Friday, February 29, 2008

Hossa Trade Looks Even Worse

In my trade deadline review, I picked the Atlanta Thrashers as the biggest long term winner and the Pittsburgh Penguins as the biggest long term loser because of the Marian Hossa trade. Pittsburgh acquired free agents to be Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis in unlikely hopes of a Stanley Cup playoff run this season at a large cost. They gave up two young useful players in Eric Christensen and Colby Armstrong and last year's first round draft pick in Angelo Esposito, as well as this year's first round draft pick. In all likelihood, Hossa is only a shortterm rental. When the season is completed, he will sign as a free agent with another team and his short tenure in Pittsburgh will be over (Dupuis is the same situation - though in this trade he is mostly an NHL calibre warm body in this trade). Pittsburgh gave up a sizeable chunk of their future. Christensen and Armstrong are solid young players. Likely neither will be superstars, but they should have useful NHL careers. Atlanta will benefit from their presence. With young players like Esposito and the 2008 first round pick, one never knows. They might turn out to be very good players and they might not. I think it is likely a safe prediction that the three players involved in this deal that score the most points with their new teams are all players the Atlanta Thrashers obtained. In a best case, Hossa may score well for a few games, but it will only be a few games before he leaves Pittsburgh.

This trade just got worse in last night's Pittsburgh at Boston game. Not only did Pittsburgh lose 5-1, in the second period Marian Hossa hurt his knee and left the game. It was an accidental knee-on-knee collision with Boston's Glen Murray. Initial estimates are that Hossa will be out for about a week, but we will not know for sure until doctors examine him today. Things could easily be worse than a week. When you pay a high price for a shortterm rental, it is a huge blow for the player to be hurt. It is a huge blow if he comes back but cannot perform at 100%. It is really starting to look like Pittsburgh got burned on the Marian Hossa trade and the trade was made only a few days ago.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Ottawa Panicking

The Ottawa Senators have fired coach John Paddock. General Manager Bryan Murray will be coaching the team for the rest of the season. Ottawa is currently the second seed in the East Conference if the season were to end now. This is not the kind of team that typically fires a coach. However, they have not played particularly well lately. They started the season 13-1 and had a large lead on the rest of the Eastern Conference. That lead has been lost. They have only won two of their last eight games (two other games were regulation ties giving them a 2-4-2 record in that period). Their last two games have been embarrassing shutout losses to Toronto (5-0= and Boston (4-0). Murray is afraid their good season is getting away. Since there is usually a short term boost to a coach firing, Murray is hoping this will get the Senators back on track.

In many way, this firing is being done to cover up for Bryan Murray's mistakes. He feels he was unable to make a big trade deadline deal. Ottawa did acquire Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore about two weeks before the deadline, but that move did not do anything to change the short term fortunes of the Senators. On deadline day, they acquired Martin Lapointe from Chicago, who will provide some depth at forward but is not expected to be a game breaker. Ottawa did not manage to address their biggest weakness of goaltending, but this is because few goalies were available to be moved on deadline day.

Ottawa's goaltending is a problem. Martin Gerber has not played very well lately. Ray Emery is not having a good season. When Gerber was hot at the beginning of the year, the Senators took their lead on the conference, but since he has slowed down, they have given back their lead. Ottawa does not have the kind of goaltending that typically wins Stanley Cups. They do not have the goaltending of a top team.

John Paddock was hired by Bryan Murray after Murray pushed John Muckler out of the Sens organization. Last summer, after Ottawa made the Stanley Cup finals with Muckler as GM and Murray as coach, Murray convinced ownership to let him take over as GM. Murray promoted the Binghamton Senators (the Ottawa AHL affiliate) head coach John Paddock to coach. Murray must see this move (his first as GM) as a mistake, since he has undone it. I think Ottawa would be better off with Muckler as GM and Murray as coach. It is a shame that successful tandem had to be broken up.

Ottawa remains one of the better teams in the NHL. They stand as good a chance as anyone of making the Stanley Cup finals from the East Conference this year. I don't think this coaching change makes any significant difference to that. I think they would stand a pretty good chance of winning the East Conference with Paddock coaching as well. In order to do that, they will need better goaltending then they have had recently, but that is a possibility. Over short terms, both Gerber and Emery have looked good in the past, however not lately.

Ottawa is in a slump lately. They have lost their lead over the East Conference. They were unable to make a splash at the trade deadline so in order to attempt to change things they have chosen to fire the coach. Coach firings usually lead to a short term lift for most teams, so Ottawa can expect one to happen. In this case, the coach firing was done to cover up for mistakes by the GM.

Here is TSN's story on the firing.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Trade Deadline Review

Similar to last year, here is my quick analysis of the trade deadline moves of the last few days:

Biggest Winner Short Term: Colorado Avalanche Colorado is the biggest winner because they added Peter Forsberg and all it cost them was money. They did not give up any players to sign him. Likely, he will be refreshed after his sabbatical. There are injury questions given his ankle/foot problems that he used as an excuse for his absence, but he should be able to provide Colorado with a top player for the rest of the season. Colorado also added Adam Foote for draft picks. Foote is a very good stay at home defenceman who can log a lot of tough minutes. The first round pick Colorado gave up to acquire him will be a big price, but it is not a player on their current roster (Colorado also gives up a 4th round pick if they resign Foote). Finally, Colorado added Ruslan Salei, who was playing pretty well in Florida. This costs Karlis Skrastins and a 3rd round pick. Salei is an upgrade from Skrastins. It is reasonable to ask how much Colorado should be willing to mortgage their future to win now (with the current standings, they would miss the playoffs), but they are definitely a much improved team. Given the recent returns from injury of Paul Stastny, Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth, this team could go on a tear, but likely if they do make playoffs, they will likely not have a deep run. Nevertheless, nobody is as improved after the deadline as Colorado.

Biggest Loser Short Term: Montreal Canadiens Montreal is a team that should be gearing up for a playoff run. They currently hold down fifth seed in the East Conference. Instead they gave up their starting goalie Cristobal Huet for a second round pick in 2009. Huet is a borderline All Star (I would have picked him for the All Star Game). He gave Montreal the quality goaltending they would have needed for a playoffs run. Now, they will have to rely on Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak and both are unproven. It's true that Montreal had three NHL ready goalies this year and would have eventually had to make a decision to part with one of them. Given the fact Huet is an unrestricted free agent this summer, it seems clear he is the one to go, but right now they need him. Although it is always possible for a young goalie to get hot, Price only has 13 wins in his NHL career to date and Halak has ten. Handing the reigns over to them for a cup run significantly reduces the chance of it happening. It was rumored that Montreal was trying to make a deal where they added players, but none were finalized.

Biggest Winner Long Term: Atlanta Thrashers Atlanta gives up the last 18 games of Marian Hossa's contract and journeyman Pascal Dupuis to add Pittsburgh's first round pick, Angelo Esposito, Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen. That is a huge haul for a short term rental. Don Waddell played this trade well by waiting until the last minute and playing the various suitors for Hossa against one another to get a huge price for a short term buy. Atlanta also acquired Joe Motzko from Washington for Alex Giroux in a trade that should have very little NHL impact.

