Tuesday, April 30, 2013

West Is Best

The Western Conference gets to start the NHL playoffs for once with all three series on day one out West? See what getting a West Coast team as Stanley Cup winners does for us out here.

 Ride the mullet, baby!
Chicago Kaner Mullets vs. Minnesota Mild

Is there any doubt? When you have one of the all-time greatest seasons in NHL history, if you're going to get upset it's most likely later on (Ken Dryden 1st round heroics leading to a 1971 Conn Smythe performance aside).

The more interesting aspect is twofold. The Wild with their big name signings of Zach Pariseeeee (not Pariseez-eh anymore, eh) and Ryan Suter leapt from 24th overall last season to 15th. The two teams that lost those stars--well, they didn't fare so well with both missing the playoffs. The Nashville Predators fell from 5th overall to 27th. The New Jersey Devils (also thanks to losing Ilya Kovalchuk for a crucial stretch of the season) dipped down from 9th to 23rd.

The other fold is the Wild kept us from enjoying the Bob for another week or so plus would have rubbed even more poison oak into the Philadelphia Flyers' wounds. Ex-Flyer goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was insanely great for the Columbus Blue Jackets (.932 save percentage matching his .932 save percentage with SKA St. Petersburg during the lockout so we should have saw that coming). That other Russian goalie the Flyers pinned their hopes on. Well, at least he's funny.

So there ya go, why bother talking about the Blackhawks until they play some team that's actually scored more goals than they've given up. Sorry, State of Hockey, but when you have an actual exciting team, get back to us neutrals.

Anaheim One Cup Ducks vs. Detroit Dead Things?

Wow, how the mighty have fallen? All it took was losing one Norris Trophy defenceman.
Even so, ominous for the Dux is not so much all this vaunted experience the Wings have, it's the fact the Wings know how to win in Anaheim w/o Nicklas Lidstrom. The Wings took both regular season games in the City of Disney.

Throw in the fact Jimmy Howard has outplayed the Fasth/Hiller tandem and maybe the Dux got one of the worst matchups possible despite a season that was truly terrific but overlooked a little given the Hawks' 23-game unbeaten run. 

Personally, I think the Gordie Howe Houston Aeros WooHA era movie more than made up for losing Lidstrom. Then again that's just me. (Say, was that one of Steve Sanders's girlfriends from "Beverly Hills: 90210"?)

Vancouver Sedins vs. San Jose Chokers

Talk about your classic underachievers. This is two for the price of one in this series. Vancouver will look to the fact it defeated the Sharks in 2011 in the Western Conference Final. The Sharks will look to the fact they maybe got unlucky in 2011 in meeting the Canucks that late. Usually, the Sharks are one team the Canucks have so much trouble with. From '07/08 through the '09/10 seasons the Sharks were 10W-2L vs. the Nux. The Nux turned the tables in '10/11 and '11/12 with 6W-2L as well as the 4W-1L in the '11 playoffs.

This season the Sharks are back on top of the Nux winning all three contests.

Don't even mention Sieveongo should Schneids not be 100 percent.

Luongo still hasn't been traded!

St. Louis Bouwmeesters vs. LA Defenders

Finally, Jay Bouwmeester gets to see if he can grow a beard and against the defending champions to start it all off. Sadly, LA won all three meetings between the two during the season. Defending Cup champs tend not to lose to any team in rd. one (the '12 Boston Bruins say what as do the '11 Blackhawks), especially if they improve over the previous season.

The Kings who became the only team lower than 9th overall (at 13th best in the '11/12 overall standings) to actually get to the Final and win the danged Cup. Let's strip back all the BS and that was one extremely lucky Luc Robitaille Cup run fueled again by insane Hab era Patrick Roy-like goaltending. Now on paper the Kings did and do have a good well-balanced team and leapt up to 7th overall. If they had Jeff Carter all season back in '11/12 maybe the Kings would have not had to put on that late-season blitz just to get into the playoffs.

