Wednesday, July 28, 2010

NHL General Managers preparing for next collective agreement

Has anyone noticed the rather quite free agent market this year. Sure Ilya Kovalchuk has attracted an incredible amount attention this summer. But after that it's been a big bore. There are a significant number of skilled veterans unsigned and waiting at home for the phone to ring. For those fortunate enough to have signed contracts, they have for the most part been short contracts (okay there was that one contract for 17 years). Meanwhile for the many part teams also have cap space available but not willing to use.

Wonder what's going on?

The current CBA has only 2 years remaining and from the noise coming from both sides the league could be looking at another disruption to its schedule. Prior to the previous lockout, some teams wisely left themselves with very few players under contract going into that uncertain period. For example, the Boston Bruins only had 8 players under contract when lockout concluded. Other teams like the Maple Leafs either didn't believe the lockout would change much or were convinced they had a shot at a Cup in the season leading into the lockout. As a result they came out of the lockout with a whole bunch of ugly contracts. To make matters worse, some were with players who were not well suited for the post-trap game that is now being played.

To provide flexibility in this uncertain times, GMs are trying to better manage their roster and are only signing core players to long term contract. So 13 years for Roberto Luongo or Alex Ovechkin is fine. But Alexei Ponikarovsky and Alex Frolov were only able to land one-year deals because they are only depth players. So far Paul Kariya and Marty Turko have failed to land a team. The Maple Leafs have only 5 players signed for beyond 2 years and their cap hit totals just $21 million. Quite a different situation compared to 5 years ago.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Summer of Kovalchuk continues

Lately, the NHL off season seems to generate more interest than the regular season. Last summer it was the Phoenix bankruptcy case. This summer it’s the Kovalchuk contract. Last year it was Bettman butting heads with an owner fed up with losing money. This year Bettman is butting heads with the NHLPA.

You got to love this guy. If he was in charge of BP, he would deny the well was leaking oil until the oils slick hit the shore. Then he would hire a team of lawyers to argue that it was the government’s fault.

Most people seem to believe that the NHLPA will win the arbitration case and the Devils will get away with significant cap savings on a huge contract. After all the league has allowed similar contracts to be signed in the past and clearly the CBA does not cap the length of player contracts. And maybe Ilya Kovalchuk turns out to be one of those exceptional athletes and will play 26 years in the NHL. You can’t prove that he won’t.

I actually think that the NHL has a good shot at winning the arbitration case. The goal for the NHL is to draw a line in the sand and signal how far the salary cap can be manipulated. Maybe the NHL regrets the Hossa contract. But the league did review that contract and eventually accepted it. So perhaps the decision last summer was that the Hossa contract would be the line in the sand. The question is whether the genie is out of the bottle.

So how can the league win this case? Well the NHLPA will argue that this contract is consistent with past practices but is it really? No contract has ever been drafted to cover this many years and no contract has ever had as many “throwaway” years (low salary years in which it is expected the player will just walk away). If it was the same as the Hossa contract or the Luongo contract then you can defend this contract as consistent with past practice. I don’t think so. If this contract is okay then how about a 20-year contract with 9 throwaway years? The arbitrator will have to consider where to draw the line otherwise you will eventually reach an incredibly absurd situation.

The second argument is that the there is no intention to for the parties to fulfill the full term of the contract and therefore it was designed solely to circumvent the CBA. Not many NHL players play beyond the age of 40. With each year beyond age 40 you just stretch credibility of the contract that much farther. Franzen and Zetterberg will be 40 at the end of their contracts. Hossa and Luongo will be 42 at the end of theirs. Statistically the probability falls sharply with each year. So will the arbitrator accept that the parties both believe that Kovalchuk will be playing at age 44? Not likely.

One thing for sure, this is a landmark case and will become the basis for the next round of CBA negotiations.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Who are the Stanley Cup favourites for 2010-11?

Almost immediately after Jonathan Toews raised the Stanley Cup the hyenas and vultures descended upon the team and began to picking away at the still warm body. Chicago’s cap problems was well known and every GM was waiting for the end of the playoffs to make a deal.

The Hawks have now traded Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel, Andrew Ladd, and Kris Versteeg and almost lost Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Sharks. John Madden is a free agent and won’t be re-signed. Antti Niemi is going to arbitration and will certainly receive a large raise from the $800,000 he made last year. If the contract he’s awarded is too large it is entirely possible that the Hawks will have to walk away and sign someone cheaper or trade another key player from the core. They may lose as many as 9 players from the Cup winning roster.

The Hawks will still be good but they won't be winning back to back championships with their depleted lineup.

So who will be the team to beat in 2011?

Well Detroit Red Wings are just a little too old. San Jose Sharks are everyone's favourite team at the start of the season but never go deep in the playoffs. Next year won't be much different. Penguins had their shot at it and don't have the depth anymore. The Devils may land Kovalchuk eventually but at a cost of several roster players. Lou Lamoriello is a master at working around the cap but he won't finding much interest in his overpaid players. And the incredible Martin Brodeur is pretty ordinary these days.

So my picks are Philadelphia and Washington in the East and Los Angeles and Vancouver in the West. Philadelphia has masterfully worked around the cap for years but seems to always ignore their big whole in net. Again this summer GM Paul Holgrem has juggled his lineup moving out Simon Gagne and picking up Nikolai Zherdev, Andrej Meszaros and Matt Walker. Yes they still have a weakness on the back end with Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher but there are plenty of quality goalies out there that can be signed on the cheap (which Chicago will soon figure out).

Then there is Washington. They have avoided the Chicago trap of signing expensive free agents and concentrated on hanging on to their young stars. So now they have Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Niklas Backstrom and Mike Green signed up and some affordable veterans like Tom Poti, Mike Knuble and Michael Nylander which some cap space left over. They have youth in net but again, cheap veterans are available on the market.

Vancouver continues to build to their very strong lineup. Keith Ballard was picked up in a trade with Florida during the NHL draft last weekend.Then much sought after Dan Hamhuis was signed as a free agent on July 1. Then the team added some role players - Manny Malhotra and Joel Perreault, and Jeff Tambellini. Cody Hodgson has done everything there is to do in junior hockey and is likely to make the Canucks out of training camp. But likely the best move was to let Kyle Wellwood and Pavel Demitra leave through free agency. This team is ready to fly.

