Vacant Office

With Gauthier and Gainey both out the door on Montreal, the search will begin in earnest for the new hand at the helm. If Molson is serious about getting the team to contend again, he almost certainly needs a person who’s crazy enough to want to step into the inferno that is the Montreal daily lot, and experienced enough with building a contender or champion to have a shot at lasting. Dale Talon is probably having too much fun in Florida to consider making a lateral move even if it is to an original six franchise. Jim Nill of the Detroit Red Wings springs to mind as someone who might be a great fit, he’s overseen their prospect development for years and has been part of that organization since before the lockout. While more likely to want to move west than north, Dave Taylor of the St Louis Blues has extensive experience and could be the steady hand that is needed. Another really intriguing choice might be Lorne Henning of the Vancouver Canucks, he’s won Cups as a player and coach.

Back To The Blueline

Joe Corvo having sat out several games as a “banged up but healthy” healthy scratch,  will be back in the lineup for the Boston Bruins tonight. The Washington Capitals will get to face him instead of defensive stalwart Dennis Seidenberg. A cut suffered in a game against the Kings that became infected is to blame. Interestingly Mike Mottau is not going back in. Tim Thomas will man the crease. Assuming a magic number of 95 to clinch a playoff spot in the East this year, the Bruins will nail one down with a win, and the Capitals would need to win to retain any hope with just four additional games remaining

Two Will Do

A look at the schedule of action in the NHL for today will tell you the Los Angeles Kings and Dallas Stars are both hoping for the exact same thing; a two point game between the Coyotes and Sharks. With two points and four regulation or overtime wins separating the four teams, we might not know who lands where until the final game goes into the books. Dallas, having the most in the ROW column has the first tie breaker if there is a points tie between them and another team, but it will be close.

And The Pink Slip Goes To

With Gauthier out the door in Montreal, it looks like open season on general managers is in effect. My guess is there will be three more general managers who get the ax between now and the middle of the playoffs. I suspect one from the southeast division, and possibly two from the Pacific. Almost any others would be a modest surprise, some would be an enormous one.

Tim Thomas has had an interesting season. He opened the season playing behind a team with five players who were showing up skating in front of him. He played well through that. In October he had a less than modest .929 sv%, and then he got better. In November and December his numbers were off the charts, even by his standards. Since he was part of the backslide that will end up costing the team the nearly meaningless President’s Trophy. Faced criticism for how he chose to spend a day off, and had his popularity on Facebook go from modest to major. He’ll probably eclipse 20,000 likes before the playoffs start.

While whispers have floated that he would retire at the end of the season have surfaced, I’m not entirely certain I believe them. Looking at his last three or four games played he looks to be back to something like the form he was in last season. While it’s hard to imagine him simply seeking more material for his hagiography,  it is worth noting that he is six wins from his 200th career regular season win. He’d have to play and win all six of the remaining regular season games to do that. With Marty Turco having played well on the west coast there may not be a need for that. Given how many games he’s already played this season it might even be counter productive.

As of today he sits 4th all time in wins for the Boston Bruins, not a bad accomplishment for a perennially discarded goalie derided as a flopper right up until he won his first Vezina. With 37 wins he would leapfrog the legendary Gerry Cheevers and Frank Brimsek to take sole possession of second all time in wins for the oldest American franchise in the NHL. If healthy there is no reason he couldn’t do that before the end of next season. His best season to date was 36 wins in 54 games. Should he be extended beyond the one season remaining on his contract, the all time wins lead is 59 games away. If he goes through next season as the number one goaltender, and hits the 37 between now and the end of next season needed to move into #2 all time, even taking a fifty fifty split of games the following season that all time wins total would only be 21 wins away.

Going forward the rest of the season, and post season it is unlikely he plays more than four of the remaining six even with only one back to back. Tuukka Rask has yet to resume skating, and even the lower end of the 4-6 week range puts him as back April 5th, the date of the second to last Bruins game of the season. With Turco unable to play in the post season, it will be up to Thomas, and possibly Khudobin and Hutchinson. It would be dismaying to see either of the latter two in a game, barring the ridiculous it’s unlikely even Rask plays this post season. Tim Thomas fearless rider of Boston cabs, will one way or another be among the most talked about players from April 11th until at least the draft.

NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement:

One of the things that might make sense to add into the next CBA is a provision to allow a larger roster from the trade deadline forward and or additional NHL contract.

The argument for the first is that if additional roster players are allowed (under the salary cap)  players who are injured won’t be rushed back at the potential expense to their career or long term health. Assuming the number were two additional players on the roster teams could let new acquisitions, call ups and free agent signings integrate into the system while players who are listed “day to day” or otherwise hoped to be back soon are recuperating. It is also a way for teams to integrate black aces and evaluate players heading into the playoffs for potential post season play and or trades around the draft.

