Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Chicago Blackhawks: Are they ready to return to championship form?

The Chicago Blackhawks got off to an extremely slow start to the season last year, and it seemed that they were still hungover from their Stanley Cup victory the year before. The Hawks are looking to battle the Wings for the top spot in the Central Division and they hope to have an easier time getting into the Playoffs this time around, instead of waiting until the final week of the season to clinch a spot in the playoffs.

What Happened Last Season:  The Blackhawks started the season off extremely sluggish. They were sitting between the seventh-thirteenth seed for most of the season, and with a late surge at the end of the season, they managed to make the Playoffs and were granted the opportunity to face the mighty Canucks in the first round. After losing the first three games, the Hawks came back and forced overtime in game 7, only to lose on a foolish clearing attempt by Chris Campoli that went right to Alex Burrows.

While the results of the season were a bit disappointing, the play of Corey Crawford was a pleasant surprise. The Hawks after losing Niemi due to financial constraints, were placing their trust in Marty Turco. After Turco showed how inconsistent he can be in the first fifteen games of the season, the reins of the starting job were handed to Crawford and he ran with it. I am sure GM Stan Bowman is the happiest man, as he probably had no chance at landing a solid big name goaltender this season. (Although I might add, inviting Ray Emery to camp was an extremely smart backup plan, should Crawford have a sophomore slump).

Summer Cap Space and Off-Season Needs: The biggest need for the Blackhawks this off-season, was to sign some depth forwards and defencemen. In order to accomplish that one of the big contracts on the roster needed to be cleared off the cap. Bowman did just that by trading Brian Campbell and his albatross $7 million dollar cap hit for the next five seasons to the Florida Panthers. Bowman made some solid depth moves by signing veteran Andrew Brunette and Jamal Mayers up front, and the extremely underrated Steve Montador on defence. Combined with the acquisition of Michael Frolik at the end of last season, the Hawks have gotten some solid secondary scoring and will not be forced to rely on the big guns all the time for goal scoring production.

Stan Bowman is a very intelligent general manager. While many analysts, including myself spent a lot of time praising him for the Campbell trade, the biggest and perhaps most important that happened this off-season was trading Troy Brouwer to the Washington Capitals for a first round pick.Troy Brouwer, while being a talented player, was looking to cash in this summer on a new contract. Bowman realized that players like Brouwer are replaceable cheap on the open market, and if you can get a first round pick for him you go for it. Ultimately Brouwer was replaced with Brunette, a much more talented scorer, and provides some more veteran leadership for this young Hawks roster. Brunette also comes at approximately half a million dollars cheaper than what Brouwer ultimately signed for with the Capitals

What the Future Holds: The Blackhawks will be a surefire playoff team for years to come, and look for them to continue challenging for the Stanley Cup on a yearly basis. They have their core of superstars (Kane, Toews, Keith, Seabrook, Sharp and Hossa) all signed through 2015, and it looks like they have found their goaltender for the future as well. If some of the depth and young players like Dave Bolland, Brian Bickell, Viktor Stalberg, Nicklas Hjalmarsson and Nick Leddy can continue to grow, this team will remain extremely dangerous in the future.

The Hawks biggest problem last season, which contributed to their cap woes, was all of the bonuses that their players received after winning the Stanley Cup. This season, the Hawks are only on the hook for half a million dollars in bonuses, and still remain over three million dollars under the cap, look for them to add a significant piece at about the halfway point in the season if they feel that they are in Cup contention.

What I like most about the way that Bowman has handled the cap issues facing his team is the return that he has been getting for his players. When he traded Byfuglien and Ladd in separate trades to the Thrashers (now Jets) last summer, he received a couple of first and second round picks. This year as well, he received for Brouwer a first rounder. The calculation is simple; Bowman is not looking to draft a star player with these picks. He is looking to continue to have talented depth on entry level, or cheap deals to surround his superstars. While it would be nice to draft another star, if he can continue to replace players like Bolland when their contracts get too expensive with first round talent, he will be able to support the talent he has on the roster for many years to come. Just like when Versteeg, Byfuglien, Ladd and Brouwer got too expensive to retain, they were replaced by Stalberg, Leddy, and Bickell, Bowman is accumulating talent to eventually replace these players as well, should they become too expensive in a couple of years time.

Predictions: Without the Marty Turco experiment to start the season, the Hawks will easily make the Playoffs and as always, will be a tough team to beat in a seven game series. I have them finishing fifth in the Western Conference, barely losing to Detroit for the Central Division title.

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Monday, September 26, 2011

Carolina Hurricanes: Are they solely relying on internal growth for this season?

The Carolina Hurricanes are one of the least talked about teams in the entire NHL, and have been that way ever since they transferred over from Hartford. What is interesting is that they have kept such a low profile despite being in the Cup Finals twice in the last nine seasons. Only the Red Wings, Ducks and Penguins can boast such a gaudy track record. Part of the reason for the lack of excitement surrounding the team is due to the lack of big name free agents that have been signed over the years. Historically they always have brought in solid veterans a la Brind Amour and Whitney, but always fail to show interest in the big name players. It seems that this summer's game plan was to sign all the former ex-Leafs available on the market, as they signed Thomas Kaberle, Alex Ponikarovsky and Tim Brent.

