Friday, January 27, 2012

Another Look at the Sharks Goaltending Situation and Why I'd Trade Greiss

In the Bay Area, a "hot" topic of discussion is the Sharks's goaltending situation. Like the Flyers in the postseason last year, the Sharks have three goalies at their disposal. Unlike Philadelphia, however, you don't have to decide which goaltender is going to mess up the least. For those of you unaware, the Sharks currently have Antti Niemi and Thomas Greiss on the roster with Antero Niittymaki waiting in the wings as he conditions in the AHL after injury. As the trade deadline is coming up next month, fans are in wonder as to what moves their team might make. But Sharks fans, I have a surprise for you as we look at one more angle that could factor into the decision, Greiss or Niittymaki?

There is absolutely no question that the Sharks will keep Niemi at net. He has been a great goaltender for the Sharks, and he has been the undisputed number one since the middle of the season last year. He isn't a piece that the team is looking to shop. Now the debate is between Greiss, the up-and-comer, or the veteran Niittymaki who was able to step in and step up during the playoffs last season. In my opinion, Sharks can get more for Greiss than Niittymaki. Greiss is a player that can be developed into a number one but serve as a number two in the meantime. He hasn't played very often during this season because Niemi is the type of goalie who plays best with a heavy workload, but when he has played, he has performed well. I have to say that the errors he makes can mostly be chalked up to his inexperience... and very sporadic game time. Niittymaki is a veteran who can offer a lot, but I would say his health hasn't been stable and might be a problem in his sell. He missed a good chunk of the season last year, and he hasn't played a game this season yet and we've just passed the halfway mark.

But you already know this. What some fans haven't considered is who do the Sharks have down in the minors who could be making the move up? Answer: Alex Stalock. If I were Ron Wilson, I'd be evaluating the goaltender's development and whether he may be a viable option down the line. Last year, Stalock suffered a rather nasty injury when Manchester Monarch Dwight King accidentally skated over his leg during a game, severing a nerve. Stalock recently returned back to Worcester Sharks, and he is the goalie on the verge of breaking the ranks of the minors. Now, this is a leg injury that could affect his game, but as he is the most NHL-ready goaltender prospect, it would be wise to monitor his progress to determine the goalie situation. Ideally, you want to have a goaltender waiting in the wings. If you've taken the time (as in years and years and years) to draft and develop a goaltender, which is entirely different than any other position, then you're going to want to use him. I'd want to make sure that Stalock has the potential to make it up through the ranks to break into the NHL before I traded away Greiss. Just to keep in mind, you still have Harri Sateri also within the system who is showing great promise in case Stalock is a bust. In any case, I wouldn't be giving away Greiss without an assurance that Stalock is healthy because I'd want to keep some young talent.

If I had to decide right now, who would I trade? I'd trade Greiss. I know Sharks fans won't like this, but right now this is probably the best solution. Sharks need a top six forward, and it's no secret that they do, but in order to do this, you're going to have to give up quite a bit. What player(s) are you willing to give up? Do you really want to trade away more draft picks because you're hardly in that position after the major trades with Minnesota? If you give up Greiss, you can dump in another player like Handzus and get a player like Ryan Malone with Tampa Bay or bring back Michalek with the Senators or even Ryan O'Reilly with the Avalanche. Actually, I like the O'Reilly fit because he's also a big body that can add some aggressive play that the Sharks lack from time to time. I think this also better serves Greiss who let's be honest got screwed over last year. By trading him to a team like Tampa Bay, Ottawa, or Colorado, he has a good chance at taking the number one spot or at least playing a lot more games. Handzus would also be a good fit for the Avalanche because he can add veteran presence to a young team.

If you trade Niittymaki, you might be giving up Jamie McGinn. I think he could potentially have a great career with the Sharks, and I think his potential is greater than Greiss who probably would want to be leaving the team in a couple years anyway since he probably would want a starting job which wouldn't happen under Niemi. I think the Sharks don't have enough young talent quite yet to be trading away a player like McGinn. Even if you don't want to keep Niittymaki, there are plenty of other viable second string goalies. Niemi takes the bulk of the workload and needs it, so it would be more beneficial to get a Giguere or Garon since they wouldn't have to play as often. In fact, Giguere might even prefer it, but you might have to pay him more than you'd want. Garon you might not have to pay too much for which is beneficial since this isn't a position you'll want to focus too much of the salary cap. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Analysis of Hypothetical Team Records under Realignment

Since the schedule changes for many teams under the NHL realignment, let's take a look at the teams who  improve and might struggle with the new reorganization of teams. Now, it should be mentioned that this is just an approximation of scores, but let's face it the only way to be accurate is for it to actually happen. For the most part, teams stay fairly close in terms of points under both systems with few exceptions. However, those few points in the realignment scheme sometimes tip teams just above or below their 2010-2011 status under the current structure.