Finally the Los Angeles Kings are ready to break out this season even without Ilya Kovalchuk. Budding stars Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty are the next Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith. Add to that some decent players in Dustin Brown, Ryan Smyth and Jack Johnson. The Kings have two excellent young goalies Jon Quick and Jonathan Bernier. But I also think the GM Dean Lombardi will be making some deals to beef up his lienup. He still is likely one or two pieces away from a contender but it can happen.

European free agents don't always pan out

Two years ago the Leafs had to tried to sign Fabian Brunnstrom who was a 23 year old rookie in the Swedish Elite League . He was literally the most sought after free agent not named Mats Sundin. The Leafs lost out to Dallas but I remember noting that this guy was overhyped and could easily be a bust.

So I couldn't help but notice that Brunnstrom recently signed a one-year contract with Dallas at $675, 000 which happens to be $200,000 less than he was earning the past two years. In fact, he was scheduled to take the Stars to arbitration yesterday but signed the contract likely to avoid embarrassing himself in the hearing.

Yes, his NHL career hasn't exactly taken off.

Brunnstrom appeared in 44 games last season with the Stars, scoring two goals and nine assists. Brunnstrom played in 55 games in his rookie year of 2008-09, scoring 17 goals and 12 assists.

So a word of caution to Leaf fans who may get a little to giddy over the signing of German star Marcel Mueller this summer. He has never played in North America. Similarly, I would be too concerned about giving up Viktor Stalberg in the trade for Kris Versteeg. We know that Versteeg can play in the NHL but everyone is still waiting to find out what Stalberg can do. Same goes for Brunnstrom.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Man arrested after demanding police bring his Winnipeg Jets back home

At least one hockey fan thinks it's criminal the Winnipeg Jets haven't returned home.

A 33-year-old resident of Lundar, Man., is facing numerous charges after a series of 911 calls in which a man demanded RCMP officers somehow bring the NHL back to the province.

"He began the conversation by saying he wanted the Jets back. He was quite upset about it," a justice source told the Winnipeg Free Press on Wednesday. The incident occurred last year but was never reported publicly by police. The Winnipeg Free Press uncovered details this week through court documents.

The potential return of the NHL has been a hot topic in recent years, with many believing it's a matter of when, not if, Winnipeg gets a team back. And while the subject usually triggers passionate debate, this is believed to be the first time it has prompted police action.

The emergency dispatcher politely told the angry caller there was nothing she could do to help him and reminded him that he was tying up a valuable resource before hanging up. But the man continued to phone back.

"He had apparently been drinking and told police he hadn't slept in days. He started talking about world conglomerates, things like that," said the source.

The final straw came when the man began insulting the 911 operator, eventually calling her a crude name. She warned him that his number had been traced and police were being sent out to arrest him.

"If you're coming to get me, can you bring me some smokes," was his reply.

Police have charged him with public mischief, false messages, harassing phone calls and obstructing justice.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

43 Years of Maple Leaf Frustration: 1992-93 Season

At the Amateur Draft the Leafs pick Brandon Convery 8th overall who also turns out to be a dud. Still the 1992-93 season was a triumph for the Maple Leafs. It saw them set franchise records in wins (44) and points (99). The 21-year-old goaltender Felix Potvin played his first full season with the team and was solid, with a 25-15-7 record, a GAA of 2.50, 2 shutouts, and a .910 SV%. In a season that saw 20 of 24 teams average more than 3 goals scored per game, the Maple Leafs goaltending was one of the best in the NHL, allowing only 241 goals in 84 games (only the Chicago Blackhawks allowed fewer goals than Toronto).

The Maple Leafs also had a strong defense corps, anchored by Dave Ellett, Todd Gill, Sylvain Lefebvre, Jamie Macoun, Dimitri Mironov and Bob Rouse. Newcomers Dave Andreychuk and Daren Puppa also played very well. In just 31 games with the Leafs, Andreychuk scored 25 goals and had 13 assists for 38 points. Puppa won 6 out of 8 games, had a GAA of 2.25, 2 shutouts, and a .922 SV%. Rookie Nikolai Borschevsky led the team in goals with 34.

Doug Gilmour had a career year in 1992–93. He had a franchise-record 127 points during the 1992–1993 regular season and ranked eighth in league scoring. Gilmour finished the postseason with 35 points, behind only Wayne Gretzky. Gilmour was the runner-up for the Hart Trophy as regular-season MVP and won the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward, the first major NHL award that a Leaf player had won since 1967.

The Detroit Red Wings, who finished second in the Norris Division, were the Leafs’ opponents in the first round. The Red Wings took the first two games at home by 6-3 and 6-2 scores. Incredibly, the Red Wing players were heard mocking the Leafs as unworthy playoff opponents.

But this was a different Leaf team than in previous seasons for sure. Coach Pat Burns would not let the team quit. Captain Wendel Clark came back to play an outstanding series and spiritual leader Doug Gilmour showed why he had captured the adoration of Toronto fans. This Leafs edition had a rock-solid defence with offensive prowess helped by newly acquired Dave Andreychuk, who with Doug Gilmour as his centerman, became a 50-goal shooter with the Leafs.

The series eventually came down to overtime in the seventh game at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena when the Leafs’ diminutive right-winger, Nik Borschevsky, scored to send the Leafs into the next series. Of course, Doug Gilmour not only scored the tying goal late in the third period to send the game into overtime, but also helped set up the overtime goal.

One of Gilmour's most memorable goals was scored during the 1993 second round playoffs series against the St. Louis Blues, in the second sudden death overtime period. I was at the game sitting behind the net watching him skate back and forth behind the St. Louis net before finally sliding the puck behind a sprawling Curtis Joseph. The Maple Leafs would go on to win the series, but would eventually be eliminated in the next round by Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings. Toronto was leading the Conference series against Los Angeles 3–2 and many fans were hoping for an all-Canadian final as the Montreal Canadiens already advanced. However, during overtime of game six, Gretzky high-sticked Gilmour, drawing blood, without being assessed a penalty by the referee, Kerry Fraser, and then scored the winning goal moments later to stave off elimination. During game seven back at Maple Leaf Gardens, the Leafs were trailing 5–3 after Gretzky completed his hat-trick. The Maple Leafs scored one goal but couldn't find the equalizer, which sent the Kings to the finals.

