Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The NHL's Gifts & Lumps of Coal

It's December, the holiday season is upon us, and soon the book will close on the year 2008. The NHL season is in full swing and even though we are not even half way through, the NHL has produced many highs and lows already that has had all of us talking in one form or another. Here is my quick look at what gifts and lumps of coal NHL hockey has brought me so far.

The Coal:

Mat Sundin.

Some of you will be pissed I even brought the name up again, but I have to say why the situation falls under coal for me as it's not the typical answer that many have for hating this subject. When Sundin wouldn't wave his no trade clause last year, so the Leafs could get some sort of return for him, he stated it was because he wanted to be with a team from October when the seasons started. Yet here we are, two and half months into the NHL season and Sundin still hasn't picked a hockey team. I could care less that he hasn't picked a hockey team, he is a UFA and earned that right, I just can't stand it when people can't keep their own word.

Dallas Stars.

What the hell happened? For a team with the likes of Richards, Morrow, Riberiro, Zubov, and Turco on it you just expect more. Yes, I know injuries have really hurt this team, but even when the team was healthy to start the season things didn't play out well at all. As par normal things got worse, before they got better, with the whole Sean Avery debacle. Thankfully for Stars fans I do think the bottom was Sean Avery and the only way to go from here is up.

The Gifts:

Rookie Race.

For the first time in what seems like a long time, the favorite picks are getting owned by players no one saw coming, not that anyone picked on paper anyway. I love it. The bet was Stamkos and although I wish him no ill will, I'm glad guys like Brassard and Versteeg are running away with things. The thought of having a young defensemen win the trophy also perks my interest to new levels.

The Boston Bruins & Chicago Blackhawks.

Hockey in the United States is put on the map by hockey cities in the United States being excited about hockey. Two of the biggest sleeping giants in the US market have finally been woken up and the result will be nothing short of monumental for the NHL in the long haul. The ripple affect of these two franchises being front and center in the NHL standings could be felt almost immediately. If you don't believe me, just ask about how NBC feels about the upcoming Winter Classic, it's quickly looking like it's going to be a major draw for that network and they know it. When NBC cares about a hockey game, that's a good thing.

Thankfully, even though I went with two lumps of coal VS two gifts, my take on the NHL hockey season so far has been more positive then negative, I hope you can say the same.

Then again, this is just a damned opinion.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sundin's choice down to two teams

Mats Sundin, late of the Toronto Maple Leafs, hopes to make a decision on his playing day before the roster freeze this Friday. According to TSN, barring a last minute bid, Sundin will join the New York Rangers or the Vancouver Canucks.

This past weekend, Sundin met with New York general manager Glen Sather about playing for the team. His agent has a meeting today with the Canucks to discuss other clients, although Sundin's situation will be sure to come up.

Either team would be a good choice for Sundin. As of this writing, the Rangers are atop the Atlantic Division by four points and are second in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the Canucks hold a two point lead in the Northwest Division, and third in the Western Conference.

It's hard to say what might factor into this decision for Sundin. As he proved last season with his decision to stay with the Leafs instead of go to a playoff contender, anything could happen. If it's money, the Canucks have the most to offer. They offered him a two year, $20 million contract at the beginning of the off-season, and have not taken that offer off the table. They have enough cap space to make the prorated value of the contract fit under their cap.

The Rangers are right up on the cap wall, holding less than $300,000 at this point. It will likely require some skillful maneuvering, as well as at least one trade, for Sather to create cap room to sign Sundin.

The move makes more sense for Vancouver, seeing as how they need Sundin to help boost their offense. Sundin would likely be teamed with veteran Pavol Demitra and youngster Alex Burrows, and the Sedin twins would be reunited on the top line. The bonus is they will not have to make a trade for Sundin.

The Rangers do need to make a move for a Sundin signing to go through. What I think would be the best chance is for them to trade one of their two centers signed last season- Scott Gomez or Chris Drury, both of whom are making about $7 million per season. What would make this work for the Rangers is replacing one of those with Sundin, who would only be in New York for one or two seasons. With the possibility of a decrease in the cap in two seasons, the Rangers could take this opportunity to rid themselves of one of their highest salaries and be ready for that cap decrease.

In the end, it can work out for both teams. In looking at it, the Rangers, unless they find another way to make this work, make a lateral move for the now, but can improve their cap outlook in the future. The Canucks make a move that strengthens their team now, and make them a team that will make some noise in the playoffs.

