Archive for September, 2009

Happy Hockey Eve

‘Twas the night before hockey, and all through the land
Hockey fans were stirring and feeling just grand;
Year previews were posted on blogs with great care,
In hopes that this season would be something rare.
Some teams’ fans were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of Stanley Cups danced in their heads;
But I in my Sens shirt, my jersey, and cap
Had settled for hoping for better than crap.

I’m not going to attempt a full season preview or prediction post. Why? Because it’s pointless. Some wildcard scenario no one anticipated always comes into play during the season. Players get hurt. Teams collapse or overperform for no apparent reason. This year, the Olympics will act as a major x-factor: some teams may suffer from Olympic fatigue, while other teams could benefit greatly from it.

So, instead of doing predictions, I’ll point out what I think are the most interesting stories going into the season.

Western Conference

Yawn: The Avalanche will be utterly terrible. The Red Wings will overcome obstacles such as Chris Osgood sucking and team-wide Olympic fatigue to win the Central Division for the 600th straight year. The Sharks will act out the same old story — regular season dominance, playoff choke — but this time with 100% more douchebag on their roster.

No Comment: Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, Phoenix Coyotes, St. Louis Blues. A lack of knowledge prevents me from saying anything useful.

Interesting Stories

Calgary Flames – Miikka Kiprusoff hasn’t played fewer than 74 games in a season since before the lockout. If he starts for Finland in the Olympics, which seems very possible, he’ll risk burnout come playoff time. Unfortunately, the Flames always play terribly in front of backup Curtis McElhinney, who had a 1-6 record last season. They may want to work on that. More questions: is Dion Phaneuf really any good? Is Olli Jokinen actually a locker room cancer? Can Darryl Sutter do a better job of cap management so the team isn’t left having to play with a short bench in crucial late season games? Early indications on the last thing would suggest not.

Edmonton Oilers – It will be interesting to see if new head coach Pat Quinn can get this team on track. He and goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin are the biggest unknowns here. Khabibulin shocked many in 2008-2009 with his great performance for the Blackhawks, who put him on waivers early in the season only to watch him step in and save their bacon after Cristobal Huet flamed out later on. But Khabibulin isn’t getting any younger.

Vancouver Canucks – The Canucks are my pick to win the Northwest; however, no other team will be as affected by the Olympics as they are. With the tournament taking place in their home building, the Canucks will be banished from Vancouver for all of February and half of March, embarking on an epic six-week, 14-game road trip to accommodate the games. There’s also the question of what kind of impact the Olympics will have on Roberto Luongo. If Luongo is named Canada’s starting goaltender, he will face a ton of pressure as well as some extra wear and tear. If he is not named Canada’s starter, that could have a psychological impact (either crushing or motivating) on him as well.

Chicago Blackhawks – The Blackhawks can be summed up in a few talking points: promising young team; questionable goaltending (and there’s no bacon-saving Khabibulin waiting in the wings this season); injuries to Marian Hossa and Adam Burish; Patrick Kane beat up a cab driver; Patrick Sharp is hot; cap issues next offseason. They should make it interesting for the Red Wings this season, but I’m not sure they have enough to catch them.

Columbus Blue Jackets – My other men will, I am sure, continue to impress in 09-10. Steve Mason will suffer no sophomore slump. Derick Brassard will definitely not get injured again. Nikita Filatov will score 30 goals and win the Calder Trophy (unless Erik Karlsson does). Rick Nash will tear it up at the Olympics but, because he eats such healthy food, will never feel even remotely tired. Everything will be perfect, and the team will not only make the playoffs again, but this time actually win a game — nay, a round! In all seriousness: the Jackets haven’t made major changes this offseason but if Brassard makes a strong comeback and Antoine Vermette continues to click with his not-so-new team, then the best additions to the team might come from within. A lot depends on whether Mason keeps up the form he showed last season. If he does, and if no major disasters occur, the Jackets could do very well.

Anaheim Ducks – The Ducks’ first line of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Bobby Ryan is exciting to watch and Randy Carlyle is an excellent coach, but there are several areas of uncertainty for the team going foward. They’ll have an intriguing goaltending battle between highly-paid veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere and youthful playoff sensation Jonas Hiller. I’m also interested to see if/how Ryan Whitney and/or James Wisniewski will step up to fill the departed Chris Pronger’s freakishly big shoes. Other question marks include Getzlaf’s recovery from offseason surgery; the advancing age of Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer; and the chance that Ryan goes through some kind of second year jinx. Several Ducks (including Niedermayer, Getzlaf, Selanne, Saku Koivu, and possibly Whitney, Perry, and Ryan) also seem likely to go to the Olympics, which may prevent them from duplicating their awesome finish to last season. Still, I think this should be another good year in Anaheim.

