Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Wounded Ducks

There are several reports that the Anaheim Ducks on-ice problems are just the tip of the ice berg, and that the team might be making a major trade not just to kick-start the season but to save money.  How can a recent cup winner be in such a bad way?  Given the financial standing of the team I highly doubt they'll fire Randy Carlyle who is now just in the first year of a three year deal.  However, if they're shopping Bobby Ryan or even considering trading one of their top line players then they must be in dire need.  Even listening to offers on one of the big three is a major cause for concern for Duck fans.

It's really sad how fickle the non-traditional hockey markets are when their team isn't producing.  The game is sold at a bargain to Sun Belt teams and win or lose the price they pay is peanuts compared to fans in traditional hockey markets, especially those that have been long suffering. 

The Ducks have a great line, a couple decent defenders and a goalie who is either great or garbage on any given night and suffers from a mysterious vertigo issue.  The Finnish Flash is carrying this team, but the lack of depth is too much to make up for, and Hiller has had more bad starts than good.

If this team is serious about staying in Anaheim and they need to resolve financial issues then trading Bobby Ryan would be far too big of a hit than they can afford long term.  He has three straight 30 goal seasons and will soon be entering his prime.  The reported financial issues really don't jive with some of the Ducks moves, like picking up Nick Hagman's salary on waivers.

Blake, Koivu and Hagman are all off the books next year, so that's huge savings.  If the Ducks are up against the wall they may as well buy these guys out and save a few bucks, ditto for Francoi Beauchemin.  They've got enough bodies to round out a roster, if the situation is that bad then forget the politics of buy-outs, this is survival mode.

If this year is a write-off then the player that needs to be shopped for cost cutting is Jonas Hiller.  I have watched this guy play like a perennial Vezina candidate.  I honestly haven't ever seen him make a bad start, but, the proof is in the pudding and he's currently sporting a sub 900 SV%.  If you can pawn Hiller off on a team desperate for a goalie then you save his 4.5 million for the next few years.  Dan Ellis is playing great and the Ducks have a few top prospects in net.

They've also got a ton of top talent up front and on defense.  If I'm running the show in Anaheim I'm writing the year off - it won't make that big of a difference and they've got a deep system. 

It's tough to find a team with the kind of offensive depth coming up to even compare to Anaheim.  Emerson Etem is scoring a goal a game in the WHL. Peter Holland, Brandon McMillan, Devante Smith-Pelly and Patrick Maroon are already up and Kyle Palmieri is lighting up the AHL. Rickard Rackell was a very solid pick.  On defense Justin Schultz is killing the NCAA ranks. Sami Vaatanen and Mat Clark aren't far off NHL duty.

Trading Bobby Ryan is a huge mistake, unless they are replacing him with someone of equal value, which doesn't seem to be the case in Anaheim right now.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Get Young or Die Trying: Part 2

NHL GMs are steamed at having to pay for a players potential and not their list of accomplishments. In 'Get Young or Die Trying: Part 1' it became painfully obvious that contracts to young RFA's that are establishing themselves amongst the games elite are still very affordable and probably better in the long run, now lets examine what this endless crop of young talent means to the on-ice product.

Did you know that 14 of 30 NHL teams can boast that their first or second highest scoring player is 22 years of age or younger? There are a number of other teams with U22's in third and fourth as well, and really, Edmonton's top two leading scorers are both under 22, so it's pretty well half of the league.  In no particular order:

Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning, Age: 20, Points: 20, Team Rank: 1st in scoring

Tyler Seguin, Boston Bruins, Age: 19, Points: 21, Team Rank: 1st in scoring

Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks, Age: 22, Points: 20, Team Rank: 2nd in scoring (by one point)

Craig Smith, Nashville Predators, Age: 21, Points: 16, Team Rank: 1st in scoring

Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars, Age: 22, Points: 21, Team Rank: 1st in scoring

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers, Age: 18, Points: 22, Team Rank: Tied for 1st in Scoring, Jordan Eberle (22) and Taylor Hall (19) are second and third.

