In the early days of the season, I am actively trying to pick out leaders for the various NHL awards. I want to see how often the early leader wins or remains a contender come season's end. While I am yet to pick a Hart Trophy leader, I have picked a Vezina Trophy leader. Today I am picking an early season Calder Trophy leader in Tanner Pearson of the Los Angeles Kings.
Pearson is the top scorer on the Stanley Cup champion Kings. He has seven points and a +7 +/- rating in only six games played and he has done this in moderate ice time of a little over 12 minutes a game.
Pearson was passed over in the 2010 and 2011 entry drafts. It wasn't until 2012 when he was selected in the draft. He had been the top scorer on the Barrie Colts with 91 points. This allowed him to be the final pick of the first round in 2012. He spent his next season in the AHL but got to play one playoff game. Last season was spent mostly in the AHL but he got a significant NHL play. He played 25 games in the regular season last year and 24 more in their Stanley Cup run. That makes Pearson a very experienced rookie.
One question I find interesting is exactly when in a player's career does he establish himself as a Hockey Hall of Famer regardless of what may happen in the remainder of his career. I think Roberto Luongo has reached that threshold.
Luongo has been a top goaltender in the NHL for many years. The problem has been that I have been waiting for that one final big accomplishment that cemented his case and it hasn't come. Luongo has never won the Vezina Trophy - though he has had several Vezina worthy seasons and could easily have been a multiple time winner in his career. He has never won the Stanley Cup. In part this is because he did not play of a team that was capable of winning the cup until a few years into his run with the Vancouver Canucks. He probably should have won a cup there. He famously melted down in the 2011 finals when Boston won the cup. These could have been the final Hall of Fame securing achievement if they happened slightly differently.
Nevertheless he has some significant achievements. He was the starting goaltender on the 2010 gold medal winning Canadian Olympic Team. He was a backup who posted a shutout in his only game during the gold medal run in 2014. He has twice made the NHL's second team all star. In 2011 he won the Jennings Trophy for being part of the team with the best goals against average. He has made four NHL All Star Games. These accomplishments may not be enough to make the hall of Fame by themselves but they put him on the right track.
One ongoing project I have is trying to determine at which point in the season the eventual award winners emerge from the pack. Is this different for different awards? As such, I like to pick the award leaders based on the season so far throughout the season. As soon as a league leader emerges, he needs to be acknowledged for the record. Usually I expect the first award to have a clear leader is the Hart Trophy. That isn't true this year. There is no clear leader yet. That doesn't mean that there are no leaders for any awards. The Vezina Trophy has a clear leader. The top goaltender so far this year is Darcy Kuemper of the Minnesota Wild. He has played two games and has shutouts in both of them.
Last year Kuemper was the fourth string goalie in Minnesota who was called into action alongside Ilya Bryzgalov when Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding were on the disabled list. This year, Bryzgalov is gone. He is an unrestricted free agent who has not signed with an NHL team. Harding has been unable to play so far this year because of his multiple sclerosis. Kuemper got the starts so far this season and has done very well. Not bad for a goalie with 32 regular season starts before this year. He has posted solid numbers so far in his career, but this start is remarkable. Obviously it is unsustainable. He will allow a goal before long. At this point he is the clear Vezina Trophy leader.
Yesterday I wrote about the remarkably low attendance at the Florida Panthers home opener. They had an attendance of 11,419 which is more than 2,500 fans fewer than any other team's home opener attendance. Things got worse yesterday and they got worse in a remarkable way. Only 7,311 fans came to last night's game against the Ottawa Senators. That is a team record lowest attendance. As long as things continue this way, the Florida Panther organization is doomed. They cannot survive in Florida financially. They will almost certainly have to move to greener pastures.
The NHL is discussing expansion again. That cannot occur as long as there are teams that are not surviving in the league. Florida is a franchise that is dying if it continues down its current path. Arizona is in trouble as well but not in the serious trouble Florida is. That is not to say there are troubles NHL-wide. For most NHL owners, their team is a source of incredible wealth, but a few teams in weak markets are struggling and cannot survive unless circumstances change significantly. Florida has it worse than any other. Fans are not coming to the games. That means they are not making the money they need to survive.
I have recently written about the possible problems in Arizona/Phoenix but there is one team that may have even worse problems. They are the Florida Panthers. The Panthers have had only one home game to date but they haven't drawn fans. Florida's one home game Saturday night against the New Jersey Devils drew 11,419 fans. This is by far the lowest figure in the NHL. This is an extremely low figure for a home opener. Arizona is the second lowest attendance in the league and they drew over 2,500 more fans than Florida.
This attendance trouble in Florida is highlighted this year. This home opener attendance is significantly lower than the average attendance for the Panthers in any previous season. In fact it is more than 3000 fans fewer than their average attendance last season.
Hockey players with some NHL experience have never liked being sent to the AHL. This is especially true if they are on two-way contracts so that their pay is significantly cut to go with the demotion. For a few years, players have had an alternative in the KHL, but it isn't so easy to play there anymore. Political relations between Russia and North America are at a low point. Russian involvement in the Ukraine has led to sanctions which could hurt any players joining the league. Where do players go to avoid AHL demotions?
A couple NHL players have found an answer. Matthew Lombardi and Peter Mueller have gone to play in Switzerland. Both have experience playing in the Swiss League and wanted to make NHL comebacks. Lombardi attended training camp with the New York Rangers. When he failed to make the team he refused demotion to the AHL and has instead returned to Geneve-Servette HC of the Swiss League. Mueller failed to make the St Louis Blues. He signed with the Kloten Flyers in Switzerland. This is a natural consequence of the salary cap. If you try to limit the wages of players in the NHL system some will find somewhere else that pays better. The Swiss League is far from being an alternative for most NHLers but a few will find refuge there and as time progresses that number may grow.
The Phoenix/ Arizona Coyotes have a long history of financial difficulties. They have gone through a bankruptcy and a long search for a new owner. We have a new chapter in the story and I am not sure how to make sense of the situation. Last summer Anthony LeBlanc and George Gosbee headed a group that is now called Ice Arizona to purchase the Coyotes for a reported price of $170 million. The vast majority of the purchase price was paid for in financing and debt. The team has been sold again. Andrew Barroway, a Philadelphia hedge fund manager, has purchased a majority of the team. He now owns 51% of the Coyotes. For this he paid $155 million. This assumes a franchise value of $305 million. That is a ridiculous almost doubling in value of a money losing franchise. It isn't clear why Barroway would be interested in making this purchase, but I will offer two theories.
The first theory is that Barroway is desperate to own a sports franchise. He has made unsuccessful attempts to buy the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL's New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders. He was involved in a lawsuit suing Isles owner Charles Wang because of that failed purchase attempt. He has dropped the lawsuit as a result of his Coyotes purchase. He is willing to pay a premium in order to get his team regardless of its actual value.
Yesterday I wrote about the salary cap circumvention that Boston, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay have been able to commit by leaving players who are effectively retired on the longterm injured reserve. I call these LTIR frauds. Marc Savard, Chris Pronger and Mattias Ohlund haven't played an NHL game since 2011 and they will not be playing any NHL games in the future. These players remain listed as "active" players because their respective teams would face a large salary cap hit to recapture the excess salary from, their frontloaded contracts that were never intended to be fulfilled. It turns out the situation is worse because the NHL is obviously complicit in the situation. They have hired "active" player Chris Pronger to be the number two in the NHL's department of player safety. This was announced less than three and a half hours after I completed my post.
Gary Bettman is quoted as saying:
"Chris' case is unique. There are salary cap reasons why he couldn't officially retire, but ... if in fact we go that route, I'm not sure that presents any problem at all to deal with. He's done playing. He gets paid no matter what from the Flyers. He doesn't owe them anything.
Bettman appears to endorse these cases of salary cap circumvention. He has no problem with an NHL player taking a second job that prevents him from being an NHL player. He admits that Pronger is effectively retired and the only reason he hasn't actually retired is to circumvent the salary cap and he is OK with it.
Every season there is a push for teams to get below the salary cap. Some do so by placing players who remain on their rosters despite having not played an NHL game in years onto the long term injured reserve. These are players who are no longer even trying to come back to play in the NHL but on paper they remain "active" players because it is better for their team's salary cap situation to continue paying him and claiming he is injured than to let him retire.
Players in this situation are Chris Pronger of the Philadelphia Flyers, Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins and Mattias Ohlund of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Pronger has not played an NHL game since 2011. He is a candidate for the job working in the NHL's department of player safety. Clearly this is an admission that he isn't an active player despite his being characterized as such. Savard has not played since 2011 either. He scouts for the Ottawa 67s of the OHL. That clearly isn't an activity consistent with being an active player. Ohlund hasn't played a game since 2011 either. None of them should count as active players but they do. They only count as active players to skirt salary cap rules.
I am finishing off my regular season predictions by listing my predicted order of finish of the East Conference teams. I will not write a blurb for these teams as I already did in the Metropolitan Division and Atlantic Division posts. This post along with the West Conference predictions completes my regular season predictions. Of course, I expect that much of this will not come to pass as things will change in unpredictable ways in the season.
1. Boston Bruins
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
3. Montreal Canadiens
4. New York Rangers
5. Washington Capitals
6. Tampa Bay Lightning
7. Detroit Red Wings
8. Toronto Maple Leafs
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
Why are you reading it? ???