What Happened Last Year: The Carolina Hurricanes finished the season tenth in the Eastern Conference after making a push for the Playoffs towards the end of the season before finally fading in the last few games. While the Canes did not make the Playoffs, they did have a number of bright spots on their roster. The play of Jeff Skinner was absolutely remarkable, being the only player in the NHL born in 1992, not much was expected from the young Skinner, but not only he did win the Calder Trophy, he was also the youngest player in the history of hockey to appear in an NHL All-Star Game, since the the league started making two teams of All-Star players, instead of formatting the contest as the Stanley Cup winners versus the rest of the league. Together with the growth of Jamie McBain and Brandon Sutter, Canes fans have some young players to be excited for in the future.

Summer Cap and Off-Season needs: The Hurricanes had an extremely peculiar off-season, in which I do not see how they managed to solve any of their off-season troubles. The largest weakness on what was an extremely mediocre team overall, was their lack of depth on the blue-line. The Canes are going to be placing a lot of hope in some of their young prospects on defence to provide them with some depth. Prospect Ryan Murphy, who the Canes were lucky to nab with the 12th pick, has a very good chance of making the team this season at the tender age of 18.

GM Jim Rutherford took part in one of the most perplexing transactions of the summer. He signed former Bruin Thomas Kaberle to a three year deal with an average salary of $4.25 million per season. My assessment of the signing is that he paid market/ marginally above market for his services, which is fair considering he was drawing a free agent to Carolina. However what is perplexing is that he subsequently traded his best goal scoring defenceman, Joe Corvo, to the same Bruins for a late round draft pick. Joe Corvo and Thomas Kaberle are both offensive minded defenceman and the same age. However there are two key differences between Corvo and Kaberle, and both of them are what make this "swap" so perplexing. 1) Corvo is the better goal scorer. He outscored Kaberle 11-4. With Rutherford re-signing Joni Pitkanen, one of the best playmaking defenceman in hockey, it would have certainly made a lot of sense for Rutherford to keep a goal scoring defenceman instead of trading him away. 2) With the Hurricanes barely above tha cap floor it is quite obvious that they are in a financial crisis. With that in mind, it is perplexing to trade away Corvo, their top scoring defenceman who has a salary of $2 million and a cap hit of $2.25 million, only to sign Kaberle at double the amount of money. Also, it is not like Corvo was the highest paid defenceman on the Canes roster. Pitkanen (rightfully so) Bryan Allen and Tim Gleason all have higher salaries for the upcoming season and the latter two should have been the ones to be moved. If Rutherford was not able to move either of them he would have been well advised to keep Corvo and invest that $2 million in another offensive player. I would really love an explanation from Jim Rutherfod, as this sequence of events continues to baffle me a month later.

On offence I really like what Rutherford did with his limited financial resources. He rightfully did not match the $18 million deal that the Canadiens gave Erik Cole, as he is one of the most injury prone players in sports. He replaced him with Alex Ponikarovsky, who despite having an awful season last year is still only a season removed from back-to-back 50 point campaigns. At $1.5 million on a one year contract, there is basically no downside to this signing. Rutherford also added former Leaf favorite Tim Brent, and will be pleased with the work ethic and penalty killing ability of his off-season signing.

The one move that I really liked which nearly makes up (not quite actually) for the Corvo debacle is the Anthony Stewart signing. The Jets chose not to tender him a contract, thus making him an unrestricted free agent, and Rutherford nabbed him for two years at $900,000 per season. With 39 points last season and showing some flashes of star talent, pairing him up with youngsters Sutton and Skinner has the potential to create a fantastic trio for many years to come. Also, with proven talent in the family it is always worth taking the risk!

What the Future Holds: I am not sure exactly the plan that Jim Rutherford is looking to put into place, but the team structure is not very strong by any stretch of the imagination. For a team that is sitting near the floor of the cap with team salary slightly above $49 million, it is almost crippling that $15 million is invested in superstar Eric Staal and slightly above average goalie Cam Ward. Both of these contracts are above average wage for players of their skill set (with Ward being way above average) and a team with an alleged internal budget these contracts are extremely restraining. I am going to go out on a limb that if the Canes will ever climb out of mediocrity, it will either be because they start spending to the cap, or that Eric Staal will be moved, as Ward's contract is simply too prohibitive. Despite the young talent on the roster, I simply do not see a significant improvement in the near future. Yet, I feel a bit nervous to count out the Canes as they always manage to overachieve.

My Prediction: I want to say that they will be close to competing for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but with teams like Toronto, Buffalo and New York improving both internally and via acquisitions, I simply don't think they have much of a chance. I think they will end up 11th in the Conference.

Hope you enjoyed!
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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Calgary Flames: Feaster trying a massive re-tooling job, instead of a total rebuild.

The Calgary Flames have been on a downward trajectory ever since they reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004. The only real constant for the Flames has been the play of Jarome Iginla. After a down season by his standards in 2010, Iggy re-asserted himself as one of the best forwards in the NHL last season. As I wrote in another article a few months ago, the Flames have been stuck in mediocrity and remained up against the salary cap for the past few seasons. GM Jay Feaster did a fantastic job of lowering the cap number, while not letting go of any of his young, talented players.