Teams That Improve

Perhaps most obviously is the Washington Capitals. In 2011, the team finished at the top of the Eastern Conference with 107 points and had a record of 48-23-11. Under realignment, the team would have won the President's Trophy with 113 points and a record of 52-21-9. I think the Capitals partly benefitted from not playing the Lightning and instead playing the Devils and the Islanders under realignment. For those unfamiliar, under the current NHL structure, the Capitals play in the Southeast Division with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, Winnipeg Jets, and Florida Panthers. In this division, the main competition is the Lightning as they are a playoff team. The Capitals win the majority of the match-ups against the other teams in the division. Under realignment, the Capitals are in Conference D with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, and Carolina Hurricanes. Let's look at the new teams the Capitals now face. Although the Penguins and Flyers are also top teams in the league under any structure, the Capitals provide fierce competition and can still pull wins. The Islanders and Devils have their strengths but also major weaknesses, and they lose the majority of the match-ups against the Capitals. Since they have six meetings a year under realignment, there are some easy wins for Washington. But what also contributes to the fact that the Capitals top the entire league is that Vancouver is in a more intensely competitive Conference A. However, I've already discussed this in my blog "2010-2011 Standings under Realignment," and I won't rehash it here. So yada, yada, yada... Realignment suddenly looks pretty good to the Capitals, but that's assuming that the 2011-2012 season hasn't already started and they're not dominating the East as they had the previous season and Ovi isn't seriously underachieving and possibly contributing to the departure of Boudreau. Yeah, let's pretend that hasn't happened yet, so Washington likes this scenario.

Nashville also likes the realignment. They don't change much in terms of points and wins. Under the current NHL structure, they finished last season with 99 points and a record of 44-27-11. If realignment had taken place, the Predators would have had 101 points and gone 44-25-13. The difference is that under the current structure, they placed second in the Central Division and fifth in the Western Conference (with the 99 points), but with realignment, they would have been at the top of Conference B. Did I mention how competitive the current Western Conference is? What realignment allows is for Nashville (as well as other teams) to separate from the fifteen Western teams and truly stand out in a smaller, albeit still highly competitive, conference. It should be also noted that Nashville narrowly beats out Detroit in points, which alters a lot of the way most people view the West and seemingly dominating Red Wings. Most people, at least before the first round of the playoffs, felt that Nashville is a soft team. Yes, they aren't a highly offensive team that the stats and experts love, but they do have an elite goaltender and monster defense which keeps them just under the radar. When the Predators beat the Anaheim Ducks (always toted as an elite team by the experts... some people value things like Stanley Cups apparently) to advance to the semifinals for the first time in their playoff history, people took notice.

Buffalo is also a team that improves in the standings under realignment. In the current NHL structure, the Sabres finished third in the Northeast Division and seventh in the Eastern Conference with 96 points and a record of 49-23-10. Under realignment, Buffalo would have been the top team in Conference C with 108 points and a record of 49-23-10. One of the differences is that Boston who finished first in the Northeast does not match-up well against the Western Conference teams. Whether it's the travel, unfamiliarity with the teams, or whatever, Boston slides ever so sightly in realignment which give Buffalo the opportunity to push forward.

The New York Rangers benefit to a certain extent. Whether in realignment or the current NHL structure, the Blueshirts have roughly the same points. The difference is under realignment, the Rangers are in Conference D that has a distinct top four and bottom three. The team takes the fourth and final playoff spot, and the Islander are just under them and trailing by eleven points. Rather than having a nail-biting finish to the season that was predicated on the success/failure of another team, the Rangers would have had the satisfaction of securing a postseason. While this isn't the same as rising above the pack, it at least eases some stress levels... and probably saves the team from an extremely irate Torts. Yikes!

The Dallas Stars also are a happy bunch in realignment. Under the current NHL structure, Dallas finished last season fifth in the Pacific Division and ninth (just one spot out of the playoffs) in the Western Conference with 95 points and a record of 42-29-11. In the realignment Conference B, the Stars place fourth with 94 points and 42-30-10. The difference is that they make the playoffs! Being taken out of the Pacific is a definite advantage for the Stars. Yes, they tie in points with St. Louis, but their number of wins just boosts them enough to make the cutoff. Would Marc Crawford have been fired with a postseason? Maybe, maybe he would have survived one more year. However, as a Kings fan, I can't say that he's a frontrunner in my book. They're better off with Gulutzan.

I'm begrudgingly adding a short section on the Sharks. (I'm a Kings fan, remember!) Vancouver seemed to dominate the league and topped even the Capitals by ten points for first place. As of last year, San Jose placed second in the Western Conference with 105 points and 48-25-9. If realignment had taken place, the Sharks would have held the same record as the Canucks (51-23-8), but they would have edged them out because they had scored four more goals in my calculations than the Canucks. The Sharks would have been in first place in Conference A.

Teams That Fall Short

I won't rehash, so I'll keep it short. Vancouver.

Boston is another team that isn't quite as strong under realignment. One thing I noticed last season is that the Bruins struggled against the West Coast teams. I'm not sure why, but it was interesting. They placed third in the Eastern Conference as they were the Northeast Division leader with 103 points and a 46-25-11 record. According to my realignment figures, the Bruins would have placed second in Conference C and had 96 points at 42-28-12. Yes, it's a difference of seven points, but they're only a couple wins short. I think the difference is the schedule. Conference C is made up of the Northeast Division and Florida, so the Bruins are playing the same teams as before with the difference being an increase in playing the Western Conference.

