Monday, April 17, 2017

Another year, another meltdown


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

First round predictions: Western Conference

With the most exciting sports tournament set to start today, we stock up on beer and fill out our brackets.  We move on to the Central:

(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (WC2) Nashville Predators

Chicago backed into the #1 seed in the West by finishing the regular season with four straight losses, but prior to that streak the Hawks had pieced together a 20-4-2 record since the start of February.  Led by a core group of three time Cup winners, the Hawks earned more points on the road than everyone except the Rangers.  Patrick Kane had another fantastic year, the goaltending was solid, and with the exception of Roszival, the roster is healthy.  The only real question is whether they can make up for their dreadful faceoff percentage; amongst playoff teams, only Edmonton was worse.  Nashville was the beneficiary of the Subban deal, and the skating advantage P.K. provides over Weber will be critical in this matchup.  Rinne turned in another solid season, but if the Predators hope to outmatch a solid veteran squad, he will have to exceed his career playoff averages.

Prediction: Chicago in 6

(2) Minnesota Wild vs. (3) St. Louis Blues

Ordinarily when a team sets franchise marks in wins and points, they garner heaps of praise.  Not so for this Minnesota squad, who suffered an awful 1-9 stretch which took them from tops in the West to hosting an unfavorable matchup against the always competitive Blues.  Behind captain Mikko Koivu, the Wild iced a solid two-way team; their +58 goal differential was second to only Washington.  Can Bruce Boudreau take his third team to the next level?  To do so, he will have to lead his Wild past his predecessor in Minnesota: Mike Yeo.  Yeo took over on February 1st for living legend Ken Hitchcock, and led the Blues on a rampage, taking 22 of the final 32 games to push ahead of Nashville.  After letting David Backes and Troy Brouwer walk in the off-season, the Blues, in somewhat of a rebuild, refused to let Kevin Shattenkirk leave without just compensation.  The trade with the Capitals brought in highly touted prospect Zach Sanford, whose big body and nose for the net fits the Blues offensive scheme.  Without much scoring depth, however, the Blues are outmatched.

Prediction: Minnesota in 6

For what promises to be the most physical division to win, we move to the West:

(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (WC1) Calgary Flames

These teams hate each other.  The last time out, captain of the Flames, Mark Giordano, took out defenseman Cam Fowler with a knee collision.  Anaheim has quietly built a team full of pests and agitators, headlined by Corey Perry, and this feistiness should be expected to make its mark on the series.  The Flames, while much improved over their last dance in the playoffs, are too young and inexperienced to matchup well in a long, physical series.  This one figures to go seven games, and will be as close to old time hockey as we will get these days.

Prediction: Anaheim in 7

(2) Edmonton Oilers vs. (3) San Jose Sharks

Much has been written about Edmonton's prolonged playoff absence, and their triumphant return has been made possible by none other than the dynamic, future Hall of Famer, Connor McDavid.  This writer had the pleasure of seeing McDavid play his first career game in Verizon Center, albeit from the worst seats in the building, and it was worth every penny.  Connor skates like a young Bobby Orr, and handles the puck with the best of them.  Guarded by the muscle of Milan Lucic, Darnell Nurse, Zack Kassian, and Pat Maroon, the Oilers young talent has plenty of space to make plays.  Their dreadful faceoff percentage (47.03%) will be their biggest drawback, but luckily for Oiltown, the Sharks do not fare much better (48.13%).  The defending Western Conference champions have their work cut out for them, and with Joe Thornton beginning to show signs of age, this will be a steep obstacle to overcome.  Brent Burns posted another unreal season, and his continued dominance from the blue line is the last hope for big Joe to raise the Cup.  Unfortunately for Sharks fans, that will not be this season.

