Saturday, May 31, 2008

NHL Ticket Revenue

The Toronto Star obtained NHL documents that were not intended for public disclosure that show the NHL ticket revenue situation. Here is a summary of the information. The Canadian markets are the largest ticket revenue producers. Along with the New York Rangers, the six Canadian markets are the seven biggest producers of ticket revenue. They all show large increases in revenue due in a large part to the increasing value of the Canadian dollar against the American one. The problem is that many American markets have flat or declining ticket sales and cannot keep pace with the Canadian markets. Even with "cost certainty" and a salary cap linked to leaguewide revenues many American teams lose money. The problem gets worse as the salary cap and floor go up but their revenue doesn't. It all goes back to one of the first things I wrote the root of the NHL's problems are that too many teams are in weak hockey markets that cannot support them. The solution is to get rid of those markets. The solution is not a lockout or a salary cap or a shootout. It doesn't solve the problem.

A big problem is that a lot of the NHL's supposed growth is tied up in foreign currency markets. The Canadian dollar has risen compared to the American dollar. That leads to growth in Canadian revenues (when expressed in US dollars). This is something the NHL has no control over and its occurence does not imply health of the league. It could just as easily be that the Canadian dollar is dropping relative to the American one and things would look bad (when in reality the only change is in the foreign currency market).

The NHL happily announces its supposed successes, such as its attendance record this season, but the overall picture is not so rosy. The American economy is likely in recession and very likely, the Canadian one will follow. NHL revenue has had trouble keeping up with inflation. There are a lot of indicators that things will not be so good in the immediate future.

When markets like Phoenix, Florida and the New York Islanders cannot make half the ticket revenue of the supposedly small market Edmonton Oilers, something is wrong. Those markets are barely surviving. I would not be surprised to see movement of some of those (or other) teams in the not too distant future. The number of barely surviving, money losing markets in the NHL is a serious problem. That is the root problem that drives almost everything the NHL does to "fix" the game. Many of these "fixes" have not gone well for the fan.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Hall Of Fame Media Inductees

Yesterday, the Hockey Hall of Fame announced their media inductees for 2008. They inducted sportscaster Mike "Doc" Emrick and journalist Neil Stevens.

Mike Emrick began doing play-by-play in 1973 for the Port Huron Flags of the IHL. In 1977, he began commentating for the Maine Mariners of the AHL. In 1980, he became calling games for the Philadelphia Flyers. In 1982, he became the first ever voice of the New Jersey Devils. He returned to the Flyers organization in 1988 and went back to the Devils in 1993, where he remains to this day. Along the way, he has also done some New York Rangers games as a replacement for Marv Albert. He also done national US service as a play-by-pay announcer for ESPN from 1986-88, ABC in 1993/94, Fox from 1995-99, ABC from 2000-2004 and Versus/OLN and NBC from 2005 to present (basically he has been a play-by-play guy for whichever station holds US television rights). He has also done commentation for sports other than hockey including the Summer Olympics, NFL and NCAA Basketball Tournament. Emrick is one of the most recognizable hockey commentators in the US today.

Neil Stevens is one of the most read, yet unknown, hockey journalists in Canada. He has worked for the Canadian Press wire service for more than 30 years. He frequently writes the game stories that appear in Canadian papers, yet they rarely contain his name in the byline.

Both are deserving Hall of Fame inductees. The remaining 2008 inductees will be selected after the playoffs end. Here are the players I would induct this year if I was on the Hall of Fame committee.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

We May Have A Series

After two games where the Detroit Red Wings dominated the Pittsburgh Penguins and did not allow the Penguins any goals (and few legitimate scoring opportunities), the Penguins have come back and won game three of the Stanley Cup finals 3-2. This win may put Pittsburgh back into the series (it is also possible that the Penguins roll over and die in games four and five).

It was a Pittsburgh win, but not a dominant Pittsburgh win. Pittsburgh was outshot 34-23 in their win. This was the kind of game that Chris Osgood would have won for the Red Wings if he truly was Conn Smythe calibre. However, Osgood does not seem capable of stealing a game for the Red Wings. Sure Osgood has played well (even with the loss he has a playoff leading 1.48 GAA and a .935 saves percentage, but given how few quality scoring chances Detroit allows I think there are at least twenty other goalies in the NHL who could be in the same position as Osgood if they were the Red Wing goaltender.

Sidney Crosby had a good game scoring twice and moving back into a tie for the playoff scoring lead (with Henrik Zetterberg). Nevertheless, the seed has been planted for some people to determine that Crosby is a big game choker. Largely, this is an unfair idea that is based on the NHL's promotion of the finals. Crosby was pushed above all other players in this series in the pre-finals hype and given that Detroit is a superior team to his Penguins, he was likely to lose. That doesn't matter to many fans. Crosby was hyped to be the star of the finals and so far, he hasn't been. Crosby can join such historic playoff chokers as Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman (all players who got off that list after they won their first Stanley Cup). If Crosby is a bug game choker, then Evgeni Malkin is definitely a big game choker. Malkin has not been a dominant player since early in the Philadelphia series and is likely playing hurt. Nevertheless, that will be forgotten. His final series stats of three games played, zero points and -3 will speak for themselves.

It is easy for the myth of a playoff choker to be started. Most fans do not pay close enough attention to the circumstances when a famous player does not win the cup and does not singlehandedly turn the fortunes of his team. It is especially true in future seasons. Few fans will remember the circumstances of the 2008 finals, but will see the statistics produced and in a year or two when Malkin or Crosby seem to be on a playoff run, the myth of their choke will be brought up and will be taken by many fans as fact.

Pittsburgh's win may put them back into the series. It may also be the last hurrah for the Penguins as Detroit marches onto their 2008 Stanley cup victory.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Rangers Attempt To Stiff Players

The New York Rangers have attempted to cheat some of their (former) players out of the money that they bargained for in contract negotiations. Both Bobby Holik and Jed Ortmeyer had contracts with signing bonuses that were pro-rated over the course of their contracts. The New York Rangers argued that they did not have to pay these bonuses for the 2004/05 lockout season, because the players did not play. An arbitrator ruled (correctly in my opinion) that if these are signing bonuses, they are paid to players for having signed their contracts and not for actually playing. The Rangers are on the hook for $3.5 million to Holik and an undisclosed sum of money to Ortmeyer for the portion of their signing bonuses that were not paid during the lockout. This is an example of a failed attempt of the NHL to stiff players for monies that they are owed. This is an example of what the NHLPA needs to be fighting to prevent.

Here is TSN's story on the ruling.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Osgood's Conn Smythe Case

The biggest story of the Stanley Cup finals so far is that the Pittsburgh Penguins have yet to score any goals. They played two games and lost by scores of 4-0 and 3-0. Given their high powered offensive stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marian Hossa this is a surprising outcome. I think the Detroit Red Wings team defence has played two outstanding games (and to a lesser degree an outstanding playoff - having allowed a playoff leading 1.72 goals per game). The story of the two games so far has been that Pittsburgh has had few scoring chances. They were limited to 22 shots in game two and 19 shots in game one. Detroit's goaltending has been solid, but it hasn't stolen the show. In fact, I am hard pressed to name any game where Chris Osgood stole a win for the Red Wings.

Nevertheless, there is a movement to name Chris Osgood the playoff MVP. Here is a James Mirtle post making that case. Osgood has some very good numbers in the playoffs. His 1.38 GAA and .939 saves percentage both lead the league. But those numbers both look inflated by the presence of a really good defence in front of him. You cannot give the Conn Smythe Trophy to the entire Detroit defence, so you give it to Osgood on behalf of the defence. The problem is that Osgood may have played well, but he hasn't been the game stealer at any point. That is usually the mark of Conn Smythe worthy goaltending.

I would give the Conn Smythe to Henrik Zetterberg who leads the playoffs in goals, points and +/- (with 12, 23 and +16 respectively). He clearly has been a dominant member of the Red Wings both offensively and defensively. He is clearly a driver of the Red Wings success and it is not clear how much Osgood is driving the success and how much he is a passenger along for the ride.

I said in this post that it would take an unlikely defensive final series for a goalie like Osgood to be considered for the Conn Smythe. Pittsburgh not scoring at all is an unlikely result. Nevertheless, I continue to pick Zetterberg as the playoff MVP.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Cup Playoffs

The Memorial Cup has completed. My preview is here and my summary of the round robin is here. Here are the playoff results:

Semi-Final Kitchener 9 Belleville 0 This was the most one-sided game in the tournament. Kitchener dominated. Justin Azevedo (undrafted) got a hat trick and two assists. Matt Halischuk (New Jersey draft pick) and Nick Spaling (Nashville draft pick) both added five points each. Josh Unice (Chicago draft pick) got the shutout. Belleville goalie Mike Murphy (undrafted) was victimized for nine goals.

