Back in the Saddle

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It’s been a while.

As a summer filled with weddings, fishing, camping and a great deal of SFA is coming to an end, thoughts are once gain turning to hockey.

While I’ve been closely following the minutia of the summer transaction in the NHL, I’ve reached the general conclusion that not much will have changed when the 2016/17 season officially kicks off.

I think this is especially true when it comes to the Western Conference where it appears the powerhouse teams will remain just that while the pretenders have fiddled around the margins a bit but none, with a couple of exceptions, have taken the kind of steps to significantly enhance their chances of post season success.

That’s not to say that there are no curious situations that bear watching and, of course, there may still be a few moves between now and opening night but I think we are close enough to completion to get a read on how the WC teams stack up.

Anaheim

The Ducks’ biggest offseason acquisition was Randy Carlyle. My goodness. Carlyle was brought back to, reportedly, light a fire under the Ducks vets but whether or not that old school approach will work is certainly questionable.

As of this writing, the Ducks still haven’t sorted out their defense with Hampus Lindholm still unsigned and they don’t have room on the roster for blue-chippers Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour so something has to give there and, like most pundits, I expect Cam Fowler may find a new home before the season starts.

The Ducks also, curiously added Antoine Vermette to a centre group that includes Getzlaf, Kesler, Thompson and Rakell (when signed) when their most pressing need seems to be a scoring winger.

Arizona

This team is all about the future as fuzzy-cheeked GM John Chayka keeps adding to an already deep prospect pool.

That pool features a veritable CHL All Star team:

  • Max Domi
  • Dylan Strome
  • Anthony Duclair
  • Christian Dvorak
  • Jacob Chychrun
  • Lawson Crouse
  • Anthony DeAngelo
  • Brendan Perlini

Obviously, it’ll take a bit of time but that group is ridiculously strong but I can see the Coyotes taking a big step ahead this season especially since they added Alex Goligoski to help out Ekmann-Larsson on D.

 

Calgary

The Flames were my pick as the most successful team in the offseason.

They had some very well-defined needs and filled all of them.

Replacing Bob Hartley with a coach who emphasizes high-speed attack hockey will result in a much more dangerous Flames team.

But even more important is the acquisitions they made in goal with Brian Elliot who had the best save percentage in the league last season (minimum 40 games) and capable backup Chad Johnson.

The Flames were the 4th highest scoring team in the WC last season and, if they can cut GA from worst to even average, they will be a playoff team.

They added 20 goal scorer Troy Brower at no real cost and if draft pick Matthew Tkachuk makes the team out of camp (I think he will) they should be a higher scoring team.

Critics like to point out that the Flames D is weak after you past Giordano, Brodie and Hamilton and,on the surface, that is true but those critics tend to forget that the Flames have some pretty impressive prospects in Oliver Kylington, Rasmus Andersson and Kenney Morrison bubbling under.

Obviously the Dennis Wideman, Ladislav Smid and Derek England contracts all represent obstacles but they will all be gone next offseason clearing up almost $12 million in cap space allowing the Flames to fill out their D with more useful players.

With their talent up front (once they sign Gaudreau) this is a team primed for a major move up the standings.

Chicago

Not much needs to be said about the Hawks and they weren’t busy in the offseason other than trying to stay under the cap but they should be better this season for one reason….Brian Campbell.

Campbell at $1.5 million is a huge steal for the Hawks and addresses their most glaring need for a team that has played with 3 NHL defensemen in the recent past.

Even at 37, Campbell remains an elite puck moving defenseman.

Colorado

If you’re looking for a team that could surprise this season, look no further. The deletion of Patrick Roy may have a huge impact on this team and, while their D is very questionable, they have enough talent up front to be competitive and lets remember they only missed the playoffs by 5 points last season. Replacing Roy should easily make up that gap.

Dallas

Old friend Woodguy bet me last week that the Dallas Stars, who won the WC title last season, would miss the playoffs.

I howled at that notion and even gave him 2-1 odds.

His reasoning I guess revolves around the changes Jim Nill has made to his D by letting Jason Demers and Alex Goligoski head elsewhere.

But let’s take a closer look.

Nill also added veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis who came back from injury last season to play very well for the Canucks.

With John Klingberg anchoring the top pairing and Stephen Johns emerging as a bona-fide second pairing ace, the Stars have the foundation for an exceptional young D on the RH side.

At the moment, Hamhuis joins Johnny Oduya, and Jordie Benn as a veteran presence but it’s the next wave that is remarkable.

  • Julius Honka
  • Esa Lindell
  • Jamie Oleksiak
  • Patrick Nemeth
  • Mattia Backman
  • Ludwig Bystrom

Every one of those players is very likely to have NHL careers which, when they join Klingberg and Johns in the next couple of seasons, will give the Stars the best young D in the league.

Honka is pretty much a Klingberg clone having scored 11G and 44P in the AHL last season and is likely ready for the NHL.

A right hand side of Klingberg, Honka and Johns is just ridiculous especially since Dallas has the LH vets to give them cover.

Esa Lindell is a huge LH defenseman who is also NHL ready after posting 14G and 42P in the AHL last season.

At 22 years of age and after playing against men in the AHL and the Finnish league for the past two seasons, he should have no problems easing his way into the NHL given that he’ll be sheltered by Hamhuis, Oduya and Benn.

No need say much about the best offence in the NHL except to say that the Stars, after getting break-out years from Radek Faksa and Mattias Janmark in 15/16, added Jiri Hudler to an already ridiculously deep group of forwards.

Not to mention that Jason Dickinson and Devin Shore are reported ready for NHL duty.

Edmonton

We’ll conclude our look at half the WC teams with an assessment of the offseason work of the Oilers’ Peter Chiarelli.

