Today’s Special: Culture Change Paying Dividends for Avs

Patrick Roy is heading up a change in culture for the Colorado Avalanche.

Coming into this season, not many analysts expected much out of the young Colorado Avalanche. After all, they’ve been a disappointing club the past few seasons, they didn’t make any significant offseason additions to their lineup, and they were coming into the year with a rookie head coach in the great, Patrick Roy. This lineup was considered a bubble playoff team at best, and that was being gracious by most analysts. Simply put: the Avs didn’t have enough on defense and in goal to make this a contending team. Their young, potent offense could only do so much of the heavy lifting. And here we are, nearly a quarter of the way through the season, and the Colorado Avalanche sit atop the NHL with a 14-2-0 record.

This young team is showing it belongs in the conversation of Stanley Cup contenders, especially playoff contenders. The so-called “questionable” defense and goaltending currently leads the league in fewest goals against at 28. The young offense is getting contributions from nearly everyone, and Matt Duchene is standing out as an elite talent – making everyone around him better. The addition of veterans, Alex Tanguay and Cory Sarich, has certainly helped this Avs team, but more than anything else, the change in the Avalanche culture has re-surged this club.

You could see it from the start of the regular season. The Avs easily handled the Anaheim Ducks in a 6-1 win in that contest. In the waning seconds, Ducks defenseman, Ben Lovejoy, collided with Avs super rookie, Nathan MacKinnon, and new coach, Patrick Roy, took exception to the hit. Roy became enraged following the collision, banging on the glass partition between him and Ducks coach, Bruce Bodreau. Roy was fined for his actions, but he clearly made a statement that this was a new Avs club with fire and life behind the bench.

It had been missing the past few seasons with no disrespect to former coach, Joe Sacco. Sacco had his moments, but clearly lost his team. Meanwhile, the front office made impact trades moving talent like Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Stewart, Craig Anderson and others in questionable deals. The changes weren’t good and didn’t seem good for the morale of the players. Matt Duchene’s name had been thrown out by many as a player that should be traded. Paul Stastny’s name continuously gets discussed as trade bait. Meanwhile others were more focused on trips to Las Vegas in the offseason than winning hockey games. It wasn’t a good scene!

Enter Roy and fellow Hall-of-Famer, Joe Sakic, and immediately things change. David Jones and Shane O’Brien, two players believed to be part of the Vegas disruptions, are shipped out. Greg Zanon is bought out. Joe Sacco is clearly relieved in favor of Roy. Roy insists center Ryan O’Reilly will be a better fit on the wing – Matt Duchene’s wing. Tanguay is brought back to flank Stastny and add leadership. Hey, now we have a team! Now there’s a locker room, and a head coach/front office that commands respect, that are building a winning culture. The defense’s depth may be a question mark still, but Erik Johnson, despite not showing it on the scoresheet, is proving he is a solid defenseman. Starting netminder, Semyon Varlamov, is also proving to the league that he can be an elite goaltender. He’s shown flashes before, and has been one of the better players in the World Championships on more than one occasion. With so much athletic talent and now the tutelage of both Roy and Giguere, he has all the tools to take that next step.

It’s not a coincidence that this team is finding success. They’ve clearly made the right decisions and continue to put the team first. The recent trade of Steve Downie is another clear example of this front office’s commitment to the team’s success. Despite having a winning record, the Avs made a questionable trade early in the season bringing in veteran forward, Max Talbot. Talbot is a great penalty killer and even better locker room guy, but Downie was playing fairly well on a winning team. Fact is, Downie took stupid penalties and apparently had some issues in training camp with young captain, Gabriel Landeskog. The front office recognized that Downie was a meat head, and sent him packing in a move that brings another winner to the locker room in Talbot. Team first and winning culture – clearly, this is a different Avalanche team than this time last season.

Today’s Special: Bruins Need Seguin to Step Up

seguinGame 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals is just a few hours away and there’s no word yet on whether or not Nathan Horton will play for the Boston Bruins. Horton, as we all know by now, is suffering from a shoulder injury which was aggravated in Game 1 Wednesday night. With his status uncertain and Gregory Campbell already out of the lineup with a broken leg, the Bruins will be looking to other players to step up. Cue Tyler Seguin.

