For the first time in decades there are very few questions to be answered in terms of personnel on and off the ice. We have two time Vezina Trophy winner, and Conn Smyth holder Tim Thomas returning in goal with the well regarded Tuukka Rask backing him up. The defense is nearly as well stocked with the hulking Zdeno Chara and his oft overlooked but indispensable wing-man Dennis Seidenberg as the go to duo. Slated to return was are last years breakout defender Adam Mcquaid, the snarling wolverine to Chara’s loping wolf Andrew Ference, former AHL defenseman of the year and newlywed Johnny Boychuk. The well traveled Joe Corvo is the only new guy likely to be in the top six on October 6 when the banner goes up.  At forward Brad Marchand recently resigned and will almost certainly resume his “I Felt Like It.” behavior along side the teams best skater Patrice Bergeron, and leaving just one forward slot among the four lines in doubt.

With studs like Jared Knight and Ryan Spooner headlining the list of those who hope to turn pro this year, some might just pencil one of their names into the lineup and go back to counting down until the puck drops. That would be a mistake. The biggest question left after Marchand reupping and Savard being down checked for the season is where Seguin will play. This is the question that affects every other decision that will be made this year and going forward. If he is going to play at center going forward, for now that means the third line and likely with one or both Peverley and Kelly. If he’s going play at wing, he could still end up with last seasons late acquisitions, or he could slide up and join Marchand in flanking Bergeron. If he does, as some have speculated land next to the dynamic duo the question become what role the third line will take. If you’re expecting the lines centered by Bergeron and Krejci to carry a hefty percentage of the offense, the third line becomes a checking line by default.

If the third line is to be a checking line with Kelly and Peverley making up two thirds of it, then Pouliot is likely in the lead for the third spot on the line. Another option is to put a rookie who may not be ready to play in all situations on that line and use them sparingly while double shifting other forwards to leverage their capabilities. If that is the case the door is wide, wide open and the list goes well beyond Arniel, Caron, Suave, as front runners and allows for anyone such as Camper, Cunningham or Khokhlachev to blow the doors off management and earn a chance to grow into a well rounded player.

One of the other options that I haven’t seen talked about for Bergeron’s second winger is Peverley. Peverley was used in every situation and on every line during the playoffs last year. He’s a high end skater in both speed and agility, he’s a good passer and has even taken faceoffs on a regular basis. If he’s slotted in on the second line, the third line is possibly even more interesting. Pairing Seguin with Caron to fill out the line with Kelly gives a good amount of size, speed and skill and makes the Bergeron’s line even more effective as a two way production and scoring line. Seguin and Caron would be able to come along at a reasonable pace earning additonal ice timeand give each of them familiarity with a player likely to be in the organization a long time.

On defense the question of who is number seven is possibly more interesting. Steve Kampfer looked great for parts of his time prior to his injury last season, looked good at others, and looked entirely out of his depth on more than one occasion. Still, he played more time among the six defensemen put on the ice last year than any of the other options. David Warsovsky is a possibilty as he’s an offensive specialist and might be looked at to help improve the powerplay. Ryan Button intruiged me at prospect camp with his skating, reflexes and hands and shouldn’t be overlooked when taking notes the next couple weeks. Matt Bartkowski was the other semi-regular member of the Bruins defense last year. While his time wasn’t particularly impressive, it’s hard to lay that entirely at his skates as most of the game he played the club was mired in a funk that made the team painful to watch.

Given how little was done to address the powerplay from outside the team over the offseason, and the cap position of several teams don’t be surprised if the Bruins make a move or two between now and the start of the season. The Buffalo Sabres have heavily retooled since Terry Pegula took over, are currently well over the cap and a very dangerous team, the Calgary Flames are still in desperate need of a center who can stay within shouting range of Jarome Iginla as well. Not to be left off the list of teams yearning for a playoff spot are the recently uptooled Columbus BlueJackets and the Minnesota Wild. Columbus hasn’t made the playoffs in their history, and the Wild have not been in the post season the last two seasons.

There aren’t many questions to be asked about roster spots this year, but what questions there are will keep us all watching.

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.