Anyone who has been following this blog will know that I promoted, predicted and expected a Taylor Hall trade to finally get some help on defense.

Problem is, Adam Larsson is a woefully inadequate return for Hall.

Larson may be a top pairing D some day but he isn’t now and you don’t trade a player like Hall for hope. You just don’t.

I expect Hall contributed to his demise with the Oilers with his entitled attitude but the trade leaves the Oilers going into another season with a putative top pairing of Larsson and the perennially injured Oscar Klefbom who has only 107 NHL games on his resume.

Once again we are reminded that the Oilers organization approached their 10 year infinibuild ass backwards are only now addressing their D in a meaningful way.

They have a very nice group of young forwards but the loss of Hall mitigates that fact and the addition of Milan Lucic, while a good move, won’t replace Hall’s value to the team.

Obviously you can’t talk about the Oilers without mentioning Connor McDavid and, if he can remain healthy all year, the Oilers should be able to recover somewhat from the Hall trade.

But a McDavid, RNH, Klefbom or Cam Talbot injury will expose the Oilers’ lack of depth and have them out of the playoffs race by Halloween.

On his blog, Lowetide has released his “reasonable expectations” stating that the Oilers will end the season with a net neutral goal differential, finish 10th in the WC and 21 overall. (he predicted a positive goal differential 3 seasons ago)

In our next post, we’ll take a look at the other teams who will prevent those things from happening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Trader Jim

 

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What an astounding performance last night from the Dallas Stars.

The Minnesota Wild lulled the Stars to sleep and took a 3-0 lead early in the 2nd period before the Stars collectively said “that’s enough of this shit”.

After being outshot 9-7 in the 1st period, the Stars amped it up and out shot Minnesota 35-15 in the final 2 periods and wound up winning the game 4-3 in OT.

Only a stout performance from Wild goalie Darcy Kemper kept this one close.


 

In response to a reader’s comment last night, I thought I would expand on the amazing work of Dallas GM Nill.

We’ll let Wikipedia do the heavy lifting but as impressive as what follows has been…there’s much more to the story that we’ll get to afterward.

 

In April 2013, he was hired as GM of the Dallas Stars. Nill immediately made several major transactions starting with trading a 6th round pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft to the Ottawa Senators for DefensemenSergei Gonchar and signed him a 2-year, $10-million dollar contract.[1] On July 4, 2013 in a blockbuster trade, Nill sent 2011 NHL All-StarLoui Eriksson and prospects Joe MorrowReilly Smith, and Matt Fraser to the Boston Bruins in exchange for the former 2nd overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry DraftTyler Seguin as well as Rich Peverley and Ryan Button.[2] On the same day he traded prospect Philip Larsen and a 7th round pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for their captain Shawn Horcoff.[3]

On July 1, 2014, Nill traded for Ottawa Senators center and captain, Jason Spezza and right winger Ludwig Karlsson for Alex Chiasson, Nick Paul, Alex Guptill, and a 2nd round pick in the 2015 NHL draft. On the same day, he also signed unrestricted free agent forward, Ales Hemsky to a 3 year, $12 million contract.[4]

On July 10, 2015, Nill traded for forward Patrick Sharp and defensive prospect Stephen Johns from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for defenseman Trevor Daley and forward Ryan Garbutt.[5] On July 15, 2015, Nill signed unrestricted free agent defenseman, Johnny Oduya to a 2 year $7.5 million contract.[6]

Nill’s unique ability to pull off the blockbuster trade has been attributed to a Jedi-like wiggle of his trademark mustache, nicknamed “Monty.”

Yes, a few blockbusters in there and I think the only mis-step was Hemsky’s 3 year deal but there is also a back story that is often missed.

You may have noticed the name Stephen Johns in the trade for Sharp and that’s only one example of Nill dealing with the present and future at the same time.

John’s was a 2nd round pick of the Blackhawks and is currently playing in the AHL.

He’s joined in Texas by Mattias Backman, a promising defenseman that Nill drafted in the 5th round while with Detroit and whom he got for virtually nothing when he traded UFA Erik Cole for Backman and Mattias Janmark who is currently playing more than 13 minutes a night on the Stars’ 3rd line.

More on that trade and the players involved from Defending Big D.

As you can see, Nill managed to move a player who is now out of hockey for a blue chip defensive prospect and yet another centre.

So, not only has Nill given lie to the notion that you can’t acquire elite centres except through the draft but he’s also built Dallas’ defensive depth from awful to among the best in the league in what amounts to only two seasons of work.

Take a peek.

John Klingberg (5th round 2010)

Alex Goligoski (very good#2 D inherited by Nill)

Jason Demers (Nill acquired in a trade with San Jose)

Johnny Oduya (signed as a free agent by Nill)

Jordie Benn (inherited by Nill)

Jyrki Jokipakka (7th round 2011)

Patrick Nemeth (2nd round 2010)

Jamie Oleksiak (1st round 2011)

Those are  the 8 defensemen Dallas has carried this season not wanting to lose any of them to waivers although, at some point, I expect Nill will deal from a position of extreme strength and make a another trade.

But, as alluded to earlier, it doesn’t stop there.

These D are warming up in the bullpen in the AHL and appear to have a solid NHL future:

Stephen Johns (trade)

Esa Lindell (trade)

Mattias Backman (trade)

Julius Honka (1st round 2014)

Ludwig Bystrom (2nd round 2012)

That depth is just ridiculous and, while Nill certainly can’t claim credit for all of them, he now has so many bullets in his chamber he’s set himself up for many years.

When we examine Nill’s draft history, we have to remember that he was “The Man” in Detroit as well as the GM of the Wings’ AHL team before moving to Dallas….or, in other words, the man mainly responsible for “the Detroit Model”.

