Playoff penalties | What's wrong with the Lightning | An early exit for the Avs?
Friday, Apr. 21, 2006
CBC SPORTS ONLINE: Okay fellas, everyone is on board and we're ready to
get the first-ever CBC NHL Bloggers Roundtable underway. I won't lie,
I'm pretty excited.
On the panel we have: representing Canada West, Tyler Dellow of mc79hockey.com;
representing Canada East, Chris McMurtry of Hockey Country (hockeycountry.blogspot.com);
representing USA West, Patrick Angello of Colorado Avalanche Blog (avsfans.blogspot.com);
and, representing USA East, David Lee of Red and Black Hockey (redblackhockey.blogspot.com).
Without further ado, our first topic:
The NHL has been widely praised by fans (and league officials) for post-lockout
rules changes that spurred an increase in scoring. Most notably, obstruction
fouls were called more frequently, resulting in more power-play chances.
However, most NHL playoff games in recent years have degenerated into
pitched battles that referees have been reluctant to "decide" by calling
a large number of penalties.
So, the million-dollar question is, How will playoff games be officiated?
Will referees remain committed to calling the appropriate penalties,
as the league is claiming, or will we see a return to the Dead Puck
Era during the playoffs?
I would love to be an optimist and
say that I think the officiating will magically get better once we get
into games that actually matter a whole lot, but frankly, I've become
far too jaded for that to be the case. I don't think it will improve
much and I expect sports call-in shows to be riddled with complaints.
My problem with officiating this season, more than anything else, is the lack of consistency. There is no standard, despite what the league tries to tell you, for what the rules are. It seems as if many of the guys in stripes are as clueless as to what's interference, obstruction, etc. as we are. The problem, however, is that it's their job to know.
And often, the standard changes within a game. Something that's a penalty six minutes into the first period, isn't 12 minutes into the second. How are the players expected to know how to play when they don't have a clue what will land them in the sin bin?
Since the two-referee system was ushered in, I've been a proponent of using pairs, and after this season, I've never felt that more strongly. Use two guys who know each other, know each other's standards, and keep them together for the duration of the year. The players will at least learn what they can get away with in a game officiated by Kerry Fraser and Bill McCreary and play accordingly. I don't believe that is the case now, because the combos are changed so regularly.
It's often said that playoff hockey is tougher, and I expect that to be the case once again. Once the intensity is taken up a notch, I presume the officials will fall back into their old ways, allowing all the hooking, holding, clutching and grabbing that defined the last 10 years of NHL hockey to rear its ugly head once again, because they do not want to be a factor in the decision, even though, as I understand it, a referee's job is to officiate and, if that means being a factor, so be it.
The only change I foresee is that the refs will occasionally whistle a guy for hooking so the league can point to examples of a reformed game. At this point, I'm just praying it doesn't happen to my team in a crucial situation.
I'm guessing that playoff games will be
called pretty tightly. At least in the first round.
Every season we've heard the same thing. They've promised us that there would be a "crackdown on obstruction" or a crackdown on this or that. And every season we see games that are called very tightly and very much by the book. At least in the first quarter of the season. Inevitably, by the end of the season, the officials ease up on the nit-picky stuff that would have been called earlier.
This season is no different. Clearly a lot of things are allowed to go unpenalized that would have been called in the first weeks of the season.
One explanation is that the players are learning the exact breaking points of certain referees. By the season's end, they know exactly where the line is and get better at not crossing it. I'm not sure that I subscribe to that theory. I'd rather think that the referees simply swallow their whistles as it gets closer to crunch time. The infractions are still taking place, but the calls aren't being made.
This phenomenon isn't exclusive to hockey. We see it all the time in other sports. For example, the NFL often announces a clampdown on defensive holding. In weeks one and two, you see lots of calls, but by the midpoint of the season they get less picky.
College basketball in the U.S. may be worse. Similarly, they try to put an end to things like hand-checking, but only do so for a few weeks. By the end of the regular season, and especially in the NCAA tournament, as the games become more important, the refs simply "let them play" rather than allowing the outcome be determined by the zebras.
However, the Stanley Cup playoffs are a new start. It's a new season. The refs know that they don't get to work if they don't call a game the way the league wants it called. The league wants obstruction and holding to be penalized, and it allows only the "best" of the officials to work playoff games, so I think they'll select the ones who have remained vigilant in their calls. As the playoff "season" progresses, and especially in any Game Seven situation, we might see fewer and fewer calls.
