Thursday, January 10, 2013
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - The Winners and Losers of the NHL Lockout
Wait--what are we saying?!? We're ALL winners in the lockout!
Good morning, hockey fans! And such a fine morning it is: perhaps you've heard the good news? Last week, we did a by-the-minute re-telling of the epic USA-Canada World Juniors "game." Little did we know or expect or even suspect in passing that this same U.S. team would have such an easy time of it against the vaunted Swedes. Another two or three years, and we should just go ahead and split the U.S. team into two or three "B" and "C" squads, just so the rest of the world and Canada can keep up.
But that's not what we're celebrating to-day: With the end of the lockout comes the every-eight-years Winners and Losers of the Lockout Edition of the Cupcheck. We're not going to break it down by the personalities involved, either, although rest assured that if we did, Bettman would not come out looking so hot. Instead, we're going to see which teams benefited the most from the loss of 34 games, and which teams didn't. Since there are FAR more teams in the "loo-ahoo-ahoo-ser" column, we're just going to have to narrow it down to the bottom five and leave the rest to figure out where they stand.
**Winners and Losers: A Lockout Story**
Loser #1: Toronto Maple Leafs
Even before they veryexplicably fired their incompetent GM a week before training camp, this team was effed in the A more than any other team, and it's not even close. No team makes more money putting a crappier product on the ice. Like, in all of professional sports. Even the Blue Jackets make fun of these guys between crying sessions. But there is one thing that the Maple Leafs have going for them: ca$$$h money. Well, that is, until they silently went along with the other owners and gave away a minimum of 50% of their season's profits for absolutely zero gain. And saw the salary cap lowered, when they have the least amount of problems spending money of any NHL team. And then fired their GM for not trading what little they have in the prospect pool for an aging backup goalie with fading postseason numbers who is currently being enthusiastically run out of town by his current team/fan base (actually, not making that trade might be the smartest thing Burke has ever done. Welp, so much for that). Unless the Maple Leafs bring in some outside hockey evaluation talent (they won't) or see their thin pool of prospects all hit their potential high marks (nope), expect this franchise to be the laughingstock of professional sports for at least the next decade.
Winner #1: Los Angeles Kings
The Stanley Cup playoffs have a very definite negative effect on the Cup finalists in the following year. Witness Boston and Vancouver's atrocious start to last season, along with their lackluster postseason play and early exits despite being clear favorites. The Kings were in that same boat... until the lockout wiped out the 30 or so games that they were going to muddle through anyways. Not to mention that pretty much the exact same squad will be taking the ice in nine days, just with Cup rings and an entire calendar year of playing together under their belt. Damn you, NHL owners. Damn you all to HELL!!
Loser #2: Minnesota Wild
One might expect the Wild to actually come out ahead in a shortened season, seeing as how, 48 or so games into last season, they were the proverbial Belles of the Ball. Also, Koivu will probably never play more than 60 games in a single season again, right? So this is good? No. No, it is not. No team relied as much on pure luck to be "good" last season, and when the team inevitably got the results they should have, they were one of the worst teams in the NHL. Their lone saving grace to fix that problem in the offseason was to sign two big-name free agents: both of whom took steep discounts to play in/near their home states. The problem with that, of course, is that the Wild's owner betrayed that folksy, homey trust and took a leading position in the lockout, not just complaining about player salaries but working to cut said salaries by a quarter. That's the equivalent of your mom bribing you with her homecooked bacon-wrapped apple cinnamon pie to come over and mow the lawn, and when you finally show up she brings home a cold day-old McDonald's kids meal with the toy already missing. Organizational rot starts from the top down, and the moves Minnesota made to make them at least mediocre are now the same moves that both torpedoed any viable team chemistry this season while tying up huge chunks of cap space in the future.
Winner #2: Winnipeg Jets
Let's be honest here: the Jets are not now or anytime soon, a playoff-caliber team. Ok, maybe they are in the East. But what they are is a team with an amazingly supportive (for now) fan base, which seems to translate into a stunningly divergent home/road win-loss record. No team benefits as much from playing in front of their home crowd, so much so that these same Jets nearly made the cut last season despite a 14-22-5 road record. Cut half the season, and each one of those luck-and-cheer-based home wins counts all the more. Looking at the dreck at the bottom of the pile in the East, it wouldn't take much to squeak into a tiebreaker for that eighth and final spot.
