Monday, July 18, 2011

Habs Summer Thus Far…


I’m not going to mince words here: The fact that GM Pierre Gauthier acquired Eric Cole, a fast-skating, big-bodied forward, pretty much makes this offseason a success.  Anything Gauthier does from this point forward is figurative icing on the cake, because let’s face it: Cole was practically everything the Habs needed.

Cole, a 6’2 205 lbs power forward, is getting up there in age, 32, but after last year’s successful season (26-26-52-pts-82 games), doesn’t seem to be slowing down much.  The Habs signed him to a 4-year contract that will take him to age 36, but it’s worth it when you factor in the intangibles he brings to the table.  Though he may not be as physical a presence as he once was, Cole is not a player that is easily pushed around, a quality that the Habs clearly had the need for.  

The team can defend the notion that they are not a small team all they want (their overall weight and height averages are on par with the rest of the league) but what’s important is the size of their top 6. Players like Gionta, Cammalieri, Plekanec and Gomez require strong, physical linemates to create space for them.  Unfortunately, just being big is not quite good enough, as we saw with last year’s Travis Moen project. 

When Moen lined up on numerous occasions with either the Plekanec or Gomez line, it quickly became clear that it’s hard to create space for your linemates if the defence doesn’t care that you’re on the ice.  Moen’s inability to put the puck in the net (along with fellow Martin pet projects such as Tom Pyatt, Maxime Lapierre, Lars Eller and Benoit Pouliot) made it very hard for our small talented forwards to distinguish themselves offensively.

The addition of Cole, a proven 25-30 goal scorer, thus makes the team exponentially better.  For not only did Gauthier acquire a top 6 forward, he acquired a top 6 forward that will make every player in the top 6 more dangerous, something I’d argue would not have been the case if they had signed Ville Leino instead, a potentially more skilled player, but not nearly as big and physical as Cole.

Budaj, Willsie, Blunden, and Trotter

Compared to Cole, these signings were not exactly what you would call exciting. Peter Budaj is a bit of a weird one, simply because I don’t think he’s that great. That said, maybe (hopefully) the Habs did their homework on this one and discovered that he plays better in a back-up role than as a starter. Budaj has played as a clear backup only once in his career, in the 09-10 season behind Craig Anderson, and his numbers in 15 games were decent (5-5-2, 2.64, .917).  

It’s hard to really judge his performance last year since the entire Avalanche team mailed it in, in the last few months.  I’ll hesitantly say that this is, for now, a decent signing.  I think Budaj is an upgrade on Auld from last year, but unlike Auld, who’s been a backup for many years, Budaj will have to prove that he’s capable of withstanding the mental rigors of sometimes going 10-15 games between starts. 

I think he’ll be fine, but just would have assumed that Gauthier would acquire a goalie more akin to being a backup, someone like Johan Hedberg, for instance.

Willsie, Blunden, and Trotter are basically depth/AHL moves.  Willsie and Trotter were brought in to replace the offence lost with Dustin Boyd and Nigel Dawes leaving for the KHL.  Blunden will probably start the year in the AHL as well, but may also have very real chances of playing many games with the big club. 

Blunden is a big boy (6’3 207), and could be useful on the 4th line to add some physicality and grit.  He also appears to have more potential scoring punch than say Tom Pyatt and Ryan White, who just yesterday signed a one-year, one-way deal with the club. 

Though most of the team is pretty much set in stone, there will be some solid competition in training camp for the 6-7 D-man spot, along with bottom-6 duties. 

On offense, look for Ryan White, David Desharnais, Mike Blunden, Matthieu Darche, Travis Moen, Lars Eller and most probably another soon-to-be signed forward (big winger or center) to fight it out for potential ice-time.  

You could even throw Andrei Kostitsyn and Max Pacioretty into that mix, seeing as though there are no guarantees that either will be in the top 6 (Though you’d assume Pacioretty has the inside track on that spot). 

On defense it will be particularly dicey for the bottom spots in the rotation.  Yannick Weber seemed to improve leaps and bounds last year, but he’ll be fighting for ice with newly signed draft pick Alexei Yemelin (who goes back to the KHL if he doesn’t stick) and veteran Yaroslav Spacek, who, though clearly on the down-slope of his career, will probably not be riding the pine with a veteran’s coach like Jacques Martin at the helm.

