Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Blackhawks Offseason and Other Things That Don't Make Sense

Dale Tallon is just as responsible to the dismantling of the 2010 Championship Blackhawks as he was for creating it.  Tallon drafted Kane, Toews, Keith, Seabrook, Byfuglien and Niemi.  He signed Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa.  He also signed Cristobal Huet and Brian Campbell to over-inflated contracts.  He also failed to make qualifying offers to his restricted free agents on time in the summer of '09, causing him to scramble and offer more money to Versteeg, Eager, Barker, and Brouwer than they were worth.  Unfortunately for Tallon, he was fired for the latter gaffe and did not get to enjoy the championship team he created.  Rather, Stan Bowman got to enjoy the ride and take some of the credit by re-signing some of the players Tallon drafted/signed.  However, Bowman really has yet to do much of anything.

This summer has been more of the same from Bowman.  Free agency opened on July 1.  In that time, the Blackhawks have signed Sheldon Brookbank and... well, that's it.  An underwhelming defenseman has been added for depth, when Hawks fans had been promised that the defense would be bolstered (Brookbank is hardly "bolstering") and that a suitable second-line center would be found.  Neither have happened.  Why am I not shocked?

Let's check Bowman's track record.  Midseason and offseason signings by Stan Bowman: Andrew Ebbett (his only goal for the Hawks was a puck that deflected off his chest), Nick Boynton, Jamal Mayers, Sean O'Donnell, Steve Montador, Daniel Carcillo, Brendan Morrison, Andrew Brunette, Sami Lepisto and Ray Emery (probably his best free agent signing); just to name a few.

Trades by Bowman?  Jack Skille traded for Alexander Salak and Michael Frolik (we just waived Salak), Brian Campbell for Rostislav Olesz (the move was really designed to dump cap space, but Olesz played fewer than a dozen games for the Hawks and spends most of his time in Rockford), Versteeg for Stalberg (not bad actually), Byfuglien for Slater and Morin, etc.  Point is, nothing impressive.

Not every move as a GM is going to be a homerun, but it hurts for me to say that besides Emery, the free agent signing that has worked out best for Bowman was Daniel Carcillo.  Carcillo showed more offensive upside than most expected, but his season was cut short by himself when he decided to illegally check Tom Gilbert from behind and Gilbert fell on Carcillo's knee.  And that's Bowman's second-best signing.

I guess I'll give Bowman credit for making offers to Brodeur, Parise,Suter, but already it seems he's given up on signing anyone else this offseason; Bowman doesn't think we have a bad squad now.  When have I heard this before?  Maybe it was two years ago when we decided to move Sharp back to wing (great move, for real) and we needed a second-line center.  Maybe it was last summer when we still didn't have a second-line center; 'Maybe Kane can play center...?'.  Maybe it was at the trade deadline last year when we STILL didn't have a second-line center; 'Maybe I can get Jesse Rogers to pitch Brendan Morrison as a viable answer at center...'.  This is just one example.  Other examples could include our failure to actually bolster the defense and possibly sign a goalie.  What exactly does this guy DO?

Tallon had his flaws, but at least he made real moves.  Since leaving the Hawks, Tallon has made the Panthers into a playoff team.  Coincidence?  No.  In the meantime, Hawks fans will wait for Bowman to deliver on his empty promises.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Blackhawks Down?

Recently, Jesse Rogers wrote an article for ESPN Chicago noting the differences in the Blackhawks trajectory just two years after winning hockey's ultimate prize.  I agreed with most of his points about the cast difference in performance just two years removed from the championship.  I reject any notion that a panic button might need to be hit soon.

If we're honest with ourselves, we realize that the Cup-winning team was a collision of pleasant circumstances.  Pivotal pieces Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith were all playing way above their pay.  Kane and Toews were still on entry-level contracts that paid less than a million and Keith earned a Norris Trophy while making less than $2M (he currently makes $8M).  Having such little money invested in those major pieces mad it possible for the Hawks to go out and sign Marian Hossa, as well as pay Brian Campbell $7M.  Since then, Kane, Toews, and Keith have received their due pay raises, making it impossible to keep the Cup team together.

While this is all old news for most of us, people still are apparently shocked that the Hawks haven't won another Cup in 2 years.  Lets get real.  You only get as lucky as the Hawks were in 2010 once in a very great while.  Since then, we haven't been quite as lucky.

