Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Wester Conference Preview and Picks

Central Division
1. Detroit Red Wings
2. Nashville Predators
3. Chicago Blackhawks
4. St. Louis Blues
5. Columbus Blue Jackets

Again, this will be the most top-heavy division in hockey. Detroit for all my wondering about whether they can win or not, will go out and win the division. Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Lidstrom, Chelios, Rafalski, Hasek and a host of players that aren't well known but get the job done are going to be the class of the division. Nashville still has a pretty good team up front and on the backend. Mason was always good in Vokoun's absence and should continue that. Where they used to be able to get by with their offensive depth, this year will be more about focusing on defensive responsibility, but you could do worse that looking to Arnott, Dumont, Sullivan, Webber and Hamhuis. Chicago are putting all their eggs in some young baskets. That said, the kids are pretty good. It should be interesting to see how Toewes, Kane and Skille adjust to playing against men. They have an interesting lineup and in a few years I can see the Blackhawks taking over 2nd place in the division from a Nashville team that won't have any money to pay players. St. Louis, to me, is still a mess. Kariya is older and not as good, Tkachuck is older and not as good, Weight is older and not as good. I'm unsold on their kids and their goalies. They are better in many ways than Columbus though, who in my mind are the same place as when they came in to the league however many years ago but with Rick Nash. Other than that, they haven't ever developed a player and they've had their chances, they finish last in the division time and time again.

Northwest Division
1. Colorado Avalanche
2. Calgary Flames
3. Vancouver Canucks
4. Minnesota Wild
5. Edmonton Oilers

This is the first division where I've had to write from bottom to top. Colorado will make their triumphant return to the top of the pack. They have an abundance of offense that the other teams in this division can't come close to matching. Their defence should be alright, no big names on the backend for them. Scott Hannan was brought in to be a bruiser, Jordan Leopold has to be healthy for once in his career. The only problem for them might be the goalies where Budaj is an enigma to me, who knows if he will be able to be a #1 and Theodore playing in a contract year. The Flames I have in second because their offense is miles ahead of the Canucks. Tanguay wasn't bad last year and should get better, Iginla is a stud, the defence is crazy stacked and tough. The Canucks are the Roberto Luongo show. It's a very fun and good show to watch, and hell, how do you win a playoff series where you are shut out in 3 games?! More importantly, how do you TRADE a guy like Roberto Luongo? I don't understand the Islanders...or Panthers. Damn, he's been traded twice?! Unbelievable. (In case you are wondering, the total bounty he has brought is Mark Parrish, Oleg Kvasha, Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan Allen and Alex Auld...I wouldn't have traded him for all those guys, never mind the parts of each trade). ANYWAY. Minnesota I don't like. That's all I can say. Edmonton is at the bottom of the group because the rest of the teams are so good. In the Central, Southeast or Northeast I would say they could make the playoffs, they are just in it against 4 other very good teams and don't have the horses to keep up. They'll play a fun to watch brand of hockey again though.

Pacific Division
1. San Jose Sharks
2. Anaheim Ducks
3. Los Angeles Kings
4. Dallas Stars
5. Phoenix Coyotes

For the 2nd year in a row I'm taking San Jose over Anaheim. There's too much to like about the Sharks. Thornton and Marleau, Nabokov, Michalek, Steve Bernier, Cheechoo, Joe Pavelski, Matt Carle. They are young, they are fast, they are big, they are good. Sounds very similar to team #2 in the division, Anaheim. They lost their best defenceman and their top forward which will hurt. Their kids will step up (Getzlaf, Perry, Ryan) but there's a lot to fill in those four skates. I like the Kings to step up and jump over the punchless Stars. Turco finally put together a post-season with the stats that supported my thinking that he's a good goalie that just lost series because of the guys in front of him (like Lalime in Ottawa all those years)...but Turco is literally all they have. Mike Ribeiro led this team in scoring last year. Phoenix was my breakout team last year and they flamed out fantastically (watch out Florida) and now they will be bottom dwellers for years.