Since his first draft in 2013 with Texas Nill has picked the following players in the first 2 rounds.

2013 

Valeri Nichsuhkin 109GP

Jason Dickinson 15P in 20GP AHL rookie

Remi Elle 6P in 11GP AHL rookie

2014

Julius Honka 40P in 87GP in AHL

Brett Pollock 31P in 28GP Edmonton WHL

2015

Denis Guryanov playing in the Russian junior League (an odd pick)

Roope Hintz playing in the Finnish SM Liga.

I admit I have to wonder about those 2015 picks but Nill has a long track record of discovering NHL players in Europe so at this point I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

To summarize, Nill had some pretty nice pieces to work with when he took over the Stars (Jamie and Jordy Benn, Klingberg on the way, Goligoski etc.) but he immediately got to work and acquired the pieces needed to win all while stock piling his prospect depth.

To be able to acquire Seguin, Spezza, Sharp and Oduya, Demers and all that D depth without losing anything of consequence is just remarkable.

 

 

 

 

 

The Wild Wild West

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14 Things

Black Friday has come and gone and we now have a pretty good idea which teams remain players in the tough Western Conference of the NHL.

The Dallas Stars have been the dominant team I expected them be in my pre-season analysis. They go into tonight’s game against Minnesota with a .784 win percentage and a record of 18-5 which, had they brought their A Game in two losses to the Toronto Maple Leafs, would have been a stunning 20-3.

Enough has been said and written about their superstar studded line up so I won’t belabour the point except to say that Jim Nill took a team that finished 11th in the conference in 2012/13 and built a powerhouse in essentially two seasons. That speaks volumes about teams that seem to need a decade to become competitive.

The St. Louis Blues are performing as well as one might expect considering their deep blue line and the emergence of Colton Parayko on their bottom pairing.

The Blues will have Paul Statsny in the lineup tonight when they face Columbus. Statsny has only played 7 games this season due to injury but has 2 points in the 2 games he’s played since returning to the Blues’ top line. Look for the Blues (14-6-3) to be even better in the second quarter of the season.

The Chicago Blackhawks struggled early but have been coming on hard (6-3-1) in their last ten games led by the all world performance of Patrick Kane.

Kane is on pace for a 125 point season and would normally be running away with the scoring race if not for the Benn/Seguin/Klingberg scoring machine in Dallas.

One thing to keep an eye on though for the Hawks is that any injury to Kane would hurt tremendously as Chicago, even with Kane’s heroics, are only 10th in GF/GP and could fall off a cliff if Kane gets hurt.

The Nashville Predators, predictably, have had trouble scoring and, despite being tied with Chicago in points, could easily fall below the playoff cutline if Minnesota and/or Winnipeg make even a small surge.

You have to wonder how long it will be before David Poile is forced to move one of his hoard of defensemen to ensure his team makes the post season.

The Los Angeles Kings are leading the Pacific Division with 27 points but that total would have them 5th in the Central Division and their lead is precarious with San Jose, Arizona and Vancouver all within 4 points of the Kings.

The Kings are notorious slow starters so I don’t think there is much worry they’ll make the playoffs but one does have to be concerned about the sub standard play of Anze Koptitar who is only on a 40 point pace. I wonder if his protracted contract extension limbo is taking a toll on him. (I have a hunch that Dean Lombardi will not break open the bank for him and he may be traded before July 1st)

The San Jose Sharks have been on a tear of late, sweeping a 6 game road trip and,if they ever find a way to win at home (3-6-0) they’ll waltz into the post season.

It’s worth noting that the Sharks have been without top scoring centre Logan Couture for all but 3 games this season but he’s expected back from a broken fibula as early as tonight against Calgary…that should give the Sharks a shot in the arm.

The Arizona Coyotes somehow just keep hanging around and their not doing it with “Bettman Mirrors”.

The Coyotes have won 12 games in regulation riding a decent D and the superlative play of Martin Hanzal and rookies Max Domi and Anthony Duclair. While Chicago’s Artemi Panarin leads the rookie scoring race, he’s 24 years of age while the Coyotes’ youngsters are only 20.

I’m not convinced the Dogs can hang on to a playoff spot but what we do know is that the Coyotes have two recent draft picks, Christian Dvorak and Dylan Strome with more than 2PPG in the OHL and they should be ready to play next season. Yikes!

The Minnesota Wild have endured the loss of their best player for almost 10 games now but they are in “stealth mode in the Central Division hanging on to the final wild card spot but have a game or two in hand on everyone. Parise returned to action last night in the Wild’s loss to Winnipeg but he should give his team a big boost when he gets up to speed.

The Vancouver Sedins are on fire.

Daniel has 7 goals and and 9 assists in his last 10 games while Henrik “only” has 5 goals and 9 assists.

Ask almost any Oiler fan and they’ll gloat that the Sedins are rapidly declining and will sink the Canucks all while ignoring the fact that the Sedins have never relied on speed but instead on smarts to be among the NHL’s elite, I don’t think you get all that much dumber after 35 do you?

The Sedin’s epic play has been somewhat masking some other issues while the Canucks hang around the WC playoff cut line.

Injuries to Brandon Sutter and Brandon Prust have forced a couple of rookies into roles they aren’t ready for and only recently has last season’s top goal scorer, Radim Vrbata start finding the range.

Vrbata is 10th in the league in SOG with 83 and his shooting percentage of 7.3 is well below his career average so expect more from him.

I expect the Canucks will start winning some of the 1 goal games they are now losing but not sure if that will be enough to hold off the Ducks for the final Pacific Division slot.

The Anaheim Ducks can’t be this bad, can they?

I don’t think so either but you have to wonder if and when the dam will burst.

