Michael Ryder

Following the Boston Bruins’ hoisting of the Stanley Cup last week, many in the media were using the old clichés about teams beating talent and will beating skill.  I understand what those phrases are supposed to mean, but I think it’s a little misleading to insinuate that the Vancouver Canucks were not united, or that the Bruins lacked skill or talent.  The better team won the series.  Boston won four of the seven games.  They won their four games by 7, 4, 3 and 4 goals, respectively.  They lost their three games by one goal apiece.
I read a lot of opinions that the Canucks blew a golden opportunity.  I know on the surface it sounds nuts, but I disagree.  In fact, had the Canucks won Game 7 at home like the -150 money line said they were supposed to, it would have been the Bruins who blew the opportunity.  You see, when teams take each other seven games, it’s the team that lost games that it could have won that really has the burden of a blown opportunity.  Vancouver lost exactly zero games that it could have won, if we agree that the 4.5 goal margin equates to no opportunities, which of course it must.  Boston is the team that twice blew stellar one goal allowed efforts from MVP Tim Thomas, and tacked on an overtime loss to boot.  People can misremember this series all they want, and talk about how Vancouver really let it slip away, but the facts show that the Canucks truly almost stole the series from the Bruins, who would have had a hard time dealing with their blown opportunity.
With this said, I want to look ahead to next season to see which, if either, team can be expected to get back to the Stanley Cup finals.

Vancouver Canucks

For some time now, people have been applauding the job that Vancouver has done to build such a great roster despite the limitations of the salary cap.  While I agree that the Canucks looked rather stacked, they were a team that was really built to win in 2011.  The pieces are in place for a smooth transition into next season, but the Canucks have ten roster spots to fill in the offseason and only about $13.7 million with which to do that.  This average of $1.37 million per roster opening ranks 24th in the league.
The biggest of the big names are all back for the Canucks.  The Sedins are signed for 3 more years; Ryan Kesler is locked up for 5 more campaigns.  Manny Malhotra and Alex Burrows are entering their penultimate seasons under contract, and Mikael Samuelsson and Mason Raymond both have one more year left.  Whether or not the Canucks buy out Samuelsson’s $2.5 million contract remains to be seen, but they can probably expect some delays in production from Raymond, who is out at least four months from now after suffering that terrible injury to his back in Game 6.  The rest of Vancouver’s forwards — Maxim Lapierre, Jannik Hansen, Chris Higgins, Raffi Torres, Jeff Tambellini and Tanner Glass — are all free agents on July 1.  It should be noted that Lapierre and Hansen are RFAs, which will make it much easier for the Canucks to retain them, should they want to do so.  Remember though, only $13.7 million to go around…
The situation on the blue line really makes it clear how important the 2011 championship was to this team.  Going into the free agency period, the Canucks have Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard and Alex Edler locked up past the upcoming season.  They have Aaron Rome on retainer for this upcoming season at a discount price of $750,000, after which he will become an unrestricted free agent (UFA) if not signed to an extension beforehand.  The Canucks’ once-heralded stable of defensemen is now down to four, and one of those players is Ballard, who brings a $4.2 million cap hit for the next four seasons, and the Canucks refuse to use him in games that mean anything.
This leaves Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo, Christian Ehrhoff and Andrew Alberts all as UFAs in eleven days, and again remember, there’s only $13.7 million to go around.  While the Canucks can bring some players up from the AHL at six-figure prices, there’s almost no way they can pay all of these defensemen the money that other teams will be able to offer.  I would assume that of the four listed above, the Canucks would soonest part ways with 36 year-old Salo, but just refusing to resign him doesn’t add money to that $13.7 M pool with which to pay the other three D men.  All three played well this season, but one would think that Alberts can be had at the lowest price.  The soon-to-be 30 year-old Alberts came with just over a million dollar price tag last year, and Vancouver seemed to get at least what they paid for out of him.
Bieksa and Ehrhoff, on the other hand, are coming off $3.5 and $3.4 million seasons, and at 30 and 28 years old, probably aren’t looking to make financial concessions.  Even if those two will sign for the same money, that’s 7 of the 13.7 in available funds.  Doesn’t seem likely, does it?
All the rumors are that Bieksa will be the one to leave, and while I understand that Ehrhoff is the better defenseman per se, I don’t particularly like the idea of a team known for being “soft” washing their hands of one of the few hard-nosed producers it has.  I mean all they would have to do at that point is trade Kesler for Ilya Kovalchuk, and the caricature would be complete.  But alas, the salary cap restrictions…
Even if Bieksa is allowed to walk and Vancouver brings back Ehrhoff and Alberts to add to the four blue liners under contract, there’s no denying that on its face the 2011-12 squad would be worse off just without Bieksa, let alone Salo.  The elder statesman from Finland wasn’t worth the money he got last year, but he was still an effective hockey player, usually.  Ehrhoff and Alberts would probably cost the team somewhere in the vicinity of $6 million next season, given that Ehrhoff is an outstanding player and Ballard makes $4.2 million.  This would leave $7.7 million for more defensemen and all forwards beyond the seven currently under contract.  What would solve Vancouver’s problem is finding a taker for Ballard’s contract.  While it would seem obvious that nobody could be that dumb, I assure you there always is that one moron who tilts the game in someone’s favor.  If Islanders’ owner Wang is serious about taking on more payroll, perhaps Vancouver should give Garth Snow a call.
The Canucks are set at goalie for next season, as Cory Schneider will turn in his 28 games with a 2.30 GAA, and all for less than a million bucks.  Roberto Luongo is entering his tenth-to-last year on his contract.  Gulp.
Boston Bruins

