Welcome to another e-mail roundtable, where the best minds in blogdom gather and I stand back, stupefied and slack-jawed. It’s time for hockey this time, with no lockout preceding the season. Let’s look at our stellar lineup this time around, keeping to a definite Northeast Division slant, although we’ll venture outside the area to start and finish over the next three days. A round of applause for:
Tom Luongo, a newcomer to the roundtable. According to Tom, he is 38 years old and a “professional chemist, amateur economist/hockey writer and obstreperous Southerner-in-Training who lives in Florida.” Tom did a political blog for a year then decided to move up the food chain with Sabre Rattling, an excellent source for news and obervations on the Slugs.
|Is this new logo a sign of the times?|
Next up is Lyle Richardson, who being from PEI is obliged to work in at least one Errol Thompson reference over the next three posts. Lyle’s a Habs fan, and another newbie here but no stranger to hockey blogdom. He started Spectorshockey.net way back in 1998, and began as a freelance hockey columnist with Foxsports.com in 2001. “It started out as a hobby and has grown to the point where I can now pursue it as a living,” says Lyle. “I write and blog about hockey because I've loved the game since 1970, and wanted to share my opinions on the sport with the rest of the hockey community.”
Chris McMurtry is our Ottawa guy, and that means he’s our Sens guy. He blogs at the thorough and entertaining Hockey Country. “This also means I hate the Leafs, sorta dislike the Habs (until they become so bad I feel bad for them and then strangely start rooting for the bums), and as of right now am not too fond of the Sabres. Those pricks.”
Finally, the august James Mirtle from the Globe and Mail’s sports desk joins us. James's was recently Farked after a post on the Worst Hockey Logos of All-Time, “which resulted in a ton of traffic, a full email inbox and a glimpse at what it's like to run one of those really popular blogs (i.e. ones with nothing to do with hockey).”
So there you are. The plan is to do a a little NHL, a lot on the Northeast Division (given that's the Leafs' primary opposition), and then have some fun with predictions, over the next three days leading up to Wednesday's opener.
Let's get to it, then ...
JABS: Off that intro - about the New NHL (last time I pull out that old chestnut, promise). Is there any team or anyone out there who really hasn’t adjusted to the faster (and more penalty-prone, and pantywaist-diving) game the league has moved to? And do we have an overriding theme going into this season?
TOM LUONGO: I'll start off with the odd inflammatory remark and say that the Leafs still haven't gotten with the program. In a preseason game Sabres colour-man Jim Lorentz commented on multiple occasions that the additions of Kubina and Gill have done nothing to improve the mobility of the Leafs' blueline. His comments about Gill don't surprise me at all, but Kubina I've always thought was a bit more mobile than that. That said, it's obvious that the Leafs are a work in progress and they started off the summer right by not bringing back Tie Domi for another season. Maybe we can get the NHL to form up an Old-Timers day for pugilists so I can watch Rob Ray take Domi down one last time. As for the overriding theme? Let's hope it's not 'My NHL.' I'm more in favor of 'The Slugs will Rise,' personally.
|Marc Savard: Boston's gain is Atlanta's pain, says Mirtle.|
JAMES MIRTLE: I think there are a lot of teams that haven't particularly adjusted very well, and a lot of the reason for that is the salary cap. What amazes me is how many teams that weren't successful last year are either going with a roster that is almost the same as last season, or one that looks, at face value, weaker than last time around. Atlanta loses Marc Savard, Colorado gives up Alex Tanguay, Los Angeles deals Pavol Demitra - and none of those teams recoups the scoring they gave up. It's difficult to come up with one over-riding theme, but if there is one, it's the cap putting the squeeze on teams that aren't built well to cope with a set salary limit. A ton of teams signed the bulk of their players to one-year deals after the lockout, and all this player movement has put the league into a spin cycle again. There are some sure bets out there, but it gets messy picking favourites towards the midpoint of both conferences.
TOM: Those are good observations about the three teams you mention in specific, James. And, yes, the salary cap is creating a lot of these 'incomplete' teams, but that might have as much to do with the kind and quality of the prospects in their pipelines as anything else. We've only had one, maybe two drafts where the prospects were being picked for their suitability to the post-lockout game rather than the pre-lockout one which is creating a dearth (not in Buffalo, mind you) of talent bubbling up through the system. Sure, there's been a tremendous influx of new talent brought up in the past two seasons but that's really only replaced those forced to retire or severely downgraded their roles. This creates desperation for the GMs trying to fill out rosters and they overpay for mid-level talent - see JFJ and the Kubina signing, or Boston with all of their signings in the past two seasons. I'm not sure what to make of any move that Jay Feaster has made. The 'Buffalo/Carolina' model is not something you can implement overnight. It'll take time for a lot of teams to rebuild their organizations from the farms up, is what I'm saying.
