26 June 2007

A Million Vacations

is what I've got in mind.

I'm away until roughly July 9th, at which point the entire NHL landscape will have changed. A few notes, both major and minor:

  • Apparently - FINALLY - the salary cap figure will be agreed upon today or tomorrow at the NHLPA executive board meeting - it could go as high as USD$50 million. Last year's cap was at USD$44 million. Prepare for the annual round of logic-defying head-shaking contracts. I expect to get a number of mind-blowing text messages on Sunday when free-agent season begins.
  • On the (very) light side, Wayne Gretzky is getting into the wine business in Southern Ontario despite admitting that he doesn't "know a whole lot about wine." Rumours that he plans on hiring Jeremy Roenick, Owen Nolan, and Marty McSorley to pick grapes are unfounded.

Please follow the critical hockey links in the right-hand column below to keep tabs on all goings-on over the next few weeks.

22 June 2007

Road Apples NHL mock draft - 2007

Dispensing with the commentary, and ripe for abuse by probably 8:30 EDT tonight, I've thrown my hat in the ring - here is my 1st round mock NHL draft for 2007 in simple list form (top 5 selections / justifications can be found in the 5 previous posts here):

1. Chicago Kyle Turris
2. Philadelphia Jakub Voracek
3. Phoenix Patrick Kane
4. Los Angeles Karl Alzner
5. Washington Alexei Chereponov
6. Edmonton Sam Gagner
7. Columbus James Van Riemsdyk
8. Boston Angelo Esposito
9. St. Louis Lars Eller
10. Florida Keaton Ellerby
11. Carolina Zach Hamill
12. Montreal Mikael Backlund
13. Toronto Logan Couture
14. Colorado Ryan McDonagh
15. Edmonton (from NYI) Tommy Cross
16. Anaheim (from TB) Stefen Legein
17. NY Rangers David Perron
18. Calgary Brandon Sutter
19. Minnesota Dana Tyrell
20. Pittsburgh Brett MacLean
21. Phoenix (from DAL) Luca Cunti
22. Montreal (from SJ) Joakim Andersson
23. Philadelphia (from NAS) Nicholas Petrecki
24. St. Louis (from ATL) Max Pacioretty
25. Vancouver Maxim Mayorov
26. St. Louis (from NJ via SJ) Oscar Moller
27. Detroit Kevin Shattenkirk
28. Washington (from BUF) Colton Gillies
29. Ottawa Jonathon Blum
30. Edmonton (from ANA) Akim Aliu

In the mock draft pool I'm in, we have different values for the top 5: exact slot gets you 2 points, +/- 1 gets you 1 point. From pick 6 through 30, exact slot gets you 3 points, +/- 1 = 2, +/- 2 = 1. We'll see if any of us can crack 10.

20 June 2007

NHL draft talk - #5 pick: Washington Capitals

Full text/summary of my mock top 5 can be found on SportsGrumblings.com (signin required but they mercifully don't put you on any mailing lists)


After yet another down year, the Capitals as they present are constructed - unlike a franchise like, say, Los Angeles - don't exactly have an impending crop of young players at the NHL level ready to help make the team take that next step towards respectability. Last year's fourth overall pick - center Nicklas Backstrom - returned to Europe in 2006 rather than immediately sign with Washington (although he was
just signed by the Capitals to a three-year entry-level deal). Talented forward prospects like Eric Fehr and Francois Bouchard (QMJHL scoring leader with 125 points) should still be expected to be at least a year or two away from not only earning a full-time spot with the big club but having any sort of positive impact.

In terms of goaltending, the team drafted two in the top 34 picks last year in prospects Michal Neuvirth (2nd round, 2006) and Semen Varlamov (1st round, 2006) and both are developing nicely: Neuvirth led his Plymouth Whalers to their first OHL title and Memorial Cup last month, sporting a .932 save percentage over 18 playoff games; Varlamov excelled at this year's World Junior Championships (WJC) and is generally considered the top Russian goaltending prospect, putting up a 2.12 GAA in the Russian Super League. There should be good competition in coming years once longtime incumbent Olaf Kolzig finally retires.