Seguin, who had 32 points in 48 games during the regular season, has had a disappointing postseason thus far scoring 1 goal and 4 assists in 17 games. Regardless of Horton’s status, if the Bruins are going to win the Stanley Cup, they’re going to need more out of Tyler Seguin.

Seguin is one of the more skilled players on the Bruins. He’s lightning fast and has great hands. Playing on the third line hasn’t helped his statistics during the postseason, but if Game 1 of the Finals is any indication, things are looking up for Seguin. Seguin created chances with his 8 shots on net and assisted on a Patrice Bergeron goal. He used his speed to his advantage in Game 1, and didn’t slow down after going into a 3rd overtime.

The Bruins need more from Tyler Seguin, and if Game 1 is any indication, Seguin’s about to give them just what they need. 

Today’s Special: Trading Letang

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If Letang expects $7 million a season it’s time for the Pens to find a trade partner

After locking up Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins’ attention now turns to the attention of re-signing defenseman, Kris Letang. It’s believed Letang is looking for a contract in the $7-$8 million/year range. That type of money seems ludicrous to pay a defenseman that doesn’t really even know how to play defense. Letang is good, don’t get me wrong. His Norris nomination may not have been warranted this season, but he can shoot the puck well and setup teammates. Playing for the Penguins, however, inflates his numbers and is apparently inflating his asking price.

Forget the insane deal the Stars just completed with Sergei Gonchar.The Penguins can’t afford to re-sign Letang to a cap hit of $7 or $8 million a season. He’s a good defenseman, but he’s not Shea Weber. He’s not Ryan Suter. He’s not Zdeno Chara. One could make the argument that Letang may not even be a top-10 defenseman in the NHL. The Penguins could put a number of puck-moving defenseman on their blueline, and they’d likely put up similar stats as Letang has the past few seasons. Make no mistake, there are teams out there that may be desperate to get a player like Letang, over-valuing his skill sets enough to be duped into a deal. GM Ray Shero is one of the best GMs out there so he can find value from a trade partner.

After scoring 38 points in 35 games this season, Letang’s defensive blunders outweighed his positive offensive contributions in the postseason. At 26-years of age, and with one year remaining on his contract with a $3.5 million cap hit, Letang will be a player to watch this summer should the Penguins not be able to come to an agreement quickly with their “defensive superstar”. Teams that could be interested in his services include the Red Wings, Oilers, Avalanche, and Lightning. If any of them can sign him to a deal with a cap hit less than $6 million they’ll be good. Any more than that, they’re not getting their money’s worth.

 

Today’s Special: Crosby Needs to Lead By Example

Sidney-Crosby

Crosby must do a better job of leading the Penguins for the team to be successful

So much blame being tossed around in Pittsburgh. After a horrid showing in their Eastern Conference Finals matchup against the Boston Bruins, someone has to be held accountable for the Pens’ collapse, right? Many are suggesting goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury and/or head coach, Dan Bylsma should take the majority of the blame for the Pens’ collapse suggesting Fleury be bought-out and Bylsma fired.

There’s no question Fleury struggled, but can he be blamed for the Pens’ collapse when he wasn’t even playing and Vokoun was solid as a replacement? Is Bylsma the reason the Penguins and their superstars struggled to score goals against the Bruins? Bylsma has continued to find ways to win games regardless of who’s injured or in the lineup. Some may argue he didn’t put some players in a position to success like e.g. Iginla being under-utilized and playing on the left wing. No one seemed to have a problem with Bylsma’s lineup choices in their series against the Sens. Maybe Shero is to blame? He did make the team older and slower in the process of making a number of deadline moves.