LYLE: The salary cap is accomplishing one of the goals the NHL braintrust hoped for - an increase in player movement - and that makes it difficult to build and maintain a successful club. Those like Carolina and Buffalo had a head start over many NHL teams because building with youth under a restricted budget was the only real means of team-building available to them under the old CBA. As Tom noted, it's not something that other teams can implement overnight. Teams that were already rebuilding prior to the implementation of the current CBA - Montreal, Anaheim, San Jose, Calgary, Edmonton, New York Rangers, Washington - could stand a better chance over the long haul. I concur with Tom and Jim Lorentz on this one. After locking up McCabe and Kaberle, I fully expected the Leafs to bring in more defensive grit like Jay McKee or Willie Mitchell. Kubina was an overpriced, unnecessary addition when mobile blueliners like the aforementioned were already on the roster. Then JFJ signs the slow-footed Gill to address the defensive depth. This is the same Gill that was a whipping boy for Bruins fans in recent years.
|Devils gave Langenbrunner more than his due, says Chris Mac.|
CHRIS: I think, off the ice, New Jersey is a team that hasn't adjusted to the new NHL - though by new NHL I mean a capped National Hockey League. Lou Lamoriello was probably the best GM in the 90s, assembling a contender the classical way: developing young players despite not picking early in the draft as well as picking the unwanted scraps of other teams and turning them into valuable players. However, it seems as if he's having a difficult time acclimatizing himself. A part of the NHL, sadly, will be letting go of good players and getting a return for them that, in hockey terms, makes no sense. People here in Ottawa saw evidence of that with Martin Havlat this past summer. There's no way that trade made a lick of sense if framed another other way than financially.
Lou didn't seem to get the memo. He signed Patrick Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner to contracts in July that were clearly rationalized by the heart and not his head. He just doesn't seem to get that part of the new NHL is letting guys you really like go. As for on the ice, I think St. Louis. I have a lot of respect for John Davidson, but signing Bill Guerin and Doug Weight to new deals made no sense for a team supposedly rebuilding. They look to be stuck in purgatory. Not quite good enough to be contenders, but not with enough of a youth movement either.
(UPDATE: After this particular discussion, the Devils moved to ease their cap situation by dealing retired-to-Miami Vladimir Malakhov and his salary to the Sharks. Thanks to the Hockey Rodent for the latter link).
JAMES: On a side note, I think I'm going to be ill if I hear any more talk about the Leafs. The 'battle' to fill the bottom defensive pairing has been the lead story for a solid months now. Thank God for Domi's shenanigans.
TOM: James, that is one of the very few advantages of being a hockey fan in Florida, 'cause it certainly ain't the local franchises. That said, though, I'll miss Tie Domi like I miss Bill Clinton, because at least they were both good entertainment. The current job holders, namely Avery and Bush, are just an embarrassment.
|Rene Johnston/Toronto Star|
|Hal Gill: Will he be smiling 20 games in?|
LYLE: That's Toronto for you, although to be fair those kind of stories would be big news for any team in a major hockey market. Still, ya gotta admit that bottom defensive pairing is a concern for the Leafs this season.
JAMES: Perhaps not nearly as much as the one Gill plays on. I haven't a clue what Ferguson was thinking, but if he bombs 20 games in, what do they do with the last two and a half years of that contract? Fans in this city aren't really the patient sort.
JABS: Whoa. Let's not use up all our Leafs material. We got lots of that coming. Let's look around this division. James, you're our designated Boston expert. They had a tumultuous 05-06. How much more can be expected from the Bruins this time around?
JAMES: Given the mess last year was, I think quite a bit. Bringing in Marc Savard hasn't really received the attention you'd think, given he had 97 points and was tied for third in the NHL in assists last year. He's raised his game to that of an elite-level playmaker, and should give the Bruins an excellent secondary scoring threat along with Glen Murray. If rookie Phil Kessel can grab a spot on that line, that's a far stronger trio than they had playing behind Sturm-Bergeron-Boyes last season. Zdeno Chara, of course, brings a 'huge' elements to the blueline, and I think Brad Stuart showed he had No. 1 defenceman potential when he arrived in Boston last year in the Thornton deal. Put Paul Mara into the mix and you've got three very strong offensive-type defencemen (although Chara's assets obviously extend beyond his point totals).