Highest paid NHL players for 2010-11

The dust has pretty much settled on big contracts except for Ilya Kovalchuk and the Devils who need to straighten out the terms of their contract. Below are the top salaries for the 2010-11 season. If the Kovaclhuk's contract looks similar to the one rejected by the league then he will not move into the list below in the first year of his contract.

As you can see the cap hit can be quite different than the actually amount paid as a result of front-loading contracts. Pronger's, Keith's and Hossa's contracts were really pushing the envelope until the Kovalchuk bomb was dropped.

Player 2010-11 Salary Years Cap Hit
Vincent Lecavalier $10,000,000 11 $7,727,273
Roberto Luongo $10,000,000 12 $6,750,000
Evgeni Malkin $9,000,000 5 $8,700,000
Sidney Crosby $9,000,000 5 $8,700,000
Alex Ovechkin $9,000,000 13 $9,538,462
Jason Spezza $8,000,000 7 $7,000,000
Dany Heatley $8,000,000 6 $7,500,000
Scott Gomez $8,000,000 7 $7,357,143
Chris Drury $8,000,000 5 $7,050,000
Keith Duncan $8,000,000 13 $5,538,462
Marian Hossa $7,900,000 12 $5,275,000
Brad Richards $7,800,000 5 $7,800,000
Henrik Zetterberg $7,750,000 12 $6,083,333
Henrik Linqvist $7,750,000 6 $6,875,000
Chris Proger $7,600,000 7 $4,921,429
Henrik Linqvist $7,750,000 6 $6,875,000
Chris Pronger $7,600,000 7 $4,921,429

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

This can't be good for hockey

The hockey world is experience a form of sticker shock following the announcement that the New Jersey Devils had signed Ilya Kovalchuck to a 17-year, $102 million contract.  There is no question a future Devil GM will have regrets about this contract.  Kovalchuk will be paid $10.5 million at age 35 and $8.5 million at age 36 although the cap hit will remain at $6 million.  Of course who knows what the collective agreement will look like in 2019.
Really what’s the point of a salary cap when a $9.5 million player (based on the first 10 years of the contact of the contract) only uses up $6 million in cap space.  The cap was supposed to help small market teams but limiting the amount that big market teams could spend on salaries.  Well it’s not quite working that way.  Teams are paying salaries above the cap level and it’s perfectly legal.  For example, the New York Rangers have 19 players with salaries totalling $56.8 million.  But the cap hit is only $54.4 million.  That extra $2.4 million will be spent the Rangers and can help be strengthen their lineup. 
Frontloading salaries does catch up to you eventually.  For example, in 2011-12, Chris Drury of the Rangers will be paid $5 million but his cap hit will be $7.050.  In 2013-14, Daniel Briere of the Flyers will be paid $3 million but his cap hit will be $6.5 million.  But that won’t be a problem because these players will be traded (if they don’t have a no-trade contract) to small market teams who will gladly take on low salaries and big cap hits so that they can reach the minimum cap floor without actually spending the full amount.
My suggestion for Brian Burke is that he doesn’t trade Tomas Kaberle.  Instead extend his contract for 20 years.  The first five years pay him $7.5 million and the next 15 years pay him $0.5 million.  The cap hit will only be $2.25 million.  Kaberle becomes one of the best paid defensemen in the league and but his cap hit will be one of the lowest on the team’s defense.  I know you’re thinking that there is no way Kaberle will play until he is 54. Well when Kaberle’s salary drops to $0.5 million at age 39 he will likely choose to retire. There will still be 15 years and $7.5 million remaining on the contract but because it was signed before Kaberle reached the age of 35, it will not count against the Leaf’s salary cap.
Sounds absurd? No more so than the contract given to Kovalchuk. 
UPDATE: As I was completing this post I hear that the NHL has rejected Ilya Kovalchuk’s 17-year deal with the New Jersey Devils because it circumvents the league’s salary cap. Finally  a rationale decision coming from NHL headquarters.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Ilya Kovalchuk will be a Devil until 2027

So Ilya Kovalchuk finally settles for $102 million over 17 years.  A little face saving on his part because he walked away from $100 million over just 12 years from Atlanta but he can justify it by noting that Atlanta has only made the playoffs just once in 10 years and never one a playoff game. The cap hit for New Jersey is a manageable $6 million.  The contract is front loaded of course so the last 7 years represents only $7 million in actual salary.  So Kovalchuk will collect $95 million over the first 10 years of the contract so he almost got his $100 million over 10 years.  It will cost the Devils at least 2 veterans - likely Brian Rolston and Jamie Langenbrunner.

The contract makes a mockery of the salary cap.  Owners negotiate a collective agreement to protect themselves from escalating contracts and then they just do an end around the agreement.  Players are laughing all the way to the bank. Of course, who looks most foolish is Islander owner Charles Wang who signed Rick DiPietro at a straight $4.5 million per season for 15 seasons.  Guess Chuckie never heard of front end loading.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

WARNING: This video is painful to watch

Some tasteless idiot honestly thought an musical hockey was a good idea. WRONG!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Long-term contracts for UFA make no sense

Do you want to know the real reason why NHL teams will regret almost all long-term contracts they sign with unrestricted free agents?  Well because they are committing to players who in most cases have already reached their peak.  That's correct, it is likely that at 28 Ilya Kovalcuk has already had his most productive years. 

I looked at 25 NHL star players who have either recently retired or at the end of their careers and determined what their best season was.  It worked out that this sample of 25 players peaked on average at the age of 25.5.  In fact, 13 out of the 25 players peaked between the ages of 23 and 25.  The youngest were Mats Sundin and Paul Kariya who had their most productive season at 21.  The oldest was Daniel Alfredsson at 33.

 So Jonathan Toews, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby are just hitting their best years.  However, Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa, Ilya Kovakchuk and Martin Havlat have likely seen their best years.