Prediction: Edmonton in 5

First round predictions: Eastern Conference


With the most exciting sports tournament set to start today, we stock up on beer and fill out our brackets.  We start with the best division in hockey, the Metropolitan:

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (WC2) Toronto Maple Leafs

The Capitals roster has been constructed for the playoffs.  Holtby has been terrific, again, but is well rested, having played in only 63 games in 16-17.  His year was outstanding, and much has been written about it, deservedly so, as he vies to become the first back-to-back Vezina winner since Brodeur won his fourth in 2008.  Scoring depth was huge; Beagle centered a fourth line that combined for 74 points.  The Capitals won the trade deadline by acquiring the best puck mover on the market, who meshed nicely, scoring 14 points in 19 games along with 2 game winners.  Washington can roll four lines and three defensive pairs that can compete with anyone in the league.  This is a great squad.  Meanwhile, the Leafs are a work in progress.  Matthews centered one of the league's most exciting lines, and built a strong case for the Calder Trophy, having finished tied for second in the league in goals and leading an upstart team to their first playoff matchup in several years.  This will be a great team, perhaps sooner than previously expected, but experience beats youth in this duel.  Get out the brooms.

Prediction: Washington in 4

(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (3) Columbus Blue Jackets

Sidney Crosby had another banner year, leading the league in goals for the second time in his career, while finishing tied second with Patrick Kane in points (89).  This was achieved largely on the back of him posting the second highest shooting percent of his career, which indicates his continued success finding shooting lanes.  However, with the injuries to this Penguins squad, they are not built for a playoff run deep into June.  Pittsburgh lost 278 man-games to injury (7th most), resulting in the 4th most minutes of injured players being lost, due to the importance of the players who missed significant time.  Columbus, on the other hand, has had great health, and won a comeback on the road against Toronto to close out the year on a strong note in spite of their late season slide.  Bobrovsky should win his second Vezina, Werenski might be the most underrated player in the league, and Tortorella is thriving in a town without much hockey press.  Columbus has quietly put together a hell of a squad, and they match up favorably against every team in the league.

Prediction: Columbus in 7

The Atlantic has this season's dark horse:

(1) Montreal Canadiens vs. (WC1) New York Rangers

The Canadiens made the biggest splash of the offseason by trading darling P.K. Subban for legendary defenseman Shea Weber.  Weber has been the most consistent and prolific goal scorer from the blue line since he entered the league, having scored more than anyone else during any five-year span of his career.  However, with his best years behind him, this was a power move to make a deep playoff run.  Firing Therrien was the right move, bringing back Claude Julien re-energized the team, and the Habs finished strong, winning the division comfortably.  The Rangers struggled with injuries throughout the year - notably missing Lundqvist for a significant stretch - but even when he was healthy he was subpar, posting the worst numbers of his career.  There is allegedly bad blood between the two teams, but with the turnover in today's game coupled with Vignault's signature women's college hockey style of coaching, expect no fireworks. 

Prediction: Montreal in 6

(2) Ottawa Senators vs. (3) Boston Bruins

The Senators have been inconsistent throughout the year, having posted three losing streaks of four or more games, including two such streaks in March.  Erik Karlsson posted yet another phenomenal season, but with injury concerns, the Senators perfect record against the Bruins may not be enough to overcome the red-hot Bruins since Cassidy took over.  After firing long time head coach Claude Julien, with whom the Bruins won a Stanley Cup and lost another, former Capitals head coach Bruce Cassidy took over and led the Bruins to an 18-8-1 to close out the year.  Having earned 37 of a possible 54 points, Boston paced ahead of everyone but the Capitals since the coaching change.  Much has been written about the fall of Tuukka Rask, but if the Bruins can keep controlling the puck like they have been all season, and Rask performs even to league average standards, the Bruins will roll over Ottawa.

Prediction: Boston in 5

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Caps Make a Playoff Push!

With a compressed season, the Capitals were given two choices: cast away rentals or make a playoff push.  Having gone 9-6-1 in March and opening April with a 5-3 win over division rival Carolina to split a tie, and riding Ovechkin's 9 game point streak (10 goals, 5 assists), the Caps decided to bring in some help.

The biggest hole on the team, as usual, is a top line winger.  Enter Marty Erat, a decent two-way player who consistently ranked among Nashville's leaders in ice time among forwards.  He is a good skater and a great playmaker, who if given the chance, could complement Ovechkin and Backstrom well.  His versatility is useful to as he has played both wing positions in the NHL.

