27 February 2007

30 team analysis: post-deadline

published at SportsBlurb.com and Sportingnews.com

Yesterday’s NHL trading deadline provided not just the opportunity for countless fans around North America to abuse the F5 button on their keyboards at work, but more importantly the opportunity for each of the 30 teams to take stock of their situation, determine whether to buy, sell, or hold, and then act – all by 3pm EST. Hockey fans were not disappointed as no less than 25 separate deals were made on Tuesday.

Rather than analyze each trade, let’s take a quick run down the standings and see where each team stands as of today with rosters solidified for the stretch run, and whether each team has improved for the present, future, or not at all…


Buffalo Sabres

The team I believe is the most talented in the league (when healthy, which apparently is never) finally made one of the more anticipated moves of the past two years yesterday when they moved Martin Biron to Philadelphia to free up cap room that enabled them to acquire Dainus Zubrus from Washington later in the day. The Sabres - also being somewhat experienced in patchwork rosters of late - also added defensive depth at the deadline. In the end the Sabres are ready to make their run at the Cup – they expect everyone back for the playoffs at which point the skilled Zubrus would give Buffalo as deep a front nine as has been seen in recent memory.

Deadline analysis: Heavy on short-term gains, and a huge gain, but the organization is deep enough that there won’t be much (if any) long-term effect felt.

New Jersey Devils

As could probably have been expected, GM Lou Lamoriello played it conservatively and made no moves other than moving defenceman David Hale to Calgary. New Jersey as always is relying primarily on Martin Brodeur and defensive play, although their offence can be counted on to produce if necessary. The Devils seem to lie in the weeds each year, likely due to their unspectacular nature, and are confident they can make a run to the finals this year with the team they’ve had all year.

Deadline analysis: N/A

Tampa Bay Lightning

While the Lightning didn’t make any moves that could be considered “major” the one I like this year was acquiring tough defenceman Shane O’Brien from Anaheim. Tampa has surged of late and sits in a position atop the Southeast Division by the slimmest of margins. With Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis tearing up the league right now, the Lightning may be a team beginning to peak at the right time.

Deadline analysis: mostly short-term gains in the sense they gave up first and fifth round picks in the 2007 draft this past week to literally strengthen their club.

Ottawa Senators

Ottawa was rather silent this past month, the only big move was getting winger Oleg Saprykin from Phoenix. While Saprykin has never put up huge numbers he is in the midst of his best season offensively and is only 26. He could be a good investment and give the Sens more scoring depth.

Deadline analysis: mild on both - short-term gains by giving up a second rounder, but if Saprykin blossoms in Ottawa this will be a gain felt past this playoff season.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Two decades ago we had Dave Semenko protecting Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri. George Laraque now plays the part of Semenko, and will give Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin more room to maneuver, much to the chagrin of Eastern foes. I’m not as enamored with the deal for Gary Roberts – he may provide the occasional spark but I worry about him keeping up with the fast-moving Pens.

Deadline analysis: short-term gains in the sense that they now believe they can make a run in the playoffs, freeing up the incomparable Crosby to pile up the points.

Atlanta Thrashers

On paper it looks like the Thrashers were huge winners this past week, acquiring such names as Keith Tkachuk, Alexei Zhitnik, and Pascal Dupuis, these moves in context reek of desperation. The Thrashers – once a tight rival with Buffalo for first in the Eastern conference – have been in a freefall and are within a bad weekend of falling out of the playoff picture. These moves were made to frantically get them into the playoffs this year, but in two or three years fans will rue the day they gave up a load of picks plus Braydon Coburn.

Deadline analysis: Very much short-term gains. The organization isn’t close enough to seriously contend or deep enough to quickly recover from the kind of moves they made.

Montreal Canadiens

Meet the new team – same as the old team. Essentially true, minus veteran defenceman Craig Rivet to San Jose for Josh Gorges. Did Bob Gainey consider his team sellers or buyers? Apparently neither, as this once-strong team has dropped since team MVP Cristobal Huet went down for the season.

Deadline analysis: N/A. And surprisingly so. Gainey will still have work to do with a number of unrestricted free agents to deal with.

Carolina Hurricanes

Bolstering their attack with Anson Carter and old friend Josef Vasicek, the Hurricanes need to find that Stanley Cup magic of a year ago, and fast, lest they view the playoffs on TV. Not huge acquisitions, but they should give the Canes three lines they can feel confident with.

Deadline analysis: short-term gains, without much long-term effect at all (2008 fifth-round pick for Carter). They should be good enough to squeak into the playoffs.

New York Islanders

Wow. We’ll address it further down in Edmonton but the shocker of the deadline was Ryan Smyth going cross-continent to the pesky Islanders. Add Richard Zednik and Marc-Andre Bergeron to the mix and Garth Snow was among the busiest of general managers this week. Smyth’s potential contributions cannot be overstated; he’s a Ted Nolan type of guy in spirit and is having one of his most productive seasons. The Isles got deeper and could give someone trouble in the first round…if they make it.

Deadline analysis: Extremely short-term gains. Giving up prospects and draft picks alike, this is a potential reward for Islanders’ fans who suffered through a rough and comical spell. However in years to come it could cost them in terms of organizational depth, as Ryan Smyth is an unrestricted free agent come July.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Currently in tenth place in the East, the Leafs made just one move by once again calling on Yanic Perreault to end his season with a loss while wearing the blue leaf on his chest. Winning more faceoffs is nice, but they still need to jump over two teams to make the playoffs. Only a return to health and better defensive play will save the Leafs this year.

Deadline analysis: N/A. Perreault is a fine addition but by himself he isn’t going to be the reason the Leafs make the playoffs or not.

Boston Bruins

I confess to not understanding the direction of this team at all – every time I think I have a handle on them….they deal a promising young forward like Brad Boyes, while retaining some of their more desirable older talents that could be used in deals to rebuild properly. I am a big fan of defenceman Dennis Wideman – it was an absolute joy to watch him control the point throughout his junior career - but Boyes has the talent to be the kind of offensive player the Bruins need. Currently the net take from last year’s Joe Thornton deal is Marco Sturm.