Here is how the 25 players broke down:

Paul Kariya - 21
Mats Sundin - 21
Teemu Selanne - 22
Steve Yzerman - 23
Mike Modano - 23
Rod Brindamour - 23
Jeremy Roenick - 23
Keith Tkachuk - 23
Jaromir Jagr - 23
Joe Nieuwendyk - 23
Mark Recchi - 24
Patrick Elias - 24
Sergei Federov - 24
Peter Forsberg - 25
Doug Weight - 25
Brendan Shanahan - 25
Joe Sakic - 26
Brett Hull - 26
Pavel Demitra - 28
Markus Naslund - 29
Bil Guerin - 30
Jerome Iginla - 30\
Martin St. Louis - 31
Ron Francis - 32
Daniel Alfredsson - 33

Friday, July 16, 2010

Brian Burke hasn't exactly blown people away with his free agent signings

Days before the July 1st free agent market opened up, Toronto GM Brian Burke was quoted as stating “We will be active.  I expect plenty of activity despite a shrinking talent pool.”  That kind of talk can create high expectations.  So here who has been signed so far:

July 1 - Colby Armstrong - 3 yrs/$9M
July 7 - Brett Lebda - 2 yrs/$2.9M


OK.  I was forgetting about yesterday's signings of free-agent forwards Mike Zigomanis and Joey Crabb, and defenceman Danny Richmond.  Oh and on Wednesday Burke signed forward Marcel Mueller from the Cologne Sharks.  That's Cologne not San Jose. So Mueller sits about 6th or 7th on their depth chart on left wing. Zigomanis is about 6th or 7th at centre. Same with Crabb on the right side. As for Richmond, he is sitting at about 12th on the depth chart defense.

So what happened to the big free agency splash? Well the reason no offer was made for Ilya Kovalchuk is that Burke has no cap space. He has 21 out of 23 spots filled and $3.8M in cap space remaining.  The Leafs are already committed to some big contracts including Dion Phaneuf ($6.5M), J-S Giguere ($6.0M), Phil Kessel ($5.4M), Mike Komisarek ($4.5M), Tomas Kaberle ($4.25M), Francois Beauchemin ($3.8M) and Jeff Finger ($3.5M).  The Leafs are committed to $27.775M in defense which is almost half their payroll.  The NHL average for defense is $16.5M.  No wonder they have such a crappy offense.

So when Brian Burke talks about how he will keep Tomas Kaberle if he doesn't get a good enough offer, well that's just a negotiation tactic to get better offers.  He has to move Kaberle and at least one more defenseman.  And he needs two more decent forwards or the Leafs will be spending another post-season watching the NHL playoffs instead of playing in them.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Scouting Report: Marcel Mueller

Despite the belief that Brian Burke is anti-European, he once again signed a European free agent, this time forward Marcel Mueller from the Cologne Sharks of the German Elite League.  Though his bias in the Entry Draft is North American players, he will signed European free agents.

Mueller is 22 years old and 6'3", 220 lbs.   He appeared in 53 games with the Cologne Sharks of the German Elite League in 2009-10, registering the team-lead in game-winning goals (6), power-play goals (8), assists (32) and penalty minutes (122), while finishing second in goals (24), shorthanded goals (4) and points (56). In 198 games in the German Elite League with the Sharks and Berlin Polar Bears from 2005-06 to 2009-10, the winger recorded 43 goals and 61 assists for 104 points with 316 penalty minutes.

Mueller, a native of Berlin, represented his country at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver where he played four games and registered two assists and 12 penalty minutes. He also participated in the 2010 World Championships in Cologne, collecting one goal and one assist for two points

Mueller will begin the season with the Marlies but may jump quickly to the big team.  He has developed quite rapidly in the past 2 years which attracted a significant number of scouts. 

43 Years of Maple Leaf Frustration: 1991-92 Season

Cliff Fletcher was hired by the Maple Leaf owners to replace Floyd Smith during the offseason. Cliff Fletcher was unlike any of the previous general managers of the Leafs in the 1980’s in that he had previous success in building a winner. Fletcher started his hockey career in the Montreal organization and then built an expansion team in Atlanta from scratch, improving each year to an eventual Stanley Cup with Calgary in the 1988-89 season. Having reached that pinnacle, he was looking for new challenges and was hired to rebuild the Toronto Maple Leafs. 
One of Fletcher’s first moves was to make a huge seven player trade with the Edmonton Oilers that would bring a proven goalie in Grant Fuhr and high scoring winger Glen Anderson to the Leafs. Going the other was was the team's leading score Vince Damphouse.  It was obvious that Fletcher looked for players who had won before and would bring their winning attitude to the Maple Leafs dressing room. Fletcher’s next major transaction was a bombshell. He traded former 50-goal scorer Gary Leeman to the Calgary Flames in a gigantic 10-player trade that would prove to be one of the steals of all time. The big name coming back was Doug Gilmour who would be the face of the Leafs for the next few years. In order to strengthen the defence, Fletcher was somehow also able to extract veteran Jamie Macoun from the Flames as well. None of the five players that the Leafs sent to Calgary had any great impact. This was a novelty for Leaf fans as they were used to coming out second best in the trades of the 1980’s. 

Fletcher made 15 trades in the first 12 months on the job which essentially was a total remake of the team.   in those deals he traded away 17 players and 4 draft picks and in return received back17 players and 5 draft picks.

The Gilmour trade was made shortly after New Years 1992.   It was too late to salvage the season as the Leafs finished last in the Norris Division and 19th overall. Gilmour scored 49 points for the Leafs in just 40 games and was ready to carry the team. 

Even though the Leafs missed the playoffs, but there was new spirit in the dressing room and fans could see that progress was being made.  Fletcher’s next move was to hire a well-respected coach who also had proven successful. In the summer of 1992, former Montreal coach Pat Burns was hired with great fanfare to coach the Leafs.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Chicago Blackhawks have more salary cap problems

The Chicago Blackhawks aren't letting restricted free agent defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson get away, as the club announced on Monday that they will match the a US$14-million, four-year offer sheet he signed with the San Jose Sharks last week.

The Blackhawks had seven days to match the offer, which was done on Friday. If they didn't match, they would have received San Jose's first- and third-round picks in next year's NHL draft as compensation.

