Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Go West Young Man - NHL odds and ends

There have been a few NHL odds and ends on my mind the past few weeks, so I thought I'd clear some cerebral space...

The Stanley Cup could be staying in the Western Conference for a few more years. After Anaheim dismantled Ottawa in 2007, and Detroit flew through the Penguins in 2008, it's hard to imagine this year's Free Agent signings changing that trend. Once again the big names have left the Eastern Conference and headed West. Some chose to stay there after arriving via the trade route - Brian Campbell turned down the Sharks and landed in Chicago, and others chose to go West in hopes of winning the Stanley Cup.

Of course we all know about Marian Hossa heading to Detroit for a Cup run, but what impact will Sean Avery have in Dallas? Can Huet be a number one man in Chicago and return them to the playoffs? Rising star Steve Bernier, ended his short stint in Buffalo to sign in Vancouver with the Canucks. The only names headed East are aging stars like Markus Naslund and Brian Rolston. In 2007, all the big Free agent signings were headed West too; Ryan Smith, Sheldon Sourray and Brian Rafalski to name a few.

Last month, while talking with my hockey insider, we were discussing the Western Conference. How long can these teams keep loading up on stars from the East? I foolishly believed that this off-season, the East would be the big winners. Where would the Western teams find the money for players like Hossa? With the rising Salary Cap, the West found a way. Last pre-season, Brian Burke commented in an interview on the fire power in the West, making an interesting observation. There are only so many points available in an 82 game schedule. If one team improves ten points in the standings, another team has to fall ten points. With only eight playoff spots in each Conference, some good teams will find themselves on the outside looking in.

It's going to be a brawl this year in the Western Conference. Edmonton, Chicago, Phoenix and Vancouver will all be fighting to get back to the playoffs. This could help the Eastern Champs when the Finals eventually roll around, they may be a little less bruised in June. However, I believe that the Western teams will be so battle tested by season's end, whoever represents the West in the Finals could be unstoppable.

Another thought - Has anyone told the Tampa Bay Lightning that besides scoring goals, they also need to keep the puck out of their own net? Every day, the Lightning are adding another name, Recchi, Bochenski and Artyukhin, and very little has arrived to help the defense. New arrival Matt Carle was a -8 last season, Kuba -8, Ranger was a -13, and their best option in goal is 38 year old Olaf Kolzig. He's only had a save percentage over .900 once in the last three seasons. Last year he finished on the bench in Washington behind Huet with a .892 save percentage. An NHL goalie should be well above .900, and now Kolzig's going to carry the weight in Tampa Bay? I've also noticed that all the announcements from the Lightning seem to be coming from the new owners, Oren Koules and Len Barrie, and not General Manager Jay Feaster. How long will the GM stay in place when he's not calling the shots?

Here in Ottawa, I've been pleased to see the signings Brian Murray has made. After signing two former Canucks, I was beginning to wondering if Naslund and Bertuzzi would sign here too, when GM Murray broke the streak and signed former Oilers Captian, Jason Smith. The defense looked a little weak as it was, and signing a veteran like Smith is a great move. Hopefully, he'll be a solid D partner for Andres Meszaros, if the RFA Meszaros, can be re-signed by Ottawa. Only three players have blocked more than 600 shots in the NHL since 2005-2006, and now Ottawa has two of them in Smith and Volchenkov.

One last note... The Toronto Maple Leafs and anyone else with their eyes on the first overall pick, and John Tavares, at next year's Draft, should watch out for the LA Kings. The Kings were at the bottom of the standings last year, and they'll be in the hunt for last place again. Coach Crawford is gone, not that it's a bad thing, but they also said goodbye to veteran Rob Blake and rising talents, Mike Cammelleri and Lubomir Visnovsky. Expect them to go with their Rookie net minder Jonathan Bernier for a good part of the year. They may be trying to follow the Penguins example and let their young goalie have a few years of growing pains as they build around him with number one picks. The Pittsburgh market had Mario Lemieux as a face for the franchise, someone to bridge the gap in the years it took to become a winner. The Kings are a team that has been lacking an identity since they lost Gretzky in the nineties. Will the LA fans still remember they have a hockey team when they finally do get better? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Have a great sports day everyone...

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