12 December 2006

Florida and Los Angeles: "Hey, I didn't think they'd suck!"


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Over the past two months I’ve spent a fair time looking at some of the more impressive teams this season, most notably Buffalo, Anaheim, and Atlanta. It’s never as much fun to examine the other end of the ledger but some mea culpas are in order before readers start to use the internets and realize I made a few rough predictions back in October. Most notably, two teams that I expected to really step up this year were the Florida Panthers and Los Angeles Kings. Sweet calls - both currently are residing in the “where are they now?” file, deep in their respective divisions: Florida last in the Southeast and Los Angeles fourth in the Pacific.

What could I have been thinking? Actually I can still defend at least some of my reasoning behind the picks…to a point. Some things just haven’t worked out as hoped, and of course some injuries along the way haven’t helped. There’s even still a shot at the playoffs for both – despite their bad starts, Florida is only six points out of eighth and L.A. five points back (of course they each have to climb over numerous teams…) and at least in the East I’m hardly convinced that the Islanders and Capitals will retain their positions for the year.

Starting with Florida’s basement-dwelling, they’re unfortunately replicating last year’s road woes (where they won only 12 of 41 games), at a dismal 3-9-5 away from Sunshine. I think the loss of Roberto Luongo to Vancouver is the easy point to make in the difference between this year and last (when they finished with a surprising 85 points), but the overall truth is much deeper. Perhaps the most obvious factor is that Florida has been shorthanded 183 times this season - more than any other team in the league; combining this with a below-average penalty kill and less than top-notch goaltending and you have 106 goals-against, third-worst in the league.

In my season preview I had called out Olli Jokinen and Nathan Horton as being the emerging leaders of the team, but overall neither has performed up to expectations (although Horton has been hot of late). Jokinen has been ok, but his 13 goals and 29 points are still well behind his 38-goal and 89-point pace of last year, and his -3 is well off his +14 pace of last season. This was also to be Todd Bertuzzi’s big comeback opportunity but a chronic back problem led to surgery and his missing all but seven games so far – at this point he may miss up to another two months, making this season nearly a complete bust. Jay Bouwmeester has also suffered from inconsistency in his fourth year, which I expected to be his break out season. I still believe in Bouwmeester as having the skills and leadership to be a top-five defenceman in the league, and his team-leading 25-plus minutes per game is at least some evidence that the Panthers’ brass believes in him as well.

Back to goaltending, it appears that coach Jacques Martin has finally arrived at the decision to make Alex Auld their guy, as Auld has started the majority of games lately; overall he’s been in 20 while Ed Belfour has been in 16. I’m not sure anyone expects the 41-year old Belfour to be more than a backup at this point so it would seem to be imperative to let Auld establish himself at the number one option.

I still like aspects of the Panthers’ team – for one thing, they seem to have the Buffalo Sabres’ number having defeated them soundly at home last week and giving them troubles all of last season. I may have overestimated the depth on the team, and since the aforementioned top players have all played at least somewhat below expectations, there has been nobody to fill the gap. Unless Bertuzzi comes back early and unexpectedly returns to his former fearsome point-per-game pace, this team looks like they have some tweaking to do in the offseason and are not yet ready for the step up to the playoffs.

So how about the Los Angeles Kings? I think the answer is likely not this simple…but it’s hard not to say it anyways: Dan Cloutier. Signed to a big contract over the summer, this can be the only semi-rational explanation why Cloutier (3.78 goals-against average, .865 save percentage – 42nd best in the league. Yes - dead last.) has played 20 games and Mathieu Garon (2.65 goals-against, .903 save percentage) has only played 14. Cloutier has been, quite simply, horrible. As a fan, you hate to hear that a player is playing merely because of his contract but with the Western Conference being so tight, it’s quite easy to assume that merely average goaltending in Cloutier’s starts would have made up the current five-point difference between eighth and eleventh place – that’s frustrating for a Kings’ fan. The 107 goals they’ve allowed (second-worst in the league, just ahead of Philadelphia) certainly can’t all be placed upon (or between, or over, or behind…) Cloutier’s pads but when the statistical difference between the two goaltending teammates is that significant, it certainly sheds a lot of light on a prime suspect.

Yet all is not grim for the Kings – despite their woes, close to the surface there are the makings of a strong young team emerging. General Manager Dean Lombardi essentially made no bones about this being a longer-term project, and is building to compete in two or three years. The Pavol Demitra for Patrick O’Sullivan deal with Minnesota was an example of that, and one I think should prove fruitful for the club, as O’Sullivan should grow right along with the rest of the young talent in the organization. Getting top young defenceman Jack Johnson (currently at the University of Michigan) from Carolina late this summer should also be a steal talked about for years. Lombardi is mostly (the Cloutier contract will hang like an albatross around his neck for the next three years) going about building the team correctly – stockpiling talent all around the same age, so they can grow and learn how to win together. Some of the young talent has already blossomed this year - the contributions of youngsters Alex Frolov, Michael Cammalleri, Dustin Brown, and my preseason Calder-favourite Anze Kopitar are enough to keep Kings fans watching and excited about the future. That is, if Lewiston Maineiacs goaltender (and Kings’ first-round pick in 2006) Jonathan Bernier can make it to the NHL in time to capitalize on their peak years.

As opposed to Florida, I still have faith in the Kings this year, and think they can make a push for the playoffs. A lot of that hinges on who is in net - Garon is currently nursing a groin injury and is still a few days away from even getting back on the ice. If he can return and give the team even slightly better than league-average goaltending (better than the league-worst Cloutier was giving them) they could have a legitimate shot at being a surprise second-half team.

TalentedMrRoto.com ICE Experts League - update

It’s been a while since I’ve updated how the experts league is going…and with good reason. I fell from what I thought was a safe ninth place to 12th (last) quite dramatically about three weeks ago and I’ve remained there. In the +/- category I took a huge hit and went from 12 points (first) to six in just a few days. My otherwise-acceptable offense was dormant and with my beyond-horrible goaltending all season (thank you Dan Cloutier), it all added up to a deep cellar showing. It was time to make a big move, and finally made a deal for Roberto Luongo. It cost me, though, as I sent Evgeni Malkin to Ray Flowers at Fantasyhockey.com (with incidentals Vinny Prospal also coming my way and me eagerly unloading Martin Gerber, ending my pitiful expectations of him coming around this season).

As much as I love my controversial first-round pick, Malkin for Luongo was a no-brainer for me, as I had been trying desperately to get results from the likes of Gerber and Auld. Last in wins and goals-against, and second-last in save percentage, I have nowhere to go but up as my goalies now consist of Luongo and Kolzig as starters, with Auld and Garon on my bench. I don’t need four goalies, but finally feel comfortable with my starting two, and I’ll wait a few weeks to see if Garon gets healthy or Auld starts winning before letting the odd man go. Now if I can just get Mark Bell to contribute something during this season (and justify my sixth round selection of him) I might have a shot. At eleventh place.

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