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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Season of Change: Is the Old Guard Done?

roberto luongo cory schneider
The old superpowers of the NHL crumbled in the first round of the playoffs and the league is undergoing a changing of the guard. Gone are the Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Chicago Blackhawks, three of the past four Stanley Cup winners. Presidents' Trophy winners like the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks have joined them in searching for early tee off times. In their place, teams green to the upper echelon of the NHL like the Phoenix Coyotes and Nashville Predators.

This off-season represents an important crossroads for many of the former elite squads. Aging rosters are beginning to show cracks, especially when compared to the younger and hungrier rosters that bounced them. It isn't full-time panic mode for any of the teams, but moves must be made for each to remain competitive going forward.

Detroit Red Wings

After close to two decades spent among the NHL's elite, it looks like Father Time might finally be catching up to the Red Wings. Of course, people have been saying this for years and the Wings continually proved them wrong, but this time it might be true.

The Red Wings lost in five games to a very good Nashville team and looked old and slow in the process. Sure, they outshot the Predators in three of the five games, but the Predators exposed enough flaws in the team to make people really question Detroit's ability to contend moving forward. Since making the Stanley Cup Final in 2009, the Red Wings have lost in the second round and now the first round. They aren't trending upwards.

The biggest issue facing the Red Wings is an impending Nicklas Lidstrom retirement. The 41-year-old won last year's Norris Trophy, and despite a slight drop in play this season, is still one of the league's best defencemen. But now Lidstrom has to decide whether he has the energy to lace them up once again. He has won everything there is to win and he now must determine whether there's enough fire inside to push through another gruelling summer of training.

Lidstrom paired with Ian White most of the season, which helped White log the best year of his career. Without Lidstrom, there is no way White plays at the same level next season, and he likely falls back into a second or third pairing role. Losing Lidstrom also means Niklas Kronwall turns into the No. 1 defenceman, a job he isn't fit for. Brad Stuart is also an unrestricted free agent, so if Lidstrom retires the Red Wings will have to scramble to revamp their entire defence. Losing the second greatest defenceman of all-time has the chance of really accelerating the rate at which the Red Wings decline.

Even without Lidstrom, the Red Wings are still one of the oldest team in the league and only three players in the top 10 in points this season were under 30 years of age. The team's top forwards, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, are 31 and 33, respectively, which isn't too old to lead the team, but might be too old to expect them to do it all on their own. And that's one of the issues facing the Red Wings—enough support for the two superstars who are on the backside of their careers.

Young players like Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader haven't shown any indication of being better than third or fourth line players, and older veterans like Dan Cleary and Todd Bertuzzi are slipping. Valtteri Filppula and Jiri Hudler both had strong years, and are both under 30, but unless either makes a significant leap forward there is not enough behind Zetterberg and Datsyuk to get really excited about Detroit moving forward. But the NHL is a league based on stars and the Red Wings can dip into free agency to supplement Datsyuk and Zetterberg, which will make a lack of depth much less of an issue.

The Red Wings will take a strong run at both Ryan Suter and Zach Parise in the summer, provided they make it to July 1, and with over $20 million in cap space it is possible that Detroit adds both of the most coveted free agents. This would instantly boost the Red Wings back to powerhouse status and delay the arrival of Father Time.

San Jose Sharks

After back-to-back trips to the Western Conference Final it looks like the window is quickly closing for the Sharks. The big deals in the off-season didn't pan out; Martin Havlat played in only 39 games and Brent Burns didn't have a big breakout season like many expected. Now the Sharks are getting older and they don't have a large contingent of young players to fill in the gaps in the lineup.

Much like the Red Wings, despite an abundance of veterans, the Sharks don't have to blow up their core to stay competitive. They do, however, have to make a bold move or two. Shaking up their core is in order.

Long-term, this is Logan Couture's team. The 23-year-old sophomore scored his second straight 30-goal season and improved his point total from 56 to 65. In addition to Couture, the only core Sharks that will be under 30 by the start of next season are Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, Antti Niemi, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The Sharks need to get younger and may look to deal a veteran to do so.

