Thursday, July 29, 2010

Best of the Rest of the 2010 UFA's

No, Arron Asham is not the best of the unsigned Unrestricted Free Agents, although teams could do alot worse than a gritty guy who played a part on a Stanley Cup finalist and can chip in 10 to 15 goals. Especially when he can be had for around a million per year. Assuming Ilya Kovalchuk is going to New Jersey, or Moscow, or Reykjavik...the following are the best of the rest.

The Defensemen
Perhaps the best two remaining defenders may not play another game due to concussion issues. Neither Kim Johnsson or Willie Mitchell have come close to getting a clean bill of health. If either of them do, they would be highly sought after by teams with cap room (are there any really?). Mike Mottau, Ruslan Salei, Andy Sutton, Randy Jones, Shaone Morrisonn, Freddy Meyer, Andreas Lilja, Paul Mara and Marc-Andre Bergeron. Each is more than capable of filling the role of depth defenseman or powerplay specialist. Perhaps these are the kind of guys to find a larger role by signing in Europe as Denis Grebeshkov and Brian Pothier have done in the last few days.

The Elder Statsemen
Perhaps the top free agent remaining is Teemu Selanne who at 39 scored at almost a point per game clip last season. Paul Kariya had a bit of a comeback at 35 with 18 goals and 43 points, and most importantly, 75 games played. He could fill the role of third liner on a contender or veteran mentor on a re-building squad. Bill Guerin at 39 is in the same boat as Kariya although it's doubtful his 21 goals will be replicated without Crosby as his middleman. 38 year old Owen Nolan played a full season and still showed he could pot the odd goal, collecting 16.
40 year old Mike Modano may very well wrap up his fine career in Detroit and 37 year old Cup winner John Madden is still has some miles left. Robert Lang, Scott Walker, Fredrik Modin, Miro Satan, Craig Conroy, Darcy Tucker and Jere Lehtinen are all on the wrong side of 35 and would all be fair bets to be a late in camp one year signing or perhaps even retire.

The Goalies
Marty Turco and Jose Theodore were both number one goaltenders on their respective teams for long stretches last year and both put up better than average numbers. Neither is even 35 years old yet but one thing for certain, they will not be making 5.7 and 4.5 million respectively next year. Another near lock is that a team will take a chance on the enigmatic still only 27 year old Ray Emery, who at a million or so dollars may prove worthwhile of a gamble.

The Young and Forgotten
There are some very intriguing names out there that are sure to find homes once the ball gets rolling again. Lee Stempniak at only 27 will be a nice mid-level scorer for relatively cheap.
Maxim Afinogenov who had a career high 24 goals last year will be had for even cheaper than Stempy. Eric Belanger is 32 and had a career high 41 points last year. He'll find a home sooner than later. Marek Svatos is only 28 and wore out his welcome in Colorado with a truly awful season. He would be a fair bet to return to the 25 goal level with a change of scenery. 28 year old Raffi Torres is coveted by many teams after scoring a gritty 19 goals, but will still not make near his 2.25 million of last year. Dominic Moore should parlay a nice playoff into a contract before training camps start. Ruslan Fedotenko is another of the log jam looking for jobs although his -17 rating for the Pens may scare some interest away. The under-appreciated Kyle Wellwood who at 27 seems to have settled in nicely as a solid third-liner and at around a million per year is a nice pick up.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Alex Ovechkin, Greatest Goal Scorer.....ever?

It may be a little premature to make the above statement, but over the first five seasons of an NHL career Ovechkin just may very well be the top all-time. Firstly, he has notched 269 goals over his first half decade which is overall the fifth most ever over the first five. Gretzky is far and away the leader with 356 markers during one of the highest scoring eras in hockey history. This is where the difficulty of comparing eras comes to the forefront. As I've stated before, does a great job at solving this problem with a stat called Adjusted Goals.

Adjusted Goals involves putting each season into a "neutral" scoring era of 6.00 goals per game and an 82 game schedule. As shown in the chart at the bottom during Gretzky's first five seasons the league average for goals per game was 7.67. This is almost a one/third higher scoring rate than Ovechkin's first five year NHL average of 5.83. Further still, Gretzky's league average is 80% higher than that of Nels Stewart's first five seasons of 1925-1930. Below is the Adjusted Goal scoring totals when each season's total is compared to a level of 6.00 league goals per game.

There you have it, Ovechkin's 269 in a low scoring era translates to 306, while Gretzky's 356 in a high scoring era drops to an even 300. As well, "Old Poison" Nels Stewart's 138 goals in 208 low scoring era games converts to the fourth greatest five year start to a career in NHL history.
Other somewhat unexpected names on the list are Boston's Marty Barry who's 100 actual goals in the early '30s adjusts to 206 and the enigmatic Ziggy Palffy who's 168 "dead puck late '90s era" goals adjust to just over 200. Also, often forgotten Hall of Famer Cooney Weiland scored 109 goals in his first five years which adjust to 213. 43 of his goals were scored in 44 games in 1929/30 in one of the greatest seasons in NHL history. Projected to 82 games and a neutral 6.00 G/GP his 74 adjusted goals ranks as the fifth highest season in NHL history.
Back to Ovie, not only are his 306 adjusted goals the greatest start in history, it is also the fourth most adjusted goals in any five year period of a career. Only Brett Hull's incredible run in the early '90s, Phil Esposito's groundbreaking run in the early '70s and Gretz's 3rd through 7th seasons produced more adjusted goals.

"Old Poison"

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Paul Gardner, Hard Luck and a Sucker Punch

As I've mentioned a few other times, I once worked for Harold Ballard. Well, my small pay-cheque had a stamped signature of Ballard on it and had Maple Leaf Gardens Limited across the top (I really should have kept one for posterity). I was employed by the Newmarket Saints, the AHL farm club of the Leafs as game videographer. In doing this for four years (86/87 thru 89/90), I got to chat nightly with the coach of the Saints, Paul Gardner. After each game, I'd make my way down to the coach's room of The Newmarket Recreation Centre to deliver the video of that evening's game. I'd usually just say a quick, "Tough loss again Gardsy", but once in a while we'd have a quick chat. Once, when a younger cousin of mine was in the hospital for some surgery I ventured to ask Paul for a little souvenir I could pass along. I mentioned he was a PeeWee rep goalie, and by the time I dropped the tape off that night he had one of Peter Ing's goal sticks signed by the entire team. I always liked Paul Gardner.

My main memory of Gardsy as a player was on the O-Pee-Chee Powerplay Goal Leader cards, and I knew he was a fairly accomplished scorer. In fact his 60 goals in 106 games over his first two injury plagued NHL seasons stands up well among the all-time greats. His 0.57 goals per game over his first two seasons rank 12th in history. The list is led by Mike Bossy 0.80 G/GP, Teemu Selanne 0.75, Dino Ciccarelli 0.67 and Wayne Gretzky 0.67, and includes Lindros, Bure, Robitaille, Lemieux and Ovechkin. The only ones not in or going soon into the Hall of Fame are Rob Brown, Jimmy Carson and Gardner. So what happened to such a promising start to a career?

After tearing up the AHL (foreshadowing his later career) with 10 goals in 14 games before being called up, the rookie Gardner notched 30 goals in 60 games for the Colorado Rockies. His second season was even better. He notched 30 goals again, this time in only 46 games before a back injury on a check by Flyer, Bob Dailey ended his season. He recovered without surgery to return the following pre-season only to be injured once again. In an exhibition game, he took a deflected puck flush in the face for 39 stitches. He returned fairly quickly and again scored 30 goals in 75 games.

Gardner was considered a slow skater with an average shot, but got his results by hanging out in the slot deflecting pucks and shovelling rebounds over goaltenders. At 6 feet, 185 pounds, he didn't have the size of Phil Esposito, but was favourably compared to the big sniper. After Gardner's 10th goal in his second season team mate (and apparently resident smart ass) John Van Boxmeer retrieved the puck as Gardsy's first legitimate goal of the season. Gardner responded, "Garbage goals or whatever, I'll take 'em any way I can get 'em."

Near the end of the 1978/79 season, Gardner was traded to Toronto and tallied 7 goals in the last 11 games. That was the highlight for him with the Leafs. Next season was split between the AHL (27 points in 20 games) and the NHL where he dropped off to 11 goals, 24 points in 45 games.

