Friday, June 27, 2008

Rangers Off-Season Primer

While other NHL teams have been busy making (admittedly nominal) trades, waiving/buying out players and locking up their valued RFAs into long term deals, the Rangers have been inactive in dishing out new deals for the upcoming season. GM Glen Sather may be waiting to see what he can buy at the supermarket on July 1st before committing to his veterans. But like any true blue Rangers fan, I have my own ideas on where the Rangers stand this summer:


Sean Avery. The big stat is the Rangers record with (50-20-10) and without (9-13-3) him in the line-up. But no matter how much Avery's agent Pat Morris flogs that fact to Sather and anyone else who will listen, we all know that only three lockerrooms are big enough for Avery's ego - New York, Los Angeles and Toronto - and Slats knows it too. With Marc Crawford out in LA and Darcy Tucker being bought out of his contract in Toronto, those are real possibilities.

If Avery could keep the crap that comes out of his mouth on the ice, he'd be worth every penny of the $4M he's asking for. But, alas, that never will be. Avery's self-imposed media gag late last season proved that he can cease being a distraction for small stretches, but will he show the same discipline without Brendan Shanahan in the dressing room, should Shanny find himself facing retirement?

The Rangers have a ton of thinkers on their roster, but not a lot of raw emotion. I'm in the camp to resign Avery, if for no other reason than if he's not playing in New York I'd hate his guts. Although, I grudgingly admit I did find his turn in Men's Vogue amusing).

Jaromir Jagr. The dilemma is not if Jagr should return to the Rangers for another year (at a salary closer to his price with the Caps' discount), but whether he should continue to be captain. The Stars managed to strip Mike Modano of his "C" while still allowing the former all-star to keep his dignity. It's no secret Jags is a bit "special" with a reputation for requiring kid glove treatment. But let's not forget he took a drubbing last year for his relative lack of scoring and didn't do the disappearing act he did in Washington. In fact, he was even witnessed back checking on occasion.

The Rangers didn't sign Chris Drury to not wear a letter on his chest. He's expected to be a leader on this team, and he's a more productive player when he bears that responsibility. Just ask Flames fans how effective Drury is when he's put in a purely scoring role. His numbers in Calgary were mighty close to his stats last year (read: underachieving). If Jagr can take a page from Modano's book and pass the captaincy to the Rangers' next wave, then resign him.

Brendan Shanahan. I know he played through injury for much of last season, but he's lost a step between 06/07 and 07/08. I don't see the trend reversing in 08/09. If the Rangers were a three line team, I'd advocate resigning Shanahan for his leadership and effectiveness on the PP and PK. But coach Tom Renney likes to roll four lines and that leaves Shanny with too much even strength time.

Shanahan has had an incredible career but it should end this summer. Don't feel too sorry for him, though. The Hockey Hall of Fame will be waiting.

Martin Straka. First, I love Marty Straka. Looove him. He's my absolute favorite Ranger, and if anyone in the front office is reading this, please send me anything autographed by the man.

Straka had a disappointing season last year, but injury and line shuffling kept him away from playmate Jagr for much of the season reducing his effectiveness. If Jags stays, I make no bones about the fact I'd like to see Straka remain on Broadway too. The point may be moot, however, if there's any truth him playing out his career in the Czech league (which his agent denies).

Straka's a smart, underrated player. He does all the little things on the ice that go unrewarded, never takes a night off, and is respected by his teammates. How do you not want that on your team? Did I ever tell you you're my hero? You're the wind beneath my wings.

Marik Malik. There's no need to rehash his fall from grace. I don't think Malik has gotten gotten a fair shake from Blueshirt fans, but his time on Broadway is done. Thanks for the goal.

Paul Mara. He turned his +/- around in New York - as in he actually finished positive for the first time in his career, albeit a +1. Good thing because he was brought in to boost the Rangers power play, which struggled mightily most of the year. There are cheaper versions of Mara on the market, who earned $3M last year.