Unfortunately, he is not the answer physically.  The team could use more grit, especially for a playoff run in the Eastern Conference this year, and Erat is not well known for his toughness in the corners.

Overall, he should be a solid asset to a team that could use more goals.

Also acquired in the deal was Michael Latta, a guy that McPhee likens to "a modern day Dale Hunter" (sorry, no citations; I saw it on Twitter).  The team has badly needed grit and went about that in a big way (reacquiring Recker, and bringing in Dane Byers as well).  Latta is a tough center who's good enough to play in the NHL and big enough to make a difference.

We are hoping the minor league additions will help the Bears make a solid playoff run, and with Latta and Wilson competing for roster spots, training camp should be exciting too.

Losing Forsberg is tough, but the assets the Caps acquired are good enough to call this a win-win; for now.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Eric Fehr is back

For some reason, the Capitals brought back underwhelming Eric Fehr, signing him to a one-year deal worth $600k.  Never impressive, Fehr shocked Capitals [fan] everywhere with his whopping two goals and one assist in 35 games for the Jets last season. 

Just what the team needs; a reminder of hopes and dreams never achieved, a visor-wearing "power forward" with no power, or much to offer other than another body - and a well-worn down one at that.  Fehr will provide neither toughness, nor offense, and he is not a particularly good defensive forward either.  With Carolina trading for Westgarth, and Florida signing Parros in the summer, the Southeast bulked up for the first time in years, and the Capitals response is a stern commitment to another year of being pushed around, losing corner battles, and aiming high for a first round playoff exit.

The correct answer, of course, would be to acquire toughness in some way.  Letting Rechlicz walk was a mistake, of course, and there is obviously no reason to sign a one dimensional heavyweight enforcer only to misuse him as in years past.  However, with scrappy guys such as Tom Kostopoulos and Brad Winchester available as free agents, the Capitals could have at least attempted to make a feeble effort to address one of the team's biggest glaring weaknesses.

Looks like it will be another long year of being pushed around, if this is all we can muster.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Hockey's Back!

A day late and a dollar short, the NHL is back.

No word yet on scheduling, rule changes, realignment, or really anything, other than that the NHL will indeed play this year.

Looking at the Capitals roster, there is not much to be excited about.  Despite drafting Tom Wilson in the first round, the Capitals have yet again failed to address the size and toughness issue that has plagued the team for years.  Preventable injuries will probably happen again, and many battles along the boards will be lost.

Here's to hoping that the Boys in Red shape up to fit the mould used by both of the past two Stanley Cup winners.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Happy Trails, Sasha Minor

Earlier today, Alex Semin signed a one year deal with Carolina, worth $7 million.  Seven strange years, 469 regular season games, 51 more in the playoffs, and countless memories later, one of the most eclectic players to don the skates has departed for browner, though still green, pastures.

Alex Semin caught a lot of flack in his time in DC.  From his mysterious, sudden departure in 03-04, to his taking the NHL by storm in his triumphant return in 06-07, to his playoff disappointment this past Spring, Semin was full of both ups and downs.  We will always remember his flashy moves and streaky play; DC's response to Alexei Kovalev.  At times the best player in the league - NHL points leader in 08-09 until a December back injury derailed him - and at times an overpaid underachiever, Semin will serve as a reminder in DC to what could have been.

Semin, quite possibly more than any other Capital in our team's history, embodied what it meant to be a Capital; from a fan's perspective.  His enigmatic ways always left us wanting more - who else in the league could score a hat trick, make a single turnover, and be a villain? - just like the team's disappointments in the playoffs.  Semin is very much a superstar, unwilling at that, but there is something missing.  It is difficult to quite put a finger on it though, which is why both he and the team failed.  If he can put the package together, for a few years at a time, if ever given the chance, then Semin very well may end up in Toronto when all is said and done.

