The Vancouver Canucks are one of the teams that should be a perennial contender. They have everything. They are in a hockey market in British Columbia. They have an owner that allows them to spend to the cap. They have a strong fan base. They even have an arena that is in good shape and has solid ice.

The one thing they don’t have is leadership. Roll the clock back a little bit to the Canucks Stanley cup final appearance against the Boston Bruins. They had a post season run that included more than their fair share of luck, which is true of any team that isn’t a juggernaut. They played their best when they had a gentlemanly game against an opponent who was playing a soft game. As a team, they could not play with both skill and grit. If they got grimy they lost and lost big. When Brad Marchand used Daniel Sedin as a living speedbag, and neither Sedin nor anyone else did a damn thing. In the final game, two skaters showed up for the game. he hobbled Kesler and exhausted Bieksa.

Having seen that game, and that series, Gillis did nothing. Same coach, same roster next year and they get run from the playoffs even earlier. And then Gillis went looking for tough guys who can’t play, and traded guys like Hodgson that can play top six minutes and contribute. It was obvious two years ago that the Sedin’s were on the decline, age, on ice performance, and the general history of offensive production from forwards told you they were at or past peak. What happened? The Sedin’s were given a raise and no movement clauses.

Two years ago, the Vancouver Canucks had two number one goaltenders. The juggling and indecision turned them, at least temporarily, into number two goalies. Then they were both traded. Both were traded for far below their market value. The young, athletic and level headed Cory Schneider was flipped for a single first round draft pick. Roberto Luongo was just dealt for pocket change.

How does Mike Gillis still have a job? Do the owners just consider the Canucks a really expensive hobby? Is there no one above Gillis with a lick of hockey sense? It simply isn’t possible to look at the moves made by Gillis lately and say “Yeah, that makes the team better.” John Tortorella is a great coach. He’s also an awful fit for the roster that was in place when he was hired. David Booth, Tom Sestito, Zach Kassian, Yannick Weber, and Zach Hamill are not the acquisitions that are going to put a team over the top. Not with the wrong coach, not with the declining top scorers.

The longer I live and the more of the world i see, the harder it becomes for me to disbelieve in magic. But since I can’t think of any rational reason for Mike Gillis to still have a job; magic it is. Your move Aquilini’s, your move.

Last spring after being ousted from the playoffs by the Boston Bruins the New York Rangers were due for some change. They got it. A Stanley Cup winning coach was dismissed. In place of the fiery Tortorlla who’s bywords are; discipline, structure, consistency and effort is former Vancouver Canucks bench minder. It was expected that the more offensively minded players like Carl Hagelin, Rick Nash and Michael Del Zotto would (finally) flourish.

But that’s hardly the case. Del Zotto has once again found himself on the outside looking in. The Stouffville Ontario native has been punted from the lineup in a quarter of the season’s games. But why exactly? John Moore, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi each have worse on ice save percentages. Both Stralman and Moore are taking more penalties, and since none of the three is a fighter, the penalties are very comparable. No other Rangers blueliner is as likely to finish a shift in the offensive zone as Del Zotto either.

The New York Rangers are 25th in goals for heading into action on December 3rd. That’s a full ten places below where they finished last season (where MDZ played most games). They are producing at about half a goal per game below the number they put together in last years campaign. It could be just a coincidence that Del Zotto an offensive defenseman selected in the first round is regressing under an offensive minded coach.

More likely it has something to do with going from playing 23 minutes a night over the last two seasons to an anemic 18 this season. Where the time has come from is also revelatory. Under Tortorella Del Zotto played a respectable if not staggering 1:23 of shorthanded time on ice a game for each of the previous two seasons. On the other special team he an average of over 3 minutes a night. Now, he’s down to eight seconds a night of penalty kill time and just 2:30 per game of powerplay time.

It is pretty common for fans to scapegoat a player. sometimes fairly, others not. The media does it and no one who pays attention takes it too seriously. But when coaches do it, especially inaccurately, that’s something else entirely. Reading the future in goat entrails is just as easy and accurate as trying to forecast Alain Vigneault’s moves. Even working backwards with the facts to arrive at the current coach’s motivation is difficult.