Anyway, of the teams making a leap in the regular season after a Cup victory since '95 let's have a look:
'97 Colorado Avalanche
Jumped from 2nd overall to the Presidents Trophy and made it back to the Western Conference Final where the Detroit Red Wings avenged the Kris Draper face rearrangement.

'98 Detroit Red Wings
Moved up from 5th to 3rd overall and repeated as Cup champs even sadly without Vladimir Konstantinov on D but inspiring the Yzermans nonetheless.

'01 New Jersey Devils
Went from 4th to 3rd and got back to the Final where they lost to the Avs.
(Does anyone even remember this Final? Was it the one where Alex Tanguay got two goals in Game 7? Yep, the Bourque Cup.)

There you have it. Bet on the Kings getting to the Western Conference Final...or not. The only worrying factor is the Kings are still only 7th overall. They're not exactly the Avs, Wings or Devils powerhouses of the '90s and '00s yet.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Maybe Other Stuff Sucks

We've heard it straight from the goalie's mouth that his contract sucks. Roberto Luongo seems to think that is the reason he was not traded during the season. Yet is his contract really a hindrance to a fair trade that'll please Luongo, the Vancouver Canucks and whatever team wants him?

In September of 2009 with one year left on his then contract, the Canucks started renegotiating Luongo's contract. The end result was a 12-year deal for $64 million. At the time everyone seemed happy with this deal. The Canucks got cost certainty with a cap hit of $5.33 million per year over the length of that deal. That seemed a reasonable number to spend on an all-star goalie who was also slated to be on the Team Canada roster for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

It's not like the Canucks were out there on some island throwing big money at a supposed big name goalie. Once the '04/05 lockout ended the Chicago Blackhawks signed free agent (and recent Tampa Bay Lightning '04 Cup-winning goalie) Nikolai Khabibulin to a record $27 million over four seasons to make him the highest paid netminder in the NHL. Khabibulin was so awful over the next three seasons (averaging out at a .899 save percentage)  the Hawks went out and spent another $22.4 million on a four-year deal for Cristobal Huet. So for the '08/09 season the Hawks had a cap hit of $12.35 million for their goalie tandem. They even put Khabibulin on waivers in September of that year but there were no takers.

Didn't get his right Khabi or left Bulin on that shot

Khabibulin, after that shock to his ego, re-established himself as the number one goalie on Chicago and the team went to the Western Conference Finals. Even so, the Hawks still let him walk for nothing in the off-season and the Edmonton Oilers got Khabibulin at a discount $15 million over four years. (How's that been working out for ya, Edmonton?)

We all know what the Blackhawks did in the '09/10 season with Huet and Antii Niemi in nets in taking home the Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years. So, maybe letting Luongo walk via a buyout or even via waivers, even if he's not on the verge of free agency like Khabibulin was, is a possible way to go.

Anyway, you've all heard the arguments on the merits of signing any player to a long-term deal or spending a ton of money on a goalie. You can all read that elsewhere ad infinitum on the Internet.

Let's look at the onerous contention that it's Luongo's contract alone that is preventing a a trade happening.

For that we head to Philadelphia and the Flyers' general manger Paul Holmgren. Despite having signed Mike Richards in 2007 to a 12-year deal at $69 million and Jeff Carter in 2010 to an 11-year deal at $58 million, Holmgren was able to trade both players and get a very good return for each.

Carter was dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Jakub Voracek and 2011 1st and 3rd round picks which turned out to be Sean Courturier and Nick Cousins. Voracek has been a solid offensive contributor (88 points in 118 games with Philly so far as well as 10 points in 11 playoff games last season), responsible defensively (finished a +11 in season one with the Flyers) and is just 23 years old at the moment. Courturier is only 20 and may have slipped in his sophomore season but was a solid +18 in his rookie year plus he gives the Flyers a nice 15 minutes a game as a second-line center. Cousins is described as a Scott Hartnell type and, if he makes the NHL, really is a third round steal given he's been the leading scorer on the OHL Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds for the past two seasons even cracking the 100-point mark this season. 

