And…Here We Go!

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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…

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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

 

 

 

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The Dogs Days

Orang utan, Netherlands
WAITING FOR APRIL

Typically, March is a month of furious competitive hockey as almost every team in the league thinks it still has a chance to make the post season. This season…not so much.

In the Western Conference, 3 teams, Nashville, Minnesota and Colorado, are duking it out for the final 2 wildcard spots while in the Eastern Conference, it would appear only Philadelphia has a decent chance of cracking the top 8.

That essentially leaves 12 teams as “Dead Men Skating” which pretty much overturns the parity notion that Gary Bettman has been pushing, at least for this season.

Now that Anaheim has returned from the dead and is streaking (9-0-1) toward a WC championship, there really are no surprise cinderella winners or losers this season, unless, of course, you ignored by exhortations at the beginning of the season and din’t keep a close eye on the Florida Panthers.

As a long time follower and admirer of Dale Tallon and his work in Chicago and now Florida, I’m not the least bit surprised at his teams’ success.

He built the team the right way from the goalie out when he acquired Roberto Luongo and has hewed to the mantra that a stout defense anchored by veteran Bryan Campbell, young phenoms Aaron Ekblad, Dimitri Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson and Alex Petrovic is a key to success.

He also followed the blueprint of depth down the middle when he drafted Alex Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden and the rapidly blooming Vincent Trocek as well as 0more pedestrian players like Derek McKenzie and Dave Bolland who is perhaps one glaring mistake in the Tallon era in Florida.

I recall a rather chippy encounter with the folks over at Lowetide’s blog when I happened to point out how astute Tallon was in stocking his C depth and was met with howls of derision from the Lowetidian acolytes.

Last laughs and all that…..

The Panthers remain in 1st place in the Atlantic division and despite having only a slim lead are a shoe in for the playoffs.

I doubt they can get past the dominant Capitals to a berth in the Stanley Cup finals but, man, Tallon acquiring Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell at the deadline only adds to the Panthers forward depth and, as we know, almost anything can happen in the playoffs.

If you’re a Canadian hockey fan and relish pulling for a team in the playoffs, the Panthers might be a good bet.

And, one final thought, the “Blackhawks South” that Tallon is building in South Florida has almost $30 million in free cap space in the offseason and a loaded prospect pool.

Tallon will be able to feast on cap strapped teams dumping good players like no other GM in the league and I would imagine he will complete the job of building a powerhouse before the snow flies.

Timing and smarts are everything.

 

 

 

 

Deep Ducks

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The stars in Anaheim’s locker room were strangely absent after the Ducks’ 4-1 vanquishing of the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final.

Guys like Kyle Palmieri, Andrew Cogliano and Nate Thompson had massive media scrums around them asking about beautiful looking scoring plays from their conquest.

This is not normal for Anaheim, a team with Hart Trophy winner (and playoff leading scorer) Corey Perry and star centers Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler. All three have contributed in some form or fashion in Anaheim’s nine playoff wins this season.

Sunday afternoon against Chicago, the Ducks showed their depth with their lower lines leading the way against the stifled Blackhawks.

Right now, the Ducks are healthy, and they’re deep – which as Chicago of the two Stanley Cups since 2010 knows, is a powerful combination in the playoffs.

via Ducks’ depth halts Blackhawks stars in Game 1 victory | Puck Daddy – Yahoo Sports.

Yesterday, I got into a conversation over at Lowetide regarding the ridiculous depth on the Anaheim blue line.

The depth on the team is not just confined to the defense but let’s start there.

Beauchemin – Lindholm

Fowler – Despres

Stoner – Vatanen

Holzer – Wisniewski

Manson-Fistric

That’s 8 NHL defensemen, folks and the Ducks have WHL star Shea Theodore right around the corner.

So, how was this D built?

Beauchemin – acquired from Toronto for Joffry Lupul and Jake Gardiner. Lupul was a Ducks 1st round pick in 2002 and Gardiner was a 1st round pick in 2008. There’s a lesson here about not falling in love with your players if a #1D is the return.

Lindholm – 1st round pick 2012

Fowler – 1st round pick 2010

Despres – 1st round pick 2009 (by Pittsburgh). For Ben Lovejoy.

