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WIth a half dozen or so games to go for most teams, the playoffs are starting to take shape. Although many possibilities still exist, what would be the most interesting first-round matchups that appear as likely as not to fall into place?
Eastern Conference
New York Rangers – If NYR wins the #1 seed, the obvious opponent from a perspective of intrigue is the Washington Capitals. The intrastate argument can be made for a Rangers – Sabres series, but the recent history exists between the Rangers and Caps. The last two times the Rangers have made the playoffs, their season has ended in first-round defeats in the home-seeded Capitals’ building.
Prior to their memorable second-round series with eventual champion Pittsburgh, the #2 seed Capitals had to survive a seven-game series with Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers. New York fell behind 3-1 in the series before forcing the seventh game. This was a feat they could not duplicate last year, when they dropped that road elimination Game 5 in Washington as the #8 seed. If this matchup is to happen, it would be the Rangers who would have home ice and possibly even the Presidents’ Trophy.

If NYR is caught by Pittsburgh, the almost certain first-round pairing would be with Philadelphia in the 4-5 series. That would be a high-profile intradivisional matchup that might have HBO reconsidering its decision to not renew 24/7. The possibility exists for a Rangers – Devils series, but Philly would have to tank it to allow New Jersey to make up a six-point gap with only six games to play.
Boston Bruins – I’ve never taken the “Boston better be careful or they’ll drop the division” talk seriously, and I’m willing to assume that Boston is going to place into the #2 seed in the east. Of all the teams they could face in the first round, I think the most interesting series might be against New Jersey, who sits only two points ahead of Ottawa for the sixth spot. Some would argue that Ottawa or Buffalo are the best opponents for Boston because of the divisional aspect, but I would much rather see a contest between similar-minded teams with very contrasting expectations and recent playoff showings.
Florida Panthers – It’s going to be hard to argue that the Florida series will be interesting no matter who they face simply because nobody cares about hockey in Florida. But if we’re going to pit them against any potential #6 seed, I would personally love to see them face Ottawa. These two teams finished 13th and 15th in the Eastern Conference last season, respectively. But the manner in which they would get to this potential 3-6 matchup is very different.
Florida went out and overspent last summer just to reach the salary cap floor, and had been targeting July 2011 as the month in which the franchise would be able to begin to turn the whole thing around. So far, nobody can argue with the results.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, Ottawa was supposed to be in rebuilding mode. Filip Kuba was supposed to have been dangled in February and shipped off to a playoff contender for yet more young talent and/or draft picks. Everyone of consequence besides Spezza and Anderson were either really old or really young. Alex Auld was the backup goalie.
But the Sens’ veterans ran the show, the rookies were solid and Craig Anderson was nothing if not reliable. Number 41 is never going to be the most consistent tender in the league, but dare I say consistency isn’t really the thing a “crap team” needs in net. Teams that are supposed to suck often have a decent enough, consistent goalie who always faces more shots than his counterpart and usually puts up a respectable 2.60 – 2.75 GAA while getting no goal support. This leads to a good amount of one-goal losses and not enough points in the standings.
A goalie like Anderson, however, is going to miss a lot of fairways and make some double bogeys. But when he’s feeling it, that same top-of-the-crease, gambler attitude is going to steal some games as well. And at the end of the year, that inconsistent style might lead to more wins and overtime/shootout losses, along with some more blowout losses. This leads to more points in the standings, and a better shot at playoff qualification.
Throw in the “goalie against his old team” thing with Anderson against the Panthers (which almost nobody knows or thinks about), and the idea that nobody takes either Ottawa or Florida seriously as eastern conference contenders, and what’s not to like about #3 Florida against #6 Ottawa? At least that leaves more “big boy” series for the rest of you.
Pittsburgh Penguins – This is obvious. If the red-hot, playoff favorite Penguins finish behind New York and get the #4 seed, everyone will want (and almost certainly get) the no holds barred Pennsylvania state title series against the fifth-seeded Philadelphia Flyers. It is entirely possible that the Flyers catch the Pens and get home ice for this series.
If Pittsburgh ends up grabbing the top seed, as most people have felt that they will for a few weeks now, the glaringly obvious NHL wet dream is that Washington finishes in 8th. You don’t need a lecture on the hype that would surround another Pittsburgh – Washington series.
Philadelphia Flyers – The revamped Flyers are probably going to finish third in the Atlantic and get the #5 seed, although the #4 is certainly within reach, and other than the location of a potential seventh game, it doesn’t really matter. The Flyers are probably going to face whoever doesn’t win the division, and whether it’s Pittsburgh or New York, the rivalry exists and doesn’t need manufacturing. The east’s 4-5 series should be one to watch.
I’ve laid out my desired opponents for New Jersey, Ottawa and Washington, and I think Buffalo would be happy to play anyone. I don’t really see a jaw-dropping opponent for the Sabres that would place in the east’s top two, although that’s not to say a series involving Buffalo would be boring.
Western Conference
St. Louis Blues – The Blues are closing in on a rather unforeseen division title and possible Presidents’ Trophy, and their 147 goals allowed this season are best in the league by a laughable margin. St. Louis’ most gimmicky opponent out of the 7 or 8 hole would be Colorado based simply on last year’s trade, but regular readers know what I think of the Avalanche’s front office and general leadership. Because of this void in direction and the fact that Colorado has only four games left to play and are already trailing the 8th spot, I don’t see the Avs getting in.
This would leave the Blues list of potential opponents as the entire Pacific Division with Anaheim swapped out for Calgary. As much as I love the Red Mile and the passion of the Flames’ fans, and as cool as it would be to see what San Jose could do with a #8 by their names (just think, Washington and San Jose as the EIGHT seeds), the most interesting opponent for the Blues from a style of play standpoint might be the Los Angeles Kings.
Sure, it might be a snoozer for the scoreboard operator, but I think the irony of this series would be worth at least five games. Just think, there’s this midwestern squad that doesn’t spend to anywhere near the salary cap, but has figured out a way to master the exact style of play that the team from Hollywood has been trying to play for some time now. Both teams fired their head coaches during the season, but only the small, red-state Blues have seen the kind of ludicrous uptick in results that followed.
Unlike most pundits, I do not think an early exit is inevitable for St. Louis. On top of that, I think the Blues match up with the Kings very well — much in the same manner the ’08 Red Wings did with the Penguins. Similar systems and styles of play, but one team just seems to be doing it better. Despite the studliness of Kings’ goalie Jonathan Quick and the ability of most fans to name more skaters for L.A. than for Dallas or Phoenix, I believe the Blues should actually welcome a first-round series with the Kings, lest they go up against an offense that can actually hurt them.
Vancouver Canucks – The Canucks are either going to get the #1 or #2 seed, and since I think the top six are already determined, I’m not going to waste time dreaming up another first-round series against Chicago. Vancouver’s potential opponents are pretty much the same as those for St. Louis, and of those teams I’d like to see the Canucks face the Dallas Stars.
Dallas is a quiet team that nobody feels they need to pay attention to, but a series with the Canucks would be akin to a #13 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament finally getting on TV. Nobody knows your players’ names until you start canning threes and D’ing up on a team that everybody assumed would advance to the next weekend. It happens every year, and a highlight series with the desperate Canucks might be what it takes to get trending topics in North America like “Jamie Benn” or “Lehtonen.” Dallas has a roster that clearly is highlighted on the blue line, but aren’t those the types of teams that are able to surprise higher seeds in the playoffs?
There’s always the possibility that San Jose slides back into the 7th or 8th seed, and this would make for the highest profile opponent that Vancouver could face in mid-April, but forgive me for not being all that excited to see another shockingly short series between these two.
San Jose Sharks – Chicago. Chicago. My kind of matchup.
This can only happen if San Jose wins the division and Chicago completes its BlackSawks plan of diving for the 6th seed, which looks to be fully operational, but there is absolutely no opponent that would be more salacious for the rest of us third parties.

