Sunday, October 23, 2011

DG's Hat Trick- October 23, 2011

THE CRYSTAL BALL, PREDICTIONS FOR 2011-12: I know I’m late with this, but I’ve been busy and it’s still early enough in the season to write it up.

Here’s how it will all shake down:

Regular Season

Eastern Conference

  1. Washington Capitals
  2. New York Rangers
  3. Buffalo Sabres
  4. Tampa Bay Lightning
  5. Montreal Canadiens
  6. Pittsburgh Penguins
  7. Boston Bruins
  8. Winnipeg Jets
  9. Toronto Maple Leafs
  10. Philadelphia Flyers
  11. Carolina Hurricanes
  12. New Jersey Devils
  13. Florida Panthers
  14. Ottawa Senators
  15. New York Islanders

Don’t be fooled by the Rangers’ ranking as a No. 2- the Eastern Conference is weak, with only two real contenders for the Cup in Washington and Tampa Bay. The rest of the teams are essentially competitive playoff teams right down to the tenth-ranked Flyers. The Leafs and the Flyers are the odd teams out in this equation because both have way too many question marks to guarantee a playoff berth, with Toronto banking on the perpetually fragile Tim Connolly to be Phil Kessel’s setup man and Philadelphia trading most of its offence for Ilya Bryzgalov, who has elite level talent but has a tendency to choke at the biggest moments. The Jets- the old Atlanta Thrashers- make a return to the playoffs in their first season in Winnipeg, as the Thrashers were on the rise last season. As for Pittsburgh, their position is fluid- since Sidney Crosby has no set return date and Evgeni Malkin is still feeling the effects of his knee injury, the Penguins’ performance depends on how much service they get out of both players. If neither are available for a lengthy amount of time, Pittsburgh could miss the playoffs entirely but if they are only ineffective for a short period of time, the Pens should be comfortably in the playoffs. Sixth, thus, is a reasonable compromise, since I believe the Penguins will have a healthy Crosby and Malkin sooner rather than later. The Sabres are the East’s darkhorse- the additions of Robyn Regehr and Christian Erhoff gives Buffalo a formidable top three on defence with super youngster Tyler Myers, meaning it will be even more difficult to score on Ryan Miller and the Sabres.

Western Conference

  1. San Jose Sharks (President’s Trophy Winner)
  2. Vancouver Canucks
  3. Detroit Red Wings
  4. Los Angeles Kings
  5. Anaheim Ducks
  6. Columbus Blue Jackets
  7. Nashville Predators
  8. St. Louis Blues
  9. Chicago Blackhawks
  10. Dallas Stars
  11. Edmonton Oilers
  12. Calgary Flames
  13. Phoenix Coyotes
  14. Colorado Avalanche
  15. Minnesota Wild

San Jose wins the West because the Martin Havlat trade gives them a dimension their top six hasn’t had in a while- speed. Before Havlat, this was a slow, plodding group, and with big bodies such as Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, he’ll have even more room to operate. He is fragile, though, but should play enough to be effective. The Canucks should also be in the thick of the Western crown chase, since only Christian Erhoff is gone from the team that dazzled the NHL last year, though Erhoff’s absence will be felt. Los Angeles also jumps into this mix with the addition of Mike Richards in the offseason, giving Anze Kopitar badly needed support and solidifying the Kings as the most physical team in the West. Detroit should win the weak Central in its sleep, but age has caught up to this group so don’t look for them to be serious Cup contenders. St. Louis jumps into the playoffs- barely- because they’re a young team that is on the rise, enough to push out a declining Chicago Blackhawks team. The Nashville Predators also sneak into the playoffs, since, although they suffered major losses in the offseason, Barry Trotz always seems to make it work, so I expect him to make it work this season. Finally, the Edmonton Oilers should make significant strides- their youth should start rounding into form and though it won’t pan out entirely this season, the Oilers should start to make some noise.

Playoffs

Eastern Conference

(8) Winnipeg 4, (1) Washington 3- The Caps have had numerous problems with upstarts in recent years, and the Jets will be no exception.

(7) Boston 4, (2) NY Rangers 2- Boston is built for the playoffs, and the Rangers just won’t be able to handle their size.

(3) Buffalo 4, (6) Pittsburgh 2- The Pens have no offensive depth go up against a team with a stacked defence. Ain’t going to happen.

(4) Tampa Bay 4, (5) Montreal 2- Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis will show Montreal why they need real offensive depth and not has-beens whose best years are behind them.

(3) Buffalo 4, (8) Winnipeg 1- The Jets don’t have any gamebreakers, making them easy pickings for the Buffalo defence.

(4) Tampa Bay 4, (7) Boston 3- This will be another classic series because both teams are very evenly matched. The Lightning will have learned from their mistake last season and play more offensive, a game Boston can’t keep up with, and can now match them physically with Simon Gagne’s presence.

(4) Tampa Bay 4, (3) Buffalo 3- Another classic series, the Buffalo defence against the Tampa offence. The Lightning will advance since the Sabres can’t match their scoring depth and Tampa’s defence is at least competent enough to stay with Buffalo, but it will be close.

Western Conference

(1) San Jose 4, (8) St. Louis 0- Yeah, the Blues beat the Sharks in this same capacity in 2000 but this is a different Sharks team- they know how to win and should easily dispose of the upstart Blues.

(2) Vancouver 4, (7) Nashville 2- A replay of last year’s second round series and should play out exactly the same- Nashville will have the hunger but won’t have the horses to compete with the Canucks.

(6) Columbus 4, (3) Detroit 3- The upset pick of the West, since the old Wings will show the hockey world that they’re firmly in decline whereas Columbus is a team on the rise.

(4) Los Angeles 4, (5) Anaheim 3- The Battle of Los Angeles should be a lot of fun, since both are bruising outfits that love to score. The Kings should win the day since they’re deeper, but barely.

(1) San Jose 4, (6) Columbus 1- Years before, the Jackets’ speed would have won the day. Not anymore, because now San Jose can skate with them, and should all the way to the next round.

(4) Los Angeles 4, (2) Vancouver 2- Should be an evenly matched, close series which is doom for the Canucks, who always wilt under pressure. This time it should be no different, especially against the physical Kings who will hit them out of the playoffs.

(1) San Jose 4, (4) Los Angeles 3- Rematch of last year’s first round. Should be closer this time since the Kings have added horses, but it’ll still be San Jose’s day- the Sharks now have speed Los Angeles can’t match, though this could go into overtime of Game 7. It’s that close.

Stanley Cup Final

(W1) San Jose 4, (E4) Tampa Bay 2- This will be the first ever Cup Final where no combatant will be north of the 40th parallel, which should make hockey purists nuts. Once they get past their prejudices about hockey in warm weather climates they’ll realize these are two vibrant hockey markets with very good teams- this should be a competitive, offensive series, only going to San Jose- finally- because the Sharks have that much more depth.

SKEPTICISM ABOUT SHANAHAN: If there can be a complaint about Brendan Shanahan, the league’s new disciplinarian, it won’t be because he’s too shy to make a move- in the last ten days of the preseason, Shanahan issued nine suspensions totalling 60 games, with another two game suspension handed out on October 8 to bring the season total to 62 games. To put that in perspective, last season the league didn’t hand out its 62nd game in suspensions until February 9, which represents a refreshingly aggressive approach in a league that desperately needs it. Shanahan has buttressed his approach with flashy videos (okay, they’re not really flashy) explaining why the suspension is what it is, giving him an air of accountability his predecessor, Colin Campbell, did not have. Furthermore, Shanahan is expressive and eloquent enough that his explanation is persuasive, another quality Campbell lacked.

However, I have my doubts and it’s pretty obvious what they are. So far, none of the players Shanahan has suspended- aside, maybe, from Buffalo’s Brad Boyes- has been anyone of real impact, and undoubtedly a player of impact will do something silly that requires action. The main complaint against Campbell was that he was hesitant to do anything in these situations or “softened” the blow to ensure the team he plays for isn’t punished that much. What will Shanahan do if Tyler Myers, Chris Pronger, Alexander Ovechkin, Milan Lucic or any other impact player with a history of discipline problems do something that calls for action? Will Shanahan again waver, his explanation ringing hollow?

The other part- and I’ve been saying this for years- is that the NHL still doesn’t have a set standard for infractions. Yes, Shanahan is persuasive in his arguments and you generally believe the call he made is the right one, but even he is showing signs of erraticism. The suspensions for hits to the head have varied- Clarke MacArthur received three games, Boyes received two, Brendan Smith eight and James Wisniewski 12. In Wisniewski’s and Smith’s cases, the victims were injured whereas in MacArthur’s and Boyes’ cases they weren’t. Wisniewski is a repeat offender so his case is a special one, but Smith, MacArthur and Boyes can be compared. First of all, if MacArthur and Boyes committed the same offence, they should receive identical suspensions and they didn’t. Second of all, if the standard is that injuries add to a suspension, why did Smith get an extra five games and Pierre Marc-Bouchard, another player without a record, only received two games for his offence (which was different, granted, but it still had the same result)? If the theory goes that if Bouchard’s victim, Matt Calvert, wasn’t injured that Bouchard wouldn’t be suspended, then shouldn’t Smith’s suspension be five games at the very most (which is three games, MacArthur’s suspension, plus two)? Simply put, these questions shouldn’t be asked, because randomness is the antithesis of discipline- if no two offenses receive the same punishment (or any punishment at all) then it can’t be a deterrent since players won’t know if the action will receive any discipline. If they don’t know they won’t care- and it’s business as usual again.

