When the NHL announced they would be changing to the current playoff format, I honestly loved it. You’re going to get the best teams, and you’re going to have more teams fighting for their playoff life right down to the wire, frequently right down to the last shot, the last save, the last goal of the season. There is a lot to be said for eliminating the two softest divisions the old Southeast and worse the old Northwest divisions were terrible. There was bad hockey, and the owners were allowed to coast and knew they had a really solid chance of making the playoffs each year just for hitting the salary cap floor.

The six division format with thirty teams just made hockey worse. It was sloppy, there were teams that went half a decade without even backing into the playoffs. You were really only competing with four teams each year. This allowed the Sedin twins to skitter into the playoffs most of their career in a division that was rarely represented in the post season by more than one team. Because teams weren’t competing against more than a fistful of teams you saw the results everywhere. The Thrashers or other southeast teams could make the playoffs with ten less points than the third place team in other divisions, much less the winners of the other five. You saw it on the ice in teams that were bottom feeders every year having guys start fights not over a dirty play, but so that guys who knew the game was meaningless might wake up and pay attention.

The current playoff format, and divisional alignment changes a lot of that. But it got one thing wrong, this year it is manifesting in the east.

Take a look at the current matchups if the playoffs started today:

NHL.com image of playoff matchups as of 4/1/17

The west is currently aligned to give the highest level of appeal as all the teams are facing a divisional rival. Sure it’d be fun to see a Ducks vs Sharks and Oilers vs Flames matchups to open the playoffs, but there’s the potential for one of those to happen in the second round. In the east on the other hand, things are a mess. Sure, the Canadiens and Rangers are rivals in the sense that they’ve been around a very long time and had a few grimy matchups. Certainly the teams dislike each other more than they do at least half the rest of the league. Likewise, the Bruins and Capitals have had some fun, exciting and occasionally brutal games.

But is there anyone, anywhere who knows even a little about those four cities and hockey who thinks ratings wouldn’t be higher if Boston and New York were playing within their division? Even the pinkest of pinkhats knows the Bruins and Habs have an enormous rivalry. If you want to back to the early years of the rivalry, the Patrick Division playoff battles between the Rangers and Caps were fierce, but even more recently Washington has been bounced from the playoffs in three straight series by the blue shirts.

Here’s the fix:

  • In years in which the two wild card slots are filled by a team from each division there shall be no cross over.

 

 

The off season has barely begun, and yet we’re under a year from Brent Burns becoming an unrestricted free agent. While he has easily had the best years of his career from a production standpoint in San Jose the team hasn’t won anything, and is unlikely to be better two years from now than it was this spring. Burns may well decide to move on, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing for him.

If you look at the team you have two players from the 1996 draft who have never won, and are nearing the end of their careers. Joe Thornton is a far better competitor than people give him credit for, and he was a point a game in the regular season last year. But at 36 years old that almost has to be counted as a fluke given that it was his best production since the 2009-10 season. Perhaps even more gratifying for fans of the future hall of famer is that Thornton stayed very nearly at that pace through the playoffs. Patrick Marleau will be 37 when hockey starts up this fall. His production numbers have been sliding for years, and it is very unlikely he’s anything but a 3rd line winger and maybe powerplay specialist in two years, assuming he is still playing.

That leaves the teams other stars, and Brent Burns should he decide to stay, as the team’s foundation. Logan Couture proved he lives up to the hype by being productive all through the playoffs and into the Stanley Cup Finals. Then there’s the newly minted 33 year old Joe Pavelski, who aside from sensational faceoff prowess in the finals was a no show. One point in six games. Is he going to be better and more productive at 35 and 37 in the playoffs than he is now?

If you go further down the roster to guys who can be expected to be around in two years, you get Joonas Donskoi and Tomas Hertl, two young forwards with a lot of upside who haven’t yet peaked. But no one sees these two as franchise cornerstones the way Thornton and Marleau were viewed, or even at the level of Couture and Pavelski.