Deadline analysis: long-term gains, I have to believe. They need to have a very intelligent off-season and commit to a three-year program of rebuilding.

New York Rangers

Not much left in the tank for the Rangers, as no major moves were made outside acquiring defenceman Aaron Ward and French Canada’s favourite player Sean Avery.

Deadline analysis: N/A as they didn’t do much buying or selling of any impact.

Florida Panthers

Another lost season for Florida, and a step back after making noises last season that they might be on the verge of a playoff birth. The Todd Bertuzzi experiment was a disaster, marked by injury and constant reminder of their departed franchise goalie – finally the team parlayed Bert into some draft picks. Further picks were gained for Gary Roberts and Joel Kwiatkowski.

Deadline analysis: long-term gains.

Washington Capitals

It’s hard to believe the Caps were actually flirting with the playoffs for much of the season, considering how far they’ve fallen. They sold off a number of assets, including Zubrus and Richard Zednik. Their take from Buffalo in the Zubrus deal was nice, getting a first-round pick and promising young center Jiri Novotny who should have a nice career in Washington.

Deadline analysis: long-term gains.

Philadelphia Flyers

Odd. For the most part they’ve done a fine job of beginning to retool and gain returns on their veterans, dishing Peter Forsberg, Zhitnik, and the disappointing Kyle Calder and gaining a lot of young talent and some extra draft picks. The Martin Biron trade I don’t understand – Biron will be a free agent in a few months when he wouldn’t have cost the Flyers anything. Perhaps they’re hoping to entice Biron to sign with them long-term before the season is up. Perhaps ex-Sabre legend Don Luce (Philadelphia’s Director of Hockey Development) was simply giving his old team a boost.

Deadline analysis: very impressive long-term gains. The shocking negative turnaround this year will have bottomed out and the Flyers could return to respectability as soon as next season.


Nashville Predators

The biggest name to be dealt in years, Peter Forsberg’s acquisition by Nashville is two-fold: to bring the Cup to Nashville and to keep the team in Nashville. Well-documented attendance woes have plagued this franchise, which is a shame because the Predators are as deep and talented as any and sits poised for a run through the West – they lack very little.

Deadline analysis: very much short-term. Forsberg needs to be healthy and will likely be gone next year. Giving up two draft picks and young talents Ryan Parent and Scottie Upshall was a very steep price to pay for possibly only two months of Foppa Forsberg.

Anaheim Ducks

Count me among those surprised more wasn’t done by the Ducks. The Western favourites for the entire first half of the season, Anaheim is still near the top but has shown cracks in their once seemingly-formidable attack. Veteran character player Brad May was added (for the aptly named goaltender Mike Wall) from Colorado, and they oddly gave up Shane O’Brien for a first round pick that I was convinced they would flip for a big name.

Deadline analysis: nearly nothing done, if anything the first round pick and young goaltender Gerald Coleman are a nice long-term gain. Not expected.

Vancouver Canucks

Vancouver is a funny case - while they've been one of the hotter clubs in the past few months, almost all of it can be attributed to one Roberto Luongo in net, emerging as a viable Hart Trophy candidate. Buying into the theory that anything can happen in the playoffs, the Canucks make two minor deals for forward Bryan Smolinski and defenceman Brent Sopel that will not vastly alter their attack but shore up their depth chart for this year only (both are unrestricted free agents come summer).

Deadline analysis: short-term.

Detroit Red Wings

Taking a shot at Todd Bertuzzi could look fantastic in the end – if healthy, Bert will add some needed grit to the surging and highly skilled Wings lineup. If they can recapture just a little of the old Bertuzzi snarl and convince Kyle Calder that he really is a good player this team is coming out of the West.

Deadline analysis: short-term. A good boost that, in my eyes, makes them the current favourites to come out of the West.

Dallas Stars

Jumping on the trading bandwagon early by grabbing Ladislav Nagy, they improved their depth via Los Angeles by trading for defenceman Mattias Norstrom and forward Konstantin Pushkarev.

Deadline analysis: short-term, giving up some draft picks but worthwhile as Dallas is almost an unknown in the wild West, but could cause damage in the playoffs.

San Jose Sharks

Two years in a row the Sharks have caught a big name, and this year it was Bill Guerin on deadline day. Adding the veteran scorer and Craig Rivet at the blueline should bolster the league’s best powerplay and hopefully help their surprisingly average even-strength play.

Deadline analysis: short-term gain but very big impact.

Minnesota Wild

Very little to discuss here. Dominic Moore from Pittsburgh isn’t going to make anyone’s end-of-year big trades list. Minnesota is comfortable in the skin they’re in

Deadline analysis: N/A. Getting Moore for a third round pick isn’t bound to impact them tremendously one way or the other.

Calgary Flames

A very active February saw the Flames attempt to shore up their two-way play: first re-acquiring pivot Craig Conroy from the Kings and next a big deal with Boston getting Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau. These moves may not immediately give the Flames the boost in the standings, as two points are currently the difference between third and eighth place in the conference. But the Flames are as tough as any team, and are a tight challenger to Detroit for kings of the West.

Deadline analysis: extremely short-term, depending on whether they sign some of their acquisitions.

Edmonton Oilers

The impact in Edmonton of trading Ryan Smyth cannot be overstated. “Captain Canada” has played 12 years in Edmonton, through thick and thin, and has come to personify the grit and independence of central Albertan hockey fans. Fans thought he’d be re-signed last summer when money was freed up in Edmonton, but his impending unrestricted free agency status loomed all year. When it became apparent that the Oilers would need a lot of help to make the playoffs, GM Kevin Lowe risked the wrath of fans everywhere by dealing Smyth to the Islanders for a hefty return. When (if) the furor dies down the result is this: Smyth could still conceivably return to Edmonton, an organization made much richer in the long run by gaining the Islanders’ first round pick this June along with young forwards Ryan O’Marra and Robert Nilsson.

