Friday, February 05, 2010

Kovalchuk to have a Devil of a time

The Ilya Kovalchuk Sweepstakes are over. At least until July 1.

The Atlanta Thrashers traded the (former) face of the franchise to the New Jersey Devils along with promising young defenceman Anssi Salmela and Atlanta’s second round pick in 2010 in exchange for super sophomore Niclas Bergfors, problem but talented prospect Patrice Cormier, defenceman Johnny Oduya and New Jersey’s 2010 first and second round picks. It’s a huge win for the Devils, who lose an expendable roster player (Oduya) and headache-inducing (no pun intended) Cormier for arguably the NHL’s second-best pure goal scorer, plus a promising prospect just in case Kovalchuk doesn’t re-sign in New Jersey. The deal appears to be just for a rental for now, but the Devils do have $15 million in cap space for next year to work with (and with all their key players, except Paul Martin, signed through 2010) so Kovalchuk could remain a Devil through the summer.

My first reaction when I heard this story was one of shock. The Devils were always thought to be peripheral players in the Kovalchuk sweepstakes, with teams like the Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks, New York Rangers and Calgary Flames thought to be stronger players; plus who really believed that Kovalchuk is a Devil-type player? However, as Yahoo!’s Greg Wyshynski pointed out, Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello knows his time for a Cup is running out, so acquiring Kovalchuk allows him to get to the Cup sooner.

If it’ll actually help is the question. The deal gives the Devils two great scoring lines, with Kovalchuk joining the likes of Jamie Langenbrunner, Travis Zajac, Zach Parise, Patrik Elias and Brian Rolston, but doesn’t really address the team’s need for a top-rated defenceman. The success of the ‘90s Devils came from having a capable core of puck-moving defencemen (see Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski) and premier shutdown defencemen (Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko), and none of the current Devils’ blueline counts as any of that. Plus, with Paul Martin out, the Devils are trading their best puck moving defenceman and their most mobile. Even with Martin in, New Jersey’s blueline is still nothing more than “competent” at best, a workmanlike group that can get you through most games but not something you can count on every night. This couldn’t have been more evident than against the Carolina Hurricanes in the playoffs last season, as the Hurricanes scored at will (12 goals surrendered in the final four games of the series, including eight in Games 6 and 7) and Eric Staal toyed with the Devils defence in the closing moments of Game 7 when the defences should have been at their sharpest. Scoring, believe it or not, could also become a problem- without a bona fide puck mover, the Devils’ forwards will have to do it on their own and while they’re capable, it’s easy to defend against them knowing you don’t really have to worry about the point shot (no Devils defenceman has more than Andy Greene’s paltry five goals). Considering the weakness of the East, this group may be good enough to get to the Cup Finals, but they’ll be in tough having to deal with the deep bluelines of the West, like Chicago’s or the San Jose Sharks (if San Jose actually makes it that far). This isn’t to say that New Jersey shouldn’t have acquired Kovalchuk- you can’t pass a player like him up- but the team didn’t need him and aren’t addressing what’s really holding them back with this trade.

For their part, the Thrashers and GM Don Waddell fared poorly with this trade. It was no secret that Kovalchuk was getting traded this season, and while Waddell must be happy he’s relieved himself of the stress of the Kovalchuk situation, there’s no question he could have done better than Johnny Oduya had he waited for the trade deadline. Perhaps he was worried he’d make the same mistake he did when he dealt Marian Hossa in 2008, when none of the players he acquired panned out, so in pulling off the deal early he escapes the pressures of the deadline, but he needs to realize those pressures work in his favour, not against him. Atlanta could have had a blue chip prospect (or several) and a player like Alexander Frolov, Scott Hartnell, Dennis Wideman, Brandon Dubinsky or Marc Staal in his lineup than what they have now- a serviceable but replaceable defenceman (Oduya), a former blue-chip prospect who’s slumping badly in his second year (Bergfors) and a blue-chip prospect who’s future is up in the air thanks to his own stupidity (Cormier). Hopefully for Waddell these players work out better for him than the players he acquired for Hossa, but this deal has the potential to become the most lopsided in NHL history- and that’s no overstatement.

In short, there’s no doubt this trade makes the Devils a better team but not a championship team, unless Lamoriello is working on a deal for Tomas Kaberle or another blue-chip defenceman. As for Atlanta, the return they received is small for a player like Kovalchuk, even if he was a pending unrestricted free agent, with plenty of better players available for the Thrashers now and certainly at the deadline. Like the Dion Phaneuf trade, this is a landmark deal for both Lamoriello and Waddell, but the stakes are higher for Waddell. For a franchise that only has one playoff year (2007) and no playoff wins, Waddell will need his returns to produce soon because the time for waiting in Atlanta is over; and if Thrasher fans have to wait any longer, they’ll leave Waddell waiting all the way out the door.


Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Despite trades, Flames and Leafs still in the wilderness

Call it the Unofficial Start of Deadline Day. On Sunday, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke swung two trades that saw his team acquire defenceman Dion Phaneuf from the Calgary Flames and goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere from the Anaheim Ducks, all for secondary roster players. Then, on Monday night, after being invisible (like much of his now former teammates) in the Flames’ 3-0 loss to the equally listless Philadelphia Flyers, Olli Jokinen was shipped out of Calgary to Madison Square Garden in exchange for “project” players Christopher Higgins and Ales Kotalik. With some big names traded already, it may just be a matter of time before others (Sheldon Souray, Teemu Selanne and, biggest of all, Ilya Kovalchuk) get their tickets to new towns as well.

The trades break down as follows:

To Toronto: D Dion Phaneuf, LW Fredrik Sjostrom, D Keith Aulie

To Calgary: C Matt Stajan, LW Niklas Hagman, RW Jamal Mayers, D Ian White

To Toronto: G Jean-Sebastien Giguere

To Anaheim: G Vesa Toskala, LW Jason Blake

To Calgary: RW Ales Kotalik, LW Christopher Higgins

To NY Rangers: C Olli Jokinen, LW Brandon Prust

In the short term, the deals allow each team to address needs and move players they had no need for. Phaneuf wore out his welcome in Calgary and now gets transferred to the Leafs, who desperately needed Phaneuf’s physical game with Mike Komisarek out of the lineup, while the Flames acquire much-needed forward depth. Giguere’s $6 million contract was too much for the Ducks to pay for a player relegated to the backup role, so he’ll get a chance to prove he’s still a starter in Toronto. Meanwhile, Anaheim gets a proven backup in Toskala and needed secondary offence in Blake, two players signed by former Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr. as cornerstones that didn’t pan out and fit better at reduced roles. Finally, Jokinen, Kotalik and Higgins- all players with past success on older teams- get a chance to revive their careers in different locales, their new teams hoping they can reclaim their former glory.

In the long term, it signals that the rebuilding projects in Calgary and Toronto are definitely on. The Leafs were already assumed to be on their project when the season began, as Burke has traded or reassigned all but seven of the Leafs’ roster from opening night 2008-09 and will likely pull off more trades with the offence the way it is. The Flames’ situation was brought on by the fact Calgary has been a large disappointment this season, fighting for their playoff lives when prognosticators were convinced the Flames would contend for the Conference title, so in trading Phaneuf and Jokinen it’s thought the Flames are revamping their roster to prepare themselves for a summer push. In either case, both are examples of abject failures of management to build the team they thought they were getting, and both deals leave more question marks than answers.

In Toronto, the deals mean that the Leafs are bolstering their defence at the expense of their forward corps, who look incredibly bare after Phil Kessel. It was assumed that the defence was set entering the season and that any moves that would be made would be for forwards, so the Leafs’ acquisition of Phaneuf- no matter how gifted he may turn out to be- is a head-scratcher. Not only that, but Phaneuf is yet another big, immobile body who really doesn’t fit with the Leafs’ defence corps as it’s constituted. For Phaneuf’s game to be completely effective, Phaneuf- like all big defencemen- need to be paired with a mobile defenceman (Scott Stevens, most often compared with Phaneuf, was paired with Brian Rafalski, who was mobile). The Leafs only have Tomas Kaberle in that regard, leaving holes in the other pairings. Perhaps Sjostrom, a commendable penalty killer in Calgary, will get used here as a “third” defenceman, playing deeper in the slot so that he can be mobile in the defensive zone and facilitate breakouts, but that will leave Toronto thin up front. I’ve always trusted that Burke knew what he was doing, because he was responsible for bringing the Vancouver Canucks into relevancy and he didn’t achieve that job in a single season, but unless more trades are coming, this deal leaves a lot to be desired. The Giguere deal is solid, because it allows the Leafs to have a proven starter to give Jonas Gustavsson some time to work in some consistency in his game, though I’m not sure why Giguere would want to go to Toronto where he’ll likely not be in the playoffs for the remainder of his contract, even if Francois Allaire is a coach in Toronto.

In Calgary, the questions are deeper and more important- pundits already knew the Leafs would be rebuilding, but the Flames were not supposed to be in that mode. At the forefront are the departures of Phaneuf and Jokinen, two players pegged to be cornerstones of the Flames traded at values that are not indicative of that stature. Stajan, Hagman and White (all from the Phaneuf deal) do add needed elements to the Calgary lineup, namely secondary scoring (from Stajan and Hagman) and mobility from the point (White), but none compare with Phaneuf, either on their own or together. Kotalik and Higgins are in the same boat- they’re both solid players, but together they don’t bring to the table the talents that Jokinen brought. Still, neither Phaneuf or Jokinen were panning out the way it was thought they could- Phaneuf not rounding into Norris Trophy form and Jokinen struggling to discover his form with the Florida Panthers, where he was “Mr. Everything”- with questions hanging over their work ethic that suggested both were too smug in Calgary to stay; but there’s no doubt that GM Darryl Sutter could have received more for both players. Further to this point is the fact that Sutter acquired both players, Phaneuf at the 2003 Draft and Jokinen at the deadline last year, so he’ll have to answer as to why two of his “core” selections didn’t develop like they were supposed to, especially if they do work themselves out. There’s speculation that with all the expiring contracts that Calgary acquired will mean the Flames will take a run at Kovalchuk in the summer, but that’s a big gamble to take; and even if it works, it still leaves Calgary bare at forward. The Flames seem to be operating at “stop-gap” mode, choosing to fill their holes with bubble gum instead of waiting to find the nuts and bolts that actually work, and it’s having a deleterious effect on the team. Kind of like their fellow 2004 Conference Finalists in San Jose, the Flames have been seduced by their one magical year and thought the solution was to get better on paper. Unfortunately, games are played on the ice, and the game that’s played on the ice takes a lot longer to build than it does on paper.

Going forward, it’s plain that more work needs to be done- Toronto needs to find some forwards for its system to work and Calgary has to figure out what system it’s going to run in the long run. Big names may have been swapped but questions still abound about how the newcomers will eventually fit where they are, and neither market seems patient enough to wait. January 31, 2010 and February 1, 2010 will be dates that will mark the legacies of Brian Burke and Darryl Sutter- it’s now up to them to see to it that they are positive ones.


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