All posts by John Poulter

John was born in England but has lived in Canada since his early teenage years. He is a fan of numerous sports, but his primary interests are baseball, hockey, curling and English soccer. John holds season tickets to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Blue Jays and in addition to his work at morethanafan.net, he has been making radio appearances to talk hockey and baseball since 2008. John is currently heard weekly on Sportsbyline Sunday on the Sports Byline USA Radio Network and is a regular contributor to The Weekend Sports Report at www.internetfm.com. Contact: [email protected] and on Twitter at @12johnpoulter.

The NHL Playoffs Without a Canadian team????

For the first time since 1969-70 we may be seeing an NHL playoff season without a Canadian team. That’s the harsh reality that faces the seven Canadian teams as we look at the standings on February 10.

Since the current format of two points for a win and one point for a loss in overtime or the shootout was added for the 2005-06 season, only four teams have reached 95 points and failed to qualify for the post-season. The 2006-07 Colorado Avalanche had 95 points and the Calgary Flames claimed the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference with 96 points. The 2010-11 Dallas Stars had 95 points and the last playoff spot went to the Chicago Blackhawks with 97 points. Just last year, we saw it happen twice as the Los Angeles Kings reached 95 points only to the see the Flames claim the final berth with 97 points and in the Eastern Conference the Boston Bruins ‘ 96 points left them two short of the eight place Pittsburgh Penguins.

So a decade of history tells us that the magic number is generally 95 points if a team wants to pretty much guarantee itself a post season berth. Can any of the Canadian teams get to 95 points? Mathematically yes, all seven teams have enough points “still on the table” to reach 95 points, but realistically it isn’t going to happen. All seven teams are going to have to pick up their paces significantly compared to the percentage of points they have obtained from their games to date. As an example, Edmonton has played at a .427 pace to date and to reach 95 points they would have to play at a .889 pace over the remaining games to reach 95 points. Toronto would have to play at a .800 pace (compared to .452), Winnipeg would have to play .759 hockey (compared to .481), Calgary would have to step up to a .733 pace (compared to .490 to date), Ottawa would need to pick up points at a .722 pace (compared to .509 to date), Vancouver would have to play .696 hockey (compared to .519 so far) and Montreal would have to show the least improvement, playing .685 hockey from here on out (compared to .527 to date). Add to that the fact that Toronto and Edmonton currently sit last in their respective conferences and Calgary and Winnipeg sit third last and second last respectively in the Western Conference, all four of those teams have the added burden of having to catch and pass a number of teams to reach eighth place. Given the hole the Oilers, Leafs, Flames and Jets have dug for themselves it would appear that if they are not already planning for “next year”, then they should be.

That leaves us with three interesting possibilities for one or more Canadian participants in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Let’s look at each one individually.

Montreal Canadiens: The Canadiens started quickly (19-4-3) and for a long time were in first place in the Eastern Conference. Triggered by an injury to star goaltender Carey Price they have continued to slump (5-20-1 from Dec 3 through Feb 3) and have now fallen to 10th place in the East, three points behind the eighth place Pittsburgh Penguins. Their problem since Price’s injury hasn’t really been goaltending (Mike Condon has been respectable), it’s been lack of scoring, but of course in this era of low scoring games it does help if you have the league’s best goaltender between the pipes. The Canadiens have 27 games left in which to get the 37 points they need to take them to 95 and they are within nine points of all of the teams ahead of them except Washington and Florida, so they have a good chance, providing they can get back to playing good hockey and avoid any further slumps. If Price could get healthy, he may be the wild card. Better than any trade deadline addition and well rested to boot.

Ottawa Senators: The Senators showed this week that they are a “now” team, by obtaining Toronto defenseman Dion Phaneuf as they gear up for a playoff drive. Phaneuf was the key player in a nine player trade with the Maple Leafs and will add depth to the Senators blue line. He will no longer be expected to log top pairing minutes (Erik Karlsson and Marc Methot will handle those responsibilities), but the mere fact that the Senators were willing to trade with their Provincial arch enemy shows how keen they are to get this turned around1Ottawa-Toronto trades are as rare as Red Sox-Yankee trades in baseball, the rivalry is so intense. Not only is there playoff revenue to keep in mind, but the team is making noises about wanting a new arena, and non-playoff teams are not usually a good advert for attracting financial support for a new building, whatever the sport. The Senators are currently twelfth in the Eastern Conference five points out of a playoff spot and like the Canadiens they have 27 games remaining. It will take a good streak, similar to the route they took last season to get to the post season if they are to reach 95 points. But to do so, they need to catch and pass at least four of the teams ahead of them in the standings, but they are only two points behind Montreal so the possibility of playoff hockey in the Nation’s Capital this spring still exists.

Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks are a bit unique. They have shown signs of being in a rebuild mode, have had bad stretches and lost some key games so far this season. However, they are only two points behind Colorado, who currently hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the west. The Canucks biggest advantage is that they play in the relatively weak Pacific Division, where the first three teams automatically qualify for the post season. Los Angeles, San Jose and Anaheim are ahead of them in their division (67, 60 and 59 points respectively) and the Canucks are fourth with 56 points. The Kings appear to be a lock for the division title. San Jose has been a much better road team this year than at home (18-8-2 on the road vs. 10-12-2 at home) and 18 of the Sharks remaining 32 games are at home, which leaves the Canucks with an opportunity if the Sharks continue to struggle in San Jose. The Ducks started out very slowly, not scoring goals and languished in the bottom three in the conference for much of the season, but are playing their best hockey of the year right now. The Canucks should likely target San Jose as the team to catch, but while doing so they can’t forget about the Arizona Coyotes who are only two points behind and with a game in hand and maybe even Calgary if the Flames can go on a run. The Flames are only five points behind Vancouver and have played two less games than the Canucks.

With three point games in the mix, sometimes even a loss picks up a point for a team, so nothing is out of the question, but we certainly won’t see five Canadian teams in the post season like we did last year.

Forty six years ago, in 1969-70 the then twelve team league comprised two divisions. The only Canadian teams in the league at that point were Montréal and Toronto, with both in the Eastern Division. The Canadiens had 92 points and the Leafs 71 points good enough for fifth and sixth respectively in their division. Could it happen again? It certainly could if someone doesn’t go on a run very soon.

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1. Ottawa-Toronto trades are as rare as Red Sox-Yankee trades in baseball, the rivalry is so intense

Wideman suspenion gets messier

On January 27 Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman took a hit to the boards from the Nashville Predators’ Miikka Salomaki. On the play, Wideman’s head appeared to hit the glass. After laying on the ice for a few seconds, he got up, still looking groggy and skated to the Flames bench. But just before he entered the Flames bench he cross-checked linesman Don Henderson from behind. Henderson went down immediately. Estimates are that the whole sequence of events took between eight and nine seconds.

Wideman was not assessed a penalty on the play and Henderson finished the game, but did spend the night in a Calgary hospital under observation. The NHL immediately suspended Wideman indefinitely pending a full investigation and hearing that was held in Toronto on February 2. Given that the incident involved an official, the only real question was how long the suspension would be and if Salomaki’s hit on Wideman had been a factor.

A day after the hearing, we got the verdict. Twenty games, assessed for “conduct violative of Rule 40 – physical abuse of officials – during NHL game No. 742”. The NHLPA has already stated that it will appeal the decision, which will be heard firstly by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and then by an independent arbitrator1James Oldham, an independent arbitrator jointly by the League and the NHLPA if Wideman and his representatives are not happy with Bettman’s review. Under the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement, Wideman will forfeit US$564,516.20 in salary, which will go to the Players Emergency Assistance Fund. We would expect Bettman to rule that the penalty is appropriate, if only to protect the NHL officials, if nothing else. That means that Wideman’s case may be the first to go to an independent arbitrator.