Deadline analysis: long-term

Colorado Avalanche

One of the myriad rumours to come down on deadline morning was that Joe Sakic had agreed to consider being dealt to a contender. As it turned out no move was made, and we’ll likely never know if that was even a possibility. But it should have been – Sakic would have been second only to Forsberg in terms of name-value, and second to none in terms of talent dealt. Considering the take other teams got for over-the-hill veterans this year, Colorado could have cleaned up in dealing Sakic while coming to a tacit understanding that they could re-sign him over the summer, allowing him to finish his career in Colorado.

Deadline analysis: N/A.

St. Louis Blues

A complete disaster only a few months ago, St. Louis has been more than respectable since the new year. It wasn’t enough to make a serious playoff push, and by dealing their veterans for a stockpile of draft picks they are well on the road to regaining their spot as one of the more stable NHL franchises. Brad Boyes could be a steal.

Deadline analysis: long-term. By gaining a load of picks in the upcoming draft and making the right moves to free up millions in salary cap room, the Blues could completely remodel their organization in short-order and within three years be back in the playoff hunt.

Phoenix Coyotes

Although I’ve ripped the Phoenix organization for the better part of a year, there have been worse teams in recent months. And they sensibly sold off a number of assets in the past month to get a number of draft picks, including 2007 first, second, and third rounders. The Shane Doan extension I don’t fully understand, if only for the price at which he was re-inked (five years, $4.6 million per year). Phoenix still has a lot of work to do, and hopefully they’ll learn from hedging their bets between the young and old and next year jettison the fossil brigade in exchange for a youth movement they can get a good head-start on with the June draft.

Deadline analysis: long-term, if they use the picks wisely.

Chicago Blackhawks

Long out of the playoff race, the Hawks did a little selling and some old-fashioned three-way dealing. They acquired forward Jason Williams from the Red Wings in the trade while managing to get a second round pick from Vancouver in exchange for the moribund Bryan Smolinski.

Deadline analysis: semi-long-term gains, with the hopes they can rebound and somehow challenge for a birth next year.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Another franchise seemingly spinning their wheels, in some circles they were a trendy long-shot pick to make the playoffs. Instead they remain three points out of last in the West, and without a handful of picks other floundering franchises managed to compile over the past month. Only names of semi-note are the dealing of backup goaltender Ty Conklin to Buffalo and picking up goaltender Brian Boucher off waivers. The remaining schedule this year and the prospects for next year are, once again, not that exciting.

Deadline analysis: N/A.

Los Angeles Kings

Regular readers of this space will know that I’m bullish on the Kings’ future, both in terms of their small core of young talent at the NHL level and those just under the radar. Each of their veteran deals this month was the right move, gaining them draft picks this year in each round from two through five, and in 2008 in the first and fourth. Patience and focus is the key, and the only way to properly rebuild a franchise (pay attention Bruins fans). This method is rough, as the path to the bottom is steep but once committed to, the rebound is quick (see also: Buffalo) and rewarding in terms of young and cheap talent.

Deadline analysis: long-term. Poised for strength by 2009.

trading deadline - come and gone

i'll have a long-ish article up tonight/tomorrow giving a brief analysis of all 30 teams as they stand after the deadline, and whether their strategies steered more towards long-term or short-term improvement.

btw, nice showing tonight Toronto. (cheap shot)

26 February 2007

A High Cost for Osteoporosis

In two separate deals Atlanta deals for 1998 Olympians:

The Atlanta Thrashers acquired forward Keith Tkachuk from the St. Louis Blues for winger Glen Metropolit, a first-round draft pick in 2007, a third-round draft pick in 2007, a second-round draft pick in 2008, and a conditional first-round draft pick in 2008.

The Atlanta Thrashers acquired defenseman Alexei Zhitnik from the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Braydon Coburn.

In all seriousness, these will probably help Atlanta in the short-term (or at least won't hurt them) but the Thrashers should have recognized their weaknesses up front long ago (Bryan Little would have had fun as a rookie on the top line) before having to give up 3 or 4 draft picks for Tkachuk, who is at this point a decent - but hardly an All-Star - winger.

I'm guessing they'll hope that Zhitnik provides some stability to a team that appears to be panicking. In a few years they'll wonder who Zhitnik was as Coburn is putting together a rock-solid career in Philadelphia.

23 February 2007

NHL: hypocrites

Just take a tour around the hockey 'net today and all everyone is talking about is the big game in Buffalo last night. Game of the year, right? Right.

Except one place: the official NHL website. I've clicked there at least five times today, and the "features" scroll through such items as Martin Brodeur's shutout record, somehow tying Roberto Luongo to Forrest Gump, and Up and Close with Ryan Suter. You have to click the News banner, then click back to yesterday to even find this:

"Sabres overcome third-period collapse to beat Senators 6-5 in a shootout"

If I'm writing copy on that game, that's not necessarily the headline I use.

OK, we all know the NHL tries to clean up its act and emphasize the family-friendly aspects of the game. I can respect that to a point. But when every other NHL website features pictures or video of this game on their front pages, it becomes obvious once again that the NHL doesn't know their audience.

Saturday Night just might be alright for fighting

UPDATE: Chris Drury, Maxim Afinogenov, Ales Kotalik, Jiri Novotny, Jaroslav Spacek, Paul Gaustad, Dan Paille. All out for undetermined lengths (Gaustad until next season). Buffalo's record in their last 10: 8-1-1.

Buffalo feed:

Canadian (SportsNet) feed:

this freakin' kills me:

just a few quotes:

Lindy Ruff: "...go out and run 'em"

"If they want to start something, we've got guys that can handle that and it should be a good one Saturday," [Dany] Heatley said. "It's fun to play them.

"They're exciting, emotional games. We've got some guys that we don't like over there. And I'm sure they don't like a lot of our guys over here."

Old time hockey.

Rematch at 7pm in Ottawa tomorrow night. CBC. RDS. MSG.