If we're honest with ourselves, we also know that we have made some bad decisions since the Cup win.  After winning the Cup on the shoulders of a rookie, we believed that defense was our strong suit and that franchise goalies were obsolete.  So we let Niemi walk rather than pay him the $2.75M that he was awarded in arbitration and paid Niklas Hjalmarsson $3.5M to score a combined 4 G, 21 A in two seasons and whose major contribution is blocking shots.  Meanwhile, we've turned around and paid a lesser goalie (sorry Corey) more money than Niemi's arbitration to play last season.  Granted hindsight is 20/20, but don't act like we didn't screw up.

Beyond goaltending, the Hawks lacked a solid second-line center.  Kane was a solid option at the beginning of the season, but as time wore on, it was clear that the Hawks needed to make a move to acquire someone to allow Kane to go back to right wing.  The only answer Stan Bowman could muster during the season was Brendan Morrison, a guy who barely played the remainder of the season and who is mulling retirement this offseason.

The one thing that Bowman might have serviceably fixed is the defense.  Johnny Oduya was a smart pickup.  His speed and puck-moving ability is something the Hawks have been missing.  That doesn't make up for the fact that Chicago struggled through most of the year without an honest defense.

Is it really so surprising that we haven't won another Cup?  Chalk up 2010-11 to a Cup hangover and salary-cap-dump fatality.  2011-12 has Stan Bowman to blame.  It's not time to hit any major panic buttons.

The most recent panic suggestion is trading Patrick Kane.  Kane has added to his list of immature antics this Spring in Madison.  At the least, he was publicly drunk yet again.  At the worst, he assaulted a woman.  Whatever happened, it shows that Kane hasn't repented of his past mistakes.  This upsets and disappoints many Hawks fans, including myself.  It's even led some to suggest that we should deal him to try to fix one of our other problems.  My favorite is the "Kane for Miller" proposal, which people have been blathering about for years.  It won't happen, and if you ask me, it's not very creative either.  The whole proposal is based on the fact that Kane is from Buffalo and that Ryan Miller is the only player of similar value for whom he could be traded.  But if you look at it honestly, you know that Kane has very little trade value right now.  Sure, he's phenomenally talented, but he's never scored as much as people think he could be capable of and he just came off a disappointing year.  Additionally, he now has a reputation as a problem child.

Not only would Buffalo not go for it, Chicago would be foolish to make such a move.  Let me close with a real life analogy from Philadelphia.  (I know I harsh on Philly a lot, but just hear me out.)  Mike Richards and Jeff Carter also had a party animal reputation.  As you know, Philadelphia shipped them off.  Carter to Columbus, Richards to Los Angeles.  The Flyers used the cap space to pay Ilya Bryzgalov $51M over the next 9 years.  Bryzgalov posted a postseason SV% of .887.  Carter rejoined Richards in LA and they won a Cup together.  How'd that work out?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Chickens Come Home to Roost

Before the playoffs even began, I tried to stay positive because many of my friends see me as an eternal pessimist.  I tried to keep my negative comments stifled, for the most part, but I HAD to tell someone all the reasons why I thought the Hawks wouldn't make it far in the playoffs this year.  Sometimes I hate when I'm right.

From the outset of the year, many voices around the league identified the Hawks' lack of a second-line center.  In previous years, Patrick Sharp was a decent center, but after having great success at wing last season, it was hard to justify moving him from that position.  With little cap space to make any improvements, the Hawks had to look internally for a second-line centerman and found Patrick Kane.  Much to the surprise of many (including myself), Kane was very productive at the beginning of the year, with the Kane/Hossa pairing making many forget the traditional Kane/Toews pairing.  However, as time wore on, Kane's success wore out and the Hawks only answer to replace him was the questionable signing of Brendan Morrison.  As a result, the Hawks suffered from a lack of puck possession, with Jonathan Toews being the only true, elite faceoff-winner on the team.  Fast forward to the playoffs and you see Patrick Kane back at center, losing 3/4 of his faceoffs, giving the puck to the Coyotes.