(I feel like I’ve written that before…I hate sounding like a broken record but the league never seems to learn…sad really)

Yes, it’s still early and Shanahan is new to the job, but there are still reasons for scepticism. His approach is refreshing so he deserves a chance, but unless he proves otherwise, there’s no reason to believe anything, unfortunately, has changed.

6,306 SHOW UP IN DALLAS- ANOTHER TEAM IN TROUBLE?: The hawks always seem to be circling teams in the South, and no, we’re not talking about Jonathan Toews.

This time the target are the Dallas Stars, who on October 10 drew a paltry 6,306 fans to a home game against the Phoenix Coyotes. The game itself was pretty staid with a dramatic finish, with Sheldon Souray’s point shot in the final seconds redirected home by Loui Eriksson to knot the score at 1 with Mike Ribeiro netting the shootout winner later in the night. The initial story was how the win showed a resiliency in Dallas that was absent in the team’s collapse last season but the real story was the lack of fans in the stands.

It may be true that the Texas Rangers were down the I-20 walking off the Detroit Tigers in the American League Championship Series, but that’s small potatoes for a team in Dallas that has been unstable for years. Ever since Tom Hicks put the team up for sale in 2009, the Stars have joined the cavalcade of teams- mostly, but not all, in the South- that are having financial problems. Hicks blames it on being “south of Pennsylvania” whereas the fans blame Hicks’ penchant for overpaying for veteran free agents in the Stars’ heyday for the Stars’ financial problems.

There could be some truth to Hicks’ statements. In Dallas’ Stanley Cup year, their payroll was $36 million (all figures U.S.). A year later, the payroll jumped to $46 million, enough for another Cup final run. Three seasons later in 2002-03 the Stars’ payroll jumped to $69.5 million, with it gaining $13 million for a $78 million count by the time the lockout hit. That’s an astronomical rise in such a short period, a rise that may have proven to be unsustainable. It’s worth mentioning that before the lockout the Canadian dollar was nowhere close to parity which affected the Canadian teams’ ability to compete financially, so the Canadian dollar’s rise against the greenback is a factor in Dallas’ competitiveness- the moment parity happened was when the Southern teams started really getting into trouble, because now the Canadian teams regained their financial muscle. Having said that, Dallas is the fourth largest market in the United States, too big to lose, and the team’s lack of success may have something to do with the team’s poor form as of late at the gate- this was a team that essentially grew hockey in Texas, an impact not felt anywhere else in the South.

It will still restart the rumblings about the viability of teams in the South, and will ask whether or not the Stars join the conversation. We won’t need to get into that debate- it’s been hashed and rehashed one too many times- but it brings the salient point that something does need to be done concerning the viability of franchises as a whole across the league. The current economic model, while better than the haphazard one that preceded it, hasn’t produced the results it was supposed to; and, as The FAN 590’s Bob McCown noted on his radio show, the NHL doesn’t have a lot of places to stick these struggling franchises. You have Quebec City, Kansas City and a whole lot of “maybes” and that’s it. Is it time to talk contraction? It may be the only option left.

One thing is for sure- this summer, the current collective bargaining agreement expires. You can bet we’ll be in for another long fight as the Southern teams look for financial sanity in a league that has yet to produce it. The sad part is that I’m not sure the NHL can survive another long stoppage- can a struggling league handle another lost season when it already lost one six years ago? All this because the league didn’t get it right the first time- and could pay the price the second time.

BONUS HIT: A story out of Russia sees the Kontinental Hockey League potentially adding a team in Italy. The team, Milan’s Rossoblu (the “red-blues”), was told by the KHL that they have “the organization to join the league”. However, there’s already a lot of scepticism (as noted by Alessandro Seren Rosso) about the viability of a team in Italy, namely the lack of proper facilities (the Rossoblu have an arena that sits 4,500 and draws 1,000), regionalism (Italian hockey fans- and sports fans in general- tend to gravitate towards teams in their own country, not ones from distant lands that they do not know) and the lack of available talent that could compete at the KHL level. However, the KHL has said for years that it wishes to conquer Europe, and perhaps a team in Italy represents the kind of “outside of the box” thinking that could prove to give it a productive legacy. This will be a story to follow in the coming months.

-DG


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-DG

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