Joe Thornton once again led the team in points during the regular season is still a legitimate No. 1 centre. Martin Havlat isn't going to bring a ton of value coming back after an injury-filled season, so the Sharks are probably better off keeping the winger and hoping he manages to stay healthy in 2012-13. Dan Boyle is the eldest Shark, but is still playing at a high level and is integral to the defence. Going forward, keeping these players is in the Sharks' best interest.

The most expendable player that holds value is Patrick Marleau. Once again, Marleau had an underwhelming post-season, this time failing to register a single point, but during the regular season he broke 30 goals for the sixth time in the past seven seasons. Marleau does have a large cap hit for the next two seasons, which might scare off suitors, but the Sharks shouldn't have too much trouble finding a taker.

Dealing Marleau could open up cap space to take a run at Rick Nash during the off-season, which would be a perfect complement to Thornton and would fit in with the age of the team. A package would likely have to revolve around Pavelski, himself held pointless during the playoffs, but it is something that Sharks should explore provided the Blue Jackets don't demand Couture.

At this point the Sharks can still be good enough going forward that they don't have to blow everything up and build around Couture, but their farm system is so decimated that there isn't anything coming through the pipeline to save the team. What's another draft pick or two to land Nash and take a strong run at the Cup? Might as well get the most out of Thornton and Boyle while they're still producing.

Chicago Blackhawks

The Blackhawks are still feeling the effect of gutting their team after winning the Stanley Cup in 2009. They still have one of the strongest cores in the league and dealing any of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith or Brent Seabrook would be a devastating panic deal. What the Hawks are missing isn't elite players, they are missing depth players.

The Hawks won't have a whole lot of cap space to work with, but also don't have any important players they need to resign. To add depth pieces the Hawks will have to wait for some deals and hope that they hit a home run (like when the Maple Leafs were able to land Clarke MacArthur on the cheap and he proceeded to break 60 points).

The Hawks also have a fairly deep farm system—although they have no real elite prospects—and could have a few rookies pushing for jobs out of training camp. That would be a cheap and efficient way to fill out the roster and was exactly how the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. Getting maximum value out of players on entry level contracts is how teams find success in the cap world.

The other area that is of some concern is in net. Corey Crawford had a bad season and an even worse post-season. His rookie season was decent, but nothing that would give Chicago pause when looking to upgrade. He could be a good backup going forward and you can expect Chicago to be one of the teams to look into Roberto Luongo's availability, although it might be a tight squeeze under the salary cap.

Other than a potential upgrade in net, the Blackhawks are still in a strong position moving forward. They are young and have high-end talent throughout the lineup. However, they have been eliminated in the first round in two straight years. At some point the patience will wear thin and they will have to take a hard look at breaking up their core—but that won't be this summer.

Pittsburgh Penguins

The most problematic thing about the Penguins' surprising first-round playoff exit was that the team couldn't use injuries as a crutch. The gang was all there for the first time in years. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Jordan Staal were all healthy at the same time, something that never happens. Add in a dominant season from James Neal and it's hard to really point out where it all went wrong. No, actually it's not. Marc-Andre Fleury went wrong.

Fleury's .834 save percentage was one of the worst all-time and his penchant for allowing back-breaking goals all series long really killed the Penguins. Anytime Pittsburgh was able to rally, Fleury was there to whiff on a slow roller like his name was Billy Buckner.

Fleury has only had one above average playoffs in his entire career, and that wasn't even the year Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup. The Penguins were able to win the Stanley Cup with below average goaltending, and this season could have been much different if Fleury was even slightly better. If Fleury gives the Penguins a .900 save percentage against the Flyers, the Penguins would have allowed 10 fewer goals. That's not even a good save percentage and it means an entirely different series.

