21 October 2006

Two Weeks In...NHL


Two weeks into a season is not often going to give an accurate reflection on how the year will end up for teams, but it is still interesting to take a look at which clubs are at either extreme of the standings so far. In the Eastern Conference, the top team cannot be considered a surprise, with the blistering Buffalo Sabres at 6-0 before Friday’s contest against rapidly improving Carolina. The bottom team has to be considered a shock though, and although it’s only October the Philadelphia Flyers look like they are in a world of trouble. Those two teams met on Tuesday night in Buffalo on national television in a rematch of last year’s first round series, and the 9-1 result was a lot like that playoff series in that the Sabres’ skill devastated the slower Flyers team. The surprises may have been that the Sabres are actually better than they were last year and the Flyers have obviously not properly addressed those playoff shortcomings discussed at length last spring.

Buffalo has six wins in as many games thus far and all over teams that made the playoffs last year. Last week against the Rangers and Flyers they erupted for 16 goals (both while wearing their fantastic old 80s uniforms – coincidence? Doubtful…) en route to 31 thus far which easily leads the league. Buffalo’s offence and goaltending were expected to lead them far this year, but the pleasant surprise has been the overall skill from their defensive corps. Jaroslav Spacek seems to have found the perfect home for his skills, as Buffalo now has six blueliners who excel at moving the puck quickly out of their zone and up to the speedy Sabres forwards. All in all, a fantastic start for the Sabres, who look to be capitalizing beautifully on last year’s success, and as a result have a good chance of playing to 100% attendance in Buffalo for the season since the original blue-and-gold sold out no less than seven straight seasons in the 70s.

For Philadelphia, the final score had a few red herrings – first of all, the shots were nowhere near indicative of the flow of the game. The Flyers actually outshot Buffalo, but shots are so often a meaningless stat (take a glance at the team shot totals this year and you will find a mediocre Toronto team with over 37 shots per game, leading the league. Buffalo has allowed the fifth-most shots but hasn’t lost yet). It’s also important to note that people shouldn’t start jumping on Robert Esche as being “yet another failed Flyers goaltender.” It may sound hard to believe if you didn’t see the game but Esche was perhaps the sole reason the Sabres didn't set an all-time record for goals in a game. Buffalo could have had at least 15 goals if not for Esche keeping it close early, and even playing well in complete garbage-time in the third (as well as Lindy Ruff giving increased ice time to Andrew Peters, who had multiple quality chances).

(Of course why Esche was kept in for the entire 60 minute beating is another question, and the easy answer might be that it was a response by Ken Hitchcock to Esche's comments about him earlier in the week - yet another ugly subplot of the early Philadelphia season.)
The Flyers were truly dreadful, with giveaway after giveaway in all zones – and while Maxim Afinogenov’s brilliant end-to-end rush was no doubt thrilling to the giddy Sabres faithful and reminiscent of a Gilbert Perreault classic, it was a complete embarrassment to the Flyers and especially Darien Hatcher, who once again is proving himself woefully overmatched in his rapidly decaying state. Hatcher is already a -7 and despite looking obviously overmatched last season is on his way to an even worse campaign this year.
My overworked point is that it's always easy to see 9-1 and blame the goaltender but there are far more troublesome reasons for Philadelphia's blowout – notably a highly immobile defence and a group of forwards that on paper looks dynamic but have all underperformed thus far. If things do not turn around in a hurry, we could be seeing a flurry of deals and firings – Bobby Clarke may finally have to answer for this one.
Out west, the top team is a pleasant surprise with Minnesota the only other undefeated team in the league, also at 6-0. Minnesota has been doing it partially in their traditionally stingy defensive style - only allowing 11 goals total - but this year they’ve added offence and become dangerous in all zones. Newcomer Pavol Demitra may not be producing in terms of goals (only one so far), but with seven assists and playing alongside snipers Brian Rolston and Marian Gaborik he’s helping to give the Wild the offence they’ve lacked throughout their short history. However, Minnesota is a good bet to come back to the pack a bit until they can develop a deeper scoring punch; right now Pierre-Marc Bouchard is their only other proven point producer but Mikko Koivu and Branko Radivojevic have shown some offensive flair to date. Of course, having one of the league’s best goaltenders in Manny Fernandez alone will keep them in playoff contention the rest of the year after their hot start.