Carolina does not fare well in realignment. Last season, the Hurricanes fell just one win short of edging out the Rangers to make the playoffs. They placed ninth in the Eastern Conference and third in the Southeast Division with 91 points at 40-31-11. They still don't make it to the playoffs in the realignment scheme, but this time they're farther off the mark. The Hurricanes only accumulated 80 points with a record of 35-37-10 and was sixth in Conference D, which I remind you only has seven teams. The Rangers who clinch the last playoff spot have 92 points and 43 wins, so the Hurricanes are nowhere in the ballpark. What changes for Carolina is that they face much stronger teams in Conference D than they had in the Southeast Division. The Southeast includes the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning both top teams in either scheme. The Winnipeg Jets and the Florida Panthers are also in the division, but they were both struggling teams last season. Carolina lead the Jets by 11 points and the Panthers by 19 points. Playing these teams gave Carolina an advantage since they could win a majority of games against those clubs. In Conference D, the Hurricanes now face Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, the Rangers, the Islanders, and New Jersey. Carolina no longer faces any of the Southeast teams, except Washington which is a top 2 team in either structure. Pittsburgh, even without Crosby, is a very strong team, and Philadelphia dominated the East until they seemed to run out of steam and let Washington take the reins. The Rangers are another team that struggled but managed to scrap into the playoffs in both structures. The Islanders and New Jersey are teams that aren't as strong, but since Carolina cannot compete with the top four, they are relegated to the bottom three.

As Bettman admitted, there are teams who are going to like realignment and those who feel they are giving up too much and won't like it. I'm sure teams had their own projections, I haven't found any and hope that this might shed some more light as to which teams might like and not like the new realignment as they look at how the standings affect their club.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Playoffs under Realignment

Don't tell Jim Mora, but this is where we talk about... playoffs.

Under the proposed realignment, the top four teams from each division will make the playoffs. This is one of the reasons that the NHLPA cites for rejecting the proposed realignment. Players feel that it will be easier for the teams with only seven teams to make it into the playoffs, since it is over half the teams in the conference, and it will be more difficult for the teams with eight teams in the conference to qualify for the playoffs. This is true and is only compounded by the fact that the conferences with eight teams are more competitive and have a harder battle for points in order to make the points. But I've discussed this and won't bore you again.

One thing that changes under the proposed alignment is that the playoffs will primarily be kept within the conference. Under the current structure, there are two conferences made up of three divisions. The division leaders secure the top three seeds, and the rest of the teams, regardless of division, vie for the remaining five slots, so there is a total of eight teams in each conference that are eligible for the playoffs. the proposed realignment will have the top four teams in each conference battle it out for supremacy and will then play the other conferences to win the Cup. It might be that Conference A will play Conference B and Conference C will play Conference D. The winners would play each other for the Stanley Cup. What this change brings about is increased rivalry within the conferences. Not only are you playing the other teams within your conference six times during the regular season, but you are also meeting them to knock them out in order to advance in the race to the Stanley Cup. I think this could bring more passion to games both from the players and from the fans.

But the players have a point. Is this playoff structure fair? Should a seven-team conference have the same number of playoff teams as an eight-team conference? I see why the NHL selected four teams per conference, but the players have a legitimate point. The only thing I can see as fair is for a seven-team conference to match up with an eight-team one, and the top eight teams then vie for playoff spots. Maybe that sounds familiar? But which conferences? And doesn't this take away from the more intensified conference rivalries that the proposed realignment seems to push? I think the NHL just towed the line that compromises have to be made and although some teams won't be as happy as others about the changes, this a better way to do things. So maybe Mora was right, and we shouldn't talk about the playoffs.

2010-2011 Standings under Realignment

Now, other professional writers, bloggers, and analysts have already reported what the 2011 Stanley Cup playoff picture might have looked like had the realignment taken place last season. However, they qualify their statement by mentioning that their numbers are based on the current NHL schedule and not on the proposed realignment schedule. Well, here at the Sporting A-Jen-Da, we don't think that is good enough. And by "we" I mean "I," and by that statement, I mean I'd rather spend a month figuring out scores based on the proposed realignment schedule. So while I may not have gotten that facts together in a timely fashion as the professionals have, you just have to remember that I'm not a professional!

Let's take a walk down memory land and look at the standings for each conference at the conclusion of the 2010-2011 regular season. The teams that made it into the playoffs are highlighted in yellow.
                      East                                                                    West
1. Washington (107 pts, 48-23-11)                        1. Vancouver (117 pts, 54-19-9)
2. Philadelphia (106 pts, 47-23-12)                      2. San Jose (105 pts, 48-25-9)
3. Boston (103 pts, 46-25-11)                                3. Detroit (104 pts, 47-25-10)
4. Pittsburgh (106 pts, 49-25-8)                           4. Anaheim (99pts, 47-30-5)
5. Tampa Bay (103 pts, 46-25-11)                        5. Nashville (99 pts,44-27-11)
6. Montreal (96 pts, 44-30-8)                              6. Phoenix (99 pts, 43-26-13)
7. Buffalo (96 pts, 43-29-10)                                7. Los Angeles (98 pts, 46-30-6)
8. NY Rangers (93 pts, 44-33-5)                         8. Chicago (97 pts, 44-29-9)
9. Carolina (91 pts, 40-31-11)                               9. Dallas (95 pts, 42-29-11)
10. Toronto (85 pts, 37-34-11)                            10. Calgary (94 pts, 41-29-12)
11. New Jersey (81 pts, 38-39-5)                         11. St. Louis (87 pts, 38-33-11)
12. Winnipeg (80 pts, 34-36-12)                         12. Minnesota (86 pts, 39-35-8)
13. Ottawa (74 pts, 32-40-10)                             13. Columbus (81 pts, 34-35-13)
14. New York Islanders (73 pts,30-39-13)          14. Colorado (68 pts, 30-44-8)
15. Florida (72 pts, 30-40-12)                             15. Edmonton (62 pts, 25-45-12)