What Happened Last Season: The Calgary Flames finished about where everyone expected them to- a couple of points out of the playoffs, or as some might say, decent but not quite good enough. The most interesting aspect of the Flames season was how they got there. For the first half of the season the Flames joined fellow Canadian teams like the Oilers, Senators, and Leafs at the bottom of the league standings. At about the halfway point in the season, the Flames turned around and played hockey as if they were a perennial Stanley Cup contender. While the Flames ultimately did not make the Playoffs, there were some good things that came out of last season. Firstly, and most important as well, Iginla showed that he is still one of the best players in the league. He finished third in the NHL in goals, while playing with vastly inferior talent to all the other players in the top ten scorer. Also, the continued growth and emergence of Anton Babchuk and Mark Giordano provided assurance and the depth for the Flames on the back-end, which gave them the confidence to trade Robyn Regehr, and provide themselves with some serious salary cap relief.

Cap Space and Off-Season Needs: The Calgary Flames biggest off-season need was simply to create cap room. My stance on success, is that if your team is currently built in a way that it cannot win the Stanley Cup then you should never be satisfied with mediocrity (which is what I predict will happen in Buffalo) and Feaster took the first necessary step to facilitate the revamping process. In order to re-sign both Curtis Glencross and Anton Babchuk, while still creating some cap room for the future, the plan was to get rid of some unnecessary contracts. The Flames at the end of the season had too many forwards that were making too much money. Nik Hagman, Matt Stajan, Ales Kotalik and Daymond Langkow were all making over three million dollars last season to essentially contribute nothing. Feaster was able to clear about ten million dollars in cap space for the upcoming season, and about $4 million for the following year. The first move that Feaster made was an old-fashioned win-win for both organizations. The Flames dealt from a position of strength by moving Robyn Regehr, one of their high profile physical defencemen, to the Buffalo Sabres on condition that Buffalo would take on Ales Kotalik's salary as well. The Sabres, behind new owner Terry Pegula, have plenty of extra cash and acquiring such a talent like Regehr fit nicely into their new expenditures strategy. Feaster temporarily replaced Regehr with Scott Hannan, and at a 1yr/$1 million deal, it looks like a bargain. While the addition of Hannan will most definitely not make the Flames a contender, it is not like they were going to contend with Regehr in the lineup, and he is a viable enough replacement that it was worth it for the cap flexibility.

A couple of weeks ago Feaster traded the oft-injured Lankgow to the Phoenix Coyotes for the streaky Lee Stempniak. From the Flames perspective this trade has no downside. When healthy Langkow is only marginally more effective than Stempniak, yet makes more than double the amount of money in salary. Both Stempniak and Lankgow have their contracts come off the books at the end of the season, but this will give Feaster some more flexibility to make a move during the season if he wants to add a player via trade. Again love the trade, as Feaster knows this years results are essentially moot and irrelevant.

What the Future Holds: I am going to suppose a theory here, and would love to hear your comments and opinions in the comments section below. Jay Feaster is completely aware that his team is in no position to win the Stanley Cup this season. They do not have the talent to compete with the superpowers in the league, and need a couple of other big name players if they want to really compete. Yet Feaster has chosen to revamp and retool his team instead of rebuilding it. In most cases I would disagree with him, but after seeing the cap clearing moves he did this off-season, the potential is back in Calgary for some success in the near future. At the end of this season the Flames will have 12 players under contract for a total of $41 million dollars. Assuming the cap ends up staying in the range it is at now, the Flames will approximately have $25 million to round out their roster. Although that number does not sound optimistic, I am sure Feaster has taken a look at the players that he does have under contract, and is satisfied and confident that he can significantly improve his roster next off-season. Among the ten most talented players that the Flames have on their roster, only Olli Jokinen is not under contract for next season. So while they need to fill out their roster, they have the money to spend it on some big names, because they will not be losing anyone significant off their roster. Kiprusoff, Iginla, Bowmeester, Giordano, Tanguay, Glencross, Bourque and Babchuk are all still under contract and form a solid foundation for the future. Also, let it not be forgotten that the Flames were only three points out of the Playoffs despite being one of the worst teams in the league for over half a season. Aside from Regehr that core group all still remains intact, and could be looking at a solid influx in talent next summer.

This in many ways explains why Tanguay received a five year contract. Feaster decided to lock him up at a relatively inexpensive $3.5 million per season with the notion in mind that there is a real possibility this team can be a serious contender in 2012-2013. To put in perspective the steal that Feaster got with Tanguay, Ville Leino received a 6 yr/$27 million deal, and only yesterday R.J. Umberger signed for 5 yr/$23 million. At 5 yr/$17.5 million there is no reason not to sign him if you plan on competing in the near future, as his stats and experience both are extremely favorable to those two players that got much bigger deals.

In many ways this plan of action goes against conventional thinking, but I think he has the right idea. Jarome Iginla and Miika Kiprusoff are not going to get any younger, and the time to win when these are your stars is now. He has adapted his strategy to his player base, and if played out correctly, Feaster may end up looking like a genius.

My Prediction: The Flames have not done much to improve for this season and will once again finish outside of the Playoffs and eleventh in the Western Conference. Despite this fall in the standings, I do not think that the future has looked better in Calgary from a salary cap perspective since the cap was instituted after the lockout.

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Buffalo Sabres: Darcy Regier cannot control spending after getting more money from ownership.

The Buffalo Sabres have historically been one of the cheapest and poorest teams in the NHL, and were highlighted by their filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2003. Well those days appear to be over. On February 23, 2011 the Buffalo Sabres were purchased by local owner Terry Pegula with the promise that the team will remain in Buffalo, and will be competitive for many years to come. Pegula's purchase of the Sabres has created one of the largest off-season expenditures in hockey history. The jury is out on the Sabres will be any better after spending all this money, or will be the new edition of the pre-lockout New York Rangers.

