Who would have thought at the trade deadline that the acquisition by of the Calgary Flames of former Maple Leaf players Ian White, Jamal Mayers, Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, and Vesa Toskala would result in the Flames missing the playoffs? How about EVERYBODY except anyone inside the Calgary Flames organization that had any decision making ability; honestly what were they thinking? Toronto played poorly all season long yet somehow taking a lot of players from that underperforming team would raise Calgary’s level of play? Snatching up these guys was supposed to aid in the Flames scoring woes, instead it did NOTHING. There are rumors swirling around that the Flames organization is in for a huge change in the offseason at almost every level, perhaps rightfully so. Many decisions made along the way contributed to Calgary’s elimination from playoff contention but the recent moves had a lot of say in their stretch run futility. The goal for the Flames coming into this season was to finally get past the first round…funny how things change.
With their 6-3 loss at the hands of the Washington Capitals on Tuesday the defending Stanley Cup Champions fell to a combined 0-10 against New Jersey and Washington this season. Despite that record the Penguins have managed to put themselves in position to have home-ice in the first round of the playoffs and still have a shot at winning the Atlantic Division. But that fact aside what does an 0-10 record against two of the best teams in the East mean for the Penguins in the playoffs? The numbers themselves don’t mean a whole lot since regular season head-to-head records do not carry over into the playoffs but it’s WHY they lost so many times to these teams that is the bigger story. Washington simply did to the Penguins what they’ve done to everyone all year and that is score score and score some more. There is nothing complicated about the Capitals’ game and many experts agree their lack of defense will be rather detrimental when it comes time to try to play and beat a team in a best-of-seven series. More alarming for the Penguins is their performances against New Jersey. The Devils used their neutral-zone trap to not only beat the Penguins but they dominated Pittsburgh in each of the six games they played. The Penguins managed only 5 goals in six contests—none of which were close including two shutouts. There seems to be something about the neutral-zone trap that as really given the Penguins headaches this year seemingly more than ever before. This style has affected them so much that the Tampa Bay Lightning utilized the same system against the Penguins recently to perfection beating Pittsburgh 2-0. If the Devils and now the Lightning have created a blue print for how to dominate the Penguins then it’s likely that other good teams in the playoffs could also use the same system and actually result in the Penguins being eliminated as early as the first round. Getting shut out by the trap on three different occasions against two different teams is no fluke and that’s why that 0-6 record against New Jersey is scary for Pittsburgh.
Lastly, it’s all over but the shouting out West! Every playoff spot has been clinched and now we simply wait to see what the match-ups will be. This year’s contest includes a few different faces from last season as the L.A. Kings, Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators, and Phoenix Coyotes have all qualified for the post-season play after watching from home just a season ago. It’ll be great to see some new blood in the ranks out west but we cannot forget the frequent fliers in the Detroit Red Wings being present in the playoffs for the 19th consecutive year. Can any of the new teams replace the Red Wings at the top of the Western Conference Mountain? Tune in next time when we preview the west and I give the reasons why Detroit will (or won’t) return to the Finals yet again.
April 14th is almost here!
OK let’s get right into the “big trades” of the moment between Calgary/Anaheim and Toronto. Despite the headline grabbing the names involved result in and the size of the contracts of said names the ultimate net effect is ZERO. Look first at the move to send Jean-Sabastien Giguere to Toronto for Vesa Toskala and Jason Blake; the winner of this trade? Anaheim, but barely. Although Giguere has an incredible track record with a Stanley Cup title and a Conn Smythe trophy on record he has been subpar at best for the better part of three seasons now and was supplanted as starting netminder in Anaheim by Jonas Hiller. Sure there have been some serious off-ice issues that would affect anybody’s job performance no matter what their career the point remains the same that Giguere is now average at best and adds just about nothing to the table anymore. As for the Ducks they get Vesa Toskala who has done nothing but spiral downhill after a stellar playoff run in San Jose in what now seems like centuries ago. Toskala has been a grave disappointment for Toronto who had extremely high hopes for him. In recent years Toskala has shown that flash of greatness everyone expected of him from time to time but overall he hasn’t been able to pick of the slack and his mental toughness surely comes into question. So with respect to the goaltending neither team “wins” in this trade. Give the slight edge overall however to Anaheim because of the acquisition of Jason Blake. Blake is a pretty good player who has simply seen his fortune (as well as the rest of the team’s) turn for the worst in Toronto; perhaps a change of scenery is all he needs to return to form. It’s not so much that his numbers were bad in Toronto for they stayed rather consistent; his plus/minus however took a nose dive which speaks volumes of the poor talent around him. If Blake can keep his numbers up it’s likely that a slightly better squad around him can make all the difference. The one caveat for Anaheim concerning Blake is that he’s 36 years old so conventional wisdom tells you that his numbers are bound to start declining very soon.