In this case we have an offensive minded defenseman who’s finishing more shifts in the offensive zone than any other defenseman. While not known for his defense consistent use on the penalty kill under another coach does tend to indicate a player has some ability at a given task, and two seasons back the team’s penalty kill was better than this year’s edition. The powerplay which has improved under Vigneault is given a boost in opportunities when Del Zotto is in the lineup as only Falk draws more penalties among the Rangers defensemen.

So what gives? Has Del Zotto regressed to the level where he’s a  6th or 7th defensemen or is someone ignoring the facts?

This irregular feature will run when I get bored. It will ask one scintillating question about each NHL team.

 

Anaheim Ducks: Can this team take advantage of its abundance of youth to compliment its savvy and skilled veteran core?

Boston Bruins: Is there a single hockey observer anywhere who doesn’t think the team is dangling Matt Bartkowski for trade?

Buffalo Sabres: So ah, how about those Buffalo Bills?

Calgary Flames: Are you the one non Flames fan or executive who expected the team to start the season 2-0?

Carolina Hurricanes: Isn’t it great that the Canes put in a great effort for their goaltender Cam Ward opening night and only allowed 38 shots on goal?

Chicago Blackhawks: If the media doesn’t have Patrick Kane’s off ice antics to talk about, will they actually cover the team now?

Colorado Avalanche: We all know the limited shelf life of firey over the top NHL coaches like Guy Boucher and Patrick Roy right?

Columbus Blue Jackets: Do we blame Bobrovksy’s four goal opener on moving east, a lack of defenders who play defense, or just a fat pay day?

Dallas Stars: Will Alex Goligoski ever get recognized as top defenseman?

Detroit Red Wings: Is there a player in the system 30 or under who can emerge as the next “face of the franchise”?

Edmonton Oilers: Can prodigal son and eco-warrior Andrew Ference lead his band of merry man-children to liberate a playoff spot from and deliver it to their poor fans?

Florida Panthers: With new ownership and oodles of cap space this year, how wide with the tap be opened for established NHL talent in the future?

Los Angeles Kings: Without a proven backup will Quick get overworked in the regular season?

Minnesota Wild: Will the Wild faithful stay true if the team underperforms this season?

Montreal Canadiens: With the soon to be 35 year old Brian Gionta’s star waning and an expiring contract, will the Habs relocate the C to another jersey possibly before moving him?

Nashville Predators: Barry Trotz entered the season the NHL’s longest tenured head coach, will he end the season in his current position?

New Jersey Devils: With the leagues oldest team, and all but one of the free agents brought in this season over 30, does this franchise have a path to the future?

New York Islanders: The Islanders took a big step forward last year climbing into the playoffs and battling Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, can Tavares and Hamonic make themselves household names this year?

New York Rangers: How long will it take Marc Staal, Brad Richards and the rest of the blueshirts to adapt to Alain Vigneault’s system?

Ottawa Senators: Captain Spezza, with Bobby Ryan, Milan Michalek, Jared Cowen and Craig Anderson are more than enough to get this team to the second round of the playoffs right?

Philadelphia Flyers: Who will lead the Flyers in the three categories that have defined the team in recent seasons: missed games, PIMS and suspensions?

Phoenix Coyotes: Is Mike Ribeiro the right centerpiece for the teams offense or just another free agent that will do just ok and move on?

Pittsburgh Penguins: This is the year that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both healthy right? Right?

San Jose Sharks: Will Bruan, Vlasic, and Hertl emerge to form the new core of this team with Logan Couture?

Saint Louis Blues: Does this team have enough scoring talent and the right coach to take advantage of it?

Tampa Bay Lightning: Does Steve Yzerman who wants fighting out of the game have a punchers chance of seeing his team in the playoffs any time soon?

Toronto Maple Leafs: When the Olympic break rolls around will we be asking where they will find a center, or marveling at Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri as a one two punch?