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

Monday, October 01, 2007

NHL Eastern Conference Thoughts and Picks

Atlantic Division
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
2. New York Rangers
3. Philadelphia Flyers
4. New Jersey Devils
5. New York Islanders

It's painfully obvious how Pittsburgh plans to attack the season...offence, offence, offence. But you know what? They can do it. Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Roberts, Christensen, Armstrong, Whitney, Gonchar, Malone, Sykora. It's disgusting the plethora of offensive talent on this team. Fleury should only continue to improve in net and that will be enough for them. All that said, the Rangers will have a tonne of offence too. Jagr, Gomez, Drury, Straka, Shanahan, Prucha ... that is pretty scary stuff. Come to think of it, they are put together similarly to Pittsburgh, lots of offence, little defence. Henrik Lundqvist won't struggle early on this season, I just think the Pens have the goal scoring to outlast the Rangers. After that is the Flyers, who in my mind made terrific strides. Briere should be a healthy centre to feed Gagne all year. I love how they stole all of Nashville's kids ... Hartnell, Upshall, Parent and Timmonen. That is why they will be better this year. Also they have a decent goalie in Biron. It's amazing how New Jersey has fallen in recent years. It will be interesting to see what Brent Sutter can get out of men rather than boys, because he is going to have to do a lot. Brodeur is a year older, the defence is thin, the forwards ... not overwhelming. That leaves us with the Islanders. I can't even tell you their top line...something like Guerin/Comrie/Fedotenko? Ick. Dipietro and the commentators making fun of his contract are the only reasons to watch this team (Note: I think it was actually a brilliant move to sign a franchise goalie forever).

Northeast Division
1. Buffalo Sabres
2. Ottawa Senators
3. Montreal Canadiens
4. Toronto Maple Leafs
5. Boston Bruins

Buffalo, for all that they lost (Drury and Briere), will be just fine. Derek Roy will step up, Tim Connolly will step up. They still have an absurdly fast team and a plethora of very good young players. Ryan Miller is probably the best goalie in the division. Ottawa will push Buffalo for top spot. The problem is that I refuse to trust Ray Emery, he doesn't fill me with confidence at all ... and Martin Gerber has never been that great a goalie in my mind. Ottawa has terrific offence and defence though and should dominate many games. I'll give my full Montreal preview later on, but I put them third this year because I think the kids will take a step forward. Toronto is a horrible mess of a team, but through that mess they have some talent. It will be interesting to watch Sundin with a winger that can play finally. Blake will not score 40 goals again, but at least he'll compete. Toskala is not the answer in net, I think that Raycroft didn't do a bad job last year it's just that the Leafs have probably the worst defence in the entire league. All that said, they are still better than Boston. I have nothing to say about Boston except that they won't be any good.

Southeast Division
1. Carolina Hurricanes
2. Florida Panthers
3. Atlanta Thrashers
4. Tampa Bay Lightning
5. Washington Capitals

I think Carolina just had a down season last year. Cam Ward is a good goalie that will be solid behind the rest of the team. Eric Staal will have a comeback season and lead them to the top of what promises to be a crappy division yet again. I have Florida in 2nd, I think they can finally return to the postseason this year. I like their forwards and their defence has aged a bit...and they ditched Belfour and Auld for Vokoun. The amazing part about this is that all they have left from the Roberto Luongo trade is ... Bryan Allen. How bad is that? How do you trade the best goalie in the game and 2 years later have nothing to show for it. For 2 months of Peter Forsberg, Philly nabbed a plethora of talent from the Preds. It's unimaginable. Anyway, I still like their team and their years of pretty good drafting will pay off with Horton, Weiss and Bouwmeester coming into their own. I had Atlanta in 5th until I wrote this and bumped them up to 3rd. They have some good forwards that should be able to take advantage of the generally weak goalies and defence in this division. Lehtonen is the only reason I give them the boost to 3rd place, he should steal some games for them. Tampa still has 3 incredible players in Lecavalier, St. Louis and Richards, the question for them is depth after that and the blue line and the goalie. Washington still doesn't have a full team built up yet, they are a mish-mash of veterans and young'uns.