22 February 2007

why are local writers so lazy?

Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News, for one. "Sabres need bold moves at trade time" screams the headline as he writes "they should trade Martin Biron" and "Darcy [Regier, Buffalo's GM], if you're serious about going for it go for it" without giving so much as an inkling into the constraints that Regier is under.

regarding Biron: there are no takers. Why? As has been described (here, ad nauseum), nobody is in a position to rent a goalie who will be a completely unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. I won't get into the argument that perhaps Biron should have been dealt last summer but at this point the only way Biron is dealt is either if he signs a multi-year deal as a pre-condition to a trade, or the Sabres give such an incentive to another team to make it worth their while to waste dealing for Biron (e.g. packaging young talent; I'm thinking it would take at the least Drew Stafford plus draft picks).

"make a deal" - Mr. Sullivan would be wise to understand that the Sabres have quite literally next to zero room under the cap for the rest of the year, unless they trade salary from their present lineup. However, if (for example) Buffalo can find someone to take a chance on resurrecting Dmitri Kalinin and his $2 million cap hit then by all means do "go for it." It's also not that easy to just "make a trade" - logic would dictate that to make a deal, you would need a willing (and somewhat reasonable) partner. But apparently it is just easier to wash your hands of that untidy mess and put out a public call for a "need to add depth" - sorry, but the *rumour that wouldn't die* about acquiring Kevyn Adams doesn't excite me. [aside: what is with the fascination with Adams? i get it: he's from Western New York. great. he's a fourth liner and borderline NHL player at this point.]

More from Sullivan:

"dealing Biron might create space for an additional forward (Kevyn Adams?) and a top four defenseman"
Ignoring the Adams-worship...ok Jerry: give us an example. Who could Buffalo trade Biron to? What teams are there that would take on an UFA goalie AND give up a top four defenseman? For that matter, what so-called "top-four" defensemen are even available?

I'm actually anxious to see what Patrick Kaleta brings to the ice tonight - probably every bit of what Adams would. And you get your local kid angle, too.

Regarding putting Max on the long-term injury list: the CBA's by-laws are admittedly ridiculous when it comes to this issue, and it has been on the direct radar of the GMs this week at their meetings. But until absolute clarity is given to this issue, Regier is right to be cautious in this realm. The NHL has been pointed about teams circumventing the "spirit" of the salary cap laws, so Sullivan's comment about being "reluctant to use the loophole" seems rather flippant. Can you imagine the furor if the Sabres were actually found in violation of the salary cap??

It bugs me to no end when writers - be them professional or amateur - end up sounding like ignorant loudmouth Joe Fan wearing a Sabrejak at the end of the bar, spouting off ideas on what the Sabres "need to do" seemingly without any thought to the process involved. Sure, what fan wouldn't want their team to improve at the deadline, especially for a team apparently so ripe for challenging for the Cup? Unfortunately for Joe (Jerry) fan, this isn't fantasy hockey. There are rules involved. Rules that as of this moment, don't really help a team like the Buffalo Sabres.

Hell, why doesn't Regier just go after Alex Ovechkin? The Capitals are terrible, they're not going to be much worse without him are they? Come on Darcy, don't you want it badly enough???

Salary Cap mysteries

James Mirtle had a nice brief post yesterday breaking down the salary cap a bit:

Think of the NHL's salary cap as operating on a calendar, one that runs the length of the regular season (187 days) from start to finish. Divide the $44-million available under the salary cap this season by those days, and you end up with slightly more than $235,000 that each NHL club has as its average daily limit.

On Feb. 27, trade deadline day, there will be 41 days remaining on that calendar, the equivalent of roughly 22 per cent of the regular season. That's also the percentage of any incoming salaries teams will be on the hook for when they pick up players that day.

21 February 2007

latest Sabre: Pat Kaleta

Pat Kaleta was recalled by the Sabres today - a local kid from 20 miles south of Buffalo. If he throws any of these vs. Ottawa on Thursday night he could become a folk hero by the 11:00 news:

17 February 2007

Testing Buffalo's Mettle

update: it'd be funny if it were someone else (like, say, the Flyers...)...hey! another Sabres forward down: Daniel Paille broke his finger last night against said Flyers and is out for roughly three weeks. Latest rumour has 61-year old Dave Aquino being called up for Thursday's game vs. Ottawa for salary cap purposes. He has offered to play on a game-to-game basis for a large Bocce's and a box of stale marshmallow peeps.


to be published at Sportingnews.com and SportsBlurb.com

“Here we go again!”

A phrase uttered by many a Buffalo sports fan over the years, this week it has once again reared its head due to Buffalo Sabres injuries occurring on an almost-daily basis. The injury woes suffered by last year's Sabres team during the playoffs have been well-documented, perhaps too-much so in some circles. Their impressive run went all the way to the seventh game of the Conference Finals with the Sabres' suffering a nearly unprecedented string of injuries: of the six defencemen that suited up in that game seven, only one was in the starting lineup at the beginning of the year.

When the team lost that game in the third period to a relentless and deep Carolina Hurricanes club the feeling was that better things were ahead for the
Buffalo franchise. Even while weathering a stressful off-season in which difficult arbitration cases and veteran free-agent losses dominated the headlines, the Sabres were able to get off to an all-time best 10-0 start to the season, en route to thus far leading the Eastern Conference wire-to-wire, and competing for the Presidents' Trophy for best record in the league. Aside from not having the services of Tim Connolly (still suffering from concussion-related symptoms after the Peter Schaefer knockout in last year’s second round) all year, the Sabres haven’t had much at all to worry about other than when the next shipment of slug jerseys would arrive in their gift shop (and how fast those would sell out).

