is 40 years old (though it is front loaded financially). Rick DiPietro could be stuck in the minors at the end of his contract because his salary cap hit would be unreasonable should he be a backup goalie at that time. His contract will almost certainly be a problem for the Islanders in the next decade.

The CBA was designed to increase player movement. It was designed to allow the NHL's top markets a chance to acquire the league's biggest stars while they are still in their primes. Some teams are trying to prevent this by signing up their young talents to unprecedented longterm contracts. This may limit the availability of star players to free agency in some cases, though likely many stars will still become available over time. These contracts work to the advantage of the signing team if the player they sign can remain a healthy star for the lifetime of the contract. The salary cap will go up in the meantime, and the price for a star player will have gone up around the league, while the contract in question is locked in value. The problem is what happens if the player gets hurt or doesn't work out? Won't the contract cripple the team? It will either force even more money to be thrown at the problem to fix it or it will keep them out of contention for a long time. Either way it's a hard position for a team to be in and it is a reasonable bet that it will happen with any team making an extra longterm signing. When that happens, the GM who has to pick up the pieces will most likely not be the guy who made the mess. It has little shortterm downside to a current GM.

Monday, January 14, 2008

New MVP Selection

I have been picking Vincent LeCavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning as the NHL MVP. When I first selected him, he was several points ahead of the field in the scoring race. Since that point, Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames have pulled to within one or two points of LeCavalier. Meanwhile, Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings has taken the league lead in +/- with a +34 rating and leads all defencemen with 41 points. Not only is he the best defenceman in the NHL, he is also the leading candidate for MVP.

Nicklas Lidstrom is a player I would like to see get some serious Hart Trophy consideration. He has never been nominated for the award, despite having won five Norris Trophies. In my mind he should have been nominated at least a couple times (including last season). It's hard to explain why he has been overlooked. Is it because, as a defenceman, he is never among the top scorers in the NHL? Is it because he is not a North American player and gets held to higher standards than the "hometown" boys? Is it because Detroit has been a perennial top team that usually has more than one solid MVP candidate and that leads voters to ignore the team in favor of squads where there are players who are clearly the only legitimate MVP candidate on their team?

Nicklas Lidstrom is having another excellent season and it is high time that the award voters recognize this with MVP support for him, as long as he continues this season with the same success he has had so far.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

AHL All Star Game

The AHL All Star Game will be played January 28th in Binghamton, New York. It is a chance to look at some players who might become NHLers of the future. The game is Team Canada vs. Planet USA (this team consists of all players not born in Canada, but is largely USA based). Teams have 24 man rosters (maybe the NHL could learn from this as there is more room for worthy players after satisfying the one player per team requirement, unlike the 21 man NHL All Star rosters). Here are the lineups:

Team Canada


Derick Brassard Syracuse
Nigel Dawes Hartford
Denis Hamel Binghamton Captain
Mike Iggulden Worchester
Jason Krog Chicago
Clarke MacArthur Rochester
Pascal Pelletier Providence Starter
Joel Perrault San Antonio
Rich Peverly Milwaukee
Teddy Purcell Manchester Starter
Martin St Pierre Rockford Starter
Jeff Tambellini Bridgeport
Kyle Wanvig Norfolk

Cam Barker Rockford Starter
Micki DuPont Peoria
Joel Kwiatkowski Chicago
Lawrence Nycholat Binghamton Starter
Ryan O'Byrne Hamilton
Adam Pardy Quad City
Alexandre Picard Philadelphia
Derrick Walser Toronto

Michael Leighton Albany Starter
Drew MacIntyre Manitoba
Nolan Schaefer Houston

Planet USA


Keith Aucoin Albany Captain
Gabe Gauthier Manchester
T J Hensick Lake Erie
Joakim Lindstrom Syracuse Starter
Greg Moore Hartford
Joe Motzko Hershey
Toby Petersen Iowa
Jared Ross Philadelphia
Bobby Ryan Portland Starter
Rob Schremp Springfield
Brett Sterling Chicago Starter
Jeff Taffe Wilkes-Barre/Scranton
Petr Vrana Lowell

