Say what you will about General Manager Kenneth Mark Holland, but the man will do things. Inaction has never been a criticism of a Detroit Red Wings front office that was once feared and revered by NHL general managers and players alike. There was a time when, with a fell swoop, the likes of Brett Hull, Chris Chelios, Brian Rafalski, and Marian Hossa would join the already-legendary Wings locker room. These days, Hockeytown’s faithful are happy when that activity just turns out to be neutral, scarred by (among other ill-fated transactions) a Stephen Weiss debacle that remains one of the great disasters in the history of Red Wings free agency.
Dealt a poor hand at this summer’s outset when my father, Pavel Datsyuk, announced his retirement, King Kenny sat upon his Westeros-style carbon fiber and aluminum stick throne and somehow maneuvered an escape from the awful cap recapture penalty that would have sapped millions of dollars in flexibility. He showed the world he still had some juju by way of that draft-day deal in which he traded back a few spots in the draft for an extra pick and the right not to have an empty cap-hit on the books. Not bad, but for some reason Wings fans used this as a springboard to prime themselves for a gilded entrance into “The Stamkos Race,” as if there wasn’t an enormous problem in the back end to address first.
Quickly missing out on one of the game’s elite players is forgivable considering nobody else got a sniff, either. The door was closed before Holland could get a foot in. However, the velocity with which it slammed shut begs the important question of why any “star” would want to join a team without a best defender in the first place. Having the space without the structure will never appeal to the mega-stars; ask Kevin Durant about that one.
Niklas Kronwall Is Not A First-Pairing NHL Defenseman
It’s somewhat surprising that the once-vaunted Red Wings defense has actually put up great numbers over the past few years. Since 2014, the Wings have the lowest defensive zone start percentage in the NHL, indicating that the puck just isn’t near the Wings’ goal all that much. Similarly, the Wings rank 9th in overall goals against in that span. That’s pretty solid!
Last year, however, the deeply ineffective power-play, with its affinity for allowing short-handed goals, shone light through a key crack in the wall: Niklas Kronwall is simply no longer equipped to be more than a second-pairing defender. His personal numbers are awful. He was minus-21 last year, and hasn’t had a plus-season since 2011. He scored 26 points in 64 games, looked sluggish and more than a step behind, and almost never deployed the once-beloved bone-crushing hits that used to be a trademark. The advanced numbers are astonishingly bad:
Kronwall has become a possession liability on a team that has dominated possession numbers in the NHL for years. His Corsi For%, a metric that aims to measure a player’s impact upon how many shots are directed towards the opponent’s net, has fallen dramatically for four years, to the point that Kronner’s numbers were net-negative last year. He’s not effective on the power play, and it could be argued that the yearly wear-and-tear of being asked to embody the twin-archetypes of the Red Wings Ideal Defenseman has taken its toll. He never possessed the composed offensive genius of Nicklas Lidstrom, nor the terrifying physical presence of Vladimir Konstantinov.
The Wings Don’t Have A Best Defenseman
Detroit is a long ways away from the time when its defense was a certainty. Arguably the greatest modern defenseman there ever was, Lidstrom’s soothing, angelic aura guaranteed stability even when he wasn’t on the ice. The Red Wings have never hurt for talent, but I was surprised while scanning rosters from the Red Wings dominant era from ‘97-09 to find that the defense wasn’t actually all that impressive in 2002, Scotty Bowman’s final, Stanley Cup-winning year:
Despite that core’s limitations (it probably didn’t hurt to have Dominik Hasek between the pipes), the presence of competent puck-moving defensemen to complement Lidstrom’s perfection, with Chelios’ experience and Dandenault’s speed, served as an invaluable way to ensure that there was talent on more than one line to get the puck out of the zone and into productive areas. This stood out even more so in other championship years:
1997-98: Lidstrom, Larry Murphy, Slava Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov 2002: Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Matthieu Dandenault 2009: Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Kronwall, DEREK MEECH*
*May not have served an important role in any way
One thing that we know for sure is that The God Lidstrom is not lacing up those skates again. Looking to the Red Wings current roster, just a bit past the heinous bog vapors of Kronwall and frequent line-mate Jonathan Ericsson, Brendan Smith actually posts some very good Corsi numbers, and has been a fan favorite for his grit, bravery, and willingness to not try and fight Zdeno Chara and embarrass us all. His improved ability to forcefully carry the puck out of the zone, and the reduction of his abysmal turnover habit, might make him a neat fit for that 1-B defender role, which is a sign of hope on a roster stocked with capable but flawed 2nd and 3rd-liners like Mike Green, Danny Dekeyser, and Alexey Marchenko. But there’s nothing to indicate that anyone on the Red Wings as they are currently composed can fulfill the role of a number-one defenseman.
The market remains foggy as to what it will take to get that rare, competent first-pairing defender. Showing a bit more swag, Holland made it clear that he wouldn’t be fleeced for teenage star Dylan Larkin in trade discussions with the St. Louis Blues for standout Kevin Shattenkirk, as was the case when Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli recently traded 24 year-old human bullet Taylor Hall for pretty okay guy Adam Larsson. At this point, if they want a real lead defender, Wings fans might have to steel themselves for an “anyone but Larkin” package and count on saying goodbye to a favorite like Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, a youngster like Anthony Mantha or Andreas Athanasiou, or even more.
Stats Courtesy of Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com and hockey-reference.com
Hot damn, thanks for reading ScoreBoredSports 2015-16 NHL Season Preview: Pacific Division edition. What a nice ride it’s been, but things are bound to get shakier. The Pacific division is one of the NHL’s strongest, or maybe, one of the weakest. It might be sending six teams to the playoffs, or two. Very hard to tell with so much movement going on in San Jose and Calgary, a new era in Edmonton, and the ever-burning question of why in the name of great Satan there is a hockey team in Arizona. But luckily, you have good old Antoine to guide you. Sure, I may be a handsome genius who has a great record making NFL picks, but hockey will set us all free. Let’s get started with the Pacific.
Another year goes by in the prime of the Sedin twins’ career, and they continue to produce at high levels. Last year, Henrik set them up, and Daniel knocked them down, with the help of high-efficiency winger Radim Vrbata. The Canucks will have to rely on an aging leadership core of the Sedins, Dan Hamhuis and Alex Edler (Edler is, in fact, only 29 but his output has diminished quite a bit since his heyday), and goaltender Ryan Miller. There’s some good depth with forwards like Jannik Hansen and Chris Higgins, as well as offseason acquisitions Brandon Sutter and Brandon Prust. It’s all a bit underwhelming, though, and the Canucks will have to rely on the ongoing development of Bo Horvat for that extra spark. Yet there’s enough chemistry between the Sedin twins and Vrbata, a traditionally excellent player in possession, that they have a realistic shot of putting together solid offensive numbers with that supporting cast. I see them coming into the playoffs at a lower seed than last year. I remain cautious, however, about any team that pins its hopes on Ryan Miller to make a playoff run, when he’s really never been effective in the playoffs. After the debacle with the Blues two seasons ago, and last season’s surprising upset at the hands of the Flames, I’m not any more confident in Miller’s resumé.
Falling OR RISING
I want to feel really confident that this is a team destined for regression, that their run to the second round of the playoffs was a sign of things to come rather than a result of statistically anomalous excellence. They had the third-highest PDO number in the NHL last season, which is a red flag; they were poor in possession, with the fifth-worst team Corsi For percentage, and had the second-highest Team Shooting Percentage in the league. Jonas Hiller has had an up-and-down career, and the flames goaltending situation is tenuous past him, with Karri Ramo never really stepping out and distinguishing himself. All that said, I can’t help but take notice that they sustained much of their winning play last year without their best player and one of the best defenseman in the NHL, Mark Giordano. They have a deep defensive corps with the newly-signed Dougie Hamilton boosting their potential for developing into the NHL’s most elite defensive unit. The flames relied heavily on their defense for offensive production, with players like TJ Brodie, Dennis Wideman, and Kris Russell each scoring on a regular basis, and Hamilton should comfortably join those ranks. I recognize that Johnny Gadreau may be in for a sophomore slump; is it possible Johnny Hockey takes a leap instead of step backward? If his shooting percentage is any hint, the answer to that question will be “probably not”; at 14.4%, his shooting percentage was about 5% above the league average. Here’s the thing: that slump just didn’t happen to Sean Monahan, the Flames’ top center, who nearly doubled the output from his rookie campaign with a strong, 31-goal season. Perhaps they’ve found the right recipe for development in Calgary. Or perhaps they found some good luck and took it to the second round of the playoffs. Or, moments before suiting up on opening night, the Flames players might all decide to abandon the game of hockey, and instead explore their masculinity together in a remote cabin in Manitoba for the next two years. Only the snow knows the answers.