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

Final Cuts ... Price to stick

Well, the Habs have made their final cuts. Down to Hamilton went Ryan O'Byrne, Maxim Lapierre and Jaroslav Halak. With those cuts it means that Mikhail Grabovski, Kyle Chipchura and Carey Price will all be sticking with the big club.

I love that Grabovski is staying in Montreal, I think he brings a lot of offensive flair to the team. Chipchura, I'm not as sure about. We'll see what he can do, I assume from the 4th line.

The big news would be that Bob Gainey is going to keep Carey Price in the NHL rather than letting him ply his trade in Hamilton. I'm torn here. On the one hand is Christobal Huet. The Crystal Wall. He played 42 games last season, the most of any year in his professional career which is a huge concern. I've also never been all that comfortable with Huet in net, he always seems to be being hit by the puck rather than making a save. It's a subtle distinction, but that's how I've always felt.

Now...Carey Price. There's two schools of thought here. Or really one school I guess. He needs to play. He needs to see pucks and game situations, he needs experience. Those are all best gotten in the AHL in my mind. Having said that, he apparently thoroughly dominated the AHL in the playoffs last year in winning the Calder Trophy with Hamilton as well as capturing the playoff MVP. Playing there could very well stunt his growth as a player by introducing lazy tendencies while playing against "lesser" competition. In that respect he has nothing left to do in the AHL and the only option is to keep him up in Montreal and platoon him with Huet who seemingly can't shoulder the load of a #1 goalie. Perhaps they will go with a platoon similar to how Roloson and Fernandez did in Minnesota for all those years.

At the end of the day, if Price will play in Montreal then I love the move to keep him up. He might not be the best goalie on the team right now, but he has proven to be a winner at every level (World Juniors Gold, WHL Top Goalie, CHL Top Goalie, AHL playoff MVP, AHL Champion) so why not believe that will just naturally carry over? Good for him for making the team!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

First cuts, time to actually care about the preseason

Montreal has pared it's roster down to 26 following cuts on Monday. No real surprises amid the cuts, though there might be some that Habs fans don't like.

Players that need to clear waivers before being officially assigned to Hamilton: Yann Danis, Andrew Archer, Mathieu Biron, JP Cote, Jamie Rivers, Jonathan Ferland, Corey Locke, Duncan Milroy and Cory Urquhart.

The big commotion from what I can tell is that most fans think Danis and Locke will be claimed off waivers (which subsequently hasn't happened). My thoughts...who cares? Danis is 4th on the depth chart in goal and of an age that is awkward to the Habs' plans, too old to rest the future on but too young to designate as a veteran. He's a good goalie to be sure and it would be sad to see him leave for nothing, but thinking that he could make the team (barring injuries to all the other 'tenders) is absurd. At BEST he was looking at backing up Huet. There has also been some talk that he could have anchored a trade to bring in a talented forward. Again, we are talking about a career backup in the AHL so far...what kind of bounty does that return? Kris Beech? Woo.

Same goes for Corey Locke. A terrific little guy, but the Habs are already small down the middle and up front in general. I like Locke, I think he can be a good player. But would you keep him on the team over the Kostitsyn's or Grabovski or Chipchura or Lapierre? I wouldn't. If the Habs have some injury issues this year I can see Locke getting a shot, but he's not going to be a superstar and 2nd line/4th line is probably his top potential. It would suck to lose him on waivers (again...didn't happen) for nothing, but better players have been lost on waivers than Corey Locke (Steve Sullivan from the Leafs comes to mind right away).

