Wednesday, April 30, 2008

AHL Playoffs First Round

The first round of the AHL Calder Cup playoffs concluded last night. Here are the results:

Providence defeats Manchester 4 games to 0 Providence is Boston's farm team and Manchester is Los Angeles's farm team. Although this series was a four game sweep, it was closer than it would appear from that statistic as three of the games went to overtime. Providence was led offensively by Jeff Hoggan's 6 points and had strong goaltending from Tuukka Rask. Manchester's offence was led by Teddy Purcell. Their goaltending duties were shared by Jonathan Bernier and Jonathan Quick.

Portland defeats Hartford 4 games to 1 Portland is Anaheim's farm team and Hartford is the New York Rangers farm club. Jason King and Geoff Platt led Portland with five points a piece. Jean-Sebastien Aubin provided strong goaltending. Hartford was led by Pierre Parenteau who scored 5 points and Andrew Hutchinson who added four from defence. David LeNeveu provided their goaltending.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton defeated Hershey 4 games to 1 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is Pittsburgh's farm team and Hershey is Washington's. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was led by playoff scoring leader Tim Brent who has 11 first round points and defenceman Alex Goligoski who has eight points, which is good for second in the first round. John Curry was the Wilkes-Barre goalie. Andrew Gordon chipped in five points to lead the Hershey offence but they suffered from poor goaltending from Frederic Cassivi who posted a .860 saves percentage.

Philadelphia defeated Albany 4 games to 3 The Philadelphia Phantoms are the Flyers farm team and Albany is Carolina's farm team. Philadelphia was led by the goaltending of Scott Monroe who posted a .952 saves percentage. Their top offensive player was Jared Ross who scored four points. Albany had strong goaltending as well. Michael Leighton posted an amazing .968 saves percentage in a losing effort and Bryan Rodney added six points.

Toronto defeated San Antonio 4 games to 3 The Toronto Marlies are the Maple Leafs farm team and San Antonio is Phoenix's. Toronto was lead by Ben Ondrus's five points and Scott Clemmensen's strong goaltending. San Antonio was led by seven points from Brendan Bell and six from Chad Kolarik. In goal, Josh Tordjman put up a .941 saves percentage in a losing effort.

Syracuse defeated Manitoba 4 games to 2 Syracuse is Columbus's farm team and Manitoba is Vancouver's. Syracuse was led offensively by Derick Brassard and Derek MacKenzie with Karl Goehring posting a .929 saves percentage in goal. Manitoba's offence was led by Brad Moran and Jason Jaffray (who was limited to playing in three games of the series due to injury). Cory Schneider was a solid goalie.

Chicago defeated Milwaukee 4 games to 2 Chicago is Atlanta's farm team and Milwaukee is Nashville's. Jason Krog led Chicago in scoring with six points (continuing his superstar season in the AHL). Ondrej Pavelec posted a .929 saves percentage in goal. Josh Langfeld posted six points (despite missing one game of the series) to lead Milwaukee offensively. Pekka Rinne provided goaltending.

Rockford defeated Houston 4 games to 1 Rockford is Chicago's farm team and Houston is Minnesota's. Rockford was led offensively by Kris Versteeg and had Corey Crawford post an amazing .955 saves percentage and playoff leading 1.10 GAA in goal. Nobody on the outmatched Houston Aeros managed more than two points, though their goaltending pair of Barry Brust and Nolan Schaefer performed well in goal.

In the second round, Providence meets Portland (due to early finishes of both of their first round series, this series is already underway), Wilkes-Barre/Scranton meets Philadelphia, Toronto meets Syracuse and Chicago meets Rockford.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Best Team Of Playoffs So Far

A quick look at the playoff results so far make it clear that the Pittsburgh Penguins have been the best team in the playoff games so far. They have an undefeated 6-0 record so far. They have the highest goals per game so far in the playoffs and the lowest goals against. They have outscored opponents by a 23-9 margin so far. That is dominant hockey.

Of course, their record is improved by the fact they have played against a poor quality of opponent so far in the playoffs. They had a first round sweep against an imploding Ottawa Senator team who played the worst among all first round playoff teams. They have had two games at home so far against the New York Rangers, who are not exactly a frontline Stanley Cup contender. Had Pittsburgh been playing in the tougher West Conference, I think it is a safe prediction that they would not have as good a record so far in the playoffs. Nevertheless, Pittsburgh has looked very good so far and will likely be the East Conference representative in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh's success has come from some very good goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury was seen as a question mark in the regular season and led me to suggest that they would benefit by adding a frontline goalie. They never did add this goalie, but as long as Fleury can keep up his 1.50 GAA and .944 saves percentage they have a frontline keeper. Fleury has the best goalie numbers among playoff goalies who have appeared in all the games their team has played.

Offensively, Pittsburgh has had dominant performances from Evgeni Malkin (who I think is the early playoff MVP) and Sidney Crosby. Both have ten points and the best points per game in the playoffs so far (other teams have more games played and thus higher scorers).

Pittsburgh has played very well in the playoffs so far. They have been the best team in the playoffs to date and will very likely be the East Conference representative in the finals. They must hope that they face a beat up West Conference team to increase their Stanley Cup chances.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Is Dallas The Cinderella Team For 2008?