In other words, barring a rash of trades and free agent signings this summer, the Capitals will still be building for a few years down the road (and have Alexander Ovechkin's restricted free agency status to look forward to after this coming season). Assuming that Washington's brass feels the same way, trying to figure out the direction of their first round selection is intriguing. Finding that one specific position in the Capitals' organization that they need to upgrade is difficult, and at the number five selection they could reasonably be expected to take whom they deem is the most-talented player available. If I'm going by my biased assumptions of the first four selections, James VanRiemsdyk and Jakub Voracek won't be available (if they are, Washington would be well off selecting either one)

The Capitals could continue their European invasion by drafting Alexei Cherepanov, the top-ranked European in the draft. Cherepanov will help eventually give the Capitals an outstanding top 4 with Alexander Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin - perhaps as early as next season. Cherepanov was the top forward at the WJC this past winter and scouts rave about his offensive presence and creativity. The knock is that he can be maddeningly inconsistent and disappears at times. By drafting the Russian and putting fellow countryman Ovechkin at his side, the Capitals may be able to take this high-risk / high- reward player and help transform their club into an offensive dynamo over the next few seasons.

19 June 2007

NHL draft - #4 pick: Los Angeles

At pick #4 we have the Los Angeles Kings. Despite bottoming out last year - winning only 27 games (better than only Philadelphia) and missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season - the Kings have a burgeoning stable of young talent and are not far off from making a run at a playoff spot. With young offensive talents such as Mike Cammalleri, Alexander Frolov, Dustin Brown, a future superstar in Anze Kopitar, and then Patrick O'Sullivan and Trevor Lewis on the horizon, within a few years the Kings could be one of the better offensive teams in the league. As was written here on this site and elsewhere by Kings fans, goaltending was the main reason the Kings went into the tank so early last season, with Dan Cloutier suffering the wrath of fans and feeling the heat of red lights on the back of his jersey until his season mercifully ended with hip surgery. Goaltending will have to be a temporary transitional phase for Los Angeles until top-flight prospect Jonathan Bernier of the QMJHL champion Lewiston Maineiacs is ready to turn pro. Make no mistake: Bernier is the Kings' goalie of the not-so-distant future, so the Kings will be looking for a skater at the four slot on Friday.

Where the Kings could and should continue to build is on the blueline. Veterans Rob Blake and Lubomir Visnovsky provide a decent-enough one-two, but with one year left on both of their deals and Blake pulling in USD$6 million, the Kings will likely either try to deal Blake this season or simply not re-sign him when he reaches the end of his contract. Highly regarded youngster Jack Johnson - acquired from Carolina in a pre-season fleecing last September - will start the year with a full-time job in L.A. but will likely undergo growing pains for a few seasons. The Kings' greatest need for depth is at defence and at the number four position it is highly likely that either of Karl Alzner or Keaton Ellerby will be available.

The thinking here is that Alzner of the Calgary Hitmen would be the best fit for the Kings. Even though scouts agree that he could take more risks offensively, what Los Angeles needs is to take care of play in their own zone and develop a quality three-zone system to be a contender when their young talent begins to peak a few years from now. NHL Central Scouting writes that Alzner "...is calm under pressure and composed with the puck. Has good positioning and reads the play well." Exactly the kind of player who GM Dean Lombardi could see playing 24-27 minutes every night in front of Jonathan Bernier three or four years from now.

17 June 2007

NHL draft - #3 pick: Phoenix

As a reminder, I'm not intending these to be predictions on who will be selected - simply evaluating who I would take if I were in each club's position, and basing subsequent picks on my previous phantom picks. In other words, it's complete bullshit. :-D

Ahh, Phoenix. So much to pick on, so little time...but in this article we'll keep a focused criticism of the franchise on their drafting legacy. Of the 12 first-round picks they've made in their short and terrible 11-year history (has it been that long already?), the only one to become a star is Daniel Briere, who quite obviously has not been plying his trade for the Coyotes of late. Defensive forward Fredrik Sjostrom (#11, 2001 draft) has held a steady job for the 'Yotes over the past three seasons, but there has been no homegrown star power in the desert. To be fair, we can't fairly analyze recent draft history, which may eventually help boost their drafting reputation. They just signed their high-scoring 2005 first rounder Martin Hanzel to an entry level deal. Their highest pick - Blake Wheeler, 5th overall in 2004 - is currently excelling at the University of Minnesota. Wheeler's high school teammate Peter Mueller (#8, 2006 draft) scored 78 points for Everett (WHL) last year and has represented the USA at the past two World Junior Championships.