Kevin Shattenkirk, St.Louis Blues, Age: 22, Points: 12, Team Rank: Tied for 2nd in scoring

Matt Duchene, Colorado Avalanche, Age: 20, Points: 16, Team Rank: 1st in scoring

Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators, Age: 21, Points: 18, Team Rank: Tied for 2nd in team scoring

Adam Henrique, New Jersey Devils, Age: 21, Points: 11, Team Rank: Tied for 2nd in team scoring

Max Paccioretty, Montreal Canadiens, Age: 17, Points: 22, Team Rank: 2nd in team scoring

Evander Kane, Winnipeg Jets, Age: 20, Points: 14, Team Rank: Tied for 2nd in team scoring

Jeff Skinner, Carolina Hurricanes, Age: 19, Points: 21, Team Rank: 1st in scoring

John Tavares, New York Islanders, Age: 20, Points: 16, Team Rank: 1st in scoring

The teams included on this list: The Islanders, Hurricanes, Jets, Habs, Devils, Senators, Avalanche, Blues, Oilers, Lightning, Bruins, Blackhawks, Predators and Stars.

When you look at the teams its hard to say that there's an obvious correlation because some of them have recently won Stanley Cups, many haven't had a few, or even one off year that would allow for the type of youth infusion or high draft picks it might require to have a young star at or near the top of your teams scoring lead.

The draft position used (including Eberle) to take these players: 1st (4), 2nd (1), 3rd (1), 4th (1), 7th (1), 14th (1), 15th (1), 22nd (2), 82nd (1), 98th (1) and 129th (1).

Six of the 15 picks were made by teams that had made the playoffs in that draft year, three of them weren't even first round picks.  It's not the struggle of the team that necessarily leads to the acquisition of the player and the opening of a roster spot for him, as much as the calibre of the player and the forward thinking of the club that selected him, either first overall or in the final round.

In Matt Duchene's rookie season he lead the Avalanche to an unlikely playoff birth. Tyler Seguin is leading the Bruins in scoring in just his second year, he's got a cup ring already. The year Dalls drafted Jamie Benn they had 107 point season. Tampa was in a heap of trouble when they took Stamkos first overall, but he took them to within one game of making the Stanley Cup Finals last season. Max Paccioretty may have been the difference in the Canadiens heartbreaking seven game round-one loss to hated rivals and eventual cup winners the Boston Bruins last season. The year the Sens drafted Karlsson they were a playoff team and just one year removed from a run to the Finals.

Indisputably some of the teams on this list have benefited from their continued failures, but, atleast they had the foresight to take their prized picks and let them play right away.  It didn't hinder their development, and, one of those first overall picks has a cup ring already. Most of them have already been re-signed, some of them before their rookie contracts even expired, so who cares if inserting them directly in to the NHL roster from the draft gets the clock ticking on their next big deal.

As the youth movement strengthens in the NHL this number will grow, and oddly enough as of right now only one of the Eastern teams on this list is in a playoff spot, and only three in the west, but give it a few weeks and those numbers could be anywhere from 0 to 100%.

The point is that there aren't just a whole bunch of starry eyed junior players waiting to get drafted in 2012 and jump straight in to the NHL, the real issue is that there are four years worth of picks in this age group, either in the NHL, major junior, the minors, college or overseas, that could be on this list right now, and will be sooner than later.

Sure, Detroit is currently in a playoff spot in this up-and-down season they've had, but how long can this go on for? Henrik Zetterberg is having a pitiful year, Tomas Holmstrom and Nick Lidstrom are almost done, and there isn't a lot of offensive help coming down the line. And Calgary, wow, this group is putrid. The only team in North American professional hockey they could beat is their farm squad, so the future isn't looking too friendly. If it's not now, or five years down the road, if you're team isn't getting younger then they're not getting anywhere.

