Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Best Forward Of October

With October drawing to a close, it is time to pick a new best forward of the season so far. Earlier this year I picked Paul Stastny of the Colorado Avalanche as the best forward of the season so far and the early season MVP. Stastny has since cooled a bit. I now pick Henrik Zetterberg of the Detroit Red Wings as the best forward in the season so far. Zetterberg leads the NHL with 22 points in 13 games and his defensive responsibility has helped him earn a +9 +/- rating. Zetterberg is looking like he might be a breakout star this season. Last year, he did very well putting up 68 points in 63 games and so far this season he is doing even better than that. Zetterberg is a big reason why Detroit is off to as good a start as they are.

I do not think Zetterberg is the MVP so far this season. That position is currently held by Martin Biron of the Philadelphia Flyers. He is the main reason for the Flyers resurgence so far this season. Biron's .948 saves percentage has been outstanding considering the Flyers have given up a lot of shots so far this year (they are currently third worst in the NHL with 33.7 shots allowed per game). It is this goaltending that has allowed the Flyers to win and have one of the better records in the NHL despite a still porous defence.

In the month of October, Biron and Zetterberg have been the NHL's best players. If they can continue playing this well, this will go down as the best season in either of their careers (at least to date).

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

First Sign Of A Dominant Team

One statistic problem that is important in sabermetrics and hockey is that of discrete counting stats. These are numbers where an even either occurs or it doesn't, such as goals or wins. It is not meaningful to score half a goal or win a quarter of a game. You either win the whole game or you do not win at all. You either score a whole goal or you do not score at all. The minimum possible error in interpreting numbers of this sort is two discrete events (and in many cases this theoretical error far underestimates the actual errors in the numbers). If one team has one fluke win and another team lost a game they should have won, their difference of two wins that this creates is completely meaningless. For all intents and purposes they are tied. They have the same number of wins within the minimum possible noise inherent in their win totals.

Putting aside complicating issues such as quality of opposition (in an uneven schedule), this means it takes several games before a picture emerges where any one team is ahead of the pack. Right now if we rank teams in the NHL based on the number of games they did not win (this includes losses in both regulation and in overtime and shootouts), there are three teams that are basically in a dead heat for first in the NHL. They are Detroit (9-3 one loss a regulation tie), Ottawa (9-1) and Philadelphia (7-3). From that information alone, we can conclude that any of these three teams have been the best team in the NHL so far this season (of course we have other information which I am neglecting at this point - information that may enter other teams into the argument). In order to better determine which of these teams is playing the best from their discrete wins/losses totals we must wait until more games are played.

Thus, we like to look for other statistics which are strong proxies for win loss records. Other statistics, which may also be discrete numbers, but accumulate at a faster rate so that we can have a better look at how teams are doing outside of the noise of discrete counting errors.

I think the statistic that most quickly accumulates that is well enough correlated with winning and losing that it is worth discussing is shots on goal. In the average NHL game a team will have twenty or thirty something shots on goal. After approximately ten games played, the differences between most teams in shots on goal are becoming statistically meaningful. The correlation between taking shots on goal and scoring and not allowing shots on goal and not being scored on and thus winning and losing from the shots on goal totals are meaningful enough that they give us a good picture of how well teams re performing. Of course, there are complicating factors such as shot quality and quality of goaltending on a given team which they do not capture, but nevertheless, they give us a first good look at how well teams are performing.

Due to the problem of teams having played different numbers of games played, we will take the discrete shots on goal numbers as ratios of shots on goal per game played. The discrete counting error is carried through into these ratios (along with any other errors that may exist), but they provide meaningful numbers.

With one look at the shots on goal per game numbers, it is clear that there has been a dominant team so far this season. That team is the Detroit Red Wings. They lead the NHL in shots on goal per game with 34.2 (this is a small lead over Carolina's 34.0 shots per game). They also lead the NHL in the least shots allowed per game. This lead is much more meaningful since their 22.5 shots per game is well over a shot better than the second place San Jose Sharks with 24.2 shots allowed per game. From those numbers, Detroit has clearly been the most dominant team in the NHL so far. Of course we can argue about just how well shots on goal really do correlate with winning. We can argue about if those numbers are flukes that cannot hold up throughout the season. We can argue many points that question just how dominant Detroit has been and will be this season. However, leading the NHL in most shots per game and in least shots allowed per game simultaneously is very impressive. I think the Detroit Red Wings have been the best team in the NHL so far and by a significant margin. I think this little analysis shows it very well.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Top Rookie So Far This Season

When I made my predictions for the Chicago Blackhawks, I said that their 2007/08 season would depend on the success of rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. So far, that has been correct. Currently, Kane leads the team in scoring with 14 points and Toews is fourth with 9 points. They have been the two top scoring rookies so far this season. This dependence upon rookies is magnified because Martin Havlat (Chicago's top scorer last season) has been limited to one game played due to a shoulder injury.

