Monday, June 30, 2008

One Day Till Free Agency

One day from NHL free agency and things are starting to sort themselves out a bit. Fascinating news from Tampa where former Steel City guy Ryan Malone signed a 7 year $31.5M deal with the Bolts.

What isn't terribly interesting is Malone leaving Pittsburgh, but rather him signing with Tampa a day prior to the start of free agency. One has to assume that the Lightning had at least a pretty good idea they would be able to sign him when they made a deal for exclusive negotiating rights. If Malone hadn't somehow indicated a willingness to sign with Tampa, why would they give up a draft pick in exchange for exclusive pre-July 1 negotiating rights? Shocking to think that in today's seamlessly run (note the sarcasm) NHL, such outside the rules shenanigans would take place.

Another interesting move announced today was the LA Kings trading solid defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky for not quite as flashy, but quite a bit younger Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene of the Oilers. The Kings may not (well, probably won't) be a playoff team next season, but they are assembling quite a collection of young talent for the future.

So... a few things have already happened and a few more are to come. The marquee free agents are Mats Sundin of the Leafs and Brian Campbell of the Sharks. At this point, both players appear to be on the move with the Leafs gently nudging Sundin out the door (probably the right strategy for a franchise that needs to go young, but shouldn't slap their loyal superstar by not "trying" to sign him).

Campbell is a different case in that he's talented, he's young and the Sharks woulve love to keep him. However, publically there has been strange communication out of Camp Campbell with statements to the effect of "might have to stay closer to home/Eastern Canada." My guess would be that this means Campbell has already told the Sharks he's not going to sign with them and has asked that this remain quiet while he figures out where he does want to go. While it's true that Campbell would be a very valuable piece of the puzzle in San Jose, not signing him is no disaster in that it does free up probably $7-8M a year over five or so years. This is the type of money that can be used elsewhere... not necessarily for a Brian Campbell (not many of those out there), but for a different D-man, perhaps a Wade Redden, Ron Hainsey, Mark Streit or Brooks Orpik.

On a different note, here's to hoping that one hypothetical player move doesn't happen... Patrick Marleau out of San Jose. Marleau's no-trade clause kicks in July 1, but he proved his toughness in the playoffs last year and at $6M/season for the next two years, isn't due crazy $ for a center (much more valuable than a comparably talented wing) of his ilk. If the Sharks got sufficient value for a Milan Michalek, I'd be fine with a move there, but I just don't see the return on Marleau being high enough to let him go.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Fan Post-mortem: Western Conference

Previously looked at was the perspective that fans of Eastern Conference teams "should" take when looking back on the 2007-2008 season played by their valiant (or sometimes not so valiant) warriors. Now... on to the Western Conference:

Detroit Red Wings - first place in the regular season, won the Stanley Cup. Yep... me thinks Red Wings fans should feel pretty good. Additionally, next year should bring good tidings as well. I don't see any way the Wings will suffer a steep post-Cup drop-off the likes of which befell Carolina and Tampa Bay. Messers Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Lidstrom and Rafalski are simply too talented.

San Jose Sharks - second place in the regular season, eliminated in the 2nd round by Dallas. This is an easy one... fans (myself being one) should feel very disappointed, but also have hope for the future with the recent change in leadership (yes, Ron Wilson... the coach is supposed to lead the team). How the Sharks will perform come clutch time next playoffs is to be determined, but a talented roster (which the Sharks have) is always going to provide a good base.

Minnesota Wild - third place in the regular season, eliminated in the 1st round by Colorado. Not really sure what Wild fans should think. They certainly have a serviceable team, but it's not certain the talent level is on par with the better Western Conference teams. That said, probably shouldn't be too happy with a 1st round elimination after winning the division.

Anaheim Ducks - fourth place in the regular season, eliminated in the 1st round by Dallas. True, they weren't as good of a team as the one that won the Stanley Cup a year ago, but a 1st round defeat (at the hands of a division rival no less) should leave a sour taste in the mouth for Ducks fans. Additionally, next season's Ducks have a large amount of uncertainly in the names of Selanne, Teemu and Niedermayer, Scott.