Jonathan Ericsson Grand Rapids
Peter Harrold Manchester
Matt Lashoff Providence Starter
Brian Lee Binghampton
Erik Reitz Houston Starter
Brian Salcido Portland
Anton Stralman Toronto
Clay Wilson Syracuse

Jimmy Howard Grand Rapids
Tuukka Rask Providence Starter
Pekka Rinne Milwaukee

Friday, January 11, 2008

NHL All Star Rosters

The rosters for the NHL All Star Game have been announced. Here are the players that I had selected for the teams. I will list the NHL's selections and explain why I selected the players that I selected who did not make the NHL squad.

West Conference


Roberto Luongo Vancouver Canucks
Manny Legace St Louis Blues
Evgeni Nabokov San Jose Sharks
Chris Osgood Detroit Red Wings


Nicklas Lidstrom Detroit Red Wings
Dion Phaneuf Calgary Flames
Ed Jovanovski Phoenix Coyotes
Duncan Keith Chicago Blackhawks
Chris Pronger Anaheim Ducks
Sergei Zubov Dallas Stars


Pavel Datsyuk Detroit Red Wings
Jarome Iginla Calgary Flames
Henrik Zetterberg Detroit Red Wings
Jason Arnott Nashville Predators
Marian Gaborik Minnesota Wild
Ryan Getzlaf Anaheim Ducks
Shawn Horcoff Edmonton Oilers
Anze Kopitar Los Angeles Kings
Rick Nash Columbus Blue Jackets
Henrik Sedin Vancouver Canucks
Paul Stastny Colorado Avalanche
Joe Thornton San Jose Sharks

East Conference


Martin Brodeur New Jersey Devils
Rick DiPietro New York Islanders
Tomas Vokoun Florida Panthers


Zdeno Chara Boston Bruins
Andrei Markov Montreal Canadiens
Brian Campbell Buffalo Sabres
Sergei Gonchar Pittsburgh Penguins
Tomas Kaberle Toronto Maple Leafs
Kimmo Timonen Philadelphia Flyers


Daniel Alfredsson Ottawa Senators
Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penguins
Vincent LeCavalier Tampa Bay Lightning
Scott Gomez New York Rangers
Dany Heatley Ottawa Senators
Marian Hossa Atlanta Thrashers
Ilya Kovalchuk Atlanta Thrashers
Alexander Ovechkin Washington Capitals
Mike Richards Philadelphia Flyers
Jason Spezza Ottawa Senators
Martin St Louis Tampa Bay Lightning
Eric Staal Carolina Hurricanes

There are several players I picked who did not make these teams. I will explain why I picked them over the player the NHL selected.

West Conference

Brad Boyes St Louis Blues I will admit that Manny Legace is the Blues MVP at this point, but since Bryzgalov is the Coyotes MVP by a larger margin (and has similar numbers to Legace) and Leclaire has the best season so far of all West Conference goalies not named Luongo, I couldn't find room for Legace on the All Star team, thus I turned to Boyes. The NHL omitted both Bryzgalov and Leclaire from their team and thus had plenty of room for Legace. This was made even easier because they replaced Roberto Luongo who will not play in the All Star Game despite being voted a starter. I planned to leave all replacements of players who will be unavailable for the All Star Game until later, in part because there are often players worthy of roster spots who make it known to the NHL that they don't want to attend and I cannot know these players in advance, so it makes most sense to pick the most worthy group of players and replace those not going later on.

Ilya Bryzgalov Phoenix Coyotes His arrival in Phoenix has turned the Coyotes into a team that looks like they might now be able to slip into a playoff berth. They currently sit 10th in the West Conference and have legitimately won more games than they have lost (taking into account overtime losses). His .922 saves percentage is as good as that of Osgood or Legace and better than Nabokov and he has done it with a worse defence in front of him, thus facing higher shot quality. He is the clear MVP of the Coyotes and not Ed Jovanovski, who is having a solid year leading the Coyotes in ice time and points from defence, but also their worst +/-.

