New York Rangers Training Camp: The Cuts are Correct, No Matter How You Slice It.

NHL training camps are filled with surprises, excitement, and disappointments. For some players, camp is a preparation process; the precursor to a long and exhaustive season. Other players view camp as an opportunity to show- case their skills in effort to earn a spot with the big club sooner than originally anticipated . For others, training camp is the last opportunity to show NHL Management that they ‘still have it;’ their last chance to make an impact statement at the NHL level.

Today the Rangers made 11 cuts in order for Tortorella and co. to perfect the blueprint of their Blue Shirt lineup. The majority of the 11 ‘misfits’ were logical, even predictable. As natural in training camp, a couple others have left fans both confused and disappointed. I will attempt to logically explain the decisions made by the coaching. I will also give insight as to what these players will have to prove in order to have their names announced on opening night to a backdrop of 18,200 fans thunderously cheering, and the banners displaying the numbers of he who hath made it to live immortally under the lights of Madison Square Garden.   

Here are the 11 players who had their names removed from their respective locker room cubby:

Assigned to Hartford:

Chad Johnson (G), Wade Redden (D), Dane Byers (F), Evgeny Grachev (F), Kris Newbury (F), Dale Weise (F), Jeremy Williams (F), Mats Zucarello (F).

Released from tryout agreement:

Garnet Exelby (D), Brandon Manning (D), Alexei Semenov (D)

The eight players assigned to Hartford are being designated back to the AHL either because there is limited room on the NHL club or to develop the player for the speed and difficulty of the NHL game. The three who were released from their try out agreement are once again free agents who can be picked up by any club in any league.

The names that stand out on each list are: Dane Byers, Evgeny Grachev, Dale Weise, Mats Zucarello and Alexei Semenov. Here is my speculation as to why each was cut and what they will need to improve on in order to make the proverbial “jump” to the NHL.

Dane Byers and Dale Weise both have bottom 6 forward potential at the NHL level as they are gritty, hard-working wingers with the ability to hold their own when they drop the gloves. Byers played five games with the Rangers last season registering a goal and 31 PIMs. While these players are both young and seemingly NHL ready, they fall victim to the numbers game as there is limited room at the forward position in the Rangers line up. They had the difficult challenge of beating out players like Brian Boyle, Sean Avery, Derek Boogard, Ruslan Fedotenko, Tim Kennedy, Brandon Prust, and Tim White. Each of the aforementioned players have at least one established season of play under their wing at the NHL level; Byers and Weise would have to considerably outperform those players to crack the line-up. While they each played relatively well this pre-season, neither did anything to “wow” the coaches and really leave a lasting impression.

Future Prediction: Each will play the full season in Hartford for developmental purposes. Byers a will be a possible call up in order to fill in for injured third/fourth line winger. Weise has a decent chance of making team in next year’s camp. Byers who is starting to reach his mid 20’s is beginning to run out of time to make an impression with the Rangers.

Alexei Semenov returned for a second straight year to Rangers’ training camp in effort to establish himself as a sound choice for seventh defenseman duty. Ironically, Semenov made the team out of camp last year, but rejected Glen Sather’s offer due to family obligations. The 29 year old defender brings size to the team equation as his 6’6” 235 lb. frame is perfect to fill the “crease clearing defenseman” niche. The Rangers were discouraged by his decision to bolt for the KHL last year, yet still granted an opportunity for the bulky defender to earn an NHL job for the 2010-2011 season.

Semenov’s play in the preseason games reflected much of what we saw from him last year. He was steady in his own end of the ice, used his body to clear forwards from his crease, and offered veteran experience on a team that looks to be very green/young at the defensive position. In fact, Semenov is representative of what the Rangers back end has lacked for almost a decade; an intimidating presence on the blue line with the ability to protect the goaltender’s designated area from congestion.

“So why was he cut? He sounds perfect for this team.”

Simple, the ball (or puck) was not in Alexei Semenov’s court this year. In other words, Semenov’s chances on making this year’s was not based solely on how well he played and how hard he worked. His play last year was nearly identical to his play this year at camp, but the necessity for a defenseman is drastically different. In 2009-2010 the competition for a spot on defense was relatively low for the New York Rangers. There were three spots open for taking. Two of these spots were filled by the young, talented bodies of Michael Del Zotto and Matt Gilroy. The third spot (seventh defensemen) was offered to Alexei Semenov as the Rangers lacked any other appropriate option and were very interested in filling the void.

This year however, the Rangers have found themselves in a great situation where they have too many talented players and not enough roster spots. Although this scenario is very beneficial for the team/management, it proves unfortunate for some individual players. With surprisingly good play from the young Ryan McDonagh Pavel Valentenko  and Michael Sauer, the Rangers coaches/management are happy to stick with the rebuilding with youth theme. Rather than having to just play a steady defensive game to make the cut like last year, Semenov had to convince management that he was worth his keep on the team. Semenov in the Rangers line-up meant a young, promising, NHL ready player being sent to the minors; coach Tortorella was not willing to utilize a mercenary over a potential piece of the Rangers core (McDonagh, Valentenko, or Sauer).

Future Prediction: Alexei Semenov will most likely land on his feet with another NHL squad that is in need of a veteran defenseman. It appears that his flaky two year relationship with the Rangers is over, but he remains good enough to stay in the NHL. Look for teams who have suffered long-term injuries to their defense (such as the Islanders) or which are in need of size in their back end to take a chance on the bulky, blue-line Russian.

Evgeny Grachev was selected by the NY Rangers in 2008 as the 75th overall draft pick. Scouts were most impressed by his size (presently 6’4” 222 lbs) and his complimenting skill set. Early on his ceiling was set as a top 6 power forward, most likely suited for the second line. The expectations on the Russian right winger grew even higher in both the eyes of management and fans as his transition to the North American style of play seemed almost too easy. In 2008-2009, Grachev left Europe to join the Ontario Hockey league. This was his first taste of North American hockey and the big bodied winger did not disappoint. Grachev was announced the winner of the Emms Family Award as OHL Rookie of the Year after a season that saw him score 40 goals and 40 assists in 60 games. Grachev also displayed his ability to play with top level talent as his line-mates on the first line were none other than Colorado’s star center Matt Duchene and Vancouver’s highly touted prospect Cody Hodgson. This was an astonishing feat for a player who flew under the radar in his draft year; falling all the way to the third round. Grachev showed the hockey world that he had size and an uncanny ability to skate with speed. The combination of size, scoring touch, and skating ability left Ranger fans ecstatic and in anticipation to see how his game would translate to the NHL level.

Last year’s training camp brought hopes that Grachev would be able to surprise many and make the final squad. Unfortunately Grachev’s play was not quite good enough to qualify him as NHL ready and he was sent down to Hartford during the final round of cuts. This was disappointing for many Rangers fans, but it was clear that a year in the AHL would be good for Grachev (he was only 19 years old at this point). Grachev’s first professional season in the American Hockey League was not overwhelming as he posted 12 goals and 16 assists in 80 games. Many were hoping that he would dominate at the AHL level, but such expectations may have been unfair for such a young player.

This year’s camp was pretty disappointing for Grachev. The competition for a roster spot was considerably higher than last year and Grachev failed to raise his level of play to meet the necessary criteria to make the team. In two preseason games, Grachev failed to stand out and was noticed more for making mistakes than creating quality plays. His skating seemed to be his biggest problem as he was a step behind the opposition. While his size is certainly beneficial to the team, Grachev needs more time to grow into his bulky frame. He has yet to show an ability to consistently out muscle his opponents while carrying the puck. The Russian winger certainly has raw talent, but he needs to refine his skill in order to become a quality player in the NHL. Tortorella is certainly intrigued by Grachev’s size as the tenacious coach has consistently shown a desire for players with both size and skill. The fact that Tortorella once again cut Grachev clearly displays that the head coach does not think Grachev is ready to play for the New York Rangers.

Future Prediction: Grachev will need to start establishing himself as a force in the AHL. His scoring numbers will need to increase to show Rangers management that he will reach the high expectations set for him. The development period for power forwards usually takes longer than other types of forwards because young players need to fully grow into their bodies. Grachev dominated the OHL because matched against other 18 years olds his size was a force to be reckoned with. In the pros (NHL/AHL) however he is playing against men who are both bigger and more developed than players in the OHL. Grachev will continue to grow stronger physically which will only help his ability to out muscle opponents while driving to the net. Expect Grachev to improve this season and make the NHL roster in 2011-2012 as a physically stronger, more refined player than the one that got cut today.