Michal Rozsival. While it's true, the Rangers probably would not have brought Rozsival to New York if not for wanting to surround Jagr with Czechs. He has nonetheless been an incredibly steady defenseman for the Rangers. Rozsival is effective at retrieving the puck in the corners and evading forecheckers. While not physically intimidating, he can do the job in front of the net. On the other end, he's even shooting the puck now and then.

Even if Sather wins the Bruce Campbell sweepstakes, there's room for Rozy, particularly on a team which lacks depth on the back end. Off-season surgery should keep other teams from inflating Rozsival's worth, keeping him from looking to hard elsewhere come July 1.

Jason Strudwick. "The mustache" is the perfect utility player. He'll sign for the league minimum, is a popular player in the locker room, can play forward or defense, and has no problems watching the game from the press box. So long as he's not a liability during the limited ice time he sees, it's better to have Strudwick as a healthy scratch than prospects Corey Potter or Bobby Sanguinetti.

Stephen Valiquette. He did a competent job last season as the Kevin Weekes to Henrik Lundqvuist's Martin Brodeur (which was ironically Weekes' actual job the previous season). Like Strudwick, Valiquette understands his role on the team - namely watching the game more than playing it. But what if King Henrik is lost for any significant amount of time to injury? Will Valiquette be able to step up? With the Montoya trade, it's not like there's any help waiting in Hartford.

The Rangers are going to have to address their lack of depth in net this summer, either by trade or free agency. There's a couple ways to go. Sign an aging vet who's willing to take a limited back-up role to stay in the game (say, Olaf Kolzig), or resign Valiquette and acquire a vanquished goalie willing to play in the AHL with hopes of being next year's Ty Conklin (say, Andrew Raycroft).

Andrew Hutchinson. Why did we trade for him again? Hutchinson was the third leading scorer in Hartford, but never got the call-up. (He would have had to clear re-entry waivers.) It's doubtful he'd stick with the big club next season, so there's no pressing need to bring him back.

Darius Kasparitius. He's served his sentence and is now free to retire to Russia permanently. Good luck, Kasper. I'll miss those hip checks.

Also UFA: Mitch Fritz, David Leneveu


Nigel Dawes. If it weren't for his size, Sather would be scrambling to get Dawes resigned before July 1st. But listed at a very generous 5'9", he's not an offer sheet target. Once Dawes adds a few pounds of muscle, he'll be rewarded with more ice time, particularly on the power play, which will be in desperate need of a sniper once Shanahan is gone. Heck, it needs one now.

Fredrick Sjostrom. Patience is beginning to wear thin with Ryan Hollweg, who found himself a healthy scratch towards the end of the season. Both he and Sjostrom play similar roles - physical forechecking - but there's more upside with Sjostrom who adds an offensive threat with his speed. Hollweg's a harder hitter, but his borderline shots have him on the refs' and the league's radars. Given the choice between the two, I'll take Sjostrom.

Ivan Baranka. He's off to Russia, with no "out" clause. Baranka wasn't very happy playing in Hartford, but the Rangers will retain his rights. Hopefully, he'll return NHL ready.

Hugh Jessiman. Is there any hope for the former first rounder who has spent a good chunk of his pro career in Charlotte? Jessiman turned his game around last year but still isn't ready for the show. Sather would need to qualify him at almost $1MM. And if the rumors about Blake Wheeler are true, the Rangers hardly need two high profile underachievers in Hartford.

Also RFA: Bruce Graham, Chris Holt, Josh Gratton, Rick Kozak, David Liffiton, Greg Moore, P.A. Parenteau (resigned), Matt Zaba (resigned)


Christian Backman. Shaky defense and a $3.4 salary is not a good combination. Despite the impending deadline for buy outs, Sather hasn't added Backman to the waiver wire (the first step in buying a player out). But then again, the Rangers can afford to let people rot in the minors rather than take the cap hit from a buy out (case study: Darius Kasparaitis). Backman and Thomas Pock can spend next season commiserating.

Ryan Hollweg. His game is playing on the edge, but after three seasons he still hasn't learned to stop when facing a player’s numbers. Good thing the Rangers were sixth in the league on the PK last season. As I said before, I'd take Sjostrom over Hollweg, particularly if Sather manages to resign Avery, who will fill the agitator role. Sjostrom will hardly get under the other players' skin the way Hollweg can.