For the last few years the Dallas Stars have been a solid playoff team, but not one good enough to be considered a serious Stanley Cup contender. In a good year, if they draw weaker opponents, they might win a round or two in the playoffs. In a bad year, they might get ousted in the first round. This year looked like it would continue the pattern. Although they had a hot streak down the stretch, they cooled off in time for the playoffs. When they drew the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks in the first round, it looked like a good bet that they Dallas Stars would be eliminated in the first round.

Surprisingly, Dallas eliminated the Ducks in six games. They moved on to play the San Jose Sharks. San Jose is the Pacific Division champs and is also favored to defeat Dallas. However, two games into this series Dallas leads 2-0. Both of their wins came on the road in San Jose. This is setting Dallas up to be the surprise Cinderella team of the 2008 playoffs.

Dallas's success comes from good play on the part of goaltender Marty Turco. Turco is one of the NHL's better goalies. He is a very good goaltender, but a step below the level of Vezina candidate. There is a ridiculous idea that he cannot win in the playoffs, largely because he has never been the goalie for a deep run in the playoffs, but this is largely due to the fact his team has not been a top contender. Turco has consistently played well in the playoffs over the years. Blaming him for Dallas's lack of playoff runs is a simplistic misguided idea. Turco is a very good goalie and he has played well in the playoffs this year.

Dallas's success also comes from a deep defence. They have performed surprisingly well when Sergei Zubov has been out with injury. Zubov played last night in his first playoff game this year and may take a while to get into mid-season form (in the playoffs he does not have the luxury of taking this time). With Zubov out, Stephane Robidas and Mattias Norstrom have played very well. Dallas has had a strong defence without Zubov and it should get better with his return. The potential issue is the play of Robidas and Norstrom. They are both playing their best hockey of the season. Is it reasonable to expect they can keep it up? If they cannot, Zubov and Philippe Boucher, who are both returning from injury might be able to relieve some pressure from them.

Their success is also due to solid play from their key offensive players. Mike Ribiero is currently tied for the playoff lead in assists with eight and second in playoff points with 11. Brendan Morrow, Brad Richards and Mike Modano are all also performing at point per game rate or better.

This is what a hot team looks like. Several players are performing at higher levels than they did throughout most of the season. Everything seems to be clicking. As long as that momentum can be maintained, Dallas should surprise some more people and will be very hard to eliminate. The problem is that it is hard to rely on players who are performing above expected levels. Given time, they will likely revert to expectation. If this happens, Dallas is likely overmatched by their playoff opponent.

The playoffs are a long tournament. It takes almost two months of playoffs to win the Stanley Cup. In order to be the winner, a team must stay hot the whole time. If they cool off they will quickly find themselves facing elimination. Right now, Dallas is hot. They have been a streaky team this season. If the hot streak continues, Dallas will be the Cinderella team of the 2008 playoffs. However, all too often things fall apart for a Cinderella team. The players playing above their norms revert back to expected levels. That leaves Cinderella lying in a field with a pumpkin and some mice wondering what went wrong.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Changing Goalies In A Cup Run

The Detroit Red Wings are likely the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. They won the President's Trophy and have looked very good so far in the second round against Colorado.

When a team wins the Stanley Cup, they usually require top level goaltending. It was expected that Detroit would depend upon future Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek in net. Hasek is 43 years old and has had an up and down year due to injury. Hasek has a playoff worst .888 saves percentage and a 2.91 goals against average. Detroit has moved to Chris Osgood in goal. Osgood has played well. His .947 saves percentage is the best in the playoffs among anyone who has as much as two complete games played. He has a 1.09 goals against average, which is again the best in the league among goalies with two complete games played. Osgood is providing Stanley Cup calibre goaltending so far.

Osgood has won the Stanley Cup before (in 1998). That Red Wings team likely won the cup despite a lack of elite goaltending. They won because the team in front of Osgood was the best in the league. It is ten years later now and there is no reason to imagine Osgood is a better goalie today then he was in 1998. However, Osgood played well enough this season to play in this year's NHL All Star Game. Osgood is a solid goalie; he is not a spectacular goalie who is in any reasonable argument for the best goalie in the league today. Were Detroit to win the Stanley Cup with Osgood in goal they would do it because the players in front of him are the best group in the league. Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Brian Rafalski et al are a very good core. They are probably the best group of position players in the NHL. Detroit could win the Stanley Cup again with Osgood in goal, but it would likely not be because Osgood was an elite goalie as much as their position players are elite.

There is a recent example of a team changing goalies during the playoffs in a successful playoff run. In 2006, the Carolina Hurricanes began the playoffs with Martin Gerber in goal and switched to Cam Ward, who won the Conn Smythe. Carolina switched goalies in the playoffs and won. It is very possible that Detroit will too.

It's not a good sign for a team to have to change starting goalies in the playoffs, but it is one that can be done and a team still wins the cup. Detroit might be in position to do it this year. Chris Osgood is playing well enough to that he could do it this year.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Second Round Predictions

In my first round predictions, I did OK. I picked five winners and three losers. That is approximately the kind of result I would expect. Although it pales in comparison to last year's 14-1 run which clearly required a lot of luck to go with any skill.

Here are my second round predictions:

Detroit Red Wings defeat Colorado Avalanche This was a top rivalry from the 1990's. Detroit is probably the Stanley Cup favorite now that Anaheim has been upset. Their biggest question mark is goaltending, where Chris Osgood seems to have taken over for Dominik Hasek. Either of those goalies is likely a stronger choice than Jose Theodore in Colorado. Outside of goal, Detroit has more talent and depth at all positions, though Colorado does have some strong forwards. Detroit should win.

San Jose Sharks defeat Dallas Stars Dallas probably pulled off the biggest upset of the playoffs knocking off Anaheim. They have to beat another top team in San Jose. San Jose may have had questions about the slow starts of Joe Thornton and Brian Campbell in the playoffs, but they are too good players to not dominate some games.

Montreal Canadiens defeat Philadelphia Flyers I see Philadelphia as the weakest remaining team in the playoffs. Montreal has better goaltending in the rookie Carey Price and more depth in other areas as well. Likely we could see more riots in Montreal when they win this one.

Pittsburgh Penguins defeat New York Rangers Pittsburgh's offence built around Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marian Hossa will be tough to stop. I think it will take a better team than the Rangers. Marc-Andre Fleury has played well so far, but he is the potential weakness for the Penguins. Nevertheless, the Rangers have been a low scoring team this season and should be outgunned by the Pens.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Award Finalist Announcements

When the season ended, I who I would have voted for if I had a ballot. The NHL has in past years announced all the nominees in one big announcement. This year that will change. They will draw out the media attention over a longer period of time by announcing one award per day. Here is the schedule. I will refrain from discussing the actual award nominees until they are all released.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Ducks Face Elimination

The Anaheim Ducks are defending Stanley Cup champions. Although they started slowly this season, when Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne returned from sabbaticals, they were one of the best (if not the best) teams in the NHL. In the first round of the playoffs when they matched up with the Dallas Stars, who had played very poorly in the stretch, it looked like Anaheim would have an easy time of their first round series.

So far, their first round series has been anything but easy. Dallas leads it 3 games to one and thus has Anaheim on the brink of elimination. Dallas has outplayed Anaheim so far. They have outscored them 14-7 and outshot them by an average margin of 30-22. In this series so far, Anaheim has not looked like defending champions. As in the regular season, Dallas has been led by Mike Ribiero's offence (so far he has seven points).

All is not over for the Ducks. If you asked me if they could win three games straight against Dallas before the playoffs began, my answer would have been a resounding yes. In the slightly over a week of playoff games so far nothing has changed to shake that opinion. Anaheim is a good enough team that they could come back from a 3-1 deficit against the Stars. The problem is that they have to do it to continue on in the playoffs and that is a tough thing to accomplish.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

First Series To Turn Ugly

It is not uncommon for two teams that are playing a tough playoff series against one another to start to hate each other and have games that are full of fights and scrums after the whistle. This is a series getting ugly. even had a poll on which series would turn ugly first (though it is now gone from their website). The answer is the Minnesota Wild vs. Colorado Avalanche.

Game four of the series, on Tuesday night, which Colorado won 5-1, featured 144 penalty minutes. It is probably not a surprise that when the game got out of hand Minnesota would become a goon squad. Minnesota is a team with Derek Boogaard and Todd Fedoruk on the roster. At the trade deadline they acquired Chris Simon from the New York Islanders. That gives Minnesota the best depth in goons in the NHL (whether or not that is a good thing is another question).

A look at the penalty minute leaders of the playoffs shows it is filled with Minnesota (and Colorado players). Stephane Veilleux of Minnesota leads the playoffs with 25 penalty minutes. He is followed by Derek Boogaard his teammate with 24 minutes. Wild defenceman Kim Johnsson's 16 minutes ties him for sixth. Aaron Voros and Todd Fedoruk are tied for eighth with 14 minutes. That is five Wild players in the top ten playoff penalty minute leaders.

Some Colorado players have responded in kind. They are lead by Cody McLeod, who has 18 minutes and is fourth in the playoff penalty minute totals. Ian Laperriere has 15 minutes and is seventh. All told 7 of the top 10 playoff penalty minute leaders are in the Minnesota vs. Colorado series.

Game five goes tonight and if one team gets a large lead look for another out of control game. It will take some very good refereeing to keep things from turning really ugly.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Versus Viral Marketing Plan

I received an email a couple days ago from the Versus TV station. They are asking me to promote their playoff hockey coverage using their content. They offer press releases, banners and NHL playoff video anthems. These can be found here. In exchange for doing their marketing, I can be given "Thank You items" that include Versus Hockey - Air hockey puck ice trays and mallet and Versus NHL playoff posters. If my site goes "above and beyond" in promoting the playoffs on Versus I can receive merchandise including jerseys autographed by (Ryan? - they only give last names) Miller, Zach Parise and Martin St Louis and other autographed hockey memorabilia.

Here (April 15th post I don't know how to bring it up without the entire monthy archive) is an example of a blog running a Versus press release, although he has done a good job of balancing it with other television networks as well. Here is another less classy shill job for Versus.

This is not the first time that Versus has used this marketing plan. During the All Star Weekend they did the same thing. This got them some blog coverage such as this.

Although it might be a good thing for Versus and the NHL to try to get their message out through viral marketing, it is bad for the independent blogosphere. You read very positive advertisements for hockey on Versus and think a blogger wrote them, but it compromises the integrity of an independant blogosphere. Blogs used to advertise for the Versus or the NHL will not be critical when it is needed. It shuts sown a lot of the independant thought surrounding hockey. That is a bad thing. The biggest power of hockey blogs is that they are independent. Many writers exist who do not make a livelihood from writing. They do it because they love hockey and want to share their opinions. Those that gain a readership are the good ones that people want to follow. When the NHL or Versus provide prizes for spreading their stories, it compromises those blogs who partake. I do not like this marketing plan and I thought it was best to make it known to anyone who happens to read this post.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Canucks Fire GM Nonis

The team that is likely the biggest surprise to have missed the playoffs is the Vancouver Canucks. They suffered significant injury on their defence and yet only missed the playoffs by three points. This was a significant dropoff from their Northwest Division winning season last year. The team fell by 17 points in the standings from season to season. In an intense hockey market as Vancouver somebody had to be made a scapegoat of somebody to explain the dropoff.

The scapegoat was chosen to be general manager Dave Nonis. Nonis has been Canucks GM for the past three seasons. The team is probably in better shape after Nonis's run than it was before him. This is largely because he acquired Roberto Luongo from Florida and goaltending is extremely important in the NHL today. The criticism of Nonis is that aside from the best trade in the Canucks NHL history what has he done for the Canucks? Of course it's somewhat unfair to subtract a person's greatest move when evaluating their job performance.

Dave Nonis's Vancouver Canucks have been very close to the salary cap every year in his running the team. This has handcuffed him. It can be argued that this problem is partly his fault. A top level GM would have been able to make a move to create some salary space without weakening the team. Only a handful of GMs have been able to make these moves (Brian Burke and Lou Lamoreillo come to mind). Most GMs are not on this level. Most teams must have acceptable GMs who are not the most elite GMs in the league. Dave Nonis was among this group. It is possible to replace Nonis with a better GM. Some exist. But it will be very hard for the Vancouver Canucks to get one. Most likely, the Canucks will make a lateral move and hire a new GM equally capable as Nonis, but not any better.

In Nonis's favor, he resisted the urge to make a short-sighted move that would have increased the Vancouver Canucks shortterm chances this year. Had he made a move, giving up several pieces of the Canucks future for a free agent to be, the Canucks would likely have made the playoffs this year. Likely, they would have lost quickly in the first round and it would be a bad move overall. For that reason alone, I don't think Vancouver should have fired Dave Nonis. He should have been rewarded for looking after the Canucks longterm interests.

Vancouver is quickly becoming a "media fishbowl" the way Toronto and Montreal are. There are many media members who owe their jobs to second guessing the people running the local team. They spend their time pointing out how the local team is wrong and regularly call for the heads of the people in charge. Vancouver hired GM Dave Nonis when their ownership listened to this media and let Brian Burke go. This was Orca Bay's biggest mistake. Brian Burke went on to build the Stanley Cup winning Anaheim Ducks. Nonis has improved the Canucks somewhat by acquiring Roberto Luongo, but has been unable to make the Canucks a serious Stanley Cup contender.

The best way to build a winning team in the NHL is to hire a top level GM and leave him alone and let him build a winning team. Vancouver has been unwilling to leave that GM alone when they had one in Brian Burke. They didn't give Dave Nonis enough of a chance either. Until that changes, Vancouver will never win a Stanley Cup.

Monday, April 14, 2008

NCAA Season Ends

Over the weekend, the NCAA season ended. Boston College won the NCAA Hockey Championship with a 4-1 win over Notre Dame, in the championship game held in Denver, Colorado. The previous night, the Hobey Baker Trophy for MVP of the NCAA was given to Kevin Porter (a Phoenix Coyote prospect) who is a senior at the University of Michigan. Now is the time for US College players to sign contracts and turn pro. Here is a list of those that have turned pro so far this year.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Early Playoff MVP

It is still very early in the playoffs. All series except for Washington and Philadelphia have now played two games (Washington and Philly have only played once). It's probably too early to pick a meaningful playoff MVP, but I cannot resist doing it anyway. I pick Evgeni Malkin as the early playoff MVP. He has six points in his two games with the Pittsburgh Penguins which leads him in playoff scoring. This season, Malkin is establishing himself as a candidate to be the best player in hockey. He played very well during Sidney Crosby's injury and finished second in scoring in the league. He is a likely Hart Trophy nominee. He is continuing his dominance into the playoffs.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Oilers Handing Out Money

Yesterday, the Edmonton Oilers announced two signings. Tom Gilbert was signed to a 6 year contract at $4 million per year and Robert Nilsson was signed to a three year contract at $1.83 million per year.

Gilbert had a solid rookie season scoring 33 points from defence, but his contract is ridiculous. The Oilers are paying him to develop into a frontline NHL defenceman (he will have to be a potential all star to be underpaid on this deal). The problem is Gilbert is already 25 and probably won't make a significant jump in his output (players who make such jumps are usually a few years younger than he is) and he only has a one year track record of NHL play. Gilbert was the second highest scoring rookie defenceman this season (behind Tobias Enstrom of the Atlanta Thrashers but it is most reasonable to imagine that over his career he will be significantly outplayed by other younger defencemen who were 2007/08 rookies (including several of Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson, Kris Letang, Alex Edler, Matt Niskanen and maybe some others). This is a contract that will look bad in a few years. I think it already looks bad now. Gilbert is the fourth highest paid player on the Oilers going into next year. I don't think it's reasonable to expect he will be one of the four best. This is not much more money than the Oilers could not find to resign Ryan Smyth. Can the Oilers at least come up with a consistent strategy from year to year?

Robert Nilsson is the most valuable piece of the Ryan Smyth to the New York Islanders trade. Nilsson was not a rookie this season, but at age 23 is younger than Gilbert. I think he has a better upside. He scored 41 points this season and continued improvement is still quite likely at his age. In two years, when he is as old as Gilbert, expect him to be a far better player than Gilbert is now (or will be then). This is a much smarter signing for the Oilers.

In the salary capped NHL, finding the money to pay your young stars when they emerge as a talented core is a hard thing to do. That hasn't happened for the Oilers yet. They showed signs this year, but a playoff berth is still at least a year away. Paying their young players, like Tom Gilbert, as though they are stars does not help. If they do have young players break out in the future and the Oilers make a big jump in the standings, they won't have the money to pay them because the Tom Gilberts of the team have already been given it.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Wild Sale Complete

The sale of the majority interest in the Minnesota Wild to Craig Leipold, the former Nashville Predator owner was completed as the NHL Board of Governors okayed it. This is not a big surprise since Leipold already has a successful run as an NHL owner in Nashville. Leipold managed to sell a financially struggling franchise and buy into one in a better market.

Here is TSN's story on the sale. Since it was about three months since the initial sales announcement, we can call that roughly the minimum amount of time required to finalize the sale of an NHL team.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Ottawa Senator Implosion

The Ottawa Senators went to the Stanley Cup finals last year. They were picked by most people to do very well this season as well (I picked them to win the East Conference). When they started off the season with a 15-2 record, it seemed all was well in Ottawa, but things fell apart.

They have not been a good team recently. Since 2008 began, the Sens have an 18-26 record (with four losses counted as regulation ties). This record is 25th best in the NHL and worst of any team that made the playoffs.

They qualified for playoffs in seventh seed in the east and are playing the Pittsburgh Penguins (who I predict will defeat Ottawa). In the first game of their playoff series, Pittsburgh shut them out 4-0. Things look very bad in Ottawa.

How did it get this way? They have too much talent to be this bad. Even with Daniel Alfredsson injured, they have a good number of talented players, led by Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Wade Redden. It looks like the team's problems are mostly psychological. They have stopped believing in themselves and have given up.

It seems they lost faith in their goaltending. Ray Emery may have played well in the 2007 Stanley Cup run, but he was terrible this year. He put up an .890 saves percentage and a 3.13 goals against average. Worse his erratic behavior became a distraction to the team. Martin Gerber took over as the Sens number one goalie, but aside from a strong first few weeks, was unable to steal any games for them. When things started to go sour, they tried the desperate solution and fired coach John Paddock. That didn't turn anything around.

I think the team needs a break. They need a new start. Next season can provide that for them. In the off season, they will need to find a new starting goalie they can believe in and a new coach and general manager since Bryan Murray has not done the job. Ottawa has too much talent to play as poorly as they have. They should turn things around, even with the same roster next year. This should be one of the better teams in the NHL. I think they will be next year, but this year has been ruined. It seems to be too late to get back on track and have any success in the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

NHL Sets Regular Season Attendance Record

I was emailed by Mojo Tooth and asked my opinion of this article where the NHL raves about setting attendance records in the regular season this year. Apparently 21,236,255 people "attended" an NHL game this season compared to 20,861,787 last year. The main reason to take these numbers with a grain of salt is that the NHL uses tickets distributed as a proxy for attendance. For example, if a team gives away tickets to the local YMCA so that underprivileged youths can attend games, it counts in the attendance figures whether or not all the people who were given free tickets actually attend a game.

This leads one to add is the NHL really up in attendance? Does it matter if it is? What really matters is that the NHL is up in revenue, which they undoubtedly are. This will be shown when the salary cap for next season is announced as a larger one then we have this year. But ultimately why does it matter to me if the NHL attendance and revenue is up? It really doesn't. It probably means that more money is being taken out of my pocket by the NHL. I don't see why that is a good thing for me. It means it is harder and more expensive for me to get tickets to go to a game. I don't see why that is a good thing for me. Ultimately, the fan is best served when tickets are cheap and plentiful. This would happen when the NHL does poorly. Not so poorly that it folds up shop, but when attendance dips asomewhat.

From a business standpoint, the NHL sees it as a basic sign of competence of leadership if it grows every year. Growth means growth in revenue and not necessarily attendance. Attendance figures can be controlled a bit by distributing less giveaway tickets which count in attendance whether they are used or not, without any significant change to overall revenue. The NHL publishes its total attendance by season going back to 1960/61 in the NHL Guide and Record Book. Attendance has grown annually every year except for 1975/76 through 1978/79 (it declined each of those seasons), 1981/82, 1985/86, 1990/91, 1994/95, 2002/03 and 2003/04. That is 37 of 47 years when the NHL played (meaning 2004/05 is not included in the analysis). About 79% of the time, the NHL attendance rises. This can be used as a marker for basic competence of the NHL marketing staff. Things are not doing too badly if attendance rises.

What caused the NHL's downturns in attendance? The late 70's one was probably caused by a downturn in the economy coupled with the existence of the WHA. For many fans it was enough to go to a pro hockey game. It didn't matter if that game was NHL or WHA. 1981/82 also corresponded with a recession in the US, as did 1990/91. 1994/95 is easily explained by the lockout that shortened the season to 48 games played (the previous year had an 84 game schedule). Fewer games mean less attendance. The final two years of 2002/03 and 2003/04 were likely caused by the NHL de-marketing itself in preparation for the lockout. This may have been a decrease in tickets distributed without being an actual decrease in attendance. That is an interpretation consistent with the increase in revenue in the NHL at the time. The only year I have not accounted for is 1985/86, which I do not have a simple explanation for.

What this means is that NHL attendance can often decline during recession. The US is probably in a recession right now (probably must be used because recessions are not forecast, they are only known after the fact when economic numbers are available). It will be interesting to see if the NHL can keep its revenue growth (that is what really matters and not attendance growth) through a prolonged recession that stretches into next season. That will be a test of the "new NHL".

The NHL is growing. Throughout most of its history it is growing. It is a basic expectation that it should grow. When this does not happen, something is drastically wrong (although it often happens because of larger economic factors the NHL has no control over). The upcoming recession may be one such factor. The reports of record attendance are not a sign that the NHL is doing well, it's a sign that it is not doing badly as a business.

For more on the business of the NHL read this post.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

First Round Playoff Predictions

Last year, I was an amazing 14-1 in my playoff predictions. Doing that well with predictions requires a lot of luck to go with any prediction skill. When I made my predictions I didn't have anywhere near the certainty that would appear from the results. Just to prove that I do not have superior hockey prediction skills, I had a fairly middle of the road set of results in my regular season predictions (when compared to other bloggers and media members).

Here are my first round playoff predictions. I fully expect to get more series wrong in the first round this year than I did all of last season.

Detroit Red Wings defeat Nashville Predators Detroit is the first place team in the NHL and fully expects to have a Stanley Cup playoff run. Nashville is just happy to be here and prove that their franchise isn't dead. They can still win despite offloading considerable talent in the off-season and struggling to get an ownership group in place that has kept the team in town so far. Detroit has several players on their roster (Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Rafalski) who should be better than any Nashville player in this round. Detroit should win.

San Jose Sharks defeat Calgary Flames If Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf and Miikka Kiprusoff are at their best, Calgary should be hard to beat, but San Jose has been an incredibly hot team down the stretch (they have the best record in the league since the beginning of February). Joe Thornton, Brian Campbell and Evgeni Nabokov are approximately equal to the big three in Calgary when both are at their best, and Kiprusoff has never really looked his best this season. The Sharks should win, but Calgary will be a formidable first round opponent.

Colorado Avalanche defeat Minnesota Wild Colorado really improved down the stretch adding Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote and having Paul Stastny, Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth return from injury. Forsberg is yet to play three games in a row, but he seems to have been saving himself for playoffs and is playing very well. Minnesota is a very disciplined team led by Marian Gaborik, but I don't think its enough. Avs should win this.

Anaheim Ducks defeat Dallas Stars The defending Stanley Cup champions face the coldest team in the NHL. Anaheim has looked very good once Scott Niedermayer returned. Dallas has really struggled of late. Anaheim should win this one in what could be one of the more lopsided playoff series.

Montreal Canadiens defeat Boston Bruins This is a classic rivalry matchup from the original six days, but it doesn't look as classic anymore despite the unbalanced schedule which is supposed to be able to create rivalry. I think the expansion of the NHL has really diluted the rivalries of the original six days. Montreal is a surprise conference champion with far more depth than Boston has. It will be interesting to see if Carey Price can carry the team in the playoffs. I think he can take them further than one round.

Pittsburgh Penguins defeat Ottawa Senators A few months ago, if you told me these two teams were going to meet in a playoff series, I would have told you it would likely have been the East Conference Final. It isn't. These teams are meeting in the first round. Ottawa fell apart in the stretch and lost Daniel Alfredsson to injury. Pittsburgh may still have questions in goal, but they made a big trade adding Marian Hossa to go with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby (who may not be 100% healthy). Pittsburgh looks like the team to beat here.

Washington Capitals defeat Philadelphia Flyers The Southeast Division was by far the weakest division in the NHL this year. For a while it looked like their champion might not have qualified for playoffs had they not been a division champion. Washington has been the best team in the east for the last couple months of the season and needed that run to barely make the playoffs. The will match up with a Philadelphia team who struggled down the stretch. This is a match Washington can win, which is quite a shock. Even a few weeks ago, I would have told you that there was little chance of a southeast team winning a playoff series.

New Jersey Devils defeat New York Rangers The Devils have the best goaltender in the NHL in Martin Brodeur (the Rangers have a good goalie in Henrik Lundqvist but he is not Brodeur's equal). The Devils have a younger (but experienced) core in Zach Parise, Brian Gionta, Patrik Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner than the Rangers Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan, Scott Gomez and Chris Drury. I think the Devils have the better team and should win, but this on paper is possibly the closest of the first round series.

Monday, April 07, 2008

If I Had An Award Ballot

As I did last year I will pick the players I would vote for if I was given an award ballot in the annual NHL awards. These players are not necessarily the players that I think will win the awards, but rather the players I think should win the awards.

Selke Trophy- 1. Patrick Sharp Chicago Blackhawks 2. John Madden New Jersey Devils 3. Rob Niedermayer Anaheim Ducks

I think it is quite likely the voters will select an offensive forward who also plays a solid defensive game. In which case, Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings is a top candidate. That would be a mistake. This trophy should go to a forward whose defensive game is his primary value to his team. Here is why I support Patrick Sharp.

Masterton Trophy- 1. Owen Nolan Calgary Flames 2. Fernando Pisani Edmonton Oilers 3. Jason Blake Toronto Maple Leafs

This trophy is not selected by the same method as other awards, but it should be. Instead it has its own convoluted process. There is no good reason why it is not selected in the same manner as other awards - and there are reasons why the current selection process is not ideal. Here is why I support Owen Nolan.

Lady Byng Trophy- 1. Pavel Datsyuk Detroit Red Wings 2. Martin St Louis Tampa Bay Lightning 3. Jason Pominville Buffalo Sabres

Here is why I support Datsyuk.

Adams Trophy- 1. Jacques Lemaire Minnesota Wild 2. Ken Hitchcock Columbus Blue Jackets 3. Ted Nolan New York Islanders

I am well aware that my coach of the year selections are very different from those that the media will likely come up with. They usually select the coach of the most improved team for this award. In which case, Guy Carbonneau of the Montreal Canadiens is a likely selection. That said Lemaire may actually get nominated this year since the Wild won the Northwest Division. I think these three coaches were the most valuable coaches in terms of wins they provided to their teams - and no it doesn't matter that two of the three missed the playoffs. Here is why I support Lemaire.

Calder Trophy- 1. Nicklas Backstrom Washington Capitals 2. Patrick Kane Chicago Blackhawks 3. Carey Price Montreal Canadiens

Kane may have been the top scoring rookie, but Backstrom is a better player with a more well-rounded game. Here is why I support Backstrom. Price had an excellent rookie year, but didn't get into enough games played to be the winner.

Norris Trophy- 1. Nicklas Lidstrom Detroit Red Wings 2. Dion Phaneuf Calgary Flames 3. Zdeno Chara Boston Bruins

It could easily be a unanimous selection of Lidstrom as the best defender. Here is why I support Lidstrom.

Vezina Trophy- 1. Martin Brodeur New Jersey Devils 2. Roberto Luongo Vancouver Canucks 3. Jean-Sebastien Giguere Anaheim Ducks

I have thought this is the closest award race throughout the stretch run of the season, but in the end Luongo and the Canucks crumbled. Here is why I support Brodeur.

Hart Trophy- 1. Nicklas Lidstrom Detroit Red Wings 2. Alexander Ovechkin Washington Capitals 3. Evgeni Malkin Pittsburgh Penguins

I think in all likelihood, Ovechkin will win this award. His 65 goals were hard to miss. His team surprisingly making the playoffs will also be used as an argument in his favor. However, I argue Lidstrom is a better player who was more valuable to his team. Since he is a defenceman, his value does not show up in the scoring race the way Ovechkin's does. Here is why I support Lidstrom. I would argue Lidstrom had a better season this year than Chris Pronger did in 1999/2000, which is the last time a defenceman was MVP.

All Star Teams- First Team. Alexander Ovechkin Washington Capitals, Evgeni Malkin Pittsburgh Penguins, Jarome Iginla Calgary Flames, Nicklas Lidstrom Detroit Red Wings, Dion Phaneuf Calgary Flames, Martin Brodeur New Jersey Devils

Second Team. Henrik Zetterberg Detroit Red Wings, Pavel Datsyuk Detroit Red Wings, Daniel Alfredsson Ottawa Senators, Zdeno Chara Boston Bruins, Brian Campbell San Jose Sharks, Roberto Luongo Vancouver Canucks

Third Team. Ilya Kovalchuk Atlanta Thrashers, Joe Thornton San Jose Sharks, Marian Gaborik Minnesota Wild, Sergei Gonchar Pittsburgh Penguins, Brian Rafalski Detroit Red Wings, Jean-Sebastien Giguere Anaheim Ducks

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Last Day Races Decided

The NHL has come down to the last day of the regular season. Despite attempts to create parity, all sixteen playoff teams are determined before Sunday's games are played. The Anaheim Ducks, Boston Bruins, Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild, Montreal Canadiens, Nashville Predators, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals are the playoff teams. That is already decided. A few first round playoff matches are still to be determined, but that is far less exciting than games that decide if a team makes the playoffs or not. Those games are far less exciting then games that will decide if a team makes playoffs. It's a lack of drama for the final day of the regular season. Don't worry fans. Drama begins on Wednesday with the start of the playoffs.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Forsberg Still Has It

Peter Forsberg of the Colorado Avalanche missed most of the season with a sabbatical from the NHL which was done in part to rehab his foot and ankle problems. While he has been back in the NHL since the beginning of March, he has missed seven games and played eight since his return. Forsberg clearly has the playoffs in mind as his goal. The regular season is merely a tune up to get ready. As long as Colorado makes the playoffs, there is no particular need to take it seriously (despite what the NHL would like).

