Thursday, January 10, 2008

NHL 2007-08 Mid-season Review

2008 is the year of the rat in the Chinese zodiac calendar.

Rats are tough, resilient creatures and often fearless when faced down by much larger animals. They're also despised filth that live in sewers and eat shit.

So the godfathers of the world's different species of vermin possess some of the qualities important for athletes to be successful. But they aren't amongst the more glamorous and prestigious beasts nor are they likely candidates for professional sports team names.

Still, there are examples of such teams in minor and recreational hockey leagues, though some kind of compound noun is usually used to soften the image.

The Albany River Rats play in the American Hockey League (AHL) and are currently affiliated with the Carolina Hurricanes in the NHL.

As 2008 begins, perhaps a sign, however far removed, that the Canes could have a better and more consistent final half of the season.

Though many players have exemplified rat-like qualities over the years, one NHLer became synonymous with the label. Kenny "the rat" Linseman played in the NHL for 13 seasons and established himself as a world class agitator. He riled teams, tormented opposing players and on occasion would throw down the gloves. Though he would just as soon let those he badgered take a penalty for retaliation.

According to legend, he was actually given the nickname because of the way he skated leaning forward with his snout in the air as opposed to the tendencies he supposedly shared with rats.

No doubt there will be more than few incidents in the second half of the 2007-08 season that will see other players compared to the nasy little rodent.

And with most NHL teams having passed the half-way mark in the season, it's time to look at what's in store for the remainder of the campaign.
Eastern Conference

The Ottawa Senators have stumbled a few times in the first half but still maintain their relative dominance in the weaker of the NHL's two conferences. At times, goal-tending has been one suspect area for the Senators, with both Martin Gerber and Ray Emery each having played at least a few poor games.

Gerber is still the number one goalie while the Emery soap opera has become an unwanted distraction. The latest chapter in the tiresome yet eagerly lapped up melodrama involves Emery and his team-mate Brian McGrattan engaging in a scrap at practice.

A highly paid pro athlete who demonstrates this kind of continued behaviour has a limited shelf life. The cachet of having played in the finals last year together with the fact that Emery is still a pretty good netminder should be enough to allow GM Brian Murray the option of shopping him around at the deadline.

The New Jersey Devils got off to a disappointing start to the season but they have ridden Martin Brodeur's strong play and rattled off two months of consistent efforts to establish themselves as the current leaders in the Atlantic division.

The Carolina Hurricanes' 46 points (Edit: now at 48 points) would see them out of the playoff race if they were in the Western conference. But it gets them top spot in the league's weakest grouping in the Southwest division and the accompanying third place in the conference. One of the more exciting teams in the league, the Canes are only second behind the Detroit Red Wings in goals scored but have also surrendered more than 26 clubs in the league.

They also hold that uncommon distinction of having allowed more goals that they've scored while still holding onto a playoff spot.

The Toronto Maple Leafs began a road swing in California this week, with games against all three of the state's NHL clubs. Team President Richard Peddie is accompanying the team, with the tacit qualifier that he needs to be on hand if a trade request comes in for Mats Sundin (not sure how to break the logic of that one down--perhaps to lean on Sundin to waive his no trade clause or maybe because the Sharks and Ducks are two of the teams mentioned most often as being interested in a potential swap.)

With this news the public castration of GM John Ferguson Junior is almost complete. Ferguson could now walk away from the team without further humiliation and not many people would label him a quitter (as absurd as that seems.) While he has apparently been marginalized to a degree that he no longer has full control over the normal duties of an NHL general manager, it seems as though he will still have some say in any big moves made before the trade deadline.

A further example of the poor decision making wracking this organization. The likelihood that Ferguson will be around next season is almost nil yet he may have a say in pulling the trigger on moves that could affect the direction of the team for years to come.

The shortcomings of the Leafs were highlighted by the injury to Vesa Toskala and the team's record during that stretch was horrid. Many fans are now shamelessly pulling for Toronto to do poorly in the hopes that they will get a high draft pick and start the rebuilding process in the off-season.

That period in the teams' development can and should start early with a trade of Sundin before the deadline. As much as he means to the team and their fans, allowing Sundin to play out this season as a Leaf and become a free agent is too risky.

Of course there are obstacles to making such a trade. The biggest one being the availability of other teams with acceptable offers for the Swede. A skilled GM would be able to negotiate, entice and put together proposals to help pull off a deal that would benefit the team for years to come.

The nightmare scenario for Leafs fans is a move that sees the organization fleeced for their most prolific and enduring franchise player of all time.

For a team that many picked as winning their division and potentially going deep into the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins got off to a disappointing start. Their young stars have been steady performers, if unspectacular by their standards, but goaltending has been a question mark for them. Circumstances provided a chance for Ty Conklin and he has responded well, rattling off seven straight victories and helping the Pens to an 8-2 record in their past 10.

The Flyers underwent more changes than any other club in the offseason and their strong start seemed to indicate it was paying dividends. Although they have been hit with a slew of injuries and went through one difficult stretch, it appears as though they will remain in the thick of the top eight standings in the east.

Steve Downie may be emerging as a strong NHL forward sooner than anyone expected. Despite all the Downie haters out there (I've offered my share of criticism as well) he has the potential to be more than a 3rd or 4th line grinder. The irony is that for all the scorn people heap on him, if he were to take that advice and develop some self-discipline in terms of his on-ice conduct, he would be far more valuable to the team.

If the Flyers make a move to pick up a solid goaltender before the trade deadline, they could be a real threat to wreak some havoc come playoff time.

The Montreal Canadiens have already surpassed expectations for many. Though demoted for the time being, Carey Price has been a strong back-up to Cristoabl Huet and there is not much doubt that he has a long and promising future with the team.

The Washington Capitals, Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning are essentially out of the playoff race already. There is still a tight grouping in the conference and they are only, respectively, four, five and eight points out of contention. But to close that gap becomes more and more difficult as the season progresses. A four or five game losing streak for any of those teams and it is basically over.

I had almost written off the Capitals earlier in the season but of the three teams I see them as perhaps the only one able to make the Herculean effort required to squeak in. Bruce Boudreau appears to have grabbed the brass ring and connected with his players in a way that is pulling something extra from the depths of their battered souls at just the right time.

A memorable run and qualifying for the playoffs would make the Caps' eventual offer to Alexander Ovechkin seem a lot more attractive as well. It would hopefully (for their sake) convince him not to become a restricted free agent at the end of a season that had looked like a wash in the early going.

That would make for one hell of an interesting opening round against the Ottawa Senators (assuming the Sens don't bottle it somehow.) The Capitals have had Ottawa's number this year, winning all three of their match-ups so far (with one yet to come) by a combined score of 18-10.

They will of course have to put together a long and consistent string of games to catch up with the pack and then emerge ahead of other teams such as the Boston Bruins, New York Islanders, Buffao Sabres, New York Rangers, Atlanta Thrashers and Florida Panthers.

Early in the season the Buffalo Sabres had a hard time adjusting to the loss of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. They have started to get points from the likes of Jason Pominville, Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek and as a team are in the top ten in goals per game. But without that huge "goals for" advantage they had last season, they haven't quite found a way to pull out as many of those games decided by fewer goals that are much more common for them this year.

After six straight wins starting in mid-December, the Sabres are currently in the midst of a nasty seven game winless streak (though they have three shootout loss points in that stretch.)
Western Conference

The Detroit Red Wings have run away with the conference and barring some late season disaster will coast into the playoffs as the league's best team and Cup favourite.

Since the Dallas Stars fired general manager Doug Armstrong and hired Les Jackson and Brett Hull to replace him back on November 13th, they have been one of the best teams in the league. With the exception of a four game losing streak they came out of this week, they hadn't lost more than two in a row after the switch and have a record of 18-9-1 in that span.

Whether or not the firing and hiring has had any real effect is hard to measure. If it has been felt, then no doubt the benefits are psychological, as the new duo have not made any significant trades (on December 10th defenseman Jussi Timonen was picked up from Philadelphia for a 2009 conditional draft pick) since taking over. The cap era limitations and the team's performance have made the need for changes less urgent though the two are likely eager to make their influence felt.

The Vancouver Canucks are rolling along under the superb puck stopping ability of Roberto Luongo. Anyone who followed the Canucks run in the playoffs last season and who has also witnessed the inconsistent performance of some of their top scorers this year (i.e. Markus Naslund) has got to think that Dave Nonis will pull off a trade before the deadline. A team just doesn't have that many years when they possess the potential to make a real run at the Stanley Cup.

In the first month or so of the schedule, the San Jose Sharks didn't look like the Stanley Cup favourites many had picked them as at the start of the season. Since that time they have been solid in front of the tireless and consistent play of netminder Evgeni Nabokov (41 straight starts this season and a 2.01 goals against average.) They too are mentioned as a team looking to make a move before February 26th (but then which club isn't with the proliferation of online rumour mongering?)

The Ducks have gotten their legs back and are once again one of the toughest teams to play against. The return of Scott Niedermayer, a healthy Todd Bertuzzi and talk of Teemu Selanne's comeback in the air are all reasons for the team and their fans to be optimistic. Another organization that shows up in trade rumours though Brian Burke is one general manager who is more likely than most to pull something off before the deadline.

The Calgary Flames are finally living up to some of their potential. Jarome Iginla has been on a blistering pace and depending where the Flames finish out this season, many are already mentioning him as a candidate for the Hart Trophy. Apparently Miikka Kiprusoff has shed his off-season flab, hasn't been sighted puffing cigarettes for some time and can concentrate on bringing down his goals against average and being one of the better goalies in the league now that he has sewn up a fat long-term contract.

The Minnesota Wild have apparently been sold mere moments ago with a press conference pending. Just the type of off-ice development that can spark a sense of excitement around a team. Perhaps it will prod the Wild out of the funk they have been in recently.

The Colorado Avalanche have been slumping lately with injuries to Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth while the Nashville Predators have been surging.

With their play in recent weeks , the St. Louis Blues in eighth place could make a move in the standings in the second half of the season. With at least one game in hand on teams above them in the standings and as many as five, they have the opportunity to climb within their conference.

Andy McDonald was a little slow in starting to contribute to the Blues' offense after being traded from the Anaheim Ducks but he notched three points in a game against the Blue Jackets the other night. For the Blues it could be a sign of good things to come.

The Phoenix Coyotes are the surprise of the season. Since they picked up Ilya Bryzgalov off waivers they have been on a real tear. Under the guidance of Wayne Gretzky the Yotes have really started to play with a lot of effort. They have knocked off some of the strongest teams in the NHL and currently have the best road record in the league.

The most important thing is that they leave everything they have on the ice most nights. Gretzky has spoken in a few interviews this year about how his coaching style has changed and the fact that he has taken a tougher approach towards his players.

Although the all-time scoring leader in the NHL and the player considered by many to be the greatest ever, he still has a knack for remaining as low key as someone with his past could ever hope to be.

The Columbus Blue Jackets' surprisingly good play in the early going has flattened out though they still have a realistic chance at one of the last two playoff spots in the west. They will need some more stellar play from their goalie Pascal Leclaire and offensive production from the likes of Rick Nash, who has gone through some lengthy scoring droughts this year.

The Los Angeles Kings are the only bonafide write-off of the season. While it's still statistically possible for them to pull off a miracle, it would require an unlikely run and the collapse of some teams above them.

Why Marc Crawford hasn't been sacked yet is a mystery (Edit: OK, I'll take a swing: he seems to have the confidence of his general manager through this rebuilding season.) Though any meaningful boost they could gain from a coaching change at this point would be lost in the futility of trying to qualify for the postseason.

The Chicago Blackhawks have slowed down after their impressive start and the knee injury to Jonatahan Toews is a disappointment in what was a probable Calder Trophy season. If he's out much longer, chances at being named rookie of the year will probably slip away. At least his performance and that of Patrick Kane are reasons for Hawks fans to be optimistic.

And yet, just as with the Edmonton Oilers, it's still reasonable for the fans of both teams to hope that they can make a second half charge and get in under the wire for the NHL's second and more important season.

The Oilers have that incredible overtime and shootout record that keeps them going and Dustin Penner has started showing some of the potential that had Oiler fans thinking positively in the offseason. They have been hit with a bunch of injuries as well and risk missing out on the playoffs for the second year in a row. But their fans more than most recognize the possibility of unlikely events and streaks and remain some of the most loyal and passionate in the league.

A sense of excitement is in the air as talks of possible deals percolate and ricochet around the blogosphere and in the mainstream media. Who will have enough creativity, guts or just plain desperation to pull the trigger on a big trade?

Regardless of any changes made before the deadline, it's guaranteed to be another tight finish in the NHL standings this season.

2 comments:

  1. Obviously Ovechkin didn't need any more convincing.

    The Caps locked up their star left-winger a few hours after I made this post (or likely had already completed the task):

    http://www.globesports.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080110.wsptcapitals10/GSStory/GlobeSportsHockey/home

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  2. Ovechkin's 13 year 124 million contract . . . WTF!?!? If he had only held out for more, maybe the whole team salary cap could have gone to him, and fans could watch 5 on 1 hockey every night.

    -the GSOB

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