September 2, 2010

Niemi Joins Fellow Finn Niittymaki in Sharks’ Crease

It’s hard to believe goalie Antti Niemi signing with the San Jose Sharks on Thursday wasn’t the end-game of general manager Doug Wilson’s master plan:

Step 1: On June 18, have captain Rob Blake announce his retirement, opening up a spot on defense.

Step 2: On June 22, announce in a pre-draft press conference that goalie Evgeni Nabokov won’t be brought back to spread his rare case of untimely mediocrity around the locker room any longer.

Step 3: On July 1, sign career back-up Antero Niittymaki to a two-year, $4-million deal, under the guise that he’ll become the team’s new starter. Then smile and laugh maniacally behind closed doors.

Step 4: On July 7, hold a farewell party for Nabokov, as he leaves the NHL to sign with SKA Saint Petersburg of the KHL... and strangely leave Nabokov off the guest list.

Step 5: On July 9, sign Chicago Blackhawks at-best second-pairing defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to a four-year, $14-million contract offer sheet (to supposedly fill the hole left by Blake’s retirement), prompting the Hawks to match it as a big screw you to Sharks management. Then laugh again as the Hawks unwittingly shoot themselves in the foot and press up further against the salary cap.

Step 6: On August 2, watch as the Blackhawks walk away from Stanley-Cup-winning-goalie Niemi’s arbitration-awarded salary of $2.75 million. Then, playfully imitate Hawks gm Stan Bowman while looking in a mirror and saying: “If only I didn’t match Hjalmarsson’s offer sheet. Damn you, Wilson!” and scream upward into the sky while yelling out “Wilson” for added effect. Then laugh manically to close the evening.

Step 7: On September 2, sign Niemi for $2 million on the cheap by offering him the chance to deliver a bigger screw you to Chicago as a signing bonus, all the while knowing the Hawks could and would have kept him for that much.

Step 8: Sit back and enjoy the fruits of labour. Laughing maniacally is just one of many options at this point.

Wilson may not actually be moonlighting as a diabolical genius, but no one can deny that he is a first-rate gm, or at least that he’s been as much this off-season. He cut ties with Nabokov and saved his team $2 million by signing both Niittymaki and Niemi to $2-million contracts. That the Sharks ended up picking up the Hawks’ number-one goalie is at the very least the icing on the cake this summer, perhaps the one that was served at Nabokov’s going-away party.

In Nabokov, the Sharks are losing a very good goalie who has consistently been among the league’s top performers during the regular season but could not keep it together come playoff time. In Niemi, the Sharks are getting the goalie that helped to eliminate them in the Western Conference finals this past spring.

Despite having only played one full season in the league, he’s already won a championship. Niemi is also eight years younger, which pretty much makes the move a win on all levels. The only thing left for Wilson is to bring the Sharks to the point that they can win at the next level.

In that regard, he still has a ways to go. While San Jose has improved in goal, they still have that aforementioned hole on defense to fill. While this late in the free-agent season few quality defensemen are left, Paul Mara and Marc-Andre Bergeron represent two cheap possibilities. Mara is of course more of a stay-at-home defenseman at this stage of his career and Bergeron can still man the point on the power play with the best of them, despite his defensive deficiencies.

And if Wilson really wants to prove himself as one of the league’s premier gms, he should maybe try and wrest away a top defenseman from another team. I hear the Maple Leafs’ Tomas Kaberle is available, but that’s a story for another day.

So, this latest coup by Wilson needs to take an immediate back seat to what should be his next top priority. The Sharks may still be a top-tier team in the league, but they’re far from a legitimate contender. The Sharks’ ultimate goal of finally winning a Cup after years of falling short and flat on their faces is far from set in stone. San Jose should be alright though, as long as Wilson takes it step by step, along with a few intermittent breaks of laughing his ass off in between. He’s earned that much at least.

