Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bring On The Real Season!

The NHL playoffs are finally here and I can wake from my slumber.
I'm sure all fans are scouring every source for info and insight so here are a few thoughts you may or may not be aware of when making your playoff pool choices:

1. It's the D-Fence, Man!
So much emphasis is placed on having a hot goalie but if you dig a bit deeper you'll notice most Cup-winning teams have a Bobby Orr/Larry Robinson/Denis Potvin/Paul Coffey Norris Trophy (or Norris Trophy-like) offensive defenceman on them. This accomplishes two main goals--getting the puck out of your own end when under pressure situations and getting it up to forwards in full flight.
Never chuck a Norris Trophy D-man away

Just have a look at the Cup winners since 2000 and their leading D scorers:
2001 Avs
Rob Blake

2002 Wings
Nicklas Lidstrom (playoff MVP)

2003 Devils
Scott Niedermayer (runner-up in overall playoff scoring)

2004 Lightning
Dan Boyle

2006 Canes
Dave Babych's alumni moustache

2007 Ducks
Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer (playoff MVP)

2008 Wings
Nicklas Lidstrom

The only team throughout that span, and in fact the only team since maybe the Broad Street Bullies, to not have a Norris Trophy-like stud back on the D-line was the Carolina Hurricanes of 2006. Their team D of Frantisek Kaberle, Bret Hedican, Niclas Wallin, Aaron Ward, Mike Commodore, Glen Wesley and Oleg Tverdovsky was enough to bag a Cup.

Is one exception enough to give the Canucks hope? Let's face facts here, the Nux's D-man closest to a Norris Trophy guy is Kevin Bieksa and so far he's not even a Jovo yet. So Roberto Luongo is going to have to stand on his head a la Cam Ward (or would that mean Jason La(Hanna)Barbera will step in a la Ward did when Martin Gerber looked shaky in rd. 1 in '06?).

2. Repeat?
Used to be you could bank on the losing Finalist from the previous season either missing the playoffs altogether or losing in rd. 1. You have to go back to 2001 to find a losing Finalist (Dallas Stars) to find a team who made it past rd. 1...where they promptly got upset in rd. 2 by the St. Louis Blues.
Now the Cup winners are finding the short off-season is affecting them, too.
Three of the last four Cup winners have lost in rd. 1 and one ('07 Carolina Hurricanes) missed the playoffs entirely.
Add to that, not since 2001 has a defending Cup champ made it back to the Final.

One common thread is there is a correlation between their followup regular seasons. Since 2002 every single Cup champ has fallen in the overall standings. Some have a short fall such as 1st to 3rd overall (the '03 Wings who lost in rd. 2) and others fall from 2nd overall to 16th (the '06 'Ning who lost in rd. 1).
Takkoyaki anyone?

So with the Wings dropping from 1st overall to 3rd (while giving up 60 more goals thanks to Chris Osgood's sparkling .887 save percentage among other things), be very scared of the Wings turning into the Dead Things as they try to repeat.

3. Much ado about being a top four seed
The media here was all atwitter about the Canucks needing to get one of the top four seeds because apparently they've only just discovered that the Cup champions tend to come from teams that gain home-ice advantage in at least one round of the playoffs.

Yes, that is true but it is also true good teams WIN Cups and good teams tend to win more games than other teams hence they tend to be higher up in the standings. Do I need to go on?

The point is really: Are the Canucks good enough to win a Cup as they are built right now?

Probably not quite unless they can use the '06 Canes as inspiration given their lack of a true D-stud.

The bigger question is: Why worry about gaining home-ice? It's not like the NHL is the NBA where the teams gaining the home court so totally dominates their playoffs.

Just have a quick look at the results for the team with the home-ice advantage in first rd. matchups since 2001:

#1 seed vs. #8 seed
6W 1L

#2 vs. #7
4W 3L

#3 vs. #6
4W 3L

#4 vs. #5
5W 2L

#1 vs. #8
6W 1L

#2 vs. #7
4W 3L

#3 vs. #6
3W 4L

#4 vs. #5
4W 3L

Obviously the teams that top the conference are the best in the regular season and getting that #1 seed seems to be an overwhelming odds-on good bet in rd. 1. For the rest of the matchups, it's only a slight advantage for teams having home-ice advantage having a W-L series record of 24W 18L.

Plus it was only three seasons ago that the #8 seed Oilers got to the Final and before that it was the #5 seed Flames representing the West in the Final. Rolling back one more season, the Ducks' first appearance in the Final was as a #7 seed.

So getting to the Final can be accomplished as a lower seed but, so far, no lower seed other than the Devils in the '95 lockout season winning their first Cup as a #5 seed.

Maybe, just maybe, it's not so much the seeding but the quality of the team. Good teams tend to be higher seeds. Good teams tend to win Cups.

It's not as if the Cup winners never ever play in a series after rd. 1 as the "underdog" and do not have home-ice advantage. To wit, the #2 seed Ducks beat the #1 seed Wings in the '07 Western Conference Final.

