The Columbus Blue Jackets announced the firing of coach Ken Hitchcock yesterday. He has been replaced by Claude Noel a longtime minor league hockey coach (with IHL, ECHL and AHL experience) who was a Blue Jackets assistant coach. He is an unknown as an NHL coach.
Ken Hitchcock is one of the most respected NHL coaches. He is 11th in all time regular season coaching wins and has won the Stanley Cup in his Dallas Stars days. He is the most successful coach in Columbus Blue Jackets history - being the only one to guide them to a playoff berth.
Ken Hitchcock teams have always played a very disciplined defensive system and are known for keeping goals against down. This season has been a bit of an anomaly. Columbus is fourth worst in goals against with 3.19 goals allowed per game. This is despite being 14th in the league in shots allowed per game.
In November, I picked Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres as the leading MVP candidate and he has held that position for a good portion of the season. However, his lead on other goalies in the league is getting smaller. Miller’s saves percentage of .932 is only one point ahead of Tomas Vokoun of Florida. His goals against average is second in the league to Antti Niemi of Chicago and could soon be caught by others including Tuukka Rask of Boston. Miller is no longer the MVP of the league.
My new MVP choice is my very early season choice of Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. A shoulder injury kept him out of eight games and dropped him from the lead, but he has had time to make up for that missed time. Ovechkin is currently second in points in the league with 77 (one behind Henrik Sedin of Vancouver) and third in goals with 36 (one behind Patrick Marleau of San Jose and Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh = who are tied for the lead). Ovechkin leads the NHL with a +36 +/- rating. He has the best goals and points per game totals in the league. He had been the most dominant player in the league so far this season.
The Calgary Flames seemed poised for a good season this year. They barely missed out on the Northwest Division championship last year, largely due to not dressing a full roster in the stretch drive due to salary cap problems. This year looked like they could do even better. Miikka Kiprusoff looked ready to improve his numbers and get closer to the Vezina Trophy level he had played at in the past. Jay Bouwmeester was added to an already talented defence including Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr, to give Calgary a defence that could be the league’s best. Jarome Iginla gave the team a strong scoring threat and players like Olli Jokinen and Daymond Langkow offered some depth. This was a team that appeared to be in contention.
For the first couple months of the season, that prediction appeared to be roughly on the mark and then a very rough stretch hit in January. Calgary has lost ten of their last eleven games. Their only win came against bottom feeding Edmonton, who had not won at all in 2010 so far until last night. If the season ended right now, Calgary would be dropped out of the playoffs as they sit in ninth in the West Conference.
Last year the Boston Bruins had the best record in the East Conference. They finished with 116 points, only one point back of first overall San Jose. This year has not gone as well. Boston currently has a 23-30 record (with nine regulation tie points). That places them in 11th place in the East Conference. They are only two points back from a playoff berth, but they are in the middle of a group of eight teams that are separated by three points and thus have significant competition for that final playoff spot. Why is this year`s team not doing as well as last year`s did?
To answer that question let`s start by looking at last year`s team. When we looked at team Corsi Numbers (puck possession numbers) from last year we see the Boston Bruins are near the middle of the pack. They directed about as many shots at their opponent`s goal as they had directed at their own. The difference for Boston last year was goaltending. Tim Thomas won the Vezina Trophy and was by far the best goaltender in the NHL.
During the NHL season, trades are few and far between until the trade deadline. The deadline this year is March 3rd. Although that is still over a month away, there is a trade freeze during the Olympic break from February 12th to 28th. That leaves only three days for trades after the Olympics. Thus it was expected that trade deadline deals will begin before the Olympic break. They have and the Toronto Maple leafs are at the centre of it all.
Toronto has acquired Jean-Sebastien Giguere from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Vesa Toskala and Jason Blake. Giguere has not had a successful last year and a half but the talent is there. As recently as 2008 he was clearly one of the top goalies in the NHL. Last season, he suffered through the death of his father and it affected him on the ice. He lost the Anaheim number one goalie job to Jonas Hiller and has not been given a chance to play regularly since.
Nearly a week ago, Ken Campbell of the Hockey News wrote an article titled Kovalchuk Saga Shows Lockout Was A Farce. Hos premise is that the purpose of the lockout was to keep players with their current team, when the opposite is clearly the case.
The two major changes that were made during the lockout were a salary cap and a reduction in free agency ages. Both of which are moves that are going to increase player turnover. A salary cap will force teams to part with players that they otherwise would not want to part with in order to stay below the cap. Lower free agency ages will allow players the chance to leave a team on their own volition at an earlier age as well. The idea that a CBA designed to increase player movement can be judged as a failure because it lead to Kovalchuk’s likely departure from Atlanta is totally misguided.
When Georges Laraque signed a three year contract worth $1.5 million per year with a non movement clause in the summer of 2008 to join the Montreal Canadiens, it raised a few eyebrows. Laraque is a goon who was set to enter the decline phase of his career. Though he once scored 29 points in the 2000/01 season, his recent totals had been more modest (for example 13 in the season before that new contract). It was a reasonable question to ask if he would hold any NHL value into the third year of the contract and it was reasonable to wonder why he was given a no movement clause.
Things worked out worse than predicted for Laraque in Montreal. He was limited to only 33 games in his first season in Montreal - in part due to a back injury. He managed two assists and no goals in that season. This season, in 28 games so far, Laraque had three points. Montreal decided to admit the contract was a mistake. Laraque was released from the Habs and given notice that the remainder of his contract would be bought out this summer. This caused some minor controversy because the announcement came just after the Haiti earthquake and Laraque’s parents are Haitians. Much of Laraque’s extended family remains in Haiti.
Alexandre Burrows of the Vancouver Canucks has been very newsworthy lately. The controversy created by his allegations that referee Stephane Auger told him in advance that he would be out to get Auger in a mid-January game against Nashville have been widely debated in hockey circles. It seems the NHL has managed to make this story disappear for the most part, despite any serious investigation into events and with only Burrows receiving punishment as the “whistleblower”.
That isn’t the only thing Alexandre Burrows has done lately. He has been playing very well. In fact, he is the top goal scorer in the NHL so far in 2010. Burrows has 13 goals in 12 games so far in January. That gives him a two goal lead over nearest competitor Alexander Semin of the Washington Capitals.
The NHL sold the current central bargaining agreement as one that would deliver parity to the NHL. This idea was a one of the more popular explanations for why the lockout had been necessary. By removing the New York Rangers advantage to have the highest payroll in the NHL (and miss the playoffs eight years running); the new NHL would be one where anyone could win (for example 2004 Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay). That was the theory the NHL advanced and it is one that is commonly repeated in the media, but with little effort spent in trying to verify if this parity exists.
Mudcrutch hockey wrote two very good posts on this topic here and here. These posts were made in responce to a radio interview with Gary Bettman that aired on Edmonton radio station 630 CHED. Interviewer Dan Tencer asked softball questions that assumed that parity had been delivered and that it was a good thing.
One of the hottest rumors for over a year is that the Tampa Bay Lightning are about to trade Vincent LeCavalier. No trade has happened yet, but as we approach the 2010 trade deadline speculation about a LeCavalier trade is rising. Coupled with any potential trade is the uncertain financial situation of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The NHL has likely taken over the team on some level. They have fronted money to the team to help them make payroll. The Lightning are in default on the initial loan used to purchase the team. Current owner Oren Koules was required to have a privately financed loan through previous owner William Davidson to buy the team, since he couldn’t secure funds from more traditional means. Koules has been unable to keep up with the payments.
In the meantime, Davidson died. This leaves his widow Karen Davidson as the major creditor to the Lightning. She also inherited the Detroit Pistons of the NBA and has made it clear that she wants to sell the team. She has no desire to be stuck with the Tampa Bay Lightning as well, but may wind up with them or may choose to stay removed from the team and leave them with an uncertain future.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
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