Even with this potential logjam shaking up, don’t be surprised to see Gauthier go out and acquire another d-man just to be on the safe side, something along the lines of an Alexandre Picard (low-cost, low reward type).

I’ll do another Habs post the second we get another key player (yes, we could be waiting a while…).

Peace out

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Or maybe more precisely in this case, theft!  Because what else could you call the highway robbery that took place on July 1st, when The Washington Capitals traded goalie Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche for a first rounder in 2012 and either a 2012 or 2013 second rounder.  On the surface it seems like a somewhat fair deal.

Varlamov is after all an-ex 1st rounder himself, going 23rd overall in 2006, and has been nothing if not consistently good thus far in his career, with a record of 30-13-12, a G.A.A of 2.39 and SV% of .917.  No the problem here is not that I think Varlamov isn't a promising young talent.  The problem is that Colorado traded a 1st rounder to get him, a 1st round pick that should translate into at least a top 10 pick next year.  Because let's face facts: Colorado hasn't gotten a whole lot better so far this off-season, and this coming off a year where they had the second-worst record in the entire NHL.

Colorado will argue that Varlamov will put them in the winning column on a more consistent basis.  To that i say: is he at this point in his career much better than last year's Avalanche starter, Craig Anderson? Anderson you'll remember is only a year removed from posting a career year, playing 71 games and recording 38 wins.

They obviously see something in Varlamov, something worth giving up a potential lottery pick for.  I don't see it, and few hockey minds out there do either.  But what makes this trade so absurd is that the most coveted goalie on the free agent market, Tomas Vokoun, was available before this trade went down.  Sure Vokoun is getting old (he just turned 35), but he's shown no sign of slowing down, his G.A.A. and SV% not wavering from 2.5 and .920 over the last 5 years (and that on a piss-poor team).  And the Avalanche could have gotten him without giving away anything!

When Free Agency began, Colorado were among maybe 2-3 teams max in the league that needed a goalie.  With a ton of money at their disposal (and a need to get to the cap floor) Vokoun and Colorado seemed like an obvious match.  But, no.  That would have apparently been too easy for their brain dead GM.  Instead they went out of their way to trade for a goalie who still hasn't come close to playing a full NHL season, and traded away what should be huge picks next year.  Adding injury to insult, Washington turned around and signed Vokoun to a one year deal for, get this, 1.5 million$!!!  Literal chump change considering his pedigree and numbers over the years.

This could literally turn out to be one of the worst deals since Brian Burke signed Phil Kessel to an offer sheet, sacrificing two first rounders in the process.  Colorado is nowhere near good enough to be anything better than a middling team next year at best, and at worst a basement dweller.  Washington will be licking their chops all year long, salivating at the thought of drafting maybe 3rd, 2nd, or even...  yes its very possible the Avs will finish dead last...

So who won this trade? WASHINGTON.  It's not even close...

Another key trade that went down was between the Nashville Predators and the Toronto Maple Leafs, and again, I'm a little blown away by what went down.  On the surface the trade looks bad, and when you dig a little deeper, it still looks like a steal.  Here's the tale of the tape: Nashville sent Matthew Lombardi and Cody Franson to the Leafs for Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney and a conditional draft choice.  It looks bad at first glance.  Clearly Nashville gave up the two best players in the deal.  So why did they do it?

Lombardi is coming off a year where he basically didn't play due to post-concussion syndrome, and his career going forward is in doubt.  Nashville desperately wanted to get out from under a contract where they would have to pay him 7 million over the next 2 years, and in order to have someone take on this contract, they had to add Franson to the deal to sweeten the pot.  This actually makes perfect sense.  What makes no sense, to me anyway, is that Nashville were unable to get anything back besides a journeyman defenseman and a minor league player.

What happened here was one team (the Leafs) taking advantage of a desperate team (the Preds).  Nashville, a small market team, needed to free up money to sign RFA superstar D-man Shea Weber this year, and make sure there was still money left over to re-sign Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne next year.  Toronto was more than willing to take on the extra salary, seeing Franson as a potential stalwart on D for years to come.