In short, I expect the officiating in the playoffs to mirror the regular season. They'll be strict at the beginning and somewhat lax at the end.
I firmly believe the referees will
continue calling the game very tightly - to start. Look for things to
get a little loose by the time the conference finals roll around. With
that said, I also believe that the players won't be playing quite as
tightly by the conference finals either. The Dead Puck Era will not
return, but you won't see as many whistles in the later rounds.
The good news about this is that the teams with the most talent will end up competing for the Cup. Listen, I love to be shocked with the big upsets in the first round, as long as it's not my team getting clutched and grabbed right over to the golf course. But nobody wants boring hockey. As long as the referees call things tight in the first two rounds, the best hockey will come in the conference finals and Cup final.
The boost in scoring this year has been
in large part due to power plays, as documented by Matt at the Battle
of Alberta blog
. While I expect that the referees will still make
the calls that lead to 5-on-4 power plays in the playoffs, I think we'll
see them less willing to make the calls that lead to 5-on-3's. As Matt
noted, 5-on-3 goals have absolutely gone through the roof this year
- a failure to call them will really drop the scoring levels. I'll be
surprised if the referees continue to make those calls into the playoffs.
The 5-on-3 isn't deemed respectable hockey and I would expect the league
to be worried about reaction if a 5-on-3 goal decides a playoff game
The problem is, this becomes the first step of a slippery slope, I think. Once you start worrying about a call that causes a 5-on-3 being perceived as marginal, it's easy to start sliding backwards and worrying about a call that causes a 5-on-4 being perceived as marginal. This really is the litmus test for the new NHL, I think. If they aren't willing to make these calls in the playoffs, I'd guess we'll see backsliding in the 2006-07 regular season. Predicting what the NHL will do is like trying to guess what the Oilers will do on a given night, but my suspicion is that we'll see backsliding on the margins. It won't be the rodeo that we saw in the past but it won't be the ballet from October either.
CBC: Thanks to Tyler for pointing us toward that enlightening
set of stats from the Battle of Alberta blog.
It was fairly obvious this season that the increase in scoring was fueled
by power-play goals, but I was surprised to see the degree to which
that was true. And I think this is a problem for the league.
Some observers (Bobby Clarke, mostly) have complained about the number
of penalties called this season. The league has insisted that once players
adjust to the new officiating standards, they'll adapt their style of
play and penalties will decrease.
If this turns out to be true, it seems likely, based on the stats, that
the scoring rate will deflate. Perhaps the quality of play will be better,
as there will be less of the dreaded "clutching and grabbing," and perhaps
this will lead to more goals being scored, but it doesn't appear scoring
can continue at its present level without a large number of power-play
We'll now move to our next topic, which is: What's wrong with the Tampa
A lot of pundits have issued the knee-jerk opinion that, because Nikolai
Khabibulin was the only significant player lost from the 2004 Stanley
Cup team, the problem must be goaltending. But, as Tyler noted a while
back on his site, the goaltending drop-off hasn't been as significant
as it's been made out to be.
The real problem seems to be that the Lightning simply aren't scoring
as many goals, at least relative to the rest of the league.
So I guess the real question is, Why aren't the Lightning scoring as
much as they did in 2003-04?
First, I beg to differ on one point. Nikolai Khabibulin
was absolutely not "the only significant player lost from the 2004 Stanley
Cory Stillman, who is probably one of the most underrated players in the league, was second on that team and eighth in the entire league with 80 points. His 55 assists were second on the team and third in the entire league. His 11 power play goals were first on the team and 17th in the entire league. He wasn't much of a factor in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but he was a huge part of their success in the regular season.
Aside from his great stats, he does a lot of intangible stuff on and off the ice to make everyone else better, and he provides excellent leadership. While I won't say that his departure is the only reason for Tampa's fall from grace, I would definitely say that they're missing him.
Comparing the "goals for" stats from 2003-04 to those of this year, most teams have seen an increase of approximately 0.5 goals per game. Tampa, however, has seen an almost immeasurable difference of +0.03 goals per game. The thing that leaps out at me the most about that is that they have seen a decrease in 5-on-5 goals. In 03-04, they scored 161 goals with both teams at full strength (1.963 per game). This season, they have only scored 137 (1.671 per game as of Apr. 16). That's a 15% decrease to you and me. Most teams have seen an increase of about 15% in that category, while they have actually dropped significantly.