No, the real blame rests with the player that’s the true leader and face of the franchise: Sidney Crosby. Few have gone “there” to blame Crosby for the Pens’ collapse, but as Crosby goes, so does the team. Look back to last season’s playoff series against the Flyers. The Flyers were able to take Sid and company off their game, pushing Crosby to lose his composure. Once Crosby lost his composure the rest of team followed, and they struggled to play their game and find wins. The same could be said in their series against the Bruins. Crosby struggled to keep his composure blaming the officials for letting the games get out of hand and the team lost. They not only lost the series, they lost their composure and lost their game.

Crosby is perhaps the best player in the world, but if he can’t be the leader the team needs him to be, they must rid him of the “C”. Crosby needs to look at other captains around the league like Zdeno Chara, Vinny Lecavalier, Jonathan Toews, etc. and understand what has made those players successful has been how well they handle themselves on the ice. When faced with adversity, they don’t back down and they keep their composure. They lead by example in a positive way. If the Penguins and Crosby don’t recognize that, they’re doomed to find lasting success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Today’s Special: Bickell’s Windfall Coming

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Bickell is set for a big raise after the playoffs

It happens every postseason; a player gets hot, scores some big goals, and then gets a huge contract the following year. Teams have seemed willing to overpay for a player that performs in the playoffs despite that player’s skill sets and past regular season performance. One doesn’t have to look that far back to find notable examples including Capitals forward Joel Ward (4 years; $12 million), Panthers forward Sean Bergenheim (4 years; $11 million), and Sabres forward Ville Leino (6 years; $27 million).

Prior to this postseason, Blackhawks forward and potential UFA, Bryan Bickell, and his agent probably envisioned re-signing with the Blackhawks for $1-2 million a year and 2-3 years. That would be a decent increase on his current salary which is a little more than $500k/season. Bickell’s performance in the playoffs has drastically changed all expectations for his next contract, however. With 8 goals and 13 points in 17 games this postseason, Bickell’s value is rising with every game he plays. He’s been one of the better performers for the Hawks in the playoffs and now could be looking at money similar to that of past playoff capitalizers like Ward, Leino and company.  

The free agent market is going to be weak this coming year. The market won’t include a lot of big names and there won’t be a lot star young players on the market. So Bickell is seizing this opportunity and making the most of his chances. There’s no doubt about it, Bickell’s about to get paid. Past evidence and a shrinking salary cup would suggest buyers should be weary, but we’re talking about NHL GMs here. One team out there will find a way to get Bickell paid, and it may work out, but history would suggest otherwise.

Today’s Special: Eakins Puts Himself in Position to Find Success

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Eakins has the opportunity to set a new standard with the young Oilers

Toronto Marlies head coach, Dallas Eakins, was quite possibly the hottest name in the coaching market before the Edmonton Oilers locked him up to coach their young team yesterday. Eakins was being courted by the Vancouver Canucks, Dallas Stars, New York Rangers and the Edmonton Oilers. Two of those teams with mighty high expectations, Stanley Cup expectations, while the other two teams have bottom seeded playoff expectations at best. As a successful AHL coach it’s not surprising so many teams were interested in Eakins. He had a 157-114-41 record as an AHL coach, and has done a great job in player development most recently with the likes of Matt Frattin, Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner.

With a young squad in Edmonton stocked with the past three No. 1 picks, Eakins joins a club that doesn’t have Stanley Cup expectations. He joins a club who’s performance has been disappointing the past five plus seasons. He joins a club who’s fan base is ready to win again. He joins a club that will be patient and allow him time to develop some chemistry with his players to find success. He joins a club where he can be successful as an NHL coach.

In his first NHL coaching stint, Eakins is joining a team that has played so poorly the past few seasons he’s in a position to find success. He’s not coming in after another NHL coach like Alain Vigneault who has consistently put his team at the top of the standings. If Eakins joined the Rangers or Canucks, we may be talking about him being the first coach fired next season.In Edmonton, however, improvement is inevitable. Improving his club’s record will ensure Eakins builds confidence as a coach, and becomes successful himself. With the talent on the Oilers’ roster, and a determination for improvement from new GM Craig MacTavish, Eakins has made the right choice, a choice to put himself in a position to be successful at the NHL level.

