For the average hockey fan, the days between the regular season and the playoffs are torture. There’s very little news, as teams are more secretive than ever about line-ups, injuries and the like. All the media can do is sit around and make predictions. All fans can do is read and ruminate on those predictions.
I started a spreadsheet that shows all the media and hockey blogger predictions I could find. I’ve made it editable by anybody, so that should others discover predictions, they can add them to the document.
I’m currently up to around 450 individual picks from nearly 60 pundits. I don’t claim to be exhaustive, but it’s hopefully representative. Here are some early impressions:
The longest series is predicted to be NSH/DET, with the shortest being NJD/FLO.
There’s great consensus in the east, with at least 90% of the media agreeing on the outcome of all four series.
There’s the most disagreement on the CHI/PHO series, with the media currently going 60%-40% in favour of the Blackhawks.
Almost nobody picks 4-game series sweeps, which is odd because there’s usually at least one in the quarter-finals each year.
Confidence in the Canucks is reasonably high, with more than 83% of the media picking them to pick the Kings, in an average of roughly 6 games.
In a related note, I’ll be going on something of a social media cleanse in the coming weeks (and months, hopefully). As I’m living in France, I’ll be watching playoff games about 12 to 18 hours after they finish. So, I’ll need to avoid the likes of Twitter and Facebook in order to enjoy the games in a prelapsarian state, if you will.
UPDATE: I thought I’d better store my first round picks here, which I tweeted the other day: NYR in 4, BOS in 7, NJD in 5, PIT in 7, VAN in 6, SJS in 7, CHI in 5, NSH in 7
The Canucks’ failure to win the Stanley Cup yesterday feels very familiar to this long time Canucks fan. They’re a team that rarely fails to disappoint.
I’m sorry to say that my affection for the team significantly declined during the playoffs. It’s easy to see, among the team’s floppers, passengers and drama queens, why the Canucks were vilified around the league.
That said, one of the great things about supporting a sports team is that hope springs eternal. Every failure or shortfall is temporary, for the new season is only a few months away. This also holds true for the World Cup and Olympics, though the downtime is longer.
But the season is over, and NHL draft day is seven eight days away. This seems like an excellent time to assess the team’s performance, and think about what the roster might look like in October.
I’d expect the team to bid farewell to Raffi Torres and Maxim LaPierre. Assuming that Malhotra and Hodgson are the team’s third and fourth-line centres next season, there’s no room for LaPierre, though he did exceed expectations in the playoffs.
I hope that Vancouver can re-sign Jannik Hansen and Chris Higgins, both of whom acquitted themselves well as speedy, versatile forwards. I also liked the energy and size that Oreskovich brought to the roster as a fourth-liner.
The Canucks are a team built on speed and skill. As was desperately evident in the Boston series, they lack grit. The Sedins can be intimidated into impotence, and didn’t have much protection from the other forwards. The team could benefit from one or two hulking forwards that strike fear into the opposition. When they’re not scoring goals, the team’s top nine forwards just aren’t scary enough.
After Hodgson, the team’s top forward prospects seem to be Jordan Schroeder (at 5’9″ and 175 lbs, also not scary) and Billy Sweatt. They seem like long shots to make the team this fall.
The Canucks’ defense was stellar all season, and through most of the playoffs. The group’s performance declined after losing Dan Hamhuis, and to a lesser degree Aaron Rome.
Financially, the team is likely going to have to rid themselves of one of Bieksa, Erhoff and Ballard. The first two are unrestricted free agents, and the third is very unpopular with the head coach. NHL teams have historically overpaid for free agent offensive defensemen, so I hope they keep Bieksa and Ballard, and let Erhoff go to somebody with deep pockets.
It’s time for Sami Salo to go on permanent injured reserve. He’s had an admirable career, but he looked old and slow in these playoffs.
Chris Tanev was a revelation through the regular season and the playoffs, and deserves a regular roster spot next year. I hope that Ballard will be given a solid shot next season, either to showcase him for a trade or to solidify his role on the team. Rome is a Vigneault favourite, so I’d expect that he’ll be back.
There are a number of promising defensive prospects in the Canucks’ system–Kevin Connauton, Billy’s brother Lee Sweatt, Peter Andersson and so forth. None, as I understand it, are sure-things, but there will be some spirited competition in training camp for the final roster spot among them.