Final Spokane 4 Kitchener 1 The Spokane Chiefs went undefeated in the tournament winning the Memorial Cup. Brandon Mashinter (undrafted) scored first for Kitchener. Spokane answered back with three goals and one more into an empty net. Judd Blackwater (undrafted), Drayson Bowman (Carolina draft pick), Trevor Glass (undrafted) and Jared Cowen (eligible for the 2009 NHL draft) scored for Spokane. Dustin Tokarski (eligible for the 2008 NHL draft) was outstanding stopping 53 of 65 Kitchener shots.

Tokarski, Azevedo, Bowman, Ben Shutron of Kitchener(Chicago draft pick), Mitch Wahl of Spokane (eligible for 2008 draft) and Justin Falk of Spokane (Minnesota draft pick) were named to the tournament All Star Team. Dustin Tokarski was named the tournament MVP.

During Spokane's celebration, the top of the Memorial Cup separated from the base, leaving the cup in two pieces. This is not the original Memorial Cup, which is kept in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but rather a replica.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

AHL Semi-Finals

The AHL semi-finals have completed. Here is a look back at the second round and the first round.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton defeats Portland 4 games to 3 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is Pittsburgh's AHL affiliate and Portland is Anaheim's. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was led by Tim Brent and defenceman Alex Goligoski. John Curry has provided solid goaltending. Portland has been led by Bobby Ryan and Andrew Ebbett with Jean-Sebastien Aubin and Mike McKenna sharing goaltending duties.

Chicago defeats Toronto 4 games to 1 Chicago is Atlanta's farm club and the Toronto Marlies are the Maple Leafs farm team. Chicago has been led by playoff top scorer Jason Krog and Darren Haydar. Ondrej Pavelec has played well in their goal sporting a .928 saves percentage. Toronto's offence has come from David Ling and Kris Newbury with Scott Clemmensen and Justin Pogge sharing their goaltending duties.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Chicago will meet in the AHL Calder Cup finals which begin on Thursday.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Is The 2008 Stanley Cup Final A Dream Final?

It has been written several times (for example by Pierre LeBrun) that the 2008 Stanley Cup final between the Detroit Red Wings meeting the Pittsburgh Penguins is a dream series for the NHL. How true is that statement and how much is propaganda put out by the NHL's marketing arm?

From a marketing standpoint, this is definitely not a dream series. Detroit is the eleventh biggest media market in the US and Pittsburgh is the 22nd. A dream series would involve the biggest markets. It would be New York vs. Los Angeles (or at the very least contain one of those two teams).

The argument then must be that this is a hockey dream series. In my mind, a hockey dream series is the defending Stanley Cup champion powerhouse against a strong young upstart who will win cups of their own. The best example of this is the New York Islanders against the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980's. They played in the finals twice with the Islanders winning the 1983 version of this series and the Oilers gaining revenge in the 1984 one. In a parity filled NHL we are unlikely to see teams as good as those and unlikely for them to stay together long enough to be dynasties. Anyway, that dream scenario is not the case this year. Afterall, neither of Detroit nor Pittsburgh are the defending Stanley Cup champions.

What we have in the 2008 Stanley Cup finals is a very talented President's Trophy winning Detroit team playing against the Pittsburgh team that is marketed as Sidney Crosby: the best player in hockey's team. It is not clear that Crosby truly is the best player in hockey. He wasn't this season (although an injury is part of the reason for it). Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals will likely win the Hart Trophy. This is a trophy which Crosby won last year but was not nominated for this season. I argue that the best player in the NHL this year has been Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit. He will be playing in the Stanley Cup finals but is receiving very little press coverage before they begin. In fact, it is not entirely clear to me that Crosby will be seen as the best player on his team in a couple years. Evgeni Malkin is a very good player and could surpass him for that position. Sidney Crosby is definitely a very good player, but he likely will not be a participant in the arguments about the best player of all time. He is lacking in goal scoring ability. So far, his career best is 39 goals (which is certainly a good number) but it is not a spectacular result. It is entirely possible Crosby will play his entire career without ever having a fifty goal season. It is hard to argue that the best player of al time is a centre who never scored fifty goals in a year.

Without question, there are good players in this year's finals. That fits the NHL's desire to market individual players instead of the team. From a point of view of seeing two great teams play in the finals this year, my dream series would have been Detroit against the defending champions Anaheim Ducks (since they are both West teams this would be impossible). Pittsburgh may have some outstanding frontline talent but they lack depth. Only six players on their roster got more than 30 points this year. Hockey is a team game. It should be marketed by the NHL as such. It is not a game where one player can win by himself most nights (as long as this player is not a goalie). Even the best player in the NHL is on the bench more than half the game. He cannot dominate any game from the bench.

From the standpoint of marketing hockey by marketing individual players, this might be the best Stanley Cup final series the NHL could imagine this year. It maximizes the number of big name players in the series. That is not my definition of a dream series. A dream series is two great teams playing against one another. Detroit is a pretty good team and Pittsburgh is almost on their level, but neither are truly elite teams. From the quality of hockey we will likely see, I imagine this year's finals will be about as good as last year's one. Afterall, the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators were also two pretty good teams.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Memorial Cup Round Robin

The round robin portion of the Memorial Cup is over. Here are the results:

1. Spokane Chiefs 3-0 Spokane won all three of their games, but none were dominant wins. They have been led by Drayson Bowman (Carolina Hurricane draft pick) who leads the tournament in scoring with seven points and 2008 draft eligible Mitch Wahl. Dustin Tokarski, who is also eligible for the 2008 draft, has been very good in their goal.

2. Belleville Bulls 2-1 Belleville sits in second place with a 2-1 record. Shawn Matthias (Florida Panther draft pick) and Cory Tanaka, who is undrafted, have been their offensive leaders. Undrafted Mike Murphy has played well in goal.

3. Kitchener Rangers 1-2 The host Kitchener team is third. Undrafted Justin Azevedo is their top scorer. Mikkel Boedker, who is 2008 draft eligible, has provided strong defence. Likely he will be the highest drafted Danish born player ever in this year's draft. Their weak point has been in goal where Josh Unice (Chicago Blackhawk draftee) has an .872 saves percentage. This team would really get a boost if their number one goalie Steve Mason (Columbus blue Jacket draftee) returns from injury, but that is starting to look unlikely.

4. Gatineau Olympiques 0-3 Gatineau has been outclassed by their opponents. Michael Stinziani, who is undrafted, leads them in scoring. Also undrafted Darryl Smith has also played well. Ryan Mior, also undrafted, has been solid, but unspectacular in goal.

Tonight Kitchener and Bellville play in the semi-final of the tournament with the winner moving on to face Spokane in the final on Sunday.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Conn Smythe Race

Since an early point in the playoffs, I have been picking Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins as the playoff MVP. However, he slowed down at the end of the Philadelphia series. He only had two points in the final four games of that series. That leaves a five-way race for the playoff top scorer including Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Marian Hossa, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk all within two points of one another. I think Zetterberg is the current playoff MVP. His 21 points is tied for the playoff lead and he sports an impressive +15 +/- rating to go with it. It would take an unlikely defensive final series for a defender such as Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Gonchar or Niklas Kronvall or a goalie in Chris Osgood or Marc-Andre Fleury to win the Conn Smythe given the offensive performances we have seen so far.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Stanley Cup Finals Prediction

So far in the playoffs, I have a 9-5 record in my predictions. My two correct predictions in the semi-finals have clinched the fact that I will have an above .500 record in my 2008 playoff predictions. Here are my second round predictions and here are my first round predictions.

The finals will be the Detroit Red Wings against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Here is my prediction:

Detroit Red Wings defeat Pittsburgh Penguins. Detroit has been the class of the NHL this year. They won the President's Trophy and have the best team in the league. Pittsburgh is a good team also, but they are likely a few years away from being a great team, if they can stay together long enough. When Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin hit their respective primes watch out for them. This is especially true if they can get an elite goalie by then. Detroit has more depth of talent and better defence than Pittsburgh and those should be the main differences in the series.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Detroit Red Wings Make The Stanley Cup Finals

With their 4-1 victory over the Dallas Stars last night, the Detroit Red Wings are going to the Stanley Cup finals. They won their semi-final series 4 games to 2. They will face the Pittsburgh Penguins. Detroit finished first in the regular season and has been the favorite much of the year. At all star break I wrote can the Detroit Red Wings win the Stanley Cup?. There I identified three key questions the team would need to answer to win the cup.

First, question was goaltending. Dominik Hasek was the supposed starter and had an up and down year due to injuries. Would he be ready to carry Detroit deep into the playoffs? The answer to that question is no. However, Detroit has some depth at goal. Chris Osgood has won a Stanley Cup before and appeared in the All Star Game. Detroit changed goalies early in the playoffs and Osgood has looked good ever since. Osgood likely cannot provide elite level goaltending in the NHL, but neither can Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh. This will be a Stanley Cup final without any of the top goalies in the NHL.

The second question was their key forwards. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg had never had successful playoff runs where they led their team deep into the playoffs. Clearly, they have shown they can do this. Zetterberg is tied for the playoff points lead and Datsyuk is tied for third.

The third and final question was coaching. Mike Babcock does not have the track record of the best coaches in the game (though he was nominated for the coach of the year). Would he be outcoached in the playoffs? So far, Barry Trotz, Joel Quenneville and Dave Tippett have not been able to outcoach him.

How good is this Detroit team anyway? How do they stand up against the historically elite teams? According to my set of necessary but not sufficient conditions to be an elite team Detroit comes close, but fails.

To be an elite team, a team must have several players who are future Hall of Famers or on Hall of Fame tracks and they must have a top level goalie.

Detroit has three players who I consider future Hall of Famers regardless of what happens to them for the rest of their careers. They are Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios and Dominik Hasek.

Lidstrom is an elite defenceman. I argue that he is the NHL MVP this season despite the fact he was not nominated. He is the likely Norris Trophy winner this season. It would be his sixth of his career. Lidstrom is a great player.

Chris Chelios is still a solid defenceman, but his days of NHL dominance are likely over. He is 46 years old and is still a solid defenceman, but he is no longer the star player that made him a future Hall of Famer.

Dominik Hasek will likely make less of an impact in this series than Chelios. If things go well for Detroit, Hasek won't play at all. His days of being a star player are also gone.

Detroit only has one future Hall of Fame player who is likely to make an impact in this series in Lidstrom, despite having two others on their roster, however they have a few more players on Hall of Fame tracks or with the potential to be on them.

Henrik Zetterberg is 27 years old and has scored at well above point per game rate for the last three years. He is the top scorer in the playoffs so far and a Selke Trophy nominee. He appears to be entering the prime of his career and this prime might be good enough to earn him some significant individual awards. If it does, that would likely make him a Hall of Famer. If it doesn't he might manage career totals that would get him there. He has over 300 points in five NHL seasons. It would take a long injury free career to get enough career points, but it is a distinct possibility.

Pavel Datsyuk is in his sixth NHL season. He has over 400 career points. He has already won some individual awards. He is a two time Lady Byng winner and is nominated for both the Selke and Lady Byng this year. Wins of those awards would certainly put Datsyuk well along a Hall of Fame track. Like Zetterberg, he also has possibility of significant career numbers if he can have a long injury-free career.

Brian Rafalski is likely a step below Hall of Fame calibre, but it would not be an impossible achievement for him if he can still win a Norris Trophy. His main problem is that he is already 34 years old, so time is working against him. However, he continues to have very good seasons (even showing statistical improvement from one year to the next). He is an outside possibility to make the second team all star this year.

Chris Osgood is an interesting Hall of Fame case. He might win a second career Stanley Cup as a starting goalie this year. He would be a key member of his team along the way, if it happens. That alone makes him worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. However, he was never one of the best goalies in the NHL in his career. He was always outside the elite five or so goalies in the league. He was never a serious Vezina candidate (though he did make the 1996 second team all star). His career totals, despite having played most of his career for a top level Detroit team do not measure up to other non-Hall of Fame calibre goalies in Andy Moog, Curtis Joseph and Mike Vernon. Vernon is a very interesting comparable to Osgood. He and Osgood were teammates in Detroit. Vernon was the starter who won the Stanley Cup, while Osgood was on the bench. Vernon has two career Stanley Cup, one Conn Smythe trophy and more career wins than Osgood and Vernon is not in the Hall of Fame. For Osgood to make the Hall of Fame he would have to do something to show he is a better player than Vernon. It would take at least one Vezina Trophy type season or more than one Conn Smythe type playoff or his career numbers would have to eclipse Vernon. Given that Osgood is 35 years old, the days where that seemed possible are likely gone. Nevertheless, this playoff is possibly a sign that there still is hope.

Nobody else on Detroit is likely worthy of serious Hall of Fame consideration, though I worry that a Kris Draper type player, who was a solid shut down forward and Selke Trophy winner might get consideration someday the way Dick Duff did.

Detroit has other talented players led by Johan Franzen, Jiri Hudler and Niklas Kronvall, who provide talented depth, but they are not serious Hall of Fame candidates.

Detroit has a lot of what it takes to be an elite team. Their major weakness is the lack of a truly top goalie. Other teams have won the Stanley Cup with roughly equal talent levels (though possibly different types of teams). Recent examples include the 1995 New Jersey Devils and the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning. I think Detroit likely will win the Stanley Cup, but in a short series the unexpected is always possible. However, they are not on the elite level that goes down as an all time great team. I don't think they would be as good as last year's Anaheim Ducks.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Pittsburgh Penguins Make Stanley Cup Finals

By defeating the Philadelphia Flyers four games to one in their semi-final series, the Pittsburgh Penguins have qualified for the Stanley Cup finals. They are a young team built around Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but are they ready to win the Stanley Cup? Where do the rank among the best teams of all time?

I have stated in the past that an elite team must satisfy two necessary but not sufficient conditions. They must have several players who are future Hall of Famers or are on a Hall of Fame track and they must have a top level goalie. Pittsburgh does not satisfy these conditions, but they come as close as any team does this season.

Pittsburgh does not have any players on their roster that I would vote into the Hall of Fame if their careers ended right now. However, they do have a few players on clear Hall of Fame tracks and a few more who might be on Hall of Fame tracks but their progress is not so clear.

Sidney Crosby is clearly an elite player. He won the 2007 Hart Trophy and was picked as the best player in the world in last year's Hockey News Top 50. Due to injury, he will not follow up last season with any major awards (unless he wins the Conn Smythe), but he is clearly a great player. He needs to play a little longer to fully establish Hall of Fame credentials, but he is close. A sufficiently dominating Conn Smythe playoff (which is a real possibility) might be enough to earn him Hall of Fame credentials, regardless of the rest of his career, but more than likely if he maintains his pace it will be next year that he reaches that point.

Evgeni Malkin is at least a year behind Crosby, in part because he has played one less year in the NHL and because although he is a Hart Trophy nominee this year he is unlikely to win it. Nevertheless, if Malkin continues his career path he is most likely a Hall of Famer someday.

The next most likely Hall of Famer on the roster is probably Sergei Gonchar. The past several years have been dominated defensively by Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. If a player were to show himself to be a clear fourth best defenceman during that period, or replace one of those three (most likely Niedermayer as he seems closest to retirement) at that level he would likely be a Hall of Famer. Gonchar is a good candidate to do this. He is already a two-time second team all star. The knock on Gonchar is he is not as strong defensively as the top defencemen in the league (though his offence is on that level). Gonchar's defence has improved significantly this year. His defensive success in the 2008 playoffs is one of the largely untold key stories of the playoffs so far. A strong Conn Smythe season could make him a very serious Hall of Fame candidate (though that seems far less likely than for Crosby).

Marian Hossa also might be on a Hall of Fame path. He lacks any significant NHL awards in his career, but has been a good enough player to appear in four All Star games so far in his career. Unless he makes a jump to a slightly higher achievement level where he becomes a trophy winner, he is likely dependant upon his career totals to make the Hall of Fame. Hossa has well over 600 career points and would need well over 1000 to be a serious Hall of Fame candidate.

Pittsburgh has some other young players in Ryan Whitney, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal who are likely not on Hall of Fame tracks, but it is too early in their careers to definitely say they are not. They also have some aging players in Gary Roberts and Petr Sykora who have had All Star calibre seasons in their careers, but look highly unlikely to have Hall of Fame careers at this point.

Pittsburgh does not have a top level goaltender. Marc-Andre Fleury has a lot of potential (he was a first overall draft pick) and is having a very good playoff, but he has not proven himself to be one of the better goalies in the NHL. Given that he is only 23 years old, it is possible that will still come, but most likely it will not.

Pittsburgh is a solid team. The kind of team that would compete for the Stanley Cup in any era, but they are not likely a team that would win it. It would require a few upsets or a weak season for that to happen.

One serious problem Pittsburgh has is depth. They had seven players score 40 or more points (Malkin, Crosby, Hossa, Gonchar, Sykora, Whiney and Ryan Malone), but after them Jordan Staal's 28 points was the best anyone could muster. Pittsburgh is top heavy. If a team had some really good shutdown players (forwards or defencemen) this could be nullified. Pittsburgh is a team that is lacking in a dominant group of shutdown players to counter the stars of their opposition.

Pittsburgh is a very good team, but they are not a great team. They would be roughly equals to the Philadelphia Flyers of the mid to late 80's or the Boston Bruins of the late 80's and into the early 90's or maybe the 1993 Montreal Canadiens (they are not necessarily the same style of team but they are roughly equal in talent). That group of teams is usually a group of also rans; although with the right circumstances could win the Stanley Cup.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

SemiFinals Not Over Yet

The semi-finals in the 2008 playoffs looked a bit one-sided. The Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins looked like likely winners. Detroit was matched up against the Dallas Stars and Pittsburgh against the Philadelphia Flyers. Both Dallas and Philadelphia were surprise semi-finalists. Most people did not expect them to survive the first round of the playoffs and yet they were in the semi-finals. When both Detroit and Pittsburgh won the first three games of their semi-final series, it looked like the semi-finals would be a short coronation of the eventual Stanley Cup finalists, but something has happened to change that prediction.

Dallas defeated Detroit in game four. Then Philadelphia defeated Pittsburgh in game four of their series. Surely, when the western series returned to Detroit it would end, but it didn't. Dallas stayed alive by winning game five to close the series to 3 games to two.

Anything can happen in an NHL hockey game. That is why they play the games and do not merely crown the presumptive favorite as the winner. It now looks like the semi-finals will actually be close series.

From an NHL ratings standpoint, it would have been better if Dallas and Philadelphia won their games earlier in their series to create a public opinion that these series were close. In the current circumstance, it looks like the stronger teams have all but won the series and are having troubles ending it.

These comebacks may be short-lived. They may both be ended in the next games in the semifinal series, but they have made these series look a lot less like the slam dunks that most fans had decided they were a few days ago.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Florida Panthers Renew GM Jacques Martin

In the NHL today many teams are firing coaches and GMs, such as Toronto, Vancouver and San Jose. In many of these cases, the fired man did not do a bad job. He is merely a fall guy for a season where the team was perceived to have failed in their goals.

The Florida Panthers are different. They have not made the playoffs since 2000, yet they have re-signed GM Jacques Martin to a four year contract. Martin is signed until 2012. Martin has been coach of the Panthers since 2004 and GM since 2006. Some portion of that failure is his fault. The Panthers did finish well this season. They stayed in the playoff race until almost the end of the season, which represents an improvement. Martin made a good trade with Nashville acquiring Tomas Vokoun for draft picks, which was a big reason for this improvement. However, it is a questionable move to sign him up longterm given his track record.

Should Florida have a poor season next year, they might want to fire Martin; however his contract might make that move unlikely. Florida did not need to sign Martin for as long a period as they did. Doing so is a mistake.

In general, the best way to build a winning team is to hire a good hockey man as GM and leave him alone to run the team. The question in Florida should be has Martin proven he is that hockey man. I don't think the answer is yes (although he hasn't clearly proven the answer is no either). Florida is choosing to go with Martin longterm despite any questions. If he cannot do the job, it will keep the Panthers from contention for the next several years.

Here is TSN's story on the signing.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Memorial Cup

The Canadian Hockey League championships get underway today. This is the Memorial Cup, which is played by juniors, the best of whom are the NHLers of tomorrow. Generally, the Memorial Cup tournament consists of four teams. The champions from the Quebec Major Junior League, the Ontario Hockey League and the Western Hockey League and a host team, which is a good team chosen in advance of the tournament. This season, the tournament will take place in Kitchener, Ontario. That makes the Kitchener Rangers the host entrant. Kitchener is also the OHL champion, so the OHL entrant will be the league's runner up the Belleville Bulls. Here is a quick look at the four entrants:

Gatineau Olympiques This team is the surprise QMJHL champion. They finished third in their division in the regular season, but won the playoffs. The team is led by Claude Giroux, a Philadelphia Flyers draft pick, who was the second highest scorer in the league. Matthew Pistilli, who is undrafted, is also a significant source of offence. Their goaltending from Ryan Mior, also undrafted, is seen as a potential weakness.

Belleville Bulls Belleville might be seen as a darkhorse because they did not win their league. They are in because host Kitchener won the OHL. They were led offensively by Matt Beleskey an Anaheim draftee and Shawn Matthias, who played four games this year for the Florida Panthers. Their goaltending will be provided by undrafted Mike Murphy.

Spokane Chiefs Spokane won a hard fought victory in the WHL. Though they lack a dominant scorer, they are led by Drayson Bowman a Carolina Hurricane draftee and Mitch Wahl who is eligible for the 2008 draft. Another 2008 draft eligible player Dustin Tokarski is their goalie.

Kitchener Rangers The host team and OHL champions. This team is probably the favorite. Undrafted (because he is small) Justin Azevedo is the league's most outstanding player and top scorer in both the regular season and playoffs (an NHL team really should take a flyer on him). Azevedo is the offensive star of the Rangers. Montreal Canadien draftee Yannick Weber leads their defence. Steve Mason, a Columbus Blue Jacket draftee is their number one goalie and the most famous junior goalie today. He was injured in the OHL playoffs. Though he may be able to return in this tournament, Chicago Blackhawk draftee Josh Unice is a more than capable backup.

The round robin portion of the Memorial Cup tournament will be played this week with the playoffs played next weekend.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

World Hockey Championships

The so-called World Hockey Championships are underway. The tournament is misnamed because it isn't a true world championship when many players are unavailable because they are still active in the Stanley Cup playoffs and other players chose not to play after a long season, but nevertheless the tournament is played annually. It has a bit more interest in North America this year because it is being played in Canada. Games are being played in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Quebec City, Quebec. Here are the results so far:

Preliminary Round

Group A
Switzerland won this group winning all three of their games. Offensively, they were led by Julien Sprunger, a Minnesota Wild draft pick who plays in Switzerland and Andres Ambuhl, an undrafted Swiss player. Their goaltending was provided by Martin Gerber of the Ottawa Senators. Sweden finished second, losing only to the Swiss. Their offensive leaders have been Mattias Weinhandl and Tony Martensson, both players in Sweden with some NHL experience. Their top goaltender was Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers. Belarus finished third with Alexei Ugarov leading their offence and Vitali Koval in goal. Both are undrafted Russian Elite leaguers. France finished last in this group. They were led offensively by Sebastien Bordeleau, a former NHLer now playing in Switzerland and had Cristobal Huet of the Washington Capitals in goal.

Group B This group was won by Canada, who went undefeated. They were led offensively by Dany Heatley of the Ottawa Senators and Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Cam Ward of the Carolina Hurricanes has played the most minutes in their goal. The second place finishers were USA, who lost only to Canada. They have been lead offensively by Phil Kessel of the Boston Bruins and Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks. Their top goaltender has been Robert Esche, the former Philadelphia Flyer who did not play this season. Latvia finished third in this group. Their weak offence was led by Lauris Darzins, a Nashville Predator draftee who plays in the Czech League, until Martins Karsums became available when his Providence Bruins were eliminated from the AHL Calder Cup playoffs. Their goaltending was provided by Edgars Masalskis, who plays in Germany. The last place finisher was Slovenia, who was led offensively by Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings with Robert Kristan, who plays in the Austrian League, in goal.

Group C Finland went undefeated winning this group. They were led by Mikko Koivu of the Minnesota Wild and Teemu Selanne of the Anaheim Ducks. Their goaltending was provided by Niklas Backstrom of Minnesota. There was a three way tied among the other teams with 1-2 records. Norway took second by virtue of having an overtime loss. They were led offensively by Morten Ask and Anders Bastiansen. Both are undrafted by the NHL and play in Sweden. Their goaltending was provided by Pal Grotnes, who also plays in Sweden. Germany was third under the tie breaking rules. They have been led by Christopher Schmidt, who played a few games for the Los Angeles Kings but is now in the German League with Dmitri Patzold of the San Jose Sharks system in goal. Last place in the tie breaker was Slovakia who was led by Lubomir Visnovsky of the Los Angeles Kings with former Nashville Predator Jan Lasak, who currently plays in the Czech league in goal.

