Thursday, August 11, 2011
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - The Rise and Fall of the Pacific
Like any of this is going to matter after the world ends on October 21.
Good morning, hockey fans! Last week we explored the longstanding link between hockey and the world of arcane mysteries; this week, it's time to take the Past and Present out behind the toolshed and fill 'em full of armor-piercing buckshot, 'cause it's mid-August -- the perfect time to start wildly prognosticating about the 2011-12 season!
Here's a quick, stunningly accurate-in-10-months preview of the Pacific Division, which will once again send four teams to the Western Conference playoffs this season. You can take that promise to the bank! (Editor's note: Don't take it to the bank.)
New Guys: Brent Burns, Michael Handzus, Colin White, Marty Havlat, James Sheppard, Mikko Koivu, Cal Clutterbuck, Niklas Backstrom, Kent Hrbek, Fran Tarkenton, Jessie 'the Body' Ventura
Good Riddance to: Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Ian White, Niclas Wallin
So... are they better or what?: No, but only because they're so regular-season good already that there's little room for improvement. Losing two of their streakiest scorers while their rookie savior and Matt Niskanen lookalike Logan Couture enters his sophomore slump means fewer goals, and the loss of Wallin on the third pair will hurt more than Sharks fans might admit.
Still, Burns is a decent pickup and has already spent his entire career playing like a San Jose Shark --that is, he's huge and fast and consistently underwhelming when it counts. He's only made the playoffs twice in his NHL life and was completely invisible, but you could say that about every Minnesota Wild player and be depressingly correct.
Havlat is another odd addition, a guy who's almost a point-a-game player unless he's playing on a defensively-responsible team like the Sharks. He's also a guy who's somehow lucked his way off the "season-ending injury" list for three straight seasons now, so either he's finally eating his Wheaties or he's totally due for a dislocated v****a in the second week of November. On the plus side, after a disgruntled Heatley is traded back to Winnipeg in late December the Sharks will look like geniuses.
So, uh.... better, then?: Same # of points, first place in the Pacific and their annual second-round simpering flameout.
***Los Angeles Kings
New Guys: Mike Richards, Simon Gagne, Colin Fraser
Good Riddance to: Wayne Simmonds, Ryan Smyth, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Brayden Schenn, probably Drew Doughty
So... are they better or what?: No matter what else happens with the looming Doughty holdout, the Kings finally have the four pieces every true Stanley Cup contender requires: two #1 centers, a #1 defenseman and a hot goalie. Although losing Simmonds is a huge blow to their present team and Schenn, probably, to their future, Mike Richards automatically makes them a team to be feared at all times and in all positions on the ice. Locker-room issues aside --because, really, who doesn't have leadership questions in Philly? Like, in any sport, ever?-- Richards gives the Kings a physical dimension East Coast sportswriters with 10pm bedtimes claim they had but they really never have.
They've got a solid two-way #1 d-man in Jack Johnson, two dependable stay-at-home shutdown guys in Scuderi and Mitchell who are in their twilight years, and an annoyingly excellent goalie in Jonathan Quick, provided he gets to sit out a game or two in the second half of the season.
Doughty's contract squabbles are more fluff than anything else, but it shouldn't surprise any fans of the other Pacific Division teams that he considers himself on par with Shea Weber. This, despite just one pretty good offensive season, not matching up against the opponent's top lines, throwing weak hits to pad his stats, diving a minimum of once per game and driving a bulldozer over lockerroom chemistry by holding his breath and demanding to be the highest-paid player on the team. His agent knows that 25 NHL defensemen —including Mark Giordano and Dennis Wideman— outscored him last season, right? Doughty doesn't suck, but he's not anywhere near as good as the hockey press considers him to be, either, so go ahead and hold out while the Kings rack up regular-season wins and regular-season powerplay goals with the guys who actually want to play hockey.
So, uh.... better, then?: Significantly so, and maybe, just maybe, they won't completely embarrass themselves in the first round next May. The Sharks are renowned to be chokers, but at least you can count on them to win one or two rounds each and every season. Now that the Canucks finally got out of the first round, the Western Conference's biggest choke-artists are the Kings and Preds. But the second-place finish in the Pacific will at least look good on their resumes on July 1st next year.
New Guys: Michael Ryder, Vernon Fiddler, Jake Dowell, Adam Pardy, Sheldon Souray
Good Riddance to: Brad Richards, Jeff Woywitka
So... are they better or what?: Make no mistake --losing Richards hurts. He led the team in scoring, made his wingers better, and played all two minutes on the point on every single power play. On the other hand, he was never the same after coming back from his concussion, the Stars went undefeated in the seven games before he came back, Loui Eriksson averaged a point per game without him, and Richards weakly surrendered more backbreaking shorthanded goals than any other pointman in the NHL. He also received the most favorable zone time, the best draws, played against the weakest competition, and still declined in PPG from last season. Not to mention that Mike Ribeiro, against far stiffer competition, averaged almost as many PPG as Richards did over the last three seasons.
That said, the Stars go from a team with two #1 centers to a team with one and a half. Jamie Benn was unquestionably the team's MVP in all areas of the ice last season, and now he gets the lion's share of Richards' sweet offensive-zone faceoffs, powerplay minutes and Loui Eriksson. Benn put up 56 points in 69 games playing every position on every line and in every situation last season, and should be primed to surpass that. Unfortunately for Dallas, Benn can't create offense and dish out the puck like Richards, but his playmaking ability and willingness to barrel into the net for goals should come close to making up for it.
More importantly than any other factor is the new coach, Gulutzan. Crawford wrote an easy ticket out of Dallas in the second half of last season, pushing an obviously-exhausted Kari Lehtonen out there each and every single night and starting the Incredibly Bad-Timed Turnover Machine Jeff Woywitka over Dallas' most physical presence on the ice, Mark Fistric. Gulutzan may not have won a Stanley Cup 16 years ago with a team stacked with first-ballot Hall of Famers, but he does seem to have a knack for success at every level he's coached at, and might surprise those who've written off Dallas and become the West's version of Boudreau or Bylsma.
So, uh.... better, then?: This is a better team than the one that was second overall in the Western Conference before injuries and shi**y coaching derailed their season in January, with depth signings and hungry rookies crowding every position. With Benn blossoming into a true #2 center and Alex Goligoski/Sheldon Souray taking over Richards' role in the powerplay, it shouldn't be a stretch to say that this team will be markedly better than the razor-thin one that missed out on the playoffs by a single point. How this squad would do in the playoffs, of course, is an even bigger question mark than any prediction of regular season success, but I'm going to go out on a limb and be the only sportswriter with the cajones to say Western Conference Finals.
New Guys: Mike Smith, Raffi Torres
Good Riddance to: Iyla Bryzgalov, Vernon Fiddler, Ed Jovanovski, Eric Belanger, Andrew Ebbett
So... are they better, or what?: Much is made of how they were the big losers in free agency, but you could say that about pretty much every non-Blackhawks Cup winner since the lockout and be stunningly correct. Bryzgalov is a good goalie with exactly two better-than-average seasons in his career and both were under Dave Tippett. His playoff numbers and ability are absolutely atrocious, in fact they are significantly worse than Sergei Bobrovsky's playoff numbers, and that guy allegedly sucks. Here's hoping the Flyers keep the gift receipt on him for whatever team they idiotically trade him to.
Phoenix has long been a factory churning out goalies who look awesome in a Coyotes uniform (Bulin Wall, Sean Burke) during the regular season only to massively disappoint elsewhere. Mike Smith will be coming the other direction --a large, fast, puck-playing goaltender that should thrive during the regular season under his old coach. Tippett's trapping system may annually get exposed during the first round of the playoffs--something Stars fans are too-painfully aware of-- but he's got the ability to take any roster and squeeze W's out of it like no one else. Fiddler is probably the biggest loss, but seeing the embarrassingly slow JovoCop take his 20 points a season elsewhere should make up some of that.
So, uh... better, then?: About the same, and the final Pacific team to make the final eight in the West, where they will once again lay on their backs and provide a free bye week to whatever division winner is lucky enough to draw them in the first round. Mostly likely those overrated softies in Vancouver or Detroit.
*** Anaheim Ducks
New Guys: Andrew Cogliano, Kurtis Foster
Good Riddance to: Todd Marchant, Andreas Lilja, Jarkko Ruutu, Ray Emery
So.... are they better, or what?: The Ducks are a paper-thin one-line team with no defense or reliable goaltending, and they just got even more like that. Replacing Marchant with Cogliano might be one of the statistically-biggest downgrades in hockey in a decade; it isn't every day you see a super-fast checking center who wins every crucial draw get replaced by an average skater who never scores and wins about as many faceoffs as the 1899 Cleveland Spiders won pennants. The Ducks' first line played absolutely out of their minds just to squeak into the playoffs last season, and they had Selanne scoring critical goals in the dying seconds of third periods down the stretch to help them. This team still has that, but everyone's a year older, and not in the good way.
The team's top two d-men, Visnovsky and Fowler, are pretty good except when they have to play defense. Which is often. And having the forwards double as on-Ice Girls when the puck is in their own zone is a recipe for Unbridled Excellence, as we saw in the playoffs when they gave up a half-trillion goals to the Nashville Predators, a team that has been deathly allergic to scoring since the Clinton administration.
The only real wild card is Jonas Hiller and his vertigo--oh, and if Selanne will come out of retirement or just leave George Parros as the team's #2 right winger--oh, and if Corey Perry can come close to 50 goals, 18 more than his previous career high--oh, and if Cam Fowler can avoid a sophomore slump, because even as a rookie he gave up a metric f**kton more goals than he had a hand in scoring--oh, and did I mention yet that Selanne is 41 years old?
So, uh... better, then?: This is the most flawed non-Western Canadian team in the West, but because they made it to the Big Dance, they were content with what they had and sat on their invisible laurels. No team outside of maybe Calgary has as many huge question marks, and if any one of those pieces fails to over-produce, you may be looking at Oilers South come January. So, yeah, worse, then. Waaaaay worse.
See more stories in:
- Thursday Morning Cupcheck - Why Your Team Won't Make the Playoffs This Year
- Thursday Morning Cupcheck - The Five Most Overrated Players in Hockey
- Thursday Morning Cupcheck - Circling the Drain in the Pacific
- Thursday Morning Cupcheck - So You Want to Comment About Hockey on the Internet
- Thursday Morning Cupcheck - 2011-12's Top Five Man-Made Disasters