Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Which Red Wing Model To Choose

Time to retire in Florida
I'm sure you can read all you want online on speculation as to what the Vancouver Canucks can get for Roberto Luongo (for those teams looking for a CuJo 2.0 that is) or how Ryan Kesler was hiding yet another injury during the playoffs. Let alone it seems we should all commiserate with hockey fans whose memories only stretch back to 2011 given the shocked state they seem to be in that an 8th seed had the audacity to give the President's Trophy team a Quick exit from the playoffs. (The 2010 Jaroslav Halak-led Habs upset of the Washington Ovechkins seem to have been lost to the sands of playoff time to these people...let alone the '09 San Jose Sharks who got Johan Hillerized, '06 Red Wings who Dwayne Rolosoned over and died in round one and so on and so forth back to the '71 Big Bad Bruins getting schooled by Colgate grad Ken Dryden.)

The bigger question is: Can the Sedin-era Canucks actually win a Stanley Cup?

Given the Canucks somewhat blew the 1995-97 Detroit Red Wings model, they'll have to place their hopes in following the 2004-2008 Red Wings' path. First, let's take you back to the "ancient" past of 1995 and look at the Yzerman Era Wings that finished first overall in that strike-shortened season. After a couple of years of first round exits, the Wings finally made that season's Final only to lose in four straight to the Neutral Zone Trappers (the Jacques Lemaire era New Jersey Devils).

The shock to their left-wing lock system did not affect the Wings as much as the Canucks' loss to Tim Thomas in the 2011 Final did.  The Wings bounced back strongly in '95/96 and again finished first overall. They looked set to take that victory lap but one Kris Draper face rearranged by the Colorado Avalanche's Claude Lemieux in the '96 Conference Finals and it was Patrick Roy lifting the Avs to the Cup.
A Devil in Avs' clothing

What did the Wings do to combat this physical assault to their at-that-point 41-year Cup drought? They dumped 35-year-old future Hall of Famer Dino Ciccarelli for two cents on the dollar to Tampa to clear some roster space for a younger version of such. To get that younger, grittier scoring winger the Wings traded a coming into-his-prime Keith Primeau and 34-year-old Paul Coffey (who was no slouch at that age potting 74 points for the '95 Wings) for a power forward by the name of Brendan Shanahan. Shanny's 46 goals + nine more in the playoffs helped the Wings to the '96 Cup. Yet it was his willingness to do things like clothesline Patrick Roy during the infamous regular season 1st Battle Royale that really showed the NHL that the Wings were no longer going to have Claudes like Lemieux mess with them anymore.

Project Zack Kassian aside the Canucks need to look at that model and see that unless you can combat Dustin Brown hits with your own hits + goals in the form of a Rick Nash, no Cups for you.

Or the Canucks have to look at the other version of the Red Wings. In both '04 and '06 the Wings got upset because of insane opposition goaltending. After finishing first overall in '03/04, the Wings knocked off the Nashville Predators in rd. one. Then in rd. two they got Mikka Kiprusoffed and the Calgary Flames moved onward to the Final.

After the lockout, the following season of '05/06 saw the Wings again finish first overall only in rd. one to meet the passive trap and Rollie the Goalie on that other NHL team from Alberta. The Edmonton Spoilers, of course, went on to the Final where they copied the Flames' act by losing the Final in seven.

In the '07 playoffs Detroit got back its mojo a bit and ran to the Conference Finals where it got beat by the rough-and-tough eventual champions Anaheim Ducks.

Right now there's a furor over how the NHL, especially in the West, has gone all defensive (if you can call "let the other team wear themselves out by firing over 40 shots at our goalie" a defensive strategy rather than calling it a "we're not very good but we have a great goalie" strategy--also known as the Halak Formula 2010) what with the goalies dominating round one in 2012 . . . which, of course, apparently has never happened in the history of the NHL first round of playoffs adds Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Steve Penney, Andy Moog and a cast of tens.
 A Penney for your thoughts?

What happened after the Ducks, who led the NHL in truculence, won in 2007? The Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins met in the 2008 and 2009 Finals.
So before you bemoan Canucks' GM Mike Gillis for saying he's sticking with the offence over defence jag and not going out and signing goons to take out other teams' top stars, these trends do go in cycles sometimes as short as a single season.