Well, perhaps the odds have finally caught up to Buffalo. The prospect of injuries is always a specter hovering over a hockey team and within the past two weeks the Sabres have suffered yet another potentially critical series of injuries to their squad, none more damaging than the loss of dynamic winger Maxim Afinogenov, second on the team in points with 57. In last weekend’s tilt against the Edmonton Oilers, Afinogenov suffered a broken wrist that will likely leave him out of the lineup until at least the first round of the playoffs. It will especially be interesting to see the effect this has on Thomas Vanek - Vanek has meshed very well with Afinogenov this year leading to 29 goals and a +30 rating, among the league-leaders in both categories. Expect his line (along with Derek Roy) to take on more responsible two-way roles, something Vanek had a lot of trouble with last year, leading to his eventual benching during the playoff run.

Max’s injury is only the latest in a bad week that saw defenceman Jaroslav Spacek break his hand (out three weeks), tough winger Paul Gaustad take a skate over his ankle and sever a tendon (out for entire season), and center Jiri Novotny suffer a high ankle sprain (three weeks). On top of that, Ales Kotalik injured his knee Saturday night against the Boston Bruins and will be out for at least four weeks.

Buffalo Head Coach Lindy Ruff has seen this before, of course, and has publicly stated that he expects no drop-off in terms of the Sabres’ play, despite the injuries. His confidence may seem brazen until one realizes how deep the Buffalo organization is and has been over the past few years – last year when Daniel Briere and J.P. Dumont spent months on the sidelines, the Sabres called up Derek Roy and Jason Pominville from their farm team in Rochester (AHL), both now serving as Sabres regulars. Stepping into the lineup this week are names that - if recent history has told us anything - will likely be Buffalo regulars for the next few years: winger Drew Stafford, their top prospect, is one who already had a nice taste of the big leagues earlier this season, playing in 19 games. Stafford is a former first round draft pick (13th overall, 2004) out of the powerhouse NCAA program at North Dakota, whose combined physical and offensive talents should make him both a welcome teammate and fan favourite. Clarke MacArthur is yet another offensive speedster for Buffalo – a two-time 30 goal scorer for Medicine Hat of the Western Hockey League – he’ll likely be brought along a bit more slowly, as he saw time on the fourth line last night against Philadelphia. Mike Ryan is the latest addition since Kotalik’s injury – Ryan has been scorching of late with two natural hattricks for Rochester in the last week alone.

While some
Buffalo fans are clamoring for a trade, in this salary cap era a trade by the Sabres will be extremely difficult to pull off - they sit just under the cap and almost quite literally would need to make a dollar-for-dollar deal. Teams are only offered salary relief for players who are on the official long-term injury list (LTIR); in other words, if a four million dollar player is on the LTIR, their team is then granted an equal amount of relief under the salary cap. In the Sabres’ case this applies only to Paul Gaustad, who only makes $710,000 which means finding a replacement at that salary will be difficult at best. To his credit, Buffalo GM Darcy Regier is fully aware of the opportunity in front of the Sabres this season, and has admitted to having to “go for it” this spring. But what exactly does that mean? If they only have Gaustad’s salary to play with, that leaves very little room to acquire an asset without giving up a player already at the NHL level. The team's most marketable commodity clearly is backup goaltender Martin Biron, at a salary of roughly $2.1 million. The problem is that he's an unrestricted free agent at season's end, so what teams would give up a valuable return on a player they'll have an equal shot at come July 1st? Only a team who feels they are a quality goaltender away from a playoff run, and right now those teams are as prevalent as an Andrew Peters goal. The most likely scenario for the Sabres is that they make no deals of any impact, and hope for all six injured regulars to return for the playoffs (as of mid-February, the team is stating that they expect Tim Connolly to return at some point this season).

In the end, even in their injured state Buffalo must still be considered the overwhelming favourites in the Eastern Conference. As other teams over the first 60 games have bubbled up to briefly challenge them for first place (Atlanta, Montreal, New Jersey, and Pittsburgh of late) the Sabres have not yet been knocked from their perch. The Sabres have enough quality depth to be able to get through the final six weeks and hang on to the first or second spot in the east. If Afinogenov and company do return in time for the playoffs, this could actually strengthen the overall club by giving younger players some experience.

And finally, if you're one to believe in omens, Saturday night I witnessed something I'm not sure I've ever seen, and surely Buffalo sports fans are not used to. Bruins' goalie Tim Thomas seemingly made an impossible save on Daniel Briere with less than a minute left in the second period, and the teams went into the locker room with the score 3-2 in favour of
Boston. However, the review came back from the head office in Toronto that the goal was actually good, and the officials had to retrieve the entire Boston team from their locker room (greeting with a rousing chorus of boos by the Buffalo faithful, of course) to re-finish the second period, now tied at three.

Buffalo sports fans who have seemingly suffered at the losing end of many a controversial call over the past few decades it could be interpreted as a sign that perhaps nothing - not errant skate blades, holes in the net, or simple injuries – can get in the way of the ultimate prize at the end of the season.

16 February 2007

ouch, Buffalo

Out at least six weeks with a broken wrist:

The Sabres have good enough depth that they should be able to get through this and hang on to the #1 or #2 spot in the east. If Max does come back for the playoffs, this could actually strengthen the overall club by giving younger players some experience.

(although wouldn't it be more Buffalo-like to have Max get hurt the week before the playoffs?)

It'll be interesting to see the effect this has on Thomas Vanek - he has been meshed very well with Afinogenov in this breakout year for him. I'm expecting his line (along with Derek Roy) will have to take on a more responsible role, something Vanek had a lot of trouble with last year, leading to his eventual benching during the playoff run.

top candidates to take spots of Afinogenov and Jiri Novotny (also injured in the game last night):

- Drew Stafford - their top prospect, and one who had a nice taste of the bigs earlier in the season with 19 games in Buffalo.

- Clarke MacArthur - another hard-nosed winger who probably has a top end of 15-25 goals at the NHL level.

- Marek Zagrapan - a center - is their most offensively gifted prospect down in Rochester although has been having quite the down year for him w/ only 11 goals so far. I don't expect to see him.