Chicago may not be a top team this season. So far they are 5-6 and have lost their last three games, but with Kane and Toews, the foundation is there for them to be a team on the rise in the NHL.

Kane has been especially impressive. His 14 points place him in a tie for tenth place in the overall NHL scoring race. For an 18 year old with only 11 NHL games played this is particularly impressive. He is the early season rookie of the year leader. He looks like a player who could have an exceptional career. His career may be good enough to rival other young stars like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.

It remains to be seen how well a small player such as Kane will hold up to sustained physical play in the NHL. He is listed at 5'10" (though some say that measurement is generous) and only 163 pounds. It has been a while since a player as small (particularly in weight) as Kane has succeeded in the NHL. So far he has done very well. Along with Toews, who is 19 and has nine points in nine games played, he represents the future of the Chicago Blackhawks. For the first time in several years, Chicago looks like it has a positive future. Kane could become an NHL star for many years.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

I NOW Consider Eric Lindros A Hall of Famer

I like to keep track of currently active NHL players and note the points when they have satisfied my Hall of Fame standards. The last player to do so had been Teemu Selanne. Today, I think Eric Lindros has satisfied my standards.

Eric Lindros? Why him? And more importantly why now? After all, he has not played a game yet this season and is more likely to retire than to ever play another game. Everyone knows Lindros was on a Hall of Fame track earlier in his career. He has a very good 855 points in 760 games. He won the Hart and Pearson trophies as NHL MVP in the lockout shortened 1994/95 season when he tied Jaromir Jagr for NHL top scorer. He played in six straight all star games in the 1990's and was considered by many to be the best player in the game for a period in the 90's (and by many others he would have been considered the best player in the game if only he could have stayed healthier). The problem was that with concussions, his career got off track and he hasn't had a very good season in many years. What has he done now to secure his Hall of Fame position?

His major recent accomplishment is helping to get the NHLPA back on its feet by playing a major role in the selection of Paul Kelly as the new NHLPA boss. That is an accomplishment as a builder and not a player, but it all helps his Hall of Fame credentials. The Hall of Fame standards explicitly look at a player's service to the game. In my opinion, Lindros accomplished 90-95% of what was required for Hall of Fame induction with his playing career. He was very close to induction standards, but fell slightly short. In working to re-establish the NHLPA, he filled in that missing piece. Sure the Hall of Fame inducts people as players, builders and referees/linesmen, but these categories are not designed to be mutually exclusive. Should a player also make contributions as a builder, it will help his Hall of Fame case. As long as his major contribution is as a player, (as is clearly the case with Lindros), he should be inducted as a player.

Lindros was an elite NHL player, although for a relatively short time. His concussion problems kept him from having a long career or establishing any significant career numbers. He also became a significant player in the NHLPA during one of its biggest times of need and helped to re-establish it as a viable entity that looks out for player interests. This makes Eric Lindros a Hall of Fame player.

Here is the current list of all the currently active (or at least not retired) players I consider Hall of Famers regardless of what they do or do not accomplish in the rest of their careers:

Ed Belfour
Rob Blake
Martin Brodeur
Chris Chelios
Peter Forsberg
Dominik Hasek
Jaromir Jagr
Nicklas Lidstrom
Eric Lindros
Mike Modano
Scott Niedermayer
Chris Pronger
Joe Sakic
Teemu Selanne
Brendan Shanahan
Mats Sundin

As more hockey is played this season, this list may grow. It also may shrink as players such as Lindros, Selanne, Niedermayer, Forsberg and Belfour are not currently playing in the NHL.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Devils New Arena

Today is the first NHL game ever in the New Jersey Devils new arena. They play the Ottawa Senators in the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils contribute $100 million to its funding, with the majority coming from public sources. This moves the New Jersey Devils from their original home in the Continental Airlines Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey into downtown Newark. This is a better location for the Devils to play. East Rutherford is basically a site for arenas. It houses the Meadowlands Sports Complex, Giants Stadium, parking lots and only a little over 8,000 people. That location made it so that few fans considered the Devils to be the hometown team. Now that they are in downtown Newark (the largest city in New Jersey) they will become the hometown team to Newark residents and they are more accessible via public transit. These are good things. In the past, when the Devils won the Stanley Cup, their victory parade was just around the East Rutherford parking lots. Now they have a city to call home. The move is slightly further than ten miles, which means that fans who commuted to games will still be able to commute with little change in driving times in most cases. They are still just across the Hudson River from New York City and thus still accessible to the New York market.

A new stadium typically leads to an unsustainable bump in attendance as people go to see the new arena. The Devils hope it grabs some of the population of Newark that had before not gone to games. In the past, the Devils have had a relatively low attendance with relatively high ticket prices (possibly this maximized revenue). An increase in attendance would be welcome. It was embarrassing when the Devils won the Stanley Cup but still had an attendance near the bottom of the NHL.

