Thursday, June 30, 2011

Non-Playoff Team Future Forecast: The West

After close examination it appears as if the competition for a Western playoff spot is getting even tighter if you can believe it, while the overall depth may drop off.  Teams like Columbus, St. Louis and Edmonton are going to be more of a threat, Calgary should plateau, but other teams may take a step backward and widen the gap between competitors and the second tier.  Ownership issues in Dallas have cost what was a very promising team to be a non-playoff foregone conclusion.  Unless something drastic happens in Colorado they could, despite a ton of young talent, fall further in the rankings next year, and there's only one more spot for them to drop.  Minnesota has got all the tools, and moe offensive depth than they get credit for, but somehow year after year they manage to thwart themselves...looking at the general landscape you want to hope they are a playoff contener, but they just aren't.  I only see two teams from last year's top 8 dropping out: Phoenix, who have lost their cornerstone goalie, and Nashville, who have over-achieved too greatly to compete with the three rising powers in the West as well as the regulars.  Who will take their places?  Who will narrowly miss out?  We start in order of last years playoff ranking:

9: DALLAS - The Big D has ownership issues.  Hockey in this state has been a great success for the NHL and I hope the ship is righted soon.  If they could've been organized to retain Richards than this is a playoff team.  They made a bold move shipping out James Neal last year, a bonified scorer, but I feel they won the trade.  Alex Goligoski, the prized former-Pens D-man is going to blossom with top-pairing minutes in Dallas, but not enough to propel the rest of the group in to the playoffs.  Kari Lehtonen is sometimes great, more often adequate, and the cupboards are pretty well bare for prospects.  They have some underrated skill and grit upfront, but will fall greatly to 14th this year and the future does not look friendly beyond that.  Expansion teams that have slumped have had fan-base problems; I hope that, coupled with ownership issues isn't the stat of a downward spiral.  GM and recent hall of fame inductee Joe Niewendyk will have his work cut out for him.

10: CALGARY: Calgary will be solid enough to compete for but not secure a playoff spot.  Iggy had a great second half, and they've brought back the playmaking left winger Alex Tanguay.  Mikael Backlund looks like he might just be a top six forward and Matt Stajan has got to be better than what he showed last year.  Big rumors about Buowmester and they've shipped off Regher.  Bourque and Moss need to perform to their max, and they probably will, and Glencross needs to improve on last year's breakout season.  They won't be fun to play against, they may prove me wrong, but I just can't pencil them in to a playoff spot with the improvements other teams have made.  They need a bonafide top centre (still) and I don't see it happening. They'll probably stay right in 10th next year, and years to come.

11: ST.LOUIS: St.Louis wouldn't be grouped with the rest of their non-playoff piers from last year if Perron and Oshie were healthy all year.  I see the silver lining in their setback as they then were forced to make a bold move trading future Norris candidate Erik Johnson to Colorado for Christ Stewart (who will be the next great power forward...I mean GREAT) and svelt puck mover Kevin Shattenkirk.  Johnson is a rare combination of size and skill, with more mean than most people realize -- he could be Pronger re-incarnate, but this was a great trade for St. Louis, who might be the deepest team up front in the league when healthy.  They also have probably the deepest group of offensive prospects and their back-end is very solid.  Jaro Halak should play more like the man who started last season on fire, especially behind this solid group.  St. Louis is going to be a big mover and a perennial cup contender over the next decae.  This year they'll definitely make the playoffs and will challenge Detroit and Chicago for the Central Division, and winning it.  St. Louis will jump from 11th to 3rd next season.

12: MINNESOTA: I really want this team to make the playoffs.  I like the way they're built, but they've been handicapped by some unlucky, perhaps ill-thought moves, specifically at the draft table.  That said they've managed to acquire or retain some young prospects, and their pro-scouting have acquired the likes of Greg Zanon and Martin Havlat! But with their attempts to give Cam Barker his unconditional release, a deal that cost them Nick Leddy, it shows a real split-personality for their talent identification.  I think Miko Koivu is among the five most underrated players in the league, and Cal Clutterbuck should continue to improve as a scorer, but not enough now or anytime soon to push Minny in to the ever tightening race.  They'll slide one spot next year, but I've got a soft spot for 'em.

