Monday, 22 September 2014

2014-15 NHL Predictions Part 4: The Pacific Division

Alright, let's bring this series home before the regular season begins in October. I can't wait to see how wrong I am come June when the Calgary Flames play the Buffalo Sabres in the Stanley Cup Final!

Here's a recap of the predictions posts thus far: part 1part 2part 3.

Arizona Coyotes

Good: After many setbacks in Edmonton, Sam Gagner will have a bounce-back season that vindicates his former club for drafting him 6th overall at the 2007 NHL draft. 

Bad: In any other division, the Desert Dogs could be a respectable team. But in the NHL's strongest, toughest division, their shallow depth at all positions, iffy goaltending, and lack of high-clabre scorers will lead to many lopsided losses. 

Ugly: Divisional rivals will devour this team all season. and Dave Tippett's defensive systems won't be enough to cover up his group's blemishes. Indeed, beating up on this outgunned club will enable the Pacific division to clinch both of the Western Conference's wild-card spots. Expect teams next off-season to describe Arizona as the easiest team to beat.
Anaheim Ducks

Good: The Ducks are poised to take a strong run at the Stanley Cup. They have amassed enough depth in their prospect pool to cash in some up-and-comers for some now-and-herers at the trade deadline, when the team stocks up on players that will help them combat their Californian rivals in the playoffs.

Bad: Dany Heatley will not regain his scoring form, forcing the Ducks to look for another winger to play alongside Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry on the team's top line. On the bright side, at least the Ducks didn't commit too much of their salary cap to a fading star.

Ugly: Teemu Selanne's scathing tell-all book is only the beginning of Bruce Boudreau's problems this year. His leadership of and direction for the Ducks will be questioned throughout the season. If the Ducks fail to make the Final this year, expect Boudreau to be lumped together with Todd McLellan as coaches whose systems run smoothly in the regular season only to crash in the playoffs.

Calgary Flames

Good: The Flames will be feisty losers all season long. They won't win enough games to be considered even a potential postseason surprise, but they won't make beating them easy. Fans will love the grit and determination of a team with little postseason upside.

Bad: The Flames will have a season worthy of "Boring Sean Monahan" season (Check out @boringmonahan on twitter). And that outcome's fine as nothing spectacular will or should happen for a team that needs to bottom feed for a few years before resurfacing as a playoff contender.

Ugly: Everyone not named Brian Burke will patiently wait for the roster to develop. Burke, however, will press for some shortsighted trades to improve a roster that should be built to bust. Expect Burke to cause controversy with his attempts to fix a team that is better off being broken for a couple more seasons.

Edmonton Oilers

Good: The Oilers will pass the title of "longest active playoff drought" to the Winnipeg Jets this season. (Sorry, Winnipeg, but you need to get a functional GM before you're able to make the playoffs.)

Bad: Edmonton will not get far in the postseason, and they may regret making it at all since they'll be easily dispatched by whichever divisional rival they play against. I predict that they won't last more than 5 games in the first round.

Ugly: There will be many, many moments in which it looks like the Oilers are doomed to miss the playoffs again. They'll secure a spot in the bracket, but their path to the postseason will be paved in humiliating losses, spotty defensive play, and numerous losing streaks.

Los Angeles Kings

Good: The Kings will win the Stanley Cup once more and be acclaimed as the first dynasty of the modern NHL.

Bad: Mike Richards will not regain form, and his contract will become a millstone that crushes the club's chances to improve itself through trades and free-agent signings.

Ugly: I stress "once more" in the "Good" as this dynasty's reign will end after their 2015 championship. Cap pressure will contribute to the end of their dominance, but injuries will also play a key role. The modern game is simply too grueling to allow certain players to dominate others year after year.

San Jose Sharks

Good: The Sharks will make the playoffs despite the GM Doug Wilson's efforts to rejig his "tomorrow team." Like Denethor attempting to cremate his still-living son Faramir, Wilson is going to torch a roster that is more than capable of winning the Cup now.

Doug Wilson's controversial handling of the Joe Thornton situation.

Bad: Bickering between management and players will rage all season long. Expect members of California's sports media to savour the incendiary sound bytes during the civil war between the club's on- and off-ice members. Wilson will make at least one egregiously disadvantageous trade around the 2015 deadline.

Ugly: When the Sharks are eliminated from the postseason, Wilson will lash out on his team like The Governor when he gunned down the Woodbury militia after they questioned his authority. 

Pictured: artistic rendering of Doug Wilson around spring 2015.