As for Toronto’s other trade with Calgary it’s basically a wash when it comes right down to it. Dion Phaneuf is the biggest name involved in the deal and while he’s been a solid player for many years the expectations for him have been extremely high; expectations he has yet to live up to. Perhaps it is unrealistic to foretell that someone will win a Norris Trophy and then expect him to do just that or be a failure but in many respects that’s exactly what has happened with Phaneuf. The size of Phaneuf’s contract proves that Calgary was expecting him to no t only be the anchor on their blueline, but to also lead the team come playoff time with the intangibles the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom has done in Detroit for so many years. That simply has not happened for Phaneuf and quite frankly is unlikely to happen in Toronto. Phaneuf’s style is much better suited for the Western Conference style of play in my opinion and as a result he is actually worse off playing for Toronto now. As for the rest of the players thrown into this deal it’s unlikely anyone will be able to say either team made a bad move in acquiring them; but by the same token it’s unlikely that any player will really make that much of an impact.
Lastly on the trade front is the movement of Olli Jokinen and Brandon Prust from Calgary to the Rangers for Chris Higgins and Ales Kotalik. The big winner here is Calgary because Jokinen has been nothing but a disappointment since going to Calgary from Phoenix just two seasons ago. Jokinen was expected to help lead Calgary to the promised land with his incredible goal scoring prowess. Unfortunately it simply was not meant to be for Jokinen who for instance this year is making $5 million and has 11 goals to show for it. Scoring 11 goals is a great accomplishment for a 3rd or 4th line winger for a defensive minded defensemen, but too bad Jokinen is neither of those. While it’s uncertain how he’ll react to the move to New York one thing we know for sure, and that is Kotalik and Prust can do just about anything once they get to Calgary and they will still not be as much of a disappointment as Jokinen has been. The clear victor in this trade is the Calgary Flames. Of course like all things, only time will tell what happens with these teams but for now it seems like not much will change as a result of these moves.
A few random thoughts for the moment:
After most NHL teams have played in the neighborhood of eight games it is important to note (as should be said every year about this time) that no top team is as good as they seem and no bottom teams are as bad as they seem. So Pens and Rangers fans keep your lids on and Leafs fans it really will get better.
The L.A. Kings are for real. There has been some debate whether they’re ready to be good now or are still a year off. Well after a very strong start there should be no doubt in anybody’s mind that they are ready to compete now. So to those of you on the east coast if you do not watch any other games for west coast teams all year make sure to catch L.A. in a home game if you can it’s worth it to watch a team just beginning to bloom.
Early signs point to the Atlantic Division in the east and the Pacific Division in the west as being the most competitive division in each conference. As a result they will probably have the most teams in the playoffs come April.
The Washington Capitals are in the bottom third of the conference in terms of goals allowed. As exciting as that offense is to watch they can forget about winning anything other than the division if they don’t play better defensively (and that’s not entirely on the goaltender).
The Ottawa Senators have been playing well. Enjoy it while it lasts Sens fans because they are a fraud.
Credit to the Phoenix Coyote players who have not allowed any of the off-ice drama from the summer affect them. They are playing very well right now and the team is going to be solid all year of they can remain focused on hockey. Playoffs? Doubtful, but they are no easy W for anyone. Kudos to the players and keep up the good work.
As much as many puckheads might hate to admit it the Detroit Red Wings are the favorites to win the West until they are officially eliminated from playoff contention or knocked out of the playoffs themselves.
Enjoy your weekend of hockey everyone, all teams in play Saturday, should be a good one.
As Tim Thomas goes so go the Boston Bruins and at the moment that direction is south… in the standings that is. Thomas has started five of the Bruins games so far posting a 2-3 record with a sub .900 save percentage including a game in which he gave up six goals on only 30 shots against the Anaheim Ducks. There is no doubt that Boston misses Phil Kessel (who has yet to play a game yet for Toronto) but if they don’t get decent goaltending it won’t matter how many goals they score. Thomas has had his doubters over the years but has silenced them a bit in recent history; however now all of those same questions will come up again if things continue they way they have been going. There is plenty of time to go of course but there might not be a whole lot of patience in Boston for the Bruins have very high expectations. In the meantime if things don’t turn around for Boston you may see a return of the famous neutral zone trap that just to take some pressure off of Thomas until he can get himself back on track. Personally I do not think Thomas is going to get his act together because he’s always been very erratic so when it works it’s great but when it doesn’t he has no real base to return to in order to simply his game until he regains his confidence. We’ll see what happens of course but I haven’t been a fan of Thomas in the past and still am not. Nevertheless, despite Thomas’ shortcomings the Bruins are good enough to recover and still be a very good team without him playing well (or without him at all) so people in Boston need not panic.
