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.