Defense was another weakness for the Hawks coming into the season.  The Blackhawks had to part ways with Dale Tallon's brilliant $7M/year through 2016 contract for Brian Campbell in order to fill a roster.  (By the way, they got Rostislav Olesz, who spent nearly the entire season in the AHL.)  The Hawks might have replaced Campbell's speed and puck-moving ability with Chris Campoli if he had a reasonable idea of his value.  Instead, Campoli chose to start the year as a free agent, get signed by the lowly Canadiens, and spend much of the year injured, but I digress.  With Campoli out of the picture, the Hawks decided to sign a senior citizen, a pedestrian defenseman, and a veteran whose only real contributions came at the beginning of the season.  The defense was a point of weakness all year, until they signed Johnny Oduya at the deadline.  Even then, the Hawks' D could not be described as a strength.

Goaltending was not something many Hawks fan saw as an issue.  After having a great year and a fantastic playoffs last year, Corey Crawford had earned himself a new contract.  Beyond that, the Hawks signed a veteran backup who was making an NHL comeback in Ray Emery.  Unfortunately, the sophomore slump I feared showed it's head in November and didn't go away until the end of March, when Crawford reassembled his game.  Crawford developed a penchant for letting in weak goals and getting his team behind.  I'll give Crawford credit for dueling to 5 straight OTs against the Mike Smith, but take away the two very weak OT goals Crawford gave up to Mikkel Boedker, and the Hawks might have been the team advancing.

Special teams.  Simply put:  they didn't score on the power play and they allowed too many goals on the penalty kill.  Championship teams use the man-advantage and don't allow other teams to use their advantage.  Part of this could be due to the loss of Campbell, who was able to move the puck well and enter the zone quickly.  However, part of it could be due to my next point.

Big players didn't show up in big games.  Early in the season, Kane, Toews, Hossa, and Sharp were all lighting the lamp enough to burn your retinas.  However, as the season moved into late winter/early spring, the goals dried up and games that used to be wins started turning into losses.  Imagine if the Hawks scored a few more goals.  The Hawks come away with multiple wins.

Alas, the Hawks face another long summer, trying to figure out how to remedy their most recent shortcomings...

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Round 1: Eastern Conference

This preview will be considerably shorter than my Western Conference predictions, mostly because I don't know quite as much about Eastern Conference teams.

NYR vs. Ottawa

This is going to be one of the most one-sided series' in the entire playoffs. The Rangers showed the entire season that they are an elite team this year. The addition of Brad Richards was actually as important as the offseason hype about him made us believe. Also, it seems that Marian Gaborik might actually be made of something slightly stronger than glass, as he did not suffer a major injury this year. Beyond that, Henrik Lundqvist might as well add "Vezina Trophy winner" to his list of accomplishments. And defense won't be an issue, as everyone on the team is taught to block shots.

Ottawa had a good year. Jason Spezza is having his best season in years and Erik Karlsson will win the Norris Trophy. However, the Senators' strength as a team cannot match that of the Rangers. This will just be the first step for the Rangers' inevitable march to the Conference Finals.

Rangers in 5.

Boston vs. Washington

Boston is the reigning champ, Washington hasn't won anything of note lately. Alex Ovechkin might already be past his prime and it seems that he can no longer carry his team. The Capitals attempt to focus on defense and build for the playoffs seems to have stifled the Capitals scoring with only a small improvement to the defense. Beyond that, the Capitals have to use an inexperienced goalie yet again in Braden Holtby, as Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun are both injured.

Boston Tim Thomas, a true playoff warrior last year in addition to an electric offense and a strong defense. There's a reason they won the Cup last year. Even without Horton and with Nicklas Backstrom returning for the Caps, look for the Bruins to take care of business early in this series.

Boston in 5.

Florida vs. NJ

Florida started the season strong, making Dale Tallon look like a genius yet again. However, over the course of the season, things predictably cooled for Florida. Now the Panthers sit in a similar position as the Coyotes. They're in a high seed because the NHL puts the winner of each division in the top 3 spots, but they really don't have the edge in this series. Their offense is below average, their goaltending is nothing to write home about, and their Jason Garrison is the only person I can talk about positively on the defense.

New Jersey isn't the most exciting team in the playoffs either, but at least they have Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, Adam Henrique, and Martin Brodeur to talk about. And at least the Devils have been to the playoffs in the past decade.