Group D Russia won this group. Offensively they have been led by Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin of the Washington Capitals. Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks was their goalie, despite his having been born in Kazakhstan. The Czech Republic finished second with Tomas Kaberle of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Patrik Elias of the New Jersey Devils leading the way offensively. Former NHLer Milan Hnilicka, who now plays in the Czech League, provided their goaltending. Denmark was third with former Montreal Canadien draft pick Kim Staal leading the way offensively. Staal now plays in Sweden. Patrick Galbraith, who plays in the Danish League, provided their goaltending. Last in this division was Italy. They were led by Jason Cirone offensively. Cirone is a former Winnipeg Jet draft pick who plays in the IHL. Guenther Hell, who plays in the Italian League, was their goalie.

After the preliminary round, the top three teams in each group were put into two six team qualifying round brackets.

Group E Russia won this group with five wins (two in overtime), with the Czech Republic finishing second. Sweden finished in third. Switzerland fourth. Belarus finished fifth and Denmark last.

Group F Canada went undefeated to win this group. Finland placed second. USA took third. Norway finished fourth, followed by Germany and Latvia.

The top four teams in each then faced off in the first round of the playoffs.

Sweden 3 Czech Republic 2 This was a close fought game that went to overtime. Mattias Weinhandl scored in overtime beating Czech goalie Milan Hnilicka. Anton Stralman of the Toronto Maple Leafs had two assists.

Canada 8 Norway 2 Dany Heatley and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks led the way with 3 points a piece for Canada in the rout. Anders Bastiensen had two assists for team Norway.

Russia 6 Switzerland 0 Another lopsided game. Evgeni Nabokov had the shutout. Danis Zaripov led the way for Russia with three points. He is undrafted and plays in Russia. Maxim Afinogenov of the Buffalo Sabres scored two goals.

Finland 3 USA 2 A back and forth battle won in overtime when Sami Lepisto of the Washington Capitals beat Robert Esche for the game winning goal. Olli Jokinen of the Florida Panthers and Teemu Selanne had two assists each.

The tournament moves onto the semi-finals now. Russia will play Finland and Canada will play Sweden. These games are on Friday. The bronze-4th game is on Saturday and the gold-silver game on Sunday.

It is always interesting to see the results when NHL players play non-NHLers. Maybe some of the more prominent non-NHLers will appear in the NHL in the future.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

AHL Playoffs: Second Round

The second round of the AHL playoffs concluded last night. The first round summary is here. These are the second round results:

Portland defeats Providence 4 games to 2 Portland is Anaheim's farm team and Providence is Boston's. Portland was led offensively by Bobby Ryan and Andrew Ebbett. Jean-Sebastien Aubin provided their goaltending. Providence was led by Pascal Pelletier and Martins Karsums with Tuukka Rask in goal.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton defeat Philadelphia 4 games to 1 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is Pittsburgh's farm team and the Philadelphia Phantoms are the Flyers farm team. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was led by Tim Brent, who is the top scorer in the playoffs so far and defenceman Alex Goligoski. John Curry provided their goaltending. Philadelphia was led offensively by Stefan Ruzicka, with Scott Munroe in goal.

Toronto defeat Syracuse 4 games to 3 The Toronto Marlies are the Maple Leafs farm club and Syracuse is Columbus's. Offensively, Toronto was led by Kris Newbury and David Ling, with Scott Clemmensen in goal. Syracuse was led offensively by Derek McKenzie and Derick Brassard. Karl Goehring manned their goal.

Chicago defeated Rockford 4 games to 3 The Chicago Wolves are Atlanta's farm club and Rockford is the Chicago Blackhawks farm team. Chicago was led by Jason Krog, who is tied for the playoff lead in scoring and by defenceman Joel Kwiatkowski. Ondrej Pavelec provided their goaltending. Martin St Pierre and Kris Versteeg led Rockford with Corey Crawford in goal.

In the semi-finals, Portland will meet Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Toronto will meet Chicago.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

San Jose Fires Coach Ron Wilson

The San Jose Sharks have fired coach Ron Wilson. Wilson was a success as the Sharks coaching for four and a half seasons to a record of 206-135-45 which has been erroneously reported as a .533 winning percentage in many places (including here - it is in fact a .592 winning percentage). Wilson is eighth all time in coaching wins and ninth in all time coaching games. He led the Sharks to the Pacific Division title this year. By all reasonable measures he did a good job as coach. And yet he was fired.

Wilson was fired because San Jose is yet to have significant post season success in his tenure. At least that is the commonly held excuse. In 2004, he led San Jose to the semi-finals. Since then, San Jose has lost in the second round three years in a row. That's right, San Jose has gone two or three rounds into the playoffs in each full season he has coached them. That should be considered successful. The problem is expectation. Because San Jose has been successful, people expect further growth. They expected a San Jose Sharks finals run. I am not sure why they should have expected that. I cannot think of any season where I thought San Jose was the best team in the league or the best team in the West Conference. There were a few seasons where I thought they were one of the better teams in their conference and with some luck might be able to make a deep playoff run. That luck wasn't there. Was it Ron Wilson's fault? I don't see any convincing argument for that, but nevertheless he is blamed. Blamed for what? For coaching a team that was so good that we thought it might make a deep playoff run, but had only (that's a good achievement!) made the final eight in the last three years.

For San Jose to do better, in terms of coaching, next season they will have to find a better coach than Ron Wilson. That isn't an easy task. It looks like the usual suspects on the NHL coaching merry-go-round are available. They can hire Joel Quenneville, Barry Melrose, Bob Hartley, Paul Maurice or some equivalent. In many of those cases it is a significant step downwards.

It is argued, incorrectly, that teams need to fire their coach every now and again because teams "tune out" the coach. That argument is poor. If Ron Wilson was "tuned out" when he led his team to the Pacific Division title, then I cannot see how being "tuned out" is a problem. Most teams are envious of the Sharks success under their "tuned out" coach.

The Sharks will have a change at coach. Change can be good and change can be bad. More than likely, the new coach will be a worse coach than Wilson. In that case change would be bad. That said, San Jose with a slightly worse coach should still be a good enough team that they might have a deep playoff run. Should that happen, I am sure we will all be there to give undeserved credit to the coach who happens to be there and applaud the move to fire Wilson.

Ron Wilson is a top candidate to fill other coaching vacancies in the NHL and a team will do well to hire him. You likely made a mistake if the coach you just fired is quickly hired by another team. The coach you fired should not be the best unemployed coaching prospect out there. That is no way to improve a team.

Finally, I want to speak about the outright statistical lie in the press release about Ron Wilson (that Sharkspage quoted. Ron Wilson had a 206-134-45 record as San Jose coach. The way the NHL calculated winning percentages this is a .592 winning percentage. It is quoted in the press release as a .535 winning percentage. You only get that value if you assume that all the regulation ties in his San Jose career are counted as losses - then he has a 206-179 record. This is not the way the NHL does this calculation. The Sharks or NHL people who released that press release are playing fast and loose with the definition of winning percentage. This is a problem with the way the NHL defines the stat. There is enough fuzziness in the definition to cheat in press release and although you are lying the lie is one that can be defended. However, if the Sharks must lie about Ron Wilson's success to give him a dishonestly low winning percentage, it goes to show how poor the decision to fire him is.

Here is the TSN story on Wilson's firing which also has the dishonestly low winning percentage in it.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Suspensions Only When Convenient

The latest poor suspension decision by the NHL was made yesterday. At the conclusion of game two on Saturday, there was a scrum behind the Detroit goal. Mike Ribiero, the Dallas Stars top scorer slashed Detroit Red Wing goalie Chris Osgood over the top of the goal. There is no place for that type of play in the NHL. It was made out of frustration because Dallas had just lost game two 2-1 to fall behind two games to none in the semi-final series. The NHL has ruled there will be no suspension.

I suppose the fear is that it will appear that a suspension helped to eliminate Dallas. The NHL is notorious for not being consistent in their suspensions. When it's a bit player early in the season, such as Chris Simon then of the New York Islanders or Steve Downie of the Philadelphia Flyers they have no problem giving out a long suspension. However, when it is a star player and the game matters (ie. it's the playoffs) the suspension is short or non-existent). Last year, the NHL suspended Chris Pronger of the Anaheim Ducks two times for illegal hits in the playoffs. They were one game suspensions which was the shortest that could be allowed by public opinion. This year, there is no suspension at all for Mike Ribiero.

