And…Here We Go!

Unknown

In a just a few hours, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators will kick off the NHL’s 100th season.

More than ever before, this season will be exemplified by a bevy of young guns under the employ of the Leafs, the Oilers, Flames and especially the Carolina Hurricanes.

I haven’t been around for all those seasons but have to say I’ve been a fan since before games were televised and, hopefully, will be around for a few more.

The game has changed tremendously over the decades and I have to say its current iteration featuring skill and speed as witnessed at the recent World Cup has me salivating for the upcoming games despite the insistence of coaching systems that are determined to slow the game to a crawl. Hopeful, the success of the Penguins last season will rub off on those who yearn to win by preaching safe, boring defensive hockey. We’ll soon see.

The Battle of Alberta

To me, as an almost life long Albertan, the greatest intrigue this season will be the relative ascendance of the two Alberta teams that are rising from the ashes of the past decade of ineptitude and failure.

Of course, the Edmonton Oilers have been re-building for almost an entire decade while the Calgary Flames have made a much quicker turnaround under Brian Burke and Brad Treleving.

Going into the season, it’s pretty easy to see that the renaissance in Calgary has been more successful despite the Oilers having a string of #1 picks and, while you can debate the relative merits of the forward corps on each team, the Flames are clearly better on the back end and, with even league average goaltending, should make an aggressive move up the standings.

But, I think it prudent to question whether the Oilers’ forward group is better than the Flames…I don’t think it is.

Here is the Flames’ announced forward group for tonight’s game:

I’ve seen a couple of Tweets today (from Oiler fans) suggesting that second line will get killed by the Oilers but, if we can agree the Oilers/Flames top lines are pretty much a saw off and remember that Brouwer, situationally, can move up to the top line, I don’t think the Oilers second line of Pouliot-Hopkins-Kassian is clearly superior.

In fact, I’m expecting Sam Bennett to break out in a big way this season after an 18G 18A season….I’m thinking 25G and 30A should be reasonable with the two gig wingers he’ll be playing with.

Brouwer should be good for at least 20 now that he’s getting second line minutes with skill and Tkachuk, who was superb in pre-season creates a huge net front presence that will also help Bennett.

Farther down the lineup, The Flames third group is built on two veterans who bring a very strong two way game, something that Maroon-Draisaitl-Puljujarvi will have a tough time with.

While fourth lines don’t make a huge difference in any game, The Flames group is clearly superior to Pitlick-Letestu-Slepshyev in experience.

The Back End

Calgary’s new coach is trying some unusual pairings for tonight’s game…splitting up Giordano, Brodie and Hamilton to carry Wideman, Engelland and newly-signed Niklas Grossman but I doubt that approach lasts all that long and he has the option of re-uniting his top D at any time.

What we really need to remember here is that the Flames D will be very much involved in the offensive side of the game, something the Oilers have little or no answer for.

In goal…Cam Talbot has a decent first season with the Oilers but he;s playing without a safety net while the Flames have added last season’s top goaltender by save percentage as well as a capable NHL quality backup.

How Brian Elliot adapts to a new team will be critical for the Flames this season but even if he performs at career average, the Flames should take a big step up the standings.

A Bold Prediction

I have the Calgary Flames going on a huge run this season…finishing second in the Pacific Division with the potential for a long playoff run.

I think both Anaheim and Los Angeles will falter somewhat allowing the Flames to move in behind the Sharks in second spot.

Which of the Ducks or Kings gets bumped will likely depend on luck and/or injury but the signs of a small regression are there.

Another Bold Prediction

The Edmonton Oilers are going into another season with dreadful depth in key positions and almost any injury could sink their season again.

If any of  McDavid, Eberle, Hopkins, Klefbom or Talbot missed any significant time due to injury, they just don’t have the horses to replace them.

Considering that pretty much every one of those players has a significant injury history, a prudent bettor wouldn’t count of them all being around all season.

I think you’ll see the Oilers and Canucks scrambling to stay out of last place in the Pacific Division and the Western Conference as all of Colorado, Arizona and Winnipeg finish ahead of them.

For the Canucks to prevail, they, like the Oilers, need everything to go right this season and, if experience teaches us anything, it seldom does.

So, for Shits and Giggles…

images

WC

  1. Chicago
  2. Dallas
  3. Nashville
  4. St. Louis
  5. San Jose
  6. Calgary
  7. Minnesota
  8. Anaheim
  9. Winnipeg
  10. Los Angeles
  11. Colorado
  12. Arizona
  13. Vancouver
  14. Edmonton

You’re welcome

 

 

 

Advertisements

Ranking the Rebuilds #7….the Colorado Avalanche

colorado_avalanche_ice_logo_wallpaper_by_denversportswalls-d6tbnhr

I think we can agree that the Colorado Avalanche rebuild began on May 10, 2013.

