Thursday, August 18, 2011
You made the call; Burnside weighs in
By Scott Burnside
For two weeks, we asked for your opinion on everything ranging from which team will win the Stanley Cup to where the next NHL franchise should go. Now, Scott Burnside weighs in with his thoughts on your votes.
Interesting that in this category, fans were unequivocal about who they think will win the scoring title, and it was No. 87 from Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby.
You'll see below that fans were a little more mixed in their thinking when it came to separating Crosby from longtime nemesis Alex Ovechkin for the coming season, but 46 percent of voters believe that Crosby will best Ovechkin as well as other former Art Ross winners Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Steven Stamkos to win his second scoring title. It's an interesting voting trend given that there remains so much uncertainty surrounding Crosby's health. And it was a bit shocking that the talented Sedin twins from Vancouver, the past two scoring champions, managed to garner just 7 percent of the votes combined. It is hard to bet against Crosby if he's healthy, but so much is unknown about his ability to return from a concussion that it wouldn't surprise us if we saw Ovechkin bounce back with a strong season to grab another Art Ross.
I love this poll, and it's clear that fans have a long memory, as they picked Tim Thomas in a landslide (69 percent) over fellow Vezina nominee and Stanley Cup finals foil Roberto Luongo. Maybe fans recall Luongo's erratic play in the finals and his strange comments about Thomas. Our question is whether Thomas can be as good as he was a year ago, when he ran away with the Vezina Trophy voting, then was the runaway winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Fans were likewise united (67 percent) that of the two former Philadelphia stars dealt before the draft, former captain Mike Richards and sniper Jeff Carter, Richards who would have more success in his new home in Los Angeles. We agree.
One of our favorite polling matchups involved current and former Florida netminders Jose Theodore and Tomas Vokoun. Fans left no doubt that they felt Vokoun, now in Washington, would have the better season (82 percent to 18 percent for Theodore). We're not as sold on that proposition being a lock, but Vokoun will sure have a lot more offense going for him than he ever did in Florida. But we also think Theodore has a lot more game left than many give him credit for.
A couple of other players who swapped places, Martin Havlat and Dany Heatley, gave fans more pause. Voting sided with Heatley, now in Minnesota, by a 57-43 percent edge, but we're not so sure. If Havlat can stay healthy (we know, a big if), he'll have an opportunity to put up big numbers, say, 80 points or more. Heatley's numbers have been declining, and Minnesota isn't exactly an offensive juggernaut even with the arrival of the former 50-goal man and his former teammate Devin Setoguchi.
Finally, the age-old question of who will have a better year, Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby, also had fans wondering, as Crosby edged Ovechkin with 53 percent of the vote. Still, the uncertainty over Crosby's health as he tries to recover from a concussion that cost him the last half of last season and a curiously down season for Ovechkin make this a toss-up.
Lots of options here, although fans picked the Buffalo Sabres just ahead of the New York Rangers as the team they believe made the biggest strides in the offseason. (Twenty-nine percent picked the Sabres, and 22 percent selected the Rangers.) Both are worthy choices with the Sabres spending like crazy under new owner Terry Pegula. They added free agents Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino after acquiring Robyn Regehr and Brad Boyes, who came over at the trade deadline in March. And it's hard not to like the Rangers' chances of stepping up with the addition of top free-agent center Brad Richards.
But for us, the team that underwent the biggest makeover and took the biggest steps toward improvement is the Florida Panthers. Assuming good health, the Panthers will be looking to incorporate as many as a dozen new faces into their everyday lineup, including smooth-skating defenseman Brian Campbell, onetime Panthers hero Ed Jovanovski, former Hart and Vezina Trophy winner Jose Theodore in goal and a clutch of forwards with good scoring potential (Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg and Tampa's playoff scoring machine Sean Bergenheim). Throw in rookie head coach Kevin Dineen, and you've got a lot of moving parts to get in sync, but we like the Panthers to make it work and join the playoff crowd in the Eastern Conference.