So maybe Brent Burns does what is in his own best interest and moves on. Perhaps the best model for him to follow would be the one Marian Hossa used several years ago. Like Burns he was in his prime and he and the Atlanta Thrashers weren’t going to get a deal done. He was traded to a contender for some serviceable players, picks, and prospects. Then the next year he signed with a different contender before finding his long term home in Chicago.

It’s hard to imagine any team not throwing a bid at his agent if Burns does hit free agency. In all likelihood, his rights even as late as the draft next year would fetch a respectable return. We know when he moved from Minnesota to California he had to give up his herptoculture, maybe he wants to take it up again, or play for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs. Perhaps he thinks together him and Ovechkin can raise the Cup. Whatever he decides, there are a lot of reasons not to stay in San Jose.

Gary Lawless and other have decided that the Winnipeg Jets most recognizable defenseman, an All Star, Stanley Cup champion, and Olympian is just not good enough.

When you compare him to some of the defenseman who make a similar amount of money, you can see where some complaints about his defensive struggles can creep in.

  • Brent Seabrook is a consummate defensive defenseman often overlooked because he plays in Duncan Keith’s shadow.
  • Ryan McDonagh is quickly becoming one of the best known defensemen in the entire NHL. Part of that is playing for the New York Rangers, part of it is that he’s just that good.
  • Kevin Bieksa has some deficiencies, but has never been the focus of his team, he’s above average but not elite.

And then there are the players who make about the same who are not notably better than Byfuglien, and likely worse, or at least with questionable consistency and or frequent health issues.

  • Dennis Wideman, known for bobbling pucks at the blueline, and that’s perhaps the most noticeable consistency in his game, it should also be noted that no team with Wideman on it has ever made it out of the second round of the NHL playoffs.
  • Keith Yandle, probably the most comparable in on ice production. The biggest difference between the two is Yandle plays in a highly defensive system where there are several high end defensive forwards and good goaltending.
  • Paul Martin of the Pittsburgh Penguins would be lucky to named in the first ten by anyone not reading off the teams roster, and despite playing in front of a goalie with better stats than Big Buff, he’s got an on ice SV% that’s actually further below the #1 goalies Sv%.
  • Nicklas Kronwall is a bit better defensively, and again playing in front of better goaltending, but offensively? He’s played about 60 more games than the Jets blueliner, but has about half the goals.

No one burdened with glorious clue has ever called Dustin Byfuglien the best defenseman in the NHL. He is however one of he most recognizable due to his size, melanin level, skating ability and offensive prowess. He’s also hands down the most recognizable player on Winnipeg Jets. The same way people you used to say Joe Thornton could or should do more during the Boston Bruins 2000-01 season, there are upper ceilings on everyone’s talent and more importantly the fact that good player, great player or elite player they can only be in one place on the ice.

In the entire history of the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets franchise, the team has never had any real depth. Their top six forwards after one and two, or very occasionally three have been a toss up. The top four in defense has largely been a matter of who had the endurance to play 22 or 26 minutes minutes and who didn’t. While Byfuglien can undoubtedly play better (possibly moving to right wing) he’s not the worst defenseman in the league, or even the worst in his pay bracket.  Whatever is wrong with Byfuglien’s play, and it does certainly have issues, Byfuglien isn’t even in the top 5 problems for the Winnipeg Jets.

This is an occasional feature that will take a look at multiple issues, each in 100 words or less.

Chicago Blackhawks Captain, keystone, and bubbly play maker*, is slightly dinged up with the highly contagious “lower body injury“. Please remember to wash your hands after interviewing.

 

One of the Dallas Stars summer reinforcements is going to be down-checked for almost a month. Rich Peverley, former Boston Bruin, Atlanta Thrasher, and Nashville Predator had surgery to repair a heart condition. The former St. Lawrence Saint came over with Tyler Seguin as part of the effort to establish depth at center.

 

The war is over now, and Alex Pietrangelo is signed to a new seven year deal with the Saint Louis Blues. Capgeek lists his hit at $6.5m per year, and that gives the Blues the 9th highest payroll in the NHL, with six teams still having to make moves to bring them under the cap by opening night.

