Friday, May 29, 2009

Next Season's Rule Changes

So, as you know, the NHL is constantly attempting to "improve" itself to attract new fans. You've probably heard me use the analogy of selling cars to people without driver's licenses. This usually has the added bonus of pissing off actual hockey fans to the point where they stop watching, thus totaling a net loss in NHL fans, usually in the name of "more goals equals better sport." I can't prove that it has had any particular effect, but I do know that the Penguins scored an incredible 20 goals in 4 games to sweep the Eastern Conference finals this season, compared to the 27 they scored in 8 games to sweep the Wales Conference finals AND the Cup finals in 1992. Anyway, it seems the NHL has announced its new rule changes for next season, and OSN's SportsDome has the full story:

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Quick News Update

Tom Renney has a job for the fall again. He'll be an assistant coach under Pat Quinn, who has been hired as the new head coach of the Edmonton Oilers (replacing, incidentally, our '94 Stanley Cup team's favorite convicted murderer, and last NHL player ever to not wear a helmet as a matter of policy, Craig MacTavish). Quinn's other assistant will be some guy named Kelly, who came up from the Oilers' system. No word on which of them will be running the Power Play.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Eastern Conference Finals

Dan Bylsma and Paul Maurice look the same!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

It starts

Things are going to start happening sooner than you'd expect, in terms of next season. I don't know when news will break, and interesting things probably won't happen for some time, but it's important to have context when news does break. In the interest of keeping you informed, let's start with a rundown of our current roster and everyone's 2009-'10 status.

Under contract (numbers listed are cap hit, not salary)
Scott Gomez - $7.4 million
Chris Drury - $7.1 million
Sean Avery - $1.9 million
Aaron Voros - $1 million
Wade Redden - $6.5 million
Michal Rozsival - $5 million
Dan Girardi - $1.6 million
Marc Staal - $0.8 million
Henrik Lundqvist - $6.9 million

Restricted free agents (* means eligible for arbitration)
Nikolai Zherdev *
Lauri Korpikoski
Fredrik Sjostrom *
Brandon Dubinsky
Ryan Callahan *

Unrestricted free agents
Nik Antropov
Blair Betts
Colton Orr
Derek Morris
Paul Mara
Stephen Valiquette

Let's make sure we understand what this means. First of all, the salary cap. It's important to understand that there are like a million games that can be played with the salary cap, and at the end of the day, the cap hit incurred for a given player is, at best, a pretty good approximation of how much you're paying him for the year. These games include bonuses, contracts to other teams, and all sorts of crazy magic that is probably fascinating to many businesspeople. Hell, it would probably even be fascinating to me, if someone sat me down and explained it all - math is fucking neat. But, for now, don't worry too much about it - the important thing about a player is his cap hit.

A salary cap, obviously, is the maximum salary a team can spend on its players, total, for the season (again, tabulating their magical "cap hit" number, rather than their actual salary). Actually, what we call the salary cap the NHL calls the "Upper Limit of the Payroll Range" - the implication being that there is a corresponding "Lower Limit of the Payroll Range," which is a thing the Rangers ought never to have to worry about. For reference, the Lower Limit is defined to be $16 million under the Upper Limit.

For the 2008-'09 season, the salary cap was $56.7 million. Generally speaking, the cap rises annually, by an astronomically larger-than-inflation holy-crap-athletes-make-a-lot-of-money quantity. Bear in mind, of course, that over the last few years, the Canadian Dollar has risen dramatically compared to our Piece of Shit Dollar, which makes these numbers a little more believable. But still: the first season after the lockout (which you'll recall was '05-'06), the league salary cap was $39 million. Yeah, the Upper Limit. Since then, it rose to $44 million, $50.3 million, and then its current $56.7 million. Wow. So, some people are talking about the cap rising by that much again, and looking at $62 million.

However, you may also have noticed that this country is in a shit-ass recession right now. Many other internet hockey scholars would have you believe, therefore, that the cap will fall to as low as $50 million, or even back down into the 40s (alack!). However, internet scholars are always wrong. Conventional wisdom, if there can be said to be such a thing, probably convinces us that the cap will stay right around where it is. TSN reports that the Globe and Mail reports that it may fall a little, down to around $55 million, but not more than that. Note: the aforelinked article is not just a report of the cap fall, it also bitches about how NHL players will lose way more money than it sounds like, due to money held in escrow. The time it took you to read that sentence is way longer than the time you should spend feeling bad for NHL players losing money in the recession.