Gary Bettman’s search history: 2012 Sharks – Blackhawks first round + British accent

Yes, we all want the Sharks to fail and finish ninth or something, but in the interest of eyeballs, a San Jose – Chicago series in the 3-6 matchup is another one of those “NHL google images Kate Beckinsale” type scenarios. Let’s get it done. Plus, one of them has to lose!
Nashville Predators – It looks for all the world like the Chicago BlackSawks are going to win the race to the bottom for the 6th seed, and so we’re left with the near certainty of a Nashville – Detroit series in the first round. This is cool, although as a Red Wings fan it’s a bit depressing. There is the whole contrast of styles thing, as well as the contrast of urgency. Detroit did next to nothing transactionally all year despite having all of this extra cap space that team owner Mike Ilitch dumped right into the pie hole of Prince Fielder. Nashville, meanwhile, went out and paid a crazy price at the trade deadline for Paul Gaustad, must have made Alex Radulov some sort of offer he couldn’t refuse to get him back over from Russia a couple weeks ago, threw the cash at goalie Pekka Rinne and hope to be able to do the same for defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber.
The Preds are coming off their first playoff series win in 2011 and are clearly gunning for the Cup right now. The Red Wings look more like an organization that is owned by an 82 year-old man who has already won four Stanley Cups and has that one last thing to do before he dies: get his baseball team a world series title. Look at the change in salary expenditures and policy and tell me I’m wrong.
Detroit Red Wings – Again, it looks like Detroit is going to lose the race to the top to St. Louis and the race to the bottom to Chicago, and will be stuck in the undesirable 4-5 series against Nashville. A series win would get the “see, we’re up there with the best and the struggles were only due to injury” bandwagon up and rolling, while a series loss would kinda, sorta disgrace Nick Lidstrom’s final year. And make no mistake about it, if the Red Wings lose in the first round after two consecutive second-round exits and failing to bring in any personnel help despite having a considerable amount of salary cap space for the first time in years, I highly doubt GM Ken Holland will be able to convince Lidstrom that the team is close enough to a Stanley Cup to warrant another year of unrelenting work. But then, I don’t think or live like Nick Lidstrom. Unfortunately.
Chicago Blackhawks – There’s that dream matchup with San Jose for the rest of us that I mentioned earlier, but I’ll tell you who Chicago shouldn’t want to play: the Dallas Stars. I’m not necessarily calling for a Dallas “upset” over Chicago at this moment, but come April 9th I might be.
The Hawks obviously are hoping for the return of captain Jonathan Toews, and therefore should want to delay any headlining matchups as long as possible. But what seems easier from a physicality perspective: playing San Jose or playing Dallas or Phoenix? To me the answer is obvious, and the Hawks seem like a team that needs to be kicked into gear anyway. Dallas or Phoenix just might lull Chicago to sleep. There’s no way anyone sleeps through a series with San Jose.
So Chicago, San Jose, let’s just see it already.
The Most Interesting (Possible) First Round in the World
Eastern Conference
#1 Pittsburgh v. #8 Washington
#2 Boston v. #7 New Jersey
#3 Florida v. #6 Ottawa
#4 N.Y. Rangers v. #5 Philadelphia
Western Conference
#1 St. Louis v. #8 Los Angeles / Calgary (L.A. for style, Calgary for fandom)
#2 Vancouver v. #7 Dallas
#3 San Jose v. #6 Chicago
#4 Nashville v. #5 Detroit
Apologies to fans of Buffalo and Phoenix, as well as L.A. and Calgary for only putting them halfway into the playoffs. I don’t apologize to any other team, because I don’t believe any other team can get to the playoffs. Except of course the Leafs…
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Sometimes writings take on a life of their own and go in a direction in which the writer hadn’t planned on going. It seems Richard Bachman has grabbed this blog and ran with it, at least for the time being.
For the second time in three nights, The Pen Name will lead the Dallas Stars out of their home tunnel and onto the ice in front of a national TV audience. Mind-boggling, if you ask me.
I’ve been very supportive of Bachman in his string of starts over the last two weeks, but that isn’t exactly to say I’ve gone out on a limb. The Pen Name is 4-1 as a starter since relieving Andrew Raycroft mid-game at San Jose on December 8. Tonight will be just his second home appearance after playing in five consecutive road games.