September 1, 2010

Khabibulin DUI Epitomizes Oilers' Wayward Management

Khabby should have taken a cabby one night last February, evidenced by his 30-day jail sentence

At its very core, Edmonton Oilers goalie Nikolai Khabibulin’s driving-under-the-influence charge is a pathetic cry for attention. “Pathetic” is a fitting adjective given that it also best describes the Oil as whole.

There are few other ways to describe a team that ended last season as the worst in the league, a team that actually had playoff aspirations last October, a team that only has itself to blame for its fall from grace from its Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 2006.

Take Khabibulin for instance. Despite being a rather golden-ageish 36 last summer, Edmonton for some reason decided to sign the unrestricted free agent to a four-year, $15-million deal, which might just take him directly to death’s door by contract’s end. And all the Oilers got in return for their altruistic donation of a hefty retirement package was a season in which Khabibulin was plagued by back pains. Management really should have known better than to sign a player whose nickname is based on a physical barrier that got torn down 21 years ago. And then of course there was the DUI last February.

Another example is perennial underachiever Dustin Penner, who led the team in scoring last year... Dustin Friggin’ Penner, the same player that former general manager Kevin Lowe thought had superstar potential and signed to an ill-thought-out $4.25-million-per-season offer sheet in 2007. The same player that was responsible for the all-out war between Brian Burke and Kevin Lowe and maybe even Lowe’s increasingly apparent and uncomely hair loss as a result. The same player that has Edmonton fans aching for 64-year-old children’s entertainer Fred to take his place. The same overpaid player that, despite ending the season with a career-high 63 points, actually had 38 points in just 36 games as late as last December.

Needless to say, Dustin Penner is not familiar with the concept of a strong finish and, as such, no half-decent team should claim Dustin Penner as its best player.

Let’s move on to defenseman Sheldon Souray, who Lowe, without a gun shoved in his mouth I might add, also signed in 2007 to an insane five-year contract. Souray, now stuck in potentially perpetual limbo, is slated to earn $4.5 million this year in the minors because it’s only become apparent now to management that he’s injury-prone and not worth the price of the equipment he needs to wear walking from the house to the car every morning. Rumour has it that he’s so injury-prone that he tore a muscle looking at himself in a mirror after Access Hollywood named him the sexiest player in the league in 2003. His body has just never learnt to properly accommodate his larger head in the years that followed.

Despite all this, the Oilers do have the backbone of a decent team, but one only set to be ready a few years down the road, once the Souray, Penner, Khabibulin, and the six-year, $33-million Shawn Horcoff (don’t think we forgot about him) contracts run their course. This past off-season, current gm Steve Tambellini made a move so rare in Edmonton, the papers actually ran the story a day late just to double check their sources. But it was true; he’d signed defenseman Kurtis Foster to a fiscally responsible two-year, $3.6-million contract.

Should Foster somehow stay beyond the two years, the Oilers’ back-end, also comprising young stars Tom Gilbert and Ryan Whitney, has a realistic chance to dominate the league. Ditto for the team’s forward lines, which in a few years will likely feature by-then-stars Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi, and recent number-one-pick Taylor Hall. Complemented by current stars Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner, the trio can realistically help the team make the post-season in three-to-five years, but not sooner.

To all those thinking the Oilers suddenly stand a chance at a Stanley Cup thanks to the injection of youthful exuberance and skill, here’s a reality check: Eberle is 20, Paajarvi 19, and Hall 18. Never before has a team made up primarily of teenagers been able to compete against other NHL teams.

Just look to the 1979-80 Oilers for proof, a team that boasted 19-year-olds Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and a 20-year-old Jarri Kurri among others. They ended the season with a 29-35-16 record and just barely made the playoffs. And I hate to break it to all the overly optimistic Oilers fans out there, but Paajarvi is no Kurri, Eberle no Messier, and Hall no Gretzky.

Yes, the Oilers will be a good team eventually, but the pathetic part is that on any given day every other mediocre team in the league is just a few moves away from respectability. It all depends on management’s vision and where they see the team heading. Since 2006, the Oilers’ strategy has been to run the team into the ground in hopes of striking oil. Only time will tell if they have a contender waiting in the wings or not.