So, I'm going to assume that we're looking at around $55 million for the salary cap next season, until I hear otherwise. With that figure in mind, let's look back up at our current contracts. We're incurring a $38.2 million cap hit for the players we have under contract, leaving us something like $17 million to sign the rest. This is not great (though it's much better than it would have been with Naslund still in the mix). We can trade some of the current players under contract for others, and we can sign any of our free agents, listed above.

More terminology: an unrestricted free agent (UFA) is the simplest thing a player can be: his contract expires, and he is looking for a new one. This is essentially what you and I are. We are UFAs, in that any NHL team can attempt to sign a contract with us, should we and the team be interested. These players are free to deal with the Rangers, if interested, as well as with anyone else.

A restricted free agent (RFA) cannot just leave the Rangers quite as easily. Before other teams are allowed to negotiate with RFAs, the RFA's current team is allowed to make an offer that takes priority, in which case the RFA is committed to take the offer from the current team. There are certain rules about these offers - they must be for 100%-110% of the player's previous salary, depending on what that salary was - but the point is that another team can't just come in and buy him up unless his team lets him go. So, these are players for whom the Rangers won't have to negotiate with other teams (which ultimately drives salaries up).

RFAs are also what make July 1 an important date in the NHL calendar. (See? The Cup is handed out mid-June - there really is hockey news year-round!) July 1 is when free agency signing begins. This means that every RFA in the league becomes unrestricted. So, if teams want to make moves for their RFAs, they have to do it by July 1, or any prior claim they have is waived.

One more thing: that asterisk up with the RFAs that talks about arbitration. This isn't a huge deal, I just wanted to make you aware of it. Presumably, an RFA could be worth way more than his current contract. A team could then get away with continuing to underpay him by exercising their rights to retain their RFAs. This is where arbitration comes in - certain players, depending on their tenure in the league, qualify for salary arbitration, which is exactly what it sounds like. The team and the player each propose a salary, and a third party arbitrates and comes up with the right number, by magic. The only reason we care is that those RFAs that do qualify for arbitration this summer, if they choose to exercise their rights to arbitration, may end up costing us more than they otherwise would as regular, rights-less RFAs.

I think that's the summary. Comment if you have any questions.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Another thing

I just watched the Pens tie this game, 2-2. Unrelatedly, I then watched Alexander Semin come down on a breakway. Hal Gill dove for him, swipe his stick at Semin's skates, and completely take Semin down, never touching the puck, even after hitting Semin's skates. No call. But that's not the point. The point is that when the Pens score, Mellon Arena puts some spotlights on the ice and moves them around all celebrationally. When the play restarted, the lights stayed on the ice. Moving. For a good 30 seconds. During play. Flashing lights all over the ice. Now that is a classy establishment.

Penguin Announcers Don't Know Shit

This is not going to be a full post about the topic named in the title, I don't have the time to do the research to mount a case worthy of how dumb these guys are. Remember: one time, once, Pittsburgh got a Ranger broadcast this season, and I had a Pen fan friend writing to me, begging for our announcers, impressed by things such as "they know all our players' names - hell, they know all their own players' names!!"

But what I want to touch on very briefly tonight is the astoundingly painful shit I heard during the first period just now. We know the Pens' guys are insanely homer, as homer as it gets without being Chico Resch, right? Every time a Penguin falls down, the play-by-play comes with the phrase "no call on the play." This is technically accurate, but it's often ludicrously misleading.

But, fine, we know these guys suck. A ton. And why shouldn't they be homers? If Bettman is going to be pro-Penguin, certainly the Pens' announcers have a right to be. What I want to talk about concerns the unnatural hatred Pittsburgh has invented for Alex Ovechkin. Yes, his hit on Gonchar the other night was knee-on-knee. Fine. It was bad of Ovechkin to do, he was frustrated, and - I want to make sure this is clear - he got called for the penalty, too. And served it and everything. It's no different than, say, Malkin slew-footing some Ranger (I think it was Betts?) at the end of Game 4 last season. Except, of course, that Ovechkin actually got called for this hit.