Patrick Kane Chicago Blackhawks This rookie leads Chicago in scoring and has been their MVP. Because he can play in the Young Stars Game, he was left out of the All Star lineup. The Chicago choice of Duncan Keith is far from the Hawks MVP. Keith is as shocked as anyone that he was selected.

Pascal Leclaire Columbus Blue Jackets He is the Columbus MVP. His .928 saves percentage leads all West Conference goalies who made the team. His 1.97 GAA leads all but Chris Osgood (who plays behind a better defence). Picking Rick Nash perpetuates the idea that he is the Blue Jackets star. While Nash is a good player he has never managed a point per game and this year is no exception (37 points in 43 games). His performance is less spectacular than that of Leclaire so far this season.

Brian Rafalski Detroit Red Wings So far this season, Rafalski is the second highest scoring defenceman behind teammate Nicklas Lidstrom (with 37 points). That is an all star worthy performance. He was left off because Duncan Keith and Ed Jovanovski were selected on defence as their team's lone representatives. Neither are MVPs of their teams so far. It would have made more sense to pick the players who have outplayed them so far this season.

Robyn Regehr Calgary Flames A very solid stay at home defenceman in Calgary, who is a major reason why Calgary is one of the better groups of defenders this season. His spot was lost because Duncan Keith and Ed Jovanovski were chosen as their team's lone representatives thus filling up the defence core.

East Conference

Mike Comrie New York Islanders Rick DiPietro is the Islanders MVP so far this season and was their selection, but when only three goalies are selected and 12 forwards go to the All Star team, it's easier to select a forward when neither is truly worthy based on merit, except that somebody has to represent the Islanders.

Cristobal Huet Montreal Canadiens He is having too good a season (.925 saves percentage, 2.35 GAA) to consider leaving him off for lone representative players such as Rick DiPietro (.912 saves percentage, 2.52 GAA) or Tomas Vokoun (.918 saves percentage, 2.65 GAA). So I chose other players from the Islanders and Florida and gave Huet the berth.

Olli Jokinen Florida Panthers Jokinen was left because Tomas Vokoun was the lone Florida representative. I think the difference between Jokinen and another forward (for example Marian Hossa - is Jokinen having a worse season than Hossa?) is less than the difference between Cristobal Huet and Tomas Vokoun.

Michal Rozsival New York Rangers The Rangers have been a low scoring team this year, but have won by allowing even less goals. Their defence is led by unheralded Rozsival who leads them in ice time and is among the ten highest scoring defenders in hockey this season. That makes him the Rangers MVP in my book. Problem is he is not nearly as famous as Scott Gomez, who was selected. (or Jaromir Jagr who probably does not want to play - Jagr has not appeared in an All Star Game since 2004. He has been worthy of selection in the past but declined to participate.)

Mats Sundin Toronto Maple Leafs I have to wonder if he was offered a spot and declined. I think his 48 points and team leading +/- rating in Toronto makes him a better selection than Martin St Louis or Marian Hossa who were selected as second players from their respective clubs.

Tim Thomas Boston Bruins If the goalie with the leading saves percentage in the league .930 is not an all star, I am not sure how to pick an all star goalie. I see him as the most significant omission. The knock on Thomas from a public relations standpoint is that he is not a very famous player.

Ray Whitney Carolina Hurricanes Whitney leads the Hurricanes in scoring and has done it in fewer games played than Eric Staal, but Staal is a bigger name player and not too far behind him. The NHL chose the big name over the guy who is playing better.

