This past season was interesting. With the compressed schedule it is hard to keep track of all 30 teams, or even just three or four. There were however been a few noticeable things that have crept into regular appearances in games league wide.

The first is plain and simple stupid that creeps into the play of otherwise sensible players. There is no other way to describe Volchenkov’s suspend-able hit on Brad Marchand. Volchenkov will play his 600th NHL game sometime early next season, he handily dishes out over 100 and often close to 200 hits a season, and yet has just 404 minutes in penalties in his career including the five he was assessed for trying to crack open Brad Marchand’s skull.

The second thing about this season that isn’t surprising, is the absolute collapse of good teams late in games. This season saw numerous games turn around completely not because one team got early bounces and the other got later game bounces, but based on who had played and traveled the least in the past week. If the NHL really wants to be the worlds top skill league, another lockout will damage that as much by talent bleed to the KHL and SHL as by turning in a season of supremely ugly hockey. The third period of games across the NHL were purely ugly this year, it didn’t matter if it was the eventual champions in Chicago, the slick skating Carolina Hurricanes, the lionhearted Columbus Blue Jackets or one of the leagues lottery teams.

Perhaps the biggest thing to suffer in the NHL this season was the officiating. Consistency didn’t exist call to call much less period to period or game to game. In a lifetime of watching the NHL,  can honestly say I’ve never seen the leagues officiating at such a low water mark. The only comparable for NHL Officials this season would be the NFL’s replacement referees, and it probably does the NFL scabs a disservice. Interference calls that were made on a regular basis the first three weeks of the season were weeks dead at the trade deadline. All season long you had as much chance of nailing jelly to the wall as pinning down exactly what was and wasn’t goaltending interference. Some games you could get away with what looked like full stride charges into the crease from the faceoff dot, other games getting pushed into the opposing goalie by their teammate would land you in the sin bin for two minutes.

None of these defects is something you want to sell the game to new fans. Bad hockey, isn’t endearing to existing fans. As the league prepares for its near inevitable expansion, these things have to be addressed. When the NHL sets up it tent in new cities, it needs not just the national sponsors who can be sold on the sexy numbers of big markets and 32 or more major markets, but the local business communities wherever the new franchises land. Why should an advertiser spend millions of dollars to advertise in an arena that isn’t going to see many ticket sales because the product is uncertain, and the market as of yet has no loyalty to it?  There are very few major corporations that don’t pay attention to who they are tying their name to, the recession that has gripped North America and much of the world has weeded out many of those who didn’t. The bottom line is that advertising decisions are made by people, the best people to have making those crucial choices for the NHL and its franchises are fans.

This series will cover all thirty teams and go over the most important player, and player who’s performance most needs to improve to help the team succeed.

Who could have predicted last seasons New Jersey Devils results? Not me. Just about everyone had them listed as a top five team in the NHL. This season is the expected redemption. I’m not sure how I’ll replace my ilya Vs the Rookies campaign if they come out swinging this season but I’m sure some other team will have a slow, painful public death and possibly it won’t be an attempt at Steve Jobs like martyrdom.

 

High Card:

Entering last season you could have your choice of who to put here, Kovalchuk, Brodeur, Parise, Volchenkov it almost didn’t matter.  This year Zach Parise has to provide the drive to turn the page on last season. It won’t be easy given the amount of turnover on the team and the lingering questions about the clubs future in the owners box, the goal crease and on the blueline but he’s the captain, the fan favoite and one of the few players free from the shame of last seasons dismal performence.

Wild Card:

When you’re a sure first ballot hall of famer a bad season is a surprise, a massive disappointment, and unlikely to cost you your job, even if it turns into a second season. Even factoring in injuries, unfamiliar bodies on the blueline and the fatigue of having played in the Olympics the previous year the question of how much of Brodeur’s wilting last season was simply age. He enters this season at thirty-nine with 1132 regular season and 181 post season NHL games under his belt. For comparison Tim Thomas and Dwayne Roloson between them have 978 combined regular and post season games.  If he comes back next season will depend on a lot of factors, and that’s another one of the questions surrounding the guy who has spent nearly 80,000 minutes between the pipes for the New Jersey Devils.