Mats Zuccarello is the most controversial name on this list as he comes to the Rangers organization with a strong resume’ and a tremendous skill set. Zucarello reported to camp after having a career year in which he was named the MVP of the Swedish Elite league scoring 23 goals and 41 assists in 55 games for Modo Hockey and raising much interest on the world stage during the 2010 winter Olympics playing for Norway. Before signing Frolov, Zuccarello was arguably the biggest offseason acquisition for the Rangers and raised some excitement for the 2010-2011 season.

Zuccarello was exciting to watch in the preseason games as he showed flashes as to why a player standing at only 5’7” 161 lbs was held in such high regard by NHL Managers this offseason. His hands are lightning quick, and his skating is as smooth as the ice surface he skates on. His tenacious fore-check compliments these skills as he caused some havoc in the offensive zone for the opposing defenders and surprised many with his unexpected long reach. Though his wing span is quite limited, he use a very long stick which helps him steal the puck on the fore-check. His little frame holds NHL ready skills that are both flashy and beneficial to the team.

If I can see the upper echelon skill that Zuccarello possesses surely the Rangers’ coaching squad and management do to right? The answer is yes, they certainly do. Now this begs the question as to why a player with such skill would get sent down. The problem with Zuccarello is that there is a disconnect between player and playing environment. This seems a little ambiguous so I will try to explain metaphorically to paint a clearer picture.

Zuccarello is like a tiger that was born and bred in the East. His instincts are based on everyday interactions that are necessary for him to thrive in the Eastern jungle. This includes everything from getting along with fellow Eastern tigers, to hunting down prey for nourishment. He lives his life reacting to the impulse of his instinct. Now, let’s say that tiger is moved for scientific study to the West in order to see how well he can adapt to the new environment. As one would expect, his instincts are not going to immediately translate for survival in the Western jungle.

The prey he hunted in the East used speed as a defense mechanism to run away and evade the predator tiger; thus the tigers in the East had to become fast runners in order to catch their elusive prey. In the West however the prey uses their ability to climb tall trees as their defense mechanism to evade predators; thus Western tigers have mastered the ability to climb trees in order to catch their prey.

Unfortunately for the Zuccarellon Tiger from the East, is unable to strive in the Western jungle because he was not bred for climbing tall trees. His quick speed that he possesses is impressive, but useless when his prey begins to climb. The scientists come to the conclusion that the best thing for the Zuccarellon Tiger would be to send him to a safari like zoo where he can be trained and climbing will become instinctive just as his fast speeds. When all is said and done with training, this Zuccarellon Tiger from the East will be able to strive in both hemispheres.

Now put that Tiger on ice and that is what  Zuccarello is going through right now. Zuccarello has offensive flair, but his defensive instincts are deficient. The Norwegian is also getting pushed off the puck rather easily causing turnovers. This won’t fly in the NHL, especially at his height. Zuccarello has some tremendous skill which he developed in Europe: quick hands, elusive speed, tenacity. These skills helped him strive in the Swedish Elite League. In the NHL however, Zuccarello’s deficiencies will prove costly much like the tiger’s inability to climb. What Zuccarello brings to the table now is certainly useful for the Rangers, but without the ability to play a tougher game with more defensive awareness, Zuccarello will not be able to thrive. He can potentially become a liability on the ice as opposing coaches will match their strongest offensive unit against his. This is why Zuccarello was cut. The Rangers are sending him to Hartford to develop the holes in his game without being throttled by elite NHL  players.

The bottom line, Zuccarello is a good player and will definitely have an impact on the 2010-2011 New York Rangers; he just needs to learn the necessary components of the North American game much like the African tiger needed to learn to climb.

Future Prediction: Zuccarello will be a mid-season call up to help bolster the NY Rangers’ offense. His time in Hartford will be utilized to develop his defensive game and give him an opportunity to get used to the smaller ice surface. He is an NHL caliber player. _X_

The NHL Template of Success Part One: History Always Repeats Itself

What do successful teams (judged by their ability to contend for multiple Stanley Cups) such as the New Jersey Devils, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, and (to a lesser extent) Philadelphia Flyers all have in common? A philosophy that has proven successful; the knowledge that history repeats itself.

No, this is not a History 101 lecture class, but I will utilize the old cliche’ that we all heard from our history teachers, “This class is important because history repeats itself and we must learn from our mistakes!” Hopefully I won’t have to slam a textbook on a desk to wake you guys up from your afternoon siesta as my teacher had to do many times for me, but I digress.

The point I’m trying to make here is that utilizing our knowledge of historical successes (and failures) can prove beneficial in various aspects of life; in this case the National Hockey League.

“How can history play a role in a sport where actions/decisions are made in split-second fashion on the ice in the present?”

Structure. Every team is built upon a different foundation decided mostly by the general manager and the playing style of players. It’s what makes each team different and can prove to be the equation that results in success or failure. Each team brings its own philosophy of how the game should be played and they execute their personnel decisions upon this premise. Its what makes the Flyers the “Broad Street Bullies” or the Devils the “Neutral Zone Trap Specialists.” To take it a step further lets look to see how history plays such an important role on a teams formula.

First, let’s take a successful franchise whose enjoyed the fruits of success over the past decade; the Detroit Red Wings. In 94-95 the Detroit Red Wings had a very successful season that ended abruptly in the Stanley Cup finals against the New Jersey Devils. Though they lost to New Jersey in four games, they recognized their success in building a unique and championship contending team. The team’s structure was built on a very strong foundation that understood the importance of strength down the middle (the center position), a good mix of both offensive minded defensemen and defensemen who were more concerned with protecting their own zone. The Red Wings also paid close attention to the importance of role players who could add ‘sandpaper’ play to the line up and help add some scoring.

Steve Yzerman, Sergei Federov, and Keith Primeau played the role of strong two-way centers who could light the lamp at any time and back check well enough to stop a dangerous odd-man rush. Detroit showed their philosophy that their centermen need not only score for the team to be successful, but to also have full defensive responsibility in effort to lower goals against. Yzerman and Federov fit the mold exactly with their offensive prowess and defensive responsibility. This elite talent was most necessary for the entire formula to work. Strength down the middle, check!

Paul Coffey and a young Niklas Lidstrom were the offensive minded defensemen that improved Detroit’s power play goal output at the point while also playing solid defense when necessary. Each a generational talent that exceeded the expectations that a defenseman was held to. This dynamic was very pertinent in Detroit’s desired formula. Offensive defensemen, check!

Defensemen such as Viacheslav Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Bob Rouse, and Mike Ramsey rounded out the defense with strong defensive minded play to protect their own zone. Interestingly enough these six defensemen were all relatively slight in stature. The most physically gifted being Bob Rouse who stood at 6’2″ and 215 lbs while the other five were less imposing in size and aggression. This displayed Detroit’s belief that good skating and puck handling/moving skill were more important to their blue line than physicality and an intimidating edge. Defensive defensemen, check!

Darren McCarty, Kris Draper, Dino Cicarelli, Doug Brown, and Shawn Burr represented the role player aspect that Detroit continues to address and hold as a vital part to a successful team. McCarty, Draper, and Burr were the gritty bottom six forwards who agitated the opponents, added hustle/energy, and chipped in the occasional goal from time to time. Dino Cicarelli was the aging star who could still contribute enough on the scoreboard to make the offense more dangerous. He had a mercenary like-role, but was still very important. Doug Brown was claimed off waivers by Detroit and turned out to be an important depth player who could score the occasional clutch goal. Interestingly enough, this waiver-wire pick up wound up being an integral part of Detroit’s Core for years to come. Gritty depth players with a scoring touch, check!

The 1994-1995 Detroit Red Wings became the blue print for the franchise in building a cup contending team. The three main ingredients: Exceptional two-way strength at center (Yzerman, Federov, Primeau), elite offensive-defensemen (Lidstrom, Coffey), strong skating puck handling/moving defensive-defensemen (Fetisov, Konstantinov, Ramsey), and careful attention to picking the right depth players for their grit and decent scoring touch (Draper, McCarty, Brown). The formula was not particularly concerned with goaltending as evidenced by mediocre Mike Vernon claiming the starting goalie spot. Their top six wingers were not very important to the formula either as they were more on the periphery of the design.