Maybe give it a few years and the debate can be revisited, but for now the Oilers have to figure out how to deal with Khabibulin. Logic dictates that Khabibulin, who appealed his 30-day prison sentence on Tuesday, will still play for the Oilers this season. Khabibulin should probably just have accepted his punishment, because, in playing even 30 days less for the Oilers, it will likely amount to a much better time.

August 31, 2010

Rangers Should Rebound from Shootout Letdown

It all came down to one final breakaway: Failed superstar Olli Jokinen facing failed starting goalie Brian Boucher in the final round of the final shootout of the final game of the 2009-2010 regular season for both the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers. The victor of this one showdown would clinch the last available playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The loser would be destined for an off-season of second guesses, most notably: “Why wasn’t Marian Gaborik on the ice instead of Jokinen?”

At this point, we all know what happened: Jokinen fell short in his attempt to deke out Boucher and backhand the puck into the net.

With that the Rangers, having just gone 7-1-1 in order to put themselves back in playoff contention, suffered a devastating blow. As added insult to injury, they were forced to watch those same Flyers make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, and think about all the debauched spoils of victory they could have been enjoying given the same chance. Sorry, boys, but the hangovers you sustained were of the self-loathing variety, and justifiably so. Remember, when it comes to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, ninth place just isn’t good enough.

With next season fast approaching, a much needed wave of change has transformed the Rangers from a team that just missed the playoffs into one that will most likely just barely make them. Baby steps, right? But it is nonetheless hard to deny the team’s depth this go-around. Henrik Lundqvist remains the team’s core strength and with Martin Biron signed, it has a solid one-two punch in goal.

Conversely, Jokinen is gone, but he likely only would have served as an unwanted reminder of last season and head coach John Tortorella’s boneheaded decision to not use his premier offensive weapon in Gaborik in the shootout, anyway. The Rangers instead signed former Los Angeles King Alexander Frolov, replacing one overpaid problem child (Jokinen had been making $21 million over four years) with another, but saving several million dollars in the process. You can consider this signing more or less a lateral move.

The Rangers also added enforcer Derek “The Bogeyman” Boogaard, who may end up doing a good job protecting the team’s number-one asset in Gaborik, but at what cost? Oh, yeah, $1.65 million in each of the next four years for a player whose only two goals over his five-year NHL career came in his rookie campaign with the Minnesota Wild. Some may point to this statistic as evidence that his skills have degraded over the past half-decade, but, to successfully make that argument, Boogaard would need actual skills as a hockey player to begin with and not just those of an oversized bouncer on skates.

General manager Glen Sather does get bonus marks for the Rangers’ major coup of the off-season, acquiring center Todd White for wastes of roster spaces Donald Brashear and Patrick Rissmiller. White is only one season removed from a 73-point season with the Atlanta Thrashers, and, while he should be slotted into the team’s third line, he does most definitely give it more offensive flair. Ditto for the recently acquired Tim Kennedy, who can play all three forward positions and proved to have some scoring talent with the Buffalo Sabres last year. All things being equal, New York boasts no less than 11 forwards that can be pushed into a top-six role in a pinch.

And should the incredibly overpaid Wade Redden stay with the big club, it will also have a decent (but expensive) defensive corps. That would of course be contrary to rumours that he’ll be sent down in order to save money and allow him to teach the team’s prospects how they too can make over $6.5 million each year in exchange for just showing up.

As overpaid as Redden and Michal Rozsival ($5 million) are, they’re still unfortunate upgrades over the recently acquired Steve Eminger. The 27-year-old Eminger, of course, can only lay claim to one real accomplishment over his seven-year career: prompting the need for the creation of the term “journeyboy”, with his having already played for six teams. Marc Staal, Michael Del Zotto, Matt Gilroy, and Dan Girardi round out what should amount to an underrated top six.

Really, the team’s one weakness over the past decade has been Sather himself. The Boogaard, Rozsival, and Redden contracts are irrefutable proof of this. But with the game ultimately played on the ice, the Rangers have a great shot at making the playoffs. That is, of course, only if Tortorella remembers to play Gaborik in the shootout this time around.