It should be noted that although Boston has 103 points and Pittsburgh has 106 points, the Bruins are seeded third because division winners are given the top three seeds. (For division standings, see Last season, the Vancouver Canucks ran away with the President's Trophy, and they seemed to be the team to win it all. The New York Rangers sat on edge during the Lightning at Hurricanes game because a Canes win would slide them into 9th place while a Canes loss would put them in the last playoffs spot. The Los Angeles Kings were watching the April 10th Red Wings at Blackhawks game because a Blackhawks win would put them in eighth place and would have to prepare to square off against Vancouver for a second year in a row. However, a Blackhawks loss would slide them into seventh, and they would be traveling up to San Jose begin the first round of the playoffs. Philadelphia who had such a strong push through the majority of the season was being to wear thin and tried to regain that momentum that put them into the Stanley Cup finals the previous year.

Now, for what you've all been waiting! Here is how the standings might have looked had realignment been implemented last season. It should be noted not all scores are from the 2010-2011 season. Some scores were taken from the 2009-2010 season because some teams that meet six times under the proposed alignment only meet four times during the current schedule. Also, Winnipeg now playing a lot of new teams multiple times a year forced me to find scores from 2002. I used the most recent scores when available, but I also chose some games at random in instances in which two teams playing six times a year under the current NHL model then played only twice under the proposed realignment. For the teams in Conferences A and B, I selected which teams played six times and five times at random.

             Conference A                                             Conference B
1. San Jose (110 pts, 51-23-8)                         1. Nashville (101 pts, 44-25-13)
2. Vancouver (110 pts, 51-23-8)                     2. Detroit (100 pts, 46-28-8)
3. Los Angeles (109 pts, 52-25-5)                   3. Chicago (99 pts, 45-29-9)
4. Anaheim (103 pts, 47-30-5)                       4. Dallas (94 pts, 42-30-10)
5. Phoenix (97 pts, 42-27-13)                         5. St. Louis (94 pts, 40-28-14)
6. Calgary (90 pts, 38-3-14)                           6. Columbus (90 pts, 39-31-12)
7. Colorado (71 pts, 32-43-7)                         7. Winnipeg (79 pts, 35-38-9)
8. Edmonton (68 pts, 28-42-12)                    8. Minnesota (77 pts, 39-35-8)

             Conference C                                                 Conference D
1. Buffalo (108 pts, 49-23-10)                          1. Washington (113 pts, 52-21-9)
2. Boston (96 pts, 42-28-12)                            2. Pittsburgh (104 pts, 46-24-12)
3. Tampa Bay (80 pts, 40-26-16)                    3. Philadelphia (103 pts, 45-24-13)
4. Montreal (95 pts, 43-30-9)                          4. New York Rangers (92 pts, 43-33-6)
5. Toronto (80 pts, 35-37-10)                          5. New York Islanders (81 pts, 34-35-13)
6. Florida (72 pts, 29-39-14)                            6. Carolina (80 pts, 35-37-10)
7. Ottawa (71 pts, 30-41-11)                             7. New Jersey (79 pts, 36-39-7)

It should be noted that Winnipeg is the biggest wild card under the NHL realignment. They have not traditionally played teams within Conference B more than once a year. However, they have been a team that has been struggling for many years and have not made a playoff appearance since 2007, their only playoff stint. Although the team that has improved, I don't think they would have made the playoffs under realignment.

Well, the first thing to be discussed is that the Washington Capitals walk away with the President's trophy. The Caps had a slow start to the 2010 season, but they soon pushed past the Flyers to dominate the East as the season continued. Under the proposed realignment, the point differential between Vancouver and Washington is not as great. At the end of the 2010 season, Washington finished with 107 points while Vancouver had 117. This is a huge 10 point difference. Under realignment, favor sways towards the Washington Caps as they only have a three point advantage over the Vancouver Canucks. Although Dan Bylsma (coach of the Penguins) won the Jack Adams Award (coach of the year) (and I think he still would have won the award given the team's success despite the injuries they faced), I think Bruce Boudreau's (coach of the Capitals) name would have at least been thrown in the mix considering the Alain Vigneault (coach of the Vancouver Canucks) was also in the running.