What happened last year: The Buffalo Sabres lost in the Game 7 of the first round of the NHL Playoffs to the Philadelphia Flyers after blowing a two goal lead in in game 6 which lead to what was a wild final game. The whole season was filled with ups and downs for the Sabres. They started off the season extremely slowly, winning only three of their first 14 games. After 35 games and the Playoffs far from sight, the Sabres lost their best scorer Derek Roy to injury for the rest of the season. Everything looked lost. Well as we know, they ended up coming back and stormed into the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. The reason that the Sabres were able to climb back into the Playoffs was mainly due to fantastic production from some of their top offensive players. Thomas Vanek had a great bounce-back season, (and is finally earning at least 40% of his mammoth contract). Drew Stafford broke the thirty goal barrier, and was in the top five in the NHL in goals per game. Tim Connolly managed to play 68 games and had a respectable 42 points and together with the rookies Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe really helped make up for the loss of Roy.

Small note for hockey poolies: Drew Stafford had a remarkable goal scoring campaign this past year. You might be a little skeptical drafting him believing that he was lucky based upon his 17.3% shooting percentage. However, before you pass judgement, it may be worth looking at his first two seasons in the NHL, he shot 19.4% and 15.5% respectively. While in 09-10 he scored on only 7% of shots, that may be the anomaly and the high shooting percentages the norm. He may simply be a remarkable shooter. I would look at him in a mid-late round in a pool that places high value on goals scoring.

Summer needs and Cap space available: Disclaimer- This may be the first time that you read an article that did not like the moves that the Buffalo Sabres did this summer. To put it bluntly I am not impressed. The Sabres are $4 million over the salary cap, and in no way do they look like a Stanley Cup caliber team. In my opinion, and probably the opinion of most hockey analysts, the Sabres needed to upgrade their offence, especially with the loss of Tim Connolly. Well they signed Ville Leino to a whopping 6 yr/$27 million dollar deal. This contract is absolutely ridiculous. Terry Pegula and Darcy Regier should have considered making a statement on a player with a significant track record. Leino has ONE season in the NHL with over 15 points, albeit 53, and no seasons with over 20 goals. In comparison players of the same age, like Dustin Brown making $3 million, Ryan Kesler making $5 million, Mike Ribeiro $5 million, the numbers for Leino look like an absolute joke. In no way does the addition of a good third liner make this team offensively lethal.

Below are the statistics of two players in their best statistical seasons, and in my opinion compare extremely favorably to Ville Leino. The first two stat lines belong to Jonas Hoglund. Anyone that has been following the Leafs since the late 90s knows that these statistics are inflated by playing with Mats Sundin. Nobody ever confused Hoglund with an objectively good player, and definitely would not have received a contract of $4.5 million. Actually in 2002, the first year after these "amazing statistical" seasons Hoglund was rewarded with a whopping $1.54 million dollars! (By the way the Leafs team salary for the season was over $65 million, which is over the allotted amount of the NHL salary cap this season- there goes that justification for Regier)

Year     Team       GP G A PTS
99-00 Mapleleafs 82 29 27 56
00-01 Mapleleafs 82 23 26 49

The below stat line belongs to current Leaf Colby Armstrong. The year in reference is his rookie year that he played on a line with Sidney Crosby. Armstrong was on pace for a 65 point season. Well as we all know, after being traded to the Thrashers, he resettled into his realistic role- a third line player that should make maximum $3 million (which some might consider high) and contribute as an above average third line player.
Year    Team   GP  G  A  PTS
05-06 Penguins 47 16  24 40
Sorry for the tangent but you see my point? Ville Leino played with some great players on the Flyers, and unless he plays with Vanek and Roy, he will see his numbers drop back down to a more realistic total. With the loss of Connolly the Sabres will have a harder time scoring goals then people are anticipating, unless Brad Boyes can return to the 40 goal scorer that he was at one point in his career.

To be fair to Regier he did make some savvy trades and took full advantage of Pegula's open pockets. The Calgary Flames needed to free up some money if they had any interest in trying to get creative and improve their team. (I noted this months before the trade He was willing to take the Kotalik contract off of Feaster's hands together with receiving Regehr and a second round pick, while giving up only depth defenceman Chris Butler. Savvy move for the high spending Sabres.
The other big signing this summer was snatching Christian Ehrhoff from the Vancouver Canucks. While the average salary of $4 million is very manageable, the length of the contract is a bit excessive. Ehrhoff will be 39 years old when the contract is over, and while he will only make $1 million per season in each of the final three years, the cap hit remains at $4 million. Unless Ehrhoff waives his no movement clause, they will not be able to place him in the minors should his career flounder. Risky move but it may pay off for the Sabres.

The final big news in the Sabres summer was announced only today. Tyler Myers was re-signed to a 7 yr/$38.5 million contract. The contract does not kick in until the end of this season, the final year of his entry level deal. This is an extremely expensive high risk deal for the Sabres, and in many ways provides the sort of dilemma that Brian Burke may be facing in his contract negotiations with Schenn. (I think the Myers contract was very much influenced by Tavares deal that he signed yesterday).

