Friday, February 05, 2010

Super Bowl, Olympics, or Sens Win Streak - Which is most exciting this weekend?

I was sitting in the office late today and thinking about how it is a great time to be a sports fan. A really great time. In less than 48 hours, we get a pretty great Super Bowl matchup between two powerful quarterbacks. It says here that the Saints will at least beat the spread. In less than two weeks, Team Canada plays its first game in what will be the most hyped Olympic hockey tournament in our history. But first, we put an 11-game winning streak on the line against the new look Leafs.

My question to you, Joe SensFan, is which of these three sporting phenomena excite you the most?

Super Bowl:
There was a story a few years ago that researched sports fans and how they follow the playoffs. Specifically, do fans continue to watch playoff games after their team has been eliminated. Least surpisingly, hockey was last with something like 8-10% of fans continuing to watch after their team is knocked out. Overwhelmingly, something like 55-60% of football fans watch the Super Bowl after their team is knocked out. That might even be higher when you consider the casual fans that tune into the game just because it is THE big game. This year should be an awesome match and I still haven't figured out who to cheer for. On one hand, you have such a great quarterback in Peyton Manning. It is so hard to cheer against the guy. Brilliant quarterback and incredible work ethic. On the other hand, you have that emotional pick of the Saints, who haven't had anything go their way in ages. Brees has been unreal this year and the team is a powerhouse. Should be a heck of a game.

Olympic Hockey:
Hey, did you hear that there was a semi-important hockey tournament coming up soon? It goes without saying that given the power and reach of the media, combined with the NHL players, combined with the fact that the Olympics are on Canadian soil, combined with the fact that we're the nation of hockey, and you get a pressure-packed event. I think most Canadians already love the Winter Olympics more than the Summer ones, but this one should be awesome. Filled with pride, the Canadian team definitely has a few challengers. The Russians get the attention as the other 'favourite', but I'm keeping an eye on the Swedish team (they've got this kid Alfredsson) and I think Miller will give the Americans a chance to at least get to the medal round, even if Burkie has been striking out on most other decisions lately. If our boys can see past the attention and focus on winning games, then it is our tournament to lose. This could also push Stevie Yzerman into a GM role somewhere if 1) we win Gold and 2) he wants to leave Detroit. At the end of the day, it is going to be an awesome tournament.

Sens Winning Streak:
This is some strange undocumented winning streak. The Caps have won 12-straight (and are playing tonight) and everyone just thinks it validates their status as a Cup contender. We win 11-straight and it is met with a groan and a scratch of the head. Most media pundits are basically waiting for our collapse. Let's face it - bad teams don't win 11 in a row. My conclusion: we're not bad. In fact, we're pretty incredible to watch. That first period last night was awesome to see as we just dominated a pretty strong team. This is uncharted waters for us, not just for the winning streak, but because we're doing it without relying on one line. In our history, even in the teams earlier in the decade that always lost to Toronto, we were still very top heavy. This time around, it is the role guys that are helping keep the game flowing. Sure, it has been the stars scoring lately, but we can't understate the importance of keeping pressure on the opponent through all the lines. Saturday night, we head into the big smoke to see if we can handle the new look and all-powerful Leafs. It would be great to see us come out of the gates flying again, much like we have during the entire streak (first goal in 10 of the 11 wins).

So how about you? Of the Super Bowl, Olympics, and the Sens winning streak, what is the best part of sports this weekend?

Monday, February 01, 2010

Monday Night Musings

Random thoughts during a three-day break without games.

1. A reader said that this is the most negative blog on the Sens out there. It hit home. When I've been writing some of these blogs, it has occurred to me that we're taking shots at guys when the team is winning. Truth be told, I just think it is hard to write the same stuff over and over about how Elliott is playing well, Karlsson is neat, Clouston rolls the lines, etc. We'll give guys their due and never shy away from praise, but that doesn't mean we can't point out that Jonathan Cheechoo is a truly awful player for us this year.

2. On a happy, positive note, I've really been satisfied with Filip Kuba's play lately. It doesn't get much airtime because people are so impressed with Karlsson (with reason). I have found that Kuba's last three games have been his three best. In the defensive zone, he is far more assertive in front of the net and he is really getting into the lanes a lot better. An active stick from a talented defenceman is a beautiful thing and Kuba has shown why we re-signed him. I know he hasn't been amazing start to finish this year, but he's really shown signs of improvement, likely related to the hand/wrist injury finally healing. I remember when we re-signed him at the deadline and it was met with a collective feeling of indifference. When you think about it, getting him back at his salary was probably still a better option than trying to overspend in the summer on UFAs like Komisarek. Kuba was our best option given the circumstance and I'm happy that he's playing up to it now.