Today’s Special: Stars Signing Wreaks!

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Sergei Gonchar signed with the Dallas Stars for 2 years and $10 million

The Dallas stars have made a number of positive changes already during their offseason. They fired GM Joe Nieuwendyk , fired their head coach, made positive changes to their brand including a new logo design and jerseys, announced Mike Modano’s jersey retirement and hired a new GM in Jim Nill.

Nill was considered by many to be a quality hire and a huge improvement over Nieuwendyk who struggled as a general manager. Nieuwendyk’s reign as Stars GM may be proof that just because you’re a great hockey player, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a great general manager (Avs take note!). Nill, however, has experience managing an organization behind one of the best in the league in Wings GM, Ken Holland. Under Holland, Nill has learned the intricies of the game and what it takes to build a successful, winning organization.

That’s why this morning’s announcement of the signing of defenseman Sergei Gonchar comes as such a great surprise. Last night the Stars traded a conditional 6th round pick to the Senators for Gonchar. The pick would transfer to the Senators should the Stars be able to sign Gonchar to an extension. A good, low-risk move to start things off for Nill. Then this morning it was announced the Stars reached an agreement with Gonchar. Two years. OK, decent term … and $10 million.

Did Nill not get the memo from the NHL that the salary cap is going down next season? Did Nill think this was Gonchar from ten seasons ago? The dollars are very baffling to me. Gonchar is still a good defenseman, he can run a power-play, and the Stars could use some offensive help on the blueline. With the salary cap going down, and the Stars not looking like a legitimate contender at the moment, it would seem the Stars would be more willing to negotiate a deal in the $2-$3 million/season range based on other contracts out there.

Other defenseman that are about to become free agents have to be licking their chops right now after this signing. Mark Streit, a defenseman who’s skills are superior to that of Gonchar’s at the moment, could benefit greatly from this signing. So could LA Kings defender Slava Voynov who will be an RFA following a postseason where he’s leading the Kings in points. Voynov has been playing very well, but prior to this signing, could have been looking at a deal similar to PK Subban’s “bridge” contract last season. Now, he may cite Gonchar’s $5 million/year and ask for something more in that neighborhood despite a shrinking salary cap.

Let’s hope, for Stars fans and that organization, this move turns out to be successful and doesn’t turn out to be similar to the Tomas Kaberle signing the Canes made just two seasons ago. If it doesn’t work out, hopefully Nill learns from it, because at the moment from my view, this deal wreaks!

Today’s Special: Krejci Proving to Be an Elite Talent

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David Krejci is proving to be an elite-level talent for the Bruins

It wasn’t too long ago that trade rumors surrounded around Bruins center, David Krejci. The soft-spoken 27-year old centerman’s name was brought up in deals as far back as last offseason being linked with Coyotes defenseman, Keith Yandle. One could go back even further when the Bruins had a lineup that boasted Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci at center and find that trade talk still revolved around Krejci.

When Savard’s status was uncertain because of head injuries, many wondered and worried that Krejci couldn’t be a top-line center. Outsiders saw young forward Tyler Seguin as the answer for the top line center position, his natural position. Many felt that a lineup of Seguin, Bergeron and Peverley as the top three centers would be a contender. Moving Krejci plus a draft pick could yield a return of a top-four defenseman like Yandle and the lineup would be that much better. That may be true, but Krejci is proving to be an elite centerman, and a consistent clutch performer at the right time.

With 21 points in 15 playoff games this season, Krejci currently leads the playoffs in scoring. He’s playing with a confidence that’s contagious throughout the lineup and proving once again that he is a performer. Krejci has a history of playing well in the playoffs. When the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2010-11, Krejci was the playoff’s leading scorer with 23 points in 25 games. Just one season before that, Krejci played a crucial role for the team with 8 points in 9 games before going down to injury, and once Krejci went down, so did the team. That year, the Bruins allowed the Flyers to come back from a 3-0 lead once Krejci was out of the lineup.

