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Thursday, October 9, 2008

An Opening Night Sing-Along

You know the song well, and frankly, I've been sitting on this video for a while.

It's made some circulation around the hockey blogosphere, but it's either going to be me or the guys at www.FireBettman.com that should bust this out to kick off the new season.

Without further ado - it's time we got this thing started. Sing along as loud as you can when Herr Bettman rears his trollish midget self out on the ice at Joe Louis Arena tonight.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Thanks For Playing - Part 5: Los Angeles

The final team in my series that can pack it in and call it a year and wait for 2009-2010 I really don't want them to go away. I'm going to enjoy watching them whenever they might land on my television.

Unlike the other four teams where maybe there could be hope for the future, in this case, the Los Angeles Kings have obvious signs that the future will be good and it will be enjoyable and they will be a force to be reckoned with. Don't believe me? Check this out:

Anze Kopitar: 32 G 45 A 77 PTS
Alexander Frolov: 23 G 44 A 67 PTS
Dustin Brown: 33 G 27 A 60 PTS
Patrick O'Sullivan: 22 G 31 A 53 PTS

Do you remember what place in the NHL this team finished last year? Second to last. They had the #2 pick in the Entry Draft and continued their road to filling the gaps in the defense - a defense that was so porous they allowed 266 goals last year, third worst in the NHL (Atlanta 272, Tampa Bay 267). With the second pick they chose Drew Doughty from the Guelph Storm out of the Ontario Hockey League. He alongside with University of Michigan stud Jack Johnson are the building blocks on which the backline of this team are going to be built upon.

That said, these are it for the highlights for this team. What's more incredible about the Kings is the fiscal responsibility that General Manager Dean Lombardi set in place for the Kings. They only recently signed Patrick O'Sullivan and they've got their eyes on the future despite having oodles of cap space and a glaring need to improve along the blueline and in goal.

Since even I can't sniff out these answers, I've gone to the source I trust best - another sarcastic hockey die-hard by the name of Rudy Kelly. You may know Rudy from his work at the Battle of California blog where they do triple-duty following the Ducks, Sharks and Kings.

I bothered Rudy with a list of questions I demanded answers for or it would be time for some regicide. He didn't answer and only said I'd be doing him a favor but when I told him that I wouldn't be able to resurrect him in a couple of seasons when the Kings are stomping everyone's asses in, he relented and offered up the information as he best knows how to dish it out.

HockeyJoe: I never thought I'd live in an age when
a Los Angeles team not named the Clippers was trying to be financially frugal but we know Phil Anschutz is rolling in money. Why are they insistent on staying as close to the salary floor as possible while seemingly hurting relationships with guys like Patrick O'Sullivan?

Rudy Kelly: Rich Hammond (the awesome beat reporter for the LA Daily News)
stated early in training camp that the Kings had a
$40 million cash budget
for this season.

There's two ways you can think about that: either they're going cheap and the Kings are screwed, or they're saving money in a lost year so they can spend more once they make the playoffs and are all awesome and rainbows come out of my ass.

I'm not sure if the whole Patrick O'Sullivan thing is really related; it's dangerous policy to just throw around money and rationalize it by saying, "Who cares how much money we spend, we're not near the cap." Next season the Kings have Kopitar, Johnson, Ted Purcell, Brian Boyle and Matt Greene up for free agency; they're going to need money. Plus, if Marian Gaborik wants to sign here we need that money too. (Hi Marian, love your work.)

The Kings seem to have very good scouting and are
seemingly teeming with youth at every position - why haven't we seen more and
better veterans mixed in with these guys to become more competitive right now
rather than biding their time towards the future? Selling guys on Los Angeles
and Hollywood and starlets galore can't be that hard....can

Rudy Kelly:
I think the reason good free agents haven't been signing here is threefold:

One, the Kings are terrible. Sure, LA has hot chicks and nice beaches, but guys ultimately want to win a championship and they realize the Kings are ways away from doing that.

Two, the Kings probably aren't offering long terms.
Like I said, the Kings have a lot of good young guys coming up and they need
financial flexibility that doesn't afford for big free agents. A guy like, say,
Jeff Finger isn't going to sign with the Kings if he knows that in a year or two
the Kings will probably trade him to another team in a terrible city like, well,
any other place besides LA.