“Okay, they had a strong team in 94-95, but how does that prove anything about their future success?”

Simply compare the 07-08 Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings to those that lost in the finals of 94-95 and the parallels are staggering. Only four of Detroit’s players from 94-95 were remaining on the 07-08 team (Lidstrom, Osgood, Draper, and McCarty), but every important piece of the team’s winning formula remained intact. Taking the place of Steve Yzerman and Sergei Federov at center were Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. These two players fit the mold that Detroit desired sculpt: elite offensive ability with equally outstanding defensive awareness. They were two puzzle pieces that fit perfectly with Detroit’s blueprint. Strength down the middle, check!

Lidstrom, though 37 years old, was still a premier offensive-defenseman in the NHL and continued to play the same role he did in 1994-1995. Brian Rafalski was signed as a free agent to fill the skates of Paul Coffey and stand as the second/equally important offensive threat at the point. These two defensemen were vital for Detroit’s powerplay which was important to the Red Wings winning philosophy. Once again, Detroit was sticking to its formula that was developed in the past. Offensive defensemen, check!

Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart, Brett Lebda, Andreas Lilja, and Chris Chelios were the defensemen infused with Lidstrom and Rafalski. These players were all well-rounded defensive-defensemen who were again selected for their skating ability (with the exception of the aging Chelios) and puck handling ability rather than their physicality. This paralells well with the average sized defensemen who dressed in red and white during the 94-95 season. Three of the five mentioned above were listed at 6’0″ or shorter while Stuart and Lilja stood at 6’2″ and 6’3″ respectively. Lilja was the only one with intimidating size at 220 lbs. These players fit the requirement of the Detroit blue print being well-rounded defensemen with more skill than scare. Defensive-defensemen, check!

The last dynamic of the blueprint was the presence of carefully chosen depth players who could add grit and the occasional goal. Kris Draper and Darren McCarty resumed their 94-95 roles adding the same sand-paper element to Detroit’s game. Addtional components to this dimension were players like Mikael Samuelsson, Thomas Holmstrom, Daniel Cleary, and Jiri Hudler (among others). Each added depth to the overall Detroit team in the bottom six and filled similar roles that Draper, McCarthy, and Brown did in 1994-1995. Another important dynamic filled by Detroit using the past as a template for success. Gritty depth with a scoring touch, check!

Additionally, Detroit remained consistent with their belief that goaltending was not a main issue of concern. Chris Osgood, platooned with the very aged Dominick Hasek, manned the pipes for Detroit and represented very mediocre goaltending for the Original Six team. This is similar to the average goaltending that Mike Vernon contributed to the 94-95 Detroit Red Wings. Also the top six wingmen were predominately ‘no-names’ such as left winger, Johan Franzen, who was very unproven before the 2007-2008 season with only a career high of 30 points in his NHL tenure. Yet again, the importance of top six wingers were peripherary to Detroit’s winning formula.

Detroit created their template in 1994-1995 and has followed it ever since. As a result, Detroit continues to be one of the most  successful NHL Franchises of the past 15 years. In that same span of years Detroit has appeared in six Stanley Cup Finals, won four Stanley Cups, won six President Trophies (best regular season record), and have qualified for all 14 Stanley Cup Playoff tournaments in the past 15 years.

 In short, general managers should look at successful teams of the past, figure out the detailed architecture  within the structure, and replicate that formula. In doing so the general manager can build his team a foundation that has proven successful in the past and that will likely continue the same trend in the future.

The second part of this NHL Template of Success series will explore the above mentioned premise (building a foundation based on past successes) in the salary capped NHL Era. I will look to show how this concept benefits general managers during a time where salary flexibility is limited and “All Star Teams” (such as the 2010-2011 Miami Heat) are impossible to create in the NHL.

Also,  I will explain why the New York Rangers have had limited success in the past 12 years and demonstrate how my “Template of Success” was used in a counter intuitive fashion. Then I will explain how the Rangers are utilizing my template more correctly in the present and how it will shape their bright future. _X_

Division Team Rankings: A Storm in the Atlantic

The Atlantic Division continued its trend of  producing legitimate cup contending threats during the 2009-2010 season. The teams along the Atlantic coast were blessed with premier talents such as: Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise, Henrik Lundqvist, John Tavares, Evgeni Malkin, Marian Gaborik, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and many more. In fact, last season was the first since 2005-2006 that did not include four out of the five Atlantic Division teams in the playoffs (Rangers missed continuing this trend by a single point). That is quite an unbelievable streak when you consider that each conference consists of three leagues each with five teams. Needless to say, competition in the Atlantic Division is fierce, and the 2011-2012 seasons looks to bring a similar battle level as its predecessors.

“Is the Atlantic Division stronger this year than last?”

Absolutely. I base this on the fact that many of the young superstars for each respective team have gotten more experience and are another year closer to their full potential. Players under this premise include: John Tavares, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Claude Giroux, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Anssi Salmela, Brandon Dubinsky, Marc Staal, Michael Del-Zotto, John Tavares, Josh Bailey, Kyle Okposo, Blake Comeau, Sidney Crosby (yes he can get better), Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang (among others). These players have all taken further strides growing into the hockey player their respective general management believe they can be. With so many young, talented stars it is easy to determine that the Atlantic Division is getting better.

I believe the balance of power, however, has shifted. Two of the five teams have become legitimate cup contenders, while another is a playoff team, and the other two continue to rebuild. The teams are getting better, but two teams will dominate the division this season.

Each team in the Atlantic Division is different however, and it is important to take an in-depth look at each squad to see areas of strength, weakness, and overall power ranking when compared to each other. I will take a more detailed view at the areas in which each team has gotten better, worse, and how they ultimately stack up to the heavy competition level that their geographical location provides. Further, I will power rank each team (1st through 5th) on where they stand in the present and the future (in 3-5 years with their current system).

Pittsburgh Penguins:
-Overview: The Penguins are popularly categorized as the class of the Atlantic and rightly so. They are the last Atlantic Division team to win the Stanley Cup (2009 playoffs) and boast the strongest depth at center in the entire NHL with Crosby, Malkin, and Staal. They are guarded by a legitimate defensive core which is grounded in Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, and Kris Letang. The number one overall pick in the 2003 draft, Marc-Andre Fleury, tends the nets for Pittsburgh and represents Pittsburgh’s biggest flaw.

-Strengths: Pittsburgh has its core in place. Their depth at center is unmatched in the league and they have enough depth at wing to utilize their superstar talent down the middle. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are among the top-level talent in the NHL and their best days still lie ahead. The Penguins still have a majority of the players that were so important during their 2009 Stanley Cup Championship run; translation: they are still a cup contender.

They lost a vitally important defenseman in Sergei Gonchar this offseason, but quickly rectified the loss of the top-flight defenseman by filling his skates with the feet of ex-Devil Paul Martin. Martin, who averaged over 20 minutes of playing time per game for the Devils, rounds out the Penguins’ defensive depth with a work-horse specializing in defending his own end of the ice.  He will be the leader of the defense corps that already consists of some great defensemen (namely: Orpik, Letang). Martin replacing Gonchar may result in a less potent power play, but better overall defense/penalty killing. Martin, at 29, is still in his prime while Gonchar is aging/declining.

In all, the Penguins are stronger defensively this year and are just as threatening up front as they were during the 2009 playoffs.Their star studded core will be battling for Stanley Cups for the next decade (barring cap issues of course). For this, they remain the ‘class’ of the Atlantic Division.

-Weaknesses: Every great hero/empire/team has a weakness and the Penguins are no different. While Pittsburgh boasts the best balance of offense and defense, they still lack an elite #1 goaltender. Marc-Andre Fleury has shown inconsistency in his career and has been known for having bad games in important situations. Last years Eastern Conference Semi-Finals against the Canadiens proved this premise true when Fleury turned in an awful effort during game seven. He was yanked from the game and the Penguins were ultimately eliminated from the 2010 playoffs. While I applaud Fleury’s great athletic ability (speed, reaction, stamina); I find many flaws in his technique/mechanics.

Fleury has positioning problems which leaves his athletic prowess (mainly his ability to react) as his only chance to make big saves. Many of his “big saves” are a result of bad positioning which makes his last second reflex saves seem more dramatic than they needed to be. Entertainment value goes up with this style, but so do the goals against. Fleury’s stats during the course of the season appear upper-echeleon in comparison to many NHL goaltenders, but I argue that his stats would be a lot more revealing if he played for a team like the Atlanta Thrashers or Tampa Bay Lighting (a team lacking defense). Fleury is a good goaltender, but is not at that elite level which would make the Penguins easy Stanley Cup favorites for the next dozen years.

The Penguins also lack strong prospect. Left winger, Eric Tangradi and defenseman, Simon Despres are good blue chip prospects, but the list of quality prospects quickly ends after them. They have many forward prospects, (Jeffrey, Hanowski, Johnson), with a ceiling  about as high as becoming a third line forward. With Crosby, Malkin, Staal, and Kunitz on the roster the need for skilled forwards is not as high in demand, yet it is necessary to have some supply on the back shelf in case of injury or trade/free agency; the Penguins lack this supply.

The various defensive prospects (Lovejoy, Velichek, Strait) are good enough to develop into bottom three NHL defenseman, but are probably still a year away (with the exception of Lovejoy). The Penguins lack top-flight prospects and instead are relying on their top players to carry the load for at least the forseeable future.
-2010-2011 Regular Season Division Rank: 1st  in Atlantic Division.
-How Far in 2011 Playoffs?: Eliminated in Eastern Conference Finals.
-Future Watch Division Rank (2013-2014 season): 1st in Atlantic Division.

Philadelphia Flyers:
-Overview: The Flyers surprised the NHL world during the 2010 playoffs with an incredible run that ended in overtime during game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Philadelphia. who snuck by on the last day of the season with a shoot out win against the Rangers, displayed their great offensive depth and ability to play with the best teams when it mattered most. Their Achilles heel remained the same however, as weak goaltending eventually brought them back to Earth. Though they still have key issues to fix, the Flyers remain one of the strongest teams in the Atlantic Division and even the Eastern Conference.

-Strengths: Offense. It is simple to classify the Philadelphia Flyers greatest strength as they have tremendous scoring depth within their top six players. Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and Claude Giroux represent the offense core that the Flyers management has developed and for Flyer fans these players symbolize a great future for the franchise.

Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, and Simon Gagne (if he refuses to waive his no trade clause) are all important puzzle pieces that fit nicely with young core mentioned above. Briere, public enemy number one for Flyers before the 2010 playoffs, displayed his offensive prowess when the Flyers needed it most during the playoffs( 12 goals, 30 points to lead the NHL). He was criticized by many Flyer fans for not living up to his contract ($6.5 million against the cap), but I feel that he has earned the respect of the Flyers fan base and his numbers this season will benefit from it; pencil him in for a 75 point season. Scott Hartnell is coming off a difficult season where off ice issues seemed to hamper his game; expect him to put up more “Hartnell-like” numbers this season. With Simon Gagne you get what you expect: if healthy he’ll bury 30 goals and 70-80 points for the season, if not then the Flyers overall offense will take a hit.

The Flyers top six is dangerous from all angles and give the Flyers the most balanced offense in the Atlantic Division. Although the Penguins have the stronger superstar players, the Flyers have more scoring depth on the top two lines and are more battle-ready with gritty players like Richards, Gagne, and Hartnell. The Flyers gritty style up front is exactly the type of game needed to succeed in the playoffs; the offseason acquisition of Jody Shelley will provide more sandpaper-esque play in the Flyers bottom six.

Ville Leino also represents a bright spot for the Flyers as he performed quite admirably for Philadelphia after they acquired him from Detroit. He was a pertinent part of the playoff push and it will be exciting to see how he fairs in his first full season as a Flyer.

-Weaknesses:
The Flyers most glaring deficiency is still in plain view as they fail to answer their goaltending issues. As constructed presently, Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher are the two goaltenders highest on Philadelphia’s depth chart. Leighton was a yeoman in the 2010 playoffs as he helped lift the team to the Stanley Cup Finals. In the finals however, Leighton looked exposed by Chicago. He allowed some soft goals and failed to make big saves when they were most necessary. Further, he let in an extremely soft goal to clinch the Stanley Cup for Chicago during overtime of game six. In that situation you need a strong goaltender with confidence, cunning, and skill; the Flyers lacked that type of goaltender and it cost them. This seemingly black-hole still exists for the Flyers and represents their most obvious weakness.

The Flyers roster is also filled with many question marks. Recently signed forward, Nikolai Zherdev, is an enigmatic player who seems to shift the nuances of Philadelphia’s playing style into a different direction. Zherdev is a great talent, but lacks physicality in his game and has been stigmatized as lazy. The Flyers normally look to fill their roster with physically intimidating, gritty, power forwards who balance aggression with skill. Zherdev is a ‘soft’ creative forward who uses finesse rather than fight to move the puck. His style seems to counter the Flyers and for that I see Zherdev as a mediocre signing.

The Flyers, although a young squad, lack depth in their farm system. Many of their top chip prospects have made the jump to the NHL and this has left a void in their prospect pool. They have decent prospects to fill the blue line in Erik Gustafsson, Kevin Marshall, and Marc-Andre Bourdon, but lack true potential talent at forward. Goalie prospect, Joacim Eriksson, had an exceptional season last year, but must prove he can make the transition to the North American style of play; he represents another question mark in the Flyers prospect pool.

Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen are both another year older and begin to enter the twilight of their careers. Pronger proved in the playoffs that he is still a force to be reckoned with, but he will only lose more steps and decline as time passes. Timonen will face the same fate as I expect him to have a down year. The Flyers have a solid young defensive core and the addition of Mezaros will certainly help the defensive depth. The addition of Mezaros will help balance the regression of Pronger and Timonen resulting in a defense very equal to last years team. This defense will be unable to considerably lower their total goals against of last year because of the lack of a number one goalie.

Lastly, their limited cap space makes it very difficult to sign needed free agents and/or make important trades during the trade deadline. How much this hurts Philadelphia down the road remains to be seen.

-2010-2011 Regular Season Division Rank: 2nd in Atlantic Division.
-How Far in 2011 Playoffs?: Eliminated in Stanley Cup Finals.
-Future Watch Ranking (2013-2014 season): 4th in Atlantic Division

New York Rangers:
-Overview:
The Rangers had a mediocre 2009-2010 season mostly because of their lack of goal scoring talent. Acquiring Marian Gaborik last off-season proved beneficial as he had a tremendous and healthy season, but the Rangers were unable to make the playoffs even with his contributions. The Rangers remain steady in net as Henrik Lundqvist continues to prove he is a top notch goaltender. The rebuilding process has given many opportunities for young players like Del Zotto, Gilroy, and Anisimov to establish themselves as NHL players. This trend should not change as the Rangers continue their goal of rebuilding. Their salary cap problems are still very much the same going into this 2010-2011 season. Will the Rangers rebuild a once proud franchise for the Madison Square Garden faithful? Time will tell.

-Strengths: The Rangers have been fortunate enough to have Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes for the past several seasons. He is the most important player for New York as he has kept the Rangers in playoff contention since his tenure began in 2005-2006. Lundqvist has entered his prime and looks to continue his elite play as a top three goaltender in the league. The Rangers have also acquired Martin Biron via free agency who is a legitimate back-up goaltender and will give Henrik a break when necessary. Lundqvist has been known to have periods of inconsistency (usually in December), and with Biron there is a solution to the overuse of Lundqvist. Goaltending for the NY Rangers is a great strength.

The Rangers have a plethora of talented prospects who are beginning to earn their place on the big league roster. Expect Evgeny Grachev to battle for a forward spot as he provides size (which the Rangers greatly lack) and skill. Center, Derek Stepan, has signed an entry-level contract with the Rangers and will begin his development with the Hartford Wolf Pack unless he makes a tremendous impression during training camp. The gifted Minnesota native shows great potential in his play-making ability and will be a welcomed addition when he is ready to make the jump to the NHL. The Rangers have also signed prospect Ryan McDonagh, who played at the collegiate level in Wisconsin with teammate Stepan, to an entry-level contract with hopes that he will be able to make an immediate impact on defense and prove himself strong enough to earn a roster spot right out of camp.The speedy Chris Kreider continues to develop nicely at left-wing and appears to be a year or two away from competing for a spot on the Rangers.