My personal feeling is that Sundin is going to pick Vancouver. They have the most money to offer, and I think they are the best fit for him to play with. I'm not sure New York ends up with the money in the end to satisfy Sundin, though one might argue the Rangers are the team that stands a better shot at going further in the playoffs.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A giant loophole discovered in the salary cap?

This past Monday, the Tampa Bay Lightning announced that they were sending struggling forward Radim Vrbata to his native Czech Republic for this season. The Lightning cited issues with Vrbata's confidence, and that returning home would be a better option than heading to the American Hockey League.

The kicker to this transaction- Tampa Bay is not responsible for the contract at all. It does not count against their cap this season, nor do they have to pay it. If Vrbata does not come back to the NHL for the second and third seasons of the three year, $9 million deal, the Lightning are not responsible for those years, either.

I have a problem with this. The salary cap is in place for a reason, and that is to control spending and try to place an even playing field between the teams. It also serves as a consequence if a team makes a bad decision, like Vrbata for instance, they have to live with it and either solve the problem or work around it.

In the National Football League, they have a hard cap, much like the NHL, meaning that, under no circumstances can a team's payroll exceed the cap. There are some differences- mainly in contract language and how the player's cap value is calculated, but they are very similar to each other. For example, if a team in the NFL releases a player, no matter what happens to them afterwards, a players' guaranteed money (which is a signing bonus) counts against the salary cap until it's paid off. For the NHL, if a player is claimed off waivers or is released, the team is on the hook for a portion of the players salary as well.

Tampa Bay has discovered that they can bypass that salary cap hit by sending the player away, and fashioning it as the players decision. Whether or not this was Vrbata's decision remains to be seen, but we may never know. He may genuinely wanted to go home, or was faced with the choice of playing in the AHL or going home, and took the one that appealed most to him. If he was forced, that could potentially open up a completely different can of worms that we won't even get into.

I have no ill will towards the Lightning as a team. I may not like the direction that their ownership is going, as I've witnessed firsthand what a hotshot owner can do to a franchise. What they did is, as of this moment, allowable by the CBA, and it happened. Can't be angry about something that is legal, can you?

However, Gary Bettman and the guys in the league office need to act very fast to close up this loophole, as the salary cap is dangerously close to being circumvented. If I was a betting person, I would have my money on these situations, or something similar.

Cristobal Huet? The Chicago Blackhawks will say goodbye to nearly $5.5 million this season, and have cap space to add the second center they've been rumored to be interested in.

The Philadelphia Flyers wanting Mats Sundin? Not a problem, we can send someone packing if we can't get a trade or two completed to free up cap room.

Of course, the Lightning can come back down and try and unload another off-season mistake to free up some more cap room.

These were just guesses, based off a couple rumors. Still, my point remains. The cap is supposed to prevent bad decisions being brushed aside, in order to create a balance between the teams that traditionally spent wildly like the New York Rangers, or operated off a strict budget like the Buffalo Sabres.

Despite the loophole, it does come with a consequence. This only erases the contract in future seasons if the player does not want to return to the NHL. If they do, the player will return to the team that sent them packing, with their cap hit and remaining years on the contract. However, this is a more than acceptable consequence for a team looking to win right now.

Judging from the silence from the main hockey media outlets, they are likely doing their due diligence scouring the CBA and making phone calls to league officials trying to determine what's the deal before writing more. To be quite honest, I'm probably more in the dark than most of you. I'm just a guy with an opinion and a feeling. A feeling that this could become a seriously problem. So, Bettman and Co, do what you need to do to solve this problem quickly.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Balsillie back at it again

In a story set to be published this week in Western New York Hockey magazine, the Buffalo Sabres have reportedly made overtures to Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie to buy the club.

The kicker to this deal is that Balsillie has the potential to have the Sabres play some games in Hamilton, Ontario.

Previously, Balsillie has been involved with talks about purchasing the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators, but has not gotten far because of his desire to have a team in his native country.

In a prepared statement from the Sabres managing partner, Larry Quinn, the Sabres have no intention to sell the team, nor move them out of Buffalo.

My personal opinion: where there is smoke, there usually is fire.

Current owner Tom Golisano bought the team back in 2003 for $92 million, and by doing so, brought them out of bankruptcy. Since that time, the Sabres have become one of the best teams in the league, with a deep farm system and seen their popularity soar.

However, the Sabres may have financial problems. We may find out in this article when it's published, but in these times of economic crisis, I'm sure many rumors like this will pop up about owners looking for help from folks like Balsillie. There is also the recent history of GM Darcy Regier working under a very strict budget pre-lockout to show for potential financial issues.