The opponent is the Philadelphia Flyers, who under normal circumstances would be heavy favorites to beat Dallas anywhere. But after the maiming over the weekend on home ice at the hands of the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, the Flyers skated decently to a disappointing result in Colorado two nights ago.
Philadelphia outshot the Avalanche 33-27, scored 1 power play goal in its 4 opportunities, and killed off the only two instances it had of being shorthanded. But Avs goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere was just good enough to steal the shootout win, and extend the Flyers’ “losing streak” to 1.5 games (I mean, we can’t really call it a 2-gamer, now can we?). These struggles probably make HBO very happy, since the Rangers are cruising ahead of the Winter Classic, and nobody wants to see two teams in cruise control.
Phoenix will bring its road warrior hockey club into Carolina tonight for a game against Cam Ward and the last-place Hurricanes. The Coyotes rock a 10-6-1 record away from the apathetic confines of the Jobing.com Arena, while playing even in front of the raucous crowd (7-7-2 home record). Apologies to Coyote fans for my exaggeration; you do create a pretty good scene during playoff games, and according to your Wikipedia page, ticket sales have increased and season ticket renewals are at an all-time high.
The Hurricanes have played some dreadful hockey this season, and look poised for a high draft pick. The results haven’t come yet under Kirk Muller, but the latest in a line of NHL ’94 stars-turned-head coaches (or in Randy Cunneyworth’s case, NHL ’94 bit players-turned-head coaches) hasn’t had nearly enough time. It was nice to see the Canes were able to unload Tomas Kaberle to Montreal recently, but the fact that he was on the roster only highlighted what I believe to be an uncertainty over the direction of the club. Carolina has multiple rookies and/or prospects that many still believe to be future impact players in the NHL. What they don’t have is a calming influence on the blue line, and with the only man on the team capable of delivering that, Joni Pitkanen, out indefinitely with a concussion, things look very bleak for the Canes this season.
Speaking of bleak outlooks, Montreal heads into Chicago tonight with very few believers left on the bandwagon. Professional writers are using terms like “gongshow” and “lack of direction” rather frequently these days to describe the Habs, and it’s hard to argue with any of them. The latest uproar surrounds new hire Cunneyworth’s lack of a grasp of the French language, but I’ve never been to Quebec so I’ll save any comment on that.
The Habs will concede the game try to spark the team by starting Peter Budaj at the Hawks, who just possibly might be tired from last night’s loss in Pittsburgh. One would have to expect a Chicago victory. Corey Crawford is expected in nets for Chicago, but nothing is yet confirmed at the time I write this, and Ray Emery has started the last six games to the tune of a 5-1 record. If it is Crawford tonight, it is an absolutely huge game for him. Most people expect Crawford to be the Hawks’ goalie going forward, but the season is almost halfway gone, and at this moment it’s hard to justify Crawford over Emery. A game against Montreal at home is the kind of game that any division title contender should wish for right now.
What should be noted is that this is exactly why the Blackhawks were so smart in giving Emery a tryout, and subsequently a contract and the backup job. I urged the Red Wings to make this same move, but instead Razor Ray is winning for the rival team. Things may turn and nothing is certain, but right now, credit must be paid to Emery for persevering through his terrible hip injury and to Chicago for realizing how important he could be to a roster capable of winning another Stanley Cup, but backstopped by a second-year starter.
St. Louis will start Brian Elliott at Colorado, who will counter with Giguere. Some people will go on about the Shattenkirk trade (my ode to MvsW), but I think enough time has passed that we can evaluate a game between the Blues and the Avs in a way that includes players besides Shattenkirk, Stewart and Johnson. Since I never pick the Avs, give me the Blues. David Backes will be the anti-Paul Stastny tonight in a micro-matchup between young American centers on different sides of the slope right now.
Tampa Bay plays at San Jose tonight, and I’m not going to waste anybody’s time going into detail on a game that, quite frankly, I’m not going to watch. I expect the Sharks should get this one done at home, but the NHL, like all professional sports leagues with built-in parity, is unpredictable. Not many people may remember this or care, but this game is a matchup between last season’s conference final losers. Give the winner a bronze medal, I say.
In what’s probably the game of the night, my Detroit Red Wings travel to Vancouver for the first time this year. Detroit beat Vancouver at Joe Louis Arena 2-0 on October 13 in a game that was unexpectedly dominated by the Wings, but that was when the Canucks were still in the beginning stages of their hangover. It seems the headache is gone now, and the home/road records would suggest a Vancouver win tonight. The Canucks are 9-4-1 at home this season, while the Red Wings are a simple 8-8-0 on the road. Detroit is usually a pretty good road team, but has instead opted for an eyebrow-raising 13-2-1 start on home ice en route to another good record through 32 games (21-10-1). Jimmy Howard is confirmed as the starter for Detroit, while Roberto Luongo is expected for Vancouver. That game starts at 10 p.m. eastern time.

Sundays are almost always lean in terms of NHL scheduling. In my younger 20s, we would refer to Sunday as “the day of reflection,” which usually tied in with getting our minds and bodies right after a few nights of good ways to make bad decisions. I think given my advanced age and rededication to the upkeep of this blog, Sundays are a good day to reflect upon the week that was with specific regard to Tram’s Table posts that previewed something that could use a little reviewing as well.

Boston Bruins d. Philadelphia Flyers 6-0


On Friday I previewed the Saturday afternoon duel for first place in the eastern conference between Boston and Philly. The title of the post was “Concussions Hinder Flyers Ahead of Saturday’s Tilt with Bruins for East’s Top Spot.” While I may have upset some Boston fans by glossing over the B’s issues, specifically the concussion suffered by Daniel Paille, the angle probably was spot on. Granted, it would have taken more than just Giroux and/or Pronger to reverse a 6-0 drubbing on home ice, but the Flyers had the look of a team that was more limited than a typical “9-1 in their last 10” team should be.

The Bruins looked like a team capable of winning a(nother) Stanley Cup. To do so, they may have to face the Flyers for a third straight year, and after last spring’s second-round sweep, it’s hard to find anything from yesterday that would suggest a reversal of the outcome of this potential series. It’s even harder when you consider that Chris Pronger is, at least as it stands right now, not going to take part in any more hockey this season.

Bachman d. Poulin 3-2 as predicted… then gets torched at NJ


On Thursday I keyed in on the Dallas at New York Islanders matchup because it involved the two goaltenders with the least amount of combined NHL experience. Dallas trotted out its AHL usual, Richard Bachman, formerly of Colorado College. The Isles sent out their preferred AHL tender as well: Kevin Poulin.

There is no need to retroactively preview the game, since that was another post, but the “something in the realm of a 3-2 Dallas win” turned out to be something of an exact final score.

Since that game, New York went back to this season’s best starting option in Al Montoya (of the University of Michigan… gotta plug NCAA hockey & especially the soon-to-be-defunct CCHA). Dallas, meanwhile, chose to roll Bachman again on Friday night in New Jersey on Scott Niedermayer jersey retirement night. It didn’t go well for The Pen Name. The Devils beat the Stars 6-3 with no empty netters.

Dallas plays next on Monday night on Versus at 8:00 eastern time, where they will host the horrendously struggling Anaheim Ducks. We will see if Bachman gets his fifth straight start or if Dallas benches The Pen Name in favor of regular backup Andrew Raycroft (he of the 3.53 GAA).

Red Wings blast Kings 8-2


On Tuesday I put my two cents in on the firing of Kings’ head coach Terry Murray, and the possible changes in playing style that may necessarily follow. It was recently announced, to nobody’s surprise, that Murray will be replaced by a Sutter brother for the second time. Eleven years ago, it was Duane Sutter who took over for Murray in Florida. Now it will be Darryl Sutter to try to lead the Kings back to the playoffs.