That is the day that Joe Sakic was named Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations.

That’s an odd title and the Avs retained Greg Sherman but he reportedly serves in an advisory capacity to Sakic and head coach Patrick Roy who has a tremendous amount of control over personnel decisions.

Sakic hired Roy on May 23rd of 2013 and the tandem set to work rebuilding a team that had missed the playoffs for 4 of the previous 5 seasons.

The new regime didn’t have to start from scratch since the 2009 draft had produced Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly and Tyson Barrie who are all accomplished NHL players.

The 2010 draft produced blue chip goalie prospect Calvin Pickard and 2011 produced Gabriel Landeskog the apparent best player in the draft.

But, in the first draft conducted by the new regime, they hit pay dirt at #1 with Nathan MacKinnon and stud defensive prospect Chris Bigras who may be NHL ready as early as this fall.

The Avalanche would defy the odds in the 2013/14 season, winning the Central Division before bowing out  to the Wild in the conference semi finals.

Pretty much everyone except the Avs most rabid fans saw that season as Cinderella and predicted a much more rational record in the following season and, of course, the expected happened as the Avs fell from 112 points to 90.

But folks, let’s be honest, a team in only the second year of a rebuild, playing in the toughest division in hockey that can accumulate 90 points is nothing to be easily dismissed.

While it’s true the Avs had the second worst possession record in the league last season, it’s important to remember that the LA Kings had the best record in the league with a SAT% of 55.37 and missed the playoffs while 4 teams that fell below 50% did make the post season.

So, while possession stats tell you something, they don’t tell you everything.

Goaltending was not an issue for the AVs last season as Semyon Varlamov posted a decent .921 SV% and the aforementioned Calvin Pickard was stellar in 16 appearances at .931.

No, the issue was that the Avs gave up too many shots at 33.2/G, one of the worst records in the league.

That fact, coupled with an offence that struggled, especially sophomore Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene to a lesser degree, left the Avs gasping for air.

That leaves us wondering if the management team has addressed those issue in the offseason and it seems they have at least somewhat.

In one of the biggest blockbusters of the offseason, Colorado traded 200 foot demon Ryan O’Reilly whose contract demands were “mile high” for former 1st rounds picks D Nikita Zadorov and C Mikhael Grigorenko, University of Michigan Star JT Compher and the Sabres 31st pick in the draft which they later flipped to San Jose for AJ Greer and 2 – 2016 draft picks.

Picking 10th overall in the 2015 draft, the Avs selected Mikko Rantanen who had played the previous 3 seasons against men in the Finnish league who Bob Mackenzie ranked right in that 10th spot.

The 6’4″ 210 RW is thought to be close to NHL ready.
An exceptionally talented playmaker and always a consistent threat on the ice; Rantanen is a combination of elite-level hockey sense, silky smooth hands, and nimble skating. Needs to improve his shot and physical play, as he doesn’t take advantage of his size in many situations. All-in-all, an intelligent, big-bodied forward that oozes skill.

(Curtis Joe, EP 2014) – See more at: http://www.eliteprospects.com/player.php?player=91186#sthash.Kpm5dZ3D.dpuf

So, if we can agree, as previously mentioned, that the Avs are set in goal, let’s take a look at how they shape up at D and then down the middle.

As well as adding Zadorov in trade, the Avs signed 35 year old Francois Beauchemin to a 3 year contract at $4.5M/season.

Beauchemin has still been very effective but this contract could be a gamble if his play tails off as he ages.

With a top pairing of #1D Erik Johnson and Beauchemin, they should be fine for 20 minutes a night but they will need to find a steady partner for offensive whiz Tyson Barrie who scored an impressive 12 foals and 53 points last season.

The Av’s did not re-sign 37 year old Jan Hejda and Brad Stuart has passed his best before date so, unless Zadorov is ready to step in the #4 role, the team may be gasping agin.

Of course, Chris Bigras may take that spot in camp but there’s not a whole lot behind them on the depth chart although there are some distant bells in the system.

If I were Joe and Patrick, sitting with more than $8M in free cap space, I would have signed Cody Franson weeks ago…hasn’t happened yet.


Down the middle, the Avalanche have an embarrassment of riches even after trading Or’ Reilly.