Three, Dean Lombardi isn't stupid. I can't really think
of a free agent signing this off-season that I actually felt was fair value. I
would have been pissed if the Kings had signed Ron Hainsey or Brian Campbell to
their ridiculous deals. Dean Lombardi has said he offered deals to Chris Drury
and Zdeno Chara but they just weren't enough. I can't say I blame him for

HockeyJoe: Offensively, there are guys on this team that will pile up points (Brown, Frolov, Kopitar) and outsiders will look at them and say, "These guys shouldn't be this bad - what gives?" What do you tell these apparent fantasy hockey gurus?

Rudy Kelly: The Kings are a pretty dynamic offensive team: they finished 12th in goals scored, which is pretty amazing when you consider they played 24 games against Dallas, Anaheim and San Jose, 3 of the top 6 defensive teams in the NHL last season. They should only get better this season with a new 2nd-line center (Jarrett Stoll) and more youth in the bottom six.

The problem, of course, is the defense. Our best defenseman is 21 year-old
Jack Johnson. Eek. New additions Matt Greene and Sean O'Donnell were basically
#6 defensemen on their old teams and 18 year-old Drew Doughty is going to be
their fourth defenseman. A bigger problem is that Johnson, Greene and O'Donnell
all take a lot of penalties, which is going to leave them short-handed a lot
more than they were last season.

Jason Labarbera is a good goaltender on a bad team, but he's proven a
little inconsistent and injury-prone over the past few years. I think the new
schedule change will help the Kings because they'll play more non-division
games, but those 24 games against the brutal Pacific are going to kill

HockeyJoe: If you were the GM: What kind of deal do you give Patrick O'Sullivan? Would Schneider have been a pick up? Khabibulin? What move would you make right now to get this team into the playoff hunt today?
(note: O'Sullivan was signed an hour after this e-mail correspondence was sent)

Rudy Kelly: Overall I'm really stoked (that's SoCal slang, baby) about Patrick O'Sullivan's deal. He ended up getting a 3-year, $2.95 million dollar deal, a deal that pays him while providing a lot of flexibility for the Kings going into next season. By the end of the deal the Kings will know who has panned out from their prospect pool and should have Alex Frolov either tied down or shipped off. I think O'Sullivan will eventually price himself off the Kings, but he's a good young player that can play all three forward positions and I'll enjoy watching him the next few years.

I would have loved to have Mathieu Schneider on the Kings and was
disappointed the Kings didn't get him. I think they could have gotten him easily because Schneider wanted to stay in Southern California but ultimately the Kings couldn't afford him. It is what is is. If I had wanted to get the Kings into the playoffs this off-season, I would have traded for Schneider and either Jay McKee from the Blues or Adrian Aucoin from the Flames. Both could have been had for cheap because they're teams were up against the cap.

I wouldn't have gone for Khabibulin because I actually think he's about as good as Labarbera at this point in his career. The Kings aren't that far off. They have a franchise player, a solid young defensive core, a great supporting cast, and a 3 good young goaltenders in the pipeline.

The Kings have made the stew; now it just needs to simmer for about 2
years. Of course, it does me no good because I'll be dead by then, but I'm sure my loved ones will be celebrating.

This is where all of us folks in the blogosphere and the hockey writing world all agree. There's a ton to like in Los Angeles and there's a zillion reasons to want to get in on the Kings bandwagon because it's going to fill up fast.

Even Mike Brophy from Sportsnet Ontario knows what's up:

"So let me say this then: the Kings could miss the playoffs and may very
well finish last in the West (I think the Islanders have the best shot at
finishing last overall), but I'd rather be the Los Angeles Kings than the
Toronto Maple Leafs, or the Islanders, or the St. Louis Blues, or the Vancouver
Canucks, or the Colorado Avalanche.

...When I look at the Kings I see a team that has the potential to take a
giant step forward very soon as long as ownership continues to show patience. GM
Dean Lombardi has been very calculating in turning this team around and he
understands there are no quick fixes in today's NHL."

The Kings are going to end up being a very good and very dangerous team.

Just not this year.

Like Rudy mentioned, their division is brutal with Anaheim, Dallas and San Jose. Mix in what should be a better Phoenix team and the Kings are going to take their lumps hard, especially with what figures to be suspect goaltending with Jason LaBarbera and Erik Ersberg (and Jonathan Quick mixed in too) made to look even worse thanks to very suspect defense.

I'm looking forward to watching the Kings play. They're going to score goals. They're going to play up-tempo. They're going to frustrate teams with their offensive talent. They're also not going to be able to stop anyone else from scoring either - firewagon hockey at its best, you just can't be a Kings fan and totally warm up to it since they're going to end up on the short end of the stick more often than not.

