Monthly Archives: July 2011

I’m not going to lie, when it came time to write about the NHL’s Southeast Division, I considered moving right along to the Western Conference and hoping that none of you would notice. None of you probably would have, but in doing the preparation for writing this piece, I realized that I’m actually a little excited about watching these five teams play hockey. There’s a lot of solid youth in this division, as well as a relocated franchise, a team that flung money at the salary cap floor and eventually got there, a recent Cup champ looking to get back to playoffs, a returning conference finalist, and the Washington Capitals. Considering we don’t have to watch any more Atlanta hockey crowds, this division might not be a bad product this year.
We’ll start with the obvious.

1st: Washington Capitals 2010-11: 107 points, 1st in division
The Caps have won the Southeast four years in a row, and I’m picking them to run it to five this year. Washington started last year with a dud — so much so that they were actually the “can this talented group turn it around” team during the lead up to the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh. The Caps won that game, and sprinted to the conference’s top seed.
But gone is the goaltender who shined on that day. Semyon Varlamov was shrewdly dealt to Colorado, or the goaltenders’ Bermuda Triangle, in exchange for a first and second round pick, which was amazing considering an offer sheet would have only cost the Avs a second rounder. But yet again the Avalanche did what they do, and I’m still laughing. Losing Varlamov isn’t a positive for the Caps this year, but the loss was offset by the free agent acquisition of veteran Tomas Vokoun from Florida. Vokoun signed a one-year deal for $1.5 million, which is far less than many assumed he would get on the open market. Vokoun cited winning and playing in the playoffs as reasons he wanted to join the Caps, and he should do a bit of both for them this season. Backing him up / competing for the starting job will be last year’s starter, Michal Neuvirth, who was solid all the way around in his first full NHL season. The Capitals have to be considered as having one of the three or four best goalie tandems in the league, and that’s before we even consider likely AHL starter Braden Holtby, who seemed to rock a subzero GAA last year for the big club.
Forward Eric Fehr and defenseman Scott Hannan are both continuing their careers elsewhere this season, as well as a few other bit players. Brought in to “replace” Hannan is Roman Hamrlik, who spent the last four seasons in Montreal and placed fourth in the league last season in blocked shots. Also new to the Caps is fourth line center Jeff Halpern, who played last season in Montreal with Hamrlik. Halpern is solid on faceoffs and should give the Caps a solid 12 minutes a night. Washington also added two wingers who should be able to contribute in different roles. Troy Brouwer played his first three full NHL seasons in Chicago, winning a Stanley Cup in 2010. He now gives the Caps another top ten hitter in the league to add to Alex Ovechkin. Ovie ranked 10th in the NHL last season with 241 registered hits; Brouwer came in 5th with 262. Brouwer chipped in with 36 points for the Blackhawks last season after scoring 40 points in the 2009-10 Cup year.
The final free agent addition for Washington so far was winger Joel Ward, who like Brouwer, is entering his fourth full season in the NHL. Ward came over from Nashville and is now scheduled to cost the Caps $3 million for each of the next four years. Surprisingly, he hasn’t outscored Brouwer in either of the past two seasons. Instead, Ward made his money in the 2011 playoffs, where he registered 13 points in 12 games to help Nashville win its first playoff series in franchise history. Ward appears to be pretty strong and fast when he gets going, although I think he lacks the agility and puck command of a top-level forward. But Ward won’t be expected to be a top-level forward in Washington, and he should be a great fit for a team that needs playoff success in a bad way. Ward and Brouwer both have shown the grit needed to help their teams achieve in the playoffs, and should fit well into their likely third line roles for the Caps.
Offensively, the Caps boast two of the most dynamic players in the entire league in center Nicklas Backstrom and left wing Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin’s “full speed ahead” offensive mentality has won him many fans, but Backstrom possesses a more creative, finessed approach that gives Ovie the freedom to do what he does. Both stars had their point totals drop last year, but neither of them had bad seasons. The team decided to go with a more defensive approach in an effort to set up postseason success, and the change was looking good right up until the Caps were swept by division rival Tampa Bay in the conference semifinals. Backstrom could have done more in the playoffs, and should live up to heightened demands in his fifth NHL season.
On defense, the Capitals appear to be pretty deep. Everyone knows about Mike Green, who likes to pretend he’s a winger and has taken a lot of flack for that over the past year. Green blew up in 2008-09, scoring 31 goals and adding 42 assists in a season that moved him to the head of the class of fantasy defensemen. Green tacked on 76 points the following year before facing scrutiny for his lack of defensive awareness and accountability throughout Washington’s blown 3-1 series lead against 8th-seeded Montreal in the first round of the playoffs. Green struggled with injuries last season, and has essentially been taken off the radar as far as “great defensemen” go (which Green never was to begin with). It is interesting to me that the Washington team as a whole was able to shift its playing style and still achieve the east’s top seed last year, and yet nobody seems to think Green can practice some defense and change his own game. I’ve been very critical of Mike Green in the past, but now it seems everyone has figured it out and overcompensated on the hate. Let’s see if Green can’t put the work in this summer and come back as a more complete defenseman.
Aside from Green, the Caps have a lot of options on the blue line. They resigned Karl Alzner to a relatively cheap deal. Alzner will be 23 throughout the upcoming season, and was tabbed by some of the sharper hockey minds as one of the few restricted free agents that could have actually been worth an offer sheet. Alas, no offer sheet was given, and the Caps now have Alzner back in the fold. Younger and skating even more minutes will be 21 year-old John Carlson, who has shown the offensive potential in his 120 NHL games that has Capitals fans less concerned about Mike Green than they otherwise might be. Carlson has shown flashes while quarterbacking the Caps’ power play, but he still needs to hone his game, which can be said of almost any 21 year-old player.
Washington isn’t all youth on the blue line, as aside from adding Hamrlik, they also bring back Tom Poti, Jeff Schultz, John Erskine and Dennis Wideman, who once upon a time was the next big thing on the Bruins’ back line. Wideman had a solid year in 2010-11, scoring 10 goals and adding 30 assists. All four of the latter mentioned players should compete for playing time on the Caps’ defense. It is very possible that the Capitals shed one of these contracts in order to get under the cap and move a player that may not get much playing time. Of course, the easiest way to get under the cap is to move winger Alex Semin, who I did not address earlier because I get bored talking about one-trick ponies who don’t play defense and turn the puck over constantly. Semin’s hands seem to only be soft when he’s shooting the puck, as he reverts back to an ECHL puck-handler most other times. Semin’s goal-scoring can’t be argued with, and he fits in a particular role, but for $6.7 million the Caps could do better. I think they know that, but the problem is, so do most other teams. Semin could be a rental for some other contender, but teams like Washington who are out to win the Stanley Cup rarely are the ones selling the rental players.
2nd: Tampa Bay Lightning 2010-11: 103 points, 2nd in division
The Lightning had a playoff run last season that sets the bar pretty high in GM Steve Yzerman’s and head coach Guy Boucher’s second season in charge. Tampa Bay came back from a 3-1 series deficit at Pittsburgh and followed that with a series sweep of Washington. The Lightning then took a scoreless tie into the third period of Game 7 in Boston before surrendering their season-ender to Nathan Horton. It’s hard to tell a fan base to expect second place and that a trip to the second round of the playoffs would be a good encore, but that’s the way I feel about Tampa Bay right now.
Tampa Bay’s forwards are extremely talented at the very top. Steven Stamkos was second in the league in goals, while Marty St. Louis was second in the league in assists and points. However, after those two, one must wonder where the offensive consistency will come from. Teddy Purcell caught fire toward the end of the season and through the playoffs last year. Vinny Lecavalier continues to be enigmatic as everyone continues to wonder if he’ll ever up his game to his pre-concussion level. He has nine more years left at $7.27 million per, so the Lightning better hope to get some consistency out of him.
After that it’s rather thin. Gone are Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim, the former actually being a consistent offensive contributor, while the latter showed grit in the playoffs and was rewarded with a nonsensical contract by the Florida Panthers, who needed to overpay to get to the cap floor. In to replace those two are Tom Pyatt and Ryan Shannon, who are limited offensive players but can help a team win games.
On the blue line is where I’m interested to watch the Lightning this year. They have a budding star in Victor Hedman, the 20 year-old who was the 2nd overall pick in the 2009 entry draft. The 6’6” Swede is entering his third NHL season and will anchor this defense someday soon. I say “someday soon” because the Lightning locked down Eric Brewer to a new four-year contract in July. Brewer was the captain of the St. Louis Blues last season before being traded to Tampa Bay and playing a key defensive role in getting the Lightning to the brink of the Stanley Cup Finals. Two new additions to the Lightning defense are Matt Gilroy and Bruno Gervais, who both are physical and probably third liners for this Tampa Bay squad. Ahead of them should be finesse guys Mattias Ohlund and Pavel Kubina, and competing for dressed spots should be Brett Clark and Marc-Andre Bergeron. Of course, things will change from now until October 6, but those are the eight that Tampa Bay has right now. Of them, Hedman and Brewer are clearly the ones to watch.
The Lightning’s once vomit-inducing goaltending situation got more aesthetically pleasing with the trade acquisition of Dwayne Roloson last year, and the team signed the soon-to-be 42 year-old goaltender to a fresh one-year deal before letting Mike Smith walk to Phoenix. Tampa brought in Mathieu Garon from Columbus to serve as Roloson’s backup. Garon started out last season about as hot as Tim Thomas, but faded to a .901 save percentage while being beaten out by the crowned prince of Columbus’ nets, Steve Mason. Roloson and Garon make for one of the least sexy goalie tandems in the league, but assuming Roloson can stave off aging for another year, the Tampa crease should be alright.
3rd: Carolina Hurricanes 2010-11: 91 points, 3rd in division
Picking Carolina to finish ahead of Winnipeg after losing big, goal-scoring winger Erik Cole seems ill-advised, but it is based largely on two players: Cam Ward and Eric Staal. Ward led all NHL goalies last year in games played, shots against, and saves (by over 200). His .923 save percentage tied Carey Price and was only bested by three goalies who had 50+ games played: Tim Thomas, Pekka Rinne and Roberto Luongo, who were the three Vezina finalists in 2011. I think Ward is a tremendous NHL goaltender who can be counted on to carry similar peripheral numbers this season while potentially getting more than 8 games off, which is what he got last season while starting 74. The Canes signed Brian Boucher from Philadelphia, who no longer had need of the player after signing Ilya Bryzgalov to his big nine-year deal. Boucher is much-maligned, but he gives the Canes a veteran presence at the backup goalie position that they didn’t have last year. Youngster Justin Peters started the eight games that Ward didn’t, and Peters did not progress at all in having an .875 save percentage. Even with Boucher though, I would expect Ward to start 65 games this season.
Staal gives Carolina an elite center that Winnipeg and Florida do not possess. If hockey teams are built through the middle, as the old adage goes, then Carolina is building well. After Triple Gold Club member Staal, Carolina has Brandon Sutter and Tuomo Ruutu, both of which contribute offensively while Sutter continues to develop as an NHL center. Behind them Carolina has new addition Tim Brent to center the fourth line. The Canes hope that center prospect Zac Dalpe can get some action with the big club as well this year, but he’ll only get an extended opportunity if he can help the team win, as the Canes are coming off a 9th place finish in the east last year, and are only three seasons removed from making the conference finals (and six removed from winning the Stanley Cup). So while building for the future is very important, the Canes definitely want a return to the playoffs in 2012.
On the wings will be newly-signed Alexei Ponikarovsky, Jussi Jokinen and returning rookie-of-the-year Jeff Skinner. The Canes also brought in the older brother of St. Louis Blues stud forward Chris Stewart, whose name is Anthony. The elder Stewart appears to be a JV version of Chris, but can contribute offensively at times. Younger but more talented are prospects Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk, who like Dalpe, the Hurricanes would love to be able to develop at the NHL level this season as well. It all depends on how the youngsters play and what the team’s goals are as the season moves on.
The Hurricanes are led on defense by Joni Pitkanen, who skates, scores, hits and blocks. Carolina signed recent Cup winner Tomas Kaberle, who said that his brother Frantisek’s advice played a role in signing with Carolina. Frantisek Kaberle scored the game-winning goal for Carolina in Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals against the Edmonton Oilers. Carolina has three more D men to compete for top-four spots in Tim Gleason, Bryan Allen and Jamie McBain. All three blocked at least 103 blocked shots last year, while Gleason recorded 215 hits. McBain had the most offensive success last year, and is only 23 years old. My best guess is that Gleason and McBain join Kaberle and Pitkanen on Carolina’s top four.
A playoff appearance is possible for the Hurricanes this year, but so is a regression after the loss of Cole and the difficulty that Cam Ward will have to repeat his awesome 2010-11 season.
4th: Winnipeg Jets 2010-11: 80 points, 4th in division