Bigger Loser Long Term: Pittsburgh Penguins Pittsburgh made headlines grabbing Marian Hossa (and Pascal Dupuis), but it comes at a big price. They give up two NHL regulars in Eric Christensen and Colby Armstrong and their first round picks this year and last (Angelo Esposito). Hossa is strictly a short term rental. It is highly unlikely that Pittsburgh resigns him. Even if they do, in a salary capped environment, it is highly unlikely that they can provide much of a core around Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Hossa to be a Stanley Cup winner in the future. Pittsburgh pulled out all the shots to try to make a Stanley Cup run this year, but it is highly unlikely to be a successful one. Most likely Pittsburgh won't make it to the finals with or without Hossa. Pittsburgh also gave up a second and a fifth round pick for Hal Gill from Toronto. Gill has some value as a stay-at-home defenceman, but this seems like an overpayment when you consider that the New York Rangers added Christina Backman from St for a fourth round pick. Pittsburgh paid a lot for likely little gain. Marian Hossa is a good player, but he won't be a Penguin for long and they still face long odds to win the Stanley Cup

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Forsberg Sabbatical Ending

Today is the NHL trade deadline and deals are starting to be announced at a rate faster than I can keep up with. I will leave any look at the overall trade deadline until tomorrow, once I have had time to digest the moves. It is possible that the most significant deadline move (at least as far as this season goes) occurred yesterday and it was not a trade. Peter Forsberg signed with the Colorado Avalanche for the remainder of the season.

In September, I wrote about three proven NHL stars who have chosen to have sabbaticals this season instead of being ready to play at the start of the season. Those players are Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne and Peter Forsberg. All three have now joined NHL clubs and will be around for the stretch and playoff runs. Because none of them had any problems getting back to the NHL when they were ready, expect this trend to continue and possibly increase as other stars decide their summer is too short and take a sabbatical for the first few months of the season.

Now that Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne have rejoined Anaheim, the Ducks have been playing very well and recovered from a slow start. Should Anaheim repeat as Stanley Cup champions with strong performances from Selanne and Niedermayer, how much credit will be given to the fact they had an extended summer vacation and were thus fresh in the playoffs? And how likely does it make other players to follow their lead?

Peter Forsberg waited to sign a contract in part because of his health. He had surgery on his foot/ankle that kept him out part of this season. This is the second time he has had an extended summer vacation where he used health issues as an explanation. In 2001/02, Forsberg missed the entire regular season, but played in 20 playoff games leading the playoffs in scoring due to ankle problems and his spleen removal. Likely in both cases, Forsberg could have played earlier, but chose to have a longer break.

Forsberg choosing to play with Colorado is a bit of a surprise. Most pundits believed that he would sign with Philadelphia. Perhaps the Flyers recent skid, which leaves them fighting for a playoff berth changed his mind. Colorado is also not a lock for a playoff run. They currently sit in tenth place in the West Conference. However, things are looking up due to recent returns form injury of Paul Stastny, Ryan Smyth and Joe Sakic. The addition of Peter Forsberg, if he is healthy, makes the Avalanche a very good group of forwards.

I believe this season is the start of significant older players choosing to take sabbaticals for the first part of the season. It leaves fans without some star players for the first half of the season and creates a situation where a team can be crowned Stanley Cup champion because of a key free agent signing at mid-season. It is not a good trend for the fan, but if the alternative is having these players prematurely retire, this is the lesser of two evils.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Buffalo Sabres: A Development Team?

When the current CBA was passed, superficially the biggest change appeared to be the addition of a salary cap, but many believed that the biggest change was actually the liberalization of free agent rules. Players became unrestricted free agents at a younger age than ever before (potentially as young as 25) and this would force teams to build by signing free agents. Further, the penalties for signing restricted free agents were decreased. This would make it harder for teams with lower payrolls to keep the talent they produced. It was believed by many that this would lead to some of the smaller market teams becoming development squads for the bigger markets as they would continually be sending their talented free agents to bigger markets. Although this is yet to happen universally (in part due to teams signing their talent to extra longterm contracts) some teams have been negatively affected by the liberalized free agent rules. No team has been more negatively impacted then the Buffalo Sabres.

The Sabres looked like a very good team in 2005/06. They took the eventual Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes to seven games in the semi-finals and likely only lost due to an injury depleted defence. However, they have been unable to maintain any of that momentum due to free agency losses.

That summer, Buffalo lost JP Dumont to free agency when they declined his arbitration award. Dumont has gone on to be a Nashville Predators star (his 58 points would lead Buffalo in scoring if they kept him). Dumont recently signed a four year contract that pays him $4 million a year (which is far more then the $2.9 million Buffalo walked away from). This past summer, Buffalo lost two more elite free agents in Daniel Briere and Chris Drury. Briere currently has 55 points in Philadelphia and would be tied for the Buffalo Sabres scoring lead if they kept him. Duruy's 46 points would make him fourth in Buffalo in scoring (though his defensive game adds further value that would increase his value above this level). Buffalo clearly has a depleted offensive depth because of their free agency losses. Buffalo was further challenged when Edmonton signed Thomas Vanek to a large restricted free agent offer sheet. Though Buffalo kept Vanek, they tied up far more resources in his contract than they would have preferred.

These losses of key players have reduced Buffalo from the level of Stanley Cup contender to that of a team struggling to make playoffs. If the season ended right now, Buffalo would take the eighth and final playoff seed in the East Conference, but they only are holding it by one point.

The losses of players to free agency in Buffalo are not over yet. Their top defenceman, Brian Campbell will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He is unlikely to be back next season. That loss will further weaken the Sabres.

It can be argued that Darcy Regier, the Sabres GM, brought this problem on by misplaying the free agent market. He failed to negotiate with his free agents early enough to allow him to sign them at lower rates (some of the players he lost would have reportedly been willing to do so if Regier was willing).

As the salary cap continues to rise, it is likely that more team will go down the Sabres path of producing talent but continually losing it to other markets when it reaches free agency. This is bad for the NHL. It weakens any league to have perennial also ran markets that cannot afford to keep enough talent to be solid contenders. Is Buffalo the first of many?

The Buffalo Sabres have been very negatively affected by the liberalized free agency rules in the CBA. They have lost more talent to free agency then any other team in the league since they were adopted. It doesn't look like there is an end in site. Likely, the best UFA defenceman this summer is a Sabre. As the salary cap continues to rise, likely more teams will be forced into this path.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Nashville: A Solid Playoff Team

Last summer was a pessimistic time to be a Nashville Predator fan. The team lost Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell, Tomas Vokoun, Paul Kariya and Peter Forsberg to trades and free agency. The ownership situation was very uncertain and it looked like a matter of time before the Predators moved from Nashville.

Things have turned around somewhat. The Predators have been sold to a local ownership group and have been playing good hockey. Since the start of 2008, no team has more points than the Predators. They are tied with the Anaheim Ducks and Pittsburgh Penguins with 34 points so far this year. Nashville looks like a team that should capture a playoff berth. Though they currently sit in eighth place in the West Conference, they are four points ahead of ninth place Colorado.

The team's success has come from some unexpectedly high scoring forwards. JP Dumont has 33 points since the start of the year and is tied for second in the league with that mark. I am sure nobody would have predicted that a few months ago. Jason Arnott has 28 points in that time frame. This ties him for sixth place in the league. Again, I am sure nobody would have predicted that a few months ago. Alexander Radulov has 24 points in that time frame. Again, he is likely well above expectation from a few months ago. Can these players keep up their high scoring ways? To a degree, the answer is likely yes, though it's unlikely they will score at this high a level for a sustained period of time. They clearly provide the offensive depth that many thought Nashville was lacking after all the players they lost last summer.

All is not rosy in Nashville. The Predators have outs in their lease in three years (end of the 2009/10 season) if the team does not average 14,000 fans in attendance or lose $20 million in that time. This would in all likelihood move the Predators out of Nashville. Given that the "local" ownership group's biggest investor is William "Boots" Del Biaggio, who was trying to move the team to Kansas City; this may still have been the longterm plan. It seems quite likely that both triggers to re-open the lease could be available for Predators owners. The current attendance is low and they are likely losing money.

The good news for the Predator fans is this is not a dead franchise that is just waiting to be moved. They are trying. They are putting together a team that will most likely make playoffs. The fans do not have awful hockey to watch until the move occurs.