Nathan MacKinnon

Matt Duchene

Carl Soderburg (signed in the offseason)

Mikail Grigorenko

John Mitchell

Marc Andre Cliche

With Soderburg likely to take a top 6 role, Duchene may find himself playing RW again since it’s an area of weakness for the team so there’s an opportunity for Grigorenko if he is ready to step up.


If Duchene does indeed play on the wing, he’ll be joined by stud Landeskog and the ageless Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay as well as Blake Comeau, Cody McLeod, Patrick Bordeleau and Dennis Everburg.

Hockey’s Future has the Avs ranked 29th in the league in their prospects ranking and I think that’s fair.

Strengths: The Colorado Avalanche boast solid depth on defense in terms of prospects. Chris Bigras has shown excellent growth at the junior level and may be ready to take that next step in his career, while Stefan Elliot and Duncan Siemens are finding their way at the pro level. Will Butcher, Kyle Wood and recent free-agent signing Mason Geertsen add interesting pieces to the organization’s defensive core. Goaltender Calvin Pickard had a very impressive showing with the Avalanche last season, breaking through after three years in the AHL. He should get a chance to improve in the NHL full time next season.

Weaknesses: Skill. Colorado has quantity in prospects who could fill bottom-six roles in the NHL, but the organization is low on high-end, skilled prospects. Connor Bleackley will turn pro after back-to-back point-per-game campaigns in the WHL, but the center projects more as a high-energy, third-line pivot.

Top 5 Prospects: 1. Chris Bigras, D; 2. Connor Bleackley, C; 3. Calvin Pickard, G; 4. Stefan Elliot, D; 5. Duncan Siemens, D.

With goal and centre pretty much locked in, they will need at least one D prospect to step in a help right away.

If they hope to finish their rebuild anytime soon, they may have to spend some of that cap space to acquire a couple of skill players to replace the elders in the lineup sooner rather than later. but Rantanen may be able to help in that regard.

Playing in the Central, where I see 5 teams making the playoffs, I doubt they will be contenders this upcoming season but, with some prudent moves in the next 12 months, when many teams will be forced to dump players due to a declining cap, perhaps the best strategy it to wait and pounce when the time is right.

Top Pairing Defensemen

1051238_ce58b6ae05

Where do top pairing defensemen come from?

I was “in conversation” with some Oiler fans last night…pretty much all of whom are counting on Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse to soon be a cheap source of high level defensive acumen while the team spends all its resources on the top 6 forwards it has received via the draft.

That may happen but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Let’s take a look at the best defensemen in the WC and how they got to the NHL.

Anaheim: Hampus Lindholm – Drafted  6th overall in 2012. Spent part of 1 season in the AHL and made an immediate impact in the NHL at the age of 20. (6G 30P +29)

Arizona: Oliver Ekman – Larsson – Drafted 6th overall in 2009. Made an immediate impact in the NHL immediately after being drafted.

Calgary: Here is your outlier. Mark Giordano was never drafted but instead spent 4 seasons bouncing between the Flames, the AHL and Russia before finding his game.

Chicago: Duncan Keith – Another crooked development path as Keith was drafted in the 2nd round in 1983 and spent 2 full seasons in the AHL before becoming an NHL regular. (this was before the salary cap era which pushes teams to have more cheap youngsters on their rosters.)

Colorado: – Erik Johnson – Drafted 1st overall in 2006 and played in the NHL as an 18 year old.

Dallas: Alex Goligoski -Picked in the 2nd round in 2004 but made his NHL debut as an 18 year old.

Los Angeles Kings: Drew Doughty – Picked 2nd overall in 2008 and made an immediate impact in the NHL as an 18 year old.

Minnesota: Ryan Suter – Picked 6th overall in 2003 (again pre-cap) and spent 1 season in the AHL but made an impact in the NHL as a 20 year old

Nashville: Shea Weber  – Picked in the 2nd round (OMG) in the generational 2003 draft. That was the draft that also produced Suter, Burns, Coburn, Phaneuf, Seabrook, Stuart, Klein and Carle who were all taken before Weber. Weber spent part of 1 season in the AHL but was already a beast at 21 year of age.

San Jose: Brent Burns – Drafted 20th overall in 2003 and spent 1 season in the AHL.

St. Louis: Alex Pietrangelo – Drafted 4th overall in 2008. Spent another year in junior but was an impact player as a 20 year old.

Vancouver: Alex Edler – Drafted in the 3rd round in 2008. Spent part of 1 season in the AHL but was an NHL regular at the age of 21.