As far as the Bruins go, I was really impressed after looking at their roster entering next season.  I mean the bottom line here in Beantown is, damn near everyone is coming back!  The Bruins have five roster spots to fill, and just over $7 million to do it with.  Their average number, only one spot ahead of Vancouver’s, is $1.43 million per opening.  But the key difference is that the B’s don’t have a lot of big earners who need to be resigned.  Assuming Mark Recchi is serious about retiring, the only Boston forwards not under contract already for next season are Brad Marchand and Michael Ryder.  Marchand is due for something of a raise after his integral role in bringing home the Cup, but a raise is acceptable when the starting point was an $821k cap hit last year.  I expect the Bruins will do everything necessary to keep Marchand, and I also expect the price not to exceed $2.5 million.  Ryder is somewhat of a different story, as he banked $4 million in each of the last three seasons.  But I have a feeling he’s a guy that the Bruins will be alright parting ways with, since they must see Marchand as a more valuable piece in their efforts going forward.  Ryder is a very good talent, but he even still has lacked the consistency to justify such a large salary.  Ryder tallied 41 points in 79 regular season games.
On defense, Boston brings back five of its six Cup-winning regulars.  Only trade deadline acquisition Tomas Kaberle is a free agent, but the Bruins are likely to bring up Steven Kampfer before giving Kaberle close to half of their available offseason funds.  Whoever the sixth D man is, he will join the ring bearers Chara, Seidenberg, Ference, Boychuk and McQuaid.  To make matters better for the Bruins, only Boychuk and McQuaid are even entering their final seasons.
Like the Canucks, Boston is also bringing back its two goaltenders, Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask.  Also like the Canucks, the Bruins have around $1.4 million per player this offseason.  But unlike the western champs, Boston only has five spots to fill, and only one must-sign — Marchand.
In order to properly evaluate which team has a better chance to return to the SCF, one would have to do a similar accounting of each’s opponents, but for now, I must say that contrary to popular belief — Vancouver is an early 5 to 1 favorite to win next year’s Cup — it is the Bruins who are better set up to make it back next year.
Thanks for being patient with me over the past week.  Like my brother’s favorite, Craig Anderson, I had to avoid burnout.  I’m strongly looking forward to doing some more of these team offseason evaluations.  Feel free to join me via comments, Twitter or email.
What do you guys think?  Will either of these teams defend their conference crowns?  Will we have a rematch in 2012?  Or are we looking at new blood next year?

I want to add, I get all of these salary numbers from, and I highly recommend it for anyone desiring to know anything about player salaries, team cap restrictions, or anything related.
Stumbling around a playing surface that could only loosely be called “ice,” the Vancouver Canucks saw their series lead evaporate Wednesday night in Boston, thanks to a 4-0 Bruins victory in Game 4.
The pucks didn’t want to lay flat and glide for either team, but the newly sprayed rink seemed to particularly frustrate the Canucks, who repeatedly had pucks jump their sticks at the wrong moments.  It was already a hot day in Boston, as the temperature peaked in the mid-90s.  On top of that, apparently there was a Glee concert Tuesday night at TD Garden, and therefore the playing surface had to be remade entirely in the heat.  CBC’s Jeff Marek predicted that the result would be a playing surface that would slow the game down and hinder creativity, and he turned out to be spot on.