The Rangers also have  prospects to add overall depth like Michael Sauer, Dane Byers, and Ethan Werek; all have the potential to take a roster spot out of camp. Chad Johnson, the 6’2″ 180lb goaltending prospect, showed great composure when playing back-up for Lundqvist during a short stint last season. Johnson is still a year or two away from earning the back-up role for himself. The Rangers have many prospects on the cusp of becoming full-time NHLers and that is a serious plus.

Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Artem Anisimov, and Michael Del Zotto are all a year older and bring more experience to the table this upcoming season. Expect each to expand upon last years numbers and become more well-rounded players. This season marks a key moment in Dubinsky’s development as he needs to prove himself as a legitimate second line center by increasing his point totals. Staal should continue to develop into a number one shut down defensemen as he better understands the nuances of the defensive games. Anisimov and Del Zotto should also play with more confidence throughout the season as they have gotten their feet wet in the big leagues and have become better acclimated to the speed of the NHL. Increased production from the Rangers’ core will benefit the team both now and in the future.

-Weaknesses: The Rangers have failed to solve their goal scoring issues which proved to be a huge burden last season. Marian Gaborik provides elite offensive skills and draws heavy attention from opposing defenders, but is not enough to make the Rangers win on his lonesome. The aquisition of Mats Zucarello-Aasen (can’t wait to see how they fit his name on his jersey) is a good one, but his size (or lack thereof) leaves him vulnerable against the bulky, NHL caliber defensemen he will face. Zucarello-Aasen has enough skills to do damage as a forward, but his lack of physicality will be detrimental to his play. Expect him to play in the mold of Brian Gionta with less skill. Although his addition to the Rangers squad is nice, the second line left winger will not provide the production the Rangers’ offense desperately needs. Expect offense to be a reoccurring problem for the Rangers.

The Rangers greatly lack depth at center. Erik Christensen is a good hockey player, but belongs no higher than the third line. He is a cerebral player with grit and skill, but his tenure on the Rangers first line is more representative of how weak the Rangers are down the middle than how skilled Christensen is. Dubinky has yet to prove himself as a legitimate second line center let alone playing for the number one line. Chris Drury’s skill and speed has regressed to the level of a good third line two-way center. Basically, the Rangers have three third line centers filling out the top three lines (Although Dubinsky can be considered a second line center as well). The Rangers lack of depth at center is troubling as they play in a division where their rivals view the center position as a strength, not a weakness.

The Rangers lack of salary cap flexibility is also a concern as most Ranger fans already know. Chris Drury, Wade Redden, and Michael Rozsival are all over payed for their services and are the reason the Rangers have had trouble improving their offense this offseason. Fortunately for the Rangers, Drury and Rozsival’s contracts are expired after the 2011-2012 season which will free up a little over $12 million dollars of cap space. By this time the Rangers should have many of their prospects developed and the money can be used to sign a big name free agent. In the short-term the over priced salaries of Drury, Rozsival, and Redden are crippling, but in the longterm the Rangers will be in good shape as the contracts expire and cap space becomes available.

The Rangers defense still has holes as Matt Gilroy failed to prove himself as a reliable defenseman last season. His speed and offensive prowess is noteworthy, yet he lacks the positional instincts that a legitimate NHL defensemen needs to be successful. He should improve as he gains more experience, but will still struggle as the sixth defenseman. Del Zotto is also very raw and needs more experience before fans are confident with him in his own zone. Staal and Girardi have their work cut out for them as the number one defensive pairing because the defensive skill level drops considerably after them.

-2010-2011 Regular Season Division Rank: 4th in Atlantic Division.
-How Far In 2011 Playoffs? Will not qualify.
-Future Watch Ranking (2013-2014 season):2nd in Atlantic Division.

New Jersey Devils:
-Overview:
The Devils have blessed the Atlantic Division with competitive teams for the past two decades. Their management is certainly the best in the division as they continue to induce a winning attitude. Although not overwhelmingly talented, the Devils are sport and extremely extremely dangerous first line led by Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. New Jersey hopes they can deliver post season glory as they have had trouble making it passed the first round of the playoffs for the past three seasons. This trend seems strange as they continue their great overall play during each regular season; even winning the division crown over Pittsburgh in 2009-2010. Will the Devils be able to face their demons and make a splash in this years playoffs?

-Strengths
:  The Devils main strength lies in the attitude of their franchise which is driven solely on the resource of success. Lou Lamoriello consistently fields a strong team each season while paying close attention to his prospect pool creating a balance between home-grown talent and free agency signings. With this balance in place the Devils have created quite a strong nucleus of players.

Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, David Clarkson, and Andy Greene all represent the young core of the New Jersey Devils. These players have proven themselves capable of harnessing the winning attitude of the Devils and will continue to improve this season. Add to that crop, Ilya Kovalchuk, the dynamic Russian winger who has been atop the scoring charts for the past four seasons. Kovalchuk is a very capable 50 goal scorer and adds an ever dangerous presence on the ice for the Devils. Lamoriello has infused this young core with many important other free agency pieces such as: Henrik Tallinder, Jason Arnott, and Anton Volchenkov. Mix these new mercenaries with verterans Jamie Langenbrunner, Patrick Elias, Colin White, Bryce Salvador, and Martin Brodeur and you begin to see a balanced line-up unparalleled in the division.

New Jersey has virtually no glaring holes in their line up. Their top six forwards are experienced and reliable point producers. Their defense took a hit when Paul Martin signed with Pittsburgh, but the Devils countered this loss in signing both Volchenkov and Tallinder. The theme for New Jersey is balance as every aspect of their game is well-rounded. They are not overwhelming in either their offense (after the first line), defense, and/or goaltending, but are consistent enough throughout the line up to compete with any team.

The Devils have strong prospects who are ready to make the transition to the NHL. Most notable are left winger, Mattias Tedenby, and center, Jacob Josefson. Both players provide New Jersey with more offensive depth and should have a beneficial impact in their first NHL season. The Devils prospect pool is deep with potential third line forwards and bottom pairing defensemen which helps reinforce their tremendous balance.

John Maclean’s promotion to head coach is great for the Devils as he will instill a more offensive style of play. This change in style will benefit players like Parise, Kovalchuk, Langenbrunner, and Zajac as speed becomes more important on the forecheck. The Devils should score more goals this season as a result of Maclean’s promotion. Expect a few more slip-ups on defense than normal, but ultimately the Devils will benefit from more offensive tactics with their young talent.

Physicality is another plus for New Jersey as many of their players are 6’1″ and above. This size benefit will make the Devils a grittier team and tougher to play against. This gritty style will be most helpful in the playoffs where the Devils have failed the past few seasons to make any serious impact. Grit wins games in the playoffs and the Devils need to prove their ability to move forward in the post season.

-Weaknesses: The Devils lack a truly elite talent at the defense position. Couple this hole with the salary cap issues (caused by Kovalchuk’s contract) and the Devils seem stuck with mediocre defense. After Volchenkov the defensive talents start to slide. Maclean prefers a more offensive approach which may cause more havov for the defense and ultimately Martin Brodeur. The lack of an offensive star will force the Devils to score by committee. The Devils are also going to heavily rely on Kovalchuk and Parise to outscore their opponent. If either of these two players go cold, the Devils will be forced to score by comittee. Expect the Devils to be a streaky team this year as there win/loss record will reflect how hot the team is offensively. Problems will persist in the defensive end because the Devils have no cap space to acquire a stud defenseman.

Many of New Jersey’s key players are aging and regressing. Patrick Elias is past his prime at the age of 34 as is Jamie Langenbrunner. Brian Rolson, Jason Arnott, and Martin Brodeur are huge question marks as they are each at the age of 35 and above. It will be interesting to observe how age affects the Devils, particularly during the last two months of the season. The Devils will be slower than last season, but will benefit from having their players somewhat fresher toward the end of the year due in part to the absence of a Winter Olympic Tournament this year. Will age be a factor that will hurt the Devils in the long run? We’ve seen it happen in prior playoffs; expect the trend to continue.

