Monday, June 30, 2008

Tampa's Plan Taking Shape

The Tampa Bay Lightning have new owners in Oren Koules and Len Barrie and they are clearly not afraid of being hands on owners who make high profile moves (despite NHL history being littered with disasters from this ownership style). We are beginning to see their plan to build a new Tampa Bay Lightning team.

Of all the ways to build a team, free agency is definitely the fastest and probably the least effective method. The unrestricted free agent talent pool is not good enough to rebuild a team and the high profile players signed will usually sign large contracts that make it hard to fit many under the salary cap. However, it is the fastest method to make a change. Not being people to wait around to do things slowly (even if that means properly), Tampa ownership is agressively pursuing free agents.

In order to make sure they get the free agents they target, they are trading draft picks to get to negotiate with them in advance of the official start of free agency and when they negotiate, they offer contracts that appear larger than expected market value for the player in question. It is a great way to attract a couple unrestricted free agents. Whether you believe that Tampa would compete with another couple free agent players under contract is another question.

The first players targeted were Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Tampa traded a conditional pick (that turned out to be their 2009 3rd round pick) to Pittsburgh for the right to negotiate early with these players. They then "negotiated" by making ridiculous offers to the two players.

In Ryan Malone's case, first they hired Malone's dad Greg Malone as a scout (I am not sure what working as an employee for the Tampa Bay Lightning entails when in the end ownership makes all the moves - seemingly without consultation of the front office staff) and then they signed Malone to a seven year $31.5 million contract, which will pay between $7 and $8 million a year for the first two seasons. It is entirely possible that Malone signed the biggest UFA contract among forwards this summer, which is odd considering he is the eleventh highest scoring potential UFA forward this summer. Malone spent a lot of time last season playing with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and that probably inflated his numbers (which in the end were not all star level), but he played a good playoff and thus became overrated. It is a move that likely will do little to improve the Lightning, but it won't hurt unless (until?) they regret the size of his contract.

Gary Roberts is 42 years old and just finished an injury filled season where he scored 3 goals. Logically, it might be a time to be retiring. Not so for Roberts. He signed to a $1.25 million base salary with incentives for staying in the lineup that could be worth in excess of $2 million next year. Far more than anyone else would have offered him.

Potentially the best signing Tampa looks to make is Brian Rolston from the Minnesota Wild. Most likely, he will outscore Malone next year (afterall he did this year playing in a defensive system while Malone played with Crosby and Malkin) and also play better defence. Tampa has traded a draft pick (exactly which pick depends on whether Rolston signs in Tampa) to get to negotiate with Rolston until free agency begins in earnest tomorrow. If they have enough money left to throw some outrageous contract above market value at him, likely he will sign.

Does this make Tampa Bay a better team? Yes, but marginally. I think they likely will not have finished last again merely by standing pat with their last season roster. They have added some parts to improve the team. They additions are at high financial price and will probably not offer good financial value. I think Tampa will likely miss the playoffs next year and could have a lottery draft pick again. They lack quality goaltending and other than Dan Boyle (who is rumored to be tradable - despite his no trade clause) lack quality defencemen. They have added some more offensive depth, but they need too much to become contenders via free agency alone.

What happens if Tampa Bay struggles next year? Will ownership continue to make "bold" moves, even if the only moves available are stupid moves? Will ownership lose interest? Can ownership afford the financial commitment that comes with their ownership? They were unable to obtain a loan by conventional methods (ie. through a bank) to buy the team and previous owner Bill Davidson extended financing himself. That draws into question how much money they really have available to them. This is particularly true in the case of Len Barrie who has made his fortune (so far) in real estate. Real estate has taken a significant down turn in most US markets, but has not in Western Canada (at least not yet). What happens if the real estate market dries up in Vancouver Island where Barrie is heavily invested? Can he afford to maintain his part in a money losing NHL franchise?

The Tampa Bay Lightning have made some bold moves adding Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts (and negotiating with Brian Rolston) in advance of the start of free agency. The team has many holes and likely will not be a winning team next year despite these additions. What happens with the new ownership when things fail next season? It will be interesting to watch, but I am not overly optimistic.

Here is TSN's story on the Tampa Bay signings.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A UFA All Star Team

Free agency begins in the NHL in a couple days. The 2008 class of free agents is not a strong enough group to significantly affect the fortunes of an NHL team. This is a common situation with free agency under the current CBA. I decided to make an all star team of the 2008 free agent class and think about how this team would do were they an NHL team. Players on this all star team are listed with the last NHL team for which they played:

Sean Avery New York Rangers
Pavol Demitra Minnesota Wild
Sergei Fedorov Washington Capitals
Marian Hossa Pittsburgh Penguins
Kristian Huselius Calgary Flames
Jaromir Jagr New York Rangers
Ryan Malone Pittsburgh Penguins
Markus Naslund Vancouver Canucks
Brian Rolston Minnesota Wild
Joe Sakic Colorado Avalanche
Cory Stillman Ottawa Senators
Mats Sundin Toronto Maple Leafs
Radim Vrbata Phoenix Coyotes
Jason Williams Chicago Blackhawks

Brian Campbell San Jose Sharks
Adam Foote Colorado Avalanche
Brooks Orpik Pittsburgh Penguins
Wade Redden Ottawa Senators
Michal Rozsival New York Rangers
Mark Streit Montreal Canadiens
Brad Stuart Detroit Red Wings

Cristobal Huet Washington Capitals
Jose Theodore Colorado Avalanche

Forgetting salary cap considerations (as this team of players will likely sign for total contracts that well exceed the salary cap), how would this team do? They have a lot of players who have achieved considerable success in their careers, but most are well into decline. Most have had career best seasons many years ago (in the case of Sergei Fedorov as far back as 1993/94). Due to age, there likely would be significant injuries throughout a season.

I would guess such a team would miss the playoffs. They would be far from the worst team in the league and avoid a lottery spot in the draft, but they would be even further from the top team in the league. This underlies the point that you cannot build a team through free agency. The talent pool is not strong enough. It is too thin, too expensive and too old. While there will be a lot of excitement from fans as this group finds their new homes, it won't change the balance of power in the NHL. They are not good enough players to do so.

NOTE: Some of these players will not be unrestricted free agents come the July 1st deadline when free agency begins. Adam Foote re-signed in Colorado and Ryan Malone signed with Tampa Bay.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Free Agency Under The Current CBA

The Central Bargaining Agreement in the NHL changed free agency considerably by lowering the age of unrestricted free agency (to as low as 25 in some cases) and reducing the compensation for restricted free agents. Many thought this was a thinly veiled attempt to allow the best players in the NHL the freedom to sign in the best markets of the league before they reached an age where they were in decline. It hasn't worked out this way. Last year the only top 50 ranked player by The Hockey News to change teams was Ryan Smyth. This year is also a weak pool. It seems to be a trend that there are not a lot of quality free agents. Why is that?

The lowered free agency age has forced teams to sign up their young stars. After their entry level contracts, young star players are signed for far more money than they were in previous CBA and often for longer terms. Teams are paying for potential. In the cases where a player does not develop as expected, he will have a very bad contract.

From the point of view of a young player, this is a good thing. In the past, teams would often play hardball on the player's second contract as the player had little leverage. This has hurt the relations between players and made them more likely to leave when they did become unrestricted free agents. Now with the young players increased leverage, the team pays him closer to his market value at an earlier point in his career. They player is happy with that and the best players rarely reach free agency.

There still are plenty of free agents, but they are usually fringe players who are not important to their previous team. The team figures they can find somebody at least as good (if not better) from other sources (and often at a cheaper salary). Teams can fill out the bottom part of their roster with free agency and might do well if they find a real bargain, but they cannot make a huge change in franchise direction by signing free agents.

The idea that a team will make a splash in the free agent market and turn things around is largely a myth. It is one believed by many fans and often encouraged by team's that promise big results via free agency, but it isn't actually true.

This CBA has opened up the idea of signing restricted free agents. In the past, it was a worthless game. Teams would match the offer and nothing was accomplished except for driving up salaries. The compensation for signing an RFA was so high it was usually prohibitive. With lower compensation, escrow and a salary cap much of that changes. It is impossible to drive salaries up by signing players. Salaries are a set percentage of NHL revenue. The total number paid in salaries does not change if you sign a player to a big contract (it changes the distribution among players - but not the total amount). The salary cap provides an upper limit for teams to spend on salary. If you can push a team near or over the cap you might be able to get them to give you the player and not match the offer. At the very least you have limited any other future moves the team may be able to make by reducing salary cap space. This makes the idea of signing restricted free agents viable.

There have been three offer sheets signed by restricted free agents so far. In 2006, Philadelphia signed Ryan Kesler of Vancouver but the offer was matched. In 2007, Edmonton signed Tomas Vanek of Buffalo to an offer sheet that Buffalo matched and then successfully signed Dustin Penner from Anaheim. These moves did little to improve Edmonton and cost some draft picks that might be valuable to a rebuilding team, but they showed the world that restricted free agents can be signed. They were desperation moves because Edmonton GM promised a big splash in free agency, and since that is nearly impossible, he had to do something to keep fans happy. That doesn't mean a team cannot sign a restricted free agent and have it be a good move. It is possible. The best teams in the NHL have the best chance to do this as their draft picks will be later in the draft and thus less valuable.