In general, good to see that Chipchura is getting a fair shake at taking a forward spot on the roster this year. I thought that a line of Kostitsyn/Grabovski/Kostitsyn could have been magic, but I guess we are getting something with Lapierre/Grabovski/Murray. An odd line to be sure.

The Habs so far in the preseason have been OK. They are 3-3 so far with no real gigantic news coming out of camp. Plekanec looks like he will be able to improve on last year's totals and Kovalev might, maybe, possibly care a little bit this season. Maybe. This weekend I will have my preseason predictions and notes on all the 30 teams.

I think I passed my one-year anniversary! Yay me :).

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Shallow notes from early in camp

Montreal training camp has opened and I'm stupidly getting all excited about the team. Souray? Pff, Hamrlik is twice the player he is. Top scoring line? Ryder/Koivu/Higgins has it all, a bona fide threat. Carey Price is the next coming of St. Patrick. The 4th line will be better than the first with Kostitsyn/Grabovski/Kostitsyn. The 2nd line will be the best of the bunch with Kovalev/Plekanec/Latendresse. Between those three lines the scoring will come easily every night with one line able to pick up the next. The checking line will be even better than last year with Kostopoulos/Smolinski/Streit.

Apparently Brisebois has already started to be a detriment to the team by failing his physical on the first day of camp with a bad hamstring. This portends to issues all winter with that hammy. It's still inconceivable to me why he was brought in. There is already Komisarek/Markov as the set number one unit. Then there is Hamrlik, Bouillon and Dandenault to work together in some combination which leaves one or two spots open, and why not give them to the kids? Pavel Valentenko was imported from Russia, Ryan O'Byrne has apparently done decently for himself, P.K. Subban has impressed the brass and there is still Mathieu Carle and a few others to consider. Oh well.

Don't you just love the preseason? Hope springs eternal!

Friday, September 07, 2007

Super Series Game 7

Game 7, trying to keep the series sweep intact. Really at this point there are only 2 reasons to play for these kids. The first is to keep their spot on the World Junior roster, although I don't think any of them could play themselves out of a spot at this point. The second reason is to go for the incredibly improbable 8 game sweep. Did anyone see that coming before the series started? I would wager no. Anyway, on to the game notes!

1st Period
Ummm...down by 1? What the deuce? The Russians apparently showed up to play today. The Russian refs showed up to ... well not to referee. They've blown a number of calls already and one resulted in a Russian goal (admittedly Mason horribly misplayed the situation...but still). From the Canadian perspective, Claude Giroux is everywhere, by far the best Canadian player of the period. First period was played pretty closely. The Russian goalie is looking sort of shaky so if Canada can get some shots on net they should just go in by luck. Russia 2, Canada 1. Round 2. Fight!

2nd period
Well...not too much changed I guess. Canada is still down by 1 even though they managed to pull themselves up to a 3-2 lead. Lots of the Canadians played well in this period. The goals against were pretty weak again, the goaltending has not been great today for Canada. The whole idea of splitting the game between Bernier and Mason might not have been the best coaching move in Brent Sutter's illustrious coaching career. Bernier was very much not as sharp as he had been the other times I have seen him, which probably had to do with him sitting on the bench for a period and a half. Brandon Sutter was of course huge in the period doing everything and doing it all well. For all this talk, the Russians really showed up for this 2nd period and are up 4-3 going into the 3rd. Still, I can't believe Canada will lose. 5-4 final for Canada with at least one goal by John Tavares.

3rd Period
This was the first game I've seen between these two teams that was thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end. With all the skill the Russians displayed you wonder why they didn't play at this level from the first game. Or maybe you don't (see: most Russians in the NHL ... Samsonov and Kovalev I'm looking at you). Anyway, Tavares almost gave me that 5th goal on 2 separate occasions which would've made me very happy. Doughty put an absolutely sick move on a guy to get a terrific scoring chance but just couldn't finish. Doughty will be a monster in the NHL some day.