 

Darryl Sutter was understood to utter the word “awesome” at the Los Angeles Kings training camp. He says this years camp has guys playing for jobs. With at least four forwards, and two defensemen who saw light if any use during the post season last year, we expect the competition to be awesome.

 

Also caught by the dastardly “lower body injury” is Nashville Predators goaltender prospect Magnus Hellberg. Viktor Stalberg is said to being fitting in great after one training camp practice by Barry Trotz who will no doubt be shamed into upping the superlative compete level when he hears what Darryl Sutter said.

 

*One or more of these may require additional verification.

This is an occasional feature that will take a look at multiple issues, each in 100 words or less.

Blake Wheeler’s new contract with the Jets makes him the teams highest paid forward. Overall, this isn’t a bad deal. Its the first major deal under the new CBA for the team, and Wheeler has over the last two seasons put up good numbers, and stayed healthy. The soon to be 27 year old has missed just five games in his five seasons. With the Cap likely going up again in 2014-15, the only real question is will Wheelers recent roll in scoring keep turning into the post season (should the Jets ever get there).

Billy Jaffe the busiest man in hockey broadcast took time out to coach Team USA at the Maccabiah tournament in Israel. After smooth sailing in the preliminary rounds the boys ran into a tough team Canada and came home with the Silver.

Two hockey personalities recently got contract extensions. Joel Quenneville got a three year extension. Dave Nonis got a five year deal. In case you’re wondering the the good deal belongs to the coach of the Chicago Blackhawks who won two Stanley Cup’s in four years. The deal means the Blackhawks get to keep the bench boss three more years. The deal no one with any sense understands is the one belonging to the guy who’s first major moves were to smash flat a playoff team that only needed tweaking to become a contender.

Colby Armstrong who has played for the Montreal Canadiens, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Atlanta Thrashers is taking what will at least be a break from his NHL career. Armstrong who was traded from Pittsburgh in the wake of a night out on the town with Sidney Crosby, is known for strong two way play and is off to play in Sweden for Vaxjo.

The biggest story of the NHL off season isn’t a trade, an offer sheet, an unfortunate death or even an absurd signing. It is the retirement of one of the most talented players in the NHL. Ilya Kovalchuk announced he would be leaving the NHL and returning to Russia through the New Jersey Devils website today. His official reason of wanting to be with his family is certainly a key component, but no one, even if they expect to recoup it walks away from the nearly eighty million he was due as Devil over the next few years easily.

The other contributing factors are a bit murkier, but we can certainly narrow down key components, the first of which is how little success such an enormous talent has had in the NHL. With Atlanta he was surrounded by rosters most of the USHL or CHL teams could have handily defeated in a seven game series, possibly in a sweep. The team continually drafted high despite being in a division that was the NHL’s punching bag for almost a generation. Two years ago when he finally got to the Stanley Cup finals after a season in which he should have won the Hart, the Ted Lindsey and gotten votes for the Selke, his hopes of winning the Cup were exsanguinated, largely by his own teammates and a body that had given more than it should be called upon to. Given the well documented financial troubles of the New Jersey Devils, he had to be convinced he was no going to get back to the Finals any time when he had a claim at being a top ten NHL talent.

Recognition is another element. Kovalchuk is good. He’s more than good, he’s the definition of elite. In his career he’s played with exactly one top ten offensively talented center, and he didn’t have Marc Savard for long. In the early years of his career he played with little in the way of NHL talent of any description. In his most recent four seasons he’s played in a very defensive minded system where he played 24-26 minutes a night with large amounts of it shorthanded. He leaves the NHL with two fifty goal season, three forty goal seasons, and four thirty goal seasons. Only once was he a first team All Star, he never won a single Hart trophy or Ted Lindsay, and much of that can be laid at the feet of the Canadian media and their xenophobia. Russian players get as much negative attention from the Canadian media today as Russia itself did from America during the Cold War. If a Russian player does something questionable or negative it will be talked about for years to come, a Canadian or Swede who did the exact same thing might have to suffer through a week of questions and recriminations. He’ll leave the NHL a point per game player, a solid two way player, and probably never even get mentioned for the hall of fame.