Ryan Callahan. He earned a roster spot based on his play as a call-up in 07/08, but wasn’t able to hold onto it. After being demoted last season, Callahan rediscovered his game in Hartford and was more consistent upon his return to MSG, but his play was still below expectations. The prospect pipe is pretty full for the Rangers, which makes Callahan expendable.

Thomas Pock. He wasn't really happy with his lack of playing time and was vanquished to Hartford as a result. That's usually the first stamp on your ticket out of town. If Sather can't move him this summer, I wouldn't be surprised if Pock asked to play in Europe (with the Euro club picking up his salary) rather than spend another year with the Wolfpack.

Petr Prucha. It's becoming increasingly clear that there's not a top 4 wing spot on the roster for Prucha. But even with his production declining, he still remains a fan favorite. Prucha flings himself around the ice like a ping pong ball, which often results in some fabulously entertaining train wrecks. And like those punching bag clowns, he just pops back up. Sooner or later, Prucha's not going to be so lucky. The Rangers are better off moving him now before he's broken for good.


Artem Anisimov. The Rangers are pretty set down the middle. I don't think there's any interest in moving him to wing, so if he makes the big club, that either pushes Drury out of the center spot or puts Blair Betts on waivers. Betts has a lot of value in the face-off circle and on the penalty kill, so unless Anisimov is ready to make a big impact in the NHL, he's likely in for another year of seasoning in Hartford.

Michael Del Zotto. It's rare that a defenseman makes the jump to the NHL at 18. The Rangers’ latest first round pick is no exception.

Alexei Cherepanov. He had a decent but not stellar year for Omsk in the Russian league. Cherepanov has yet to play the North American game. The Rangers will want him to play at least a year in Hartford to learn the defensive aspects before making the jump to the NHL. Unfortunately, Cherepanov still has a year left on his contract with Omsk, so it may be awhile before we see him in Rangers blue.

Lauri Korpikoski. He had a strong year in Hartford and a goal in his only appearence on Broadway. If he can back that up with a strong camp, Korpikoski can force his way onto the roster, likely at the expense of Callahan.

Bobby Sanguinetti. He spent most of last year in the OHL. I consider Sanguinetti a lesser prospect at the same age than Marc Staal, who made the jump from junior after his 19 year. However, the Rangers aren't incredibly deep on the back end, so Sanguinetti could be promoted out of necessity. But if the Rangers are true to their intent of developing players, he's best left to at least start the season with the Wolfpack.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Getting reading for next year

The NHL Awards aren't just the (anti)climax of the hockey season. It's the beginning of your team's run for the Cup, as GMs position themselves for 08-09 and beyond, beginning with the NHL Draft.

Here's some thoughts and the first few days of the off-season:
  • The transfer agreement between the NHL and IIHF has expired. NHL teams now must negotiate directly with European clubs to bring players to North America. While Russia has been successful in luring third and fourth line wingers with million dollar contracts, you don't hear about many NHLers bolting to the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Sweden, Slovakia or Switzerland (the six major European members of the IIHF) for richer pastures.
  • The Russian Super League, er, Continental Hockey League (KHL) on the other hand is continues to try to lure star players back to Russia. The Toronto Star recently reported that the KHL wants to offer Evgeni Malkin $12.5 million dollars a year to return home. Equally amusing, the renamed leagued has employed Bob Goodenow as a consultant.
  • For the second straight year, there was a conspicuous absence of European players chosen at the NHL Draft, only 39 of 211 picks. Compare that to 2000 when 123 of 293 players were from across the pond, the most of any single draft class.
  • John Tortella's firing in Tampa has apparently cleared the way for Vinny Prospal to return to the Lightning. Interesting, as after he was dealt to the Flyers, Prospal had some parting words for GM Jay Feaster as well. Water under the bridge, I guess.
  • Speaking of the Lightning, while I wasn't impressed by new owner Oren Koules' turn at the podium to select Steven Stamkos with the first overall pick, he's shed my Hollywood-cum-NHL skepticism with the Lightning's seventh round pick, David Carle (brother of Sharks D Matt Carle). Carle withdrew his name from the draft after being diagnosed with a heart condition. Said Koules, "The kid worked his whole life to be drafted. I didn't see any reason why he shouldn't." OK, maybe I'm still a little skeptical.
  • Ray Emery and Dan Cloutier were placed on waivers, the first step in being bought out of their contracts. I'd rather seem Emery rot in the minors, but I'm sure the Senators would rather wash their hands of him as soon as possible.