Martin Brodeur appears to be in serious decline. The Devils made a good acquisition in signing Johan Hedberg and his skill will be in dire need to provide Brodeur necessary rest. Goaltending will be an issue for New Jersey this season as Brodeur’s age leaves many question marks as to how successful he will be. Brodeur heavily relies on his athleticism to make saves. Age will always slow a player down and Brodeur’s athleticism will diminish sharply. Expect more goals against the Devils this season because of Maclean’s aggressive offensive style, the Devils’ thin dept at defense and Brodeur’s speed regression.

Playoff disappointments have plagued New Jersey in the past couple seasons. Many fans question whether or not the team has the fortitude to make it to the next step. Expect this to play a role if the Devils do indeed make the playoffs this year. Many of the players will feel the pressure of their prior failures to make it passed the first round the last three years and these intangibles may hurt the Devils once again during the month of April. If the Devils are able to overcome this pressure, they have the ability to surprise many teams throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

-2010-2011 Regular Season Division Rank: 3rd in Atlantic Division
-How Far in 2011 Playoffs?: Eliminated in quarter finals.
-Future Watch Ranking (2013-2014 season): 5th in Atlantic Division (cap issues till 2025 thanks to Kovalchuk).

New York Islanders:
-Overview: The Islanders haven’t had much to be proud of over the past decade, but last season proved that the worst is over. Long Island has been in rebuild mode for what feels like forever, but we are finally beginning to see the fruits of their patience. Players like Tavares and Okposo represent the turning tide of the Long Island current and should make the team as exciting as ever. They are still a few years away from being a legitimate contender, but with many youths instilled in the line up and much salary cap flexibility, the Islanders seemed poised to make a statement in the next few seasons. The theme must continue to be patience for those rocking the orange and blue. Will the Islanders be patient enough to bring respectability back to their once crippled franchise? Will they battle for a playoff spot this season?

-Strengths:
Youth is the ultimate strength of the Islanders. Their lineup is filled primarily with young players trying to establish themselves in the NHL. This is beneficial for the Islanders as it leaves the team hungry for success and continues their rebuild process. Players like John Tavares, Josh Bailey, Kyle Okposo, Blake Comeau, Andrew MacDonald, and Dustin Kohn all represent the bright future that Long Island has. These players are the foundation upon which the Islanders build there dreams of tomorrow upon. These players are not quite ready yet to bring success to Nassau Coliseum, but they are very close and this year will be vital for that development.

The young Islander core brings tenacity to each game and the offense has the ability to battle with speed and grit. Tavares has proven he is the real deal and is the most elite player on the squad. He will continue to develop into a superstar and the Islanders offense will prosper for it. Josh Bailey also seems ready to break-out and have a career year. His play-making ability is beginning to shine and expect his linemates to score more goals this season. Okposo will continue to develop as a power forward and is probably about one more season away from really hitting his stride (as power forwards usually take a little more time to develop than other forwards). The Islanders’ offense will improve.

The management for Long Island has done a service for the team by refusing to sign any big name players. This may seem like a silly statement on the surface, but the Islanders have a good future ahead of them if they stay the rebuilding course. Leaving opportunities available for young players will prove beneficial in the future as they receive very important playing time and experience. Garth Snow has done a brilliant job realizing this and abstaining from the free agent market for the most part. This has also kept cap space open for the Islanders to utilize in the future.

Salary cap room is not an issue for the Islanders as they over $28 million available on the payroll. This makes it easy for the Islanders management to keep their core for numerous years and fill the roster out with impact free agents when the team is a legitimate cup contender. Salary cap issues are an epidemic in the NHL and the Islanders seem to have the proper vaccine. This is a strength now and later.

-Weaknesses: The Islanders have much youth which will make it difficult for them to compete this season against better opposition. Most of the Islander players are at least 2-3 years from hitting their peak and need this time to develop. In the short-term this a weakness for the Islanders as they are not playoff contenders this year, but the patience will be worth it in the long run.

Rick Dipietro remains a huge question mark for the Islanders. He continues to have injury issues and has not returned to his stellar form of three seasons ago. Roloson proved to be a strong stop-gap last year, but his age (40 years old) will make it difficult for him to keep up with last years pace. Expect goaltending to be a major issue for the Islanders this season unless Rick Dipietro can stay healthy and consistent between the pipes.

The defense for the Islanders in very inexperienced and will need the leadership of Streit and newly acquired defensemen Milan Jurcina to help guide them in their own zone. Once again, the Islanders are in the developmental stage still, this season will be utilized to help build the confidence and experience of the defensive core. Expect Streit to continue his tremedous play for the Islanders. Also expect MacDonald to be given more responsibility in his own zone as he grows into a solid defenseman.

The prospect pool for the Islanders has been greatly diluted now that the majority players are at the NHL level. Though the Islanders remain young, it is necessary to have a talent pool in your prospect system. The Islanders have virtually zero forward prospects who can make any impact, and are limited in defensive prospects as well. It is important for the Islanders to pay much focus to their scouting system in effort to find talented amateur players.

Ultimately, the Islanders greatest weakness now will be their strength in the future; youth. The Islanders continue to build their future and will have to deal with the consequences this year in having another mediocre season. Their weakness, however, is a reflection of lack of experience rather than a lack of skill. In a few years these weaknesses will be reinforced to strengths (except maybe goaltending).

-2010-2011 Regular Season Division Rank: 5th in Atlantic Division.
- How far in 2011 playoffs?: Will not qualify.
-Future Watch Rank (2013-2014 season): 3rd in Atlantic Division.

Bottom Line: The Atlantic Division will be highly competitive yet again this season, but more disparity will exist than last year. The main reason for this premise is that both the Rangers and Islanders continue their rebuilding process and will be vulnerable to higher skilled teams. The Flyers, Penguins, and Devils are ready to contend for the cup now while the Rangers and Islanders are waiting to contend when their young players are fully developed. _X_

Kovalchuk Wants to be a New York Ranger?

“Kovalchuk should simply declare, publicly his want to play for the Rangers. I bet Slats would clear the deck and make it happen.”
As per Darren Dreger, TSN hockey analyst’s, twitter update at approximately 10:54 AM.

This simple statement will have Ranger fans feeling like a young kid on Christmas Eve praying for a gift wrapped Tickle Me Elmo in the morning under the tree (kids from 1996 that is).

It’s no secret, Ranger fans want Kovalchuk, and who wouldn’t? Let’s take the guarantees that the stocky, 6′-2″ 230lb left pivot provides: goals, assists, physicality, and respect from the opposition. Kovalchuk is the type of player that coaches of opposing teams plan their entire game strategy around. An elite talent like Kovalchuk must be shadowed every shift he skates throughout the 60 minutes of regulation by the opposition’s number one defenseman. If Kovalchuk is playing the Flyers, you can bet your bottom dollar that Chris Pronger will be shadowing him throughout the course of the match. This is beneficial for Kovalchuk’s team for two reasons:

Chris Pronger is a gritty defenseman with excessive snarl. He is one of our generation’s best defenseman for both his capabilities of eliminating offensive threats in his own zone and for his offensive prowess that truly rounds out his overall game. A player like Kovalchuk however, has the ability to single-handedly eliminate Pronger’s talent and impact on a game. Pronger, when facing Kovalchuk’s Team, will be forced to play with ‘tunnel vision’ as he focuses on shadowing the gifted left winger, taking Pronger out of his element and changing his description from ‘game-changer’ to ‘game-sustainer.’ Kovalchuk’s team, in this scenario, has already won a strategic battle in eliminating one of the Flyers’ key players from having any true (game-changing) impact on the game. Of course the possibility still exists that Pronger keeps Kovalchuk off the score sheet, but this still benefits Kovalchuk’s coach/team.

Let’s take every Ranger fans’ ultimate 2010 off-season dream (and no, I’m not talking about Lebron going to the Knicks); Kovalchuk becomes a New York Ranger. This opens the ice up for Marian Gaborik, Vinnie Prospal, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Ryan Callahan, and basically every other forward on the Rangers’ Squad. In fact, the Rangers offense would  benefit so greatly from Kovalchuk’s presence that even if he were to have a disastrous season of less than 20 goals, that Rangers offense would still trump their total goals scored from last year. How is this possible?

The Rangers offense, last season, was a one-trick pony. In other words, the Rangers were dependent solely on the their first line (primarily Marian Gaborik). In the beginning of the season, we saw the Rangers have a tremendous start going 7-0-1. This great start was a result of Gaborik enjoying the time and space necessary to have an offensively explosive opening month and the opposition’s lack of a scouting report on what to expect from the 2009-2010 New York Rangers. This trend changed quickly however as the opposition’s coaches began to realize that the Rangers lacked offensive depth after their first line. The slogan became ‘shut down the first line and the Rangers offense is blind.’  Thus Gaborik was shadowed by the oppositions best defensive duo (much like our Pronger-Kovalchuk scenario) and the Rangers lacked the talent/depth to make up for Gaborik’s inability to score as easily. The result? The Rangers stopped scoring goals and the Rangers began losing.

Ilya Kovalchuk alleviates this chronic ailment as he would provide the Rangers with a bona-fide second line. Take a second line of Sean Avery-Brandon Dubinsky- Ryan Callahan and the opposition will be very comfortable when that line is on the ice. That line as formatted represent the Rangers second most gifted line yet represent no real threat to the opposition like Gaborik does. Take that same line and replace Sean Avery with Ilya Kovalchuk and suddenly they are a legitimate offensive threat equally comparable to Prospal-Christensen-Gaborik. Who does Peter Laviolette  match Chris Pronger up against; the first line or the second? Either way, one of Gaborik or Kovalchuk, the Rangers most gifted scorers, will be on the ice against the Flyer’s 3-4 defense duo rather than the usual 1-2 duo. This means more opportunities for that respective player/line and ultimately, more goals.

Also, this alleviates pressure on the depth goal scorers. Brandon Dubinsky will enjoy more space as he will be even less of a concern when skating on a line with the heavily guarded Kovalchuk. More Rangers will be left unmarked as the rival’s defense will face more chaotic situations rendering them more likely to make assignment/positional mistakes. Ultimately, Kovalchuk can make any teams offense more unpredictable just by having his last name on the sweater. For Ranger fans the idea of Gaborik and Kovalchuk representing the offensive elite for the team is tantalizing.

Those are the indirect benefits that the name Kovalchuk on your depth chart provides. We all know the direct benefits of having Ilya on your squad provides. He has scored 40+ goals in his last six seasons (reaching the 50+ plateau twice in that span) and is recognized as one of the top 5 most consistent scorers in the NHL. He also has size (6′-2″ 230lbs) which provides physicality and strength on the puck. Kovalchuk can run the point on the powerplay which would be extremely beneficial along with Del Zotto and Gaborik on the first powerplay unit. The benefits Kovalchuk provide are overwhelmingly obvious, but have also blinded many Ranger fans to the pressing issues that signing Kovalchuk would create.

Kovalchuk is expected to sign a contract in the ball park of $60 million locking him up for the next seven years. That breaks down to about $8.5 million against the salary cap. Compound that enormous figure with the albatross contracts the Rangers already have on their payroll and the situation becomes quite alarming. 

Referring to capgeek.com , the Rangers current payroll for this upcoming season is set at $53,671,667 with 20 players signed (as of right now); that leaves Glen Sather with about $7,890,833 to utilize for the rest of this year. This is pretty close to what Kovalchuk is looking for and makes signing him seemingly possible, but there are two problems to this premise; their names are Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. Defensemen Staal and Giradi are both restricted free agents this offseason and still need to be signed. Staal is due (and deserving) of a hefty raise from his $800,000 salary that he received in his prior contract. Expect Marc Staal to make around $4 million per year in his next contract (maybe a bit less considering he is a restricted free agent and does not have much of a bargaining chip unless he is sent offer sheets from other teams). Dan Girardi is utilizing his arbitration rights and bringing the team through the arbitration process (for those unfamiliar with the process I covered it in yesterday’s article and it can be read here). Expect Giradi to be awarded a $3 - $3.5 million dollar contract. With those two players signed at those ball park numbers that would leave the Rangers with about $1 million dollars left in salary cap area for the rest of the season. All of a sudden the chances of signing Kovalchuk seem diminished.  

The problem is not with Kovalchuk’s asking price, he is a player worth $8+ million, but with Glen Sather’s mistakes of the past. Chris Drury with a cap hit a little over $7 million for two more seasons and Wade Redden at $6.5 million for four more seasons, represent the reason the Rangers cannot move forward and consider themselves in the Kovalchuk hunt. With either of those contracts eliminated the Rangers would have a legitimate shot at landing the superstar left winger, yet should they?

Is Kovalchuk worth $8.5 million dollars? Absolutely, but this is from a general standpoint. If you’re wearing a general manager’s glasses with NHL tinted lenses you make this deal. His value is rooted in everything I discussed earlier: He is a legitimate scoring threat and game-breaker (Kovalchuk’s Stats), he makes his teammates around him better with his play-making prowess/ability to control play in the offensive zone, and he has an indirect effect on the texture of the game/ice as he can control the strategic management of the opposing coaches’ squad by focusing their defensive tactics solely on the offensive threat he provides (the result is open ice for everyone else).

Before the salary cap era, Kovalchuk would already be signed because the NHL tinted lense would be comfortably fitted in the frames of Glen Sather’s Glasses. Unfortunately, in this era, Sather must view Kovalchuk with a critical ‘New York Rangers’ eye. The situation is no longer rooted in “Is Kovalchuk worth that kind of money?,” but rather “Is Kovalchuk worth that kind of money for the New York Rangers of 2010-2011?” The answer is a resounding “No!”

Even if Glen Sather does demote Wade Redden to the AHL during this years preseason camp, Kovalchuk still does not make logical sense. Let’s add the million dollar cap space we will have after signing Giradi and Staal with the $6.5 million dollars that Redden’s demotion would open up for the Rangers. That leaves the Rangers with $7.5 millon to sign Kovalchuk. 
Further, let us now say that Kovalchuk wants to be a Ranger so much that he decides to take that $7.5 millon dollar a year offer and signs the contract that will make Madison Square Garden his home. That leaves the Rangers with virtually no cap space to make any adjustments over the season.

“We have Kovalchuk! What adjustments will we need?”
How about adjustments like making a trade during the trade deadline to add the missing piece of the team puzzle for a serious playoff run. Adjustments such as calling up players from Hartford to fill in for injured Ranger players during the course of the season. Adjustments like signing our own players back when they become restricted free agents during the 2011 offseason (Dubinsky, Callahan, Anisimov, Gilroy). These necessary adjustments will be next to impossible without some cap room flexibility. Signing Kovalchuk ,even with Redden’s cap hit eliminated, is a very risky gamble, and brings another important dimension to the debate.

“Who replaces Wade on defense?”
Redden is by no means a 6.5 million dollar defenseman, but he is a serviceable 3rd-4th defenseman (albeit vastly overpaid). If he is buried in Hartford and Kovalchuk is signed, his only replacement can be a rookie from the Hartford Wolf Pack;  the Rangers will be unable to replace him with a free agent on the market due to the inability to fit any contract larger than the league minimum under the cap. A rookie defenseman at league minimum will struggle in trying to make the jump to the NHL in a rushed manner which will result in defensive deficiencies and more goals against. This is counter productive to Kovalchuk improving the offense as his offensive output will be necessary to balance out the increase of goals against. His contract will weaken the Rangers’ Defensive depth as they will be unable to sign a formidable replacement for Redden. Kovalchuk’s production may slightly edge the deficient aspects of a more watered down defense, but it will not be prominent enough to turn the Rangers into a serious cup contender; rather it will more than likely result in just a  few more regular season victories. Poor Defense will become a handicap for the 2010-2011 Rangers just as lack of offense hindered the 2009-2010 squad.

Teams with holes in their defense are prone to struggling in the playoffs (just ask the Washington Capitals from the 2010 Eastern Conference Quarter Finals). The Rangers have a very inexperienced back-end as it is with Redden in the lineup (Del Zotto, Gilroy, and possibly McDonagh this season). Two sophomores and a rookie filling out the back-end of the defense demands patience as the young players go through the necessary learning curve that exists in becoming a well-rounded defenseman. A few years expeience is necessary before these young defensemen reach their potential.  Signing Kovalchuk screams ‘win now,’ rather than the ‘rebuild from within’ route Glen Sather seems adamant about pursuing.

