August 19, 2010

Andrew Peters is the Latest Prey for the Panthers and Their Listless Offseason

Long gone are the days of 1996, when celebratory rats littered the ice in Florida and the Panthers made their legendary run to the finals. But even with the team missing the playoffs for the last 10 years, at no point has their mediocrity been more evident than on Thursday when they signed enforcer Andrew Peters.

It’s looking more and more like Florida general manager Dale Tallon, who has received a lot of credit for turning the Chicago Blackhawks around, is doing little else but secure the Panther’s long-term standing as the league’s bottom feeders. The signing of Peters only reinforces this notion.

Just look at his renovated roster. Since being hired he’s already managed to dispatch legitimate top-liner Nathan Horton, who at only 25 has potential for superstardom. Also gone is top-pairing defenseman Keith Ballard, whose five remaining years under contract would have provided some semblance of stability on an ailing blue line. Only 28 years old next season and paid a very manageable $4.2 million per year Ballard is key component of any power play.

And all the Panthers got in return for the two stars was, in a word, hope. Hope that defenseman Dennis Wideman (acquired in exchange for Horton along with two draft picks) returns to his 2008-2009 form of 50 points and +/- rating of +32 on a talent-laden Boston Bruins squad.

Hope that Steve Bernier (acquired along with prospect Michael Grabner and a first-round pick) will shed the adhesive label of first-round bust that apparently physically exists and has kept his arms stuck together, hindering his ability to produce for the San Jose Sharks, Buffalo Sabres, and Vancouver Canucks.

Currently, the Panthers have just three legitimate top six forwards in Stephen Weiss, Michael Frolik, and David Booth, whose career will forever be threatened from this point on thanks to the two concussions he sustained last year.

Cory Stillman is getting grey in the tooth and can no longer produce at the pace he once could. Recently signed Chris Higgins may just blissfully look back at his years in Montreal, where he regularly got power-play ice time only to max out at 52 points during his best season, as time well spent. Of course, he’d be conveniently forgetting that he was a throw-in to the Scott Gomez deal with New York only to disguise the Rangers salary dump.

On defense, the Panthers have potential in the recently drafted Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov, with the former ready to challenge for a roster spot next season. Meanwhile, youngster Keaton Ellerby still has a lot to prove. Ditto for Bryan McCabe, who has to cope with the fact that he’s only in Florida because the dreadful Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t want him.

The signing of Peters, a two-way deal that could conceivably see the role player spend more time in the American Hockey League, is little more than a band-aid, and a very small one at that It will only give temporary cover to a lull in the Panthers’ off-season activity. All the while, unsung players such as right-winger Lee Stempniak and defenseman Aaron Ward lay in wait for contracts when they could instead be filling huge holes in Florida’s line-up.

There’s a chance Tallon is deliberately gearing Florida to struggle in order to stockpile high draft picks in the coming years, like he did in Chicago. The only difference is the Blackhawks improved every year in the standings from 2005-2006 onward. In contrast, the Panthers are poised to regress for God knows how long.

Clearly, before hiring Tallon, Panthers management should have realized that lightning seldom strikes twice. This season the Panthers can only realistically stand still in the standings or move lower down the food chain. And if so, the one-time symbol of success in Florida, the rat, will be compromised as well. Here’s to further patience in Florida beyond its soon-to-be 11th straight year out of the playoffs. It looks like Panthers fans will need it.

August 18, 2010

The Niemi Watch: Where Should He End up?

Of all the rumors surrounding newly unattached goalie Antti Niemi, the one making a case for him not starting next season on a National Hockey League roster is by far the most intriguing.

How many Stanley Cup-winning goalies do you know of that were left without a contract two months removed from their championship victory? Domink Hasek in 2008 notwithstanding, I would wager not a one. If you think about it, Hasek shouldn’t even really count. Forget the fact that he was “retiring” and that Chris Osgood had long since taken the reins of the Detroit Red Wings’ run that post-season. Hasek was always considered a little bit, shall we say different? And Niemi is no Hasek.