This rumor may be just blown out of proportion. Maybe Golisano is looking for some investors and approached Balsillie about a minority ownership, and the story took flight from there. We all know how rumors start.

Anyway, what I'm getting at is that this isn't necessarily a story about the Sabres and their financial woes. It's also about Balsillie, who refuses to go away. He has a desire to own an NHL team, and he won't stop after he gets one. He's going to take it a step further and try and move that club to his native Canada.

I think that another team in Canada would be a good thing. I am not a proponent of contraction, nor am I for another expansion at this time. Either would be too soon for the NHL after the labor strike, and that would leave buying a team for Balsillie, and we know he'll try and move the team. After all, he did have a lease agreement in Hamilton, Ontario for the Hamilton Predators, and had people put down ticket deposits.

That does not mean Balsillie will be bad for the NHL. He definitely wants a franchise, and he's not being picky about the club. He certainly has the enthusiasm and business knowledge to make his team successful, and adding a new owner would certainly challenge other franchises and help spur the growth in the league.

Right here and right now, and with the Buffalo Sabres, I have to say no to Balsillie. The Sabres are one of the most popular teams in the NHL, and are positioned for success now and long-term in the player department. Maybe finances are looking down, but the Sabres have worked through that before, and Balsillie's help might get them one foot out the door in Buffalo. He'll get a team eventually, but I hope it's not at the cost of another.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Post Bertuzzi NHL

We all know by now the story that is front and center in the NHL right now involving Sean Avery. I think it's only fair for me to comment on Sean Avery in general, before I talk about what I think is bigger issue left in the dust in the past 24 hours events. Sean Avery is unlike anything the NHL has ever seen. As a hockey player he a piece to the puzzle every hockey team looks for. I'd argue that Sean Avery is the best player, at his role, in the NHL today. The problem is, obviously, he comes with a bunch of issues that quickly take away from the value he brings to the ice. Which brings me nicely to what the real issue, in my mind, of what went down yesterday in the NHL.

What Sean Avery said and did was beyond dumb, but not anything that wasn't already talked or thought about by thousands of hockey fans already across North America. It was also easy to say that a guy that is on thin ice with the NHL like Sean Avery was, should have thought comments like this through a little is a fair statement as well. What I want you to ask yourself though, is why was Sean Avery suspended? It isn't because of Sean Avery's comments about "Sloppy Seconds". It's also not because of Avery's checkered history since his time in the NHL started finally catching up to him. The reason Avery is suspended is deeper then Avery just being the dumbass he is off the ice.

This suspension is because we are in a post Bertuzzi NHL.

This league has been living in fear ever since the Bertuzzi/Moore incident. The suspension that came down last night was because the league was afraid of what might happen in that hockey game on Tuesday. They will tell you otherwise, but don't believe it. The reason I can make that statement is simple, I was going to watch that hockey game last night. The chances of myself taking the time to watch a hockey game between the Dallas Stars and the Calgary Flames on any normal night are about as good as Avery having lunch with Elisha Cuthbert next week. So why was I going to watch that hockey game ? There was an outside chance that the game could have been a blood bath and I wasn't going to miss it. Simple as that. I can't remember a Flames hockey game being talked about in Edmonton as much as this game was until the the suspension announcement came down. To be honest, I think the NHL crapped the bed on this completely. If they felt that Avery needed to be punished they should have fined him, but taking him out of that hockey game was counter productive to the league. They had people across the board jacked up about a hockey game, and the league threw cold water on it. You want people to talk about hockey, publicity is publicity, and the chances of yesterday's game turning into a Bertuzzi type situation where so low, the NHL should have rolled the dice.

The hockey purists amongst us are ready to riot at this point I'm sure, as most would say Sean Avery has nothing to do with good hockey, and the neither did the hype leading up to last nights hockey game. Most would say that Sean Avery has no place in the NHL. The problem is, I'm pretty much a hockey purist on most issues as well, so I understand how one thinks. If your a hockey purist your part right about the hype leading up to this game being based on totally the wrong subject, but you also believe that players should police themselves. The players should have had that chance last night, but the NHL didn't let it happen, and I think that's a mistake.

Then again, this is just a damned opinion.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

So Now What?

The Burke has landed! No big surprise I guess, it's was an impending impact that most saw coming for months now, the only question that was unanswered at the time was when. Now we know. The certainty of Brain Burke becoming the General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs was an easy guess however. The real question that sits before the hockey team is, we got our guy, now what?