The team, as constructed, is not ready to ‘win now,’ but rather are a few seasons away from enjoying the fruits of the patience they provided their home-grown talent with. Del Zotto, Stepan, Grachev, McDonagh, Anisimov, Kreider, Gilroy, Sauer, McIlrath and Werek all need seasoning/time to reach their potential before the Rangers become serious Stanley Cup Contenders. The Rangers also need to be patient in waiting for their salary cap situation to be alleviated of Drury and Rozsival’s $7,050,000 and $5,000,000 cap hit as their contracts each expire in two years. After their contracts come off the books, the Rangers will have plenty of cap room to sign other lucrative deals with truely talented superstars (much like Kovalchuk).

One other important aspect in considering signing Kovalchuk is the business side of making the deal. There is no doubt that Kovalchuk will draw the usual rich business men to Madison Square Garden as New Yorkers love superstar talent and are therefore more willing to spend money on tickets if there is a name like Mark Messier, Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shannahan, Wayne Gretzky, Marian Gaborik, Alexei Kovalev (disaster), Eric Lindros (disaster), or Jari Kurri (mega disaster) playing for the team. Kovalchuk is the type of player that draws fans to the Garden; James Dolan and Glen Sather both know this. It is diffiicult to argue against signing Kovalchuk when looking at his worth from a business stand point because at the end of the day the NHL is a business and owners are looking for profit more so than championships. Kovalchuk would certainly increase revenue for James Dolan and that may play a factor into the Kovalchuk signing situation. Glen Sather, however, seems to have the most control over Rangers’ personnel decision and seems dedicated to the rebuild process.

To wrap up, Kovalchuk is an immensely talented hockey player who will always make a hockey team better. He scores a plethora of goals, racks up assists, adds physicality, keeps the other team on their toes, and opens up the ice for his teammates. On the flip side, his contract demands symbolize a ‘win now’ mentality for any general manager who shows interest. Glen Sather and the New York Rangers, as presently constructed, are not a ‘win now’ team, but rather a team that begs for patience as the future generation prepares to become the promise of tomorrow. Glen Sather needs to stay the course, build the future, put faith in the various prospects he has picked, and give them a chance to become the next superstar. Most of all, Glen Sather needs to prove to the loyal New York Rangers fan that he has truly changed his ways; and avoid trying to win the Stanley Cup with one large pay-day. _X_

McDonagh Signs with New York Rangers

21 year old defensive prospect Ryan McDonagh has followed his Wisconsin teammate Derek Stepan and signed with the Rangers today.

“I have so many people to thank,” said McDonagh, when asked how he felt to now be a pro player. “I obviously couldn’t be here today if it weren’t for my parents and all the coaches I had growing up. It’s just a credit to my family and all my coaches who helped me develop as a player to get where I am today.”

Ryan McDonagh was acquired by the New York Rangers last off-season when they dealt Scott Gomez to the Montreal Canadiens in return for Chris Higgins and Ryan McDonagh. McDonagh was considering staying with his college team, the Wisconsin Badgers, for his senior year which would make him eligible to enter the league as an unrestricted free agent. After taking part in the Rangers Development Camp, McDonagh realized he wanted to join the New York Rangers along with fellow Wisconsin team-mate Derek Stepan who signed with the Rangers a few weeks ago.

“Derek and I are great buddies, obviously,” McDonagh said. “We are best of friends. We have been playing together at Wisconsin, and we played against each other growing up. Obviously, he was pretty supportive and everything. I bounced a lot of questions off of him, but he wasn’t really drilling me too much in terms of asking what I was thinking. He kind of just left that for myself, which was good. Obviously to have seen him make the decision is exciting for both of us to be doing this at the same time.”

This is great news for the New York Rangers as they further strengthen their defense for the future. Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, Matt Gilroy, Michael Sauer, Dylan McIlrath, and now Ryan McDonagh represent a bright future for the New York Rangers rear guard. _X_

Source:

http://rangers.nhl.com/club/news.htm?id=533881&navid=DL|NYR|home

Halak Signs Deal with Blues

Halak has reportedly signed a 4 year deal worth 15 million dollars with the St. Louis Blues earlier today. Halak is coming off a strong season where he went 26-13-6 with the Montreal Canadiens posting a .924 save percentage and 2.40 goals against average. Most notably, Halak played tremendously in the playoffs upsetting both the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins before falling to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals.

If you ask me, St Louis over payed quite a bit, but Halak has shown some flashes of brilliance. His ability to sustain it consistently for an entire season though has not yet ben proven. St.Louis has a lot of cap space remaining ($20,735,000) so the signing should not hinder them too badly. _X_

He’s filing for Arbitration, Right?

The Salary arbitration process in the NHL is quite complex, but a necessity for both general managers and restricted free agent players during the offseason. This process is critical in settling contract disputes in a professional, business-like manner. This off-season is consistent with others in that many players filed for an arbitration hearing yesterday in attempt to alleviate the conflict that exists between agent and general manager. In this article I will try to explain the arbitration process in a digestible manner. 

Basically, the team (represented by the respective general manager) and restricted free agent  each propose a salary for the upcoming season during a hearing. These monetary proposals are based on what each respective side believes the player is ultimately worth to the franchise (based primarily on statistics and ability, but can also include how many fans such a player can single-handedly bring to the arena to draw revenue). For example, a player like Sidney Crosby would have a strong argument for a hefty salary proposal based on his great offensive output (evidenced by his statistics), the fact that he led his team to a Stanley Cup as the Captain (showing strong character qualities), and the undisputed understanding that he puts fannies in seats in Pittsburgh. You add all these elements together and your result will ultimately lead to a heavy arbitration award (a large pay-day in the upcoming seasons contract). But we are getting a little too far ahead of ourselves.

Sidney Crosby represents a very easy example, and is also a player that will most likely never have an arbitration hearing because he is an elite talent who will likely always receive his contract demands. Players with middle of the pact talent usually are more prone to enter the arbitration process because it is their only bargaining chip as a free agent. A player usually enters the arbitration process in their early to mid 20′s. Their cases are a lot more convoluted than say a ‘Sidney Crosby’ because general managers are looking to avoid over-payment of less than stellar talent. In this case the player files for arbitration and each side argues for their proposal in front of the arbitrator, a neutral third-party, who must take the arguments and make a decision as to what he will set the player’s salary to.

The requirement for arbitration eligibility is at least four years in the league (unless a player signed their first NHL contract after the age of 20 then the terms are slightly reduced). The deadline for a player to file for salary arbitration is July 5th with cases heard in late July/early August.  A team and player are allowed to negotiate at all times leading up to the arbitration hearing to try and reach an agreement without the arbitrator.

Further a team can also bring a player to salary arbitration to try and solve a contract dispute. A player can only be taken through the arbitration process once in his career, and can not be awarded less than 85% of his prior contract salary. A player can bring his team through the salary arbitration as many times as he wants throughout his career, and there is no such restriction on salary awards when a player takes his team through the process.

After the hearing, a arbitration award decision must be made within 48 hours of the hearing. The abitrator can award the player with either proposal, or make his own decision on what the player deserves (usually a figure somewhere between the two proposals).At this point a team can accept the arbitrators decision and sign the player to those exact terms or decline the award and “walk away.” If the team declines the award, the player has the right to declare himself an unrestricted free agent and negotiate with any team._x_

Here is a list of all the players that filed for arbitration for this off season.

Anaheim Ducks
James Wisniewski

Atlanta Thrashers
Ben Eager
Andrew Ladd
Clarke Macarthur

Boston Bruins
Greg Campbell
Blake Wheeler

Buffalo Sabres
Tim Kennedy

Calgary Flames
Ian White

Chicago  Blackhawks 
Antti Niemi

Columbus Blue  Jackets
Jared Boll
Anton Stralman

Dallas Stars
Fabian Brunnstrom

Detroit Red Wings
Derek Meech

Edmonton Oilers
Gilbert Brule
Jeff   DrouinDesLauriers
JeanFrancois Jacques

Los Angeles Kings
Brad Richardson

New Jersey Devils
Mark Fraser

New York  Islanders
Mark Moulson

New York Rangers
Dan Girardi

Ottawa Senators
Chris Campoli
Peter Regin

Philadelphia Flyers
Daniel Carcillo

St. Louis Blues
Cam Janssen

Tampa Bay Lightning
Nate Thompson

Vancouver Canucks
Tanner Glass
Jannik Hansen
Mason Raymond

Washington Capitals
Eric Fehr
Tomas Fleischmann
Jeff Schultz