Sharks fans will rejoice in this because they tied for points with the Vancouver Canucks. What should be noted is that both teams had the same exact record, 51-23-8. What put the Sharks just over the Canucks is that they scored four more goals during the "season," according to my calculations. Yes, it was that (fake) close. On a related note, look at Conferences A and B, the current Western conference plus Winnipeg. For teams in the current Pacific Division, being placed in Conference A somehow makes the conference even more competitive if you can believe that. Last season almost all five teams in the Pacific made it into the playoffs, and Dallas was a bare miss. Under realignment, Dallas moves out but in enters Vancouver, a top contender for the Cup. I don't think I even have to explain what a competitive team they are... just ask Patrice Bergeron... Although Colorado and Edmonton have been struggling teams, they have been drafting well and rebuilding to create teams that will be ready to be legitimate playoff contenders within the next few years. Calgary seems to be sitting in the middle of the road. Since they didn't make any major offseason moves, they seem to be satisfied with Kipprusoff, Iginla, Glencross, and Bouwmeester leading the team. However, their trades with Montreal for Cammalleri and Tampa Bay for Blair Jones indicates that mediocrity is no longer okay with them. Cami is a great addition to give Iginla more offensive power, and Jones will bring youth and has a lot of future potential. Even though Anaheim currently is sitting at the bottom of the Western Conference, they won't stay there for long. Hart Trophy winner Cory Perry and his line mates Getzlaf and Ryan are usually a dream team line. I would take this 2011 season as an anomaly and see them return back to form by the end of this season if not by next season for sure. The Sharks have always been striving to bring the Cup to San Jose, and the entire organization that that is their ultimate goal and have been making the moves to ensure it happens. The Kings have also been vocal about finally bringing the Cup to LA, and their offseason trade for Richards is what they hope to be the final piece of the puzzle.

Now, let's talk numbers. Notice the point totals for this conference! Anaheim takes the last playoff spot and has over 100 points and a record of 49-28-5. As opposed to the other conferences, the fourth place team only had to record wins in the mid-forties, a little more than half the games. In this highly competitive Conference A, you have to win almost ten games more than half. And to reiterate what was discussed in the "Schedule of Games" blog, the schedule under the proposed realignment might sway which teams will have a better chance of getting those crucial wins to knock them just over their opponent. In Conference A, every game literally matters as the top four teams are only separated by a few wins, including those overtime loss points. And no team feels this perhaps more than the Phoenix Coyotes, who made it to the playoffs in the current system but would not have nearly enough points under the proposed realignment. However, at fifth place in Conference A, they still have more points than the fourth place teams in all the other conferences. Just a point of reference. Now, I think that Vancouver falls short of taking the President's Trophy as they had under the current NHL structure because this realignment conference is far more competitive. Going by today's system, the Canucks are in the Northwest Division with Calgary, Minnesota, Colorado, and Edmonton. Only the Canucks made the playoffs in this division, and this is because the other teams are more middle- to bottom-of-the-pack. Since the Canucks play these teams the most and match up well against them, they rack up a number of wins within the division. However, as Anaheim, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and San Jose enter the picture under realignment, the Canucks have to battle out those wins. While these teams do win a lot of games which is reflected in their point totals, it isn't enough to come out on top in the entire league.

Conference B is in a similar situation as Conference A. Again, this is another highly competitive conference. The first place team and the third place team are separated by only two points, and the first place team is only seven points ahead of the fifth place team. Furthermore, Dallas barely edges out St. Louis for the last playoff spot because despite their having the same point totals, Dallas has two more wins (42) than St. Louis (40). Even Columbus in sixth place trails by only four points. Winnipeg is the one wild card in this conference since most of the games I used to derive data are from past years rather than the most recent 2010 season. To make the playoffs in this conference, you have to win just over half your wins and accumulate a point total at least in the mid-nineties. What makes this conference competitive is first of all you have the Red Wing and Blackhawks who are always a strong team and seem to always be in the playoff picture. Nashville has been a contender for the playoffs in recent years. Although they have never made it past the first round, they still have what it takes to get there. Dallas has been a strong team, and they tend to bubble near the playoff cutoff. They were narrowly ousted in the current structure and are barely edged into under the realignment. Although Minnesota ranked eighth in the standings under my realignment calculations, this does not reflect their major offseason moves. I don't see Minnesota making the playoffs this year under either structure, but I do see them becoming a contender in the next few years. They have some young talent, and they aren't afraid to make the big trades to make the improvements they think they need.

Under realignment, Conference C has a distinct top four and bottom three. As opposed to Conferences A and B, the fourth place team, Montreal, has fifteen more points than the fifth place Toronto team. Sitting at the top of this conference is Buffalo, Boston, Tampa Bay, and Montreal. Buffalo runs away in points with 108 and tops out the Bruins who come in second with 96 points and narrowly edge out Tampa Bay (who ties them in points) but have two more wins. Montreal has 95 points and 43 wins. Rather than scrambling to make the playoffs as in Conferences A and B, these teams just have to vie for which spot and potential match-up they might want. Although Toronto and Florida are so far out of the playoff picture under realignment, don't be so quick to count them out in future years. These clubs have been hard at work during the offseason and even into the beginning of this season to no longer be that shot-in-the-dark team.