But both teams had to play on the crappy rink, so why did Boston seem to handle it so much better than Vancouver?  There’s the typical argument that the Bruins are much more physical, and that the finesse game of the Canucks couldn’t flourish on top of a slightly chilled swimming pool.  But I’m not sure that’s what we actually saw, as Vancouver outshot Boston in every period.  Sure, often times the shots on goal statistic gets skewed once the score gets out of hand, but why then did Vancouver outshoot the B’s in the first period, when the game was still very much in doubt?  To be honest, I thought Vancouver played a pretty decent first 25 minutes.
A better explanation of this game could be that Tim Thomas was simply great again, and that Vancouver made clear mistakes on every goal.  Thomas scored another shutout — his third in the last nine games.  Add to that stretch three games in which Thomas allowed only one goal, and the soon-to-be two-time Vezina Trophy winner might be in what the cool kids call “the zone.”  This is an issue that Vancouver must solve soon, because while you can expect players to play great at home, hot goalies are perhaps the best ingredient for a road victory, which is something that Vancouver cannot afford to concede in Friday night’s Game 5.
Speaking of conceding, each of the first three goals saw a specific mistake by a mid-to-low end Canuck skater.  I hate to cite college football, or as it should properly be called, “semi-pro legalized prostitution,” but Raffi Torres reminded me of that University of Texas safety that just jogged out of bounds to let Texas Tech WR Michael Crabtree walk in for the game-winner a few years ago.  Instead of trying to defend a flying Rich Peverley, the Canuck third-liner got caught not moving his feet around the boards on the blue line, and let Peverley make him look more like a football punter than an NHL tough guy.
Boston’s second goal was that snipe by Michael Ryder from the left wing, but the time and space to shoot was due to Canucks D man Sami Salo never wanting to stop the puck or impede Ryder’s progress.  To make matters worse, Salo did that thing where you throw your stick six inches in front of the shot, which effectively gives your goaltender two things to worry about: the initial shot, and the potential deflection.  Salo only needed to lean and reach because he wasn’t moving his feet, and it cost the Canucks on that one.
The third goal for the Bruins led me to eat some crow.  I’ve been calling for Keith Ballard’s insertion into the lineup since stud defenseman Dan Hamhuis went down with an injury in Game 1 of the finals.  Instead, Andrew Alberts got the call, and played just fine.  Then Aaron Rome got suspended, and it was finally time to throw in Ballard, the $4.2 million healthy scratch.  At first it seemed Ballard was doing fine.  He was advancing the puck and sending it away when it fell in a vulnerable position for the Canucks.  But then in the middle of the second period, Ballard fell down behind his own net, albeit after a little chop by Bruins forward Brad Marchand.  After laying there for a couple seconds, Ballard got up and shifted over to try to cancel out Patrice Bergeron, who was at the left post.  Ballard kicked and swatted, but couldn’t make contact with the puck, which Bergeron chipped right out in front to Marchand, who fired a backhand off Luongo’s glove and in.  The play caused a bit of a stir for Canucks fans, who point to this as an example of why Ballard cannot regularly crack the lineup on this team.  But at least it’s not like Ballard is on the books for $4.2 million for each of the next four years, while blue liners like Kevin Bieksa, Christian Ehrhoff, Alberts and Salo are unrestricted free agents in less than a month.  What’s that you say?  Oh, that’s right, it is like that.  It’s actually exactly like that.
Roberto Luongo was pulled from the game after allowing the fourth goal, and Cory Schneider came in and saved all nine shots he faced in just under 16 minutes of play.  I don’t think there’s another goalie controversy, and I think it’s probably a waste of time to talk about it.  But, we all remember the circus surrounding the latter half of the Chicago series.
One potentially notable statistic is that while Vancouver won its home games by a combined score of 4-2 (which was 2-2 through the first 59.5 minutes of each game), Boston smashed Vancouver to the tune of 12-1 in its home games.  Doesn’t make you feel comfortable if you’re a Canuck fan.
To close, this is now the third year in a row in which the first four games of the Stanley Cup finals have been won by the home team.  Vancouver will be looking to channel 2010, when Chicago rebounded for wins in Games 5 and 6 to win the Cup over Philadelphia.  Boston, meanwhile, needs only to look to its black and yellow brethren in Pittsburgh, who prevailed over Detroit by winning Games 6 and 7.
Vancouver has been outscored by five goals in the 2011 playoffs, which is alarming considering where they are.  Much of that is explained by their two stinkers each against Chicago and Boston, however.
Game 5 is Friday night at 8 p.m. ET, 5 p.m. PT live from Vancouver on NBC, CBC and RDS.