The problem is that something huge must happen to change the Predators fortunes. It would take more than a Nashville team that is solid enough to make playoffs for this market to be financially successful. Over the short term, perhaps a Stanley Cup run is the only antidote and that is highly unlikely.

The Nashville Predators are a well-built franchise that is playing good hockey. They should make playoffs this year; to the surprise of many pundits. The process of slowly building the franchise to success is a good one and would help build a fledgling hockey market. The problem is financial circumstances won't allow the many years that this requires. Nashville will likely move before this process can be completed. It is the NHL's mistake for allowing a franchise in a place like Nashville where building things properly with good management could not build a big enough fanbase for an NHL franchise in time to save it. Nashville was not a hockey market at all in 1998 when the team expanded. They have created a good number of hockey fans in Nashville since then, but not enough to make a fanbase for an NHL franchise. It is a good thing for the NHL and for those fans that the Predators are still playing good hockey despite their problems. The fans will get to see playoffs this year. They likely won't get to see this franchise stay in their city over the longterm.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Flyers Comeback Season Crumbling

Last season, the Philadelphia Flyers finished in last place. They made some moves to try to improve things. They signed Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell and Daniel Briere and already had some young players in their core ready to make a leap forward including Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and RJ Umberger. The team jumped off to an excellent start this season. It was build largely a big improvement in goal. Martin Biron had a very good start to the season and was an early MVP candidate. When Biron cooled off, Antero Nittymaki picked up the slack for a while. Philadelphia looked good. They were contending for first place in the Atlantic Division and often held onto first.

Things have not been so good lately. The goaltending is starting to fail. The defence hasn't been as strong. The Flyers have lost their last nine games in a row. One loss was a regulation tie, so they have one point to show for the skid. If the season ended right now, the Flyers would miss the playoffs with a tenth place finish in the East Conference. That is still a huge improvement from finishing in last place in the league by eleven points. It is a huge step in the right direction. It is one Flyers fans should be proud of. It is nearly impossible to remake a team that is as bad as the 2006/07 into a playoff team in one year. They came as close as anyone could and with some luck they still might slip into a lower playoff berth.

It will be hard going. They have lost Simon Gagne for the season due to concussions. The Flyers will be tempted to try to make a trade to secure a playoff berth. Rumors have Jeff Carter available. That would likely be a bad move. Carter is a very good young player who has a bright future ahead of him. If the Flyers sell him to attempt to make playoffs today it will be a move the learn to regret.

The Philadelphia Flyers have made a big leap forward from last year's last place finish. Even though a playoff berth no longer looks likely, it is something to be proud of. They are heading in the right direction and it would be a mistake to make a big move at the trade deadline in order to win this year. They are not good enough to win this year, but if they let their young players continue to mature and continue to build those days will likely come.

Friday, February 22, 2008

An AHL Superstar

Many fans do not notice the good hockey played in the AHL. There is a talented mix of NHL prospects and journeymen playing at a high level. Occasionally, a player comes along who is dominant at the AHL level but for whatever reason unable to make the leap to the NHL. These players become superstars in the AHL. The best example of that right now is Jason Krog of the Chicago Wolves.

Jason Krog currently leads the AHL in scoring with 74 points (in second are Martin St Pierre and Cal O'Reilly who are well back with 62 points). Krog has a large lead in the AHL scoring race.

Krog is currently property of the Atlanta Thrashers in the NHL. That is why he plays for their AHL affiliate in Chicago. He has had a well travelled hockey career. He won the Hobey Baker Trophy as the top player in the NCAA while playing with the University of New Hampshire. He was signed by the New York Islanders and had a few shots at the NHL but spent most of his time playing in the AHL. After three years as Islander property, he left as a free agent to Anaheim. In Anaheim he spent most of his time in the NHL, but never scored well enough to get top minutes and didn't provide the defence to be a regular on the checking lines. During the lockout season, he was a star in Austria. He stayed in Europe the next year splitting time in the Swiss and Swedish leagues. Atlanta brought him back to the NHL last year on a two year contract, but he spent most of last season in the AHL. He was lost on waivers to the New York Rangers, but after a little over a month in New York, the Thrashers claimed him back. Krog has always been a good scorer outside the NHL, but in his NHL career of 198 games, he has scored 58 points. In the AHL he is a superstar.

At age 32, Krog likely does not fit in the Atlanta Thrashers longterm plans. They are a team that should be rebuilding and he is too old to be an effective part of that. Likely, when his contract ends this summer, he will have to travel to a new team. There may be an NHL club willing to take another chance on him. He definitely is good enough to be a star for an AHL club or a European team. There are opportunities out there for Jason Krog, but he must travel the globe to find them. His life has been spent in five countries. He has often moved more than once in the same season to continue his career. It has been a tough life. That said, Krog is one of the top few hundred hockey players on earth. He is a borderline NHL talent who is having a super season in the AHL. His reward for that is that he will likely have to move again this summer and continue moving frequently to continue his career.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

If Not Lidstrom Then Who?

Nicklas Lidstrom was having a very good season. I am currently picking him as the leading candidate for the Hart (MVP) and Norris (best defenceman) Trophies. However, in Monday night's game against Colorado (which Detroit won 4-0); Lidstrom suffered a knee injury from an Ian Laperriere hit. Lidstrom is expected to be out for at least three weeks with a strained MCL. That is a sharp blow to the Detroit Red Wings and calls into question Lidstrom's chances of winning those awards.

The question now is if Lidstrom cannot win the Hart Trophy, who will win it? If the season ended now, I would still pick Lidstrom as the winner, but the longer he is out, the less likely that remains true. Most likely, he will be passed by a forward who is having a top season such as Alexander Oveckhin in Washington or Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. I think that Ovechkin is the most likely candidate due to his significant lead in the overall goal scoring race.

As far as the Norris Trophy goes, it is much harder to pick a favorite with Lidstrom out. I think there is a good chance that Lidstrom will remain the frontrunner for this award even with his injury. Probably the next best candidate at this point is teammate Brian Rafalski. However, Rafalski is also injured. His groin injury has put him on the injured list. That leaves the Norris race even more uncertain. Among healthy defencemen, probably Zdeno Chara of Boston is the frontrunner. There are several other top candidates including Dion Phaneuf of Calgary, Andrei Markov of Montreal, Chris Pronger of Anaheim and Sergei Gonchar of Pittsburgh. Should any go on a hot streak, they could take over the Norris lead.

Nicklas Lidstrom's knee injury will open up the races for both the Hart and Norris Trophies. I think Lidstrom is currently the frontrunner for both awards, but as he misses time he could lose that status. He could very possibly hold onto his Norris Trophy lead despite his injury, but likely his Hart Trophy lead will be lost. It will be interesting to see who establishes himself as the frontrunner in both races as Lidstrom is out.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Rob Blake's No Trade Clause

There have been few trades this season, even as the trading deadline approaches. The most significant trade has been Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore going to Ottawa. A lot of the trade deadline rumors have centered on who will and won't waive their no trade clauses.

Fans are often upset by players who won't do absolutely anything to help their teams; including giving up the rights they bargained for in their contracts. One interesting case in point is Rob Blake of the Los Angeles Kings. Los Angeles is in last place in the NHL. Blake is in the last year of his contract. He is a 38 year old future Hall of Famer who could possibly help a team in a playoff run. His trade could help the Los Angeles Kings obtain some assets to improve the team. The problem is Blake has a no trade clause. It has been announced that Blake does not want to waive his no trade clause. This is an understandable position for him. Likely, he will have to uproot his family next year as he is an unrestricted free agent this summer and doing it again for a few months of a stretch run and potential playoff run is a big pain and he would rather not bother. Naturally, some Los Angeles Kings fans are unhappy.