The Myers contract includes the first three seasons of his unrestricted free agency. The reason I do not like this signing is quite simple. If you would sign Myers for the final four seasons of his restricted free agency, you could get him signed in the range of $4.5 million per. Less than $4 million the first two seasons and about $5 million for the last two seasons. This would equal a total of 4 yr/ $18 million. Now the calculation continues as follows. What would Myers fetch on the open market as an unrestricted free agency? Let's assume that he will be looking at Shea Weber/ Zdeno Chara money (which is probably his peak potential) he would be looking at a contract in the range of $7 million for three seasons, for a total of $21 million. The sum of $18 million and $21 million would equal $39 million per season, or half a million in savings. Even if I am being conservative and I am under calculating by 10% this would still only equal savings of about $4 million over seven seasons. The risk of having a player with only two years of NHL experience, and playing a high risk style game is not worth 10% savings in contract.

What the future holds: Well the Sabres have a lot of players in long term contract. Ehrhoff, Myers, Vanek, Stafford, Ryan Miller, Andrej Sekera, Gerbe and Leino are all in Buffalo for at least the next three seasons. There are four key players that are unrestricted free agents following the season. Brad Boyes, Jochen Hecht, Paul Gaustad, and Ales Kotalik. While the total value of these four contracts is $13.5 million, one of these players is going to be starting the season in the AHL, as the Sabres are $4 million above the cap. Essentially the Sabres will have about $9 million dollars in cap space for next season to replace these players. Hecht and Kotalik will either take significant pay cut to approxiamtely the $1.75 million range, Gaustad would remain at about $2.5 million, and Boyes is the real wild card. If he has another fantastic season, (I think he will) then he is looking for another contract in the $4 -$4.5 miliion dollar range. In other words there is not much room for growth for the Sabres in the next five years. This is the team they are going to have, unless they make some trades, for the foreseeable future. All of the additional money that the Sabres might save in the next two years will need to be pumped into Jason Pominville and Derek Roy. The lack of ability to improve in future off-seasons via the free agent market is my biggest issue with the way Darcy Regier has handled the extra money ownership has given him.
My Prediction: This team definitely has enough talent to remain a playoff team assuming they can stay healthy. One variable I did not focus on is the unbelievable talent that they have in goal. Ryan Miller on his own can push this team over the top and into the Playoff picture. I think they are going to finish 6th in the Eastern Conference.
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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Boston Bruins: Do they have what it takes to repeat?

After months of celebrating, and Zdeno Chara buying $100,000 bottles of champagne, it is time for the Boston Bruins to prepare for another grueling season, and attempt to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the 97-98 Red Wings. With the unfortunate news that Marc Savard will not play again this season and possibly for the rest of his career, let's see if the Bruins are able to come back and win another one for him. On a side note, I think it was extremely classy of GM Peter Chiarelli to publicly state that the team will petition to have Savard's name on the Cup, and highlights the respect that he has from his fellow teammates.

What happened last season: Champs! On the back of Tim Thomas, the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup for the first time since the Bobby Orr era. Thomas this past season had the best save percentage since the stat started being tracked in 1983. What was so remarkable about their Cup victory was the resiliency that they showed at so many different times during the Playoffs. In the first round against the Canadiens, the Bruins came back in the series after losing the first two games on their own home ice. In the second round, the Flyers goalies ended up beating themselves, so I guess that doesn't count. In the third round- or the round I would like to call, "the round of Tyler Seguin becoming a superstar after two great games," the Bruins defeated a strong and speedy Lightning team, despite a relatively poor series from Tim Thomas, and went on to face the Canucks in the finals. That resiliency continued in the finals, when the Bruins responded after losing the first two games, to come back and win the series, (or maybe Luongo lost the series) in seven games.

While the unbelievable play of Tim Thomas was the main reason that the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, people often forget that Bruins were the deepest team in the Eastern Conference and possibly the entire league. While the Canucks and Lightning were coming at them with forty goal scorers, the Bruins responded by having three lines of players that are capable of scoring fifty points. The top point-getter on the Bruins had only 62 points on the season, despite the collective team being fifth in the NHL, in the goals scored category.

Another impressive aspect of their Stanley Cup run, was the gut showed by GM Peter Chiarelli, to not only trade some top prospects and picks, but to take key players like Blake Wheeler and Brad Stuart off the current roster, with the foresight to realize the importance that  players with the speed and defensive ability, like Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley can offer. As he does every season, Chiarelli continues to make slight improvements to his roster, ensuring the best results from his teams.

Summer Cap Space Available and Team Needs: For those that watched the Playoffs at all, it was more than obvious that the Thomas Kaberle experiment for the most part failed. He had some good games in the Lightning and Canucks series', but by that point was already relegated to the third defensive pairing. So Chiarelli, in what I consider to be a swallowing pride move, chose to let him walk at the end of the season instead of re-signing the offensive defenceman at $4.25 million.

Immediately after Kaberle was signed for 3yrs/$12.75 million by the Carolina Hurricanes, Chiarelli traded a fourth round pick to the Huricanes for Joe Corvo. In many ways Corvo is the better option than Kaberle for the Bruins. The two of them essentially wash out offensively, with Kaberle being the better passer, but Corvo actually using a shot, the main difference that lies between the two of them is their contracts. While Kaberle is locked in at $4.25 million for the next three years, Corvo is on the last year of his deal that pays him $2.25 million.

This flexibility is exactly what the Bruins and Chiarelli need to ensure that they can be continue to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Trading for Corvo carries with it no downside, since at the worst he is re-signable at the same cap number as Kaberle, and most likely can be re-signed for cheaper.