To be a good RFA signing, a player must be good enough to be worth his salary and the compensation. His offer sheet must be big enough to keep his current team from matching. That means you will not successfully sign RFA's to small contracts. You have to sign them to big deals and they must be good enough players to justify it.

The CBA lays out the rules for free agency. It has changed the way free agency works in the NHL. Reducing free agency ages have increased the bargaining power of young players in the NHL. These young players tend to sign big longterm contracts before reaching free agency, thus leaving a small number of talented unrestricted free agents. Teams that try to build with free agency fail because of the lack of available talent. There are lots of potentially valuable role player free agents available. The right signing can really help a team, but it will not make a non-contender into a good team. The prospect of signing restricted free agents is increased under this CBA, but not substantially. There are only a couple players any season who are worth signing to large offer sheets. It seems that teams will turn to restricted free agent signings when they failed to make a big splash with unrestricted free agents and that will lead to poor decisions - that is how the Edmonton Oilers operated last summer.

Friday, June 27, 2008

$56.7 Million Salary Cap

The NHL announced yesterday that the salary cap for the 2008/09 season will be $56.7 million. The salary floor will be $40.7 million. This means the Nashville Predators, Phoenix Coyotes and Columbus Blue Jackets will be forced to raise their payroll.

Nashville will be forced to raise payroll by almost $6 million. This may be tough given the current ownership problems the team is having. Phoenix will have to raise payroll by almost $4 million. Although they added Olli Jokinen in a draft day trade, this move does little to help as the players they gave up Keith Ballard and Nik Boynton make roughly as much as Jokinen does. Columbus will have to raise their payroll by almost $2 million.

It is interesting that the salary floor is larger than the $39 million salary cap that existed immediately following the lockout. Because the salary cap is linked to NHL revenues, this does not show that the players "won" the lockout. It merely shows that the NHL revenues are rising and the players are getting their allotted share.

Despite leaguewide revenue rising, there are a few weak markets that are not making significant gains. Nevertheless, these markets must pay out more in salary (and hold back the rest of the league due to revenue sharing). These markets are in a bad situation. They cannot keep up with the league financially and make a profit. I think this will lead to changes in the NHL. I think a few weak markets will be forced to move (or less likely be contracted). This CBA puts direct pressure on markets that are struggling financially. They must pay a minimum salary that they may not be able to afford. They must reach certain goals or they lose revenue sharing money. This CBA may have been designed to help those weaker markets, but it may force them to die when they cannot reach salary floors and cannot qualify for revenue sharing.

It is interesting the way fans react to the news of a rise in the salary cap. In general the see this as a bad thing (for example this blog post). There is a deepseated bias against players making big money. It does not seem to be understood that if the players don't get the money the owners will. It does not seem to be understood that the salary cap is directly linked to revenue, so a jump in the salary cap indicates health of the league. These fans celebrate the news of attendance records (for example here) and grimace at the news of a rise in the salary cap. It is not clear to the casual fan that the two events are strongly related. Higher attendance at games likely means higher revenue, which means higher salary cap. Those fans who are excited about high attendance should be even more excited about a high salary cap.

The salary cup in the NHL is up again. It will be $56.7 million. When free agency starts next week, be aware that Nashville, Phoenix and Columbus must be players merely to satisfy the salary floor. It is an interesting situation when teams that are struggling financially are forced to spend more money in the future. It is one of the absurdities of the current NHL CBA.

Here is the TSN story about the rising salary cap.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Vinny Committing To The Tampa Circus

The Tampa Bay Lightning have new owners. Oren Koules and Len Barrie head a group that has bought the team. They are committed to doing things in an inconventional way. Koules is a movie producer, best known for The Saw movies. Len Barrie is a Vancouver Island real estate developer. Both have played hockey in Western Canada. Barrie was a borderline NHL player who played 184 NHL games over seven seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers, Florida Panthers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings. Oren Koules never made the NHL, but had a reasonable WHL career and played a season in the ACHL. They are making the mistake of being overly involved owners who interfere with the hockey decisions made by the hockey men they employ.

They brought Barry Melrose back to coaching (largely because he is a friend of Koules). They have added Rick Tocchet and Brian Lawton to their organization, while seeing director of player personnel Bill Barber resign. They overruled scouting to see David Carle picked in the seventh round of the draft. Carle (the younger brother of Matt Carle of the San Jose Sharks) has a heart condition that has ended his hockey career - he will not be playing at the University of Denver next year, where he has a scholarship, because of it. Koules saw that Carle would be selected because he claims to know the family and thinks the diagnosis is not as severe as reported. All told, they seem like gung ho fantasy hockey GMs who are trying their hand in the NHL.

The biggest problem they will have is financial. They were unable to get a loan to buy the team through conventional measures. Former owner Bill Davidson is providing the financing of the sale himself. Here is James Mirtle's opinion on the likely circus in Tampa Bay.

What will happen to the new owners when the losses (both financial and on the ice) begin to pile up? Will they lose interest in the team and withdraw? Tampa Bay was a last place team last season. They lack any depth at forward or defence. They have poor goaltending. It seems that losses are inevitable on the ice and those will likely lead to losses financially. It is not clear that Koules and Barrie have the money to handle financial losses and it is not clear that they have the patience to handle the on ice ones. They remind me of the brash new GM who joins your fantasy hockey league, talks trash all through the draft, finds them out of the race by November and never checks on his team again by January. For Tampa's sake, I hope I am wrong.

One key player who is staying in this potential train wreck is Vincent LeCavalier. He is the best player on the Lightning and is very important to any chances at longterm success. LeCavalier can potentially be an unrestricted free agent next summer and if things get bad in Tampa, that would be a move he should consider. However, it is reported that he will be signing a nine year $77 million contract. Although that is big money, a player of LeCavalier's ability could command at least that much on the open market. So this is not his only shot at this big payday. I think it is a reasonable question for LeCavalier to be asking if ownership has the resources to stick around long enough to see that contract through. If they do not, what happens to the contract and what happens to the Tampa Bay Lightning? Does he really want to be a part of that uncertainty? The contract cannot be officially announced until July 1st, since under the CBA a player cannot sign a contract extension until the final year of his current deal (at that final year starts July 1st).

Tampa Bay will be interesting to watch. It is unlikely they will have a good season. How will ownership react when that occurs? Can ownership withstand the likely financial losses? What happens to Vincent LeCavalier and the Tampa Bay Lightning if things get ugly?

Here is the TSN story about the contract - with no discussion of the new ownership.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Disciplining The Owners

The NHL has had problems consistently doling out punishment for players. If a fringe player like Chris Simon stomps on a player's ankle he gets a 30 game suspension. If a star player like Chris Pronger does it he initially goes unpunished, but upon further review receives an eight game suspension that brings him back in time for the playoffs. Now the inconsistent punishment machine has to be applied to the owners.

The first team to receive reprimand is the New York Rangers. They have sued the NHL unsuccessfully over the right to run their own website independent of the NHL. For their troubles, the NHL has threatened to suspend or boot the Madison Square Gardens group from owning an NHL team. The biggest problem with this move is it set the bar too high for any future owners who require discipline.

Henry Samueli, the owner of the Anaheim Ducks has pleaded guilty in a stock options fraud case. He pled guilty to lying to investigators in their investigation of the backdating of stock options at Broadcom, the semiconductor company he co-founded. Although he will avoid jail time, he receives five years probation, must make a $12 million payment to the US Treasury and pay a $250,000 criminal fine. As a result, the NHL has suspended him as an owner. Whether or not this is a punishment with any teeth is still an open question. As a hockey owner, Samueli's job is for the most part to allow the hockey people in charge of his franchise (ie GM Brian Burke) run things while he stays out of their way as they know more about hockey than he ever will. Officially, the Anaheim Duck CEO and associate governor Michael Schulman will run things during Samueli's suspension. Of course Schulman probably already has in mind Samueli's budget and his willingness to enter into longterm contracts with current players, free agents and GM Brian Burke. Basically, I imagine the team will be run for the most part to Samueli's liking with him "on suspension".