Minnesota Majority Owner Selling

Ever since the Minnesota Wild expanded into the NHL in 2000, they have been owned by a group of businessmen known as Minnesota Sports and Entertainment LLC. They are a group headed by Bob Naegele who owns the majority share. Yesterday, it was announced that Naegele is selling his majority share to former Nashville Predator owner Craig Leipold. Naegele will remain on as a minority owner of this group that owns the Wild, their AHL affiliate Houston Aeros, the Minnesota Swarm of the National Lacrosse League, a catering business and is the building operator of the Xcek Energy Center (which is owned by the city of St Paul, Minnesota) where the Wild play, collecting revenue from all games, concerts and trade shows held in the arena. The purchase price for a majority share in this group is believed to be $260 million (larger than the purchase price for the entire Nashville franchise - not just a majority share).

While it is hard to buy and sell teams in the NHL today with negotiation usually lasting several months after the first announcement of a sale before the NHL approves the transfer, this sale is likely a safe one since Leipold is a known quantity to the league.

It is interesting that Leipold wants to stay in the NHL hockey business despite the problems he faced in Nashville. He recently sold the Predators for $193 million to a group of businessmen who claim to want to keep the team in Nashville, despite the fact the biggest investor in the group William "Boots" Del Biaggio was attempting to move the franchise to Kansas City as recently as this summer. Leipold sees Minnesota as a better opportunity than that of Nashville. Leipold claimed to have lost $70 million while running the Predators. In Minnesota, a profit is nearly assured. Minnesota has a better team, a stronger fanbase and stronger corporate support than Nashville.

The Nashville group has asked for and received concessions from the city of Nashville to help their financial situation and despite that the situation does not look rosy. Likely their revenue sharing cheque will be cut this season because Nashville does not have a high enough attendance to continue receiving it. Last year, Nashville was the largest recipient of revenue sharing, so this will be a significant hit. It is hard to imagine this Nashville group making a profit and it is hard to imagine the Minnesota Wild operating at a loss. Craig Leipold has made a strong improvement in the financial situation of the team he owns. The question that remains is whether the Nashville group can succeed where Leipold failed (and not for lack of trying). I suspect they will have significant problems and not last particularly long as an NHL ownership group. Craig Leipold does not have to worry about those problems any longer.

Here is the TSN story on the pending sale.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Kovalchuk's Goal Scoring

Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers is having a very good offensive season. He leads the NHL with 35 goals in 44 games played. That projects to 65 goals if he keeps scoring at this rate the entire season. That mark would be the highest single season goal scoring total since Mario Lemieux scored 69 goals in 1995/96. That would be the most goals anyone has scored in a season in twelve years. That is quite an impressive feat. This feat is all the more impressive because he lacks a good setup man on his Atlanta team. In fact, Kovalchuk's 25 assists make him the team leader in assists as well as goals (and obviously his assists were not on his own goals). The top setup men who might have contributed to Kovalchuk's goals are Marian Hossa and Tobias Enstrom who have 22 assists each. Kovalchuk's goal scoring is also impressive because scoring is down in the NHL. It has been dropping each year since it peaked in 2005/06 after the lockout ended. While scoring goes down, Kovalchuk's scoring has gone up. When Kovalchuk's goals are adjusted for the leaguewide scoring rate, this result will look very impressive.

Despite Kovalchuk's offensive success, he is not a player I would seriously consider for MVP (right now I pick Vincent LeCavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning). This is because Kovalchuk has not done so well defensively. In fact, among players with a significant number of games played, he leads the league in goals against per minute played at even strength. This does not mean he is the worst defensive player in the NHL. Goals against is a team related statistic. While it is telling that more goals are scored against Atlanta when Kovalchuk is on the ice than when any other player is, this does not necessarily make him the worst defensive player on the Atlanta Thrashers, as he is often played in situations where the team is behind and needs to press offensively to have a chance of catching up and winning the game. In short, the circumstances behind his poor goals against number make it likely not as bad as it first looks.