Dallas Stars – The Stars’ total failure last season was definitely the most shocking underachievement of the year to my mind. They looked so impressive in the 2008 playoffs, but then Brenden Morrow got hurt, Marty Turco sucked, and Sean Avery apparently messed up their chemistry so badly that they never recovered. Avery is gone, Morrow is back, and they’ve got a capable backup for Turco in the form of Alex Auld, which, according to my Stars fan friend, is all Turco really needed. My feeling is that they should rebound.

Eastern Conference

Yawn: Even if the Bruins don’t perform up to last year’s standard, they will win the Northeast due to a lack of competition. The Islanders will suck. The Devils and the Penguins will make the playoffs. The Rangers will finish near the middle of the pack.

No Comment: Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning. Sorry Southeast Division, I just don’t know you that well.

Interesting Stories

Washington Capitals – The Caps are always interesting if only because of Alex Ovechkin. This year, the development of young goalie Semyon Varlamov (and the fate of Jose Theodore) will also be something to keep an eye on.

Philadelphia Flyers – The Broad Street Bullies trading for Chris Pronger this offseason seemed like fate: at last, Pronger and his flying elbows are with the team he was always meant to play for. Watch your heads, Penguins. Also watch your backs, because on paper this is an excellent team. I think they’ll win the Atlantic Division, partly because the Penguins will be tired thanks to two long playoff runs and Olympic appearances for some of their important players, and partly because the Flyers should just be that good. They may even finish first in the East. Goaltending is a question mark: will Ray Emery’s return to the NHL be triumphant or disastrous? Philly’s defense is so solid that it may not matter that much.

The Northeast Division other than the Bruins – Boston is the clear alpha wolf in this pack; everyone else is pretty much a complete wildcard. The Habs have undergone a coaching change (welcome back to the Northeast, Jacques Martin) and a massive amount of roster change. The Leafs, in case you haven’t heard, are now very truculent and expect to compensate for a lack of goalscoring by doing violence to their opponents. The Sabres are still the Sabres, which means they could finish anywhere from 4th to 14th depending on injuries, Ryan Miller, and luck.

Which brings me to those confounding Ottawa Senators. We’ve watched them play on an extreme rollercoaster-esque cycle for the last few years: down in 2006, up in 2007, down in 2008. (It’s unfortunate that this pattern seems to follow the calendar year rather than the hockey season, but that’s the Sens for you.) They were on a definite upswing after Cory Clouston took over in early 2009. A major question now is: can Clouston keep it going — and will the team be able to pull off a full season of good play? There are, of course, many other questions. Will Alex Kovalev perform well? Will Jonathan Cheechoo actually produce 20 goals? How will Kovalev, Cheechoo, and Milan Michalek fit into the lineup? Peter Regin, Erik Karlsson, and Matt Carkner have all made the team: will they continue the play that got them there? Will Mike Fisher be productive on the wing? Is the defense any good? Can Pascal Leclaire stay healthy?

That’s a lot of questions. It seems too much to hope that everything will work out, so I’m not expecting much from this team. That said, I don’t know that the Sens are as bad as many people would have us believe. Certainly, the team’s depth at forward is much improved over last year. I also think Clouston was doing something right, and I see no reason to think he’ll suddenly become an awful coach. A full season playing under his system should benefit the team. The bottom line for me is that the Sens are no more or less of an unknown quantity than either of their fellow eastern Canadian teams, yet it seems more prognosticators are forecasting positive things for Toronto and/or Montreal than for Ottawa. In Puck Daddy’s staff prediction post this morning, for example, no one had the Sens placing higher than the Habs and only two of five posters guessed they’d finish ahead of the Leafs. Personally, I wouldn’t be too surprised if Ottawa did better than both Montreal and Toronto. I also wouldn’t die of shock if this team happened to squeak into the playoffs.

It’s the NHL: anything can happen.