Unfortunately for the NHL, this is not the biggest case of impropriety among owners. Former Nashville Predator minority owner William "Boots" Del Biaggio has declared bankruptcy and is under investigation for fraud regarding several of his loans. This leaves the Predators in a bad place and it leaves the NHL in a worse position. It has come out that the money used to buy his interest in the Predators was loaned to him (in part) by Philip Anschutz who owns the Los Angeles Kings and Craig Leipold who owns the Minnesota Wild. The NHL does not allow the same person to own multiple teams because of the potential conflict of interest when those teams compete against one another. Current owners financing the purchase of rival teams cross that line. These loans were made without Bettman's knowledge and approval. Anschutz owns many arenas throughout the world including the Sprint Center in Kansas City (that has long been trying to obtain an NHL tenant in their building). Del Biaggio initially was involved with the Nashville ownership situation to try to move the Predators to Kansas City. When it became clear this was not going to happen now, he publically claimed Del Biaggio was no longer involved the Anschutz group, despite the fact they were secretly loaning him money. It seems clear that his desire was to be in a position of power to help move the Nashville Predators to Kansas City should local ownership fail. Craig Leipold is the former Nashville owner. He sold the Predators to buy into the more financially successful Minnesota Wild. It looks like he was willing to provide (secret) financing in that deal in order to get himself a team with better financial prospects.

Both Philip Anschutz and Craig Leipold should be punished more severely than Henry Samueli or the Madison Square Gardens Group because what they did directly challenges the idea that the NHL is a fair league. They opened things up to potential conflicts of interest between Nashville and Minnesota and Nashville and Los Angeles. They did this with their secret backroom dealings which are illegal in the NHL.

We will see how Gary Bettman responds to Leipold and Anschutz. If he is consistent, their punishments should be significantly larger than the other punishments to NHL owners. The problem is that the NHL cannot afford to suspend owners or force sales of a large number of franchises simultaneously. It will weaken the league and hurt the values of all franchises. I suspect this will force the NHL's hand to make the upcoming punishments smaller than they should be (if they exist at all).

In the American capitalist system, those who get to the top often do it with questionable backroom deals. The NHL is no different from other branches of big business. The problem is the NHL must have many strong franchises to be a strong league (unlike normal capitalist situations where one player can take over a large share of the market). How they react when it becomes clear that the owners are involved in shady dealings will be a major test for the league. If it turns out Gary Bettman was aware of the shady dealings and ignored them until they came to light in the media, his run as NHL commissioner may end in disgrace.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Potentially Awful Goaltending Situation

The Nashville Predators have done well to ice a competitive team with the ownership problems they have faced. The bad news keeps pouring in as minority owner William "Boots" Del Biaggio is being investigated for fraud and has declared bankruptcy and must now be replaced.

These problems will eventually affect the on ice product because the team cannot afford to pay much above the salary floor in payroll. They have jettisoned a talented group of players (including Paul Kariya, Tomas Vokoun, Kimmo Timonen...) due in a large part to payroll considerations. This practise has the potential to affect Nashville's goaltending in a big way this season.

Last year, Nashville's goaltending finished in the middle of the pack, thanks in a large part to Dan Ellis. Ellis is a 28 year old; who in his first NHL season led the NHL with a .924 saves percentage (he had a 2.34 goals against average). He stole the number one goalie job from Chris Mason who put up a lacklustre .898 saves percentage and a 2.90 GAA. Ellis was to be a free agent this summer and Nashville could not afford Ellis and Mason (who signed a contract that will earn him $3 million a year for the next two seasons). Dan Ellis just signed a $3.5 million two year contract ($1.75 million per year). For most NHL teams, $4.75 million for two goalies is not unreasonable, but Nashville decided they cannot afford it. As a result, they traded (nearly gave away) Chris Mason to the St Louis Blues for a fourth round draft pick which was later flipped to the New York Rangers in a deal for draft picks.

Nashville goes into next season with Dan Ellis and Pekka Rinne as their goaltending tandem. This is one of the weakest tandems in the league. It could be a very bad pairing. If Ellis cannot repeat last year (which was a surprise given that he looked like a career AHL goalie going into the season) and Pekka Rinne cannot prove to be an NHL goalie (he has thus far played 102 minutes in parts of three games at the NHL level), this team could be an NHL team stuck with two AHL level goalies. Should that happen, Nashville will fall substantially in the standings.

This situation only exists due to attempts to keep costs down. Over the last two seasons, Nashville has traded away Tomas Vokoun (to Florida) along with Chris Mason. Vokoun and Mason or Vokoun and Ellis would make a strong goaltending pair, but Ellis and Rinne is quite weak. Should Ellis prove last year was a fluke (which is not unlikely) and Rinne be unable to show he belongs at the NHL level what happens to Nashville?

Cost cutting might be necessary in some weak markets like Nashville. The problem is eventually cost cutting severely weakens the team. It looks quite likely that Nashville's goaltending could be totally destroyed next year due to cost cutting moves. If this happens, Nashville should finish well out of the playoffs.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Montreal Making An Early Splash

Since it is still June, it is far too early to make serious predictions about next year, but one team that is looking good is the Montreal Canadiens. Last season, Montreal won the East Conference. Since then, they have already been working on improving their roster. They acquired Alex Tanguay from Calgary along with a fifth round pick (which was used on Russian played Maxim Trunov) in exchange for their first round pick (used on Greg Nemisz from the OHL) and a second round pick next year. This is a relatively cheap price for a player as good as Tanguay. Montreal gave up nobody on their roster and added a legitimate scoring threat. They have also obtained permission to talk to Mats Sundin of the Toronto Maple Leafs prior to the July 1st date when free agency begins. Should Montreal manage to sign Sundin (a big if) they would have to be considered the favorite to win the Eastern Conference next season. Even without Sundin, they are clearly among the favorites (and possibly the favorite).

Pittsburgh (the East Champion in the playoffs) will have a hard time keeping their roster together given salary cap concerns. It looks clear that Marian Hossa will leave via free agency. This opens the door for another team to have a good chance to be the power in the east and Montreal seems to be barging through that door.

Of course, since free agency has not yet begun, it is hard to make any definitive predictions. Teams may look very different come the start of the season, than they do right now. One thing is clear. Montreal is gearing up to be an eastern power and might make a strong run this year.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

An Empty Threat

One story I failed to comment on during the Hall of Fame inductions and the entry draft is the ongoing fight between the New York Rangers and the NHL. Last September, the New York Rangers sued the NHL over marketing. The New York Rangers are fighting for control of their website - which now sends you to and the NHL wants control over all websites. This is a dispute over how internet related revenues are to be handled. The NHL wants to control them to increase their bottomline and the Rangers want them to themselves because if they are not subject to revenue sharing (etc.) it will increase the Rangers bottomline. We have a battle where what is good for the entire NHL holds back the individual members. There is less incentive for the New York Rangers to be creative in building new revenue streams if they lose significant portions of that money in the form of revenue sharing.

The courts ruled in favor of the NHL but the fight continues. The New York Rangers are still trying to fight for their individually controlled website. The NHL is now fighting back. The NHL has filed court papers claiming the New York Rangers have violated their contract with the NHL by publically challenging league rules. This might allow them to suspend the ownership of the New York Rangers or even boot them out of the league.

The New York Rangers are owned by Madison Square Gardens, which is owned by Cablevision Inc and largely by the Dolan family. Booting them out of the NHL would be a bad move for the league. The New York Rangers are the top American team in ticket revenue and this would be threatened by such a move. If Madison Square Gardens own the Rangers, it would be hard for them to find a suitable arena to play in, if they were booted out of MSG. Perhaps they could share the Nassau Coliseum with the New York Islanders temporarily, but that would not be a positive thing. A big reason the Rangers do as well as they do is that they play in a famous arena in the population center of Manhattan. If they were forced to move elsewhere, many of their fans might not follow. It would go a long way to killing the fanbase.

The NHL does not want that to happen. They have enough trouble finding owners in places like Nashville and don't want to create problems in what should be strong markets like New York City. However, they do want to strongarm the Rangers to make them comply with NHL wishes and are willing to make bold threats that they cannot afford to follow through with to see that happen.

Here is TSN's story on the developments.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Florida On A Track To Nowhere

The first day of the NHL Entry Draft is done. Teams picked their young players who will hopefully be a part of their franchise in the future, but given the young age of the players it is really hard to speculate on which picks will turn out to be the best ones. Along with the first picks in the draft came several draft day trades. In most cases it was a player that a team wanted to move exchanged for draft picks and lesser players. The one trade that might be the biggest one has the potential to be an awful move for the Florida Panthers.

Florida traded top scorer Olli Jokinen to the Phoenix Coyotes for Nik Boynton, Keith Ballard and a second round pick in 2008 that was previously acquired from Ottawa. Florida gives up their best offensive player for two defenceman who are unlikely to ever be stars and a draft pick that is well back from the first round. Not a good move. It is a deal that Phoenix should be happy about. They added to their offensive depth without giving up any core players.

It had long been known that Jokinen wanted out of Florida. He is unhappy with the Panther team that seems to be going nowhere. The Florida Panthers have not been in the playoffs since 2000 and it looks unlikely that streak will end anytime soon. This trade sets them further back in that goal. This trade leaves them with Nathan Horton as the only player on their roster who scored more than 45 points last year. That is a recipe for a potential last place finish.

There are rumors that with the defensive additions, Florida may now trade Jay Bouwmeester, who is by far their best defenceman. That would be a further step in the wrong direction.