Sadly, this is one of those trades you don't want to see happen as a hockey fan, a trade that is made possible due to the relative poorness and richness of two teams. Nashville basically had to sacrifice one of their good young players because they felt that they couldn't afford not to.  Toronto clearly wins the trade, and you can't really blame them from figuratively stealing candy from a baby.  They too, are in desperation mode.  Not financially speaking, but the pressure to get better in Toronto is palpable, felt only as much in maybe a handful of sports markets today. In the end, it's just too bad that this all happened to Nashville.

Despite their small market status, Nashville almost always fields a winning team, and just came off a very successful season where they not only made it to the playoffs, but took Stanley Cup finalist Vancouver to 6 games in the second round.  Just goes to show that no matter how good you draft and manage a team, attendance numbers and TV revenues are even more important.  All this begs the question: why the heck is their even a hockey team in Nashville?  Gary Bettman says hi...

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Free Agency 2011: Trades and Signings

Free agency is a real shit show.  Everyday there's a new signing or trade, so there is no good day to really start analyzing what is transpiring.  So what I'll do is everyone once in awhile update you on the happenings around the league.  I thought today would be as good a day as any, seeing as though a rather colossal trade went down last night: Dany Heatley of the Sharks for Martin Havlat of Wild.

Instant analysis: Both guys have their issues, which is no surprise when big name players are traded.  Heatley is allergic to big games, aka The Playoffs.  Why does a two-time 50 goal scorer always seem to disappear in the playoffs? After watching Heatley pot a measly 5 goals in 32 games, Sharks GM Doug Murray was clearly tired of trying to figure it out.

Havlat's problems are different. Playoff scoring? Well for starters, you have to participate in the playoffs to have a problem like that.  Havlat has only made it to the big dance once in the last 5 years.  The last time he did play though, in 08-09 with the Blackhawks, he performed well enough, recording 15 points in 16 games.  Where Havlat errs is in his effort level from game to game. Known league wide for being a dominant one-on-one player, you'd think his stats would reflect his talent-level, but it rarely does.  It's not that he's not productive: his .84 ppg is nothing to scoff at.  He's just always a player that has left you wanting more, which is probably why he'll be on a 3rd team in 6 years.

So who wins the trade? I'd say both teams win.  Heatley has shown me that he plays well when there's little to no pressure,  and Minnesota, though packed each and every night, is far less a pressure cooker than San Jose, where finishing amongst the leaders in the regular season is clearly not good enough for their fans.  Minnesota is dying to just play a playoff series, and getting a proven top end scorer is a smart move by the Wild.

As far as San Jose is concerned, I think getting rid of Heatley and his big contract is a good start, as they will save 2.5M a year with this deal.  With the addition of Havlat, they got an asset they needed, speed, and lost an asset they maybe had enough of, goal scoring.  Havlat is a better match with speedier centers like Couture or Pavelski, who Heatley had a hard time clicking with.  In a sense, Heatley's fate was sealed when he failed to fit with Thornton, the ideal, east/west and cerebral center for Heatley.  

For GM Doug Wilson, this trade is probably secondary to the one he made a week earlier with the same Wild.  Wilson sent Devin Setoguchi, 2010 1st rounder Charlie Coyle and a 2011 1st rounder for defenseman Brent Burns.  Though it may appear to be a large bounty to pay, Burns was truly the missing piece in San Jose's playoff run last year, a big bruising d-man who's also an offensive threat.

This is the kind of trade I've been expecting for a long time from the Sharks, a team that has always had a Stanley Cup contending offense, but never the proper balance defensively.  Brent Burns is basically a younger version of Rob Blake, and there's no reason not to believe that Burns' presence will pay dividends in the playoffs this coming year.

Will getting Burns and Havlat be enough to put them over the top?  Hard to say.  I'm still not crazy about Niemi in nets, despite his inspired play last year, and Joe Thornton still doesn't scream "leader" to me.  Definitely like the moves the Sharks made, but not calling them the champs just yet.

Tomorrow i'll talk about another big trade, this time between the Avs and Caps.  Don't worry, this time i'll have a clear winner and loser for y'all...