The Meadowlands Arena was a state of the art stadium when it opened in 1981. More than 25 years later it is being replaced. Ironically, it is not the stadium most in need of replacement in the Metro New York area. That is the New York Islanders home of Nassau Coliseum. This is another example of corporate welfare. The local taxpayers give large sums of money to build a new stadium (although the Devils did pay some) in order to allow the rich NHL owners who share part of a greater than $2 billion revenue stream to get richer at the expense of local taxpayers. Apparently, that is a reality built into the business of the NHL.

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Look At The Business Of The NHL

In a perfect world, NHL hockey would exist for its own sake. Decisions would be made based on what is best for the NHL. Making money would not be the driving factor behind NHL decisions. Hockey would be.

However, we don't live in a perfect world. We live in a world where every aspect of the game is sold to the highest bidder. We live in a world where finances impact every decision made by the NHL.

James Mirtle had a very good post showing how the NHL's finances have been doing for the past several years. He plots the NHL revenue after inflation during the Gary Bettman years.

It is a bit of a simple minded analysis because nothing is done to correct for expansion that has occurred (during this time, four teams have been added to the NHL - the Atlanta Thrashers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators). He does not try to adjust for the rise of the Canadian dollar (or decline of the American dollar) during this period. Exactly what value to use as the inflation rate is also a complex question. The fall of the American dollar on the world currency market might show recent inflation to be even higher than it is shown in Mirtle's analysis (similarly, the inflation rate in earlier years might also be incorrect). The NHL revenues are also somewhat questionable. While they have been defined under the current CBA (for the last two seasons), this definition of revenue did not exist in the earlier years and revenue numbers in earlier years may not be exactly the same under the current calculation.

However, the story is quite clear. In 1993/94, when Gary Bettman first came first came to power as NHL commissioner, the NHL revenue was $732 million. It grew annually (with exception of the 1994/95 lockout season that had only 48 regular season games per team) to over $2 billion in 2003/04. Even when inflation is taken into account, NHL revenues more than doubled during this period. This was not good enough for the NHL and led to the lockout that killed the entire 2004/05 season. Since then, while revenue numbers have been increasing in terms of raw numbers, they have declined when inflation is taken into account. From Mirtle's numbers, post inflation NHL revenues last season were less than the 2002/03 numbers.

We have a situation where NHL revenue in real terms has plateaued or even began to decline. This is after the previous growth (which was still not good enough to prevent the loss of a season from the lockout) which was in many ways fuelled by unsustainable revenue sources such as expansion and the building of new NHL arenas.

The current NHL is still looking for further unsustainable revenue sources in order to maintain their current numbers. There is talk of further expansion. New jerseys were brought in this season in an effort to increase merchandising revenue. Last season, the NHL retired the number of nine players (Ken Dryden, Dale Hawerchuk, Brett Hull, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, Luc Robitaille, Serge Savard, Mike Vernon and Steve Yzerman) in an effort to create special events to bring more fans to the arena. Nine players cannot have their numbers retired each year; there are far less than nine players worthy of this honor retiring annually. This is all an effort to grow (or at least maintain) flat revenue numbers.

What this means to the fan is despite the fact that NHL hockey is fine, further gimmicks will likely be brought in to try to find the magic formula to grow revenues. The game will change and likely in negative ways. There will likely be franchise relocation (starting with Nashville). There will likely be further labor problems as the NHL owners try to extract further concessions from the players in an effort to grow their revenue. These are all bad things for fans. The fan doesn't care if the billionaires who own hockey teams make more money or not. The fan just wants to see good competitive hockey games. In fact, if financial problems of the league create a larger supply of cheap tickets to NHL games this is a good thing for a fan.

These numbers are foreboding to the NHL. They are particularly to Gary Bettman's leadership. It might be a sign that his days as NHL commissioner are numbered.

From a business of hockey standpoint that more affects fans, Mirtle suggests that the salary cap may drop as a result of these trends. I doubt that is the case. There are enough mechanisms built in to keep the salary cap rising to prevent that. In any given season, an automatic 5% increase in revenue is assumed when calculating the next season revenue. As revenues grow (in raw pre-inflation) numbers, the player's share of the revenue also grows.

What can the NHL do about this? In my perfect world, they shouldn't do anything directly. They have over $2 billion in revenue and that should be more than enough to make everyone happy. I wish they could divide up their money without it affecting the fan so often. Let the game of hockey be. Do not bring in any more half-baked measures designed to increase revenue (no larger goals, no more expansion etc.). If a couple weaker market teams die or move, then let it happen. There is no value in changing the game of hockey to save the weak.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Best Goalie So Far

So far this season, I have picked Paul Stastny of the Colorado Avalanche as the best forward so far this year (though that pick is no longer likely correct) and Brian Campbell of the Buffalo Sabres as the best defenceman so far. It is time to look at the goaltenders. The best goalie so far this year has been Martin Biron of the Philadelphia Flyers. He is the main reason this team, which finished last in the league last season, is off to a good 6-2 start, which puts them first in their division.