Stoner – UFA signing

Vatanen – 4th round pick 2009 (an absolute steal)

Holzer – From Toronto for Eric Brewer and a 4th round pick.

Wisniewski – From Columbus for Rene Bourque (salary dump), prospect William Karlsson and a 2nd.

Manson – 6th round pick 2011

Fistric – 1st round pick by Dallas in 2004, Acquired by the Ducks after a cup of coffee in Edmonton.

Still to come, of course, is Shea Theodore, the brilliant young D from The Seattle Thunderbirds who was picked in the 1st round in 2013 and scored 13G and 48P in only 43 games this season. (in a brief appearance with Norfolk of the AHL last month Theodore scored 4G and 11P in 9GP…jeebus)

That is just sick depth and I would expect the Ducks will be moving at least Wisniewski and Fistric in the offseason since both are sitting in the press box during the playoffs

I think the lesson here is that identifying and acquiring a #1D is crucial to developing depth since he can provide the shelter (Beauchemin played almost 24 minutes against Chicago) and experience that helps younger D develop.

That is born out by the last 10 cup winners where only the Cinderella Hurricanes didn’t have a stud on the blue line.

It also helps, of course, if you have a scouting department that can identify players like Lindholm, Vatanen, Manson and Theodore.

The Ducks horde of young, talented defensemen doesn’t end with the four in the playoff lineup. Josh Manson, 23, was a solid fill-in for 28 games this season. Shea Theodore, 19, was a first-round pick (No. 26) in the 2013 NHL Draft and is one of the top prospects at the position.

There has been a strong support system in place, with Trent Yawney joining Niedermayer as an assistant coach this season. Yawney coached Vatanen and Lindholm with Norfolk of the American Hockey League. Beauchemin is also able to help mentor them.

Fowler lived with Niedermayer when he joined the Ducks. Despres lived with Beauchemin after the trade. It’s all helped them settle in, and the team has benefitted from it.

More on the Ducks depth on D here.

Before the 3rd round of the playoffs began, I said I thought the Ducks’ depth would allow them to beat Chicago and, as we saw in game 1, Chicago has been forced to play their top 4 almost exclusively with David Rundblad and Kimmo Timmonen hardly leaving the bench.

All Anaheim has to do to win the series IMO is pound Keith, Seabrook, Oduya and Hjalmarsson into submission and that was exactly the strategy they deployed in game 1.

We’ll look at a Anaheim’s forward depth in our next post.

The Final Four

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There were no huge surprises in the second round of the playoffs with the possible exception of how quickly the Chicago Blackhawks disposed of the Minnesota Wild.

The Wild can match the Hawks in many aspects of the game except one…Patrick Kane.

Kane has been a force throughout the playoffs racking up 7 goals and 13 points in 10 games and the Wild had no answer. The player they acquired to provide high level scoring…Thomas Vanek…was once again a playoff no show managing only 4 assists and a -7 in 10 games.

Wild GM Chuck Fletcher has a problem on his hands with Vanek under contract for 2 more seasons at $6.5 million.

To get to the next level that will almost certainly included going through the Blackhawks, he’s going to have to add a high level scorer…we’ll se hot that plays out in the offseason.

But…on to the Final 4.

It’ll be fascinating to watch how the Anaheim/Hawks series plays out since the Ducks are skilled, big, mean and built in a manner to get past the LA Kings.

The Hawks, who don’t have the beef in the lineup that they did in their last two playoff runs are built on skill, speed and a quick transition game that depends to a large degree on stretch passes to generate offense.

I would bet that Anaheim will deploy a strategy that has their big forwards, Getzlaf, Perry, Kesler, Maroon, Belesky, Etem and Thompson, pound the Hawks defense relentlessly to try and wear them down as the series progresses….the LA Kings style.

The Hawks will have to respond with quick recovery and transition to counter attacking, if the series goes to or near the limit, I think Anaheim will prevail.

To me, the most interesting story is not so much the matchup but how quickly and completely that Steve Yzerman rebuilt a team that is in the final four.

The Tampa Tribune took a look at just that this morning:

In 2011, Yzerman’s first season with the franchise, a team led by holdover franchise icons Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis and stop-gap veterans such as Dwayne Roloson and Sean Bergenheim reached Game 7 of the conference finals at Boston.