Neither Stafford nor MacArthur will obviously bring what Max brings to the Sabres' offence as they both play more of a physical 2-way game. I'm pretty confident we won't be seeing any of this type of goal:

13 February 2007

Sellers at the deadline: Los Angeles

to be published February 14th at SportsBlurb.com and Sportingnews.com

Last week we looked at the faded glory that is the Boston Bruins, and aside from pointing out the rather obvious flaws that led them to their current condition, we offered up a number of solutions to get them back on the winning track. Most notably, they need to emphasize youth both by playing their youngsters and dealing some of their older high-priced veterans. This past week saw them begin to dish off some of their impending free agents, sending Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau to Calgary for Chuck Kobasew and Andrew Ference. The Bruins appear to be taking the rebuilding process to heart - one that should also include the dealing of Glen Murray and his $4.15 million salary, which would both free up cap space and allow the team to continue to rebuild with youth.

The Bruins are far from the only team to look at the impending trading deadline as an opportunity to sell to the highest bidder in hopes of retooling and strengthening the future. The Phoenix Coyotes also made a major move this week, sending winger Ladislav Nagy to Dallas for Mathias Tjarnquist and a first round pick in the upcoming NHL entry draft. Nagy isn’t a huge goal scorer but could be a premier setup man with the right linemates; on a lousy Coyotes team this year he already had 33 assists.

Clubs in (or near) the top eight of their conference are often desperate to add a veteran name or two to their playoff rosters and can be pushed into a situation where they’ll sacrifice a bit of their own future - in terms of prospects or draft picks - for a shot at the Holy Grail this season. Conversely, teams on the outside of the playoff picture need to take advantage of those contenders and look at this time of year as a huge one-time opportunity to reshape their organizations. One such team is the Los Angeles Kings.

I have a tendency to fall for the younger teams in the league, perhaps too hard. Before the season started I thought the Kings stood a decent chance at one of the final playoff spots in the West. Alas, as we approach the February 27th trading deadline, the Kings occupy the Western cellar due, I've claimed, primarily to poor goaltending but also from a lack of scoring and defensive depth. And…that pretty much covers it all, doesn't it?

Yet all is not grim for the Kings, and the upcoming deadline should be viewed by them as a prime opportunity to continue what they’ve been building over the past few years. Los Angeles already has a core of future stars playing in the NHL, starting with the fantastic 19-year old rookie Anze Kopitar (50 points) and supported by 24-year old forwards Alexander Frolov (29 goals) and Mike Cammalleri (55 points). Physical 22-year old Dustin Brown hasn't quite hit his stride yet, but shows occasional flashes of the high-scoring power forward the Kings hope he'll be, as he was with the Ontario Hockey League's Guelph Storm where he averaged well over a point-per-game for three years.

The off-season deal that sent Pavol Demitra to Minnesota in exchange for Patrick O'Sullivan should benefit Los Angeles both in terms of youth and years of service before the dreaded Unrestricted Free Agency hits. The 22-year old center should help the Kings form a potentially formidable top three down the middle (along with Kopitar and Cammalleri) for the next four to five years (not even mentioning 6’7” 250lb. powerhouse Brian Boyle, a senior at Boston College). Last but hardly least, soon to arrive will be highly-regarded defensive prospect Jack Johnson of the University of Michigan, stolen from the Hurricanes in an off-season deal.

So while the Kings have as fine a stable of young talent as any team in the league, an enormous problem on the parent club is depth, of which they have very little. They need to use this upcoming deadline to both address that lack of depth and lose some of the older (and more expensive) veterans that will not be around for what the organization hopes will be the eventual rise up the standings.

The Kings' defence is heavily-weighted towards veterans, with Rob Blake, Aaron Miller, and Mattias Norstrom all at least 35 years of age, and Lubomir Visnovsky the youngest of their top five defenceman at age 30. Visnovsky should be kept but Los Angeles should try to deal any of the other three. Teams will pay premium prices for veteran defencemen heading into the playoffs (e.g. Buffalo, who if lacking anything, would be a strong physical presence - also recall their myriad defensive injuries during the conference finals last year, proving that a team cannot have too much depth), and if the Kings parley any of those players into more 20-24 year old talents they can construct nearly an entire roster that will be of similar (young) age – a benefit both in terms of peak talent age and owning the young players’ rights before they have a serious chance at breaking the bank with free agency.

As odious as it may seem to their front office, the Kings need to seriously consider cutting bait on the Dan Cloutier experiment. Out for the season, he's been better for Los Angeles in the press box than he was in the crease this season and took the team out of the playoff race early with some worst-in-the-league netminding early. With the Kings losing some of the bigger contracts off the books for next year (Miller and Sopel are Unrestricted Free Agents after this season, freeing up nearly $5 million, and trading Craig Conroy earlier to Calgary freed up $2.4 million), they could use some of that room under the cap to sign a real number one goaltender (Martin Biron, J.S. Giguere) for the next three or four years until 2006 first round pick Jonathan Bernier (Lewiston, QMJHL) is ready to grab the job.

One of the benefits of the new NHL, with a salary cap and Unrestricted Free Agency at such a young age is that being a last-place club doesn’t necessarily condemn you to a decade of failure. If management has the smarts to recognize the organizational weaknesses and the foresight to address them quickly, an entire franchise can be turned around within a few seasons (the Buffalo Sabres being a good example).

Next week we’ll take a look at a few teams that are still technically in playoff contention but should take the difficult approach of being a seller before the deadline.

Swedish Twins


lack of posts...so here's Wendel

update: huh - ask and you shall receive: The Ballad of Wendel Clark, Pt. II:

sorry for the lack of posts lately. very busy. here's an interlude before my next article - at his peak, he was the most fearsome package in the NHL: Wendel Clark (not sure why Metallica needs to be used, rather than The Ballad Of Wendel Clark by the Rheostatics...).

09 February 2007

actual proof that Canadian teams are keeping the NHL afloat

While reading about a usually dry topic - the NHLPA and next year's salary cap - I came across one sentence that should be an article all its own:

What was also pointed out in this annual gathering was the fact that one-third of the league's revenue is generated by the six Canadian teams.