The Calgary Flames are a team that can be charitably called in transition. It might be more accurate to call them quietly chaotic. Previous management left the larder bare of high end prospects and sprayed success retardant contracts that have threatened to snuff the spark. Last year they missed the playoffs by three points and spent a good amount of time spinning their wheels.

High card:

Jarome Iginla, I can’t think of any scenario for the Flames making the playoffs that doesn’t involve the Calgary captain having (another) exceptional season. In the past ten season he’s scored at least thirty goals.  Two of those seasons were forty goal seasons, two more were fifty goal seasons. Mr. Not-In-October may not have the luxury the slow starts he’s credited with this year. Without at least 35 goals, and probably closer to fifty its likely that ice quality in May won’t be anything in Calgary is worried about.

Wild card:

George R.R. Martin couldn’t write a more epic collapse than what Jay Bouwmeester has experienced in Calagary, when his contract was expiring he was exchanged for Jordan Leopold when the Panthers knew they couldn’t keep him. Since the trade it’s been dismal. Two years and just seven goals without even the sniff of the playoffs that were instantly expected when he was acquired. In his last year in Sunrise he potted fifteen goals. If the Flames are going to burn bright into the spring, Jay-Bo needs to return to form. In the season after the trade the frequently injured Leopold scored 13 goals in just 61 games playing on Florida’s defense while the NHL’s current iron man  netted just three.

 

Free agency is a high nearly unrivaled on the hockey schedule. Guys who played in a system they didn’t fit in last season can shoot for a better fit. Players who’s entry level deals are expiring can look forward to a more comfortable income. Fans who loathed the contract of an anchor on their roster can cheer its expiration. Best of all, any UFA becomes possible, if only for an hour or two. Here are some of the players I find most interesting in this years class.

Scott Hannan: If he insists on the $4.5 million a year of his last contract he could be in for slim pickings.  Offensively speaking he’s not quite as gifted as the otherwise comparable Andrew Ference. He does play about six minutes more per game than Ference in Washington, but there were a lot more injuries on the blueline of the Capitals this season. Still at 32, 6’2 and 225 he’s likely got two or three more seasons of similar contributions before beginning to decline.

Joel Ward: What a post season party this man had. He led his team in scoring, briefly led the NHL in goals in the post season, and made life miserable for the Vancouver Canucks in the second round. If you look up the word “workhorse” in your dictionary of hockey terms this mans picture might just be there. Of his ten goals last regular season five were power play goals and four were game winners. Those were good for third and second on the team, relied upon in all situations he led the Predators forwards in time on ice last season, its hard to see him not being retained at a decent price. Its also unlikely he’ll fail to get a deal worth more than the $1.5 million he got last season.

Scottie Upshall (@ScottieUpshall): After a season ending knee injury two seasons ago, he responded by coming back with a career high in goals and hits. With the ability to play both wings, good speed and some playoff experience it will be interesting to see where he lands. He was traded at the deadline from Phoenix to Columbus where he was reunited with former Flyers teammate RJ Umberger and now another former Flyer Jeff Carter has joined the crew. The $2.25m he earned last year probably isn’t far off from what his next deal will be. It will be interesting to see if the 27 year old goes for a short three year or less deal or for a longer one that might include a no trade clause.

Simon Gagne, is almost certainly the most pure scorer under thirty five in this free agent crop. He’s also got a collection of injuries that stretches on for pages. His last contract was for north of five million a year which is perfectly acceptable for a two time forty goal scorer. His last two season topped off at 17 goals a piece. While all players are a risk, as a GM I can see people steering clear or only offering one or two year deals

Anton Babchuck. The well traveled blueliner has seen a few cities already in his career. Of all the free agent defensemen he’s got the second highest powerplay goal total. He’s first in short handed points in that group. Overall he was the third highest scoring defenseman in this UFA crop. At 27 with those stats if his agent can’t double his salary this season they should be fired.