3. Does this season have shades of the Cup run year in which we were mediocre/bad for a long time, then ended up battling with Pittsburgh for the 4/5 spot and being unable to catch the runaway Slugs for the division lead? Obviously, we're not the same team as that year and I'm not trying to compare rosters, but I'm just pointing out that in the magical season, it was mid-January when we started taking off and winning games with regularity...

4. Snoopy is back. Like most fans, I would really, REALLY, like to see him string together a few good starts, whenever he may get them. Naturally, Elliott will get the starts and Snoopy will get in as needed. Given his injury history, which is evident this year, combined with his inconsistent play lately, it would make us feel much better if he started rising to the occasion like his other colleagues have done between the pipes. In the meantime, I have no problem riding the hot hand of Elliott, even if Erin Nicks is waiting for his inevitable collapse (now THAT is a negative blog...)

5. I listened to some soundbytes from Phaneuf and Ron Wilson today at the Leafs practice. Pardon my bias, but this just doesn't look like it is going to work out well. The way that Coach Wilson spoke about his new dman, it was as if he was trying to immediately put some positive reinforcements in the big guy's head. "Ahhh, the Western Conference is so relieved that he's gone now.....ahhh, the New Jersey Devils are probably reminding each other to keep their head up or else they'll get pasted....ahhhhh, I wish I could adopt him as my son because he's incredible." Listen here - I think Phaneuf is a solid player with great potential. I think there is clearly something wrong with him that would entice Sutter to basically trade him away as a salary dump, considering his new players are not likely to last through the summer. There is definitely more to this than meet's the eye. I acknowledge that the guy has incredible potential and if he mirrors Pronger at all, then the rest of us are in trouble. But it is a bit weird that nobody on the Flames side is upset at the trade. Even when we traded Heatley away, we at least recognized that we'd just lost the greatest scorer in team history. Nobody in Cowtown shed a tear for this. In fact, the only tears on Sunday were from Phaneuf himself.

I'm also curious to see how he handles the speed of the Northeast Division. I know that Edmonton has some fast guys and the Sedin aliens are quick, but us, Montreal, and Buffalo are all built around team speed. I know that if you get on the trolley tracks, Phaneuf can kill. But if we keep to the outside, then I think the only hits that Phaneuf will see will be in the back rooms of the Brass Rail. Booyah!

In all sincerity, I hope that the Leafs and their truculence can reignite the rivalry a bit, even if they are in a battle for last place from here on out. If their defence plays to its potential and Monster stands tall, then we can have some great games against our old foes. I don't know who'll score for them, but that's not our problem. Speaking of scoring, does Burkie really think he's going to Kovalchuk this summer? Didn't that not work out with the Sedins? It says here that Kovalchuk gets his payday in Atlanta as Waddell cannot risk trading away his star. Hossa and Heatley were never the guy in Atlanta, but Kovalchuk is the captain and the face. If it costs $10M, Waddell will pay it. Sorry, Toronto.

Great games coming up - Buffalo on Wednesday, Vancouver on Thursday, and the Stajan-less Leafs on Saturday. If that's not enough fun, we have the Phaneuf-less Flames next Tuesday, followed by the Wings, Caps, and Isles before the break. Wouldn't it be great to win 5 of 7? That would give us 76 points, ahead of my barometer of having 70 points at the Break. For those that hadn't read, I said we need to have 70 points by the Olympics to be on pace for 94pts and the playoffs.

What Would You Do With Jonathan Cheechoo?

Couple of days off here before we take our streak to the Slugs, so I started looking at our payroll and how we shape up next year. It isn't a surprise to anyone that the biggest hindrance on that list is the $3M Cheechoo hit. He really doesn't have any fans left here as even those 'he works hard' people are starting to see that he makes too much to just skate hard and not do anything. I'm not trying to be mean about it, but we've already discussed how he doesn't actually provide us with anything out there that we couldn't get from Zach Smith at a fraction of the price.