This trade has the potential to be as bad for Florida as the Roberto Luongo trade where the most useful piece Florida got in return for their all star goalie is Bryan Allen. If Florida keeps making moves like this, they will never get anywhere. The man who keeps orchestrating these bad deals Jacques Martin has recently been signed longterm. I don't see things getting better in Florida for a long time.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Glenn Anderson Is a Poor Hall Of Fame Selection

The 2008 Hockey Hall of Fame inductions were announced this week. One of the players selected was Glenn Anderson. Just as I did with Igor Larionov, I want to write about him and explain why I find him a poor Hall of Fame selection.

Glenn Anderson was drafted out of the University of Denver in the fourth round by the Edmonton Oilers in 1979. Anderson did not stay in the NCAA. He left after one year, initially to play with the Seattle Breakers of the WHL, but soon joined the Canadian National Team and played for Canada in the 1980 Olympics.

In the beginning of the 1980/81 season, he joined the Edmonton Oilers. Anderson quickly established himself as one of their better scorers. His speed and his fearless net crashing made him a star on the Oilers right (and sometimes left) wing. Anderson scored 53 points in 58 games in his first NHL season and as a sophomore hit 105 points. This was one of three times he would clear 100 points in his NHL career. As an Oiler he was an NHL star, though not as big a star as teammates Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Grant Fuhr. Anderson played in four NHL All Star Games. He was an important part of the five Edmonton Oiler Stanley Cup victories. He played internationally for Canada in two Canada Cups. He is best remembered as a playoff star for the Oilers and was consistently one of they top playoff scorers (though never the top playoff scorer). By 1991 the Oiler dynasty was being dismantled, and Anderson was traded to Toronto along with Grant Fuhr and Craig Berube for Vincent Damphousse, Peter Ing, Scott Thornton and Luke Richardson.

In Toronto, Anderson was one of the better scorers on the team, but he never returned to the heights he once routinely reached as an Oiler. His best offensive total with the Maple Leafs was 65 points. Anderson was still a driving force for the Maple Leafs in the playoffs. Though the Maple Leafs never reached the finals, they had some relatively good playoff runs and Anderson was again one of their better scorers in them. In 1994, Anderson wanted to play for Team Canada in the Olympics. He had the option written into his contract for an Olympic release. Despite this, Anderson's Olympic release was denied by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. At the 1994 trade deadline, Anderson was traded to the New York Rangers along with Scott Malone and a fourth round draft choice (used on Alexander Korobolin) for Mike Gartner.

The New York Rangers were a strong team that was built in part around many ex-Edmonton Oilers including Mark Messier and Kevin Lowe. Anderson joined the club in time for their 1994 Stanley Cup victory (this was Anderson's sixth). Anderson did not have a stellar playoff run. He only scored 6 points in 23 playoff games and was not asked back to the Rangers club.

Anderson played in Europe instead. He played five games in German and four in Finland before joining the Canadian National Team. In mid-season he was signed by the St Louis Blues, but remained with them for only the remainder of the season. In only six playoff games that year, Anderson recorded 49 penalty minutes and led the entire playoffs with that total. Anderson was again left without a good NHL offer and again chose to play internationally.

Anderson rejoined the Canadian National Team and played again in Germany the next season. At mid-season, he signed as a free agent with the Vancouver Canucks, but new rules forced anybody who had played in Europe to clear waivers before playing in the NHL. The Edmonton Oilers claimed Anderson on waivers. Although Anderson scored ten points in 17 games, he was a defensive liability. Edmonton eventually waived him and he was claimed by St Louis. Anderson added four more points in 15 games with the Blues and five more in 11 playoff games. Again without a legitimate NHL offer, Anderson returned to Europe. He played in Switzerland the next season before retiring from hockey.

Glenn Anderson was a star upon arrival in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers. His speed and willingness to crash the net made him a valuable scorer for the deep powerhouse team. He was a very good scorer, retiring with 498 goals and 1099 points in 1129 NHL games played. In the playoffs he recorded 93 career goals (good for fifth all time) and 214 points (fourth all time) in 225 career playoff games. Due in a large part to those playoff numbers and his six Stanley Cup victories, he is remembered as a clutch playoff performer. He was never defensively strong and when his speed (and thus his offence) began to fade he bounced in and out of the NHL. I feel he is a poor Hall of Fame choice and once wrote this article explaining why I feel this way. To better address this question, I will answer Bill James' Hall of Fame questions on Anderson (as I did with Larionov - who is a good choice).

1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?

No. Nobody would have ever been able to make a realistic argument that Glenn Anderson was the best player in hockey at any point of his career.

2. Was he the best player on his team?

No. Anderson was not the best player on his team, although his team with Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, Coffey and Fuhr was arguably the best team ever assembled in the NHL and thus this question is a bit unfair to Anderson. There were many teams in the NHL in the 1980's were Anderson would have been their best player had he played on them.

3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?

No. Anderson never made the first or second all star teams in his career, thus arguing he was the best at his position is not reasonable.

4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

Anderson had a significant impact in the Stanley Cup playoffs on many occasions. He won six Stanley Cups. He is the four highest point scorer in Stanley Cup playoff history and the fifth highest goal scorer. At the time of his retirement, only Maurice Richard had more career playoff overtime goals. Anderson's five playoff overtime goals has since also been passed by Joe Sakic. Anderson scored at point per game or better rate in seven playoff runs. Three of those playoff runs won Stanley Cups. Even when his regular season offensive numbers began to fade, he had some good playoff runs (for example he had 18 points in 21 games with the 1993 Toronto Maple Leafs). Despite that playoff success, Anderson was never seriously considered for the Conn Smythe Trophy. There were always players around who were more valuable during the playoffs. Anderson's career playoff numbers are probably somewhat a consequence of the circumstance in which he played. The Edmonton Oilers were the highest scoring most dominant playoff team in history since the playoffs have expanded to four rounds. Thus Anderson had more opportunity to play in high scoring playoff games than almost everybody in history. Though he is the fourth highest scorer in playoff history, he has a lower playoff points per game than many players below him in the all time playoff scoring race. The top five players in all time playoff scoring (Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, Anderson and Coffey) are all Oilers, due to the extreme number of high scoring playoff games played by that team. Anderson has the lowest playoff points per game of the five Oilers, although that is largely due to his Stanley Cup run with the New York Rangers where he only managed six points.

5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?

No. Anderson was 33 in his last full NHL season. From that point on, he spent at least half of each season in Europe because of a lack of legitimate NHL offers. Anderson's last near point per game season was in 1989/90 with the Edmonton Oilers where he scored 72 points in 73 games. He was 29 at the time. Anderson was never a good defensive player and when his scoring slowed down he was not a good role player to keep around. He bounced around the NHL and Europe late in his career far more than a traditional Hall of Fame player.

6. Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

An argument could possibly be made that he is based upon his playoff success, but I would disagree with it. I would argue that Doug Gilmour, Adam Oates, Sergei Makarov, Dino Ciccarelli and Mark Howe are all clear examples of players who are Hall of Fame eligible and are better than Anderson.

7. Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?

Yes. Anderson nearly scored 500 career goals (498) and had well over 1000 career points (1099). Most players with that level of career totals do make the Hall of Fame. However, the exceptions to that rule all played during the same era that Anderson played. It was the highest scoring period in the modern NHL. There are several Hall of Fame eligible players with similar totals including Dino Ciccarelli, Vincent Damphousse, Bernie Nicholls, Pat Verbeek and Dave Taylor who are Hall of Fame eligible and are not inducted. Adam Oates and Doug Gilmour have hundreds more career points, are Hall of Fame eligible, but are not inducted. If we look at Anderson's playoff career totals, all players with close to his totals are in the Hall of Fame. The best counter-example to that claim is Doug Gilmour, who has 188 career playoff points (26 less than Anderson) and is not in the Hall of Fame. However, on a point per game scoring rate in the playoffs, Anderson's numbers are not so spectacular. They are similar to Brian Propp, Craig Janney and Steve Larmer (all of whom did not have the opportunity to play as many playoff games as Anderson - but still managed 100 or more games). They fail in comparison to Doug Gilmour, Adam Oates or Kevin Stevens and none of them are in the Hall of Fame and all are eligible.

8. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?

Probably his numbers do make Hall of Fame standards, but they come with two big caveats. He played in the highest scoring era ever and he played on a team that allowed him many playoff games. Thus his numbers are probably higher than they otherwise would be due to the circumstances of his career.

9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

The biggest piece of evidence that Anderson was worse than his numbers is the way he bounced around and eventually out of the NHL after he stopped scoring. There wasn't enough in his game to keep him a valuable NHL player if he wasn't a top scorer. His lack of defensive value made him a liability when he wasn't scoring. His offensive totals themselves are inflated due to the period in which he played and in the case of his playoff totals due to the team for whom he played.

On the flip side, one might argue that Anderson was a clutch player whose playoff success proved he was a better player than his numbers showed. I do not give much credence to this argument because he was never the MVP of his team in the playoffs and thus his playoff totals are largely due to the circumstances of his career. He was lucky to be on teams good enough to play as many playoff games as he did.