For starters, he’s only 27 and entering the prime of his career. Another hard-to-deny fact? His 2.25 goals against average through 39 games this past regular season to place fourth in the NHL. Sure, around March he began to allow three or more goals more often than Toronto Maple Leafs fans celebrated a potential Stanley Cup following each two-game winning streak last season (six times), but one must also remember that never before did Niemi play 61 games in one year. When all is said and done, he did win hockey’s holy grail, and for that teams are beginning to doubt his ability?

While Niemi may have rebound-control issues, even the best goalies suffer from some deficiencies. Just look at Vancouver Canucks’ Roberto Luongo in his last two season-ending losses to the Chicago Blackhawks in which he allowed five and seven goals. Show me a Canucks fans who wouldn’t rather have Niemi as their starting goalie and I’ll show you a time-travelling Dolorian to send them back to the past in which they no doubt live.

Niemi would also give much needed support to the Edmonton Oilers given that The Bulin Wall could be staring at some prison walls in the not-too-distant future if his DUI court case doesn’t go as planned. Goalies Devan Dubnyk and Jeff Deslauriers make decent back-ups, but not starters. I’d rather have glorified-pylon-of-a-defenseman Sheldon Souray in nets, because at least his salary-cap hit would be taken off the books when he inevitably goes on long-term injured reserve.
Even the Dallas Stars ought to be in line for Niemi’s services. They’ve got Kari “Lets It In” Lehtonen manning the crease and recent draftee Jack Campbell at least three years away from a full-time NHL job.

Many teams in the NHL need a bona-fide starter, but perhaps no team more so than the New York Islanders and their sorry excuse for a starter Rick “Five Games a Year if That” DiPietro. While DP is no doubt a competent netminder when healthy, there’s certainly no guarantee anywhere in the two of four seasons (only one of them good) he’s played since signing his 15-year contract in 2006.

Islanders owner Charles Wang and general manager Garth Snow have the cap space to sign Niemi and only Dwayne Roloson and a somewhat healthy DiPietro are standing in the way. Maybe they could trade Roloson back to the Oilers to create a vacancy, that is if DiPietro doesn’t come down with a sudden case of Dipietroitis, a disease, which I’m told strikes the most injury-prone among us.

No one is expecting the Islanders to make any noise next season. They lack the basic level of talent needed in a variety positions, goaltending included, to be taken seriously.

Nabbing Niemi would be a major coup for New York and propel the team into playoff contention, where anything can happen. An unproven Niemi helped lead Chicago to the finals last year. Now that he’s suddenly proven no one wants him? I’m not buying it. Look for Niemi to find a home by this time next month, because the alternative really does constitute a nonsensical rumor.

August 17, 2010

Montreal Canadiens Fans Moan about the Departure of Desjardins

The Montreal Canadiens’ Pierre Gauthier is not the blundering general manager many Habs fans make him out to be, but he’s certainly no Sam Pollock either; At least if his latest move is anything to go by.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are no strangers to Montreal acquisitions, having recently hired Montreal’s minor-league gm, Julien BriseBois, and head coach Guy Boucher. Tuesday, Gauthier sent more talent packing for Florida, trading Hamilton’s Bulldogs’ Cedrick Desjardins to the Tampa Bay Lightning for exiled-to-Siberia (literally) goalie Karri Ramo.

So a day after Habs fans ridiculed Toronto Maple Leafs’ Brian Burke for yet another failed attempt at ridding the organization of its albatross defenseman Tomas Kaberle, Leafs fans are getting a perfect opportunity to even the score. Let the insults fly, Toronto, and for your convenience, here’s the most obvious opening salvo:

Desjardins is coming off a career season in the American Hockey League, earning a 29-9-4 record with a 2.00 goals-against average, a .919 save percentage, and six shutouts. He led the league in GAA, was second in shutouts, and fourth in wins.
But no matter how great Desjardins’s season was last year, the National Hockey League is a much nastier beast than the AHL. And at the moment there’s just no evidence Desjardins is capable of building on his success at the minor-league level.