This is just exciting. Winnipeg has an NHL team again. In fact, it had been about as long that Winnipeg had been absent from the NHL as it was that they were around (1979-1996 as the Jets; 1996-2011 absent). But it’s good to have them back, mainly because they provide another venue where the people care a lot about hockey. No matter how well the Thrashers played or who was in town, it was hard to watch their home games on the NHL package for more than five minutes. If nobody in the building cares, why should I from my living room? That problem is now solved for one franchise.
On the ice, the Jets should have the opportunity to compete. For one, they play in the one division in the east that could yield some easier victories. I think the Southeast should get better, but it certainly isn’t the division the Atlantic is. It could compete with the Northeast, but if we had to say one of the two divisions would get three teams into the playoffs, I think more people would go with the Northeast than the Southeast. If Winnipeg can take their divisional opponents and find a home-ice advantage that they lacked in going 17-17-7 in Atlanta last year, then the Jets can post a solid point total this year.
The most important swing player for the Jets this year is goaltender Ondrej Pavelec. Pavs memorably fainted a few minutes into the season last year against Washington, but came back and played pretty well for a good stretch of the season. Pavelec didn’t free fall a la Mathieu Garon, but he did end with a .914, which was only good enough for 23rd in the league. When the Thrashers traded super-talent Kari Lehtonen to Dallas near the end of 2009-10, they did so with the thought that Pavelec had talent close to Lehtonen’s, and could figure out the mental and consistency parts of being a starting NHL goaltender. As Pavelec enters the final year of his contract, this is the year that he has to put it together. He’ll be given every opportunity to start ahead of backup Chris Mason, and I think Pavelec is the key to helping this Jets team establish an identity early and push for third place in the division in year one. Ultimately, I have them coming up just short, but Pavs is the one guy who can up his level of play and get Winnipeg over an important hump.
I like Winnipeg’s defensemen. Tobias Enstrom is shifty and provides the offense a lifeline, while converted winger Dustin Byfuglien set the league on fire early last year before petering out. Byfuglien needs to improve his fitness level to be able to play over 20 minutes a game while not costing the Jets too much defensively. The Jets should have Zach Bogosian back on D, and he helps more defensively than the two offensive-minded blue liners in front of him. Winnipeg will have other options defensively, including Johnny Oduya, Ron Hainsey, Mark Stuart and the newly-acquired Randy Jones, who comes over from divisional opponent Tampa Bay.
Winnipeg’s forwards lack superstar talent, but they are solid and can succeed playing the right kind of hockey. First off, Andrew Ladd is a hell of an NHL player. I was happy to see him get off of that Chicago team that was disgustingly good in 2009-10. Ladd captained the Thrashers last year and should do the same for the Jets this year. He is a banger who creates goals through hard work and a physicality that Southeast defensemen were unwilling to match last season. That softness should largely go away this year, and Ladd will have to do even more to develop his offensive game and help the Jets score goals. Ladd has Evander Kane, Nik Antropov and Blake Wheeler to help fire some goals home. Alexander Burmistrov should be exciting to watch in his second NHL season. The 19 year-old was the 8th overall pick in the 2010 draft, and played 74 games last season as a true rookie. If he can speed up his development into the player that the Jets think he should turn out to be, there’s no reason he can’t be a contributor for Winnipeg this season given the rookie successes of Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Jeff Skinner and others from that 2010 draft class.
5th: Florida Panthers 2010-11: 72 points, 5th in division
This is sad to do, but I have to take Florida fifth in the division at this point. They went out and added ten players in the last month, and while many of them are overpaid, it doesn’t really matter when you’re around the cap floor anyway. The Panthers have the roster to finish third in this division; I have no doubt of that. But I don’t love them at goalie this season, and I think it should take time for a team full of new faces to find their identity and jell as a squad.
Defensively, the Panthers have a couple big names and a couple young guys who they hope can earn their way into increased roles this season. GM Dale Tallon brought in Brian Campbell from Chicago and Ed Jovanovski from Phoenix to anchor the blue line, and in doing so actually gave Florida one of the better top-twos in the league, should they play together. Dmitry Kulikov was the 14th pick in 2009 and is entering his third season. Kulikov now has a couple of really solid guys to learn from, and these acquisitions should only bring Kulikov along faster. The Panthers also gave a big entry level contract to Erik Gudbranson, who was the 3rd overall pick in 2010. They expect Gudbranson to compete for a spot on the roster in camp, and there’s little doubt that he’s a big part of Florida’s future. But as far as this year goes, we’re looking at a rookie defenseman who has increased his per game output in both points and penalty minutes in his three seasons with Kingston in the OHL. The Panthers also have Mike Weaver and Keaton Ellerby on defense, but the player I like more than either of them is Jason Garrison, who enters the final year of his contract and looked to me like a guy who can succeed in the NHL last season when he skated 22:17 per game and totaled 136 hits and 127 blocks.
The Panthers weren’t able to score any forwards with the talent that would equate to a Campbell of Jovanovski, but they did bring in some guys who should be able to give them something. But in my opinion, their best offensively player is David Booth, a guy they already had on the roster. Joining Booth are Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc and Matt Bradley. Returning for the Panthers are Booth, Stephen Weiss, Mike Santorelli and a few other players of expected lesser consequence.
In net, the Panthers are expected to roll out another new acquisition: 2002 league MVP Jose Theodore. Also on the roster is Scott Clemmensen, who certainly can be seen as competing with Theodore for starts due to the fact that Clemmensen has a heartbeat. In the long-term, neither of these players should have a huge role in the future of the team thanks to the fact that they are just keeping the throne warm for super-prospect Jacob Markstrom. The young Swede is returning from injury but should be fine for the upcoming season. It is conceivable that Markstrom could make the Panthers this season, but I’m not sure that Florida brass will want to have their future sitting on the bench rather than starting in the AHL. It would be fun to see Markstrom at the NHL level this year, but I think it’s unlikely that they will want to trot him out behind a group of skaters that have no experience together. Expect Markstrom to be the starter in 2012-13, but maybe not until then. Of course, if things go south again for the Panthers, they may let the kid take the reigns late this season.
Conclusion — While the Southeast may not carry the year-to-year intrigue of most other divisions in the NHL, this season might be a good one to start paying more attention to these teams. But when all is said and done, I’m picking an order of finish that mirrors 2010-11.
It’s time for the second of six editions of Premature NHL Prognostication, and we’ll pick up with the division that sports the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Northeast Division looks to be a three-team race this year with Ottawa and Toronto still rebuilding, but by no means should this division be ignored.
The talking points are there for every team contending for the top spot. Boston comes into the season as the defending champions for the first time in nearly 40 years, and brings with it nearly the same roster. Buffalo enjoyed its first offseason while under the passionate ownership of former natural gas drilling mogul Terry Pegula, who has turned his attention to hockey by funding Penn State’s startup program and buying the Sabres, as well as making some lower profile sports acquisitions. And Montreal is Montreal. They’ll always have their fan base, but they bring a squad into 2011-12 that has earned a reputation as playing tough and being better than the sum of its parts after advancing to the eastern conference finals in 2010 and pushing the Bruins to the brink in 2011. Let’s get to the unnecessarily early projections.
1st: Boston Bruins 2010-11: 103 points, 1st in division
The Bruins looked like an upper-echelon team early last season, but really at no point were they “supposed to win” the Stanley Cup. Even coming into Game 7 at Vancouver, the Bruins were a betting underdog, as almost any road team would be. The usual questions that follow a championship season exist:
  • Can the Bruins repeat in 2011-12?
  • Will the hunger be there during the regular season?
  • Will the makeup of the team be the same?
The last question can be answered in the affirmative. Boston has only lost Michael Ryder (to Dallas) and Tomas Kaberle (to Carolina) from its group that played most of the 25 playoff games this past spring. The money wasn’t right for either of them, and so the Bruins did the logical thing: let them walk. Most assume that 43 year-old Mark Recchi is done playing NHL hockey, and the team still has to get third-line winger Brad Marchand back under contract. Perhaps part of the holdup on Marchand’s new deal is due to the fact that team captain Zdeno Chara essentially deported Marchand back to Canada for “partying too hard” in Boston in the weeks that followed the Stanley Cup win. While I think young people drinking too much can be a serious problem, Marchand certainly sounds and plays like a character guy that most hockey teams would appreciate having, and I don’t think there’s any question that he’ll be back in the fold for the Bruins this fall.
Boston’s only free agent acquisition of note is left wing Benoit Pouliot from Montreal, who can be loosely seen as filling the positional hole left by the retiring Recchi.
The goaltending situation in Boston doesn’t really need to be examined too deeply. Tim Thomas is coming off his second Vezina Trophy in three years and the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP. Also on the roster is 24 year-old Tuukka Rask, who started 45 regular season games in 2009-10, along with all 13 playoff games that year. Rask figured to be the Bruins starter coming into last season, but Tim Thomas pretty much led the league in peripheral stats from wire to wire, giving the Bruins no choice but to roll the guy enjoying a season for all-time. Rask still managed to make 29 appearances last year, but regressed with a record of 11-14-2 to go with a 2.67 GAA. His .918 save percentage was solid, but didn’t measure up to his own .931 from the previous season, nor to Thomas’ .938 last year. All in all, there’s no reason to expect the Bruins goaltending to be anything shy of top ten in the league this season, and that’s almost a worst-case scenario.
The thing I love about the Bruins is their ability to do it all. They play a physical style, but also have guys with great skill. David Krejci revealed himself as a sharp shooter in the playoffs, and Nathan Horton came up with huge goal after huge goal before meeting his season’s untimely end early in Game 3 of the finals. Everyone knows about Patrice Bergeron’s two-way game, and Rich Peverley adds some B-Table offense to the team. Nobody is quite sure what to expect from sophomore center Tyler Seguin this year, but he certainly made good of his few opportunities in last year’s playoffs. Seguin has the potential to be the best forward on the team, but it will probably take some time for him to get his grip on the little things that make a guy like Bergeron so effective.
Defensively, the Bruins blue liners sum up the team as a whole. They are big, bruising guys who can jump in offensively and contribute. The back end is obviously led by the big customs agent, 2008-09 Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara. But beyond Chara, the Bruins have minute chewer Dennis Seidenberg, who is defensively sound and a good enough skater and puck handler to factor big offensively as well. The rest of Boston’s defenders are less polished, but they all play a role. Johnny Boychuk can lay a big hit, and Andrew Ference makes sure not to get beat. Ference was plus-22 last season, and tallied two-thirds the number of points in the playoffs as he did in the regular season while playing only one-third the number of games. Then he, er, didn’t flip off the Montreal crowd in the first round of the playoffs. Joe Corvo’s best asset is his belief that he can shoot the puck 120 mph, but if the Bruins are smart Corvo won’t be called upon to do too much this season.
Considering that the Bruins won the division by seven points last season before going on to win the league’s ultimate prize, I see no reason not to peg them as favorites in the Northeast this season.
2nd: Buffalo Sabres 2010-11: 96 points, 3rd in division
Buffalo and Montreal ended up tied behind the Bruins last year, and both teams ended up losing Game 7s on the road in the first round. But unlike Montreal, the Sabres went ape shit trying to land new players under the still new ownership of Pegula. The state of the franchise is a far cry from a few years ago when contraction or relocation seemed like a real possibility.
The reason I like Buffalo to finish ahead of Montreal this season is based on the idea that if two teams start out as equals (both had 96 points and lost in Game 7 of the first round last year), then the team that improves the most should be better in the near future. We’ll get to the breakdown of Montreal next, but the Sabres scored a couple of players in the offseason that signaled their ascent to free agent relevance, in case some people still hadn’t gotten the Pegula memo.
The biggest of the offseason grabs was German-born defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who had spent the previous two seasons with the contending Vancouver Canucks. Ehrhoff’s new 10-year, $40 million contract has been much debated, but the fact is he’s a Sabre now, and that can’t be anything but good for Buffalo on both sides of the puck. Ehrhoff’s fluid skating and puck movement should increase the Sabres’ time of possession and create scoring chances that previously were given to the Sedins and company in Vancouver. Ehrhoff tallied 94 points and played at a plus-55 in his two seasons with the Canucks (159 games played).
The Sabres also scored free agent winger Ville Leino, who came onto the scene in the 2009 playoffs with Detroit. The Red Wings were suffering from their typical injuries, and Leino held down the fort well enough to get the Wings through to the finals, where they eventually lost in seven games to Pittsburgh. Leino was traded the following season to Philadelphia, where he put together his first legitimate NHL season last year. The Finnish forward contributed 53 points in 81 games for the Flyers in 2010-11, and played in all of the team’s 11 playoff games. Leino appears to have solid offensive potential, as he skates well while also using his solid frame to compete for position around the circles. Leino amassed 77 points in 55 games in his final season in Finland with Jokerit Helsinki in 2007-08. He will be 28 years old throughout the upcoming season.