While Wideman is obviously the only one who knows, for sure, whether his hit on Henderson was intentional, the whole situation brings to mind more questions and points for discussion.

Wideman’s explanation was that he was dazed from the Salomaki hit and didn’t see Henderson until the very last moment, at which time it was too late to avoid Henderson. Wideman apparently apologized to Henderson soon after the incident and again later that evening2he later stated that the Salomaki hit left him with “some pretty good pain in my shoulder and neck. I was just trying to get off the ice. I was kind of keeled over. At the last second I looked up and saw Henderson. I couldn’t avoid it. I went up to Donnie and apologized to him on the ice. I didn’t see him. I didn’t know where to go – or how to get out of the way”. In the player’s defense, he has no history of violent conduct, either against another player or against an official. However the NHL has made it very clear on numerous previous occasions that abuse of officials will not be tolerated, so a lengthy suspension was anticipated.

The League took the position that it was clear abuse of one of its officials and ruled accordingly. It really had no choice. Any other decision would put its officials at risk and would undoubtedly trigger the officials association to take a stance with the league. Wideman, the NHLPA and Flames management took the position that Wideman was dazed and was unaware of what he had done. If he was dazed, it isn’t clear why he stayed on the bench after the incident. The NHL’s concussion protocol requires that any player suspected as having any kind of concussion, even if considered minor, he must go to the so-called “Quiet Room” for further examination. Media sources in Toronto are now reporting that Wideman was in fact diagnosed with a concussion and that the “concussion spotter” at the game advised the Flames bench that showing symptoms of a concussion and should be taken to the “Quiet Room”. It is also being reported that the Flames trainer(s) wanted Wideman to go to the Quiet Room, but Wideman refused.

This latest development throws a whole different light on the matter. If in fact the Flames bench was notified of the possibility of a concussion, why was it left up to the player to determine whether he stayed on the bench or went to the Quiet Room? If a player is truly concussed, is he in a position to make that decision as to whether he stays in the game or not? If the League has taken the time to institute a concussion protocol and employs “concussion spotters”, why does the process not immediately take matters out of the player/his team’s hands and put it in the league’s hands or at the very least the hands of a qualified, impartial medical staff?

It seems that the League finds itself in a very awkward situation now. If in fact the concussion protocol was not followed correctly, then they may have ruled incorrectly, or at the very least prematurely. If the player is found to have been concussed, to any degree, how does the league prevent players from using the concussion defence in the future for any attacks on opponents or officials? If the Flames coaching staff actually were informed about the possible concussion, will the league take action against the team for ignoring the protocol?

Wideman is a useful player and was a pleasant surprise last year in the Flames run to the playoffs, getting 56 points in 80 games. His role diminished somewhat this season as the Flames acquired Dougie Hamilton from the Boston Bruins over the summer, reducing Wideman’s ice time by about three minutes a game and bumping him to the Flames third pair of defensemen. The Flames are struggling to make the playoffs this year and if the 20 game suspension is upheld, Wideman will be out until March 14, by which time the Flames will have 17 games left in their regular season. Between now and March 14, the NHL trade deadline will be upon us (February 29) and if the Flames find themselves as sellers at the deadline, how can they trade a suspended player or an injured player and expect a suitable return? With one year left on his contract at US$5.25 per season, Wideman would be a classic trade deadline target for a contender looking to add depth on their blue line.

No one wins here. Wideman’s reputation has been tarnished and he may well have a medical issue. The NHL may have overstepped its bounds by ruling so quickly, perhaps without sufficient evidence. The Flames may have contravened a league policy and be subject to a fine or other penalties. Henderson may also have a concussion.

It’s a mess, and likely no clear winner will emerge from this situation. Let’s hope that whatever the reason(s) for this ugly incident, all of the facts are on the table before a final ruling is made.

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1. James Oldham, an independent arbitrator jointly by the League and the NHLPA
2. he later stated that the Salomaki hit left him with “some pretty good pain in my shoulder and neck. I was just trying to get off the ice. I was kind of keeled over. At the last second I looked up and saw Henderson. I couldn’t avoid it. I went up to Donnie and apologized to him on the ice. I didn’t see him. I didn’t know where to go – or how to get out of the way”

Shanahan and Lamoriello: “What’s Your Next Move?”

When Toronto Maple Leafs President Brendan Shanahan hired Lou Lamoriello away from the New Jersey Devils in July 2015 he did it for several reasons. One, he trusted him.  Lamoriello was the GM of the Devils when Shanahan was the team’s first round draft pick (second overall) in 1987. Two, Lamoriello has a great hockey mind and would fit in well with the youngsters that Shanahan had hired to be the present and future front office leaders of the Leafs (Kyle Dubas, Mark Hunter and Brandon Pridham). Lastly, Lamoriello has a great reputation around the league as a negotiator, an identifier of talent and is respected by his peers in the league. The hiring would make it easier for future potential free agents to make Toronto their choice of place to play and when the Leafs felt that there was a trading opportunity with one of the other teams, the mere fact that it was “Lou Lamoriello calling” would open doors that might not have been opened as easily, if at all, were Dubas, Hunter or Pridham making the call.

But with the NHL trade deadline looming on February 29, it might be time for Lamoriello to really earn his salary as the Leafs have some major decisions to make on their roster. After finishing in 27th place overall last year, out of the playoffs and with a flawed roster construction…..low on talent, high on expensive and/or unmovable contracts; team management made a decision to bite the bullet and commence a total rebuild of the team from the ground up. Hunter was hired primarily for his scouting acumen within the various Major Junior and College leagues throughout North America. Dubas and Pridham were seen as future NHL front office types who had lots to contribute; but not on the ice or as final decision makers in a critical, immediate future.

There is never a good time for any professional sports team to rebuild. It means the team has either a) grown old, b) has been losing far more often than it has been winning or c) has fallen far below projections in terms of its record and ability to compete. Or perhaps all of those factors. While the Leafs had not grown old, they certainly fell into the latter two categories. Couple this with the fact that the Leafs are the number one sports topic in Canada’s largest city and it is easy to recognize that there was a problem that needed fixing and fixing quickly.

An added burden for Shanahan et al is that 2016-17 will mark the 100th year of operation for the Toronto Maple Leafs as an NHL team1Founded Nov 22/1917 as the Toronto Arenas, a charter member of the NHL and also known as the Toronto St. Pats from 1919 until 1927 and Shanahan has his work cut out for him. The reshaping started at the 2015 trade deadline as a couple of pending free agents were shipped out to contenders for draft picks which Hunter will be charged with using wisely. Then over the summer, winger Phil Kessell and his expensive contract were moved to Pittsburgh for a couple of players and draft picks. No doubt Shanahan would have loved to have moved defenseman and team captain Dion Phaneuf, but Phaneuf’s contract is a millstone.2signed through 2021 at an average salary of $7MM per year, with a no movement clause. By comparison, Duncan Keith is signed through 2023 and has an average salary of $5.35MM per year

The plan was to get younger, build the farm system, most specifically at the AHL level with the Toronto Marlies, gather some good young prospects and sign a few veterans to short term contracts and hope that they played well enough to attract interest at the 2016 trade deadline and then turned into more good draft picks.