There's a rumour floating out there that Burkie is going to once again clear payroll so that he can make a trade with a Kovalchuk suitor to absorb a bad contract. He might demote Finger to the Marlies and then help the Rags or the Bruins or the Flyers send away bad contacts so that team can then pay Kovalchuk. They actually did this last year in acquiring Kolzig from the Lightning in a move that nobody actually talked about much.

It got me thinking about options we have to deal with Cheechoo. He is signed through next season at a bad contract and really prevents us from doing much at the deadline and doing much in the summer. Which option is best?

1. Keep him on the team

We've seen what Cheechoo offers - he has 5 goals and 8 assists in 56 games and is a minus-9. He doesn't work on the powerplay or kill penalties. He doesn't play top six minutes. He doesn't have a great shot, he isn't a superb backchecker, and his skating makes Brad Marsh look like Paul Coffey. Seriously, why does it look like Cheechoo is skating on the Canal the day after temperatures went above zero? By keeping him on the team next year, we're stuck with a third or fourth liner that makes too much money for what he does. I hate to say this, but he actually makes linemates worse. Regin and Shannon were playing great when they had Kovalev. Now that they're with Cheechoo, they were unanimously seen as the worst line in the win over the Habs. Whichever line he has been on, his trio has struggled. I don't like the idea of him being around next year. All we gain is the occasional ability to compare his stats combined with Michalek against Heatley's numbers, and I'm tired of that.

2. Send him to Bingo (or Cornwall, as one blog would have you believe...boooooo)

I proposed this earlier in the season when it was clear that Cheechoo wasn't good. It clears the space, it allows us to ice a better team with better players, and it would give him a chance to try and rediscover anything he has left outside the spotlight in the AHL. Two drawbacks - Murray might take heat for essentially trading Heatley for Michalek, and it sends a bad message to impending UFA's. I'm a firm believer that the players and their agents discuss this when contemplating offers in the summer. They know that in New Jersey, you'll be sent to the minors to ride the buses if you struggle - right, Alex Mogilny and Richard Matvichuk? It gives us short-term relief on the cap, but might hurt us in attracting UFAs in the future, which we already have trouble doing. I don't mind the idea, but it isn't the first choice of the organization, methinks. I also think, as I said earlier, that there is some stubbornness at play here as Murray won't want to answer questions about benching his acquisition, regardless of the crappy circumstance in which he was acquired.

3. Buy him out

Costly. We already pay Emery for the next two years, so Cheechoo would give us 2/3 of his salary ($2M, says my math), spread over two years. So for a million bucks a year for the next two years, we can re-release Cheechoo to the league. In addition to the points made in option #2, it might also not make economic sense. Let's say we go sign some forward for $2M, it actually is a signing for $3M because it was Cheechoo's buyout that allowed it to happen. I know we have to look at buyouts at a sunk cost, but for me, we need to consider all of these costs before the buyouts happen. This option isn't outrageous and might still work out, but it would suck to have a couple million bucks against the cap for guys that play for opponents. Anybody think this one is best? I'm on the fence.

4. Trade him to a team that can absorb his salary, plus take some picks from us.

Last March, Kolzig was traded along with two minor leaguers (who are now unsigned, not even with Toronto) to the Leafs, along with a fourth round pick, for Richard Petiot, who is also no longer with the team that picked him up. So the Lightning buried salary on another team and it cost them a fourth round pick. Truth be told, there are teams that can handle Cheechoo's $3M salary. Does Murray have the ability to pull the move to send off a third rounder with Cheechoo for nothing but a no-name prospect? To me, this is a beauty of a move. I know we lose a pick, but it beats having him on this team, it beats the negative press around burying him in the minors, and it beats the cost of buying him out. Atlanta, for instance, has $25M committed next year and could maybe see upside in taking him on, either on the big team or sending him to the A. It doesn't give us a bad name because we're truly trying to give him a fresh start instead of ending his career in the minors.

Listen, people, I'm not in favour of mistreating players. Cheechoo is a hard worker that has hit a roadbump. My concern is that by being polite as fans or being stubborn as an organization, we're hurting this team's potential. Cheechoo is not good anymore and I can say that if he were a free agent, I don't even see him being worth a contract at this point. Sorry, buddy. Let's give him a fresh start, give this team some cap relief, and give the spot to Chummy or Zach Smith for the rest of the year. Send him and a pick and dump the salary.