Yet there's no denying that this franchise's cycle of mediocrity has their roots in poor drafting. A team must expect the occasional first-round bust but Phoenix has taken that to extremes by almost literally never having success in a decade of drafts. Awful drafting has doomed the Phoenix organization to repeated mediocre finishes, only once finishing as high as second in their division. Here's an indictment of the entire organization: outside of Daniel Briere, never (since 1996) has the franchise drafted a single player who has scored 20 goals in an NHL season (the only one close being Trevor Letowski in 2000). Phoenix needs a lot, but what could help them take a big step forward both on the ice and at the gate would be an offensive dynamo.

The best fit for the Coyotes would be London Knights first-year sensation Patrick Kane. Although the chances of him still being available at the #3 slot are fairly slim, it wouldn't be unprecedented for a highly-acclaimed and odds-on favourite to go #1 to slip to the third spot - in 2002 Jay Bouwmeester was expected by many all season to be the top pick but on draft day he slipped to third, much to his surprise.

Although Phoenix is still far off from being a serious competitor, Kane's offensive wizardry is exactly what the Coyotes need to start them on the road back to respectability. Phoenix must make the hard decision to avoid ridiculous and backward-thinking signings of veterans and focus on a 3-5 year plan on making this team ready to challenge for the cup by the end of the decade. Kane could immediately be the best forward on the team by mid-season, with only Shane Doan able to challenge for that post. In the likely event that Kane is not available at the third spot, the Coyotes will likely take whomever is left of Kyle Turris and James vanRiemsdyk.

14 June 2007

NHL draft - #2 pick: Philadelphia

As a reminder, I'm not intending these to be predictions on who will be selected - simply evaluating who I would take if I were in each club's position, and basing subsequent picks on my previous phantom picks. In other words, it's complete bullshit. :-D

Coming off a shockingly disastrous season - only one year removed from finishing with 100 points - the Philadelphia Flyers may not be as bad-off as other teams in the top (actually, bottom) 5. Anything good that developed in the first post-lockout season completely unraveled last season, as promising second-year players like Jeff Carter and Mike Richards suffered through the sophomore jinx, both missing extensive time with injuries. Goaltending was a disaster for the Flyers as neither Antero Niittymaki nor Robert Esche provided support behind what was frankly a terribly immobile defence. The late-season trade with Buffalo that gained them veteran Martin Biron (whom they subsequently signed to a 2-year deal) shored up the goaltending, although Biron isn't the kind of keeper who can carry a bad team.

They own the 2nd-overall pick next week, and will be able to claim a top talent no matter what...although defence is where they need the most help, and this draft is definitely weighted towards offensive talent, at least at the top end. Gaining Braydon Coburn at the trading deadline for Alexei Zhitnik was an absolute steal, but there is still a need for a more veteran presence (Darien Hatcher doesn't count) on the blueline. Regardless, I'd be a little surprised if the Flyers took Karl Alzner or Keaton Ellerby (who, although is only listed at 187 lbs. stands at a towering 6'4") when there are still elite-level forwards available - even though I could see the physical Ellerby being a fan favourite.

I'm going to assume that Philadelphia will be aggressive and successful in signing one of the better unrestricted free agent centers on the market within the next few weeks - they have just over USD$30 million committed to the cap next season with only a few potentially integral free agents to deal with. Therefore drafting someone who may be just a bit more of a long-term solution would be more palatable with a veteran like Daniel Briere or Scott Gomez centering their top line for the next four years.

UPDATE - 18JUNE: After the trade-and-sign with Nashville to obtain Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen, the Flyers appear to stand at just over USD$42 million for next season, which certainly stands to limit much more off-season spending.

