Kukla's Korner

Puckin' Around With Spector

Teams on the Bubble.

It’s a brand new year, meaning the current NHL schedule is getting close to the mid-way point, the period when the true playoff contenders begin to separate from the pretenders in the standings.

Barring miraculous comebacks in the second half, the Columbus Blue Jackets, Anaheim Ducks, Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders have almost no chance of securing a playoff berth this season.

By month’s end, several clubs could be joining them among the “also-rans”.

In the Western Conference, the Edmonton Oilers are mired in another lengthy mid-season slump, similar to those which have scuttled their playoff hopes every year since 2007. Credit a lack of second-line scoring and quality blueline depth for their current woes. Another couple of weeks at their current pace, and the Oilers will be out of it.

Beyond the Oilers, it becomes tougher to determine which of the other Western Conference clubs currently sitting out the playoff picture could drop out entirely by month’s end.

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Reviewing the Notable NHL trades of 2011.

As 2011 draws to a close, I thought it worthwhile to look back on the notable trades of this year and see how they’ve worked out so far.

Granted, it’s still too early to fully gauge how most of these trades could pan out, while some are easy to determine the success or failure of the deal. Still, the early reviews can provide some insight into determining which club “won” each deal.

The following are listed in the order in which they occurred throughout the year.

- The NY Islanders trade G Dwayne Roloson to the Tampa Bay Lightning for minor leaguer Ty Wishart.

In the short term, this worked out well for the Lightning. Roloson provided steady veteran goaltending over the second half of the season, and backstopped them to the Eastern Conference Final. This season, however, it appears age has finally caught up with the 42-year-old, as he’s lost the starter’s job to backup Mathieu Garon.

- The Anaheim Ducks trade RW Joffrey Lupul, D Jake Gardiner and conditional fourth round pick in 2013 to Toronto Maple Leafs for D Francois Beauchemin.

This could be one the Ducks wish they had back. Lupul has finally put his injury woes behind him and ranks among the league’s top scorers, while Gardiner appears to have a promising future. Beauchemin, meanwhile, has done little to improve the struggling Ducks this season.

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Winning the only language that counts.

The Montreal Canadiens recent promotion of assistant coach Randy Cunneyworth into the role of interim replacement for fired head coach Jacques Martin has unleashed considerable criticism from Quebec-based fans, pundits and politicians.

It’s not Cunneyworth’s ability as a head coach, or lack of experience coaching at the NHL level which is the cause of their concern, but the fact he doesn’t speak French.

Only in Montreal, the NHL’s only city in the Francophone province of Quebec, would this be an issue.

Some of the critics justify their position by stating another NHL team wouldn’t hire a coach who didn’t speak English.

It’s a reasonable point, provided the overwhelming majority of the Canadiens, along with their Montreal- and Quebec-based fans, didn’t understand English, or speak it as a second language. Since that isn’t the case, it’s a moot point.

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What Next for the Hurricanes and Ducks?

Between November 28th and November 30th, the Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes and Anaheim Ducks replaced their head coaches.

Since those respective moves, only the Capitals showed some signs of improvement. After dropping their first game under new coach Dale Hunter, the Capitals by mid-December were playing .500 hockey, with a 3-3 record.

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, had only one victory to show in their first seven games with Kirk Muller as their bench boss, while the Ducks, under former Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, had a 2-4-1 record.

Of course, it’s only been a little over two weeks, hardly enough time for the Hurricanes and Ducks to fully turn things full, let alone adjust to their new coaches. Plenty of time exists between now and the end of the regular season in mid-April to reverse those fortunes and become competitive playoff contenders.

The sad truth, however, is the problems this season of the Hurricanes and Ducks are beyond the cure of a coaching change.

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The Brave New World of NHL Realignment.

Just when I think I’ve got the mindset of the NHL Board of Governors figured out regarding a quick decision on a bold proposal for changing their product, they surprise me.

I anticipated the proposed plan to change the league’s current divisional format from six divisions into four conferences would meet with foot-dragging among the Governors, who tend to be conservative toward radical change.

In fact, on Monday afternoon, I’d written the first draft for this post anticipating the potential problems in convincing the BoG to accept that plan, believing they would instead take the path of least resistance: relocating the Winnipeg Jets from the Southeast to the Central Division, shuffling either the Detroit Red Wings or Columbus Blue Jackets into the Eastern Conference, and if it were the Wings, dropping either the Philadelphia Flyers or Pittsburgh Penguins into the Southeast Division to accommodate Detroit in the Atlantic Divison, or if the Blue Jackets, seeing them slide in the Jets spot in the Southeast.

Yet in less than an hour in the opening day of their annual meeting earlier this week in Florida, twenty-six of the thirty governors voted for the significant realignment plan, which now goes to the NHLPA for its approval, following which it should be implemented by next season.

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Capitals and Hurricanes Captains Must Step Up.

The Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes made headlines Monday with the firings of Bruce Boudreau and Paul Maurice as their respective head coaches.

Former Capitals star and London Knights coach Dale Hunter replaced Boudreau, while former Montreal Canadiens star and assistant coach Kirk Muller took over the reins from Maurice.

It remains to be seen how the players adapt to their new bench bosses, but if they know what’s good for them, they’ll do so quickly and positively, because the “blame the coach” card has been taken off the table.

Since this season began, the captains of both teams have played poorly, which have been significant factors in their respective teams’ performances.

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Stupid NHL Trade Rumors from this Season’s First Quarter.

Those of you who regularly follow my work on Spector’s Hockey know my bread and butter is NHL trade and free agent rumors, commenting upon those reported by the mainstream media and rumor bloggers.

As NHL teams reach the quarter-mark of this season, here’s a look – in no particular order - at the stupidest trade rumors and trade suggestions over that time. Enjoy!

“The Montreal Canadiens trading Scott Gomez…”. It really doesn’t matter the destination, the very notion of the Canadiens finding any takers for Gomez - who (as of November 22nd) hasn’t scored a goal this season, and carries an annual average cap hit of over $7.3 million until the end of the ‘14-‘15 season – is not just stupid, it’s laughable. I realize general managers can do dumb things, but I don’t believe there’s anyone out there right now that dumb or desperate looking at him and saying, “Y’know, he’s worth the gamble”. There’s a better chance of Gomez being demoted to the minors this season (which I also don’t see happening), or bought out next summer (provided the new CBA contains a “one-time-only, penalty-free” buyout period) than of him being traded this season.

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Fallout from L’Affaire Lucic.

Boston Bruins forward Milan Lucic’s hit on Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller on November 12th, and its subsequent handling by the NHL, elicited strong feelings from fans and pundits, not just in Boston and Buffalo, but around the league.

To recap, during the first period of said game, Lucic was heading into the Sabres zone on a partial breakaway when he lost control of the puck. Miller raced out of his net and shot the puck harmlessly away toward the boards, but Lucic barrelled into Miller, sending the Sabres netminder sprawling, his mask flying off his head.

In the ensuing scrum, Lucic was barely challenged by any of the Sabres on the ice. He was assessed a two-minute charging penalty, and skated away smirking to the penalty box.

Miller stayed in the game until the end of the second period, after which he was taken out of the game with what was later reported to be concussion-like symptoms. Lucic was unapologetic following the game, saying he was merely trying to play the puck and couldn’t avoid Miller because he didn’t see the Buffalo goalie until the last second.

Lucic had a meeting with NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan on November 14th, after which Shanahan decided not to suspend or fine the Bruins winger.

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Could This Decade Become Dominated by Canadian Teams?

For nearly twenty years, Canadian-based NHL teams have for the most part ranked amongst the lesser lights of the league.

The Montreal Canadiens in 1993, Vancouver Canucks in 1994, Calgary Flames in 2004 and Edmonton Oilers in 2006 were underdogs which marched to the Cup Final, of which the Canadiens were the only team to win the Stanley Cup, and since 1993, the last to do so

From 1998 to 2004, only the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators ranked among the league’s better clubs. The Leafs made two Conference final appearances, while the Senators regularly placed among the top teams in the Eastern Conference standings, winning the President’s Trophy as the top regular season team in 2002-03. The Senators carried over their strong play post-lockout for two more seasons, culminating in their 2007 Stanley Cup Final appearance.

But until 2010-11, when the Canucks won the President’s Trophy as the top regular season team and advanced to Game Seven of the 2011 Cup Final, the last Canadian franchise to be so dominant was the 1988-89 Flames, which won both the President’s Trophy and the Stanley Cup.

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Attending NHL Games No Cheaper under a Salary Cap.

During the 2004 NHL All-Star Weekend at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a lockout on the horizon, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made the following statement:

“With the right economic system, we can take the pressure off of ticket prices, and I believe with the right economic system, many, if not most of our teams, will actually lower ticket prices. I believe we owe it to our fans to have affordable ticket prices.’’

Bettman was referring, of course, to his and the team owners insistence on “cost certainty”, which they subsequently achieved with the implementation of a salary cap in the current collective bargaining agreement, at the cost of shutting down the NHL for an entire season by locking out the players,bringing the NHLPA to heel.

The notion the league was peddling - which many fans eagerly accepted at the time - was linking players’ salaries to high ticket prices, implying that if a salary cap were imposed, players salaries would drop, and ticket prices would follow.

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About Puckin' Around With Spector

I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.

I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.

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