Loser #3: New York Rangers
Trading a bunch of solid young two-way players for Rick Nash was their first mistake. Silently allowing other owners to cut half of their always-enormously-profitable season was their second mistake. Strike three is having a core group of scorers in their early to mid 30s not playing competitve hockey during the lockout. They're undoubtedly going to make the playoffs, but all they managed to do since their lackluster flameout in the playoffs was get older, slower, less defensively responsible and more prone to injury. In the most competitve division in hockey, that's a recipe for catastrophic failure.
Winner #3: Dallas Stars
On a purely physical level, no team benefits more from the lockout. The Stars' two biggest free agent signings, Jagr and Whitney, are both north of 40 and stand to benefit from a 48-game season. Their biggest trade acquisition, Derek Roy, needed surgery and wasn't projected to be skating at full-speed until January anyway. Their goaltender, Kari Lehtonen, starts out of the gate with beastlike ferocity before fading down the stretch after 60+ games. Their captain, Brenden Morrow, was sidelined by career-threatening neck and back injuries, and spent the entire offseason (all eight months of it) doing pilates and spin classes to get back his flexibility. And all their star players played competitive hockey in Europe during the lull. It is really that much of a Total Homer Pick to predict these guys as the surprise team of 2013?
Loser #4: Detroit Red Wings
Again, a little honesty up-front: without Nick Lidstrom, the Red Wings would not have the Cups, division titles or a single shred of respect from the rest of the league. None. Wings fans may not want to admit it, but this is 100% true. And now, we're about to find out just exactly how true that statement is. (Also, Little Caesar's? worse than Domino's). Even worse, of course, is that Lidstrom was still playing at a high level when he retired (not for him, not even close, but high compared to 99% of the rest of the league's d-men). He could have laced 'em back up for a shortened season. With that much more rest, and being in the same age class as fellow veterans Jagr, Selanne and Whitney, he could have tried to fit just one more Cup onto his first-ballot HoF resume. But Lidstrom wasn't the smartest guy on the ice for 20 years without learning a few things along the way. Like when to look at a roster like this and know when to stay retired. Can't blame the guy for not wanting to spend his final season on a non-playoff team.
Winner #4: Ottawa Senators
Say what you will about the statistical impossibility of Erik Karlsson ever repeating the insane numbers of his 2011-12 season, but during the lockout he basically took Jokerit on his back and led them to the #1 spot in the Finnish League. By launching a metric f**kton of shots on net and scoring. A lot. Add to that Daniel Alfredsson's final go-around in the NHL, Craig Anderson's ability to steal a game here and there, and you've got yourself a bone-fide #6 seed with potential for more.
Loser #5: Nashville Predators
Correct me if my math is wrong, because it usually is, but isn't Shea Weber making $26 million this season? For 48 games? Without his pairingmate Ryan Suter? This can only end one way: a slow start with Weber "underperforming" on the stat sheet for the first month, a middling middle where Barry Trotz changes up Weber's linemates every night trying to find the "right chemistry," and a flash-in-the-pan ending where Weber is finally putting up the 0.6 points-per-game he's being paid $500,000/game for. On the other hand, the Preds will finally get a piece of all that sweet, sweet shared revenue the NHLPA fought for, right? Right?
Winner #5: Anaheim Ducks
As much as I hate to bang the Old Guys Drum here, the Ducks are getting Teemu Selanne back for half a season, which can't hurt. More importantly, as one of the bottom-feeder teams financially, they didn't lose all that much during the lockout, and having a full(half) season of Bruce Boudreau behind the bench can only mean good things for the team as a whole. Plus, one of their goalie prospects beat the everliving s**t out of the best of the hockey world in the WJC. This team's got confidence, even if what they really need is a single serviceable defenseman. Baby steps, Ducks fans, baby steps.
Honorable Mention: Losers
Boston Bruins: If you were an NHL player, would you willingly want to play for Jeremy Jacobs at this point? I mean, yeah, for millions of dollars, sure, but he's not the only owner with the ability to throw around cash.
Calgary Flames: See above, but mix in a re-tread coach and an aging, overpaid roster full of underachievers and former Maple Leafs.
Vancouver Canucks: Losing Kessler for the season hurts. Not having your two best players lace up for even one minute of competitive hockey in seven months hurts. Paying out big bucks for marginal free agents from loser teams hurts. Losing the league's #1 backup goaltender might be the worst of all, however. Screw Luongo's wish to be a #1: the best option for the Canucks... unless some dip***t team offers the moon for him... is to stay put and give Vancouver the best goaltending tandem in hockey.
Honorable Mention: Winners
Uhhh... the Penguins, maybe? I got nuthin.
That's it for this week's Cupcheck. Tune in next week when we sit down with Jamie Benn and ask him what he learned playing in the German league. His horrified silence may surprise you.