Carey Price’s stats over his infamous Calder Cup run in 2006-2007 are a perfect example. He went 15-6, with a 2.06 GAA and a .936 save percentage en route to becoming the most valuable player in the playoffs. How’d he do this past season with the Habs? His 13-20-5 record speaks for itself.

The experts know: Desjardins was never projected to be anything more than a top-level backup, if that. So Habs fans need not start burning things just yet, for all was not lost.

But the situation Montreal is inheriting is far from perfect. While no one can deny Ramo has the potential to be a starting goalie and has a higher ceiling than Desjardins, his success depends entirely on his desire to play in the best league in the world. Because despite plans for him to be Lightning goalie Mike Smith’s backup last season, Ramo bolted to play for Omsk in the Kontinental Hockey League.
He’s signed to play at least one more year in Russia and can only potentially join the Habs in 2011-2012.

So, what the move adds up to is the Habs moving a legitimate goalie with an actual spot on the team’s depth chart for one who, for all intents and purposes doesn’t even exist for the NHL and its North American based fans.

Gauthier could theoretically be forgiven for this move if he hadn’t already mucked up the Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price situation. Everyone hates him for dealing playoff-hero Halak to the St. Louis Blues, but everyone should really be hating him for dealing Halak for the relatively unknown Ian Schultz and the unproven Lars Eller, two prospects that may or may not pan out.

Habs management claims that what the team got in return for Halak constituted full market value, but that’s just not the case. Put simply, the Habs got uber-ripped on that one.

Halak getting moved before the Habs were able to sign Price was the second mistake Gauthier made, in the same move no less. Price, as a restricted free agent, now holds the bargaining power as the team’s number-one goalie now.

Some argue that if the Habs had signed Price before they traded Halak, they wouldn’t have had any leverage negotiating a trade involving Halak. But what leverage did they exercise in trading Halak to the Blues? Leverage of the fictitious variety.

The Halak and Desjardins trades prove that the Canadiens are dedicated to Price moving forward. While moving Halak was a quagmire of Mike Milbury proportions, moving Desjardins is not as much a tragedy as it is a benevolent gesture on the part of Habs management to give the young goalie (who is actually older than Price) another chance. Because instead he would have been forced to play second fiddle to Price.

Getting Ramo in return is where Gauthier’s incompetence really shows. Not yet having Price signed one month before training camp? Now that would just be uber-incompetent.

August 16, 2010

Bolts’ Hiring of Murray is Bigger News than the other crap that made Headlines Today

On a day that saw the Chicago Blackhawks sign washed-up defenseman Nick Boynton, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Tomas Kaberle NOT get traded, and Mike Comrie’s weekend wedding all manage to make headlines, a much more important piece of hockey-related news went somewhat unnoticed: the Tampa Bay Lightning made Al Murray its new director of amateur scouting.

And Murray being hired by the Lightning would be big hockey news even on trade-deadline day. Why? Because it constitutes another move by general manager Steve Yzerman towards getting the Lightning back on the right track. Murray has an impressive resume, with 12 years as a scout with Los Angeles Kings under his belt, he’s also spent the last three years serving as the head scout for the men’s national teams.

Most fans are old enough to remember Canada’s dominance in the World Junior Championships that resulted in five-straight gold medals from 2005-2009 and a silver last season. Those that do are also sure to remember that Tampa Bay was the last team to win the Stanley Cup in the pre-lockout era, defeating the Calgary Flames in seven games in the 2003-2004 final.

But it was the end of the lockout that marked the demise of the Lightning, whose fall can be traced to the loss of goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, the loss Cory Stillman’s secondary scoring, the void in leadership created by the retirement of captain Dave Andreychuk, and the return of Vaclav Prospal (sorry Vinny, but your four years back with the Lightning saw the team fall from 92 to 66 points).

In 2010, owner Jeff Vinik’s house cleaning has yielded Yzerman as gm, fresh off his success as the head of Team Canada at the Vancouver Olympics, and with a deeper line up in turn. Gone are the years of treating the team like some loose aberration from a fantasy National Hockey League, and with it the years of a baffling five-goalie rotation. Gone too is the catastrophic leadership of Barry Melrose who was effectively traded for youthful head coach Guy Boucher and assistant gm Julien Brisebois, each coming off a successful season with the Hamilton Bulldogs organization of the American Hockey League.