Get Young or Die Trying: Part 1

The game that emerged from the lockout was so vastly different than the decades of hockey that preceded that its impact is still, to this day, shooting ripples out into the conventional hockey wisdom.  The rules changed, the game got faster with a heightened emphasis on skill, and so this new, faster, more artistic game simply left a large portion of its former stars in the dust, and this created a level playing field for rookies who were once muscled, hooked, hacked, slashed and obstructed out of the league.

There has been an absolute explosion of young talent hit the scene, and it gets bigger and more rapid every draft.  This is killing the mature UFA market.  It's a young mans game, and now, we will start to see the average career length shrink because of the influx of rapidly improving young talent pushing for jobs in the NHL.  Some GMs hate it. They loathe signing young stars to contracts that will pay them for what they might accomplish, rather than the old system of overpaying a diminishing asset for the things they have done in their prime. But for the collective hockey brass this should be viewed as a good thing.

Lets use John Tavares's signing this past offseason as an example.  The 6 year, 33 million dollar pact JT inked with the Isles is the kind of contract GMs around the league are loathing because there was a time that Tavares would be destined to make far less than his production on the free market would net him, but now with the gloves off between GMs you can't afford to have a disgruntled young star walk due to a hold-out or offer sheet. Tavares was the consensu #1 pick in the 2009 draft since he forced his way in to the OHL as a 15 year old, ammending the league rule book in the process. Even the Islanders couldn't screw up a pick like Tavares, who hasn't put up Crosby-esque numbers yet, but his supporting casts over his first two seasons makes Sid the Kids ealry Penguin teams look like the Oiler Dynasty.  All Tavares did was lead his team in scoring for each of his first two seasons, and this year he is set to do so again.  What other team has a leading scorer making just 5.5 million/year? What makes this deal even more amazing is that Tavares signed it this past offseason, while he still had this year to pile on points under his original rookie contract which pays him 900,000 plus bonuses.

Think Chuck Fletcher would rather be paying a 21-year-old Tavares 5.5 million for 70 points a year than the 7 million he pays Mikko Koivu for similar production on a better team? How 'bout the Habs? They're paying two players more money annually for worse production than JT. The list goes on and on.

The level of disdain that NHL GMs have for this growing trend is mind boggling, and it borders on agism.  Shouldn't a player be paid what he is worth regardless of age?  If Tavares was free to sign with any team next season you have to think he would be getting offered a lot more money, term and perks than just 5.5 Million. Sure, it takes him to the end of his unrestricted free agency, but he's also bound to the most embarassing franchise in the league until that contract is up.  The Isles are so awful I doubt they'd ever be able to attract a free agent of comparable skill and production level to Tavares for any ammount of money.

Another thing to consider is that a young star signing what is now considered a bigger contract then he would've ten years ago is also a better player than most were at that age ten years ago because of the changes to the game, and, the obvious fact is that as they get older they'll get better, as opposed to expensive free agents in their late 20's or early 30's.  Does Brad Richards look like he's stepped it up a notch in New York this year? How about Marian Gaborik when he landed in NY? Ilya Kovalchuck a better player now in New Jersey than he was as a young goal scoring machine in Atlanta? At the end of Tavares' contract the Islanders will be dying to figure out how they're going to retain his services, unlike most big UFA signings whose employers are going to, more often than not, be trying to trade them, send them to the minors, release them or buy them out.

Having to spend more money on the young stars that deserve it might even save NHL GMs from continuing to repeat the failed pattern of shelling out big bucks for fading stars and ultimately wasting the ownerships money and valuable cap space.

Part 2 coming up shortly.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Islanders at Crossroads

The rumor mill is buzzing with talks of the Islanders floating Kyle Okposo's availability to other NHL GM's, with as many as four having serious interest.  Okposo, the 7th overall pick in the 2006 draft, flirted with 20 goal seasons twice before injuries limited him to only 38 games last season, and now he's off to a horrible start in 2011-12. Listed at 6'0", 210 Lb. Okposo is a strong, powerful skater with undeniable skill, but is he washed-up? Is he just the type of gifted player that only shines in a strong core of top-six forwards? Is he just too injured?