Burke has had success in making hockey teams winners in short periods of time. He comes in, makes a big move or two, the team looks great, Burke looks great, every ones happy. The key to what I said is short term. Others would also argue that Burke, in many cases, has taken over good hockey teams and just taken them the final step. So is he really as good as advertised? We are going to find out one way or another now, as the challenge in front of him will leave no questions in our minds as to what kind of GM Brian Burke really is.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are not a team that needs someone to hold their hand and take the final step. What Burke has to work with at this point is a skeleton of a NHL hockey team. A big trade, for one player, won't fix the Leafs overnight this time. Just like signing Mat Sundin wouldn't make this team a playoff heavyweight either. The plan of getting the team down to a skeleton and starting over was the correct plan and I think Burke would be wise to continue on that path moving forward from here. This movement is the only plan the TML haven't tried and with a little patience it will make the team much stronger in the future. The team already has some key figures in place to build on, starting with exactly what the tear down plan calls for, young building blocks like Luke Schenn. From there the team is buoyed by strong goaltending and they have the right coach for a young, growing hockey team. A few assets that Burke may consider trying to move would be Thomas Kaberle and Jason Blake. Kaberle has a huge market, but his no trade clause could get in the way. The return on the defensemen would be young skilled players and picks however, just what the team needs. Jason Blake has a small market, an awful contract, but hey, an idiot is born every day, Burke just has to find him. The real wildcard is Burke's "style". He loves hard hitting, tuff, hockey teams. Which often means European players are not part of the plan unless your skill set is that of Teemu Sellane. So just what changes could Burke make on that angle alone? Personally, right or wrong on Burke's part, I think in time a number of 3rd and 4th line players on the team now will be traded or let go and replaced by North American hockey players.

Last but not least. If Burke does follow through with building this team back from the ground up, can the guy draft well? The future of this team hinges heavily on draft picks working out well now and in the future. In Burke's history as a GM his drafting ability hasn't been under the spotlight like it will this time around in Toronto. The whole situation of Burke and the Maple Leafs has been front and center to the point of nausea, but now that everything is in place watching what happens will be real fun.

Then again, this is just a damned opinion.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Oilers Plummetting

Initially projected to be roughly a year behind the Chicago Blackhawks in terms of development, the Edmonton Oilers have been one of the bigger disappointments in the League thus far this season.

Having been handed a rather brutal early season schedule and currently out of the playoff picture by a mere 2 points, the sky is not yet falling. At least not statistically. However, having watched a few games, this team's competitive level is far off from what it was just one season ago.

When looking at the "office" side of this team, the inclusion of new owner, Daryl Katz, has given Kevin Lowe more power than he has ever had before. Moving upward to a Team President's role, Lowe continues to look over the hockey side of things, while new GM Steve Tambellini hasn't yet made his mark on the team. The decisions to bring in a couple vets over the summer, in Eric Cole and Lubomir Visnovsky, was seen to be a bit curious at the time. Was this a team that should be stocking up for a chance to compete for the top spot in the Northwest Division this early on? Or should there have been a continued effort to bring in more youth to solidify a foundation of this rebuilding effort?
Ironically, after trading away Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene, two of the biggest complaints about this team happen to be poor face off percentages and team toughness. And while the majority of the club happens to be mired in a sophomore slump, the newly added vets do not appear to be making up for their rookie's lack of production. Currently a defenseman leads the team in goals.

Much of the focus this season has been put on Head Coach Craig MacTavish's dubious future with the team, as well as an over-stocked goaltending situation. In MacT's case, most criticisms point toward some curious decisions regarding his line up changes. Choosing to play his players out of their natural positions and roles has seemingly affected the play of Pisani, Smid, Penner, Cole, and Moreau. His comments on Penner's poor play, sound to be a little over the top and could simply be the result of man who's job security is being threatened. His work with special teams has not paid dividends whatsoever and while he is not responsible for finding a way to trim down his goaltending roster to a respectable two, choosing to make Garon his third stringer is questionable at best.

Considering that the Oilers haven't got a whole lot of assets they can part with to pick up a player or two in which they desperately need, Tambellini's first real splash on this team might be to hand his head coach his walking papers.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Nonis Operandi

Upon hearing the news that Roberto Luongo may not see action again until January, Canucks fans will begin to see if GM Mike Gillis really made any headway since taking over, or if his team's surprising jump out of the gate was merely a byproduct of stellar goaltending. Something Dave Nonis didn't see enough of last season.

