12 April 2006

Wales Watching - eve of playoffs

Wales Watching

Is the return of Pucky the Whale imminent? Will Brass Bonanza be once again ringing in the ears of
Connecticut hockey fans? As the regular season winds down this week, what has been a long one for the Pittsburgh Penguins may have gotten even worse for the fans. Last week reports surfaced of a Massachusetts businessman wanting to buy the ailing Pittsburgh Penguins franchise and possibly move it to Hartford, Connecticut - Lawrence Gottesdiener is a developer who owns a good deal of land in Hartford and has stated that he would like to buy the Penguins and if he couldn’t keep them in Pittsburgh (doubtless tied to a new arena), he would love to move them to Hartford and build a new arena there on his land. Last night he and the mayor of Hartford even planned on attending the Blackhawks-Wild game in Minnesota to begin serious investigation of a franchise shift.

I seem to recall that when the Hartford Whalers moved south to become the Carolina Hurricanes the general feeling was that Hartford as a city could no longer support a big-league franchise – it was merely a symbol of an older time and a relic from the old World Hockey Association. Critics pointed to attendance plummeting over the final years of the franchise but to be fair, the organization was poorly run and the team rarely showed on-ice promise over much of their NHL history, only recording one playoff series victory in 18 seasons. They had a small but vocal fanbase that was slowly alienated by a series of unpopular and awful trades and a lack of vision that saw the team become bad but never quite bad enough to build from the bottom with franchise players – the notable exception being Chris Pronger whom they prematurely traded to St. Louis for the unhappy Brendan Shanahan, who was in turn dealt after one season.

The fact is that there are a few reasons why Hartford could make sense again –the Whalers do still have a vocal booster presence, the consistent success and popularity of the University of Connecticut’s basketball programs demonstrates a rabid area sports interest, and potentially the most important fact: Connecticut is the wealthiest state in the country in terms of per-capita income. These talks have Penguins fans panicking – this is a club that has gone through some bad times on the ice but with rookie Sidney Crosby about to be joined by Evgeni Malkin next year, and a host of young and talented players in their system, it is a club that should be ready to make a move up the standings within two or three years – the coming months could reveal if that move will also coincide with a move out of town.

Moving on to the games, and the playoff race – the teams are still jostling for position but it appears that the top eight teams are secure. Carolina and Ottawa are still battling for first in the East - the Buffalo Sabres are likely to comfortably settle for the number four seed behind the Atlantic division winners, either the New York Rangers or Philadelphia Flyers. Currently the hottest team in the East is the New Jersey Devils, winners of eight straight after defeating the Hurricanes last night in overtime. They’ve closed to within two points of the fifth place Flyers, yet are still only just four points ahead of another scorching team, the Montreal Canadiens, led by the still-unconscious Cristobal Huet in net. Pulling up the rear is the defending champ Tampa Bay Lightning, who would need a complete collapse to allow Atlanta to catch them. Of the teams on the outside looking in, I still like the Florida Panthers most of all. I’ve mentioned in a few columns that I can see the Panthers making a strong showing next year – provided they convince Roberto Luongo to stick around.

Being that this is the last regular season Wales Watching article for this year, and a time where many fans are thinking about end-of-year individual awards, I thought I’d throw down my personal awards on a team-by-team basis – focusing on the eight playoff teams this week – I’ll offer a team MVP, a team disappointment (if there are any), and either the most surprising or unsung player.

Carolina Hurricanes

MVP – Eric Staal – Leading the team in scoring and in the league’s top five for most of the season, the young Staal took the leap to stardom this year in leading this most surprising of success stories this NHL season.

Disappointment – anything here would be nitpicking - none.

Pleasant surprise – Martin Gerber – Gerber has become a rock in goal for the Canes and turned a big question mark into an exclamation point.

Ottawa Senators

MVP – Daniel Alfredsson. I could pick any of four or five players but to me when healthy Alfredsson is the best player in the game.

Disappointment – few, but the health of Dominik Hasek has been a constant worry.

Pleasant surprises – Ray Emery however, has taken over in goal and has mostly done an excellent job. Andrej Meszaros has enjoyed a fantastic rookie season on defence.

New York Rangers

MVP – Jaromir Jagr. Enough has been written about his resurgence, and all of it is true. Will likely win the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

Disappointment – scoring depth. no player really qualifies here, but their reliance on the top scorers Jagr, Michael Nylander, and Martin Straka could spell trouble.

Pleasant surprise – easy: Henrik Lundqvist in goal. In other years he’d win the Calder and Vezina – he’s been that good.

Buffalo Sabres

MVP – tie: Jochen Hecht and Daniel Briere. Hecht is the glue that makes the Sabres strong in all zones (they lost six straight immediately after losing Hecht to injury). Briere has put up superstar numbers since returning from a sports hernia.

Disappointment – Dmitri Kalinin. The big defenseman has the coaching staff’s confidence but I think they’ll have to cut their losses soon on this former first round pick.

Pleasant surprise – Tim Connolly. One of two acquired (Taylor Pyatt being the other) in the much-ridiculed-in-Buffalo Mike Peca deal. Everything changes this year - nobody would take Peca straight-up over Connolly now – Connolly’s stickhandling and speed fit perfectly into the Sabres’ system.

Philadelphia Flyers

MVP – Simon Gagne – Injuries kept him from having an even bigger season, but his 44 goals in 67 games easily lead the team.

Disappointment – Peter Forsberg and his groin injury. Typically fantastic when healthy, his missing nearly a quarter of the season arguably cost them a top three seed.

Pleasant surprise – Mike Knuble – set a career high in goals with 33 to date.

New Jersey Devils

MVP – Brian Gionta. The former college superstar has become everyone’s favourite little big man, with a career season and 45 goals to date.

Disappointment – Alexander Mogilny. Remember him? Currently on the Devils’ payroll…in the minor leagues.

Pleasant surprise – Gionta. Everyone knew he had talent, but nobody thought he could battle and become one of the league’s premier wingers.

Montreal Canadiens

MVP – Holy Mackinaw, is there even a question here? Cristobal Huet.

Disappointment – lack of Jose Theodore’s return to MVP status. Although this ended up being the best thing to happen to the team due to Huet’s emergence.

Pleasant surprise – Huet. OK – Huet only has 34 games played to date and I’m not advocating him winning it, but he should get serious Vezina respect (I’d put him third behind Mikka Kiprusoff and Lundqvist). Hey, John Tucker won the OHL’s MVP in 1984 after playing only 39 games. Yeah, I referenced John Tucker.

Tampa Bay Lightning

MVP – Brad Richards – setting a career high in points and leading the team through a rough title-defence year. Plays nearly 23 minutes per game.

Disappointment – plenty: Martin St. Louis – did he really win the Hart trophy last season??? The abrupt end to the classy Dave Andreychuk’s career. John Grahame not stepping up into the top goalie role. Making the playoffs despite these issues is proof at how talented this squad is.

Unsung player – Fredrick Modin is one of the most unheralded 30 goal scorers in the league and leads all Lightning forwards in +/-.

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