He's not alone on Long Island. The team in general is playing terribly, including Joshua Bailey, another early first round pick from 2008. He's got 3 points in 18 games to start the year and was rumored to be very close to becoming a Canuck last season.

The Islanders have been so bad for so long they've got a long list of first round picks, some not doing too well in the big leagues while some of the more recent ones seem to be destined to turn out, so, it would make sense that there is some merrit to the Bailey and Okposo rumors, and if I'm an Islander fan I sure hop there is.  This team is sitting on a roster of mis-managed prospects with a whole bunch more waiting in line, and what they need to do is bring in some veteran help (or the assets to help them do so) while the Bailey's and Okposo's are still worth something.

GM Garth Snow is sitting on an embarassment of riches, and the team is on the precipice of repeating history as they rush Nino Neiderreiter to the NHL just to be a healthy scratch.  He's got three games under his belt this season - this is not the way to bring along a premiere power forward.

They need to chalk this season up as a loss, let the kids they have mature and put them through a camp to see what they've got.  There's no quick fix for this problem, and hey, they'll atleast get another crop of high picks for tanking yet again. As it stands they've got about three top six forwards, and only one playmaking defenseman, and possibly no goalie, but they have almost enough in house to ice a competitive squad, it will just take time and the careful acquisition of the right complementary players.

So let's look at what's in the pipeline for the Islanders, starting with forwards

Casey Cizikas - C -  starred for Team Canada at the WJC and is doing well in the AHL this year with 12 points through 18 games.  He's looking like a fourth round steal.

Johan Persson -L - The big Swede is cutting his teeth in the WHL and has 27 points in 22 games so far

Brock Nelson - F - The Isle's gambled on Nelson after his draft stock plumetted.  He was supposed to be a top-ten pick in 2010 but Snow and Co., scooped him with the final pick of the first round and he looks to have finally found his game, putting up near a point per game stats in North Dakotah.

Kirill Kabanov - F - The big Russian winger is tearing up the QMJHL and is finally healthy.  His injury problems knocked him to the third round in 2010 but he is showing his skill now that he's healthy.

Anders Lee - C - The product of the USHL may turn out to be the steal of the 2009 draft. He's a 6'3" power centre (think Ryan Getzlaf) and has nearly a goal per game to start the year in Notre Dame. Not bad for a sixth round pick.

Corey Trivino - C - 8 goals in 10 games to start the year at B.U. The former phenom of the OPJHL is finally showing his promise.

David Ullstrom - C - Another power centre, Ullstrom is up with the big club and has shown a verstatile game in the AHL after learning his trade in the Elitserien.

Ryan Strome - C - It's not very often a 100 point centre falls to 5th overall in a draft year but Strome was a gift and he's looking like a good one.

Don't forget about Rhett Rakhshani, Jesse Joenssu, Jason Gregoire and Justin Dibennidetto who were all taken in the past five drafts and seem destined for NHL careers.

Now on the back end

Scott Mayfield - The Mammoth from Missouri is standing tall in his Freshman season with Denver

Andrey Pedan - The next D-man the Isles took after Mayfield, another 6'4" blueliner, this one a Russian plying his trade in the OHL and showing a good bit of offensive upside

Robbie Russo - The third d-man taken by the Isles in 2011 has 6 points in 12 games as a rookie in Notre Dame.

Brenden Kichton - The Isles had one more blueliner on their wish list at the 2011 draft and took Spokane's 80 point d-man in the fifth round.  He's off to another great offensive year.

Calvin de Hann - The second first round selection the Isle's owned in the 2009 draft they used to select the all-around solid de Haan who has 5 points in 14 games with Bridgeport of the AHL.

Anton Klementyev - Already in his third year in the AHL, not flashy but reliable.