The current NHL thinking is that you only need an average goalie to win a Stanley Cup. Unfortunately, you can still lose to an extraordinary one. In terms of comparing the play of various players on Boston and Vancouver, Luongo was outplayed by the largest margin. He simply wasn’t good enough. The rest of the team is also culpable, but they were let down again and again by their goaltender.
Luongo’s emotional fragility really worries me. I don’t see him getting over that any time soon.
It’d never happen, but I’d like to see the team trade Luongo and take a chance on young Cory Schneider. I doubt they could actually find a team willing to take on Luongo’s albatross of a contract.
Instead, the team’s really obligated to move Schneider and let him be the starting goalie that he seems ready to become. I wouldn’t be surprised if that deal happened at the draft next week.
I like Alain Vigneault a lot. Until the playoffs, I thought he’d done an excellent job of the tactical details of his work, and apparently managed the egos in the dressing room. However, particularly during the Boston series, he was out-coached by his opposite number. For example, he failed to address the team’s floundering powerplay.
More importantly, the team’s intensity routinely flagged. This, I think, is a symptom of them not listening to their coaching staff. NHL coaches have a shelf life, and Vigneault may be reaching the end of his.
Until Luongo’s playoff implosion, General Manager Mike Gillis looked like a genius. All those goals took the shine off his decision to give Luongo a 12-year contract. Other than that, though, Gillis’s work has been excellent. I quite enjoyed this long profile of Gillis in The Globe and Mail last month.
This year’s playoff run must have been an absurd windfall for the team. They hosted 14 of a potential 16 home games. In game one, it’s estimated the team made $6.9 million in revenue for the four home games. The figure rises to $3.69 million per game in ticket revenue alone in the Stanley Cup finals. And remember, they don’t pay the players in the post-season.
Next Fall’s Roster
The team will no doubt make some moves in the off-season, but what might their roster look like in early October?
Somebody gritty like Joel Ward-Malhotra-Hansen
A cheap backup goalie
UPDATE: I was looking at the wrong column in Cap Geek, so it turns out that Samuelsson, Raymond and Rome are under contract for another year. I’ve adjusted this post accordingly.
There’s a back lane behind our house. It’s an unusual feature on the west coast, and presumably it’s a reflection of the neighbourhood being at least a hundred years old. As children have done for at least that long, there’s a couple of kids who haul nets, sticks and a tennis ball into the lane to play hockey. They’ve even chalked out a little ice rink, with faceoff circles and a centre ice line.
As you probably know, the NHL playoffs are winding down. In fact, if Detroit beats the Pittsburgh Penguins tomorrow night, they’ll hold aloft their fifth Stanley Cup in 12 years–a remarkable feat.
The lane is sloped, so you pay a price when you miss the more southerly net. I instantly recognized this as a kid’s decent interpretation of the Penguins’ logo, which appears at centre ice in Pittsburgh’s Mellon Arena:
Here’s another view, for some perspective. Clearly the kids are pretending to be Crosby and Malkin, not Zetterberg and Datsyuk.
I was a pretty solitary kid growing up. I preferred to tape out a goal on one wall of our two-car carport, and shoot tennis balls at it from the far side. If a ball took a particularly bad bounce, it ended up on the steep, wooded slope between our house and the neighbours. I had to psych myself up to retrieve those wayward balls. The neighbours had a surly Doberman named Sasha, and she didn’t care for children.
I participated in a playoff pool draft tonight, so I had to map out my predictions of who would make it to the finals. As you might imagine, it’s as much about picking the teams as it is the players. A mediocre player who plays 22 post-season games is more valuable than a great player who only plays seven:
Yes, I think the Canucks will beat St. Louis and fall to Detroit in the second round.
Of course, these things are all about probabilities and mitigating risk. It’s likely that a dark horse will emerge and unpredictably make its well deep into the playoffs. But that’s difficult to guess correctly, so I went with likely outcomes and I’m hoping for the best. Here are the players I ended up with:
UPDATE: Had I known about Rinkology’s fancy bracket creator (thanks to James for the pointer), I would have used that yesterday instead of plain old pen and paper. Here’s a more legible edition (click for a larger version):
At the start of the year I made a couple of predictions regarding the Canucks. One was that Mats Sundin wouldn’t sign with them–I was obviously wrong about that. The second was that they wouldn’t make the playoffs. For a while there I thought the team was making a fool of me on that front, too.