13: COLUMBUS: Blockbuster summer for CBJ.  They've added Jeff Carter, a premier centre, to compliment talented wingers Nash, Husselius, MacKenzie, Calvert and the up and coming Johansen.  They are strong down the middle, a little weak on D, especially in the puck-moving department, and Steve Mason needs to regain his Calder trophy form behind a much improved team, but it should be enough to get them in to 8th next year, even in what may prove to be the tighted division in the NHL.

14: COLORADO: Adding Erik Johnson to a strong group of young D propsects was a costly move, but one that may pay off if they can keep the already well travelled Johnson around long term.  He's a franchise D-man waiting to happen, luckilly for Colorado St. Louis had one already in Alex Pietrangelo.  They have weak goaltending, and a developing back-end.  Upfront they're undeniably strong down the middle, the mark of great teams, and they have a few good wingers but it won't be enough to get them in to the playoffs this year.  They will likely take a step back even to 15th.  The long term forecast is bright with the newly drafted Gabriel Landeskog on the horizon.  Hopefully their fan-base can remain through this tough transitional time.  They must all be as confused as I am after this same group made a valiant playoff push two years ago only to fall flat last season -- the rebuild is on, the pieces are in place, they must find a goalie.

15: EDMONTON: I made a bold, albeit wrong, prediction before last season that this young group had enough scoring and goaltending to squeak in to the playoffs.  It was a tough, injury filled year, but the Oil will take their sophomore group and make a wild run in to the playoffs.  It will be up and down with their combination of inexperience and thin-D, but Nikolai Khabibulin will hold the fort and a healthy Oiler D should prove they are underrated.  They just locked up Smid and added David Musil and Oskar Klefbom via draft as well as Colton Teubert in a swap with LA that sent power forward Dustin Penner closer to his new bride in Lotus Land.  They have a huge crop of young talent, upfront and on the back end, but in the immediate future the skill level we saw exhibited last year, combined with the return of fan favorite Ryan Smyth and a little bit of luck in the health department and this team will challenge for 8th, however, I can see them just missing in a pack that includes CBJ, CGY, NSH, PHX to name a few. Edmonton to place 9th,but barely, and miss the playoffs for the last time in this decade.

So, baring huge RFA/UFA changes here's how the West shapes up:

3    ST. LOUIS

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

2010-11 Non Playoff team future forecasts: EAST

While the margins for non-playoff teams are significantly slimmer and thanks to the loser points even further muddled, the East is far more rigid. Sure the Leafs and Devils had late pushes last year, Carolina hung-around (somehow) and Atlanta, despite a hot start, tailed off; but the fact is the difference between playoff bound teams and those getting an early start on golf season was more vast in the East.  Some of these teams will manage to do even worse this upcoming season, and some will move up in to the relm of playoff qualifiers, but one thing is for sure: they've all gotten better due to a couple decent draft years.

It's hard to imagine the wild UFA market won't alter my findings but lets examine the six eastern conference non playoff teams from last year and where they might be headed:

CAROLINA: Missing by just two points they were buoyed by my darkhorse MVP pick Erik Staal and Calder winner Jeff Skinner along with always steady goaltending from Cam Ward.  The three represented the Canes at home in the All Star Game but this is not a sign of immediate success.  The Canes locked up puck mover Joni Pitkanen and a great depth guy in Chad Larose, but have announced they can't afford to bring back Erik Staal.  They'll need to lock up Jussi Jokinen atleast, and he, along with Tuomo Ruutu will be counted on with Skinner and Staal for offense.  It's an underrated quartet of scorers, but not enough to elevate them in to the postseason.  Next season will prove to be one of the greatest youth movements of the New NHL.  Youngsers like Drayson Bowman, Zack Dalpe, Troy Bodie, Riley Nash and Zach Boychuck will all likely be amongst the Canes' forward regulars -- it's a good group of players but they'll be hard pressed to make the jump.  Carolina has only a few D-men signed for next year, and again with a solid core of prospects coming up including: Justin Faulk, Danny Biega, Mark Alt, Bryan Dumolin, Michal Jordan, Ryan Murphy, they will in years to come be formidable but this year is going to be a growth spurt, and probably an awkward one, look for them to drop back in the rankings, perhaps as low as 13.  In two years though they will definitely make the playoffs and form in to a very solid team.