Well, Canada won't go for the perfect 8-0 record through the series but they are still unbeaten and there's seemingly no reason that they shouldn't be able to finish it off in style on Sunday in Vancouver.

Koivu Claims Habs Won't Win Stanley Cup

... and you know what? Good for him. Of course by the next day management had spoken to him and told him to retract his statement and spin it like crazy so it doesn't sound so bad. (TSN article).

But in my mind, I like that he was open about it. I like his honesty in the situation. I mean, it's all well and good for a player on a team that isn't going to do well to come out and say, "We are going to give it everything we have, we think we have the talent to go a long way into the playoffs." But guess what? Try as they might they won't be going deep into anything other than their golf tee times.

A team not making the playoffs is not the same as a team not trying. All Koivu has to do is look at teams around him and see that only the Islanders and maybe New Jersey and Buffalo regressed from last year with the rest of the teams taking a step forward. Montreal wasn't a playoff team last year and they didn't really add anyone of consequence, so how does that add up to a playoff birth? Koivu looked at the situation and determined the team is the same and that means no playoffs. Does that mean he isn't going to give it his all every game? No. Does that mean that they can't pull some miracle out of their collective butts and over-achieve to make the playoffs? No. It just means that at this point he doesn't think Montreal can win it all, and really, who is going to argue?

Kudos to Koivu for coming out and saying it, maybe it'll shakeup management and get them to really try to build something useful.

Habs to Retire Jerseys

Horribly late on this, but going up into the rafters this season at the Bell Centre will be the jerseys two of the greats of recent-ish Montreal history.

"Big Bird" Larry Robinson's number 19 and Bob "Bo" Gainey's number 23 will be lifted and take their place with Jacques Plante, Doug Harvey, Jean Beliveau, Bernard Geoffrion, Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Guy Lafleur, Dickie Moore, Yvan Cournoyer, Henri Richard, Serge Savard and Ken Dryden.

That's quite the incredibly ridiculous list of talent. They will be lifted on two separate dates with Robinson's going up before a game on November 19 against Ottawa and Gainey's going up before a game on February 23 against Columbus. I don't really understand the timing of Gainey's jersey ceremony. I'd say it's to boost ticket sales, but the Habs don't need the boost, wouldn't it be better to celebrate it against a rival and potential good team? Seems sort of ... off.

Either way they are both fully deserving of the honour. Congrats to both.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Rus at Can in Saskatoon, Super Series Game 6

Yes yes, I'm around to delight you with my own special brand of play-by-play

1st and 2nd Period
Drew Doughty has been impressing me today. He has been solid on defense and jumping into the rush. Other than him not many Canadians are standing out tonight. Kyle Turris has had some moments, I've seen John Tavares do some positive things and flash his skills and I guess Claude Giroux and Brandon Sutter. Other than them it's a whole pile of meh. I think it's because the Russians are actually managing to keep it together and string some positive shifts together. I'm not entirely sure if Canada is playing worse or it's just that the Russians are playing better. They have had speed and a little bit of tenacity that they didn't show in game 5. Having said that, the Canadians have had a number truly spectacular chances (Brandon Sutter's shorthanded breakaway and his cut back to the middle of the ice and Sam Gagner's powerplay chance come to mind right away). The difference from the last game to this game is that the Canadian kids aren't finishing those chances. Oh yeah...Ty Wishart has also looked good to me so far. Canada 1, Russia 1. Game can go either way, but I'd still be surprised if they lost. I'm going to go ahead and predict a 4-2 final for Canada.

3rd Period
Well...ended up a 4-1 final. I thought the Russians would be able to sneak one in and they almost did at the end. Final shots were a lot for Canada and like 16 for Russia. On the whole I'd say the final score isn't totally fair to Russia, they deserved better than that. Anyway, the 3rd period was pretty entertaining, Canada brought what had been missing all game ... their physicality. Milan Lucic absolutely rocked a couple of the Russians, reinforcing their need to not be anywhere close to the guy. Semen Varlamov was also pretty good for Russia, I'm surprised he didn't play better at home, maybe there was too much pressure on him?