Patrick Kane has rightfully earned a lot of praise for his fantastic first season in the OHL for London, but his 5'9" frame doesn't exactly fit into how the Flyers have historically built their roster. With other sizeable forwards like Mike Knuble, Jeff Carter, Scottie Upshall, and RJ Umberger, I see Philadelphia steering more towards James VanRiemsdyk but I personally like the idea of them taking Halifax's Jakub Voracek. Voracek is ranked as the #7 prospect by Central Scouting but his showing after one year in the QMJHL (having arrived from the Czech Republic speaking no English) was nothing short of dominant in every way, with 86 points in 59 games and adding 24 in just 12 playoff games. Voracek is ready to make the next step and join a Philadelphia organization that hopes to rebound from the worst season in their history.

NHL draft talk - #1 pick: Chicago Blackhawks

Tonight marks the symbolic end to the 2006-07 NHL season with the annual awards show, likely to be marked with terrible puns, bad suits, and shifting empty seats. But starting tomorrow morning the 2007-08 season begins, with a leadup to next Friday's first round of the NHL Entry Draft. As of now, the first five picks will go to:

1. Chicago
2. Philadelphia
3. Phoenix
4. Los Angeles
5. Washington

Predicting who will go where is perhaps a fool's game, but a little semi-mindless speculation and analysis is always enjoyable. I'm not intending these to be predictions, because so much goes on behind the scenes so to speak on which teams will draft which players, so I'll informally spend a little time on the top 5 clubs and slowly go down the list and evaluate who I would take if I were in each club's position.

Starting off with number one: The Chicago Blackhawks.

The Chicago Blackhawks hold the first selection in the draft for the first time in their history (likely shocking to those only familiar with their latest decade of failure, having made the playoffs only once since 1997) and GM Dale Tallon has implied that the choice is between forwards Patrick Kane, Kyle Turris, and James van Riemsdyk (barring any sort of trade, of course).

It sounds like Tallon may prefer the two-way physical play of Turris and Van Riemsdyk, as their size (6'0" and 6'3" respectively) gives them the advantage over the 5'9" Kane, but Kane is the most-likely to turn pro next season, which could be beneficial to getting fans excited about the Hawks again. But the Hawks have to be patient and continue their slow but emerging re-building process - if Jonathan Toews and Jack Skille progress as expected they should help provide Chicago with a fearsome combination not seen since the days of Jeremy Roenick and Steve Larmer. If Tallon believes Kyle Turris - who is slated to play at the University of Wisconsin this fall - will be their #1 center for a decade starting three years from now that's the pick he needs to make: Kyle Turris at number one.

CSS final rankings

Top North American Skaters

Top International Skaters

Top North American Goalies

Top International Goalies

(note: all are links to .pdf files - Adobe Reader required)

Iron Mike is back

Mike Keenan is back to unite a new team in hatred against him - reports out of Calgary are that he will be the new coach of the Flames next season. Enough has been written about the swath of personal destruction that Keenan has left in his wake, but he has had considerable success amidst the turmoil. And truth be told, Calgary could use something to wake them from their stupor - they have the talent to win the Cup but an inexplicable home/road split during the season and playoffs spelled strangely predictable doom.

The relationship between Keenan and Jarome Iginla will be especially interesting. Much more to come, I'm sure.

12 June 2007

Bloggers beware

Neate Sager runs an excellent blog in Canada called Out of Left Field (see right-hand sidebar); he covers all aspects of virtually every sport in Canada (I'm particularly partial to his junior hockey leanings in the winter).

Sager is being sued for CAD$2 million by Steelback Brewery owner Frank D'Angelo for comments Sager made on his blog that supposedly "damaged his reputation." D'Angelo at one point last year was bidding to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Whether you care or not, Sager not only runs this blog but does a lot of work in the "traditional" media fields as well so he could hardly be represented as some lone hack working out of his mother's basement (not...that there's anything wrong with that). Much to Sager's credit, he has taken and continues to take the high road in this affair. Best of luck to Neate in his efforts to get the case dropped.