10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?

No. I would argue that Dino Ciccarelli and Sergei Makarov are two wingers who were better players than Anderson who are not in the Hall of Fame, although it would not be entirely ridiculous to disagree with me.

11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?

Anderson never had an MVP-type season. He never had a season where he made the first or second all star team. During his best season, he might have been approximately a tenth place choice for an MVP award. As such, he was not ever seriously considered as an MVP nominee.

12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go into the Hall of Fame?

Anderson appeared in four All Star Games and was selected the Rendez-Vous 1987 team which was the equivalent of an All Star Team. He was selected to two Canada Cup teams. Playing on the deep Oiler team, he may have missed out on a couple more All Star Teams due to the need to have a player from each team on the All Star Team (and the fact many other Oilers were already there). At told, he had about seven All Star-type seasons. This number is on the low end for a Hall of Famer, but many players in the Hall of Fame have similar totals. In most cases, these are players (who if they played in modern times) had injury shortened careers. Anderson is a borderline Hall of Famer at best case on his All Star seasons.

13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?

It is very hard to conclusively answer this question because in his prime Anderson was definitely not the best player on his team. This was due to his playing on an outstanding team. There were teams that won their division who had best players who were roughly Anderson's calibre, although more often than not they were not serious contenders. It is possible that a team with Anderson in his prime as their best player could have been a division winner, but I don't see them as a serious Stanley Cup contender.

14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?

The run and gun style of the Edmonton Oilers defined hockey in the 1980's. Anderson was a part of that team. However, it is not correct to credit Anderson with the introduction of that style. The player most responsible would be Wayne Gretzky. The next most responsible player would likely be the puck-moving defence of Paul Coffey. Anderson was a strong supporting cast member on this team. He was a star, but he did not define the way they played. As a result, Anderson had little personal impact on hockey history. He was, however, part of one of the seminal teams in hockey history.

15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?

This has been a problem for Anderson. During his career he was seen as a bit of a flake. His Oiler teammates called him Mork (after the TV show Mork and Mindy) - a nickname he disliked. Since retiring, he has run into legal problems for non-payment of child support as he is an absentee father. He averaged about a penalty minute per game in his regular season career and could not exactly be called a sportsmanlike player, though he was definitely not a goon. In playoff time, Anderson tended to be a little less disciplined. He had 442 career playoff penalty minutes in 225 playoff games. This puts him well into the top ten in career playoff penalty minutes. He once led the playoffs in penalty minutes (despite only playing six games). Sportsmanship and character are not the strong points of Anderson's Hall of Fame case.

Glenn Anderson was a very good member of a great team, the Edmonton Oilers. When the playoffs were underway, he was usually one of the better players on his team. He scored many memorable goals in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He is one of the highest scorers in Stanley Cup playoff history (due in a large part to the number of playoff games he played). This is the strongest point in Glenn Anderson's Hall of Fame case. He was never the best player in the NHL or on his team. He did not have the longevity that most Hall of Famers of his era enjoyed. He never won any individual awards. The question to be answered is how important to his cup wins was he? Is it truer that Anderson's teams won six Stanley Cups because of Anderson or Anderson won six Stanley Cups because of his team? I think the team argument is much stronger. As a result, I do not think Glenn Anderson should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Igor Larionov Is A Good Hall Of Fame Selection

The 2008 class of the Hockey Hall of Fame was recently announced. Among them was Igor Larionov who I feel is a very good addition to the Hall of Fame.

Larionov first played in the Russian Elite League at age 17 and was quickly established as one of the best players in the league. He played twelve years in Russia and was a four time Russian League All Star and the Player of the Year in 1988. He had a very successful international career playing for the Russians. He was a two time World Championship All Star and a one time World Junior Championship All Star. He is best known for playing on top Soviet forward line - the KLM Line (along with Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov). In many international tournaments, such as Canada Cups, he showed himself to be as good as (if not better than) many players who currently are members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Larionov was known as the "Russian Wayne Gretzky" not so much because he was a dominant in the Russian system as Gretzky was in the NHL, but because he was the top Russian centreman and had a very similar skillset to Gretzky.

At age 29, when the Soviet Union was falling apart, Larionov had his chance to play in the NHL. He joined the Vancouver Canucks who had spent an eleventh round draft pick on him back in 1985. He made a difficult transition to the NHL scoring only 44 points in his first season and 34 in his second. Things began to click in his third season where he scored 65 point and added ten more in 13 playoff games. Despite his success, Larionov wanted to leave the NHL temporarily to play in Switzerland. The Canucks were paying a large annual transfer fee to the Russians for Larionov's services, which he did not approve of. By playing a year outside the NHL, the transfer fee would no longer exist. Larionov played a year with Lugano of the Swiss League.

The Vancouver Canucks left Larionov exposed in the waiver draft and he was selected by the San Jose Sharks. San Jose lured Larionov back to the NHL the next season and Igor played for the Sharks for a little over two years. He was then traded to Detroit for Ray Sheppard in early 1995.

Detroit set up a situation where Russian players could thrive. The team played the left wing lock, which was the trap system widely used in the Russian system. They put together a five man Russian unit (as in the Russian League, five men units of forwards and defencemen were often kept together). This unit included Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov, Slava Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov along with Larionov. It was here that Larionov had his greatest NHL success. He scored 71 points in the remaining 69 games in his first season in Detroit. In his first stint in Detroit, Larionov was a key part of two Stanley Cup winners (1997 and 1998). He played in the 1998 NHL All Star Game.

In 2000, Larionov was signed as a free agent by the Florida Panthers. His Florida stay lasted only 26 games before he was traded back to Detroit for Yan Golubovsky. He was a key player in one more Detroit Stanley Cup in 2002.

In 2003, Larionov signed as a free agent with the New Jersey Devils. He was now the NHL's oldest player. He was limited to 49 games played and scored on 11 points before announcing his retirement.

Larionov has a very unusual career trajectory. He was widely considered one of the best players in the game when he was playing in the Soviet system. At age 29, he had to learn a new lifestyle and a new system of hockey to play in the NHL. Though he was probably in the latter part of the prime of his career physically, the learning curve was steep. He was 36 when he had his best NHL season. It is highly unusual for a player to peak in the NHL at such an advanced age. This was the point when the combination of his physical skills and his knowledge of the hockey system under which he played reached a maximum in the NHL. This fact alone suggests that had Larionov been raised in the North American system he might have had much higher scoring totals in his first NHL seasons and much higher career totals as a result. it also suggests that many European stars who came to the NHL and were not given as long a chance as Larionov could have been very good NHL players had they had the opportunity. Larionov remained a useful NHL player at a higher age than all but a handful of NHL players in the league's history. This is a testimony to his skills. In his NHL career, Larionov scored 644 points in 921 NHL games. This was a career that did not begin until Larionov was 29, an age where many NHL players' careers are winding down.

Because Larionov is an unusual case, it is hard to map him to the questions Bill James asks about potential Hall of Fame players. Nevertheless, I will try (note Bill James's questions are for baseball but can be applied to hockey).

1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?

Any reasonable analysis would call Wayne Gretzky the best hockey player in the world during Larionov's prime, so he was not the best player in hockey at any point. However, it is reasonable to say he was the best player in the Soviet system for a while - afterall he was their player of the year in 1988 - though I think most people would argue Sergei Makarov or Slava Fetisov was the best Russian player at the time. It is hard to answer exactly where the best Soviet players line up in a list of the best players of the 1980's because of the lack of games between the NHL and the Soviet system, but in those games played it is clear Larionov was one of the best players in the world. At no point in his NHL career would anyone have seriously considered Larionov to have been the best player in the NHL, however if a handful of NHL stars had joined the Russian League instead of it being the other way around, it is not clear whether or not that might have changed and Larionov might have been considered the best player in the world. Of course, that point is pure speculation.

2. Was he the best player on his team?

At no point in Larionov's NHL career was he the best player on his team. He was clearly the best player on the Central Red Army Team in 1988 when he was the player of the year. That is an impressive feat since the Central Red Army Team was essentially the all star team of the Soviet system and contained all of the best players in the league. That said, more often than not, during Larionov's tenure in Russia, another player would likely have been selected as the best player on his team.

3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?

Wayne Gretzky was the best centreman in hockey during Larionov's prime and Mario Lemieux afterwards. No, Larionov was not the best centre in hockey. He was clearly the best centre in the Soviet League for many years.

4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

The NHL equivalent of pennant races is probably the Stanley Cup playoffs (since there isn't really a heated race for first in a division or conference). Larionov was a key contributor in several Stanley Cup playoffs winning three cups with the Detroit Red Wings. He was never the best player on the team, but he made many important plays and scored important goals (most famously a 2002 triple overtime goal in the finals vs. Carolina in game three - making Larionov the oldest player ever to score in the Stanley Cup finals). Larionov's playoff success is not limited to his time in Detroit. He was a key playoff performer in both San Jose and Vancouver. In fact, his most productive Stanley Cup playoff offensively was in 1994 with the San Jose Sharks when he scored 18 points in 14 playoff games.