This time, the Lightning are tailor-made by Yzerman.

“Back in the 2011 playoffs, we were all relatively new and didn’t know what to expect from our team,” Yzerman said.

“It wasn’t as expected as it is here, where the expectations are a little higher,” Yzerman said in comparing 2011 to this year’s team. “So there is more of an expectation to win.”

Four years later, only two players — Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman — remain with the team.

Now, the roster is filled with draft picks such as Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, undrafted free-agent acquisitions such as Tyler Johnson, J.T. Brown and Andrej Sustr, along with trade or free-agent acquisitions such as Ben Bishop, Valtteri Filppula, Anton Stralman, Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle and Jason Garrison.

 Pretty clear evidence that Yzerman is among the elite of NHL GM’s.
One facet of Yzerman’s team building that doesn’t get mentioned much is how thoroughly he has mined an opportunity that many other teams ignore…Russians and to a lesser degree…other East Europeans.
Since his first draft, Yzerman has drafted:
Vladislav Namestnikov (2011)
Nikita Kucherov (2011)
Nikita Nesterov (2011)
Ondrej Palat (2011)
Andrei Vasilevskiy (2012)
Nikita Gusev (2012)
Kristers Gudlevskis (2013)
Fully 5 of those players have seen action in this seasons’ playoff action..around 20 percent of the TB roster.
Another interesting item in the TB draft strategy came in the 2014 draft when the Bolts had 3 picks in the first 2 rounds and selected 3 defensemen.
The first of those picks was Anthony DeAngelo of the Sarnia Sting who, in this past NHL season, where he played for the Sting and, later, the SSM Greyhounds, scored 21 goals and 89 points before scoring another 16 points in 13 playoff games.
The second pick was towering Czech defenseman Dominik Masin who played for the Peterborough Petes, managing 26 points in 48 games.
The third pick was another big D, Jonathan MacLeod, who had a very nice freshman season with Boston University.

I would also be remiss if I failed to mention that Yzerman also signed 6’7″ 220 Czech defenseman Andrej Sustr.

With Victor Hedman leading the way, Nesterov and Sustr already playing significant minutes, 28 year old Anton Stralman under contract for another 4 seasons at a reasonable $4.5M cap hit and 2 thirty year old veterans, Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn, to provide support, the Lightning D should be formidable for the foreseeable future.

And a forward group that includes Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson,Nikita Kucherov, Andrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin ain’t no chopped liver either.

Once a phenom like DeAngelo joins the group I think the Lightning will join the elite and stay there for a long time.

They’ll be up against a Rangers team whose window is slowly closing but I like the Bolts in 6 although the bookies don’t appear to agree with me:

via Bovada,

Odds to win the 2015 Stanley Cup

New York Rangers                     2/1

Chicago Blackhawks                 11/5

Anaheim Ducks                         12/5

Tampa Bay Lightning                 19/4

Predictive Value

So, here we are moving into the second round of the playoffs with, in my opinion very few surprises.

The Calgary Flames have to be the David to Anaheim’s Goliath but I’ve been telling you all season that the Flames should NOT be discounted.

I suspect they will have a tough time advancing to the 3rd round just based on Anaheim’s size and skill but, then again, folks who have been trashing Calgary for their inability to show well in the “advanced” stats don’t understand what Calgary is doing, how and why.

I thought it would be interesting to go back and take a look at what the Statzis were predicting this season based on “puck possession” and hold their feet to the fire a bit.

The following graph is lifted from an article on SportingCharts.com and you’ll see pretty quickly how poorly the author performed in predicting how the teams in the WC finished in league standings based on their possession metrics.

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The first thing you’ll notice is that almost half of the teams predicted to finish in the playoffs didn’t even make the post season.

The other striking errors are the Kings finishing 1st in the west and Minnesota finishing 13th.

And therein lies the major problem of using past performance to predict future success or failure using nothing more than a statistical approach without raising your eyes from your spreadsheet to rationally assess how the ever shifting lineups of teams are affected by new additions, injuries, progression by young players, coaching changes and a host of other things that are reflected in the “advanced” stats.

If you’ve been following along, you will know that I have been predicting big things for the Wild all the way back to last season and, despite an early season scare caused by dreadful, goaltending, the Wild have been the best team in the NHL for months.