Conference D is under much of the same predicament as Conference C. Again, there are the top four teams and the bottom three. The Caps lead the conference and league. With 113 points, they lead the Penguins by 9 points. Philadelphia isn't far behind at 103 points. These two teams were tied in wins under the current structure, so this isn't much of a shock. The last playoff spot belongs to the New York Rangers who legitimately own it. The Rangers, at 92 points, trail the Flyers by 9 points but stay ahead of the fifth place Islanders by 9 pts. The point differential among the teams is quite large that there will be the top four and bottom three. I think these teams will still stay the same, but I think Carolina and the Islanders will be on the rise and close the differential somewhat but not enough to make the playoff under either structure.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

If Realignment Had Taken Place in 2010: Schedule of Games

Along with the complete restructuring of the teams, the NHL also altered the schedule. Under the current model, teams play all other teams within their division six times a year, three at home and three away. All teams outside of the division but within the conference meet four times a year, two at home and two away. Teams outside the conference meet at least once a year home and away in alternating years and occasionally twice a year on a rotating basis with one home game and one on the road. Thus, the Edmonton Oilers play the Calgary Flames, Minnesota Wild, and Colorado Avalanche each six times a year. They play the San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks, and all other Western Conference teams four times a year. They play all Eastern teams once (or twice) a year. All teams meet at least once a year, so everybody plays everybody. Teams play within their division the most, and many rivalries begin through these meetings.

Under the proposed alignment, the 82-game schedule changes. All teams not in the same conference will play each other twice, one game at home and one game away. In Conferences C and D (the seven-team conferences), teams will play each team within the division six times with six games at home and six on the road, just as before. In Conferences A and B, (the eight-team conferences), teams will play each other five or six times a year to be determined on a rotating basis. For example, the Nashville Predators might play the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, and Dallas Stars six times, while only meeting the St. Louis Blues, Columbus Blue Jackets, Winnipeg Jets, and Minnesota Wild five times.

There is one problem with how the schedule works for Conferences A and B. These two conferences consist of the teams in the current Western Conference plus Winnipeg. Now, this is not a flaw in and of itself on paper, but it is a problem when considering the types of teams playing. In the Eastern Conference, the bottom teams are often scrambling to net a few wins, but for the most part, there are the stronger teams and the weaker teams. There is a great disparity, for whatever reason, in the East. It is also important to note that all the teams in Conferences C and D (the current Eastern Conference) will play each other the same number of times.

On the other hand, the Western Conference is a highly competitive conference, and most of the teams are within only a few points of each other and constantly struggling to maintain pace with the other teams. As former head coach of the Los Angeles Kings Terry Murray once said, "Playoffs start day one." This is even more true in the Pacific Division in which four of the five teams made the playoffs, and Dallas was just one spot and two points (or one win) from the cutoff. I remember sometime in February or so, the Kings started the day in tenth place. They played the Red Wings in Detroit and won. They shot up all the way to third place. Since this was on EST, the game finished around 7 p.m. PST, and the West Coast games were under way. By the end of the night, they had sunk down to fifth place. The standing become whacky depending on who is playing and what time it is. But back to my initial point. Under the proposed realignment, Conferences A and B face a problem. Since they do not play each team an equal number of times as in Conferences C and D, the schedule might be key to who will and will not make the playoffs. Certain teams match up well against a few others. For example, the San Jose Sharks match up well against the Phoenix Coyotes. Last season, they won five of the six games played. However, the Sharks struggle against the Los Angeles Kings and only win three of the six meetings. If the Sharks are scheduled to play the Coyotes six times and can win five games and play the Kings five times and win three, this might put them over the edge to win a playoff spot. However, if the Sharks if the Sharks play the Kings six times and only win three and only win four of five against the Coyotes, they might be one win shy of a playoff spot depending on the schedule and match-ups for the other teams. When the teams are neck-and-neck in points, the match-ups will be decisive in determining who will and will not make the playoffs.

What the proposed alignment schedule allows is for fans to see every team at least once a year. It is no secret the NHL has been trying very very hard to attract more fans (i.e. shootouts, the Winter Classic, etc.), and this is one of their strategies. Fans will have the opportunity to see the stars and up-and-comers every year. For a Philadelphia Flyers fan who lives in Vancouver, this is extremely exciting. Now, that fan is guaranteed to see Giroux's toothless grin every year. For the casual fan, this might be an opportunity to catch the great Sidney Crosby (should he be able to permanently get off IR). Of course, on the flip side, if you're a misplaced Calgary fan living in Dallas, rather than seeing the Flames stop through twice a year, you'll have to settle to once a year. I would say that if you're a Thrashers fan, then you'll just have to move to Winnipeg like the rest of the team. However, that would have required that their fans had actually attended the games.

Fans (and players) can also still enjoy the rivalries. The NHL was careful to preserve established team rivalries. For example, the Canadiens and Bruins are still in the same conference. I think at some point in the near future there will be arrangements and/or new rules regarding what to do when there aren't enough seats in the penalty box. Chicago and the Wings are still in the same conference and will be likely battling for playoff spots for a long time to come whether in the current structure or under realignment. Philly and Pittsburgh are still in the same conference. The Kings will still be Duck hunting, and just about every team in Conference A has it out for the Canucks.