Krejci has a calming presence on the ice. He does all the little things well at both ends of the rink. He may never score 30 goals in the regular season, but he’s proving he IS an elite player. He’s patient with the puck, has great vision, wins faceoffs, and makes it look easy out there. With a cap hit of $5.25 the next two seasons, Krejci is living up to his contract as well. Krejci may earn himself a raise if his strong play can continue, and there will be a number of teams interested in his services should he hit the free agent market.

For now though, we can all enjoy what we’re seeing on the ice and the underrated performance of David Krejci.

Offseason Goaltender Carousel: The Suitors

If there’s one thing for certain, this summer is sure to be an interesting one for NHL goaltenders. A number of teams are reportedly examining their goaltender situation, and with a large amount of goaltenders available as free agents, it’s highly likely we’ll some changes manning the pipes around the league next season. A number of teams have some questions when it comes to their netminder(s) and could look to make changes. Here’s a look at some of those teams and the players they may be courting:

martin brodeur

How many more seasons does Brodeur have left to give?

Minnesota – The Wild rode Josh Harding throughout the playoffs and he played rather well. Harding has two years left on his current contract, but his health is a concern. Likewise, Niklas Backstrom’s injury history is a concern moving forward. The Wild have held preliminary talks with Backstrom and have said he’ll have to take a pay cut to make something work. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Wild re-sign Backstrom and make a pitch to Ray Emery for a short-term deal. Darcy Kuemper is in the system and could get a look next season as the backup too. He has the potential to be the starter in a couple of years.

Calgary – The Flames need to make some changes bad. They’ve been poorly managed and are paying for it now. It remains to be seen if Kiprusoff stays with the Flames beyond this season or retires. It’s unlikely the goaltender of the future is in the system right now either. The Flames would be smart to make a pitch for Kings goaltender, Jonathan Bernier. Bernier is young enough to build the team around and could potentially make an impact beginning next season. The Kings’ asking price remains to be seen, but if the Flames had to move a 1st round pick next season for an NHL-ready goaltender it’d be worth it. If Kipper retires, Ray Emery would make a nice backup in Calgary for Bernier.

New Jersey – If I were a betting man, I’d bet Martin Brodeur returns next season. He seems to still be having a good time playing in the league, and his play hasn’t really dropped off. Durability is a bit of a question mark these days but he still has it. Beyond Brodeur there will be question marks. There is no “goalie of the future” in the organization and the Devils don’t have the capabilities to sign a big name free agent. The Devils are another team that could look to Jonathan Bernier as an option or trade for a player like Ben Scrivens should the Leafs acquire the veteran they seek.

Florida – Jacob Markstrom got his feet wet this season playing in 23 of the team’s games. His performance left something to be desired, however. The Cats were tied to Luongo early in the season and it’s no secret Luongo would welcome a change in scenery. GM Dale Tallon isn’t afraid to make bold moves or take on big contracts and the team has $18 million in cap space next season but has to sign Stephen Weiss, Peter Mueller, Jacob Markstrom, Shawn Matthias and Jack Skille. If the Canucks were able to eat some of the cap space, Luongo could find himself in a warmer climate to start next season.

New York Islanders – The Islanders have a number of free agents to take care of but have nearly $30 million in cap space available next season. They took the “next step” this season riding an MVP-like performance by John Tavares. The Isles need to continue that momentum, rid themselves of the awful DiPietro contract, and sign a quality netminder. It’s uncertain if Nabokov will be back. His playoff performance left a lot to be desired. Tim Thomas is a free agent and it’s uncertain if he’d consider playing for the Isles.  A deal to sign Mike Smith or trade for a younger netminder like Jonathan Bernier or Michal Neuvirth would make the most sense for the Isles if they can’t or don’t want to retain Nabokov.

Buffalo – It’s highly likely they trade Ryan Miller during the offseason and go with Jhonas Enroth as the starter. It’s been rumored Miller wants to be closer to Hollywood which would link him to Phoenix – the closest destination without a goaltender assuming Smith moves on. The trade would also create an opening for Matt Hackett to play as a backup to Enroth while the team goes into a full rebuild.