The possibility of adding additional contracts, assuming they will drop back below the ceiling on July 1, allows for the signing of free agents coming out of the CHL, USHL and college. Getting those players into the fold and giving them more time to get grounded in the type of physical fitness expectations a team has can be crucial to fitting them into the system sooner. We’ve all seen the affects of “the rookie wall” or the difficulty many college players have with going from the short college schedule to the 82 game marathon that is the an NHL season is going to make serious inroads into the adjustment period of these players.

NHL Entry Draft

One of the purposes of televising the NHL Entry Draft, and plastering the prospects all over NHL.com is that it’s good marketing to give people a glimpse of the future. So why is it done so erratically, and mostly half-assed? There are a couple prospects blogging for the NHL when there schedule permits which is fantastic. But can someone explain why there are no USHL  or QMJHL players? How about a video blogger? Of all the hundred or so players likely to be taken in the first three rounds, there has to be be at least one in either of those two leagues, who can write intelligibly or who’s engaging enough to be a good vlogger. The NHL needs to remember it is marketing to people across about six or seven decades, the US, Canada (yes even Quebec) and that promoting any of its development leages is good for both parties.

NHL Playoff Official Infractions

Last year the official infraction of the NHL playoffs was “too many men”. I think we were treated to more too many men calls in the first round of the playoffs last year than we saw in the entire regular season, the second round didn’t provide any let up. Judging by all the noise being made in the wake of the latest GM meetings, it looks like its set for a reprise of the leading role that made it a household name last year.  It also looks like it’ll be sharing the marquee with the always entertaining goaltender interference.

Given that these are possibly the two most inconsistently called rules in the book I predict a great deal of teeth gnashing, swearing and wrath, Social media will doubtless be awash in a deluge of reactions to each call. Goaltender interference has gotten so muddied that when the Anaheim Ducks had a goal disallowed against the Boston Bruins in their most recent matchup Bruins fans were described the call as something organic and odoriferous. In common parlance when the average homer fan shows disgust for calls that go their teams way “a bad thing” for NHL officiating.  By the letter of the rule it was the right call, but the rule is largely ignored, and called for things so widely scattered even knowing the rule doesn’t help anyone figure out what should and shouldn’t be an infraction.

This is a feature that will run about every two weeks with improbable stats and situations in the National Hockey League.

Teams:

  • The Saint Louis Blues would be the first team to 100 points
  • the New York Rangers would be first in the NHL in points with the 29th ranked powerplay
  • the Pacific Division team (The Los Angeles Kings) with the best goals differential, would also be the team in the division with the least goals scored
  • the Florida Panthers would have a winning road record at 16-15-5 and the Detroit Red Wings would at 16-20-3 would not
  • the NHL’s best powerplay would be owned by the Nashville Predators
  • only eight teams would have a winning record in the shootout
  • one team the Carolina Hurricanes would be winless in that gimmick
  • the Nashville Predators would lead the league in wins when giving up more shots than their opponent with 28
  • the Boston Bruins would have the best winning percentage when being outshot by their opponent at .690%
  • the ‘clean’ playing Vancouver Canucks would have spent the 6th most time killing penalties on the season

Players:

  • Rookie defenseman Jared Cowen would be two hits away form 200 hundred on the season and have more than 70 blocked shots
  • Chris Kelly would enter the stretch run with more PIMS than Matt Cooke
  • Rene Bourque would be suspended more than Raffi Torres
  • Alex Ovechkin would enter the last two weeks of the season with less points than Blake Wheeler
  • John Tavares and Phil Kessel would both be in the top ten in scoring and on non playoff teams
  • Ray Whitney would lead the entire Pacific Division in scoring at 39 years old
  • of the top 10 scoring defensemen Erik Karlsson would be one of only two with more than 55% offensive zone starts
  • with two weeks left in the regular season no one would be sure if there would be three 40 goal scorers this season
  • after back to back Art Ross wins neither Daniel Sedin nor Henrik Sedin would be in the top ten in the NHL for scoring

The Boston Bruins 7th Player Award is one of those awards that is so hard to judge. If you look at any given to week span of the marathon you could award it to a good dozen players in a deep team. Other years you wonder if anyone deserves it. This year is another hard year to judge. Many players have been what they are expected to be. Some have been better for parts of the year, and at or below expectations the rest. Some of been good but not way over expectations.

My criteria:

  • Player has to consistently do what they are expected to do.
  • What they do outside that role has to be positive and fairly consistent.
  • Must play Bruins hockey.
  • Exceed at least a third of the other players at that position, minimum.

Off the top of the list we have the positively eliminated:

  • Patrice Bergeron he’s the team MVP, which isn’t what the 7th player award is.
  • Zdeno Chara, has been up and down this year, but still worth every bit of his pay.
  • Brad Marchand, he came in and has handily exceeded last years numbers, not hugely but done slightly more than expected.

The negatively eliminated:

  • Tyler Seguin, hot and cold, hot and cold, hot and cold…
  • David Krejci, see above.
  • Joe Corvo, ah no. No ones expectations were that low.
  • Benoit Pouliot, his numbers are worse than last year when he was with the Habs.

If we toss out the goalies who most Bruins fans seem to think are guilty of something north of murder and not quite as bad a child molestation or not liking hockey if they let in two goals in a night we are left with a small pool of guys who have performed about to expectations or above.

  • Chris Kelly is playing 30 seconds less shorthanded time than last year, but has had an uptick in offense and faceoffs, but he’s been quite hot and cold offensively.
  • Dennis Seidenberg is an interesting choice too, he’s playing more ice time than last year, has tripled his +/- despite not playing much of the year with Chara.
  • Shawn Thornton would be all sorts of fun to give the award to, he’s having his second best career offensive season, had that truly filthy shorthanded goal, and has earned his PIMS with 19 fighting majors and better kept his peace when getting egregiously bad calls against him.

In truth either of those three would be a more than acceptable winner. At one point it looked like Chris Kelly was going to run away with the award. He leveled off a bit when Rich Peverley went out, but has picked up lately with the addition of Brian Rolston. If you ignore October and the first week or so of November Lucic has been stellar this season, playing as a one man line more nights than are fair to him but it is unlikely he hits 30 goals again this season. Which leaves just one man clearly worthy of the 7th Player Award.

Andrew Ference. Despite missing ten games with an injury he’s exceeded his best offensive year as a member of the Boston Bruins by 25%, with games left to play. He’s been as solid as we could hope for defensively. He’s increased his shorthanded time on ice, over last year and has brought the fast, physical game we’ve always expected of him. On and off the ice he’s a contributor.

We’re in that last sprint to the playoffs where will is even more important than skill and organization depth and a little luck can pay off like no other time before the sweet sixteen square off for battle. The bubble teams are the most exciting story this time of year.

If the LA Kings:

  • Are in, it’s because they remembered how to score for another two weeks.
  • Are out, it’s because that shameful reprobate Quick didn’t shut people out and score too.

If the Washington Capitals

  • Are in, its because they finally did more than just listen to a good coach and use their talents.
  • Are out, its because they deserve it. They should have challenged for the Presidents Trophy this season, not a lottery pick.

If the Buffalo Sabres

  • Are in, it will because miracles do exist. This team had everything go wrong this season.
  • Are out, because they had everything go wrong and that’s a lot to overcome…and other teams will sleep easier if they miss the 2nd season.

If the Chicago Blackhawks

  • Are in, it will because the rest of the defense stood up and played like men in Keith’s absence.
  • Are out, goaltending that ranged from godawful to erratically average all season long.

If the Phoenix Coyotes

  • Are in, Mike Smith, Ray Whitney.
  • Are out, lack of depth…a common problem in the division.

If the Dallas Stars

  • Are in, its because they got it done in regulation more often.
  • Are out, puck possession is a weakness, 21st in faceoff percentage, three more won faceoffs per game could have had a big impact.

If the Winnipeg Jets

  • Are in, its because the team dragged themselves in on pure will power.
  • Are out, blame leadership who chose not to bolster the roster at any point in the year.

If the Senators

  • Are in, it will be because someone was taking care of defense for “the greatest defenseman of all time”.
  • Are out, obviously it will be because Nikita Filatov was wasted in the KHL and AHL instead of being on the first line.

If the San Jose Sharks

  • Are in, they can thank coherent play and contributions up and down the lineup.
  • Are out, its because their window has closed.

One of the most surprising things about the NHL is how little it does to effectively give itself long terms stability in terms of fan attention. I’ve discussed once or twice or maybe, just maybe quite a few times, some of the NHL’s marketing failures opportunities for improvement. One of the ways that other industries do this is with their award shows.

The hype heading into the award shows from the announcements to reissuing of books, movies and myriad merchandise with award logos for both winners and nominees remind even the least interested that a given actor, writer, or musician is worth noting. The NHL Awards show is far less horrible than its equivalents. In fact it is probably the best produced NHL event of the year. Sure, the quest for ever more vanilla performing acts and positively whitebread presenters takes it down a notch, but it is at least interesting.

The current awards are mostly decided well in advance of the award show and handing them out is a mere formality. Figuring out who won the scoring race isn’t that hard. The Jennings Trophy only requires knowing what it’s awarded for. The others are drawn from a very small pool of players who are known before training camp even starts.

Currently the only two awards that have serious questions surrounding them by Thanksgiving (American or Canadian, take your pick) are the Jack Adams for best coach and the Calder Trophy for best rookie. While I have my favorites for each (See Southeast division for the first, and either the Atlantic or Northwest for the second) you can debate the merits of them and what each individuals impact was. The arguments for Hitchcock as this years Jack Adams can be made quite strong, and you can still give the Calder to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but neither would be my choice.

More importantly neither award possesses much panache or widespread appeal, and even rookies as celebrated as Nugent-Hopkins, Hall or Stamkos might not sustain the public attention long.  A look at the list of recent winners includes Steve Mason, Andrew Raycroft, Tyler Myers, and Barrett Jackman who have been at best average since, and again the focus for the them is no more than six players by the All Star game at the very latest.

An award for an emerging star might however captivate widespread attention. It wouldn’t need to be the most important player on a given team, or even the most valuable at a given position in a year, just someone who’s made their team better and had a much larger impact that previous years. This year alone without even stretching the definition you’d have nominees in Ray Whitney and Mike Smith of the Coyotes, Blake Wheeler of the Jets, Jamie Benn of the Stars, Justin Faulk of the Carolina Hurricanes, Ryan O’Reilly of the Avalanche, and half a dozen others. Getting these players and their teams the additional attention of frequent speculation for the award or the win itself can’t hurt the teams revenue. It would undoubtedly lead to more ticket sales in the attendance challenged markets, more merchandise sales in any market, and greater league revenue as hole.

With the playoffs oh-so-tantalizingly-close for some teams, and out of reach of many, here’s a few story lines to keep yourself busy while you wait for the second season.

  1. What franchise most needs to be blown up if they get anything less than the Cup? The Washington Capitals, San Jose Sharks? Or maybe its a near the top team like the Canucks who would be falling short again, how about the Wild?
  2. Which team likely to finish in a 6, 7, 8 spot is most likely to score a first round upset? In the east the Senators are playing well in front of Bishop and Anderson will be back soon. The Washington Capitals Ovechkin is warming up again, and Backstrom is skating again. Out west as tight as the Pacific division is, any 3-6  is likely to be an even closer matchup than the 4vs5 spot.
  3. The two most deserving candidates for two top awards are likely to get screwed, how many will end up voting against Kovalchuk for Hart and just as bewilderingly for anyone other than Dineen for Jack Adams?
  4. Will we see a suspension for anyone on a team jockeying for playoff position? We know the #NHLWheelOfJustice works in mysterious ways, will it take away the chance for a troubled franchise to rake in a few extra dollars by suspending a star?
  5. Can anyone catch the St Louis Blues in the race for the President’s Trophy?
  6. Will the Red Wings spiral continue once the playoffs start?
  7. Having finally matched the career best he set when he was in Boston of 36 goals, can Phil Kessel actually hit the 40 people have sworn up and down he was good for?

The dividing line between the upper echelon of the NHL’s forwards in terms of pay and the merely competent is always sliding upwards. Right now the line is slipping from the five million mark upwards. Without knowing what the next CBA will look like, much less the next two or three annual caps we’ll take a look at the league and who’s earning about twice the leagues average salary or more.

In the Northeast division, there are this year or next only a handful at this salary or more. The Montreal Canadiens have three on the list, Scott Gomez, Thomas Plekanec, and Brian Gionta, combining for a cap hit of $17,357,143. The Ottawa Senators have just Jason Spezza making north of five million, and he’s got making a cool seven million with a no trade clause. The second highest paid forward in the division is Thomas Vanek, who along with Pominville are over the threshold for the Sabres. Boston boasts Patrice Bergeron, Brian Rolston and David Krejci. The Maple Leafs lay claim to Mikhail Grabosi and Phil Kessel.

A brief look at the disposable:

  • Gomez is a punchline. He appears to be liked by his teammates, but with 38 points in the 2010-11 season, and a boatload of missed games in the 2011-12 season that’s allowed him to put up 11 points in 38 games, he’s not in anyway living up to his contract. While it’s true no one forced the Rangers to sign him to the contract or the Canadiens to trade for him, he’s unlikely to see another contract worth north of $2million anywhere in the NHL when his deal expires in two more seasons. He’ll be 34 by then and can retire if he chooses having suffered through his $51,000,000 seven year contract.
  • Phil Kessel is exactly the player he was at the end of his second season. He’s a one dimensional goal scorer who disappears for weeks at a time. He shows up and blows the doors off the league working hard for October, showing interest in November and then might as well not exist the rest of the season. He’s shut down on a regular basis by smart defense regardless of it is the top pairing or the third against him. He “didn’t want to be traded” from Boston, and landed in Toronto to the tune of $5,400,000 a year and frequent “Thank You Kessel!” chants. If he did any thing other than score or at least did it consistently all year he’d be an elite player, as it is his contract is dead money December 1st onward.
  • Brian Rolston, while part of his issue is simply not fitting into the plan and system on Long Island, his age has more than a small part in it. It’s highly unlikely he’ll be in the NHL in two years, and how much he plays from now until the end of the season in Boston depends on how fast Horton and Peverley work their way back into the lineup.

 

The interesting:

  • David Krejci is nearly a mercurial as Phil Kessel. He shows up willy-nilly, sometimes for a game, other times for a week or even a month. Then like responsible government he becomes a myth for days, weeks and months at a time. His saving grace is that even if he’s not particularly physical he’s willing to hit, take a hit to make a play and can be counted on not to make reasonable efforts defensively when engaged.  Next year the soon to be 26 year old becomes the highest paid Boston Bruins forward with a cap hit of $5.25m.
  • Brian Gionta may be proof that going from the Atlantic division to the Canadiens is a bad career move. No one would bat an eyelash at the numbers he put up for the Devils and his current contract. Unfortunately when your production drops about 20 percent people tend to notice. Not a complete waste of a contract, but possibly they are putting him on the ice too much. His last year in New Jersey he played about four minutes less per game and produced twenty percent more points, including picking up shorthanded points. Nineteen and a half minutes a night is a lot for any forward. At an even $5m he’s worth watching to see what happens if and when a new coach takes over, especially if the team drafts a high end forward like Filip Forsberg or Alex Galchenyuk who might make the immediate jump to the NHL.
  • Thomas Vanek is another curious case. The last three seasons have seen his numbers spiral. Even if you throw this season where the Buffalo Sabres had more injuries than can be counted out, the last two years are still wanting. He’s got a ton of ability, but is very, very streaky. Realistically he hasn’t much support around him in recent years, and that will drag any one down. But after two 40+ goal seasons, more is needed. Maybe if he’s paired with skilled import Hodgson he’ll revitalize himself.

The cream:

  • Jason Spezza for all the negative press he’s earned over the years is still a very highly skilled center working around the fact he’s been marooned on a team with little NHL talent for the last several seasons. Hometown All Star appearance aside, with one more goal he’ll be the least heralded 30 goal man in the NHL. He’s won almost 54% of his faceoffs this season, won over 56% last season and is over a point per game this season while spending a lot of time on lines with guys you probably can’t name. The Ottawa Senators star center is on the books for $7m a year with a no NTC>
  • Patrice Bergeron in any reasonable version of the universe Bergeron would probably own at least two Selkie trophies. That could finally be addressed this season.  He wins faceoffs, is arguably eclipsed defensively only by Norris trophy winner Zdeno Chara on the Boston Bruins. He’s a former 30 goal scorer who has not often been gifted in terms of his linemates offensive abilities and despite that he’s 6th in total points for the fabled 2003 draft, just 6 points behind Zach Parise, and ahead of a number of big names taken ahead of him like Richards, Carter, Kesler, Eriksson, and Brown among others. He’s taking home $5m with a no movement clause.
  • Thomas Plekanec is living the post Thornton pre-Savard era of Patrice Bergeron’s career in Montreal. There’s very little offensive help and he’s spending entirely too much time on the ice. With almost 21 minutes a night of ice time sucking down his reserves his production would plummet even if there were someone to pass the puck too. More than three of those minutes are spent standing in front of slapshots as he plays and produces points short handed. If I’m going to point to a guy in the league currently “under producing” and say it’s the system or team, it’ him. The $5m and ntc are about what he deserves simply for taking the mess the team is quietly.
  • Mikhail Grabovksi is the newest member of the club. If I were taking over the general managers job in Toronto, immediately after scheduling weekly time with a therapist, I’d put him officially on the teams “untouchable” list. Much like Plekanec or Bergeron he’s a gamer. He shows up ready to play and play hard. He may or may not prove to be as offensively gifted as some of the other players on the list, but he doesn’t take nights off and he brings his game no matter how bad the teams situation is.