The NHL should want the appearance that there is justice and no bias toward suspending certain players in certain situations and against it in others, but decisions like this prove that there isn't. A slash on a goalie after the game is concluded should warrant a suspension. In this case, it doesn't because the player is too important to the remaining playoff chances of his team.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Europeans In The NHL Down

Reuters is reporting that the number of Europeans who played in the NHL is down this season. Of the 941 players who played one or more NHL games this season, 243 (or 25.8%) are European. Last season, 942 players played one or more NHL games (basically the same number as this year) and 266 players (28.2%) were European. This is a small loss in the NHL's position as the league where all the best players in the world come to play. About twenty of those players opted to stay in Europe instead of come to the NHL.

Where were those players lost? The easy but incorrect answer is that due to the lack of a player transfer deal with Russia more players staying in (or returned to) Russia. There were 32 Russians who played one or more NHL games this year (compare with 35 last year. The Russian dropoff has largely already occurred and does not account for this player loss. There are a few players choosing to play in the Russian league who are not Russian and would not have been counted. They include Darius Kaparaitis of the Ukraine and Tony Salmelainen of Finland, but there are not enough of them to account for the player loss. For the most part, these are players in other European countries that have chosen to stay home. There has been an across the board decline in the number of European players (or at least drop in the increase of European players) from every significant European nation. The leaders have been the eastern European countries, especially the Czech Republic and Slovakia. These countries tend to have bigger cultural differences with North America and thus will be less likely to come to play if the payoff is not big enough.

The payoff to a young player is not as big as it once was. There is an entry level player salary cap. There are re-entry waivers to keep salaries down in the AHL. A player can often make quite a bit more money playing in Europe than he would in the AHL. This problem is compounded by the fact that the Euro is rising relative to American dollars in international currency markets and by the damaged international reputation of the US under the Bush administration. The NHL is not as attractive a situation as it once was for European players.

Next year, when there is no player transfer deal with European nations look for more players to return to Europe.

While it is hard to argue that any potential NHL superstars are playing in Europe, it is clear that many players who could be valuable on their NHL teams (Aleksey Morozov, Alexei Yashin, Alex Perezhogin for example) are. The more legitimate NHL players chose to play in Europe, the less the NHL will be the one strongest league in the world and the more good players NHL fans will never see. This is a loss to the fan.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Masterton Has Nominees

For the first time ever, the Bill Masterton Trophy has had three nominees announced in advance of the awards presentation. The nominees are Jason Blake of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Chris Chelios of the Detroit Red Wings and Fernando Pisani of the Edmonton Oilers. This is a positive change to the convoluted Masterton Trophy selection process which should become normalized to be done with a single end of the year ballot like the other NHL awards.

They failed to nominate my choice Owen Nolan of the Calgary Flames a player who most considered retired when he missed two years rehabbing injuries before returning and making a positive contribution to his teams. That is a show of perseverance and dedication to hockey that has been lost by the media. That means that the person I picked to win four of the eight awards I picked nominees for was not even nominated. Am I out of touch with reality or are the NHL award voters?

I think that of the nominees Fernando Pisani probably should win. His recovery from ulcerative colitis to rejoin the Oilers this season is the kind of story that usually wins this award. Nevertheless, he missed half a season and Nolan missed two of them. That would show Nolan overcame a bigger hardship.

I think it's good that the Masterton Trophy is announcing nominees. Now let's hope they move the voting to a single ballot at the end of the season.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Fabian Brunnstrom

NHL scouts are always on the lookout for the next big star. Anybody who potentially could fill that role gains publicity in the internet age far before he has proven himself. Fabian Brunnstrom is the latest (and possibly best example) of this.

Brunnstrom is a 23 year old who was a rookie in the Swedish Elite League this season. He was undrafted by the NHL and was thus able to be signed as a free agent by any NHL team. In his rookie season in the Swedish Elite League, Brunnstrom scored 9 goals and added 28 assists for 37 points in 54 games played. This was good enough for 23rd place in the league scoring. He was beaten in scoring by many players who have already had unsuccessful NHL auditions including Tony Martensson, Mattias Weinhandl, Pavel Brendl and Tomi Kallio. He was not selected to play on Team Sweden in the currently being played World Hickey Championships in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Quebec City, Quebec (despite the fact 15 Swedish Elite League players are on the team). So what is the big deal?

The big deal is that it is rare (not seen since increased European scouting began) that a player of his level playing in Sweden goes undrafted and becomes a free agent. There were no players younger than Brunnstrom who outscored him in the Swedish Elite League. He made a huge jump from the first division (the Swedish league below the Elite League) this season. As such, he becomes a highly sought after free agent in the NHL.

Yesterday, the Dallas Stars signed Brunnstrom. What can they expect from him in the future?

As a late bloomer, he has often been compared to Daniel Alfredsson of the Ottawa Senators, but this is a poor comparison. Alfredsson was drafted 133rd overall at age 21. Alfredsson was completing his third year in the Swedish Elite League when he was Brunnstrom's age. In that season, Alfredsson managed 18 points in an injury shortened 22 games. Alfredsson was well above Brunnstrom's development at the same age. I would not expect Brunnstrom to be the next Daniel Alfredsson.

Frankly, I don't know what to expect from Fabian Brunnstrom. I have never seen him play a game. He does have an upside, but the hype regarding his NHL signing has set him up in a situation where he is most likely to fail. It is unlikely that Brunnstrom will be an NHL star - if he does become a star it is very unlikely that he will be an instant star and not require a few years to learn the NHL game properly.

Dallas signed Brunnstrom to a two-year entry level deal. Dallas didn't offer that. Dallas is taking minimal risk on Brunnstrom. If he fails, he can be sent to the minors (or possibly return to Sweden since there is no player transfer deal with the Swedes next year). They are not guaranteeing him ridiculous amounts of money for a player with no NHL (and minimal Swedish) experience.

I expect that there is a better chance that Brunnstrom plays himself out of the NHL in his current deal than becomes a star (although both are possible scenarios). Brunnstrom is in a position where there is a good chance he will fail. He has a lot of hype to live up to. That said, Dallas made a good move. They have taken on minimal risk to sign a player who might have considerable upside. If he fails it is not a major loss.

Here is TSN's story on the signing.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Leafs Fire Coach Paul Maurice

The Toronto Maple Leafs had a bad season that led to the firing of GM John Ferguson Jr partway through the year. He was replaced by former GM Cliff Fletcher on an interim basis. It was Fletcher's job to start a rebuilding scheme that presumably could be finished by the eventual permanent GM, while Fletcher stays on in an advisory role. The obvious problem to that plan is that the new GM may disagree with Fletcher's moves that have already been made or the overall philosophy involved, but that would be too bad because the moves have already been made and Fletcher is still around. The good news is the Leafs were in such a bad shape that Fletcher couldn't do much of substance. The most important Leaf players had no trade clauses that they wouldn't waive and thus could not be moved. Fletcher moved some lesser players for draft picks at trade deadline time. That was all he could do.

Now is the time to plan for the future. Now is the time to attempt to resign potential free agents. Now is the time to plan for the draft. Now is the time to pick a coach for the new season. Except that none of this can be done properly without a general manager in place. A permanent general manager. Not an interim GM who is looking to hire his replacement.

So, Cliff Fletcher has to make these decisions which would be better made by the next GM, which for some reason, the Leafs have yet to hire. Fletcher decided (partially) on the coach question. He fired Paul Maurice. That is not really a surprising move given the Leafs season, but it is one that would have been better left for the permanent GM.

As for the new GM, here is the current crazy plan (Leafs: 'We're Proactive. We're Looking Three Firings Ahead...'). The Leafs would hire recently fired Canuck GM Dave Nonis for one year then hand off the reigns to Brian Burke, Anaheim's GM. This of course assumes Burke wants to leave the successful team he built in Anaheim for the messed up Leafs. Afterall, Leaf fans believe everyone wants to join the Leafs if they can. They assume Nonis wants to join the Leafs when he is hired with a firing date already in mind. Worse, this scheme adds yet another layer of interim GM. There is no way a coherent plan to build the Leafs can happen if they hand over the reigns to a new GM every few months. The Leafs need to pick a new permanent GM now and let him run the show. No more interference from management. No more interim GMs. The longer this takes, the more decisions Cliff Fletcher is forced to make that might not be considered good ones to the permanent GM.

The news isn't that Paul Maurice was fired. The news is that the Leafs are doing everything backwards. They should have hired a new GM by now and let him fire or not fire Maurice.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

How Good Are The Philadelphia Flyers?

One of the stories of the playoffs so far is the Philadelphia Flyers. Last season, they finished in last place and this season they have made it to the semi-finals. It is a reasonable question to ask how good they really are and if their turnaround is as dramatic as it seems at first glance.