In other news:
Alex Ovechkin is having an incredible start to his year and is well on pace to be the first to score 70 goals in a long time. No matter what you think about Ovechkin and the Caps he’s one of the best players in the world and certainly there is no one more exciting to watch in any sport. Will he break Gretzky’s record of 92 in a season? Of course not; but he is still the best goal scorer in the NHL in quite some time.
Hey Toronto, how about winning a game eh? They haven’t even been competitive in most of their games managing one point in an overtime loss to a Montreal team that is in the midst of a five game losing streak. Toskala is definitely a big problem but scoring only seven goals in the last five games is not a good way to win games either; Phil Kessel will help but no one player can save this team.
I have to give an early season salute to the Ottawa Senators. I didn’t (and still don’t) think they would be very good this year but I have to give credit where credit is due. The Senators are 3-1-0 which puts them atop the Northeast Division. Granted, the Senators have defeated three teams that are hardly playoff teams in Atlanta, Toronto, and the Islanders. Nevertheless, when you’re a team that has experienced the problems the Senators have over the last two seasons you take what success you’ve had and run with it. Will they build off of this and ultimately make it to the playoffs? Not likely. But they have won three of four so far and as a football coach once said you are what your record says you are and right now Ottawa is a 3-1 first place team.
Another early season salute to the Calgary Flames. There is a lot of pressure on them to win and win now; that said this is about as good a start as one could have hoped for in Calgary. Not only do the Flames start 4-1 but three of those wins are against division opponents including two against provincial rival Edmonton. Division wins always carry a little extra weight in the standings but it’s especially sweet to take two from their biggest rival in pretty short order. Mikka Kiprusoff has been solid thus far posting a 4-0 record as back up Curtis McElhinney was in net for the loss. Perhaps the best part of all in this strong start is that Jerome Iginla is fourth on the team in scoring, which means other guys are getting the job done. If Calgary wants to continue to be successful that’s the type of production they need to get from Iginla’s supporting cast; so far so good.
On the flip-side, an early season razz to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Nobody reasonably expected Toronto to be a great team but some thought they would be competitive and possibly contend for a playoff spot. But so far they have not shown up. Toronto has zero wins (one point thanks to an OT loss on opening night) and have looked terrible for the most part. The one good thing they have going is new goaltender Jonas Gustavsson who is currently injured which negates that for now and Vesa Toskala is dreadful. They’re so-so on offense, not so good on defense, and have an awful penalty killing unit, ergo he Toronto Maple Leafs stink, the end.
As the hour draws closer and the puckheads continue to salivate over the tease that is the hockey preseason it is time to supplement the appetizers before the hockey fest begins.
Eastern Conference Preview:
I’ll start by predicting who I think will make it to the playoffs (in no particular order) then we’ll look at least briefly at where each team stands. So here are the top eight teams in no particular order:
Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers (Carolina Hurricanes?), New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, and the Washington Capitals.
The Pittsburgh Penguins should probably be the favorites going into the season because their team is a lot the same and they are the champs until someone else wins the title. They did lose Rob Scuderi but overall you have to like their chances to defend their conference title.
The New York Rangers lost Scott Gomez but have added Marian Gaborik who—if he can stay healthy—will add scoring power to a pretty solid but not spectacular line-up. The nice thing about the Rangers is that even if they do not score a ton of goals Henrik Lundqvist will keep them in most games, will steal a few, and will overall give them a chance to win most every contest they are involved in. Having a chance to win every game is not actually winning them however and that’s where Gaborik is going to be important for them. If Gaborik stays healthy he scores enough goals to get them enough points to get them into the playoffs. In the event that Gaborik does get hurt that will leave New York on the outside looking in and will open the door for the Carolina Hurricanes to sneak into a playoff spot. Carolina too is a solid team but Cam Ward cannot do it alone and they will not be able to rely on Jussi Jokkinen to play all year the way he did in the playoffs. But if any team should fall off at all (i.e. the Rangers) that opens the door for the Canes. Either way, neither team will be a serious Stanley Cup contender.