On the flip side are the Phoenix Coyotes at 2-5. The Coyotes were not generally considered a playoff contender before the season. Right now they are on the verge of being considered a disaster, and looking at an array of numbers does not give a fan much of anything positive to latch onto. Note some basic team scoring stats for the Coyotes (all figures are as of Friday afternoon and are ranked out of 30 NHL teams):

2.29 goals per game – 24th

4.14 goals against per game – 30th

11.4% power play – 25th

75% penalty kill – 29th

In only three home games, they’ve been shorthanded a whopping 24 times. With a thus-far terrible penalty kill rate, that’s a quick recipe for losing. They’ve also been awful at even strength, giving up twice as many goals at five on five as they score.

This is a team and franchise without apparent direction – the surprising off-season free agent signing of Ed Jovanovski could be chalked up to the theory that by overpaying for a “name player” you’ll make that destination more attractive to prospective free agents in the future (something baseball’s Detroit Tigers did with the $40 million signing of Ivan Rodriguez a few years ago). I think it is a flawed theory in that the bottom line is winning, and that nobody will care about the big names if you continue to be a lousy team. In the case of the Tigers and their subsequent success, it really ends up being a logical fallacy to say that by signing Rodriguez it led to them winning the American League pennant this year; the biggest reason for the Tigers quick turnaround has far less to do with attracting big free agents and more to do with their young stable of pitchers suddenly blossoming this year. In today’s NHL (read: salary cap), teams do not have the luxury to keep a team intact for a long time. Therefore, it is imperative to build from within and try to develop a core of young talent that will grow together (as well as not necessarily pricing themselves out of the market before reaching team success). The modern-day GM’s challenge is to identify when those players are about to cross that barrier, and only then supplement the team’s talent with a key free agent signing or two. That’s the kind of club that should have signed the pricey Jovanovski ($6.5 million per season for five years), not one that doesn’t seem to have a prayer of seriously contending for a few years, by which time Jovo will be well past his prime and ability to contribute as effectively as before. Phoenix did not (and does not) have that core of talented 22-24 year olds yet, therefore they may have simply wasted millions of dollars on a player who is overrated anyways (as well as a health risk) and isn’t likely to be the sole difference between the team making the playoffs and not anytime soon.

The signings of Owen Nolan and Jeremy Roenick were a flat-out waste of $2.5 million better spent elsewhere on anything and can’t be defended on any level. At best at this point in their careers they could provide semi-mythical and non-measurable “chemistry” and “leadership” qualities to the team, which - if you believe in these traits - are quite obviously not working yet, in terms of on-ice success. At worst they both clog up the ice as well-past-their-prime former scorers (to date: three points combined) and even on the off-chance that they do end up having surprising years they would only be taking away valuable ice-time from potential prospects that Phoenix should be developing. It is a vicious cycle that will likely be repeated until someone in the Phoenix front office throws up their hands and makes the firm commitment to rebuilding as opposed to assembling a roster in a patchwork style. It doesn’t have to be a long-term process, but it does have to be a concrete decision – you can’t have it both ways.

ICE Experts League Update

After being out of the country for a week, I came back to find my team in tenth place (out of 12). A day later, I was in last. Uh-oh. Even though it’s still ridiculously early, and I’m realistically only a good day or two away from jumping right into the middle of the pack, it was time for a change, and I consummated the first deal of our season with RotoPass.com’s Pete Becker. My preseason Calder trophy pick of Anze Kopitar (full credit to SportsBlurb’s Hale Pulsifer, who was the first on his bandwagon as early as last season) has created a nice buzz for himself and I decided to sell high, dealing him straight up for Maxim Afinogenov, who will take Joffrey Lupul’s place in my starting lineup. This should be a great deal for me for two reasons: first with the return of Evgeni Malkin this week I would have had an extra center to deal with and second, Max gives me more of a sure thing for this year, and has the added “bonus” of a habit of taking a lot of penalties. He should help me in more categories than Kopitar will this year (although if this were a keeper league, I’d likely not have made this deal.). I’m still liking my roster in the long run (my goaltending stats are simply killing me; I can’t expect Ottawa/Martin Gerber to keep losing…can I?), despite my propensity for first and second year players – hopefully my trade will have “seasoned” my team a little in terms of age.

Yahoo has made this a public league so you will be able to track all of our movements and standings all year – check it out here.

My current roster:

C Daniel Briere, Evgeni Malkin, Nathan Horton

LW Mark Bell, Jussi Jokinen, Wojtek Wolski

RW Maxim Afinogenov, Chris Neil, Milan Michalek

D Nicklas Lidstrom, Marc-Andre Bergeron, Paul Mara, Lukas Krajicek, Jim Vandermeer, Alexei Zhitnik

G Martin Gerber, Alex Auld

Bench Joffrey Lupul, Jason Pominville, Zach Parise, Raffi Torres, Dan Cloutier

IR Jordan Leopold

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

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