They're certainly not the only team to have seen a drop in that category, and they are far from having the most significant drop (that distinction belongs to Vancouver), but we have to focus on their woes because they've gone from Stanley Cup Champs to barely making the playoffs.
In overall goals for, Tampa has scored the exact same number of goals this season as last, but they have one game remaining. While most teams have seen a double-digit percentage increase in scoring this season, only one team (the Islanders) has seen a drop in scoring. Tampa and the miserable Blues have both scored the same number of goals this year as last season.
Please refer to my
of this season's goal scoring to last season's.
Once you link to the page, click on the spreadsheet for a large, easy-to-read
For the second season in a row, Tampa has lost very few man-games to injury. I think their total this year is something like 48 man-games lost. Injury, then, can be ruled out as an excuse for low scoring. My estimation is that it has to be team chemistry. The pieces aren't fitting together properly. The lines aren't clicking. I think that Cory Stillman had a lot to do with the way their team fit together last year, and has a lot to do with why the Canes are clicking together so well. So maybe my answer to the million-dollar question is "Cory Stillman."
I look at the '03-04 season for the Tampa Bay Lightning
as the perfect year when everything came together. The hockey Gods were
smiling on them.
All of their key players were healthy (none of their top six forwards played less than 80 games) and many of those same guys had career seasons (highest output from Brad Richards, Fredrick Modin, Martin St. Louis, Pavel Kubina, Ruslan Fedotenko and Cory Stillman). As a core, the group that the organization had been assembling peaked at the same time, and magic happened as a result.
And while it's true that too much emphasis is put on the goaltending change as far as their struggles, I do think it had an impact on the way the team plays and, thus, why they score less.
The same way the Oilers of the 80s could play that up-tempo, offensive-minded style because they had Grant Fuhr to bail them out when it came back to bite them, the Bolts had a great goaltender and, from one to six, a strong defensive group. They had confidence in Nikolai Khabibulin and his excellence afforded them the opportunity be so offensive and take chances.
This season, they realized very quickly that Sean Burke and John Grahame aren't Nikolai Khabibulin, and adjusted their style accordingly. They had to be more responsible defensively, which means the goals went down.
As well, though on paper they may not have looked like big losses, I think the departures of Brad Lukowich and Jason Cullimore hurt their team defence. These were excellent defensive d-men who could play minutes and, within that system, were very effective. Guys like Paul Ranger have had to fill that void and haven't been able to do so efficiently.
Like with the loss of the Bulin Wall, this forced the team to modify their style of play because the forwards had to concentrate on two-way play more than they did the previous season.
Um, who knows? Look, the goaltender can make a
huge difference in the confidence of the team. Vinny is having a better
season than when they won the cup, Prospal is huge, but St. Louis is
down. Can you really call it a slump when the guy has 61 points? Yes!
When someone like Martin St. Louis is playing in this (new) NHL, you'd
expect him to be off the charts! Look at what Jagr has done, simply
adapting his play to the new rules. Couple that with the inconsistency
of John Grahame and Sean Burke in net and you've got a team that has
no clue where its confidence is.
The Lightning should start the playoffs on the road and with the seventh or eighth seed, which means getting their lunch handed to them by either Ottawa or Carolina. Their only hope is if their pick-a-goalie gets hot, which won't happen. I mean, how can they get up for the playoffs? This team is the defending Stanley Cup champions, but nobody cares. Sure, it's the same guys, but the Cup meant pretty much nothing when the lockout began. That's a bittersweet accomplishment, even for the most difficult accomplishment in all of sports. The poor saps got to celebrate for about a week, and then had to wait nearly two years to raise the banner. I think the excitement wore off. How could they be motivated
CBC: David, thanks for the reminder on Cory Stillman. That was
a glaring omission on my part. He certainly was a significant player
on Tampa's championship team.
It's interesting that the Lightning, without Stillman, struggled offensively
and weren't very good this season, while the Hurricanes, with Stillman,
scored a lot of goals and were one of the league's biggest surprises.
And who would have thought that, with the new rules, the Lightning would
score pretty much the same number of goals they did last season?
All right, time for our next topic: Each of you follows one particular
team very closely (we have Edmonton, Ottawa, Carolina and Colorado represented).
From what you've seen this season, how do you think your team will fare
in the playoffs? Also, give us something about your team that the public
might not know.