Hjalmarsson, 23, helped Chicago sweep the Sharks in the Western Conference final last season and then beat Philadelphia to win the Stanley Cup. He had a goal and seven assists in the post-season, including two assists against the Sharks.  He would have been the 8th player from the Cup winning lineup to leave either through free agency or a trade.  Hawk GM Stan Bowman considers Hjalmarsson to part of the team's core and therefore the team had to match the Sharks' offer.

The problem is that Chicago doesn't really have the cap space to sign Hjalmarsson which means another round of salary dumping. Chicago now has 16 players under contract for a total cap hit of $59.307 million.  They have only $158,000 in cap space remaining but have to sign 7 more players including goalie Antti Niemi.
I'm sure Neimi is looking for about $3 million per season.  Bowman can bury Cristobal Huet's $5.635 million contract in the minors but that still won't be enough to sign Neimi and 7 more players.

Bowman needs to unload Brian Campbell's contract but so far no takers.  There are 8 more years on that contract at over $7 million per season.  Even if you were to throw in a first round draft pick, most GMs would pass on that deal. Will that mean that Bowman may finally have to more one of his core players, Patrick Sharp.  Brian Burke has been keeping his eye on this development since March.

Which brings me back to the Kovalchuk hostage crisis.  Pay him and his agent $100 million or else.... umm well or else!  GMs around the league don't want to be holding the next Brian Campbell, sucking cap dollars out of your lineup.

NHL's legal fees were almost $4 million in 2008-09

The NHL’s legal costs climbed 48.6 percent during the 2008-09 season, according to its most recent tax filing.
The filing shows the NHL’s legal fees climbed to $3.9 million that season. There is no breakdown in the tax filing but we do know that NHL concluded a lawsuit with Madison Square Garden over the New York Rangers’ digital rights and begin the bankruptcy trial over the Phoenix Coyotes.

The question is whether this was an abnormal year or will the league be involved in more litigation in the future.

The league totaled $75.7 million in expenses during the period. The largest expenditures included executive compensation ($9.9 million), employee salaries ($20.4 million), travel ($7.3 million), officiating costs ($5.1 million), legal fees ($3.9 million), team-related expenses ($3.9 million) and other employee benefits ($3.8 million).

Speaking of executive compensation, most of the $9.9 million went to one person.  Yes, none other than Commissioner Gary Bettman who collected $7.2 million in compensation.  For many hockey fans in Canada that would be approximately $7.2 million too much.  Now getting rid of him is even more expensive as it is suggested that there are some expensive severance requirements in his contract if he is terminated.


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Ilya Kovalchuk: the unwanted star

It is now day 10 into free agency and Ilya Kovalchuk is sitting at home spinning his wheels.  Unlike past seasons when the top free agents were snapped up minutes after midnight on July 1, the stud pick for 2010 remains unsigned. Has he overpriced himself? Are there other issues at work here?  Afterall what NHL team couldn't use a guaranteed 40-50 goal scorer in their lineup?

To date his best offers have come from the Atlanta Thrashers (before his trade to New Jersey) and SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL.  And the Atlanta offer is no longer available.  Kovalchuk doesn't seem to want to go to the KHL and the only two NHL bidders, New Jersey and Los Angeles, don't want to meet his price which is likely $100 million over 10 years.

Another factor contributing to his indecision is that he has two agents.  Because Kovalchuk has an American agent, Jay Grossman, and a Russian agent, Yuriy Nikolaev. Grossman is pushing him to sign with an NHL team while Nikolaev wants him to sign with the KHL.  The Kings will pay him $84 million over 13 years which is far less than the $102 million over 12 years that he left on the table in Atlanta.

It's not that NHL teams don't have cap space for him, it's just that they are concerned what a large contract like this will do to their lineup in the future.  Look at what happened to Chicago.  For three straight season they spent money on free agents - Brian Campbell, Marian Hossa and Cristobal Huet.  Because of those contracts, the Hawks have had to shed players this summer to accomodate their young stars - Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith.  Those contracts cannot be moved.  Chicago has tried. So tying up $10 million a year in Kovalchuk will make it difficult for a team to retain its young stars.

The other issue is whether anyone considers Kovalchuk to be a franchise player.  He is a gifted scorer but he has yet to carry a team into the playoffs or to win a playoff series or two.  Does he make the other players around him better?  Not really. This is not Alex Ovechkin who can hit, play defense and set up linemates. He may be $7-$8 million player at best. So if his goal is make the most money then he better ship off to Russia.  The free agency money may soon disappear so if it's about winning then he should sign real quick.

Who is Brett Lebda?

Brett Lebda is not very well known despite having played 326 games in the NHL. This is partly due to the limited ice time he got in Detroit. He is small for a defenseman, only 5'9" and 195 lbs and is not the least bit physical. But he moves the puck well so he appears to be a cheap and inferior replacement for Tomas Kaberle. His best season was only good for 18 points.  However, playing behind Lindstrom and Rafalski has cut into a lot of prime ice time so it is believed that Lebeda has some untapped offensive potential.  Yet the Leaf defense is fairly deep so how much more time he can get in Toronto is debatable.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Scouting Report: Keith Aulie

Keith Aulie is another hulking defense prospect picked up by Brian Burke.  The kid is 6'5" and 208 lbs. This past season he played in the AHL finishing the season with the Marlies after coming over from Calgary in the Dion Phaneuf trade.

His Junior career was with the Brandon Wheat Kings and in 2009 he was a WHL all-star and won a gold medal at the World Junior Championship while playing for Canada.  On Team Canada he played with Tyler Myers and the two defensemen were an intimating pair on the ice.

This kid has an incredible frame and tons of physical upside, since he's expected to eventually fill out.Supposedly he needs to improve his coordination, game-to-game consistency and defensive-zone coverage in order to make an impact in the pros.  You aren't going to see much offensive out this guy. He scored 33 points in his most productive season on Brandon.
He will likely be the Leafs top defense prospect on the Marlies which means he might actually get some playing time on the big team this season.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Bob Probert was more than just a fighter

Unlike many fighters over the years, Bob Probert was a decent hockey player who was good with his fists.  Afterall he scored 162 goals in the NHL and in 1987-88, scored 29 for the Red Wings. The only NHL players with higher career goal totals and over 3,000 penalty minutes were Dale Hunter and Tiger Williams.

He was the last player to score a goal in Maple Leaf Gardens in the 3rd period on February 13, 19999.  I happened to have been at the game.