But the best new addition to this squad might be an old edition in the form of returning top-line center Derek Roy. The 32nd overall pick from ten years ago was rolling with 35 points in as many games before he tore a quadriceps just before Christmas. Roy returned to play only in the team’s final game in which they were brutally eliminated by Philadelphia. Roy may not quite be Brad Richards, but he is a huge boost to a Buffalo team that had to figure out how to score without him for the final 47 games of the regular season and the first six games against the then-defending eastern conference champ Flyers. Roy is shifty, quick and an excellent passer. I would expect nothing shy of 55 assists assuming Roy is able to play close to 80 games this season.
The Sabres recently resigned backup goaltender Jhonas Enroth, but I wouldn’t expect him to see a whole lot of time this year. Ryan Miller just turned 31 years old and could be entering the final stages of his prime. Most of the Sabres’ acquisitions have to do with owner Pegula’s seriousness about winning, but some of them also have to do with the fact that Buffalo knows that the window for having an all-world goaltender might be closing, albeit slowly. Between the success of elderly chaps like Tim Thomas and Marty Brodeur, and Miller’s own lack of having to carry a lot of weight around (6’2” but only 175 lbs.), I wouldn’t expect to see much decline in Miller’s play for at least four years. But that doesn’t change the fact that goalies are hugely important to winning championships, and Buffalo currently has one of the best. It’s not now-or-never, but it’s somewhat-soon-or-maybe-not-for-a-long-while.
The Sabres still have to figure out how to get into compliance with the salary cap, as they are rostering over $3.5 million too much with their current 23-man squad. But that will get figured out somehow, and I don’t expect it to include any huge losses. The resignings of defensemen Andrej Sekera and Mike Weber help fill out the blue line. Sekera played over 21 minutes a game last year, adding 26 assists. Weber brought the thunder with 158 hits in just 58 games. Bringing back winger Drew Stafford was also a priority in the offseason, and the Sabres did what they probably will do for a while now: they got their man. Stafford scored a four-year deal worth $4 million per season, and he will be expected to bring more consistent scoring than in seasons past. Stafford scored 31 goals in 62 games last season, and will only turn 26 years old in late October.
Two Sabres to Watch
Brad Boyes was brought in at the trading deadline from St. Louis, and the catchphrase that everyone wanted to use to describe Boyes was “sharpshooter.” Well, the gun misfired, because Boyes did not bring the Sabres that offense they desperately needed. He went for 5 goals in 21 regular season games with Buffalo before marking only one up on the board in the Sabres’ seven-game loss to the Flyers. Boyes has one more year left on his contract at a $4 million cap hit, and one has to wonder if he will be around at the end of the season, and maybe even at the beginning.
On defense, Tyler Myers enters his third NHL season. The 6’8” Texas-born Canadian was the rookie of the year in 2009-10, but took a long time to get off the ground last season. Myers was playing better by the end of the season, and contributed five assists and a goal in the seven-game loss to the Flyers. If Myers can emerge as a big-time NHL defenseman this year, then the Sabres have a very formidable group of blue liners. If he cannot, then a lot will be asked of guys like Ehrhoff, Sekera, the offensively-minded Jordan Leopold, and rock-solid Robyn Regehr, who had 180 hits and 142 blocked shots while skating 21:29 per game last year. Leopold is a career minus-28 in eight NHL seasons, despite playing for playoff qualifiers in six of those years. I know that plus/minus is sometimes a misleading or unfair stat, but in this case, I think the numbers fairly represent what I’ve seen on the ice. Leopold did manage 13 goals and 22 assists in 71 games last season, however. In short, the progress of Myers should help determine whether the Sabres are stuck between 6th and 8th in the east or if they can put it together and separate from Montreal while challenging Boston for the division title this season.
3rd: Montreal Canadiens 2010-11: 96 points, 2nd in division
The Canadiens have made a living lately by stuffing their detractors’ words right back where they came from. I doubted that Montreal would even make the playoffs last year, and then wrote that they probably couldn’t handle Boston’s size in round one. Well, they acquitted themselves just fine, again, and I’m done doubting them as a playoff team that can contend with anyone. On paper I don’t think the Canadiens should finish any higher than 8th in the east, but they seem to have a toughness that can’t be quantified.
Toughness means nothing without a good goaltender, and last season Carey Price established himself as one of the better ones in the league. We kept waiting for the immature Price to rear his ugly head, but that never did happen. From the first game of the season all the way to allowing Nathan Horton’s overtime eliminator in Game 7, Price was outstanding. He stood out. I’ve questioned his mental makeup in the past, but after last season, I’m convinced. Price looks like an uber-talented guy who finally grew up and figured out how to get out of his own head and just play hockey hard every night. I actually think a .920 save percentage can be expected this season, and it might need to be achieved. Price’s backup situation went from bad to bad when the Habs replaced Alex Auld with former Avalanche left-hander Peter Budaj. Price played 72 of 82 games last year, and he’ll need to play close to 70 again this year if Montreal wants to make the playoffs. The last time Price had to battle a Slovakian backup, he lost his job to Jaroslav Halak. Don’t expect history to repeat itself with Halak’s international backup, Budaj.
In front of Price will be a group of defensemen with different playing styles. Smooth-skating and hard-shooting Andrei Markov is back from injury and ready to go. The Habs resigned his polar opposite, Hal Gill, to a new one-year deal in the offseason. Gill is a towering man who uses his length and strength to keep defenders from Price’s crease. Youngster P.K. Subban is something of a combination of aforementioned two, possessing neither the size of Gill nor the polished offensive game of Markov, at least not yet. But Subban is just 22, and was able to come up with 14 goals and 24 assists in his rookie campagin last year. He also produced when it counted, as he was the one to notch the power play goal with under two minutes remaining in Game 7 to force overtime in Boston. Although Horton eventually knocked Montreal out, that doesn’t erase Subban’s biggest clutch moment of his young career. Subban had over 100 hits and blocks last year, an indicator that he gets involved often. Much like Tyler Myers in Buffalo, the Canadiens’ back end largely depends upon the progression of its bright youngster, P.K. Subban.
Montreal’s forwards appear to be less threatening on the whole than your typical contender, which is why I can’t project them higher than third in the Northeast. Outside of the short-but-dynamic center Tomas Plekanec, the Habs don’t seem to have a lot of firepower. There’s Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and the newly-signed Erik Cole, who score but can’t create the way Plekanec can. Gionta quietly scored 29 goals last year, while Cammalleri added 19 with 28 assists while missing 15 games due to injury. Cole was Montreal’s big offseason signing, and he is coming off a 26 goal, 26 assist season with Carolina. The Habs need Cole to at least match that output if they are to have a chance to go higher than Buffalo or Boston in this division, but realistically his contract should demand 30+ goals for a team that needs them to come from some consistent sources.
Scott Gomez and his $7.3 million cap hit continue to be talking points, but salary aside, he is the one forward besides Plekanec who has the speed and touch to create for others. Frankly, Gomez was not good enough last season. He limped in with 38 points (only 7 goals) and was minus-15 in 2010-11. But if Gomez can channel previous seasons, then the Habs can have their second centerman that they desperately need offensively. Since the lockout, Gomez had assist totals of 51, 47, 54, 42 and 47 before last year’s disappointing output of 31. The Alaskan is only 31 years old, so it’s not as if he’s over the hill and has no chance to physically recapture the magic, although it seems like Gomez should be older by now. He broke into the NHL in 1999 and played all 82 games in his Stanley Cup winning rookie season with the Devils. Since then Gomez won another Cup in 2003 before playing two seasons each for the Rangers and Canadiens, which brings us to the present. A two-time Cup winner with 508 career assists at the age of 31 shouldn’t be written off, but the Habs need a bounce back season by Gomez in a bad way.
Given their goaltending, talent at the very top, and fighting spirit, I think the Habs have the chance to compete with anyone. But considering what I think is a lack of depth up against a big spender and a defending champion, I think third place is what Montreal should expect this season, which should be good enough to get them back into the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
4th: Toronto Maple Leafs 2010-11: 85 points, 4th in division
Based on my love for Craig Anderson, I really wanted to put Ottawa here. But I just couldn’t. The Leafs have done what they could do lately to improve the squad while also focusing on the long-term health of the organization. They dealt away players that they knew were either leaving or demanding big paydays, as well as wingers who couldn’t live up to top-six responsibilities without all-star Cup winners around them.
The Leafs got a passionate effort out of no-name goaltender James Reimer, and rewarded him with a new three-year contract that more than tripled his pay grade. Reimer is expected to be the Leafs’ starter in net, but the previously anointed one, Jonas “The Monster” Gustavsson, is still hanging around and certainly doesn’t want his NHL career to go down in flames. A little healthy competition could turn out to be beneficial for the Leafs, if not this season, then later on down the line after one of them had to actually win a competition.
I’m almost done talking about winger Phil Kessel. The guy’s a great shooter, he’s got potential as well as past performance, but he hasn’t totally lived up to the trade that brought him to Toronto yet. In fairness, we all give Rick Nash and Marian Gaborik the asterisk of not having played with a great center, and yet Kessel’s situation hasn’t been any different in Toronto. The Leafs brought in Tim Connolly from Buffalo, so we’ll see if he’s the answer to Kessel’s goal scoring consistency questions.
The team also scored forward Matthew Lombardi and defenseman Cody Franson from Nashville in exchange for Robert Slaney and former Red Wing bust Brett Lebda. At the very least, the Leafs upgraded at each position this season with that trade. At most, they robbed the Preds. We’ll see how it turns out, as Lombardi is coming off a concussion that basically erased his entire season (he played two games). Franson notched a surprising 21 assists from the blue line last season, despite only playing 15:10 a night.
Toronto had a couple of forwards who “came up” last season, including center Clarke MacArthur and his linemate Nikolai Kulemin. Those guys played out of their minds from the second line last year, and we’ll see if either of them was a one-hit wonder or if the Leafs found a couple gems.
There were also some forwards who didn’t quite live up, starting with center Tyler Bozak. I think some of the Leafs’ youngsters suffered a little bit from being under the microscope. Bozak and Nazem Kadri should have better seasons this year, and one never knows if winger Joffrey Lupul is ready to return to being a sniper like he was with Anaheim once upon a time (and I mean “once;” Lupul only really overachieved during the 2006 playoffs). The Leafs hope so, as Lupul is the third-highest paid forward on the team. Anyone willing to bet that he scores in the top three? I didn’t think so.
Toronto has a few winners on defense. Besides the newly-acquired Franson, the Leafs boast one of the better overall defensemen in Dion Phaneuf. The big guy leads the team in salary, and rightfully so. Phaneuf must continue to bring it at a high level while also bringing along Toronto’s young defensemen, Keith Aulie, 22, and Luke Schenn, 21. Schenn is an RFA right now, but is really just waiting on a new contract. I can’t see any way the Leafs don’t come to terms with the promising blue liner who has the gifts to become one of the league’s best.
The Maple Leafs look like a team in rebuilding mode, and they seem to have a fan base that is ready to stay the course. Playoff appearances are always desired, but there’s almost no chance of the ultimate success this year, and I expect the team to keep building toward that ultimate goal somewhere down the line through consistent improvement. Fourth place is the status quo this year for Toronto. Finishing fifth would be underachieving, while beating out Montreal, Buffalo or Boston would be pleasantly unexpected. I don’t expect it, and the Leafs should finish around 10th or 11th in the eastern conference in 2011-12.
5th: Ottawa Senators 2010-11: 74 points, 5th in division
I really want to believe in the Sens. They have a goalie in Craig Anderson who rocked a 2.05 GAA in 18 games with the team last year, following a dreadful 3.28 behind a group of skaters who seemingly couldn’t care less in Colorado. One reason I wanted to pick Ottawa ahead of Toronto this year was based on Anderson’s first game with the Senators on February 19. He had one of his patented “give a damn” games and stopped all 47 shots in a 1-0 road shootout win over the Leafs. I expect Craig to enjoy a fresh season in Ottawa playing behind a group of players who seemed to love playing for the vocal goalie.
But then I looked at the rosters and realized the two problems with taking Ottawa over anyone this year. First, they just aren’t deep enough at NHL positions. They have plenty of solid young talent that contributed big time in bringing the AHL affiliate Binghamton Senators its first Calder Cup championship. But those guys aren’t ready to be day-in, day-out performers at the level needed to succeed in the NHL. And that would be fine, if the Senators had big time top-line players who took care of business.
Enter Jason Spezza, one of the few players I’m more tired of talking about than Phil Kessel. The Sens top center is still rolling at almost a point-a-game clip, and still rolling at a miss 20 games a season clip. And honestly, a team that is as young as the Sens needs its big time offensive talent to deliver at least a point a game. Fifteen players of consequence scored at that pace last season, and a team like the Sens need a guy like Spezza to be in that top 15 if they’re going to be able to overachieve. But despite Spezza’s talent, I doubt he’ll top 70 points this year, for inexplicable reasons. I mean it shouldn’t even be plausible to go back and relive the Alexei Yashin trade in 2001, but Spezza at least makes you wonder. Ok, you’re right, no he doesn’t. But still.

