Monday, January 22, 2007

Are There Any Elite Teams This Year?

The all star break is a natural time to try to put the season so far into historical perspective. One question I am asking is are there any elite teams this year? Elite teams are the kinds of teams that are historically great. They are filled with great players who play great together.

Last year, I made the controversial statement that there were no elite teams in the 2006 playoffs. Sure Carolina won the cup, but they are hardly an elite team. They won because somebody had to win and they were the lucky somebody. They won despite the weakest defence I have ever seen on a Stanley Cup winner. One year later (with a slightly different lineup) this team has allowed more goals than they have scored and looks to finish in the bottom half of the east playoff teams.

This lack of elite teams is not just a fluke. It is by design. The current CBA was brought in to create parity. No team is truly great in the league. That means we will no longer see playoff series that are epic battles between elite teams (you would need elite teams for that to occur). That is a real shame and it hurts the entertainment value that the fan has. Watching elite teams play elite playoff series was one of the appeals of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Now it is extremely hard to build an elite team. It is almost impossible to keep a good (but not elite) team that has some success together.

This season, does anyone look like they could be an elite team? At the top of the standings we have the Nashville Predators. This is a solid deep team that plays very well together. However, they lack any elite players. Is there anyone on the roster who looks to be on a Hall of Fame track? Possibly Paul Kariya, but he has slowed down a lot since the 90's. It is quite possible he never makes the Hall of Fame, but he is their most likely player at this point. In the All Star Game, there will only be one Predator (Kimmo Timonen). Elite teams should have lots of all stars. Nashville is a good team. They could be the kind of team that wins the cup, but they are not an elite team. They would be one of the weaker cup winners.

How about the East Conference? Do they have elite teams? In general the East Conference is the weaker conference. Tom Benjamin addresses this. Right now, in inter-conference games the west has a 56-37 winning record (where seven losses were regulation ties).

That doesn't necessarily mean there cannot be an elite team in the east. Buffalo has been the class of the division. Are they elite? They got off to a fast start this year and I skeptically addressed how good they are. I do not think there is a single Sabre that is currently on a Hall of Fame track. They do have three players voted to start in the All Star Game, which is probably proof of Sabrefans ballot stuffing ability more than anything else. Does anyone really imagine that Ryan Miller is having a better season than Martin Brodeur or that Daniel Briere is having a better year than Marian Hossa or Martin St Louis? Yet those Sabres will start in the All Star Game. In the defence weak East Conference (the three best defenders in hockey Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer all play in the west) there were no clear starters. Brian Campbell may be as good a pick as Zdeno Chara or Tomas Kaberle, but none would have had serious consideration in the west (even without the Rory Fitzpatrick votes). Buffalo is another good team that plays well together, but they lack elite players and thus are not an elite team.

So is anyone an elite team this year? Maybe. There is one candidate. The Anaheim Ducks. They had a record breaking streak at the beginning of the year (thanks in part to redefining the statistics in the "new NHL"). They have two Hall of Fame defenders in Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. They have a forward in Teemu Selanne who is on a Hall of Fame track (if he keeps up this standard of play it likely won't be long until I call him a Hall of Famer). They have a goalie who has already won the Conn Smythe who was looking like a Vezina candidate before getting hurt in Jean-Sebatien Giguere (he might be on a Hall of Fame track but this is at best debateable). This team has some elite players. They also have weaknesses. They have been too dependant upon their big three defencemen (Pronger, Niedermayer and Francois Beauchemin). They could use an extra big gun on offence. However, the potential is there. If things fall together properly, this could be an elite team. If things fall apart, as they have recently, this team is from from elite. Then again, who could be elite with two of your best three defenceman (Pronger and Beauchemin) hurt and your number one goalie (Giguere) also hurt and your other top defenceman (Niedermayer) playing hurt (his stress fracture in his foot will keep him out of the All Star Game).

In a league that has set rules to prevent the formation of elite teams (to the detriment of fans), there is one team that might emerge as an elite one. Anaheim has some of the pieces in place. If I had to gamble, I would say the road to being an elite team is a tough one and they will likely fail, but it is not impossible. There might be an eilte team this year.

In a league that has set rules to prevent the formation of elite teams (to the detriment of fans)

Which fans are we talking about here? Certainly not the fans of the small market teams that are now able to compete with the traditonally big-spending teams. If we measure the success of the league as a function of the dynasties it creates, then obviously the new cap is a horrible solution. To trot out the old saw- the NFL has even more 'parity' than the NHL, with Super Bowl participants often missing the playoffs the following year. Would you consider that station to be 'to the detriment of fans'?
Its a myth that the small markets couldn't compete with the traditionally big spending teams. Take a look at the last Stanley Cup on the old CBA. Small markets Tampa Bay and Calgary were in the finals. Now traditionally big spending New York had just had their 8th year of missing the playoffs.

The NFL is different from the NHL in so many ways that the comparison doesn't apply.
Are you nuts? Anaheim is not a complete elite team. Those 3 old men on defense you want to give such high regard for- get real. The west does not dominate the east. Please. Look at some of the teams aniheim has to play against. Yeah, the predators, sharks, detroit. Who has the most goals for in the east? Oh that's right, the not so elite Sabres. 185 points so far. The next closest team is Anaheim with 167. A healthy sabres team(including Tallinder) could beat any team. Miller is an awesome goalie and you are stupid for not thinking he could someday be in the hall of fame.
Higher scoring typically correlates with lower quality play. As Tom Benjamin wrote:
The disparity between conferences is so large it may at least partly explain why scoring is so much higher (6.2 to 5.7 gpg) in the East. Scoring is always higher in the minor leagues.
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