The New Jersey Devils are channeling their inner 1995 by bringing Jacques Lemaire back to captain the ship. Nothing has changed for the Devils since 1995 and as a result they can continue like a well-oiled machine with their new, old, coach. New Jersey is very much a system team so with Martin Brodeur playing behind that system you have to pencil them into the playoffs and as championship contenders. Some players have changed since last season’s first round exit to Carolina but it matters not as the methodical Devils will be back in the playoffs again.
In each of the last two years the Philadelphia Flyers have put very good teams on the ice but have run into a freight train headed to the finals in the form of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Flyers got tougher by adding veteran Chris Pronger but their folly has arguably been in goal and that is an issue that still has yet to be worked out. Philadelphia went across the pond to lure Ray Emery back to North America so the verdict is still out on whether the goaltending problem is fixed (one might argue that Emery’s attitude will cause more problems than it will solve). Bottom line, the Flyers talent will get them to the playoffs and at that point all they’ll need is solid (not spectacular) net play to put themselves in a position to win the Stanley Cup.
Boston’s future is bright because their talent level is a lot the same as last year. Phil Kessel was traded for some draft picks which speaks to how confident Boston is with their team from top to bottom. They still have Chara manning the blueline and they can score at the drop of a hat. There were a lot of questions about Tim Thomas last year and he’ll have to answer those same questions again this year. If Thomas is able to play consistently well the Bruins will learn from their experience last year and should be considered favorites to at least reach the east finals.
The key for the Buffalo Sabres is to stay healthy. Last season Buffalo was a clear playoff team until injuries struck them like a wrecking ball and their playoff hopes came crashing down. So if the Sabres’ stars stay healthy they will be a force, if they do not then Buffalo is not a force… it’s that simple.
The Washington Capitals can score like none other. In the offensive zone 5-on-5 and on the power play they are just about unstoppable. The Caps are greatly lacking defensively but certainly score enough to make up for that over the course of a long season. The biggest downfall of Washington last year was in net and that is their greatest unknown once again. Semyon Varlamov was certainly much better than anyone could have expected in the playoffs last season but is he the answer long term? There is no doubt that Varlamov has talent but he is still young and with being young come growing pains that every player experiences. If Varlamov grows quickly then there’s reason to believe the Caps can win it all, but if he doesn’t then it the fans in DC will be “rocking the red” to the second round of the playoffs and no further.
The Montreal Canadiens did three very good things in the offseason: let Kovalev go, picked up Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez, and got rid of Kovalev (did I mention that already). Alexi Kovalev is a very talented player but he was too inconsistent and caused too much drama in a place that creates enough drama on its own. Gionta and Gomez provide stability as leaders on the ice and can put points on the scoreboard. Both players spent time in New Jersey so each know how to play a role to perfection. As long as Carey Price can keep his confidence up and the fans give this team a chance they can be very dangerous.
As for the rest of the conference there is very little to talk about. The New York Islanders are clearly rebuilding so the best anyone can hope from them is that John Tavares and company just improve from game to game. In my estimation the Islanders have far more problems off the ice (on the business end) than they do on it. The isles know they are rebuilding and are taking steps toward becoming a good team in time. This is in contrast to the Lightning, Thrashers, Senators, Maple Leafs, and Panthers.
Tampa has a lot of talent but did nothing with is last year and do not have a goaltender that can take them anywhere. Atlanta is just plain bad and probably will not improve very much in all likelihood. Ottawa keeps changing coaches, do not gel as a team, have lost one of their best players in Dany Heatley, and decided that adding Kovalev was the best way to stabilize/improve their team (very dumb). Toronto cannot decide whether they want to try to win now or build for the future. Last year they had enough talent to stay at the top of the non playoff teams for most of the year and this year they are in about the same spot. Lastly are the Florida Panthers who do not have a whole lot of talent (after having lost bouwmeester ) do not get much fan support which makes for a very bad situation.
So that’s the east in a nutshell (believe it or not). Tune in next time for the west preview as well as my Stanley Cup Finals pick and winner.
One of the greatest things about sports generally is the passion every person associated with any sporting event brings to the table. Whether it’s the fans, players, front office, media, etc. there is something intangible about the passion brought out in people via sports. That being said, that passion is one thing that has made this NHL season one of the best I have ever seen. A lot of that has to be contributed to the tight playoff races in both conferences. It seems like every game is of the utmost importance toward determining who will be where at night’s end as every point makes a WORLD of difference. But going beyond the teams vying for playoff spots there are a number of teams who have been virtually eliminated for quite some time but are still putting up an incredible fight night in and night out. For example, the New York Islanders have been out of having a legitimate shot at a playoff spot for quite some time. The Isles have traded some of their better players away (namely Bill Guerin) and have played most all of the season without their star goaltender Rick DiPietro. They have every reason in the world to pack it in, simply show up every night to take their spanking then move on. Instead the Isles are playing some of their best hockey right now which includes wins against teams in the playoff race including a 7-3 trouncing of the New Jersey Devils. This is great not only for the fans in attendance but for the future of the Islanders on Long Island. They are continuing to fight for a new arena with city officials and that has put their future in doubt; but by winning they are showing their frustrated but passionate fans that there can be brighter days and that the team is worth fighting for.
In a similar manner the Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs and Atlanta Thrashers in the east along with the Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes in the west are competing hard every single night. Those teams aren’t all playing their best hockey right now but they are giving it their all every night and a few have stolen more than a couple games from teams who are very much in the thick of things. To see these teams work so hard is very reassuring. To know that teams who are not Stanley Cup playoffs bound still battle hard along the boards, get into scuffles to protect star players and goalies, and they still get so frustrated when the take penalties. There is still incredible joy when they score goals and win games along with equally intense feelings when they do the opposite. To see guys still playing hard for each other and their fans and to see the fans still getting just as into some of the games now as when the playoffs were still a possibility is so reassuring. There’s something special about moments like those and it only makes me enjoy each game that much more.
The Los Angeles Kings seemingly have a very bright future of which they have shown flashes of this year. They have a lot of young, promising talent but Monday night they proved why their future is bright and not their present. The Toronto Maple Leafs came to Staples Center and at first the Kings were not very welcoming hosts as Alexander Frolov scored the game’s first goal only 57 seconds into the opening period. After the initial shock the Leafs settled down and the game turned into a virtual stand-still for the rest of the first and all of the second periods. Things looked good for L.A. with strong goaltending from Jason LaBarbera they successfully protected a one goal lead for almost two full periods. And although it would probably take more than one goal to put the Leafs away the Kings had created a number of chances it was only a matter of time before the dam broke….Right? Unfortunately it was not meant to be as the Kings surrendered 2 power play (PP) goals within 1:21 of each other both power play goals. But it was not overwhelming skill from the Leafs that beat L.A. it was the Kings being “out hustled.” No matter the skill level or strategy of two clubs it all goes by the wayside when it comes to chasing loose pucks. Monday night the Kings were a step behind most loose pucks or simply gave up on a play too early. Toronto drew two penalties as a result and that is what led to the Leafs PP goals in the third period and ultimately what cost L.A. the game. Winning the battle to loose pucks will win the Kings games and if they do that sooner rather than later they will become a winning team earlier than expected.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have certainly started to turn the corner toward becoming a good team. They are not stacked with talent but they have done well with who the put on the ice every night. Although the Leafs are not winning as much as they would like they are always competitive and are much improved from the last few years. If the Leafs are ever going to enter into the company of the NHL elite they MUST get rid of Vesa Toskala. I have never been high on Toskala but the Leafs have been patient with him and I kept telling myself he had a good team in front of him his performance would reflect that. Unfortunately for Leafs fans everywhere it has not improved, in fact it does not seem as though he has improved at all. As this team continues to grow they are leaving Toskala far behind them and it is getting to the point where—as Don Cherry so brilliant stated on coach’s corner—he has become a liability. Not only is Toskala not helping the Leafs achieve success but he is letting in weak goals and is costing his team games. He has a 3.24 goals against average, an embarrassing .878 save percentage and is showing no signs of improvement (not to mention he only made 19 saves on 22 shots Monday against Boston). I know back-up Curtis Joseph is past his prime and under normal circumstances I would agree he is no longer an everyday goalie, but one thing he will not do is cost the team wins.
On Saturday night (11/1) the Toronto Maple leafs were down by 2 against the New York Rangers at Air Canada Center. The Leafs had been dominated for the greater part of two-and-a-half periods not generating very much offense and showing very little signs of life as it appeared the Rangers would continue their amazing start to the season. Then with 7:56 remaining in the third period Toronto exploded scoring 5 goals in the next 5+ minutes of the game sending the Rangers home with a 5-2 loss. Is this the turning point for the Leafs that will send them steamrolling toward the playoffs? Probably not. But what it told us about Toronto is that these are not the same old Leafs. Toronto is slowly making their way back to being a playoff caliber team. It means that these are a bunch of guys who care enough about each other and have enough pride in the club and fans that they keep playing hard despite everything going against them. This is fight we have not seen in the Leafs for quite some time and credit that not just to the players but also to coach Ron Wilson. People do not always like his style but all the man does wherever he goes is win. Now while the Leafs are probably going to be watching the playoffs from home yet again—a first round exit at best—they are finally moving in the right direction and will soon be consistently in contention.