One possible side effect of Murray’s axing that I noted was a rise in the goals against department for the Kings. This would not necessarily hurt the team, as they could allow 0.5 more goals per game, but score 1.0 more and end up doing better in the overall standings. But the opening up of play would have a negative effect on goaltender Jonathan Quick, and to a lesser degree his backup, Jonathan Bernier. The drawbacks would probably be more fantasy-related than actual hockey-related, since the goal of any netminder is ultimately to just win games. But both gentlemen are up for a contract renewal after next season, and statistics can have a way of affecting a free agent’s next deal.

In the end, I don’t think there should be too much to worry about for L.A.’s goalies, because I don’t believe many people consider Sutter’s style to be all that different from Murray’s. Sutter presided over Miikka Kiprusoff, who in 2004 was not all that unlike Quick as far as career plot. That Calgary Flames team came within one goal line review of winning the Stanley Cup. And who knows, maybe the best forward from that ’04 Flames team will be a King before long… I should note that I doubt this will happen, but the Flames probably should be preparing themselves to trade captain Jarome Iginla before he retires and they get nothing in a potential deal.

After noting that L.A. was 6th in goals against per game in the NHL at the time of Murray’s firing, we looked at the five teams playing “better defense,” and noted that of the five, only Detroit had seemingly no shot at toting a Vezina-winning goalie. I’m sure my opinion is at least a little bit skewed by the fact that I root for the Red Wings, but I constantly hear people saying that Jimmy Howard is not that great, but that he plays for a team that doesn’t require great goaltending.

We broke the shots against per game statistic down and hopefully made a dent in some of that misguided armor.

Last night was a perfect Rug Game (it really tied the room together), as the Kings went into Joe Louis Arena and promptly got blown out of the building. Quick allowed 3 goals on 7 shots and was yanked less than 9 minutes into the contest. Bernier provided little relief, as he was only able to stop 15 of the 20 shots he faced en route to an 8-2 mauling. Howard saved 27 of 29, but as usual, that was of little note. Sutter will reportedly take over head coaching duties for the Kings on Tuesday, per Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times.

There are ten games on the docket in the NHL Thursday night, but despite two-thirds of the league’s teams seeing action, there is an abundance of youth starting in net for most of them. Outside of Henrik Lundqvist, Miikka Kiprusoff and Curtis Sanford, it’s hard to find any starter tonight that isn’t still a developing netminder, even those with Stanley Cups (Cam Ward & Antti Niemi).
But there isn’t time to highlight all of the matchups, so let’s look at the game tonight that features the two goalies with the least amount of NHL experience: Dallas at the New York Islanders.
For the road Stars, the annual injury to starter Kari Lehtonen has somehow not yet yielded the plunge off the cliff that many would have foreseen. Lehtonen hasn’t played a game since November 26, but Dallas still sits atop the division that few predicted would be substantially weaker at this point than any in the western conference. The reason for this water-treading has not been backup Andrew Raycroft, who has earned his typical 3.53 goals against average.


Instead, the Stars may have found the man to bridge the Lehtonen injury gap in former Colorado College goalie Richard Bachman, who coincidentally came into being ten years after Stephen King started writing novels under the same name. Bachman, the goalie, relieved Raycroft of his duties a week ago at San Jose, and went on to start the following two games. In that time, Bachman has allowed 1 goal on 72 shots. Tonight’s game is on the road, but that’s nothing new for The Pen Name. All of his appearances this season have been away from the friendly slush of American Airlines Arena.
While Bachman will try to extend his fantastic run against a team with just 9 wins in 28 games, the offensively challenged Islanders will trot out their newest goalie-of-the-future, Kevin Poulin.
Poulin was very good in 10 games last season with the big club, posting a .924 save percentage and rocking an unusual winning record for an Islander goalie. His work in Bridgeport this year has been less than mediocre, but he’s been tabbed for a while now and no Al Montoya success should stand in his way. Poulin’s .892 and 3.37 numbers are strangely comparable to those of Raycroft, except Poulin’s been doing that in the AHL. In his defense, he is coming off injury this season and also knows that he’s the franchise’s golden child, so why give a shit about the red light turning on in Bridgeport? I guess my CCHA bias is coming out again…
Poulin’s job should be made more difficult by the fact that Bachman’s emergence has exactly coincided with the return of two of Dallas’ most important skaters: captain and left wing Brenden Morrow and defenseman Alex Goligoski. I’m by no means saying that Raycroft would have saved 71 of 72 as Bachman has, but increase in team quality over the past week as compared to the couple before it has to start with the returns of Morrow and Goligoski.
Dallas has a hockey team that I typically enjoy watching, thanks in large part to their physicality. But one symptom of a team tougher than its talent is that it often times tries to lure opponents to sleep, which is something the Stars definitely have succeeded in doing with Lehtonen between the pipes. I’m not sure that’s the best strategy on the road against a team that has youth and knows it needs to get in the win column.
If Dallas comes out firing and intense, expect them to get a lead and hold onto it. Something in the realm of 3-2 makes sense to me. But if they try to play that sleepy, “extend the 0-0 as long as we feel like” game, the troops may rally in front of Poulin like they did last year in his brief pre-injury stint.
Players to Watch
Dallas – Trevor Daley & Stephane Robidas — Daley has been Dallas’ leading scorer in the short Bachman era, and both of the defenseman’s goals have been of the game-winning variety. Robidas is one of my favorite players in the league, and always tallies up the hits and blocks while playing time on the power play and giving the Stars solid two-way play from the blue line.
New York – John Tavares & Milan Jurcina — It doesn’t take a lot of guts or brains to peg Tavares as a player to watch, but I hadn’t mentioned him yet and he’s one of the more talented centers in the league. Jurcina is a mammoth of a D man, and one that the Isles were wasting early in the season. Not so lately, however, as the big Slovak has skated over 22 minutes in each of the last two games. Jurcina is not the best player ever, and certainly doesn’t have the offensive impact from the back end that team captain Mark Streit does, but I still think that given the proper time to play into his role, Jurcina can be an impact player that can help the young Islanders transition into the playoff contending team they want to become.
I know none of you will be watching tonight, but don’t let the names on the front of the sweaters fool you. This game will be an interesting one. Puck drop is 7 p.m. eastern time.
A story came out last night that the New Jersey Devils will honor Scott Niedermayer by retiring the former defenseman’s jersey number 27 high in the rafters at the Prudential Center.

This should come as no surprise to anyone, as Niedermayer was a part of all three Devils’ championships in the last two decades (1995, 2000, ’03), served as team captain in 2004, and won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman in that same year that he wore the “C.” What was a little surprising to me was that Scotty will be only the third player to have his number retired by the Devils, but then again, this is a team that has only been in New Jersey since 1982. On top of that, some of the Devils’ heroes and Cup winners are still playing, although it could be argued that only goaltender Martin Brodeur’s jersey number 30 has a reservation up on the ceiling. The other players to have their numbers retired by the Devils are both defensemen from the same era — Ken Daneyko and Scott Stevens (jersey numbers 3 and 4, for those who care).