Throughout his career Fleury has been an average goalie, sometime bordering on slightly above-average, but is still only 27, and a former first overall selection. The likelihood of Pittsburgh making a bold move to bring in another goalie is somewhat far-fetched. A more probable scenario is addressing the team defence that was badly exposed against a relentless forechecking Flyers squad.

The Pens are already tightly pressed against the cap and won't have money to spend on a big-name free agent acquisition, so improvements must come from in-house or through trades. One name that could fetch an intriguing return is Jordan Staal, the team's third-line centre who is one year away from unrestricted free agency. Staal is one of the league's premier defensive centres and showed during the playoffs that he has an untapped offensive game. Teams that are looking for a No. 1 centre might see potential in Staal, and the Penguins would be dealing from a position of strength, and could bring in a couple young defenders to patch up the backend.

Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks don't face a long list off-season changes, but they do face one major decision: Cory Schneider or Roberto Luongo. Schneider replaced Luongo in the playoffs and becomes a restricted free agent, and the Canucks aren't likely to lock up a ton of cap space in two goalies, so a decision must be made. All signs point towards the team moving forward with Schneider; he's younger, cheaper, and has outplayed Luongo over the past two seasons, albeit in a backup role. But that means the Canucks will have to find a taker for Luongo's lengthy contract­—no simple feat.

The list of teams that may be in the market for goaltending this summer include, but are not limited to: Toronto, Tampa Bay, Chicago, New Jersey, Columbus, Florida, New York (Islanders), and Edmonton.

Another complication, in addition to the 10 years left on Luongo's deal, is that he holds a no-trade clause. Luongo has expressed a willingness to waive his no-trade clause, but that doesn't mean he's willing to waive it for every team in the league. Luongo's NTC is one where he must designate five teams he will accept a trade to, but some of those teams that need goaltending may not actual be viable destinations, regardless of their ability to absorb such a long contract. For example, Toronto may need goaltending, but Luongo may be completely disinterested in the idea of going to another fishbowl market, especially one that is still going through a rebuild.

The more radical idea would be to trade Schneider, a goalie at his peak value that could bring a huge return for the Canucks. The Avalanche gave up a first-round pick in 2012 (11th overall) and a second-round pick in 2012 or 2013 for Semyon Varlamov, a goalie who had worse stats at the time of his trade than Schneider does now. Schneider is older than Varlamov, but has a better track record of success and could easily command a high first-round pick and a legitimate top prospect or young roster player at a minimum.

A potential return for Luongo wouldn't be nearly as high, and would likely have to include a bad contract coming back the other way, although one with much fewer years remaining. Luongo has been a great goalie for many years, so the Canucks wouldn't be giving him away, but the trade would be primarily to get out from under the lengthy commitment to Luongo, not to improve the Canucks roster.

Schneider has outplayed Luongo the past two seasons, but has done so while playing in Luongo's shadow and being given a free pass by the fans and the media. Luongo takes all the criticism, and Schneider plays without any added pressure. He's played great, but expecting Schneider to replicate this season's success next year as the No. 1, when fans generally view him as the saviour, might be a tad unrealistic.  

It's not as if there is nothing left in the tank for Luongo either. He has been unfairly used as a scapegoat in Vancouver the past two seasons, mainly because of a meltdown against the Bruins in last year's Stanley Cup Final, although it's important to remember the Canucks only managed to score four goals in the final five games against the Bruins. Similarly, the Canucks scored a mere two goals in each of the first two losses against the Kings. Luongo may have been replaced by Schneider, but this was an attempt to spark the team, not give the team a goalie capable of winning. In neither series was Luongo the main reason the Canucks lost.

However, the animosity towards Luongo may have passed a breaking point in Vancouver and a change in net might be best for both parties. That's one reason trading Luongo looks like a slam dunk now, but dealing Schneider might actually be the better move for the team next season and in the long-term.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Luongo to Pittsburgh; Marc-Andre Fleury to Tampa Bay; Martin St. Louis to Vancouver.

Who says no?

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