But like a teenage boyfriend, they never fail to disappoint. This the Canucks team I’ve come to expect after twenty-odd years of fandom. Mediocrity, thy home is Vancouver.
A Low-Hanging Scapegoat
There are plenty of fans calling for Alain Vigneault’s head. Here’s something I’ve come to realize about NHL coaching: when the team does well, the players receive all the praise. When the team falters, the coach’s head is the first one on the chopping block.
On the one hand–to mix my metaphors–the coach is the lowest hanging scapegoat. He doesn’t cost as much as the players, is immediately replaceable and usually isn’t adored by the fans.
On the other hand, the average fan has very little insight into what the coach does. As with a team’s general manager, we get a tip of the iceberg view of an NHL coach. We see him behind the bench, watch him pick lines and observe how the players execute his strategy. We have no view into what happens off-ice, at practice, and only have a vague sense of his coaching during a game. We don’t see how Vigneault spends the majority of his time.
The first critique of a coach is often that the players appear “unmotivated”. I always find that silly. These guys make, on average, more than two million dollars a season. They are elite professionals–the best in the world. Does a brain surgeon need motivation to excise a tumour? Does a trial lawyer need motivation to win a case? If the players can’t get “up” for a game, they have only themselves to blame.
About half the forwards are playing well offensively at the moment. The Sedins are reliable as ever, Kesler and Burrows are shouldering more than their fair share, and Hordichuk and Johnson are ably filling their roles. Everybody else has been sub-par, and the team’s defence has looked pretty shoddy. Even the usually-reliable Willie Mitchell has been coughing up the puck in the defensive zone.
Truth be told, I have no idea what’s wrong with the team. Any suggestions?
I’m very glad Sundin wasn’t signed for next year at $10 million, as per the initial offer. If he sucks over the next six months, the Canucks will be well rid of him. Still, even if he only scores at a, say, 45-50 points for a season pace, that’s a handy player to have around. So, at worst, the team gets a little better and loses nothing (in terms of cap space or assets) in the long term.
That sounds a bit naive, doesn’t it?
Thus far, the Sundin experiment has been pretty miserable. After nine games with the team, consider the numbers:
He’s got three points, two goals (one into an open net on the powerplay) and an assist.
He’s taken eight minor penalties.
His +/- is at -6.
Compare that with the cheaper Brendan Shanahan, another mid-year pick-up who is three years older than Sundin. In five games, he’s got three goals and an assist.
Even if you ignore those numbers, Sundin has clearly not found last year’s playing form. He’s always the slowest player on the ice, he consistently shuns the “dirty areas” in front of the net, and he struggles defensively.
Even if Sundin does find his game, the Canucks face an uphill climb to make the playoffs. Calgary more or less has the division locked up, so Vancouver needs to battle to secure sixth spot, thus avoiding a first round series against San Jose or Detroit.
A Soft Bunch
And even if they do make the playoffs, I’m worried about the team’s make-up. Consider the team’s top-six forwards: Sedin, Sedin, Demitra, Wellwood, Pyatt, Sundin and Kesler. After Kesler and Pyatt, that’s a pretty soft bunch. And grit becomes more important in the post-season, not less.
I’d much rather the team tank it than stagger through the rest of the season in ninth or tenth spot. If the Canucks are obviously sellers at the trading deadline, then the could get very good value for their veteran defensemen (assuming they waive their no-trade causes) and the likes of Taylor Pyatt and Pavel Demitra. That would put them in a better position for next year. Instead, they’re liable to barely miss the playoffs. Looking back, I see that that’s what I was hoping for last July.
Jeffrey recently created this nifty chart, based on Wikipedia data, showing the nationalities of drafted NHL players over the past 40 years or so:
It’s interesting to note the increase in American-born players around 1999. I wonder what happened during that period? Also, I was struck by the declining number of players from Russia. Their development system has gone downhill since the end of the Cold War. Additionally, I gather that Russian players can live pretty high on the hog if they stay home.
Speaking of hockey, how about last night’s game? I’m cheering for the Penguins. There is, of course, a sense of inevitability about the Red Wings’ victory, but it’s nice to see the series go longer. Detroit is such a dominating team–I’m impressed that Pittsburgh has managed to eke out two victories.