The last 3 teams in the WC could be thrown into a sack and into a river since all of Calgary, Colorado and Edmonton are quickly going no where.

Fans of all 3 teams seem to be expecting a surge or as some like to call it a “turn north”

To illustrate how unlikely that is to happen, let’s take a look at the Oilers next 10 game segment.

@ Pittsburgh (13-8-1)

@ Toronto (7-10-5)

vs. Boston (13-8-1)

vs. Dallas (oh my)

vs. Buffalo  (9-12-2)

vs. San Jose (13-9-0)

vs. NYR (16-5-2)

@Boston (13-8-1)

@NYR (16-5-2)

@Chicago (13-8-2)

I would be shocked if the Oilers can come any from that stretch with more than 8 points.

Even if they were to saw it off at 10 points that would leave them with only  26 after 33 games and the playoff teams will be far over the horizon by then.

Remember when Jim Nill built a powerhouse in only 2 seasons?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At The Quarter Pole

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Most NHL teams have now played a quarter of their season and the cream has risen to the top and the dregs are being separated.

RISING STARS

No surprise to me but almost unnoticed by the national media is just how absolutely dominant the Dallas Stars have been this season.

The Stars are sporting a record of 17-4 with no loser points and despite not showing up for 2 losses against the Leafs.

The Stars have a 6 point lead over the Blues who have the second best record in the West and they’ve scored 12 more goals (74) than the second place Canucks (62).

Montreal is pacing the Stars with 74 goals as well but they’re playing in the weaker conference while Dallas has run up a 6-1 record against the tougher West. The Stars will be playing more games against the West as the season progresses but there is absolutely no reason to think they can’t keep up the pace.

The most remarkable thing about the Stars is not the all world performances from Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin (which I expected) but the emergence into an elite defenseman of 23 year old John Klingberg. 

Klingberg is tied for the league lead in assists with Patrick Kane and Seguin at 19 apiece and has hit 3 goal posts in his last 2 games.

Worth noting…the last defenseman to lead the league in assists was some guy named Bobby Orr.…Klingberg might soon make history.

BLACK FRIDAY

We’re only a few days away from the defacto playoff doomsday for teams that are at least 10 points out of a playoff berth. It is almost impossible for those teams to make up enough ground to grab a spot so let’s take a look at which teams could see their seasons effectively over by Black Friday.

The Pacific Triangle

In reality, there is very little chance that the Central Division won’t send 5 teams to the playoffs so that leaves the last 3 spots for the Pacific Division.

 

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Edmonton has a  7-12-1 record heading into the week and have only 4 wins in their past 10 games.

The Oilers face Washington, Carolina and Detroit in the next week and would need to win at least 2 of those games to stay in the hunt. Even then, they would need just the right combination of losses from other Pacific Division teams to remain viable.

What is germaine here for the Oilers is the schedule for the teams that are ahead of them this week.

As of this writing, the LA Kings are losing to the Carolina Hurricanes and both San Jose (vs. Columbus) and Vancouver (vs. New Jersey) play later today and both could enhance their chances substantially with a win and an Oilers’ loss to red hot Washington (6-3-1 in their last 10) would leave them 9 points out.

It also doesn’t help that two teams the Oilers are chasing, Anaheim and Calgary, play each other Tuesday or that Anaheim also plays Arizona on Wednesday and Calgary plays Arizona on Friday.

If there are any 3 point games among that group and the Oilers don’t win at least 2 of 3, their season is pretty much done.

Vancouver also has a couple of tough games this week against the Wild and Stars but have shown an ability to keep games close and pick up points.

If the Canucks can build on last night’s 6-3 hammering of the Blackhawks and pick up at least 3-4 points this week they should hang around but anything less and they may be in trouble.

The Calgary Flames, of course, are also in a very precarious spot but have been playing much better (6-4-0 in their last 10) since TJ Brodie returned to the lineup.They can pretty much write their own story if they can win against Anaheim and Arizona but that’s certainly not a given although I like their chances.

Things will be much clearer by Black Friday.

Sedinery

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We would be remiss to not mention a superb performance by the Sedin twins last night.

Daniel scored 3 and added an assist while brother Henrik had a 5 point night including a goal.

Both have now moved into the top 15 in league scoring (Daniel tied for 6th…Henrik only 2 points back.)

Watch out Pacific Division if the Sedins catch fire.

 

 

 

 

 

Turning South

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It was widely expected that the Edmonton Oilers would and should make a turn north this season after 9 years as the worst team in the NHL.

The “expert panel” assembled by the fine folks at Oilers Nation were all optimistic, even delusional in some cases.

  • Lowetide 93
  • Jeanshorts 90
  • Henderson 90
  • Gregor 86
  • Willis 85
  • Baggedmilk 82
  • Brownlee 82

You may recall that I had predicted before the season began that the Oilers would finish 13th in the conference ahead only of the Arizona Coyotes which, as things are shaking out, may prove me to be slightly optimistic as well.

Old friend Darcy McLeod of Woodblog took the time over at Lowetide this morning to assess how the Oilers are actually performing:

Some comparisons of key stats from this year and last Nov 11.