Rising OR FALLING
San Jose Sharks:
The second of two inscrutable teams in this division, the San Jose Sharks, are just as replete with uncertainty. Most pressing question: is new hire Peter Deboer even a good coach? He’s 217-200 in his career, and missed the playoffs in 6 out of 7 of his seasons at the helm of an NHL team in Florida, then New Jersey. The only time he made the playoffs, he took New Jersey on an improbable run to the finals, and lost. The second giant question mark is in net: is newcomer Martin Jones a starting NHL goalie? Some might become alarmed at the fact that Martin Jones’ career numbers may be buoyed by some artificial inflation, as he faced the fewest shots per 60 minutes in the league last year. Then again, the Sharks have a veteran defense with Brent Burns and Paul Martin, a shrewd summer signing, that may be able to aptly shield Jones and keep those shots on goal around 25 a game.
The third and final question is, perhaps, the funniest one: who is the Sharks’ captain? For those who don’t know, there’s been a years-long, buffoonish shadow-war being fought “behind the scenes” (yet, somehow, quite publicly) in San Jose between General Manager Doug Wilson and former Captain and All-Star, Joe Thornton. Essentially, Wilson implied (to the media) that Thornton couldn’t handle being in a leadership role, then went a whole year without naming a captain after demoting Thornton; old Joe finally told him (through the media) to shut his mouth and that he didn’t know what he was talking about. They still don’t have a captain. In and of itself, that’s not so uncommon, but the way this has unfolded has just had a touch of Théâtre de l’Absurde. It’s like if you had one of those scenes in a crime drama where the police captain tells the rogue detective, “turn in your badge and gun. You’re done in this department.” Then the detective complies, only he remains seated in the captain’s office for the next year, just staring, and that’s the rest of the movie. At least the Sharks also picked up Joel Ward over the summer, who is a canny playoff scorer that can provide some physicality and timely finishing. Who knows with this team. 82-0.
Cam Talbot doing work.
Easy enough, but drafting a generational talent like Connor McDavid with a first-overall pick will usually cause a team to rise. Combine that with new front-office blood in former Cup-winning architect of the Bruins, Peter Chiarelli, and new coach Todd Mclellan, and I see this team coalescing into a much more competent unit. On offense, it’s pretty straight-forward. They have tons of marquee talent after spending the last decade taking lottery picks in the draft, including last year’s 3rd overall pick, Center Leo Draisaitl. Now is the time for some of the stragglers among those picks to truly step up and become relevant players. This means Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will have to find that next level of consistency, and Nail Yakupov will have to take advantage of having the coolest first name in hockey. Question marks are, of course, all over this team, which has had one of the shakiest defenses in the NHL over the past few seasons. Edmonton’s faithful are hoping that Cam Talbot is the new answer in net after acquitting himself with high efficacy during his run filling in for Henrik Lundqvist in New York last year. If highly-touted pick Darnell Nurse can slot into the lineup as a reliable top-six defender, and summer signee Andrej Sekera provides consistency, their defense will hopefully take a step up. They have solid veterans in Mark Fayne and Andrew Ference, but have lacked defensemen with two-way effectiveness. With so many questions to ask, the key one remains: will the Oilers somehow find another way to screw this up? I don’t think that’s in this team’s future. I see them contending for a playoff spot but coming up short in a respectable season that may just be a precursor to much bigger things.
Los Angeles Kings:
Hail to the king.