Friday, June 13, 2008

Pens elect arbitration for Fleury

The Pittsburgh Penguins have elected to take goaltender (and impending RFA) Marc-Andre Fleury to salary arbitration. It's not that Fleury isn't worth the $1+ million qualifying offer he would otherwise be owed. GM Ray Shero is sending a clear message: "Kevin Lowe, you won't be shopping for a no. 1 netminder here."

Owners fought hard for club-elected salary arbitration in the new (is it still new?) CBA. Nothing's worse than having to decide whether to commit to overpaying a RFA another year or let the player walk and get nothing in return. Bryan Murray faced that question twice when he was GM in Anaheim. If only he could have taken Paul Kariya to arbitration.

Club-elected salary arbitration has another added benefit. The player cannot be tendered an offer sheet by another team. That buys some more time after the July 1st free agency deadline to negotiate without fear another GM will poach your guy - or at least drive his price up. Worse case, it goes to arbitration, some not so nice things are said, and the player's under contract for at least another year.

But beware, taking a player to arbitration now may screw you later. A player can only be subject to club-elected arbitration once in his career. If Shero doesn't come to terms with Fleury on a contract which extends to UFA eligibility, he can't pull this trick again next time...and Fleury knows it (or at least his agent does).

Also, a club can only exercise their right to arbitration twice per year. Shero's other RFAs this summer (Tim Brent, Jonathan Filewich, Ryan Stone) are hardly being drooled over by the league's other GMs. Next year, however, Pittsburgh has Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Maxime Talbot and Tyler Kennedy scheduled to become RFAs. Shero will need to spend most of next season negotiating contract extensions, as he did with franchise player Sidney Crosby this last year, to keep his stable of young talent in the fold.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

NHL Awards night: the envelope please...

The NHL Awards is generally one of the most boring awards show of the year. The athletes are stiff as rink boards, and Ron McLean is no Billy Crystal when it comes to opening monologues. But this year's event was a celebration of youth hockey as well as the professionals vying for league hardware.

The sport's willingness to celebrate its future as well as its past and present is one of the reason's I fell in love with hockey. So props to the show producers for meeting Canadian content laws by giving a gaggle of young hockey players the stage instead of some Juno-nominated house band.

And the winners are...

Hart Memorial Trophy
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

Vezina Trophy
Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils

James Norris Memorial Trophy
Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings

Calder Memorial Trophy
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

Lady Byng Memorial Trophy
Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings

Frank J. Selke Trophy
Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings

Lester B. Pearson Award
Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

King Clancy Memorial Trophy
Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay Lightning

Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy
Jason Blake, Toronto Maple Leafs