First number will be this year, 2nd number is last year at this time. (running WOI Oct1/14-Nov11/14)

5v5 GF/60
2.00/60 (tied 17th in NHL)
2.10/60 (tied 18th in NHL)

5v5 GA/60
2.90 (28th in NHL)
3.10 (29th in NHL)

5v5 SH%
7.4% (tied 16th)
7.3% (tied 21st)

5v5 SV%
.904 (27th in NHL)
.900 (29th in NHL)

5v5 SH/60
26.8 (27th in NHL)
29.2 (tied 16th in NHL)

5v5 SF/60
29.9 (22nd in NHL)
30.6 (tied 22nd in NHL)

5v5 CF%
48.4 (24th in NHL)
50.6 (15th in NHL)

5v5 SCF/60
24.6 (tied 21st in NHL)
25.1 (tied 22nd in NHL)

5v5 SCA/60
24.8 (11th in NHL)
26.2 (16th in NHL)

5v5 HDSCF/60
9.3 (26th in NHL)
10.9 (16th in NHL)

5v5 HDSCA/60
11.2 (tied 23rd in NHL)
12.0 (22nd in NHL)

Sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

Oilers slightly better defensively than last year via SA, SCA and HDSA

Oilers slight worse offensively (despite McEverything playing 12 games) via SF, SCF and HDSCF.

No surprise to me as you may know…the Oilers still don’t even have ONE passable top pairing D and don’t even get me started on the over payments for Sekera and Reinhart.

I had also warned about once again going into another season without having a bonafide #1 goaltender a move which, if you consider the buyers market in goaltending, is inexcusable.

The Oilers next 3 games are against Pacific Division opponents…Anaheim tonight followed by Arizona (second games in 2 on the road) and then a third game in four nights against the Kings in LA.

The Oilers would need to get at least 3 points out of those games to even remain in the Pacific Division conversation but it’s much more likely they come away with 1or 0.

That they get to follow up that 3 game death march with a match at home against the Blackhawks likely means the Oilers season will be effectively over a week from today.

Perhaps that will spur Peter Chiarelli to start making some moves to shore up the dreadful D and I would suggest the first place he should look is in Dallas where the Stars are carrying 8 defensemen because they don’t want to expose any of their young “NHL ready” youngsters to waivers:

  1. Alex Goligoski
  2. John Klingberg (untouchable)
  3. Johnny Oduya
  4. Jordie Benn
  5. Jason Demers
  6. Jyrki Jokipakka
  7. Jamie Oleksiak
  8. Patrick Nemeth
  9. Julius Honka*
  10. Stephen Johns*
  11. Esa Lindell*
  12. Ludwig Bystrom*        *in the AHL

Jim Nill might well be reluctant to part with any of those players unless the return was very significant but Goligoski is UFA at the end of the season and if he feels one of his other young players is ready to pair with phenom Klingberg, perhaps Chiarelli could get his attention.

Goligoski, while not an elite pairing D, would certainly be the Oilers #1D right out of the box and would allow the other Oilers D to slot lower in the batting order which is exactly what is needed.

Of course, the Stars have very little need to do anything at this point but Nill has proven to be a GM not afraid to make big moves if he can improve his team in the future.

On the other hand, Chiarelli, a week from now, may realize that with the season already over from a competitive point of view he’ll just sit on his hands for the final few months of the 10th annual death march and try to offload some junk at the deadline.

Going to be a fascinating week ahead.

Ranking the Rebuilds #2…The Dallas Stars.

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In the first segment of this series, we took a look at the tremendous success of Steve Yzerman…leading his team to a berth in the Stanley Cup finals after 5 seasons on the job.

This time, a look at the work of another Detroit Red Wings alumni, Jim Nill.

Nill took over the Dallas Stars in April 2013.

The Stars were coming off a season that saw them finish dead last in the Pacific Division…11th in the WC.

The Stars had missed the playoffs for 5 straight season many of which were played under the uncertainty of the ownership of Tom Hicks.

The team was purchased out of bankruptcy by Vancouver billionaire Tom Gaglardi during the 2011/12 season.

Gaglardi was not content with losing and, after only one season with the incumbent management group, cleaned house:

The day after their final regular season game of the 2012-13 season (a 3–0 loss to the Detroit Red Wings), the Stars fired General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk. The next day, the Stars introduced their 11th all-time general manager, Jim Nill, the former assistant general manager of the Red Wings. On May 14, 2013, the coaching staff was also fired,[32] and on May 31, 2013, Scott White was re-introduced as the director of hockey operations

It appears Nill also had little patience for losing and wasted little time in assessing the teams holes and setting out to fill them.

The Stars leading centre the previous season was Cody Eakin…a 21 year old who scored only 7 goals and 24 points the previous season.

Nill, taking to heart the sage advice from former boss Ken Holland in Detroit, knew he had to build his team up the middle and in a blockbuster series of moves, acquired centres Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley and Shawn Horcoff in his first offseason.

Those moves paid off when the Stars made the playoffs the following season but, to some degree, that was nothing more than a “dead cat bounce” because the Stars team defense was still highly suspect and the team needed secondary scoring.

In his second offseason, Nill didn’t rest on his laurels…he sent Alex Chiasson, a couple of prospects and a 2nd round pick to Ottawa for Jason Spezza.

He followed up that move by signing former Senator and Oiler Ales Hemsky to a 3 year contract.

The Stars would flounder in the 2014/15 season…sewered by sub par goaltending and, still, questionable team D but had the best record in the NHL after the all star break. (14W 5L 1OTL in the last 20 games).

To illustrate how poor the team was defensively, one need look no further than the fact that the Stars were the second highest scoring team in the league (3.13 GPG) behind only the Lightning but ranked 27 in the league (3.13 GAG).

It’s important to remember here that the Stars may have been even more potent offensively had a few issues not impacted things.

1) Jamie Benn played the entire season with two damaged hips but won the Art Ross Trophy in any event. Benn had  offseason surgery and says his recovery is ahead of schedule.

2) Tyler Seguin was on pace for 51 goals before receiving a dirty low bridge hit from Dimitri Kulikov. Seguin missed 11 games but finished 2nd in the league (1.08 PPG) to Sidney Crosby (1.09 PPG).

3) Highly touted RW Valeri Nichushkin was limited to only 8 games also due to a hip injury but is also recovered.