5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?

Definitely. In fact, for a time he was the oldest player to play in the NHL since Gordie Howe (though Chris Chelios is now older). There are no players who were valued NHL contributors at an older age than Larionov who are not in the Hall of Fame (if they are eligible - which Chelios is not since he is still active).

6. Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

A case could be made that Larionov is the best hockey player ever who is Hall of Fame eligible and was not yet there. That case depends on how you value his time in Russia and how you address the fact he didn't hit his NHL prime until age 36. It is a viable argument and one which I believe is accurate but it is very hard to show statistically.

7. Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?

Here is the problem with Larionov's case. His NHL statistics are not as good as most Hall of Famers. This is because he was 29 when he played his first game and 36 when he hit his peak. Very few Russian players have as good statistics as Larionov does while in Russia, but since Valeri Kharlamov is the only Russian forward in the Hall of Fame, it is impossible to make any kind of comparative argument since there are so few players to compare with. There do exist players (Sergei Makarov is the best example) with better statistics in Russia who are not in the Hall of Fame, though very few Russian players have numbers as good as Larionov.

8. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?

As with the previous question this is hard to answer. Larionov's Russian numbers meet the Hall of Fame standards by themselves if we assume that Kharlamov is the standard. His NHL numbers are poor by Hall of Fame standards but that is because his prime years were not spent in the NHL.

9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

Larionov was significantly better than his NHL numbers suggest. He was 29 before his first NHL game and 36 when he hit his NHL peak. In international play he was clearly as good as many of the best NHL players of the 1980's who are now in the Hockey Hall of Fame. I think it is clear that had Larionov been raised in the North American system it is clear that his numbers would be among the best all time.

10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?

If we accept the case that Larionov is the best player who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in it, then he is the best centreman who is not in the hall. His rivals would be Doug Gilmour and Adam Oates, but I think it is a reasonable statement to say Larionov was a better player, however not in his NHL years.

11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?

Larionov never had anything resembling an MVP-type season in the NHL. He had an MVP season in the Soviet Union in 1988. Whether that is comparable to an NHL MVP season is debatable. He had three or four MVP-type seasons in the Soviet League.

12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go into the Hall of Fame?

Larionov played in one NHL All Star game in 1998 and this was more of a career appreciation than a suggestion that he was having an all star type season in 1998. It was a 47 point season for Larionov. The closest he came to an All Star type season was 1995/96 where he scored 73 points in 73 games. In the Soviet League, Larionov had All Star type seasons every year of the 1980s. Most Hall of Famers play in many more All Star Games than Larionov and that is because most Hall of Famers play the best years of their career in the NHL.

13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?

If the older Larionov we saw in the NHL was the best player on his team they would not have much chance at winning their division or the conference. Larionov was a top second and third line centreman in his NHL career. That said there were weak teams where he might have been their top scorer at times. Those teams would be basement dwellers. If his talent level in his prime in the Soviet League carried over to the NHL, he would have been as good as many players who were the top players on division and conference winning teams. In Russia, the Central Red Army was essentially a league all star team and Larionov was their best player at times. They clearly won the league championship.

14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?

Larionov was the most successful NHL player of the first wave of Russian stars to enter the NHL. He was one of the key players in bringing the successful implementation of the left wing lock system in the NHL in the 1990's. He was part of a group of five players who switched as a unit while in Detroit. That was definitely a new technique for the NHL, though as of yet it has not caught on as an NHL strategy. Larionov played a big part in establishing Russians and Russian hockey in the NHL.

15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?

Despite the widely held stereotype of selfish Russians who do not care about their team, Igor Larionov was a popular selfless player who is well loved in the hockey media. This alone is a remarkable achievement. Larionov was a popular character player with teammates and played with sportsmanship.

These questions do not suit Larionov well because his prime was not played in the NHL. It was played in the Soviet system. There likely are several Soviet players who are Hall of Fame talents who either did not play in the NHL or only played in the tail ends of their careers. I hope that at some point more of them get inducted. It doesn't look like that will happen in the immediate future.

It is unclear how many Russians do belong in the Hall of Fame. The best way to attempt to answer this might be through a demographic study. If the Russians are able to produce a Hall of Famer every n years after the fall of their league, assuming conditions were roughly the same they should have produced one at the same rate when their Soviet system was going strong. The assumption that everything else stays constant is clearly a poor one. The fall of communism in Russia changed things dramatically. The rise of a stronger Russian League that is already drawing borderline NHL talent will change things again. Further, noting that there likely should be a given number of Soviet players who made the Hall of Fame does not prove they actually do exist or help identify those players.

Igor Larionov's induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame is a good one. He was one of the best players in hockey and managed to remain a very good one into his forties. He had an unusual career since he did not play in the NHL until age 29 and did not hit his peak until age 36. As a result, his NHL numbers alone do not make his Hall of Fame case. Nevertheless, he has a very strong Hall of Fame case and it can be argued that he is the best player who was available for induction.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hockey Hall Of Fame Inductions

Yesterday, the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted four new members. Added were players Igor Larionov and Glenn Anderson, builder Ed Chynoweth and linesman Ray Scapinello. Although this was a year with no first time eligible players, due to the 2004/05 lockout, I argued that there is enough of a backlog of Hall of Fame eligible players that the Hall should have added their maximum of four players. If I was on the Hall of Fame Committee, I would have argued for the induction of Igor Larionov, Adam Oates, Sergei Makarov and Dino Ciccarelli. Only one of those four selections (Larionov) was inducted. This is a sign to the better Hall of Fame candidate players who were overlooked that they might not make it. Next year will be a tough year for any of them to be added. There is a good crop of first time eligible players. There are five players who are first time eligible that I believe should be inducted. They are Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Brian Leetch and Dave Andreychuk. Since only four can be inducted in a year, likely we will see four of that group (and not Andreychuk) making the Hall next year. Likely that means that those who missed out this year will miss out again next year.

Igor Larionov is a very good choice for the Hall. He was one of the best players in the world while he was in Russia playing with the Central Red Army. He came to the NHL at age 29 and had a very good NHL career for well over a decade afterwards. There are not enough of the early Russian players in the Hall of Fame and it looks like that problem may never be fully fixed, but adding Larionov is a step in the right direction. I would have liked to see Sergei Makarov join him.

Although I am not totally upset with the selection of Glenn Anderson, I disagree with it. I once wrote why Glenn Anderson is not a Hall of Famer and I stand by my argument. Basically, he was no better a player than other non-hall contemporaries such as Dave Taylor, Bernie Nicholls and Tim Kerr, except that he was lucky enough to play on a team that did very well in the Stanley Cup playoffs (and he scored very well with them). Defensively, he was not particularly strong. As soon as his offense deteriorated, his useful career was over. The strongest argument for Anderson's induction is the fact that he is the forth highest point scorer in playoff history. While that is an impressive credential, it a largely due to the circumstance in which he played. Anderson played in the highest scoring era after the playoffs were extended to four rounds. Anderson played on the best team of that era. As a result, Anderson played more playoff games than almost anybody and hence scored more points. It is no coincidence that the three players above him in all time playoff scoring are his Edmonton Oiler teammates in Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri and the player in fifth is another Oiler teammate in Paul Coffey. This playoff record is largely due to the fact he was an Oiler at the right time. Other players who were roughly contemporaries like Steve Larmer, Craig Janney and Bernie Nicholls managed to score as well in the playoffs (or better) on a point per game basis, but were unable to get as many total points because they didn't happen to play on as good a team. I do not buy the argument that Anderson's Hall of Fame induction was delayed due to character issues (he is an absentee father who has been in trouble for non-payment of child support). I think he is one of the better players who do not quite make Hall of Fame standards.

Ed Chynoweth is a good choice for the builder category. He was the first full-time president of the Western Hockey League. The trophy for its champion is named in his honor (the Ed Chynoweth Cup). He served as president of the Canadian Hockey League for 20 years. He was a longtime member of the Hall of Fame Committee who died in April. While his induction is deserved, it is somewhat of a conflict of interest for the Hall of Fame Committee to induct him. The same can be said of last year's induction of Jim Gregory. While it is true that anybody asked to serve on the Hall of Fame Committee, who serves for a long time is probably worthy of Hall induction, it does not look good when the committee keeps inducting itself. There needs to be a better method to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. I think Chynoweth's induction was the most predictable of the 2008 inductions because of his recent death. It was highly likely the Hall of Fame Committee would see fit to honor him given those circumstances.

Ray Scapinello is a longtime NHL linesman who officiated over 2500 NHL regular season games (plus playoff games, All Star Games, Olympics). He was a very good linesman. If linesmen are to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, he definitely should be there.

This year, the Hall of Fame inducted a surprisingly small number of players. There are several players who were worthy but did not get inducted. Given the good crop of first time eligible players available next year, it is unlikely that those players will get in next year. The four inductees are not bad choices, though I would not have selected Glenn Anderson.

Here is the Hall of Fame's induction announcement.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Sign Of A Poorly Run Team

Now is the time when teams do their planning for next season and beyond. The contract buyout period is currently underway. The draft is this weekend. Free agency is less than two weeks away. In order to do this in as effective a manner as possible, teams should have their staff in place for next season. At the very least, it should be clear who will be the general manager and coach of the team next season. However, there are a few teams that do not have their coach in place yet.

The Atlanta Thrashers, Los Angeles Kings and Tampa Bay Lightning have not hired coaches for next season yet. If they were well run organizations, they would have. Now is the time when teams will plan their attack for the summer. They will decide what their roster will look like next year. They will begin to make trades and decide which of their current players to sign and to not sign. A coach should have some input into the process. It is good to have a team built that a coach is comfortable with. If a coach favors a certain type of player, some effort should be made to obtain those players. Of course, this is impossible if the coach is not known.

It Tampa Bay, the problem is a change in ownership. The probable new ownership group led by Oren Koules wants to bring in Barry Melrose as their coach, but cannot do so until their purchase of the team is approved by the NHL (assuming that it is). This leaves GM Jay Feaster to run the draft and beyond. It looks as though the new ownership will make the mistake of being a hands-on ownership and may undo some of the moves Feaster makes before they can succeed. There are problems in Tampa, but they are not Feaster's fault.

In Atlanta, it has been clear that a new coach was needed ever since GM Don Waddell fired Bob Hartley six games into last season. Waddell took over the coaching position on an interim basis and has yet to find the new coach. Waddell has a history of adding the coach after the team is in place and thus making it clear to the new coach that he is expendable and has no place in team building activities. When Atlanta expanded to the NHL, Waddell did not hire the first coach Curt Fraser until after the expansion and entry drafts were complete. Moves such as these tell potential coaches that if they have a choice; Atlanta is not the place where they want to be. Moves such as these are why Atlanta has never been a competitive team and why they likely will not be until Waddell is replaced.

Los Angeles was slow to fire coach Marc Crawford; despite the fact it was clear that he hade to go midway through this season. I don't know what took GM Dean Lombardi so long to make his decision. As a result of his procrastination, Los Angeles is stuck without a coach during the important decision making period of the off-season and that hurts the Kings future and chances to find a top coach (if only because the better candidates are already hired).

The Toronto Maple Leafs have a coach in Ron Wilson, but they do not officially have a GM. Cliff Fletcher is still officially interim GM, though he will likely be kept into next season. This is also a poor management situation. Ownership is taking too long to find a permanent GM and it will likely prolong their rebuilding process by making it a disjointed mishmash of the plans of multiple GMs. At least, Toronto has their staff in place for next season and can plan for it, although it is clear that staff won't be the longterm management staff.

A well run hockey team has their staff in place well before the draft and the critical period where planning for next season begins in earnest. However, a few teams have not got their staff together despite it being less than a week until draft time. This example of poor management helps to explain why Atlanta, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay and Toronto are not contending teams in the NHL. Building a good team starts with good management and none of these teams have it right now.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Eastern Bias At The Awards?

When the NHL Awards were announced last week, it didn't take very long before people noticed that nobody in the west (for the sake of this argument west of the Mississippi River) won any awards. This was claimed to be an eastern bias among the voters. Is this interpretation an accurate one?

There are nine teams west of the Mississippi River in the NHL. The entire Pacific Division and all of the Northwest Division, except for the Minnesota Wild, are western teams. The Mississippi River flows through the Twin Cities and St Paul (where the Wild play) is east of the river. Nine out of thirty teams should win some awards if they are distributed randomly throughout the league. Of course, awards are not distributed randomly. They are given (hopefully) to the most deserving player. The same voters who did not give any awards to western players gave half of the first all star team positions to players from the west (Jarome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf of the Calgary Flames and Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks). That fact alone argues against an eastern bias. The west if over-represented on the first all star team.

When we look at individual awards, how many should have gone to western players? If my votes distributed the awards, the answer is only one. Owen Nolan of the Calgary Flames should have won the Masterton. Of course, he wasn't even nominated. Of the nominees, I would have supported Fernando Pisani of the Edmonton Oilers. He is another western player. Nevertheless, Jason Blake of the Toronto Maple Leafs won.

I don't think this shows an eastern bias. I think it shows a cancer bias. People are scared of cancer and will give the Masterton Trophy to any player who gets cancer and survives to continue his career. It doesn't matter how serious the cancer is. It doesn't matter what happens to anyone else in the NHL. Cancer seems to win this award. Last year, Phil Kessel of the Boston Bruins won. He missed a month due to testicular cancer and his career was never in serious jeopardy. He had cancer and that seems to be the bias of the voters. Anyone with cancer wins. This year, Jason Blake has chronic myelogenous leukemia. As serious as cancer may be, it didn't keep him out of any games this year. Owen Nolan missed two years with a knee injury. Fernando Pisani's career (and life) was in jeopardy with ulcerative colitis that kept him out for a few months. The better candidates may have been western players, but they didn't lose due to an eastern bias. They lost due to a cancer bias.

The award most often cited as being incorrectly decided due to eastern bias is the Vezina Trophy. This trophy was won (correctly) by Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils. Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks came surprisingly close to winning it, but that was a poor choice of the voters. Nabokov did not have a saves percentage that was well ahead of the pack. He did have a league leading win total, which comes from the fact he played on a very good team. In fact, I wouldn't have nominated Nabokov at all for that award. I would have nominated Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks and Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Anaheim Ducks along with Brodeur. I don't think that could be argued to be an eastern bias. Two of the three nominees play on the Pacific coast. Here is another argument for that case from James Mirtle. Nabokov did not deserve the Vezina and he came alarmingly close to winning it.

There isn't a large noticeable eastern bias in the award voting results. That doesn't mean that no eastern bias exists in the NHL. Clearly one does. Seventeen teams play in the eastern time zone. The majority of writers are in the eastern time zone. Many of them don't bother to stay awake long enough to watch the west coast games on a regular basis. It is very common for a player to get more publicity when he moves from the west to the east, despite being the same player on both coasts. Part of this is laziness. The hockey headlines are often written before the west coast games have even finished. Therefore, the big story of the night cannot be in one of the western games. However, in the awards this year, there is no discernable eastern bias.

It is common for people to claim they are discriminated against. It is an attempt to earn sympathy for their situation. Sometimes the discrimination is real and other times it isn't. In the case of the 2008 NHL Awards it isn't real. Fernando Pisani or Owen Nolan may have lost out on an award and they are western players, but that is due to a cancer bias in Masterton voting. Evgeni Nabokov did better than he should have in the Vezina voting and even made the first all star team. That is no bias against Nabokov. He did better than he should have done. If anything, I think Nabokov benefitted from an anti-Brodeur bias. Brodeur has won the Vezina Trophy enough times that people are looking for a change. They were looking for a reason to not give it to him - even though he deserved it. They almost found their reason in Nabokov, but it was a poor reason. It was a mistake for Nabokov to come as close to winning the Vezina as he did. It is definitely wrong to claim that Nabokov's loss is evidence of an eastern bias among voters.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Nabokov's Poor Vezina/ First All Star Team Case

When I handicapped the Vezina race in the later part of the season, I saw it as a race between Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils and Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks. Luongo faded right at the end, due in part to his worry over his wife's complicated pregnancy and the Canucks missing the playoffs. That left Martin Brodeur as the Vezina winner by a reasonable margin, in my opinion. The voters did not see it that way. They saw it as a close race between Brodeur and Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks.

Nabokov has a good season. He led the NHL in wins. The problem with using wins to determine who is the best goalie is that wins are a highly team dependent statistic. San Jose had the second most wins in the NHL (behind Detroit) and since Detroit split their goaltending duties between Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek, it's no surprise that a San Jose goalie would lead the NHL in wins.

In the Vezina voting Nabokov finished a close second behind Brodeur. In the all star team voting Nabokov beat Brodeur and claimed a spot on the first team all star.

It is interesting that the hockey writers (who vote for all star teams) disagreed with the general managers (who vote for Vezina). In this case, I think the general managers got things right.

I do not see a good argument for Nabokov having had a better season than Brodeur (or a few other goalies including Luongo and Jean-Sebastien Giguere). Nabokov finished far enough back in the saves percentage race (.010 behind Brodeur) that he shouldn't be a serious candidate. From a goals saved perspective he is not even in the race.

The problem is that from a sabermetric perspective goalies are hard to quantify. Many of the measures assess team performance as much as that of an individual goaltender. Wins are a prime example of that. Teams win games. Goaltenders may be part of a team, but they are no more of a part than any other player. No goaltender ever won a game if his team couldn't score. Goaltenders get less wins if their team cannot play defence. It is an accident of circumstance that a goalie wins as many games as Nabokov in San Jose when other better goalies do not get as many wins, while playing on weaker teams.