Winnipeg: Tyler Myers – Drafted 12th overall in 2008. Won rookie of the year in the NHL and then struggled. With noting the Jets also have Jacob Trouba who was selected 9th overall in 2012 and spent one year in NCAA  hockey before making an impact in the NHL at the age of 21.

So, that brings us to Klefbom and Nurse.

Klefbom was 19th overall in 2011 and despite showing some promise in 60 games this season at the age of 21. One would think, if he’s going to emerge as a top pairing D, we should see evidence of that next season. If that doesn’t happen, I would think he career trajectory would most likely to be compared to that of Alex Edler who I believe might be the weakest #1D on this list.

Nurse was elected 7th overall in the 2013 draft and is spending another season in junior hockey and may need a season in the AHL before becoming an NHL regular. As you can see from the above, that would be very unusual for a player with his draft pedigree considering most of the players on this list were impact players at the age of 20-21.

Obviously, every player has a different development path that is affected by all sorts of factors but it is also pretty clear that elite defenders emerge very early,

And, almost without exception, you cannot win a Stanley Cup without one.

The Wild, Wild West II

wild-west-crispin-delgado

 

In some ways, it should be easier to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference even though there are 16 teams vying for a playoff spot as opposed to the Western Conference.

There are fewer dominant teams in the EC but, oddly enough, the playoff race there is almost over.

At the All Star break, there is only 1 team, the Florida Panthers, that still has a reasonable chance to beak into the current top 8.

The Panthers are 7 points back of Boston but they do have 4 games in hand so a winning streak could make things interesting.

Ottawa and Toronto are both 10 points out and, in the Bettman point era, that is almost impossible to make up with 35-36 games left to play.

However it’s a much different story in the WC.

Realistically, there are still 12 teams that have a shot…although, at 7 points back of the final wildcard spot, I would have to think Minnesota is a long shot.

If we consider that Anaheim, Nashville, St. Louis and Chicago are locks to make the playoffs, we’re still left with a contest among 8 teams for the final 4 spots.

Let’s handicap them in order of current points:

60- Winnipeg Jets (22GR)

The surprising Jets just keep winning. While they currently occupy the first wildcard spot, they are only 3 points out of second spot in the tough Central Division but goal differential (only +10) would indicate they won’t overtake either the Blues (+37) or the Blackhawks (+40)

56 – San Jose Sharks (22GR)

As I predicted pre-season, the Sharks are mediocre. The turmoil on the team has been a season long drag on their performance and I don’t see any end to their struggles.

55 – Vancouver Canucks (25GR)

The Canucks are very well positioned to move up since they have games in hand on everyone. The oddity here is the Canucks have one of the best road records in the league at 15-8-2 but are underwhelming at home at 11-8-1. If they can get their mojo going at Rogers Arena, they’ll easily be a playoff team.

53- Calgary Flames (23GR)

The Flames hold down the last wild card spot and have a better goal differential than the teams chasing them. It’s going to be close but they might make it.

52- Los Angeles Kings (23GR)

The Kings are stalled, going 2-3-5 in their last 10GP. A hot streak from anyone ahead of them kills their chances.

50 – Colorado Avalanche (22GR)

The Avalanche have been much better lately and, if their young guns light it up, could be in the mix.

49 – Dallas Stars (24GR)

Dallas is among the highest scoring teams in the league but have been let down by shoddy defensive play. I think Nill will make a deal to bring in a sold RH defenseman and that will help.

Cody Franson anyone?

46 – Minnesota Wild (24GR)

Goaltending has sewered the prospects for the best possession team in the league. Devan Dubnyk is not the answer. See you next season Stars.

 

 

Trade Winds

8034290

 

With the Christmas roster freeze now in the rearview mirror, we’re starting to see some activity as General Managers tweak their lineups for the playoff run.

****UPDATE***

The Edmonton Oilers made a baffling trade today…sending Mark Arcobello to the Nashville Predators for Derek Roy.

On the surface it seems like a slight upgrade at centre but, if you look a little deeper, it’s just squandering another asset.

Roy was PPG+ player with the Buffalo Sabres 7 seasons ago but his best season in the last 5 was in 2011/12 when he scored 17 goals and 44 points. It’s been all downhill since then.

Roy spent the following 3 seasons bouncing around from the Dallas Stars to the Vancouver Canucks (where he was invisible) to the St. Louis Blues and now to the Predators. In 26 games this season he has scored ONE goal and 10 points.

Arcobello has scored SEVEN goals and 12 points this season so there is very little reason to believe Roy will do much of anything to kick start the Oilers moribund offence.

Roy is UFA at the end of the season and I highly doubt he’ll re-sign with the Oilers so MacTavish is basically sending away an asset for 3 months of blah.