But because it's Pittsburgh, a city full of hockey fans that really know their football, Ovechkin remains the devil. And no, this has nothing to do with jealousy because their precious Crosby was supposed to be the darling of the league, and he's losing it to Ovechkin because Crosby's kinda a fuck - that's just a coincidence.

Anyway, I should get to the astoundingly painful shit I was just forced to listen to, because I have to watch the local fucking broadcast of this shit. Okay, sit down. Ovechkin was on the ice, in the middle of nothing particularly interesting, hitting someone totally legally, getting booed by a crowd full of people who apparently hate stars who actually enjoy the game (not to mention hats). And the astounding phrase I heard was: "There hasn't been a man as hated as Alex Ovechkin since Adam Graves."

Now, there are two possibilities here: either this announcer is a loon, or all of Pittsburgh is. Either he's making it up, or the city of Pittsburgh somehow really feels this way. I'm going to try not to be too Rangerry about this one. I'm not going to mention his 5 Stephen McDonald Extra Effort Awards, 1 Rangers Good Guy Award, 1 Frank Boucher Trophy, or 3 Rangers Fan Club Ceil Saidel Memorial Awards (I don't even know what that last one is). I'm not going to talk at all about Graves's obvious skill - because that's not really in question. You can hate a player with a lot of skill. Like Crosby. In fact, I'm just going to get a bunch of facts from Wikipedia. You can't tell me that Wikipedia has any reason to have a pro-Ranger bias.

In 1993-94, Graves won the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, awarded annually by the PHWA and NHL Broadcaster's Association to the NHL player who "best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and who has made a significant humanitarian contribution to his community."

In 2000-01, Graves won the Bill Masterson Trophy, awarded annually by the PHWA to the NHL player who "best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey."

In 1999-2000, he won the NHL foundation award, given to the player who "applies core values of hockey, commitment and teamwork, to enrich the lives of people in the community."

In 2000, he was given The Sporting News's "Good Guy" award.

Do you see the pattern here? These aren't awards for scoring, though he did a shitton of that, or on-ice commitment, though he had it in spades. They're awards for, league-wide, being a good person. Adam Graves might have won more "being a mensch" awards than anyone else in NHL history. I have done no research to confirm this idea, mind you, but it certainly seems like it could be true.

The point is: this is how the city of Pittsburgh understands hockey: like it's football. It doesn't matter what happens, overall. They see one or two things, and they pretend like they understand. They extrapolate. Badly. Let's talk about the reason Penguin fans hate Adam Graves.

In Game 2 of the Patrick Division Final of the 1991-92 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Graves slashed Mario Lemieux. Let's take a look:

Skip ahead to 0:42. You'll hear the announcer talk about how Graves got the stick right up into Lemieux's face. Then you'll see Graves explaining to the refs that he hit Lemieux in the hands, not the face. Then you'll see the replay. It's a slash. It's a bad slash - a penalty you shouldn't take. And, he got called for it. Yes, it was not a good move on Graves's part.

That's the play. That's why Penguin fans thing Adam Graves was a dirty player. That's it. You see, the hit broke Lemieux's hand. So, naturally, because of this, Adam Graves gets the "dirty" label. Never mind that he is universally loved as a humble, respectful dude who plays hard and, as they say, has an on-ice leadership surpassed only by his off-ice leadership. That one slash makes him, literally, the exemplar of "hated people."

No, really. "There hasn't been a man as hated as Alex Ovechkin since Adam Graves two-handed Mario Lemieux." He is the exemplar of hated people.

In conclusion, these people are fucking crazy. One hit on a star is branded as "dirtier" than a season's worth of attempts to injure by a guy they've never heard of (Editor's Note: "guys they've never heard of" usually include "everyone on their third and fourth lines"). If they get called for a penalty, they boo the officials, no matter what. I actually am just now listening to them boo a Too Many Men call. When a Pen falls down near anyone wearing the other color, they expect a call. If that Penguin is their captain, that comes with a crowd full of boos - again, no matter what.

