Sabres, Red Wings and realignment in my mailbag
With the NHL deadline a week away, readers are wondering about the postseason fortunes of their favorite teams. For updates on trade bait, check out Allan Muir's rumor tracker in his Home Ice blog. Also, Sarah Kwak writes in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated that Ryan Miller of the Sabres is having a tough season, but he's a still a good goalie on a bad team that may be better off trading him. And speaking of Ryan Miller...
Last season, the Sabres went through an injury bug. It roughly started when Ryan Miller was hit by Milan Lucic in November andit lasted in late January. During this time, two of their three big D-men were out (Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff, Robyn Regehr). Outside of this time, for the other 55-60 games, they played at a pace equivalent to the conference leaders. They were able to make it up and have control of their playoff chances until the final weekend. What about this year?
There was so much promise for the Sabres when Terry Pegula came in. Here's an owner who pledged to spend money on a winner and he was in it for the right reasons. This wasn't just a fad or passing investment opportunity. He was a huge fan, a season ticket holder who had a personal interest in seeing the Sabres do well. The problem is that you still need to make good choices with your club. Scoring whiz Thomas Vanek seems to miss playing with Derek Roy. Christian Ehrhoff was a key player during the Canucks' run to the Stanley Cup Final two years ago, but he wasn't worth a stifling ten-year, $40 million contract. Ryan Miller hasn't been anything close to the world-beating goaltender who nearly led the U.S. to the Olympic gold medal in Vancouver, but Buffalo's mistake-prone defense is partly to blame for that. When Miller criticized his team's work ethic earlier this year, the writing was on the wall for coach Lindy Ruff. Rumblings of discontent had been building for some time and the Ruff era -- by pro sports standards, more like several eras, at 15 years -- had run its course. The Sabres have played better hockey under Ron Rolston during a more recent stretch, but this is a club that overestimated its capacity to win now when it should have been planning for the future, which may be the best approach for the next couple of seasons. Trading Miller may be a means to that end.
Mike Babcock likes to play the Canadian game and win games 3-2. I don't know why his players are from Europe. But 3-2 games do not work in the playoffs. You can run into a hot goaltender, bad breaks, etc.
-- Tom Zimmerman, Overland Park KS
The Red Wings have been one of the NHL's top two or three franchises during the past two decades and their success is due in large part to their contingent of European and Russian players. Think of Nick Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and, of course, the famed Russian Five (Igor Larionov, Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Viacheslav Fetisov). Detroit has always been a team built on discipline and skill, especially making teams pay for turnovers and mistakes. There was a time when you could never have used the term "finesse defense" to describe a hockey team's approach. Then came the modern version of the Red Wings. The problem is that every team gets old and slows down at some point. GM Ken Holland has done a fine job of refurbishing his roster, even as that task has become more and more difficult to do given the number of teams in the league, the draft and salary cap restrictions. The Detroit model has worked and I wouldn't be surprised if it yields another Stanley Cup sometime in the next few years.
I can't believe how badly the NHL is screwing up realignment. It isn't that hard, if one acknowledges a few fundamental truths, which are:
1. Detroit has to stay in the Western Conference and in the same division as Chicago. Leaving Chicago as the sole Original Six representative in the west would both destroy one of the sport's great rivalries and effectively make the Western Conference the junior conference (more so, some might say) -- particularly if it has two fewer teams. The Wings organization has to just suck it up. They don't travel any more, and probably less, than teams on the West Coast.
2. Having inequality between conferences in terms of playoff chances is simply a no-go.
3. Conference playoffs must be 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7 etc. Having the first two rounds within a division (subject to this silly wildcard concept) just recreates the same thing that the NHL got rid of 20 years ago because people got sick of the same teams always meeting in the playoffs.
-- Rob, Sydney, Australia
And we have an entry from Australia! Opinions about realignment vary as much as the different options for shuffling teams. It looks as though your ideas fell on deaf ears. The Red Wings are heading east largely because they asked to go there. Yes, they lose a great rivalry with the Blackhawks, but you can't avoid every problem. I suppose the league could have moved Chicago east to get all the Original Six teams in one conference and then keep Columbus in the west. As it is now, the imbalance of 14 teams here and 16 teams there is bothersome because Western clubs have fewer opponents. I suspect that will change at some point down the road, but there is no expansion on the immediate horizon, and new arenas in Brooklyn, NY, and Edmonton may have stabilized the future for a couple of franchises. When teams are moved or added, that would be a logical time for the league to revisit the divisions and conferences. If you have the league's two best teams in the same division, it won't seem fair for one to be gone by the middle of the playoffs. Unless that happens several years in a row, I wouldn't think that would be the impetus for changes to the postseason format. Team movement, however, is bound to happen sometime and bound to produce change.
Did Guy Boucher really have to go? Wasn't he just a scapegoat?
-- Joby, Deland, Fla.
Boucher wasn't entirely to blame for the Lightning's disappointing season. Much of the player personnel handed to him by GM Steve Yzerman wasn't championship material. Of Course, Steven Stamkos is the game's premier sniper. Marty St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier are staples of success with the organization. Teddy Purcell is a steady player and rookie Cory Conacher has been an excellent find. But there isn't enough support from the back end. In particular, the club hasn't had a goalie who can steal games -- Dwayne Roloson's occasional glimmer notwithstanding -- during the past few years. Roloson last season, at age 43, was a mess. His numbers were poor -- .886 saves percentage and 3.66 goals-against average, yet he was in there for 40 games. Anders Lindback and Mathieu Garon have been ordinary at best this year. Granted, Boucher's innovative coaching methods that frustrated foes last season no longer carried elements of surprise, but it wasn't all his fault. I suspect he will land another head coaching spot somewhere in the league.