Expect the Sharks in 2015-16 to be in post-apocalyptic disarray. 

Vancouver Canucks

Good: After John Tortorella's reign of terror, the Canucks will embrace new coach Willie Desjardins as like a bunch of abused puppies rescued from a dog-fighting ring. Expect the team's stars to rebound from a disappointing 2013-14 season. 

Bad: The three-goaltender system that the Canucks are considering for this season will only provide fans with more players to revile during tough times. Heavy is the head that wears the goalie mask in Vancouver. Not only will fans run at least one of the three netminders out of town, but the crease at Rogers Centre will be seen as a career killer.

Ugly: As fans rain abuse down on their goalies, expect them to cheer on Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo when they return to Van-city. The only thing 'Nucks fans enjoy more than winning is the opportunity to salt wounds that they helped to inflict on their team.

Monday, 15 September 2014

2014-15 NHL Predictions Part 3: The Metropolitan Division

It's tough coming up with the good for many of the teams on this list because I think that the Metropolitan will be the least successful division this season. These clubs are bound to offer a lot more bad and ugly moments than good times. If one of these teams wins the Cup, I'll atone for my naysaying by writing a lengthy apology blog.

Before we begin, here are links to part 1 and part 2 in case you want to brush up. (There will be an exam after part 5.)

Carolina Hurricanes

Good: The Hurricanes' struggles will put them in contention for the first overall pick at the star-studded 2015 NHL draft. That's the only silver lining for the stormy season ahead.

Bad: Eric Staal will be a former Hurricane by the 2015 trade deadline. Since few teams can afford his $9.25 million salary, he'll likely end up with the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, or another team with deep pockets.

Ugly: Cam Ward's consistency and injury woes will continue this season. If he's still around next off-season, eExpect the team to buy him out. Failing that, the Canes will package him with a pick, prospect, and/or roster player in a disadvantageous trade designed to free the team and their beleaguered starter of this disastrous contract. 

Columbus Blue Jackets

Good: With solid goaltending and a balanced roster, the Blue Jackets will challenge the Penguins for the top spot in the division. Don't be surprised if they face the Pens in the Eastern Conference Final in the playoffs, which would lead to a legitimate Pittsburgh-Columbus rivalry.

Bad: The contract standoff with RFA Ryan Johansen will devolve into a complete debacle as the centreman sits out training camp and some regular season games. After remaining unsigned through October, the feud between player and club will rival the acrimonious relations between the Colorado Avalanche and Ryan O'Reilly.

Ugly: Expect tensions to rise whenever Scott Hartnell plays against the team that jilted him this summer. For many fans, Hartnell was the heart and soul of the Flyers. He'll avenge his abrupt banishment from Philadelphia by crushing the hearts and souls of former teammates through organ-rupturing, spirit-slaying body checks.

New Jersey Devils

Good: The team will sign grizzled veterans Scott Gomez, Tomas Kaberle, and Ruslan Fedotenko. These moves will make the Devils the oldest 2014-15 roster--and one of the oldest in the post-lockout NHL. The aging roster will benefit the cash-strapped team by enabling them to use seniors discounts when buying equipment.

Bad: Any savings from the aforementioned discounts will be spent on hiring additional trainers to keep this roster from rusting out midseason.
Ugly: Gary Bettman will have to consider if the old-age pensions collected by the majority of the team's roster should count against the club's salary cap.

*I'm sorry, but I'm baffled by how Lou Lamoriello hopes to win with this roster.*

New York Islanders

Good: The addition of Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin means that the team' fortunes no longer hinge solely on the health of John Tavares. The team has enough firepower to overcome their questionable defence, and Jaroslav Halak should protect the net sufficiently to clinch a playoff berth.

Bad: Things are going too well for the Islanders. Their roster is much too competitive, and the prospects of returning to this season is solid. That means Garth Snow is itching to do something astoundingly misguided. Expect a bizarre trade around the deadline. 

Ugly: The Islanders have a reputation for some of the worst fashion choices in NHL history. Expect them to commemorate the move to Brooklyn next summer by unveiling a new installment in their legacy of awful attire.  

New York Rangers

Good: The Rangers will not have to cancel their season after the entire roster becomes sick with the dreaded "Osaka Flu."

Bad: The blueshirts will struggle to score. Their meagre point totals will cement them among the bottom three teams in terms of goals scored per game. Lundqvist will help the club stay afloat, but even he can't steal enough games to hustle them into the playoffs.

Ugly: The Rangers will be the latest team to follow up an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final by missing the playoffs entirely. At least they'll make the Oilers feel better about 2000-07, and the Devils about 2012-13.