We can compare this to the end of Blake's previous stint with the Los Angeles Kings. In 2001, Blake was also approaching unrestricted free agency and he made it known to the Kings that he wanted to test his value on the open market. He was not willing to negotiate a new deal. The Kings told him that this meant he would be traded by the trade deadline. Blake willingly accepted that. Blake was traded to Colorado with Steven Reinprecht for Adam Deadmarsh, Aaron Miller, Jared Aulin and two first round draft picks (Dave Steckel and Brian Boyle). Los Angeles is still seeing dividends from that trade as it appears Boyle will be a solid NHL player. Blake went on to win the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche. He played in Colorado for four more seasons before returning to Los Angeles as a free agent. Los Angeles fans were upset by Blake's decision to be traded in 2001 and they are upset by his decision to not be traded in 2008.

No matter what Blake does it is wrong in the fan's eyes. His only purpose in life should be to help out the Los Angeles Kings. Any other interest in Rob Blake's life does not matter.

For another look at the ridiculousness at how some media members (and fans) treat no trade clauses look to this Scott Burnside article where he suggests that if Sundin won't accept a trade, the Leafs should intentionally cause problems. They should strip him of his captaincy and refuse to resign him. A move which would tell the world that no matter how good you are for the Leafs (Sundin is their all time top scorer), when the team no longer wants you, they will callously throw you away. Good luck attracting top talent if you have that kind of a reputation.

The no trade clause is an example of how media speculation is fueling some crazy fires. It has fans upset at players for not giving up rights they bargained for in good faith. It has members of the media speculating at how petty teams should voluntarily ruin their chemistry as a result of this. I guess the media wants to write about trades at the trade deadline. When they don't happen they must write vindictive pieces to fill their place and blame anyway who stands in the way of the trade they want.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Dallas Is Hot

We are starting to hit the stretch run in the NHL season. Now is the time to start to get hot. The teams that looked hot in October, November and December have been forgotten. Right now, the hottest team in the NHL is the Dallas Stars. They have won their last two games, nine of their last ten games and twelve of their last fifteen. This run dates back into mid-January.

The Dallas Stars sit atop the Pacific Division, holding off the San Jose Sharks and the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks who have added Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne.

What is most amazing is that this Dallas run has been a team effort. Sergei Zubov, arguably their best player, has been injured throughout it. The Stars have not had any league leading performances during their run. Sure Mike Ribiero has scored, but many players on other teams have scored more. Sure Marty Turco has played well in net, but other goaltenders on other teams have played better.

The Dallas Stars have played well lately. Can they keep this up long enough to last until the playoffs? My guess is that their peak is still a bit too early, but stranger things have happened.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Malkin Playing Best Hockey Of His Career

When Sidney Crosby went down with a high ankle sprain, it looked like Pittsburgh was in for some hard times, but the Penguins have carried on fine without him. They are tied with the New Jersey Devils atop the Atlantic Division. They have done this in part due to some surprisingly great goaltending from Ty Conklin and from Evgeni Malkin blossoming into a superstar.

It was clear that Malkin had the ability to be a top NHL player from early in his Calder Trophy season, but he has made a further jump recently. With Crosby out of the lineup, Malkin has been arguably the best player the NHL for the last few weeks. So far in 2008, he leads the NHL with 36 points (Alexander Ovechkin and Shane Doan are tied for second with 30). This has allowed Malkin to close within one point of Ovechkin's scoring lead (Malkin has 77 points, Ovechkin has 78).

As long as Malkin and Conklin keep playing at this level, when Crosby returns, the Pittsburgh Penguins should be one of the top teams in the NHL.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Another Interesting Rookie

I like to notice rookies who are making interesting achievements, but may not be frontrunners for the Calder Trophy. This season, I think the Calder Trophy frontrunner is Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks, though he is in a tight battle with Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals. However, there are other interesting rookies, for example Daniel Carcillo of the Phoenix Coyotes is leading the NHL in penalty minutes and showing that he has enough scoring ability to be a valuable player to his team. Another rookie of interest is Tobias Enstrom of the Atlanta Thrashers. Enstrom is only 5'10", 175 pounds which is small for a defenceman. His size might have kept him out of the NHL until recently. Only in the last year or two has the NHL begun to let smaller players have a shot to show their value. The most interesting thing about Enstrom is that he leads the NHL in power play icetime. He has played almost 25 more minutes of power play ice time than Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, who is second in total power play ice time. With all of his power play ice time, Enstrom is tied for Atlanta's lead in power play points (he is tied with Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa with 24 power play points).

Playing significant power play time signifies that either Enstrom is seen as a very successful power play producer or that Atlanta doesn't have anybody else who is capable of taking his ice time. I think the second situation is closest to the truth in Enstrom's case. Atlanta's number two defenceman in power play points is Alexei Zhitnik and he has only contributed two points on the power play.

It is very rare for a rookie to get as much power play time as Enstrom has had. It shows the Atlanta coaching staff has a lot of faith in him. However, given his 25th place in the league in power play points, he has not been the best power play producer in the league (especially given his ice time). While this is a good achievement, it makes one wonder if he is truly deserving of leading the league in power play minutes. Nevertheless, Enstrom is developing into a good power play quarterback.

Since it is rare to see a rookie given lots of power play time, especially a league leading amount, Tobias Enstrom is an interesting rookie. He may be a Calder Trophy nominee at the end of the season, but I doubt he will win the award.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Hockey's Best Division

The best division in the NHL is the Central Division. I say this because Central Division teams have more points than any other division. The Central Division has a combined 334 points. This is the same value as the Pacific Division (but in seven less total games). The Atlantic Division has 325 points, the Northwest Division and Northeast Divisions both have 324 points and the Southeast Division has 300 points.

This is a bit of a surprise because I predicted the Central Division to be Detroit and four also rans. It turns out the also rans are not as weak as expected.

Detroit is a good team and is the team most likely to win the Stanley Cup.

The Nashville Predators, despite having weakened themselves by letting Tomas Vokoun, Paul Kariya, Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen depart, remains a team that is in place to make the playoffs.

Columbus is a much improved team. Ken Hitchcock has done a very good job of establishing a good defensive system and Pascal Leclaire is playing well enough to be a darkhorse candidate for the Vezina Trophy in net.

St Louis had a much improved start to the season, although they are starting to slip in the standings. Manny Legace is playing very well in their goals and Paul Kariya and Brad Boyes have helped their offence.

Even Chicago is looking to be improved. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are two rookies who give them a good future. Patrick Sharp has also made a surprisingly big contribution.

In fact, the Central Division is so strong that it distorts the scoring race. If we subtract out inter-division games, Detroit has the top two (and three of the top 10) scorers. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk would lead the NHL scoring race, with Nicklas Lidstrom also appearing in the top 10.

The Central Division has emerged as the best division in hockey this season. This is something many people haven't noticed. The opinion that the Central is Detroit and a bunch of weak also rans still is commonly held, but it isn't true.

Friday, February 15, 2008

These Teams Can't Comeback

Last week, I wrote about how the Vancouver Canucks are undefeated when leading at the end of the second period. The flip side to that accomplishment is teams that cannot win games when they are losing at the end of the second period. There are two teams that have no wins under those circumstances. They are the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Washington Capitals. Both of these teams have had games where they cameback to have regulation ties (losses in overtime or shootouts), but neither have wins. The conventional wisdom is that a low scoring team cannot comeback once they are down, but neither of these teams are the lowest scoring in the NHL. Both of these teams have players who figure prominently in the NHL's top scorers. Tampa has Vincent LeCavalier and Washington has Alexander Ovechkin. It can be argued that both of these players benefit offensively from the large number of games they play in the weak Southeast Division, but it hasn't led to any comeback victories. Their weak teams are unable to prevent enough goals or score often enough to succeed in comeback situations. This is one of the reasons that neither of these teams appears likely to make playoffs (or if they do by winning the Southeast Division - are unlikely to have any playoff success).