I’m not sure that any Devils forwards will get the honor, although Jason Arnott’s overtime goal to win the Stanley Cup in 2000 was kind of a big deal. In addition, Patrik Elias is entering his 14th season as a regular in the lineup, served as captain in 2006-07, and is the franchise all-time leader in regular season and playoff assists and points, playoff goals, game winning goals, and many other notable statistics. To add to his resume, the team captaincy is currently vacant following the departure of Jamie Langenbrunner, and Elias just may be the logical bet to fill the spot once again, since Zach Parise’s future with the team is in doubt, and to name Ilya Kovalchuk as team captain would almost certainly be kissing Parise goodbye. [Read Tram’s Table on American NHL team captains, which includes a bit on Parise’s prospects of joining the bunch.]

An interesting note on the retirement of Niedermayer’s jersey is that the team is waiting until December 16 to do it. New Jersey will host the Dallas Stars on that night, which ties in with those 2000 Stanley Cup Finals, when Arnott’s Game 6 overtime goal reversed the fortunes of the Stars, who scored their own controversial Game 6 (triple) overtime Cup clincher of their own just one year prior. But that matchup isn’t the only thing linking the two franchises.

As I alluded to in my early prognostication of the central division, specifically Langenbrunner and Arnott being current members of the St. Louis Blues, there was a trade between Dallas and New Jersey in 2002 that many in the lone star state consider to have derailed the franchise. The sentiment only grew stronger when New Jersey won the Stanley Cup in 2003.

At that time, still in the aftermath of the 2000 Cup Finals defeat at the hands of the Devils, Stars GM Doug Armstrong orchestrated a trade to bring Arnott to Dallas, along with Randy McKay and a first-round draft pick. In exchange, Dallas sent Jamie Langenbrunner and Joe Nieuwendyk to New Jersey. Both players were important parts of the Devils’ most recent Cup win. Langenbrunner captained the Devils from 2007 – 2011. Nieuwendyk is currently the general manager of the Stars. Interestingly, Armstrong is now the GM of the Blues, who will roll out Langenbrunner and Arnott for the first time as members of the Blues in just over a week’s time.

So while it makes sense to honor Niedermayer on a night when the visitors are a team that played a key role in the storyline of the hosts, I have to wonder if there isn’t a little bit of rubbing it in going on here. Why wait three-and-a-half months into the season to have this ceremony on the one night this year that the Devils host the Stars? It could be that this is the date that best fits Niedermayer’s schedule. It could also be that the teams of the NHL want to bring history full circle as a way to remind old fans and educate new ones. It could also be that Nieuwendyk rather likes the idea of remembering his ’03 Cup hoisting against the franchise that he poured his heart and soul into — the very one that betrayed him with that ’02 trade, and the one that he is now in charge of. Or, it could be none of these things.

The logical choice as visitors to honor Niedermayer would have been the Anaheim Ducks, who play in New Jersey on February 17. Any other team in the league would have been an arbitrary choice, and one that would put the sole focus on the legendarily smooth-skating defenseman. But to choose the one night in the season when the Dallas Stars are in town reeks of sly salt-pouring, or perhaps an ode to warriors past. But whatever this decision was, it almost certainly was not arbitrary.
This may come as a surprise to some, but the Pacific Division was by far hockey’s best from top to bottom last season. Dallas brought it up the rear, but still came in ninth in the west, and that was only after losing on the final evening to miss out on the final playoff spot (which went to Chicago out of the Central).
But the Pacific failed to perform in the playoffs, as the division went 1-3 collectively in series against teams from other divisions (San Jose beating Detroit in seven games was the lone series victory). This season, I expect the Pacific to have two teams in contention for the conference crown, while there are two other teams that I think are set up to take a step backward. Let’s get to the meat.