In November 1980 he was given away with Dave Burrows to Pittsburgh for Kim Davis and Paul I said given away, thanks Harold. With the Pens he would score 98 goals in three seasons, 59 of them on the powerplay. On Jan. 13, 1982 Gardner's career would almost be ended by a sucker punch from Winnipeg Jets goon, Jimmy Mann. True, Gardner had earlier in the game cross-checked Doug Smail in the jaw, but Mann would blind side Gardner on a stoppage of play, breaking his jaw. Mann was suspended for 10 games, while Gardner missed 21. He still led the league in powerplay goals and scored 36 goals in 59 games.

He would score 28 the next year with the Pens but spend most of 1983/84 with Baltimore of the AHL scoring 80 points in 54 games. He signed as a free agent with Washington in July '84 and Buffalo in July '85 playing a total of 14 NHL games those two years. He led the AHL in scoring and won the MVP award both seasons, but decided that was it at age 29. His NHL totals stand at 201 goals and 201 assists in 447 games. He tore up the AHL for 385 points in 238 career games.

That brings us to his Newmarket days and the begining of his worldwide coaching odyssey. His four years as the Saints head coach produced two .500 seasons, one playoff round and two playoff games won. He joined forces with Barry Trotz in the Capitals organization in 92/93 and followed him as an assistant coach to Nashville through 2003. Gardsy even suited up for a game with his short-manned Portland Pirate squad in the 96/97 season, notching an assist in his emergency fill-in role.

After some pro scouting for Nashville, the real fun starts. He took over from ex-Leaf Nikolai Borchevsky as head coach of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the Russian League. He led them to an improbable playoff run. Next came an offer to take over Dynamo Minsk in Belarus, which brought with it an oppurtunity to go to the 2010 Olympics with the national squad. After half a year in Minsk, an offer came from Germany to coach the Hamburg Freezers of the DEL. After finishing 14th out of 15 teams this past season, Paul Gardner is once again in coaching limbo. His coaching career is temporarily on hold. Personally, I'm hoping he gets a shot somewhere. Not only was he a terrific professional scorer, he is a genuine nice guy.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Larry Aurie and Retired Numbers

I'm not here to tell you the Vancouver Canucks should not retire the number 19 of Markus Naslund. Although I do feel it's a bit silly to bestow such an honour on very good players and not reserve the treatment for alltime greats. The likes of Trevor Linden, Stan Smyl, Naslund, Rene Robert, Glen Wesley, Neal Broten, Bill Goldsworthy, Emile Bouchard, Ken Daneyko, Bob Nystrom, Adam Graves, Dale Hunter, Yvon Labre, Barclay Plager and Thomas Steen were all good and some even great players, and all have their number retired by their respective teams...but should they?
I will not argue against players having their numbers retired after succumbing to a disasterous injury or even death. To honour gentleman such as Bill Barilko, Keith Magnuson,
Bill Masterton, Barry Ashbee, Michel Briere or Bob Gassoff is perfectly fine by me. These guys were average, or slightly above average players who were cut down in their prime and should be remembered as such.
In my mind, in order for a player to truly deserve the honour of jersey retirement, he should also be in the Hall of Fame. As flawed as the Hall selections can be at times, I feel it would provide a good framework on which to base jersey retirements.
I understand that some teams have few if any true alltime greats in their past, but must they retire a number just for the sake of doing it? Fine, Naslund and Linden were among the greatest Canucks ever I just don't see how number retirement should celebrate alltime "goodness" and not greatness. In New Jersey Scott Stevens is a fine choice, but Daneyko as well? All he did was last along time and provide solid defense, is that really number retiring material?
Anyways, that brings me to the case of Detroit's first ever retired jersey Larry Aurie.
His number six was retired after the 37/38 season by Wings owner James Norris after an eleven year career that produced 148 goals and 277 points in 489 games. Aurie even led the NHL in goals in 36/37 and helped the Wings win two Cups.
It was not the custom of the time to hang a jersey in the rafters. When Mike Ilitch bought the team from Norris' son Bruce in 1982 he hung the numbers of Howe, Delvecchio, Lindsay, Sawchuk and Abel. He neglected to hang Larry Aurie's number six from the rafters of Joe Louis Arena. The company line from GM Jim Devellano was they didn't honour him was because he was not in the Hall. Ilitch even went as far as having Aurie's number removed from the Wings list of honoured numbers in the NHL Guide.
Now, I'm not condoning the "striking from the records" of a great player from the distant past as in the case of Larry Aurie. I do feel that current teams should not continue questionable selections for number retirement.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Bob Probert, One of a kind