The two issues the Bruins have are with depth and goaltending. Players like Milan Jurcina — who I like — and Nathan Dempty and Jason York are going to round out the blueline, so make of that what you will. A lot of people don't know this, but netminder Hannu Toivonen is eligible for the Calder Trophy this season, and I think if he can show what he did last season over a full campaign, he's a dark horse for the award. (He was 9-5-4 with a .914 save percentage last year.)
Boston's one of the teams that didn't give up much over the summer and still added two big pieces in Savard and Chara. The Northeast Division is awfully tough to call, but the Bruins will definitely be in that 6-10 range, and I think I like them slightly more than Toronto and close to Montreal — depending on how the Canadiens’ goaltending shapes up. One of those three will definitely miss the playoffs.
CHRIS: Boston will be in the mix but with that goaltending I'm not sure how much can reasonably be expected. Tim Thomas had a terrific second half and is a nice story, but how many times have goalies started strong before fizzling out quickly? I like Hanuu Toivonen but if he's the starter than that's quite the fast track. And no one seems to think Tuukka Rask is NHL ready.
But I like the look of their D. Chara is probably overpaid at more than $6 mil per season. That's certainly more than I'd pay him, especially after witnessing his collapse in the postseason, but they needed to do something. Paul Mara for Nick Boynton was a good swap for both clubs. Brad Stuart was, quietly, pretty terrific for them in the last quarter of the season once he got used to his new surroundings. And I really liked what I saw from Andrew Alberts and Milan Jurcina. Both will be top four d-men in the league before you know it.
As for up front, if Sturm, Boyes, and Bergeron can duplicate their chemistry from last season, they'll be in good shape. The question mark will be whether or not Marc Savard can get Glen Murray going. That'll be what decides if he's worth the $5 mil they threw his way. Overall I see Boston challenging for a playoff spot but probably missing out. However, just based on ridding themselves of Mike O'Connell, they're moving in the right direction.
TOM: Trudat! MoC must have studied at the knee of The Milbury. I still get a giggle when I think of how much money Alexei Zhamnov makes.
LYLE: Regarding Savard, I'm not convinced that he's as good as those 97 points given that he posted those numbers playing with Ilya Kovalchuk last season. Not that Savard isn't a decent playmaker but look at his career, he never hit close to those numbers until he hooked up with Kovalchuk in Atlanta. Murray's no Kovalchuk so it may be a stretch to expect more than 70 points from Savard. There's also Savard's injury history - last season was the first time in his career that he went injury free. As for Kessel, he's definitely playing like he's got something to prove and if he can crack the roster and be used properly (second line, not checking line) could be a good offensive contributor this season.
|Chara: B's big addition|
JAMES: Granted, that's the party line on Savard — did you copy and paste that out of THN, Lyle? — but if we're having a power-play contest, he's my guy. And we all know how closely games last season resembled said contests.
LYLE: Ho-ho, cut and paste, yes James, you figured me out, no originality on my part. Look, the "party line" on Savard is legitimate as even a quick perusal of his career stats can attest. What I've seen of Savard in his career is that he's a decent, injury-prone playmaker whose career best numbers came from having a superstar like Ilya Kovalchuk to feed. If he can come close to those numbers with Murray, great, but what I saw of Murray last season he appeared to struggle both with injury and the new NHL rules. Indeed, he seemed to be losing a bit of a step in 2003-04. Regardless of the increase in power-play opportunities, I still think it's a stretch to expect Savard to come close to last season's numbers with Murray on his line. Time will tell, I suppose, but a Savard-Murray pairing doesn't impress me as much as Savard-Kovalchuk.
TOM: Lyle, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Savard was putting up fine points early in the season before Ilya deigned to sign a contract. I've never been sold on Glen Murray anyway, as he's always been a guy that's benefited more from who he plays with than vice versa. Maybe these two perennial 'leechers' will finally find some magic playing for each other. Who knows? Al I know is that the line with Sturm and Bergeron is the one I'm truly afraid of.
LYLE: I agree about the Bruins’ first line, Tom, and they'll be responsible for the bulk of the B's offence this season.
TOMORROW: Some thoughts on Montreal, Ottawa and Buffalo as we roll through the Northeast Division.