Now, some are arguing that the Oilers did the right thing to get a contract off their 50 man list but that’s only a factor if the team is expecting to add a few more bodies during this season.

This pretty is much the definition of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic and is likely meant to indicate the Oilers are “doing something” to appease the fan base.

But it does nothing to improve the hockey team.

The Edmonton Oilers also picked Matt Fraser off the waiver wire this morning after the Boston Bruins waived him to make room for the callup of Jordan Caron.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Blues have given up trying to find an NHL player in Magnus Paajarvi after the former Oilers’ 10th overall pick was a healthy scratch in 25 games this season and managed to score only 1 point in the 10 games he did play.

The Anaheim Ducks also placed Dany Heatley on waivers which likely spells the end of his NHL career. Heatley only played 6 games for the Ducks and it’s apparent that the speed of the game has passed him by.

The big news of the days however is reports from multiple sources that Colorado Avalanche centre Ryan O’Reilly is being shopped.

The split between center Ryan O’Reilly and theColorado Avalanche is inevitable. Too much vitriol under the bridge in previous contract squabbles.He’s signed through 2016 at a pretty good clip; after that, it’s UFA status and Denver in the rearview mirror.

So with the Avs nine points out of a playoff spot and desperately needing a blueline upgrade (seriously, their firmware is like two years out of date), perhaps the Ryan O’Reilly trade window is opening for the rest of the NHL.

At least that’s what former Denver Post writer Adrian Dater is reporting:

O’Reilly being offered around the league for a good D-man. Florida and Winnipeg. Pondering, Toronto and Montreal too

— Adrian Dater (@adater) December 28, 2014

People might publicly deny it, but O’Reilly is definitely in play again on the market

— Adrian Dater (@adater) December 28, 2014

Thinking about possible destinations for O’Reilly, I believe that Toronto might be a good fit.

There are persistent rumours that the Leafs are thinking about trading Jake Gardiner or Cody Franson and that James Reimer could also be on the move.

O’Reilly is an Ontario native and is precisely what the Leafs need and, if acquired, the Leafs would be in a position to trade Nazem Kadri for additional help.

The Avalanche, meanwhile, add a defenseman, a reliable backup goaltender and free themselves from O’Reilly’s $6 million cap hit.

More later in the day…..

Snap Shots

Snapshots-logo

 

 

It appears the Colorado Avalanche may have achieved ignition….going 6-4-0 in their last 10GP. Worth noting they are only 5 points out of the final wild card spot with a game in hand. The problem is that Minnesota, San Jose and Dallas are even closer.

The Vancouver Canucks have exceeded pretty much every expectation this season…including mine. Their success is based on FOUR scoring lines. Their normal 4th line of C Bo Horvat (4P in 10G), Shawn Matthias (7P) and Derrick Dorsett (8P) is certainly pulling its weight and rookie Horvat has an eye-popping 61.2% in the face off circle.

Speaking of the Canucks…a couple of weeks back I noted they were deficient in the 5V5 F/A metric…but now, going into todays game against the Red Wings, they sit at exactly 1.00…a massive improvement. Nashville is by far the best at outscoring at evens at…1.75 while Edmonton (0.64) and Columbus (0.54) are dreadful.

If Nashville ever gets their 26th ranked PP (12.2%) going, they should be all but unbeatable.

Remember the guy who was picked right after Sam Gagner in the 2007 NHL draft? I do.  Jakub Voracek has 32 points in 23 games this season. Wellwood Gagner has 9.

The Calgary Flames have 6 players with more points that Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle.

There are 6 teams in the NHL that are scoring an average of 3 or more goals per game. Who would have thought that 4 of those 6 would be the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Calgary Flames, the New York Islanders and the Vancouver Canucks?

An article in USA Today caught my eye this morning:

In 1997-98, the New York Rangers led the NHL with 871 blocked shots and most teams had a total below 700. Last season, the Montreal Canadiens led with 1,491 blocked shots, an average of 18 a game. Four of the 30 teams blocked fewer than 1,000 shots.

I would hope the league is keeping a close eye on this as shot blocking has the potential to kill offence to a degree the game could become unwatchable. I would support a rule change that stipulates leaving your feet to block a shot results in a minor penalty.

Will Craig Berube be the first coach fired this season? I imagine so but there are several other candidates who are at least as deserving…Dallas Eakins and Todd Richards…come immediately to mind. The odds on bet before the season began was Randy Carlyle but he has his Leafs in a playoff position with a record of 6-3-1 in their last 10GP.