07 June 2007

Anaheim Ducks - your Stanley Cup Champions

Really has a ring to it, eh?

various observations/notes:

The Ducks should've worn this abomination last night:

Gary Bettman - as always - couldn't resist a snarky opportunity to stick a little needle to his critics when on the red carpet (I realize I'm old-fashioned when I pine for the days where there were no on-ice wireless mics and announcements, but I always prefer to have an event or moment sell itself. Welcome to the 21st century, I suppose...) he rhetorically, arrogantly, and self-servingly stated to the crowd "well, I guess hockey is doing pretty well in California!" knowing that his ever-growing legion of critics has been on him harder than ever regarding ill-advised markets, etc. Bettman loves to be able to point out the last three Cup champions: Tampa Bay, Carolina, Anaheim.

Hard not to love the play of Scott Niedermayer, a Hall-of-Fame mortal lock. But I thought the Conn Smythe could - and should - have gone to Andy MacDonald, who I'm guessing a lot of fans had very little idea about before this series. He's a game-breaker and was a constant threat during the entire series.

Steve Smith now has historical company in one Chris Phillips:

Overall, Ottawa played a rather pitiful series. Sure they had their moments where they looked like the team that steamrolled through the second half of the season and through the first three rounds of the playoffs - much of last night's second period for instance. But there were many who simply failed to compete - none more in my book than Jason Spezza. Spezza never showed any creativity with the puck and repeatedly failed on the defensive end of his game. Aside from countless turnovers his listless and frankly contact-avoidance style of play left his teammates (mostly Daniel Alfredsson, one of the few Sens forwards who brought game) in the lurch. Spezza registered just one shot over the final three games and overall in the five-game series registered just two points - both second assists.

Although he was not the reason they lost, Ray Emery looked shaky throughout. Despite a few highlight-reel saves, his positioning is just awful and he has no idea how to control a rebound. From my observing him, he also seems to lose sight of the puck much more often than other goalies. I became a believer in Emery this year after his playoff flame-out last season. However, after this performance, Emery will have to improve if the Sens hope to repeat next season as Eastern Conference champions.

At any rate, congratulations to the Ducks. In no way were they a fluke champion, they either held the West lead or were within a few points of it all season, and crushed the high-scoring Senators team in five. With the young core of talent in Anaheim, they have a great chance at either repeating or getting back to the finals within the next few years.

And if Teemu Selanne decides to go out Lanny McDonald style and retire, what a great ride it has been.
From his never-to-be-duplicated 76-goal rookie season in Winnipeg to his post-lockout resurgence in Anaheim (88 goals in the past two seasons) over the past 14 years fans have been treated to one of the all-time greats. Congratulations to one of the nicest and classiest athletes to ever play in North America.

The NHL draft begins two weeks from tomorrow night.

06 June 2007

OHL franchise move official

Long rumoured and expected, it is now official: beginning this coming season the Toronto St. Michael's Majors will move to Mississauga while the Ice Dogs formally relocate to the Niagara region, temporarily (at least) to be housed in St. Catherines:

Majors on the Move

Tuesday Jun 5, 2007

Toronto, Ont. (Tuesday, June 5, 2007) — It is now official; the St. Michael’s Majors are relocating to Mississauga for the upcoming season. This situation comes as a result of the transfer of the Mississauga IceDogs to the city of St. Catharines, which has been approved by the Ontario Hockey League’s Board of Governors.

The Majors will now be known as the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors and will continue to possess a strong connection to St. Michael’s College School.

The Majors web site address (www.stmichaelsmajors.com) will not change. Stay tuned to that site as the team will be releasing their 2007-08 schedule in the near future, as well as ticket packages, community programs and the many exciting initiatives planned for the upcoming season.

We'll miss visiting the 1000-capacity St. Mike's Arena, as old-school an arena as you'll find anywhere.

05 June 2007

one more week off

Since I'm enjoying just watching the finals without critiquing, taking notes, or studying shift charts and extended stats, I'll stay on my hiatus through the end of the season, which could be as early as Wednesday night or at the latest next Monday.

I'll have some sort of a wrap-up next week and will pick up the posts as the month goes on - "summer season" starts this month with the draft in Columbus (starting on a Friday night this year) on June 22nd, and the free-agent frenzy to begin less than two weeks after that.

Starting at the end of this month, this will be the most important information to have handy as teams begin to restructure for next season.