Congrats on ending your playoff drought, but this isn't your year. Maybe you can build off this experience for next year.

NJ in 6.

Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia

This is the series that everyone will be watching. How could it get any better? Two great teams that hate each other, have an in-state rivalry, and have seen each other many times before (including in the playoffs). Stars on either side will make these games incredible to watch. The two best players in the league, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, line up next to another star in the making, James Neal for Pittsburgh. Jaromir Jagr, a former Pens superstar has rejoined the NHL on their rival team, the Flyers. He stands next to Claude Giroux and playoff warriors Scott Hartnell and Max Talbot.

The difference between these teams will be goalies. This will be upsetting to Flyers fans, as Philly threw piles of cash at Ilya Bryzgalov to try to feel safe in their goalie position. However, Bryz has proven ESPN right, as they argued that he barely outplayed his backups in the past and that his success was mainly due to the shots he was facing behind a solid defense.

Blowing up the team last summer has not made the Flyers any more playoff-ready and the return of Crosby has made a great team the "team to beat" in the Eastern Conference. I'm looking forward to an entertaining series and I'm looking forward to watching the team I predict to win the Stanley Cup this year make their first step in doing so.

Penguins in 6.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Round 1: Western Conference

LA vs. Vancouver
Once again, Vancouver sits atop the Western Conference. This year, though, the Canucks are faced with fewer expectations. Even though the Canucks earned the Presidents Trophy for a second year in a row, the team seems to be under the radar. Maybe Vancouver was shoved in hockey fans' faces so much last year that normal coverage seems "under the radar" now, but I digress.

Being the top seed means that Vancouver gets to face another hungry 8 seed. Last year, the Canucks were forced to face their nemesis, the Blackhawks in the first round. When Vancouver seemingly had the series wrapped up with a start of 3-0 in the series, the Hawks forced a 7-game series and only then did the Canucks finally close the door.

The Canucks are not ready to make the same mistake. After coming within one win from the Stanley Cup before choking in back-to-back games (including a home Game 7), it would be fair to guess that the Canucks are playing with a drive to make good on some unfinished business.

The Canucks seem to be a reverse of the Kings. Scoring is their forte and they've shown it as 5th place in goals per game at 2.9. However, when it comes to the playoffs, Luongo is a well-documented headcase. If the Kings crack Lou early, the Canucks are fortunate enough to have Schneider to fall back on.

However, the Canucks have not drawn a doormat opponent. The Kings have made early exits the past two postseasons and like the Canucks, probably feel they have something to prove. They stand a better chance this year than they have in the past. The Kings have finally found a way to score. As I wrote in my last post, Jeff Carter seems to be the answer for the Kings' previous scoring woes. With Carter likely returning from injury for the series, look to see if Carter can continue to be a presence on the score sheet. Defense and goaltending won't be an issue for LA with Doughty and Quick leading the way. The Kings might have a chance if the scoring continues. If not, the team will have to rely, yet again, on Jonathan Quick to be the team. And if trends me anything, then he won't be able to carry a team that cannot score.

If it weren't for Schneider, this series would be more of a toss-up. But even without Daniel Sedin (which it sounds like he'll be back for the series), the Canucks are a better team. The push to make the playoffs has likely sapped the Kings' strength and Kings fans will be disappointed once again.

Canucks in 5.

St. Louis vs. San Jose

In their previous four meetings, it was pretty clear who was the better team. St Louis swept the season series. No doubt, this was only one of the many amazing things the Blues did this regular season. For instance, the dominant goaltending duo in StL not only posted the league's best GAA at 1.9, they also posted the league's most shutouts with 15 (Elliott 9, Halak 6). However, this poses an interesting problem for St. Louis. Who should start? Elliott has the more impressive numbers, but Halak has the experience of leading the Habs to the Eastern Conference Finals.

More problems exist for the Blues, as well. For one, the Blues are entering the playoffs on the wrong trajectory. For as strong as they played in the regular season, the Blues limped through the final weeks of the season, winning only 4 of their final 12 games. As many of you know, one of the most important things that can decide a playoff winner is being hot at the right time. If this is true, the Blues should be concerned. Also, in hockey more than any other sport, experience is vitally important. It is nearly impossible for a green team to bear the grind of 4 consecutive 7-game series'. The Blues lack mightily in playoff experience. Sure, they have Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott, who have playoff experience, but the team as a whole does not have much experience.