According to Angus Certified, Semin was a fantastic linemate and actually a very solid defensive player, something that most people around the league do not want to believe.  The site also argues, indirectly, that Semin was a good team player, since he adapted his game effectively to both new team strategies and new coaches.  Yet, if you were to ask Marc Crawford, or Pierre HugMePleaseSid McGuire, Semin is Keyser Söze, the evilest villain [in sport].

So what caused this disparity in opinions?  Was it his refusal to speak English with reporters?  Was it his streaky play?  Was it his reported offers to play in Russia?  Maybe he just does not "want it bad enough", whatever that means?  Or is it xenophobia?  Are people scared of him because he is that weird, quiet Russian?  Who knows?

I do not have an answer for that.  There is something about Alex that is just... off.  I do not know how to quite put it into words. 

So, Alex, we bid you farewell.  Please take it easy on us.  

Worst of all for Caps fans, we will no longer have Semin serenading us with his musical stylings.  I present you, one last time, Alex Semin, bongo player extraordinaire!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Rick Nash: Newest Ranger

Today, July 23rd, 2012, after months of speculation, Rick Nash has finally been traded from the only NHL team he has ever known.  The 28 year-old captain of the Blue Jackets, who was drafted first overall back in 2002, was dealt to the New York Rangers for a pair of NHL players, a prospect, and a first round draft pick.

The players: Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov.  The prospect: Tim Erixon.  The draft pick: 2013.

Why this deal is good for Columbus: The Blue Jackets finally moved the heart and soul of the franchise, who made it clear that he wanted out, after 9 seasons of ineptitude, resulting in a single playoff berth which lasted a total of 4 games.  In return, they receive a top 6 forward in Anisimov, who will cause plenty of cannons to go off in Columbus.  Brandon Dubinsky, a 26 year old American who was drafted 60th overall in 2004, was forced to make the adjustment from top 6 to bottom 6, and did so without a complaint.  He exemplified what it meant to be a Ranger under Torts; hard work, team oriented play, and honest.  His grittiness, willingness to fight for his teammates - while giving up a lot of size at times - and heart, made him the ultimate teammate.  Now he will take his talents to the Midwest.

Tim Erixon was drafted 23rd overall by the Calgary Flames in 2009 but was unable to come to terms.  In turn, he was traded to the Rangers for a pair of second rounders and a prospect, where he finally signed, and made his NHL debut, playing in 18 games.  This still very raw talent has a large upside and is rated highly on http://www.hockeysfuture.com/.  The BJs are quietly accumulating a solid defense corps, adding Erixon's potential to that of 2nd overall draft pick Ryan Murray, and existing NHLers Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski, Nikita Nikitin, and Fedor Tyutin.  Not exactly the Avalanche of 2001, but respectable nonetheless.

The draft pick should be a late first rounder, which, according to TSN's Scott Cullen, has a 5.6-27.3% chance of being an impact player.  Assuming the Rangers win one playoff series, this pick will land anywhere between 23rd and 30th overall. 

Why this deal is bad for Columbus: Losing the face of the franchise for a team that finished 27th in attendance last year is not a good marketing plan.  A team that already had a hard enough time luring prime free agent talent may have just lost the only thing attracting potential big names.  If Erixon does not turn out to be a stud, and/or the first rounder is not an impact player, the trade could look very one-sided in New York's favor.

Why this deal is good for New York: The Rangers, yet again, land the big fish.  A year removed from signing Brad Richards to the biggest deal of the 2011 offseason, the Rangers are able to pry Rick Nash from the Blue Jackets.  Nash brings size, strength, delicate hands, leadership, durability, and a serious hunger to win - all things that spell Rangers hockey. 

Why this deal is bad for New York: The Rangers are now in serious salary cap trouble; having four players earning more than $6.5 against the cap for the next two seasons.  Those four players (Nash, Gaborik, Richards, and Lundqvist) earn a combined 41% of the $70.2 million salary cap for 2012.  That is simply not a sustainable business model.  Del Zotto and Stralman are still RFAs this year, McDonaugh, Sauer, Stepan, and Hagelin will be RFAs next year.  It may not be possible to re-sign all of those guys, so the Rangers may be forced to say goodbye to some serious young talent. 