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Koules Agrees To Buy Lightning Again

Hollywood movie producer Oren Koules, known for producing the Saw movies, has agreed to buy the Tampa Bay Lightning along with his group OK Hockey. He had agreed to buy the Lightning last August with a different group of partners where he had less control. That sale fell through when Koules turned his back on his partners. Presumably the purchase price in the new deal is around the $206 million that had been negotiated last time.

It is unclear where this leaves the Tampa Bay Lightning in terms of trade deadline deals. Tampa is expected to sell players, since they are not in the race for a playoff berth. Will the potential new ownership have any say in any potential deals?

Koules has shown that he is willing to abandon his partners in order to get a better deal for himself. This does not bode well for his being a trustworthy owner at the NHL level. Of course, this does make him a typical NHL owner. One doesn't get rich enough to buy an NHL team without making a few deals that show a lack of ethics and trustworthiness. I suppose the past failed attempt to buy the Lightning shows Koules to be a typical NHL owner. I just wish that it wasn't the case. I wish the NHL owners were a more trustworthy bunch.

Here is TSN's story on the potential sale.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Scoring In The Southeast Division

In the NHL today, there is an inequality in the talent level in the various divisions. This is partially masked by the unbalanced schedule where teams play a lot of games in their division and since somebody must win those games, even the worst divisions will get wins. Similarly, since somebody must lose those games (or at least suffer a regulation tie), the best divisions will have extra losses. No division is worse than the Southeast Division. The best team in the Southeast Division, the Carolina Hurricanes has 60 points. This would place them ninth in the East Conference. Thus, no team in the Southeast Division would qualify for playoffs were it not for the rule that the division winners get the top three seeds. This guarantees the Southeast Division champion, no matter how bad they are, a playoff berth and third seed in the east.

The extra inter-division games have other effects statistically. Because the Southeast Division is weak, more goals are scored in the inter-Southeast Division games. This is a common phenomenon. Weaker leagues tend to be higher scoring leagues. The AHL is regularly higher scoring than the NHL and the ECHL is regularly higher scoring still. In inter-division games, Southeast Division teams have 292 goals scored, the Northeast is next with 276, Pacific 271, Northwest 265, Atlantic 258 and finally the Central with 251 (note this only includes real goals and not the one granted for winning a shootout). Although that probably is not a perfect way to rank divisions from worst to best, it is plausible. Ranking divisions by total points attainted by their five teams (from worst to best) Southeast 287, Northeast 317, Northwest 319, Atlantic 320, Central 326, Pacific 327. The only change in order is the Pacific Division which moves up from fourth to first (sliding three divisions back one position). If I had to guess why this is, I would blame the Los Angeles Kings. They are the last place team in the NHL and have more goals against than any other team in the league. Hence Pacific Division teams tend to score a lot of goals in games against LA, which increases the overall goal totals, despite the fact the other four teams are doing quite well and hold the division up in the standings.

The fact the Southeast Division is the highest scoring distorts the way we look at the players from this division. When players are ranked in terms of points scored within their division only, the three top scorers in the league all come from the Southeast Division. They are Vincent LeCavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers and Martin St Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning respectively. The fifth highest inter-division scorer is another Southeast Division player Vaclav Prospal of the Tampa Bay Lightning (for the record the fourth place player is Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins). Surprisingly, the NHL's top scorer Alexander Ovechkin is in 18th place (for whatever reason, Washington is the lowest scoring southeast team in inter-division play - maybe its because they never shoot on Olaf Kolzig - their goaltender - who has the worst saves percentage in the league among goalies who qualify for the saves percentage race). Thus, Southeast Division players tend to have higher scoring records than they would if they played in other divisions. This tends to have us overvaluing southeast players.

The overvaluing of southeast offensive players has multiple effects. David Johnson hits on one. He says that southeast players may be overvalued in trades since their offensive totals are inflated. This is likely true and may be a factor in the recent Cory Stillman trade. Stillman has scored 22 of his pre-trade points in his 18 Southeast Division games. He has only scored 25 points in his 37 games against other divisions. Did Ottawa get as good an offensive player as they think they did or were they expecting him to score at the rate he did in Tampa playing regularly against the Southeast Division? Since the entire Southeast Division is doing poorly, look for them to be sellers at the trade deadline and look for teams to overpay for players because of inflated offensive numbers.

This also leads us to overvalue Southeast Division players in the overall scoring race and potentially consider them as better candidates for individual awards than they should be. Here are the top ten scorers in the NHL neglecting inter-divisional games.

Top 10 Scorers in the NHL Neglecting Inter-Division Games
>PlayerTeamGamesGoals AssistsPointsPosition in Overall Race
Henrik ZetterbergDet372729566th
Pavel DatsyukDet421639558th
Alexander OvechkinWas373420541st
Daniel AlfredssonOtt332029493rd
Jason SpezzaOtt351534495th
Jarome IginlaCal362521467th
Evgeni MalkinPit352123444th
Sidney CrosbyPit3015284314th
Mats SundinTor3917244120th
Nicklas LidstromDet423384123rd

This scoring race would be quite a bit different. There are not nearly as many Southeast Division players in it. Alexander Ovechkin remains, but he drops from top scorer in the league to 3rd. Vincent LeCavalier and Martin St Louis drop out of the top ten entirely. Up are Detroit's star players. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk rank first and second and Nicklas Lidstrom comes in tenth. Their scoring is kept down because of the number of games they play in the tough Central Division. Ottawa keeps Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza among the top scorers. Pittsburgh has Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby (who would not be a top ten scorer based on overall points). Calgary has Jarome Iginla. Mats Sundin makes a top ten appearance and he would not if inter-division games were included. Does this mean Sundin is an even better scorer than teams might expect if they trade for him?

Of course, this scoring race without inter-division games is not any final say on how well a player is doing. It makes an attempt to correct for quality of opposition (in a simple but effective way), but throws out a large number of games in the process. I think it does show that Detroit's star players are even better MVP picks than most believe (for the record I pick Nicklas Lidstrom as MVP) and it shows that many Southeast Division players are overrated by their inflated stats from their weak division (although Alexander Ovechkin is still a legitimate candidate).

The difference in quality between the NHL divisions has several subtle effects on how we should interpret statistics. The Southeast Division, being the weakest division, is the highest scoring one and this tends to make us overrate their offensive players. This will likely lead to teams paying too much for these players in trades and possibly undeserving trophy nominees (Vincent LeCavalier and Ilya Kovalchuk are too potential trophy nominees who have stats inflated significantly by their weak inter-division games).

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

First Trade Deadline Deal

The NHL trade deadline is still a couple weeks away on February 26th, but the first trade deadline style deal was made yesterday. In general, it is hard to make a trade in the salary capped NHL, but one window where trades do occur is around the trade deadline. Some teams realize they are out of the race and sell off their soon to be free agents to playoff contenders. Here salary cap considerations are minimized because most of the contracts of the players to be traded have already been paid this season.

In yesterday's trade, the Carolina Hurricanes decided they were not likely to make a run at the Stanley Cup. Even if they win the Southeast Division and thus get third seed in the East Conference (and they are only one point back of Washington in that race), they are unlikely to have a significant playoff run. Thus they traded unrestricted free agents to be Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore to the Ottawa Senators for Patrick Eaves and Joe Corvo.