August 30, 2010

Stempniak and Coyotes a Match Made in Heaven

For a hockey player, Lee Stempniak is quite the polarizing figure.

Among Maple Leafs fans, he’s considered a choker who couldn’t cope with the media scrutiny of one of the NHL’s top markets in Toronto. Among Leafs haters, however, he serves as proof that Hogtown will never breed a winner in the league’s modern era.

Stempniak, whose apparent prayers were answered with a trade-deadline deal to the Phoenix Coyotes last year following a mediocre three-quarters of a season with the Leafs, began to take advantage of his clean slate almost immediately upon arriving in the desert. He scored a goal with the ‘Yotes in his first game in his new uniform and all of a sudden all the pressure that had built up on his shoulders over the course of his 30-points-in-62-game performance with the Leafs began to ease. Whether or not the trade was heaven-sent or comprised just one side of a Faustian deal remains to be seen. If he ever gets traded back to Toronto, we’ll know for sure.

That alleviated pressure, though, was clearly the first sign of a dam set to burst as, when the regular season was all said and done, he had amassed 14 goals and four assists in his 18 games as a Coyote, effectively offsetting any drought that may have been victimizing Arizona upon his arrival. So impressive was his scoring spree that the meagre two assists he managed in seven subsequent playoffs games can certainly be forgiven.

What is most incredible about Stempniak’s story is that he scored the exact same amount of goals in his 62 games in Toronto, and of course that the goal-per-game pace he set in Phoenix would have amounted to 64 goals over an entire season. So, the whole situation leads to at least one unavoidable question: were the Coyotes that good, or the Leafs that bad?

While the Coyotes were that good, earning 107 points last season to finish fourth in the tougher Western Conference, and the Leafs, the second-worst team in the league with 74 points, were that horrible, it isn’t that simple. One cannot simply be asked that question, laugh loudly, and answer: “Yes, the Leafs sucked so hard last season that a player who was able to score 14 goals in 18 games on one team could only score 14 in 62 with the Leafs.” It should be noted that answer, however wrong, will most typically be followed by another, louder laugh... and maybe some finger-pointing action if the other person is an actual Leafs fan.

No, even though the Leafs do suck right now - and have for the better part of the last few decades - Stempniak’s success in Phoenix is not especially indicative of anything having to do with the Leafs. For every Stempniak to leave Toronto, there is an Alexei Ponikarovsky. Ponikarovaky managed 19 goals and 41 points and in 61 games with the Leafs and just two goals and nine points in 16 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins after being traded himself and finding himself lower on Pittsburgh’s depth chart. There’s also an Ian White who kept up much the same pace after being dealt to Calgary, notching 26 points in 56 games as a Leaf and 12 in 27 as a Flame.

So, clearly there’s little trend if any to be witnessed by these three examples. Sure, Stempniak’s increase in production was by far the most dramatic change witnessed in any of the three or in any player for that matter since Rob Brown had the crazy idea to up and get traded from the Pens to the Hartford Whalers, no longer having Mario Lemieux to play with and feed him the puck. Still, one must not disregard that the Coyotes last year lacked a Super Mario of their very own, unless you count Matthew “Not Vince” Lombardi... but why would you?

Really, Stempniak held his coming-out party without any A-list superstar talent to lend him a helping hand, something that is true of most of last year’s Coyotes. An orphaned team, they surpassed all expectations by making the playoffs and giving the Detroit Red Wings all they could handle during their first-round, seven-game series that the Wings ultimately won.

As such, there are really only two conclusions that can be taken away from this whole Stempniak situation:

1) The Coyotes have the makings of a solid, cohesive unit that could go very deep in the playoffs this season.
2) The Leafs will likely never win another Cup.

And, perhaps, a third and fourth: that Stempniak and the Coyotes are a good fit and Stempniak re-signing with the team on Monday for reportedly $1.75 million per year for two seasons is a deal that should benefit both sides.