Conversely, the Sharks have plenty of playoff experience as a team. Unfortunately, their experience only includes one Conference Finals and a series of early exits. In an effort to build for the playoffs, the Sharks have added Stanley-Cup-winning goalie Antti Niemi as well as a solid defenseman in Brent Burns. Normally a high-scoring offense, the Sharks have traded some offense for defense in order to better fit the playoff-winning prototype. The Sharks HAVE improved their defense, but is the offense good enough now to beat the REAL "Best Goalie Tandem in the NHL"? I say, "No."

The Sharks, much like the Kings, will likely be exhausted from scrapping for a place in the postseason. This matchup against a relentless St. Louis club will do them no favors. Beyond that, it's pretty obvious to see that the Blues just have this team's number. And no team can win with a a weak captain like Joe Thornton.

Blues in 4.

Phoenix vs. Chicago

Another contestant in the Pacific Division race, the Coyotes actually came out on top, saving them from almost certain death. However, the Yotes must now recover quickly and get prepared for a playoff-tested Blackhawks club. Unlike the Coyotes, the Blackhawks have been pretty confident in their playoff spot for a few weeks and have been getting in a rhythm for the playoffs. Even without captain Toews and defensive leader, Keith, the Hawks put together a nice stretch toward the end of the season. Corey Crawford seems to have found his game again. And Patrick Kane is scoring points again. All things to be feared by the Coyotes.

However, the Blackhawks have plenty to be afraid of, too. Mike Smith is not the Mike Smith of old. The desert has been good to him. A .930 SV% doesn't happen by accident. And Smith is still rolling, adding 3 shutouts to his stats in the last weeks of the season. The Hawks also need to beware of the Coyotes spread attack. Only one player outshines the rest and that's Ray Whitney. The rest put up decent numbers, making it hard to key in on a particular player or line.

The Hawks also need to look at their shortcomings this season. Goaltending, defense, and power play have all been issues this season. These problems have ebbed of late, but hardly demonstrate a full turnaround. As I said earlier, Crawford seems to have found his game, at the moment. Defense has gotten better with the addition of Johnny Oduya. And the power play was okay the last few games. However, the Hawks have also developed a bad habit of backing down, giving up leads, and allowing games to go beyond the 3rd period. The Blackhawks need to find a way to lock down and not give the Coyotes anything easily, because a gritty team like Phoenix will be sure to take it.

Look for a tough series out of these two teams. The Blackhawks have more experience and a history of making it past the first round (unlike the Coyotes). The Coyotes play a playoff-style game year-round. However, the Coyotes "score by committee" approach to the game hasn't done them any favors in the playoffs the last two years. And if we're honest with ourselves, we know they don't deserve to be a 3 seed. I'm giving the Blackhawks the edge in this series, but it won't be by much.

Blackhawks in 7.

Nashville vs. Detroit

This series is sure to be a classic. Two teams from the best division in hockey face off. The Red Wings boast a wealth of playoff experience and star players that can carry them deep into the playoffs once again. The Predators are becoming perennial contenders and have gone deeper into the playoffs with each postseason. Can the Predators continue this trend?

The Predators' problem in the playoffs before was that they did not have enough of what I call "star power". Similar to the Coyotes, the Predators scored "by committee". This year, the Predators have "gone for broke" to make a deep playoff push. They re-acquired Alexander Radulov after he decided to come back at the conclusion of his KHL club's season. They also made moves to acquire Paul Gaustad, Hal Gill, and Andrei Kostitsyn. Radulov was a top scorer in the KHL and brings a decent amount of "star power" to Nashville. Hal Gill will strengthen what is already a strong defense in Nashville. Gaustad and Kostitsyn won't hurt the team either. The Predators clearly have their best shot to do something in the playoffs in the team's history. Their home ice advantage, held onto by the Blackhawks who defeated the Wings in their final game of the season, will be an extra bonus, as the Red Wings have not been a good visiting team this season.