NHL stability is another question that has to have pooped into his head a time or two. During his there were two lockouts, one resulting in a whole season being wiped away. The team who drafted him had ownership more interested in pinching pennies and suing each other than in building a viable franchise. The team he was traded too and eventually signed to a long term deal with was bankrupt. The Coyotes were forever unstable. The Islanders are still a question mark. The Nashville Predators and Columbus Blue Jackets had issues that threatened their existence. The Thrashers were moved to Winnipeg. All Star and Winter Classic games, a major source of league revenue, were cancelled. And of course players have had to give back money to the league more than once.

The Devils will go on without him, as will the league, neither will be better off without him.

 

This time last year the Boston Bruins traded first round pick Mark Stuart and free agent refugee from the Phoenix Coyotes Blake Wheeler (@BiggieFunke) to the then Atlanta Thrashers and now Winnipeg Jets for Boris Valabik and Rich Peverley. What I thought of the trade at the time is pretty well known. But its a year later, the Boston Bruins have hoisted the Cup, Rich Peverley played a key role in that and has since been rewarded with a new contract.

Let’s take a look at the players one at a time:

Mark Stuart:

  • Had a multiseason ironman streak as a member of the Boston Bruins.
  • leads the Jets in shorthanded time
  • has well over 100 each hits and blocked shots (154,141) both higher than any Bruins player
  • got his first career shorthanded goal this season

Blake Wheeler:

  • his 96 hits are more than any Bruins forward except Lucic
  • leads his team in scoring
  • only Bergeron has more points among the Bruins
  • with 12 has more powerplay points than any Bruins player except Chara

Rich Peverley (currently injured):

  • 9 goals 29 assists 38 points in 49 games
  • gets almost 4 minutes of special teams time a night
  • 4th among Bruins forwards in time on ice per game
  • 8th in scoring on the Bruins

Boris Valabik:

  • Has not played in NHL since trade.

On paper, and in the stat sheets it is hard to argue the now-Jets won this trade. Both teams got what they wanted from the trade, but if you need to declare one a winner it’s not really that close. Apparently I’m not alone in thinking that.

The Rick Nash saga is heating up, and will likely not die out completely if he remains in Columbus until mid August with a slight lull during the playoffs, and a sharp spike after the Cup is raised.

But what is he worth? When Ilya Kovalchuk was traded he had one year left on his contract, had hit fifty goals twice, had three other 40 goal season, and was either the best or second best left wing in the NHL.  Rick Nash was the first overall pick in the draft a year after Kovalchuk, and has put up very good numbers playing at one time or another both center and wing, but not quite on Kovalchuk’s level. When the Thrashers traded Kovalchuk to the Devils, he went with Anssi Salmela, who can probably be described as a AAAA defenseman, and a second round pick. The Devils sent back, a 1st round pick a 2nd rounder, NHL defenseman Johnny Odouya, and some peripheral prospects.  Kovalchuk had one year left on his deal

Nash, has six full season left on his contract. This is both a gift and a curse. Teams wanting to mind their budget and long term projections on who they can afford to retain have cost certainty with the deal. What can’t be guaranteed is performance in relation to contract. He could play at or above the .81 points per game he’s maintained in his career if he’s healthy, and in a compatible system. Equally an injury, incompatible system or a coach with a bias could squash his productivity and leave a team with a Reddenesque deal on their hands.

So what type of return should the Blue Jackets get if they do indeed trade him? If they go just for picks and try and restock and build through the draft, it should be two first round picks for teams expected to finish in the bottom 15 or so, and probably at least one second round pick. If they want to build depth, and get useful special teams and leave offensive production primarily to Jeff Carter and whoever they draft in the lottery this year, they could pick up two or three players who could help their 21st ranked powerplay and their 30th ranked penalty kill. Arguably getting one first round pick and those three or four role players with a couple years left on the deals will make the team more competitive than one or two second tier stars would. If in the, highly unlikely, situation they opt for a simple superstar for superstar trade arguably Eric Staal is the perfect candidate. He was drafted 2nd in 2003, and was part of a cup run. While neither is exactly a raging extrovert, Staal has a bit more force to his play, and may just need a change of scenery.