Is this not stunning? Not the fact that just 20% of the teams account for 33% of the revenues but that it is the CANADIAN markets sustaining this pace. After a decade of non-Toronto Canadian teams either grasping at straws or pleading for their own existence.

By my extraordinarily crude math, this means that there are a few teams not exactly pulling their weight. Any guesses on who they might be?

So when do the plates marked Je me souviens pull up in Nashville? Phoenix could use a little spirited energy as well...

06 February 2007

Hopeless in Boston?

to be posted at SportsBlurb.com and SportingNews.com February 7th.

The headlines in Boston scream: “Bruins are frozen in place.” “It’s now embarrassing.” and “Pitiful loss puts jobs on the line.”

Such is the state of the Boston Bruins, members of the National Hockey League since 1924 and winners of just two Stanley Cups since 1941. That fact hasn’t been seriously threatened for 15 years and isn’t likely to change anytime soon. How did this happen? How did a once-proud franchise fall so far as to lose the stranglehold grip they once had on the fans of New England - first with the Big Bad Bruins of the 1970s with the great Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk and Don Cherry, then followed by a minor revival with the late 80s-early 90s exciting squads that starred Ray Bourque, Cam Neely, and Adam Oates?

General Manager Peter Chiarelli is currently suffering through his first year at the helm of the Bruins, inheriting a team not quite sure whether they're still in a full rebuilding mode or looking to move up into the ranks of challengers in the Eastern Conference. Before the season started it appeared that the Bruins were poised to at least make a little noise in the middle of the conference and stand a decent chance at grabbing one of the final playoff spots. Even up until a month ago they were certainly on pace to do just that, but a January in which the team went 3-10 left them flirting with the bottom of the Eastern Conference (non-orange-and-black division).

So where are the breakdowns? A scouring of the roster both at the NHL and AHL levels shows that there appears to be precious little depth in the organization. At the top level, only four players are even in double-digit figures for goals (although I do expect Brad Boyes - nine goals - to have a bright future in front of him, despite a lousy season thus far) and only New Jersey and Philadelphia have fewer goals in the East. Defensively, the team has given up more goals than any Eastern team save the Flyers. Tim Thomas, although not generally considered in the upper echelon of NHL goaltenders, has done a serviceable job in net for the Bruins with very little support from the team in front of him. Nobody on the team is even close to a + rating with ten players at -10 or worse. These are not numbers that show a lot of promise.

Of course when Bruins fans try to pinpoint where the final stone was toppled to expose the organization’s flaws, the ill-fated Joe Thornton trade to San Jose is almost inevitably offered up. However, things didn’t have to go sour as a result of that deal. Last year after the fallout of the big trade, I wrote the following:

...Thornton’s departure should have sent a clear sign to the rest of the club that they are the future. It’s a new opportunity for the team. Thornton is a great talent but for a variety of factors it wasn’t happening in Boston. ... The Bruins may not have received “name-players” back in the deal but all three were former first round picks, including Brad Stuart who should anchor their blue line for a long time...there comes a time when you have to realize that “the plan” (whatever it may be) isn’t working, and you have to start over. That’s not easy, least of all from a marketing or fan perspective...but building from the ground up can be rewarding as it inevitably is the most efficient way of assembling a team that will compete year after year…

Most importantly, what the trade gave
Boston was roster and payroll flexibility. Not a phrase that rings with excitement for the average fan, granted, but Thornton was being paid a large percentage of what the entire team salary cap allowed. Furthermore, lest fans begin to create their own revisionist history, big Joe wasn’t exactly being worshiped by fans of the Black and Gold early last year. Some of the more polite terms to describe him around Boston were “lazy” and “ineffective” and more than once in his career he’d been accused of disappearing in big games. I’m not going to defend or attack those accusations, but the idea of Thornton leaving wasn’t so controversial in the days before the deal was made.

However, fast-forward 15 months later and the rumours that two of the parties obtained in last year's big deal - Brad Stuart and Marco Sturm - are being shopped should be more than troubling to Bruins' fans for a few reasons.
Boston's management knew that the Thornton deal would be controversial in that they were giving up the biggest "name" player, so a little PR was necessary and understandable. They needed to stress to their ever-dwindling fan-base that patience would be needed for this deal. But what kind of message will those fans take if and when just two seasons later all those players received as compensation – for the eventual league MVP - are gone? The message would either be that the trade was a dreadful mistake, or management is sadly incompetent and has no plan. Neither sounds particularly appealing.

Other recent trades have also been peculiar. Dealing Sergei Samsonov away at last year's deadline was defensible, both on his play at the time and especially since (note: Samsonov was placed on waivers yesterday by
Montreal). Samsonov had teased fans with occasional brilliance for years (notching 70+ points for two seasons) but never reached that next level that so many had expected of him, while seeing other similar exciting offensive players like Ales Hemsky and Maxim Afinogenov rocket by him in production. Yet there does not appear to have been a plan to replace his offence; gaining Marty Reasoner and Yan Stastny (as well as a second round draft pick) seemed to be a bit of the Bruins trying to have it both ways - quantity and youth. We'll never know what the options may have been at the time, but it seems that even getting just a pick would have meant a full commitment to housecleaning, and one that could be addressed in the offseason.

This week came another puzzling deal, if you could even call it a trade: big defenceman Milan Jurcina was dumped to the Capitals for a 4th round pick. I’m left wondering if there was more to this story. The 2006 Slovakian Olympic rearguard was re-signed as recently as August; at 24 years old he was known to be a work-in-progress but what could have happened in such a short time for them to completely give up on the 6’4” 235 pounder?

Last summer’s free agent period saw the Bruins make an early splash by signing Marc Savard and Zdeno Chara to lucrative long-term deals, giving Bruins fans hope that the team’s fortunes would turn around this season. Savard has been better than most people expected and
Boston's best player all year. Many pundits - myself included - expected to see a dropoff in Savard's production, having left prolific linemates Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa behind in Atlanta but instead Savard is on pace for his best season statistically with 66 points in his first 51 games.

