Monday, November 28, 2016

The new Lou in South Florida

Look, I have three generations of military service in my family tree to this day. I think people with military backgrounds can be extremely successful in sports (see Air Force veteran Gregg Popovich's record as coach of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs) but to run an entire sports organization along military lines is bizarre in 2016. After all, militaries can be very good at winning wars but the aftermath and being able to reorganize a society well itself went out the door once the Marshall Plan days were over. To wit Iraq and Afghanistan. Does anyone with half a brain think the various military invasions from various nations over the years have left either nation in a more stable state headed towards peaceful democracies? 

You! Yeah, you! You're going places.

That's why I'm confused as to what billionaire Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola is up to in South Florida. Look, I don't get the whole American obsession with one's alma mater. I do get wanting to work with friends and likeminded people although that can cut both ways. You don't want a bunch of yes men and women around you when you have to make the hard decisions.

Anyway, Viola has decide to surround himself with West Point graduates. That's his prerogative. Not sure how that equates with managing a hockey team but at least it's out-of-the-box thinking which is to be lauded in hockey. On the other hand, the '60s showed us athletes and a large part of Western society do not want the military involved in our daily lives at work. Although the U.S. military has modernized it is still a very hierarchical structure. Not that hockey isn't, but a buck private is not earning millions either. The NHL  is a totally different kettle bomb of fish.

Throw in the whole obsession with analytics the Panthers' owner loves because he made his billions using numbers to his advantage on Wall Street, and you have a great story developing, win or lose, in Sunrise, Florida. It certainly has not made the Cats as boring as their new Ottawa Senators lookalike uniforms are. 

Stick a white band under the crest, no one will notice the difference

But here's the rub after today's firing of coach Gerard Gallant--numbers are not people. It's fine to use "advanced" stats as a tool to shape your team. They just can't be the end-all and be-all just as the eye test can't be either. One of the key factors in finding the right player and coach for any team is character. I'm sure the Panthers say all the right things that they don't just rely on analytics, but Gallant's firing sure suggests otherwise.

According to the Panthers' PDO this season they are kind of smack dab in the middle of the pack. Their luck is neither good nor bad. They are pretty much where you'd expect them to be given the number of man games lost for their key players (Jussi Jokinen 12 GP, Nick Bjugstad 3 GP, and Jonathan Huberdeau hasn't even played this season). So changing coaches is trying to change that luck, I suppose. Or did management think the Panthers were the second coming of last season's Pittsburgh Penguins?

What the firing of Gallant shows most of the hockey world, and putting its rookie GM into the coaching seat, is Viola seems to be following another model. That would be one he saw maybe across the river from his Manhattan Wall Street offices--the Lou Lamoriello era in New Jersey

The Devils were notorious for changing coaches at will and at bizarre points in the season even just prior to the playoffs. Sometimes it worked . Sometimes it didn't. Sometimes Lou came down from his GM chair and stepped behind the bench. Sometimes he didn't. 

The New Jersey Devils won three Stanley Cups during Lou's GM reign. They also had the two Scotts (Stevens and Niedermayer) on defence. The Devils also never won a cup after Niedermayer left for Anaheim in 2004. Great players often make GMs look pretty great.

The Panthers do have a gem on defence in Aaron Ekblad so thank old-school Dale Tallon for that draft pick under his GM's watch. (Speaking of which, wouldn't it be sad and ironic should the Panthers win a Cup with the core of the team players Tallon brought in. He did the same for the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks yet was fired before he could get his name on the Cup despite having his stamp all over that team.) Ekblad is a key building block, but to summarily fire Gallant 22 games into a season with no class or honor (I do believe that's a tenet of West Point, isn't it?) shows me more of a Wall Street than a West Point mentality. Let's call it Wall Point, shall we?

How does one make billions on Wall Street? Certainly not with a long-term buy-and-hold policy. No, all those trading algorithms are put to use making thousands of trades in microseconds daily. This firing smacks of the same. It's short-term thinking. We'll see if it works in the NHL.

So Tom Rowe is the new Lou--a GM who steps down to coach. Although Rowe was a head coach for six seasons in the AHL and two in the KHL, he has a horrendous playoff record--four times his teams lost in the first round and only in his first season with the Carolina Hurricanes' farm team, the Lowell Lock Monsters, did his team win a playoff round. In the KHL his Lokomotiv Yaroslavl also lost in the first round.

Then again Lou Lamoriello's coaching record in "pro" hockey was not all that great. Twice he took over the Devils' coaching reigns. The first time in the 2006 playoffs he got them past round one then they were out in round two. The second time in 2015 they missed the playoffs.