This schedule also is appealing to Henry and Linda Staal. For those of you unfamiliar with hockey families, here is a current one. Not as big as the Sutter family but definitely a hockey family of the future. Currently, they have three sons all playing for three separate clubs. Eric is the captain of the Carolina Hurricanes. Marc is the alternate captain of the New York Rangers (and most recently has been taken off the IR list after suffering a concussion for which Eric isn't entirely responsible but couldn't plead innocent). Jordan is a forward for the Pittsburgh Penguins (and also had a short stint on the IR list for an "upper-body injury"). It should be noted that their fourth son, Jared, plays for the Carolina Hurricanes's minor league affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers. I read an article somewhere a year ago that Henry and Linda Staal start planning the games they will attend and arrange their travel schedule the day the NHL schedule is released. Under the current NHL structure, Marc and Jordan are both in the Atlantic Division, so they play each other quite often. However, Eric plays in the Southeast Division and doesn't play the brothers as often. Under the proposed realignment, all three Staal brothers would be playing in Conference D (unless they get traded). This would help streamline their schedule since the brothers would be playing each other more often. At the same time, the boys tend to go after each other, so maybe this will just raise poor Henry and Linda's stress.

So who doesn't like the proposed realignment schedule? Teams under the previous Eastern Conference not named Winnipeg. Eastern teams are concerned with increased travel. Let's say you're the New York Rangers. Under the current NHL structure, you're in the Atlantic Division and play the Philadelphia Flyers, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New Jersey Devils, and the New York Islanders. You literally have to cross a bridge to play the Devils and Islanders, and you could probably take a bus to Philly and Pittsburgh if you were like John Madden and refused to fly. All these teams are really close, and you don't have to travel much. Under the new proposed realignment, you're in Conference D, and your travel increases slightly as you will now have to play the Carolina Hurricanes, but it's not such a big deal. What does concern you is that you will now have to play every team in the NHL in an away game, and this includes the entire former Western Conference. This is a huge change in travel plans. One of the reasons the NHLPA rejected the proposed realignment was that teams on the East Coast will have increased travel. Well, the West Coast teams will have to make the trip out East as well, how are they not concerned? I'm sure that the West Coast teams aren't thrilled about the travel, but they are more accustomed to it since the teams on the West are far more spread out geographically speaking. As mentioned before, the Eastern teams aren't used to having to travel so far as often.

The schedule of games has its advantages and disadvantages. I like that all teams will play each other in a home-and-home series because I like having the opportunity to have more access to the players. For example, I like Tampa Bay, so instead of seeing them every other year, I would be able to see them every year. However, I'm not a huge fan of the five or six game matchup in Conferences A and B because as a fan of the Kings, it's possible that the schedule could put the Kings at a disadvantage before the season even starts. I think players would be more comfortable with having an idea of what the travel schedule would be for games, and this is part of the reason why they rejected the realignment. I read somewhere that the players had asked for a mock schedule to have an idea of what was being proposed. And I can see their point. Sometimes there are long road trips because the home arena is being used for another event. I think the Sharks had an especially long road rip last year, something like eight games or maybe more. That's unusually long, but if you're also having to be across the country for most of it, you probably want to have an idea of what that might look like. The NHL refused to do so which lead to their uneasiness about such a change. In any case, I would really really really hate to be the NHL scheduler of games!

Monday, January 16, 2012

If Realignment Had Taken Place in 2010: Cartography

As of the time of this post, the NHL has declared that the proposed realignment plan will not be put into place for the 2012-2013 season because it did not receive approval from the NHLPA. For those of you not familiar with the realignment plan, let me briefly explain.

First, let's rewind a little to the end of the 2010-2011 season. The Atlanta Thrashers had been a struggling franchise with a diminishing fan base despite attempts to attract followers. Winnipeg had once been home to the Jets who moved to Phoenix because of financial struggles, but with the economic situation changed, Winnipeg built a new stadium and was ready to house a new team. Hence, Atlanta become the Jets 2.0. However, the former Atlanta Thrashers had belonged to the Eastern Conference in the Southeast Division, which includes the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, and Florida Panthers. With team now in Winnipeg, the Southeast Division became more of a geographical mess (and it's not like the Caps made a whole lot of sense in this category in the first place). So why not move them out? Well, it's not that simple. Winnipeg makes more sense if it were to be included in the Western Conference, but moving them to that conference would require a Western team moving to the East. Well, the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, and the Nashville Predators, were all more than willing to be the one to move. In December of 2010, the NHL Board of Governors held a series of meetings in Pebble Beach (California seems an ideal place for this annual meeting but not for the Winter Classic, just saying Mr. Bettman) to discuss the situation. What they developed was an entirely new structure to the conferences and schedule of games, including the playoffs.

Current NHL Structure:

Eastern Conference
Atlantic Division: New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins
Northeast Division: Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs
Southeast Division: Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets

Western Conference
Central Division: Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues
Northwest Division: Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild, Vancouver Canucks
Pacific Division: Anaheim Ducks, Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks

Under the current structure, the 30 NHL teams are divided into six five-team divisions. Three divisions belong in the East and three in the West. Here is the proposed realignment:

Conference A
Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks

Conference B
Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets

Conference C
Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs

Conference D
Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals

Under the proposed realignment, there are four conferences. Now, if there are 30 NHL teams, how did Bettman divide 30 by 4? Now stop sweating if you were falling asleep during fourth-grade long division. It can't be done since half a team can't be playing another half a team. Instead, Conferences A and B are comprised of eight teams while Conferences C and D only have seven. This is one of the problems that the players have with this unequal division of teams, but it will be discussed in a later section regarding playoffs. Playoffs? Don't talk about playoffs! Playoffs? Are you kidding me? Sorry, I'll be discussing playoffs, and it's no joke, Jim Mora.