TORONTO: The late season push, I believe, is indicative of things to come for Toronto.  I believe the four big scorers: Phil Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clark MacArthur will improve on last years totals, and Nazem Kadri's season with the Marlies showed he could be a full time pro -- If jofrey Lupul can cement himself as a powerplay catalyst and the depth forwards (Tim Brent, Joey Crabb, Mike Brown, Colby Armstrong) do what they showed they can last season then Toronto has a great forward corpse, and likely will add some talent. Christian Hanson is ready for full time duty and the Leafs, like all good teams, are strong down the middle.  They addressed their puck-moving weakness by adding transitional and PP specialist John Michael Liles to an already gritty and solid defense, and James reimer is the real deal - The Leafs could place as high as sixth in the East next season, but I'm sure their fanbase would be equally as happy with 7th and 8th.

NEW JERSEY: Their horrible start sunk them, despite the teams best efforts down the stretch.  They'll bring Parise back, somehow, and Jacob Josefson will be everything they hoped he could. If Tampa can bring back Stamkos it might keep New Jersey out of a playoff spot, but, if Stammer finds a new address then Tampa will fall and Jersey could squeak in to eighth.  Even if Parise comes back this team needs a better transition game and is going to have to work to recouperate from last years debaucle.  If they do get in they'll probably be peaking at the right time and looking like a potential cinderella team.

WINNIPED (Nee ATLANTA): This team has a ton of talent, loaded on the back end with young skill the likes of 20 goal man Dustin Byfuglien, smoothe puck mover Tobia Enstrom, but they do need to lock up Zack Bogosian.  The trade with Boston that brough in Blake Wheeler as a much needed addition of offense.  Alex Burmistrov and Evander Kane should continue to improve, and they'll hopefully lock-up Ladd, but it's not enough scoring in what is going to be a tougher Eastern Conference next season.  Pavelec can be a star if he's healthy, but he can't stop enough pucks to land the new Jets in the playoffs, and there isn't enough offense in the forseeable future to think WNP will have a storybook playoff appearance in either of the next two seasons unless they land a major UFA

OTTAWA: I can't believe they weren't last in the East last year -- over the course of the playoffs I forgot there were worse teams than Ottawa.  One thing is for sure: nobody looked more defeated, or maybe that was just Cory Clouston.  It was sad to see the way Ottawa had fallen.  How their UFA acquisition Sergei Gonchar dissapointed.  How their veterans aged somewhat gracelessly.  And how little they got for Danny Heatley.  Ottawa has a star in the making though, a legitimate future Norris winner Erik Karlsson.  Maybe Gonchar can regain form (and Chris Phillips and Philip Kuba) and that would give them a respectable back end, and I think Craig Anderson can be a solid number one guy between the pipes next year, but the offense is thin, paper thin, and the prospect pool isn't great.  Adding a former high first round pick in Nikita Filatov for a third rounder was a great gamble by management, one that will probably pay off as Filatov's skill set is undeniable and he will be given room to grow with a decen pivot, Jason Spezza.  Jared Cowen and David Runblad are a year or two away from makin Ottawa a playoff threat again...they need to find more scoring though.  No playoffs in site, and they should manage to bottom out this year to 15th in the East, possibly last over all in the league.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS: These guys are going to be playoff material next season -- guaranteed!  They need to stop the goaltender turnstall and burry dipietros contract in the minors.  Al Montoya and Kevin Poulin could be a solid platoon in the net and if they can sign Christian Ehrhoff then their back end will have great offense with him and Mark Streit.  Andy McDonald looked great last year and will work with a lunch pale group that will get the job done in all zones.  Upfront we could see a blossoming of young talent with great prospects in Ryan Strome, Nino Neidereiter and Kiril Kabanov coming up and hopefully the arrival of Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo.  The depth forwards like Franz Nielsen and Zenon Konopka are underrated defenders, and the re-signing of Trevor Gillies means this team is not going to be fun to play against.  They'll make a run in the tough Atlantic Division and bump their cross-state rival Rangers out of the playoffs next year, and for years to come.  Tavares, Grabner and Moulson are going to be up their with Toews-Sharp-Kane or Malkin-Staal-Crosby.