Dallas Stars - fifth place in the regular season, eliminated in the 3rd round by Detroit. Stars fans should be beside themselves with joy (well, maybe that's a bit overstated, but they should be happy) at the play of their team. A run all the way to the conference finals provided the excitement and now the idea of a full season with Brad Richards on the same team as budding superstar Brenden Morrow should provide the anticipation.

Colorado Avalanche - sixth place in the regular season, eliminated in the 2nd round by Detroit. A peculiar season for the Avs. They struggled mightily at times in the regular season and then loaded for bear with the trade deadline additions of Adam Foote and Peter Forsberg. Injury troubles then followed them through the playoffs where they did manage to win a series before running into the Red Wings juggernaut. Finally, the Avs fired their coach after all this and replaced him with a previously fired coach. This was a strange team which had a strange season.

Calgary Flames - seventh place in the regular season, eliminated in the 1st round by San Jose. Flames faithful should view this as a "decent" season. They got superstar-level play from Captain Jarome Iginla, pretty good play from sometimes superstar Mikka Kiprusoff and not a lot else. All in all, the Flames probably got as far as they could with the roster, but fans probably shouldn't expect much else unless personnel changes are made.

Nashville Predators - either place in the regular season, eliminated in the 1st round by Detroit. Fans in hockey-hotbed (not really) Nashville should be delirious over the play of their team. After having the prior year's roster gutted, the remaining players stepped up and led the team not only to the playoffs, but to their eventual status as "team that gave the Red Wings the most trouble."

So... of the 8 playoff teams in the East, fans of 6 should feel good about the season gone by. Comparatively, only 3 of the Western Conference teams should feel that good. It could be that the Western Conference has better teams, and resulting higher expectations, but regardless of the cause, the result is interesting.

Remaining out of the playoffs Western Conference standings:

9. Edmonton
10. Chicago
11. Vancouver
12. Phoenix
13. Columbus
14. St Louis
15. Los Angeles

Of these teams, one story does jump out... Blackhawks fans should be thrilled with their 10th place conference finish and knowledge that they are very much on the right track to becoming a contending team again.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sharks Have a Coach

The San Jose Sharks announced that they will announce tomorrow (??) Detroit Red Wings assistant coach Todd McLellen as their new head coach.

Without knowing much about McLellen himself (but, then I'm not exactly golfing buddies with many potential coaching hires), I'm excited about him getting the job. Let's look for a minute at a decision tree of sorts leading to McLellen...

Decision one - retain or dismiss Ron Wilson: Thank you, Doug Wilson... I would have liked to have seen Wilson let go after the playoff loss to the Red Wings a year ago, but after the defeat at the hand of the Stars, it was definitely time for a change. The question for many around replacing Wilson was who you would hire instead, but me thinks that wasn't as important as simply the need for a change.

Decision two - Go with NHL head coaching experience or a first-timer: There was no shortage of candidates out there who had coached previously... some as recently as this season. The names John Tortorella, Joel Quinville and Pat Burns were bandied about as potential hires, but additionally there were coaches with minor league experience like Kevin Dineen and John Anderson that some viewed as ready for the big time. I've been partial to the idea of a first-time coach not because of an aversion to NHL experience, but because each of the experienced candidates would come with some known flaws. Someone unknown to the general public could of course have shortcomings, but there's something to be said for a completely fresh slate.

Decision three - If you assume that the hire will be someone unknown, then it's simply a matter of the decision gets made and we now see what the results will be. No idea what the Sharks will be like under McLellen, but I can say this... it will be fun to see.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Fan Post-mortem: Eastern Conference

Now that the Wings have officially won the Cup, fans of each of the 30 teams can ponder what they accomplished (or didn't) this last season prior to moving on to next year. As with many things, success (or the lack thereof) is on a sliding scale against reasonable expectations going on.

Eastern Conference:

Montreal Canadiens - first place in the regular season, eliminated in the 2nd round by Philadelphia. The season should be considered a success for the Forum/Bell Centre faithful as nobody would have expected them to be at an elite level.