Is that styrofoam cup biodegradable, Jason?

Spezza reminds me of one of the many memorable quotes from the movie The Big Lebowski, where Jackie Treehorn sends a couple of collectors to The Dude’s apartment to collect sums of money that didn’t exist in The Dude’s household. After dunking The Dude’s head in the toilet and peeing on his rug, the thugs start to figure out that they got the wrong Jeffrey Lebowski. One intruder looks to the other and asks, “Woo, isn’t this guy supposed to be a millionaire?” Woo takes about a second before concluding that The Dude “looks like a fucking loser.”

Photo via
“No, like I said, Woo peed on my rug.”

Perhaps these words are a bit harsh and untrue, as Spezza is a multi-millionaire and has enjoyed periods of winning, most notably during the three-year stretch immediately following the lockout that saw the Sens make the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007. Spezza did manage 90, 87 and 92 points in those seasons, respectively. Yet the Lebowski summary remains. You watch him play, and you realize why he was the #2 pick in the draft in 2001. He shows control with the puck, speed and precision passing that can get any fan base excited. But then you keep watching and you notice that he can’t stay on the ice. You notice that his assist totals went south around the same time that fellow #2 overall pick (from the 2000 draft) Dany Heatley wore out his welcome in Ottawa and was subsequently traded to San Jose for Milan Michalek, who isn’t a top-six NHL forward, and Jonathan Cheechoo, who inexplicably led the NHL with 56 goals in 2005-06 before he forgot how to score and was waived, sent to Binghamton, and bought out of his contract before quietly rejoining the Sharks minor league team.
And so now, outside of aging captain Daniel Alfredsson, Spezza has almost nobody to turn to for support. Spezza’s individual talent leads one to compare him with the other Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire. But he’s quietly letting a promising career slide into irrelevance, albeit with the help of the organization dealing away talented players in exchange for very little. It’s too early to write Jason Spezza off, but from a team game standpoint, per Woo in Lebowski, he’s starting to look like a bleeping loser.
Aside from Spezza, the rest of the Senator veterans didn’t do enough last season, and from top to bottom don’t really have the ability to score enough goals to contend. Ottawa outscored only New Jersey in the entire NHL last year, so simple improvement may not be enough to get into the playoffs this year, or even to beat out Toronto in the division. I love Anderson, and I like the Sens talent on defense in the forms of Sergei Gonchar, Filip Kuba, Chris Phillips and Erik Karlsson, but I just don’t see enough offensive depth for Ottawa to contend for the playoffs in 2011-12. Former Red Wings assistant Paul MacLean will take over head coaching duties for the Senators this year. It’s a rebuilding process, and one that the B-Sens showed has real promise. The time just hasn’t come yet.
Next up, we’ll round out the eastern conference with our premature picks for the order of finish in the Southeast Division.

The NHL is as good as it has been since I started really following the league when the Pittsburgh Penguins were embarking on their first Stanley Cup run following my sixth birthday. At least five teams were pegged as more legitimate title contenders going into the 2011 playoffs than the team that actually won it (Vancouver, San Jose, Detroit, Philadelphia, and yes, Washington. I said going into the playoffs). The league is so saturated with effective players that we tend to think that almost all regulars are above average NHL players.
This of course is by definition not true, but what it does mean is that the average NHL player is better than he was maybe ten years ago. If you want another way of knowing that the NHL is amazing right now, check out the AHL. When the play of a minor league looks as good as it does in the A, the major league has to be great.
What I want to do today is begin a series of extremely-too-early looks at the various divisions in the NHL, and try to predict some orders of finish with some arguments. We’ll call it “Premature NHL Prognostication,” because it’s both self-deprecating and an accurate depiction of the league’s timeline. Let’s start with the division that both has arguably the most blood rivalries (Northeast fans can skip straight to the comments section to rip me a new one) and is also universally listed first when you look at the standings anywhere: the Atlantic Division.