Most fans -- 33 percent, in fact -- believe that the Phoenix Coyotes are poised to take the biggest step backward this coming season. We tend to agree, although it's never wise to bet against one of the best coaches in the NHL. Former Jack Adams Trophy winner Dave Tippett is a crucial asset to the Coyotes. Still, Tippett will see his coaching acumen put to an extreme test this season, as the Coyotes remain mired in ownership limbo and, as a result, have struggled to keep core pieces of the team in the fold. Even though the Yotes qualified for the postseason for the second straight season this past spring, they never really filled the void created by the departure of defenseman Zbynek Michalek, who signed with Pittsburgh in July 2010. This summer saw the departure of veteran Ed Jovanovski and former Vezina Trophy nominee Ilya Bryzgalov. The team still looks to struggle offensively unless Mikkel Boedker and Kyle Turris really step forward.
Fans also seemed to think the New York Islanders would slide, but we disagree. With a healthy Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo ready from the get-go in training camp, we think the Isles are ready to jump back into playoff contention in the very tough Atlantic Division.
There doesn't seem to be much debate among voters about where the NHL will land next if there's movement afoot: Quebec City. More than half of voters (51 percent) believe the former home of the Nordiques will follow Winnipeg's footsteps in returning a team to the NHL. Us? Not so sure. Given that building a new NHL-style arena remains a political hot potato in Canada, specifically in the province of Quebec, we will be shocked if the NHL moves to Quebec City in the near future. And given the uncertainty surrounding the situation in Phoenix, the league may be forced to make such a decision before a new arena is assured in Quebec. There is no chance the league agrees to return to Quebec City until the shovels are firmly in the ground to build a new barn.
Given that, we're going to suggest that Kansas City will be the next stop for the NHL franchise carousel. Yes, only 8 percent of voters agree, but given there is an NHL-ready building simply awaiting a new owner, that might be the most logical of moves if the NHL gets pushed into the relocation corner again in the near future. Our second choice? Seattle. Yes, there are arena issues there, but having lost a big American market in Atlanta this past offseason, the NHL would rather see nothing other than a move to a big U.S. market, and Seattle has lots going for it.
It's not uncommon for players to light it up in their rookie seasons only to fall back the next season. (See Steve Mason of Columbus and Tyler Myers of Buffalo as recent examples.) Some of that is mental, expecting things to come easily. Some of that is opposing teams' knowing how to handle the youngsters. Voters feel that won't be a problem for the defending rookie of the year, Jeff Skinner, and Calder Trophy nominee Logan Couture, who led the polling with 26 percent of the votes apiece. Given that Couture is older (Skinner was the youngest player in the NHL last season), we're expecting he may have an easier time in his sophomore season. We also like another Calder nominee, Michael Grabner, to continue his ascension given that he will play under the radar on Long Island and the Isles should be an improved squad. As for Skinner, he is wise beyond his years, but it will be a tall order for him to repeat his success from last season.
Almost half our readers, 42 percent, believe that Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau is on the hottest of hot seats. We don't. Given that general manager George McPhee added significant character in Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern and Troy Brouwer up front while bringing in veteran Tomas Vokoun to backstop the Caps, we figure this team is finally ready to make a deep run into the postseason. Boudreau showed his coaching chops last season, arresting what could have been a disastrous midseason slide and taking a much better defensive squad to the top of the Southeast Division standings.
In our mind, other coaches will find themselves in much more precarious positions this season, and you can start with Ron Wilson in Toronto. The Leafs have failed to make the postseason tournament since the lockout, and perhaps more telling is that the team has failed to make strides in the crucial special-teams area. Only so much of those shortcomings can be attributed to personnel. At some point, the coach has to take the fall for not coming up with the proper systems for success on the power play and penalty kill. A slow start in Toronto will almost certainly spell the end for Wilson. Another coach to keep an eye on is Terry Murray in Los Angeles, where the stakes are high for a young Kings team that needs to step forward.
For the record, 17 percent of voters think Boudreau will have the most successful season, but the runaway winner in this category is Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, the defending Jack Adams Trophy winner who garnered 34 percent of voters' support. It is hard to argue with that pick assuming Sidney Crosby returns to full health in the coming months. We already know that Evgeni Malkin is champing at the bit after knee surgery and James Neal will be fully integrated into the Pens' lineup. If Steve Sullivan can stay healthy, the Pens should return to being one of the most deadly offensive teams in the NHL, which will balance nicely with the defensive mindset that Bylsma has imposed in Pittsburgh, making them one of the most difficult to play (and score) against in the league. For the record, though, if we had to go to a Plan B, we'd go with Boudreau.