Stillman has 46 points and was fourth in scoring with the Hurricanes. He will likely provide some offensive depth to the Senators for their playoff run. Commodore is a solid but unspectacular defenceman, who was second among Carolina defencemen with 12 points (which is evidence that no Carolina defencemen have any offensive ability).

Joe Corvo has 27 points and is the second highest scoring Ottawa defenceman. He is signed through the next two seasons. He will be making $2.75 million each year, making him likely overpaid. Corvo is the highest paid player in this deal by about $1 million a year and that is why Ottawa is willing to let him go. They feel they made a mistake on his contract and can try again with a new free agent defenceman this summer. While Corvo can score his defence is often suspect and has kept him from the success one might expect with his offensive numbers.

Patrick Eaves is the potential gem in this deal. He is only 23 years old and will be a restricted free agent this summer. This season, injuries have limited him to 26 games, where he has scored 10 points. He had a 20 goal rookie season only two years ago and could blossom given some icetime in Carolina.

As is usual in these kinds of deals, I think the buying team (Ottawa) paid too much for some short term rentals, which probably won't make the difference between winning and not winning the cup. They certainly didn't address their biggest weakness - goaltending. I doubt either of Martin Gerber or Ray Emery have what it takes to backstop Ottawa to the Stanley Cup. Of course, the Senators made the trade that was available and presumably no top goalie was offered to them.

Carolina will likely be the winner. I would not be surprised if Eaves scores more points with Carolina then the other three players in the deal do with their current teams combined. Ottawa should find themselves with nothing to show for Joe Corvo and Patrick Eaves come July.

As a footnote to the deal, Cory Stillman waived his no trade clause to allow this deal to go through.

The first trade deadline deal occurred yesterday. Ottawa is gambling a piece of their future for the faint hope that the missing pieces they added will make them a Stanley Cup winner. Don't count on it making much of a difference.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Hockey On CNN

Something pretty significant has to happen in the NHL for hockey to get shown on CNN (either the TV channel or the website). A hockey story is up on the CNN website today.

In last nights Florida at Buffalo hockey game, Richard Zednik of the Florida Panthers was accidentally hit in the throat by teammate Olli Jokinen's skate. Zednik bled significantly and probably would have died if not for immediate medical attention. Zednik has had surgery to repair the gash in his throat and should be fine. Buffalo won the game 5-3.

Unfortunately this is the story that mainstream (outside of sports) media notices. If it bleeds it leads. It would be nice if we could have coverage of some of the more positive things going on in the NHL. It would be nice if there was a story about how well Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin or Nicklas Lidstrom are playing. It would be nice if the Stanley Cup being won got significantly more coverage than a player accidentally getting his throat cut, but it doesn't. Hockey isn't on the radar screen in much of the US unless something bad happens. The good news is this time the bad thing was an accident, unlike when Todd Bertuzzi or Marty McSorely made national news.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

No Trade Clauses

It has been hard to make a trade in the NHL this season because the salary cap gives GMs another constraint to work with to make trades. It is believed that the trade deadline will be an exception to that rule when some trades are made but so far nothing significant has happened. One reason for that is that many players who might make hockey sense to trade have no trade clauses in their contracts. Mats Sundin of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Rob Blake of the Los Angeles Kings and Wade Redden of the Ottawa Senators are all examples of players who are much harder to move because of their no trade clauses. In a salary capped world where no team can offer significantly more money to sign a free agent, teams have turned to other benefits such as the no trade clause to attract free agents. Now after a couple years several of these deals have not worked out as hoped and teams would like to trade the player they signed, but the contract they negotiated makes it hard. The player in question can kill any trade possibilities.

Will this make teams think twice about offering no trade clauses in the future? Probably not. Free agent signings are often short term moves where the potential longterm problems that come with the contract are overlooked.

There is a growing sentiment among some hockey fans that a player should agree to give up his no trade clause for the good of the team that no longer wants him. There is no reason a player should do this. He negotiated it fairly, now if it's inconvenient to the team that gave it to him too bad. The player has every right to hold a team to the terms of his contract. If the team doesn't like it too bad, they shouldn't have agreed to it in the first place.

If teams find no trade clauses are problematic and it prevents them from making the moves they want, they should stop offering them. Until then, their hands will remain tied with players that they want to trade who are preventing any deals.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Why The Lack Of American Top Scorers Is Alarming

About a week ago, I wrote about the lack of American top scorers in the NHL. Despite an increase in players who are born in the US, there has been a decrease in the top scorers in the league among these players. Right now, the top scoring American in the NHL is Scott Gomez of the New York Rangers and his 52 points place him 28th in the overall scoring race. It takes 79 players before the 10th American (Peter Mueller of the Phoenix Coyotes) appears.

This is alarming because never before has the percentage of players in the league from a country increased while the number of top scorers from that country decreases. Faux Rumors comments that he does not find this alarming. He believes that the number of top scorers from a given country is cyclical in nature and right now USA is at a low point. This belief requires a lot of faith since the American top scorers have not yet completed one cycle. In the 1990's with John LeClair, Mike Modano, Jeremy Roenick, Kevin Stevens etc., USA produced a reasonable number of top scorers but this has stopped. In order to complete one cycle, it is necessary for there to be another period of American top scorers. However, merely completing one cycle would not prove anything is cyclical in nature (it may be a fluke that a cycle ever occurred - or it might be driven by some other factors). Further, with no attempt to explain a cyclical mechanism, this theory must be taken as conjecture at best.

In order to support his cyclical theory, Faux sites Canada and its top scorers. For the vast majority of NHL history, hockey players came almost exclusively from Canada. Hence, the top scorers were exclusively (or almost exclusively) Canadian. In the 1980's, we saw the first group of players from other countries that were good enough to crack top scoring lists. This group included Peter Stastny and Jari Kurri. Nevertheless, most top scorers remained Canadian players. In the 1990's there started to be a much larger group of non-Canadian players in the NHL top scorers, hence the number of Canadians declined. Nevertheless, there have always been Canadian top scorers. In fact, in every season in NHL history, at least two of the top five scorers in the league have been Canadians. The fine print on that statement is 1997/98 where Wayne Gretzky finished fourth in the scoring race and there was a tie for fifth that included Ron Francis, however since John LeClair had more goals, it is more correct to say LeClair was the fifth highest scorer. Even if we accept this season as an exception, it is still correct to argue that in every year in NHL history the top five scorers plus ties have included at least two Canadians. Therefore, it is hard to argue that the number of Canadians in the top scorers has ever significantly declined and hence it is hard to argue anything cyclical is going on.

You did hear Canadians complaining that they were losing their game and you did hear Canadians bemoaning the lack of Canadian top scorers (at least when compared to the 50's, 60's and 70's when almost all NHL players were Canadians). This was brought on largely due to the Canadian failure to win a medal in the 1998 Nagano Olympics. It was largely an overreaction to a single poor showing in the Olympics.

Faux goes on further to argue that the cyclical nature of Canadians in the top scorers can be better seen if we include a few more top scorers. He notes that in 2002/03 7 of the top 15 scorers in the league were Canadian. In 2003/04 there were only 6 Canadians in the top 15. Last season, it was up to 10 of the top 15. So far this year, 9 of the top 15 are Canadian. Although there might be a bit of truth to this drop in Canadian top scorers, it is not a big trend. I think you could easily argue that in any given season (since the mid 90's) there are a constant 8 +/- 2 Canadians in the top fifteen scorers. The difference from year to year is largely a random fluctuation. At any rate, this decline does not correspond directly with the years when Canadians were worried about the lack of top scorers. By 2002, they had won Olympic gold in Salt Lake City and all was thought to be well with Canadian hockey. It is true that some years on the low side of the 8 +/- 2 of the 15 top scorers being Canadian occurred in the late 90's, but it seems something that could just as easily be explained as random changes which are being forced to fit a model.