Philadelphia Flyers

Good: The Flyers won't have to suspend hockey operations after losing the entire team and their AHL affiliate to spontaneous combustion. 

Bad: Due to the loss of Kimmo Timonen--a steadying influence on a shaky blueline--the Flyers will rank in the top three teams in terms of goals allowed per game. 

Ugly: Venting their frustrations on their opponents' faces will result in the Flyers leading the league in fights this season. Unhappy with their inflated goals-against-average, Ray Emery and Steve Mason will both scrap at least once this year. 

Pittsburgh Penguins

Good: Sidney Crosby et al. will perform well in the regular season and playoffs, ending the team's streak of wilting in the spring. I picked the Habs as the Eastern Conference champs, but the Pens are my second choice to lose to the Western Conference in 2015.

Bad: Marc-Andre Fleury will make the most of his contract year by turning his net into a nearly-impregnable fortress. This improvement will present a difficult question to the Pens: should they bank on MAF's 2014-15 production, or should they assume that his improved performance was an aberration?

Beauty: I doubt that there will be much ugliness for the Pens this season. Instead of forecasting the worst, I'd like to predict something touching. When the Devils are out of the playoff race, fans will call on New Jersey to trade Jaromir Jagr to Pittsburgh so that he can end his long and illustrious career where it began. Rutherford and Lamoriello will work something out to give Jagr's career a fitting swanpenguin song.  

Washington Capitals

Good: The offensively-minded Caps will struggle to adopt the rigors of Barry After struggling throughout the season as the offensively-minded team tries to adapt to Barry Trotz's defensively-minded hockey. Despite these difficulties, Washington will ensure stability behind the bench by not rashly dismissing Trotz due to friction between him and the players.

Bad: The Capitals have had four different head coaches in as many years. Players who worked with all four coaches will quadruple guess every on-ice decision as they struggle to regain confidence. Players who struggle and succeed will survive, but those who fail to adapt will become an endangered species in Washington. Expect a lot of roster rearrangement to rejig the club to suit its coach's philosophy. 

Ugly: Desperate for a juicy controversy, the MSM would love nothing more than to see Alexander Ovechkin come to loggerheads with Trotz over the team's direction. As rumour mongers fuel discord between captain and coach, Ovie will seriously consider bolting for the KHL. I'm not saying that defection will happen, but the speculation will plague Caps fans for most of the season.

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Petri Kontiola Buyout Model

After reading the rule changes announced yesterday, I wonder if it's time for the NHL and NHLPA to consider a new way of managing player personnel by considering a new ways to buyout players: "player-elected buyouts" and "player-reimbursed buyouts."

Earlier this off-season, I was intrigued by the Toronto Maple Leafs signing of Petri Kontiola. In paritcular, I was fascinated with the terms of Kontiola's release from the KHL: in order to sign with the Leafs, Kontiola himself had to buyout the balance of his contract with Chelyabinsk Traktor. I wonder if other teams have considered implementing a similar buyout model.

Having a player pay his way into free agency could resolve a number of issues faced by middling-to-poor NHL franchises. For instance, imagine if a team had the option to file for reimbursement from a player who demands a trade? Teams would likely prefer getting the prospects, picks, and players from a conventional trade, but if that player fails to attract suitors, cash might be the next best thing. As for players, the idea of having to pay their way out of town might pressure deserters into expanding their lists of acceptable destinations.

Pressuring players to accept deals to more teams could have helped last year. According to reports in February, Martin St. Louis would only waive his NMC for the New York Rangers. At the outset of the off-season, there were reports that Ryan Kesler would only waive his NTC for three teams. Meanwhile, former Sens captain Jason Spezza exercised his modified NMC to nix a trade with the Predators. Surely at least one GM involved would've seriously  considered a "player-reimbursed buyout" if he had that option.

Imagine how the Ilya Kovulchuk retirement fiasco could've worked out if the self-buyout option were available. Instead of having this nonsense involving a player retiring from one league to join another, the Devils would be reimbursed for their commitment to a defector, and Kovulchuk would be free to return to the NHL whenever he wanted. Instead, Kovulchuk is essentially exiled from the NHL until 2018, and the Devils lost a star player for nothing.

Since the move inspired this pic, I guess it wasn't a total loss.

Why can't a player (e.g. Roberto Luongo) whose "contract sucks" dig himself out from underneath it by using his checkbook as leverage? Imagine where the Vancouver Canucks would be right now if they recouped cash from the loss of Luongo, retained Cory Schneider, and lived free of goaltending drama last year?