The second keynote this summer on Chiarelli's agenda was to re-sign Brad Marchand. To this point, there is no deal in place and rumours are beginning to circulate that the Bruins are not ready to meet Marchand's contract demands, and are exploring different trade options. The Marchand situation is really tricky. James Van Riemsdyk has set the market incredibly high by signing his six year deal with an average salary of $4.25 million. From Marchand's perspective, he believes that he should probably be receiving at least the same package, while I am sure that Chiarelli is trying to shrink the size of the contract both in term and dollar. I personally do not see this ending well, and I envision a trade happening down the road. Both sides do not have much of a reason to budge from their demands. The Bruins are extremely deep at centre, with Seguin relegated to the bench last season, and Marchand has already got his name on the Cup , and may now be looking for the few extra dollars that are available to him on the market. However if Chiarelli really wants him re-signed, with a little over $7 million dollars in cap space, (before the Marc Savard contract situation which is a conversation for a whole other time) he can easily retain him.

What the future holds: As mentioned above, the salary cap flexibility that Chiarelli has in the future is vital to ensuring the Bruins are a top team for many years to come. One problem that is sort of unique to the Bruins is their star goalie issue. The Bruins have two star goalies, and both Tuuka Rask and Tim Thomas would be the starting goaltender on most teams in the NHL. This poses an issue for the Bruins in that, next year when Rask becomes a free agent, they will need to keep him, despite having Tim Thomas still under contract-and it will be expensive. Without knowing how long the acrobatic 37-year old will be able to continue to perform at such a high level, they can ill-afford to let Rask go. Look for Rask to sign to a long term deal, at approximately an average salary of $4 million dollars.

The added flexibility next season will also help ensure that David Krecji can be compensated appropriately at the end of the season. While he is still an RFA at seasons end, look for him to get a significant hike in salary to approximately the $5 million dollar range. Things do not get easier the following summer, as Tyler Seguin (RFA), Milan Lucic (RFA) and Nathan Horton (UFA) will all be up for new contracts, and a significant hike in salary will be necessary to keep all of them.

Essentially Chiarelli could not keep Kaberle if he wanted to keep all his stars in the future, and he has Corvo in the interim until young defensive stars like Adam McQuaid and newly drafted Dougie Hamilton are ready to take their games to the next step.

Prediction: The Bruins will finish second in the Eastern Conference, and will once again be a force to reckon with, as I predict they will be for many years to come- especially with Peter Chiarelli at the helm hopefully (for their sake) until he decides to retire.  

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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Anaheim Ducks: Did they forget that there is an off-season or is management simply naive.

I have been intending to publish my pre-season predictions, and evaluation of every teams summer activity, for quite some time now. However, with the Anaheim Ducks being at the top of the alphabeitcal order, I have been holding off with the hope that their general manager Bob Murray, would come through and actually help improve the weaknesses in his team. Yet, he continues to place all of his eggs in the Teemu Selanne basket, and is holding himself and his team hostage.

What happened last year: The Ducks last year, on the back of Corey Perry's remarkable end to the season, ended up as the fourth seed, in the uber competitive Western Conference. The Ducks ended up losing in six games to the Nashville Predators in the first round. It is difficult to assess the actual season for the Ducks due to the nature of the dichotomy of the performances of their top players. Of their top six players, three overperformed, (Perry, Selanne, and Visnovsky) two under-performed due to injuries (Ryan Getzlaf, Jonas Hiller), and Bobby Ryan played just about as well as was expected from him. Truth be told the overperformances of Visnovsky, Perry and Selanne were essentially unprecedented. Corey Perry's numbers are inflated by the best 16 game goal scoring streak of the decade (19 goals), Visnovsky should have won the Norris trophy, I challenge anyone in the comments section to deny this, and Teemu Selanne had the best offensive season for a player over forty in the last 30 years. Not only was it the best, it was the best by far. His 80 points were in only 73 games, and the second highest total was Mark Messier in 2000-01,  67 points and he needed 82 games to do it. At the same time, not having Hiller for the end of the season and Playoffs, and missing Getzlaf for a significant amount of time, in some ways offsets the skewed numbers that this season represents in assessing the Ducks long term expected performance.

Summer Cap Space Available and Team Needs: You know that classic cliche of, "our goal here is to win a championship" that every general manager preaches? GM Murray may be the first person in a team management position that does not seem to abide by this wishful sentiment. He simply in a Seinfeldesque fashion did nothing this summer, and has his sights set on re-signing Selanne, which will at best make his team as good as it was last season. After spending 96% of the cap last season, he has reduced his teams spending to approximately 85% percent of the cap, albeit before his hopeful re-signing of Teemu Selanne. The same weaknesses that he had on his team last season exist this season as well, and the problem has only become worse. The biggest problem with the structure of the Ducks is, as I have pointed out in previous posts, their dearth of depth talent. What I mean by "their problem has only become worse", is that while last year they had a below average second line and a horrible third line, this year as Saku Koivu and Jason Blake continue to get older and slow down, they will provide less and less secondary scoring. Murray needed to address this issue in the summer, and simply failed to do it. He has over ten million dollars available under the salary cap, and has only one roster spot remaining on the roster. 

To be fair, giving up a second round pick for Andrew Cogliano was a very intelligent and savvy trade. Cogliano was slowly losing ice time and his leadership role with the Oilers, and with a change of scenery can quite possibly develop into the solid second line forward that everyone expected from him when he entered the NHL. Then again, while this was a solid addition, the second biggest addition that Murray made for his team was signing Mark Bell, yes Leafs fans the same Mark Bell that was thrown into the Vesa Toskala trade all those years ago.