This is absolutely a fan base of a team captained by a man who whines about hat tricks.

Fuck Sidney Crosby.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Markus Naslund: Class Act

Over the coming months, I will be blogging occasionally, though less often, as news of the Rangers' future comes out. I understand that I'm way behind on this, and I'll be catching up first. Expect news of many young kids to appear here soon. But for now, we bid a (few days late) fond farewell to a classy gentleman named Markus Naslund.

Now, I know I've been up and down on the man throughout this season, but please notice that that's not the same thing as being down on him the whole time. I was up and down on almost everyone this season - we were an up and down team. But who was Naslund to us, overall?

You know how, at the end of the year, the coaches would talk about how there are some kind of people who thrive on the playoff style of pressure, and there are some people who shy away from it? They also talked about the people whose hearts are in it, but whose bodies just aren't giving them what they want. Naslund was absolutely the leader of this squad. Unlike some other Ranger underperformers, I have every reason to believe that Naslund really was just unable to keep it up. Let's look at the numbers.

Naslund is 35 years old and came to us after being a Canuck from 1995-2008 (so, no, he wasn't around for "this one will last a lifetime). This season with the Rangers was his 15th in the NHL, rounding out a career in which he scored 395 goals and 474 assists in over 1000 games. Ranger fans, who are (understandably) used to the idea of brining in vets past their prime and watching them underperform, were largely frustrated by the fact that he didn't, as he did for the '02-'03 Canucks, put up over 100 points for us on the season.

But let's put that in perspective. He's 3 years older than our captain and timid leader, the next oldest player on a team whose average age is now approximately 26 (I was very lazy in calculating this. I found the average birth year of everyone on the roster page on the Rangers website, and came up with "It's probably around 26 or 27." Forgive me. I'm pretty close). Unlike any other debatable underperformers, he's the one whose age might actually give him half an excuse.

And yet. Naslund was fifth on the team this season with 46 points (number 1 was Nik Antropov with 59; 46 of them were for the Leafs). He was seventh on the team with 22 assists, one assist behind sixth (#4 was Antropov, who got 25 of his 31 with Toronto). Hell, he was second on the team in goals, with 24, 4 behind team leader Antropov (who, yes, got most of them with Toronto (21)). So. There's your underachiever.

Naslund, in his move to New York, went from the same team he had played on since 1995, a team he captained for seven years, under the same coach for nine. He moved over to the Eastern Conference, under a Western Conference-ish coach, to a team full of question marks that had just lost their very-Eastern-Conference leader. Then, a few months later, that team fired its coach and replaced him with some angry guy who won a cup in Tampa. Do you see the point? Frustrated New Yorkers were not a fucking easy time for a guy who was treated like royalty in Vancouver. And you gotta respect what he did manage to do in his time here.

But there's more to this story, and this is the part I want you to understand. It is a very big deal to the New York Rangers that Markus Naslund retired. Sure, he did a good job for us, but it's no secret that he was a little past his prime to be all that effective - especially in Torts's system that relies on the in-your-face, safe-is-death hockey of Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, and Sean Avery. He knew he wasn't gonna cut it for an entire season in 2009-2010. And this is where the class comes in.

First of all, please remember our salary cap woes. Before Naslund retired, we had about $42 million committed to ten players, in a season whose cap is expected to be somewhere in the $57 million region.

Okay, so: Naslund was signed, last summer, to a 2-year, $8 million deal. Obviously, one year remained. Money-wise, there was $3 million left in that contract that we owed him, and given the nature of the contract, it was worth $4 million under the cap (don't worry too much about this - games can be played with salary caps, to shift money around, and a million of next season's cap would come from what we paid him last season). Part of this deal was a no-move clause. These are somewhat standard among high end players - it basically guarantees Naslund a roster spot on the Rangers unless he chooses to waive it. This doesn't mean he has to play every night, but it means he has to stay a New York Ranger - he can't be traded or assigned to the Wolf Pack - unless he approves it.

This means that the Rangers were basically screwed into keeping Naslund as a high-usage winger for $4 million. Trading him, which would have pended his approval anyway, would not have gone well, and would have left us paying part of his salary. We couldn't just reassign him to the minors. So, we were more or less stuck. You can see why this wasn't great. Especially given our cap woes, though not the biggest offender in this category, he was in the way of development.