The fact that USA is producing more NHL hockey players than ever before is a good thing. The fact they are not producing the stars is a bad thing. I think it shows something has been wrong with the American hockey system. For most of recent history, American players who came to the NHL had been seasoned in the NCAA. The NCAA has become a far more American league in recent times. In the past, future NHL stars from Canada like Rob Blake, Joe Nieuwendyk, Adam Oates, Paul Kariya and Rod Brind'Amour all played in the NCAA. This is no longer the case. The NCAA has largely shut out Canadians. In doing so, they have reduced the number of top players in the league and have reduced the growth opportunities for the potential NHL star in their league.

In order to try to respond to this, the USHL was created. This is a US Junior hockey league, which may not be on par with any of the Canadian Hockey League junior leagues but it is growing and an increasing number of NHL draftees come from this league. I think it would be an interesting test to see a USHL champion team play a CHL champion team. I suspect the CHL team would win, but it would give us a look at how big the difference between the leagues are or are not.

There is also the US National Team Development Program which has been created and gives American players who are younger than draft age a place to play against high competition. It has not been around long enough to have produced NHL stars yet, but some potential stars in the NHL today including Patrick Kane and Peter Mueller are graduates.

It is alarming that USA, while producing more NHL players, is producing less stars. This is unprecedented in NHL history. Never before has a nation produced more players while simultaneously producing less top tier players. I think it showed a problem in the US development system which has been addressed. It is too early to see if the changes made will solve the problem, but they are likely a step in the right direction.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Can't Comeback Against This Team

One measure of a good team is a team that can take a lead and hang onto it. This team must be able to shut down their opponent's offence once they have a lead. So far this season, there is only one team that has managed to win every game where they held the lead at the end of the second period. This team is the Vancouver Canucks. They are 20-0 in games where they held the lead at the end of the second period. Perhaps it's not very surprising that a team with a top goalie (Roberto Luongo) and a solid defence (Mattias Ohlund, Sami Salo, Willie Mitchell, Aaron Miller - at least when it's healthy - which has not been the case recently) is able to hold the lead once they secure it. The problem in Vancouver's case is they have not managed to hold enough leads in the later part of games in order to hang onto them. In fact, if the season ended right now, the Vancouver Canucks would finish ninth in the West Conference and thus miss the playoffs. However, if they could add another big scorer or two without sacrificing defence they could be very dangerous come playoff time.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Conklin In Pittsburgh

Ty Conklin's play since he has been called up by the Pittsburgh Penguins has been very good and is worth a post. He has now played enough games to qualify for the saves percentage race and is leading with a .932 saves percentage. His 2.17 goals against average and 12-3-3 record are also very good.

I wrote earlier that Pittsburgh would be Stanley Cup contenders if they acquired a top goalie. I stand by that statement, because it is quite reasonable to be skeptical of Conklin. He has not been able to play at this high a level before. But it is not impossible that he carries on this level of play throughout the stretch drive and the playoffs and provides Pittsburgh with top level goaltending.

Conklin first played in the NHL in the 2001/02 season with the Edmonton Oilers. He only played four games that season and spent most of his time in the AHL. His first prolonged exposure to the NHL was in 2003/04 where he played 38 games. After the lockout, the Oilers used him (and other goalies) in 2005/06. Conklin played 18 more games plus one memorable playoff game when he came into the goal after Dwayne Roloson was injured and let in a very bad losing goal. Conklin had never been anything more than a passable option as a goalie and with the Oilers crowded situation in goal after acquiring Roloson and the memory of the bad goal, it was clear his days in Edmonton were over. Columbus signed his as a free agent that summer. His stay in Columbus was not memorable. Conklin appeared in 11 games, mostly in relief and was banished to the minors before being traded to Buffalo to end the season. In Buffalo, Conklin appeared in five more games, mostly uneventful relief work. Pittsburgh signed him this past summer and he challenged for the backup goalie job in training camp which he lost to Dany Sabourin. It looked like Ty Conklin had played himself out of the NHL. Then he got another chance. When starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury got hurt, the Penguins called Conklin up. Conklin promptly won his first nine starts and became a hero for the Penguins. If there are signs that his fairy tale start is over, they would be that he has only won three of his last nine starts since the winning streak ended. Three of his losses have been regulation ties, so his 3-6 record goes in the books as a 3-3-3 record which looks more respectable. Its hardly fair to blame Conklin for all of Pittsburgh's losses, any more than it is fair to give him sole credit during the winning streak, but given Conklin's history, one would expect most likely the winning streak was a fluke.

Ty Conklin has played very well so far this season. He has no shot at the Vezina Trophy or any other post-season awards due to an abbreviated season (he missed too much of it in the minors before he was called up). Is this the real Ty Conklin? Is he really a top goalie? Most likely the answer is no, but stranger things have happened. Ty Conklin becoming a top goalie is no more surprising than Tim Thomas becoming one and I think Thomas is the Vezina frontrunner right now.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Oilers Sold

The Edmonton Investors Group has announced they are selling the Edmonton Oilers to Daryl Katz for $200 million. The entire investors group is unanimous in their agreement to sell. The investors group bought the Oilers in 1998, preventing their move from the city. Since then, the Canadian dollar has significantly risen, the population of Edmonton has risen and the viability of new American markets has been put into question by the lockout and the lack of NHL games on major network and cable channels. This has led to a significant resurgence in the Oilers profitability.

Daryl Katz owns the Rexall chain of pharmacies that own the naming rights for Edmonton's stadium (Rexall Place). He could be an improvement over the large group of investors who previously own the team because he will be able to act quickly when necessary and won't have to build consensus among many owners with differing interests and opinions.

While, in general, it is hard to buy and sell NHL teams, this deal is looked at as a likely one to pass. Katz is a relatively known quantity who clearly has a high net worth (claimed to be as high as $2.37 billion). He has been a suitor for the Oilers for a while, having made several offers of increasing dollar amounts over the past ten months or so. He is not a partnership, so there is no danger of his partnership falling apart (as happened in Tampa Bay).

Katz might allow the Oilers a chance to rebuild the franchise. He will have to find a good hockey man to lead the team and get out of his way. I don't think Kevin Lowe is that man, though he has a contract through 2011). Katz may have to fire him and eat the remaining portion of his contract to get a better hockey man in place.

Here is TSN's story on the pending sale.

NOTE: Katz has announced that he is willing to put up $100 million towards the construction of a new arena in Edmonton. This is only part of the total costs, with local taxpayers expected to pay the rest of the bill. This is something Andy Grabia at Battle of Alberta has been campaigning against.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

NHLPA Beginning To Flex Its Muscle

After the lockout, the NHLPA was essentially a non-entity. It had been beaten by the NHL and forced to accept the NHL's CBA. Ted Saskin, the NHLPA boss, spent most of his effort consolidating his power instead of leading the player' causes. The NHLPA was doing ridiculous things like trying to reduce the salary cap. Some people were asking the fundamental question why does the NHLPA exist.

Things have changed. Ted Saskin lost his job as NHLPA head. He was replaced by Paul Kelly. The immediate question was where do they go from here?

The answer seems to be that the NHLPA is accepting the partnership the NHL has claimed they want with the players and trying to get themselves involved with issues of running the league.

Kelly is on record that if the NHL were to expand, Canadian cities should be seriously considered. First, this is a popular opinion among Canadian fans that feel the league is abandoning them (Winnipeg and Quebec moved to American cities) and second this is probably the way to maximize revenues (and hence increase the amount of money the players get). A second team in Southern Ontario would likely make more money than a team in Kansas City or Las Vegas. Strangely, some of the small market NHL owners would rather see expansion into other markets that will have lower revenues. The salary cap and floor are tied to the average total NHL revenue per team. Adding a team that performs below the current average would serve to reduce the salaries they have to pay to their teams, while putting expansion fees directly into their pockets.