With perhaps the most complete team in the NHL, and a team anyone who knows anything about the NHL, penciled inked into the top five teams in the league back in September, one must wonder how we all got it so, so wrong.

Is it Marty? Is Sean Avery’s favorite goalie melting down faster than Mel Gibson? While it’s true that his .901 SV% is not just the lowest of any full season in his career, but is well below his .914 average, and his 2.74 GAA is .40 higher than his career average, he’s not the only goalie who has flown high who is now looking up at the pack. Hiller, Khababulin, Kiprusoff and Anderson all have a worse GAA than Broduer. His SV% is exactly what Jeff Deslauriers finished last season with. True, we’re a mere seventeen games into Broduers season, and we don’t really expect the guy at the top of the goalie stats to stay there, so maybe, MB30 will climb back into familiar territory.

Is it Ilya Kovalchuk? The $100,000,000.00 man is also, hands down having the worst season of his career. In twenty five games this year, he’s got a line of 5-6-11 -15, after his arrival in New Jersey last year he played twenty seven games and had a line of 10-17-27 +9. In his career he’s averaged 3.65 shots on goal per game. This season, the Tver Russia native is down to 2.96 shots per game.

What about Langenbrunner? The 35 year old team Captain is on pace for just 11 goals, not surprisingly this would be the least goals he’s scored since the lockout. In fact to find a goal total lower than that you have to go back all the way to 2003-4 season where he scored just to in 53 games.  He’s also got the worst plus minus of his career a -12, of the teams forwards only Kovalchuck is worse. This is a shocking development in a guy who last year was a plus six, and the year before was a +25 to go along with a career +60.

What about the defense you say? Well, that’s just ugly. As if Broduer’s slippage wasn’t enough, bearing in mind that he’s played just half their games, and has more shutouts and a better GAA than either man to substitute for him, it isn’t terribly surprising to learn that the Devils have allowed a sixth worst 2.96 GAA on the season.  Even allowing for the turnover, and better goalie play in Boston this year as a team they went from 2.27 GAA defense to 2.96 seemingly overnight.

At least the offense is pitching in right? Um, if by pitching in you mean contributing to their chances of taking the first overall pick in the upcoming NHL entry draft, you’d be right. As of today, they have a 1.78 GF/G average, lower than 29th place by about a third of a goal per game.

Has anyone been injured? At this point it is probably just as sensible to ask who hasn’t been injured. Of the 29 skaters to suit up for the Devils this season, in just 27 games, only seven have played all 27 games. Among those to miss time are defensive defenseman Anton Volchenkov, Langenbrunner, Parise, Fraser, Rolston. When you consider that Volchnkov was brought into be their defensive workhorse and is tied for the team lead +/- with a +2, you have to wonder how much less bad the team would be had he been on the ice all season. Not to be overlooked is that the Devils have played nine rookies to date this season.

If all those things are so bad sure it’s gotta be the coach! Ah, well maybe not. True John MacLean‘s a first year coach who’s only previous head coaching experience was as head coach of the New Jersey Devils AHL affiliate. It’s interesting to note that the then Lowell and now Albany Devils had both their longest losing streak, and their best points total in his season as head coach. One factor working against the coach is how different his style is from both the previous coach of the Devils, and that of the coaches of the off season and trade deadline acquisitions not to mention rookies making the double adjustment of new team and minor or amateur ranks to the NHL.

With all these factors playing a part of the huge equation that is the success, or lack their of, of a NHL team, there is one huge integer, or possibly exponent that I’ve not seen covered anywhere.  Buried under all these injuries, and worst seasons ever, and first seasons ever is the fact that there has been a lot of turnover not just on the roster, but in team philosophy.  Since the year started about half the roster has turned over, much of it on defense. On top of that there has been a redefining of roles among the forwards and team as a whole.