Going purely off number Staal for Nash isn’t great upgrade, and Staal is justifiably paid more, but Staal has spent most of his time at center, and putting Yakupov or Forsberg on his line, while Carter, Umberger and Johansen form another line has certain appeals. Whatever they decide to do with if they do trade Nash, and can get what they are looking for, it has to help the team form an identity. I haven’t seen the team play with one in the past two seasons and it can’t stay in business without something to help build success and draw crowds. Additionally it’d be nice for someone outside the franchise to know who their All Stars are next season since they are hosting the event.

Two thousand eleven was the most exciting, enthralling and simply satisfying year to be a Boston Bruins game in almost four decades. Some of the stories that made the year special are due a little more talking about.

Honorable Mention: Zach to Zenith

In 2007 the Bruins picked a small, skilled center from the Everett Silvertips as their first round pick. This was a draft that saw Patrick Kane go first, and follow his top selection up with a cup clinching goal before Hamill would ever make back to back NHL games. Injuries and ill luck in Providence saw Hamill’s stock drop dramatically in the eyes of observers and the team. Then a funny thing happened. He came into camp and outplayed not just his fellow AHL players but more than one of the NHL players. Since then he’s gotten two call ups, played all three forward positions and earned his stay. From the man many would consider the most conservative, veteran reliant coach in the league he’s earned the ultimate trinity of accolades: trust, regular shifts and special teams play.

Number 10:  Drafting Dougie

When the Toronto Maple Leafs put on a late season surge that yanked them out of the lottery and had them threatening to reach the playoffs. The Bruins had a huge need for a top defensive prospect. With the top of their blueline aging, and the pipeline containing middle pairing or lower potential players the hope of a top defensive prospect being drafted waned with every Leafs win. The June draft saw a few odd things happen, an out of zone pick by the Jets.

Several teams in need of defense opted for forwards, and as number eight was called, and the Flyers opted for Couterier, Bruins fans went mad. Four of the defensemen expected to go in the top ten were still on the board. The excitement was not limited to fans. The normally straight laced and reserved Peter Chiarelli walked to the podium. He didn’t have just his elusive smile, but a full bodied laugh as he stood up to perform one of the most important duties of a general manager. He picked Dougie Hamilton. When he was asked later he said what every GM says when they select a player “I never expected him to be there.” I believe him.

Number 9: Kaberle Trade

Possibly the most speculated trade in Boston Bruins history came to pass. In order to make room for Kaberle the Bruins had to jettison Mark Stuart and Blake Wheeler to Atlanta-now-Winnipeg to have cap space. The trade was designed to fix the Bruins ailing powerplay. It did not. With the quote-unquote assistance of the former Maple Leafs powerplay quarterback the Bruins went on to have the worst powerplay in memory.  With a salary of over four million dollars he became the fifth defensemen in icetime sharing even strength shifts with rookie Adam Mcquaid.

During his tenure, Julien defended him, players defended him. Peter Chiarelli even defended the former Toronto Maple Leaf. Fans were not so impressed. The media was not so impressed. In the end the divide between lip service and throwing good money after bad was demonstrated as Kaberle would sign with Carolina Hurricanes.

Number 8: Lucic Hits 30

When you walk into training camp the fall after you are drafted and the comparisons to a guy who’s number is in the rafters, living up to the hype can take a little work. When you skate poorly and have a slew of nagging injuries in your third year, your fourth year, the first of a new contract is crucial. Boston is no stranger to either great or disappointing players. The former are lauded for decades past their last game, the latter are often run out of town (see above).

With a big contract to justify Lucic had a lot to live up to. With a wretched team playoff performance directly in the rear view mirror, he and the team had a lot to live down. With the aid of the newly arrived large bodied Nathan Horton and the slick passing David Krejci, Lucic finally started to live up the hype by potting thirty regular season goals. He finished the season leading the Bruins in goals, and ahead of John Tavares, Alex Semin, Brad Richards and Patrick Kane.