The plan is working. Sort of. After a shaky start the Leafs showed improvement over the latter part of November and the month of December and while not winning every night, they were collecting enough points to stay in the playoff picture and putting out a good effort every night. While the results weren’t always there, the effort and “compete level” appeased fans somewhat, knowing that there appeared to be better days ahead. The problem with that strategy is that your team comprises three main types of player: those with immovable contracts that are still immovable, promising young players who already have NHL skills (Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly) and the veterans you have signed to short term contracts. The veterans with the short term contracts aren’t going to sit back and intentionally let the team lose so that it can get a better draft pick. They are playing for a new contract (most likely with another team) so it is not in their best interests to “ride it out” and just show up for work every day. As of January 25, the Leafs sit some 12 points out of a playoff spot and with 36 games remaining, they would have to get 49 points (a .680 pace) from those games to reach the 92 point level, a point total that seems to be the minimum needed in recent years to be a playoff team. Taking those facts into consideration doesn’t bode well for playoff hockey at the Air Canada Centre this Spring.

Many will tell you that the best spot to start any rebuilding programme is with good goaltending. Goaltending has been an Achilles heel in Toronto for a number of years. To start the season, the Leafs signed Jonathan Bernier to a two year $8.5MM contract, meaning he is under contract through July 2017 and their other goalie James Reimer was on the last year of his existing contract. Reimer had played less than Bernier in 2014-15 and had also often been injured so there was a reluctance to place any faith in Reimer as a number one goalie moving forward. Bernier’s troubles have been well documented, and while he has played better in recent weeks, he doesn’t appear to be the long term answer and with that contract, falls into the “immovable” category. Meanwhile Reimer has performed well above expectations, although still appearing susceptible to injury. As of January 25 Reimer was leading all NHL goalies in save percentage (.937) and with a goals against average of 1.97 he was second only to the 1.91 posted by Anaheim’s John Gibson. That creates a major dilemma for Lamoriello and Shanahan. Do they sign Reimer to a new contract based on what they have seen this season and try to deal Bernier at the deadline or over the summer and bring in a cheaper back-up behind Reimer? Or do they accept that Bernier is not attractive trade bait and instead deal Reimer at the deadline? Reimer will bring something back in return, but his sample size isn’t big enough to entice any team to fork over a top pick for him and the fact that he is a free agent on July 1 won’t generate a great return unless his new team can work out a contract with him at the time of the trade. Considering all of these facts, it is unlikely that the goaltenders will generate any significant returns at the deadline, unless a contender loses one of their goalies to injury before February 29.

On defense, Gardiner and Rielly are young talented prospects and unless someone really offered a huge return it is unlikely they will be going anywhere. Both are signed. Phaneuf may be movable to a contender for depth or if someone loses a defenseman who plays a lot of minutes, but unless the Leafs are prepared to eat some of the remaining contract, he likely won’t be moving either. The rest of the defensemen aren’t seen as likely to attract huge returns. Forwards like Shawn Mathias, P.A. Parenteau, Brad Boyes and Daniel Winnik are all seen as role players by good teams. Good teams don’t usually fork over first round picks for players they see fitting in on their third or fourth lines.

The good news for the Leafs is that their number one pick in 2015, Mitch Marner is playing with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League and having a good season327 goals, 43 assists, 70 points in 34 games. He is a likely candidate to be in Toronto next season, but he isn’t big (5 ft 11 in. 160 lbs) and the Leafs would prefer to see him get a little bigger before testing him on one of the top two forward lines in Toronto. The other good news is that the Marlies are playing very well in the AHL. They are currently in first place overall in the league, with an 11 point lead over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. When your top farm team is in first place, it generally means that you are doing something right.

So if there is never a good time to be in a rebuilding mode, especially when a team is about to celebrate its 100th season, which way does the brains trust in Toronto go? There will be fan and media pressure to show some progress over last year given the changes that were promised and made. But on the other hand, once you have established a firm plan to rebuild over time, it isn’t wise to suddenly abandon that plan simply to appease the media and the fan base. For the Maple Leafs, they do at least have the comfort of knowing that even if next season is another bottom eight/bottom ten finish, the seats will all be sold. Perhaps not filled, but certainly sold and as long as the revenues are coming in, then from a Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment view, business is booming. After all, we all know that that is the most important factor at 140 Bay Street.

I doubt any Toronto sports fan envies the position Lamoriello and Shanahan will find themselves in over the next 30 days.

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1. Founded Nov 22/1917 as the Toronto Arenas, a charter member of the NHL and also known as the Toronto St. Pats from 1919 until 1927
2. signed through 2021 at an average salary of $7MM per year, with a no movement clause. By comparison, Duncan Keith is signed through 2023 and has an average salary of $5.35MM per year
3. 27 goals, 43 assists, 70 points in 34 games

Steve Yzerman’s Latest Dilemma

Over the past weekend, there were two news items in the hockey world that caught our attention. The confirmation of John Scott as one of the four all-star game captains was one and enough has been said about that.1www.morethanafan.net “The NHL’s Latest Black Eye” December 23/15 A black eye for the NHL and a “thumbs down” to the league for not having a Plan B in place in case something hideous like this occurred. The second newsworthy item came out of Tampa Bay.

For the third time in two years Steve Yzerman has found himself in a tight spot as it relates to one of his high potential players. For an executive who has exhumed class as an executive, just as he did as a player I think we have all been puzzled by the fact that once again one of the Lightning’s top players has given some indication that he wants out of the Sunshine State. We have already examined the stories of Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos.

In early 2014, St. Louis, then captain of the Lightning was miffed at Yzerman, then doubling as GM of Canada’s 2014 Olympic Hockey team when Yzerman initially passed him over for a spot on the Olympic team. St. Louis subsequently insisted on a trade, using his “no-trade” clause to orchestrate a move to the one team he was willing to play for; the New York Rangers. Yzerman got good value from the Rangers in that trade, with Ryan Callahan, the key player heading to Tampa Bay still with the Lightning while St. Louis called it a career this past summer. More recently, he has been faced with the Stamkos situation, where it seems less and less likely that the current Lightning captain will re-sign with the team once his current contract expires this coming July.2www.moretnafan.net “The Stamkos Dilemma” December 17/15

While that has yet to be resolved one way or the other, indirectly it has a bearing on the latest problem facing Yzerman. On Sunday it became public knowledge that Jonathan Drouin, the Lightning’s first pick (third overall) in 2013 had requested a trade. Apparently Drouin and his agent Allan Walsh had requested a trade sometime in November, but the matter didn’t become public until it was confirmed by Walsh as a result of the Lightning sending Drouin to the team’s top farm club, the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL. The crux of the matter is that Drouin feels he should be playing at the NHL level, as are almost all of his contemporaries from that 2013 draft, whereas Yzerman and his staff feel differently.

Perhaps Yzerman’s lengthy stay with the Detroit Red Wings as both a player and in their front office taught him patience in terms of bringing young players along. For most of Yzerman’s later years as a player and through all of his time in the front office the Red Wings were a good team, allowing most of their young prospects to mature in the AHL, gradually moving up to the big team filling holes created through trades and retirements. In addition, as a result of their on-ice success, the Red Wings had almost no high draft picks during that period so they were dealing with young prospects much less “high profile” than Drouin.

Drouin’s entry level contract will expire this coming July, which will allow him to become a restricted free-agent. Unless he plays some NHL games between now and the end of the season, it will be hard for any other team to justify signing him to a contract and providing the Lightning with mutually agreeable compensation. On that front, the Lightning hold the hammer. However, Yzerman also needs to consider his options.