How the Sens fare depends, ultimately, on which
teams comes to play. They've been frustratingly inconsistent down the
stretch. If the Sens from the first 1/4 of the season show up in the
playoffs, they're the favorite to win the Cup. However, if the erratic
team is the one we see, I don't like their chances.
A couple facts the public might not know:
1) The Sens' power play is not that good. If you were to look at the statistics, you'd think their PP (ranked 4th overall at 20.8%) was a strong point of the team, but it's often one of the things that most aggravates fans, and it's usually indicative of how things are going overall. When the Sens are playing well, the PP is very potent. When they're not, it ends up hurting the team because their opponent gets momentum when they kill off all those penalties.
2) The Sens have good scoring depth. A lot has been made about the Big Line
(Heatley-Spezza-Alfredsson), but the Sens have four others who have at least 20 goals in Mike Fisher, Peter Schaefer, Patrick Eaves, and Antoine Vermette. And you have to think that had Martin Havlat been healthy for the season, he would've netted at least that much considering he had 31 in 68 games in the '03-04 season and that the new rules favor someone with his skill set.
So while it's probably imperative for whomever the Sens play to shut down the
Big Line (assuming they even play together), don't think Ottawa doesn't have
other weapons that can burn you.
Honestly, the Avs are in trouble. Losing Marek
Svatos and Steve Konowalchuk for the season was incredibly painful,
but I'm not blaming injuries. I will, however, voice my dismay over
the Jose Theodore-for-David Aebischer trade.
I rode Abby all season long, constantly complaining about his lack of consistency. Then, as soon as he seemed to wake up and start playing well, he was traded. I was OK with trading him, but Theodore was the last goalie on my list. Why trade away a solid goaltender for an injured one? Why expect a rookie goaltender in Peter Budaj to carry you through the most important stretch of the season?
Colorado had a chance at the division until this trade happened, and then Budaj just couldn't quite get the job done. Theodore's 1-3 record certainly isn't striking any fear into the eyes of the Dallas Stars. Oh, and that one win was with a 6-0 lead that he almost blew, giving up four goals in 20 minutes.
If Pierre Lacroix was going to trade for any goaltender, Roberto Luongo should have been the only one he considered. We would have been better off sticking to Abby, winning the division, and having the no. 3 seed if Florida wouldn't go for it. Yes, I'm that positive Colorado would have won the division with Abby in net.
The only thing Colorado does have going for it for the playoffs is the veteran players in the locker room. Joe Sakic, Pierre Turgeon and Rob Blake will help the team remain focused, and some role players like Ian Laperriere and Andrew Brunette could be unsung heroes.
However, there is really no way the Avs get out of the first round. Theodore looks lost in the crease and the team isn't looking sharp overall. I don't think they have any confidence in Theodore, and the odds of him getting hot are really slim.
There is one thing exciting for the Avalanche, and that's the new secret weapon! Wojtek Wolski was called up from Brampton in the OHL. The kid is a future star, but Colorado couldn't afford the salary he would have demanded if he stayed on the team. Therefore, they let him develop for one more year. The wunderkind had 72 points in 67 games at
Brampton. Watch him shine in the postseason with the Avs, but don't expect that to be quite enough for a first round victory.
This is tough. During the regular season, my Canes
were very impressive and fairly consistent. They faced a lot of adversity
with an unfathomable injury toll. Eric Staal is the only player on the
roster who hasn't lost any games to injury. As a team, the total was
something like 275 man-games lost. That has been a major hurdle, as
we have never had the entire team healthy at once.
As the season wrapped up, Carolina seemed to be fading. There are a number of things that could be playing a role there. With about two weeks to play, Carolina had secured a playoff spot and knew it would be seeded no lower than No. 2. They may have throttled down a bit. Fatigue may have been an issue, as a lot of guys (particularly the blueliners)
were forced to play more minutes because of our M*A*S*H unit situation.
Getting to the point: this first round really frightens me. Although the Canes dominated the Habs in four regular-season matchups, the Habs have been playing better down the stretch than the Canes have.
Of course the Canes won't have the services of Erik "Hab Killa" Cole, who had eight points (five goals, three assists) in just three games against Montreal this season. Even before this season, Cole has always fared well against "Les Habitants."
Though it won't be easy, the Canes should win the series against Montreal. Maybe in six.