You might be thinking "but, favorite blogger ever, teams and players in these kinds of contracts must get tired of each other all the time! What happens then?" Good question! You're right: this does happen all the time. If a team and a player sign a contract, and someone wants out, the player doesn't always end up begrudgingly on a team that doesn't want him for a year. Usually, what happens is a buyout. A buyout is when a team decides to eat the money and pay off the rest of a player's contract, thus buying him out of their obligation to him.

However, a buyout is also subject to certain NHL regulations. A buyout would still count against the cap, but it is split up. A buyout must be a certain percentage of the value of the contract, according to the age of a player. And, a team only has the authority to buy a player out of his contract during the official off-season NHL buyout period.

So, let's review: If the Rangers wanted to buy out Naslund (which we certainly would have), we would have had to pay him $2 million (the league-mandated 2/3 of the remaining contract value for anyone over 25). This $2 million would count under this year's cap, while the remaining million would end up under the 2010-2011 cap. They would have had to do this in the official buyout period: between June 15 and June 30 (reasonably being the time between handing out the cap and the start of free agency signing).

Let's recap the review: knowing, as all involved knew, that he was not going to be able to reasonably fit into the system next season, Naslund could have done absolutely nothing and been handed $2 million by the New York Rangers in a little over a month, then gone on his merry way out of the NHL (into retirement, probably in Vancouver, where he likely never has to pay for a drink). Instead, he retired this week. Before June 15. He left the NHL, because he would rather have done that than be the next Brett Favre. He came to New York to try to give his floundering career a jolt, and it turned out it really was his time. So he left. One fewer season would have been too soon. One more would have been too many. Classy.

Among the things he left behind: his contract with the New York Rangers. His $3 million to play, or his free $2 million to not play. A $2 million to $4 million cap hit for us. Thanks to his retirement, we're down to looking at only a $37.9 million commitment on next season thus far. Granted, that's not fantastic for 9 players of whom a handful are mediocre, but it's significantly more breathing room than we had a week ago. Much respect for Markus Naslund. Thanks, farewell, and all the best.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Okay, okay

I'm back, I just needed a minute.

Here's the thing. Through the first 4 games of the series, commentators, Caps' fans, and even some Capitals themselves complained about their perception that they outplayed us for most of the series, and yet were down 3-1. They saw games 5 and 6 as what was inevitably due us. This is only partly true: they did outskate us for portions, but we also kept them contained for portions. And yes, Lundqvist stole a couple. But whether or not it's valid is not why I bring this up. What's important is that if they were upset about outplaying us despite losing games 1, 2, and 4, I'm upset about outplaying them despite losing game 7.

We played what was unquestionably our best game of these playoffs and probably one of our top five efforts under Tortorella, despite it rounding out our season with his first 3-game losing streak (assuming Game 6 counts) since taking over on February 23. Through 1 period, we had outshot them 8-2, and it looked like they never had the puck. Unfortunately, it was also 1-1, because of a shot from SomeGuy Capital which found like 43 places to bounce off of a Ryan Callahan who was actually making a really smart defensive play before finding its way past Hank and in. And everyone thought "wow, tie game, there's no way we can keep this up."

In the second period, though, we did keep it up. The numbers will tell you that in the second period, they outshot us 9 to 6, winning 7 of 13 faceoffs. But the play told a different story: despite not getting another shot behind Varlamov, we kept the puck most of the period. Our PK was strong, sure, but our even strength was the key. I can't complain about anything I saw. Even the officiating seemed to, in the wake of the Blair Betts madness, do us the favor of calling the game evenly and staying out of everyone's way (indeed, 3 minors were called all game - 2 on us, 1 on them - and none led to goals).

All in all, most of the things I said in my "if the Rangers win" story ended up being the things that came true. Lundqvist was great (24 saves), Avery was a presence, Green was useless (2 giveaways and 1 minor balancing out a +1 that only came from accidentally assisting the weird carom-off-Callahan goal, in 24:24 of ice time), we kept Ovechkin contained (9 shots toward the net for 0 points), and our PK was perfect (if only 2 for 2).