1st: San Jose Sharks 2010-11: 105 points, 1st in division
This was tough. I typed out two paragraphs about why the LA Kings will win the Pacific in 2011-12 before I came to the conclusion that I don’t believe they will. On paper, I think the Kings might be the better team, but there’s something to be said for a group of players that have won four division titles in a row and knocked their new challengers out of the playoffs last year.
Of course, these Sharks won’t be the same team, as they shipped Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to Minnesota in separate deals that landed them winger Martin Havlat and defenseman Brent Burns. But the Sharks are good enough in their top six, four, and one that I think it’s slightly more likely that they win the division than it is that LA does.
That top six is indisputably led by center Joe Thornton, who has been maligned by some for failing to yet win a Stanley Cup. But putting blame aside, Thornton should be evaluated as a supremely gifted hockey player. He is a 6’4” center with hands like few who’ve ever played the game, and he’s listed at 230 pounds. Because he’s fast for his size and can protect the puck with his frame and strength, Thornton can play pretty much any type of game he wants. And it’s not like everyone didn’t already know he was a freak — he was the #1 overall pick in the 1997 entry draft. At 23 years old he was the captain of the Boston Bruins. The Bruins traded Thornton to San Jose in 2006, and Thornton was named league MVP after splitting 81 games between the two teams. Thornton had 125 points that year.
Perhaps the best reason why Thornton is not thought of as a prodigy the way seemingly every #1 overall pick is these days is because of the timeline of the internet. We all remember the outpouring of joy the Pittsburgh Penguins showed when they were awarded the #1 pick to draft Sidney Crosby with in 2005. He wasn’t even legal yet, but he had a nickname (“The Next One”), and we all knew it largely thanks to the internet. As the internet has evolved, everyone’s access to amateur player rankings has increased, and it has gotten to the point where we have to assume who the top pick will be, and why all of the bad teams need him. We had the attempt to dub the Edmonton Oilers’ abysmal 2009-10 season “the fall for Taylor Hall” that rightfully never really caught on. But as solid as most of these #1 picks always are, I don’t think there should have been more hype surrounding guys like Taylor Hall and John Tavares than there was around Joe Thornton. At 32 years old, Thornton only has a few more years left before his game could drop off a little bit, so the time for him to finally make good on this incredible hockey gift he’s been given has just about come.
Surrounding the elite centerman in the Wild’s top six will be Patrick Marleau, Martin Havlat, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe and Logan Couture. All of these players offer different strengths (and in some cases, weaknesses), and that’s what could make San Jose’s top two lines a couple of the more intriguing in the NHL this season. It will be interesting to see how the Sharks fare without Heatley. He is regarded as a top-notch scorer in the league, but he only scored 26 goals last season, and hasn’t reached 40 in a season since 2007-08. The Sharks sent him to Minnesota in exchange for Havlat, who offers a salary that is $2.5 million less than Heatley’s. If Havlat can keep from kicking players or being immortalized in one of the greater parodies / diss songs of all-time, there’s no reason he can’t pour in at least 20 goals and give the Sharks a more physical presence than Heatley did. But of course, Havlat must stay interested, which he says he will now that he’s on a team that should be participating in playoff hockey. Of course the last time Havlat played some playoff hockey, he got Kronwalled.
San Jose landed smooth-skating defensemen Burns, also from Minnesota, in a separate trade with the Wild. Burns fits San Jose’s playing style perfectly, as he has no qualms using his superior skating to get involved offensively, a la Sharks D man Dan Boyle. Burns should skate with Marc-Edouard Vlasic on the second line, behind Boyle and hard-hitting Douglas Murray. I think Vlasic is the man who could be upgraded, but he’s good enough not to lose games. The Sharks aren’t great on their third defensive pairing, but then, who really is? They will probably skate out Jason Demers and newly-signed Jim Vandermeer.
In goal, Antti Niemi consolidated his 2010 Stanley Cup victory with a steadily improving second season last year. Niemi started out so bad that many were calling for Antero Niittymaki to take the starting job. But Niemi corrected, avoided the crash-and-burn, and actually ascended higher than ever before his season ended at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks on one of the weirdest goals in NHL playoff history. Niemi can be expected to be in the top ten in peripherals this season, as he was 11th and 12th last year with his 2.38 GAA and .920 save percentage. Those stats were clearly hindered by his awful start, and it should be safe to assume that Niemi should come out of the gates better than last year.
2nd: Los Angeles Kings 2010-11: 98 points, 4th in division
Those two paragraphs I had written about why the Kings should win the Pacific started with the fact that they should be improved from last season thanks to some key acquisitions and returns to health, and included the idea that it is possible that San Jose did not upgrade their roster through their own moves. We’ve evaluated the Sharks, but there shouldn’t be nearly as much of a question surrounding whether the Kings improved from last season to this one.
LA started by trading center Brayden Schenn, hockey’s ultimate prospect, along with Wayne Simmonds and a 2012 second round draft pick to Philadelphia for center Mike Richards, who not only captained the Flyers, but also played a key role in helping Canada win the 2010 Olympic gold medal. Outside of acquiring Schenn and freeing up some cap space, it’s unclear why the Flyers would trade Richards. Many have assumed that he must have been a problem in the locker room, but we really don’t have any publicly known facts to base that off of. Regardless of the validity of people’s suspicions, I don’t think there’s any reason to assume that Richards will blow up the Kings’ chemistry, which needs to grow anyway.
Richards joins a team that already has a star center in Anze Kopitar. The first Slovenian to play in the NHL will turn 24 later in August, just like Sidney Crosby. People have been calling for Kopitar’s breakout season for a couple years now, but he was sidelined at the end of last year with a broken ankle. The Kings were ousted by San Jose in six games without the services of Kopitar (or, of course, Richards). Some article that I didn’t read on ESPN insider called for Kopitar to win the MVP this year, which I think is probably a bit much considering he has never averaged a point per game in any season, although he’s been very close in three of the five he’s played in the NHL so far. There are some similarities between Kopitar and big Joe Thornton, starting with size, but Kopitar’s game is a little more forward-skating and a little less creative, although neither player gives up a whole lot to the other. I’d suspect Anze can finally break the point-per-game barrier this year, but I wouldn’t expect more than 90 from the big man.
Part of the reason I’m curbing my expectations for this so-called MVP candidate is the LA wingers need to step their games up a bit. The one true exception is Dustin Brown, who I think is one of the premier right wings in the league. Aside from being third in the league with 300 hits, Brown led the Kings with 28 goals and added 29 assists, good for fourth on the team. The stud from Ithaca, NY has been the captain of the Kings for three years, and does a fine job in that role. Brown will turn 27 in November.
The other right wing is Justin Williams, who matched Brown’s 57 point output despite missing 9 games to injury. Williams was solid, but the Kings need even more if they’re going to win the division and/or enjoy playoff success this year. Williams needs to stay on the ice (maybe even play more than 17:15 a night) and continue to improve his offensive game because the Kings need the goals.
Opposite Brown and Williams on the left side will be Dustin Penner and Simon Gagne, neither of whom were Kings when the calendar flipped to 2011. Gagne has tallied only 40 points in each of the last two seasons, but both were shortened by injury. Perhaps more importantly, Gagne has played in 34 playoff games in those seasons, which means his teams enjoy some playoff success. He didn’t just phone it in either; Gagne was able to score 14 goals in the last two playoff years with Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, respectively. That pace would translate to 33 goals over an 82 game season, but Gagne hasn’t kept that pace during the regular season nor kept his health since 2008-09. If he can give the Kings a full season, the offensive numbers should be better than last year, when LA only outscored Columbus, Minnesota and Edmonton in the west.