As the playoff season progresses, I expect the Canes to get stronger and advance past the second round with ease. If they can work their way back to being healthy, and they can stay that way, they should be a very powerful team. If the newly acquired Dougie Weight and Marc Recchi get their linemate Ray Whitney back from injury, that line should be great. Throughout their careers, Weight and Recchi have been playoff studs and have played really well together in their limited time. In just a few games where they were on a line with Whitney, they were really explosive.
I fully expect the Canes to advance to the Eastern Conference final, where there will be a dogfight with Ottawa.
I'm thinking about a rematch of 2002. Wings and Canes in the Cup final.
Here's one cool thing that most folks probably don't know about the team. All season long, every time a Canes player scores a hat trick, some lucky fan wins a lawn tractor valued at $1,500. Before every game, a name is drawn from a hat, and that fan becomes the "Hat Trick contestant." John Deere is one of the principal sponsors of the team and they provide the riding lawn mowers. The player who nets the hat trick autographs the hood of the tractor, and the fan has a very cool and unusual memento. And a really nice lawn mower, to boot. There were five awarded this season, and a sixth which was controversially taken away because referee Tim Peel made a phantom diving call against the Canes while they were on a two-on-none breakaway towards an empty net.
I've got the Oilers beating the Mike Morrison-led Senators in a dream final for Canadian television after beating the Wings, exorcising their demons against the Stars and bringing the Battle of Alberta website to a glorious conclusion with a Conference Final win against the Flames.
Or losing in the first round. Definitely one or the other.
I don't think it's commonly appreciated just how bad the Oilers goaltending was this season. People knew that the Oilers got lousy goaltending but the sheer extent of the horror is not widely appreciated.
I was watching the last game of the Conklin/Markkanen/Morrison era with a friend. The Oilers were playing the Stars and the game went to overtime. The colour commentator casually mentioned that, "Mike Morrison has gone down into the hallway to stretch out in case of a shootout." My friend kind of laughed at that -- he's an Easterner and doesn't follow the Oilers closely. He didn't know what evils lurked between the pipes in Edmonton. The game went to a shootout and sure enough, out comes Mike "The Closer" Morrison. As a hardened Oilers fan, this was nothing new for me. We have an ECHL goalie that we bring in to close out shootouts? Sure, doesn't everyone?
My friend, who hasn't had the experience of cheering for a team with such fantastically bad goaltending, was stunned. He had vaguely heard whispers that the Oilers goaltending wasn't up to snuff and imagined something like what the Leafs experienced this year. He certainly wasn't expecting to witness a situation so bad that a man with all of 8 games of AHL experience prior to this season was sent out cold to face the best shootout team in the league while fans of the team nodded knowingly, accepting that this was the logical move.
I wrote something about 70% of the way through the year looking at the Oilers using my preferred goaltending metric (save percentage relative to the league average) and the Oilers were just awesomely bad in that regard. Their team save percentage was something like 98% of the league average. There were about 5 teams in the past 18 years or so who'd made the playoffs with that bad of a save percentage. It was just a complete and utter abomination.
My favourite comparator for the Oilers out of those teams is the 1998-99 Blues, who ran out a lengthy list of bad goalies and earned 87 points. The next year they fixed their goaltending problems with Roman Turek (the same Roman Turek who took the Flames nowhere) and chopped 44 goals off their total on their way to the President's Trophy.
The Oilers addressed their goaltending problem before their next game with the acquisition of Dwayne Roloson. It won't be remembered unless the Oilers make a run, but Roloson fixed their problems in net. The Oilers chopped about .6 goals per game off their average in the 20 games following the Roloson deal. The problem is that the scoring kind of tailed off as well -- the Oilers somehow dropped a nearly equivalent number off of their offence. If the scoring comes back to where it was most of the season, there's a strong argument that the Oilers are the second-best team in the conference.
Unfortunately, there's an even better argument that the Red Wings are the best team in the conference by a sizable margin. The failure of the scoring down the stretch means that the Oilers get the only team against whom they aren't arguably even odds to win the series. In a short series, though, anything can happen. It's the 25th anniversary of the greatest upset in Oilers history, when they crushed a Montreal Canadiens team that was one year removed from a streak of four consecutive Stanley Cups.
The difference between those two teams during the regular season was comparable to the difference between these two. The Oilers are huge underdogs but they're good enough to make this happen. They'll need some bounces but if they get them in the first round, they're as good a shot to go the Cup finals as anyone in the West.