Forsberg has played very well when he has played. He has eleven points in eight games played. This is effectively the same per game scoring rate that Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals has this season (where Ovechkin leads the NHL is scoring). In the last few games, Forsberg has caught fire lately. He has eight points in his last three games. Forsberg should play very well in the playoffs. The question is how far can Colorado go in the playoffs. They are in the bottom half of the West Conference and should face a team that is stronger than they are and thus might drop out after the first round.

Friday, April 04, 2008

NHL's Most Unsung Hero

As the regular season is soon ending, teams will be giving away awards to players on their team. Most teams have an award for the unsung hero. A player who is very valuable to his team, plays very well, but is generally unknown to hockey fans. The best example of one such player is Johnny Oduya of the New Jersey Devils. He is the unsung hero of the NHL.

Oduya is a member of the Devils defence and plays very well. His 26 points make him the second highest scorer on the New Jersey defence. His +27 +/- rating leads his team and is tied for eighth best in the league. Despite these numbers, he is largely unknown by many NHL fans. He is a very successful hard working defenceman.

Oduya was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 2001 (he was picked 221st overall). The Capitals never signed him. After spending his draft year in the QMJHL, he returned to his homeland of Sweden where he developed into a rugged solid defenceman. New Jersey signed him in 2006. The Devils have always done a good job of finding relatively unknown unsigned free agents, Oduya is no exception. He was moderately successful in his first NHL season, putting up eleven points as he learned the NHL game. This season, he has matured into a very good stay at home defenceman.

It is often argued that Martin Brodeur's NHL success (he deserves the Vezina this year) has been due to having a good defence in front of him. However, now that Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer are gone from the Devils, people have started to argue that Brodeur is the key ingredient to the team. He is the reason the Devils have been a good team for so long. This assumes that the Devils no longer have a top level defence, which is not true. They no longer have a couple future Hall of Famers manning the blueline (and they have some good defensively minded forwards as well), but they have a good defence. Johnny Oduya is a key part of that defence.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Vezina Race Again

I have written a few times recently about the Vezina race for the best goalie in the NHL. I think it is a very close race primarily between Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks and Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils. When I last wrote about it, I picked Luongo as the leader. I have also picked Brodeur as the leader for a short time before that. I have basically picked Luongo as the leader off and on throughout the season, with periods where Brodeur and Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins led.

I think Brodeur has moved back into the lead. He has a saves percentage lead over Luongo (.920 to .918), a GAA lead (2.16 to 2.35) and a wins lead (43 to 35). Part of the difference is due to the fact Brodeur plays on a better team and likely faces lower quality shots, but I think the difference is large enough that it supports Brodeur having had the better season so far.

At this point, Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Anaheim Ducks is a likely third nominee. He has a better saves percentage (.923) than either of the two leaders but in far less work (57 games played). The Vezina race is close enough that I may change my mind depending upon results in the remaining few games, but for now I give Brodeur the lead.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Dallas Stars: From Hot To Cold In Time For The Playoffs

In February, the Dallas Stars were the hottest team in the NHL. They went on a streak when they won thirteen of fifteen games and rocketed to first place in the Pacific Division. Since March started, their fortunes have changed. Dallas had the worst record in the NHL in March. They went 2-9 (with two losses counted as regulation ties). Their six points in March was the least of any team in the league. They have gone from a team that looked like a powerhouse that would be hard to stop in the playoffs to one that looks like first round playoff fodder. Star defenceman Sergei Zubov is having troubles returning from a foot/ groin injury and might be out the beginning of the playoffs. Things do not look good in Dallas.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Dan Ellis: Another Surprising Goalie

It is very common for players to have hot and cold streaks in the NHL. When a player gets hot, even a mid-range player can look like an all star. Nowhere is this more obvious than in goal, because of the importance of goaltending to a team. This season we have had a few surprising goalies play very well including Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins and Ty Conklin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The most recent unheralded goalie to have a very hot streak is Dan Ellis of the Nashville Predators. Ellis leads the league with his .926 saves percentage. He has a 2.28 goals against average and a 22-13 record (with three losses counted as regulation ties).

Nobody expected Ellis to play a major role in the NHL this season. He had been drafted by the Dallas Stars in 2000 and after finishing a college career at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, settled into a role in the AHL. He has only played one NHL game before this season. Last summer, Nashville signed him as a free agent. Though they had traded Tomas Vokoun (last season's starter) to the Florida Panthers, Ellis was not slated to play in the NHL. It was expected that Chris Mason would be the Nashville starter with Pekka Rinne backing him up. Ellis was there to create some competition in the goalie ranks and provide a solid third choice in event of injury. It turns out Ellis won the backup job and has outplayed Mason. Nashville is using Ellis as their number one goalie right now (though Mason has more games played this season).

Ellis will not play enough games this season to seriously play in the Vezina Trophy race (a race in which I support Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks), but if he were to play at this rate over the course of an entire season he could win a Vezina. Not bad for a player who has only one game of NHL experience before this season, but is too old to be classified a rookie.

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