Looking at the new structure, this is a far more geographically friendly model than the current one. This case is more true for the Western teams. On the East, travel is slightly different. Most of these teams are so close to one another that travel is a virtual non-issue, even if it is to another state. On the West, since the teams are more spread out, travel is a major issue. And it's not only travel, but it is also times for games. For example, the Dallas Stars are in the Central Time Zone. Under the current NHL structure, they are in the Pacific Division and play the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, and San Jose Sharks which are on Pacific Standard Time (hmmmm... maybe that's how they named the division?). Every time the Stars play these teams, there is a time difference of two hours, not to mention the travel (at least a three-hour plane ride). The Stars also play the Phoenix Coyotes, which are on Mountain Standard Time. The Stars must travel outside their time zone for every away game within the division.

So what's the big deal? Well, when it's a difference of two hours, it is an adjustment. Players have a regimented schedule, especially on game day. There is a morning skate, as the visiting team this would take place at around 10:30 a.m. Already this puts them at a slight disadvantage since they will have less time to recuperate from practice before game time. However, 10:30 a.m. is going to feel like 12:30 p.m. Your body is going to be hungry and maybe a little tired in preparation for the pre-game snooze. Visiting teams usually wrap up the morning skate by 12:30 and head over for lunch and time for players to nap and relax before the game. Most games take place at 7 or 7:30 p.m., and players head over to the arena around 4 p.m. for interviews, warm-ups, and whatever else. If game time is at 7 or 7:30, your body might feel like it's 9 or 9:30 p.m. So if you see the Stars looking sluggish at the start of game against the Anaheim Ducks, it might be because their bodies haven't quite adjusted to the time change. And if you're a Stars fan, you're hoping they'll wake up and find their rhythm. Stars players have to deal with this change in time when traveling to play the teams that they play the most. Not an ideal situation.

Furthermore, it becomes more difficult for fans to follow their team. When games are during the week, most people don't want to be starting a game at 9 or 9:30 at night and have it end three hours later, or longer if there is overtime and/or a shootout. Under the proposed realignment, they will not have to travel out of their time zone as often and will play teams much closer than teams literally hugging the coast, cannot get much further west than that. The Detroit Red Wings cited this as one of the reasons that they wanted to be placed into the Eastern Conference, to give their fans a better opportunity of seeing their games. However, if you're a Rangers fan living out in California, there is no "better" for you... unless you find a job ends before 4 p.m. or that allows you to watch a game via GameCenterLive or NHL Center Ice. I would think teacher or bartender might be career path for you if you can't hold out and watch a taped game.

The biggest winner in this proposed realignment is the Winnipeg Jets. Remember earlier in this blog when I explained what created this whole change in restructure? Well, Winnipeg Jets win big time. This year the Jets have to travel a whole heck of a lot since they're in the Eastern Conference but not geographically located in the East. Under realignment, their travel schedule would be reduced practically exponentially. In Conference B, they would be able to play teams much closer to them more often and not have to travel outside of their time zone for every Conference game as they do now.

The only teams that would have increased travel within their conference under the proposed realignment would be Tampa Bay and Florida. Under the current schedule, they are in the Southeast Division with the Winnipeg Jets (the other teams they play are listed above). Under the proposed realignment, they would have to travel much farther north to play the Buffalo Sabres, the Boston Bruins, the Montreal Canadiens, and the Ottawa Senators. Previously, they never had to travel farther north than Washington D.C. nor did they have to constantly have their passport in hand. Although these teams do have increased travel, the rivalry with Florida is preserved. Tampa Bay and Florida were a little less excited about the proposed realignment since they have so much more traveling. Perhaps they would have been better served by being placed in Conference D and not have to travel quite as far. They could take the place of the Washington and Carolina. However, I think the NHL wanted to place Ovechkin's team in the same conference as Crosby's team and increase that rivalry. And I can respect that because the NHL is not as popular in the states as in Canada. Most people are familiar with the two players especially after last year's Winter Classics and HBO's 24/7. If these are games that people are more inclined to watch and it allows the sport to become more popular, I think that it is worth that extra travel for Tampa Bay and Florida. Of course, I'm sure Yzerman would disagree. Who knows Jeremy Roenick may become America's Don Cherry, and we'll have Hockey Day in America (which NBC did for literally one day, despite the fact that HNIC is every Saturday night)!

All in all the proposed realignment does allow a more geographically and time-zone friendly arrangement of teams and conferences. Most teams will reduce travel within the conference, with the exception of Tampa Bay and Florida. Fans will also have a better opportunity to follow their teams. While there seems more of an upside to this realignment, the view begins to change as we look into other aspects of it. In the next section, I'll be discussing the change in schedule of games.