Penner, on the other hand, appears to be stalling somewhat. After being traded to LA on deadline day this past season, Penner had two goals and four assists in 19 games. He added a goal and an assist in the first round loss to San Jose. People say he underachieved, but I’m not sure everybody realizes exactly what kind of a player Dustin Penner is. Because of his size and 32-goal season in 2009-10 for the Oilers, everyone assumes he has to be a top-six forward in the NHL. I’m not sure it wouldn’t be better for him to play third-line minutes and get into that grinding mentality. Unfortunately, the Kings don’t have the luxury of trying that out right now, as Penner and Gagne are, until further developments, the best two left wingers on the team.
Defensively, the Kings should be alright on the top four, but any injuries could expose their lack of depth. One way or another, Drew Doughty is going to play hockey for the LA Kings this year, unless they choose to trade him at some point. He’s waiting on a big contract, and talks could progress now that Shea Weber’s situation has been sorted out and there’s a dollar figure attached. Whether the Kings should shell out crazy terms for Doughty long-term is another matter, but in terms of 2011-12, Doughty is a much-needed piece of the Kings’ puzzle. Along with Doughty are Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi, who play some pretty good defense. Rounding out the top four is Jack Johnson, who plays defense like he’s chilling on a beach with an acoustic guitar, singing about rabbits. He’s not that Jack Johnson, but he is no more of a defensive success than the musician. Johnson hits a good amount of guys and skates some high minute totals, but he’s never seen a minus-1 that he didn’t like. But, he poured in 37 assists last year, so he’s great. On the last line of defense, the Kings have basher Matt Greene and then a slew of options at sixth defender. Many assume that spot will go to Alec Martinez.
The Kings’ goaltending situation doesn’t need a lot of previewing. Jonathan Quick has now gone 3-for-3 in having good seasons, and turned in his best one yet in 2010-11. Quick’s .918 save percentage tied Marc-Andre Fleury for 13th in the league, while his 2.24 GAA was good for fifth. Behind Quick is fellow youngster Jonathan Bernier, who had a Niemi-like season, except that he made his turnaround over only 25 appearances. Both goalies are entering the penultimate years of their contracts, with both (especially Quick) looking for a payday come summer 2013.
Los Angeles has the goaltending, centermen and team defense to win this division in 2011-12, but I’m leaning slightly in the direction of the San Jose Sharks.
3rd: Anaheim Ducks 2010-11: 99 points, 2nd in division
This prediction has two conditions: 1) Jonas Hiller must be ready to play hockey, and 2) Teemu Selanne must want to continue to play hockey. If either of these conditions are not met, especially condition #1, I’m picking Anaheim fourth. Let’s examine why.
Everybody knows and loves the Ducks’ top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. And why not? It’s a great line. They do it all, and more impressively, all of them do it all. But after them, Teemu Selanne is absolutely needed on the roster in order for the Ducks to score the goals to overcome those that they statistically should give up. Selanne is considering retirement after kind of shocking the hockey world with an 80-point season in 73 games last year. The Finnish Flash is 41 now, but he’s still needed for this Anaheim offense.
The reason why Selanne is needed might lie with Hiller’s condition. The Twitterverse is abuzz with photos of Hiller skating recently, so it looks like the left-handed goalie should be ready to return from his season-long bout with vertigo. If he is fully recovered, the Ducks are solid at starting goaltender. If he’s not, this could be a grease fire. Anaheim was 10th in the west last year in goals allowed, and surprisingly were only 7th in goals scored. That’s an average of 8.5, which makes the Ducks a borderline playoff team, which is what I believe they will be this year. Hiller’s backup appears to be Dan Ellis, which begs the question, “Why the hell didn’t Anaheim give Ray Emery a new contract?” Whatever the reason, they didn’t, and now if Hiller suffers a relapse of vertigo or comes down with any injury at all, the Ducks will be left with Dan Ellis to hold down the fort. Forgive me for not loving a repeat of Anaheim’s second-place finish in the Pacific.
The Ducks have a well-defined top four on defense consisting of Lubomir Visnovsky, Toni Lydman, Francois Beauchemin and Cam Fowler. Visnovsky led all NHL defensemen with 50 assists last season, and was second amongst blue liners with 18 goals (losing out only to Dustin Byfuglien, who is a converted winger). The guy was a power play leader, tallying 31 special teams points, as well as skating over 24 minutes a night. Visnovsky was plus-18, which was only bested on the Anaheim roster by Lydman, who was an appalling plus-32 (the league lead was plus-33 (Zdeno Chara)). Lydman did the rest too, as he had 141 hits and 178 blocks. That block total was bested only by Beauchemin for the Ducks, who also had 122 hits of his own. The biggest question mark in Anaheim’s top four will be Fowler and the commencement of his second season. Last year, the 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft lit it up offensively, scoring 10 goals and 30 assists. But the rookie turned in a minus-25 for the year, which screams of some liability. Granted, plus/minus is not the best stat to use to grade a player’s helpfulness to the team, but Fowler needs to cut that minus in half if his second season can be seen as a rightful improvement to a young career that seems to have no limitations.
After those four, the Ducks can probably feel comfortable rolling Luca Sbisa and Kurtis Foster as the third defensive pairing, but we’ll see if those two hold their spots.
Anaheim’s offense beyond the top line is worrisome if Selanne hangs them up. Centering that line is Saku Koivu, who while aging can still hold his own and at times show flashes of his previous self. But the fact that anyone is debating whether he or Andrew Cogliano will be the second line center kind of says a lot. And let me just say, it has to be Koivu.