(Having said that, if "your" team is no longer in the playoffs, pray the Philadelphia Flyers win the Cup for all our eyeballs' sakes...or at least a team from the East as even the now-loathed-out-here Boston Bruins do score goals.)

The Wings, though, did not stand pat between 2004 and 2008. Pretty much every player over 30 in 2004 either retired, was released, traded or tried to run the Dallas Stars. The Red Wings remade almost two-thirds of their team. Of course, they had the ageless wonders in Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios to start with on the backline. They added Brian Rafalski, Nicklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart, Brett Lebda and Andreas Lilja back there.

In goal the tandem of Curtis Joseph and Manny Legace was replaced by returning Cup heroes Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek. Surprisingly, despite Hasek starting in the playoffs, he was replaced after floundering in the first few games in round one and Osgood and his '08 playoff .930 save percentage was a key factor in the Wings' fourth Cup in 11 years.

Upfront, the Wings had Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk but in 2004 they were not quite the Zetterberg and Datsyuk of 2008. Datsyuk, as some may recall, was a struggling playoff performer as through '04 he had a measly 3 goals and 9 points in 37 playoff games. Zetterberg was only in his sophomore year in '03/04 so he had yet to even register with most Wings fans. This was still Steve Yzerman's team upfront.

That would change as the Wings swept out most of the oldster forwards (Yzerman, Shanahan, Brett Hull, Robert Lang), kept the Kris Draper-Kirk Maltby PK unit as well as Tomas Holmstrom around and added Johan Franzen, Valteri Filppula, Darren Helm (whom the Wings obviously missed after he got injured in rd. 1 this season), Jiri Hudler, Mikael Samuelsson, Dallas Drake and Daniel Cleary. They also brought back 35-year-old Darren McCarty (who had left as a free agent to sign with Calgary in '05) who managed to get into 17 games in the '08 playoff run.

Last, but maybe not least, the Wings decided their former assistant coach Dave Lewis (the man who replaced the legendary Scotty Bowman) turned out to be not really the man for the job. After firing Lewis, the Wings hired Mike Babcock who had led the extreme underdog '03 Ducks to the Final (J.S Giguere adds, "What am I? Chopped liver?").

So there you have it, Mike Gillis--a blueprint to a Cup. Whether it's finding that readymade diamond of a Shanny, somehow turning Alexander Edler into the next Lidstrom or making the Sedins younger (more on that in Part II tomorrow), you have your work cut out for you when this window officially closes in two years' time.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Stat Me Up

Finally, the real season is upon us once again--the Stanley Cup playoffs. The most exciting round of the playoffs is also about to start tonight, and you're wondering how it's all going to pan out. Especially if you're in a hockey pool you want to figure out where those upsets will come from. Johnny Canucklehead is here to help you with all that and more.

Let's have a look at the way things have panned out since the lockout in round one.

I'm crushing your head

Some experts say look at the head-to-head record. Well, if you want to be hover around .500 in your predictions that's the way you should go. Of 48 series in the 1st rd. since 2006, only 27 were won by the team who won the regular season head-to-head (or by the higher seed if the season's series was dead even).

What is more telling is regular season "dominance." If one team holds more than a three-game edge over their opponent in the regular season, the odds increase dramatically. Of nine series where this was the case going in, seven teams triumphed. Just ask the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers who as a #7 seed knocked off the #2 seed New Jersey Devils. Of course, a 5W 1 L edge in the regular season should have been a sign of the coming 1st rd. apocalypse in Jersey.

So, given this season the St. Louis Blues won all four meetings with the San Jose Sharks, you do the math. Then again the Anaheim Ducks won all four regular season games vs. the Nashville Predators in 2010-11 and lost in the 1st rd. So...grain of salt meet kernel of wisdom.

Smaller goalie equipment is an improvement

Goaltending can be a key factor in determining who advances (well, duh!). It is sometimes surmised that the fresher netminder (i.e., the one who played less games in the regular season) is often the better choice.
That has proven true 27 out of 48 series in rd. one. So no more a strong indicator than the head-to-head records.