They're going to stink this year. The entire Western Conference is brutally difficult. Like I pointed out already, the only other true patsy is in St. Louis. Fear not L.A. fans, you're only a couple of years away from getting to stand on the top of the mountain and saying...

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Thanks For Playing - Part 4: New York Islanders

You could make an argument that while the 2007-2008 Atlantic Division had one of the more interesting and exciting playoff races ripe with rivalries in full effect, old school hatred brimming over and plenty of tight games to decide who landed where in the standings that it may have been one of the most exciting divisions to watch beat each other up endlessly throughout the unbalanced schedule.

You remember that nightmare where intradivision opponents would play each other up to eight times a year during the regular season. This was Herr Bettman's method of developing rivalries between teams within the division.

Think of how dumb that sounds on its own. For the most part, these divisions featured teams that have been playing each other since each other's inception. The Atlantic, in this case, had no expansion teams - the most recent addition to the crew was the Devils in the early 80s and they managed to tick off the Rangers, Flyers and Penguins over the course of the last 20 years pretty easily. The battles between the Flyers and Rangers, Penguins and Flyers, and the playoff matchups that ensued between the Devils and Rangers as well as the Pens against the Rangers and Flyers proved that Gary Bettman's means of creating rivalries, in the Atlantic Division's case, was pretty freakin' stupid.

The Atlantic featured some of the closest games last year and had some of the best competition on the ice in the NHL....

Hang on, sorry. That's what the NHL suits would like me to write. Here's what it really was like.


Let me clarify a bit. Games that involved teams from outside of Pennsylvania were horribly, terribly, boring.

The biggest offenders of this? You ready for it?

No, seriously...You ready to hear who the most brutally boring team in the Atlantic Division as well as the entire NHL was last year?


Surprised? You better not be - get ready for a statistical throwdown.

I'm showing you the standings because there's a column to the right of wins, losses and losses obtained due to the skills competition. It's the GF column. That's "Goals For" for those of you who have been dumbstruck by the revelation that the New Jersey Devils weren't the most boring team in the NHL.

The Islanders scored 194 goals last season - good for second-lowest in the NHL. Columbus was one worse with 193. They allowed a stunning 243 which makes it more abundantly clear who Philadelphia and Pittsburgh seemed to be lighting up the most. The Flyers allowed 233 goals but they at least covered up for themselves scoring 248, best in the division. The Flyers also finished the year as the #6 seed in the Eastern Conference and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Islanders finished 13th in the East and 15 points out of the 8th spot in the playoffs. With Ted Nolan at the helm and teaching an overly cautious defense-first style of play on a team that was also riddled with injuries...well, suffice to say, it wasn't meant to be for the Isles.

This year? Ted Nolan is out after disagreeing with General Manager Garth Snow over just about everything and Scott Gordon moves up from the AHL where he coached the Providence Bruins. With him, Gordon brings his upbeat, pressing and attacking brand of hockey. Good things, right?

Not so fast. The Isles are severely lacking in a little thing called "talent." To their credit, they were smart and tricked/convinced college standout Kyle Okposo to leave the University of Minnesota and jump into the fire in the NHL. This year, he'll be counted on heavily to make a major contribution to a team that is relying heavily upon untested youth.

Sure you've got Mr. Hillary Duff, Mike Comrie leading the way, but he's coming off of off-season surgery. By the way, Comrie lead the Isles in scoring last year with 49 points. 49!

There's the semi-ageless Bill Guerin on the wing and while, sure, he's the captain of this team... I can't think of another captain in the league who's as well-traveled as Guerin is. Then again, Isles owner Charles Wang figured that naming him captain upon arrival to the Island was a good idea, especially since Alexei Yashin was given the boot. I guess anyone would've been a step up from Yashin but...yikes.

Looking at their depth chart as it stands now the team looks like the kind of lineup you would put together if you were playing fantasy hockey and you had to assemble your team after 29 other teams had done all of their drafting already and you got the scraps of what was leftover.

After all, if you're really thinking that Doug Weight is your #2 center...you're in deep.

Is there hope here? Maybe, but it will have to come from their youth. Jeff Tambellini, Sean Bergenheim, Blake Comeau and Okposo are all going to have to play above their expectations. Most of these guys got a healthy dose of NHL play last year which either means they could be ready to mature and emerge, or they'll be ripe for a sophomore-esque jinx and not build any chemistry with each other.