Also, we do not know what will happen with the new CBA.  Perhaps the league decides that burying players in the minors because of poor contract decisions will be against the rules, so Wade Redden and his $6.5 million cap hit through 2013 could potentially be forced onto the Rangers books.

The Atlantic Division is looking dangerous right now.

Big Game Hunter

The Capitals finally named the fourth member of the coaching staff, rounding it out with Tim Hunter.  One of the toughest to ever lace 'em up (8th all-time in PIMs, thank you very much), Hunter is familiar with the organization and with his fellow coaches, having previously coached in DC from 97-02 as an assistant, including the famed Cup run of '98.

A long time assistant coach of Ron Wilson, Hunter has spent the better part of the the past 30 years working with the NHL.  His expertise and wealth of knowledge will prove key, as Hunter brings the most experience to a relatively green coaching staff.  Between Oates, Johansson, and Kolzig, the three have coached a total of four years in the NHL.


For those who were unaware, Hunter is widely considered to be one of the better fighters of all-time.  This thread from http://www.hockey-fights.com/ serves as strong proof.

Grade: A+!  I wanted Berube, but instead we bring in a guy who has far more coaching experience, and a Stanley Cup to boot.  Hunter should have a profound impact on the way the players approach the game. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Shea Weber, and how he can affect the new CBA

The last week has been an exciting one for hockey fans.  In addition to a few big name defenseman being named coaches, the obvious big news has been regarding the CBA negotiations and the Shea Weber monster offer sheet of $110 million dollars over 14 years with the Philadelphia Flyers.

While offer sheets are nothing new, they are always a testy issue - ask Brian Burke or Dave Nonis what they think.  There are some pretty strong reasons why they are rarely used in the NHL.  Though, this is the second time the Flyers have done so since the lockout.  Think what you will about that.

The offer sheet that Weber signed was reportedly heavily front loaded, with Weber being due $26 million within the first 11 months.  That is no problem for a team backed by Comcast, with a rapid fan base, and who is two years removed from a Stanley Cup birth.  However, for a team that was sold for $174 million in 2007, that was valued at $163 million this past November, that may present a serious problem.

This becomes an NHL-wide issue when considering the one of the major purposes of instituting the salary cap back in 05-06; parity.  The salary cap, in essence, prevents one team from offering such huge contracts that there is no hope for smaller markets to match.  Thus, teams like the Detroit Red Wings of the '90s would be prevented from acquiring high priced talent that other teams just could not afford.

Shea Weber's deal is certainly not unique (Weber's long-time partner Suter also has a ridiculous front-loaded deal), however, the Predators essentially have their hands tied by the Flyers.  Surely, Weber is worth the money of the contract offer, but the question is how he should earn it.  If the Predators cannot afford to pay 16% of the team value within 11 months to their captain, then they have to let him walk for what is sure to be a series of late first round draft picks (which will do wonders for that market).  Or they can work out a trade, though, the wind is out of their sail, and they lose their bargaining chip. 

The problem with this offer sheet is neither with the contract length nor its dollar amount (though, the former may be changed in the upcoming CBA).  The problem is that it is so heavily front loaded, both circumventing the salary cap as well as bullying small markets.  As previously mentioned, a team without deep pockets simply may not be able to afford to pay the cash to a player up front.

Weber's deal, however it plays out, will certainly be discussed heavily in the next round of negotiations between players and owners.  Owners surely do not want to let the face of their franchise walk because they cannot afford to pay him - though a long term deal like Nicklas Backstrom's, whose salary increases as he reaches his prime, still are high dollar amounts, they are not front-loaded, which allows owners to plan around payments much easier.

For fans of teams like the Predators, if nothing changes, then the NHL is no better than the MLB.  The Pirates were, for years, the farm team of the Yankees, and received plenty of compensatory draft picks.  Do we want the same thing to happen in the NHL?  This is a chance for the owners to put up or shut up.  You want long-term, front loaded contracts done with?  Well this is your chance.  If nothing is done, then expect to see a lot more poaching in the next few years.  Edmonton may get hit pretty hard by that one.