What we lacked was...well, as Tortorella keeps saying we lack, a finisher. We lack a Bill Mazeroski (we'll get to who that is in a minute). Look, if anyone, 2 weeks ago, had asked me how I felt about being tied going into the third period of Game 7 against these guys, feeling like we had outplayed them through 40 minutes, of course I would have taken it. But, of course, the Capitals are a good hockey team, and they came out to play the final 20 as well. We put up a fight, and held their onslaught at bay for another 15 minutes, before, with 4:59 left before a Game 7 overtime, Sergei Federov came down on Wade Redden and did his job. Much as I'd like to, I can't even blame Redden for the play. He was in the right position - no, really, he was in the right position. Federov just made a really good move.

I'm forced, once again, to think of the 1960 World Series, originally brought up by Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. Through 6 games, the Pittsburgh Pirates had won 3 by an aggregate 14-8, while the New York Yankees had won their 3 by an aggregate 38-3. Game 7 was a hard-fought battle, with the Yankees erasing a 4-0 Pirate lead to go up 7-4 in the eighth, before the Pirates scored 5 in the bottom of the 8th to give them a 2-run lead, which the Yankees then matched in the top of the 9th to send it to the bottom of the 9th tied 9-9. The first batter up for the Pirates in the bottom of the 9th? Bill Mazeroski. On a 1-0 count, Mazeroski pounded one over the left wall of Forbes Field to win the World Series, 10-9. This became one of the most famous World Series endings ever, and it remains the only Game 7 game-winning home run in World Series history.

What's my point? The Pirates got a happy ending (winning a World Series in which they were outscored 55-27), and we didn't, right? Well, that is my point. We lack a Bill Mazeroski. We don't have the forward that will make the big play. No disrespect to (most of) our guys. We played a fantastic game against a superior opponent. But we don't have the Jaromir Jagr or the Alex Ovechkin who, independently of his numbers, will take over a game when his team needs him most. Chris Drury's job is to be clutch, sure, but he's never had the offensive power to completely take over at a given time. Also, he had a broken hand.

And, all the credit in the world goes to the new Brandon Dubinsky line, winged by Sean Avery and Nik Antropov. It's been a long time since I've seen a line really dominate a game like this. These three were everywhere, and every time they were on the ice, Capitals were getting knocked over and pucks were getting stolen. I know I really need to get off my "Brandon Dubinsky should be the Captain" soap box, because I really do want to keep Chris Drury around, but this is what a leader's line does when they come out for Game 7. The Capitals didn't know what hit them, and this was due mostly to this line's leadership.

Oh, and yes, you dumb fucks, this is the difference between Sean Avery and people like Donald Brashear. Stop throwing around the word "dirty" and watch the fucking games.

But, at the end of the day, we didn't have the finisher. We didn't have the Mazeroski. And our best players, as our coaches were so fond of saying they had to be, were not our best players. As I've reminded you a number of times now, Torts has said things like "We're not gonna win if Sean Avery is our best forward" and "our best guys have to be our best guys, not kids [meaning Dubi and Cally]". Well, our best guys were Dubi and Avery - and Torts was right. It wasn't quite enough to dethrone this better skilled team. In the third period, they came out like a very skilled team prematurely facing the final 20 minutes of their season, and we came out with not enough left in our limited tank. They outshot us 14-1 in the third, and we could only hold off so much. Like I said, Federov just did what the guys on the great teams do - I can't fault Redden or Lundqvist for letting that goal happen. That's just what the finishers do - and we don't.

Our opportunities to win this series came in Games 5 and 6. Those are the games where we came out bored and boring (which Harvey Danger teaches us are equivalent) and never gave ourselves a chance. Those are the games we can regret. Game 7, we were just beaten by a better team (and I have to believe that if we'd come out in 5 and 6 like we did in 7, we'd be getting swept by the Bruins as we speak). We'll talk about the good things Torts will do for us in the the future. For now, be proud of the effort we put forward in Game 7, and remember how you felt after 2 periods of that game, compared to the chances everyone gave us 2 weeks ago. And compared to how we felt in February. Doesn't seem so bad from there, does it?