Kelly is also upset about the NHL's plans to start next season in Europe that were put through without NHLPA approval. Is that how a partnership is supposed to work? The NHL plans to play a pre-season game next year between the New York Rangers and Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Russian Elite League for something called the Victoria Cup. This game is to be played in Switzerland. The NHL also plans to have four regular season games in Europe. In Stockholm, Sweden, the Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins would play against each other twice. In Prague, Czech Republic, the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning would play each other twice. This is an expansion on the idea this season when the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings played each other twice to open the regular season in London, England. This shortened summer and extra travel is considered one of the reasons Anaheim got off to such a slow start this season. Many players feel the season is long and hard enough without having to travel to Europe for games. The way the NHL passes these ideas without player consultation is seen as a concern for the NHLPA.

Finally, since player salaries are directly tied to NHL revenues, the NHLPA wants to check into NHL revenues. The NHLPA has hired Bob Lindquist, who is arguably Canada's most successful forensic accountant, to look into the NHL books. In order to have a financial partnership with the NHL, the NHLPA must understand the financial details of the situation.

I think Paul Kelly is doing a good job in asserting the NHLPA as a meaningful force in the business of hockey (and hence justifying its existence). This may become one of the more positive chapters in the history of the NHLPA.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Best Forward This Season

When my pick for MVP in the NHL is not a forward (I pick Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings), I like to pick the best forward in the NHL so far this season. I think the best forward this season so far is Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. Ovechkin is the top goal (43 goals) and point (70 points) scorer in the NHL. He is clearly the most valuable member of his Washington Capital team.

It seems that a large portion of the NHL mainstream is ready to crown Ovechkin as MVP if the season ended right now. It is a continuation of the story that the NHL wants to be true that the league is being rebuilt after the lockout on the shoulders of the two young stars Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins. They both came into the league together in 2005 and both became stars immediately. Crosby won MVP last year but is out for 6-8 weeks with a high ankle sprain. That removes Crosby from this year's MVP race (which he didn't look likely to win even when he was healthy). Now Ovechkin has taken this opportunity and will quite possibly be the scoring leader and MVP.

The problem with this story is that Nicklas Lidstrom has been far move valuable this year. Lidstrom leads the defencemen in the league in scoring with 51 points. He is also arguably the best defenceman in his own zone as well. He leads the NHL in +/- with a +46 rating. Lidstrom should be the clear choice for MVP, but he is not among the overall NHL scoring leaders. As a result, the Ovechkin/ Crosby myth can be maintained if Ovechkin keeps scoring and Ovechkin can win the MVP even though Lidstrom was more deserving. Alexander Ovechkin is the best forward in the league so far this season, but he is not the league's MVP.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Lack Of American Top Scorers

When a study of NHL players by nationality is done one of the main findings is that the number of players in the league from USA is increasing, but this does not translate to an increasing number of American players at the top level. In fact, there are less All Star level American players than would be expected by their percentage of players in the league.

One way to look at this is to notice the lack of top scorers from USA. A look at the highest scorers in the NHL this season shows Russians (Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk), Canadians (Jarome Iginla, Vincent LeCavalier), Swedes (Daniel Alfredsson, Henrik Zetterberg), but no Americans at the top of the scoring list. Here are the top ten American born scorers in the NHL with their positions in the overall scoring race:

Top 10 American Born Scorers in the NHL
>PlayerTeamGamesGoals AssistsPointsPosition in Overall Race
Scott GomezNYR5411395026th
Zach PariseNJD5119264545th
Patrick KaneChi5212334549th
Brian RafalskiDet5410354551st
Dustin BrownLAK5224174158th
Matt CullenCar449303968th
Brian RolstonMin5219193870th
Keith TkachukStL5116223871st
Mike ModanoDal5615223775th
Chris DruryNYR5415213680th

There are ten American players in the top 80 scorers in the league. That is 12.5% of the list. So far this season 180 American born players have played one or more NHL games, in a league where 861 people have played one or more NHL games. That means 20.9% of players in the NHL are American born. The top scorers are underrepresented. The fact that no American appears on the list before Scott Gomez of the New York Rangers and he is 26th also shows a significant underrepresentation of Americans at the top of the scoring race.

Why is this? Why are the Americans who are increasingly entering the NHL not its biggest stars? Is this a fluke? Is this something that will fix itself in time when young players like Patrick Kane move up the scoring ranks? Does it show something more significant?

The best American athletes tend to get into other sports (football, baseball, basketball) and not hockey. Did the NHL lose a potential superstar to the other sports? In order to sell the NHL to Americans it is helpful to showcase American stars, except for the large part these don't exist. America produces lots of role players but not as many stars as would be expected.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

My Vezina Pick

Earlier this season, I had been picking Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins as the NHL's best goalie. His saves percentage was leading the league by a significant margin. As time passed, Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks closed the gap and since Luongo had more games played, I began to pick Luongo as the best goalie in the NHL.

Since Luongo was many people's pre-season Vezina prediction it felt like this is the normal situation in the NHL. A more unheralded goalie had led early on, but a more known candidate was now in the lead. This often happens and is sometimes used as a marker for the point when enough games have been played in the season to have meaningful results. If the leaders are the players one would expect, we have reached a meaningful enough number of games in the season.

However, Tim Thomas has now re-affirmed his saves percentage lead with a .931 saves percentage. Luongo has begun to drop off a bit. He currently has a .924 saves percentage. Thus, I am re-selecting Tim Thomas as the NHL's best goalie so far this season. Where would Boston be if Thomas had not been in their goal? They certainly would not look like a team that is likely to make playoffs (Boston currently sits seventh in the East Conference).

Friday, February 01, 2008

My Masterton Pick

The Bill Masterton Trophy is given each year to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. In practice this means a player who overcomes a significant hardship to play in the NHL and make an impact. My selection for this award is the same player I supported last year Owen Nolan. Nolan is playing with the Calgary Flames this year and is a solid grinder on the team that provides them with some depth. Nolan has had an injury plagued career. Specifically, he suffered a knee injury in 2004 which kept him out of all hockey games until the 2006/07 season when he made a comeback with the Phoenix Coyotes. He was successful enough in his comeback year to earn another one year contract, this time in Calgary. He has carried on with his NHL career despite injury that would have driven most players to retirement and despite having to relocate annually to play out one year contracts in new cities each season. I think he is the most worthy choice.

I also think that he likely will not win the award. The recent history of the award (for example Phil Kessel's win last season) shows that this award tends to be given to players who overcome illness to continue their career instead of significant injury. This is true even when the illness does not keep the player on the sidelines as long as Nolan was for his knee injury.

I think the two candidates who may be more likely, but less deserving, to win the Masterton are Fernando Pisani of the Edmonton Oilers and Jason Blake of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Pisani had ulcerative colitis that kept him on the sidelines at the beginning of the season and had his hockey career in jeopardy. As serious as that is, it kept him out of the NHL for only the first two months of this season. It does not compare to an injury that kept Nolan out of hockey for two years. Jason Blake has cancer. It is a chronic condition (as opposed to one that keeps him out of the NHL). It is clearly serious, but it has not forced him to miss any protracted period of games this season.

I think Owen Nolan is the best choice for the Masterton Trophy. Most players would have retired when his knee was not ready to go in 2005/06 after spending an entire year (the lockout year) rehabbing it. Most players would not have been willing to come back to the NHL and play out a series of one year contracts until his career is completed. The perseverance and dedication to hockey required to have kept Owen Nolan playing in the NHL despite his injuries is the kind of thing that should be rewarded with the Masterton Trophy.

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