Chara’s signing is one still being evaluated. He has given the Bruins a clear-cut number one defenceman, their first since Ray Bourque left for
Colorado in 2000. Yet while establishing himself as Boston's iron man - playing nearly 29 minutes per game and notching 35 points to date, he has yet to show the consistency he has been paid for or even that he showed last year with Ottawa. Named captain before the season, he has at times also shown a distinct lack of visible on-ice leadership, whether by inspired play or simply dropping the gloves and getting tough when necessary.

The issue of the sheer magnitude of Chara's contract can also not be dismissed - my biggest defence of last season's
Thornton trade was that by eliminating a player who earned roughly one sixth of the team's entire payroll the franchise gained valuable flexibility. Yet by turning around and signing Chara to a deal that pays him $7.5 million per year for five years, the Bruins have created the same potential inflexibility in their payroll with arguably a lesser player.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Bruins’ recent draft history has been simply terrible. Since the 1997 draft, in which they famously obtained both Thornton and Samsonov in the first round, the number of players who've thus far put together a successful NHL campaign can be counted on one hand, and finding success in each draft has been a stretch:

Goalie Andrew Raycroft - drafted in 1998 - put together a Calder trophy winning season in 2003-04, but after one sub-par year was dealt to Toronto in the offseason. Nick Boynton was drafted in 1999 and showed glimpses of being the tough defenceman the team had hoped he'd be, but his lack of development and adjustment to the modern game caused the team to deal him away to
Phoenix last summer. 2001 brought them Milan Jurcina and another defensive defenceman in Andrew Alberts out of Boston College; Alberts has played a solid but unspectacular role with the club and has become a serviceable fourth or fifth man on defence. 2002 first rounder Hannu Toivonen was supposed to strongly challenge for the number one job in net this year but after a horrible start lost the job to Tim Thomas and has spent time with the AHL Providence club trying to regain his confidence. Boston's second-round pick in 2003 has to date been their best selection since '97 in Patrice Bergeron. Last year's draft netted highly-regarded sniper Phil Kessel out of the University of Minnesota.

That’s pretty much it in terms of “hits” for a decade of drafting. Teams such as New Jersey or Buffalo have had a recent history of rarely missing completely with one draft and never whiffing on consecutive drafts, which has contributed to those organizations’ abilities to continually bring up new talent to fill gaps where older (or more costly) veterans may have left. By virtue of this long string of poor drafting Boston has not allowed themselves the luxury of letting their farm system replenish any losses by the parent club.

So what can the Bruins do? First, they – and perhaps more importantly their fans - are going to need patience. This is a project, but they have to fully buy into the project. Here’s a short list of what I think the Bruins could do to start to bring themselves back to the world of contention within a few years:

1) Deal Glen Murray. With 26 goals on a bad team, he’s the team’s most marketable asset and is likely at peak value. He could fetch a decent return of a prospect or two from a playoff team desperate for veteran scoring depth. Plus at his current US$4.15 million salary over the next two seasons it would free up a good amount of cap room.

2) Put Phil Kessel on the top line. Why on earth is he on the fourth line? He's a scorer, he was drafted as a scorer: let him score. If the team were more successful and contending, putting Kessel in a specific learning role would make more sense for him and the team (as Joe Thornton was used in his rookie year). Kessel is going to need to build up confidence and learn how to fail at some point - let him do that to his advantage, by using his skills and not being afraid to screw up. A little confidence goes a long way.

3) Emphasize youth. Don't send a split message here - Chara/Savard/Bergeron are each signed for at least the next three years and should be a solid core. With only approximately $31 million committed in salaries next year, the temptation could be to sign big name free agents. Resist. Use the flexibility to deal a veteran or two (Murray, perhaps Paul Mara) and truly build. That means the team should aim to begin contending in two or three years, not next year. Signing a big name free agent like Chris Drury might bring in a few fans in the short run but one skater alone will never make a difference in hockey for a team looking to improve upon what is now a 13th place standing. And by the time the team could potentially be ready to contend, Drury (and his likely $6 million contract) will be aging and again up for free agency. Free agency should be used as a final piece in the puzzle for Boston, not part of the initial building process itself.

Boston fans shouldn’t give up all hope – despite recent history, turnaround doesn’t have to take years but it does require a full organizational commitment. Unfortunately, whether the Bruins’ front office fully realizes this is a question as-yet unanswered, and over the next few weeks approaching the trade deadline we should learn more about what Peter Chiarelli has in mind for the future of the historic Boston Bruins.

is there a chill in here?

Tuesday's Toronto Sun reports that Mark Messier has rather aggressive designs on the GM job in New York...

Mark Messier didn't finish the sentence.

He told reporters at the NHL all-star game that he has decided he wants to be a general manager.

In fact, he wants to become general manager of the New York Rangers!

Messier told Sun Media yesterday that he wants to take over from his former coach and GM when Glen Sather retires from the job in New York. Messier led the team to a first Stanley Cup since 1940 back in 1994.

Furthermore, Messier said he has decided to get pro-active about it.

He's planning to move back to New York and make it his primary residence and plans to talk to Sather about the idea after his Feb. 27 banner-raising in Edmonton.

"I'm going to have discussions with Glen. I don't know how long Glen is going to keep doing it. Maybe he'll continue for another five or 10 years.

"I just know New York fits best for me and my family. And this is what I know best and what I love the most," Messier said of taking two years away from the game to think through what he'd like to do with the rest of his life. He retired as a player in September 2005.

"I'm going to have discussions with Glen."

If I were Glen, that "discussion" might be a little terse.

Now aside from being "MARK MESSIER"tm why should anyone think Messier would automatically be a great or even good GM? Is there a possibility that he's not far enough removed from the game to take an objective look on players?

I have no way of knowing Messier's potential managerial style but would it entirely surprise anyone to see Messier surround himself with confidants and old friends, not unlike certain other former legends?