Murray seemingly did not get the message that general managers are starting to place a premium on solid second and third line players, and will continue to rely heavily on his top end stars.

What the future holds: The Ducks have no question some of the top end talent in hockey. Up front, they are lead by Getzlaf, Perry, Ryan and hopefully Selanne. Their defence corps has one of the highest ceilings in all of hockey, dependent on the growth of youngsters Cam Fowler and Lucas Sbisa. In goal, the Ducks are set as long as Jonas Hiller can come back healthy and fully returned to form. Dan Ellis is more than an adequate backup and as always is the case with the Ducks, goaltending will not be their downfall. However, due to their general managers inactivity in the free agent market, they will stumble and remain a mediocre team. So while Murray has shown extreme loyalty to his longtime star, he has hurt the short-term prospects of his team.

 In the long-term, things are looking extremely interesting for the Ducks. After this season, Koivu, Jason Blake and Francois Beauchemin will all have their expensive salaries off the books. This will free up over ten million additional dollars, assuming the salary cap does not change. I say in addition, because there will be at least five million dollars in funds available from this season, as Selanne is going to sign in the five million dollar range on a one year deal, and the Ducks have so far only spent $54 million out of the $64 million cap. Seems like with all that space, Murray's strategy may be to spend all that money next season right? Wrong. The following  off-season 2013-2014, is going to be a defining year in the future of the franchise. Getzlaf, Perry, Visnovksy, Fowler and Lydman are all going to be free agents, and at least Fowler, Getzlaf and Perry will be looking for significant raises. While the raises for Getzlaf and Perry will probably be in the $2 million dollar range, Fowler may be looking at a significant raise of approximately $3.5 million. It is too much of a risk to invest heavy money in the summer of 2013, if you are going to possibly lose these stars in the following off-season.

My Prediction: The Ducks will need to rely heavily on the growth of some of their prospects if they would like to match last season's success. Assuming Selanne re-signs their bottom six forwards are: Cogliano, Dan Sexton, Matt Beleskey, George Parros, Brandon McMillan, and Nick Bonino, or in other words essentially minor leaguers. The Ducks will finish 7th in the West, once again overachieving on the backs of their superstars.

Hope you enjoyed, be sure to check back in as I continue my team-by-team analysis.
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Sunday, September 4, 2011

A transcript: What is Luke Schenn's value?

I would just like to take a moment as a longtime Leafs fan to wish my condolences to the Belak family. We all remember the courageous effort that Wade displayed every time he stepped on the ice. His dedication to his teammates was always truly remarkable, and he will be missed. Even though I never had the opportunity to speak with him, he was one of the players that I have always had the utmost respect for, and have only heard wonderful things from people that knew him better. The family should only know happiness in the future.

Don Meehan and Brian Burke negotiating Luke Schenn contract September 3, 2011:

BB: Sit down Don, let's get this over with, but I am going to let you know one thing, I will no longer be held hostage by Drew Doughty setting the market insanely high. This has gone on long enough. I would like to lock up Luke long-term, can we finally just sit down and agree on a number?

DM: That's fine Burkie. I no longer need to wait for Doughty's contractual issues to be settled, I am more than willing to look at the "very fair" value that John Van Riemsdyk received from the Flyers as a guideline for what my client Luke should be looking at. JVR signed for six years at an average of 4.25 million per season. That contract takes away the first two years of JVR's unrestricted free agency. Is that how long you want to have Schenn locked up for? My client has played three seasons in the NHL already, so as per the CBA adjustment in 2008, he needs to play only four more seasons until unrestricted free agency. A six year deal will buy out the first two years of his UFA status despite him not being 27 at the beginning of the 2015-16 season.

JVR received $4.25 million with nothing but the hopes of progress. In his first two seasons in the league he has averaged 18 goals and 37 points. If he warranted a contract like that, then my client Luke, who plays a premium position, and lead all defencemen in hits, deserves a a contract of at least $5 million per season.

BB: Don, as much as I respect your ability to twist and construe anything to provide your client with as much money as you can, don't look at me straight in the eye and tell me you actually believe the crap you are saying right now. The reason why JVR got that deal has nothing to do with how he played in the regular season, it is a combination of his remarkable playoff performance, and the fact that Paul Holmgren has shown himself to be completely blinded by the future of his team that he forgets to live in the present. The day that I give a 9yr/$50 million dollar deal to a goalie, is the day that I will be willing to concede to you that I will give a 21- year old defenceman the kind of money you claim he is worth. Besides if you want to take a Holmgren contract that he handed out to a young player, would you like to compare Schenn to Claude Giroux's annual $3.75 million dollar deal, it makes Schenn look like a $2.5 million dollar player.

DM: Burke you are being completely unfair, Giroux contract is only for three years and does not take away any years of unrestricted free agency. If you would like to structure Schenn's contract like that, we will obviously be willing to discuss a lower cap number- albeit not the $2.5 million that you arbitrarily made up.

However let's forget comparing forwards and defencemen, with 180 full-time defencemen in the league I am sure we can find comparable contracts. This week the Blue Jackets signed Fedor Tyutin to a 6yr/$27 million contract. I think Schenn compares positively to Tyutin. He has double the amount of hits and blocked shots, and while Tyutin's point totals were a little bit higher, that can be attributed to him seeing approximately 2 minutes more PP time per game. Also, if I may add, Schenn has improved on his point totals every season.