FLORIDA: The Panthers will likely re-sign Tomas Vokon short term and let Jakob Markstrom develop (as they should).  They have some young potential on D and a lot more coming in the likes of Erik Gudbranson, Alex Petrovic, Colby Robak, Evan Oberg and Rasmus Bengtsson. This year's first rounder Jonathon Huberdeau joins solid forward prospects Drew Shore, Nick Bjugstad and Quinton Howdon, but the immediate forecast is calling for short season in FLA.  They'll chase Ottawa to the bottom this year, and are a few years away from the playoffs still.

Much depends on the UFA market, and especially two big RFA's: Parise and Stamkos, however, both of those refer mostly to whether or not NJD will make the playoffs this year.  Either way look for Toronto, New Jersey and the Islanders to improve in the rankings, Florida and Ottawa to fall.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bad contract deals good place to invest, but Oil's return questionable

I just researched Ryan Smyth's stats for this blog post.  It was my intention to use them to argue the return for his 6.25 million dollar cap hit (even though he's owed just 4.5 million in 2011-12) was not enough.  I have to rephrase that now, because on a shear performance basis, on the strength of his third straight 20 goal season, and fresh off of a year in which he played all 82 games his totals aren't bad, and, he should fit nicely on the Oilers Power Play and show the way to their young stars, however, 6.25 in cap space is HUUUUUUGE.

LA's GM Dean Lombardi is going to use that space to make a serious run, and his team is still deep with young talent despite thinning out the herd in the farm, so you would think that it would be worth a heck of a lot more to him to get rid of that financial burden.  Colin Fraser is a great grinder, but paired with a seventh round pick they didn't give up much, but Steve Tambellini could've atleast gotten a prospect back with that.

Look what Slats got for Gomez for crying out loud.

My point: taking on 6.5 million in cap space is worth a whole lot more than one 20 goal season, especially on the eve of what is sure to be one of the greatest UFA crops ever.

If this is my team I'm happy our former captain is back, but wondering why our GM didn't ask him to bring young talent with him.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Seen this before...

LA trading Schenn for Richards is Niewendyk for Iginla all over again, and, cup rings and career totals aside, player to player, who won that swap?

Schenn is going to be a star in Philly.  This was a great day for Flyers fans and great work by Paul Holmgren.  I had to question his move for the rights to Bryzgalov.  It seemed like an awful lot to give up in a UFA market that doesn't have many teams thinking starting-goalie, let alone able to afford Bryzgalov, but now we know why he had to get it done trade Carter before his No Trade Clause kicked in July 1.

With a core of talented forwards like Briere, Hartnell and Giroux still around I really don't see they youth movement as a step back, especially when you consider how much of a difference Bryz will make between the pipes and behind that D-Corps.  Philly arguably got better.

The only way to realize that is to break it down

JVRD                BRIERE             GIROUX
VERSTEEG      LEINO               SIMMONDS

Ok, there's some major rumors of more changes to come, including the trade of Versteeg  -- I'm sure further moves would only serve to improve the offense in Philly.  The fact remains that young or not that is a formidable top nine.  Voracek is more established then he gets credit for, playing in the offensive waste land that was Columbus for three season he is going to explode in Philly --  ditto for Simmonds who should see more ice, especially second unit Power Play time as a net presence.  James Van Riemsdyk is about to become the best power forward in the game.  When you consider the salary savings that will allow the Flyers to keep more depth and the youth movement which will serve to keep them stocked and competitive for years this is a great move.