Evgeni Nabokov is a good goaltender, but there is no evidence that he has ever been the best goalie in the league. It did not happen this season. Nevertheless, he will go down as the first team all star goalie and the almost Vezina winner. That is a mistake of the voters that was brought on by the lack of good goaltending statistics.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Lemaire's Coach Of The Year Case

The NHL awards were handed out on Thursday. The Jack Adams Trophy for coach of the year was given to Bruce Boudreau of the Washington Capitals. Boudreau took over the Capitals in November when Glen Hanlon was fired. Under Boudreau, Washington improved and won the Southeast Division. They made the playoffs for the first time since 2003. This is a good achievement, but it runs along the lines of picking coach of the year as coach of the most improved team.

Washington had a good young team with some high end talent. They had Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Alexander Semin. This young core was bound to improve and it would make any coach at the helm seem like a genius. At the trade deadline they added Sergei Fedorov and Cristobal Huet, without giving up anyone off their roster. That helped even more. Huet was a big improvement over Olaf Kolzig. An upgrade in goaltending goes a long way to improve any team. Boudreau got himself into a situation where things were bound to improve in the future. He provided the changes to help that improvement along, but his success comes as much from circumstance as it does from his ability as coach.

I usually disagree completely with the coach of the year choices the hockey writers come up with. This year is no different. It often misses the mark. In a thirty year coaching career, Scotty Bowman was coach of the year twice. Does that seem right? Wasn't he a much better coach than that?

It is hard to evaluate coaches properly. They don't accumulate statistics. In principle as a sabermetrics problem, the coach of the year is the coach who is responsible for the most wins for him club. That means that there would be a theoretical method to split up a team's wins to all its players and their coach and anyone else responsible and the coach with the most win shares is the best coach. The problem is hockey does not lend itself to that kind of statistical analysis. Much of what goes on in a game is undocumented statistically and coaching is one of the hardest areas to document even in a sport (like baseball) that is more easily analyzed statistically.

In hockey I try to look at this on a systems level. Which coach has the biggest influence over his team's success? It is not a question that can be answered with any high degree of technical analysis, but I think the clear answer is Jacques Lemaire of the Minnesota Wild. I picked Lemaire for coach of the year. The hockey writers didn't. In fact, he didn't get a single vote.

Minnesota is clearly Jacques Lemaire's team. They are a very fast team that is good at forechecking. Every player is chosen based on his ability to fit into that system. They are a team that can trap exceptionally well and has used that style of play to their success. If we look at the front end talent on Minnesota, aside from Marian Gaborik, they have few potential all stars. Pierre-Marc Bouchard was their second highest scorer with 63 points. Brent Burns and Kim Johnsson are their top defenders. These are not the kinds of players you would think of as the stars of a division winning team (Washington for example has better front end talent). The team has consistently done very well, after enduring the growing pains of any expansion team. Once they had some talent in place, Minnesota has been one of the best teams in the Northwest Division. Lemaire has been the coach of the team since day one. Because they do not make huge year over year improvements, he is not considered a coach of the year candidate. Why would they make huge year over year improvements anyway? Lemaire was the coach last year and this year. He would not be the reason for the improvement.

In a division with Jarome Iginla, Roberto Luongo, Joe Sakic, Paul Stastny, Dion Phaneuf and others, Minnesota finished first in the Northwest Division. That is a significant achievement and its one that few coaches (if any) other than Lemaire could have done. However, they actually dropped six points in the standings from last season's second place finish. No coach of the year can come from a team that got fewer points than last year. You have to coach an improving team to win the award. The problem is teams improve for many reasons. Coaching is only one. The team with the biggest improvement always has several of these reasons line up together at the same time and the coach gets an award for it. It also removes from consideration coaches who have consistently coached the same team very well for years since there is no reason they should be the most improved team. You must have been bad last year to be the most improved team this year and a good coach was not bad last year.

The Jack Adams Trophy is the trophy where the winner is most poorly selected. Consistently, it goes to a coach who happens to be in a situation where his team improves. Usually that coach deserves some (but not all) of the credit for that improvement. Coaches who are already in good situations have a hard time getting consideration. In this case, Jacques Lemaire was a deserving coach of the year, but got no votes because his team did not improve. Bruce Boudreau was put in a situation where an improvement was very likely. He did a good job and the improvement came. However, his coach of the year win was only possible because he was in a situation where there was a good young core that was ready to improve.

Friday, June 13, 2008

NHL Awards Announced

Last night was the NHL awards ceremony. Here is who I would have voted for if I had an award ballot and here are my comments after the award nominees were announced. I don't know why the NHL doesn't better publicize the award voting results but after a bit of internet search I have found them (but not in the mainstream media). Here are the voting results for the major awards and here are the first and second team all star voting results. I cannot find voting results for the Lady Byng, Selke, Pearson or Masterton Awards. If you know of a source for them please let me know.

If I had an award ballot and had voted my conscience, I would have made minimal change to the results. On the awards that I can find voting results, I would not have changed any award nominees or their order. The most interesting thing I would have done is my Adams votes would have been the only votes cast for any of my three nominees. None of Jacques Lemaire, Ken Hitchcock or Ted Nolan received a single vote. I have long argued that the Adams Trophy is poorly decided. It is the award for the coach of the most improved team in practise. Nevertheless, I find it hard to explain the fact that nobody voted for Jacques Lemaire. His team won the Northwest Division. What more must he do to get even one Adams Trophy vote?

The award winners are as follows:

Masterton Trophy - Jason Blake Toronto Maple Leafs I halfheartedly called him the early season Masterton favorite when it was announced that he has cancer. It seems that you win this award if you get cancer. It doesn't matter if another player has something more serious that endangers his career in a more serious way. Blake has chronic myelogenous leukemia. While cancer is always serious, so far he has had it under control merely by taking a pill everyday. Blake did not even miss a single NHL game as a result of his cancer. I would have picked Owen Nolan who missed two years with a knee injury. Nolan was not even a nominee. Of the nominees, Fernando Pisani is a far better choice. He suffered from ulcerative colitis, which kept him out about half the season and had his playing career and his life in some jeopardy. Winning this award for having cancer, when it is less serious than the issues faced by a few other NHL players is wrong.

Adams Trophy - Bruce Boudreau Washington Capitals I do not like the way the hockey writers select the coach of the most improved team for this award. Even using that line of logic, I would think Jacques Lemaire deserved a vote. He didn't get any. Of the nominees I would have picked Guy Carbonneau, who finished a close second. He took his team to first place in the East Conference, which is a far greater achievement than winning the weak Southeast Division.

Vezina Trophy - Martin Brodeur New Jersey Devils The correct choice. I am surprised by how close Evgeni Nabokov came to winning. Nabokov may have led the NHL in wins (a strongly team dependent stat), but fell well short in the more player indepedent measures like saves percentage.

Norris Trophy - Nicklas Lidstrom Detroit Red Wings Again the correct choice. I don't understand why Lidstrom was not also a Hart Trophy nominee (I understand why he didn't win it though I disagree with it).

Calder Trophy - Patrick Kane Chicago Blackhawks I think Nicklas Backstrom was a better choice. Although Kane slightly outscored him, Backstrom showed he was the better hockey player. Defensively, Backstrom is far more reliable than Kane. Voters don't seem to consider defensive numbers.

Lady Byng Trophy - Pavel Datsyuk Detroit Red Wings This is the correct choice and Datsyuk's third win in a row.

Selke Trophy - Pavel Datsyuk Detroit Red Wings I am not surprised by his win but it is a poor choice. This award should be for a shutdown forward, as opposed to a forward who scores well and also plays good defense. I would have picked Patrick Sharp.

Hart Trophy - Alexander Ovechkin Washington Capitals Of the nominees, he is the best choice. Nevertheless, I supported Nicklas Lidstrom. The fact Lidstrom was not nominated is a big mistake. It is a case of voters looking only at offensive numbers.

Pearson Trophy - Alexander Ovechkin Washington Capitals This is the same award as the Hart Trophy, except it is voted on by the players. So the same comments as for the Hart Trophy apply.

First All Star Team - Evgeni Nabokov, Nicklas Lidstrom, Dion Phaneuf, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin, Jarome Iginla With the exception of Nabokov, I agree with these selections. It is interesting that the writers picked Nabokov as the best goalie in the NHL, when the general managers picked Brodeur. I think it shows the writers are far more superficial. They were impressed by Nabokov's win total, instead of digging into the harder to interpret but more meaningful goalie stats.

Second Team All Star - Martin Brodeur, Brian Campbell, Zdeno Chara, Joe Thornton, Alexei Kovalev, Henrik Zetterberg I would have selected Pavel Datsyuk over Thornton and Daniel Alfredsson over Kovalev. Roberto Luongo would have been my second team goalie selection, with Brodeur having made first team.

NOTE: The Selke and Lady Byng results are here. That just leaves the Pearson and Masterton unaccounted for.

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