Considering the unorthodox events that lead to the eventual changing of the guard in Vancouver, it is near impossible to not compare the new GM to the guy he replaced. And having apparently pulled the rug out from under a guy that had one bad season (which may have had to do with man-games lost, more than anything else), it almost seemed unfair to hand him a pink slip without allowing him to take his stud netminder with him. But now with arguably the best goaltender in the League on the shelf for what seems to be the next 5 or 6 weeks, we have a cross-section that could prove very telling for this franchise. If hiring Gillis and firing Nonis was truly beneficial to this club, we should have a clear indication of that within the next few weeks.

Speaking of Dave Nonis, I learned of a very interesting theory today involving the Brian Burke/MLSE soap opera. What was once thought to be a slam-dunk merger between the two long before Burke ever officially cut ties with the Anaheim franchise, sources around the League are beginning to question what might be taking so long. Reports this morning had Burke coming to the Toronto area for some personal business, only to be told later that he never boarded the plan due to a furnace malfunction back at his home. But curiously missing from these reported chronological events of the Burke household, is an official meeting with Leafs headhunter Gordon Kirke and team President Richard Peddie. When the subject has arisen, one word continues to pop up describing these non-negotiations. "Complicated".

Apparently the stumbling block standing in the way of getting this deal done immediately, may not have anything to do with money or term, and only remotely to do with autonomy. From what I am hearing, one of Burke's first terms as expressed through his lawyer over the phone, was that David Nonis would follow him and take an Assistant GM's role with the team. Having spoken to Nonis in two separate interviews back in the summer, Peddie and company seem to prefer the idea of pushing Nieuwendyk for the right-hand-man role on the team. A position he currently holds alongside interim General Manager Cliff Fletcher.

Details are obviously sketchy at the moment, but it is almost as if Burke had given Nonis a promise prior to his hiring in Anaheim, which parlayed into his out-clause with the team. While the Leafs also seemingly gave Nieuwendyk their word and a reason to believe that his place was to be the next-in-line guy. Ironically, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment made their deal with Nieuwendyk almost immediately after they were given permission to speak with him, following the draft. So you would have to think that if Burke was their guy all along, they would be just as eager to shore up the loose ends now that they cannot be accused of tampering.

One thing is for sure... a relationship with Brian Burke is a lot like Roberto Luongo's groin.

Week to week.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Endangered Goaltenders

Half a year removed from the Competition Committee's decision to nip and tuck goaltending equipment, three of the League's most marketable netminders are sitting out with injuries.

In Martin Brodeur's case, it would be hard to argue that the loss of a couple inches of girth could be attributed to to a tear in his bicep tendon. In fact, it isn't certain that the new rules given to goaltending equipment had any affect on him as he is rather known for sporting some of the smallest padding in the NHL these days. It is more likely that father time caught up with the New Jersey Devils netminder after compiling almost 23,000 saves over the course of his NHL career. Something had to give, leading to the first lengthy layoff he has ever had to face.

In the cases of Evgeny Nabokov and now, Roberto Luongo, we can't be as sure. And it isn't to suggest that the barrier between man and puck is resulting in knee and groin injuries, but it is not out of the realm of possibilities that the new size and weight restrictions are providing a challenge to those who perform regular acrobatics behind them. Would it be crazy to suggest that even the slightest of changes and unfamiliarity in goaltending equipment could have a dramatic effect on the health of it's players this early on?

The rise in goaltending injuries could be attributed to a physical factor. Going post to post in a lateral move that we happen to see many times throughout the course of a game. Much like how players slowly adapted to wearing facial visors which they claimed had an affect on their on-ice vision, the minor changes made to the armor a goaltender is suited with, could potentially change the style of his movement on the ice. Athletes these days are such fine-tuned machines that even the slightest of changes could factor in on their health. Or perhaps this is nothing more than a mental effect on our netminders. Knowing full well that the puck has a few inches more on either side of them to squeeze past and into the net, could psychologically force the goalltender to extend himself that much more in the efforts of a save.

It has been a rather long while since we have seen this type of spike in the numbers involving injured netminders. Having gone through just a quarter of the season we have already seen Brodeur, Nabokov, Luongo, Smith, Legace, Dipietro, LeClaire, Ellis, Mason, Fleury and Lehtonen sidelined due to injury. And while it could simply be a reflection of some unfortunate coincidence, the NHL should choose to be very proactive and not procrastinate in researching this.

For all the time and thought that has been put forth by General Managers around the League, on how to raise goal scoring in the NHL, it was doubtful that the ultimate plan was to get more playing time for Kevin Weekes and Curtis Sanford.