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Heatley’s “Edge”

Silicon Valley Mercury News columnist Mark Purdy offers this in his assessment of the Heatley trade (link via James Gordon):

But let’s say Heatley does have an edge to his personality. That wouldn’t be the worst thing to toss into the Sharks’ mix. The team needs more crankiness in the dressing room. And you don’t see many pictures of Heatley where he’s smiling. He has the stare of a nightclub bouncer and the hands of a master craftsman. Not a bad combination.

Sure, Heatley is cranky. For example, if you’re looking for someone to yap at the ref after he takes yet another hooking penalty, Heatley is your guy. If he’s unhappy with his icetime, I guess he’ll let you know. If the definition of “edge” is whining and stomping and shouting “ME! ME! ME!” then yes, I suppose Heatley will add something to the Sharks.

But if by “edge” you mean the willingness to throw a hit, go into a corner, or fight an opponent to stick up for a teammate or give the team an emotional boost — which I think is probably a more traditional definition of edge, but maybe we can’t expect someone in San Jose to know that — then I’m not sure Heatley is the one you want.

Joe Thornton, who, in case you don’t remember, fought Ryan Getzlaf during the Sharks-Ducks playoff series last season — which I’ll bet money Heatley would never do — has more edge than Heatley. Heatley wears an RBK Edge jersey and has edges on his skate blades. Those are about the only edges you’ll find on him.

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Hopefully my last ever post about a Heatley trade

To recap the trade: Ottawa sends Dany Heatley and a fifth round draft pick in 2010 to San Jose for Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo, and a second round pick in 2010.

It’s obviously too soon to tell how this trade is going to work out, but overall I think I like it. Heatley had to go: if he had stayed, he would have been a huge distraction and that is the last thing this team needed. Bryan Murray told the media he realized once Heatley arrived in Ottawa that he had to make a deal sooner rather than later:

“I did spend some time with him yesterday. When I looked him in the eye I knew I had to trade him,” said Murray. “I just felt that we had to move him. As I said to Daniel Alfredsson, what we should care about here is the core of this hockey team. This will help the guys become a competitve team again.” (Ottawa Sun)

It sounds as though he felt Heatley’s attitude would be a problem the team could not overcome. Personally, I’m thrilled to see the guy gone — one major reason being that I was really sick of hearing trade rumours and being in limbo all the time. I can’t even imagine what it was like for the players. I’d really like it if the focus in Ottawa this season could somehow be on the team on the ice instead of some stupid off-ice drama.

As for the players coming back, I’m not jumping for joy but I’m cautiously optimistic, or at least intrigued. Jonathan Cheechoo (RW) is about six months older than Heatley, with a cap hit of  $3 million and a contract that ends after the 2010-2011 season. I know he hasn’t been a stellar performer the last few years statistically speaking, but I watched the Sharks-Ducks playoff series this year and I was impressed with him. I thought he was one of very few Sharks players who played with any energy. I highly doubt he’ll ever score 56 goals again, but he’s far from a waste of a roster spot. Bryan Murray says Ottawa hopes to get 25 goals out of him, which seems possible — depending on where he plays. I think they’ll have to give him at least a chance at playing with Jason Spezza, just to see what happens.

I don’t know very much about Milan Michalek. He’s a 24-year-old LW, his cap hit is $4.333 million (he’s on the inverted Mike Fisher contract … yikes), and he’s signed until 2014. He’s put up 55 points or more in each of the last three seasons, which would have put him fourth in scoring on the Sens in each of those seasons (among players who spent an entire season with the team). A look at some Sharks forums reveals that Sharks fans consider him soft, but he plays well defensively.

All of this leaves the Sens with an interesting situation at forward, as Allen Panzeri sums up:

Depending on where Christoph Schubert plays – and he’s initially listed as a forward – the Senators now have 14 forwards on one-way contracts. Murray would like to add one of the rookies, such as a Zack Smith or a Peter Regin, to his roster, but that would mean he’d have to make a trade during training camp.