1st: Pittsburgh Penguins 2010-11: 106 points, 2nd in division
The fact that the Pens actually tied the Flyers for the division lead without the services of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby for the second half of the season is pretty surprising. When you consider that Jordan Staal and James Neal only played 42 and 20 games for the team, respectively, all of a sudden the upcoming season looks very promising for the 2009 Stanley Cup champions.
All reports indicate that Malkin is ready to go for this season, and we also know that Crosby has been skating for a little while now. Of course, if Crosby were unable to play hockey this year, we would have to reevaluate the prospectus, but I think he’ll play and I think the Pens should be the best team in the division.
The Penguins have one of the better situations in the crease that can be found in the entire league. Marc-Andre Fleury is coming off the best stretch of his career, and Brent Johnson was fantastic last year in keeping the Pens alive early, before Fleury found his game. Johnson seems to know his role as a backup, and so there shouldn’t be a situation where the backup thinks he should be a starter, which can lead to some dissension at times. I am big on teams with good backup goalies and/or tandems, and Pittsburgh is a team that falls into the first category.
Defensively, Pittsburgh has certainly one of the best two groups of top four defensemen in the division, along with Philadelphia. The Pens’ top four includes Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Zybnek Michalek and Paul Martin. Orpik skated 20:53 per game last year, while the other three all played more than 21 minutes a game. Letang and Martin were credited with 24:02 and 23:22 of ice time while contributing 42 and 21 assists apiece. Near the deadline last year, Pittsburgh traded Alex Goligoski away. While Goligoski is potentially a star on the blueline, the fact remains that Pittsburgh has a really solid top four without him, and also got winger James Neal out of the deal from Dallas. My feeling is that Dallas got the better end of the bargain if we look at trades in a vacuum, but real life and hockey are not played in a vacuum. Given the makeup of the Pens, the trade made sense. The offensive production of Neal will determine whether the Pens got what they bargained for in the dealing of Goligoski.
The Pens have another forward who plays a similar game to James Neal in the form of Chris Kunitz, the man who single-handedly won the CCHA in 2003 with Ferris State — a feat I’ve yet to see duplicated in college sports since. Kunitz probably won’t have as high of a point total as Neal by the end of the season, but he did a good job last season to prove that his offensive production isn’t entirely tied to Crosby. Kunitz tallied 28 points in 39 games before Crosby’s final game, and 20 points in 27 games afterward.
On the lower end of the forwards, the Pens have a good combination of gritty guys and young up-and-comers. Tyler Kennedy, Mark Letestu and Dustin Jeffrey will all be a year older and it will be interesting to see how much they improve. And while everyone knows about Matt Cooke, the Pens also have Craig Adams and Arron Asham, and it’s not exactly like the team’s scorers are weaklings either.
Why the Penguins will win the Atlantic Division
I think the Penguins have the roster that is best apt to play winning hockey in all three zones. Some of this belief is based on the idea that Crosby will return, but not all of it. The Pens tied the Flyers in points last year, and while Pittsburgh gets Malkin, Staal and Neal for presumably twice the number of games this season, the Flyers will have to deal with the loss of two of their top forwards. I expect Fleury to have a decent season and sport something like a .915 save percentage, and Brent Johnson can be relied upon to win more games than he loses. With the skaters that those goalies have in front of them, they don’t need to be Vezina-worthy to win the division, and probably even the eastern conference’s top seed.
2nd: New York Rangers 2010-11: 93 points, 3rd in division
I know, I know. I’ve listed two teams from the Atlantic already and haven’t gotten to the Flyers. The decision between Philly and New York was tough, but I’m more sure of the Rangers for a few reasons.
First there’s the obvious addition of Brad Richards. It may take more time for him to click with his new Ranger teammates than most fans will want to wait, but by the break I would expect Richards to be doing what he does: creating numerous scoring opportunities a game while not being a huge defensive liability. The player most likely to benefit from the addition of Richards has to be left winger Marian Gaborik. He’s had to deal with not living up to expectations in New York for a while now, but this year he has a legitimate top-end center to play with, instead of a steady rotation of rookie Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov, Erik Christensen, and whoever else he had to hope to take feeds from last year. By no means is Gaborik an underrated player, but it is interesting that he is maligned while Rick Nash has always gotten the excuse of never playing with a capable center. That is probably because Nash plays a more likable style of hockey than Gaborik, but both guys have their chance to break out this year.
Another reason I like the Rangers to improve this year is that they have a really solid young core of players. This core has been pared down a little, but the big pieces still remain in the form of defensemen Marc Staal and Daniel Girardi, and forwards like Anisimov, Stepan, Brandon Dubinsky, Mats Zuccarello, Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust (if you want to count 27 as “young”). Ryan McDonagh should be ready to compliment Staal and Girardi as a minute-chewing defensman who can skate, hit, block shots and move the puck. The Rangers also have a couple of guys in Wojtek Wolski and Ruslan Fedotenko who have the capability of contributing on the offensive end, but also could turn out to be worthless, as they have been at different points of their careers. One red herring on this Rangers team is the complete lack of depth on the blue line. After Girardi, Staal and McDonagh (who are all young by the way), the Rangers have only two defensemen on the roster: Tim Erixon and Mike Sauer. Neither should be expected to set the league on fire this season, although Sauer was a cool plus-20 last season with the Rangers. Erixon is 20 years old and spent the last few seasons in the Swedish Elite League with Skelleftea AIK. Erixon tallied a point every other game last year, and was a first round pick of Calgary in 2009. All things considered, the defensive leaders might have to play upwards of 24 minutes a game this year, and you wonder if that might take its toll on Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. Probably not though, since they are young and hockey players.
As far as goaltenders go, I wouldn’t take a single one ahead of Henrik Lundqvist. The 2006 Olympic gold medalist is steady and technically as good as anyone there is, and when he’s in the zone, Lundqvist can make it seem like somebody turned the video game level to the toughest setting. Backing up the best active goalie to never win the Vezina is Martin Biron, who posted a .923 save % and 2.13 goals against average in 17 appearances last season before breaking his collarbone. Biron’s record was only 8-6, but that’s more of an indictment of the Rangers’ anemic offense than Biron’s play, as his peripherals would indicate. It should be noted that in 68 games, Lundqvist matched Biron’s save percentage and himself only allowed 2.28 goals per game. With goaltending like that and a maturing skating corps that added a Cup winner like Brad Richards, there’s no reason the Rangers shouldn’t have a better 2011-12 than the season prior.
The key to this team rounding out its roster is getting right winger Ryan Callahan back in the fold. The hybrid forward is a restricted free agent and has an arbitration date set for July 28, but most times we see a deal get done before an arbitration ruling. If the Rangers are unable to lock Callahan down before an arbitration ruling, he would then be on a one-year contract and would be set to become unrestricted next summer. New York probably doesn’t want this to happen, but they are up against the salary cap. They have about $5.77 million to add three roster players, and a player of Callahan’s impact probably demands a good share of that available pie. The Rangers may be alright with an arbitration ruling because they know that they can use Wolski’s expiring $3.8 million deal, as well as a few other smaller contracts that are set to come off the books next July, to help fund Callahan when he would become a UFA next summer. There are two things I’m certain of — 1) The Rangers want Ryan Callahan to be a Ranger for a while, and 2) The Rangers need Ryan Callahan if they are going to have a chance at a top two spot in the division and/or a second round appearance in the playoffs.
3rd: Philadelphia Flyers 2010-11: 106 points, 1st in division
The Flyers might be the most talked-about team in the last month, and for good reason. On June 23, the team traded away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, two centers who can also wing it who are both in their mid-20s. Those boys clearly weren’t aging rapidly, but it’s not like they were mere prospects either. Both Richards and Carter played integral roles in getting the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010. There have been insinuations that the Flyers had some locker room issues, but I’m not interested in sensationalism — just premature prognostication.
What we do know is that the 2011-12 Flyers should look a lot different than the team of the previous couple years. While those two borderline star players were shipped out, the Flyers brought in five forwards who should all see time in the top nine. Philadelphia scored a couple coups by bringing over Pittsburgh Cup-winners in Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot. Talbot adds toughness to an already tough team, while Jagr’s impact is less certain. Some people think that returning to the rigors of the NHL and its 82-game schedule after a three-year absence will be too tall an order for a player who will be 40 years old in February. But really, even if Jagr needs some precautionary scratch games, isn’t having him for 60 games potentially a boon for Philadelphia? I think that Jagr is primed for a solid 65-point season in which he probably won’t play all 82 games. And while most people criticize Jagr for his lack of defensive intensity and general disinterest in getting physical despite his huge stature, I would ask what the Flyers lost when Jeff Carter was shipped out. A big forward with elite hands who plays more like Sergei Fedorov than Chris Stewart? Okay, well, are Jagr’s hands not as elite as Carter’s? I guess we’ll find out.
Philadelphia got Jakob Voracek back from Columbus for Carter, and Brayden Schenn, hockey’s top prospect, from Los Angeles in return for Richards. Both players can contribute this season, but Schenn’s ceiling is higher as far as careers go. But while I enjoy looking pretty far into the future, this is supposed to be a writing of the 2011-12 season only. The Flyers also got winger Wayne Simmonds from the Kings in the Richards deal. Simmonds looks like he could be a hybrid-type of winger, but I’m not entirely sold on the scoring part of the deal. We do know what Simmonds goes full blast into the corners and plays a physical style that looks like it belonged in Philadelphia all along.
Defensively, it’s hard not to love the Flyers. The orange-and-black sported something of a “top five,” as Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, Andrej Meszaros and Braydon Coburn all skated between 21:04 and 22:30 per game, in descending order. All five are back in the fold this season and make the Flyers one of the most formidable defensive teams on paper. The unit clearly missed Pronger during the latter parts of last season, but assuming he can stay healthy this year, nobody will be able to take a shift off against Philadelphia.
The biggest acquisition this offseason for the Flyers is the guy who will play behind those tremendous blue liners. Some of the purpose of dealing away Richards and Carter was to make cap space for Ilya Bryzgalov, who comes over from Phoenix and gives the Flyers the big, athletically gifted goalie that the Flyers haven’t had since Ron Hextall. Bryzgalov is about as unproven in playoff hockey as a Cup winner can be, but he did get the Coyotes to a seventh game with Detroit in 2010, and also was 3-1 with the Ducks in 2007 while largely backing up J.S. Giguere en route to that Stanley Cup. I’m not sure that Bryzgalov will justify a nine-year contract that forced the moving of Richards and Carter, but the Flyers were desperately seeking the guy to fill their starting goalie hole, and we now get to see if Bryz is that guy.
The Flyers are not lacking big time physical players, but it’s two smaller guys who have come up huge offensively in recent seasons. Claude Giroux has emerged as a world-class playmaker, and Danny Briere has resurrected his once-drowning career by scoring timely goals and bringing it every shift. I believe that Briere and fellow forward James van Riemsdyk are the two swing players for the Flyers this year. If JVR is able to improve his game like a young player should, and Briere is able to maintain his high level of output, the Flyers can be the best team in the east. But if either JVR or Briere falters, the Flyers could finish third and barely get in the playoffs. I think they should be about even on points with the Rangers, but less than 50% of me likes the Flyers over the Rangers at this extremely premature point.
4th: New Jersey Devils 2010-11: 81 points, 4th in division
Everybody seems afraid to speak ill of the Devils as if they were the dons of hockey, but I can’t see where the return to a high level is going to come from for this team. Sure, they made a run of sorts last year, but they still finished 12 points out of the playoffs and don’t have any key additions save for probably Zach Parise’s return from injury.
New Jersey should be solid in net again with Martin Brodeur back in the fold. They don’t have a great backup, but Johan Hedberg did his job last season and certainly can’t be blamed for the team’s early season flub.
It’s true that Ilya Kovalchuk played a pretty great second half of last season, but he’s one man. Also, people seem to forget that New Jersey finished 4-5-1 in their last ten games last season, so it’s not really like they charged hard and just couldn’t dig out of their hole. Had they gone 10-0 they would have qualified for the playoffs with 92 points to NYR and Carolina’s 91 (assuming an April 9th win over NYR). I know that 10-0 shouldn’t be expected, but the narrative on New Jersey’s gladiator-like charge is kind of funny to me.
As far as Parise goes, I wrote earlier that endangering the ability to keep Parise by signing Kovalchuk to a ridiculous fifteen-year deal was about as smart as cheating on your Swedish model wife and mother of your children with waitresses and women who live in trailer parks. I’m looking at you, Eldrick Woods. The best American non-goalie is scheduled for arbitration on August 3, a week after his 27th birthday. I expect Parise to remain a Devil through that process, but it shouldn’t have come to this and if he is a UFA next summer I would liken that to Elin finding out about Woods’ indiscretions. If Parise has a reason and the ability to go, only dumb loyalty would keep him there.
To prove my point, let’s look at the rest of the Devils’ top six forwards and their salaries.
  • Patrik Elias $6 million — He’s a Devil through and through. I could nitpick the figure, but he belongs on this team the way Parise does.
  • Brian Rolston         $5.06 million — Are you serious?
  • Travis Zajac           $3.89 million — Yeah, I’ve watched him play. It’s not there, at least not for that money.
  • Dainus Zubrus       $3.4 million — This made me spit out my coffee. Then I remembered the ’97 Cup Finals and I smiled again. Oh, Dainus Zubrus, you’re all growns up now.
To add to the Devils’ lack of scoring at high prices, the back end didn’t play well last year either. Andy Greene was a solid -23, albeit mostly early in the season. And besides Greene and Henrik Tallinder, no defenseman played over 20 minutes a game consistently. Matt Taormina achieved just over 20:00 in ATOI, but that was in only 17 games played. Colin White was still Colin White. Anton Volchenkov appears to have done his best Greg Louganis impression with his career, although I like the big guy’s defensive game. What a relief that he signed that big six-year contract last summer!
All in all, people claim to like the Devils to have a bounce back year, but I think they’ll play to their ability in this division, which should leave them fourth again.
5th: New York Islanders 2010-11: 73 points, 5th in division
I hate to have to do this, but there’s no way I can pick a team owned by Chazz Wang to outplay any of the above four teams. The Islanders have a lot of really good young players, but I like to think that organizations need to be strong and efficient at the top in order to succeed. If my thesis is true, then NYI is due for an entertaining chase for fourth place that should ultimately come up short this season. I mean Chazz Wang was actually quoted as wondering aloud why 35 year-old goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who had spent a decade playing in important games, wouldn’t want to come play for the Isles. If Wang doesn’t know the answer to that question, then he’s as clueless as a sports owner can be.
On the positive side, the Islanders might get the most wins per dollar spent on salary this season, since they are currently $9 million under the cap floor with only three players left to sign. Blake Comeau has an arbitration hearing scheduled for August 4, and I’m actually not sure what the deal is with fellow forward Josh Bailey’s contract, but both players appear to be RFAs right now.
Aside from center John Tavares, who has drawn comparisons to Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos since being drafted #1 overall in 2009, the Islanders’ most exciting question mark appears to be between the pipes. I’m about over Rick DiPietro, but some still think he has the stuff to justify his top overall draft pick from 2000. If Rick D falters or picks up yet another injury, the Islanders can feature a number of goalies with some upside. Al Montoya was really good at the end of last season, despite once letting a dump in bounce off the side boards and into his net against Bowling Green while a member of the University of Michigan (I was there, and the fact that Montoya was a “chosen one” only added to the hilarity of that moment). Montoya didn’t make it with the Rangers, who drafted him 6th overall in 2004, but he’s still only 26 years old and may have finally figured out the mental game of NHL goaltending.
Deeper on the depth chart sits Kevin Poulin, a 21 year-old Canadian who rocked a .924 save percentage in 10 appearances for the Islanders last season. Mikko Koskinen is a 6’6” former 31st overall pick of the Islanders in 2009 who is just 22 years old. Koskinen struggled last season in four games with NYI and throughout his season in the AHL with Bridgeport, but perhaps he can follow the Montoya timeline and figure it all out later. The Islanders drafted another big goalie in 2009 in the form of Anders Nilsson. He stands at 6’5” and has played 58 games over the last two seasons with Lulea HF of the Swedish Elite League. All of these guys appear to be assets that the Islanders could hypothetically flip for established players, but who knows how these guys will turn out and whether Chazz Wang will put GM Garth Snow in a position to hunt for help before the trade deadline. Seeing as NYI flirts with the salary cap floor, I wouldn’t expect much.
I do like a lot of the Islanders’ young players, and I think it’s conceivable for them to finish fourth in the division, but when it’s all over I expect the team to bring it up the rear in the division, and the fans to take it there from old Chazz while he waits for the new arena that, to his credit, he has fought long and hard for.
I hope you enjoyed the Atlantic Division edition of Premature NHL Prognostication. Next up: the Northeast. Cheers.

Less than two weeks ago Brad Richards was still an unrestricted free agent. There were cameras that tracked his entrance to his agency’s Toronto office, and then sat around to film representatives of various teams shamelessly beg hockey’s best free agent to sign with them. It was all supposed to be the NHL’s version of “The Decision,” except that it was Brad Richards who was the prize, and not a name like Alex Ovechkin. Coverage was beaten to death, and by the time Richards signed where everyone figured he would, it was time for the story to go away.
Except now, the story won’t go away, and it might have repercussions that border on the unspeakable. Actually, screw it. We need to talk about it.
There, I said it. What has up until now been a laissez-faire attitude toward long-term contracts and the CBA in general is starting to become more ominous. People within hockey are talking about the fact that there has become one big problem issue with regard to getting a new CBA done by July 1, 2012: salary cap circumvention.

Take your hands away from your areas, it’s not that. It’s of course the term that relates to these long-term deals that are so front-loaded that they could be objectively described as nothing short of farcical. James Mirtle and Greg Wyshynski both recently wrote articles that detail what cap circumvention is, and why some within the league believe it’s a problem. We all are smart enough to know that paying a guy nine or ten times as much money up front as on the back end is designed for one purpose only: to pay the player enough money up front to lure him to sign, while also lowering his cap hit to a more manageable number. If Christian Ehrhoff’s cap hit to the Buffalo Sabres was $10 million this year and $8 million the next, they may not be able to field a team. But alas, his cap hit is $4 million in each of the next ten seasons, thanks largely to those last three years in which Ehrhoff is scheduled to earn $1 million a piece.
Before I get hate mail, my Detroit Red Wings are guilty of the practice as well. Everyone cites Johan Franzen’s contract as an example of cap circumvention, and while I couldn’t vigorously deny that, I would say that Franzen’s contract is nothing like the ones we’re seeing now. Henrik Zetterberg’s contract has also been cited because of the two garbage $1 million years on the back end. I would offer that at least he gets paid in the same $7.5M range for the first 9 of 12 years. Today, his contract would be considered angelic due to the fact that he isn’t raking 50 percent of the contract’s total within the first two seasons. But, as less wrong as the Wings’ two examples are, they are still clearly some lesser form of cap circumvention given the two back end years.
Regardless of your take on these contracts, the fact remains that the league approved them all. Hossa, Zetterberg, Franzen, Lecavalier, Pronger, Ehrhoff, Richards, Keith, Luongo and all the rest have been allowed to go on the books. Whether they remain there after the signing of a new CBA, only time will tell.
One reason cap circumvention seems to be such a problem in today’s NHL is that there seem to be stark ideological differences within the front offices of the various teams regarding the legality and morality of these foolishly front-loaded contracts. In the link above, Mirtle references Leafs GM Brian Burke, who is morally opposed to offering such contracts despite being in charge of the richest team in the NHL (a.k.a. the team best situated to pay huge money up front). Burke actually states that his refusal to sign what he sees as a dirty contract was a big reason the Leafs were unable to sign Richards.