Vancouver Canucks: With a new coach and system in John Tortorella and a general manager Mike Gillis, who has to be fighting for his own job, how much of the current roster will still be in place after the trade deadline?

Washington Capitals: We can all agree that Alex Ovechkin is good for 50+ goals this season, and Mikhail Grabovski will set a personal high in at least one offensive category right?

Winnipeg Jets: With Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler, Zach Bogosian, and more in full stride, the biggest question about this team is once again in the crease isn’t it?

Last year the Vancouver  Canucks once again marched through the Northwest Division, and claimed its crown for the regular season. The main event for the shortened 48 game season was not the on ice product, but the circus surrounding Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo the teams “1A” and “1B” starting goaltenders. A shortened year was spent with neither able to wrest the job firmly from the other, and no trade to save the media beating the story to death.

At the NHL entry draft an amazing thing happened, Schneider ended up getting traded. Mike Gillis sold out his best crease man not for thirty silvers but for just one first round pick, which was used for Bo Hovart. Alain Vigneault was discarded and John Tortorella brought in. Mike Santorelli the former Nashville Predator and Florida Panther were brought in to deepen the pool at center on the cheap. Keith Ballard was paid to go away.

This year the team will open the season with two players suspended, and David Booth on injured reserve. Former Montreal Canadien Yannick Weber will be looking for a blueline job, and both Bo Hovart and Hunter Shinkaruk continue their fight for a roster spot. The young guns may get their shot with the temporary openings, but whether they cross the 10 game threshold is anyone’s guess. The opening fistful of games see’s the Canucks kickoff their season visiting the San Jose Sharks. With just one night rest they will head home to square off with the Edmonton Oilers, before scurrying off to face the Calgary Flames less than 24 hours later. Finally they’ll have a short home stand with a pair of games against the New Jersey Devils and San Jose Sharks.

Number of days 1-5: 7

Number of cities: 3

Best opponent: San Jose Sharks (twice)

Weakest opponent:  Calgary Flames

Home games: 3

Projected points:  5

The pace of the first five games, and the unfamiliarity with the new system mixed with the possible inclusion of two rookies makes the opening handful of games really rough. With just one proven NHL goaltender, the question will loom all season long over how much they can afford to rest Roberto Luongo. The Canucks are actually in a competitive division for the first time in the career of any of their core players. It is probable they are a better than .500 team, but that depends on their goaltending and the Sedin’s staying the entire season and bouncing back to something like  the level they played at leading to their run to the Stanley Cup finals.

The San Jose Sharks ended last year the way they do almost every season. They showed lots of flash and polish, but eventually ended up disappointing everyone on the ice and in the corner office. They made the playoffs, and swept the Vancouver Canucks, then went to the mat with the Los Angeles Kings. Patrick Marleau was again smothered, failing to register a single point in the final five games against the Kings. Logan Couture didn’t tally a single goal in the final three games of that second round series, and Niemi did all that could be expected of him giving up more than two goals in the series just once. Per usual, Joe Thornton got too much blame and little to no credit.

Then the off season came, and went. No major changes. The forward additions are Tyler Kennedy and possibly one of the half hundred young and unknown quantities like Tomas Hertl, Freddie Hamitlon, or James Livingston. The long anticipated breakup of the team core never happened. At least part of that is due to the contracts or performances making players unmovable. A new backup goalie will need to emerged as Thomas Greiss has vacated the scene.

The first five games of the Sharks season will be very interesting. They meet up with the Vancouver Canucks and their new coach John Tortorella  twice, Raffi Torres, Thomas Greiss and the Phoenix Coyotes, and then play host to the Daniel Alfredsson-less but Bobby Ryan enriched Ottawa Senators.  With four of their first fist-full at home and no back to backs, they have a good shot at swimming to the front of the division early.

Number of days 1-5: 9

Number of cities: 2

Best opponent: New York Rangers

Weakest opponent: Phoenix Coyotes

Home games: 4

Projected points: 7

With three of their opening five games against teams with new head coaches, the Sharks have the chance to jump on teams not quite used to a new system. The team has been in “win now” mode for at least the last half decade, it is time to produce or get off the pot. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dan Boyle are all on contracts that expire at the end of the season. As things stand today, they are slightly over the salary cap so an early season, or late preseason trade if one or two of the younger players push someone out the door isn’t out of the question. They have the tools to have a good regular season, but that hasn’t been in doubt for many years.

The NHL is enriched every year with the sagas of aging players who continue to contribute to their team, the NHL and the whole hockey community at an advanced age. But what makes those stories so heartening is the fact that they are so rare. For every Teemu Selanne there are twenty guys who didn’t make it to 30 in the NHL. For every Tim Thomas or Keith Aucoin who have played more games NHL after age thirty than before, there are two dozen guys who play their whole career without being an NHL regular. This is the time of year when for young player hope is ratcheting to an all time high as they put in the work to take a job at training camp. For others, it is the time to give up the dream.

Tim Connolly‘s most recent NHL game was in the 2011-12 season. Last year he played just 28 AHL games. The veteran center was a mainstay of the Buffalo Sabres for years during the last half of the Lindy Ruff era. Originally a New York Islander, it has been almost that long since Connolly was able to play a full season. The number 5 pick in the 1999 draft last played all 82 games in the 2002-3 season. He’s 9th in games played in his draft class, and 6th in points. Connolly is only 32, but health and the salary cap coming down for the first time in years may just have pushed him firmly to the outside.

Brenden Morrow was an iconic player for years in Dallas, last year he was traded to Pittsburgh where his offensive numbers might convince you he’d managed to turn back the clock a decade or more. Unfortunately his foot speed didn’t show up, and his leadership qualities alone haven’t been enough to help him land an NHL job yet. One of the dwindling few who played in the IHL, the former Olympian sits sixth in his draft class in points, 29 behind Sergei Samsanov. Have we seen the last of Morrow as an NHL player?

Steve Montador is one of hockey’s best known vagabonds. At 531 regular season NHL games, the undrafted blueliner has played more games than many 1st round picks. At one point his skill set was topped by a crisp pass and solid skating. Neither of those were what earned him respect in his six NHL stops. That was left to his willingness to standup for his teammates and take horrific punishment for the logo on the front of the jersey. In 2011-12 he played just 52 games on a crowded BlackHawks blueline. In 2012-13, he played exclusively in the AHL.

Roman Hamrlik What you want from a 1st overall pick is longevity, and quality play. Roman Hamrlik was taken first back in 1992, he’s played 218 more games than Sergei Gonchar who has piled up the second most NHL games. In points, as a defenseman he’s fifth overall. He’s played on both sides of the Battle of Alberta, played for the Rangers and Islanders, skated for Montreal and the Washington Capitals after starting his career as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s first ever draft pick. Age and various injuries restricted the 39 year old to just 18 games in the regular season and two post season appearances this year. As high as the heat was turned up under now former Rangers head coach John Tortorello, it is hard to say if Hamrlik got a fair shake or not.

Dan Cleary was a part of the championship days of the Detroit Red Wings, and more recently a part of the days when making the playoffs was an open question. The 13th overall pick of the 1997 draft started with the Chicago BlackHawks but has spent almost the entirety of his career a member of the Wings. 10th overall in scoring in that draft he’s 131 game short of playing his 1000th NHL game. IF he can find a two year NHL deal and play 66 games each season he’ll hit that exalted number. The Belleville Bulls alumni has been slightly healthier than usual the last two season playing all 48 regular season games this year, fourteen playoff games and 75 games the previous season. The versatile winger isn’t precisely expensive, and it i certainly possible a team who wants a playoff tested veteran will sign him.

Vinny Propal is probably the most interesting name on the UFA list. At 38 the two time Olympic medalist was the leading scorer on the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. He’s been remarkably healthy in his career, and the third round pick came up through the AHL unlike a lot of those picked ahead of him. He’s currently 8th overall in games played for the 1993 draft class. Sitting just 3 points out of fourth for the draft classes scoring, that, and the lack of a Stanley Cup championship are likely enough to keep the fires burning, and make him a viable option for a team who needs a veteran forward.