Even without looking at statistics, one would expect the worst individual goals against number per minute of ice time to go to an offensive player who is often used in situations where defence is not stressed on a bad team that gives up a lot of goals. That description fits Ilya Kovalchuk perfectly. This shows some of the problems when analyzing sabermetrics in a hockey context. Numbers all must be taken into context of how a player is used. While it is bad that there are more goals per minutes scored against Atlanta per minute of even strength play when Kovalchuk is on the ice than when any other player is on the ice, it is hard to judge just how bad it is. It is a function of the team Kovalchuk plays for and the way he is used. Likely several other players are worse defensively but are not in situations that will show up as well with this metric.

Ilya Kovalchuk is scoring goals at a remarkable rate this season. Should he continue to score at this pace, this will be one of the best goal scoring seasons in a long time. It is remarkable that he can do this in a season of declining scoring leaguewide and without any significant setup men on his team. Usually, a year with as many goals as Kovalchuk is having would be a strong candidate for MVP. It would be were it not for some defensive lapses.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

My All Star Game Line-Ups

The NHL All Star Games lineups will be announced on Thursday for the West Conference and Friday for the East Conference. Here are the players I would put on the teams (there may be some differences between my selections and who I would predict to be selected). Like last year's game, I will assume 21 man rosters (3 goalies, 6 dmen and 12 forwards) with at least one player selected from each NHL team. I will make no attempt to replace injured players who are deserving, but likely won't be in the All Star Game. The starters are selected by fan voting.

West Conference


Roberto Luongo Vancouver Canucks
Luongo was selected as the starter and is a worthy selection, but he has announced he will miss the All Star Game. This makes the inclusion of a Vancouver Canuck in the game problematic. Unless injury opens up another spot, the simplest thing is to include Curtis Sanford as Luongo's replacement, but Sanford is not worthy of playing in the All Star Game.

Ilya Bryzgalov Phoenix Coyotes Not bad for a player who was on waivers this season (although it had nothing to do with his playing ability). Bryzgalov has been the MVP of the Coyotes by a large margin since his arrival.

Pascal Leclaire Columbus Blue Jackets He has cooled off a bit from an amazing start, but remains one of the top goalies this season. He will be the lone Columbus Blue Jacket in the game.


Nicklas Lidstrom Detroit Red Wings
The best defenceman in the game. He was voted a starter by the fans.

Dion Phaneuf Calgary Flames The other starting defenceman from fan voting.

Chris Pronger Anaheim Ducks Elite defenceman, more than worthy of an all star spot.

Sergei Zubov Dallas Stars Also an elite defenceman. Dallas's lone representative.

Brian Rafalski Detroit Red Wings Second highest scoring defenceman in the game right now behind Lidstrom.

Robyn Regehr Calgary Flames Solid stay at homer who deserves a spot despite a lack of offensive numbers.


Henrik Zetterberg Detroit Red Wings
Voted a starter by the fans. This appears to be the year he makes the jump to bonafied stardom.

Pavel Datsyuk Detroit Red Wings The third Red Wings voted a starter. Given the limitation that there must be a player from each team in the game, the large number of Red Wings makes things hard. It forces a higher percentage of the non-starter spots to players who are the only representative from their team and in some cases are not worthy had they played on better teams with better available choices.

Jarome Iginla Calgary Flames The non-Red Wing forward choice, but he doesn't increase the diversity of players in the starting lineup since he and Phaneuf were both selected from Calgary.

Joe Thornton San Jose Sharks In a year where Jonathan Cheechoo and Patrick Marleau have struggled offensively, Thornton remains going for the Sharks and is their lone representative.

Paul Stastny Colorado Avalanche Colorado's rep who has taken a big leap in his second NHL season.

Marian Gaborik Minnesota Wild The selection from Minnesota.

Patrick Kane Chicago Blackhawks Probable rookie of the year and the top scorer in Chicago.

Ryan Getzlaf Anaheim Ducks The only forward non-starter added to this team who is not the lone representative from his NHL team.

Anze Kopitar Los Angeles Kings While things have gone poorly in LA, Kopitar is still playing quite well.

Shawn Horcoff Edmonton Oilers Oilers representative.

Jason Arnott Nashville Predators Somebody had to represent the Preds.