Pittsburgh Penguins - second place in the regular season, eliminated in the Finals by Detroit. Supporters should view this as a successful season as well. The Pens reached the precipice of glory with a very young team and Captain Sidney Crosby showed himself to be the real thing.

Washington Capitals - third place in the regular season, eliminated in the first round by Philadelphia. Fans should feel very good about the year not so much with the results measured against preseason expectations, but rather against where things were mid-season. The push after bringing in minor league coach Bruce Boudreau was remarkable and bodes well for the future... oh yeah, having Alexander Ovechkin helps as well.

New Jersey Devils - fourth place in the regular season, eliminated in the first round by the New York Rangers. Devils fans should feel... ok... not great, not awful, but ok. Given that the team lost a few players to free agency and relied on a getting older Martin Brodeur, expectations shouldn't have been terribly high, but unfortunately, Devil fans have gotten used to a larger degree of success than was achieved.

New York Rangers - fifth place in the regular season, eliminated in the second round by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Blue seat fans of the Blueshirts should feel pretty good about the season. Even with the second round defeat, solace can definitely be taken in the opening round victory over the rival Devils.

Philadelphia Flyers - sixth in the regular season, eliminated in the third round by the Penguins. If you're a Flyer fan, there's probably a few things that can be said about you... (1) you likely identify with Colonel Kurtz's line about loving the smell of napalm in the morning and (2) you should feel extremely happy about the season gone by. After having been the worst team in the league last season, reaching the Conference Finals was none too shabby.

Ottawa Senators - seventh in the regular season, eliminated in the first round by Pittsburgh. Now... here's a rough one. Whereas thus far it's really only been the New Jersey fans with cause for disappointment, Senator fans should feel downright miserable about their team. They underachieved in the regular season and saw their coach dismissed, and then played no better for his boss (and ultimately their boss), GM Bryan Murray.

Boston Bruins - eighth in the regular season, eliminated in the first round by Montreal. Hopefully Boston sports fans haven't gotten spoiled with the success of the Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics and can appreciate what the B's did this season. Nobody would have expected them to be a playoff team and the Bruins showed a lot of youthful fight (see: Lucic, Milan) and almost knocked off top seed and hated rival Montreal in the playoffs.

Now that the playoff teams are on the table, a brief summary is probably in order.

Of the top eight teams in the East, fans of six should feel good about how their boys played and what the future holds. Interestingly, the two teams whose fans shouldn't be as happy with the results (Ottawa and to a lesser extent New Jersey) are also the two playoff teams that appear to be most on the downward slope due to age and declining performance.

And now, the rest of the Eastern Conference teams in order of finish (starting with the nine seed)...

New York Islanders
Tampa Bay

Yeesh... not much good that fans of these seven teams could say. There was of course some good hockey played at times, but... not enough.

Coming soon to a website near you... the Western Conference summary from the perspective of Joe and Julie fan.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Never Stop Fighting Till the Fight is Through: Now it's Through

Great credit should go to the Pittsburgh Penguins for the fight they showed in games five and six to respectively come back and almost come back against a superior (for this season at least) Red Wings team.

Detroit is now the 2008 Stanley Cup Champion and they earned that title every step of the way.

Monday, June 2, 2008

2008 Red Wings: Just Too Good

This is late in being written, but Detroit beat Pittsburgh at home in game four to take a commanding three games to one lead in the series. This shouldn't be a shock given how the series went in the first three games:

Game one: Detroit plays well, Pittsburgh doesn't. Detroit wins going away.
Game two: Detroit plays well, Pittsburgh doesn't. Detroit wins going away.
Game three: Detroit plays well, as does Pittsburgh. Close Penguins victory.

This being the case, it seemed that it would require both another complete effort by the Pens and fortunate breaks to win game four and get back in the series. Just didn't happen. Now, Pittsburgh faces a seemingly insurmountable task... they need to play to their potential three games in a row (certainly possible, but didn't happen the first two games) and get the bounces needed to win each game (not likely given the way Detroit has now played each and every game of the series).

Pittsburgh has great young players and one would think will win a Stanley Cup with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, but it doesn't look to be this season.