This new rule would also include a self-buyout option that would enable players to take jobs elsewhere in the league while financially compensating their jilted clubs. In some cases, such moves would be mutually beneficial. Yes, there will be free-agent floozies who traipse about the league and flirt with every team, but there have always been those players. I'm looking at you, Jaromir Jagr.

Pictured: the "sign-em-and-leave-em" kind of player

Teams may lament the chaos caused by increased player movement, but fans would love it. For those who aren't interested in advanced stats, this summer was a huge letdown. Last spring, there was talk of an exciting summer ahead: many disappointed clubs wanted to shake up their rosters. However, instead of relishing a few franchise-altering deals this summer, we got the same ho-hum hockey operations. All the interesting moves concluded before July 2, and the usual summer doldrums ensued.

The lack of movement probably stems from teams wanting to make trades but not wanting to pay for them. A conservative approach dictates that it's better to fail by playing it safe than to ruin a team with a poor deal. That conservatism, however, only makes quality players scarce, which raises their value, and thereby makes bold NHL transactions more cost prohibitive. In contrast, increased player mobility would supply the market with enough flashy players to drive prices down and make teams more willing to gamble on their futures.

The conservative approach also guarantees acrimony between players and clubs as the former often have to demand a trade from the latter in order to be moved. Players such as Evander Kane will inevitably become pariahs because they have to force reluctant GMs into action. Since Kevin Cheveldayoff won't take Kane's hints, the budding star will end up having to demand a trade from the Winnipeg Jets. Imagine if he could simply liberate himself by unleashing his credit line. The Jets would prosper from the Kane money; Kane can finally move on from his career; and Cheveldayoff can continue perplexing bloggers with his sustained inactivity.  

These new buyout models may not be a foolproof system, but I guarantee that they will make the off-season much more interesting!

Friday, 5 September 2014

2014-15 NHL Predictions Part 2: The Atlantic Division

In the first part of this series, I picked the winners and losers of the 2014-15 NHL season. Now it's time to do a team-by-team breakdown of what we'll probably see unfold this year. First up, let's take a look at the Atlantic Division.
Boston Bruins

1. The Good: Budding Bruins Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton will take major strides forward, fueling hope that the Bruins will need only to retool instead of rebuild once their grizzled veterans are no longer serviceable.

2. The Bad: Zdeno Chara will suffer a major setback this year involving his health. I'm not ill-wishing "Big Z," but his body has simply been battered too much by the rigors of Bruins hockey to keep going. He's defied expectations of a decline for a long time, but age will catch up to him this year.

3. The Ugly: Without Chara, the Bruins will limp rather than glide into the playoffs. They will make the second round, but they will be upset by a collapse that will cause fans to curse Dave Bolland for his heroics in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. Don't be surprised if the Lightning avenge their 2011 postseason defeat by beating the Bruins en route to the 2014 Eastern Conference Final.

Buffalo Sabres
1. The Good: Buffalo will surprise everyone by not being as terrible as we thought they'd be this year. They won't be in serious playoff contention, but they will be in the lower ranks of the playoff longshots--the spot usually reserved for the Carolina Hurricanes, who will be much worse this year.

2. The Bad: Since being terrible was the whole point of this season, the 'Canes will disappoint fans by not being advantageously awful. The Sabres will compete themselves out of contention for the Connor McDavid sweepstakes.

3. The Ugly: However the Sabres lose the 1st overall pick--by being too competitive to end 30th in the standings or by losing another draft lottery--Tim Murray won't take the disappointment well. He'll probably accuse the NHL of unfairness--perhaps even suggesting that his team was penalized for not being named "Oilers." His comments will play right into the wallets of the league via fines.

Detroit Red Wings:

1. The Good: The Red Wings will keep commentators guessing by not imploding as we have all been expecting them to for years. Like last season, they will be in the mix for a wildcard spot until at least the first week of April.

2. The Bad: They will not be able to use the misfortunes of the Capitals, Devils, Islanders, and Leafs to vault into the postseason again. They will be displaced by one of those teams that either underperformed or collapsed last year.

3. The Ugly: He won't admit it, but Mike Babcock is forcing Detroit management into a "show me" season--as in "show me that the team has enough firepower to compete, or I'm signing elsewhere in the offseason." Unimpressed with the team's dismal finish, and unwilling to be scapegoated with the end of an illustrious playoff streak, Babcock and the Red Wings will have an acrimonious divorce.