Brad Boyes St Louis Blues St Louis was the hardest team to select a player from. I considered Manny Legace in goal, but he fell short. Boyes has 21 goals for the team lead but must be considered the player having the worst season on this west all star team.

East Conference


Martin Brodeur New Jersey Devils
Voted the starter by the fans

Tim Thomas Boston Bruins Saves percentage leader in the NHL

Cristobal Huet Montreal Canadiens Having a very good year in Montreal


Andrei Markov Montreal Canadiens
Voted a starter by the fans.

Zdeno Chara Boston Bruins The other starter on defence

Sergei Gonchar Pittsburgh Penguins Top scoring defenceman in the east.

Tomas Kaberle Toronto Maple Leafs Having a very good season in Toronto

Brian Campbell Buffalo Sabres The lone Buffalo representative. Playing well for the Sabres

Michal Rozsival New York Rangers On a Ranger team with Jagr, Lundqvist and Gomez has been the surprise MVP so far and is their lone representative.


Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penguins
The best player in the game right now. Voted a starter by fans. A bit of a surprise that he is not leading the NHL in scoring.

Daniel Alfredsson Ottawa Senators Voted a starter by the fans

Vincent LeCavalier Tampa Bay Lightning MVP at this point in the season. Voted a starter by the fans

Ilya Kovalchuk Atlanta Thrashers Top goal scorer in the NHL.

Alexander Ovechkin Washington Capitals The Capitals run away MVP. What happens to the Caps if he ever leaves as a free agent?

Dany Heatley Ottawa Senators Tied with Alfredsson as Sens top scorer.

Mats Sundin Toronto Maple Leafs Consistently is the Leafs top scorer. Will they trade him?

Jason Spezza Ottawa Senators If not for a few games missed to injury would be among the league's top scorers.

Mike Richards Philadelphia Flyers The Flyers invested in him in a longterm deal. He has been worth it so far this year.

Ray Whitney Carolina Hurricanes The Canes have several offensive players with similar numbers in Eric Staal, Cory Stillman and Rod Brind'Amour. I pick Whitney as their representative because he is their top scorer right now.

Olli Jokinen Florida Panthers The Panthers top scorer is their representative.

Mike Comrie New York Islanders The least deserving all star in the east, but somebody must represent the Isles.

When the teams are announced we will see how many of my picks were actually selected.

NOTE: My comment on Ovechkin is now out of date. He has signed a 13! year contract with the Washington Capitals. He isn't leaving as a free agent.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

World Junior Hockey Championships

Canada won the World Junior Hockey Championships Gold Medal for the fourth year in a row with a 3/2 overtime victory over Sweden. Canada was led by Steve Mason (Columbubs draft pick) in goal and Kyle Turris (Phoenix draft pick) offensively. The silver medal Swedish team was led by Robin Figren (NY Islanders draft pick), Mikael Berglund (Calgary draft pick) and Patrik Backstrom (St Louis draft pick).

Russia defeated USA in the bronze/fourth game with a 4-2 score. Nikita Filatov (2008 draft eligible) and Viktor Tikhinov (undrafted) led the Russians offensively. USA was led by tournament top scorer James van Riemsdyk (Philadelphia draft pick) and Jordan Schroeder (2009 draft eligible).

The host Czech Republic finished fifth behind the strong goaltending of Michael Neuvirth (Washington draft pick), but lacked any big offensive players.

Finland finished sixth. They were led by Niclas Lucenius (Atlanta draft pick) and Jan-Mikael Juutilainen (Chicago draft pick).

Slovakia finished seventh. Marek Slovak (undrafted) and David Skokan (NY Ranger draft pick) led the way.

Kazakhstan finished eighth. Yevgeni Rymarev (undrafted) was their offensive leader.

Relegated were nineth and tenth place finishers, Switzerland and Denmark. Switzerland's best player was Arnaud Jacquemet (undrafted). Denmark was led by Lars Eller (St Louis draft pick) and Mikkel Boedker (2008 draft eligible).

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