4) Newly acquired centre Jason Spezza admits he had a bit of a down season while adapting to a new team but managed to score 17 goals and 62 points nonetheless. Spezza’s play picked up in the second half of the season and, of course there is this:

Just like with the Stars, Spezza excelled in a secondary role on a high-offense teamCanada scored 66 goals in 10 games, 26 more than the second-highest scoring team, Russia. Spezza, Seguin and Eakin scored 19 of Canada’s 66 goals in the tournament. Seguin led the tournament with nine goals in 10 games, and Eakin finished with four goals and two assists. Spezza tallied six goals and eight assists for 14 points, the most in the tournament. He was selected as the tournament’s top forward and was named to the All-Star team. Spezza finally won a goal medal in his third trip to the World Championship.

5) Ales Hemsky also needed hip surgery in the offseason and I expect he’ll be far more productive in the coming season:

“I can already feel I have more motion,” Hemsky told the Dallas Morning News in a report published Tuesday. “It’s just been two months and I know I have a long way to go, but I can feel the difference.”

Hemsky had 11 goals and 21 assists in 76 games last season playing the majority of the season alongside center Jason Spezza. Hemsky didn’t score his first goal of the season until Nov. 28 against the Minnesota Wild.

“It was a lot of pressure I was putting on myself, and I think I worked through that,” he said. “This feels completely different.”

Despite those woes, the Stars had a high octane offence last season but Nill added even more firepower a couple of weeks ago when he swung a trade for Patrick Sharp.

Sharp is only one season removed from a 34 goal 84 point season in Chicago and despite a drop off in 2014/15 where he had a shooting percentage of of only 7 percent (career 11.4) and was playing more than 2 mins/game less than the previous season, I think you can expect a big regression to the mean playing on the Stars 2nd line.

Sharp’s TOI, shot totals and shooting percentage should all jump next season closer to his career norms.

Despite how much I like the Sharp acquisition, the other player coming over in the trade may have a much more lasting impact. Steven Johns was Chicago’s best D prospect and many were shocked when he was included in the deal and, although, after a great season in the AHL, where he was the Ice Hogs best defenseman, he will have some work to do to crack the new and improved Dallas D.

And, of course, Nill pulled off the trifecta of adding former Blackhawks (signed Antti Niemi earlier) when he picked up Johnny Oduya who seems destined for a second pairing shut down role In Dallas.

There are some in the blog world who call into question the Stars D last season (and they did need the improvement Nill provided but, folks, they are starting at a very high level with young Stars Klingberg, Nemeth, Jokkipakka and Johns set to take the next step) and the addition of Oduya is a step up from Trevor Daley. Here’s a look from Defending Big D:

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That chart, of course, doesn’t include either Johns or Jamie Oleksiak who are both NHL ready nor does it include Stars 2014 1st round draft pick Julius Honka who acquitted him self exceptionally well in his rookie season in the AHL.

Needless to say the Stars’ young D is loaded with Goligoski, Demers, Oduya and Benn providing veteran support.

In goal, the Stars suffered through a very bad early season from starter Kari Lehtonen (.903) and even worse backup goaltending so Nill added another veteran in Antti Niemi.

He’s been criticized for spending too much on goaltending but the Stars, even after all their acquisitions, remain well under the cap so that’s not valid.

If they get even career average goaltending from either or both vets, they’ll cut their GA by a huge margin.

I’d wager that will happen.

In speaking of the Stars drafting and development under Nill, I think we need to remember a couple of things about his former role in the Red Wings organization.

Not only was he the Wings’ Director of Amateur scouting from 1994 until  his departure in 2013, but he was also the GM of the Wings AHL affiliate.

I don’t think we need to elaborate further on his spectacular record there but it’s very clear the man knows how to recognize talent all over the draft and develop those players at a very high level.

Nill only has 3 drafts under his belt in Dallas so it’s too early to call one way or the other but the aforementioned Nichushkin, Remi Elie, Jason Dickinson and Honka all appear to be blue chip prospects.

Hockey’s Future has Dallas ranked at #7 on their team ranking list and gives Nill his due:

Strengths: Dallas has extracted great value out of late-round draft picks, first with Jamie Benn, now with John Klingberg.

General Manager Jim Nill has a reputation as a scouting man, and has already re-acquired a pair of Red Wings picks with whom he was familiar in Mattias Janmark and Mattias Backman. This system has quite a few intriguing names and several players ready to graduate into NHL players.

Julius Honka leads a very deep pool of defenders. As a junior-eligible player playing as a rookie in the AHL, his scoring was modest and he made mistakes, but got excellent experience. Jamie Oleksiak is ready for a depth NHL role, and the same can be said for Patrik Nemeth, who suffered an injury early in the season. Esa Lindell had a spectacular season in Finland. Even after Lindell, there are several names that project to be good pros, starting with big and rough Jyrki Jokipakka, who got a two-year deal after establishing himself as a dependable presence for Dallas over the course of last season.

With that kind of spectacular depth in young D, I would imagine Nill will be filling out his prospect list with forwards in the next couple of drafts and he started by picking Denis Guryanov (Russia) and Roope Hintz (Finland) in the 1st and 2nd rounds of the 2015 draft.

Neither of them were highly touted but I certainly wouldn’t bet against Nill finding 2 more NHL forwards in those spots.

But, let’s be honest, the Stars offence is already the best in the league.

They have their Toews (Seguin) they have their Kane (Benn), they have their Sharp (Sharp) potentially their Hossa (Nichushkin) a superb second line centre (Spezza) and a strong supporting cast that includes centres Cody Eakin, Vern Fiddler and Colton Sceviour and wingers that include Hemsky, Antoine Roussel, Patrick Eaves, Brett Ritchie and Travis Moen.