Still he will always be best known for his fights and this Tie Domi fight was a classic battle. Domi was with the Rangers at the time.

Probably the bravest thing he did on ice was figure skate with Kristina Lenko in the Battle of the Blades reality TV show. He wasn't very good at it but he gave it his best. I think the show revealed to hockey fans the real Bob Probert.

Monday, July 5, 2010

10 absolute worst trades in Toronto Maple Leaf history

Although the Phil Kessel trade might someday get on this list, it is currently too early to judge that trade. Kessel might have a great career with the Leafs and we have no way of knowing what will come out of those draft picks.

10. Tuukka Rask to Boston for Andrew Raycroft (2006)

The moment heard about this trade I hated. At the World Juniors earlier that year Rask had been named the top goalie at the tournament. Raycroft was coming off a season where his save percentage was a dismal .879 and just eight wins in 30 starts. What was there to like? And there have been quite a few goalies who after great rookie season have had their careers crash and burn. The classic example was Jim Carey. And of course my worst fears came true. This past season Rask has become one of the top goalies in the league and pushed the previous season's Vezina Trophy winner to the bench as a back up. As for Raycroft, he is will finish his career as a backup too.

9. Fredrick Modin to Tampa Bay for Corey Cross (2001)

Modin developed into a solid winger for Tampa Bay and is still playing in the NHL. The Leafs lacked that big winger to play with Sundin until they signed Gary Roberts as a free agent. Cross was one of the largest soft players ever to play in the NHL. He was a frequent healthy scratch with the Leafs and booed by the fans.

8. Larry Murphy to Detroit for future considerations (1997)

Larry Murphy had a stellar career stretching 21 seasons. He was on 4 Stanley Cup teams and inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004. In 1995 after being named to the second-team All-Stars Murphy was traded to his hometown Leafs from the Penguins for Dmitri Mironov and a second round pick. Leafs fans booed Murphy, the highest paid player on the Leafs, mercilessly as a scapegoat for the lack of success the team was having. So they literally gave him away and paid one-third of his salary too. Fortunately for Murphy he was able to win 2 more Cups with Detroit.

7. Kenny Jonsson, Sean Haggerty, Darby Hendrickson and a 1st Round Pick in 1997 (Roberto Luongo) to the New York Islanders for Wendel Clark, Mathieu Schneider and D.J. Smith (1996)

I should tell you that I ignored the fact that the draft pick sent to the Islanders turned out to be Luongo. There is no guarantee that the Leafs would have picked him. Had the Leafs actually traded to Luongo to New York, then this trade would be much higher on the list. After trading Wendel Clark when his market value was at its peak (how often have the Leafs done that) they bring back the broken down winger two years later. The trade was only to appease the fans who fell in love with the hard working Clark. Leaf fans have always favoured rugged players over skilled players which is why Clark was so much more popular than Sundin. Meanwhile, while Haggerty was a bust and Hendrickson was back in Toronto the next season, Kenny Jonsson was a fixture in New York for a decade. He played 597 games for New York, recording 232 points, many of them in a time where quality Leafs blueliners were few and far between. Mathieu Schneider is the only reason this trade wasn't higher on this list. But he couldn't make up for the mediocre play of Clark.

6. Lanny McDonald and Joel Quenville to the Colorado Rockies for Pat Hickey and Wilf Paiement (1979)

This was a trade that began the franchise’s descent into the hell that was the 80s, a decade in which the Leafs had a record of 301-481-98 between 79-80 and 89-90 (a win percentage of .398, during a time in which surrendered 660 more goals than they scored). It is also widely reported that the deal by Punch Imlach was intended to hurt Leafs captain Darryl Sittler and make him waive his no trade contract. Only in Toronto would a personal vendetta come before the success of the club. At first glance, the stars in this trade worked out well. Toronto got 187 games and 203 points out of Paiement, while Colorado got 142 games and 141 points from McDonald. Paiement even recorded a 40 goals and 97 points in his first full season in Toronto. But when he dropped to 18 goals and 58 points the following seasons, the Leafs traded him to Quebec for Miroslav Frycer and a 7th rounder. Yes, that’s right; Miroslav Frycer was all the Leafs had to show for dealing heart-and-soul Lanny McDonald. This trade might have moved up a notch or two on this list if the Rockies had gotten more out of McDonald. But he moved on to Calgary where he scored 66 goals one season and a Stanley Cup.

5. Darryl Sittler to the Philadelphia for Rich Costello, a 2nd Round Pick in 1982 (Peter Ihnacak) and Future Considerations (Ken Strong) (1981)

I'm still angry about this deal. The Leafs traded their captain, their best player since Dave Keon, and a man just 84 points away from becoming the first Toronto player ever to record 1,000 points in a Maple Leaf uniform. They got garbage in return.

4. Russ Courtnall to the Montreal for John Kordic and a 6th Round Pick in 1989 (Mike Doers) (1989)

Thank you Mr. Stellick! The Leafs needed a goon, and the Habs were interested in Russ Courtnall. Since Leaf Head Coach John Brophy didn't think much of the smooth skating Courtnall the deal was made. Kordid got 446 penalty minutes and 16 points in 104 games as a Leaf, while Courtnall gradually improved over parts of four seasons with the Habs. He ended up with 82 goals and 195 points in 250 games for Montreal. Meanwhile, the Habs turned Russ Courtnall into Brian Bellows, who won a Stanley Cup with the Habs. And Courtnall kept on being a decent offensive player in the NHL. Kordic wasn't really a hockey player. To add insult to injury he wore #27 with the Leafs - the number worn by Frank Mahovlich and Darryl Sittler. On August 8, 1992, after overdosing on drugs and being involved in a struggle with police at his hotel, Kordic died.

3. Bernie Parent and a 2nd Round Pick in 1973 (Larry Goodenough) to the Philadelphia for a 1st Round Pick in 1973 (Bob Neely) and Future Considerations (Doug Favell) (1973)

It's not every day you get to trade away a Hall of Fame goalie. Bernie Parent was a a young Toronto goalie that left the club to play in the World Hockey Association, which instantly made him an outcast in the eyes of Leafs management and ownership. Having played previously in Philadelphia with the NHL’s Flyers and the WHA’s Blazers, he requested a trade to Philadelphia. His request was granted… and in his first two seasons with the Flyers, Bernie Parent won two Stanley Cups, two Conn Smythe trophies as the MVP of the playoffs, and two Vezina trophies. So he was the best goaltender in the league, and the most valuable player on the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. Doug Favell meanwhile was a complete bust. The Leafs didn't get much value out of the draft pick. Bob Neely posted decent numbers as a defenseman, but after four seasons and change he was gone.

2. Randy Carlyle and George Ferguson to the Pittsburgh for Dave Burrows (1978)

Jim Gregory was a very good GM for the Leafs but this trade was a stinker. He was of a mind that Burrows was the missing piece needed to carry the Leafs to the Stanley Cup. Dave Burrows did absolutely nothing for Toronto. In just over 2 seasons, he recorded 32 points in 151 games, and then he was gone. But Randy Carlyle was the true gem of this deal. He played 397 games as a Penguin, recording 323 points. He won the Norris trophy recording 83 points in 1980-81. Oh so how did the Leafs do in the playoffs with Burrows in their lineup? Over two seasons they were 2-7. And no Stanley Cups.

1. 1st Round Pick in 1991 to the New Jersey Devils for Tom Kurvers (1989)

The mother of bad trades thanks to GM Floyd Smith. Once again the GM was convinced that journeyman defenseman Tom Kurvers was all the Leafs needed to compete for a Cup. Although earlier in the list I ignored a draft pick that turned out to be Roberto Luongo, this trade was a straight exchange for first round pick so it is hard to ignore. Similar to the Kessel trade, Smith did not anticipate when he made the trade that the team would collapse the following season. But they did. In fact the Leafs were pretty competitive during the 1989-90 season with a potent offense led by Gary Leeman's 51 goals. The Leafs were bad in 1990-91… so bad that they were on pace to finish last in the NHL behind the Quebec Nordiques. And Toronto was feeling the sting of Kurvers not working out as expected. So the Leafs traded prospect Scott Pearson and a pair of 2nd Round picks to Quebec for Aaron Broten, Lucien Deblois and Michel Petit. The trade was solely so they wouldn't finish last overall and giving the Devils the right to draft Eric Lindros. So New Jersey ends up picking third and has to settle for Scott Niedermayer. Niedermayer was only one of the best defenseman to play the game. He's the only player in hockey history to have won a Stanley Cup (4 to exact), Olympic gold medal (2), World Championship, World Cup, Memorial Cup and World Junior title. He won the Norris Trophy in 2004 and the Conn Smythe in 2007.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Hottest Maple Leaf rumours

The Leaf's offseason moves are not yet complete but may not go as far as some fans would like.  Certainly there isn't enough offensive in the current roster to make people forget about last season's pathetic scoring.

I think what we can count on is that Tomas Kaberle will be traded for a top 6 forward and Jeff Finger's salary will be buried in the minors.  That leaves an opening on defense so I expect Brian Burke to sign a lower tier free agent defenseman, perhaps Shane Hnidy or Paul Mara.  I could see Burke signing Willie Mitchell for the right price.

The biggest move might be an attempt by Burke to pick up another top 6 forward from a team that needs to trim payroll.  There are a number of teams in this category.  Of course who ever sign Ilya Kovalchuk will need to dump some salary.  The most persistent rumours besides the Marc Savard deal are Jeff Carter in Philadelphia, Mike Robeiro in Dallas, and Bobby Ryan in Anaheim. However, the Leafs have very little to give up for these players and there will other suitors if these price for one or more of these players is low. Burke cannot continue to mortgage the future to fill the centre hole in the first line.

43 Years of Maple Leaf Frustration: 1990-91 Season

The wheels came off the bus in the 19990-91 season as the Leafs fell to last place in the Norris Division and 20th overall.  Only the pathetic Quebec Nordiques had a worse record.  What made the situation worse was that the Leafs first pick in the draft was owned the New Jersey Devils in exchange for journeyman defenseman Tom Kurvers (below).  In comparison, this deal made the Phil Kessel trade look like a steal.

Before the start of the season cantankerous owner, Harold Ballard passed away which left the franchise in disarray.  Even before his death, there had been battles between his children, Bill Ballard, Harold Ballard Jr., and Mary Elizabeth Flynn, and his longtime companion, Yolanda Ballard (though she and Harold never married, she had her name legally changed; she claimed to have been with Ballard for eight years at the time of his death).

In 1989, Bill Ballard was convicted of assaulting Yolanda and fined $500. Yolanda was not invited to Ballard's funeral, nor to the reading of his will. She fought with Ballard's family and partners over Ballard's estate following his death. In his will, Ballard had left Yolanda $50,000 a year for the rest of her life, but she considered this inadequate and sued for $192,600 and later $381,000 a year. The court awarded her $91,000.

According to Ballard's lawyer, his estate was worth less than $50 million. Most of the money was left to a charitable foundation. Ballard left his personal belongings to his children and grandchildren. Ballard's three children had all previously received shares in Maple Leaf Gardens that they sold for more than $15 million each.

The executors of Ballard's will were Steve Stavro, Don Giffin and Don Crump. In 1991, Stavro paid off a $20 million loan that had been made to Ballard in 1980 by Molson. In return, he was given an option to buy Maple Leaf Gardens shares from Ballard's estate. Molson also agreed to sell its stake in Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. to Stavro. That deal closed in 1994, and shortly after Stavro bought Ballard's shares from the estate for $34 a share or $75 million. The purchase was the subject of a securities commission review and a lawsuit from Ballard's son Bill, but the deal stood and Stavro and his partners in MLG Ventures became the new owner of the Leafs and Maple Leaf Gardens.

The operation of the team during the 1990-91 season remained in the hands of Floyd Smith who was fired at the end of the season.  He became the 6th GM fired in the 24 years since the Leafs last won the Stanley Cup.  The team began the season with Doug Carpenter as coach but the Leafs had such a horrible start that he was fired after 11 games with a record of 1-9-1.  He was succeeded by his assistant Tom Watts who became the 14th Head Coach in the 24 years of Stanley Cup drought.