 

Earlier today Aaron Rome of the Vancouver Canucks was suspended for four games. I’ll save the behavior of Henrik Sedin and Alain Vigneault for another post since that could easily spiral into pages. As a fan who’s team has been on both sides of suspension rulings I’m heartily ambiguous about this suspension. When Marc Savard was hit by Matt Cooke I felt that was clearly an intent to injure and should have been a very long suspension. When Marc Savard was again laid out by former Bruins defenseman and current member of the Colorado Avalance Matt Hunwick I watched the replay three times and said “clean play”. When Marchand was suspended earlier this year I looked at the play, said “Ok, I get why and how this happened late hit, boneheaded, but not intent to injure.”

Comparing this to some of the other suspensions from the season we see repeat offender Matt Cooke with four games for charging and boarding, Daniel Paille two games for a hit to the head, James Wisniewski for two games for an obscene gesture to another player. So we’re lead to be the confusing conclusion that actually knocking someone out of the game for who knows how long in the Stanley Cup Finals is equally as bad as boarding and charging, twice as bad as a penalty that at worst left a player offended and likely amused, but also only twice as bad as another hit to the head by a first time offender. Diving a little further into the suspensions list, apparently smashing your stick into someones head is one fourth less bad than hitting someone with your body, as Olli Jokinen’s suspension clearly illustrates.

With that pure and unambiguous set of guidelines let’s dive into the case. Some of these are reasons I believe, others are what different people ahve put forward, and some are merely probable conjecture.

Too Long:

  • It’s the longest suspension in Stanley Cup Finals History, and is in fact longer than all three other suspensions put together.
  • Rome is a first time offender.
  • The rule is ambiguous and based on the precedent of intent on the Burrows bite, intent is important.
  • It was a clean hit.

 

Too Short:

  • The rule has been in place for a year, and players have had time to adjust
  • The other events of the series mean there was “a history” between the players.
  • Its the Stanley Cup Finals, the games are very important and a player who is knocked out through no fault of their own is lost to their team for far longer than any suspension.

While, for the sake of the game I could wish the suspension was longer, I actually think there NHL got this one as close to that near-mythical-beast “right” as is possible. By setting a bar this much higher than previous situational suspensions (preseason vs regular season vs playoffs vs Stanley Cup Finals) they have a clearly stated precedence they can apply to future escalations.

Having watched the hit about twenty five times now for the sake of uniformity I have to give my opinion. So:

  1. Yes it was late.
  2. Rome did leave his lane, step into the path  of Horton and turning his body to apply his shoulder.
  3. There was head contact.
  4. Rome’s hands, stick and elbows were down.

Those are the salient points. While the hit was clearly late, I can’t honestly call it malicious. If Rome hadn’t left his own lane and realigned his body it would be incidental contact.

 

Since the dawn of sports “the best player” has been debated back and forth endlessly. In boxing the Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman vs Mike Tyson vs Evander Hayfield debate  will probably end shortly after the heat death of the universe. In baseball, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson,  Cy Young, Lou Gehrig, Cal Ripken are names that will forever be bounced around clubhouses and little league fields. Will anyone ever learn anything about the NBA and not have their current idol compared to Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain? The NHL has it’s own list of deified players and the debates are just as raucous, as any other sport.

One of the reasons the debate over Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe or Wayne Gretzky as the greatest player of all time will probably never end is that it is a question with multiple layers. Who is more entertaining? Who is more skilled? Those are just two of its parts, but if you compare the styles of say Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin you get divided on this question from the word go. Both are dominant at their position, but is either truly the top of the charts in both categories? Neither holds a major single season record. Then if you compare them by to other active players you’re getting a different mix. Jonas Hiller of the Anaheim Ducks, Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins and Henrik Lundquist of the New York Rangers all play the same position. It’s hard to argue they all play it in the same style. Of the three, Lundquist is the youngest (by days) but has played the most NHL games. Hiller has phenomenal numbers in one Stanley Cup Playoff run, and Tim Thomas set a NHL record this past season and owns a Vezina trophy.