Also in the top six is Jason Blake, who has never really lived up to the humongous contract he signed in 2007. Blake will count for $4 million against the cap for Anaheim this year before the Ducks will be out from under that one. He contributed 16 goals and 16 assists in 76 games last year. If Selanne does not round out the top-six, the Ducks may be inclined to increase the role of former Bowling Green Falcon Dan Sexton, whose scoring totals would need to increase drastically in order to soften the blow of a Selanne retirement from scorched earth to mere meteorite collision.
While I really like Anaheim’s defensemen at the top, I don’t think the Ducks have enough depth in any aspect of the game to get back to the top (or second) of the Pacific Division. And if Jonas Hiller is unable to resume regular starting duties, watch out.
4th: Dallas Stars 2010-11: 95 points, 5th in division
I discovered something while doing the research for this write-up: I actually like the Dallas Stars. I blasted them about a month ago for not trading Brad Richards, and while that has left them in shambles at the center position, they are actually above average at wing and on defense. Who knows what goalie Kari Lehtonen will bring to the table this year, but the former #2 overall pick certainly has the talent to also be above average, which I would call the top 15 goalies in the NHL (30 teams, but account for the fact that some use two goalies frequently).
Let’s start with the things I love about the 2011-12 Stars. If Sheldon Souray can give Dallas anything, literally anything, then he makes the Stars’ defensive corps good. Not above average, but good. How that translates to the goals allowed stat remains to be seen, but Dallas has every reason to trust its defensemen.
Stephane Robidas is one of my favorite players in the NHL. The guy had 216 hits and 135 blocks last year, as well as 30 points (17 on special teams) while skating 24:31 per game. He’s a fantasy gem for leagues that calculate stats like those — you know, stats that translate to on-ice team success. And now he’ll have a true #1 running mate in Alex Goligoski, who I touched upon in the preview of the Atlantic Division under the section on the Penguins, who traded the D man last season for James Neal and Matt Niskanen. More on Neal’s departure later. But Goligoski could be a game changer for Dallas.
The University of Minnesota product put up 46 points last season with both teams, skated 22:14, blocked 106 shots and played a quarterback-type role on the power play. Pittsburgh could afford to lose that latter aspect of Goligoski’s game thanks to already having Kris Letang, but the PPQB is something that Dallas needed desperately. Robidas can handle those duties, but he’s better off being the second most offensively talented defenseman on the ice.
Also on the blue line are Trevor Daley, Nicklas Grossman, Mark Fistric and Adam Pardy. One of the above will be the odd man out, unless it’s Souray. Daley and Grossman could start out the year as the second pairing. Daley had 27 points and 124 blocks last year while skating over 22 minutes; Grossman hit 161 guys. Both finished last season a plus-7. I’ll admit my ignorance on Pardy’s game. He looks to me like the strongest candidate for healthy scratch-dom, but he’s got to have this $2 million cap hit for a reason, right? Either way, we’re debating third-line defensive pairings at this point, and I already like what Dallas has going on in front of that, so let’s move on.
The Stars are worthy of envy at the wings. Left winger Brendan Morrow is heading into his sixth season as the captain of the Stars, and his game is worthy of wearing the “C.” Watching him play usually makes me think of Clint Eastwood’s characters, which can only be taken as a great compliment. The guy does everything, complains about nothing, and has gold medals for Team Canada from the 2010 Olympics and 2004 World Championships. He has only the Stanley Cup left to join the Triple Gold Club, although I don’t think there’s any way that happens in Dallas in 2012. But, the Stars may be on the right track if they can add some centers.
Aside from Morrow, the Stars have a couple wingers with great hands who actually make that translate into scoring goals. Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn are supremely talented offensively. Having these wingers, specifically Benn, is the biggest reason the Stars could afford to trade away James Neal in order to get that much needed defensive piece in Goligoski.
The biggest question will be whether Benn and Eriksson will have a center who can set them up, or if they’ll be added to the class of Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik and all of the other sharp-shooting wingers who had to do it alone. It should be noted that neither Nash nor Gaborik will have that continued excuse anymore. Perhaps Benn and Eriksson will become the new poster boys for that club.
A guy who looks like he should be able to score with Benn and Eriksson is the freshly crowned champ, Michael Ryder. The enigmatic right wing seems to have all the tools but none of the consistency, as he has yet to reach the 60-point mark since his rookie season in 2003-04. It could be that we overrated his talent, or it could be that scoring in the 50s is a perfectly acceptable output for a second-line forward. But Ryder failed to approach even that number in his last two seasons in Boston, amassing only 74 points while playing all but three games since puck drop ’09. That’s an average of 37 points, and Dallas will want (need?) at least 10 more than that this year if they want to finish third in the division and have a shot at a return to the playoffs.
Below these four, Dallas has a couple wingers who can play center in Steve Ott and Vernon Fiddler. Both are good on faceoffs and physical in open play. The Stars may need one of them to center the second line, as they really have nobody after top center Mike Ribeiro thanks to the free departure of Richards on July 2 to New York. Dallas also has tough guy Adam Burish, who won the Cup in 2010 with Chicago and can be counted on to keep opponents from taking too many liberties on the rest of the talented Stars. Their lower lines are pretty much your stock NHL lower lines, although I really like Fiddler joining this team. He may play on the fourth line, but he tends to get things accomplished in his brief playing time. Watch him play and you’ll see how an average talent can make a career out of working hard and playing smart.
In goal, the Stars need Kari Lehtonen to just take ownership and get it done. He didn’t have the best team in front of him last year, but he certainly didn’t have the worst either. Lehtonen went 2.55 / .914 last year, good for 17th / 23rd in the league. There’s nothing wrong with having average peripherals while shouldering the bulk of the load for a team, but Lehtonen can do so much better. His career is starting to take a Van Wilder arc, as the guy with all the gifts who can’t seem to put it all together and ascend to world-class status. In his defense, last year was his first injury-free season since 2006-07, and there is still time for the 27 year-old to get the steady flow of games under his belt and show his improvement. But the time may be now, as he only has two years left on his contract at $3.55 million per, and in order to get another big one he’s going to need to play well.
Another reason he’ll need to play well is the lack of a competitive backup. Andrew Raycroft returns as the second stringer in Dallas, and while he’s fine, he’s not going to push for a sizable chunk of starts. I expect Lehtonen to start around 68 games, and I expect top 15 peripheral numbers at the least. Anything short of that, and the Van Wilder arc continues. Anything within that realm, and Dallas has an excellent shot at supplanting Anaheim and Phoenix as a playoff team out of the Pacific. Although, it would be nice if they could find the money (they’re around the cap floor) to go get a legitimate center.
5th: Phoenix Coyotes 2010-11: 99 points, 3rd in division
I spent the spring bowing down to the Phoenix Coyotes and lamenting fans and observers for failing to see the beauty with which the ‘Yotes played. So, I’m an idiot. The Coyotes sputtered, gave up the fourth seed to Anaheim (and fifth to Nashville), and were the only team to get swept out of the first round of the playoffs. Subtract the starting goalie, a top-line defenseman and my beloved Vern Fiddler, and I can’t see the Coyotes getting back to the playoffs for a third straight season.
The biggest bright spot on the team might be defenseman Keith Yandle, who skates smoothly and distributes the puck with precision. He had a cool 48 assists last year along with 11 goals, putting him at the A-table as far as offensive defensemen go in the NHL today. Derek Morris and Adrian Aucoin are serviceable top-four defensemen who can get their hits in. Aucoin can still contribute some points despite having just turned 38. Morris added 136 blocked shots last year.
It appears as if the fourth piece is going to again be Michal Rozsival, who was alright splitting time last year between the Rangers and Coyotes. What’s staggering is his $5 million cap hit this year. Either pick up your defense, pick up your scoring, or skate the hell out of some minutes. Rozsival was in the low 100s in hits and blocks last year (100 and 108), scored 21 points and only skated 21 minutes. Those are fine numbers for an NHL defenseman. That’s actually chipping in. But at $5 million, the Coyotes need a lot more from the man who has seen a decline in his play since signing that big four-year contract that is finally set to expire next summer. The Coyotes are rolling out this top four after losing Ed Jovanovski to Florida last month. Jovo was a big reason why the Coyotes qualified for the playoffs two years in a row.
Shane Doan led the Coyotes last year with 20 goals. Somehow, a team that had only one 20-goal scorer managed to place 8th in the west in total offense. This offense-by-committee squad of forwards is mostly returning, with the exceptions of Eric Belanger and Fiddler. Phoenix added lower-line forwards Raffi Torres and Boyd Gordon. Center Martin Hanzal is a Doan-like player, and should be fun to watch in his fifth NHL season. But in total, the Coyotes would need another season of contributions from everyone in order to stay afloat, and with the loss of Jovanovski I don’t think the team is more apt to create scoring chances. Then again, maybe it’s time for BizNasty2point0 to take his rightful spot on an NHL team’s second line…
…And we’re back. On top of needing at least the same offensive output, the Coyotes might need substantially more offense to win games given the loss of starting goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. They brought in Mike Smith from Tampa Bay, who had a really great end to his season, but I’m not positive that being able to string together some heady starts as the bona fide backup translates into certainty that Smith has figured out the mental side of being an everyday starter in the league. He had countless opportunities to be just that in Tampa Bay before Steve Yzerman decided that they needed to trade for Dwayne Roloson in the middle of last season, but Smith never consolidated any of his breaks. I will say he looked like a calm man this past spring, and I hope he has finally figured out what he needs to do to be consistent in the league, but I don’t think anyone can be certain that he has. Even if he has, how is a consistent Mike Smith automatically an equal to what Bryzgalov has given the Coyotes over the past few years? It’s not automatic, probably not even likely, and so I guess I have to continue to be a skeptic.
All things considered, Phoenix looks to me like the best candidates for last place in the Pacific this season.
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 VancouverSun.com
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 CapGeek.com). 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.
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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.