My being bullish on the Wild has been based on roster makeup, systems execution and coaching.I could go on at great length about those things but I’m going to address them a little later in this post when we look at some predictions for the second round.

Before leaving the Corsi/Fenwick debate behind, I’d like to remind you that there are many devotees of “advanced” stats that will tell you that those metrics can accurately predict who will win in the playoffs and win a championship. Really?

Here are the Top 16 CF% teams in the league from the 2014/15 season…let’s see how predictive of post season success that metric has been:

LAK 55.4

CHI 53.6

DET 53.5

TBL 53.0

PIT 52.8

NYI 52.7

NSH 52.7

WPG 52.5

CAR 52.5

DAL 52.1

STL 51.8

BOS 51.7

SJS 51.5

WSH 51.4

FLA 51.3

MIN 51.0

I think you would have to agree that using “possession ” stats to predict playoff success is pretty much useless and while any fool would agree that having the puck is better than not having the puck, there are so many other moving parts in play, that ignoring them leads to embarrassing moments like the article linked to above.

I’m sure the author was all agog that he was on to something brilliantly insightful but Maggie the Monkey could not have done a poorer job.

So, what about the Flames?

Why have they been so successful despite being 28th this season in CF%?

If you watched the Flames/Canucks series with a critical eye, you will have seen exactly the factors that can overcome or ignore the current “possession” fad a lead a team to win more games that they lose.

Bob Hartley (who should win the Jack Adams trophy hands down) has designed his systems play around the personnel he has and has and has received total buy in from his team.

There are several facets to what he is preaching:

1) Relentless forechecking and puck retrieval.

2) Pounding the opposition D in their own end to wear them down.

3) Keeping opposition shots to the outside

4) Blocking shots

5) A mobile D that turns pucks the other way with accuracy and speed.

5) Speed through the neutral zone

6) Crash the net.

There’s nothing magical about his formula and it only works if executed relentlessly but it doesn’t lead to Corsi success…it overcomes that metric.

Interestingly enough, I think you’ll see that Anaheim plays a very similar style although their personnel are bigger and more experienced.

That likely gives the Ducks the advantage in the series between the 17th and the 28th ranked CF% teams but I expect the Flames won’t go quietly and could upset the Ducks if they outwork them and execute better.

I’ve likely watched about 50-55 Flames games this season and I can honestly say that I have never seen the team take even ONE shift off.

We’re about to find out if they want it more than the Ducks.

Too Many Defensemen?

johnny-canuck

 

Just a quick note before heading out for a couple of days in Tofino.

I knew how devastated the Canucks have been by injury but really hadn’t clued in as to the severity of the problem on their blueline.

As one Vancouver newspaper columnist opined this morning, the Canucks D is basically a “swing band called Hamhuis and the Utica Comets”.

The Canucks top 7D going into the season:

Hamhuis (missed 22 games earlier)

Edler

Bieksa

Tanev

Sbisa

Corrado

Stanton

The Canucks went into Boston two nights ago with a D lineup that featured, Dan Hamhuis, Luca Sbisa, Yannik Weber, Ryan Stanton, Adam Clendenning and Alex Biega, whoever that is.

Considering the Canucks were also out forwards Alex Burrows and Brad Richardson and goaltender Ryan Miller, their victory over the Bruins is noteworthy.

That the Canucks are 7-3-0 in their last 10GP while missing essentially 1/3 of their lineup is even more impressive.

In addition to the Canucks surprising defensive depth. I think it’s worth noting that the Canucks bottom 6 forward group has been much stronger than the rag-tag bunch that held the team back in previous seasons.

Led by Shawn Matthias (12G), rookie centre Bo Harvat (9G), Jannik Hansen (11G) and shift disturber Derek Dorsett, the Canucks have been getting tremendously balanced scoring and, when they start getting regulars back from injury, may be primed for a surprising run in the playoffs.

With Chicago missing Patrick Kane and Anaheim struggling (4-5-1) there may be an opportunity for the Canucks to make some headway in the post season.

While I would hardly call them favourites for a long playoff run, they have held their heads above water in the WC (16-14-2) and in the Pacific Division (10-7-2).

It’ll be interesting to see if Jim Benning adds any pieces at the deadline or stands pat and gets his infusion of energy from his returning players.