However, the Wings have so much history of success in the playoffs that I'm not even going to begin to explain it. If you watch hockey, you know what I'm talking about. The Wings also have not changed much since their success. Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom, Niklas Kronwall, Pavel Datsyuk all remain on the team. Jimmy Howard is having a season to remember. This team can definitely match and overcome the Predators with "star power".

This series should be a dog fight. The season series was split, so that gives no edge to either team. As I said before, the Wings were not good as a road team this year, but they were by far the best home team in the NHL. The Predators have done a lot to improve their team, but if the Wings can steal one of the first two games, look for them to take the series. Unfortunately for the Predators, even though they have their best team yet, they still drew a tough opponent. Look for the Wings experience to dash the hopes of the Predators yet again.

Wings in 7.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Who's In and Who's Out

League parity has seemingly been at an all-time high this year. It's been good for the league as a whole, creating a lot of competitive matchups and tight races for the playoffs. Unfortunately for the teams involved, this has caused a bottleneck at the 8th seed--the final spot for the playoffs. Currently, in the East, 4 teams are only 5 points apart. On the other side of the map, 6 teams are only 2 points apart and are scrambling for the final two playoff spots in the West. Not every team can make it; so who's in and who's out?

The Coyotes are one of the grittiest teams in the NHL. They play a heavily defensive game and will grind any fast-paced team to a halt. This type of team makes for a playoff nightmare for their opponent. Unfortunately, I don't think the Coyotes will have the opportunity to show off their grit. with a 3-5-2 record in their past 10 games, the Yotes are trending in the wrong direction. Where some teams seem to be getting desperate and digging deep for wins, it seems the Coyotes are just desperately bad. The Coyotes lack any "elite" status players. They've been a "score by committee"-type team the past few years, but anyone who's watched the playoffs the past few years know that the teams who win have a few heroes that put the load on their shoulders and inspire the rest of the team. The Coyotes don't fit the mold and instead of finding out in the playoffs this year, they're finding out before April.

Verdict: Out


A "seller" at the trade deadline, the Avs acquired Jame McGinn for Daniel Winnik and T.J. Galiardi. Very few people predicted that this trade would actually turn out to be one of the biggest in 2012 in terms of results. Since joining the Avs, McGinn has put up 7 goals and 2 assists in 8 games, bringing on the Renaissance of the Avalanche. His play seems to be sparking the rest of the team, as they are one of the few teams on the bubble that seem to really play like they want to see May. They're hanging onto 8th by one point, but if they keep playing inspired hockey, they should find themselves in the postseason.

Verdict: In

San Jose:
Continually, this team put together outstanding regular seasons only to watch them fall apart come playoff time. In an attempt to break the cycle, the Sharks decided to trade a few of their best players for a decently strong defenseman and a washed-up, old forward. The plan has worked about as well as the Capitals attempt to curb offense in lieu of defense. Instead, the Sharks have just about as bad of defense and less offense. I would give them a break because Havlat was out with an injury he sustained by jumping over the boards on a line change, except for the fact that trading Heatley for Havlat is easily one of the most moronic trades I've seen in pro sports in a while. Either way, the Sharks face one of two problems, and I'm not sure which is worse. Either they know they might not make the playoffs and don't care OR they care, yet their best attempts aren't good enough. Todd McClellan better find a way to light a fire under his team or he won't have a job in SJ next year.

Verdict: If they make it, it won't be by much.

A baffling inability to score seems to have been solved in LA. Whether you give credit to Jeff Carter or to a better team effort as a whole, the Kings finally starting to put up more goals than they've seen all season. Add the fact that the Kings' D hasn't really suffered without Jack Johnson and you have a recipe for success. They've had as many games with 4 or more goals since Carter joined the team as they had the entire season before the deadline. Scoring 4+ goals 8 times in a month-long stretch makes it less-than-surprising that the Kings have a 7-3 record in their past 10 games. Their play is the definition of "getting hot at the right time."

Verdict: In.

Despite currently leading the Pacific Division, the Stars' fate is anything but secure. Having just as many points as the Sharks, the Stars are practically on even footing with the Sharks. However, unlike the Sharks, the Stars have shown signs of life in the past month. Prior to their current 2-game losing streak, the Stars won 10 of 11 games, showing that their locker room still believes in making the playoffs. Missing the playoffs on the last game of the season last year ought to inspire the team to keep their foot on the gas. Nothing is for sure, though.

Verdict: Likely in.

Stick a fork in them. This is not commentary on their current standings position, but rather a combination of a realistic view of the way they've performed in the past and the fact that Alex Tanguay is probably going to miss a decent amount of time with a concussion. None of the Flames players have the amount of "star-power" needed to make a push for the playoffs, with the exception of Iginla. But even then, Iggy is getting old and is not likely to carry this team to a playoff berth. The Flames will be one of the 4 Canadian teams on the outside looking in come April 11th. Shocking.

Verdict: Out.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Biggest Surprises of the Season

Crosby-less Penguins
The Penguins lost Sidney Crosby to concussion last season. It was surprising enough that he missed a significant amount of last season. Heading into the 11-12 campaign, I was looking forward to watching the league's most dominant player back in action. When asked whether Crosby would play at all this season, I said I would eat my shirt if he didn't.

Well, thankfully Crosby played a whopping eight games in November/December this season before leaving again with concussion symptoms. Concerning news for the Penguins, considering he didn't suffer any sort of head hit in those eight games. Since then, Crosby's progress has been a flatline.

Even with Crosby occasionally skating with the team, I hold out little hope for his return this season. The Penguins realize that Crosby could be the best player the NHL has seen since Gretzky and are not likely to rush him back when his injury seems to be so fragile. Compile this with the equally shocking news that the Penguins have been dominant without Crosby, thanks in part to outstanding seasons by Evgeni Malkin, James Neal (I bet Nieuwendyk is now seeing why everyone laughed at his trade last season), and Marc-Andre Fleury.

If Crosby DOES return for the playoffs--I'm calling it now--the Penguins will win the Cup.

Complete Disintegration of the Capitals
The Capitals have developed a reputation of dominating the regular season and falling apart in the playoffs. Washington discovered that Cup-winning teams not only score loads of goals, they also play good defense. To mend their steak of playoff collapses, the Caps became more defensive-minded last season, only to fail yet again in the playoffs. It seems this season that the Capitals have decided to skip the whole "regular season dominance" thing and just disappoint all season long.

After so many failed post-seasons, head coach Bruce Boudreau was in the hot seat. After a poor start this season, the Caps parted ways with the coach who had led them to a President's trophy and replaced him with Dale Hunter, who seems to have never heard of such a trophy. Boudreau was promptly snagged up by Anaheim, who has since seemingly come back from the dead to make a run at the playoffs.

Who's in the hot seat now? The GM for making that coaching change? No, it's Alex Ovechkin, whose 50-goal-scoring days seem to be fully in the rearview. Boudreau attempted to fire up Ovechkin by benching him after a bad play. Olaf Kolzig (former Caps goalie and current assistant coach) tired to get him burning by publicly calling him out. Now Dale Hunter has resorted to Boudreau's tactics by benching Ovechkin on Sunday night. Yet, it seems that nothing can be done to bring him back to what he once was for the Capitals.

Now with Nicklas Backstrom out and having been blanked their last to games, the Caps sit at third in a division that they used to annually win with ease and are currently outside the playoff picture. A truly shocking fact. And if you asked me today, I'd say that that won't change come playoff time.

Winnipeg...Need I Say More?
A perennial doormat in Atlanta, I figured the former Thrashers would gain a larger fan following (not hard to accomplish), but to have a shot at the playoffs? Get real. However, they've not only increased their fan following (the Jets sold out the arena with season tickets in minutes), they are also two points out of winning their division and sitting in third place in the playoffs.

Looking at their lineup, not a lot of names catch your attention. Evander Kane is beginning to make a name for himself and Andrew Ladd has been exactly what the Jets had hoped for as a captain. Now with Dustin Byfuglien returning from injury, the Jets look in even better position to make the playoffs. Oh yeah, did I mention the Jets have put themselves in this position with Byfuglien out for the month of January?

Let's also consider the fact that despite the Jets being located north of Minnesota, they still play in the Southeast division. It makes the teams' name seem a little ironic, doesn't it? How are they able to still have a shot at the playoffs? Oh, I don't know. Maybe it's because the crowd shouts like they're trying to bring down the walls of Jericho every home game. All I know is, if the Jets DO happen to pull off the unthinkable and finish third in the East, no one will want to be the sixth seed.