BB: Stop acting like your client is irreplaceable. I do not need to sign him into the first few years of his free agency, I am perfectly happy with a four year deal. As for Tyutin, he is a solid player that Columbus could not afford to lose. To get people to play in Columbus you need to pay a bit of a premium. Also, stop comparing Schenn to players in a different age class, or position, there are plenty of players at his position and age group to compare him to. Karl Alzner signed with the Capitals for 2 yr/ $1.29 million per season. I am not lowballing you here, just telling you that 22 year old defencemen who play 20 minutes a night, and have not shown all that much offensive flair do not make all that much money.

DM: I refuse to compare my client to players that have only played one season in the NHL, and also took a hometown discount to play for a Cup contender.

BB: Fair enough, I wasn't trying to compare the two, just wanted to illustrate a point. Let's cut to the chase, Erik Johnson in 2010, signed for 2 yr/$2.6 million per season. This is a contract number I would like to work with. I know that your first claim is going to be that the cap went up from $59.4 million in 2010, the year Johnson signed, to $64 million this season. I am going to calculate the % difference from year to year. A salary in 2010, that was $2.6 million represents a $2.8 million salary at the current number the NHL employs. What I like about this deal is that Johnson does not become a free agent at the end of the contract, rather he retains his RFA status. So Don, if you feel your client will continue to improve and can get significantly more money down the road, would you agree to a 2 year offer at $2.7 million per season? I think we can both agree that your client is not as good as Erik Johnson.

DM: Absolutely not, Luke is not interested in doing this every single season. We want a deal that will make Luke feel comfortable with his team, and continue to retain his job security with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

BB: Ok, that seems fair. I'll increase the offer to a five year deal,, which will eat into one year of UFA status, with an annual salary increase of fifteen percent for years two, three and four, and a twenty percent increase for year five. The reason for this increase is to properly compensate for the growth in the salary cap, as well as for the expected growth in Luke's game and subsequently his value.

Breakdown is as following:
2011-12: $2.7 million
2012-13: $3.1 million
2013-14: $3.57 million
2014-15: $4.1 million
2015-16: $4.9 million

Annualized Cap Hit= $3.674 million.

DM: Is that really what your offer is? $3.65 million for 5 years? Marc Staal last season received a 5 year deal, with an average cap hit of $3.975, and was at a time when the cap hit was $59.4 million. With my clients strong defensive ability, we are looking at a slightly higher number, plus the inflation of the higher salary cap.

BB: So we are getting closer. There are a couple of things that I would like to say about the Marc Staal deal, and explain to you the difference, with our situation. 1: I am not Glen Sather. Bobby Holik, Scott Gomez, Chris Drury Darius Kaspiritis, and the list goes on. He overpays for everyone. However I am willing to use that as some sort of guideline. 2: Marc Staal's contract does not carry a no-trade/movement clause. He could end up in Nasville, Florida, Islanders or any other small market, which will hurt your client's long-term value. The no trade clause to play in Toronto is quite a valuable asset to have. If your client wants reassurance he will have job security here, then I will charge you for it.

Also, Marc Staal this year was an All-Star. He plays more minutes than Schenn, and while I know Schenn is a better checker, and at blocking shots, if we analyze the statistics, the lack of shot blocking is largely due to his linemate Dan Girardi dominating the category. Also, Staal is better in the takeaways department, which is a crucial defensive stat, as well, he has a career high in goals that is higher than five. So did you bring up Marc Staal to lower the contract that I offered you? Or to at least prove my point?

DM: Right Burkie, you don't give out bad contracts, only Sather and Holmgren. What you gave to Komisarek must have made perfect sense at the time didn't it? Staal is not better than Schenn offensively. When you adjust their stats according to Power Play time received, Schenn actually had more points than Staal. My client will not be penalized because your coach chooses not to put trust in Luke's offensive ability. Dustin Byfuglien got $5.2 million from the Thrashers/Jets. The man is not capable of playing defence, and you want to tell me he is worth that? What would you say about $4.6 million for five seasons with a no trade clause?

BB: I maintain my stance, that the Komisarek deal was not all that expensive at the time, for one of the best unrestricted free agents on the market. Regarding Schenn, he receives no PP time, because he does not have an offensive flair. No matter how much time he got he would not have it. Marc Staal is a better play, or at least just as good as Schenn. His contract extends two years into his unrestricted free agency status, he does not carry a no-trade clause, and is getting paid less than $4 million. The contract for Luke only covers one year of unrestricted free agency, includes a no trade clause, so I will counter-offer with $3.9 million. I have increased from my original offer of $3.67 million, and also included a valuable no-trade clause to stay in the biggest hockey market in the world. As for Byfuglien, he had more game winning goals last season, than Luke's season career high in goals- let's just not go there, it is not worth the fight.

DM: $4.4 million.

BB: $4.05 million, or Luke is sitting out the year.

DM: Done. Congratulations, now I have got to go speak with the Kings GM Dean Lombardi, and explain how bad Luke Schenn, is and how Doughty is now worth at least $7.5 million. Good doing business with you Burkie.

BB: (grunts)

Note: This conversation never happened, but rather is a complete figment of my imagination.
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Look for my team-by-team season preview which will begin this week.
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