If the D gels as I expect and the Stars get adequate goaltending, they will win the toughest division in hockey…the Central.

Book it!

Dallas Stars – Time to Win

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I’ve been very impressed by the work of Jim Nill since he took over as GM in Dallas…his latest move being the acquisition of Patrick Sharp and Stephen Johns in return for his worst veteran defenseman and a couple of spare parts.

Patrick Sharp has the potential to quickly return to his former 30 goal scoring days since he will be playing with either Tyler Seguin or Jason Spezza as his centre and back in a top 6 role after spending most of the past season on Chicago’s 3rd line.

TSN’s number guy, Scott Cullen, breaks down the trade and offers a couple of money quotes:

There ought to be a good opportunity awaiting Sharp in Dallas too. Last season, his ice time was cut – 16:49 per game was his lowest since 2005-2006 – and he spent a fair amount of time on Chicago’s third line (his second most-common linemates were Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw). In Dallas, Sharp is surely going to play on one of the top two lines, which means having either Tyler Seguin or Jason Spezza as his centre; all the more reason to suspect that Sharp should be productive in 2015-2016.

That Sharp has been a better-than-56% possession player over the past four seasons is in part a credit to the talent with which he played in Chicago, but also an indication that he should be a positive possession player with the Stars.

 

Johns is an NHL-ready defence prospect. The 23-year-old was a second-round pick in 2010 and played four years at Notre Dame. The 6-foot-4, 233-pounder plays a physical game and has 33 points (8 G, 25 A) in 67 (regular season plus playoff) AHL games.

In Dallas, Johns will compete for playing time with the likes of Patrik Nemeth, Jyrki Jokipakka, Jamie Oleksiak and Jordie Benn. Given that there are so many relatively inexperienced defencemen contending for playing time in Dallas, it would come as no surprise if they managed to get involved in the free agent market to add a veteran like Cody Franson, Christian Ehrhoff, Jan Hejda or, to stick with the current Chicago theme, Johnny Oduya.

Not much more to be said in this case…the Stars win this trade going away and the fact they add to their already bursting pipeline of blue chip D prospects just seals the deal.

However, there are still some observers who are questioning Nill’s strategy in building a contender in Texas. Chief among those was Lowetide poster Ryan who generally is a pretty reasonable individual.

RYAN says:

Dashingsilverfox,

What I know about Johns is less than zero.

Jim Nill likes taking on bloated contracts on declining players and the early returns haven’t been great so far.

He also has some new theories on cap management relative to spending on goalies.

Is any of this true?

No, it isn’t.

The object of any offseason is to assemble a roster that has the best chance of winning in the following season.

Nill’s offseason moves (and I don’t think he’s finished) is to ice the best product possible under the cap without compromising the team’s long term prospects under the cap. 

None of Nill’s acquisition will have any long term consequences.

Patrick Sharp has only 2 years remaining on his contract, which coincides EXACTLY with the expiration of Jamie Benn’s deal.

Next season, Dallas has 11 roster players reaching free agency and all but Alex Goligoski, are NOT key pieces so Nill will have a ton of flexibility in roster building.

Ryan and others have also been pointed in their criticism of Nil”s move to sign Antti Niemi to a 3 year $4.5M contract to be Dallas’ 1B goaltender, somehow seemingly suggesting that having two established NHL goaltenders is a bad thing.

You know what they say about goaltending…”when you have it…it’s 50% of the game. When you don’t have it…it’s 100% of the game.”

You would think any Oiler fan would know this as they once again approach another season with unproven goaltending.

And, of course, if you look at why Dallas missed the playoffs last season, their goaltending was a major red flag.

Now, it’s more than likely that Kari Lehtonen returns to his career SV% of .914…but, if he doesn’t, Nill can call on Niemi with his career .916 to fill in.

The thing is, Dallas had the cap space to acquire Niemi and unused cap space is worthless since it doesn’t carry over to subsequent seasons.

With goaltending pretty much solidified, the most pertinent questions revolve around the Dallas D.

Alex Goligoski is an anchor on the 1st pairing and I think there is little doubt that John Klingberg is going to be a star 1st pairing, point producing stud.

Things get a little murkier after that since Jason Demers and Jordie Benn are the only other veterans but the Stars have a boatload of big, mobile, puck moving young D ready to step up and make a difference.

Patrik Nemeth, Jyrki Jokkipaka, Jamie Oleksiak and, now, Stephen Johns, are all NHL ready and most have already seen significant NHL GP and will improve with experience.

I believe that Nill, with $6M remaining free cap space should sign another veteran D to shelter the young guys and, remember, if he does, he’ll likely also move another player or 2 to regain some cap space.

No way around it folks, Nill has built a close to elite team in Dallas and it’s time to win NOW.

Snap Shots

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I’ve been out of town for a while so have been somewhat remiss in posting but thought I would chime in on a few things while the Stanley Cup finals wind their way to conclusion.

1) It’s heartening to see two fast, highly skilled teams are left standing in pursuit of the cup. And it’s especially rewarding to see one of those teams went from near the bottom to the top in a 5 year span rather than have to spend a decade wallowing in the gutter to get there.

2) There are only 2 players on the Lightning roster that were already in place when Steve Yzerman took over 5 years ago….#1C (more on that later) Steven Stamkos and #1D Victor Hedman. If anyone needs a reminder that any rebuild should start from the backend out and then up the middle…there it is.

3) Stamkos has been playing #2 RW for most of the series which not only shows you the value of having too many C’s but also shows you the type of individual he is to accept that role without complaint (as far as we know). It is much easier for an elite centre to shift to wing that the other way around so, when drafting, teams should always select the centre if all else is anywhere near equal. The poster child for how not to rebuild is, of course, the Edmonton Oilers who, 9 years after last making the playoffs, are juts about to draft their #1C and still don’t have any prospects who project as a true #1D.