So far this year, Biron has a .945 saves percentage and a 1.88 GAA and has been credited with all six Flyer wins. Last season, the Flyers used five different goalies (Antero Niittymaki, Robert Esche, Michael Leighton, Martin Houle and Martin Biron - but Biron only played 16 games for them as he was acquired from Buffalo during the season). They had a team saves percentage of .892, which is bad. Biron this season is allowing nearly half the shots on goal that the Flyer team allows to become goals, compared to the team rate last year. If you can shrink your goals against by almost half, of course you will see a big improvement in the standings. Philadelphia is still allowing about eight shots a game more than they are taking themselves. That is bad news. The tam is not nearly as improved as their position in the standings would show. Almost all of the improvement comes from the better goaltending of Martin Biron.

If Biron can keep up this extraordinary level of play, Philadelphia will have a fine season. Biron will win the Vezina and likely the Hart Trophies. However, there is no evidence over the course of his career to date to make us believe he is capable of maintaining this level of play over an entire season. He has been an acceptable starting goalie in the past while in Buffalo (though he eventually lost his job to Ryan Miller). He was not the kind of goalie who played in all star games or challenged for Vezina Trophies, but he was solid. That is the kind of goaltending Philadelphia should expect from Biron the rest of the way. Unfortunately, given the way the rest of the team is playing so far, that will not be good enough. Philadelphia will not maintain their position atop the Atlantic Division without a better defence and possibly more scoring. Their goaltending, which has so far been outstanding, is not likely to maintain that level all year. However, as long as it does, Martin Biron will likely be playing as the best goalie in the NHL so far this season.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Meehan Sends Notices Of Libel

As the NHLPA carries on after the mess created when they fell apart during the lockout and caved to ownership demands, there is plenty of mess to clean up. The NHLPA folded when several players and agents made it clear they were willing to play under conditions Bob Goodenow was rejecting. This led to Ted Saskin replacing Bob Goodenow as NHLPA head. One person who has publically been outed as a leader of the movement to undermine the NHLPA is player agent Don Meehan. Chris Chelios of the Detroit Red Wings, who was one of the leaders of the movement to remove Saskin has publically accused Meehan of this and suggested that he might lose his ability to be a player agent in the NHL. Meehan is striking back by issuing notices of libel to Chelios and several media outlets who printed the story. The history of the NHLPA remains complicated as they are still trying to sort out what happened during the 2005 lockout.

Here is TSN's story about the libel notices.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Using The Russian Situation To Get to The NHL

Because there is no player transfer deal with Russia, a player can leave North America to go to Russia even if he is under contract. Many have done this, including Alexei Kaigorodov, Enver Lisin and Alexei Mikhnov. This has created a very leaky pipeline of Russian talent coming to the NHL.

The latest player to threaten to return to Russia is Igor Grigorenko of the Detroit Red Wings. He has been in the AHL playing with Grand Rapids, the Red Wings minor league affiliate. Although he could leave at any time to return to Russia, he has an "out clause" written directly into his contract that he can leave after 3 weeks in the minors. Grigorenko made it known that he was going to use this out clause. Instead of risking losing him, the Red Wings called him up to the NHL.

Grigorenko is a good NHL prospect, but thus far he has not done much in North America. He has no points in five AHL games. The Red Wings will likely give him a shot, but they cannot offer much ice time to him and when a couple players return from injury (Dallas Drake and Johan Franzen), a decision will likely have to be made. Can Grigorenko play in the NHL now or will he have to be sent to the AHL (which likely means he goes to Russia)?

As things stand, unless a Russian player is an instant NHL star, there is a good chance he will decide to return to Russia before he gets a serious shot at playing regularly in the NHL. Since few players are good enough to be instant stars, most never stay in North America long enough for a career. This costs the NHL since it reduces its talent pool.

Here is a post by Red WIngs writer Bruce MacLeod on his blog Red Wings Corner explaining the situation.

Monday, October 22, 2007

"Undefeated" Team

The NHL standings claim that the Minnesota Wild have yet to be defeated in 8 games (at least they have a zero in their losses column). They did lose to the Los Angeles Kings 4-3 in a shootout on October 16th, but due to the ridiculous way the NHL keeps the standings, that is not actually a loss, it's a regulation tie. This makes Minnesota a team in the running for any records for the longest undefeated streak at the start of the year (a record that is cheapened because you can in fact be defeated and still be officially undefeated).