For my money I’d rather watch Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames play for three minutes than watch Denis Wideman of the Washington Capitals play for ten. While the talent divide there is higher than in the other comparisons, there are people who adore each player. Comparing defensemen with different styles is probably even more futile than debating centers vs wingers. Dustin Byfugelien of the Atlanta Thrashers score more goals than any other defenseman, Dan Girardi of the New York Rangers had more blocked shots than anyone,  Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins had more shootout goals than any other defenseman, and Brent Burns of the Minnesota Wild averaged more shifts per game than any other blueliner. None of them were nominated for the Norris Trophy. Instead the nominations when to Zdeno Chara of Boston, perennial nominee Nik Lidstrom, and the often overlooked Nashville Predators Captain Shea Weber.

On the ice, even the rawest pinkhat couldn’t mistake Chara and Lidstrom, and getting Byfuelien confused with either Weber or Letang would probably require more alcohol than any establishment is going to sell you. Yet all across the nation Burns to Weber each of these guys makes a case to be, and is the favorite of fans all over the map. I’ve seen both Byfugelien (Thrashers) and Lidstrom jerseys on the streets of Boston, not with the regularity of the local captains, but there. Watching hockey in any given major market means you will see the jerseys from all over the NHL in the stands, and that’s the way it should be.

Don’t think that when the Bruins lockers get cleared out I’ll be packing up the blog and breaking it out again around training camp. There’s a lot to cover between the hoisting of the Cup and watching the rosters shakedown. Here are some of the things you’ll find in this space over the summer.

  • The 2nd Annual UFA Challenge
  • Free agency blogging
  • Bruins Grades
  • Team tweaks I’d like to see
  • Draft coverage
  • Realignment/movement of teams should it happen.
  • Season Preview for all thirty teams
  • Prospect camp
  • Trades
  • other NHL/hockey news

So don”t tune out, you’ll have too much to catch up on when the puck drops on the new season.

I admit it, I got bored with the regular season. I’ve been watching, but its really hard to get amped up knowing how little most of the games are going to change the standings. The Boston-Toronto game, I was annoyed to see them lose, but honestly I get more upset about November to February games than late March. By this time of the year you already who your team is and how they stack up against just about everyone. The Bruins tend to play down to the level of their competition, a lot. So here’s a few things Bruins fans, and others can keep track of from now until the start of the most exciting post season in sports.

  1. The Crosby Watch, how many times will he get mentioned per game as even the announcers who normally focus on the games they are calling struggle for something to keep them awake.
  2. Can Patrice Bergeron score again this season?
  3. What team will have the most undisclosed injuries and ailments that only require one or two games of rest?
  4. How many coaches or general managers will be fired between today and the end of the first round of the playoffs?
  5. Do the New York Rangers manage their second regular season choke in a row, or do they make it to the promised land?
  6. With four games left and only one back to back set, how many starts will Tim Thomas get?
  7. Does Zach Parise go into his season having scored since his return?
  8. When does Brayden Schenn get the call to help round out the roster of the injury plagued Los Angeles Kings? Is it before or after the end of the Saskatoon Blades post season push?
  9. How many more stories will we see or hear about improbably candidates for various awards?
  10. Will any of the three Washington Capitals goalies nail down the number one slot?
  11. With a winning record this season against the Red Wings, will the Nashville Predators actually push to move up from their current penciled n date with Motor City’s finest?
  12. How many of the last four games for the Bruins will be played by each of the following: Michael Ryder, Chris Kelly, Tyler Seguin, Shane Hnidy, Adam McQuaid, Steve Kampfer, and Johnny Boychuck?
  13. How many stories will we see on the Bruins being short sighted by not trading the Toronto pick?
  14. Find an explanation for why the Boston Bruins have the second best odds of winning the Stanley Cup this year according to Sports Club Stats.
  15. Visit Youtube and DailyMotion to find some of the best hockey fights ever.
  16. Come up with a sensible rule change to eliminate or reduce the shootout that won’t see players going four or five overtimes during the regular season every fifth game.
  17. Try and figure out what to do with the Calgary roster to turn them into a viable playoff team next year?
  18. Do the same with Toronto, Atlanta, Dallas.
  19. Tweet about how good it is that Super Mario won’t have Matt Cooke on his team next year.
  20. Start writing the eulogy for your team or one you hate in hopes Puck Daddy will use it this year.