When you look at what seems to be the breaking point of 70 games played, things look a bit different.
Of ten series where one goalie cracked that 70 GP and the other was under the 70 GP threshold, the fresher goalie's team had a 6-4 edge. Not as huge an advantage as expected but something to consider when Jonathan Quick played almost 70 this season (69 GP) and in 2010 he played 72 and lost to the Vancouver Canucks in rd. 1.


Obviously, a team with a better goals for vs. goals against on the season should be a better team. Yet sometimes a team may have a better goal difference yet not as many points to show for it due to the wonky overtime/shootout loser point rule.
Of those 48 first round series so far 33 have seen the team with the better goal difference come out on top. That's over a 68 percent success rate. In other words it's like a 112-pt season.

This year we have some very interesting possibilities in rd. 1.
Obviously, the Florida Panthers with a measly 203 GF and 227 GA are a terrible team who benefited from being in a lousy division (Yes, GM Dale Tallon did a great job putting the pieces together, yada, yada, yada, but in any other division in the NHL, the Cats are not making the playoffs). Given the New Jersey Devils are a +19 (228 GF-209 GA), it's a pretty easy series to predict that maybe the Devils might take that.

What's more interesting is the Nashville Predators and the Detroit Red Wings series. Maybe Detroit is too old. Maybe Detroit is not a great road team (after being a terrific one last season). Yet Detroit not only outscored the Preds; they also have a better D.
  • Nashville 237 GF 210 GA +27
  • Detroit 248 GF 203 GA +45
Twice before the Preds have flopped in the 1st rd. as a higher seed. The 2012 team comes in with huge expectations given the impending free agency of their top two defencemen (the restricted free agent Shea Weber and unrestricted Ryan Suter) and the additions at the trade deadline of Paul Gaustad, Hal Gill and Taylor Swift. High expectations can often equal huge upset loss. Can you say the entire playoff history of the Washington Ovechkins?


Defence wins championships. Really? Does defence alone really win championships?
Sure the Stanley Cup is littered with tales of goaltenders acting like Gumby on skates leading teams to Cups but what to make of the 2009 champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Crosby Malkins were 17th in goal against average yet tied for second in goals for.
The 2006 Caroline Hurricanes were tied for 18th in GAA, but 3rd in GF.
Sure, there are Cup teams like the Red Wings of 2008 who led in GAA but even they were also 3rd in GF.

So when some bobblehead on TV goes on about the penalty kill, the shot blocking or the need to tighten up on D, remind yourself that you still have to score goals to win playoff hockey games.
The team with the better goals for triumphed 33 out of 48 times in rd. one from 2006 to 2011.

Now if you look at the 17 1st rd. series where the lower seeds had more GF than the higher seeds, the lower seeds won ten of those. Last year we saw the Tampa Bay Lightning (238 GF) upset the Pittsburgh Penguins (238 GF) who were without Sidney Crosby. Despite Tampa being only a miniscule +7 in goal difference vs. the Pens' +39. Guy Boucher that 1-3-1 out the door. Tampa actually carpetbombed the Pens in Game 5 8-2 on Pittsburgh ice! Any team with Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier is one that can and should score.

So keep an eye on the Ottawa Senators and their 249 GF vs. the New York Rangers 226 GF. In fact, explain this one when you check the Rangers seasons out:
2010-11 233 GF 198 GA, 93 pts, seed #8
2011-12 226 GF, 187 GA, 109 pts, seed #1

So the Tortorella Fellas gave up 11 less goals but also scored seven less goals this season. Even the new math says that's just a +5 improvement in goal difference. That equalled a 16-point jump to the top of the Eastern Conference? I guess it did.

Defensively they blocked tons of shots again this season, but I'm not so sure this is a Stanley Cup winning strategy let alone one to get out of the 1st rd. After all, you run the risk of getting players injured blocking shots that Henrik Lundqvist seems more than capable of doing without breaking any bones. The Strangers might want to spend less time blocking shots and more time creating ones on the opposition's goal.

On that note everyone should all spend more time scoring.
Enjoy round one!