Minnesota has won with a very good commitment to Jacques Lemaire's defensive system. I have long picked Jacques Lemaire as the best coach in the NHL, despite the fact he was not a coach of the year nominee last year, and I feel he should have won. Though it is too early to assess coaching performance in any meaningful way, I think there is a good chance this could be Lemaire's year to win the coach of the year. This is not because people will finally realize his importance to the Wild team; it is because he could be coach of the most improved team.

This successful defence (Minnesota's 11 goals against is lowest in the league) has led to some very good numbers for goalie Niklas Backstrom. He has put up very good numbers in his short NHL career so far. The question is as he gets more exposure in the NHL and teams learn his habits, will they learn how to beat him? And how good is he anyway? How much of his success is low shot quality against?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

New Pick - Worst Player This Season

Earlier this year, I picked Kevin Bieksa of the Vancouver Canucks as the worst NHL player getting a regular shift. Since then, he has picked up his game with 3 assists in the 4 games since then. Thus I pick a new player as the worst so far this season. He is Steve McCarthy of the Atlanta Thrashers. McCarthy has no points in his eight games played so far and has a league worst -10 +/- rating. He is an example of what is wrong with the Atlanta Thrashers so far this season. When you have a defenceman as unproductive as McCarthy has been playing more than 17 minutes a game, it is hard to win. McCarthy is a former first round pick who was a junior star, but he has never made the jump past being a depth defenceman. His 16 points last season was a career best. An above average team would not have the depth to play McCarthy as much as Atlanta does. In Atlanta, if they don't play McCarthy, likely they would have to play somebody even worse.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Appeals Court Decision For Fantasy Sports

This week an important court decision was made in favor of fantasy sports games. Major League Baseball has been claiming that they own their statistics and require any fantasy baseball games to pay them a licensing fee. This may be a money maker for MLB, but it alienates many of the smaller fantasy sports games who cannot afford these fees. As a result, some smaller fantasy baseball games such as Swirve Baseball have closed up shop.

This position was challenged by CDC Marketing and Distribution, who run CDM fantasy baseball. They challenged this position in court. They won this case. This week, the appeals court upheld the ruling. The ruling was unanimous on the idea that baseball statistics are in the public domain and not owned by MLB. On another issue, they won with a 2-1 margin on the fact that they had signed documentation with Major League Baseball that asserted MLB's rights of ownership of their statistics in the past.

Major League Baseball was forced to argue against a position they had held in an earlier court case where they were sued in California by former player Al Gionfriddo about a fantasy game run by Major league Baseball using historic players and stats. Gionfriddo argued that retired players should get a portion of the profits of the games. In that case, MLB argued that the stats and players were in the public domain.

This result is good for fantasy sports and fantasy hockey because it reduces potential limitations on fantasy sports games by MLB (or the NHL) trying to control them with methods such as licensing fees.

Here is a article on this court ruling.

Friday, October 19, 2007

NHLPA Carrying On

The NHLPA is entering a new chapter in its history. The Ted Saskin chapter is definitely over and the Paul Kelly chapter is about to begin.

The NHLPA has selected Paul Kelly, a Boston lawyer, to be their new head. This is being put to a certification vote before he is officially hired. Paul Kelly has handled hockey related litigation in the past; including the case against former NHLPA head Alan Eagleson for fraud and embezzlement. He was also Marty McSorely's lawyer when McSorely was charged with assault on Donald Brashear (this was an incident that happened during a game). James Mirtle has a more in depth biography of Paul Kelly (as well as the two other candidates he beat out for the position.

The obvious question to ask is what will Kelly do as NHLPA head and will it be good for hockey in general? I think this question is being asked in a disingenous way by many (for example Bob McKenzie of TSN - McKenzie basically tells Kelly that he has to find some middle ground between fighting with the NHL (like Goodenow) and colluding with the NHL (like Eagleson or Saskin)). This is the media protecting their interest in NHL hockey. Eric Duhatshek of the Globe and Mail has a more balanced viewpoint.

What is obvious is the NHL has not been willing to "play fair" with the NHLPA in the past. They have had corrupt NHLPA leaders who have been colluding with the NHL through most of its history. The only exception has been Bob Goodenow and when he stood up for the player's interests, much of the media turned him into a villain. It was amazing that the owners locked out the players and yet Goodenow was the villain. It turned out that enough players and player agents did not have the resolve to stay out of work long enough to fight the labor battle and the NHLPA caved and removed Goodenow, replacing him with Saskin, in what was a move that violated their own constitution. When some players (Trent Klatt, Chris Chelios et al) challenged the way this was done, the media branded them as "dead-enders". The myth of an impartial media was shown not to be reality. The media makes tremendous money off of NHL hockey. They need to be in the good graces of the NHL to have the access to do this. In many cases, business interests are entangled. Thus it is in the financial interest to portray the NHL in a good light and the NHLPA badly if it opposes the NHL interests.