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

 

If I told you in September…

  • that Milan Lucic and Matt Moulson would both have more goals on March 5th than Phil Kessel
  • that after a 15 month break Alexander Ovechkin would return to Twitter to post the picture of Phil Kessel sitting alone as the last player to be picked at the All-Star draft?
  • that only two players in the top 100 goal scorers, Radim Vrbata and David Booth , would have a lower shooting percentage than Alex Ovechkin
  • That of center Stamkos and winger Ovechkin, the latter would have more assists
  • Dany Heatley would be just one point ahead of Patrice Bergeron
  • the Washington Capitals would fall out of last years top spot for goal scoring all the way to the 2o’s, and go from 16th in goals against up to 7th
  • the NHL’s best penalty kill would belong to the Pittsburgh Penguins
  • the #7 offense would belong to a team, Tampa Bay, with only one short handed goal
  • the Colorado Avalanche who have allowed the most goals per game would have the second best Sv% in the shootout in the NHL
  • the Edmonton Oilers would own a better winning percentage when trailing after two periods than; the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins,  Montreal Canadiens, Carolina Hurricanes, and Calgary Flames all of which are in the top 8 in their conference as of today
  • that with Malkin out since 02/04 and Crosby out since 01/05 that the Penguins would not only still be in the playoffs, but still have home ice advantage for the first round
  • that for the first time since 2003-04 Joe Thornton would be less than a point per game player
  • of Los Angeles Kings defensemen; Rob Scuderi, Jack Johnson, Alec Martinex and Matt Greene that Scuderi would have the most game winning goals.
  • that despite having the third worst +/- in the NHL, the Florida Panthers would still be able to unload Denis Wideman on deadline day
  • former Bruins Phil Kessel and Denis Wideman would be a combined -45
  • Patrick Sharp would lead all players in goals against division opponents

would you have believed a single word?

 

The five most interesting stories to watch from now until the the trade deadline.

  • How far will the dismantlement of the Colorado Avalanche go? I was shocked to see Calder Trophy candidate Kevin Shattenkirk shipped out.  Stuffed into the wagon along with him was 23 year old power-forward Chris Stewart, and a conditional pick. Going the other was was Erik Johnson a defensemen with a great pedigree, who has lost his luster.  Paul Statsny is rumored to be available,
  • What will the NHL’s newest owner do with his team? He stated on NHLLive today he was more likely to make future moves than put band-aids on this season, but with players like Statsny, Brad Richards, and who knows who else coming or potentially coming on the market, will he say I want that one! Brad Richards, Ed Jovonovski, and others could contribute to the team for a while.
  • Who blinks first? The Western conference is so tight you can probably get almost anything from those who are determined to succeed now. We’ve see the Avalanche run up the white flag while the Kings have been really quiet. With Carolina having played two more games than the Sabres they have to be looking over their shoulders. If they decide to keep restocking via the draft Cole, Samsanov, Pitkanen, and Jokienen could fetch some decent picks or prospects.
  • What Will Lou Do? The New Jersey Devils general manager has perhaps the hardest calls to make this silly season. He’s got a team that’s playing world beating hockey and is following teams down dark alleys and going through their pockets for loose points, but the odds of getting to the playoffs are really stacked against them. Purely from the cap management point of view, shaking the team loose of Rolston’s contract or one of the other larger contracts on the books for next year could keep them from being an embarrassment to the NHL again next year as they were when they were icing understrength rosters thanks to injuries and cap issues.
  • Hands down the most interesting issue of the off season is what happens to the big name UFAs. As we saw with Bouwmesster recently they are the players that will have reverberations on and off the ice for years to come no matter what call is made. Brad Richards, Shea Weber, Ilya Bryzgalov, Simon Gagne, are all the type of player that when healthy can push an organization from bubble to playoff team and playoff team to contender or cup favorite. If not signed, all four of these guys will be free to sign anywhere they please July 1st. There are lost of people who think Richards would look great in a Sabre’s uniform so would Weber for that matter either of the two when added to Miller, Vanek and Myers gives you a hell of core. The Predators and Lightning are pretty firmly in the playoffs, but an offer too good to refuse is always possible.

Bonus story: How many more times will someone at Versus make the histerical statement that the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins have the hottest rivalry in the NHL?