“If you can get the word out to the other teams that there are a couple that we can talk about at least, I’d be very happy,” said Murray. (Ottawa Citizen)

So these are the potential forwards (assuming Smith and Regin are the most likely rookies to make the team):

LW C RW
Milan Michalek
Nick Foligno (can also play C)
Jarkko Ruutu (can also play RW)
Christoph Schubert (doesn’t count)
Jason Spezza
Mike Fisher
Chris Kelly (can also play LW)
Cody Bass
Zack Smith
Peter Regin
Daniel Alfredsson
Alex Kovalev
Jonathan Cheechoo
Ryan Shannon (can also play C)
Chris Neil
Jesse Winchester (can also play C)
Shean Donovan

Just a tad uneven. If you put all the wingers on one of those justice-type balancing scales, the thing would tip over.  From what I’ve read, Kovalev is not a good candidate to move to the left side. I’m unsure about Cheechoo and I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen Alfie move over there because I’m absolutely horrible at noticing who’s playing where. The bottom line, though, is that one of those three will most likely have to switch.

All this leads to interesting speculation about line combinations. Stayclassy.net, Silver Seven, The 6th Sens, Five for Smiting, and Black Aces have all already offered some analysis of the situation. My take: I think I’d try a first line of Michalek – Spezza – Cheechoo, and a second line of Alfie – Fisher – Kovalev (Alfie goes left because he’s that guy who’s always willing to try a different role). It’s unfortunate that the team still hasn’t been able to get a legitimate second line centre, but they might be able to mitigate the situation a bit if they tried moving Foligno, who played centre in junior and once or twice under Craig Hartsburg last season, to the middle on the theory that two third line centres is better than one third line centre and a bunch of fourth line centres. Who knows if Foligno would be comfortable as an NHL centre long-term though? At any rate, there’s room to shuffle this group around and, assuming some of them develop chemistry, this is a more balanced crop of forwards than Ottawa had last season. Except it leans to the right.

If Murray truly does want to see Smith or Regin in the lineup, then it’s clear that something has to give and it’s possible we’ll see another trade. I have no idea which of these players the Sens will consider most expendable (but maybe a RW, y’know?), or which might draw the most interest from other teams, or whether those two lists will intersect at all.

It’s also worth noting that the team has now committed about $39 million to its forwards — that’s 68% of the $57 million salary cap. They can’t possibly continue like this for much longer.

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The Heat is GONE!

And just after I press “post” on my Re-Draft update, this happens.

You know what? I don’t even care who we got back right now. I’ll think about that later. I’m so relieved to have this done, and to have it done 20 minutes before Canucks tickets go on sale so I can get my boo on? That’s a sweet, sweet bonus.

Bye bye, douchebag.

(By the way, the official Sens Twitter account has published this information so it seems safe to assume this isn’t another ESPN false alarm.)

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Overdue Re-Draft Update

Humpback whale tale

This picture gives you some idea of what I was doing during what’s turned out to be quite a long blogging hiatus. I spent a lovely week on Vancouver Island, looking at whales, bears, sea lions, mountains, and other Vancouver Islandy things. Then I did nothing for a week. But now I’m back at school, so I have plenty of time to blog again.

To summarize the goings-on in Sens land over the last few weeks: Heatley wasn’t traded, despite what you might have heard the other day. No, he’s at camp now, all set to be the team’s hair shirt for the season. Hockey is getting closer and closer. The Sens’ rookies took part in the Leafs-hosted rookie tournament last week (potential goalie of the future Robin Lehner looked impressive by most accounts), and now players both gruntled and disgruntled have arrived in Ottawa to start camp. Check out Silver Seven’s handy post with the training camp roster for more details and don’t forget that the Sens’ first preseason game, against the no-longer-Jacques-Martin-affiliated Florida Panthers, takes place this Tuesday in Halifax at 6pm ET.

Now, some blog business: when last we spoke about the Fake Sens’ progress in the Cycle Like the Sedins NHL Re-Draft, I had just drafted Stephen Weiss in the sixth round to be the team’s second line centre. That was about 10 rounds ago, so here’s a quick look at the players I’ve picked up since then:

7th round, 204th overall: Ryan Whitney (D)

Whitney gets mixed reviews for his defensive game, but he’s got strong offensive skills (23 points in 48 games last season) and he should log a lot of shifts with the Ducks this season as he will likely take some of the icetime that formerly belonged to the departed Chris Pronger. He’s also got great size (6′4″, about 200 lbs.) should he decided at some point that he does want to play a physical type of game. I’d feel comfortable pairing him with a solid player like Seabrook.