The kids are lookin' alright, another World Junior gold looks to be in the making (though half the team might end up on NHL rosters...)

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Can at Rus in Winnipeg, Super Series Game 5

So...I didn't actually get to watch the 4 games of domination that Canada had in Russia, though I did hear they were quite dominating. Canada is up 4-0 in the best of 8 recreation of the '72 Summit Series between Canada and Russia.

I had some other ideas for this Super Series rather than pitting the juniors against each other. What about getting the surviving members of the original series back together and letting them have at it for a senior recreation? Think that Henderson still has the magic touch? Only one way to find out! If that doesn't work...use their kids! Who cares if they have played hockey at all in their lives, suit 'em up and put 'em on the ice. I think this would make for some classicly brutal hockey. Ok...maybe those aren't the greatest ideas. Oh well. They sounded good when I thought about them for 2 seconds.

Anywho, I'll be updating this post with thoughts after each period and I'll do some live blogging of the remaining 3 games as well. Go Canada Go (for the sweep)!

1st Period
I'd be lying if I said that the goalies aren't stealing the show. The Russia kid, Bobrovsky (?), has been standing on his head and making 2-5 really good saves. Bernier was actually unexpectedly busy and solid, if not spectacular (hard to be spectacular if the shots are all weak wristers...they were mostly through traffic though). Loved to see the physicality of the game, mostly from Canada though the Russians did start to pick it up after about 7 minutes. Aside from the goalies, the best players on the ice were definitely Sam Gagne, Brandon Sutter, Zach Hamill, David Perron. I could probably name a whole bunch of them but I'm still getting used to their numbers, those were the guys that really stood out to me. I heard Milan Lucic's name a lot, but didn't really feel he was super...just in the middle of the play. 1st period is done and it feels like Canada should be winning but it is still 0-0. I'm loving this whole hockey on TV thing. I think I missed it.

2nd Period
Wow, I wish I'd mentioned Claude Giroux after period 1. I swear I was going to, he was a standout. Anyway, the goalies stepped out of the limelight for that period. Bernier because the Russians didn't shoot and Bobrovsky because he gave up 5 goals. Giroux with 2 goals and 3 points, Gagne with 1 goal and 3 points. This is what the score probably should have been after the first period. I just heard the announcers say that this is an embarrassment for Russian hockey...I can't say I disagree. You would've expected them to at least show up for some of these games. They are just outclassed. Canada 5, Russia 1.

3rd Period
Lost in the final score will be Johnathan Bernier's solid game and showcase of the skills that will make him a solid and capable NHL goalie for years to come. He has the smarts and the skills to make a huge impact. I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes a top-5 goalie before his 25th birthday. Brad Marchand also had a superb game even though I didn't note him above. An 8-1 final is pretty good. Not much bad came from this game.

General notes: Where was Tavares? He had a couple chances but was mostly anonymous, even on a line with Kyle Turris who was flying (and in the process making me a believer in his skills, 3rd overall pick this year that I wondered about...not wondering anymore). Tavares might be able to dominate the OHL, but I don't think his game is at the point yet where he could even dominate the AHL. He needs time to learn to skate a bit better and just needs time to fill out his frame. It takes a really special player to go to the NHL at 19. Crosby succeeded and Gilbert Brule didn't. Brule was pretty good in the WHL, but trying to make that jump has set his career back years. Other notes, the defence was completely anonymous to me. They have some good guys there in Alzner, Hickey, Doughty and Ellerby but I really didn't hear too much from them. Of course, between the forwards pounding everyone in sight and Bernier stopping every shot coming his way they didn't really need to do too much. I'm kind of sad I didn't get to see the first 4 games because now the only tension is how dominant will Canada be over the rest of the series. Maybe they can bring in their B-team.