Some of these gentlemen, and their age-mates on the outside looking in will undoubtedly sign an NHL deal before too long, if they do it’ll be just another chapter in some storied careers.

The Rangers have been eliminated short of the Cup again. The time to look at why is now, and as is frequently the case in sports the first place that gets looked at, and all too often the last is the coaches office. The case against Tortorella is seemingly damning. Last year he had a Eastern Conference finalist a bounce or two from the Stanley Cup finals.  The Rangers roared through the regular season and played strong hockey until getting beat by a slightly more cohesive team of wily veterans. This year with some significant changes in the forward group, they struggled all of the abbreviated season to even make the playoffs. They got into a slugging match with the Washington Capitals, and were just short of run out of the building in successive games by the Bruins. Not because, aside from game three, the team didn’t show up. Not because of overhyped problems with the powerplay, but because they lacked that winning attitude, you can call it elan, machismo, or swagger and not be wrong.

The Rangers as a whole have too many nice guys and creme puffs to own their own space. They aren’t quite the Speed Bag Sedin twin seen in the finals not so very long ago, but they are close. For all that Hagelin’s willing to play with an edge here and there, its not consistent, and I really doubt he’d make a list of the top 50 most intimidating forwards in the eastern conference. Derek Dorsett is a bad dude, he’s quite capable of ruining someones whole week when the gloves come off. But he’s not playing first or second line minutes. Derick Brassard played his heart out, he was a point per game player on a very defensive minded team. But let’s not kid ourselves, this was his first taste of the NHL playoffs, and while his contribution was heartening, in six NHL seasons he’s never even cracked 60PIMS.

When you look at the biggest names, you begin to see the problems. Rick Nash is not, and has never been a power forward. He’s not Alex Ovechkin in either skill or willingness to hit or be hit to make plays. He’s not got the snarl of David Backes, or even the much smaller Wayne Simmonds. Rick Nash is a big, skilled forward. But he’s exactly as much a power forward as Erik Karlsson is an elite shutdown defenseman. Brad Richards is ordinarily a pretty good player. This year he was awful. Maybe it was the lockout throwing off his training schedule, maybe there were some off ice issues he was dealing with that sapped his energy.  Whatever it was that caused him to deviate from being a nearly point per game post season player, it is unlikely to last.

Clearly the construction issues of this team are paramount, but before pushing a coach out the door you have to ask a couple vital questions:

  1. Is the coach a bigger problem than the construction of the team?
  2. Is the coach the right coach for the team we intend to have after changes?
  3. Is there a better coach available for the we have or want to have than the one we have now?

For the first questions, that’s an unequivocal no. This team lacks the bloodlust to win. That is not a problem with a fairly combative coach, it is one that can be covered up by it in some regards, but no in this case, the coach isn’t a bigger problem, unlike say Alain Vigneault who always had an excuse for his teams failure.

For the second, you have to decided what team you’re building. The Kings are hardly the most combative team in the league, but they will still hit you every chance they get. The Bruins have to play highly combative teams like the Flyers and Leafs and were equipped to win playing that style. The Kings won with an ultra-balanced, ultra-deep team we’re unlikely to see a reprisal of anytime soon. They Kings and Bruins aren’t that dissimilar from the Rangers except in depth. If the direction going forward is to more strongly emulate one of them, then removing a coach doing most of what they do with a far smaller toolbox is probably foolish. If however they choose to go in the opposite direction and play a more smooth skating, high end passing, offensively overloaded style like the Penguins, he might not be the best choice

For the third, there are some similar coaches like Guy Boucher, and arguably Mike Keenan, but are they actually going to be better? After those two you’ve got Lindy Ruff, an then you’re dipping into the AHL and looking at guys like Bruce Cassidy of the Providence Bruins, or Gordie Dwyer of the PEI Rockets of the QMJHL, a guy who has been there and done that. There is a good case for bringing in someone who isn’t an NHL retreat, especially with a team that has a lot of youngsters, but the questions remains; are they better? The answer is maybe.

For me, if I’m the team owner, dropping the coach isn’t going to fix the problem, and if that’s the general manager’s solution, he’s not the man to fix the problem either.

After 170 head coaching changes elsewhere around the league, Darcy Regier (or whoever) finally decided they needed someone else to blame things on. Lindy Ruff is Buffalo Sabres coach no more.

10: They Sabres were winning to many games to have the best possible shot at drafting Seth Jones.

9: Darcy Regier promised Terry Pegula he could easily have a draft as successful a the Sabres 2000 edition.

8: Ruff never told Regier how bad Myers was before the Sabres wrote his current contract.

7: After having yet more misfit toys like John Scott, Steve Ott and Patrick Kaleta dropped on his roster Lindy Ruff used his safeword.

6: Super star defenseman Adam Pardy said he could no longer play on a team coached by Ruff and management had to make a decision.

5: The New York media like John Tortorella’s press conferences better.

4: After careful consultation with Pierre Gauthier it was decided that anyone who failed to say “not it” at the staff meeting would be fired.

3: Terry Pegula finally realized all the whining at the Sabres press conferences wasn’t caused by press audio equipment.

2: It was always in managements plan to fire Ruff when his name rusted off the sign over his parking space.

1: Like George McPhee Regier is dead certain he can keep his boss from noticing how bad at his job he is by firing coaches.

Someone needs to explain to several NHL general managers the concept of not letting others set the value of your commodities. Set the price and move on. If you have a good player lock them up as soon as possible and then move on. You’ll be setting the bar for others, not the other way around.

For example, Alex Semin who has averaged 24.5 goals a year in the last two seasons just signed a one year deal, for seven million. After having his production tail off after a six million dollar deal the year before. His 21 goals this last season put him 85th in the NHL in goals scored. It did put him in the same neighborhood as Jeff Carter who only played 55 games and David Perron who played 57. Their contracts have hits of not quite four million and just a smidge over five and a quarter. But hey, they have long deals surely security is worth them being paid half or two thirds of Semin’s total next year right?

On to the RFAs:

  • P.K. Subban, assuming you aren’t a Bruins fan the biggest complaint I’ve heard about him in his career is “he practices too hard”. Oh gosh, that is just horrible. Nothing can fix an attitude like that. Even if you are a Bruins or Leafs fan, he’s a top 5% among defensemen talent. Of the 297 defensemen to skate in the NHL last year, he was 14th in total ice time right behind Zdeno Chara.  He’s almost certainly got the best possible combination of talent and drive of any skater on the team. The Canadiens cannot afford not to have him on their roster. Leaving aside Kaberle who plays no shorthanded time and more powerplay time, none of their other defensemen came even close to producing as many points as Subban. Weber and Gorges combined had less points.
  • Michael Del Zotto while the Rangers arguably have the talent to absorb his loss, why would they want to? More than four minutes a night of powerplay time, and led all their defenseman by nine points from the man advantage, plus he was good enough to earn three times as much penalty kill time per night as Erik Karlsson under John Tortorella who may just be the only coach in the NHL who could be led to say “the trap is dangerously offensive minded”? Year over year his ice time climbed two minutes over the previous season, with his shorthanded time tripling. If that is a guy you can afford to lose or let the price get set too high, you might be doing things wrong.
  • John Carlson had as many points at the All Star break as Lidstrom. He had a better claim to the All Star spot than Wideman, especially from a team marketing point of view. And yet today, with the summer half over the teams 22 year old number one defenseman sits home without a contract. There really isn’t an excuse for this. Mike Green can be made into one, but he average less TIO, has not been healthy in his career three seasons, and it is not a good comparable on the ice. Carlson plays in all situations, and is improving daily. Risking him backsliding because a deal couldn’t be reached before camp is just absurd.