8th round, 217th overall: R.J. Umberger (LW)

I’m a big fan of Umberger based mostly on his past playoff performances. He was great for Philadelphia in 2008 (15 points in 17 games) and he was one of the only Blue Jackets to perform well against Detroit in 2009, scoring three of the team’s seven postseason goals. Basically, I think he’s a competitive, gritty player who also has some scoring ability. He should do well on the Fake Sens’ second line with Stephen Weiss, who has a reputation for making his linemates better.  I have Umberger slotted in at left wing, but he can play any forward position.

9th round, 264th overall: Jakub Voracek (RW)

Oh ho, it’s another Blue Jacket! What can I say? I like their team and I think with a few missing pieces filled in (for example, a playmaker like Hemsky to play with Nash and a puckmover like Ryan Whitney) they could be really great. Anyway, Voracek is young (which means woo hoo, cheap!), competitive, and full of potential. He scored 38 points and played 80 games in 2008-2009, which was his rookie season. Read up here on what super Blue Jackets reporter Aaron Portzline has to say about the kid. For one thing, he compares him to a young Ales Hemsky.

10th round, 277th overall: Tim Gleason (D)

It seemed like a good idea to go for a shutdown type of defenseman, and that’s what Gleason is. He hits a lot, he blocks shots quite a lot, can log a lot of icetime, and plays a sound defensive game. Hurricanes fans really like this guy, and he was one of the defensemen invited to the Team USA Olympic camp this summer.

11th round, 324th overall: Luca Sbisa (D)

Though the rookie Sbisa only played 39 NHL games last season, he averaged about 17 minutes of icetime per game and the Flyers were impressed with what they saw from him. He has since been traded to the Ducks (in the Pronger deal) and Anaheim’s management has been saying some pretty positive things about him. They expect him to make the team this season, and maybe even spend some time playing with Scott Niedermayer. That can only lead to good things.

12th round, 337th overall: Nick Foligno (LW)

The first real Sen to become a fake Sen. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a Sens fan and I don’t have to explain why I like Nick Foligno so much. I still will though. He works hard and while he’ll probably never be an offensive superstar in the NHL, every once in a while all that hustle leads to a spectacular goal that makes your jaw drop. He put up 32 points last season and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him top 40 in 2009-2010.

13th round, 384th overall: Mike Fisher (C)

Another real Sen. I know I’ve broken my rule about not taking on bad contracts here, but I had the cap space and the fact is, overpaid as he is, I really like Mike Fisher and his rambunctiousness in this kind of checking line role. As someone who’s being depended on to score a lot, he wouldn’t be my choice. On the third line, I’m very happy with him.

14th round, 397th overall: Kris Russell (D)

After a brief Sens break, the push to take as many Blue Jackets as possible continues. Kris Russell is young (22) and cheap ($0.75 million). He’s also little (5′10″), but I didn’t pick him to be hitting people. I picked him because of his 22 points in 66 games last season and his potential to become a capable offensive defenseman. If you recall, he’s the guy Bryan Murray was supposed to be after when there were all those Spezza to Columbus rumours, but Columbus apparently wouldn’t give him up. Well, in Re-Draft world, Spezza is in Columbus and Russell is a Senator. Along with Rick Nash and half the Blue Jackets’ forward corps. Also, Heatley is nowhere to be seen. BMurr, you’re welcome.

Foligno-Fisher-Shannon: Reunited and it feels so good!
Foligno-Fisher-Shannon: Reunited and it feels so good!

15th round, 444th overall: Ryan Shannon (RW)

And now you see the final piece in my plan when I drafted Foligno and Fisher: yes, it was my goal all along to re-create the fabulous FFS line that was so effective at times for the Sens last season. Teeny tiny Ryan Shannon had 20 points in 35 games with Ottawa last season and maybe I’m overly optimistic but I see those numbers going up this year.

16th round, 457th overall: Brian Boucher (G)

There was a bit of a run on backup goalies, it seemed, so I thought I should probably pick one up. Boucher has played capably for the Sharks the last two seasons and, as half of Philadelphia’s goaltending tandem this season, he’s one Ray Emery flipout away from getting a fair bit of playing time behind what should be a pretty outstanding team. (Not that I think Ray Emery will flip out.) At age 32, Boucher is our team’s elder statesman.

So, that’s where we stand. As always, you can check out the depth chart here. Needs still to be addressed include a sixth defenseman, the fourth line, and our three reserve players, with $17 million in cap space still remaining. Any thoughts?

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