Lat season, despite their last place finish, they were not a team that was totally without hope. They had several young talents in Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and RJ Umberger who looked likely to make a big step forward. They had some talented established players in Simon Gagne (who missed much of this season due to concussion problems) and Peter Forsberg (who was traded to Nashville for a bounty of young players. Despite this potential, things did not work out in Philadelphia last year. What went wrong with the Flyers was poor goaltending and a slow defence. They had trouble keeping the puck out of their net. They were not your traditional hopeless last place team. They merely had a significant weakness that overweighed any of the positives. They got off to a slow start and never turned things around.

The Flyers acted to shore up their weakness. They traded for goaltender Martin Biron, who played much better than the two sub .900 saves percentage goalies they used in 2006/07 in Antero Niittymaki and Robert Esche. They jumped the gun on the free agency period, by trading for and then signing free agents to be Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell. They acquired a young Braydon Coburn who took a big step forward this year in a trade deadline deal with Atlanta. They signed Daniel Briere as a free agent. They traded for Joffrey Lupul from Edmonton. They watched as their young players, especially Mike Richards, took big steps forward. They were a pretty active team at the 2007 trade deadline and into the summer. They made enough moves to turn this surprise last place team (who was better than most last place teams) into a mid-level NHL club that had a chance at the playoffs.

If things went well in the 2007/08 season, Philadelphia could make the playoffs. If they didn't they would probably be one of the better non-playoff teams. They made the playoffs with three more points (and one less win) then the ninth place Carolina Hurricanes. This likely was not a team that would travel too far in the playoffs. However, given the parity in the NHL if they got hot at the right time anything could happen.

They were lucky to match up with the Washington Capitals in the first round. Washington was the third seed in the east, but actually had one less regular season point then Philadelphia did. They earned their seeding by winning the weak Southeast Division. If any of the top four seeds looked likely to be beaten it was Washington. Sure the Capitals had been hot in the stretch to merely qualify for the playoffs, but they were the weakest of the top four seeds. It was a tough series, but Philadelphia won in seven games.

Philadelphia moved on to play Montreal. Montreal may have won the East Conference in the regular season, but they were not as strong as a traditional conference winner (this is a hallmark of parity; the bad teams are not as bad as they traditionally have been and the good teams are not as good). Montreal only had five more wins than Philadelphia in the regular season. If things went wrong for Montreal while going right for the Flyers this series could easily be an upset. It turned out Montreal had goaltending problems in the series and Philadelphia won.

That is the story of a parity filled league. The best playoff teams are not much better than the worst playoff teams. In a short playoff series either team can win.

Philadelphia has been somewhat lucky to not face any good teams in the playoffs that are playing at the top of their game so far. The Pittsburgh Penguins will be their first such opponent and will likely knock off the Flyers.

Philadelphia in 2006/07 finished last, but there were teams with far less talent than the Flyers had. Merely by doing nothing in the off-season, it was very likely the Flyers were going to improve. They didn't merely do nothing. They made many changes that added a lot of depth to the team and shored up their glaring weakness in keeping the puck out of their net. After these moves, the Flyers were a roughly average NHL team. They remain a roughly average team despite having made it to the semi-finals. That playoff success has required some good play from their stars (Daniel Briere, Martin Biron and supporting players such as RJ Umberger and Vaclav Prospal) as well as some luck to not play any top teams at the top of their games. The worst to first story is still a fantasy. Philadelphia is far from the best team in the league and remains unlikely to win the Stanley Cup. Despite their last place finish, they definitely were not the worst team in the league last year in terms of overall talent. As long as the NHL remains a parity filled league, there will be more stories such as the Flyers improvement. The downside to this is problem with parity, while no team is really bad in the NHL; no team is really good either. Fans no longer get to see really good teams play if none exist. That is a shame.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

If I Was On The Hall Of Fame Committee

Last year, I predicted all four players inducted to the Hall of Fame. This year, it's not so obvious who will be inducted. This season is the second year of the group who left hockey during the lockout (after the 2003/04 season but before the 2005/06 season) is eligible. There are no first time candidates this year. Last year had the "double class" of eligible players because of the lockout and its best players Ron Francis, Al MacInnis, Mark Messier and Scott Stevens were inducted. I think there are two more players who became eligible last year who should get in but were not inducted due to the deep group of players ahead of them. They should be inducted this year. They are Adam Oates and Igor Larionov. Along with Igor Larionov, I would like to see Sergei Makarov inducted. They were longtime teammates in Russia and both made impacts in the NHL. Makarov was the older of the two and although he was the bigger immediate star in Calgary, Larionov's NHL career lasted longer. It would be nice to see them inducted together and there is a lack of Russian stars in the Hall of Fame. As a fourth inductee, I support Dino Ciccarelli. He is the highest career goal scorer who is Hall of Fame eligible but not in, but has been kept out in part because he never played on an elite team and in part because of personal non-hockey issues. If I was on the Hall of Fame committee, this season I would induct Adam Oates, Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov and Dino Ciccarelli. I doubt that will be the actual induction class. There are other potential inductees I would agree with and others I would disagree with. I will comment when the inductions are made after the playoffs end.

Monday, May 05, 2008

SemiFinal Predictions

The semi-finals are upon us and I will make my predictions. In the second round I went 2-2 which combined with my first round predictions gives me a record of 7-5, which is acceptable, but not particularly wonderful. Here are the semi-final predictions:

Detroit Red Wings defeat Dallas Stars Detroit is the team to beat in the playoffs this year. They have a talented team that has played very well. They have only been stronger since switching goalies from Hasek to Osgood. Dallas is a surprise team that did a lot of the "heavy lifting" for Detroit by eliminating Anaheim and San Jose, but they are not a team that has the talent to have a great chance at a trip to the finals. Look for Detroit to end Dallas's run.

Pittsburgh Penguins defeat Philadelphia Flyers The battle of Pennsylvania series is a surprise for the East Final. Philadelphia is not a strong playoff team. They have survived largely on the strong goaltending of Martin Biron. Look for that to not be enough to stop the high octane Pittsburgh firepower built around Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Trying Economic Times Ahead

The US is on the brink of recession. This will affect the NHL. Many teams should see their revenue begin to drop as less people are able to afford to attend games. With the current CBA that links the salary cap to revenues this could lead to a decline in the salary cap (or at least significant slowing in its rate of increase). This could leave teams with large longterm contracts at a significant disadvantage. They will not have the financial ability to add the necessary free agents to their payroll. This should hurt players with increased escrow payments.

One team that is claiming poverty is the Los Angeles Kings. They claim to be losing more money now than they were before the lockout. This claim is hard to believe, but it is likely that a 29th place team is not making as much money as they would like. They are using these claims to justify a ticket price increase. That is a move that might not be beneficial. It is very possible that an increase in ticket prices will lead to a decrease in paid attendance and thus a drop in team revenues. The St Louis Blues found that they had to reduce ticket prices to increase revenue. Likely they won't be the only team in this position.

It is very reasonable to be skeptical of the Los Angeles Kings financial claims because they are owned by the Anshutz Entertainment Group, who own many arenas and stadiums worldwide. They have ample opportunity to redirect Kings related revenue into the arena and claim that the Kings are losing money while the arena is making a profit.

Nevertheless, the financial outlook is not good for some of the weaker non-traditional markets in the NHL. These markets could have a tough time surviving an extended recession. These markets could legitimately find themselves in financial trouble in the upcoming season or two.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Why Goals Are Not Down In The 2008 Playoffs

James Mirtle wrote a post this week asking why goals have not been down in the 2008 playoffs (when compared to the regular season). It is a general rule of thumb that scoring declines as quality of play goes up and come playoff time the weakest teams are no longer active so usually scoring goes down. It hasn't this year. Why?

I think the answer is pretty simple to see when one looks at the individual statistics. The leading goalies in the 2008 playoffs have been Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Osgood, Marty Turco and Martin Biron. While I am not arguing that these goalies are poor goalies, they are clearly not the elite NHL goaltenders. The elite NHL goalies are Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Jean-Sebastien Giguere and since they were Vezina nominees Henrik Lundqvist and Evgeni Nabokov (you may have a slightly different list but nevertheless the point is unchanged). None of them have been star goalies in the 2008 playoffs. Sure Lundqvist and Nabokov are still alive, but they have not played their best hockey. Brodeur and Giguere fell in the first round and Luongo missed the playoffs. The best goalies in the playoffs this year are second tier goalies.