Photo courtesy
Brad Richards from his Dallas days
Wyshynski also names Capitals owner Ted Leonsis as another who is against circumventing the salary cap. In fact, Leonsis’ two star forwards on long-term contracts, Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, are scheduled to make more money as the contract goes on. Those who oppose front-loading often cite it as in bad faith and not “within the spirit of the current CBA.”
I must agree that these negotiations do make an ass of the salary cap and are all a big farce, but I have to wonder if eliminating them is worth the fight. Unlike the NBA, which needed a lockout much like the NHL needed one in the summer of 2004, the NHL neither needs nor can afford a lockout at this time. The game is growing and succeeding thanks to the changes that were made six years ago. As I wrote yesterday, eighteen of thirty NHL teams sold at least 98% of their tickets in 2010-11. The NHL just signed a huge (by comparison) ten-year television deal that provides a revenue stream that is much deserved after the league had to eat Ramen noodles for a while. Things are going well. Fans are starting to get involved again, and I still have yet to meet a person who gave hockey an honest try and decided it wasn’t something that at least sparked some interest.
Aside from the number one reason that the league shouldn’t fight this too hard — the lockout — I want to ask a few more questions that might devalue this issue.

The rest of this section asks a lot of questions, and I use the word “you” often. It’s not pointed at “you” specifically; it’s supposed to be the royal “you.”

1.  Who cares? Why is front-loading a contract for a star player and adding a few joke years on the back immoral? Is it because that allows only the richest teams to land these players by offering them $9+ million early? We all know that nobody can carry a player with a cap hit of $10 million, so obviously the number has to be lower. So does that mean that we cannot allow an NHL star to make that kind of money in a season? Here’s the thing: the St. Louis Blues weren’t going to sign a player that had to be front-loaded whether it was legal or not. Even if rules required the cheapest year of a contract to payout half the amount of the most expensive year, the teams that aren’t capable of signing overpriced stars aren’t going to anyway. These teams aren’t paying $10 million this year, and they aren’t paying $7 million for seven years. Yes, these contracts cheat the salary cap and also shouldn’t be able to come off the books later, but in the end if everybody is allowed to do it, what’s the difference?

2.  If the NHL becomes contract police, will star players leave for the KHL? My gut tells me that not many would, at least not yet. By all accounts, the NHL is still where most players want to play. The facilities are better, the level of play is higher, and the championship trophy is constantly cited by foreign players as the holy grail of hockey. But still, the key for any league’s continued success is being understood as the best in its sport. Americans don’t watch MLS, but they do watch the English Premier League. Why? Because the EPL is a far better product. Some big name hockey players, including Jaromir Jagr, have left the NHL for greener pastures in Russia. While the KHL is still regarded as the second best professional league, the question is really whether the elimination of all circumventing contracts would push the early player payments down enough to have them choose to leave for Russia. I don’t know enough about the salaries of entire KHL teams to wisely predict how this would go, but I think all parties should be aware of this question before they crusade to limit how much dough a star player can bank, especially when teams are willing and able to pay it.

3.  Isn’t front-loading a contract the fiscally responsible thing to do? Stop me if I’m making stuff up, but aren’t the L.A. Dodgers bankrupt and close to being unable to pay their players because they back-loaded every contract of financial consequence? They still owe Manny Ramirez approximately $25 million, despite the fact that he played for two MLB teams more recently than the Dodgers and is now retired. The Dodgers were allowed to defer payments and end up owing lots of money way later than it should have been due. This is a recipe for disaster, as anyone who has ever gone to school on loans can attest. I understand the time value of money should indicate that it is always better to pay someone as late as possible, because a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow. But this ignores a couple key mantras that any debtor can attest to: 1) don’t go into debt over your head, and 2) pay your damn debts. If the Sabres want to be owing Christian Ehrhoff $40 million over a 10-year period, why is it a bad thing that they want to get 45% of that total paid off within the first two years? Yeah, yeah, they can invest the money and make interest on it that covers inflation blah blah blah. Have you ever heard of Bernie Madoff? Or market volatility in general, especially recently? Ask the N.Y. Mets about Madoff, and then preach to me something out of an ECON 201 textbook. If the teams have the means to pay the front-loaded salaries today, and it appears that all of these teams do, then why on earth would we want to mandate a culture that makes it illegal to make damn sure that teams aren’t going bankrupt in the future based on years 7 through 9 of some horrible contracts that force them to write checks that will bounce?
To continue off Question 3, don’t you think the teams and players factor the structure of the contract into their negotiations? So we see that Ehrhoff (and I don’t mean to pick on him, Richards’ deal was just as “circumventing”) agrees to get paid $40 million over a 10-year period, with $18 million of that coming in the first two years of the deal. Don’t you think he factored the front-loading in when he agreed to the deal? Don’t you think he (or his agent) understands the time value of money? Of course he does, and he agreed to this deal based on getting that much money early in the deal. If we took a hard line on cap circumvention, the Sabres would have had to do one of two things to get Ehrhoff signed while still staying under the cap. Either they would have had to chop off the last three years of the deal while also lowering the dollar figures per year, unless they were cool with a $5.3 million cap hit for seven years for not the best defenseman in the league, or they would have to raise the back end of the deal a lot while also lowering the front, in order to keep the cap hit in check. There’s no way on earth Ehrhoff would prefer this setup, since again, money ten years from now isn’t worth nearly what it is today. And then there’s the risk of a Dodgers situation, which no player wants to be a part of.
To finalize, I get that these deals are a farce. I understand the idea that shouldn’t be allowed to be dropped so substantially based on the tacking on of bogus years that players don’t intend to play anyway. I even get how it is technically unfair to the teams that operate within the cap, but don’t bring in the kind of local television / sponsorship money that the bigger clubs do. But to me, the risk of downgrading the level of play of the NHL to the benefit of domestic leagues in Russia, Sweden, or anywhere else doesn’t make sense for the NHL. Additionally, I’m not convinced that these offers are patently immoral, since the player ends up signing where he wants to play, and by all accounts most teams try to lure the same free agents with the same front-loaded deals. Lastly, it makes fiscal sense to pay your debts earlier so that you can be assured of a brighter financial future. Who can fault these clubs for not wanting to be $21 million in debt for the last three uninspired years of some aging former star? I won’t fault them on those accounts, but I agree the whole thing is a joke. It might need fixed, but not at the expense of a new CBA getting done. Not even close. Because remember, that means a… luh… lah… lockout.
With the NFL appearing to be wrapping up its summer-long fake lockout, and the NBA embarking on what seems to be a long and painful lockout that will actually cost the league games (if not an entire season or more) and potentially players, the fact that the NHL is entering a “contract year” scares me more than a little. The fact that nobody wants to talk about the real possibility of dragging our feet into another that-which-may-not-be-named concerns me a little bit as well. I know that CBAs get done behind closed doors, but as fans it may help to put a little pressure on the situation.
After my recent dialogue concerning attendance with some superb writers who align themselves with the interests of the Columbus Blue Jackets, I decided to dig a little deeper to see what we could find out about attendance as an indicator of the overall health of the NHL.
I know that most hockey purists cringe at the comparisons with the NBA, but based on the similarities of season schedules, shared cities and sometimes even arenas, I don’t think a comparison between the two leagues’ recent attendance records should be considered blasphemous.

Game attendance is certainly not the only thing that goes into a league’s financial health, but since these things aren’t publicly traded entities, we don’t exactly have an annual report with financial statements to look at. Additionally, I think attendance does go a long way toward giving an overall indication of whether a league or sport (or team) is trending up or down. If you can fill arenas, you have a future. All the rest of the revenue sources — television deals, advertising space, etc. — help determine whether your league can rise to the level of “best in the world” within its sport. I don’t think that there’s any doubt at this point that both the NHL and NBA are currently regarded as the best hockey and basketball leagues in the world according to the majority of players, advertisers and others within the industry. That’s important, but for now, let’s look at those attendance figures alone.
There seems to be a general perception amongst people who don’t do any research that the NBA is a lot bigger than the NHL. This term “bigger” is a little abstract, but I will admit that revenues for the NBA should be bigger based on a higher level of popularity amongst the “average fan.” There’s that term “popular.” If popularity is the trait by which success is measured, we can let the NBA win that one. Because it doesn’t matter how popular you are, if you can’t turn a profit — see $90 million loss this season by the NBA collectively, and that’s not considering the extra $250 million that the league is claiming to have “lost” through creative accounting for depreciation, amortization, etc. — then your long-term health isn’t there. That’s kind of like bragging about how muscular and good-looking you are right now, but dismissing the fact that HGH has caused a couple cancerous cells to replicate at speeds that are now too fast to contain. Congrats to the NBA for out-bench pressing us for a while, but now it’s time to pay the piper.
Besides, success is very much relative. If the NHL has half the fan total of the NBA, but a quarter of the cost, then who’s actually succeeding? But I digress.
Here is a table showing the number of franchises that sold 98% or more of their 41 home game tickets in the past three years. Remember, each league has 30 teams, so there’s no advantage either way.

It is clear that both leagues are trending upward, which is a good thing, but it’s also clear that the NHL packs more arenas than the NBA does. Perhaps this is a result of the NBA’s movement away from the middle and toward a league where stars play in star cities with other stars. Whatever the reason, the NHL consistently tallies more teams that sell 98% or more of their capacity than the NBA does, and it hasn’t been that close.
If you think this statistic is the result of some denominator advantage where the study was skewed toward the NHL to begin with, think again. In cities that boast teams in both leagues, the franchise with the better standing in its league almost exclusively owned the higher attendance record. So again, winning matters.
There are some instances where NBA and NHL teams share buildings. One of those instances is in Chicago, where the Blackhawks and Bulls split time at the United Center. Both franchises are in great positions in their leagues at this time, and were both tops in their league in total tickets sold to their 41 home games in 2010-11. This past season, the Bulls outsold the Blackhawks by 15,106 tickets total, or about 368 butts per game. In the prior season of 2009-10, the Blackhawks outsold the Bulls by 4,507 total tickets, or 110 people a night. It should be noted that the hockey team did this with only 40 recorded home games, compared to the basketball team’s 41. Add an average night of 21,000 folks at that last Hawks game, and the disparity would have actually been bigger than the one the Bulls enjoyed this past season. And that was before the Blackhawks were Stanley Cup champions, and none of the playoff games counted toward this stat. Hard to see those figures and argue that basketball is a lot better off than hockey. At least not at the ticket gate.
Other instances of shared arenas were not as close. In Philadelphia, the Flyers violently outsold the Sixers (by 33 percent). The story was the same in Washington, where the east-leading Capitals outdid the Wizards by about 66,000 tickets in 41 home games.

The NHL didn’t always lead the way in shared-arena circumstances, but perhaps another astonishing statistic is that the Lakers outsold the Kings by less than a thousand seats a game. That’s in Los Angeles, where the Lakers were two-time defending champions and enjoyed a regular season that saw them grab the 2 seed in the west. Conversely, the Kings have never won the Stanley Cup and have made the second round of the playoffs exactly once since 1993. Additionally, the Kings played the kind of season that saw them finish 7th in the west. Still, the gap between the Kings and the most popular team in the NBA was 914 people a night. With the potential ascent of the Kings, who are now a year older and new owners of Mike Richards, coupled with the departure of Phil Jackson from the Lakers and an aging superstar that is surrounded by questionable bench players, does anybody think that gap might actually close in 2011-12?
Again, in order to properly evaluate the health of the NHL we would need much more information. But as far as game attendance goes, the league could hardly be healthier. Eighteen of thirty teams selling 98 percent or more of their tickets is truly amazing, especially in a day and age where high-definition flat-screen TVs, social media and higher unemployment all contribute to lowering the motivation to actually go to games.
There’s still a long way to go toward a new CBA in our beloved league, but the revenue stream appears to be there, backed by the high attendance figures and the new television deal with NBC and Versus that is set to last ten years. Here’s hoping that’s good enough to vanquish “he who must not be named” for at least another five or six years.