Sad news of the passing of one of the most unique NHL players ever in Bob Probert. Drafted in the third round in 1983 by the Wings, the 6'3", 225lb Probert go on to score 35 goals the following season for Brantford in the OHL, then 72 points in 44 games for Sault Ste. Marie. He had 189 and 172 PIMs each season as well. He then scored almost a point per game and had 152 PIMs in half a season with the Wings AHL farm team in Adirondack.

Probert's breakout season in the NHL was his third one in 1987/88 when he had perhaps one of the most unique seasons in history. He scored 29 goals and collected 398 PIM's and played in the All-Star game. He also led the Red Wings in points in the playoffs (with Yzerman injured) with
8 goals and 21 points in 16 games. He would finish seventh overall playoff scoring, and tops among players who didn't play in the Final. His 51 playoff PIMs were actually 26th overall in the league and only third on the Wings behind Rick Zombo and Gerard Gallant. When he put his mind to it, Probert was a real player.
He would also have seasons of 20,19, 16 and 14 goal seasons.
Bob Probert was one of only seven players in NHL history to have a 20 goal and 300 PIM season. Tiger Williams had two such seasons, topping out with 35 and 343 with Vancouver in 80/81. Paul Holmgren, Chris Nilan and Dave Schulz also turned the trick and in 81/82 Al Secord had 44 goals and 303 PIMs for Chicago.
Bob Probert is however the only man in NHL history to score at least 25 goals and have at least 350 PIMs. One of a kind.

Kovalchuk...Is he worth the Money?

With rumours of Ilya Kovalchuk soon to sign a large multi year deal for at least 8 million dollars per year, the question should be he worth it?
The facts are, Kovalchuk just turned 27 years old and is one of the elite goal scorers in the NHL. Indeed, over his first eight seasons, Kovie is one of the elite goal scorers of all-time.
Over his eight full seasons, Kovalchuk has tallied 338 goals or an average of 42.25 per season.
This is the 13th highest total for goals in a player's first eight years in NHL history. The top five are:
Wayne Gretzky 543
Mike Bossy 474
Brett Hull 413
Mario Lemieux 408
11 of the top 13 players on this list accumulated their totals in the late 197o's or early 1980's. Only Kovalchuk and Teemu Selanne started their careers in the lower scoring 1990's and 2000's. Once again, the Goals Adjusted tool comes in handy in order to compare eras. When Kovalchuk and Selanne's scoring is adjusted to a neutral era they rise to near the top of the list.
Here are the top ten most Adjusted Goals over the first eight seasons of an NHL career:
Wayne Gretzky 465
Brett Hull 426
Mike Bossy 410
Ilya Kovalchuk 395
Teemu Selanne 395
Mario Lemieux 375
Luc Robitaille 368
Jari Kurri 343
Guy Lafleur 335
Rick Martin 316
Pretty heady company for Kovie, in an adjusted and neutral scoring era Kovalchuk has averaged almost 50 goals per season. Of course, his countryman Alex Ovechkin has scored 305 Adjusted Goals over his first five average of over 60 per year! His total in five years almost makes the above top ten through eight seasons. Ovechkin has more Adjusted Goals in his first five years than even Gretzky who had 300 over five years. That one is for another day...
So, as a 27 year old who should be right in his prime years perhaps 8 to 9 million a year is fair. Of course if he does end up back in New Jersey his goal rate will most likely drop in the tighter system. Over 27 games at the end of last season he scored 10 goals, a 30 goal pace. The one thing we can be sure of is there is a team somewhere in the world that will give Kovalchuk over 8 million a year.
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