A sordid example of this entanglement comes from this example. In September 2005, when Chris Chelios was trying to press for details about how Ted Saskin replaced Bob Goodenow as NHLPA head, TSN's Gord Miller heard about this and passed details in an email to Bill Daly, the NHL's deputy commissioner. Miller told Daly that Chelios, along with former player Steve Larmer and lawyer Ian Pulver were among those leading the charge against Ted Saskin. Daly then forwarded this email to NHLPA head Ted Saskin. We have media members who instead of reporting the news are tipping off the NHL about it and we have the NHL passing information to the NHLPA to help keep their puppet NHLPA boss in power. This should be a scandal. Instead, it has not been well reported by many of the mainstream media outlets (The Globe and Mail is an exception). What is clear as the NHLPA goes forward with Paul Kelly in charge is that the NHL players are divided and an even greater number are apathetic toward labor issues. This reduces Kelly's options significantly. He does not have a backing of the players for any fight. The NHL knows this and may try to force a fight expecting Kelly to have to back down. There are many hardline NHL owners who feel the lockout did not produce nearly enough concessions from the players and will want more. I don't think Kelly can find this middle ground the media would like him to find because it doesn't exist. The NHL has never let it exist. When Kelly fails to find the non-existent middle ground, the same media members who are planting the idea that he should find it will start to vilify Kelly for his failure to do so.

Here is a Tom Benjamin post underscoring the idea that middle ground probably doesn't exist for Paul Kelly.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

First Panic

Only six games into the season, the Atlanta Thrashers were the first team to panic. Yesterday, they fired coach Bob Hartley. The Thrashers are off to a slow start this season. They have lost all six of their games so far. The only player on their roster who has scored more than one goal so far is Ilya Kovalchuk. This comes after last year where the Thrashers made playoffs for the first time in team history. General Manager Don Waddell made an ill-fated series of trades to build for a playoff run. This run never happened and Atlanta quickly lost in the first round of the playoffs. That poor move put Waddell in the hot seat and he responds by firing his coach when the team has a bad start (in an effort to try to save his own job). Until a new coach is found, Waddell will coach the Thrashers.

Atlanta is a better team than this start would show. I think they could still be a playoff team. They did it last year with a similar lineup and Ilya Kovalchuk having a less than stellar year. When Marian Hossa gets on track after recovering from his groin injury, Atlanta's tide will likely turn around. Of course that turn around would have little to do with coaching (it would have happened anyway), but nevertheless Waddell (or whomever has been hired as the new coach) will be given credit.

Here is TSN's story on the Hartley firing.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Best Defenceman Of The Early Season

The season is still young, but I have already been able to pick a best and worst player of the early season. Today, I will look at defenceman. The defenceman who jumps out as the best so far this season is Brian Campbell of the Buffalo Sabres. Offensively, he has 9 points in only 5 games. He is a +5 so far this season. Those numbers clearly standout when looking at the top defenders in the league.

Campbell is a bit of a surprise star. He was a sixth round pick in 1997. Until the lockout, he was a roll player in the NHL having never exceeded 19 points in a season. Suddenly, he scored 44 and 48 points in his two seasons after the lockout and his defensive ability has improved during that time as well. Campbell is a young enough player that if he can maintain this improvement, he could become an elite defenceman and even of a Hall of Famer, but he certainly is not there yet.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Flyers Disposable Goons

Historically, the Philadelphia Flyers have been one of the roughest teams in the NHL. This year appears no different. The two lengthy suspensions so far this season have been Steve Downie's 20 game suspension for his dirty hit on Dean McAmmond of the Ottawa Senators and Jesse Boulerice's 25 game suspension for a vicious cross-check against Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks. The Flyers have reacted in both cases by essentially getting rid of the suspended player. And why not? They have other goons who can take their place.

Steve Downie was sent to the minors after receiving his suspension. He is suspended for one month in the AHL and for 20 games whenever he is on the Flyers NHL roster. Since Downie is a good prospect (they picked him in the first round of the 2005 draft), I expect that sooner or later he will be placed in the Flyers lineup (likely during homestands etc. when the lack of a roster space is less important) in order to serve the suspension. He can be shuttled back and forth between the AHL and NHL to get some playing time during the suspension. At any rate, in the short term, Downie got suspended and as far as the Flyers are concerned he is gone.

Jesse Boulerice is not a prospect. The Flyers signed him after he came to their training camp without a contract. He is 29 years old and likely will not become a better NHL player. If he is suspended for 25 games he has little value, so the Flyers waived him yesterday. Boulerice is disposable. He did his job, but with the suspension he is no longer worth it.

The Flyers have other goons on their roster Ben Eager and Riley Cote are both ready to step up. They can play the rough and tough game and if they step over the line and get a long suspension they can be disposed of and another goon can be found. There is no shortage of potential goons floating around in the minor pro leagues. Why bother with loyalty to the current one you have if he gets a lengthy suspension, when the next goon is equally good at his job?