It’s hard to imagine a squad this laden with Stanley Cup-winning talent will remain outside of the playoff picture another year. Belying their narrow miss, the Kings boasted the second-best Corsi For percentage in the NHL last year, but suffered from pretty bad puck luck with a PDO in the bottom 10 in the league. The Kings used the off-season to jettison controversy in the form of Slava Voynov and Mike Richards, and hopefully the cloud won’t be hanging over that team’s head for much longer. Questions remain on the contract of Anze Kopitar, but I’m not especially worried about that. I bet they just want to see him work hard in a contract year after an uneven campaign last year, with his production taking a dip, scoring only 16 goals and 64 points, his fewest in a non-injured season since he was a rookie. The Kings re-loaded with some interesting pieces in Milan Lucic, a cup winner himself in Boston, and Christian Erhoff. Erhoff didn’t have a particularly productive campaign last year with the Penguins, but he’s looked sharp in the pre-season and seems to be able to fill a need for a second power-play unit anchor and a skilled third-pairing defender. I’d also look for increased production from Tyler Toffoli, who looked commanding and lost at different times last year. But with their top lines looking to be set, there’s some scary potential if Anze Kopitar can get back on track, and Marian Gaborik can stay healthy. If it breaks right, they are a true dark-horse contender for a run to the Cup; until we see how the new pieces jell, it’s safe to say the Kings will be dangerous foes in the playoff race.
Quack, quack, quack!
Loaded roster. High-caliber leaders that are willing to go the extra mile (and by “the extra mile,” obviously, we’re referring to heinous acts of goonery). Middle-of-the-road team possession and PDO numbers, indicating there will be no obviously-indicated regression. New assistant coaches with experience and talent. That’s just a recipe for success. However, there was also a lot of turnover, losing key players like François Beauchemin and Matt Beleskey. Luckily key replacements are there to slot into the lineup, like Kevin Bieksa, who offers the same kind of stalwart leadership, grit, and timely offensive play as Beauchemin. Newcomers like former Michigan Wolverine Carl Hagelin and former Northern Michigan Wildcat Mike Santorelli offer potentially new and exciting looks as the team made a point to incorporate a ton of speed in the off-season. Even in spite of such a roster shakeup, the core remains intact in proven Cup-winners Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. The goaltending situation seems to have settled with Fredrik Andersen taking the reigns and performing with enough confidence that young John Gibson will have time to develop his craft before taking over permanently. Anton Khudobin provides an interesting safety net in the meantime should Fredrik Andersen falter, though Andersen was a steady performer last year. They’ll need to figure out who will play on Perry’s opposite wing, but there are lots of options. My bet is that Hagelin stands out and benefits from a supply of well-timed breakout passes from Getzlaf, streaking his way to a 30-goal year. Theoretically, the last major hurdle was Chicago, a team significantly weakened by controversy and attrition, who would now have a tough time competing over 7 games with this Ducks team. Pit them against any other team in the West, and I see them breaking through. Without obvious weaknesses, and power and speed aplenty, I believe this Ducks team will get to the Stanley Cup Final, but ultimately won’t hoist the hardware after a competitive series.
Arizona Coyotes… give me a break. Instead, here’s a snapshot of my screenplay “the Redemption of Quack City,” a sort of NHL fan-fic if you will. Notes are welcome but PLEASE BE GENTLE.
INT. Day: Rinkside, Anaheim Ducks Practice Facility.
A hulking RYAN GETZLAF waddles on his skates, trying to get to the ice (Think: Taylor Kitsch / Josh Hartnett / an Unknown could work). He looks up and sees that COREY PERRY (think JASON STATHAM) is in his way, but not wearing his PENDANT. GETZLAF shoots him a strong glance, but PERRY is focused on trying to get the door to the rink open with his gloves on. GETZLAF approaches PERRY and confronts him by GRABBING HIS ARM.
Bro, Wha Fuck?
WHY YOU NO WEAR SHITHEAD PENDANT. SHITHEAD PENDANT MAKE STRONG AND MAKE ENEMY WEAK.
OH I NO… I … fuck, I can’t do this, Ryan. I’m a peaceful man. I can’t be taking cheap shots and making all these opportunistic, borderline hits. I’m not that guy.
BUT… NO… NO SHITHEAD?
No… let’s just try to win by playing hockey.
GETZLAF falls to knees and weeps.
Getzlaf (screaming to heavens):
LAST SHITHEAD! NOOOOOOO!!!!!
[cut to black].
Stay tuned for the conclusion of ScoreBoredSports.com’s 2015-16 NHL Season Preview, coming soon on this very tube!