Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Picking through the rubble
A look at the NHL's also-rans

Why They Lost (in 50 words or less)
It's only natural that everyone's giddily talking about the approaching NHL playoffs, but I'm going to pause the excitement for a moment, and reflect on those who were left behind this season.

(Over at Tom Benjamin's 'hood, they're dissecting the Vancouver Canucks' lost season rather well, but I'll offer up only the shortform breakdown here.)

Atlanta Thrashers
NHL rank: 18
It's amazing they were in the playoff race until last night, considering their brutal 3-8-0 start. Rookie phenom Kari Lehtonen was supposed to shoulder the load in net, and when he went down for three months early, that was about it for Atlanta. Niclas Havelid had a stellar season, averaging 24:34 ice-time (11th best).

Boston Bruins
NHL rank: 25
While most pundits are going to point to the Joe Thornton trade as the downfall for the Bruins, a lot of Boston's struggles came in goal and on the blueline. Sophomore netminder Andrew Raycroft was simply awful (3.71 GAA) although Hannu Toivonen played well when healthy. Brian Leetch, Glen Murray, Shawn McEachern and Alexei Zhamnov all had career-worst years.

Florida Panthers
NHL rank: 22
Aside from one, crazy late-season run, it was (yet another) ugly year in Miami. The few bright spots (Olli Jokinen's 38 goals, Jay Bouwmeester's 46 points, Nathan Horton's 28 goals) were overshadowed by a roster that had very little depth. An early, season-ending injury to Branislav Mezei left the club with an AHL level defence. Roberto Luongo was, once again, terrific.

New York Islanders
NHL rank: 24
What held them back? An anemic offence, highlighted by the fact Alexei Yashin led this team in scoring with just 66 points. GM Mike Milbury dismantled what he'd created on defence, shipping out Brent Sopel, Brad Lukowich and Janne Niinimaa. A positive? Well, Rick DiPietro still looks like he could be a star.

Pittsburgh Penguins
NHL rank: 29
Sidney Crosby was just about the only thing that didn't go wrong this season. What an absolute mess — one that wasn't entirely unpredictable considering the defence core GM Craig Patrick put together. On the plus side, youngsters like Colby Armstrong, who scored on a 66-point pace, and Michel Ouellet showed there's plenty of talent in the system. (And just wait until Mr. Malkin arrives.)

Toronto Maple Leafs
NHL rank: 20
Too be honest, for all of the year-end haranguing that's been happening in the local media, this team simply wasn't that good. There's no depth at all on defence or the wing, and — surprise, surprise — Eric Lindros and Jason Allison were injury prone. Rebuild already MLSE.

Washington Capitals
NHL rank: 27
I don't think you'll find anyone else who'll say this, but being the fourth-worst team is a respectable season for the Capitals. Coach Glen Hanlon squeezed a lot out of not very much, and, well, Alex Ovechkin was simply unbelievable. Bottom line: If Ovechkin doesn't have one of the best rookie seasons in NHL history, this team finishes in dead last.

Western Conference

Chicago Blackhawks
NHL rank: 28
Allow me to be blunt, if only for a moment: The Blackhawks made the stupidest off-season moves, bar none. They blew more than $14-million on a goaltender, forward and defenceman — Nikolai Khabibulin, Martin Lapointe and Adrian Aucoin. Khabibulin, the most overrated goaltender in the league after his 2004 Stanley Cup win, had a 3.38 GAA. Lapointe was -30. Aucoin had the worst season of his career. On the plus side, rookie defenceman Brent Seabrook is going to be a star.

Columbus Blue Jackets
NHL rank: 26
Don't be fooled by the team's late-season surge (after all, the Penguins had a similar late run in 2004). This team stinks. And I'm quite sure it'll continue to stink as long as GM Doug MacLean is holding down the fort. I can't think of a single positive here. Rick Nash still looks terrific, but his team is awful.

Los Angeles Kings
NHL rank: 19
If Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon made the worst preseason moves, Kings' GM Dave Taylor made the worst ones at the trade deadline. Taylor shipped out two of Los Angeles' best prospects for the struggling Brent Sopel and Mark Parrish, both of whom bombed in California. Then, he turfed veteran head coach Andy Murray. Mike Cammalleri was the only real revelation this year.

Minnesota Wild
NHL rank: 22
Brian Rolston and Manny Fernandez were terrific, but that was about it. The Wild's defence core vastly underperformed, and coach Jacques Lemaire had to rely on minor-league callup Kurtis Foster to play the point on the team's 22nd-ranked powerplay. Minnesota had the best penalty kill in the league, but came up short in close games all season (14-20-8 in one-goal games).

Phoenix Coyotes
NHL rank: 23
Coach Wayne Gretzky's troops performed better than I'd thought they would, but this really is a terrible team. GM Mike Barnett was shuttling players in and out all year, but the team's defence relied too heavily on young players like Keith Ballard and Zbynek Michalek. It's hard to see what Barnett has up his sleeve for next year, as the team has no true blue-chip prospects and its stars are of the second-tier variety. (That's a convoluted way of saying they'll miss the playoffs next year, too.)

St. Louis Blues
NHL rank: 30
I'm pretty sure this was the worst team St. Louis has ever iced. With the old ownership group packing it in before the season even began, GM Larry Pleau was forced to execute some sort of game plan based on a bare-bones salary structure — and it showed. The team's leading scorer, Scott Young, has 48 points, and Jamal Mayers was the club's leading goal scorer. I've heard of almost every player on most NHL team's rosters, but the Blues' motley crue this year had more 'who?' than I've ever seen: Lee Stempniak (2003 5th round pick who played college hockey for Dartmouth), Mike Glumac (undrafted former Miami U player who was with the ECHL Pee-Dee Pride in 2002-03) and Jeff Hoggan (undrafted plugger from Hope, B.C., who played for Nebraska).

Vancouver Canucks
NHL rank: 17
Probably the most overrated NHL club following a Northwest Division title in 2003-04, the Canucks have relied the past three seasons on their big guns to do more than any other supposedly 'elite' team. This season, when their No. 1 goaltender and top three defencemen went down with injuries, well, that was it. Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison were all terrible, and career minor leaguer Nolan Baumgartner had the best plus-minus rating on the team.

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