Jack Adams Award
Bruce Boudreau, Washington Capitals

Lifetime Achievement Award (inaugural)
Gordie Howe

Awards Based on Regular-Season Statistics

Art Ross Trophy
Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

Maurice Richard Trophy
Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

William M. Jennings Trophy
Chris Osgood & Dominik Hasek, Detroit Red Wings


Thursday, June 05, 2008

Wings win the Stanley Cup

The Detroit Red Wings won the 2008 Stanley Cup. Henrik Zetterberg took home the Conn Smythe Trophy, and Niklas Lidstrom is the first European to have his name etched on the Cup as team captain. Some thoughts:
  • There's an argument that the Conn Smythe should have gone to Sidney Crosby, who led the playoffs in scoring. You have to show up in the finals, though, to get the votes and Detroit effectively shut him down. The Penguins' best player was Marc-Andre Fleury, who kept his team in it despite being outshot in 17 of 20 full periods of hockey played.
  • Speaking of Fleury, the Cup winning goal, which he pushed into the net with his butt, was the second wonky GWG the young netminder has given up in a championship game. You may recall when Fleury shot the puck off Braydon Coburn and back into the net at the 2004 World Junior Championship, giving Team USA the gold.
  • Scary how close Pittsburgh came to tying it up in the dying seconds. The Red Wings completely dominated the Penguins for the majority of the series. They were embarrassingly out shot. They couldn't stop Detroit from carrying it over the blue line. And their top guns couldn't generate much against the Wings' scoring line (which admittedly features two Selke nominees). Yet it almost all came down to a deciding game 7.
  • Despite talk that paints the Penguins as the second coming of the 1980's Oilers, Pittsburgh will not become a dynasty. They'll never be able to keep that team together under the salary cap. The new CBA has redefined the definition of a dynasty. It's no longer a core group of players that string together a number of Cup victories. The new dynasty is a team which drafts and develops talent well, fills its roster with character players that fit the team's philosophy, perennially earns a playoff berth, and wins the Cup every few years. Sound familiar? Yep, the Red Wings are the closest thing the NHL will see to a dynasty for a long time.
  • The novelty of the man-between-the-benches TV coverage has worn off. There's only so many ice condition report you can take. And I'm pretty sure Michel Thierren appreciated Pierre Maguire's coaching tips. Maybe Maguire is bucking to make a return to behind the bench like fellow TV analyst Barry Melrose? I was secretly hoping he'd take a deflected puck off the kisser so we wouldn't be subjected to his know-it-all commentary anymore.
And so another hockey season ends.

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Monday, June 02, 2008

Kapanen returns to Finland

Underrated Flyers forward Sami Kapanen has elected to finish his career in Finland, signing a contract with KalPa Kuopio. While Kapanen put up solid but rarely all-star numbers in the NHL, it was the small plays he made all over the ice that made him valuable to every team he played for.

Kapanen reminds me of Rangers forward Marty Straka, a smart player who you can throw in at any position. In fact, Kapanen even did a turn as a defenseman in Philadelphia. Unlike Straka, Kapanen never had a Jaromir Jagr to ride shotgun to late in his career. He was mainly a used as a defensive forward by the Flyers.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Conn Smythe Question

The Stanley Cup playoffs continues towards their inevitable end, with the Red Wing poised to win the trophy if they can put down the Penguins tomorrow night at Joe Louis Arena. While the Cup may be a foregone conclusion, the Conn Smythe Trophy isn't as clear cut. Who will be this year's playoffs MVP?

Chris Osgood? Ozzie is arguably playing the best hockey of his career. Shutting out the Pens in the first two games was impressive, but so was the defense effort of his teammates. The last goalie to start the finals with two SOs? Martin Brodeur, 2003. Who won the Conn Smythe that year? Jean-Sébastien Giguere, whose Ducks lost the series to New Jersey.

Henrik Zetterberg? Much has been written about his his work down two men in the third period of game 4. That penalty kill could very well be the defining moment of the 2008 finals and the next to last nail in Pittsburgh's coffin. But does one shift a Conn Smythe make? Granted he is also the Wings' leading scorer going into game 5.

Johan Franzen? Speaking of leading scorers, what if Franzen hadn't missed six games with a concussion? Unfortunately there's not a lot of sympathy for injury when it comes to league hardware. Just ask Sid the Kid.

Niklas Lidstrom? Being the first European captain to win the Cup won't likely affect the voting, but Lidstrom is often the best player on the ice. He's so good you barely notice him out there, despite quietly leading defensemen playoff scoring (along with teammate Niklas Kronwall) and logging 25+ minutes of ice time a night. The Conn Smythe is just about the only award this Future Hall of Famer hasn't won.

Sidney Crosby? Like him or not, he does lead playoff scoring. And as he won't be a nominee at the NHL Awards Show this year, Gary Bettman has to be secretly hoping Crosby doesn't go home empty handed.

Jaromir Jagr? I still hold out hope that Larry Brooks and friends can trip the last renewal clause in Jagr's contract. Hey, he still leads playoff scoring in points per game. C'mon, throw Rangers fans a bone here.

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