Also, it allows you to distance yourself from the players who are doing exactly what you want them to do. For example, Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren says:

I think we're in agreement that there's no place in the game for this anymore. I do think it was an isolated incident. Jesse lost his composure, lost his cool. It's something that's not the right thing to do, at any time

About the Jesse Boulerice incident. And yet, he carries on with Ben Eager and Riley Cote to play the same game Boulerice played.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The NHL's Leaky Pipeline of Russian Talent

Before the lockout, the NHL was the league where all the best players in the world came to play. This is no longer true. One of the main reasons for this is that less Russian talent is coming to play in North America and staying there if they have to play in tougher situations.

There are several reasons for this. First, the Russian league is able to afford to pay large multi-million dollar (tax free) salaries to their biggest stars. Largely this is due to an influx of oil money into the Russian economy. Meanwhile, the NHL has reduced the amount of money a player can make in North America early in his career by bringing in re-entry waivers. This year, any player who makes more than $100,000 in the minors must clear waivers to get called up to the NHL. Effectively that means any player who wants to get called up to the NHL must be paid $100,000 at the most in them minors. A Russian player at a similar level would easily get paid more money than that staying in Russia.

This creates a situation where a Russian minor league prospect must trade off potential future salary gains if he becomes an NHL star against the current reduction in salary he is receiving to play in the minor leagues away from his homeland. There is the possibility that the player will get a much bigger total salary over his career, should he become an NHL star, but if he doesn't make it he loses out financially.

Because there is no player transfer deal with Russia a Russian prospect can leave North America even when he is still under contract. This creates a situation where a player has more opportunity to leave and thus fewer players make it to NHL level.

The latest player to give up on playing in North America and return to Russia is Roman Voloshenko of the Minnesota Wild. He is embarking on his third season in the AHL, where the Wild system is trying to teach him the defence necessary to play in Jacques Lemaire's team and this has cost Voloshenko in his offensive numbers. Voloshenko sees himself not getting closer to the NHL and losing money in the process. If he leaves North America, he is likely never coming back and his NHL career is likely over. There still is quite a bit of potential that Voloshenko could have a good NHL career

Voloshenko joins an ever increasing list of players with NHL potential (in some cases proven ability) who chose to play in Russia instead. This list includes Aleksey Morozov, Sergei Zinovjev, Artem Chubarov, Enver Lisin, Alexei Mikhnov and Alexei Kaigorodov. The NHL would be a better league if it was not losing this talent.

Here is TSN's story on Voloshenko returning to Russia.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Worst Player Early Season

It's still very early in the NHL season, but if I can pick an MVP so far this year then I can also pick the player who has played the worst despite regular ice time. So far this year, that man has been Kevin Bieksa of the Vancouver Canucks. Whiled playing a lot of minutes for Vancouver (over 22 minutes per game) Bieksa has managed to put up a -6 +/- rating in only 3 games to go with his zero points. Bieksa appears to be a player positioned to fail this season. At age 25, he suddenly had his best offensive season of his career (going back to at least the year 2000 including several NCAA and AHL seasons). His 42 points was very important to Vancouver. It led their defence in scoring. He was rewarded with a large pay raise signing a three year $11.25 million contract. The problem is that it looks quite likely that his offensive success in 2006/07 was a fluke. There is no reason to imagine he can repeat it. If Bieksa cannot succeed offensively, his defence is only good enough to make him a borderline NHL player. It is very early in the contract, but I think it is very likely that the Canucks made a mistake signing Bieksa for the amount of money they did - given that he lacks any track record (beyond one season) as a good offensive NHL level defender.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Jason Blake Takes Masterton Lead

Jason Blake of the Toronto Maple Leafs has been diagnosed with cancer. He has a rare but highly treatable form of the disease called chronic myelogenous leukemia. Most likely, by taking a chemotherapy pill each morning, this cancer can be controlled and go into remission. There is no immediate plan for Blake to miss games, but he may wind up sitting out a few games (especially back-to-back ones) down the stretch if the strain gets to be too much.

Cancer is a very serious disease, but this case is not nearly as bad as Saku Koivu or Mario Lemieux's cases. Nevertheless, when an NHL player has cancer, he seems to be almost guaranteed to win the Masterton Trophy for perseverance and dedication to hockey as Phil Kessel did last year, when he missed about a month due to testicular cancer.

While cancer is serious, missing a month of a season for various ailments is rather commonplace in the NHL. I think a better choice for last year's Masterton would have been Owen Nolan who missed more than two years recovering from knee surgery that would have forced most players into retirement. If he has a solid season again, he is again a good pick. There are two other serious illness cases that could be serious Masterton candidates if they recover. Teppo Numminen of Buffalo had open heart surgery (and not for the first time) and Fernando Pisani of Edmonton has ulcerative colitis. In both cases, their careers are indefinitely on hold. Should they return, I think they are much better candidates than Jason Blake (who may not miss a game at all).