If we look at the playoff top scorers, there are a few surprises like Johan Franzen, but for the most part they are a selection of the elite scorers in the NHL. Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Jaromir Jagr are all among the top ten scorers in the playoffs so far. Naturally, not all of the NHL's top scorers are represented. Some of the more prominent missing top scorers are Alexander Ovechkin and Jarome Iginla, but that is the nature of the playoffs. Some elite players will be on teams that lose early and do not get playoff runs. However, many of the elite scorers in the NHL are represented in the playoff top scorers list.

We have a situation where the elite goalies in the league have not been stars and many of the elite scorers have. That is enough to explain the lack of drop in scoring in the playoffs. Even with the worst teams in the league (typically the teams that allow the most goals) gone, scoring has not dropped. This is because many of the best scorers in the NHL are playing well and the best goalies in the league are either eliminated or not playing so well.

This leads to the question why the elite goalies are not the standout goalies in the 2008 playoffs. I think the best answer to this question is luck. There are about a handful of elite goalies. In a typical playoff year, two or three do not have good playoff runs. All that is needed is two or three more for whatever reason not having big playoffs. It is luck that these two or three goalies have not done well at the same time. I think there is no deeper longterm meaning for this result and it is highly unlikely to reoccur in next year's playoffs.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Changing Goalies In the Playoffs

It is generally a bad sign if your team changes its goalie during the Stanley Cup playoffs. The playoffs are a time to put your best possible lineup on the ice and see how far they can take you. If things are not working out, most of the time you will soon be eliminated. You likely started the playoffs with your number one goalie in net and it is rare that things will get any better when you switch to number two.

Of course there are some high profile exceptions to the rule where teams have had Stanley Cup runs when the changed goalies midway. Most recently, this happened with the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes. Their supposed number one goalie Martin Gerber was playing terribly. He put up a .856 saves percentage in the 2006 playoffs, so changing to Cam Ward made sense as Gerber was doing so badly. Ward wound up winning the Conn Smythe (although it was a poor choice for the award). Nevertheless, the move worked out well for Carolina. This season, Detroit may accomplish a cup run with a goalie change as well. Dominik Hasek was the presumed number one and has not been able to get his game on track (he has a .888 saves percentage). Detroit has switched to Chris Osgood and so far it has worked out. Detroit is in a rare and enviable situation where both of their goalies have led teams to Stanley Cups (Osgood in 1998 and Hasek in 2002). Hasek has had an up and down season due to injury and age and it was clear that if he did not have his game together at playoff time, he would be replaced. Most teams do not have the luxury of replacing their starter with a player who appeared in this season's All Star Game. Detroit is fortunate that they do.

Changing your goalie in the playoffs to try to shake up a team that is not playing so well, rarely works. Montreal tried this year. Carey Price is the presumed number one goalie who has not played any spectacular games in the Philadelphia series, but he has not been horrible either. For the most part, the entire Montreal team has not managed any spectacular performances and that finds them behind the Flyers 3 games to 1. Price has a .907 saves percentage, which is acceptable though not terrific. In an attempt to shake up the team, Jaroslav Halak was played in game four of the series. This was a move suggested by Mikado in the comments of this thread. Halak might have a lot of potential but he is even more unproven than the rookie Carey Price (Halak only has 22 career NHL games played). Now is not the time to test an unproven goalie. Now is the time to play the best lineup that you have. If you cannot win with your best, you cannot win. It's better to lose with your best players than to lose with some of your key players on the bench. This was a move that was unlikely to pay off for Montreal. Price was playing well enough that it was unlikely there would be much improvement with any other goalie. There was no reason to believe Halak was better than Price and Halak is even more unproven. The lack of strength in goal for Montreal was predictable when they traded Cristobal Huet on trade deadline day. It is not an enviable position to be heading into the playoffs with two rookie goalies and that is where Montreal put themselves.

Changing goalies in playoff time is usually a move of desperation. Desperation moves rarely pay off. Montreal attempted this desperate move and predictably it failed. Montreal may or may not have gone down 3 games to one anyway if they played Price in game four, but at least they would have played the best goalie they had instead of giving away a game by playing their backup.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

NHL Award Nominees Announced

The NHL has been announcing their award nominees one a day for over a week. Now that the award nominees have all been announced, I will compare them to the people I would have voted for and give my predictions as to who I think will win the awards.

Selke Trophy- Pavel Datsyuk Detroit Red Wings, John Madden New Jersey Devils, Henrik Zetterberg Detroit Red Wings. The voters chose to nominate two offensive forwards in Datsyuk and Zetterberg who play solid two-way games, but are more concerned with offensive play. This is a mistake. I believe Patrick Sharp deserved this award, but he doesn't have as flashy offensive numbers, the reputation going into the season as a top defensive forward or a spot on a playoff team and was thus overlooked. This is a mistake. I hope John Madden wins the award since he is the only true shutdown forward nominated. I think Pavel Datsyuk will win because he had a league leading +/- rating and good offensive numbers. That is not how the best defensive forward should be determined.

Lady Byng Trophy- Pavel Datsyuk Detroit Red Wings, Jason Pominville Buffalo Sabres, Martin St Louis Tampa Bay Lightning. These are the three players I would have nominated. I think Datsyuk deserves this award and will win it. That would give Datsyuk a double win as Selke and Byng winner. That goes a long way to making the argument that Datsyuk is well on his way to a Hall of Fame career, though he needs more successful seasons in the league to complete that honor.

Calder Trophy- Nicklas Backstrom Washington Capitals, Patrick Kane Chicago Blackhawks, Jonathan Toews Chicago Blackhawks. I would have nominated Carey Price from Montreal in place of Toews. Both missed significant time this season. Toews was injured and Price took some time to win the starting goalie job in Montreal from Cristobal Huet. Since a goalie makes a bigger impact in games and Huet led the Habs in games played by a goalie I think he is a better nominee. Toews was selected because he led rookies in points per game, but was limited to 64 games played. Backstrom should win this award since he was the best all round player. Kane slightly outscored him, but Backstrom was far more solid defensively. I think there is a good chance that voters will merely look to offensive numbers and give Kane the nod because it is far easier to do that then to consider defence, which was undervalued in the award nominations (even in places where it shouldn't be such as the Selke Trophy).

Adams Trophy- Mike Babcock Detroit Red Wings, Bruce Boudreau Washington Capitals, Guy Carbonneau Montreal Canadiens. As always the nominees for this award miss the point. They are two coaches of most improved teams in Boudreau and Carbonneau and the coach of the top regular season team in Babcock. I think Babcock likely finishes a distant third due to the propensity of voters to pick most improved team coaches. I think Carbonneau will win. I think Jacques Lemaire of Minnesota should have won as he is the coach with the biggest positive impact on his team. I was hopeful that he might secure a nomination this year as Minnesota won the Northwest Division, but it wasn't to be. The Adams Trophy voting does a very poor job of selecting the best coaches in the NHL.

Norris Trophy- Zdeno Chara Boston Bruins, Nicklas Lidstrom Detroit Red Wings, Dion Phaneuf Calgary Flames. These are the three players I would have nominated as well. Lidstrom should be the easy winner.

Vezina Trophy- Martin Brodeur New Jersey Devils, Henrik Lundqvist New York Rangers, Evgeni Nabokov San Jose Sharks. Brodeur should win this award. He is the only one of the three nominees I agree with. I would have nominated Roberto Luongo of Vancouver and Jean-Sebastien Giguere of Anaheim as well. Nabokov got his nomination for playing in 77 games on a good team and thus leading the league in wins. Lundqvist got nominated in part for being in the New York media center and having a good defence in front of him. Nabokov and Lundqvist did not put up league leading saves percentages (Nabokov .910, Lundqvist .912). These were the three goalies who played the vast majority of their team's games and were among the goals against average leaders, which is a largely team dependant stat. With this nomination, Lundqvist has been nominated for the Vezina in each of his three years in the NHL. He has only deserved that nomination once.

Hart Trophy- Jarome Iginla Calgary Flames, Evgeni Malkin Pittsburgh Penguins, Alexander Ovechkin Washington Capitals. The biggest mistake the voters made is not nominating Nicklas Lidstrom for this award. He should have won it. The problem is that he is not among the top scorers in the league (he is only the top scorer among defencemen). Defensive play is largely overlooked in the award voting and thus Lidstrom did not receive enough credit for being arguably the best defensive defenceman in the league while leading defencemen in scoring. With Lidstrom out of the way, there is little doubt that Ovechkin will win this award. The nominees are merely the top three scorers in the league this season. Iginla may have finished in the top three scorers, but in light of Lidstrom's season, there is no doubt this nomination is not deserved.

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