Florida Panthers:

1. The Good: Persistent rumours of the Panthers' future relocation will provide ample fodder for @strombone1's twitter feed. Years from now, when he retires as a reluctant Quebec City Panther, Luongo will be inducted into the hall of fame as the most hapless goaltender of all time.

2. The Bad: The Panthers will be the most expensive failure this season. True, 14 other teams have greater salary-cap expenditures than the Panthers (according to capgeek.com's projections as of today), but--with the possible exception of the Philadelphia Flyers--those teams will be in competition for playoff spots. (Yes, even the Oileers.) The Panthers' post-season aspirations will end dismally by Christmas. 

3. The Ugly: The pricey acquisitions of Bolland, Willie Mitchell, and Jussi Jokinen will once again remind the league that no team, rich or poor, can simply buy a playoff contender in July. For pioneering this failed model, the Leafs' ears will burn all season as people revile Dale Tallon's managerial decisions.

Montreal Canadiens:

1. The Good: After rebounding from his latest knee injury, Carey Price will handily backstop the Habs to one of the division top-three postseason seeds. While Price vies for the Vezina, P.K. Subban will be a strong contender for the Norris Trophy.

2. The Bad: The quest to fill the team's vacant captaincy will devolve into a fiasco. As usual among Original Six fanbases, Habs supporters will become bitterly divided regarding who should wear the "C." Whoever doesn't gets the honoured letter will have to answer questions about "being snubbed" all season long.

3. The Ugly: The MSM's attempts to fuel the captaincy controversy will become increasingly absurd. From tricking players into deriding the new captain's leadership, to inventing rumours of discord in the locker-room, media outlets will do all that they can to make this personnel selection become a juicy story. Meanwhile, players will point to the team's logo and insist that "they all wear the 'C'" (daaaaw!).

Ottawa Sentaors
1. The Good: The Sens won't be incinerated by a meteorite? I'm not sure what can really go right for a team that seems to be caught in a "debuild" as so many star players have treated the organization as an "in-between phase" in their careers. 

2. The Bad: Bobby Ryan will not re-sign during the season, forcing Bryan Murray to look baffled and disappointed when forced once again to trade an elite player for a pittance. . 

3. The Ugly: Whoever fills the vacant captaincy will not stay with the team for more than three seasons (including next year). Ottawa's "C" will be referred to as the "kiss of death" among the team's detractors. The phenomenon of newly-minted captain bailing will be called the "Curse of Alfredsson," a belief that the mistreatment of Alfie has poisoned all relations between management and team leaders.

Tampa Bay Lightning:

1. The Good: This team looks mighty strong on paper, and they're only going to get better in the coming years. They won't reclaim the Cup this season, but--so long as Steven Stamkos resists the siren-like call to Toronto--the team will be contenders in the near future.

2. The Bad: The one dark cloud in the team's longterm forecast is the contract and cap hit of Ryan "He makes how much?" Callahan. I predict that Callahan will have a David-Clarksonesque rough patch to begin his first full season as a bolt. Disappointing numbers, absences from the lineup and box score, and behavioural issues will make Callahan an object of ire.

3. The Ugly: he worst thing to happen to the Bolts has already occurred: they now have the worst arena name in the league. Yesterday, news broke that the Tampa Bay Times Forum was no more. While the renovated rink remains much the same, the name has changed for the worse. The Lightning will now play in Amelie Arena. My sources indicate that the team was hoping to strike a naming deal with Strawberry Shortcake, but owners of the berry-scented heroine balked at the price tag.

Toronto Maple Leafs:

1. The Good/The Bad: The Leafs will struggle early on, and Randy Carlyle will be fired as executives try to salvage the season. Given the restructuring of the organization's management over the summer, it seems unlikely that Carlyle could succeed as he will be undermined on all fronts by unfamiliar coaches and assistant GMs. And perhaps that was the pont behind retaining Carlyle: let him take the heat while presumptive-heir-to-the-bench Steve Spott acclimates himself to the NHL.

For some, canning Carlyle will be the feel-good firing of the decade. Others will lament not the loss of the coach himself but the truculent style of play that he represents.
2. The Ugly: The real ugliness will take place on social media, where statistics will form a fault line through the heart of Leafs Nation. Some advanced Stats aficionados will treat every win as a personal victory for their way of assessing the game, and they'll treat every loss as an easily-chartable improbability that in no way suggests that we should reassess their metrics.Meanwhile the anti-stats zealots will use every setback as proof that the game is won with grit rather than algebra. The excesses of both camps will make moderates renounce calculators and all synonyms for "pugnacious" in disgust.