Richards was sent to the Los Angeles Kings along with Flyer prospect Rob Bordson (whom the Kings didn't even bother to sign and was signed as a free agent in the summer by the Anaheim Ducks) for Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn and a 2012 2nd round pick. Both Simmonds and Schenn are playing with the Flyers. Simmonds is 24 and rounding into a fine power forward. He potted 28 goals last season and this season is on a similar scoring pace if you prorate his 11 goals so far over the course of an 82-game season. Schenn is 21 and right now is a 40- to 50-point a season player. Very decent given he, like Courturier, is averaging close to 15 minutes a game and in Schenn's case as a third-liner. Lastly, the 2nd round pick in that deal turned in to be Anthony Solarz, a goalie who has been terrific in limited backup play for the OHL's London Knights.

El Lay, we're here, ladies!

Speaking of L.A., Carter, as you well know ended up there to be reunited with his partying buddy Richards, and even the Columbus Blue Jackets made a very good trade getting Team USA defenceman Jack Johnson and a conditional 1st round pick from the Kings in the Carter trade.

So, to review, two players whose contracts are in the same length and price ballpark as Luongo's were not only dealt for some impressive pieces but one was even dealt twice within the course of a season.

Attention, Mike Gillis, it can be done.

So maybe the contract is not the problem at all. On the other hand, the actual play and age of Luongo could be. Let's face facts. Carter and Richards were both dealt at age 26. Luongo is currently 34 years old.

This is not to say Luongo can't play at a high level but look at his contemporaries in net.
Martin Brodeur did help the New Jersey Devils get to the Final at age 39 but the last time he hit the magic .920 save percentage mark in the regular season was at age 35.
Patrick Roy finished his career at ages 37 and 38 with unreal .925 and .920 save percentages. Then again miracles do follow saints.

Ed Belfour at age 38 had a .922 save percentage with the Toronto Maple Leafs (and this was the only time he cracked that magic Hasek-ian line).
Curtis Joseph never surpassed the .920 save percentage mark but did have his last decent season at age 35 with the Detroit Red Wings . . . although paralleling Luongo's struggles was unable to lift a very good team to the Cup (let alone out of the 1st round as the Wings got Giguered and swept by the soon-to-be Stanley Cup-ly Ducks of Anaheim in 2003)

Why no Cups for CuJo?

Luongo's had a .920 save percentage over the first five seasons of his career with the Florida Panthers. His first five seasons with the Canucks--a .920 save percentage.
Even last season (his sixth in Vancouver), he had a .919 save percentage. So we all know Bingo Bango Bongo brings it in the regular season and is as consistent as the rain is in this city.

It's the playoffs, other than the 2010 playoffs where he had an .895 save percentage, the other years his overall play has been solid to outstanding on the surface. But has it? Sure, everyone was all over Luongo's poor play in the 2011 Final after he got ventilated in Game 3 in Boston. Even with a bounceback shutout in Game 5 to put the Canucks up 3-2 in the Final, Luongo's save percentage Games 4 through 7 was an abysmal .873.

Shouldn't we have seen this coming? After all, this was the same goalie that when push came to shove melted down vs. the Blackhawks in two straight playoff series and also oddly was more concerned about being a ref than stopping the puck in the Game 5 overtime in the '07 Anaheim series.

Look at this "consistency" in crunch time playoff action:
'10 vs. Hawks Games 3 thru 6       .872 save percentage
'09 vs. Hawks all 6 games             .878
'07 vs. Ducks Games 1, 3 & 4       .882

Yes, in two series this is obviously cherrypicking the stats, but even in the '07 Ducks series where he finished up with a .930 save percentage thanks to a 43-save effort in Game 2 and the Game 5 overtime where he stopped 56 of 58 shots, Luongo has these major letdowns at incredibly crucial parts of playoff series. That is not news to Canuck fans nor probably to NHL GMs which is maybe the real reason it has been hard so far to trade the 2010 Olympic gold medal winning goalie.