Edmonton – Devan Dubnyk is with the team but it’s uncertain the amount of confidence the club has in him being their starting netminder. He’s played well enough to earn the spot but the Oil may still want to make a change. With Nikolai Khabibulin’s contract up, the Oil have some cap flexibility to make a move if they wanted to sign a player like Mike Smith or trade for a goaltender like Marc-Andre Fleury or Roberto Luongo although an interdivision trade between the Oilers and Canucks is unlikely.

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Is Bryzgalov’s time in Philly done?

Philadelphia – Ilya Bryzgalov had a decent season, but is his presence a cancer to the club? So much controversy surrounds this goaltender that the Flyers may take the buyout and rid themselves of his hefty contract. Ridding themselves of Bryzgalov’s presence will allow the team a fresh start in goal, and hopefully the team finds the star netminder they’ve coveted for years. The stinger here is the Flyers may have dealt their goaltender of the future when they moved Sergei Bobrovsky last year.

Today’s Special: Giving up on Jamie McBain

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Will Jamie McBain find a new home next season?

After a whirlwind offseason in which the Hurricanes signed free agent, Alex Semin, traded for forward Jordan Staal, and locked up young forward Jeff Skinner, the Carolina Hurricanes had a disappointing end to their regular season. They didn’t reach the playoffs and struggled to find consistency when Cam Ward and Justin Faulk went down to injury. The team’s regular season struggles will yield them the 5th overall draft pick in this summer’s NHL Entry Draft. GM Jim Rutherford has stated that he doesn’t have interest in trading up, but that there may be an opportunity to move back and that they want to target “a top-4 defenseman in free agency or through trade”.

When I heard this, I immediately thought about young Canes defenseman, Jamie McBain, who just 3 seasons ago was considered the future of the Hurricanes blueline. McBain’s performance in a short stint with the club in 2009-10 gave the club a lot of hope going into the next season. That season, he scored 3 goals while adding 7 assists in just 14 games. What was even more impressive was his plus/minus which was plus-6 during that time while playing nearly 26 minutes/game. The following season McBain skated in 76 games and scored 7 goals and 23 assists playing slightly over 19 minutes a game as an NHL rookie. He was a minus-8 that season and his statistics remained consistent the following season.

Last season, however, McBain’s totals dipped quite a bit. Playing in 18:25 minutes/game, McBain managed 1 goal and 7 assists. More noticeable was how much his power play time dipped. After averaging 2:40/game with the man advantage the previous two seasons, McBain’s power play time decreased to 1:20/game. That was good for 13th on the team and 5th among defenseman. In his short stint with the club in 2009-10, McBain averaged 3:59/game and 2:44 the following season (his rookie year). It seems new head coach, Kirk Muller, wasn’t impressed with McBain’s skillset as he utilized him as a 6/7 defenseman.

This led to some speculation around the trade deadline that McBain could be dealt. Although there would likely be no shortage of suitors, Faulk’s injury created a need for the Canes that wouldn’t allow them to move McBain. That’s not to say it won’t happen this offseason, but if Rutherford really wants a top-4 defenseman, look no further than your own roster.

At 25-years of age, McBain has the skills to play in the top-4 and make a difference with the man advantage. The writing may be on the wall, and a deal may have to be done for McBain to realize his true potential, but the Canes would be smart to find to get more out of this young defenseman. With one year remaining on his contract, and a cap hit of $1.8 million, McBain seems like an affordable option on the blueline for a team that has a limited amount of cap space.

Rutherford and Muller may have already made up their mind on where McBain fits in on the blueline, however. If McBain’s name hits the trading block, there will likely be no shortage of interest. As a right-handed defenseman who could fit in on one of the top two lines, McBain would have many suitors. The Philadelphia Flyers seem to have interest in obtaining a defenseman as do the Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Edmonton Oilers, Colorado Avalanche, and Tampa Bay Lightning among others.

With a promising career still ahead of him, McBain will certainly rebound from what was surely a disappointing season for him. Whether that’s in Carolina or elsewhere will be determined in the coming months.

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