Thoughts from the masses? I didn't have an option of trading him for players of value because I don't think it is possible. Am I missing something else here? I just hope Murray can accept that he's not helping this team and cut ties.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

5 Scoring Forwards For Under $1 Million (or close to $1M)

We're rolling now and have a little over two weeks until the Olympic Break. When the boys get back from Vancouver or wherever else they're spending their time, there are a mere three days before the trade deadline. We all know that the team was pressed up against the cap going into the season. Then, because of injuries and the subsequent callups, we paid out even more against our cap. Each time guys like Zach Smith or Mike Brodeur or Martin St. Pierre are in the big city, we pay them NHL money and they go against the cap.

So we have around $600K, according to Garrioch. Add to that the fact that we don't really want to move a roster player right now, agree? Sure, we'd love to move Cheechoo, but that just isn't going to happen. The way the rest of the guys are playing, we've got that thing called 'chemistry' that I'm sure the brain trust doesn't want to touch. But what about cheap players that might have an impact and are on cheap salaries?

Here are 5 players that are under $1M, so would only cost 1/3 of their salary by the time we'd acquire them in those days leading up to March 4th. Would you take any of these dudes?

Maxim Afinogenov, $800K, 53GP, 17g, 26a, 43pts, minus-8

I'm aware that the Thrashers are currently sitting in a playoff position, but let's be real about this team's postseason chances. Along with the impending trade of Kovalchuk, they'll likely succumb to their own inefficiencies and fall back outside the top eight. Afino fell out of favour in Buffalo and is now one of the best contracts out there, putting up 43 points for less than a million bucks. The one concern I'd have is how he'll perform 'when it matters'. He was never a threat against us in the playoff games against the Sabres and his success this year might just be a result of playing in a non-hockey market with rock bottom expectations both of him and his team.

Mike Pinball Comrie, $1.25M, 17GP, 5g, 3a, 8pts, minus-4

Okay, bias is at play here because I love the pinball and refuse to accept that he just isn't good anymore. The kid just missed 31 games from mono and is on an awful team. Perhaps I just expect us to go and get him for a disgruntled AHLer because it's our move of the spring. I'd have no problem taking on Comrie but would certainly curb my expectations this time around. Seriously, though, Comrie isn't coming back.

Dominic Moore, $1.1M, 42GP, 8g, 9a, 17pts, minus-3

Not a very glamorous pickup, but he was a solid player with the Leafs and is nice for depth. He won't win you a game, but he's a hard worker, gets in the corners, and can put in some timely goals. My concern here is if he'd just become another Chris Kelly type player and toil away on the 4th line. He isn't around to make an impact, is he? This is like getting Oleg Saprykin, but without the glorious game winning goal in Game 1 of the third round.

Vinny Prospal, $1.1M, 47GP, 9g, 28a, 37pts, plus-3

Again, this would require a collapse of the Rags in the next few weeks because they're sitting in 8th place right now. The other aspect of this is that Slats has never really been a seller. The unrest in Manhattan might dictate that the Rags need to be buyers just to squeak in, even if they know they won't contend. If I'm wrong (and it happens all the time, as Anshu points out) and the Rags fold up until next year, then Vinny would be a prize pickup. Knows Ottawa, has been around through the postseason, and is playing well this year.

Wild Card: Nigel Dawes, $800K through 2010-11, 51GP, 10g, 15a, 25pts, plus-3

Okay, different angle here. The Flames are in disarray and will likely have to make significant changes through the form of Phaneuf and more. What a bunch of underachievers, eh? Anyway, Dawes is a speedy kid that is signed for another year after this one, but is on his third team in three years. I'm going to claim ignorance on how the organization in Cowtown feels about Dawes because maybe they love his style and want him around. If he's another commodity there, then he'd be a young kid that could jump in, pot a few goals with players like Regin, Shannon, and Foligno, and he's around for another year. Any thoughts on this one?

Honourable mentions: Stephane Yelle (useless this year), Cogliano, Greg Campbell, Sykora (re-entry waivers?), Satan, Superstar Richard Park, and any Leaf, outside of Stajan and Hagman and Blake, who were all shipped out this morning...

This all depends on how Murray feels about moving a roster player. If he'll move a player, then this opens up more options because he can take back more salary. If he's looking at just moving a pick and/or Josh Hennessy, then we're really stuck with players like the five listed above. Sorry, folks, no trade deadline splash, unless we bury Cheechoo's salary somewhere.