4. Meet me in St. Louis

The Arch de Bernie Federko

Like most fans, I was hoping the Canucks drew the Blackhawks in rd. 1 as win or lose that was going to be entertaining playoff hockey. The dread was drawing the Blue Jackets given the way Ken Hitchcock teams play (although surprisingly against the Canucks there have been a few higher scoring games over the years including this season's 6-5 shootout game) and the scary fact that Steve Mason is one of those hot rookie goalies the playoffs love.
So the compromise choice of the St. Louis Blues, who up until almost the last weekend had not even clinched a playoff spot let alone were able to claw their way past two teams into the #6 seed slot.
So now two of the hottest teams in the second half of the season are matched up and if the Canucks cannot put pucks past the ex-Nashville Preds' backup goalie Chris Mason then he must have turned into Dwayne Roloson of the '06 Oil.
Just remember to have that '03 playoff backup plan when the Blues were up 3-1 on the Nux, and biological warfare was unleashed. The Blues squad came down with the flu and lost that series in seven.

5. If this is Tuesday, this must be Belgium
Ever since the NHL decided to "grow the game" and play regular season hockey outside North America, there has been on constant: The teams that go doom their playoff seasons.

'97/98 Canucks vs. Mighty Ducks in Tokyo
Both teams missed the '98 playoffs. OK, so the '96/97 Canucks were not a playoff team but they did have the hype of adding Mark "the False Messiah" Messier in the off-season and the Ducks had made the playoffs in '97.

'98/99 Flames vs. Sharks in Tokyo
The Flames missed the playoffs but again they were not a playoff team in '97/98. The Sharks did make the playoffs but lost in rd. 1.

'00/01 Penguins vs. Nashville in Tokyo (actually in the suburb of Omiya to be factual)
The Preds missed the playoffs as they did also in '99/00. The Pens, on the other hand, broke the overseas curse and as a # 5 seed made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Helps to have the NHL's leading scorer in Jaromir Jagr, I guess.

'07/08 Kings vs. Ducks in London
The Kings followed their '06/07 season of non-playoffs with the same in '07/08. The defending Cup champs, (the now not Mighty anymore) Ducks were shockingly upset in rd. 1 thanks to a Dallas Stars powerplay that was on fire thanks to the late season pickup of Brad Richards from the 'Ning

So where does that leave the '08/09 teams that journeyed to Sweden and the Czech Republic.

'08/09 Sens vs. Penguins in Stockholm
We all know the story of the Sens' season that has ended in missing the playoffs for the first time since '96. The Pens also had a rough season having Sergei Gonchar injured for much of the season resulting in coach Michel Therrien's firing and all this hype now that the Crosby Malkins under new coach Dan Bylsma being the popular sleeper pick for the Final.
Don't believe the hype. Even if they channel the ghost of the '01 Jaromir Pens, odds are not good for the Pens...they'll even be up against it trying to get past a hot (top D-men Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn who missed the '08 Conference Final due to injuries are healthy) Flyers' team that has the overlooked goalie Martin Biron playing his best hockey since the All-Star break (.924 save pct. in the second half).

'08/09 Rangers vs. 'Ning in Prague
The 'Ning woes have been well documented. Let's just say hiring a coach who has spent 13 years away from the bench and signing free agents willy (Lindstrom) nilly is not exactly the way to get back in the playoffs. The Rangers also struggled mainly to score which resulted in Tom Renney losing his job and Torts being parachuted in.
Certainly, the NYR are capable of pulling off an upset over the Caps, but again are you really betting your subprime mortgage on this happening?

6. Why are you starting me against the Isles?
I've talked about this before but teams that ride a goalie hard playing them over 70 GP end up flopping badly in the playoffs. They may advance past rd. 1 but often that's as far as they go.
Even topping that 65 GP mark can be dodgy.
This season saw Miikka Kiprusoff again being played to death with 76 GP and that cannot be a good omen. The season the Flames went to the Final, Kipper played all of 38 GP.
The only other playoff goalie at the 70 GP level is the Rangers' King Henrik.

The good news for Canuck fans is Bobby Luuuu only played 54 GP rather than his usual 70+ GP.

The biggest question on the GP front is "Can the man with his own Web site finally prove he doesn't need the two Scotts (Niedermayer and Stevens) to go deep in the playoffs?" Given his measly 31 GP in '08/09, he is as rested as Marc-Andre Fleury (35 GP in '07/08) was last season and we all know how far the Pens went in '08. Then again it all started to go sideways fro Marty when he went from his team-first mask to the me-first mask he now sports. There is no MB in team, Martin.

7. Who to pick?
Lastly, who do you pick in your NHL playoff pool. Obviously, you need to have players on teams that go deep but a good indictaion of who's hot and who's not is to look at the playoff pool stats pack from our good friends at Sportsnet. The predictions I leave to you.
Even Pam knows Fin performs better in the playoffs

No comments: