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Monday, March 30, 2009

Head May Roll in Alberta, Lecavalier Rumours and more

Some quick hits today as the NHL regular season winds down:

I can't be the only one thinking that if the struggles of both of the NHL's Alberta teams continue that heads will roll. In Edmonton, the Oilers front office put the sights squarely on head coach Craig MacTavish by adding two scorers at the deadline. The message was this: if you can't get this team into the playoffs after we've added just the thing you've been complaining you needed all season, you're gone. Whether the old-boys-from-the-glory-days network in charge of the Oilers will follow through if the Oilers don't make the playoffs is another question.

Conversely, I can't help but think that Calgary GM Darryl Sutter put the sights not on his head coach, but squarely on himself with his deadline moves. Dealing as many draft picks and younger assets as Sutter did to get Olli Jokinen and Jordan Leopold badly depletes an already thin Flames system. Not only that, but Sutter is the one who committed nearly $6 million a season for six years to goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, who's struggled badly down the stretch run. He also inexplicably handed journeyman defenseman Jim Vandermeer, who's played only 37 games, a three year deal worth $2.3 million a season, and committed big money to defenseman Cory Sarich, who's not one of Calgary's top four defensemen, and centre Daymond Langkow, who's now making $4.5 million a season to play on the second line behind Jokinen. These are all deals that run past next season, when the league's salary cap is expected to go down for the first time. If the Flames fail to make it past at least the first round of the playoffs, Sutter will have quite a mess on his hands here, and may well pay the price for it. And he does have a coach in Mike Keenan who has on more than one occasion gone from behind the bench to the GM's job when his boss couldn't cut it...

Is there anyone out there willing to bet against New Jersey coming out of the East in this year's playoffs? Anyone? Anyone? No, I didn't think so.

Somebody suggested to me the other day that with Zach Parise emerging as a new American-born star in the league that the NHL should be making an effort to market him to help sell the game in the United States. But if the NHL could never follow through with that line of thinking when Mike Modano was in his prime, an American-born player who was not only talented and fun to watch, but was (and still is) one of the most handsome guys you're ever likely to see, why would they get it through their heads to do it with Parise? With all the league's somewhat meagre player marketing push behind poster boy Sidney Crosby, we've already seen what can happen when an equally talented player such as, oh, Alex Ovechkin tries to hog some of the spotlight (see above). A better question is this: why can't the NHL seem to market more than one player as it's poster-boy at a time? Other sports manage it.

What happened to Florida's playoff chances? Not so very long ago it looked like they were a lock, and that they might finish as high as 5th in the East. Now they're floundering in 9th and might not be able to catch New York or Montreal. I don't see a lot of Panthers games here in Toronto, but I understand that Jay Bouwmeester's play since the trade deadline, when he figured into a lot of rumours but wasn't moved, has just gotten worse and worse. It must be driving his agent nuts. He used to have the hottest commodity going heading into this season's free agent period. At this point, though, how can a team not look at Bouwmeester's play in the latter quarter of the season and wonder if he just can't handle the pressure when the games get tough?

Finally, I understand that the Vincent Lecavalier to Montreal rumours just won't die, with yet another story in the Montreal Gazette today about them. But here's something for Montreal fans to ponder: there's a pretty credible line of thinking that says that Lecavalier hasn't put up great numbers this season and has struggled the last quarter of the season or so because his shoulder and wrist are hurting. Lecavalier had surgery on his right shoulder last summer, and because of it a scheduled surgery on his right wrist had to be cancelled. If Lecavalier's shoulder and wrist are both bothering him this season, well, those are problem that are over a year old, and thus are starting to look like chronic injuries, and quite possibly things he'll have to deal with the rest of his career. Lecavalier's 28 years old, and his 11 year contract extension with the Lightning begins this summer. Leaving aside just how asinine it was to sign him to that extension in the first place, we can now see several reasons why Tampa Bay might want to deal him, the first two being those injuries and their need to surround star in the making Steven Stamkos with talent closer to his age. But should Montreal really be anxious to add Lecavalier, especially if it costs them a couple of first round draft picks and either prospect PK Subban (who skates as well at age 18 as almost any player I've seen) or Max Pacioretty, plus a player or two off their roster? That's the kind of package Montreal media people were suggesting in January, and it's an awful lot. Especially for a guy with a guaranteed 11 year contract worth some $78 million and a growing history of shoulder and wrist problems. Even if he is French Canadian.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

The Ovechkin Story That Just Won't Die

I don't know if the manufactured furor over Alexander Ovechkin's celebration of his 50th goal (youtube video of it here) is a league-wide phenomenon, or if it's just here in Toronto that it's been kept alive in print and TV and sports talk radio for far too long, but it's hard to disagree what Bruce Boudreau said to a scrum of reporters the other day.

"It's 10 friggin days since it happened," said Boudreau "We have talked to Tampa's coaches, we have said our speech. The people that are bringing the crap up are you guys. Nobody cares about it anymore. You guys want to bring it up because you want to see a riot, then you want to talk about retribution. It's the dumbest thing in the world. You gotta have better stuff to talk about.

"You guys coming from Toronto to find out an answer on retribution where there should be no retribution at all," he continued. "He scored his 50th goal in a zero-zero game. It wasn't 8-0 where he made a mockery. If Tampa scores a couple of goals and wants to do a celebration, go for it. We have talked to everybody we can talk about. It's a done deal as far as I'm concerned."

This story is over, and I'm not only surprised people are still bugging Boudreau and Ovechkin about it, I'm surprised it caused such a stir in the first place.

The arguments I've heard most about Ovechkin doing his choreographed goal celebration are three-fold. First is that it sets a bad example for hockey playing kids who now might do their own big goal celebrations and show poor sportsmanship. Second is the Don Cherry argument that he's become nothing more than a clown, that people are laughing at him, not with him. Third is that he's embarrassed the Tampa Bay Lightning and made them feel bad.

My take on it is this: Alex Ovechkin is 23 years old. If showing a little youthful exuberance at accomplishing something great, something that no one else in the league is likely going to accomplish this season (Jeff Carter and Zach Parise are tied for second in goals with 41 each, both with just nine games left to play), is wrong, I don't want to be right. If you're a kid playing minor hockey and you score a big goal, go ahead and celebrate it, just do it in the same spirit as Ovechkin: do it because you're having great fun playing a game you love to play.

Ovechkin has plenty of time to become the robotic player who does a simple fist pump then hi-fives his teammates player that Don Cherry and many hockey traditionalists who can't remember what it's like to be 23 years old and doing something you love to do well anymore want him to be. And Don Cherry is not a man who should accuse anyone else of being a clown, not while wearing the various costumes he's worn over the years.

And if the Lightning feel bad about Ovechkin celebrating on something about it. There's nothing wrong with Tampa Bay wanting to show up Ovechkin the next time they play the Capitals by blowing them out, or catching him with a legal check, or keeping him from scoring another one. In fact, that's a good thing. One of the most common complaints about the game today is that there aren't enough rivalries. Well, these are the kind of things that create rivalries. If the Lightning player's self-esteem is so poor that they get depressed because of what Ovechkin did, they need to grow some thicker skin.

Image Source: Flickr / clydeorama

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

(Less Than) A Week from the Trade Deadline, Part 3

Our look at the players most and least likely to move at the NHL's trade deadline finishes today with the player's who aren't going to be dealt by Wednesday. In fact, we guarantee it (note: not a guarantee).

apologize for not finishing this trilogy of trade deadline columns two days ago, as promised. Bob Gainey didn't think my head was in the game and gave me a couple of days off to think about things (note to Panther fans: this joke works just as well if you replace Gainey's name with Jacques Martin's).

You can see our list of players who will be moving at the deadline (also not a guarantee) and the list of guys who might or might not be moving (which included Bill Guerin, who has been traded according to several reports but nobody seems quite sure where as yet). Today, our focus is on players who's names have been seen in trade rumours this season, won't be packing their bags on Wednesday. Probably. Their particular combination of high salaries, no trade clauses, their team's place in the standing, and their importance to those teams means they'll be staying put.

The "Not Going Anywhere Despite the Rumours" Guys:
Alexei Kovalev (Montreal), Ryan Smyth (Colorado), Vincent Lecavalier (Tampa Bay), Ilya Kovalchuk (Atlanta), Ed Jovanovski (Phoenix), Martin St. Louis (Tampa Bay), Michael Nylander (Washington), Scott Gomez (Rangers), Jason Spezza (Ottawa), Nikolai Khabibulin (Chicago), Martin Havlat (Chicago), Nathan Horton (Florida), Niklas Backstrom (Minnesota), Chris Pronger/Scott Niedermayer (Anaheim).

- Alex Kovalev's name came up a few times in trade rumours, as his much publicized "time off" from the team last week had some saying he had played his last game in a Canadiens' jersey. Much as being sent home to think about things might seem the beginning of the end for some guys on some teams, with Kovalev and the Habs, well, it's a little different. Bob Gainey took a lot of heat for his decision to tell Kovalev to go away for a while; Gainey is not the kind of man who's going to set himself up for that much criticism without cause. If he were going to trade Kovalev, he'd have done it before sending him home. Besides, while Kovalev's play has improved since his benching, the Habs wouldn't get much more than a second round draft pick or so for an inconsistent 36 year old forward who's about to become a free agent anyway. If Kovalev can get his game back on track, and with seven points in four games since coming back that looks like a strong possibility, they're better off keeping him.

- Ryan Smyth's name has appeared in the rumour mill a great deal lately for some reason. While yesterday I mentioned that Colorado will be trying to lower their payroll by next season, and they're definitely a "selling" team at the deadline, what with being last in the Western Conference and all, don't bet on Smyth moving. This appears to be another one of those rumours that looks to have started in Montreal (though recent rumours also have the Kings interested in Smyth), probably when somebody said "wouldn't the Habs be a better team if they got 'Player X'?" and somehow by the time it reached a rumour web site became "Bob Gainey is interested in 'Player X.'" This theme will be evident with a couple of other players on this list as well. Anyway, the reality is, Smyth has a huge contract for three seasons after this one ($6.25 million a season), a no-trade clause, and even though he's having a good season, tends to be injury prone and is already 33 years old. Nothing about this suggests Smyth will be moved; the Avs would have to take a similar amount of salary back for this to make any sense for another team, and if they're trying to cut payroll, why would they do that?

- Number two on our list of "only being a trade rumour because it involved Montreal" (but number one in our hearts) is Vincent Lecavalier. The Lecavalier to Montreal rumours became a large sideshow around the All Star Game in Montreal a month ago, but even though some hockey rumour sites out there (not mentioning names) are keeping this one alive. Mark this down: Lecavalier is not being traded. Yes, it does seem that the mess of rumours about Vinny came about because Tampa Bay GM Brian Lawton quietly let it be known Lecavalier could be had, for the right price, and that information leaked. But irate Lightning fans have apparently dissuaded Lawton to the point where he said last week that he would never move Lecavalier, and never intended to. There's still a slim chance somebody could make a move for him in the summer, but don't count on it. Let's just move on.

- Ilya Kovalchuk might be moved, but it won't be before March 4th. Kovalchuk can become a free agent in the summer of 2010, but that's not this summer. While Kovalchuk's given strong indications that he'll move on if he doesn't think the team is moving in the right direction, it would be foolish for the Thrashers to move him before they have even had a chance to talk to him about a contract extension. While it's possible he could be moved this summer, the more likely scenario sees him being traded before the deadline next season if Atlanta is once again a bad team next year. Stop laughing, they could be better next season. Really they could!

- As much as teams might want to add the talent of Ed Jovanovski, Martin St. Louis, or Michael Nylander at the deadline, all three veterans have no-trade clauses, and also make a lot of money for two more seasons after this one (quick quiz: which of the three has the biggest contract? If you guessed former league MVP and scoring leader St. Louis, you'd be wrong; Jovanovski makes $6.5 million in Phoenix, St. Louis pulls in $5.25 million, and Nylander $4.9 million). Phoenix's supposed desire to cut payroll motivated the Jovo rumours, but moving a contract that big just doesn't happen that easily. Pittsburgh was rumoured to be looking at St. Louis to play with Sidney Crosby, but after dealing Ryan Whitney to the Ducks for Chris Kunitz they may no longer be interested. As for Nylander, well, he's making nearly $5 million to be Washington's thid line centre right now, and it's starting to look like his free agent signing in the summer of 2007 was a mistake. But much as Washington might like to move him, that doesn't mean anyone will take him off their hands.

- Why has Gomez's name come up in rumours? Well, it appears to be because of New York's lack of salary cap space. The theory went that if the Rangers were going to make a move on somebody else, moving Gomez would be the prelude to that, giving them the salary cap space to do whatever they wanted, since Gomez is cheduled to make over $7 million for the next five seasons. But these rumours were mostly in connection with the Rangers either signing Mats Sundin to a free agent contract in December, which we all know didn't work out, or pulling one over on the Canadiens and getting Vincent Lecavalier, which is very unlikely. So it looks like Gomez is staying put, but unless he starts putting up better numbers soon, the size of his contract is going to look like a burden on the Rangers for a lot of years to come. As far as a lot of Senators fans are concerned, you could substitute Jason Spezza's name in that last sentence to describe how they feel about him in Ottawa right now. Spezza has a no-trade clause in his contract, which runs for six seasons after this one at $7 million a season, but it doesn't kick in until this summer. But it's littl emore than wishful thinking by Sens fans that he'll be moved by the deadline. Unless he and Gomez are traded for each other. Hmm...anyone know how to start a trade rumour?

- Earlier this season it seemed like a sure thing that Chicago would move Nikolai Khabibulin. After signing Cristobal Huet to a big free agent deal, Khabibulin looked like the odd man out. But the Blackhawks couldn't find a deal they liked and kept Khabibulin, which has looked like great strategy since Khabibulin and Huet have formed a great goaltending tandem. At this point the 'Hawks are still not going to find a deal they like for Khabibulin, not with his high contract and free agent status at the end of the year, but at this point they may as well keep him around.

- Martin Havlat is another one of those guys who's been persistently in trade rumours, but it seems like that's only the case because some who write such things think he'd be good for Montreal. But with Chicago firmly ensconced in a playoff spot and Havlat their second leading scorer, there's little to be gained in trading him right now, even if Havlat is a free agent this summer and might be looking for a raise on his $6 million salary. The Blackhawks are more likely to add a forward to play on Havlat's line than trade him. Trade rumours have seemed to dog Nathan Horton his entire NHL career, but like Havlat, he's currently one of the top scorers on a team that looks like a good bet for the playoffs. Unlike Havlat, he's signed long-term and still has a lot of room to improve his game. I've never really understood why his name comes up in rumours so much. He'll stay in Miami.

- Again from the "almost unfathomable rumour file," we have Niklas Backstrom of Minnesota, who supposedly might be traded if he doesn't sign a contract extension by Wednesday (he's a free agent this summer). Why this rumour is ridiculous: The Wild don't have a hope of making the playoffs without him. Minnesota currently sits 10th in the Western Conference, just two points back of Edmonton and Anaheim, who are tied for 7th right now. As good as Wild backup Josh Harding's numbers are, he hasn't shown the consistency he needs to be a starting goaltender. He's not ready to take over from Backstrom next week; the Wild will have to gamble that they can either re-sign Backstrom before he becomes a free agent, or that Harding is ready to take over by the start of next season.

- Finally, Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer's names have both been making the rounds of the NHL rumour mill during the last few weeks. The Ducks are probably looking at having to cut payroll by next season, and Pronger and Niedermayer would undoubtedly add a lot to any contending team's blueline. The Ducks are also probably looking at starting a rebuilding process soon, one that can only be helped by trading one, or both, of their two star blueliners. Some took it as a sign that when the Ducks traded Chris Kunitz and prospect Eric Tangradi they'd be trying to move one of these two by the deadline. However, the more likely scenario goes like this: with the Ducks competing for a playoff spot (they're in 8th place right now), they keep both defensemen and see how things play out this summer. Niedermayer will be a free agent, but if he wants to keep playing he'll probably re-sign in Anaheim, though the decision not to retire took him five months to make back in 2007. The Ducks can't afford to wait that long for him to decide again, but have apparently already told Niedermayer he won't be traded. Pronger, meanwhile, has a contract for next season, but other than Whitney he's the only proven NHL defenseman the Ducks have that does. The Ducks will keep both at this deadline, unless they get a truly knockout offer for Pronger that they can't turn down (which would probably involve a younger top-four defenseman, a good prospect forward, and a first round draft pick, at least), push Niedermayer for a decision on whether or not he'll return next season early in the off-season, then decide whether or not to trade Pronger before next season starts. If Niedermayer returns, Pronger will almost certainly be dealt; if not, they may keep him around.

To everyone reading this, I hope you enjoy the trade deadline as much as I will.

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