As for the Toronto Maple Leafs, this is a serious blow. As Mats Sundin is getting older, his days of being the Leafs top scorer may be over. They need to have other people ready to take his place. Jason Blake was one of the players they hoped might do this, but it is unlikely he will match his career bests (from last season) while suffering from cancer. Toronto has relatively few potential offensive stars ready to lead the club.

Here is the TSN story on Blake's illness.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Very Early MVP

The season is still very young and it is still likely too early to gage any meaningful trends, nevertheless I will pick the MVP of the very early season. It is Paul Stastny of the Colorado Avalanche who has 8 points in only 3 games. While I doubt this kind of an amazing scoring rate will continue all season, it is clear that Paul Stastny is establishing himself as a dominant NHL player. I picked him as the 50th best player in the NHL this summer. This is a pick which is already starting to look too low. Nevertheless, when this story was picked up by Fox Sports, the inclusion of Paul Stastny on my list was one of the more highly criticized points. For example one commenter wrote:

Okay, I understand you cant have everyone on this list but how can you logically explain to us that you think Stastny who you said "COULD have a break out year" is better than Vanek who HAD this break out year in his 2nd year?

Maybe its unfair to debate on this blog with people who comment on Fox Sports (as the readers of this blog are in general more knowledgeable hockey fans - you would have to be to bother to find such an alternative source for hockey information), but I think it shows a common problem among fans. With the unbalanced schedule, Paul Stastny probably has never been to the east coast city (which I assume to be Buffalo based on the number of current/former Sabres he campaigns for - some of which is deleted because it's not relevant to this post). Colorado missed the playoffs last year, so it is quite likely the commenter in question has never ever seen Paul Stastny play. He does notice that I say he "could make a big leap forward this season". His guy is already good (as is Stastny - who is even better) but he is unfamiliar with Stastny and assumes that since his guy is good and it might be that Stastny made my list because I project him to become good then he thinks he has a point to debate. The real problem is that in an NHL as large as it is, where some teams rarely visit other teams, a fan of one team could very easily be unaware of a very good player from the other conference (such as Paul Stastny) and that is a real shame. Fans should get to see all the stars.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Oilers Choose More Sewer

The Edmonton Oilers are signing GM Kevin Lowe to an extension. This is the GM who has seen his team crumble from game seven in the 2006 Stanley cup finals to one of the weakest in the NHL. The Oilers were forced to trade Chris Pronger (though the trade was rushed and brought back a poor return) and then chose to trade Ryan Smyth. Given the young talent the Oilers had put together this was defensible as the future Oilers team may emerge as a strong one. However, panic struck when the team collapsed down the stretch. Lowe abandoned that plan (if it ever existed) and decided to give up the first round pick (and other draft picks) to overpay for restricted free agent Dustin Penner. That is not a move that is smart for a rebuilding team (whether it may be smart for any other kind of team is another question). Thus it seemed Kevin Lowe was a desperate GM who had a contract ending at the end of the season who looked unlikely to be back. This isn't so. Edmonton is resigning him. What must he do to get fired (or at least not resigned)?

TSN has the story here.

NOTE: The contract extension is for four years. Has Lowe showed enough to get that much more time on the job?

Monday, October 01, 2007

Final Pre-Season Scoring

Last night, the NHL pre-season ended. There have already been two games in London, England played by the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings, but since the rest of the league does not start their season until Wednesday, pre-season games involving the rest of the league were still underway.

Earlier in the pre-season, I wrote about pre-season scoring so far and cited CBS sportsline as a good source for stats. Not long after I did that, they stopped updating their pre-season stats. The few sources that I know of that list pre-season scoring stats have already replaced them with regular season ones. So for the record here are the top pre-season scorers:

Final Pre-Season NHL Top Scorers
PlayerTeam GPGoalsAssistsPoints
Derek RoyBuffalo56713
Paul Stastny Colorado5549
Pavel DatsyukDetroit5459
Jason Spezza Ottawa5459
Chris Conner Dallas5369
Simon Gagne Philadelphia6279
Joe Pavelski San Jose6279

This list of top scorers includes more of the good players one might expect to see, although it is still dependant upon who got quality ice time (and not all star players did).

Derek Roy was the pre-season scoring star. He looks ready to take a frontline role with Buffalo now that Daniel Briere and Chris Drury are gone after a great pre-season. Paul Stastny, Pavel Datsyuk, Jason Spezza and Simon Gagne are all very good players who look ready to be top players on their NHL teams. Joe Pavelski is a second year player who might take a big step forward offensively. The surprise of the pre-season was Chris Conner of Dallas who has 3 points in his 11 NHL games so far. He is unlikely to be as big a scorer in the NHL as he showed in the pre-season. Likely, the top scorers in the NHL will look quite different from this list.

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