The Lightning may not be poised to unseat the Washington Capital as the Southeast champions just yet, or even anytime during Alexander Ovechkin’s career, but they are poised to at least threaten for a playoff spot this year and help end its division’s reign as the joke of the NHL.

The defence has been completely revamped with Yzerman’s stamp of approval. Brett Clark and Pavel Kubina have been added to complement upstart youngster Victor Hedman and fellow Swede Mattias Ohlund. And while the goaltending of Mike Smith and Dan Ellis remains a question mark, they’re capable of forming a completive dynamic worthy of churning out a few more victories than losses.

The Lightning’s batch of forwards are perhaps the team’s weakest link. Because while the Lightning may not have a bona-fide top six, with Ryan Malone and Steve Downie constituting third-line options on the league’s better teams, boasting the likes of Vincent Lecavalier, Simon Gagne, Martin St. Louis, and 50-goal scorer Steven Stamkos is a good sign to say the least.

And now with Murray at the helm of the team’s amateur scouting efforts the future is clearly looking even brighter.

Kaberle Remains a Leaf

If you’re watching for National Hockey League news, you’ll find today is like most summer days; inactive and void of good, relevant reading. But if you’re a Toronto fan, today is the day that defenseman Tomas Kaberle remains a Maple Leaf and you’ve at least something to ponder over your morning cup of coffee.

But is this non-blip on the NHL newswire really relevant? The fact Kaberle’s no-trade clause remains unexercised after opening for a brief period during the off-season sounds like pretty immaterial stuff. But at the very least, Leafs fans should care, and here’s why:

In Kaberle, the Leafs keep hold of an all-star, power-play quarterback for a relatively cheap cap hit of $4,250,000 per year. And at only 32, Kaberle is in the prime of his career, providing good bang for Toronto’s buck.

But despite Kaberle’s assets, notably being a top-notch offensive defenseman, who actually tied for eighth place among defensemen in points last year, there’s a consensus amongst the droves of Torontians navigating their way into this evening. Many are undoubtedly grumbling Kaberle is a selfish millionaire who’s been unwilling to waive his no-trade clause much to the detriment of the Leafs.

All the while, there’s a general lack of understanding that despite his being in the prime of his career, he’s not as attractive as a 25-year-old player of equal caliber whose value will only go up. As a result Burke asking for a top-six forward, presumably a young one, in exchange for Kaberle is an iced up pipe dream, a waste of time and something that’s just not going to happen.

Fortunately, these bellyachers can take comfort in the fact Kaberle’s contract expires next year and that he’ll likely be packing come next summer because there’s little reason for him to stay in a city that doesn’t want him... unless or course it’s to nix another potential Jeff Carter and a first-round pick trade as one final parting shot.

So it’s clear Leafs fans have a lot to be divided over.

1) There are those who are disappointed but resigned to keep Kaberle, aware that there wasn’t much of a chance for general manager Brian Burke to trade for what he was looking for: a top-six forward and a prospect or high draft pick.

2) And those calling for Burke’s head skewered snugly atop the CN Tower – and that of Kaberle as well - who don’t realize there wasn’t a chance in hell Burke was going to fish out the trade he was looking for.

Regardless, Monday morning Kaberle remains a Leaf for another year. But Toronto could certainly be in a worse position: barring any changes, they boast one of the deepest defensive corps in the league. And Leafs fans seem to have overlooked the fact that previous Burke winners, like the 2006 Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks, have been built from the defence out.

Burke is asking for trust and patience from Toronto fans. Instead he’s getting insults from the Leaf nation, members of which, despite their hearted efforts, speak first, ask questions later, and according to the Montrealer I met at the bar last night, don’t even think at all.

So, a word of advice to Leafs fans: let Burke do his job. No one likes a Monday morning quarterback... or in this case a Monday morning post-Kaberle-trade-watch gm.