Prior to this season, when all else failed, when the opposition beat five skates dead to rights and came to the crease with blood in their eye, Martin Broduer could be counted on to stonewall them at a ridiculous rate. Before this spring Zach Parise as the guy who scored goals when you needed them. Langenbrunner was the leader. Zajac was the well rounded forward who did what was asked in all three zones. With the acquisition of Kovalchuk before the trade deadline, you get a guy who was team captain for years, has had a better goal scoring career than any of his new teammates, and who knew his job was to get open and bury the puck. That’s it, two jobs, no backchecking, no looking off the defense with a pass to someone else who owned a legitimate scoring shot, no plays drawn up on the board that didn’t feature use as the primary weapon in the powerplay.

As respected as Zajac, Parise, and Langenbrunner were, none of them has ever been a superstar. If they had been the face of the Atlanta Thrashers in Kovalchuks place, the team would have been packed off to Winnepeg, Quebec City, Ontario or parts unknown years ago (assuming the ownership group could agree on the color of money) and they’d probably have been scapegoated. MB30 has been the face of the New Jersey Devils, even he is overshadowed by Kovalchuk. Number 17 even has his own feud going with Elisha Cuthbert’s most pesky ex. When you look at the top performers in the NHL, every single one of them, regardless of their position knows the style of play expected of them, and where they are supposed to be on the ice and what they are supposed to be doing there. Draw up any play, in any situation you like, abduct Mike Babcock and staff from behind the Red Wings bench, and I’ll bet you Oprah-bucks that Lidstrom, Rafalski, Datsuyk, all know which X is them without anyone saying a word. Hop on I-94, rinse and repeat with Toews, and Keith and get the same result.

While it’s certainly not the only problem, I think giving the team time to settle into place after the roster and religious upheaval of the last season or so is only reasonable. Take a look at last seasons Montreal Canadiens, everyone laughed themselves sick at the assembly of Smurfs and the no-name defense lolling passively along behind them. Now (years too late for some) the entire NHL knows their names.

Back on June 2, I tossed the gauntlet out at the hockey blogging world.  Create a team off the UFA list, pick the first players to resign, keep it under the cap for next year, and keep the deals realistic. In other words no 65 year deals for a certain Russian winger. And no $200,000,000 payrolls.

So here we go.

1st Domino:

Defenseman:

Anton Volchenkov. I just can’t see him making it long if his demands are at all reasonable with the number of teams that need a strong defensive defenseman.

Forward:

Matthew Lombardi, too many teams from the Flames to the Wild and the Canes need a good center right now.

Goal:

This is the pick i have the least confidence in, but I’m picking Dan Ellis.

Team UFA $57.4m All dollar figures in millions, $.400 would be $400,000

F

I. Kovulchuk $8.8m M. Lombardi $2.75m  B. Guerin $2.5

A. Frolov $4.25    M. Cullen $2.9  R.Torres $2.8

A. Ponikarovsky $2.8  K. Wellwood $1.5m C. Armstrong $2.5

M Satan $1  G. Metropolit $1.5  E. Artyukhin $1m

J Shelley $.800

35,100,000

Defense:

A Volchenkov 4.2m  D. Morris 3.5M

J. Leopold 3.2m   D. Hamuis 3.7m

A. Lilja 1.85m    S. Hnidy .850

T. Conboy .750

18,050,000

G:

D. Ellis 2.5M

M. Biron 1.75

4.25

Part 3 Worst Contract:

Ordinarily one could just flip a coin and insert the Rangers or the Canadiens, but since both are so cash strapped I’m going to go with a team desperate to make the playoffs.

The Panthers.

Part four Where’s Ilya:

Since this is my pick to make the Western Finals this season, with or without him and they have  a good chunk of cap space available too, I’m going with the sexy pick:

The LA Kings.

If you’re gonna take part, remember I need to get a link to your post tweeted or emailed to me by noon ET on June 30.

Follow this conversation on twitter with #nhlufachallenge