4) The success of Yzerman in Tampa raises the question of which of the newly minted GM’s will be able to turn around their teams’ fortunes most efficiently. Brad Treleving has already tasted some success in Calgary and goes into the offseason with a huge amount of cap space. He has the opportunity to improve his team very quickly if he acquires the right pieces including another youngish veteran defenseman and a scoring winger. I wouldn’t be shocked if Phil Kessel was on the menu for the latter.

5) After the Oilers hired Peter Chiarelli to be their new GM, I took a closer look at his time in Boston. While he was able to lead his team to a cup, his record in Boston has more than a few blemishes including overpaying more than a few players and putting his team in cap hell. In Edmonton, with Connor McDavid only 3 complete seasons away from likely signing a huge contract, he can’t afford to make any costly mistakes in the interim…I’d advise to keep a close eye on him since, in my mind, the jury is out on how ell he can manage the cap.

6) I would also keep a close eye on Toronto. Another former Red Wing disciple, Brendan Shanahan is assembling a very strong management team and, of course, now also employs the best coach in hockey so, with some astute moves could turn around the Leafs fortunes relatively quickly. If the Leafs can get a good return on Kessel, Phaneuf and others, they could improve rapidly. They already have decent goaltending, a potential #1D in Morgan Rielly and, if they draft Dylan Strome, Mitch Marner or Matt Barzal will have a potential #1C in place to go along with a very good #2C in Nazem Kadri.

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be taking a closer look at the prospects of all the “rebuilding” teams and will have some thoughts on the moves they make at the draft and in free agency.

Deep in the Heart of Texas

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I had a chance to watch the Dallas Stars play the New York Rangers this afternoon. The Stars were coming off a loss last night to the Buffalo Sabres.

The Stars outshot the Sabres 40-24 with Tyler Seguin registering TEN shots on goal (THAT is pushing the river Taylor Hall Fans) and Seguin also had another 5 missed shots and a ton blocked.

Less than 20 hours later the Stars were back at it at MSG and managed to walk away with a 3-2 win in OT.

Seguin is back on top as the leading scorer in the NHL with 60 points in 54 games played. He’s on pace for a 91 point season despite having some pretty bad puck luck lately and is still on pace for a 44 goal season despite that. I still think he’ll flirt with 50.

Seguin has also fired 222 SOG, second in the NHL to the perennial leader Alex Ovechkin but 30 ahead of 3rd place Rick Nash.

As good as Seguin has been, the player I couldn’t stop watching was 22-year-old Swedish defenseman John Klingberg. The kid has poise far beyond his years and, believe me, he’s going to be the next great Swedish D.

Klingberg spent the early part of the season in the AHL but, in the 40 games he has played in the NHL this season, he has 10G 18A +10. Extrapolated over a full 82 game season, that’s 20 goals and 57 points.

Superstar here folks.

But not surprisingly, the Dallas D is the weakest part of the team with 22-year-old Klingberg and 23-year-old Jyrki Jokipakka being called on to play major minutes.The Stars have another young Swede, Patrik Nemeth (6’3″ 225) with a great deal of promise but he’s been injured (leg laceration) for all but 5 games this season so their future is assured but in watching their D this afternoon, it was obvious that Jordie Benn, while being a decent puck mover, is too easy to knock off the puck and an upgrade is in order.

The other big issue for Dallas is their goaltending where their #1 is Kari Lehtonen who has an uninspiring .905 save percentage and backup Anders Lindback is at .875.

I’m sure Stars GM Jim Nill is aware of these issues and will move to address them either at the trade deadline or in the offseason and, the thing is, he is going to have the cap space to do pretty much anything he wants.

Shawn Horcoff ($5.5M), Erik Cole ($4.5M) and Rich Peverley ($3.25M) are all on expiring contracts giving Nill more than $13M to address team needs.

It’s also worth noting that Valeri Nichushkin has been on IR for most of this season and his return could be a major boost to the already potent Stars offence and, of course, they also have a top 3rd prospect pool according to Hockey’s Future:

TEAM BREAKDOWN:
Strengths: The goaltending and defense positions remain two big areas of strength for the Stars. Jack Campbell remains an intriguing goaltending prospect, while Philippe Desrosiers is having another strong year in the QMJHL. The ridiculous amount of defensive prospects the Stars have was only bolstered by the addition of Julius Honka, who is arguably the best prospect now in the system. They have defensemen of various styles and sizes, and overall have an incredibly diverse and talented defensive group.Weaknesses: Dallas has versatility and depth, but few top-end talents. They also do not have the best group at wing, with Brett Ritchie and Jason Dickinson being probably the two strongest players in those positions. There is depth there, but overall not a lot of quality potential.

Top 5 Prospects: 1. Jack Campbell, G; 2. Julius Honka, D; 3. Brett Ritchie, RW; 4. Jason Dickinson, LW; 5. Jamie Oleksiak, D.

I think you can pretty much overlook their lack of forward depth when your team already includes Seguin, Benn, Spezza, Hemsky and what is likely the best 3rd line in hockey with Garbutt, Eakin and Roussel and you have a ton of defensive prospects you can turn into forwards at the right time.

Brett Ritchie is already up playing with the Stars and, please note, the HF guys missed  Nichushkin (despite him being only 19) when talking about their prospect pool because he’s already played 83 NHL games.

And, one final note for the Taylor Hall fanboys who insist, despite all the evidence, that Seguin isn’t playing centre, Seguin took 14 face-offs in today’s game (and won 79% of them) and took 13 Last night (and won 62% of them).

This is going to be a very good team for a very long time.

 

 

The Wild, Wild West II

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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.