He can play hard ball and take advantage of the team’s control over Drouin and either keep him in the AHL, bring him up to the Lightning or perhaps seek a trade now. The difficulty in seeking a trade now is obtaining sufficient compensation. With St. Louis, the unhappy player had a track record from which potential teams (in that case just the Rangers) could offer a package of players/draft picks to the Lightning for a proven player. Any trade involving Drouin would have to be made strictly on potential. That can be dangerous for both sides.

If the traded player goes on to be a star with his new team, the chances are that the team giving up on him won’t get adequate players in return for their young asset. A team looking to give Drouin a chance would not likely want to give up anything of substance for an unproven player. Two deals where a young player was traded and the trading team got nothing close to sufficient return come to mind.

In 1986 the Vancouver Canucks wanted Barry Pederson, a young player with the Boston Bruins who had enjoyed five good seasons in Beantown and had played junior hockey in Nanaimo, British Columbia. As well as being a good player, Pederson would add a “local” flavour to the Canucks roster. Pederson would play parts of four seasons with the Canucks, scoring 60 of his 238 career NHL goals for Vancouver, but the Bruins were the big winners in the trade. After scoring 51 goals for the Canucks over three seasons, Cam Neely went to Boston in that trade and evolved into one of the game’s premier power forwards and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

More recently we can consider the case of Kyle Turris. Turris was the third player chosen (ironically just like Drouin) in the 2007 NHL entry draft by the then Phoenix Coyotes. By December 2011, Turris felt that the Coyotes weren’t giving him much of a chance, just as Drouin feels today about the Lightning. Turris requested a trade and the Coyotes decided to trade him for the best offer they could get. That came from the Ottawa Senators, who offered defenseman David Rundblad and a 2012 second round draft pick3This pick was subsequently traded by the Coyotes to Columbus and then to Philadelphia who used it to select Anthony Stolarz.

Rundblad did very little for the Coyotes, moving to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2014 and while he was part of the Blackhawks Stanley Cup championship last year, he was strictly a role player as a sixth or seventh defenseman. Only a serious injury to Michal Rozsival allowed Rundblad into the Blackhawks lineup. Rundblad’s star has fallen so low that this past week he was “loaned” to the Zurich Lions of the Swiss League, his NHL career apparently over at the age of 25.

Meanwhile, Turris has established himself as the Senators number one centre. Based on those two scenarios, it is easy to see why Yzerman would be extremely hesitant to trade Drouin. On top of that, with the Stamkos situation still very much in the air, if Stamkos was to leave at the end of his contract, it is very likely that the Lightning would want to give Drouin a long look as their next building block before giving up on him. Drouin was a huge talent as a junior, playing with the Halifax Mooseheads alongside current Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon but whether he isn’t cut out to be an NHL star or simply hasn’t had the opportunity in Tampa Bay no one really knows at this point.

On the surface, Yzerman’s hands appear to be tied. Again. If Stamkos decides to leave, the Lightning’s needs are far different than if Stamkos stays. So until Yzerman knows how the Stamkos situation ends, he really can’t make any decisions, which leaves Drouin essentially helpless at this point. His best bet is to go to the AHL, keep quiet, play at the levels expected from him as a top draft choice and either force the Lightning to call him up or at least play well enough in the AHL that another team will give him an offer this summer.

Yzerman has responded to the public request for a trade by saying that “I’ll do what’s best for the hockey team. Any potential trade is going to make our hockey team better, not to appease a player”. We would expect nothing less from any NHL GM, but it does raise the question as to why marquee players/prospects keep wanting out of Tampa Bay.

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1. www.morethanafan.net “The NHL’s Latest Black Eye” December 23/15
2. www.moretnafan.net “The Stamkos Dilemma” December 17/15
3. This pick was subsequently traded by the Coyotes to Columbus and then to Philadelphia who used it to select Anthony Stolarz

The NHL’s Latest Black Eye

Those who read this column regularly will know that I don’t have very many positive things to say about the NHL all-star game. All-Star games are tricky in all the major North American sports simply because of the way they are structured and the hype that the respective leagues bestow upon them.

Baseball is likely the best All-Star game because the game is essentially played under regular season rules, the players wear their own team’s uniforms, the players are easily recognizable etc. The NBA’s mid-season exhibition is watchable because basketball is as much an individual game as it is a team game and there is lots of offense in just about every NBA game you watch. The NFL’s Pro-Bowl is very tame, simply because the players are tired after a long season and there are special rules established for the game to avoid injuries to players. Add the fact that because the game is now played a week before the Super Bowl, thereby eliminating many star players and you have another dull game. But perhaps the one that is the worst is the NHL’s All-Star Game, an excuse for a showcase game. Like football, hockey is a game where hitting is a big part of the sport and for obvious reasons, neither players nor ownership wants to see a player get hurt as a result of an un-necessary hit in a meaningless game.

NHL scoring is at an all-time low for the modern era, (currently 2.37 goals per game in the first 516 games of the 2015-16 season), yet the last three NHL All-Star games (2015, 2012 and 2011) have produced 29, 21 and 21 goals respectively. The league has tried to spice up the game, changing the team structure several times and even introducing a schoolyard type draft where elected captains pick their teams, but at the end of the day they haven’t settled on anything that works nearly as well as the original format when the previous season’s Stanley Cup champions played a team comprised of the stars of the other teams in the league.

This year in yet another attempt to make the game interesting, the league announced that instead of one game between two teams, there will be three games, each lasting 20 minutes. Each of the league’s four divisions will have its own all-star team. In the first two games, the two Eastern Conference divisions (Atlantic and Metropolitan) will play each other and the two Western Conference divisions (Central and Pacific) will face off. The two winners will then play in the third game. Any ties will go directly to a shootout. The added quirk will be that the teams will play three skaters per side, as they do in regular season overtime. Entertaining perhaps, but certainly not hockey as we know it.

The four team captains will be elected by the fans, who can vote on line from December 1 through January 1. The top vote getter in each division, regardless of position will be the captain for his division’s all-star team. Once the captains have been elected, the NHL Hockey Operations Department will select 10 additional players for each team.

But here’s the real problem for the NHL. As of December 20, the four leading vote getters by Division are Alex Ovechkin (Metropolitan), Jaromir Jagr (Atlantic), Patrick Kane (Central) and John Scott (Pacific). Yes, John Scott. Just to be sure we understand Scott’s qualifications as an all-star, consider the following: In 283 career NHL games he has posted five goals and six assists, while accumulating 540 penalty minutes. In nine games this season for the Coyotes he has one assist. He has cleared waivers three times already this season, most recently on December 19.

The NHL clearly did not see this type of situation coming and they will have to find a way to deal with it. Not only is Scott an unworthy all-star, he likely won’t even be in the league by the time the game is played at the end of January. In trying to generate more fan interest in a game that is really tough to market, the NHL is now faced with a huge black eye that no matter how they deal with it, they will look bad. If they say Scott can’t play because he isn’t in the league, they are slapping the fans in the face and the fans are who the league is trying to win over. If they let him play in the game when he isn’t in the league, they make a mockery of the league, the game and its format.

Can you picture John Scott in a three on three format against Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, John Tavares et al? Perhaps the best option is to let him play and the game will be exposed for what it is: a farce.

The Stamkos Dilemma

One is less than 60 days away from his 26th birthday, in his eighth year as an NHL star and will be an unrestricted free agent next July. The other is a well-respected General Manager, who has won three Stanley Cups as a player, plus one Stanley Cup and two Olympic Gold Medals as an executive and has re-built an NHL franchise that was struggling both on and off the ice when he was appointed General Manager in May 2010.

Sounds like the cornerstone to success for any sports franchise, but it is becoming more and more obvious that these two individuals are on a collision course.

When Steve Yzerman was named General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, one of the players he inherited from the former regime in Tampa was Steven Stamkos. After being the first overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Stamkos had just completed his second season with the Lightning and was already showing his potential as a player after a 51 goal season. In his first two years, Stamkos scored 74 goals and 67 assists for 141 points for two non-playoff teams.

Using Stamkos and Victor Hedman the Lightning’s first draft pick in 2009 as cornerstones, Yzerman set about building a winner. There were a couple of roadblocks along the way, with former Lightning team captain Martin St. Louis demanding a trade to the New York Rangers, thereby holding a gun to Yzerman’s head 1http://www.morethanafan.net/2014/pocket-picking-big-apple/. However the biggest on ice blow came on November 11, 2013 when Stamkos who had 14 goals and nine assists in 20 games for the Lightning suffered a broken leg on a play in Boston. He missed 45 games (and the 2014 Olympics) as a result of the injury, and returned to play 17 regular season games after re-habbing.

While the Lightning continued to improve as a team, reaching the 2015 Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games, it seems that the relationship between Stamkos and the Lightning isn’t what it should be, especially when the player is a young star and realistically is the face of the franchise. The first time it became apparent was in the 2015 playoffs, when Head Coach Jon Cooper played Stamkos on the wing rather than his preferred position of centre and also did not play Stamkos in the usual pressure situations you would expect to see a star sniper playing. Cooper also reduced Stamkos’ ice time. After the playoffs, Yzerman said that his top priority was to re-sign Stamkos to a new contract and given his impending free agency in July 2016 we all assumed that meant a deal would be completed over the 2015 off season or early in the 2015-16 season. To date that hasn’t happened.

What HAS happened is that there have been several indications that the Stamkos-Lightning “marriage” is about to end and it is looking more like WHEN it will end rather than IF it will end. From an outsider’s view it seems that Stamkos and Cooper are not on the same page. Whether that is because of the way in which Cooper sees Stamkos’ role as a player or whether there is a personality clash between the two is unclear, but it is certainly something that needs to be fixed and quickly if the Lightning are to make a serious playoff run. Yzerman did not make his task of re-signing Stamkos any easier by announcing on December 4 that he had given Cooper a long term extension, specific details of which were not disclosed.

When a head coach and his star player are on different pages usually spells disaster, so that adds a great deal of speculation as to where Stamkos will be playing in the future. Stamkos current contract with the Lightning includes a no-trade/no-movement clause, which means he can’t be traded or sent to the minor leagues without his consent. Sounds like Martin St. Louis all over again.

A player of Stamkos age and ability would undoubtedly attract a long list of suitors if he were to get to July 1, 2016 and declare free agency. Although that sounds attractive, in today’s cap-world NHL it may actually be a hindrance. I would expect that any new contract would be in the same range as the contracts signed last year by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane with the Chicago Blackhawks 2Toews and Kane signed identical 8 year contracts at $10.5 Million annually for the 2015-16 NHL season. Those dollars and that length of term would scare away a lot of teams that Stamkos would see as a fit due to any potential employer’s salary cap space. Good teams ready to win generally don’t have a lot of salary cap room to add a piece like Stamkos. A player like Stamkos likely doesn’t want to go to a team years away from winning a Stanley Cup, especially when Tampa Bay would appear to have the core to win a Stanley Cup already in place.

Last week Stamkos “liked” a tweet suggesting that he would be a good fit in Toronto next season. Stamkos quickly announced that he had made a mistake in accidentally “liking” the tweet, but of course this just added to the speculation, especially since the Lightning were scheduled to visit Toronto for a game against the Leafs on December 15. Stamkos is from Markham, Ontario a community on the outskirts of Toronto; he grew up a Leaf fan and was a friend of the son of Leaf play-by-play man Joe Bowen.

Even if Stamkos really is interested in joining the Leafs, it would be an unwise move for Toronto to sign him. While they have salary cap room, the core of their next successful team is currently playing in the AHL or the Canadian Junior leagues or in some cases those players are not yet Entry Draft eligible. The Leafs are several years away from serious contention, although current results seem to indicate they are in the early steps of a successful rebuild. In reality, Stamkos is two years early for them to consider. No point in spending the kind of money Stamkos would want on a star player whose talents won’t be best used until at least two years down the road. It wouldn’t be wise for Stamkos either. While he would be “coming home”, why would a player at/close to the peak of his career want to spend two years (or more) in a rebuilding phase. Players like Stamkos should be the final piece to the jigsaw puzzle, not one of the first pieces on the table.

There are many challenges here, not just the fact that a player of Stamkos’ ability and contract expectations limits the potential suitors. He has not been the same player since he broke his leg. When he broke his leg in November 2013, he had played 393 NHL games (one quarter of his current career total of 524), scoring 222 goals and 409 points for an average of .56 goals per game and 1.04 points per game respectively. In the 131 games since he returned from the injury, he has scored 65 goals and 111 points, thus averaging .50 goals per game and .85 points per game. While his goal scoring isn’t suffering, his point per game output has dropped significantly for a player of Stamkos calibre. Perhaps this tells us that Stamkos isn’t the player he once was; perhaps it tells us that he isn’t being used correctly by Cooper or perhaps it tells us that he isn’t a happy player and his contract status and relationship with Cooper are playing on his mind. In the December 15 game, Stamkos did not figure into the scoring summary.

But perhaps the biggest challenge lies with Yzerman. He can hope that Stamkos and Cooper patch up whatever differences they have and Stamkos and Yzerman are able to come to an agreement on a new, long-term contract. He can hope that Stamkos gets so fed up that he tells Yzerman that he would like a trade and is prepared to waive his no-trade clause. That would at least allow the Lightning to get some return on the asset, but it is unlikely that return would be anything other than modest unless Stamkos’ new team was able to discuss signing him to a new contract. The earlier any trade could be worked out would benefit the Lightning. They are likely to get better value for Stamkos if his new team is able to play him in more games and not just 15/20 in a playoff-run situation. If Stamkos digs his heels in and goes to free agency on July 1, the Lightning would get nothing for the loss of a star player. That would be Yzerman’s worst headache. The Cooper extension would indicate that reconciliation would be the best solution, but that seems like the least likely solution.

Yzerman clearly has his work cut out for him. He has to somehow make this work and he has no leverage. Unless he re-signs Stamkos or trades him for a suitable return, the Tampa Bay press and the fan base will be critical of anything he does. He will need to draw on his experience with the St. Louis situation before making a final decision on the future status of the Stamkos-Lightning marriage.

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1. http://www.morethanafan.net/2014/pocket-picking-big-apple/
2. Toews and Kane signed identical 8 year contracts at $10.5 Million annually for the 2015-16 NHL season

The Goal – A Hit Without Any Penalties

A few weeks ago Andrew Caddell, one of our regular readers, sent me a proof copy of a new book he had co-written with Montreal sports writer Dave Stubbs.

By way of background, we learn from the authors’ bios in the book, that Andrew’s career includes time as a reporter and broadcaster in various cities in Canada as well as overseas. He has also been with the United Nations in Europe and Asia and currently works as a Civil Servant for the Federal Government in Ottawa. Andrew’s love for hockey came from his father and his maternal grandfather and he is still active in old-timers hockey, playing twice a week. Dave Stubbs has been a sportswriter for almost 30 years and currently writes on hockey for the Montreal Gazette. Throughout his life, Dave has compiled numerous scrapbooks about hockey, including game summaries, sports articles by Red Fisher1one of the great hockey beat writers in Canada with the now defunct Montreal Star and later the Montreal Gazette until his retirement as well as hockey memorabilia, including hockey cards and Bee Hive Corn Syrup photos 2similar to baseball and hockey cards but produced by the Bee Hive Corn Starch Company.

Their mutual love of hockey gave them the idea of putting together an anthology of ten short stories about the game. The book includes stories by both Andrew and Dave as well as one story that was written by Andrew’s late father Philip “Pip” Caddell.

The stories are timeless and are as enjoyable to today’s hockey fan just as they were to the hockey fans of the period about which the stories were written. In Andrew’s stories we see his personal love of the game through “The Goal” and “The Playoff”, the tradition of the back yard/community outdoor hockey rink in so many Canadian towns/cities in “La Patinoire”3 English translation The Skating Rink and “The Rink” and his respect for two true legends of the game in Canada; the late Danny Gallivan 4the most respected English speaking hockey play by play man in the game. His baseball equivalent would be Vin Scully in “The Voice” and the late Jean Beliveau in “The Gentleman”.

The three stories by Dave Stubbs all touch on both real life and history. In “The Game”, we learn about the March 1936 playoff game between the Montreal Maroons and the Detroit Red Wings that went into six overtime periods before the game’s only goal came at 2:25 a.m., a game that Philip Caddell not only attended, but stayed to the bitter end. In “The Coin”, we experience Dave’s love of sports collecting as he tells of his attachment to a yellow plastic coin of former player Dick Meissner, who played just 171 games in the NHL for the Rangers and Bruins between 1959-60 and 1964-65. In “The Kid”, we see the human side of Andrew Caddell’s then seven year old son Jack, whose favourite player Saku Koivu was diagnosed with cancer. Dave describes Jack’s determination to raise as much money as he could to donate to the scientific arm of the Canadian Cancer Society. Jack’s efforts culminate in a meeting between Jack and his favourite player.

We are treated to the humorous side of the game through Philip Caddell’s story “The Black Horse”, which tells of his involvement in a practical joke that transpired in 1935 Montreal to pay off a friendly bet between Kenneth Dawes, Vice-President of the Dawes Brewery and Reginald “Hooley” Smith a player with the Montreal Maroons.

The stories are enjoyable and the entire book is designed to be very easy to read. It will appeal to young and old and to both serious hockey fans and casual fans. The chapters are between six and twenty pages long, which makes the book easy to read since a chapter or two can easily be finished in one sitting. While the stories are intentionally not in sequential order by year, it is easy to see the span of time that the book covers and the sequence is actually refreshing because it reminds the reader of not only how much the game has changed, but just how much it has stayed the same.

“The Goal” is now available in “oversized paperback” format at major book stores in Canada (CDN$14.95), on Amazon.ca in Canada and Amazon.com in the USA and elsewhere. Signed copies are available for sale by contacting Andrew Caddell at [email protected] At the moment, there is no full French language version available, but one is being contemplated.

It is the gift giving time of year. If you know a hockey fan and want to just say “thanks for being a friend”, “The Goal” is a can’t miss.

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1. one of the great hockey beat writers in Canada with the now defunct Montreal Star and later the Montreal Gazette until his retirement
2. similar to baseball and hockey cards but produced by the Bee Hive Corn Starch Company
3. English translation The Skating Rink
4. the most respected English speaking hockey play by play man in the game. His baseball equivalent would be Vin Scully

Garret Sparks – From Hockey Outpost to the NHL

When Toronto hockey fans bought their tickets to the November 30 game between the Edmonton Oilers and the Toronto Maple Leafs they thought they were buying tickets to see a rookie display his NHL talents. They were, but it turned out that the rookie in the limelight wasn’t who they expected. Oilers sensation Connor McDavid was injured in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers on November 3 which will put him out of action for several months based on initial medical reports (although McDavid said in a TV interview on Monday that he is progressing ahead of schedule). Instead they were treated to quite a performance from a Leaf rookie goaltender making his NHL debut.

The Leafs started the season by anointing Jonathan Bernier as their number one goalie, with James Reimer in reserve. Both Reimer and Bernier have taken runs at being the number one goalie over the past couple of years, but with Bernier getting a two year contract before this season and Reimer’s contract expiring after the 2015-16 season, most thought that Bernier would get the best opportunity to make the job his. Bernier has played badly all season (0-8-1 with a 3.28 GAA and .888 save percentage in nine games) and recently Reimer has taken over as the number one guy and was playing very well until he was injured last week. Bernier got a reprieve and started against the Washington Capitals on Saturday night, but didn’t do himself any favours. He played badly (the team didn’t give him a lot of help) and the Leafs lost 4-2. Head Coach Mike Babcock decided that Bernier was struggling so badly he needed to look further down the food chain for the starting goalie against Edmonton. Enter Garret Sparks.

Who? Everyone asked that question. Although he had been playing just two and a half miles away with the AHL Toronto Marlies, not many had heard of the 22 year old native of Elmhurst, Illinois. Part of the USA world junior team in 2013, he had played 11 games with the Marlies this year, sporting a respectable 8-2-1 record along with a GAA of 1.90 and a save percentage of .938. Even so, few saw him as the Leafs best prospect outside of the NHL. Drafted in the seventh round by the Leafs in 2011, after completing a somewhat unspectacular junior career with the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League in 2013 he played a few games with the Marlies but spent most of the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons with the Orlando Solar Bears; as in the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL.

The ECHL is one level below the AHL. In baseball terms it would be the equivalent of Double-A baseball, two levels below the big time. The league, with its head office in Princeton, New Jersey comprises 28 teams and its season runs from October to April, thereby paralleling the NHL season. Only three of the 28 teams do not have an NHL affiliation and the five NHL teams without an affiliation (Florida, New Jersey, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Vancouver) use other teams in the league for developmental purposes. The ECHL is seen by most hockey people as a place of no return; for most it’s either the place a veteran goes to continue playing when he knows he is a suspect rather than a prospect; or a place for a wide eyed rookie with big dreams but not outstanding talent to try and live the dream.

Even the letters ECHL no longer mean anything. At one time the league was known as the East Coast Hockey League, but with amalgamations/expansion to 28 teams the geographical name just didn’t make any sense, so in 2003 the league officially became known as the ECHL or “The Coast” to those who make their living in hockey. There are teams in ten States; Florida (two teams), Georgia, New Hampshire, Michigan, New York (two teams), Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina (two teams), Virginia and West Virginia as well as Brampton, Ontario in the East Division but the real travels come for the western teams. The West Division has teams in 12 states; Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana (three teams), Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Utah. The geography of the league requires lengthy road trips, sometimes for the better part of a month and with the exception of trips to/from Alaska, the trips are by bus. Not exactly a Slap Shot league 1as in the 1977 movie Slap Shot but about as close as it gets. The teams schedules include lots of back to back games to reduce travel costs, especially for the Alaska Aces, whose schedule looks more like a baseball schedule. The Aces play approximately five “single games”, all on the road on their 2015-16 schedule. The rest of the Aces schedule includes many two or three game “series”, usually spread over four-five days. You can rest assured that the players in this league don’t stay at five star hotels and they don’t eat at restaurants that advertise “fine dining” when they are on the road.

On Monday, Sparks became the 579th player to make the long journey from The Coast to the NHL, and he did it in sparkling fashion. The Leafs won 3-0, with Sparks making 24 saves for the shutout, thus becoming the first goalie in the 99 year history of the Toronto Maple Leafs to post a shutout in his NHL debut. He did it in front of a full house, which included his proud parents who had made the trip from suburban Chicago.

Many Toronto residents have been to Orlando to visit Disneyland. Orlando is 1,130 miles from Toronto by car and a three hour flight, but in hockey terms it is a million miles away and while we can be pretty certain that Connor McDavid will have a longer, more star studded NHL career than Garret Sparks, for one night Sparks was the rookie everyone will remember for his performance on November 30. He must have thought he was still in Disneyland.

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1. as in the 1977 movie Slap Shot

What is wrong with Sidney Crosby?

Three goals, eight assists for eleven points in 20 games. If those numbers project over the balance of the NHL’s 82 game regular season, the player in question would end up with 12 goals, 32 assists and 44 points. Reasonable numbers for a third line centre, but hardly the kind of numbers you would expect from one of the games greats. Since entering the league as the first overall draft pick in 2005, Sidney Crosby has been widely accepted as the game’s number one player. On top of his poor offensive numbers so far this season, Crosby has a plus/minus rating of -9, which projects to a horrible -36 over an entire season. 1A player is awarded a “plus” each time he is on the ice when his Club scores an even-strength or shorthanded goal. He receives a “minus” if he is on the ice for an even-strength or shorthanded goal scored by the opposing Club. The difference in these numbers is considered the player’s “plusminus” statistic

So how do we attribute the poor start to Crosby’s eleventh NHL season? Perhaps there is an undisclosed injury. Perhaps it is an overall poor performance by the team. Perhaps it is bad coaching in terms of line combinations. Let’s look at those supposedly obvious factors first.

By definition, an undisclosed injury is not made public so if Crosby is hurt, we may never know. However his average ice time per game over the first 25% of the season is 20:38, good for 6th in the entire league, so I think we can safely say that he is not injured. While the Penguins as a team are not setting the league on fire, based on their star studded roster one would expect them to be better than 12-8 after 20 games. The team is playing reasonably well defensively with a 2.26 goals against average, shots for and against are identical (30.5 shots per game for the Penguins and 30.8 shots for the opposition), their special teams are playing to the league average (the Penguins Power Play is operating at 84.5% efficiency and the Penalty Killing unit is operating at 15.1%)2If these two numbers add up to 100% then special teams are effective. They are plus 10 as a team, which is a little below average for a team that expects to contend. Line combinations are juggled game to game and often within the game itself as game situations dictate, but essentially Crosby has been playing with quality hockey players and not third or fourth line journeymen.

So it would appear that there is at least one other factor that is causing the decline in Crosby’s scoring numbers. After 20 games his eleven points ranks him tied for 136th in NHL scoring. Players of Crosby’s calibre are few and far between, so the comparisons are few which makes the exercise a bit easier.

Crosby entered the league as an 18 year old at the start of the 2005-06 season. Two other superstar players who also entered professional hockey at similar ages were Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, perhaps the two players closest to Crosby in terms of talent and their success as world class players. Crosby is entering his 11th NHL season so I compared Gretzky’s performance for the first ten years of his career and Lemieux’ performance for the first ten years of his career versus Crosby’s output through the end of his tenth season.

There are some interesting comparisons in the chart below that compares the three players’ first ten years. Both Gretzky and Lemieux scored more points in their first ten years than they did in the balance of their careers. In both cases, their point per game production was more than Crosby’s, but we need to take into account that Gretzky played his first ten years in the era where NHL scoring was at its peak and Crosby played most of his first ten years in a league where scoring is declining.  Lemiuex’ first ten years were in an era somewhere in between.

Player Period Games Goals Assists Points PPG % of career points
Wayne Gretzky Years 1 – 10 776 629 1,150 1,779 2.29 59.96%
Wayne Gretzky Year 11 onwards 791 311 877 1,188 1.50 40.04%
Career Gretzky 1,567 940 2,027 2,967 1.89 100.00%
Mario Lemieux Years 1 – 10 599 494 717 1,211 2.02 70.28%
Mario Lemieux Year 11 onwards 316 196 316 512 1.62 29.72%
Career Lemieux 915 690 1,033 1,723 1.88 100.00%
Sidney Crosby Years 1 – 10 627 302 551 853 1.36 98.73%
Sidney Crosby Year 11 onwards 20 3 8 11 0.55 1.27%
To date Crosby 647 305 559 864 1.34 100.00%

 

So based on the above comparisons it is reasonable to expect that Crosby’s numbers will start to fall off. Using those comparisons, we can estimate that over the balance of his career, Crosby’s will play another 700 games, scoring 200 goals, 370 assists for 570 points.3All figures approximate Such a pace would give him 502 goals and 1,423 points for and 18 year career. Reasonable in the circumstances.

But perhaps a more interesting and realistic comparison of Crosby’s career is to that of Eric Lindros. While he was a good player, Lindros was not as skilled offensively as Crosby, but played the game with more of an edge than Crosby does. The common denominators are age and injuries, specifically concussions. It’s hard to compare the two players’ concussion history because head injuries are treated more more seriously today than they were 15 years ago when Lindros was still playing. Crosby has had two concussions and many believe that the second was really an extension of the first (January 1, 2011) that wasn’t dealt with as diligently as it should have been. By comparison Lindros had six known concussion injuries, the first of which was on March 7, 1998 and he missed 18 games as a result.  But perhaps the real decline in Lindros’ career came in the five month period between December 27, 1999 and May 26, 2000 when he suffered concussions two through six. The chart below shows the effect of Lindros’ offensive production after his first concussion and the key number to look at is the points per game (PPG) column. While we can see that so far Crosby’s numbers have not deteriorated significantly since his first concussion, there is a slight drop off and perhaps this season’s numbers are a sign of things to come.

Player Period Games G A PTS PPG % of career points
Eric Lindros Pre 1st Concussion 360 223 284 507 1.41 58.61%
Eric Lindros Post 1st Concussion 400 149 209 358 0.90 41.39%
Total Lindros 760 372 493 865 1.14 100.00%
Sidney Crosby Pre 1st Concussion 412 215 357 572 1.39 66.20%
Sidney Crosby Post 1st Concussion 215 87 194 281 1.31 32.52%
Sidney Crosby This season 20 3 8 11 0.55 1.27%
Total Crosby 647 305 559 864 1.34 100.00%

 

The balance of this season will be a key period in determining what success Crosby has over the balance of his career.  It would seem that he is battling two major influences on his offensive production; age and post concussion. If he continues to score at the rate we have seen over the first quarter of this season, we will have already seen his best years. Age wise, he is clearly on “the back nine” of his career and his numbers should go down as a result of that, but if we believe that concussion injuries are a major part of a player’s decline in offensive production, we are likely going to see a player who is a mere shadow of his former self.

The NHL and other sports leagues are starting to take head injuries very seriously. Not only is that a good thing and the right thing to do, we can see evidence of the effect a head injury influences a player’s career. For Crosby’s sake I hope he picks up his play and removes any doubt that he is “damaged goods”, but it may be April 2016 before we really know for sure.

 

 

 

 

 

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1. A player is awarded a “plus” each time he is on the ice when his Club scores an even-strength or shorthanded goal. He receives a “minus” if he is on the ice for an even-strength or shorthanded goal scored by the opposing Club. The difference in these numbers is considered the player’s “plusminus” statistic
2. If these two numbers add up to 100% then special teams are effective
3. All figures approximate

How the salary cap has essentially killed in-season trades in the NHL

Kids, both those who qualify due to age and those who qualify in thinking young have always loved trading things and none more so than sports cards. For as long as we can remember kids have been into “got him”, “need him”, “got him”, “need him” with their friends, essentially playing real life GM’s.

It has always been easier for the kids because nothing is at stake other than fun and bragging rights for making the best trade or for being the first to complete a set. For real life GM’s it’s always been a challenge because no GM wants to lose a transaction. At the very least they want it to work out evenly for both sides, but even better if it worked out more for their team. The ideal trade of course is one that works out for both sides because not only does it help the two (or sometimes more) teams involved, it also stirs fan interest and keeps the GM off the hot seat even if only for a little while and also keeps all of his options open for future trades. A GM who fleeces everyone he trades with will quickly get a reputation as someone that others will treat with a wide berth any time a trade is proposed. Trades were always unique, sometimes role player for role player, sometimes a superstar for two or three younger players, sometimes “your problem for my problem”, sometimes a superstar for a superstar, sometimes the trade of a veteran in order to give him one last legitimate shot at a Stanley Cup.

But since the end of the 2004-05 lock out, another factor has come into play. The salary cap. The salary cap was the big win for the owners in the season long lockout of 2004-05. Smaller team owners felt they needed it in order to compete with the bigger market teams and the bigger market teams felt they needed it because if they were limited in how much they could spend on player salaries, they would be more profitable, since there were no intentions of reducing revenues. We’ve discussed before the impact that the salary cap has had on all teams, from top teams having to shed salaries after successful seasons simply to make the cap the following season (Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins being the prime examples in recent years) to lower budget teams having to add unwanted players and salaries simply in order to meet the cap minimum (Florida Panthers, Arizona Coyotes). Good or bad, the cap is undoubtedly here to stay so everyone has to work around it.

The challenge that it has created for NHL GM’s is somewhat ironic, since the intent of the cap (other than controlling expenses) was to make more teams competitive as they all have to play under the same rules. It is good for the GM in small markets like Florida and Arizona to know that even the Rangers, Maple Leafs, Flyers and Blackhawks can only spend as much money as he can, but in other ways it prevents him from improving his team. The essence of trading is using existing assets as the purchase price of obtaining better assets. In other words, if money can’t be the equalizer, then the talent being traded has to be pretty much equal. The better teams have better talent so it becomes hard for a Florida, an Arizona or a Columbus to trade equal talent with a Montreal, New York Rangers or Chicago team. The cap always dictates that pretty much any trade now has to be close to an offset in terms of the salaries of the players involved.

The current NHL salary cap for 2015-16 is US$71.4 Million with a minimum of US$52.8 Million. Using the most recent data on the website www.spotrac.com 1based on data on the site Nov 15/15 only seven teams, Buffalo, Carolina, New Jersey, Nashville, Arizona, Colorado and Winnipeg have more than 10% of their cap space available for player additions. In other words, 23 teams (76.7%) of the 30 teams are operating at 90% of their cap or higher. That doesn’t leave much room for those 23 teams to trade unless there is a reasonably close dollar for dollar salary exchange in the trade. Assuming that most GM’s have negotiated salaries at fair market value for the player’s ability, that usually means that most in season trades would likely involve players of equal ability. Unless it is a clear need of team A having an extra defenseman and needing a centre and team B has an extra centre but needs a defenseman and the two teams can exchange players making almost the same amount of money it is easy to see how a GM’s hands can be tied in terms of trading, especially early in the season.

Many teams keep their cap space as an emergency fund in case they are very close to winning a division or securing a playoff spot at the March trade deadline in order that they can go out and pick up a player with a big salary in exchange for prospects. The current salaries of prospects would not match the current salary of the big name player acquired, so the cap space is eaten up paying the acquired player’s salary on a pro-rated basis for the balance of the regular season. Usually there are approximately 15 games left in the regular season at the trade deadline, so the additional expense equates to approximately 19% of the acquired player’s annual salary that has to be funded from the cap space.

In short, teams that want to trade for quality established players are generally already good quality teams operating at/close to the cap. That means the players they are looking to acquire are also likely well paid, established veteran players, thus putting more pressure on the payroll. Take the Pittsburgh Penguins as an example. According to www.spotrac.com they currently have $369,956 in available cap space. That isn’t going to let them acquire even a journeyman player, so GM Jim Rutherford has to be creative when considering a trade. Teams that are bordering on success want to acquire good players (read highly paid) and trade away younger players, but with his team being that tight against the cap how does Rutherford make a hockey trade that helps his team, even if the farm system is sufficiently stocked to make such a deal? The ideal situation would be for Rutherford to obtain a young, quality player with a lower salary but which GM would give him a player that fit those characteristics? Likely no one. Rutherford may talk to another team about a straight exchange of bad contract for bad contract, hoping that a change of scenery helps the player coming to Pittsburgh, but most likely he has to sit back and hope that the Penguins are still close at the trade deadline and then try and swing a deal for an expensive/impact player whose salary he is only responsible for paying for a few weeks.

Injuries are also a factor in trading these days. If an injury to a star player occurs later in the season and justifies putting the player on Long Term Injured Reserve (“LTIR”) the team does have some flexibility. Players on LTIR continue to get paid of course, but their salaries do not count against the cap while they are on LTIR. The classic example of this situation is the Patrick Kane injury in the latter part of the 2014-15 season. Chicago was up against the cap and they needed to try to replace Kane’s offense. They were able to acquire Antoine Vermette from the Arizona Coyotes without upsetting their cap budget because with Kane’s salary out of the way, the acquisition of Vermette did not have a negative effect on the Hawks payroll against the salary cap. In fact, it actually helped Chicago because when Kane was ready to return for the playoffs they had the benefit of being able to have both players in the lineup because the salary cap limit is not applicable for the playoffs 2Vermette was a pending free agent in July 2015 so the acquisition was always seen as short term. If that injury had occurred early in the season, the Blackhawks would likely not have been able to make that trade because Kane would have been eligible to return to the active roster before the end of the regular season, so it is unlikely that they could have kept both players and still stayed below the salary cap. It is in those situations where a GM really earns his money.

There has been talk of allowing teams to borrow against future years’ salary cap in order to make it easier to make a trade but I believe this creates an even bigger nightmare. As well as the possibility that the cap could go down in future years the possibility remains that a current GM, fearful for his job security might make a poor decision in trading for a player and “borrowing” from a future year’s salary cap. If the GM didn’t retain his job, someone else would be coining in to clean up the financial mess left behind. That would likely shy away some very good candidates for the job.

The salary cap, expensive salaries and the various factors influencing a GM’s ability to make trades are just some of the reasons driving NHL GM’s to the draft and develop strategy that we see many teams moving towards. As we move forward we will likely see teams continue to increase their budget on scouts, minor league coaches, and front office people with player development and/or analytics backgrounds. It is a trend we are already starting to see.

Sadly hockey trades, especially those before the March deadline have now become hockey business trades, rather than hockey talent trades.

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1. based on data on the site Nov 15/15
2. Vermette was a pending free agent in July 2015 so the acquisition was always seen as short term