The new Leaf offensive leader was Vince Damphouse who scored 26 goals and 73 points that season.  Only one other player scored over 20 goals (Daniel Marois) and no one else even has 40 points. Gary Leeman who in the previous season has scored 51 goals and 95 points played only 52 games in 1990-91 and his offensive numbers dropped to only 17 goals and 29 assists. He would only score another 30 goals in the rest of his NHL season as his career burnt out quickly.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The NHL will no longer have repeat Stanley Cup Champions

It must be heartbreaking for Blackhawk fans to watch their Stanley Cup winning team get dismantled just weeks after winning their first Cup in 49 years.  The Hawks have now traded Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel, Andrew Ladd, Colin Fraser and Kris Versteeg. In addition, a number of free agents will not be resigned including John Madden. You can't take a hit like that in personnel and expect to be back in the finals next season.

The Blackhawks experience is not unique. The season before the Pittsburgh Penguins shed a number of key players after winning the Stanley Cup including Hal Gill, Mathieu Garon, Rob Scuderi, Petr Sykora and Miroslav Satan.  The year before that Detroit Red Wings were fortunate and only lost Hasek to retirement after winning the Cup.  That allowed them to get back to the Cup final only losing in 7 games to the Penguins.

It will be a challenge for teams to repeat as Champions especially if they are built around young players.  That's because the younger players have more leverage with years of services and quickly become expensive players.  The Red Wings were able to build around older players and it allowed them to get back to the finals.  However the following season if finally caught up to them when they lost Marian Hossa,  Mikael Samuelsson, Ty Conklin and Tomas Kopecky through free agency.

The salary cap has created a barrier to dynasty building.  As soon as a GM builds a winner he is forced to tear it down and has figure out how to hang onto the core and build another winner. Often teams come up short and still have to rebuild - examples are Ottawa, San Jose, Nashville and it might happen to Washington and Philadelphia.  No one really knew how the salary cap would effect the NHL.  It was believed that it would close the economic gap between large and small market teams.  The small market teams still lose money and the large market teams make even more money because the cap prevents them from overspending on salaries.  But it did close the talent gap between small and large market teams.  The large market teams can no longer horde all the good players so there is more parity.

So the Islander or Oiler dynasties of the the 1980s will never happen again as long as the existing cap prevails. 

What the Maple Leafs look like on Day 3 of free agency

Although Brian Burke is far from done, this is what the Toronto Maple Leaf situation looks like as Burke takes the weekend off to celebrate July 4th.  He has 18 players on contract for a total of $54.5 million.  Which means there is about $5 left in cap space for 5 more players.  However, he continues to dangle Tomas Kaberle on the trade market and conventional wisdom is the Jeff Finger will be a Marlie next season.  That means that Burke potentially has $12.75 million for 7 more players. There are certainly many Leaf fans who would like to see Ilya Kovalchuk in Toronto and there are certainly the dollars there but I suspect Burke feels the amount of money and the length of his contract demands would burden the team.  He is not Alex Ovechkin.

So today the Leaf lineup with looks like this:

Kessel - Kadri - Kulemin
Caputi - Grabovski - Versteeg
Hanson - Bozak - Armstrong
Brown - Mitchell - Orr

Kaberle - Phaneuf
Beauchemin - Komisarek
Gunnarsson - Schenn

Giguere - Gustavsson

It is not yet clear who will be the extra forwards or defensemen.  Right now we may be looking at Keith Aulie on defense and Fredrik Sjostrom up front. This lineup would still have difficulty scoring and contending for a playoff spot. Add a Marc Savard or someone else of that calibre as well as another forward for Kaberle and the lineup will look more complete.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

This what Colby Armstrong brings to the table

Kris Versteeg is more talented then you think

Once again ESPN rates the Maple Leafs as the NHL's worst value for fans

Each year ESPN The Magazine releases its Ultimate Standings; and once again the Toronto Maple Leafs are ranked 121st out 122 professional sports teams.  Only the LA Clippers finished below the Leafs.  The Ultimate Standings, driven by research and fan feedback, looks at MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL franchises’ affordability, bang for the buck, coaching, fan relations, ownership, players, stadium experience and title track to establish a ranking of all 122. The Toronto Raptors were ranked 113th which should come as no surprise considering MLSE owns both the Leafs and Raptors.

The Leafs were ranked 122nd in the Affordability category (price of tickets, parking and concessions) and Bang for the Buck category (wins over the past two seasons per dollar contributed directed by fans). Again this would not come as a surprise to fans in Toronto.  Despite what MLSE tells us, we know we aren't getting value for our money.

Is Canada losing its dominance in hockey?

It was a very good year for hockey in the U.S.  Their Junior team took gold and the Junior World Championships and at the Olympics it took an overtime goal by Sidney Crosby to wrestle the gold away from the Americans.  Then this past weekend 59 Americans were selected in the NHL Entry Draft. 

What is happening here?  Are the Americans closing the gap on us?  The answer may very well be yes. Afterall the United States is 10 times the size of Canada in terms of population and hockey is slowly catching on with American kids. The draft numbers indicate that at the very least, at the elite level Americans are catching up to us.

But part of the story is that the NHL is turning into primarily a North American league and Europeans are staying at home. Only the elite Europeans seem to be making it to the NHL and the bottom half of NHL rosters are made up of Canadians and Americans.  In the chart below it shows that 75% of draft selections were North Americans. Go back to the 2001 draft and you would find that the picks were split 50:50 between North America and Europe.  The proportion of Canadians selected has grown by 11% but the proportion of Americans selected has grown by 14%. In 2001 there were 38 Russians selected and that has shrunken to just 8.  Finland has gone from 23 to 7.  The Czechs have gone from 31 to 5.  Slovakia from 15 to just 2.

It's not just Brian Burke who is building around North Americans, so are the other GMs.  The European-dominated Detroit Red Wings are no longer the model that is being followed.  Chicago and Philadelphia both have rosters loaded with Canadians and Americans.

Country  Picks Percent
Canada 99 47.1%
United States 59 28.1%
Sweden 20 9.5%
Russia 8 3.8%
Finland 7 3.3%
Czech Republic 5 2.4%
Germany 5 2.4%
Slovakia 2 1.0%
Switzerland 2 1.0%
Denmark 1 0.5%
Latvia  1 0.5%
Norway 1 0.5%