If you’re interested in viewing these attendance figures for yourself, they can be found here and here. Take from them what you will.
For the most part, hockey culture has always been a step ahead in terms of toughness, respect, maturity and balance of mind. But as our nation of simps continues to stretch its tentacles, sometimes even the hockey world falls victim to the wrong kind of thinking.
Never is this meaningless bravado more evident than at the trade deadline and the offseason. These are the times when teams are attempting to bolster their rosters and have to make tough decisions regarding the on-ice personnel of the franchise. They are also the times when mistakes are made that can set a franchise back.

My two arguments can basically be summed up by the following two statements: 1) Talk is cheap, so don’t worry about making statements with your roster moves; and 2) Don’t be a simp — trade the player while you still can.

Before we go further, I want to say that I believe that most NHL owners and general managers do a pretty good job. Most front offices are doing a respectable job, and the congestion of last season’s final standings offer evidence of as much. Up to 27 teams have either playoff hopes or at least something to sell to their fans in terms of buying low and getting in on the new look of the team early, before it potentially grows into a really good squad. I think the latter depicts teams like Ottawa, Edmonton, Columbus and Florida, while the former describes almost every other team in the league. For the record, I believe Colorado and the New York Islanders offer neither in the short term, and although New Jersey certainly has playoff hopes this year, they still have some explaining to do.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s talk about the two dumbest lines of thinking when it comes to the magical dates of hockey buzz that are the trade deadline and the commencement of free agency.

Sign Players Based on Reality, Not Perception

First, we’ll deal with the offseason. There is a lot of rhetoric in the entire world of sports that says that a team must either resign its star players or go out and add other star players so that the team “makes a statement” of its intent to compete or shows that it has top-level ambition. I know that once a phrase gets repeated enough it becomes the de facto truth, but that does not make it true. This idea that a team must sign high ticket players in order to show that it is serious about winning is absurd. The reason to sign players to larger-than-warranted contracts is to win, not to give the impression that the team is trying to win.
This whole line of thinking misses the point, and furthers one of the most astounding false philosophies in the history of competitive sports: that perception is reality. This phrase originated as a way to basically say that there are multiple sides to every story, that what you perceive is your reality and what I perceive is my reality. Who is to say who is right? This is a legitimate issue for philosophy, science, literature and the like, but it has absolutely no place in professional sports.
Perception is not reality in professional sports. The scoreboard is reality. The standings are reality. The championship is reality. Sports are not a philosophical debate, nor a study into anti-realism. Professional sports are decided based on a set of league rules for determining a champion based on quantitative results of games that are also played according to league rules. That’s it. That’s what sports are.
I am not suggesting that sports are nothing else. Sure, teams are important to communities and people’s sense of identity. They give people the ability to blow off steam or forget about their troubles for a time. Teams offer kids the dreams of one day playing on those teams. Teams offer a boost to local economies.
But I’m arguing against this growing social media culture that seems to be forgetting that ultimately the goal is to achieve your goal. That sounds stupid and obvious, but really look at the way we analyze sports. Hockey isn’t quite as bad as the rest of the big North American sports, but we still see some of the same overused quotes. Right now, the big story in Major League Baseball is whether the N.Y. Mets, who have no money, are forced to hold onto star shortstop Jose Reyes for the rest of the season and attempt to sign him to a new contract in the winter. Mets ownership has stated that it wants to sign Reyes as proof to their fans that they are in it to win it. That’s the stupidest reason to make a move I’ve ever heard. Reyes is in the final year of his contract and has been toying with the Mets since signing an extension five years ago. He has told the team he will not participate in contract negotiations for the rest of the season, “because he wants to focus on baseball.” That’s a veiled excuse. It should read, “because he is pretty sure he doesn’t want to play for this team past the expiration of his contract.”
I digress into the Reyes MLB case study because it touches on both points I want to make regarding the hockey offseason and trade deadline. Since we are talking about the offseason, let’s look at it from the perspective of a team trying to sign a player. July 1 looked a lot like what Republicans have been forecasting for decades now — hyper-inflation. On that day, the terms of each contract were more jaw-dropping than the ones prior, and it got to a point where Brad Richards almost looks underpaid after signing with the N.Y. Rangers on July 2. In fact, after the initial day of free agency, many players have been signed to deals that are financially favorable to the franchises. So what happened on July 1?
People lost their minds. People felt desperate to keep up with the Joneses. People felt that perception was reality. The perception was that if my team is one that is going out and landing players, then my team is a player in the game, and this will translate to wins on the ice. And I agree that teams like Buffalo and Florida got better on July 1, but did every franchise out there get good value and set itself up for a solid future? Some did, some didn’t. Only time will tell for certain who the losers were on 1 July 2011, but there will certainly be some.
Last year gave us a perfect example of what can happen when a hockey team becomes obsessed with creating an image of strength, and figuring that this perceived strength will translate to actual on-ice success, and that example was the New Jersey Devils. The Devils thrived for many years playing their hard-working, trapping defensive style along with an emphasis on puck and positional responsibility in all three zones. They used this uncoined “sixty minutes of hell” philosophy to wear down opponents en route to Stanley Cups in 1995, 2000 and 2003. Then, near the trade deadline in 2010, the Devils acquired the offensively flamboyant Ilya Kovalchuk from Atlanta, a team that refused to be simped and dealt their star winger when they felt like he wasn’t going to resign with the Thrashers after his contract expired in less than five months.
The acquisition of Kovalchuk was admirable; it signaled that New Jersey understood that it could use an infusion of scoring, and that its championship window with Martin Brodeur was starting to close. Ultimately, the move didn’t work out, as the division champion Devils were bounced by Atlantic rivals Philadelphia in the first round. Kovalchuk can hardly be blamed for the loss, but the fact remained that the experiment didn’t work out, and that could have been the end of it.
Photo courtesy
Ah, the old saying: It’s all fun and games until a defensive-minded team ties up a ton of its salary cap for the next fifteen years on a winger that doesn’t get back on defense and turns the puck over. If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it one time.

But that was not the end of it, and the Devils might end up paying dearly for their commitment to perception. New Jersey didn’t let the Kovalchuk thing go, and there was constant deflection from the moment the trade was made that the Devils were not simply renting Kovalchuk, despite what everybody was thinking. It seems as if the Devils were so committed to debunking the idea that they rented Kovalchuk for the 2010 playoffs knowing that they couldn’t afford him in the offseason that they went against every grain of their identity and ended up signing the Russian winger to a 15-year contract, despite the fact that he makes little effort to get back on defense or play “Devils hockey.” Kovalchuk’s cap hit is currently $6.67 million per season for the next 14 years (as always, per The Devils finished 11th in the Eastern Conference last year. What’s worse is that they now might not have enough money to keep Zach Parise on board. Parise is a RFA who has epitomized “Devils hockey” in the last few years, but now the Devils only have about $7.8 million to add four players to finalize their roster. It would still cost another team a lot of draft picks to sign Parise to an offer sheet, but unlike the situation in Tampa with Steven Stamkos, there is a decent chance that the Devils simply could not match a high offer from another team for Parise.
Photo via
Wait, you signed a lesser LW to a fifteen-year contract without checking with Zach Parise (above) first? I heard the New York Knicks were looking for a GM…

If the Devils were to lose Parise, it would solidify their summer 2010 descent to the dark side in which they forgot who they were and ended up much worse off because of it. Quite simply, Zach Parise wins more NHL games than Ilya Kovalchuk. They play the same position, which is its own study of insanity. So what happened? Why would a franchise make a move that is so contrary to its historical mantra? Quite simply, the Devils were too concerned with making a statement of intent, with trying to prove some twisted form of ambition, with how they would be perceived, with things that are irrelevant.
There are many front offices that have largely resisted the urge to overspend or forget what their team is built around, but one that sticks out in this offseason is that of the Detroit Red Wings. General manager Ken Holland had money to blow for the first time in many offseasons when Brian Rafalski abruptly retired, and in doing so, gave Holland and the Red Wings $6 million to play with.
Rafalski hung up the skates, giving Detroit an unexpected $6 million hole to fill.

Many people were assuming that the Wings would be very active on July 1. The Wings were supposed to find a way to replace Rafalski and bolster the lineup in an effort to get over San Jose and Vancouver in the west; to hold off Chicago and Nashville in the division; to keep up with Los Angeles, who acquired a true NHL star in Mike Richards from Philadelphia in late June. After all, what would the Wings be saying if they failed to make some big signings?
But Holland played it cool. He brought back a few of his own free agents in Drew Miller, Patrick Eaves and Jonathan Ericsson. Then he went out and signed two right-handed defensemen (Mike Commodore and Ian White) for a total of less than $4 million in an effort to replace Rafalski by committee, which was the only way it could have possibly been done anyway. What would have been the point of going out and getting a guy like Tomas Kaberle (who shoots left, by the way) for close to as much money as Rafalski vacated? To put it in better perspective, why pay Kaberle 70% of what you’re paying Nicklas Lidstrom? He doesn’t give you anywhere near 70% of Lidstrom’s returns.
Regarding the situation with Lidstrom, having the reigning Norris winner coming back for what many assume is a final year could have only added pressure on Holland to go out and mortgage the future for the best possible chance to win the 2012 Cup. Once Lidstrom heads home to Sweden for good, there is a real chance that the Red Wings take a step back in the central division. Therefore, there exists a strong urgency for the Red Wings to grab that one last Stanley Cup as an icing on the cake for one of the great fifteen-year runs in recent league history. But Holland and the Wings’ front office have resisted the urge to sacrifice the future by dealing prospects, unloading draft picks, and spending cash irrationally. The result is a franchise that looks like it has an infrastructure that is set up to add many more years to its already best active playoff streak of 20 straight seasons. And it’s all because they didn’t sign players to bad contracts in a frantic chase for immediate gratification. They didn’t trade away youngsters who continue to come into their own with either the big club or in Grand Rapids. They didn’t deal away draft picks for aging, overpaid players whose best years are in the rearview.
Of course, sticking with this philosophy may not lead to any more Stanley Cups for the Red Wings, but it certainly leaves them with a better chance to be at least a contender for years to come than had they abandoned their mantras and tried to leverage a champion by adding unmovable parts that don’t fit with the squad. The Wings worried about reality instead of perception, and as a result, they have a 22-man roster that looks pretty formidable for even the best teams in the league. They have only a backup goalie left to sign, and after doing so the team should have almost all of Rafalski’s surrendered cap space to hold on to. Having this extra cash allows the Wings to either chase some replacements in the 2012 offseason, or make some deadline deals this year to bring in some considerable upgrades that may have expiring contracts. In case you’re wondering, there is a better class of 2012 free agents than the one we have spent the last week tracking, and those are the players that get moved the most in late February.
Which brings me to my next point…
Trade Your Impending UFAs (If You Can’t Win the Cup Now)
If your team is able to dodge the panic bullet in the offseason, fear not, as there is still another period where the ticking of a clock can make people with authority act crazy. In the offseason, the ticking clock is the one that displays the time left on a player’s free agency. Once that player agrees to terms with one team, time has run out. There is no knowing when this will be, and that adds some urgency to every team bidding on an individual player.
But in the case of the trade deadline, the time of the clock’s expiration is known. Many teams still feel the crunch when it comes time to decide whether to keep players or rebuild, and likewise for those teams trying to decide which piece(s) to add to make a run for the Stanley Cup.
In most instances where a good team tries to bolster up, I tend not to criticize these good teams for overpaying or bringing in a rental. After all, my team has won four Cups in my lifetime, and I know how awesome it is to win one. There’s no knowing for sure whether the Boston Bruins would have won this past Cup without the trade deadline acquisition of Kaberle, although many of his detractors are probably scoffing at this right now. But the fact is they brought in a guy that was pretty polarizing amongst fans and analysts, and it resulted in a championship. I’m not sure that you can’t put a price on winning the Cup, but whatever that price may be, it is much higher than the one the Bruins paid to rent Kaberle for a few months. So fair play, and congratulations.

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Tomas Kaberle in the only place he ever wants to be: just inside the opponent’s blue line.

But enough about the good teams who have a legitimate shot to win the Stanley Cup; let’s talk about the teams that don’t. If a team has a coveted player that is in the final year of his contract, and the team has no chance to win the Stanley Cup in the current season, then the player must be traded. This year saw two prime examples of teams that have no chance to win the ultimate prize failing to trade off sought-after pieces that were leaving the franchise in the offseason anyway.
Now more than ever, players are interested in winning. Blasphemy, you say? Here’s what I’m not saying: that players in previous eras did not try to win as much as those in the current era. That is not my point at all. My point is: as the world has moved on, athletes have become more likely to leave a franchise that treats them well in exchange for a better chance at winning a championship. Sure, money plays a factor in these deals for a lot of players, but for prime time players the offers are largely the same. It’s a lot of money to go to Team A, or a lot of money to go to Team B.
This season, the Dallas Stars sat on center Brad Richards the entire season, only to eventually finish 9th in the west because they couldn’t win a game on the last night of the season against the city that they used to play in. Had they won that game, they would have had to defeat Vancouver, San Jose, and then the winner of a Detroit – Nashville series to win the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl and advance to play the Bruins. There was no chance this was going to happen. None. To make matters worse, Richards had given every indication that he was not going to sign a new contract with the Stars. When one party in a relationship says it likes the idea of “testing the waters,” it’s usually a good time for the other party to trade the other one in.

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Everyone knew 2010-11 was the last season for this. Everyone but Dallas Stars brass.

In the east, the Florida Panthers were holding onto goalie Tomas Vokoun, who had given no indication that he wanted to continue with the losing club. Vokoun played last season at the age of 34, and had already been making solid money. There was every indication that Vokoun wanted to play out the rest of his days with a playoff team, and yet the Panthers failed to deal the keeper. And this situation was even worse than the one in Dallas, because Florida did not have the excuses of ownership limbo or competing for the last playoff spot to offer as reasons to hold onto Vokoun. Quite simply, there was no reason to hold onto Vokoun until the end of his contract. None at all. There was no upside. The Panthers finished last in the eastern conference with Vokoun. How much worse could it have been without him?
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“But I don’t wanna trade Vokoun; we’ll only get pennies on the dollar.” Okay then, take nothing instead.

It is true that when every other team believes that a team has to trade a player, the result is lowered value for the team that is “forced” to trade a Richards or Vokoun. But if the player is drawing attention from multiple teams, then the holders are not forced to trade them to any one team. Even if the value for those players is lower than it “should have been,” stubbornness is a terrible reason to refuse to get something in return for an asset that you know is departing anyway. And make no mistake about it, Dallas and Florida knew these two players were leaving, because remember, players want to play on winning teams now. Especially players in their thirties. So, what does it matter if you can only get one prospect or one or two draft picks? That’s more than what you will get if you just sit around and wait to miss the playoffs or get smashed in the first round by holding onto these guys who are dying to get out. For all of these reasons, I think the failure to trade Vokoun was one of the most inexplicable failures to boost a franchise that I’ve seen. He was not coming back. He didn’t fit in with your upcoming offseason plans. You finished last in the conference anyway, and got nothing for him except freed up salary, which you don’t use and would have had anyway by trading him. Find me a worse theoretical non-trade in hockey.
Perhaps the biggest problem that leads to these teams consistently failing to trade players who are upcoming UFAs and want to play on winning teams is that the front office members are too close to the situation. Of course, this is naturally how it has to be. If a person works for a team, they are closely aligned with that team. But this creates subjectivity, which is another way to say that the natural tendency is to plan for your team’s future with emotions involved. It’s impossible to be an emotionless robot, but perhaps teams should start bringing in some more objective consultants who know a bit about the game, but have no dog in the fight (besides this single-job paycheck).
Every general manager and owner has a tendency to see his team’s situation or brand as better than it is, which takes us back to that perception versus reality thing. The front office’s perception is that their organization is on the way up and is a great place to play, so that is their reality. Players who are free agents get to take a look at every team, and they get to perceive teams’ situations the way they will, and that becomes their realities. This failure to see their own overrating of themselves probably plays a role in why certain non-contending teams are unable to come to grips with where their teams really stand in the pecking order. This leads to holding onto a pipe dream of resigning a player who up to this point has not signed a contract extension.
The Marisa Miller Conundrum

Let’s put this in gentlemens’ terms. It’s going to be hard to draw a perfect parallel, since there is the dynamic of a franchise owning a player’s rights, but we’ll give it a try. Ladies, if you can’t put yourself in a man’s shoes, then substitute the female names with male ones, and it should all make sense.
So you’re a man somewhere between the ages of 26 and 35. At the current time, you have convinced all-world supermodel Marisa Miller to date you. In fact, it’s going alright, and you’ve got half a mind to propose.

Photo courtesy FHM
Marisa Miller: Sure, I’m the worldwide #1, but I have every intention to stay with your team, regular schmoe. What’s that, sign an extension? Well, not today, but…

But here’s the thing: for some reason, whether it be for work, school, something, there is a point in time coming where the two of you will have to be in separate halves of the world for the foreseeable future. This point in time is coming in, say, three months. You know from previous experience that the odds of maintaining a successful long-distance relationship are about 7 to 1. Those odds are made worse by the fact that she is Marisa Miller, and you’re you.

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Oh, hi incredibly mediocre boyfriend that struggles to compete for the playoffs. Don’t be silly, I’m not going anywhere. I look terrible without makeup!

Okay, so now you’re getting a little antsy, and you bring up the topic of marriage. Never mind the fact that Miller is married in real life — for the purposes of this experiment, she is not and has never been married. Upon your prodding, she admits that she is unsure of the whole idea, and would need more time to decide were “someone” to pop the question to her today. Again, you know that if three months pass, you are not getting a “yes.”
Here’s a wrinkle: because you are known to currently be dating Miller exclusively, female interest in you has picked up. You get word through backchannels that Alison Brie and Adrianne Palicki have let it slip that they would very much like to get to know you. Again, insert whatever names you want. The point is that you now have two lesser-known, younger-but-currently-less-hot professionals that want to play for your team (a.k.a. date you), and remember that this hypo has an American author, thus the particular names.

                        Photo courtesy
Adrianne Palicki was wondering if you were free next Saturday night.

Alison Brie: If he’s cool enough to land Marisa Miller, of course I’d be interested. Photo via.
Now, the flipside to this wrinkle is that their interest in you, rightly or wrongly, is based on you being able to lock down this supermodel that they admire. If Miller dumps you, this interest will disappear. If you try to cheat, Miller will dump you. If you let the three-month period expire and your relationship with Miller ceases to continue, the interest from the other women will disappear.
Quick: what do you do?
Here’s what you do if you’re a simp: you ride out the three-month period with Miller despite being given every indication that she is not interested in signing a long-term extension (engagement) with you. Then when that period ends, you throw up a hail mary of love, Roy Williams-style, and propose to a woman who has no reason to want to accept. One of you is leaving; she is embarking on a big upturn in her career / life. In other words, she’s going to test the waters.

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Yeah, it’s a $3 million bra, but I might stay with you, middle of the pack team — I mean boyfriend. Let’s just ride this out, and we’ll decide on a new contract in the summer, okay?

You get rejected, and now have no leverage to turn your previously good position into any assets at all.
Here’s what you do if you’re objective and looking to build a future that will always be relevant: you trade Miller, a highly coveted partner, for the chance to see what happens with two younger potential partners who are interested. I know this isn’t exactly how it works in the real world of relationships, but in some ways it kind of is. And it’s the best I could do to parallel the situations of hockey front offices with impending UFA players.
By waiting the Marisa Miller situation out, the guy ends up with nothing and has to start from scratch. By not trading guys like Brad Richards or Tomas Vokoun, the Stars and Panthers get absolutely nothing in exchange for the players leaving, which the teams should have known was going to happen anyway.

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Alison reminds you that the trade deadline is coming, and you ain’t winning the Cup with Marisa this year. Whatcha gonna do?

By making the tough decision and cutting ties with Miller, the guy ends up keeping his dignity and parlaying that into an opportunity to see if he can’t build a winner with Brie or Palicki.

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Adrianne: “No, but really though. Hi. I’m from Toledo.”

Comparatively, by trading players that either aren’t coming back or will have diminishing returns for prospects and/or draft picks, a team gives itself a chance to build something with players that it would not have otherwise had if it did the weak thing and let the UFA hang around and bolt upon the expiration of his contract. The Toronto Maple Leafs did a solid job of unloading Kaberle and Kris Versteeg to competing rivals Boston and Philadelphia. Sure, Versteeg wasn’t an impending UFA, but he is going to be a RFA after this upcoming season, and there wasn’t much of a chance he’d be a Leaf after that. They traded Marisa Miller in for a shot at future success. Kudos.
There were other teams that did a good job of realizing who they were, including the Panthers. Dale Tallon, Michael Yormark and the boys in Florida were able to unload Bryan McCabe, Bryan Allen, Michael Frolik, Dennis Wideman and others in order to set themselves up for this summer and beyond. But that one question remains: why not Vokoun? It doesn’t matter if the offers weren’t “good enough,” because the fact was that Vokoun was leaving for free this summer. Get something while you can.
Not All Overspending Is Warrantless
There were a few teams that have overspent this month for good reason. In general, I believe that you should always be looking for value as a consumer of anything, including hockey players. But in the case of our beloved Florida Panthers, they were kind of forced into signing players to inflated deals just to reach the salary cap floor of $48.3 million. The team is currently at $49.8 million with only one player left to roster. When we look at it that way, paying Scottie Upshall $3.5 million this season doesn’t look nearly as bad. It looks almost necessary. Who else were they going to pay that money to? The answer is likely to a player who is even less deserving of it.

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Easy there, Tallon. I said you did a good job overall. Just don’t get the Vokoun thing.

Another team that turned heads in the past two weeks is the Buffalo Sabres. Some people have been using that patented line to say that the Sabres are signing all of these big-time players to bigger-time deals in order to show everyone that they are serious about chasing the Cup. I think it’s probably more that they are actually chasing the Cup. And when we look at the makeup of the squad now, there really isn’t much room to criticize the moves of this offseason. Most of the bad deals that they have on the books date back to before Terry Pegula bought the team this winter (see Ales Kotalik, Tomas Vanek). On top of that reprieve, Ryan Miller is a week from his 31st birthday. Miller is in the prime of his career, but that won’t last forever. There are another few years where the Sabres may boast the best goaltender in the game, and they wanted to go out and acquire the requisite offense to support their 2010 Vezina winner. Again, these were solid deals because they were based on reality, and not perception.
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Buffalo Savior: Terry Pegula is the Buffalo Sabres new owner, and he gives a damn.

The last team I’ll touch upon before bringing this entry to a long-awaited close is the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Jackets lost some players this offseason, including Upshall, Commodore, Mathieu Garon and Jan Hejda, but they added a couple big-time players as well. Right before the month of June ended, Columbus acquired the rights to defenseman James Wisniewski, who was on the radar of many good teams in the NHL. The Jackets were able to sign Wiz by throwing a slightly front-loaded six-year contract his way that averages $5.5 million per season. Adding Wisniewski helps the team win hockey games, but it also aligns with the one instance in which making a perception signing is allowable — when a team needs to add fans. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still stupid to run a team based on trying to conjure up perceptions of ambition rather than building an actual on-ice winner, but teams like Columbus and some of the southern teams do actually need to create some interest. Of course, the best way to do this is to win, but signing a guy like Wiz does both.
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James Wisniewski and his awesome white stick got PAID.

Prior to acquiring Wisniewski, the Jackets were one-half of Philadelphia’s blockbuster June 23rd when they traded for Flyers center Jeff Carter. I’ve been critical of Carter in the past based on the length and terms of his contract, but on a team that is mired in fifth in its division in terms of franchise prestige, Carter is a relatively solid offensive pickup. Carter has eleven years left on a contract that carries a $5.27 million cap hit, and a known full no-trade clause from 2012-13 to 2014-15, but I’m not sure the Blue Jackets had the option to continue to sit back and fail. There have been whispers about the team being forced to shut down operations in Columbus for a little while now, and the last thing the front office wants is to engineer a team that had to move or contract. Never mind the fact that they’d all be out of jobs; it’s an embarrassing failure to be at the helm for that sort of thing. So in the case of Columbus, well done for giving off the perception of trying to win. Now, it’s time to merge perception with reality.