On defense, the Isles, and I can't stress this enough, have to stay healthy. Unfortunately, they're already dealing with problems. Andy Sutton and Chris Campoli are already dealing with injuries. Is it a harbinger of doom? Let's hope not - injury problems like the Isles had last year, including losing Campoli, Brendan Witt, Marc-Andre Bergeron for long stretches of the season made playing defense in Nolan's system even more difficult.

The Isles brought in free agent defenseman Mark Streit to quarterback their power play and should Gordon's system work out the way he wants it to, Streit will benefit greatly from it after playing something like that in Montreal. That said, the offense is going to struggle again and if Rick DiPietro can't carry the bulk of the load in goal (and given his injury history) things look pitiful on the Island.

At least when Wade Dublewicz was backing up DiPietro, there was some kind of safety cushion there that they could count on. Now it'll be up to Canadiens outcast Yann Danis and journeyman Joey McDonald to have to be ready at an instant to step in if/when DiPietro breaks himself again.

It would take a remarkable stroke of good luck and good health to keep the Islanders in the hunt for the playoffs and while the NHL schedule doesn't force as many intra-divisional games this year, the Isles still are getting the bulk of their games against four playoff teams. While each of those other four teams all have their own sets of question marks, those teams are also light years ahead of where the Islanders are right now. The Isles will get to fatten up on the likes of Toronto and half of the Southeast Division, but they're going to get beaten up and tossed around by their neighbors.

The only bright spot I can find here is that at least they won't be completely dreadful to watch. An upbeat, aggressive style, even when played with less-than-stellar parts can be entertaining. At least then you can count on the better teams using that to their advantage and showing off.

Then again, Isles fans, those few of you out there who are continuing to stick by them, and bless you for doing so, you don't want to watch your team get throttled on. The only bit of advice I can offer to you is to listen to this guy (and ignore the lizards):

Friday, October 3, 2008

Thanks For Playing - Part 3: St. Louis

I've picked on the Eastern Conference a bit and, believe me, there's plenty of material to work with there, but it's time to dig into the West. The Western Conference is a funny place this year because there's only a couple of teams who I can say, right now, are done.

For the St. Louis Blues, they can take some solace in the fact that their season was done before their young, stud defenseman Erik Johnson was mysteriously injured on the golf course. How Johnson was hurt is a matter under speculation. Johnson says his foot got tangled up between the accelerator and the brake pedal and he denies vehemently that he got hurt playing this:

Now I'll do the right thing and say I believe Johnson when he says he got hurt the way he got hurt, that's fine. But if you want me to believe that a multi-talented NHL defenseman is that much of a klutz...that's a harder sell. It's a much harder sell than telling me that a 20 year-old was goofing around on the golf course with his buddies and managed to screw up big time and get injured in said goofing around.

That said, this injury only helps set the tone for the Blues this year. Sure, they're playing in a division that generally is pretty weak aside from the overlords on the top from Detroit. This year is different. Chicago is the media darling for improvement, and rightfully so. Nashville has somehow miraculously made the playoffs the last four years, much due to most everyone else in the Central feeding them wins and consistency at the top with head coach Barry Trotz. Heck, even Columbus should be better this year provided Rick Nash stays healthy, Pascal Leclaire is as good as he showed last year, and everyone is fully bought into coach Ken Hitchcock's brutally boring system.

St. Louis really is swimming upstream this season and they just don't have much of anything to sustain themselves. Outside of Erik Johnson, along the blue line they've got Eric Brewer and Barret Jackman as their top defensemen and Jay McKee as their classy old veteran player (at 32 he's the most veteran defenseman) who gets to show the rest of the guys in the locker room how it's done, which surprisingly, will come in handy.

Jeremy Rutherford at the Morning Skate blog from STLToday.com outlined what the "grueling" pre-season has managed to do to the Blues defensive depth with the recent injury to Jeff Woywitka (no, that's not the name of the guy Shia Lebeouf played in Transformers):

Pre-training camp lineup:
1. Eric Brewer
2. Barret Jackman
3. Jay McKee
4. Erik Johnson
5. Steve Wagner
6. Jeff Woywitka
7. Roman Polak
8. Jonas Junland
9. Alex Pietrangelo
10. Mike Weaver

Now, Pientrangelo or Weaver could be the sixth d-man on the roster on
opening night, Oct. 10.