Aaron Ness - Small by NHL standards at 5'10" he is producing in the AHL

Matt Donovan - A fourth round pick in 2008, Donovan left Denver after two productive seasons and is now in his second professional season with Bridgeport where he has 7 points in 17 games to start the season.

Mark Katic, Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic are already up with the Isles and have all been taken in the past five drafts.

In a nut shell, it seems like it's due time for succession on Long Island, a great problem to have for Snow.  At a glance I don't see a deeper well of NHL prospects on any of the other 29 NHL teams, and the Isles seem to have improved their drafting capabilities, now they need to develop that talent right and net as much as they can for their current misfits.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


After an uninspired 5 - 2 loss on Broadway to wrap up a six game road trip San Jose Sharks' Captain Joe Thornton said it was a game they should have won and proceeded to critique the Rangers stating: "To be honest with you, they were probably the softest team we played against on this road trip." A roadie that included stops in Boston, Nashville, Detroit, Long Island and New Jersey. Thornton elaborated, "We played some good teams, and I think we probably should have beat these guys, to be honest with you."

I disagree with Thornton, but not in the fact that he did say it but his rankings of teams. New Jersey, Boston and the Islanders are all out of the playoff picture if the season ended today, the Rangers are atleast knocking on the door in 9th with games in hand. Nashville is in 8th in the west but at times have looked awful. I would say the Rangers were more middle of that pack in terms of softness.

I'm not sure if his use of 'soft' meant he felt the Rangers lacked sandpaper but it seems he was implying that overall they were a very beatable team, and what's wrong with coming out and saying that after game?  What's wrong with a team Captain addressing the media and saying, 'Ya, we should've had that one.'? So many other team leaders would've defended their team play that night and pumped the winning teams tires, but not Jumbo Joe, and I applaud him for doing it.

The only problem, as Rangers' Head Coach John Tortorella pointed out today, is that Joe hasn't won anything in the NHL.  That doesn't stop Thornton from addressing a should-be win turned loss but it does set him up for a very easy jab from one of the best verbal sparrers in the game.

Tortorella innitially dismissed the comments but took the opportunity after todays morning skate to shoot back saying, "Joe's a heck of a player, but here's a player popping off about our team and Joe hasn't won a thing in this league. He could go down, as a player, being one of the better players in our league never to win anything. So what he should do is just shut up. It was uncalled for, it was classless, and I've never had it happen like that before."

This war of words could potentially escalate over the next couple days but I expect it to lose mommentum sooner rather than later as these two are from seperate coasts, and that is largely why I feel Joe said it.  He had an opportunity to deflect pressure from his team and put it on himself in a situation that won't be as volatile or long lived if he had, say called out the Ducks, Coyotes, Kings or Stars.  With the exception of a select few NHL hockey players don't typically say things on camera without thinking. Joe also had to know he'd be dealing with a very willing combatent in Tortorella and for his words to resonate they needed a response. Kudos to Joe for taking the weight off his teams shoulders.

This is a Sharks squad that is under tremendous pressure to win now.  They've been on the cusp for years and haven't advanced to the finals despite being eliminated in the third round in each of the past two seasons. GM Doug Wilson had a busy offseason acquiring Martin Havlat and Brent Burns and yet the Sharks have come out of the gate with a modest 6-4-0 start in a tough Pacific Division. Thornton knows the stakes are high and he should be commended for speaking from the heart and giving an honest answer, but, John Tortorella has every right to call him out on his well noted postseason failures, a fact I'm sure Jumbo Joe realizes. The reality is the clock is ticking on his career and the window of opportunity to win in San Jose won't be open forever. Thornton probably relishes the critique from Torts because it's likely not going to happen from within the franchise or his circle of confidants and he might just feel he needs a little extra motivation.

Joe spent last season becoming a better defensive player in his effort to achieve the ultimate goal and now this soft spoken giant is showing the chops to be an emotional leader off the ice. San Jose fans should be happy.