So if it's the new Lou the Panthers' owner wants, maybe it's the new Lou he gets.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Slaying The Dragons

Did you hear? The San Jose Sharks Are Finally True Contenders? The St. Louis Blues finally won a playoff series? The Nashville Predators finally slayed the Dragons...uh, Ducks?
Nothing to see here, folks

Yes, the San Jose Sharks defeated the team (the LA Kings) that beat them in 2013 and 2014. They've avenged the blowing of a 3-0 lead in games in that infamous 2014 first round series. They must be going all the way after defeating a two-time Cup winner after so many playoff frustrations.

So, the 11th-overall Sharks with the .910 save percentage of Martin Jones is our next Cup winner?

It's only one round. The Sharks beat a team, although rated by many as maybe good enough to get back to the Final, actually MISSED THE PLAYOFFS last season. This is also a Kings' team that blew a huge lead in their own division creating this bad matchup vs. the Sharks. Also, it's an LA team without no-longer-here Slava Voynov or injured early Alec Martinez meaning Drew "I finally got a lone point in the series" Doughty had to play an insane average of 30:53 a game (a full five minutes per game over the next guy, Jake Muzzin, on the LA D) and, wow, it really didn't work out for the Kings. That's a shocker, huh!

Yes, it was such true fan pain for the Sharks to not beat a team two series in a row after beating the Kings way back in 2011. Nothing like the Boston Bruins losing 18 (yes, Ed Westfall, you read that right) series in a row to the Montreal Canadiens. But what do I know being a lapsed B's fan? I curse you still, Mike McPhee!

 Hey, is this an Islanders' broadcast?

Also, this notion that the Sharks are somehow playoff failures is based on what exactly? Since the team actually got good in 2001/02 (finishing 5th overall) the Sharks have played in 22 playoff series and thrice (thrice, I say!) made the Conference Finals. Other than when the Detroit Red Wings were in the West, no other team has played more series out West than the Sharks over this time period.

You don't think most fans would take that? Sure, it's frustrating not to make a Final or win a Cup but the Sharks in those 11 playoff seasons from '02 to now the San Hosers only went out in rd. 1 three times. It's not like they don't give their fans something to cheer for.

Beats being a Nashville Predators' fan and seeing your team lose six out of eight times in the first round over the same time period. Luckily, this season is different...or the same as 2011 and 2012, if the Preds lose to the aforementioned Sharks.

Yes, the team which played its first Game 7 in history has been in the rare air of the second rd. before so again let me wait on Pekka Rinne's scintillating .915 save percentage vs. the Ducks in rd. 1 being a sign that all their dragons were slain.

Finally, the woe begotten St. Louis Blues. Now they do have a legit reason to celebrate as the team has lost three seasons in a row in the first round. The Blues have only won two playoff rounds since 2002 prior to beating the DEFENDING STANLEY CUP CHAMPION Chicago Blackhawks.

What an accomplishment! That's never been done in round one be-....Oh, wait, there was the 2012 Bruins losing to the Washington Capitals, the 2011 cap-stripped Hawks (what? no way!) losing to the Vancouver Canucks...the 2008 Ducks losing to the Dallas Stars, the 2004 New Jersey Devils losing to the Philadelphia Flyers...and technically, although there was a lockout in between, the 2006 Tampa Bay Lightning losing to the Ottawa Senators.

Now usually, the defending Cup champs that do flop badly have had a poor followup season such as when Tampa went from 2nd to 16th overall or Chicago in '11 dropping from 3rd to 13th. The '16 Hawks actually went from 7th in 2015 to 5th. So that really was quite the accomplishment by the Blues and it's not like the Hawks played poorly at all. Six of the seven games were one-goal games including two overtime ones. The goals all tolled were Hawks 20-St. Loo 19.

The shots, though, overwhelming favored the Hawks 256 to 205 so...let's just say Brian Elliott, because he hasn't done all that well in the playoffs up till now so he gets overlooked in the whole Henrik Lundqvist meets Jonathan Quick to this year's Braden Holtby discussion, basically stole this series despite turning back into his old self in Games 5 and 6 of this series. Elliott was outstanding in Games 3 and 4 in Chicago to help the Blues go up 3-1 which was most likely key to winning in seven--the Hawks ran out of gas climbing back into the series and Brent Seabrook hit both posts on one shot. I guess Keith awoke the Kraken...uh, Backes.

Anyway, three teams out West apparently slayed their dragons and one at least will be in the Conference Finals so let the media hype begin.

Just wake me when St. Louis or San Jose actually make the Final. Then we'll see what exactly is what with both of these teams. Smashville, on the other hand, it's all gravy really if the Preds can get past the Sharkies.

Watch over us, Frank

However it turns out, we have a slew of interesting teams finally in the last eight. All of which would make worthy champions. So enough with the two days off between every game in the first four you're playing 'Ning and Islanders and let's get the second rd. rolling. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Stingy D = Playoff Success

Let the real hockey begin!

So now it's time to figure out who's going to go deep or go home. First of all, toss out looking at the seedings and focus in on the goals against.

In each of the past three seasons in the 1st round, the team with lowest GA has won seven of the eight series. The three lone exceptions (Los Angeles Kings '13, Chicago Blackhawks '14 and Anaheim Ducks '15) to this all went on to the Conference Finals.

Going a bit farther back in 2011 and '12 the lower GA teams went 5-3 each season in rd. 1.

Now here are how the 2015 NHL playoffs rd. 1 match up GA-wise:

Panthers 208 GA vs. Islanders 216 GA
Lightning 201 GA vs. Red Wings 224 GA
Capitals 193 GA vs. Flyers 219 GA
Penguins 203 GA vs. Rangers 217 GA

Ducks 192 GA vs. Predators 215 GA
Kings 195 GA vs. Sharks 210 GA
Stars 230 GA vs. Wild 206 GA
Blues 201 GA vs. Blackhawks 209 GA

Now, if you had run the table the last five seasons and picked just the lower GA teams each round as the playoffs progressed, you'd have been 54-20 overall. You'd have picked the Stanley Cup winner 4 out of 5 times correctly.

That's picking after each round knowing who is playing who.

For argument's sake, let's say you had to do the bracket straight through to the Final from the start of the playoffs and used this lower GA standard to make your picks.

So you'd have gone as follows:

'15 Chicago over NY Rangers in Final (actual: Chicago over Tampa)
(11 out of 15 overall to advance correct)

'14 LA over Boston (actual: LA over Rangers)
(11 out of 15 to advance correct)

'13 Chicago over Ottawa (actual:Chicago over Boston)
(again 11 out of 15)

'12 St. Louis over NY Rangers (actual:LA over New Jersey)
(just 6 out of 15)

'11 Vancouver over Boston (actual: Boston over Vancouver)
(9 out of 15)

I'd take those returns any day.

Now how about our old favorite the defending Stanley Cup Champion?
There was a run from 2004 thru 2012 where out of eight playoff seasons, five times the defending champs lost in the 1st rd. and once even missed the playoffs altogether (hello, '07 Carolina Hurricanes meet the '15 LA Kings and '95 New Jersey Devils).

Prior to 2004, you'd be hardpressed to see the defending Cup winners flop so badly. The past three seasons has seen a sort of righting of the old ship with the '13 Kings and '14 Blackhawks both getting to the Conference Finals before bowing out.

Anyway, the teams that tended to flop out all have one thing is common. They either fell in the overall standings or stayed right where they were. The Blackhawks, although not as good defensively in the '15/16 season jumped from 7th overall to 5th so, after losing Game 1 in OT despite outplaying the Blues by a mile, maybe don't count them out in rd. 1 yet.

Then we have the famous losing Finalist failings. Maybe because going all the way to the Final and coming up empty drains your team, or the whole NHL sees how you can be beat, the losing Finalists don't have a lot of success come the following playoff year.

Since after the '94 lockout and starting from that shortened '95 playoff season to '15, the losing Finalists have done the following:

Missed the playoffs five times.
Lost in the 1st rd. seven times.

Won a rd. and got to the Conference Semi-Finals five times.
Got to the Conference Finals but lost there twice.

Got back to the Finals...and won it! Just the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins.

So, how about the '15 Cup runner-up Tampa Bay Lightning (without Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman) in the 2016 NHL playoffs? Well, they dropped from 5th overall to 12th so that's not a good sign.

Of the playoff teams that had fallen off in the standings from the previous season their record is just 3W-4L in the 1st rd, and only those '09 Pens who fell from 4th to 8th won more than one round.

In other words, don't put any money on the 'Ning getting back to the Final even if you think they can knock off the Datsyuk Retirement Run in rd. 1.

Since the '04 lockout, there's also been this huge push from the teams that lose in the Conference Finals returning at least to that stage the following season and sometimes to the Final and winning it. Check this out:

Teams that made consecutive Conference Finals
'04 & '05 Buffalo Sabres
'10 & '11 San Jose Sharks

Teams that lost in Conference Final and then went to Final and won!
'09 & '10 and '14 & '15 Chicago Blackhawks
'13 & '14 LA Kings

Teams that took it two steps further...and beyond.
'07, '08 & '09 Detroit Red Wings

Wings lost in '07 in the Western Conference Final, won the Cup in '08 and got back to the Final in '09 to lose to the Penguins...who also made two Finals in a row in those '08 & '09 years.

Now is '15 Conference Finalist Anaheim taking the next step because we know the '15 Eastern rep New York Rangers are hardly a good pick to do that in 2016?

I'll let all this sink in until we have a look at teams who get shutout and/or thumped early in series.

Until then, I'd suggest stick with the Cats and Isles and forget the hype even about the Kings and Sharks unless you enjoy tremendous hits that lead to non-scoring chances and very few shots on goal. Is anyone coaching either teams? All that hitting in the first period in Game 1 is doing the Ducks a world of good for round two. Keep at it, boys!