Here’s a look:
1. Brewer
2. Jackman
3. McKee
4. Wagner
5. Polak
6. Pietrangelo
7. Weaver

Now, I know what you're saying looking at those lists:

Who? What? Is this a joke? This team doesn't play professional hockey.
Oh, but they do. At least in name they do.

Since I know you're curious, the Pietrangelo being talked about is not goaltender Frank from the days of NHL yore, it's his second-nephew Alex, the Blues first-round pick from this year's draft.

In a perfect world, Blues General Manager would like Pietrangelo to get his feet wet in Peoria of the AHL, but with two of their original top six out for large chunk or the whole chunk of the season - trial by fire seems how it'll go for Alex Pietrangelo. Mind you, I find nothing wrong at all with letting premiere talent getting started instantly in the pros, I just worry about having that premiere talent A) being defensemen and B) on a bad team.

Starting off your career with a -30 rating doesn't do much to make one feel great about their own game or their future.

That said, the youth is going to be king in St. Louis and in this case, it's not going to serve them very well because they don't have the hugely talented offensive forwards that can jump right out and get things done instantly. Judging by what our friend Jeremy Rutherford has to say about the Blues forward set up... patience will be the thing to have if you're a Blues Backer:

Paul Kariya - Patrik Berglund - David Perron

Keith Tkachuk - T.J. Oshie - David Backes

Lee Stempniak - Andy McDonald - Brad Boyes

D.J. King - Jay McClement - Yan Stastny/Cam Janssen/Chris Porter

The one "veteran" line you'll have out there (that meaning a line full of guys that all have major NHL experience) is the line of Stempniak-McDonald-Boyes. Boyes is a 40-goal scorer and an example of why teams should make deals with the Boston Bruins. McDonald is the Stanley Cup winning center for the Anaheim Ducks who found his way to St. Louis when Brian Burke decided he'd rather have Doug Weight and his lower salary. Stempniak is a Dartmouth College player who has been one of their steadiest players the last few seasons yet doesn't seem to bring in much of any respect.

You look at those first couple of lines and see some classic names in Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk. Tkachuk isn't quite the force he was back about 10-15 years ago (he is 36 years-old after all), but he parked home 27 goals last season once again (he did the same the year before) and if nothing else, he's consistent and he and Jay McKee can get some words in edgewise to teach these young whipper snappers a thing or two.

Jay McKee and Keith Tkachuk grow tired of the rest of the team not getting off their lawns.

Paul Kariya is another guy who you think of as old (he is 34) and probably on the backside of his career as a goal scorer. What you probably never realized about Paul's career is that he's a much better passer than he is a finisher. When he came out of the University of Maine (just ask Gary Thorne, he'll gush just a little bit) in his one full season in Orono, Kariya netted 75 assists - mind you, it's rare when college players get even 75 points (even scoring is down in college as it is the pros, for shame) nevermind 75 assists.

If the line Rutherford assembled for the Blues holds true, look for Kariya to be the true playmaker on that line with the 20 year-old Swede Patrik Berglund, playing in his first NHL season and 20 year-old David Perron, playing in his second NHL season. Berglund's stats from Sweden indicate that he's got equal touch scoring and passing and Perron looks to be more of a goal scorer in the NHL than anything else.

St. Louis is going to be a three-line team at best and should Oshie struggle alongside Tkachuk or get bumped down the depth chart, this team will struggle even more. Should that occur, you'll then have a top-loaded first line presuming that Brad Boyes or McDonald would be placed with Kariya and Backes or Perron.

The fourth-line for this team will be out there simply to start shenanigans, especially on nights where D.J. King and Cam Janssen are teamed up together. In fact, I predict this line will get a fair share of work against Detroit and Chicago simply to just start nonsense.

The best part of this team, however, is the head coach Andy Murray. Murray is a smart enough guy and is always able to get the best out of his teams. He did very solid work with the L.A. Kings until things turned horribly southward there and it's that experience Murray will have to draw on for handling this Blues team. The Blues will have a spurt or two in them where they're able to man-up and pull a few surprises out and goaltender Manny Legace, or presumptive backup from Nashville Chris Mason, are more than capable of stealing a couple games throughout the season, but don't buy what they're selling. This team is bad.

This team in the super-competitive Western Conference has neither the horses to withstand the season nor the summary talent to get through their bear of a division. In fact, the only thing Blues fans have to be happy about this year is the fact that for 15 games through the season they're going to look really awesome losing: